Laser Sharp

Sept. 1, 2000
Gx Bug Web

My contractor-neighbor Jorge stopped by on a recent weekend to “borrow a thread-chaser.” Once we tracked it to its hiding place, we retired to the patio with a couple of “cool ones” to replace the fluids lost in our harrowing search. “Dehydration is a terrible thing,” we concluded, toasting one another and launching into the obligatory small talk about the fortunes of our favorite racecar drivers. After a while, Jorge got around to the real purpose of his visit: “What do you know about lasers?”

Despite my belief that our present economic situation is to a very large extent the result of the application of such technologies, I had to admit that the real answer to his question was “Next to nothing.” But because it goes against my grain to plead total ignorance to anything except how to catch fish, I replied, “Great for eye surgery, aligning racecar chassis, and knocking off alien spaceships, I guess. What have you got in mind?”

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“You remember the housing tract in the hills above Camarillo I was bidding on?” he asked. “The one with 20 pads and a half mile of roads and driveways? Well, we won the bid, and Siegfried [Jorge’s 400-lb. grader driver] says we ought to consider getting a laser system. What do you think?”

Faced with a “should I spend my hard-earned dollars for a piece of high-tech equipment?” question, I reverted to being an absolute wimp. “Let’s go talk to someone who’s using a laser system” was all I could come up with.

At 6:45 a.m. the following Monday, the phone rang. “There’s an outfit in Calabasas using a laser system,” Jorge announced. “Siegfried and I are going down to see it this morning. Do you want to go?” I looked at the shambles of my desk and the scribbles on my calendar – both of which said in no uncertain terms, “No way.” I surprised myself by saying, “Sure, where should I meet you?”

Calabasas lies just over the hill from the westernmost tip of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley; a once-isolated community undergoing explosive growth. Jorge and Siegfried were waiting for me just past the offramp, so I jumped into their truck for the drive to the project. We were met by Jorge’s counterpart, Pat, who first took us to his trailer to show us the project map and grading plan.

“We got our first laser system about 10 months ago and stuck it on one of our graders,” Pat explained. “It was a manual system that let us get away from having to stake out pads.” You could see Jorge’s antennae begin to quiver as Pat described the manual operation, but before he had a chance to ask any questions, Pat jumped ahead. “Things went so well on the first project that I sprung for the automatic system, which provides automatic cross-slope control.”

Here, Jorge broke in, asking Pat to explain in minute detail how the system worked. After about five minutes of grilling, Pat said, “Look, let’s go watch it in operation.” Siegfried, who had been silently taking in all of this, gave me a wink and mouthed, “Bingo!”

“Why don’t you jump up on the machine and see what Carlos does,” Pat suggested to Siegfried after we watched the laser-equipped grader make a half-dozen passes, but Siegfried pointed to Jorge and said, “He’s the guy with the questions.” As it turned out, they took turns, both of them operating the machine under Carlos’ watchful eye. On the way back to the trailer, Pat pointed to a rough-cut roadway with a string line in place to establish the final grade. “Last month I added a sonic transmitter that allows the grader to work roads in changing elevations.” Jorge had seen enough.

This weekend Jorge returned the thread-chaser, but instead of the usual racing stuff, he led off with “What did you think about the laser system?” “Terrible,” I replied, waiting to see how much of a rise I got from him before explaining, “I’m the only one who didn’t get to drive the machine.”

As you might suspect, Jorge bought a manual system that will be installed on his motor grader, and he promises to let me drive it one of these days. If he does, I’ll tell you all about it.
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