A Story from the Field Book of a Reluctant Surveyor
The surveyor stepped out of the foreman’s office into the warm, English sunshine. He paused, to place the recently issued, yellow hard-hat firmly on his head, before walking across to the edge of the excavation.
He studied the activity taking place before him with great interest. Directly in front of him the foundations and below surface construction were being completed while to his left the steel work had begun to be erected. It was a proud moment for him. This was his first site. His site. The previous surveyor had relinquished his position to travel throughout Europe with his newly acquired English Pounds, so the agency had been in contact to find a replacement. So here he was, only a week after stepping off the plane. It would not be long before he would thoroughly understand the intricacies of the whole site and have it humming smoothly along. They would all come to him with their problems. They would all come to him when they needed help. He would care for the site as a shepherd would care for his flock…
“Hey, you! Are you the site surveyor?” someone shouted.
The word “surveyor” jolted the surveyor’s mind back to reality. He turned and saw a man looking towards him and waving.
“Yes, I suppose I am,” the surveyor replied proudly.
“Well ge’ over ‘ere then, and give us some levels on this ‘ere beam.”
His first task. He adjusted the hard-hat on his head and walked confidently across to the waiting group of workers.
The day drifted, uneventfully, by…
…and it wasn’t until the surveyor was walking back towards the site offices at the end of the day that the foreman materialised beside him.
“D’ye reckon ye could ge’ a level on a pile fur oos? I’ ‘as ta be jacked doon ta the right height. Ah’ll be needin’ i’ fur a poor first thing in the mornin’.”
The surveyor stared blankly at the Scotsman. The only word he recognised was “pile”. His mind searched, desperately, for a possible reason why a pile would be mentioned, as the foreman stood watching him, waiting for a response. He couldn’t think of one, so to break the awkward moment he decided to ask, possibly, the only logical follow up question that would keep him from looking totally incompetent. “Where is it?” he asked calmly.
“O’er there. Tiny’s waitin’ with a jack-hammer. Boot remember, i’ can be a wee bi’ below the specified level, boot i’ cannot be over. Ah can make tae ground slab thicker, boot no way can i’ be any thinner. Dae’ ye oonderstand laddie?”
”Yep. No worries.” The surveyor didn’t understand at all. But he had come to realise, during the course of the day, that asking for a repetition only resulted in the instruction being told at greater volume, and certainly not in a way that could be better understood. If anything, the accents only became more unintelligible. So he headed across to the excavated hole the foreman had pointed to and hoped that the problem would become clearer when he arrived. He was slightly disturbed by the foreman’s reference to the waiting man as “Tiny”. He didn’t know many small men called “Tiny”.
His theory was to remain intact. As he reached the hole and peered in, his worst fears were substantiated. Standing astride the jagged end of a concrete pile, jutting from the ground, stood the largest man the surveyor had ever seen, glaring up at him. He was stripped to the waist, and sweat streaked the grey dust that clung to his body and hair. He wore a moustache that turned, menacingly, downwards at the ends, and tattoos, depicting hate and death themes, covered his large arms. A jack hammer hung toy-like from his right hand.
“‘ow much off this then?” the man snarled up from the hole.
“Hang on a sec’, I’ll tell you.” The surveyor dragged his gaze from the frightening form in the hole and proceeded to set up the level. Luckily he had done a number of these during the day, so he knew what the job entailed. All he had to do was reduce the height of the pile to just below the design level. He couldn’t see it being a problem. A staff appeared and was held on top of the pile by an anonymous member of the group of workers that were standing around the perimeter of the hole.
“About a foot,” the surveyor completed his calculations.
Immediately the jack-hammer came to life, and concrete dust rose up from the hole. Workers, who had finished for the day, began to gather around the hole to watch the big man wrestle with the kicking machine. As suddenly as it had begun, the deafening noise stopped.
“Is tha’ it?” the big man looked up at the surveyor with a pained expression on his face. His breathing was slightly heavier.
The staff appeared again, as if by magic, and the surveyor checked his calculations.
“No, not quite. About another inch.”
More noise, more dust, more wrestling, more sweat. The surveyor watched the display in awe. A skull, tattooed on the man’s arm, appeared to grin up at him.
When the hammer finally came to rest the site seemed strangely quiet. Most of the machines had been turned off for the night, and the only sound came from the compressor that was giving life to the hammer.
The surveyor completed his calculation. Unfortunately, still not quite enough. He looked up to see the big man preparing to leave the hole. He thought he had finished and could probably taste his first beer. Getting him back into the hole would be impossible. He was about to throw the hammer up out of the hole when the surveyor finally blurted out, “Another ten,” but his voice faltered at the critical moment.
The man aborted his throw mid-swing, and the hammer fell to the ground beside him. “What?” he screamed. He turned and glared at the surveyor.
“Another ten,” the surveyor repeated feebly.
“Ten what?” the big man had the pained look on his face again.
“Mil’. Ten mil’.”
They stared at one another for what seemed an eternity for the surveyor. As he waited for a reaction he became aware of the gathering crowd of curious workers around the hole. They were looking for something to talk about, later at the pub, over a “pint”, and it seemed like they were about to get all the material they needed. The big man’s stare was a couple of metres below. A reaction finally came.
“Ten mil’!” he exclaimed. “That’s only that,” he measured the air with a thumb and pointer finger.
The surveyor didn’t need to be reminded what ten millimetres looked like. He had known for some time. But he realized that the time was not quite right to be stressing that point and decided that agreement was, probably, the best form of defence.
“Yeah that’s right, but it has to come off.”
“You tryin’ to wind me oop?” The big man’s voice suddenly became more threatening. “Who’s gunna give a sod about ten flamin’ mil’?”
The skull grinned demonically up at him as though enjoying the confrontation immensely.
The surveyor broke the gaze and looked down at his field book. Should he try and explain why it was so important for the pile to be below the design height. Would it make any difference? They didn’t say anything to prepare him for situations like this in his training. Surveying seemed like a noble, gentleman’s profession; not one driven by fear, aggression, and in this instance, if diplomacy faltered, possible death. He wanted to jump down into the hole and do it himself, but he would be lucky to lift the jack-hammer, let alone control it when it was turned on. He could only hope for a miracle.
The miracle, finally, came with the loud, abrasive, staccato sound of the hammer. He looked up, jubilantly, to see concrete dust, again, swirling up around the big man in the hole, as he hammered into the pile with renewed aggression. His mouth was forming words that, much to the relief of the surveyor, could not be heard over the noise. Even the skull appeared to be scowling. But it didn’t matter now. The ten mil’ was coming off.