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Men at Work

A Moment with Merritt

I live in a city with growing pains. One square block downtown is under construction with three pieces of yellow Caterpillar track equipment and one heavy-duty blue dump truck, all operated by three men. Their job is cleaning the earth of concrete, metal and asphalt debris.

I sit with a cup of coffee on a gas station curb and study the man pushing sifted earth down into a pit that will house parked cars for the luxury apartments overhead.

Another man sitting in a backhoe booth, delicately scoops a slotted bucket of mixed media and shakes dark soil out of the slots into one pile then dumps the remaining broken concrete, asphalt and tangled iron rods into another pile. Backhoe operators constantly negotiate the inherent risks associated with moving earth and this one moves his equipment as is he’s executing a Viennese waltz. I wonder, Wow, he’s good. What would Merritt think? The air around me stirs.

This gifted man uses his hands or feet to twirl the cab 360 degrees and slither the tracks forward and back leaving textured brushstrokes in the safe zone.

As the piles grow, the backhoe man gently sets the slotted bucket alongside a solid bucket and unhooks one for the other. The dump truck backs in to a place near the backhoe. Its driver waits for three beeps telling him to leave with a full load of debris.

Meanwhile, the pit operator, wearing his hard hat, climbs down from his Caterpillar and up into the third yellow machine to compact the almost black soil in the pit with a roller so heavy it vibrates my body that is sitting across the street.

Why aren’t others watching these skilled technicians honing their craft? A casual glance from walking passersby doesn’t give me the impression they think this is a piece of art in progress. Their quick glances from curiosity or wonderment over the noise generated by falling rocks into the metal truck bed seem insincere gratifications.

On the corner is a sign with an accurate sketch of the completed project. These men are readying a sand canvas for the project’s builders, pile drivers, roofers, plumbers, electricians and painters. When the Caterpillars depart, tall cranes will enter the block to lift and drop building materials into place including tons of flowing wet concrete held in place and strengthened by straight iron rebar.

There will be rejoicing when the cranes leave. Ceremonies will open doors to day-care, health-care, offices and eateries, making downtown more desirable and accessible.

My brother, Merritt, and I grew up watching road construction on long summer car trips from Sarasota, Florida to Remer, Minnesota. Before the interstate system, construction on two-lane roads enlarging to four-lane highways over endless miles of swamps slowed traffic to a crawl allowing us to suck up the chore each piece of equipment performed.

While I liked the roller the best, the scooping backhoe with its long throat caught Merritt’s eye. During high school, he took a job at a landfill with the goal of operating a backhoe. He did that and excelled working with concrete. He left this life at age thirty-six.

And there he was, for a fleeting moment, at my side saying, Don’t cry sister, enjoy the show.

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