There are horses for courses and one course on which I found the going tough was a building site I worked on during a long hot summer when I was at university. It is not uncommon for students to work on building sites to earn money to keep themselves during their academic year. True. In my case however it would be strange that I should do so and survive intact for the best part of two months. Strange because, although perfectly healthy, I was not physically strong and would not survive for long the rigours of hard labour. I was employed, however, for a different kind of work that put me to the test.
I was an inspector for a firm consulting engineers responsible to the City of London, Ontario, Canada for work done by the building contractors who were erecting an administration building on the site of a large sewage disposal unit, Greenway, outside the city. Sewage from this city of over 400,000 people was treated here. Everything that went in, after it had been treated went out the chimney in smoke or flowed into the local river as pure, crystal clear water. Some years previously, at the official opening, the chief engineer drank a glass of this water to demonstrate how effective the process of purification was. Now an administration building was to be built in the middle of the site.
I had little confidence that I was the man for the job, but the pay was good so I took it. I learned quickly. There were three components to my work. The first was to perform piezometer checks. I needn’t tell you I had never heard the word before and I had no idea what a piezometer was. I have just looked it up in order to be sure that I don’t mis-inform you. ‘A device used to measures liquid pressure in a system by measuring the height to which water rises against gravity, or a device which measures the pressure of groundwater.’ Like a lot of functions that sound complicated, when you come to do them they are not complicated at all so here’s how it worked.
There was a hole in the ground about 100 yards square and twenty feet deep in which the foundations and basement of the administration building were to be constructed. On the surface around the perimeter of this hole, I’m sure ‘excavation’ is a better word, there were about thirty points at which hydrodare piping had been sunk into the ground. These ran down to the subterranean water which was kept at bay by a system of pumps. I had a wooden spool about eighteen inches in diameter around which was wound rubber covered copper wire marked off in feet. The last three or four inches of the wire was bared, exposing the copper core. In the middle of the outside of the spool there was a dial with a needle which was connected to the other end of the wire that was also attached to a battery concealed in the axle of the spool. It was my job to feed the wire down the hydrodare piping and when the copper end hit the water the needle in the dial would jump. When this happened I recorded in my little book the reading in feet from the wire.
Having completed this process for all of the approximately thirty points around the excavation, I would return to the site hut and make a graph of the readings. Never in my wildest dreams when I learned to make graphs in school did I imagine that I would ever have reason to use one. Here I was making them twice a day to ensure that water did not flood a large excavation on a building site in the middle of a sewage disposal unit in Canada. Life is full of surprises. If you persist in order to hear about the rest of my job, don’t despair, it is much less technical and easier to follow.
The second component of my job was to measure and record structure checks. Since the excavation had been dug, cracks appeared in the walls of some buildings nearby. Dabs of red paint had been applied to the widest part of each crack and numbered. Every day I had to measure at this point the width of the cracks, in millimetres, and record them in order to have warning if the buildings were to become unstable or be in danger of collapsing! One of these buildings was a small single room that contained cylinders of poisonous gas. It was kept locked. There were notices in red ‘Danger. Poisonous Gas. Keep Out.’ I used to turn the key, take a deep breath, run in, measure the crack, out again, lock the door and breathe again. I was highly motivated to return home at the end of the summer to continue my studies.
From time to time there were days when concrete was poured. The mixers started to roll at about eight thirty in the morning. Before it was poured the consulting engineer’s inspectors had to ensure that the concrete was not too wet. If too much of it was wetter than it should be the whole pour might be stopped and all hell would break loose. The concrete was checked by means of slump cone tests. A sample of concrete taken from trucks at random was put into a cone on the ground that had the top six inches cut off. The cone was removed and if the concrete slumped more than a certain measurement it was too wet and the truck had to be sent back. This happened with one mixer I checked and the big Italian builder’s foreman shouted at me: ‘do it again, do it again’. I did and it slumped too much for a second time. He lost his reason and began to rant in Italian every second word of which began with ‘f’! I stood my ground. He shouted louder. Rod McDonald, the chief inspector heard the commotion and sauntered over. ‘Everything all right?’ he asked me. I explained. He looked at the small heap of concrete on the ground and then directly at the foreman. In quiet measured tones he said: ‘If Pat says that truck has to go back take it to hell out of her pronto.’ I was never more glad of someone’s support in my life. The foreman went away fuming; shouting and gesticulating as only an angry Italian can. As it transpired I was relieved that it was the only truck I had to reject that day.
After a few weeks I was asked if I would work night shifts. Unused to the daytime heat of a Canadian summer, I was glad of the cooler nights. I had to make two rounds of piezometer checks and keep an eye on things in general. On nights following concrete pours I had to make sure that the contractor’s man on site hosed the concrete to ensure that it wasn’t drying too quickly.
Due in at twelve o’clock, I caught the last bus and arrived on the site at about twenty minutes to midnight. Joe, the contractor’s man, another Italian, rolled in about half past twelve or twenty to one. Immediately he arrived he would get into the back seat of his car and go asleep. If there was no sign of him by about half past one I would bang on the roof of his car. Joe would jump out uttering all kinds of excuses in perfectly understandable broken English and rush off to hose down the concrete or do whatever other work he was supposed to do.
Joe was above all affable. He and I had many a conversation over a cup of tea in the site hut on balmy summer nights. I learned a good deal from him about building sites, the local Italian community and Italy. He even taught me a few words of Italian: Ó capito che dici ‘I know what you’re saying’, a useful phrase for a naive English speaking inspector to know on a building site manned entirely by Italians – even though I didn’t know!