The Heroic Engineer in a Real Life Context

A Few Words of Explanation. What follows is an extract from an article in an academic journal, as noted at the end of the document. I found it amusing and feel certain that when you graduate, you will go up the learning curve just as fast as the young engineer described here; probably faster. It is particularly relevant to civils, but everyone can understand it. By the way, if you don't know who Roebling was, find out. I am sure you all know what a "Johnny-on-the-Spot" is. GRP

The Concrete Sumo

The ink on my engineering diploma was but three weeks dry that early morning in the summer of 1966. I had taken a job as a field engineer with a construction outfit and was assigned to a site. I reported there that early morning clad in starched khaki shirt and pants, spit-shined ROTC boots, hardhat, and slide rule at the ready. As I arrived, the workmen, who were waiting in small groups at the entrance of the site for the whistle to blow, dressed me up and down, and immediately directed me to "the trailer". They knew, somehow, that this was my first day as a real engineer.

When I opened the door of the trailer, three important-looking chaps greeted me on their way out. First to greet me was the old superintendent, a walking example of dignity and wisdom. He wore a floppy hat of the Indiana Jones variety, puffed on a pipe, and apologized for leaving. It seemed that there was a failure on some other of the company's jobs across town that required his attention.

Second was the project manager, a younger version of the superintendent,but without the pipe, who clutched some important-looking drawings. He also apologized for leaving. Apparently there were some discrepancies between what was in the "hole" and what City Hall records said couldn't be there.

Finally, the carpenter foreman said "hello", then disappeared down into the hole. The whistle blew; everybody else and every machine got busy. I stayed in the trailer, made a cup of awful coffee, propped my feet upon a table, and began to fantasize about what it would be like to know what I should be doing. Then it happened.

He looked to me at the time like a sumo wrestler with a bad attitude.I couldn't even tell which end of the cigar in his mouth was lit. And he exhibited the aura of a man who had no regard for rookie field engineers. He produced a wad of what he called "trip tickets", ordered me to sign one of them, then demanded directions from me indicating where to pour the concrete that was churning inside the fleet of trucks he had waiting outside the trailer.

I politely informed him that this was my first day on the job and that my bosses were away, and suggested that he take the concrete back. As the last part of that suggestion came out of my mouth, I came to realize that my career and physical well-being lay in peril. Pointing to the signed trip tickets, he said that his duty was to deliver concrete to this site. Pointing to the truck, he said that he would either pour the concrete where I so directed, or that he would dump the concrete where the trucks stood. Pointing into my face, he said that this choice was my problem. Then he looked at his watch, mumbling something about concrete setting-up in his trucks and a delivery schedule. I said to him that I would have my decision presently.

In the Johnny-on-the-Spot, Hamlet was the first to speak to me:"No court in the land," he said, "would blame you for letting the sumo dump the concrete in the entrance way. It's not your fault that they left you alone on your first day!" Then, Roebling began to speak: "You are an engineer, and engineers sacrifice all for their responsibilities to the business of engineering!" Finally, Uncle Roy, the engineer after whom I had patterned my career, spoke to me: "This job belongs as much to you as to anyone else. So, you have a duty either to move this project along, or resign!"

When I returned to the trailer from the Johnny-on-the-Spot, my nerves were intact, and I had conjured up a do-or-die attitude about the situation. I noticed the critical path schedule on the wall of the trailer and engaged it. There the day's tasks were revealed, and among them was scribbled "pour elevator pit". On the table that dominated the furnishings of the trailer were some blue prints, and one of them clearly indicated the specifications for the elevator pit.

When oriented to North, the blue print showed the location of the pit in the hole. I looked down into the hole only to see the carpenter foreman sitting on the elevator pit, waiting. I called out to him, "Are the forms for the elevator pit ready to pour?" Agitated, he responded in the affirmative. Filled with courage, I then confronted the concrete "sumo" with my orders: "Pour that elevator pit!"

Upon returning to the job at the end of the day, the superintendent and the project manager made haste to the elevator pit, inspected it with much discussion, then came up to the trailer. They asked how my day had gone, and I gave them a casual "O.K." I couldn't give them the satisfaction of knowing that the trouble they'd invented for me brought on any panic.

My last on the job was occasioned by my acceptance to graduate school, and included lunch treated me by the superintendent and the project manager. We exchanged pleasantries before I recalled for them the elevator pit task left to me on my first day. I expected the superintendent to say that the carpenter foreman was alerted to the plot and instructed to prevent any catastrophe. Instead, he recalled for me that on his first day he was likewise abandoned and thus laid out a church, not only in the wrong direction, but also on the wrong lot! Without any apology at all he said: "When it comes to rookie engineers, it is better to pay early than to pay later".

(C) 1997 by the American Society for Engineering Education, Extract from "The Heroic Engineer" by Broome, T. H. and Pierce, J. Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 86, No. 1,pp. 51-55.