Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 11

Driving the dump truck didn’t mean just sitting around – there was plenty of work for one of them to do on the ground while the other one chewed away at the pile with the loader on the backhoe. Sometimes the loader bucket wasn’t enough, and they’d have to swing the machine around so they could claw at the pile with the backhoe bucket, just to loosen things up a little.

Right from the beginning they could see that the tree was going to be a big problem, mostly because it was well beyond the capacity of the relatively small machine to handle. In driving around town later in the week they saw some big equipment that could have picked it up and moved it in one bite, but those were already busy doing something else at the time, and Jim didn’t feel like he should even ask.

The only way they were going to be able to deal with the tree by themselves was to cut it into manageable sizes, which was why they’d brought the chainsaw. Even as Bob started on the second load for the dump truck, Jim hiked over to the pickup and was soon chewing away at parts of the tree he could get to. It was clearly going to be a big job, with the tree having to be cut into many pieces.

They got a good start on the mess that morning, although there was still going to be a lot of work. With every load that got hauled over to the collection station, Jim was amazed that he’d even thought about trying to do this job by hand, by himself. It wasn’t going to be a quick job even with the backhoe and dump truck.

They worked steadily, cleaning back toward the trunk of the downed tree. As they did, it became clear that it was going to have to come out a little at a time since it apparently was resting on the debris pile, not just stuff that water had washed up under it. When one of them wasn’t driving the dump truck, they took the chainsaw and cut away at it, starting down as close to the root ball as they could get. Even then, they had to cut big notches out of the tree, since the trunk was wider than the length of the bar of the chainsaw, so it was a slow process.

As they worked, time got away from them. Neither bothered to look at their watches until it was well after noon. Finally, Bob idled the backhoe and said, “You know, Jim, we ought to think about getting some lunch.”

“Might not be a bad idea,” Jim said from the pile of debris he was standing on to cut away at the tree. “I’m still a ways from getting through this, and I could stand a break. I guess we could go dig through the collection of cans in the camper.”

“We could do that,” Bob replied as he shut down the backhoe. “But I was thinking that maybe we could go down to that volunteer food tent we passed by.”

“I suppose we could. Whatever they have, it’s got to be better than just something out of a can.”

In a few minutes, they were in the camper and driving the few blocks to the volunteer food tent they’d seen earlier. It proved to be run by a church group, which they didn’t mind, and while the menu was limited, the food was good. They each got a plateful of stew and beans, along with a cup of coffee and sat down at one of the tables.

“I tell you what,” Bob shook his head, “I still can’t believe you even thought about doing that job by hand, by yourself.”

“Makes me wonder what I was thinking of,” Jim agreed. “It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for that tree, but that is just going to be one big pain in the ass. Even when we get that stump and root ball cut off I’m not sure how we’re going to get it on the truck.”

“We can take the tailgate off and try to get it in then,” Bob said. “If we can get under it right we might be able to raise the box and sort of slide it up in there.”

“I don’t know,” Jim shook his head. “Worth a try, I guess. If we can’t get it, let’s just get the chain on it and drag it to the collection point with the backhoe.”

While they ate, they talked with a few of the volunteers sitting nearby, having their own lunches. There were several close by, members of a church group from Ohio, who were taking a week to help out – some of them had been down here two or three times. “It’s getting better slowly,” one of them said. “Back in September it was a lot worse than it is now.”

Jim and Bob got the impression that actual construction experience was a little on the thin side among the group members, but were impressed that people had taken the time to come down and help out. “Crap,” Bob said while they were on the way back to the lot, “we could have been down here a month ago instead of sitting around the Pike, sucking coffee and playing gin.”

“Yeah, but there’s a big difference between thinking about it and having a specific job to do,” Jim agreed. “But let’s face it, if it weren’t for my aunt and uncle that’s exactly what we’d be doing anyway.”

The sun was going down before they finally got the stump free from the rest of the tree. Using the loader bucket it was only the work of minutes to get the tailgate off the dump truck, but getting the stump up into the box strained the limits of the backhoe – and their ingenuity. Finally, when they were done, the stump and root ball were sitting in the truck where it could be hauled off.

Jim pulled the backhoe away from the truck, shut it down, and put the key in his pocket. “I don’t know about you,” he said. “But as far as I’m concerned, that makes it a day.”

“Yeah, there really isn’t all that much we could be doing in the dark,” Bob agreed. “When we cut up the rest of that thing we’re just going to have to make sure we keep it in pieces we can handle a little more easily.”

“Yeah, at least it slims down enough that we ought to be able to make the cut a lot more easily. What do you say we haul this thing over to the collection point to get it out of our faces, then swing by the food tent and see if we can cadge some dinner?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

This time, they both rode in the dump truck. The guy at the entrance was still there, and asked what they had. “All wood, and some dirt,” Bob told him. “Just one big damn stump, so there’s nothing to sort through.”

The guy glanced up at the root ball, much of which was hanging out over the sides of the truck. “Yeah, that’s a big potlicker all right,” he said. “That wasn’t from the site you’re clearing off, was it?”

“I don’t think so,” Jim told him. “At least I haven’t seen any holes the size of that root structure around anywhere close by. It’s sure hard to think that it washed into place, but it must have.”

“I wasn’t here then, thank God,” the guy said. “But when you’ve got water thirty feet deep coming in that hard with all that wind behind it, it’s hard to believe that there’s as much left in this town as there is.”

The free dinner at the volunteer food tent was plain, but good – beef and noodles, with some kind of tangy but unidentifiable sauce – good food to work on, both of them agreed. They were just finishing up their coffee when it became clear that the workers at the food tent were getting set up for some kind of evening religious service, and someone mentioned that they did it every night.

“Hell with that,” Bob said. “Maybe we’d better blow this pop stand while we have the chance.”

“I can go along with that,” Jim agreed.

In a few minutes they were heading back out to the site in the dump truck. “Damn, I hate to turn in this soon,” Bob said. “What do you say we hop in the pickup, run back out to that truck stop where we were this morning, and see if we can get some beer and ice? I wouldn’t mind a cold one or two to end the day.”

“I’m not going to argue with you on that one. But I’ll tell you what, I was thinking today that with all the loose wood, we ought to be able to burn some of it in a campfire. I mean, since we’re sort of camping out and all.”

“Sounds good,” Bob agreed.

It took them an hour to make the beer run and get a fire going out of odd pieces of scrap they found using the headlights of the pickup. Over the course of the day Jim had noticed a couple lawn chairs mixed into the big pile of debris, and he was able to dig them out so they could sit on them. One was a little wobbly, but it was better than sitting on the ground.

The fire was still growing as they settled in, beers in their hands. “I’ll tell you what,” Bob said. “We’re going to be more than a couple days on this. That tree is really going to slow things down. I sure wish we’d brought the bigger backhoe now.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I wasn’t thinking it was quite this bad,” Jim agreed. “It would be a little easier, but I used this one out on that Windmill Island job a year ago last summer, and I knew it was a pretty good one.”

“I never made it out there,” Bob said. “From what I’ve heard tell, that was really something, though.”

“Yeah, it was,” Jim said, in a mood to talk about something rather than cleaning up this lot. “I mean, to think about it, it seems like about the nuttiest thing someone could imagine, but it turned out really well. That is one hell of a house they have there.”

“And you did nothing but run the backhoe all summer? Sounds kind of soft to me.”

“Well, there were times I was using it pretty heavily, and I used it for some really off-the-wall stuff,” Jim said. “But there were days I never started it up. Don had me working with the mechanical people getting all the guts of the windmill in place and working, and sometimes there was just nothing we needed the backhoe for. At times I was almost like an assistant superintendent, since he was busy with just getting that oddball building built. It was all pretty interesting, though, especially the way they mixed medieval technology with high-tech stuff. The darn thing looks like it could have been built hundreds of years ago, at least in a way, but you get closer and start to take a look at it, and there’s things those old millwrights could never have dreamed of.”

They sat and talked about the Windmill Island house for a while. Jim explained that the people who had designed and owned it were really nice, and most of the time it didn’t seem like they had lots of money, although it was clear that they did. They had been down-to-earth people, and he’d gotten to be friends with them. “I guess I must have learned quite a bit,” he said. “When it was all over and they had an open house to show it off, they made me sort of the tour guide, and I was amazed how much I’d learned. I’m not sure I’d want to live in a place like that, and I couldn’t have designed and built the house from scratch, but I understood it pretty well after we were done putting it up.”

After a while the fire started to die down. They opened their second beers – they’d been nursing them – and let the fire burn down while they just talked about one thing and another, telling a few stories. “Well,” Jim said finally as the fire was nothing much more than coals, “I guess we might as well turn in. We’re going to have another long one tomorrow.”

It took them three more days of working carefully to get the tree cut up and hauled off, and most of the rubbish removed from the house pad. They weren’t finding much that looked like it might have once been part of the house – just random debris, most likely washed in from somewhere else. The pad didn’t start to appear until toward the end of the second day of work, and they couldn’t tell much about it, but the next day they got enough of it cleared off to tell that it wasn’t in good shape. The place had mostly had linoleum flooring, and there were places where there were big gouges and cracks through it. That didn’t look good to either Jim or Bob, and they wanted to see what the whole slab looked like.

By now they had cleared away the biggest chunks of the tree trunk and hauled them off. What was left were mostly branches, although some of them were big ones. They were a little easier to load, even if cut long, since the backhoe could handle them with a chain from the loader or backhoe bucket. Each night they saved a few smaller pieces of the tree for the evening fire.

On the fourth day of working on the pile, they managed to get to the far side of what had been the foundation pad, and found a nasty surprise – a big chunk of the pad had broken off and had been displaced several inches. They kept at it until they had the pad cleared, mostly since they were close, now, and finally Bob shut down the backhoe and got off to take a closer look. “That,” he told Jim, “Does not look good.”

“No, it doesn’t,” he agreed. “It’s definitely not usable. Well, there went one hope of being able to do this easily.”

“Maybe not,” Bob told him. “I agree the pad is a piece of shit, but there isn’t that much concrete here, only a few yards. It might be possible to get a load in here to do it. It looks like it’s just a simple slab, so forming it up wouldn’t be any big trick.”

“Yeah, that’s a possibility,” Jim replied, realizing that while it still wasn’t impossible, the job of rebuilding the house had just gotten harder. “I suppose we might as well call Ken and let him know about it.”

“I’m sure he’s jumping up and down wanting to know,” Bob agreed. “Let’s go find a phone, and then grab some lunch down at that food tent.”

“Might as well. It’s getting close to chow time, anyway.”

There was a row of pay phones not far from the church’s food tent, but there was a line of people waiting to use them. There was nothing to do but wait out the line. It took more than half an hour before Jim had Ken on the line and explained about the damaged pad.

“Well, that’s not all bad,” Ken told him. “If it’s that badly beat up you wouldn’t want to use it anyway, so you might as well get it out of there.”

“I suppose,” Jim agreed. “That’s just going to make things more complicated, though. I haven’t even tried to figure out what it would be like to get a load of concrete down here.”

“Might not take that much,” Ken replied. “Randy is still kicking things around with Norm along with the other stuff he’s been doing, so I’ve had some time to work on this. I’ve been doing a little research on how you toughen up a house to make it withstand a hurricane.”

“There wasn’t much down here that managed to do that, and when it did, it was mostly sheer luck. That storm surge was really high and coming in fast.”

“Right, that’s what I’ve been seeing on the Internet, but I’ve been finding out some other things. It seems that there’s talk of a federal building code for areas susceptible to a hit like that. It would mean that houses would have to have a first floor level at least seventeen feet above sea level, either on fill or pilings, to reduce the damage from a storm surge. The code isn’t in place yet, and the way these things work anything that was pre-existing that didn’t meet the code would be grandfathered in, but any place that doesn’t meet the code it could be harder to get covered by flood insurance.”

“Makes sense,” Jim agreed. “But I have no idea how high that lot is, although I don’t think it’s anything like seventeen feet. Maybe ten, but that’s just a wild guess.”

“I can’t say anything about the lot, but the street out front is shown as thirteen feet,” Ken told him.

“How did you find that out?”

“You’d be amazed the stuff you can find on the Internet if you really know where to look,” Ken told him. “There’s all sorts of GIS data for that town, most of it newer than the storm. Anyway, to get the extra four or five feet, just to be sure, I’ve been toying with putting the house on pilings, kind of like you did for the Windmill House.”

“That actually worked pretty well,” Jim said. “It was just digging the holes in all that rock that was the problem. Those piers will take a lot of stress. They have to with the drag the windmill puts on them. Down here, it’s nothing but sand and they could be hogged out in a hurry.”

“Right, I was thinking that. Just dig the hole, drop in some Sonotube, backfill it so it’ll stay in place, put in some rebar, and pour in some concrete. If you couldn’t get a truck it wouldn’t matter. You could mix it in place like you did on Windmill Island.”

“Sounds good. The only problem is that Uncle John is in a wheelchair, and if you put the house up four or five feet on pilings he’s going to need a ramp.”

“No big deal,” Ken laughed. “I’ve already run the idea by them, and he says that having the house on pilings would be a little more of a pain in the butt, and while it wouldn’t stand off another Katrina, it ought to stand off another Camille.”

“You’ve been talking to them?”

“Yeah, right along. They had a number of good ideas, too. Seems that the bathroom in the old place was always a little awkward for him being in a wheelchair, so I’ve made a few changes to the stock plan I’ve been working from. So, go ahead and rip the old pad all out, especially since it’s a piece of shit, anyway.”

“Might as well,” Jim sighed, a little dismayed at the news that Ken had been talking to Uncle John, and probably Aunt Rita as well. That might get their hopes up that they might really be able to get back in a house in the near future. That meant that there was just that much more pressure to really do the whole house, not just get the site ready to build. “I mean, as long as I have the backhoe here, we might as well.”

“Yeah, that’d be one less thing to do later. I’m getting a really nice house plan drawn up for them. I think they’ll like it. Like I said, go ahead and rip out the pad, but try to not tear the plumbing connections up too much.”

“All right, we can do that,” Jim told him. “It’s probably going to take an extra day or so, not much more than that. It depends on how small we can bust chunks down to. That’s going to depend on how much rebar there is in the pad, and to be honest it doesn’t look like there’s much.”

“Are you getting pretty close to being done?”

“Not really. We concentrated on getting the pad cleaned off so we could see what it was like and get measurements. The lot is still pretty full of crap, although we got rid of the biggest pile. We want to clear back past where the lot lines might be, and that means a ways since we don’t know where the lines are.

“If it’s any help, the lot is 132 feet wide,” Ken told him. “They have the city plat on-line, too. I’d guess the house would have been in the middle, so that might give you a hint of how far you need to go on each side.”

“As long as we have the backhoe and dump truck, we might as well overdo it rather than under do it,” Jim said. “They’re supposed to come in and clean the neighborhood up sometime, but from what little asking around I’ve done, that’s still at least a couple months off, and it’s been pushed back more than once. As far as that goes, we should probably clear the street off some, too. I mean, we can get through with the dump truck, but it’s tight.”

“What do you think? Another week?”

“Probably, if nothing much goes wrong.”

“Well, take your time and do it right. There’s no point in being half assed about it. Don’t forget, you still need to find out about utilities, whether they’re going to be able to be hooked up. That could prove to be the pacing item in the whole deal.”

“Yeah, I haven’t even thought about that,” Jim admitted. “I’ll try to find some time to work on it in the next couple days.”

“Let me know what you find out. Call every few days, and talk to Randy or Rachel or me.”

“Sure, we can do that,” Jim told him. “Anything interesting happening at home?”

“More damn snow,” Ken snorted. “Not that it’s any news. I kind of envy you guys being down there where it’s warm. Like I said, take your time and enjoy it, because you’re going to find the snow ass deep on a tall moose when you get back up here.”

Since there were people waiting to use the phone, Jim didn’t drag the call out any longer than necessary. He went over to join Bob, and together they walked over to the food tent and got in line. “So, what’d he say?” Bob asked.

“He told us to rip up the pad,” Jim replied. “When you get right down to it, I don’t disagree in the slightest.” He went on to explain the idea of using pilings for a foundation, then said, “It might have some advantages. He’d know more about that stuff than I would. But either way, we’ve got to get rid of the pad, either to pour a new one or put in pilings. I sure wish we had the auger attachment for the backhoe. That’d make putting those pilings in easy.”

“Well, you had no idea you’d need it,” Bob said. “Too bad we can’t find a place to leave the backhoe down here when we head back so we could use it if you get to building yet this winter.”

“Yeah, but if we leave it here sure as hell I won’t be able to get the stuff together to do the building,” Jim said, thinking about it for a moment. “But we might be able to at least get the pilings in this winter even if we can’t get anything else done. It’s something to think about, for sure.”

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To be continued . . .
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