And the time ticked away again without anyone using it.
–John le Carré, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”
I wanted to weep.
All the forms were collapsed: filled with water, or mud, or both, or completely obliterated, just the wrinkled and flaccid stalks of our carefully measured sonotubes, listless and sagging from the center of a soupy depression. It was the perfect picture of lost and wasted money and time coupled to a crystal clear forecast of brutal work to come.
It has been a while since our last installment of this record. For a while, that was because very little had been happening. Then, it was because of the work, then it was because of life. We are now roughly one month behind where I had hoped to be.
It is getting colder. After a brief and perfectly glorious five-day run of Indian summer, the warm rains that preceded it have given way to the cold rains of late autumn. Frost’s “October morning mild” is well past; the wild wind of the morrow has wasted all the leaves as he predicted and our jobsite sits naked and gloomy in a clearing of skeletal hardwoods and bleak evergreens. The road can now be easily seen, and there is nothing to hide the piles of slash.
When last we spoke, I was reveling in our well-prepped building site. Donn had come down to operate the excavator and together we’d placed 12” diameter concrete forms on 28” footings, eleven of them to form a platform strong enough to dock an aircraft carrier. From that moment, things began to go down hill.
We hoped to have a concrete contractor come in and fill our forms with ready-mix from a chute. Because we hoped to use the concrete for posts over footings, that would save us the labor of lifting 3.3 cubic yards of concrete one-to-three feet up from a wheelbarrow in order to dump it down the pipe. But before I scheduled the delivery, I wanted someone from the contractor’s office to come and evaluate our site. Can they get a truck in there? If they can, can they get close enough to the forms to pour?
For close to 12 days, that guy was going to come by in two days.
Meanwhile, I rented a wood-chipper to take care of two birds: lower the large piles of brush and coat the exposed earth of our site with wood chips to reduce the mud, insulate the pilings, and pretty the place up a bit. On a weekend rental, I towed the chipper about an hour up the highway in order to get about 2 hours of work from it before it gave out. So I towed it back. So as not to waste the trip, I drove up again to putter about, drawing level-lines on the tubes so I would know where to end the pour, meeting with the electric company, identifying the space for our new pole and clearing a 10’ radius, cutting a couple of trees at the drive to provide space for the line.
It rained; the concrete guy would come on Monday. Then on Thursday. It rained again.
I picked up the chipper a second time and worked it in the rain; Matt – a great friend living in the Dartmouth area – came down and we fed the chipper all the slash it would take. We reduced a pile of brush the size of a modest garage, leaving only wood bigger than six inches and a couple of stacks of ugly, rotten stumps. They cannot be chipped (not by any gear I can rent, anyway). I’ll burn them at some point in a year or so. It had taken eight days to get two days of work done.
The concrete guy would come on Monday.
Across the country, Jamie’s cousin died. Aged too young, 35, they flew his body home to bury and we went to the wake and the funeral – the only time at which the rain felt apt. We gathered in the rain to hear a Priest who barely knew the boy offer the solace of Mary as consolation to his parents, and invite any Catholics present to enter the grace of god by eating god’s flesh. We drove in the rain to bury the boy, and crammed uneasily together under a folding tent to witness to his life. We drank at the reception, which seemed appropriate. “It is meet that we do so in the name of the dead.” Amen. Jamie mourned. I held her hand. She got to see her other cousins, and that was good.
The concrete guy finally came. There is no way, he said, they could ever get a truck in there. Sorry.
So I arranged a few things. I got Donn to lend me his truck. Donn got a friend to lend me a water tank to go in the back of the truck. I arranged to rent a water pump and a cement mixer. I ordered enough concrete to do the job (8,320 pounds of Sakrete, for those of you keeping track at home). The sakrete was delivered and I was on my way north, again.
When we got to the site the fourth time is when I found that wreckage. The stiff clay soil that Donn and I had worked into 11 perfect pits with firm floors had become very nearly quicksand. The water of the past three weeks had saturated all the dirt we’d disturbed and soaked into the cardboard tubes.
Beginning with the most likely (apparently least destroyed) footing, Jamie and I began ladling out water. The cardboard above-grade collapsed, so I cut it away. After about 15 gallons of water came out, I was able to reach the rim of the footing by laying on my belly. Stretching, I found that the footing itself had partially collapsed. Cave-in from the sides of the tube had settled into a thick slurry in the bottom. Super-saturated clay, with all the weight of the water in it, had crushed the footing back. Instead of a lovely radar-dish-shaped cone, I now had a disfigured bulge at the base of a muddy sinkhole.
It was when I realized that this was, in fact, the best remaining footing/pier, that I nearly lost my shit permanently.
“Let’s get a drink,” said Jamie.
You know, that girl is damn brilliant.
But getting a drink – while it sometimes helps to maintain my sanity – does not solve many problems permanently.
After some figuring, this is what we did: Empty the holes as much as possible. Without mixing it, dump dry concrete into the footing and mix it with the slurry until we could stir no more. In a wheelbarrow, mix a dry ratio of concrete and fill the holes/tubes with it, displacing any water that might remain. Fill to grade, drop in two lengths of rebar and a bolt. Hope for the best.
This was a muddy disaster. Some were filled with water, at least on top, but all were filled with a slurry of mud. Perhaps 5 of the sonotubes were serviceable. The rest, I had to shovel out by hand (sometimes just with my hand) and reset with our leftovers so there would be an adequate sleeve for the piling. Many of the holes collapsed as I dug them, since the clay had become so wet and plastic. Shovels of muck despoiled my lovely woodchips; the whole thing was a frightening mess.
In less than a month, we went from “better than it needs to be” to “yeah, that should work.” Jamie had to go back to her job (someone needs to keep us in wine and coffee), but I was able to finish the work in about two days. Eventually, the water will seep from the clay again and everything will reconstitute. It will take some time, but the bottom of the pits we dug were undisturbed and quite firm; the pilings, though somewhat misshapen and of smaller footing, should have more than sufficient strength for their role (an advantage to over-designing). The concrete may take a little longer to cure to 80% – but it’s already buildable. (Concrete continues to cure until all of the moisture in it crystallizes. It’s really quite fascinating, an asymptote of progress that slows as it goes, takes a very long time to end, and all the while the concrete gets harder and harder. Decades.)
It was pretty laborious. Shovels and buckets. The mixer was useless. When I needed concrete, I needed it fast. But it didn’t make sense to mix the small batch of very dry ratio that the machine could handle, turn it off, use it, turn the machine on again…all the while trundling back and forth with the barrow and shuttling the bags. I wound up mixing nearly all of it in the wheelbarrow with the shovel.
I drove north to return the truck to Donn, return the mixer and pump to the rental agents, and swung by for a visit with my sister Erin. The next day I set out (in the rain, again) to visit a discount building supply…and the RAV overheated. After I limped it in to Fairlee we got the news: cracked radiator. Solution: unhook the fan switch so the fan is always on and fill’erup with water.
Nothing is going right. But, mostly, it’s still going. I went home.
Two days later, after a day of rest, I went for a walk – we had a beautiful autumn here in New England. North and south it was one of the better ones. All the peak moments burst glorious color: the maples gold and red, the beech trees positively glowed, sumac and cherry turned a deep cranberry color. Even the stolid oaks who always seem content to go merely brown strained themselves to a lighter roast (still brown, though).
For about five days, we had a gorgeous run of weather and on the fourth of those days, while I was filling a shift at my local EMS, a nice older man was taking his ritual morning stroll when a lady in an SUV jumped the curb and hit him. He flew about 30 feet through the air as she careened off a telephone pole, flattened a mailbox, and finally came to a stop about 50 yards from where he lay beneath a tree, staring up at the cerulean sky with one eye closed on a day too warm for October.
A bee, she said, was in the car with her.
I don’t know about any bee, but her seven-year-old son surely was. He was not harmed, physically.
The nice older man died. Instantly, I think. But we pumped on his chest and put breathing tubes down his throat and held bandages to his scalp, shot him with epinephrine and pumped on his chest and put little needles between his ribs to relieve his collapsed lungs and pumped on his chest for 20 minutes, and delivered him to a helicopter.
But he never breathed again, nor did his heart beat again, for he was dead. I went home and washed his blood off my clothes.
I did not weep for Jamie’s cousin; I did not know him. But I nearly wept to see her uncle, who though he walked and talked and shook hands – and even cracked a smile to see his nephews roughhouse – looked in his eyes like a man laid open from head to heart with an axe.
I did not weep for the nice older man. His wife is a nice lady who has been a member of this ambulance service for over 20 years. She lives near where her husband was killed and came to the scene when she heard her pager tone, not knowing it was him. We were already at work trying to undo the accident. Later I was told she came upon us, suddenly stopped and turned to her friend:
“Kim, that’s Bill,” she said, “I recognize his socks.” All she could see of the man on the ground were his feet.
I nearly wept to hear that, and at the faces of my colleagues who lost their friend.
This past weekend, I went up to the cottage in the woods again. I attended my Ski Patrol certification refresher on Saturday and Sunday and Jamie joined me Sunday afternoon. The first load of lumber was due Tuesday; the jobsite looked like Ypres 1914 in miniature. We dug some small ditches to relieve the surface water and moved some dirt around to level the ground a bit. I wanted to place some batter-boards preparatory to beginning the framing, to make sure the deck would be square. I pulled out some scrap wood and my saw.
The generator wouldn’t start. 1-2 weeks say the guys at the repair shop.
I wanted to weep. But I haven’t, yet.
Time is passing.