Construction (1930s)

As school children we were endlessly fascinated by construction work, with the men and materials, but especially with the processes, the equipment and, above all, the machinery.

The machinery in general seemed muscular and open to the possibility of actually revealing to us how it might work—like anatomical drawings showing the tendons and bones of a limb.  It was angular, black, rusting, and oozed dark grease from its joints and pivots.  It ran on coal, hissing steam, and smoke.

Steamrollers had a great spoked iron flywheel on one or two sides of the engine.  The driver’s cab was filled with hand levers and long shafted steering wheels and covered with a flat canvas sun-roof that shook as the machine lurched forward and backward over the hot macadam steaming from water applied to keep the roller from sticking.

1932_Steam Shovel
Coal-fired steam shovel

Steam  shovels were tracked—as Cat’s are still—but the mighty torso of the machine carrying the awkward shovel arms and the cab and engine swiveled on a huge circular crown of gear teeth and the shovel arm, itself a gigantic rack, was thrust forward and back with pinions and greasy cables.  The shovel itself seemed to be the head of a giant beast with an articulated jaw—the hinge was the eye—and a row of huge teeth sprouting, oddly, like spiky hair from its forehead.  The teeth had no reverse reach (as on today’s backhoes) so workmen would have to hand-excavate the close-in stuff.

The behemoths clanked and smoked and, happily, were left at quitting time totally exposed and unguarded, metal chinking as it cooled, and various fluids sighing faintly to our ears as we took command of the controls to advanced the projects into the summer evenings.

Often a squat, rusty, and lurching diaphragm pump (sometimes left to run overnight) would be connected to two hoses one of which vanished into the turbid depths of an open hole or trench and the other, at labored intervals, belched forth gouts of muddy liquid into a canvas hose and then into a nearby ditch where the flow ran on to supply our dams and other grand and fleeting roadside civil engineering projects.

Hit-or-miss gasoline pump engine

Driven by a primitive one-cylinder, hit-or-miss gasoline engine—running at about 120 rpm—such a pump had a flywheel capable of carrying it, stumbling onward between frequent and random misfires, through a couple of cycles or so.  This gave it a characteristic and rhythmic but intermittent bump and breathy suck which I am certain any adult child of the twenties or thirties (who had endless time on his hands after school) would recognize instantly.

Smudge pot “bombs”

After dark the open pits and obstructions left for the night would be marked by crude black kerosene-filled spheres about the size of bowling balls with blackened wicks at the top burning dimly, smokily, and flickering in the darkness.  They were loose; but we never touched them; they seemed to us a little too dangerous—like the real bombs of our imaginations.

The heavy construction, machinery, and masonry workmen seemed mostly from southern Europe; swarthy from the sun, often mustachioed, and under banded fedoras and with bandannas at their necks.  I don’t remember much about the carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, and roofers except that they wore white canvas “farmer johns” and arrived at the jobs all together in the back of a truck. Individual autos were never parked around because they didn’t own cars as is common today.

After the workmen had left for the day we swarmed over the skeletal forms of the new house construction then burgeoning in our area, pocketing the coin-like knockout plugs from electrical boxes, sticking our fingers into the huge tubs of pristine white slaked lime left overnight by the plasterers to cure, and walking the gutters and ridgepoles arms waving widely—falling occasionally but usually able to hide the consequences from our parents.  Once, while balancing around a right-angled turn on a wooden hip roof gutter, I lost it and fell twelve feet onto a pile of bricks.  I had sprained my wrist in a fall, of course, from my bicycle [11/6/38].

Hod carrier

Often, too, we would hang around during working hours watching form-building, the pouring of concrete, and the laying of endless bricks and stones—the mortar mixed in great tubs with long handled shovels and hoes and the bricks and mortar carried, around and up ladders to high staging in wooden hods balanced on the shoulders of the carriers, to the masons who deftly plied their trowels.  We watched plasterers working their smooth magic over wire lath and were fascinated by the plumber with his roaring blow-torch pouring molten lead into oakum-packed cast iron bell-joints.  (Cinder-block and so-called dry-wall construction were not to come into use until after the War.)

Sometimes we would talk with the men and they might deign to answer questions.  Without realizing it at the time we were learning how it all goes together; how the world works.  We were even learning some small things about cultures different from our own and how to get along with them.  I can trace some of my later ability to enjoy work with others less privileged than I to encounters such as these.

As we grew older and bolder we stole.  Nails, lumber, hinges, tarpaper, shingles (the occasional piece of capped pipe—for a cannon).  Somewhere nearby and hidden in the woods a crude club house would take shape.  One day (panic!) a policeman found his way to a remote site and we had to raze that one.  But we saved everything.  We laboriously pulled and pounded out and straightened the nails and the structure rose again, phoenix-like, in someone’s else patch of woods.  It seems unbelievable, now, that we were never charged with theft.

There was the digging of tunnels, too.  Cut and cover.  It was hard, grubby work getting through the local glacial till and hacking through roots.  Damp, dark; and fun for a while but without the allure of a really swell shack with a sloping roof, a door and windows, a trap door in the floor, and an old kerosene heater.

And there were real, scary tunnels to walk through.  We would ride our bikes over to an aqueduct project nearby in Weston and sneak through a fence and into the open end of a huge pipe that we could stand up in.  We would walk in toward the darkness, our footsteps and voices echoing eerily, as the pipe gradually curved to cut off more and more of what little light filtered in from the now distant end.  As the darkness increased we would voice concern over what would happen if “they” suddenly turned on the water and then—suddenly convinced that the water was actually COMING—run like crazy for the distant opening.


But best was that sometimes there would be blasting.  Compressors and air drills shattered the silence.  The dynamite (pale yellow and waxy looking sticks) would be charged into the holes, a cap inserted and quietly wired up to the centerpiece—the iconic wooden box with the plunger in the top.  A huge blanket seemingly woven out of old steel cable would be dragged over the work by the steam shovel.  We would watch respectfully from a remove always considered too close by the workmen.  “Hey. Kids. Get back!”  The men were much closer than we were; we would step back about an inch watching and waiting.  Then, “Look: he’s about to do it.”  THUMP!  The blanket would leap mightily and little pieces of rock would fly, some falling near and behind us.  The workmen would move in and we, satisfied, would drift away in pursuit of other endeavors.


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