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The Lone Ranger had “Silver,” I had “Gray”

November 20, 2012

Since I’ve never had kids, since I like to build stuff, like houses and sheds and big signs and, as well, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool car nut, I’ve always felt that my personal car configuration is to own a beat up old pickup truck to haul building materials and car parts, and to also own some nifty, little tricked out German or British sports car. For many years I was able to maintain this automobile “dream world” for a modest income guy such as myself. The way I did this was to buy a very strong and stout truck, one where I was constantly pushing its limits, but also being committed to keeping it in tip-top condition with proper maintenance and a healthy respect for its loyalty.

I owned this truck for nearly twenty years. When you opened the doors, the dome light didn’t automatically go on. It had a “high mount” spare tire and there was no chrome anywhere on the body. A car expert friend me that this was a special order truck. These features were not stock, they had to be special ordered from the factory. These especially plain and simple features were usually only ordered by the military but it wasn’t a military truck. My friend figured some retired staff sergeant went to a dealer and ordered this particular vehicle so it would be just like the one he had driven on a military airport or in a camp or fort somewhere here in the “States.” It was painted a dull gray, just off white, and was the very essence of Spartan. It had no frills. It had an engine built for torque, not speed. It had a transmission that could gear down and pull a tank. And I put tires on it that could wade through any huge puddle the Santa Cruz Mountains would put in front of me. This is the newer version of the “orchard trucks” I had grown up with. It was a 1970 Chevrolet C-10 with a four speed stick shift transmission, with a special “granny low” first gear.

This truck, with its dull gray paint job and painted white bumpers, was so plain that it stood out from normal vehicles. I would take it to Santa Cruz for a weekend and the whole town of Los Gatos would later tell me they had seen me there, over the hill, a few days ago. This frustrated me, I like to be anonymous. While I went through a wide variety of sports cars over the years, giving up “Gray” (the name we all gave to the faux-army truck) never entered my mind. I used to tell people to forget the coffin, bury me in Gray when I die. I bought Gray from a used car dealer on Steven’s Creek Auto Row in the early 1980s and kept it until its brakes failed one evening in 2004. It met its demise before I met mine.

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Gray

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While Gray and I had many adventures, a recent conversation about some building skills brought one particular incident to mind. An attorney who live up behind the Lexington reservoir knew of my habit of working on small construction jobs while I was running my computing consultancy. The slamming of nails and the cutting and ripping of big, honking pieces of lumber made for a great, relieving energy for all the stored up frustration, a result of dealing with too many spaced out and unworldly high tech nerds. I considered a few days of construction a month to be very necessary for my mental health. So, this attorney needed some culverts built on his property up on the side of his mountain property. While I had built the forms for many concrete house foundations, I had little experience of doing this open faced concrete work, where some considerable concrete finishing skills were necessary. I told the attorney I’d find one of my more experienced friends to do his work. He told me he wasn’t worried, these were all out in the woods and no one would ever examine them. He just wanted to keep his long driveway from getting flooded and he really liked the work I had done for him in the past. I took on the job, just to play with some concrete work I’d never done before.

The small culverts under some washes and small ravines on the high side of the property weren’t much of a challenge. However, on the down side of the property is where the driveway hooked up with the county road and the County had very specific requirements about what was needed to connect to one of their roads. The attorney had some drawings made up that had been approved by the county and I worked from these old style blueprints. Working on the small drains had given me enough experience to know I was in over my head with this big one. I had some of my concrete buddies come up to check this out and give me some pointers. As I expected, they all said, “no problem, I’ve done this hundreds of times.” But I got them to tell me to make an extra wide footing, as the wall was kinda high. Be sure to reinforce the bracing here and there, and, oh yeah, for the added height, use thicker plywood in the form.

I got enough information to feel fairly confident that I wouldn’t make an idiot out of myself when I started pouring the wet stuff. I built the form and made it sturdy as I could. When I had a few of the concrete guys come up to check things before I started pouring the cement, they laughed at me. They told me this wasn’t a bomb shelter with walls six feet thick. This bolstered my confidence.

The process was that I would start early in morning, hauling a quarter yard of cement up from the rock yard in these special little trailers with special containers mounted onto the trailer’s frame. There were small hydraulic jacks mounted on the tongue of each trailer so that the jack would push up on one end of the container, forcing the liquid concrete to run down a chute at the other end of container. The critical thing was that once you started pouring you had to keep pouring until you filled the form all the way to the top. You couldn’t let any one of the pours sit too long for if it “fired off,” or got too dry, the next pour wouldn’t fuse with the previous pour. Instead of having one big cement wall, you would have two walls, one sitting on top of the other. If this were to happen, it wouldn’t pass the county’s inspection and it would have to broken down and hauled away, to start all over. We figured I’d have to go up and down from the rock yard to the job site five times that day. Gray would be dragging these quarter yards of cement five times that day, all before sunset. It was a little spooky. I was more than confident about driving up Highway 17 five times in a day, but I was also confident that things do go wrong on job sites. I was nervous from the start.

My dad and I are definitely cut from the same cloth. He always liked to get involved in projects where he could learn some new skill or technique. He had spent a few hours helping build forms for the smaller culverts and he wanted to help with the pour. This job took place when I was in my early fifties, Pop nearing 80 and I knew his concrete experience was just about nil. He had one really bad knee and a kinky wrist in his right arm. He could hammer nails into nice, passive plywood forms, but when we were dumping a ton of slimy, unpredictable wet cement, especially into the high, vertical wall here, I wouldn’t have him anywhere near it. He couldn’t move fast enough should something give way. He got all pissed off, the cranky, old jerk. My mom would kill me if he got a scratch on any of my jobs. I told him he could stand on a bump near the pour and be a “spotter” for leaks in this rather complex form, but nothing more. He had to stand clear no matter what happened.

Gray dutifully hauled up the first three pours and I would hurriedly pump the hydraulic pumps to get each pour completed as quickly as possible but, of course, leaks in the form sprang up and I had pre-cut several plywood patches to save time. Still, it took time to climb to the leak, tear off any interfering bracing and secure the patch. As I released the pressure from the jack on the third pour, I looked skyward, it wasn’t even an hour from the mountain’s sunset. Things were not looking good.

Looking up once more, I made a quick decision. I ran the empty trailer down the hill and I told the guys at the rock yard I didn’t want to refill this trailer, I wanted them to mount a half ton trailer to my trailer hitch. The yard guys looked at each other and the older one said “You know that is only a half ton pickup.”

“No,” I said, lying, “It is a full ton.”

I pulled the trailer under the cement loader and as they filled the container, the nose of the truck started leaning upwards. I got out and checked the rear tires, they were a little squashed, the leaf springs were almost straight, straining under the load. Cursing, I wiped the sweat from my brow. It wasn’t there for my labor.

I eased onto the freeway and slowly pushed on the accelerator, listening to every creak and groan in this long, nervous assemblage. As we started up the grade, the motor slowed and heaved, and I gave it a little more gas, ever so carefully, and a little more. We passed the dam face and there was a new consideration to contend with, the down grade, gradual but still there and very long. These half-ton brakes could only slow and stop so much before they heated up and faded away. Traffic was wizzing by and constantly honking at me. I was wiping away lots more sweat not a result of my labor.

I turned off the freeway onto the road that would take us the two miles to the attorney’s house. Everything was happening in a pained slow-motion. With no knowledge of the change in plans, Pop was pacing across the beginning of the driveway, almost out on the road itself. When he saw the twice-size trailer, he stopped in his tracks. As I turned onto the driveway, he stepped aside and as my open window approached him, he took one step towards me then stopped, turning his head a bit, as if to say, “This is some stupid thing I’m famous for.” But he said nothing. I turned my head up at the sun almost touching the ridge line and told him, “Look.” I continued pulling forward and then started positioning the trailer so that the chute of the container (ungraciously call the “tub” by some) was right in the middle of the big form’s top.

As I started backing up to get the chute in the right position to feed the wet cement only into the open form and not everywhere else, I gasped so hard I choked and I slammed on the brake. One last consideration flashed into my head, one thing which had never, ever entered my consciousness, the hump of the driveway! The mountain driveway had a high center which sloped down to the wheel ruts and even further down to the ragged little trenches that paralleled the actual driveway, to drain off the recent rains. I was backing this monstrous load of liquid rock over a cliff. Pop realized this ominous reality at the same instant I had. He was already jumping off his bump and heading up to the truck and trailer. I threw my door open to assess the situation but before I jumped off the running board, it struck me that even just my body weight might be all that was tipping the balance to keep the machines on this side of the cliff. No matter, I had to get off.

The attorney had told me that during rain storms, this little drainage ditch next to the county road, and running under his driveway, could get as deep as eight feet, water flowing at a million miles an hour. He’d have to rebuild this junction of the road and the driveway every few years. Our six foot diameter culvert under the driveway was built to try to avoid this. From the surface of the driveway to the bottom of the drainage ditch was more than a ten foot drop. The top of the culvert wall was about three feet below the driveway. That’s what the cement container’s chute was supposed to be aimed at. The chute still had to come back about another six inches. The problem was that the axle of the trailer had already gone so far back over the fulcrum point of this arrangement that the trailer’s great weight was already threatening to pull itself and the truck down the face of the wall and into the ditch.

Pop was on one side of the machines and I was on the other, we both trying to comprehend what could be done. Pop walked around the front of the truck carrying a piece of four inch by four inch redwood lumber. As he was speaking to me, the truck lurched, just microscopically, but a tiny piece of rock stung me in the cheek. I got the full picture now, the truck was right on the verge of sliding down, little by little the dust of the driveway was giving way under the great pressure. Everything was sliding, ever so slowly, in fits and spurts, through the dust. Pop’s chock wouldn’t work because it would be sitting in the dust as well, it had no traction. I flashed on having Pop put his little car in front of the truck and lash them together to add more resistance to the snake of metal, but that would take too long. My eyes were darting here and there trying to come up with a way to add more resistance, to stop the sliding and I came up with nothing.

The truck lurched once more, but this time it slid a couple of inches in the dust before it stopped. Both of us jumped clear, our hearts racing, our figures frozen. My eyes are scanning and scanning, looking for a solution and there was none. But, wait, the jack, the trailer’s jack, . . . weight. I could pump the jack and release some cement and lessen the weight of the trailer. No sooner did the thought enter my head than I scampered to the jack, barking at Pop to get way back and stand very clear of this mess. I found the handle to the jack and inserted it into its fitting and started pumping like a maniac. Every time the truck did a micro-slide, I’d fling myself clear but instantly spring up and go right back to the jack. It took forever for me to hear the first of the wet cement slop itself into the form. I just kept flailing that jack handle. Pretty soon the dribs and drabs of falling cement turned into a torrent. I could hear nails bending and wood cracking but I just kept up the frantic pumping on the jack.

I discovered that I was pumping to no avail. The jack had reached its limit. It had gone as far as it was going to go. The tub holding the cement was as high as it was going to go, resting at a high angle to its trailer. There was some little bits of cement hanging to the inside of the tub but 90% of it was down in the form. I climbed off the trailer in a soaking wet t-shirt.

Pop walked over, rolling his eyes and we silently walked around the front of the truck and down to the county road to get a good, clear view of what had happened. Several of the really long 2 X 4 braces holding up the top of the form were bowed from the unexpected rush of pressure, but they still held. The top of the form would have a bulge in it. A few of the slats covering the seams of the plywood had popped off and there was a few leaks of the gravely cement which had slopped out but nothing major. There was a lot of cement where there shouldn’t have been any, in a perfect world, but there was more than enough where there was supposed to be cement. In the end, mission accomplished.

I pulled out a monster rope I kept under Gray’s seat and had Pop park his car next to my truck. I tied off one end to the empty trailer and the other to the little car and pulled out all the slack. I unhitched the trailer from the truck and started Gray’s motor and pulled it up to a place high and dry on the driveway. I got a shovel and cleaned the stubborn cement from inside the trailer’s tub and lowered it. We used the little car to pull the trailer from the precipice. The sun had set and dark comes on fast when in the mountains.

I got the trailer back to the rockery before it closed and I had my dad follow me to Number One Broadway. For the first time ever, I bought my Pop enough drinks to get him a little potted. We both needed it.  He stayed up late that night and told us stories of old 1930s Chicago, his home town before Almaden.

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