John Dembowski – A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Wed, 06 Feb 2019 18:35:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 John Dembowski – 32 32 Something Concrete Fri, 28 Aug 2009 23:18:54 +0000

SOG concrete pix001It’s 5:37 pm, the second time today I have seen that number on the half atomic clock/half weather station perched on the left corner of my desk in the site office. It’s been a long day, and there are a couple of hours yet to go before I can unplug the laptop, turn off the lights, lock the doors, and chain the gates to start the trip to the house.

I was in slightly earlier than usual today to check the weather radar, doing my best Jim Cantore impersonation, deciphering the swirls in the bands of rain coming in a pincer move from the Gulf off of Panama City and from off the Atlantic near Saint Marys. Today was Concrete Day on the site, a major, critical pour that we have spent months preparing for. Rain has a tendency to screw up Concrete Day.

As the boots-on-the-ground guy, the go/no go decision is my call. The weather report is no help with its 50% prediction. Hell, I could get that with the flip of a coin, a roll of the dice, or any number of     other euphemisms for neutral odds. So I study the radar again, check the hour-by-hour forecast. As best as I can figure, it may begin to rain here around 2 pm.

I call John at the concrete batching plant, where there is a room full of concrete truck drivers drinking coffee and anxious to know what direction they’ll be heading. I have never met John face-to-face and wouldn’t know him from Adam if we walked past each other at the county fair, but I have talked to him on the phone regularly for nearly fifteen years. John is holding every other job that wants concrete today at arm’s length, waiting to hear from me. I give John the message Gil Favors style. “Head ‘em up, mooo-ve ‘em out!”

From outside, I can hear the concrete pump truck pulling onto the site. It’s James at the wheel. He has driven down from Hampton, and in the early morning darkness the high beams of his rig are the only light on the site. He’s 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and I’m glad to see that it’s James. This building is full of columns, and James is an artist with a 31-meter boom. I know I’m in good hands, that I won’t have to worry about him beating up the columns as he pulls the boom in and out, weaving at odd angles to get maximum output from each move. This will free me up to pay more attention to the concrete finishers.

It’s first light out, and the concrete is rolling toward the site. I mentally review the checklist: Pump? Check! Concrete? Check! Finishers? Finishers? Where in blazes are the finishers? Finally, they show up with minutes to spare, fifteen of them spilling out of two trucks, like clowns out of a little car at the circus. When the first two trucks of concrete turn in, the traditional shout goes out. “Thar’ she blows!” The finishers haven’t even pulled their boots on yet.

It’s not an easy pour. The architects and engineers have exercised full design license. The building is arc-shaped, and it’s been…well, a few years… since my last high school geometry class. The interior walls are in concentric arcs that mimic the exterior shape. Walls perpendicular to those are splayed on a radius from a centerpoint 295 feet away from the building. Figuring out where walls will be after the concrete has been placed, so that electrical conduits and plumbing piping will wind up actually in the walls, has been a workout for the old noggin. Toss in varying geometric multiplexes of slopes to floor drains in what will one day be a kitchen area, painstakingly situated and prepared. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen. It’s labor intensive, the finishers are beginning to flag, and I covertly signal James to keep pushing the concrete at them. No rest for the weary, not with rain closing in.

Seven hours and 203 cubic yards of concrete later, the last drop of concrete tumbles down the chute just as the first drops of rain tumble down from the sky. The pour is so big that the first half has been troweled and finished and is “walkable” when this happens. The remainder is just a waiting game, a chemical reaction driven by time, temperature, and humidity.

I call Vanessa to let her know I’ll be late, so she won’t worry. Yes, I’m still here. No, I don’t know when I’ll get to leave, hopefully soon. No, don’t wait on me to eat. Yes, I’ll call you as I’m leaving so you’ll know.

I am blessed to have convinced her that I was worth marrying. I am blessed that she understands and allows me this one mistress, understands that what I do and what it requires is part and parcel of who I am, blessed that she rescued me from myself in my reckless days. Her understanding grounds me, and gives me something concrete to hold onto.

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Squishing Gnats Wed, 22 Jul 2009 19:43:19 +0000

Truck002There are thumbprints on the inside of my windshield. Not in the middle, not down by the dashboard, but up top, where the visor would fold down to block the glare of the sun. I don’t know why, but that is precisely where the gnats like to congregate.

We live in middle Georgia, blessedly at this time ever so slightly north of the legendary and dreaded “Gnat Line.” One has to be careful about geographic bragging when in such close proximity, because the gnat line is a living, breathing thing, taken to moving capriciously based on totally uncontrollable whims of climate and wind.

Over the past few decades, though, it seems to me that the gnat line has generally wafted more to the south, to the point that my boyhood home and the former farm land that my current niche of suburbia is carved from are no longer subject to the constant source of annoyance that I remember covering my bicycle road rash like a living, convulsing BandAid.

When I was a boy, waiting for Mr. Hines to come honking down Wallace Drive in his truck laden with fresh vegetables and the promise of a free piece of penny candy while mama checked out the peas and squash (and – maybe! – a loaf of Mrs. Hines’ homemade pound cake), the gnats seemed much thicker. And that was well north of where our stakes are now hammered down.

At some unknown point on the sixteen-mile drive southwest on GA Highway 96 into Peach County in the morning, I cross the line. Because I can see my truck from anywhere on my current construction site, I leave the windows rolled down so it’s not hot inside when I finally get to leave for the day.  At some point between lunch and the leaving, gnats invade my truck.

So, off I go toward home, reviewing the day gone by and the plans for the next in my mind.  Somewhere around the second peach orchard, where the old farm truck has been retired to the shade of the shed attached to an old barn, the gnats catch my attention. No attempt to wave them out the open window is successful. Gnats, it seems, have no sense of location, no longing to be free, no gnat family waiting for Pops to make it home so that gnat supper can be served. And I can’t take them home with me, since that would risk them thinking that my own environs would make a dandy place to set up housekeeping. So as I drive, I steal glances away from the road, try to hone in on their locations, and stab at them with my thumb.

It turns out that gnats are more nimble than you’d think, and I am rarely successful in my attempts to eradicate my unwanted hitchhikers.

One learns young in these parts the critical techniques for what attempts to pass as personal gnat control.

There is, of course waving and swatting, which will grant you about three nanoseconds of relief. More effective and in the same vein is the funeral home fan, cousin to the church fan. These were designed for the old ladies when they took a break from housework to sit on the porch in the early afternoon before the soap operas started and Douglas Edwards gave us the afternoon news, or in the evening after supper dishes had been washed and put away. I know you newcomers (read: “Yankees”) and other smartasses in Atlanta will find any of several concepts in that last sentence arcane. I can tell you with a straight face and in full earnestness that you have not truly experienced life in the south to its fullest until you’ve made a trip to the local funeral home specifically to pick up a fan or two for use to dispatch gnats from your personal space.

The next progressive step is the vertical air burst, executed by pulling your top lip in and poking your bottom lip out to form a cup that forces expelled air upward, washing over your face. Making a noise while doing so is optional, some variant of “phew!” being most usual, and acceptable in polite company as well.

Of course, insect repellant remains the ultimate weapon against the flying peskies. When we were kids and didn’t know DEET from Shine-ola, before American industry discovered how to can aerosol, there was always the trusty metal tube of 6/12. As our collective social consciousness moves away from better living through chemicals, herbal repellants are the latest trend and rage. I know a woman south of Brunswick who mixes an all natural concoction in her wash sink that fares effectively not only against gnats, but also the dreaded coastal sand flea. She refuses to reveal the ingredients, and it at least doesn’t carry the telltale scent of eau de gasoline.

One day soon, I will need to clean the inside of my windshield. The combination of the exhaled smoke of too many cigarettes, the salty residue of the juice sometimes squirted from the Vidalia Jumbo boiled peanuts, and the thumbprints from trying to squish gnats is beginning to obscure my view.

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Mowing the lawn: I learned from my Father Fri, 19 Jun 2009 23:07:19 +0000

910-drew-mowing-the-lawnAh, summer!  Time for swimming, fishing, and vacations at the shore.  And, alas, when your lawn seemingly begins to re-sprout immediately in your lawnmower’s wake.

Everything I know about mowing the lawn I learned from my father.  Unfortunately for me, his leading inspiration was the grounds of Augusta National.

Knowing that, you can perhaps understand when I point out that there is a distinction between “cutting the grass” and “mowing the lawn.”  The former is merely inane labor, meant for the uncaring and uninformed masses, while the latter is visceral and thoughtful, nothing short of art, with a Briggs and Stratton engine powering the brush.

My dad was realist enough to know that the scraggly run-of-the-mill Bermuda grass eking out a tedious survival in the hard red clay soil of sun-baked middle Georgia, grass that never saw hydro-assistance short of what the Good Lord deemed to send its way — this grass was never going to look like a green at the Amen Corner.  But, by God and “amen,” it could indeed be mown to give a hint of the look of a fairway!

The technique for this was relatively simple. Your first cutting swath had to be arrow-straight, accomplished by setting your eye on a point in the distance, aiming the left front wheel of the mower to that point, and never blinking as you moved with unwavering step to that point with the mower a’roar.  Then, you turned the mower and, with caution and purpose, put the wheel exactly in the imprint left by the wheel from the first pass, and went the other direction.  Repeat until finished.

You must remember, this was in the days before zero turn radius behemoth lawn tractors with self-adjusting terrain responsive cutting decks, cup holders, umbrellas, 60-plus inch cutting widths, and mulching blades awhirl.  Oh, no!  This was done with a 22-inch flat deck, side discharge push mower with 5-inch wheels, purchased at Western Auto for the princely sum of around $25.

Then, one day, there appeared the Yazoo Lawnmower, with the requisite 5-inch wheels on the front, but with the technological advancement of the ages, big 12-inch wire spoke wheels on the rear.  And a price tag to match.  Thankfully, it wasn’t very long before Western Auto began to carry a knockoff, but even one of those bad boys was going to set you back at least 45 bucks!  And I wanted one.  Dad wasn’t going to come off of the hip, but he said I was welcome to buy one for my own if I wanted.  I had been saving my earnings from my paper routes – Macon Telegraph in the morning and Macon News in the afternoon – and summer was approaching.  I could recoup my expenses and be turning a profit well before the recall to school just after Labor Day.

Thus began my many-summered career of grass cutting.  Yes, you read that correctly.  For, while my parents’ lawn was to be mowed, other people simply had grass that needed to be cut.  They weren’t interested in my artistic abilities; they just wanted to be able to see where I had thrown their morning or afternoon paper. Seventy-five cents would get your front yard cut, and another seventy-five would cover your back yard.  Tall grass didn’t matter because I had a “big wheel” mower.  Dad insisted I buy my own gas for the mower, since it was my show.  Plus, he got his lawn mowed for free, always to produce the prescribed “fairway cut.”  Even when we moved into a house with a yard a half city block long.  You could see the cut lines for a long time coming down the street from either direction, and they had to be perfect.

The years passed, and except for my parents’ lawn and the summer when my Dad “contracted” me to mow the lawn at Mr. Gillespie’s house, I abandoned my nascent lawn service.  Cars and girls intervened, and the job at the soda fountain of the Miller Hills Pharmacy negated my need to make my money at the handle of a lawnmower.  College and life in general afterward completed the break, although when I once found myself briefly between jobs, I managed to embarrass my kids into hysteria when I mowed lawns in the neighborhood to make ends meet for a couple of weeks.

I was fortunate to marry well the second time around.  “Well” in this case translates to, “I married a woman who will mow the lawn while I am at work.”  You’ve just gotta love a woman like that!

Then it happened.  We moved to Brunswick, and after one complete, brutal summer behind a push mower on a lawn considerably larger than the one we had left behind, we committed sin.  In deference to the coastal heat – and to age — we bought a lawn tractor.  This caused in an evolutionary and irreversible shift in the alignment of the planets.

Our lawn tractor was the last of a line of reasonably priced mowers being pushed off of the product offering list by Home Depot in order to make way for the high-dollar John Deere and ZTR mowers.  It cannot be anything but cosmic coincidence that Home Depot’s stock began to plummet shortly afterward.

Because our mower does not turn on a dime, we have discovered the art of what we’ve come to call “contour mowing,” a rational geometric dynamic wherein the limits of the mower’s turning radius and the ever-decreasing concentric mass of the grass remaining to be mowed, plus trees and flower beds to be circumvented, determines the pattern of the mowing.  And there is a sublime bonus.  Because, to turn the mower we sometimes have to cut at angles to already mowed grass, we have stumbled upon “pattern mowing,” like that evident in major sports venues.  I am convinced that were I able to float over my house in the Goodyear blimp — or at least to climb to the ridge of my neighbor’s roof — I’d see something that rivals even the best abilities of the groundskeepers at The Ted.

My Dad would be so proud.

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A few good words for public broadcasting Thu, 11 Jun 2009 00:51:14 +0000

wgtvThis past year, I had occasion by virtue of employment to visit almost all of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s radio and television transmission tower sites.  Digital broadcasting was approaching with a full head of steam, and all of the transmitter sites would require upgrades to air conditioning and electrical circuitry in order to make the new equipment hum.  Our assignment was to facilitate and oversee that work.

The first thing I learned was that, while the address sheet noted that the transmitters were located in mainly rural towns, the transmitter sites were actually wa-a-a-a-y out of the listed towns.  There is a reason for this.  It is called a broadcast antennae tower.  These are located so that, should one of these ever have occasion to topple, it is located so far from anything that, when it hits the ground, those who do happen to live in the vicinity can still say, “What the hell was that?”

These towers are generally in the neighborhood of 1000 feet tall, and of metallic construction.  This is a perfect combination to attract more than a fair share of lightning from near and far, followed less than immediately by that bones-rattling roil of excited air called thunder.  Once, in Cochran, our electrician had literally just taken his hand off of a copper tube that ran the full height of the tower from the transmitter when the tower was struck.  His relief in knowing that the tower was well grounded was only mildly tempered when the site engineer bopped into the room and excitedly announced, “Boys, now that’s what we call a direct hit to the tower!”

The second thing I learned is that, despite living here all my life and being full of pride about my State and my knowledge and travel of it, there are areas of Georgia that I never knew existed outside of interstate exit signs.  You can have no appreciation of city living until you have been to Pelham, Pembroke, or Fort Gaines, or have traveled the roads necessary to get to those places.  You have not seen Georgia’s mountains until you have been to Fort Mountain outside of Chatsworth.  My wife and I honeymooned there, and we vacationed there occasionally with and without the kids, so I already knew it well. It has only improved over time, with one possible exception – they now have television in the cabins.

img_4412On the way to Fort Mountain from Atlanta, you simply must make it a point to eat lunch at the Road Kill Café in White.  Even if you didn’t like the food (but you will), how could you possibly pass up the photo-op of having your picture taken while standing in front of their sign?

Another thing.  Despite now being full of spanking new state-of-the-art equipment, most of these facilities are really old and showing their age.  Most were built in the early 1960’s when public television was in its infancy, way back when we used to call it “Educational TV.”  With the exception of the extraordinary art deco style building at Warm Springs and one or two others, there were any number of them that I could not believe we were rehabbing, instead of running a bulldozer through them and starting over from scratch.  Something must be done about this.  I’m enough of a realist to know there’s no way that’s going to happen anytime soon, but it’s a crying shame that we can’t do better than these dilapidated structures to house facilities that are serving our State so well.

The people who staff these facilities are truly marvelous characters.  They don’t make a busload of money – any of them could be making much more in the private sector performing the same duties.  Before the digital equipment arrived, they were holding things together and keeping things up and running with a good dose of ingenuity, scavenged parts, duct tape, wire jumpers, and answered prayers.  Thanks to credit card commercials and web takeoffs on them, the word “priceless” has become overused, but I will tell you plainly that the dedication of these people is truly priceless.  So, when you’re sitting in your media room or riding Georgia’s highways enjoying a favorite GPB program, think of the people who have made it happen and whisper a little prayer of your own; “Thanks!”

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