Finding Five and a Half

I was the decider: I could say the mix was fine, or tell the driver it needed more or less water.

Late in February, Testwell Laboratories was convicted in New York State Supreme Court of falsifying the test results of concrete used in projects including the new Yankee Stadium, Freedom Tower and the Second Avenue subway. The news transported me to the summer of 1971, when, as an employee of Pittsburgh Testing Laboratory, I was responsible for the integrity of the concrete in major construction projects around Manhattan.

Let me state some pertinent facts. First, I was seventeen years old at the time. Second, I knew nothing then about concrete. (What I know now is the fruit of my study of Wikipedia and other sources). It was the summer before my freshman year of college and I was at liberty. My father, at the time an impartial labor arbitrator, had maintained some contacts from his youthful days in the union movement, and utilized some of these to get me this gig, which paid, as I recall, $2.25 an hour.

I was given about a couple of days of training at a concrete plant hard by the River in the pre-Javits Center West 40s. I recall nothing of this other than being in a sort of elevated hut at the plant and watching as a supervisory colleague cooked a sandy material in a frying pan on a hotplate, so that all moisture evaporated and only some dry sand and pebbles remained. I deduce that the material was aggregate, which is combined with cement, water and sometimes other materials to form concrete. (The Encyclopaedia Britannica observes, “Commonly used aggregates include sand, crushed or broken stone, gravel [pebbles], broken blast-furnace slag, boiler ashes [clinkers], burned shale, and burned clay.”) I do not know why it was cooked.

Then I was issued a white PTL hard hat and sent out to the Martin Luther King High School construction site, across Tenth Avenue from Lincoln Center. There (and in later weeks at the construction of Ford’s sales center, on West 57th Street) trucks would mix the concrete at the site. I had two tasks, the second of which was simple. This was to fill several open-topped cylinders with wet concrete; they were picked up at the end of the day by a representative of the Lab, and presumably underwent the kind of tests Testwell was convicted of falsifying.
The first task was the slump test. It had to be performed first thing in the morning, before any concrete could be poured, and again throughout the day. The concrete truck would mix a batch. I would place on the ground, narrow end up, a device that resembled a megaphone; pour concrete through the top till it was full; remove the megaphone and place it next to the pile of concrete; and measure how much the concrete fell, or “slumped.”

I immediately became aware that my findings were important to two sets of interests. The first comprised the laws of the State of New York, on the one hand, and the future students and teachers of Martin Luther King High School and customers and employees of the Ford Motor Company, on the other. They wanted a low slump, meaning concrete with made with relatively less water and thus a stronger product. On the other side was the construction crew right in front of me. They wanted a relatively high slump, meaning more water, because that made the concrete easier to shovel and maneuver. What was striking then, maybe not so much on reflection, was how much more compelling the half-dozen guys’ case appeared, compared to the abstractions on the other side.

In any case, I was the decider: I could say the mix was fine, or tell the driver it needed more or less water. We are talking about someone who had never decided much of anything beyond what socks to put on, who had never exercised power over other boys, much less men. But there was no backing out. I believe my supervisors at the Lab had given me an acceptable slump range, say, four to six inches. And so the lesson of that day, and of the summer, was finding five and half: a mix that made the crews’ job as easy as possible, while still staying legal by a minimally respectable margin.

I worked at the job for six or seven weeks. It was satisfying to be the only hard-hatted regular on the 7:17 from New Rochelle to Grand Central, then to report to work and play my part in a vital industry. Then I badly sprained my ankle playing backyard basketball and had to resign. Possibly I could have done the job again the following summer. But I had a chance to go to Europe, and did. I confess that for years afterward I would sneak glances at the Times, fearing a headline about the collapse of a supporting wall at Martin Luther King High. But no such story appeared, and, as far as I know, the building is still standing strong.

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