A Survey in West Virginia

Note: In 2009, Geoff wrote another well-received story, Long Term Almanac, or, what to do when you can’t use your total station and GPS, which you can find HERE. Geoff has also written a book, Off Parallel, information about which can be found at the bottom of this article.

In my opinion there have been two great quantum leaps in the tools of the surveying profession since the 1950s. The first was in the early 70s when electronic distance measurement and programmable calculators became available. The second occurred in the late 80s and sprang from these two earlier developments. EDM miniaturization led to the development of the total station, and increases in computing power (along with deployment of a little thing called the NAVSTAR constellation) yielded GPS receivers that could meet the stringent demands of most survey work. What follows is a true account of my first exposure to a “miracle” of the 70s.

In the summer of 1974 I was a member of a crew that was sent to West Virginia to conduct a preliminary survey along a section of highway. The road was to be widened and improved, and the work consisted of setting points to define the new centerline together with some profile leveling. At least I assume that’s what we were doing; you see I was just a rodman. In the eyes of some, a rodman was someone who could perhaps walk and chew gum simultaneously and, on a good day, tie his own shoelaces. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit, but at the time that’s how things seemed from my perspective. Our crew was a good one, consisting of a crew chief, deputy crew chief, an instrument man and his apprentice and, of course, the rodman. The one good thing about being a rodman was that I always knew where I stood in the crew’s hierarchy, at the very bottom.
If you’ve never been to West Virginia you don’t know what you’re missing. We were working on a remote section of highway in the rugged, mountainous southern part of the state. Waves of lush timber stretched, it seemed, to the curve of the Earth, punctuated in places by small plumes of smoke indicating hidden, isolated pockets of human habitation. I later learned that many of these were stills, actively producing one of the region’s most popular, and illegal, exports. The local industry notwithstanding, southern West Virginia is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. John Denver must have passed through that area when he was inspired to write his “Almost Heaven” lyrics.

Of course, roads are dangerous in mountainous regions and this one was particularly so. Curves limited visibility and truckers would kick their rigs out of gear on a downhill stretch in order to save fuel and gain momentum for the next steep upgrade. Recognizing the risks to which we would be exposed, the West Virginia highway patrol mandated that we place warning signs at the boundaries of our work zone to alert motorists to our presence. The signs read: “Slow Surveyors Ahead”. Now, the presence of slow surveyors along the route wasn’t reason enough for people to slow down, but we were careful and meticulous, worked safely, and did our job well. The engineers back in the office (you know who I mean, the guys who sit on their butts all day drinking coffee – at least that’s how the crew chief described them) had determined how many feet of roadway we needed to complete each day in order for the company to turn a profit. As far as I know our quotas were always exceeded.

Our equipment was state-of-the-art for the mid-1970s. We had two Wild optical theodolites, a couple of levels, several 200 ft steel tapes, and an HP 3800 distance meter. As rodman it was my job to set points, drive-in stakes and nails, chain distances, and walk through poison ivy with a leveling rod. It was not in my job description to operate, touch, or even approach the theodolites. These instruments held a particular fascination for me, but alas, they were the closely guarded responsibility of the instrument man. On a few occasions, usually following evenings of excessive celebration on his part, the instrument man would allow me to set up a tripod with an attached tribrach. However, even with his ability to function slightly impaired, I swore he would glance at my shoelaces (is this guy having a good day?) before letting me proceed. Try as I might, I was destined to never turn an angle with either theodolite.

Almost all of our distances were chained. Only under circumstances when a distance was either very long or required high precision did we break out the HP 3800. I lived for these occasions. I looked forward to them because it had been decided upon high, by none other than the crew chief himself, that it was the job of the rodman to set up the prism.

Now, I believe it is fair to say that everyone on the crew, not just me, was in awe of that EDM. It was a big orange-red monster that mounted onto a tripod and tethered to a power supply placed next to it on the ground. At one point I remember inquiring about its precision. The chief said that it depended slightly upon the length of the measurement, but it could typically be trusted to +- 0.01 ft. The instrument man scoffed at that assessment, boasting that the “darn thing could shoot 2000 ft to within a $$$-$$$!” Decorum prohibits explicit use of my former colleague’s ‘anatomical’ unit of distance. It is sufficient to note that he overstated the unit’s capabilities.

On one noteworthy occasion we had to make an accurate and precise measurement of about 1000 feet and the chief, after careful consideration, and with considerable telepathic help from the rodman, ordered us to break out the HP. I raced to the far point with my tripod and prism and had the set-up complete well before the instrument man had finished at his end. Now in all honesty I have to admit that my victory was officially disqualified because I had set up over the wrong point. (But the instrument man and I both knew who kicked who’s ass that time!) Chagrined but undaunted, I quickly proceeded to the proper point and completed my task. When I turned and shouted that all was ready I beheld a strange sight. The HP wasn’t even pointed in my direction! The instrument man and his assistant were preoccupied; involved in a deep discussion with the occupant of a vehicle that had pulled off the highway. After a few minutes the car departed and as it passed by I noticed that the driver was a rather attractive young woman. Well, we shot the distance and upon my return to the transit station my coworkers regaled me with the details of their encounter with the girl in the car.

It seems she had seen our signs along the road and had pulled over to volunteer to be interviewed for our ‘survey’. To the fellows manning the HP3800 her arrival was a gift from heaven, an opportunity not to be squandered. They thanked her profusely for her willingness to participate in their study. Then, pointing the distance meter in her direction, and issuing strict orders not to look directly into the camera while responding, they proceeded to run through the list of ‘questions’ in the field book.

Once again, decorum prevents me from revealing just what those questions were. All I can tell you is that they were of a rather intimate and carnal nature. At this point one must ask if the charade perpetrated by those fellows did irreparable harm to either the image of our crew or to the surveying profession in general. I think the answer to that concern is: No. Fortunately, I remember one more detail of that incident. It’s an image so clear in my mind that it might as well have happened yesterday. I’ll never forget the broad smile on that woman’s face as she drove away from the site of her strange but memorable interview.

Note about Geoff’s book on amazon.com: ‘Off Parallel’ introduces Denny Carswell, a land surveyor who lives outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Nearing his golden years, Denny is contemplating a switch to construction work, something that will allow him to spend more time close to home. However, boundary work is Denny’s first love, and when he accepts a seemingly routine boundary job in the rugged ranch lands overshadowed by the Gila wilderness, retirement suddenly becomes the least of his concerns. Plagued by equipment problems and baffled by what he and his assistants find in the field, Denny soon realizes that this is no ordinary job. If he and his crew aren’t careful, they’ll soon fall prey to a cold-blooded killer, someone who has everything to lose if a long kept secret is revealed.