I still remember the first time I was aware of a construction project.
I was in second or third grade. To the west of the school, a ravine was being filled in to expand the playground. Behind the ravine was a hillside that went up about 200 feet. First they installed the concrete culvert. Then the scrapers started their work. I remember hanging onto the cyclone fence, watching. The loud throaty engine roar of the big equipment excited me.
But I was also fascinated by the transformation of the ravine into our new playground. It was all a young boy could hope for. More than enough room for several games of kickball, keep away, and dodge ball. Enough room for kids to play.
Today, as a not-so-young man, I still stop and marvel at heavy equipment moving across projects.
At Work on Big Projects
While earning my civil engineering degree at Oregon State, I worked as a field engineer on the wastewater treatment plant in Tracy, California. I remember how the 70-ton crane placed 80 yards of concrete an hour, working two buckets. The bucket never stopped swinging at the concrete pour. When the workman pulled the cord to open the bucket at the concrete truck, he was able to stop the bucket at the downswing just in time so the man at the truck could change buckets. Their grace, coordination, and efficiency left me in awe.
I also worked as a laborer to enlarge the drainage pond at Oakland Airport. We had a Gradal 1000 with five axle carriages, one diesel down and two diesels up. Richard Culter owned and operated that Gradal. He wore a western suit with polished cowboy boots. His rig was just as immaculate. Once he climbed into his machine, the two were inseparable. All he had was the outline of the pond on ground and slope, and away he went. The bucket was about five feet wide, just about enough room to lay down in. Despite the speed of Dick’s digging and the size of the Gradal and the bucket, when Dick was done, the ground was smoother than a man could have achieved with a flat pointed shovel.
On other projects, I’ve taken time from a busy day to watch from afar the draglines gracefully moving the overburden to get to the coal seam at Kayenta & Farmington coal mines. At Stanford’s Linear Accelerator, I’ve watched the 30-ton forklift hooked on to the CAT 988 loaders at the back and front ends, and the 500-ton detector in the middle, all moving as one single piece. I still love those big toys.
Those projects are still there today. My elementary school is almost unchanged. There are a few more buildings, but my playground is still being played on. The wastewater treatment plant at Tracy California is still purifying water. The pump station at the Oakland Airport still pumps away rain. The coal mines have returned the countryside as it was before, and most folks will not notice the difference.
When my kids studied high school physics and the topic turned to quarks, I would tell them, “Quarks were discovered at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. Our job was to complete the project before the Europeans built their accelerator, so American physicists could discover quarks first. And we did.”
Now, that was magic.
I grew up hearing the stories about my Granddad Frolli.
Granddad grew up in the Salinas Valley of California. At 18, he left home to enter the mining engineering program at Stanford University. He and his roommate were in their dormitory when the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake struck. His roommate died while waiting to be rescued. Granddad suffered a broken back. He was taken to the hospital and placed in traction. I can’t imagine his terror of being immobilized during the aftershocks. When his broken back healed, he finished school.
Granddad’s first assignment out of college was at a deep shaft mine in Nicaragua, replacing a mine manager killed by revolutionaries. He boarded a steam ship in San Francisco and headed out through the Golden Gate, when his ship was swamped. So he headed back to San Francisco, testified against the inebriated ship captain, and boarded another steamer. He landed in Nicaragua shortly after the U.S. Marines landed. On this assignment, his tent caught fire with his reference books inside. A young, inexperienced mining engineer without his reference books is as good as no mining engineer. He rushed into the burning tent to save his reference books, and suffered severe burns. As with his broken back, eventually he healed.
Granddad returned from Nicaragua to continue his career in deep shaft gold and silver mining in the Southwest United States. His work took him and his family from gold mines of California to Silver City, New Mexico to Big Bend, Texas. He was working in Mexico when Poncho Villa began his raids, so Granddad sent his family to live in El Paso. He was a mine manager and engineer when the United Mine Workers of America got started and got violent. Along the way, he managed to invent a new gold refining process.
My Granddad Frolli was as tough as the rock he mined.
His daughter, my mother, lived in the gold and silver mines of the Southwest until she was a teenager. At that time, mining towns were like the Wild West, and she was part of it. As a young girl, she would ride alone (western style) into the surrounding wilderness, across country with little flat land. On occasion, she experienced challenges getting back home from a ride.
When my Granddad Frolli was transferred to San Francisco, he felt it was time my mother learned to be respectable young woman. She rode sidesaddle and attended formal dances and secretarial school. (She was not allowed to attend college like her brother.)
Granddad’s efforts showed results on the outside, but inside, mom remained fiercely independent. She married my father, a first-generation Croatian, against her father’s wishes. When my father was drafted for World War II, my mother moved back to Berkeley and started work at UC Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory. One day as the physicists sat cross-legged on the floor in one of the research halls, mom rounded a corner without seeing them and fell into the laps of E.O. Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
When the Manhattan Project began, many staff at Berkeley’s Rad Lab transferred to secret government installations across the country. Mom was no exception. At age 22, she packed her bags and told her family she was moving East. She could reveal little of her plans to her parents and even less to those she met while traveling. During WWII, a single woman traveling alone was looked upon with great suspicion. Mom did not recoil at the challenge.
She excelled in her role at Oakridge Laboratory in Tennessee. Despite many successes in her life, she forever resented not having the opportunity to attend college and launch a professional career.
I met my wife, Marion, my first year in college at Oregon State. We lived in the same dormitory complex, so we ate in the same dining hall. We attended the same pre-calculus and calculus courses our freshman year, and continued bumping into each other over the next four years. We started dating our last year in college. Marion earned a pharmacy degree; I earned an engineering degree.
The following Christmas, I visited Marion at her parent’s farm in Oregon. Marion had nine brothers and sisters. When they got together, they shared stories of growing up. Hoeing weeds in fields of green beans, picking the beans and dragging the beans in a burlap bag when they were still too small to lift the bag. Raking from sunup to sundown during the harvest of filberts and hazelnuts at her grandparents’ and parent’s farms. I witnessed Marion caring for her two bummer lambs, and for her chickens. (Recently, a friend who had bought chickens for fresh eggs asked Marion how old chickens live. Marion’s response: “I don’t know – we never had a chicken die of old age”). I watched Marion hold her baby nieces and nephews, and read to and play games with the older kids.
I moved to New Mexico in 1980, and married Marion in 1982. The next year, I started my business.
Marion is woman of the West: smart and intelligent, fiercely independent, able to work side by side with me. She has helped me pour concrete, deliver equipment, and inspect jobsites.
Our son and three daughters were not raised on a farm, but in the construction business. Like farming, construction is a tough way to earn a living. The hours are long; the weeks are longer. There are opportunities for the owner’s children to work in the family business at a young age.
I still have a newspaper photograph of our three eldest kids raking out the five baseball fields that we constructed. The rakes were much taller than our children. On spring break during high school, our eldest daughter, Audrey and her brother Jim shoveled dirt out the window of a building into our dump truck. Once the dirt was out, they shoveled gravel back in through the same window.
Audrey is now a Physician Assistant in emergency general surgery. Jim has joined me in my construction business. Our second daughter, Grace, is a Physical Therapist. Our youngest daughter, Margaret, is in college. In the past year, I had a heated discussion with one of my daughters. I still remember her words: “You taught us that we could do whatever a man could do.” I stopped, agreed with her, and then supported her in an endeavor fraught with challenges.