I’ve had a few articles published in this magazine recently in which I told stories about the old days — memories of time spent in the field where anything can happen in the course of the day. I like to reminisce. I’m old enough to have a lot of experience in the field and young enough that I have vivid recall of a lot of those experiences. My musings in this particular piece are focused on one of my mentors and one of the main lessons that he taught me. 

When I started my second job in surveying, it was as an instrument man. That title meant something, at least to me at that time. This was the second man on the totem pole in the field crew, consisting of 3-5 people. I was a bit nervous, wanting to prove that I was an accomplished operator of surveying instruments.

As I reported for my new job, I met the party chief that I would be working with. His name was Randy Snyder. Randy was only a few years older than me and had an associate’s degree in surveying from Penn State. He was a cool, levelheaded guy, and we talked about hunting and fishing on the way to the job site. It was a long drive (Hagerstown, Maryland, to Winchester, Virginia) with the rodman/chainman driving so we had a bit of time to get to know each other. 

We were setting “brick nails” (actually points for concrete masonry units to be laid) in the footers of some new apartment buildings. Instrument set-ups in a footer are usually tricky due to the uneven ground around the footers, but these were even tougher because the footer was 3-4 feet deep. 

I became frustrated as I struggled to get the instrument level and over the point, while being careful not to get the tripod leg on line as we did our layout measurements. 

As I got more and more frustrated and became frantic, I looked to Randy and asked if he had any advice. His cool answer spoke volumes. 

“First thing to do is don’t get too excited,” he said. Then he retracted two of the tripod legs and put them up out of the footer, lengthened the remaining leg, and told me to try that.  

The lesson taught that day wasn’t so much that the tripod can be placed in a variety of ways, but it was the whole philosophy of stepping back and seeing things differently. 

The other thing that Randy taught me over the following year and a half as we worked together was that sometimes we are just too soft. His two repeated sayings that I heard every time that someone complained was, “I think you’d better toughen up a bit.” Or he would say, “Did you ever think that maybe you baby yourself too much?” 

However, the greater question for me has become: Are we as a profession getting soft? I have to remind those who may not be as old as me, and some of my counterparts, of certain facts that may lead one to consider that we are in fact getting softer every day.

We used to cut a lot of brush in southcentral Pennsylvania and central Maryland, where I’ve worked my whole career. Most of the points these days are surveyed using GPS or with a total station (robotic or manual), where the prism can be adjusted and offset to get a shot through a small hole in the vegetation. Yes, there are still machetes in the truck to clear some nuisance weeds and briars, but we used to be required to get cross-sections on new highways through areas where brush had to be cleared along the section lines at each 50’ interval of the baseline.

The equipment has been developed so much for ease of use that it’s hard to imagine what was needed to do the same work 40 years ago. The instruments are lighter and easier to carry. Instead of carrying the theodolite, tripod and an EDM, most of the time a lightweight Network GPS receiver is carried to each point. 

To record data for a surveyed point all that is required is to press a button (or maybe two) and turn to the next point. Gone are the days of squinting over a Vernier or theodolite scale and then distinctly calling those numbers out for the party chief to record in the field book. This would be after he set up the columns, heading and sketches in the book. This was a painful experience when the temperatures dipped near freezing.

Yes, I think it is an unavoidable truth that we, as a profession, are getting soft. We are smarter. We get more work done, and we make more money. Randy passed away recently and his teachings have been echoing in my head more than ever. Being soft isn’t a bad thing; It happens as we make improvements and advancements, I only point out this fact to remind us all to be thankful and when we complain, we should consider toughening up a little bit and maybe stop babying ourselves.

This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue of POB Magazine.