Thursday, September 8, 2011

This Got Me To Thinking

Just the other day at work, I was talking about my first deployment in the military. Then, I see this piece over at Weer'ds place, which got me to thinking about that deployment all over again.

See, in 1995, the US was in serious face-saving mode in Central America. It seems that we had supported the federal government in El Salvador for the first 9 yrs of their 12 yr civil war, and the rebels the last 3.

So in an effort to make nice with the locals, we were tasked to deploy down to San Miguel, El Salvador to assist in building a couple of schools in the area. What we found out when we got down there was the town we would be working in was a former stronghold for the FMLN, the rebel group that fought the federal government down there. I mean it stands to reason that we were in their old backyard, considering the was FMLN graffiti everywhere.

Anyway, what got me to reminiscing was the subject of the linked post, US military placed in harms way un/under armed. See, in the area were going there was technically still some activity, a couple of months before we got there, the rebels had shot down a UH-1 helicopter carrying some important muckety-muck, so because of this, the UH-1 was not allowed to fly.

So in to this mix we go. 30 Air Force Engineers with a couple of small towed concrete mixers, a Bobcat with a backhoe attachment, and all the assorted hand tools a bunch of guys could use to work concrete, cinder block, and assorted other implements for maintaining a base camp and doing construction work. Oh, and 30 M16A1s. And only 300 rds of ammunition for the entire 30 man team. (As an interesting aside, we weren't allowed to open the caskets containing our weapons unless the fit really hit the shan.) Our counterparts in the ES Air Force routinely carried at least 300 rds......EACH, just to put that into perspective.

Anyway, when we arrived on our job site, we were 3 weeks behind schedule. None of the preliminary work was completed by the previous team. Meaning we had to clear the site, dig the footers, and get started on a semi-permanent latrine. (More on that in a bit.)

As a pavements and construction equipment guy, my job normally would have been to run the equipment to help clear the site and dig the footers, but since this was an Army-led project and deployment, we had to wait on them to bring in the front end loaders and the dump truck to get rid of all the crap we cleaned up.

In the mean time, there was that latrine that needed built. The location for this dig was in back of the existing school, right next to the old latrine. The only prep work done when we arrived was the cutting down of an old oak tree to make room for the new potty-box. Using tow straps, a handy man jack, a hydraulic jack and a lot of man power, we succeeded in removing the stump and getting to digging. For the next week or so, I got to ramrod digging a latrine that was 4 feet wide, 14 feet long, and 9 feet deep. Let me tell you, working in a 9 foot deep hole in sub tropical heat, even if it was the 'dry' season, made for some sweaty work. As we got deeper in the hole, the time we could spend in it got shorter and shorter. It was during this project I found out I could throw a shovel full of dirt 12 feet over my head and about 15 feet out.

What the wonder brains in the Corps of Engineers designed for us on this latrine was a hole in the ground lined with cinder block. Only, they had the block laid in in rows instead of staggered like every other brick wall in the world. Nobody ever said Big-Brained Engineers were smart, right?

Well any way, as the lone pavements guy in this side project, it fell to me to mix up the mortar for the block. Something I'd never undertook before. Let's face it, in the States, when in comes to mixing any kind of concrete, it's just phone call away, right?

I did such a good job with the mortar, I was put in charge of running the mixers when we got to really pouring concrete on the main job.

By the time we had the latrine dug, the rest of the project was caught up. So it was all hands on deck to pour concrete. What we found out was that there was distinct lack of river sand for our concrete. So we had to improvise. During the digging of the latrine, we had a couple of folks who didn't really have the skills for anything else working a sifting screen. All of the rock we had available to us was lava rock. So they sat for days, with a spade and some window screen, sifting all the volcanic rock to get us enough fines to mix with our portland.

So since I was the man on the mixer, I was dared by the LT on the project. The dare was that there was no way a 2-inch slump could be achieved in a portable mixer. He was right. I couldn't mix a 2" slump in a portable mixer. I did 1.5" instead. And to really get his goat, we did a field strength test on the cone of crete I mixed up, which consisted of picking up the cone and dropping it on a piece of granite. The results? I chipped the edge of the cone and actually broke the aggregate in the test piece.

The day we started pouring 'crete, we had 2 1/4 cubic yard and one 1/3 CY portable mixers to work with. Did I mention the Army in all this was worthless? They had an M-series concrete truck at camp that sat there the whole time. The crew did nothing. So we had to basically mix 50 CY of concrete in 3 portable mixers. And once you start, you can't stop until the job's done. So that's what we did. Wheel barrow after wheel barrow. The next day, we did the same thing, only this time we were pouring the floors. In 2 days we poured 150 CY of concrete.

Remember those fines we used in place of river sand in our concrete? Yeah, after we poured the pads, we had to go back and do the finish work on all that concrete. It was the most amazing thing. You could kick over a 5-gallon bucket of water and watch it disappear in less than 5 minutes into the pad. W were always having water hauled over to keep our areas wet while we worked the paste to get everything finished up.

When we arrived at that job site, we were 3 weeks behind. When we left 37 days later, we were almost a month ahead of schedule. During that trip, I learned some interesting stuff like how to lay cinder block walls. And I learned that never, under any circumstances, put Air Force Engineers in a base camp where farm animals are located with any spray paint.