I’ve had an off-again on-again relationship with concrete for the last 25 years. There was a period of about 5 years when we lived on the farm in Alabama that my relationship, while not constant, was frequent. I built a course of stone walls with concrete in the form of mortar between the stones. I built a very large stone deck around an indoor swimming pool with the large flat stones set in a bed of concrete. We had stone gateposts at the entrance of the peach orchard, which was the first thing you came to on the farm. I built those too.
To do this kind of work one must have power tools—in this case
a Sears electric cement mixer. It was pretty easy to use generally. You
just pitched in the right number of shovels of sand and gravel then dumped
in a bag of Portland cement, turned on the machine, stirred up the dry
mixture, added water and voila—concrete. At this point, one encounters
one of the most perverse chacteristics of concrete—it has no patience.
For instance, if what you are doing takes longer than expected, the concrete
won’t just sit there and wait until you’re finished. No. It
gets hard. That is to say that while it won’t sit, it will set.
(This is a subtle distinction that is often lost on southern speakers/listeners.)
A bit of background information is necessary for you to appreciate the problems associated with this major concrete project. I mentioned our farm in Alabama—we grew peaches (600 peach trees) and wine-grapes (50 grapevines). As you might imagine this was a labor of…nothing—it was just labor. We mostly sold the peaches and mostly converted the grapes into wine. The winemaking was a labor of love. I made about 50 gallons of wine a year—the maximum legal amount for personal consumption in Alabama. I did not consume 50 gallons of wine a year, despite the enthusiastic help of friends and family. That meant that I had and ever increasing storage problem for my excess wine. The solution seemed to me to be quite simple. I would build a wine cellar. Not just a little wine cellar, but a grand wine cellar to hold all the wine I could make in the foreseeable future.
I hired a fellow with a backhoe to gouge a huge hole in the side of the hill beside my house. The hole was about 18 feet deep and 14 feet wide. The plan was to pour a concrete foundation, lay up four concrete block walls, put a very strong roof made of new railroad crossties, and cover the whole thing with all the dirt that came out of the hole. The wine cellar would maintain a constant 68-degree temperature year around and the wine could be stored in prime condition for years.
The plan seemed simple enough. I had a contractor friend help me build the forms in which we would pour the concrete. When we were finished building the forms, the contractor asked me how I was going to get the concrete to the wine cellar since there was no road through the woods that would support a cement truck. This is a question that should have been posed before we dug the hole or built the forms, but was too late for that. I gave the matter some deep thought and came up with this solution.
There was a u-totem concrete place that would mix a load of concrete and put it into a trailer designed specifically to haul concrete. The trailer was attached to the hitch on the pickup truck and driven by wife Lynn to the farm where step 2 of the plan was to be put into place. Step 2 involved unhitching the concrete trailer from the truck and hitching it up to the John Deere tractor, which would pull the trailer through the woods to the wine cellar where my loyal crew (my nephew and one other guy) would hurriedly pour the concrete into the forms before it (the concrete) set-up.
I backed the tractor right beside the truck and released the trailer hitch with the intent of simply rehitching the trailer to the tractor. It was here that the carefully crafted plan began to unravel. Unbeknownst to me, the majority of the weight of the concrete in the trailer was behind the axel. I released this as soon as I unhitched the trailer and the tongue of the trailer shot up. The fact that I was attached to the tongue made no difference at all. I was hanging about 3 feet off the ground and my arms and chin both hurt. From this precarious position I could clearly see the sign posted on the front of the trailer—WARNING! THE CONTENTS OF THIS TRAILER WILL HARDEN IN APPROXIMATELY 30 MINUTES FROM THE TIME OF MIXING! Since our farm was about 20 minutes from the concrete source, this was particularly unwelcome news.
Under normal circumstances one could simply run a wheelbarrow under the back end of the trailer, open a little door and the concrete would flow out of the trailer into the wheelbarrow. These were not normal circumstances. The back end of the trailer was resting firmly on the ground and nothing was going to get under it. The concrete was getting harder. Again I applied my brainpower and came up with a clever plan. I would open the door of the trailer and let the concrete run out onto the driveway, whereupon the loyal crew would shovel it into the wheelbarrows and push it through the woods to the hole in the ground. You should note at this juncture I no longer refer to a wine cellar but a hole in the ground. Unfortunately the loyal crew had discovered something very amusing and were rolling around on the ground laughing. When they regained control, they shoveled as fast as they could and took off through the woods to the hole.
The first wheelbarrow had been gone only 30 seconds when I heard a great peal of laughter coming from the wheelbarrow pusher. He showed up 30 seconds later somewhat shamed-faced and said, “I lost that load. Hit a rock and the wheelbarrow tumped over.”
Only 1 wheelbarrow load of concrete made it all the way to the hole. Three other loads were spilled, generally just after an outbreak of laughter. The rest of the concrete hardened in the driveway, where it remains to this day. If fact, the four piles of concrete in the woods are explained to guests who notice them as works of a prominent avant-guard artist who created the driveway sculpture that all guests admired as they tried to maneuver around it without damaging their cars.
The hole in the ground is still there and serves as a trap for large carnivorous animals that may threaten the current occupants of the farm.