Russ Ringsak

Making Smithereens

October 12, 2009

Breakin' rocks in the .. huh ..Bam! — Hot sun
I fought the law and the .. huh ..Bam! — Law won
I fought the law and the .. huh ..Bam! — Law won
I needed money 'cause I .. huh ..Bam! — Had none
I fought the law and the .. huh ..Bam! — Law won
I fought the law and the .. huh ..Bam! — Law won.

There was no hot sun out here last week — not even close — nor fighting the law nor even needing money badly enough to get in trouble for it. There was only the part about breaking rocks.

This farmhouse was built 129 years ago, 1880, and the back steps and sidewalk down to the gravel drive were poured maybe 70 years after that. Sometime back when the icebox was tossed out in favor of an electric refrigerator.

And as of last week the three-riser concrete steps, although pocked and worn, were still sturdy. But they were sliding out of place, moving downhill from the deck. The sidewalk at the base had been through a thousand freeze-thaw cycles, the segments lying around like driftwood. I cleared the sidewalk chunks and dug under the bottom step with a pickaxe and spade, taking out as much underneath support as I could. I approached the stair with an eight-pound sledgehammer, a little wary but keeping in mind the rental yard on the edge of town that had air compressors and jackhammers. I was hoping to not go there.

At the first blow the step bounced the hammerhead straight back into the air with a ringing defiance. It gave me pause but I hit it again and again and somewhere after the tenth blow a slight vertical crack appeared on the face of the riser. I got into a rhythm and that song came in and took over my brain, with the tune's famous stops paced exactly in time to the blows of a grunting old man beating concrete with a sledgehammer.

Robbin' people with a .. huh ..Bam! — Six gun
I fought the law and the .. huh ..Bam! — Law won
I fought the law and the .. huh ..Bam! — Law won.

The rhythm drove me like a the whip of a prison boss. It took a while before the first big corner chunk fractured loose, but when it did it looked like a triangular wedge cracking off an Alaskan glacier.

Aha. I laid siege to it. Fueled by the old Sonny Curtis song I became, for short periods of time, a steam powered pile driver, cracking off fragments and scattering smithereens. There finally emerged at the bottom an old icebox rack, a poor man's reinforcing steel, doggedly holding the lowest remnants together. It would explain how the stair had survived this long.

It took two days, smashing the lower tread first and then the upper, lifting the heavy chunks and shoveling the lesser shards into a John Deere tilting yard trailer. I hauled them into the grove of boxelders separating the main yard from the grassy hill in back, and thought about the guy who had built the forms and mixed the concrete and set the old steel racks in place. Poured it from a wheelbarrow into the wood structure, no doubt, waited for it to settle for a while and then smoothed it off with a trowel.

He must have been proud when it set solid and he stripped the forms off and the family first went up there, up those clean modern steps and sidewalk to the kitchen door. It's still the main entry, as in most farmhouses out here in the midwest, and the white concrete shapes would gradually lose that luster. But the guy who built them would still take notice.

And as proud as he may have been of his stairway I was similarly proud to smash it to smithereens. Wrecking it was a tough job, requiring less finesse than its construction but more brute force. And delivering brute force in one's eighth decade is more satisfying than I expected it could be.

He built it about the same time myself and five other guys built a railroad siding in North Dakota; in the same era that Sonny wrote that tune. It's been recorded at least 40 times since, sometimes with altered lyrics, and by a wide range of singers including the Bobby Fuller Four, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith, the Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Hank Jr., the Sex Pistols, Stray Cats and Waylon Jennings. It's still covered by bar bands across the country. And Mary's Danish did a version that ended up on the sound track of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

The Northern Pacific siding we built with brute force is still there as well, although the railroad is now the BN/ATSF. How many tons of potatoes have been shipped from that spudhouse track only the accountant can tell, but it would be a lot.

We built it using hand tools like short-handled shovels, eighty-five-pound rail jacks and pry bars so big it took two guys to lift them. And of course spike mauls, which are like sledge hammers except the heads are long and tapered so you can drive a spike on the opposite side of the rail from where you stand. They look like nothing you'll find in a hardware store, a straight beefed-up pick axe, and they seemed to be the Devil's own creation.

It was the finesse part of the job and it took considerable practice to perfectly align the downward flight of your skinny hammerhead with the axis of the square spike tapped into the tie. The spikes went through a fishplate, a steel rectangle sittting between rail and tie. It was tricky enough to drive the spike on your own side of the rail without bending it and tougher yet to strike cleanly the one on your partner's side, should you happen to drive your own quicker than he. The square hole in the fishplate fit the spike just barely and the creosote-soaked oaken ties were stubbornly dense. You could not be tentative when you hit that spike. The guys who were good at it could drive it all the way home with four or five swift clean strokes. Bend it a bit with a softer approach and you'll be lucky to get it down in twenty swings. It takes attitude to lay track.

So swinging a big old regular blunt sledgehammer on a stairway is easy work for a once-upon-a-time spike driver. It's a rough nostaglia, that railroading. A laconic hand named Gene Vold commented one blazing hot August afternoon: "Everything on the railroad is heavy." A profound observation, I remember thinking. Even the keys to the tool shed were heavy.

It was a privilege to work on that section gang although it didn't feel like it at the time. Nowadays track is laid by big machines creeping along. More efficient but none of the spirit of a well-oiled track crew.

As for the replacement steps here, a good carpenter came over Friday with a pickup full of tools and treated wood and built them in one day. A job that would have taken me three weeks, or maybe even six months. But I did help. Some.

A friend gave me a book, "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work" by Matthew B. Crawford. The guy is a philosophy grad who started a motorcycle repair shop in an old warehouse in Chicago. Having worked 15 years as a registered architect and then buying a semi tractor I could relate. He makes the case (using just enough big words to verify his Masters degree but not so many as to be off-putting) for returning shop class to the high schools; a premise I agreed with even before reading the work. Personally, I'd take it a step further and return actual and factual history to the schools as well.

It's a good read and is now out on loan to the carpenter who built the back steps. When he finishes it I'll loan it to another carpenter and then to a college-educated plumber I know.

And while we're on the subject of physical toil I cannot help but mention how gushingly pleased I am that the perennially under-achieving football team over there in the city (the one misnamed the Vikings) has acquired the services of the hardest-working and most competent old man in the business and I'm of course speaking here of Mr. Brett Favre. And may he be calamity-free for this season and well beyond.

My own career fantasy plan is to start another bar band and to make sure we do "I Fought the Law and the Law Won."

© R. Ringsak 2009

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