It was a cold early February morning. The slate skies promised rain in the evening, but that was later; we had box culverts to lay.
The box culverts were huge concrete boxes with internal dimensions of 12 feet by 10 feet. With concrete walls a foot thick, they were heavy enough to require a 150 ton lattice boom crane for placing. They were trucked to the job site, unloaded and placed in a line near their proposed location.
It was a typical winter day. The ground stayed muddy, so I was wearing rubber boots to keep my feet drier. In the summer, the boots were uncomfortably hot and kept my feet soaked with sweat. In the winter, my feet would still sweat, but the bitter north wind kept them miserably cold. The trade off was regular work boots, but eventually, I'd have to wade water, and the trade off became misery that could only be described as worse.
In the trench, the crew that worked with the large excavator were more comfortable. They didn't have to fight the wind and the fresh cut earth wasn't muddy. They would work with the "rod man", who constantly checked the grade for the "instrument man" that shivered and read the grade rod all day. He couldn't move. I didn't envy his long day of standing in the cold.
As the excavator removed the dirt, I would work with the crew that hooked the lifting eyes to the large box culverts. We'd make sure the asphaltic sealing strips were warmed by a fire and placed on the male end (spigot) of the boxes. The female end (bell), which was on the box already placed, was handled by the crew in the trench. We'd hand them down the sealer before we set each box, so they could place the still pliable material on the primed bell of the box.
When everything was ready, it was my job to flag the crane operator until the box was in position. At that time, a large beam was lowered by the the excavator, cables were attached and an air-tugger was used to pull the boxes together.
I had been doing this for weeks. We were about half through this part of the project and I had reached the point where I was hoping it would rain. I needed an early day. The cold had penetrated to my bones and every second in the raw weather was slowly wearing away what little energy I could muster. I was tired of shivering and the thought of lunch - while sitting in my truck with the heater at full blast - was constantly on my mind.
The ground was soaked from the February weather, so the crane was as far as the operator could place it from the trench. Every lift was close to the load limit, so the operator was constantly watching and running the crane by "the seat of his pants". If it felt as though it was tipping, he could release the brake and drop the load. We knew this, so we constantly watched the load. If you made the mistake of getting under the load, and the operator had to let it go, the choice was one worker, or the whole crew. The answer was easy: Never get under the load.
At around 10:00 am, we reached the point we had only one box left on site. Trucks were scheduled to arrive in about an hour, so we had time to lay the one box and not enough time to split off on some other task. It would be a welcome break.
Due to the positioning of the crane, and the location of the trench, the crane was right at the limit of reach. The operator kept the load a foot above the ground as he slowly winched the line and lowered the boom. I kept giving him hand signals and watched the load. I could tell the crane was "getting light" on the far track as I would glance at the crane. The bottom rollers were starting to come off the track.
The load was finally over the hole. I signaled the operator to slowly lower the load. I looked at the rig, and realized there was daylight under the far track. One false move, or if the operator stopped the load too fast, and the box would be dropped, or the rig would go over.
The box slowly descended until I stopped the operator about an inch above the ground. The excavator operator swung the beam into position and the crew quickly connected the pulling cable. As they tightened the cable, it pulled down on the load. I quickly looked at the rig and saw at least two feet of space between the far track and the ground. The operator didn't move, even though the crane was rocking in the breeze. As the bell and spigot sealed, I signaled for the load to be lowered. As it lowered, the far track set back on the ground.
It was now time to wait for the loads of box culverts. I walked up to the crane to hide from the wind. It wasn't like being behind a wall, but it was better than standing in the open. The operator slid open the cab door and asked me if I would like some coffee. I went to my truck and retrieved a small Styrofoam coffee cup I had from before work. He opened his thermos and poured us both a cup of coffee.
As I shivered in the cold wind, I slowly lifted the steaming cup of coffee to my lips and took a small sip. There was a taste of coffee, but it was overwhelmed by the strong taste of bourbon. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind. I had been working with this operator for weeks and it was a common sight to see him sip coffee the entire day. It dawned on me he was an alcoholic and the last few hours of "seat of the pants" operating had been under the influence of alcohol.
I finished my cup and savored the warmth it generated. Soon after, trucks started arriving and we were back in business. We worked until light, steady rain chased us off the site in the early afternoon. I was pleased. I was ready to go home. It had been a rough day.
That was around thirty years ago. I worked with that crew until we finished the underground drainage and I moved to the paving crew. I was never offered another cup of coffee from the operator and he eventually was laid off when we were finished with the large crane. He was around fifty, and I imagine he's dead by now. It seems like yesterday I would watch him, sitting in his cab, sipping his coffee and waiting to balance his rig between success and disaster.