Some work is “light work.” Then there is “heavy work.” Last month, I watched a construction crew replace a century-old main water line in downtown Brookville.
My viewpoint was the second-story window of Watershed Books, located just east of the Jefferson County Courthouse on the north side of Main Street. My bird’s-eye view of the trucks, excavators, pavers, etc., on the street’s south side gave me a different perspective from what most of us see at ground level.
I came away impressed with the pavement cutting, ditch digging, pipe laying, refilling and repaving.
I also noticed the cleanup. The previous day’s torn-up chunk of street was returned to use as the next day’s angled parking spaces, one day at a time as the crew moved west along Main Street.
And I remembered stuff.
I have dug ditches, but not on that scale. I did dig a few sewer lines by hand, using shovels, picks, bars and rakes. My first experience was an emergency. A few months after Dad died, our sewer line quit. One of Dad’s brothers, Uncle Flat, said he would dig it up for repairs. At age 13, I was pressed into service. We dug and dug — only to find, after excavating eight feet of six-foot-deep trench, that the sewer line came out of the back of our house, not the front. A second, shorter dig reached the collapsed clay tiles and we repaired them. Even at that young, fit age, I ached for a week.
Another teenage summer was spent mostly mowing grass at a cemetery, but on occasion we helped dig graves in the St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Warren.
Digging is hard, physical work, and dangerous to boot. Today’s workers have rock-lifting, clay-scooping machines, but someone still needs to hold buckets to be hooked up, tamp down clay filler, wield shovels and small bars, even gloved hands, to dig around other buried lines for sewers, electricity, water lateral connectors, telephone lines – anything that can be placed beneath a street, sidewalk or yard.
As I watched from my window, none of the dozen or so workers seemed to be hurrying.
I get that. Hurrying in heat makes the work harder from fatigue.
Working in a jolting, sagging seat hooked to a backhoe is more like the Tilt-A-Whirl at a county fair than the placid Merry-Go-Round. Scooping shovelfuls of damp, greasy clay tightens shoulder muscles, sends low back muscles into spasm, and makes hips and knees throb. Though a backhoe or a crane can lift a 20-foot-long sewer pipe and position it above a new trench, it still takes a worker or two to use hands (and sometimes feet) to swing, sway, nudge and cuss the pipe into alignment with its predecessor.
“Hustle and bustle” erodes strength, imposes weariness, even risks injury. Experienced construction crews move steadily but deliberately.
Though there is no rock ‘n’ roll backbeat to the process, it has its own rhythm. The lime-vested workers huddle. They confer. Someone looks at a binder or a laptop. Others make gestures.
The huddle breaks. The workers spread out. This one sips quickly from a nearby Thermos. That one deftly kicks a stray rock out of the way.
Motors rev, then race. Cables sing or groan as their loads are hoisted, swung around, then lowered.
That section of pipe is laid — or is it? No, it is within the ditch, but handwork is required to twist the nuts and align the bolts that bind the pipes together, resistant to the stresses of the vehicle traffic above and the freeze-thaw cycle of our seasons.
As for me, I no longer dig. My last two ditches were dug at home. One opened a slit across our packed-down gravel driveway to encase electrical conduit running to our barn. The other opened the line of clay sewer tiles to let me redirect the flow of “gray water” from kitchen sink and washing machine further away from a then-new site for a garden.
I dug those around 20 years ago. My shoulders still ache at the memory.
These days, our shovels do no more than scoop gravel into a yard cart, transfer straw-laced dirt mixed with chicken doo-doo to a compost pile or other fertilizing spot, or open a hole to anchor a young fruit tree.
A half-hour of such work tires me for the rest of the day.
So as I peered at the construction crew below me on Brookville’s Main Street last week, I empathized with their efforts, their pains, the risks they take.
Then I turned back inside to the books I curate, lifting one or two at a time, no more.
These days, that is my “heavy work.”
Vive la difference.
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