Story and drawings by David Hatch
It was 1973. Vietnam was still rolling along. Woodstock was four years in the rearview mirror, Watergate was only an investigation, and the Supreme Court had just decided Roe vs. Wade.
My friends and I graduated from high school that spring and signed on with Todd & Sargent out of Ames, Iowa, our hometown. For the next three summers we journeyed from slip to slip around Iowa.
In slip-form construction, we took–from the ground–a four-foot high honeycomb of wood to 120 feet in a mere seven days. It paid $4 an hour. Fast food was $1.60. I had just set down my mop at McDonald’s in order to learn a lot about slip-form construction.
In the beginning everyone got a little experience at each job. Perhaps it was like what the Navy does on a sub, training each man at each station just in case. I went from pushing a Georgia buggy, to running the concrete hopper, to settling into my saddle as the ground winch operator.
Rain or shine, cold or wet, once the pouring began it did not stop until you hit elevation or an emergency stop for lightning. The crew worked two 12-hour shifts, pouring 24 hours a day. On my first day I received a white hardhat and gloves. It sure beat the paper hat at the Golden Arches.
I clearly remember looking around and seeing something very complex: the work of a busy-bee carpenter who created an enormous, complex configuration of lumber. There were multiple, circular, honeycomb-like sections (tanks) with endless vertical wood slats (forms), and scores of steel (rebar and jackrods) rising six or eight feet like antennas. It was neat, clean, and super-intricate. There was sawdust everywhere!
On the deck with its several features and teams
The Deck–A plywood floor was attached to the forms. This is where the workers would live for the next seven days. It served like the floor on a regular elevator, but slower, in a business building and would go up with you on it. Or consider it like a stretched trampoline canvas with nothing beneath. Good thing we couldn’t look down.
The Pump Shack–On the deck the pump shack housed the hydraulic pumps. From here the hydraulic lines fed oil to the jacks. On many jobs, a father and son from Arkansas were the jacking experts. And experts they had to be. Lose the pump or blow a line, and the jacking could stall, hanging up a form or creating a cold ugly seam on the outside wall.
The Steel Gin Pole and Winch–On the deck was a gin pole with its own electric winch. This brought up vertical and horizontal steel to be laid in the forms, spaced out and tied into place with wire ties. The gin-pole operator also brought up jackrods. These were threaded on the ends. They were about six feet long and perhaps a solid inch or more in diameter. The operator of the steel gin pole stood at an unprotected opening upon the sky. There had to be a gap for the steel to come through. He had a dangerous job. One of my friends ran this gin pole for awhile and recalled almost falling off when he lit his pipe.
The Concrete Hopper and Gin Pole–This gin pole and its operator received the loaded concrete bucket from the ground, dumped its contents into the hopper, and pushed the bucket into open air for free fall back to the ground and refilling. That pattern continued for seven straight days. The gin pole had a swing arm for the operator to bring in and return the bucket. Two pulleys were on the pole, one at top-center, one at the end of this upside down “L.”
The Steel Layers–Some guys were assigned to lay steel, both vertical and horizontal, inside the forms. The concrete was poured over the steel and all of it disappeared as the jacks lifted the deck, two inches a minute, as I recall. Then more steel would be laid, repeatedly and perpetually, until we hit elevation. Without the steel, the wall might succumb to a blowout.
The Jackrodders–These guys went around adding new jackrods where the existing ones were getting shorter and disappearing into the rising form. The jackrods were super-heavy. They had to be threaded onto the top of the other rod, above the jack. These jacks “bit” the rods, lifting and raising the deck in unison around the perimeter. With that, up went the whole structure!
The Concrete Pourer–This stalwart guided a Georgia buggy from the hopper through the narrow track in the formwork. If you pushed all day down Georgia Buggy Boulevard, you never had to join the YMCA.
The Concrete Vibrators–Carrying electric-powered vibrators, they rid the concrete of bubbles inside the forms. A man’s hands got numb, more so than from riding a Harley all day.
Safeway Scaffold Ladder–As the deck went up, new sections were added to the external Safeway ladder system. This was our way up and down. The more days that went by, the higher the ladder.
The Finishers–We never saw these guys from the deck. They stood on a suspended wooden scaffold that went around the perimeter below the deck. With a brush and a bucket of water, they finished the concrete and made it pretty. Around and around they went, never stopping until we hit elevation. Sometimes the blueprint called for a door or window to be dropped into the form at a certain elevation. The finishers would pretty-up the edging around that door or window as it came out of the form. If the door or window was uneven–no changing that.
Part Two tomorrow.
David Hatch was born and raised in Ames, Iowa. Prior to college studies, Pastor Dave worked construction and had hopes of serving in law enforcement until his partial color-blindness prevented that. He did not know what to do with his life. Through God’s Providence and a phone call from his sister, who was a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee, he enrolled in a college where, unknown to him, many of his future classmates were studying to be pastors. He received his education at Concordia College in Milwaukee; Concordia Teacher’s College, River Forest, Ill.; and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. His pastoral career began in 1982, following seminary, when he served as an admissions counselor at Concordia College in Bronxville, N.Y. and parish pastor at Love Lutheran Church outside of Albany, N.Y.