A View From the Peanut Gallery

May 1, 2004
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I don’t know about you, but to me any kind of construction project is a powerful magnet. Unless I am already late for something really important, the telltale signs – the sound of heavy equipment, the smell of freshly worked dirt, the presence of barricades and safety warnings – will reach out and grab me, compelling me to find a vantage point from which I can watch what’s going on.

I don’t recall ever starting out to see a particular aspect of a construction project; rather, I’m content to let the whole scene wash over me until after a while I find myself drawn to one aspect or another.

Thus, during lunchtime this past Tuesday, I allowed myself to be drawn to the site of a recently demolished hotel — a landmark retirement home dating back to the mid-1920s when its predecessor, along with most of the town, was sundered by a 6.3 earthquake. Last weekend, I gather, a demotion crew took down the three-story building with a wrecking ball and lots of brute force, but even though the major excitement was over, by the time I arrived, a crowd of 50 or so onlookers had gathered to watch a half dozen separate crews tackle a variety of below-street-level tasks.

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At one end of the street-corner plot – the entire construction site taking up an area no more than an acre, including the curbside lane of one of the intersecting roads – an excavator with a breaker attachment crunched away at the last remaining pieces of the previous foundation. “Take that … and that … and that,” the systematic pounding seemed to say as 3-foot-square slabs of concrete fell to the assault. At the opposite end of the lot, a survey crew concentrated on setting stakes for finish grading of the newly dug – and 20-foot-deeper-than-before – subfloor. Between these bookends of activity, other individual crews busied themselves digging trenches, marking significant features, staging materials, and otherwise carrying out the subtasks of what was obviously an elaborate and carefully scripted plan.

In the midst of all of the activity — right there on center stage, so it seemed — sat an excavator, like the ringmaster of the whole show, gouging out great gobs of dirt and rock as it chomped its way down to the new elevation, dipping, biting, rotating, positioning, and dumping its mouthful of freshly minted material into a waiting truck before repeating the sequence in inexorable strides.

Each evolution involved four loads culminating in a honk that launched the target truck on its outbound run, simultaneously summoning its successor to the vacated position. As if controlled by this bit of musical chairs, another truck would seem to magically materialize to join the queue, allowing the process to proceed in a seamless manner through all of its separate activities. For all that was happening in and around the construction site, it was the ceaseless cycle of the excavator that set the pace, a metronome to the workings of an intricately choreographed system.

For what was probably a quarter of an hour, I watched the action without conscious focus, but gradually I found myself concentrating not so much on the excavator in its precise adjustments to the ever-changing working face but on the barely perceptible actions of the operator who sat inside a glassed-in cab, isolated from all the noise, dust, and frenetic activity going on around him. Increasingly I became engrossed in the rhythmic coordination and almost casual movements of his feet, fingers, and eyes that supplied the will behind the force of this amazing machine.

And it struck me that while this magnificent excavator with all of its engineering and technological excellence stands at the pinnacle of our civilization’s technical achievement and ingenuity, it is a cold and sterile assemblage of parts without the care and skill of its operator — someone like the man who in all the time I watched made not one discernable bobble in the control of his bucket. It was a sober vision for one who spends much of his time evaluating and extolling the virtues of machinery.

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Yes, the machines are terrific, as are the attachments and productivity enhancements. I am constantly amazed when I realize how much better today’s equipment is than that of a decade ago or that the rate of improvement continues to accelerate rather than stagnate. But it is at moments like these that I am once again drawn to the realization that production begins, proceeds, and ends with the person in the cab, and no matter how wonderful the machinery is or will ever become, that’s where it will always remain.