Trip to the Job Site

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Beginning my long journey to becoming an entrepreneur, I labored in the ranks of those toiling in the mushroom farms of large corporations. Most engineers work for large corporations and I was no exception. I learned the craft of engineering by working beside others, both engineers and craftsmen, more experienced and knowledgeable than myself, rather than in the cloistered silences of the Academy. As an aside, I fell into a bit of good luck when it turned out that actually using calculus isn’t needed to be a working engineer.

Everything I know that has allowed me to have a career, I owe to those men who guided me and gave me the opportunity to grow and to learn. Much of that learning occurred on job sites where I worked with contractors to build what I had designed. Those memories have been in my thoughts recently. Just as I was once an engineer, there is a new generation of engineers in my family. One regularly visits off site manufacturing facilities and another is dealing with the pressures of building something in our nation’s capital. I have sympathy for them. I have been there and know first hand the black comedy of engineers and job sites.

My first trip to a job site outside the US was back in the Seventies, nearly forty years ago. I was working in a desk farm in Los Angeles, the common room forerunner of today’s cube farms. At the time of this story, I was no longer wet behind the ears, but the green husk of my Nebraska farm upbringing was still visible. Eager to climb the corporate ladder and ambitious to a fault, I was up for anything. One day in late summer, a member of what was quaintly known as “Mahogany Row” came by the desk farm asking for a volunteer.

It seemed that the company needed someone to go to a jobsite in Mexico where construction had ground to a halt until a representative of the company, specifically an instrument engineer could get there to solve a pressing problem. Plant startup was fast approaching and time was critical!!! The Site Manager had spoken, “Only an engineer from the office can solve this #@$@ design problem and they damn well better get off their candy $#@##’s and get here right now!!! If this $^&&@# copper mine didn’t get running on time, it will be the engineer’s fault and there will be hell to pay!!!” Everyone on the construction site was being forced to sit on their hands burning precious time until this problem could be solved.

Sensing the moment to be right for a ride to glory, I raised my hand. High. “Pick me!! Pick me!!” Bouncing in my seat in my excitement, I failed to see my fellow more experienced engineers in the desk farm either burying their heads in a thick reference book or pretending to answer the telephone. With a dubious look on his face, this god from the upper floor nodded, accepting my enthusiastic offer. Following the man from the rarefied reaches of executive territory back up into the dizzying heights of the building, I started to feel butterflies waking in my stomach.

Seated in his office in front of a desk with the appearance of the North Forty, the executive gave me a concise and detailed summary of the job. Basically he reiterated the above quotation from the Site Manager, somewhat less colorfully. At this point in time and having many times sat on his side of the desk, my own future desk more plebian in both size and species of wood, I now realize that he wasn’t telling me everything.

It wasn’t that he was lying or withholding information. But the complexities of the politics between those who design, those who build and the owner’s employing both are not easily explained to the novice. We graduate from school with a desire to believe that the people we work with are honest and straightforward. We believe that the company we work for is committed to the good of their customers. We believe that the owners we build for are honest, intelligent and pure. The cynicism of older engineers takes time and experience to acquire. (Actually, we are born with our cynicism about contractors.)

Faced with that expanse of open desk and with the flood of information washing over me, I discovered a previously unknown reservoir of courage and did something new in my career. Accepting the risk that this god from Olympus might give someone else the “opportunity”, I expressed misgivings. In the middle of a great amount of my mumbling and otherwise beating around the bush, I informed this god in human form that I did not have a passport, couldn’t speak Spanish and didn’t know how to travel in the interior of Mexico. To my relief, he smiled and waved away my misgivings. It turns out that I was worrying needlessly. I wouldn’t need a passport to travel to Mexico. A driver’s license was all I needed. The need to speak Spanish was not a problem as everyone on the jobsite spoke English. As for the problem of traveling in Mexico, I would be greeted by one of the company’s trusted Anglo employees in Tucson and escorted all the way to the jobsite some 100 miles south of Nogales. Problems solved. Finishing our “chat” he gave a slight frown, glancing at his wristwatch to let me know that it was time to move on. As I went through the door, his secretary let me know that the corporate travel office had already cut airline tickets for a tomorrow morning flight from LAX to Tucson while we spoke.

Still groggy from the dawn flight next morning, I stepped off the airplane in Tucson. This was before jetways. I had to walk down a steep ladder and cross a significant patch of tarmac with what few other sleep-deprived passengers were on the plane. Walking into the terminal, those stomach dwelling butterflies now more nearly resembled turkeys just informed of Thanksgiving’s approach. My head swiveling like a WWII tail gunner on a B-17 over Berlin, I felt a wave of relief when I saw someone holding a sign with my company’s logo on it. Raising my hand to alert the sign holder, I headed in that direction.

The momentarily quieted turkeys started flapping their wings again as I got a better view of the sign holder. I had imagined someone just a bit different than the person actually there and holding the sign. In place of the grizzled construction veteran I had imagined, I saw what looked to be a frazzled housewife dressed in what might be politely described as “suburban casual”. As she guided my bag and me out of the terminal and to her vehicle, she was overcome by the need to unburden herself of her thoughts on the deficiencies in our company’s planning, procedures and practices. Wearing my best Nebraska smile, I followed her out the terminal until we got to her vehicle. Somehow, I was not too surprised when we stopped in front of a well-used and ill-kept station wagon. I am the last person in the world to notice vehicle housekeeping, but here was someone clearly neglectful of appearances. Perhaps we had more in common than I supposed.

I gradually regained my equilibrium on the two-hour drive from the Tucson Airport to the border crossing into Mexico at Nogales. It wasn’t that I was feeling any more confident or less uneasy. It’s just that panic is difficult to sustain. There is a roosting chicken in all of us. Unless the danger is visible and close, we just naturally roost. And cluck to oneself in private. All too soon, we arrived at the border crossing and joined the waiting line of cars. Desiring to appear minimally competent, I pulled out my billfold and removed my Drivers License. Looking puzzled, she asked me where my passport was.

Somehow, I had achieved my present level of experience and sophistication without learning that women could curse. The next few minutes provided an education in that regard. Perhaps this lady was a construction veteran after all. I also was provided with many additional details about the deficiencies in my company’s management. As is often the case, firestorms do not burn the person starting the fire, but the person lost in the forest. Certainly that was the case that time, though in the years since, I have benefitted from that truth more times than I care to admit. I was saved from further questioning and commentary about my ancestry and competence by our arrival at the checkpoint.

Handing her own passport and my driver’s license to the uniformed guard, I was introduced to the Spanish language. After what I can only describe as a very lengthy and serious examination of my appearance through the window by the guard, did I neglect to mention that he carried a very large gun, we were waved to the side. My companion, the housewife, told me to sit and wait. Leaving the car, she disappeared with the checkpoint officer into the building. I sat in the station wagon under the watchful eyes of the rifle carrying guards, trying to ignore the nasty gaze of the people in the cars behind us. They, as well as myself, were now going nowhere until the officer returned.

After only a few hours she returned, handed me my license and roared off down the street into Nogales muttering about how to handle her Expense Report. Relieved at getting through the border but nervous because of the tension in the car, I settled back in my car seat, eager for the opportunity to roost again. We had gone a few blocks when she pulled into a parking lot and drove around through the vehicles there, seemingly searching for something. With some hesitation and in a suitably meek voice, I inquired about the apparent search? It seems that we were looking for my ride.

Aha! My ride. Gently mentioning my naïve preconception that I already had a ride, she was briefly amused. However, I was spared further discussion of subjects already well covered as she pulled up beside an old and weathered Chevy pickup. A brief nostalgia overcame me at the sight of the 1952 Chevy, looking just like the one I had ridden in as a boy back on the farm. However nostalgia was rapidly overcome by a new wave of nausea as I was introduced to my driver and traveling companion. Not quite catching his name as we were introduced, I turned to question my friend the housewife. It was too late. She was already behind the wheel of the station wagon spinning out of the parking lot in what can only be called a cloud of dust. The glimpse of a solitary upraised finger in the window may have just been my imagination.

Wearing my best Nebraska smile, I resolved to get to know my new traveling companion. I looked forward to an entertaining ride into the mysterious and exotic interior of Mexico. At this point it came as no surprise to me that my companion could not speak any English, but in a way, I felt that I almost knew him. The driver was an older man with grey hair. Dressed in the cotton pajamas familiar to patrons of western movies everywhere, he could have come directly off of the movie set of The Magnificent Seven or The Wild Bunch.

The bed of his pickup was stacked high, toweringly so and exquisitely balanced, with an assortment of merchandise culled from the finest trash dumps north of the border. He seemed to be friendly enough and to know where he was going. Grasping my tattered faith in my hands, desperate for an opportunity to roost again, I got in the pickup to be taken to my destination. Hopefully something would go right for me on this trip and our destination would be the jobsite.

But there was another traveler in the pickup and it was that third person providing the greatest surprise of the morning. Sitting next to me in a crowded pickup seat, that seat having been hard used over the years, was a young lady. I guessed her to be looking forward to her “Sweet Sixteen” birthday at some far off time time in the future. She also appeared to be ten, maybe eleven, months pregnant. And so we set off on our journey to the jobsite, a copper mine and smelting complex in the mountains near the thriving village of Nacozari. I remember thinking that I was in the pickup with Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem. I just hoped that there was room at the inn.

As we sped south, down the highway at a brisk 30 kilometers per hour, I had time during our silent conversations to regain my confidence, to roost. After all, what else could go wrong? My heart rate didn’t even go up when I saw the parked patrol car up ahead on the side of the road. When he motioned us over as we got closer, I remained as calm as ever. I would have worried, but my reserves of adrenaline had long since been emptied. It surprised me that he had picked us out to stop, having chosen us out of the two or three other cars we had seen on the road that morning. The patrolman must see old overloaded pickups carrying Mary, Joseph and Howard Wollowitz all the time.

I watched as he walked in that slow way of cops everywhere over to my side of the pickup. He held out his hand and gave me a burst of vowels. As a chicken on her roost watches the approaching fox, I gave him the old Nebraska smile, practically frozen on my face by this time. No effect, he kept talking with his hand out. I put out my driver’s license and said something like “No comprende Espanol”. He glanced at the license and kept talking. By now my Nebraska smile must have resembled the rictus of a man burning at the stake. I looked over at my traveling companions. They were innocently looking straight out the window as if seeing asphalt for the first time. I imagined I heard the driver softly whistling, tunelessly.

Desperate, I reached into my wallet and pulled out a $5 dollar bill, offering it to the policeman. This is God’s honest truth. The policeman laughed, rubbed his forehead with his fingers, shook his head and motioned us forward. Joseph, the driver, didn’t miss a beat as he shifted the pickup into gear with the noise of tortured metal and we continued our journey.

The rest of the journey passed without further incident. We even sped up, sometimes topping out near 45 kilometers per hour. It was a long drive without stopping for food or bathrooms, even at that speed. After living with a woman who experienced pregnancy, I now understand how difficult it was for that young woman to spend most of a day in a pickup without shocks, without air conditioning, without food and without bathroom breaks. In a bit of unexpected luck, it turned out that Joseph did know the way to the site and after an indeterminate time, we arrived.

I knew it was the site because it had a sign, in English, saying so. But what was it, a copper mine or a prison camp? Not that I knew anything about prison camps, but I had watched Hogan’s Heroes many times. Set in a small valley surrounded by foothills, it was completely encircled by barbed wire stretched between tall vertical posts, concertina wire on top of the posts as well as in front. The fencing was visually distracting, but the regularly spaced blockhouses were intimidating. With raised and enclosed platforms at regular intervals, I could see men wearing crossbelts and carrying assault rifles inside. The entrance gate that we were approaching looked as if it was proof against anything short of armor.

Of course we had to deal with guards again. Of course they couldn’t speak English and seemed to want something from me that I didn’t have. Of course my traveling companions again couldn’t take their eyes from the beauty of the landscape. But rather than the extended frustration of the roadside stop, this guard took in the situation after a few minutes and made a phone call from his building. After a short time, he stepped back out and gave the driver instructions, mostly with finger pointing. I was glad to be moving again and breathing a bit more regularly. The guards back at the border crossing had seemed tough at the time, but the look of these gentlemen at the site, made the border guards look like puppy dogs.

Suddenly Joseph, that is the driver of the pickup, slammed on his brakes. The sudden shift of our cargo in the back threatened to upend the finely tuned balance of our pickup. It turned out that Mary was much stronger than she looked. She demonstrated with a grip on my leg that threatened to draw blood. Two jeeps had just cut in front of us, making Joseph put on the brakes to avoid a collision.

My urge to comment on poor road manners was lost as I locked eyes with the men in the backs of the jeeps. They were standing up in the back of each jeep, using their grip on the gun mounts to stay standing as the jeeps bounced down the road in front of us. A part of me was amazed at how big .50 caliber machine guns looked. They rapidly drew away from us as we continued at the speed our pickup’s barely existent shocks allowed.

After a time, we parked in front of a square unpainted concrete building with all of the architectural style and grace that would satisfy any engineer’s idea of beauty in design. In a total reversal of the day’s experience, there was someone waiting for me there in front of the building. His broken English was as welcome as blast of a ship’s horn to a castaway.

Unfortunately his broken English only further obscured his lack of information. After a lengthy conversation, I and my bag wound up in a concrete room, the cinderblock walls unadorned by paint or windows. But the room did have a cot, a working toilet and utilitarian sink featuring lukewarm water available from either faucet. It also had an unexpected, but welcome feature. The door had a lock that worked from the inside. From my conversation with the now departed concierge, I also had reason to believe that there was a cafeteria on the first floor of the building and that someone would come by to meet me tomorrow morning. There was a bare incandescent light bulb in the ceiling and I had a book in my bag. Life was good!!

That evening was the first of what proved to be many lonely evenings on Spartan job sites in my career. As with many engineers, a part of us only really comes alive when we are near the things we are building. As I have said many times, “I love the smell of weld smoke in the morning.” But there is a price to be paid to be near that which we love. Engineers on jobsites are, to quote Robert Heinlein, strangers in a strange land. Sometimes, it seems that morning coffee in the construction trailer is our only friend.

But morning on that long ago job site in Nacozari did come, not that I could really see it from inside my well-appointed room. As I was steeling myself to dare the cafeteria the next morning, someone knocked on my door. Opening the door, I found a man with an English accent standing there. Just like that, I was back in the familiar world of my profession and the world again made sense.

Though the time we spent in the cafeteria was a bit disquieting, as none of the foods served there being available back in Nebraska, I and my new-found friend traveled through the site to where the problem was. The problem itself took all of five minutes to correct. The rest of the day passed pleasantly, seen through the rosy glow of my own returning self-importance. An evening meal of steak and French fries in the company of a group of expatriate Brit’s in the local village of Nacozari rounded out the day. Early the following morning, I caught a ride back to Tucson with one of the regular delivery trucks. All’s well that ends well.

Over the next few days, reality and logic slowly eroded the rosy gloss of my triumph in fixing the construction site’s problem. Truth be known, I really didn’t have that much experience and the problem had been ridiculously easy for me to solve. The Brit’s that I had spent the day with were very sharp people with a great deal of experience. They hadn’t acted all that excitedly or happily to my brilliance in solving the problem so quickly.

Some other things about the trip just didn’t make much sense. Spending time with my housewife companion on the trip from Tucson to Nogales had awakened my skepticism about corporate management, but this trip had seemed to be a real fiasco. Despite the story I had been told at the beginning of the trip, it was hard to escape the realization that no one on the construction side had been expecting me.

Other things about the trip were also puzzling. I had been told that the plant was ready to start up. That was why they needed an engineer to solve the problem right away. But even to my inexperienced eyes that didn’t seem quite right. One of my most vivid memories of the site was of the scaffolding on site. While I had not yet gained the connoisseur’s appreciation for scaffolding of my later years, the irregular 2×4’s and random metal supports of the Nacozari job site had looked entirely inadequate for anything other than personal injury. But scaffolding, even professionally erected, on partially erected buildings seemed inconsistent with a plant ready to startup.

Another thing was the warehouse where I had corrected the instrument problem. The warehouse had been full of instruments. If the plant was truly ready to go into startup, the instruments would have been installed, not still their original boxes in the warehouse. There just seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies behind, what in retrospect was, a trip full of memorable experiences.

Gradually my puzzlement over the inconsistencies surrounding the trip faded away. I was working on a career and raising a family. Strange and new happenings were a dime a dozen. What are the peculiarities of a strange trip to Mexico against the daily wonderment of children? But I did remember the trip and after a career in the business, I think I see it now through more understanding eyes.

My perceptions, though naïve, were not wrong. The plant was not ready to startup. As with almost every other construction project, it was behind schedule. Behind Schedule is the twin sister of Over Budget. As with every other construction project that is home to the twin sisters, fault must be found. The owner is upset with the contractor. The contractor is pointing fingers at the engineer. The engineer is back in the office taking long lunches and generally clueless.

As is obvious to anyone who has ever attended a construction progress meeting, the problem with being over budget and behind schedule is engineering. Engineers continue to provide bad drawings, poor designs and purchase the wrong equipment. Not only that, but they are back in the office. Engineers refuse to leave the comfort of their air-conditioned offices and nine to five routines. Instead of being on the job site, shoulder to shoulder with the contractor in the mud and heat, the engineers and designers sit with their feet on the desk enjoying three-hour lunches. Construction would not be late and over budget if engineering did their job and actually helped.

As the bills continue to pile up and time continues to erode, executive managements become involved. Everyone knows that he involvement of executives is never, absolutely never, a good thing. Pressures mount and the fortitude of those actually managing the work vanishes like dew in the morning sun. Those responsible individuals, representing the owner and the contractor, face each other across a construction trailer table every day and the pressure mounts on them to unbearable levels.

Executives watching progress reports looking at disappearing bonuses can be quite unreasonable. It is a fact of human nature, that the people on site can’t really blame each other for their problems. It requires a hardness of soul that few people possess to cast blame on someone that they see and must work with everyday. A third person, one not actually there, is so much easier to blame.

That third person, the one not actually there, is almost always the engineer. And truth be known, it is of no great difficulty to find mistakes, confusing directions and parts that don’t seem to fit. Have you ever assembled toys on Christmas morning? It is common for construction drawings to make sense only after the furniture, or process plant, is assembled. Oh, that’s what they meant!

I suspect that my naïve eagerness to go to the jobsite upset that particular construction manager’s apple cart. The Construction Site Manager was simply working on his paper trail. In the extended aftermath of a construction project, it is important to have a paper trail explaining the visit of the Twin Sisters. As noted before, fault must be found.

It is an unavoidable fact of life that those assigned to find blame are not engineers or construction people. They will be accountants by another name, people trained to work with paper records, with budgets and schedules, with interoffice memos. Records of phone calls and other communication become the record of what did, or what did not, happen. A request for engineering support from the contractor becomes a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, good for two weeks grace at least; it being well known among construction managers of the need for a two weeks notice to get an engineer onto the site.

I suspect the executive at my old engineering employer who sent me to the site went home and had an extra martini to celebrate his unexpected good luck in finding a patsy. Sending out an engineer the next day after a request from the job site would look good when the accountants and lawyers arrived to do their forensic analysis of what went wrong. And who should pay.

It is well known among experienced participants that construction projects are like battles, not least in their need to be cleaned up afterwards. The engineers, the contractors and the craftsmen struggle in the mud of the construction site, “ignorant armies clashing by night on a dark plain”. And after the job is done, it is time for the accounting. A task for those specially trained for such care.

In construction in like manner as battle, the wounded and the dead must be cared for. And it is then that the accountants, the auditors, arrive and bayonet the wounded. And after the accountants finish that lengthy and messy task, the lawyers  begin their task of stripping the dead.











2 Responses to “Trip to the Job Site”

  1. Kathryn Groskopf says:

    Bill what a sense of humor. All those Western Movies were worth it. It made my day. Love you.

  2. Steve Femino says:

    In my experiences as an aerospace engineer, I was rarely asked to contribute anything on site visits except a PowerPoint presentation. The visits were primarily a show and tell opportunities, with the advantage of face-to-face with my counterparts in other companies. In the early days we didn’t have very effective video conferencing, especially since it had to be encrypted in a classified setting. But your tale doesn’t actually make me envious of your hands-on opportunity.

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