Concrete

“Working on the shack.” 

That’s my answer lately if anyone asks what I’m doing. It’s not completely accurate – I do lots of other stuff, but when I’m not wasting time earning a living, I spend a great deal of time thinking about this project.    

I’m on Step Three of what may well be a seventy-four-step process. 

It all started because I had to tear down my Great Grandfather’s barn, but not before I saved the cornerstone with the year “1897” chiseled into the granite. 

After I had that stone safely stowed away, I took a moment to look at the rest of the foundation. Big chunks of fieldstone, squared by hand, with chisel marks still clearly visible. 

Then, on a trip to Norway, we saw dozens of small stone cottages with sod roofs, and I thought, “I could do that.” 

This type of thinking often gets me in trouble. But even a dubious idea can gain momentum pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I was pounding together a concrete form for a 16 x 12 stone cottage. 

I realize that’s not huge, but my skills are limited and it’s still bigger than the claim shack the first Europeans in Big Stone County built. 

I was just dumping the last load of gravel into the form when this thought occurred to me. I haven’t poured concrete in 15 years. 

That’s a long time. A lot can happen in 15 years. 

A lot did happen, much of it to my body. But it was only three yards of concrete – what could go wrong? 

I needed a concrete crew. A half hour of concrete work wouldn’t tempt a professional who already has more than enough work, but my grandchildren are suckers and l lined up the three oldest, in part by telling them that when their mother was their age, she helped shingle our house. 

That story and the offer to pay them lots of money and they were in. Their grandmother offered to help, too, probably so there would be adult supervision. 

More than my body has changed over the years. It seems that not long ago, I could call the concrete plant and say, “This is Brent. Can I get some mud on Thursday?” The answer would be, “Sure. Do you want it at your place or your dad’s?” When I tried to make the same call last week, it was routed to an office, where a person gave me a number to call the dispatcher, who used Google maps to figure out where I lived and offered to have it delivered, as long as I paid in full in advance. 

I was a little discouraged when I hung up, although the twenty-first century often has that effect on me. 

I’ve read that one of the main ways to tell a society is successful is the level of trust, in business as well as other places. When there isn’t trust, it adds so much friction, so much sand in the gears, that everyone is just a little less productive, and as trust diminishes, productivity does as well. 

My favorite example of how trust smooths the way is to describe one of the biggest purchases I ever made. About thirty years ago, I talked to a Caterpillar salesman about a used Cat Challenger tractor. It was a couple years old, but was still almost $100,000, and believe me, in 1990 that was very much real money, at least to me. The tractor was located several hundred miles away and the salesman told me I could come and look at it or take his word that it was in excellent condition. I could have hired a mechanic, driven across the state, took crankcase oil samples and many other precautions. Instead, I took him at his word, saved myself a couple of days, and never regretted it. Would I do the same thing today? Maybe, maybe not.   

I found the “pay in advance” a little disheartening. It’s not like I'd be able to haul the concrete to a pawn shop or skip the country with it. But the plant is no longer locally owned, instead a nationwide conglomerate is calling the shots, and that affects service.   

The guy who delivered the concrete was local – I've known his mama for years – and he was incredibly helpful and competent. The kids did a very good job, and I was able to still do my share of the work, although I paid for it the rest of the day and all through the night. 

All in all, a win. The project is moving forward. I know I’ve lost a step, or two, but there are days I feel like our country has lost more than that. It makes me a little sad. 

Copyright 2022 Brent Olson