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Technology Appreciation Week
July 29, 2010 - 8:45pm

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The Underwater Construction School at the Naval Construction Battalion (Seabee) Center in Port Hueneme, California, offered useful blocks of instruction called "Appreciation Days."

Seabee Underwater Construction Teams have a similar mission to that of Army diving teams I served with, which is why their school was one of several we attended. In addition to combat duties, they too are tasked with

...underwater construction…cutting, welding, grinding, concrete placement, component assembly, system installation, underwater material inspection, precision explosive demolition…seafloor excavation, hydrographic surveys, object search and recovery, and engineering reconnaissance support to amphibious operations. They participate in research and development of new diving techniques/procedures, and are hyperbaric chamber operators and supervisors inside tenders. Projects may include piers, piles, wharves, quay walls, causeways, bridges, boat ramps, moored systems, pipelines, cables, ranges….

In fact the biggest difference between Seabee UCTs and Army dive detachments might have been their slogans. Navy divers claimed: “We Dive the World Over.” Army divers, fewer in number, so perhaps compensating a little, said: “We may not dive the world around, but we’ll go down on your daughter.”

Listen, I know, chancellor: Those people are awful, awful people. I’m just here to bring you the word.

In addition to relying on the technology in modern diving rigs that can be almost astronautical, working divers use digital, hydraulic, pneumatic, explosive, and other tools to accomplish just about anything that can be done topside, but in a more hostile and dangerous work environment.

On [Fill In the Blank] Appreciation Days, Seabee cadre forced us to set certain technologies aside in order to value them more. Hydraulic Appreciation Day meant using the older technology of pneumatic jackhammers to break up concrete underwater. We dressed in scuba, not deep-sea gear, and the compressed air exploding out of the piston port beat the living hell out of our lungs, ear drums and sinuses. Blinded too by bubbles pouring from the hammer, it was easy to grow confused about why we didn’t stay in college.

During Power Tool Appreciation Days we laid a submarine cable used for electricity or communications. The cable, paid out from a barge we moored offshore, had to be armored with cast-iron split pipe not much changed since the 19th-century. Each half-piece of pipe was about 18 inches long and weighed maybe 30 pounds. It had a bell-shaped casting on one end that interlocked with a flange on the other, so the nuts and bolts that held the halves together also married one section of pipe to the next. Bolting them together on the seafloor, by hand, with spud wrenches instead of hydraulic torque wrenches, was monotonous, frigid work. In the surf zone we couldn’t use scuba gear, just masks and weight belts, since the breakers tossed us around like a washing machine.

One exhausted diver I knew, older, whip-lean, and more than six-and-a-half feet tall, left his spud wrench upright on the head of a bolt when he crawled onto the beach to vomit like a sick dog. A wave picked me up and dropped me on my lower back on the pointed end of the wrench; a few inches lower and I’d still be walking like a Creamsicle. I crawled onto the beach then too, and we lay next to each other in the sand, brothers in arms, him throwing up and me cussing him while he did. I’m a bit of a hardhead, so the exercise didn’t really give me a greater respect for power tools than I already had, but it did make me forever wary of people more than six-and-a-half feet tall.

***

We had a birthday picnic recently for Wolfie at New Salem State Park, a reconstructed village where Lincoln worked and lived as a young man. It was 98 degrees with high relative humidity here in the tornado belt; cupcakes melted quickly in the heat. An elderly volunteer was at work in the cooper’s shop, a log cabin as hot as a smokehouse under the sun. He talked to visitors as he cut and bent strips of steel and banded the staves on a milk churn he was making to edify America’s Nintendo youth. He was dressed in period woolen trousers, suspenders, hat, and tie, and his filthy, long-sleeved, linen shirt was so soaked with sweat it was transparent. I’d rather forget what I saw in that dark cabin.

***

I’d been reading Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America (Steidl 2006) before our visit. Some of the subjects in these photo-essays on “sixty representative historic or present American utopias” seem to aspire to live in the technological manner of young Lincoln and his love Ann Rutledge. While I admire several of their projects, what strikes me is that they look precisely as dirty and uncomfortable as the pioneers in photos in the museum at New Salem. Is that really necessary?

***

My mom deflated false romance with gusto. Watching a TV movie she’d point her finger at the grimy hero triumphant after long battles with the wilderness and the indigenous, as he moved in to kiss his betrothed.

“Whooeee, I bet he stinks,” she said. Here was a woman who understood life with little technology.

***

When you think about it, the earth is just covered in dirt. Most of our technologies were invented to distance us from it. This is called neurosis. Once mankind achieved the quest for fire, it immediately began the quest for the vacuum cleaner.

***

Despite the continued heat wave, we decided to go camping last weekend. As a way of building the romance of the adventure for our boys and gaining their cooperation—and perhaps to work myself up for it—I showed them books on camping I’ve held onto since I was a kid. A favorite was First Camping Trip (How to Make It Easier and More Comfortable), written and illustrated by C.B. Colby, “author of First Fish and First Rifle.” The boys on the cover are wearing rolled dungarees and high-top Keds and are carrying bedrolls and pack baskets. The Golden Book of Camping, by William Hillcourt, has wonderful illustrations by Ernest Kurt Barth and some good tips:

Camping with the family is something else again. You probably have a way of living at home that you’ll take to camp with you—with every family member having certain duties to perform. Yet camp will not be the same—you’ll have a chance to relax more than you do at home. Dad may want to get up early a few mornings and take Sonny fishing with him. Mother may want to go wildflower hunting and daughter will want to go along.

Sure. Then we drop in on the Eisenhowers for steaming mugs of Postum and to chat about the Sputnik problem.

Fact is, modern outdoorsmen use lots of technology meant to alleviate inconvenience and discomfort, and I don’t mean RV campers with generators for hi-def TVs, margarita blenders, and electrified paper lanterns strung in the trees. Our hot-dog forks have glow-in-the-dark handles, we discovered, and they are good. Our dome tent is enormous for its low weight, and the mesh windows are high enough under the fly that even when it rains they can be left open in the heat. And god bless Cascade Designs of Seattle, Washington, whose Therma-a-Rest mattresses held air despite being rolled tightly in my basement for 15 years.

We brushed past the deer flies, built a campfire, cooked apple cobbler in a dutch oven, told stories, sang songs, and sweltered, together. I took a long exposure of everyone around the fire with my digital SLR; the puzzling glow that appeared on Starbuck’s face in the photo wasn’t the full moon; it was light from the display screen of his own little camera, which he’d been staring at when my shutter was open.

At bedtime the four of us lay in the stifling tent, soaking in the funk of wet cotton clothes. After brief thrashing the others fell asleep, mercifully, while I dreamed of a cool Waterpik rain shower, 14 glasses of ice water from the in-line fridge dispenser, a handful of Aleve, and my own Perfect Sleeper bed. A front moved through about midnight. I heard wind in the treetops and waited patiently for it to reach us. Finally I slept, fitfully, sharp bones in a heavy wet sack. I woke once more in the dark to rain pattering on the nylon, but mysteriously at dawn there wasn’t even dew on the grass. Five-year old Wolfie was awake too. Instead of waking his brother or racing up, as he’d do at home, he lay on his sleeping bag and stared up at boughs waving in the wind, leaves illuminated by the early light. The sky behind them was blue.

He whispered to no one in particular: Wow. Wow.

 

 

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