A couple of days ago I saw a short article online which led to my finding out about something else. That happens when I’m surfing the web. The title of the article was “Can You Guess What These Antique Objects Were Used For?” I hesitated because I don’t like to think I’m old enough that I would recall anything you could call “antique.”
But I did. It was a surveying instrument called a theodolite, which measures vertical and horizontal angles to help land surveyors establish points on the land to determine features like property boundaries and to guide construction engineering projects. A model set up on a tripod pictured below looks very similar to one the one I was taught to use.
They’re a lot fancier nowadays. In defense of my vanity, the article actually pictures something a lot older than this.
This led to reminiscence about my first real job, which was with a consulting engineering firm, Wallace Holland Kastler Schmitz and Co. (WHKS & Co), about which I’ve posted before. I was a rear chainman and inker for engineering drawings. I also ran head chain and ran the theodolite, which surveyors often just called a “gun” on which you “shoot” lines and crank angles. I also was taught how to run a level, an instrument used along with another person holding a rod with numbered graduation marks on it to measure elevations of geographical points.
We didn’t really use a chain but used a steel tape. The chain was used in the past and was 66 feet long divided into 100 links.
The tape shown is on a handy reel but I was also taught to “wrap” and “throw” a chain, the technique for which is shown in the video below. Usually it was done by just one person and there was a definite knack for throwing it just right so it would collapse in a neat circle.
I could go on for a while about this, but I need to make a point about what my web surfing on this topic eventually led to, which was the obituary for my former employer, Francis Holland, one of the engineers who started WHKS & Co. He died in late August of 2017. Another memorable person and supervisor who taught me a lot about surveying and life was Carol Kastler, who said this about Mr. Holland in the Mason City newspaper (the Globe Gazette):
“He was my mentor. He made every individual who worked for him feel important,” said Kastler. “He would give you guidance but he let you make your own decisions. That’s why I stayed there over 40 years. He offered me what I really wanted to do in life and he made it fun.” (Skipper, J. (2017). Francis Holland remembered for kindness, leadership. Globe Gazette. Mason City.)
Those are pretty close to my own sentiments. He and many others had a great sense of humor as well as a strong work ethic. Out in the field on survey work, my crew chief and other members would play Hearts on lunch break. I always had to sit in the middle of the truck–and I always lost. When it would start to spit a little rain, the way to decide if we were going to get out of the truck and work would be to draw an imaginary circle on the windshield and count the number of drops that collected inside it. No one ever specified how many drops were needed nor how big the circle had to be.
When work was slow we would tie up red heads, which doesn’t mean what you might think. It was tying red ribbon on nails we used to mark measuring points. During one particularly slow spell during which there was very little actual work to do, Mr. Holland put the survey crews to work by building a shed to store tools and equipment. I think what was left unspoken was the alternative to the project, which might have been getting laid off. As one guy put it when somebody said we needed a job, “I got a job; I need work.” I believe “gratitude” is the word I’m looking for here.
When the weather was too bad to work outside, I sat at a drafting desk and inked drawings including property survey plats, bridge and highway relocation plans, and learned how to “boogie.” That also doesn’t mean what you might imagine. I don’t think anyone would recognize the name anymore but it involved using a planimeter to determine the areas of two-dimensional shapes, specifically around roadway ditches to help calculate cuts and fills.
There’s a complicated mathematical principle for the linear planimeter, but I never learned it. I also made prints of the plans, using an old printer that used some kind of ammonia-based imaging technique to create blueprints. You had to take a break from it every so often because of the intensity of the fumes.
It was a small company and workers often became close friends. Mentoring was a common practice, as Carol Kastler pointed out. There were events like annual Christmas parties, births of babies celebrated and deaths mourned.
It can be difficult sometimes to describe the ethos of an organization; however, WHKS & Co. posts it on their website:
I learned so many lessons in life from Francis Holland, Carol Kastler, and too many others to name in a place and time I will never forget. And I will always be grateful.