Shovel-ready? Hammer down

In the early 1980s, I worked with a large crew of men to construct the Linn Cove Viaduct. This massively intricate bridge project was a missing link to connect the two halves of the formerly uncompleted Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a long roadway which had begun during the Roosevelt New Deal jobs program in the 1930s; we finally finished the job in the 1980s during the Reagan years. The parkway wound through the Appalachians in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

This is funny, in an ironic way. The bridge’s construction had been initiated by the granddaddy of American Democratic Keynesian Liberal Make-work Jobs programs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt; but its completion almost fifty years later was achieved during the administration of that great uncle of American Conservative Republican Trickle-down FreeMarket productivity, Ronald Reagan. I see some common ground there.

It must have been the presence of a rugged mile-high mountain (called Grandfather) in North Carolina, and a world war, that had prevented completion of the Parkway under the New Deal. But that was ok with me and the several hundred other guys who finished the job back in ’85 or so. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to do the work, and thus provide meat and bread, homes, paid light bills and so forth for our families during those years.

After that job, boy, was I in for a long string of years learning lessons in the school of had knocks. But Pat and I, managed, by God’s grace and all that sweat equity, along with her embarkation on a nursing career, to get the three young’uns raised and off to Duke and Carolina. ‘T’weren’t easy, though.

But I was thinking, this morning, August 6, 2011, about that great public works project in which I played a part back in the day. Although I had been a student of English Literature, Political Science, and cannabis at LSU about a decade earlier, and although I had spent a few years after that selling debit insurance, newspaper classified advertising, and printing, I had drifted into the construction trades because–long story short–I was tired of using my mind instead of my hands. But of course I was yet to learn what “tired” is really all about.

All the current discussion about JobsJobsJobs! got me thinking about this. After hearing Democrats theorize these last few months about the FedFix making jobs, and shovel-ready jobs and infrastructure and why-cant-we-do-it-in-the-road projects like the WPA and like Interstate Highway constructions beginning with Eisenhower and so forth, and after hearing the Republicans wax eloquent about Main Street and balanced budgets and job-creators and free markets and efficiency and productivity and so forth, I woke up this morning thinking about that amazing work we did on Grandfather Mountain to finish the Blue Ridge Parkway, back in the day.

Believe me, it was no “shovel-ready” project. In fact, I’m wondering about this whole idea of shovel-ready, and make-work for the sake of keeping unemployment levels down.

The Linn Cove Viaduct on Grandfather Mountain, about twenty miles from where I live, was an astounding feat of engineering expertise. The design and calculations for that bridge had required, I am quite sure, years of preparation. As a novice steel worker–what they call a “rodbuster” who ties rebars together with steel wire–I had nothing to do with the brains part of the work. And I had nothing to do with the “shovel” part of the work either. I just did my job tieing steel, 40 hours a week, until all 53 segments of the 1/4 mile structure had been assembled and passed along to the concrete crew.

After each of those multi-ton segments had been intricately constructed in steel and concrete, with varying specifications in each segment determined according to each segment’s unique position in the 1/4 mile S-curve–after all that–the huge pieces were taken on even huger trucks out to the bridge site on the side of the rocky mountain. And since there were, in the 1/4-mile length of the bridge, only seven direct-support points, an elaborate system of high-tension cables was strewn through the entire structure as it was being built to keep the thing up in the air.

And a multi-ton crane was driven out onto the cantilevered, epoxy-glued, cable-held roadway-in-mid-air with support at only one end, until seven segments had been erected and the next support structure was reached.

Maybe you didn’t follow all that, but perhaps you will believe me when I say this: what men and women have figured out how to do on the face of this God’s green earth–and what they subsequently do–is amazing, and seems miraculous. Furthermore, as this bridge project was an example of what humans can do in massively intricate works of concrete and steel, consider this:

The nano-projects we undertake beneath the world of electron microscopes and DNA and gene-snipping, and laboring viruses, amino acids, and polymers among the electrons with quarks and neutrinos and so forth is perhaps even more amazing. But I’ll not go there, as if I could.

For general improvement of the human condition, we have a lot of work out there that needs to be done. Its good work, if you can get it. But so much of it, especially these days, is for smart people, skilled people, in this age of pioneering technology. If we can find ways–whether by FedFix make-work infrastructure projects or by MainStreet SmallBusiness, or by some combination thereof, I know not–we can make the employment happen. Perhaps we can make connections between the work that truly needs to be done and those skilled workers who are properly trained to design the work, engineer it, and then do the work, and thus keep unemployment numbers down to reasonable levels.

As for the unskilled folks, I’m not so sure how we’ll keep so many of them busy. We make wisecracks about MickeyD’s and the everybody’s-favorite-store-to-hate-even-as-we-shop-there. But I do know this. Everybody has to eat. And I’m not convinced that it is FedFix’s constitutionally-mandated responsibility to feed all these people, and pay their mortgages and light bills and flat-screen tvs and cellphones and whatnot. Such a massive undertaking is, as they say, unsustainable. Not only that, but its downright socialistic, and counterproductive in terms of inspiring the much-needed innovation and creative systemic improvements.

I suggest its time for unskilled folks to get back to the land. Grow food for yourself, your family, your community, instead of buying it all from bigbox stores that have been supplied by fleets of petroleum-spewing trucks that may be carrying suspect salmonella in their highly-processed payloads. This is advisable for skilled workers and educated people as well, if you have time. You might need to cut down on the tv time.

And while you’re tending the garden, take some time out of the hot sun to do courses at your local community college or university. Thereby, you may learn how to make this nation, and this world, a better place.

Glass Chimera

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