Some Part of Myself

A 3.162Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Editor’s note: In my 20 years of survey magazine publishing, I have steered clear of autobiographical submissions from authors. Fred Roeder’s journey, however–from his roots in Germany to all he’s accomplished as an American land surveyor–holds a special place in my heart. For many years I have enjoyed his "Antepasados" column in the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter. Focusing mostly on history, Fred’s stories reveal unique perspectives on characters and events that may have otherwise been lost to the ages. My all-time favorite, "The King Who Had No Title," can be found here: content/view/5927/136/, along with many more. Sit back and enjoy..

When I am dead, I hope it may be said: "His sins were scarlet, but his stories read."
–Based on Hillaire Belloc

In writing about surveyors, their personal odyssey has always interested me as much as their professional accomplishments, a reason I dwell a lot on biography. I obtain much of my information from obituaries, which in our culture is something more akin to a personal introduction than a notice of a journey from which there is no return. I fancy myself to be fairly well known, but it is only my writings that are in the public domain; I am somewhat of an introvert and little of my personal life has appeared in print. To make my readers less dependent on my obituary I decided to provide them with Some Part of Myself.

I was born the son of a grocer on the day of the summer solstice of 1934 in Naumburg, a city of about 30,000 inhabitants located on the river Saale in what is today the German State of Saxony-Anhalt. In Naumburg I experienced the end of WWII, when on April 12, 1945 units of the U.S. Army’s 69th Infantry Division entered our city without firing a shot. Americans remember that date as the day on which President Roosevelt died; I will remember it as the defining moment of my life. I was a ten-year-old in the uniform of the Nazi Youth Corps (Jungvolk) and my dreams needed a thorough modification. International politics soon handed my part of Germany to the Russians who turned it into a communist dictatorship under the oxymoron designation German Democratic Republic. There I grew up, attended school, buried my father in 1947 and learned to dislike politics and politicians.

Those who influenced my thinking at the time, pointing to the ruins of German cities, persuaded me to enter the building profession. Instead of going to high-school I became a bricklayer’s apprentice in a small, not yet nationalized construction company, going to technical school part time. In 1950 I made my first survey, mapping by trilateration a small administrative building complex, using a cloth tape, six range poles and a Zeiss right-angle prism. A surveyor was born.

In 1952, in keeping with the reformation of the educational system by the communists, I entered a three-year Engineering School (Bauschule). As a student exposed to a heavy dose of the communist variety of social science I was determined to join the growing exodus of people from East Germany. The State boundaries were already sealed off but the infamous Berlin Wall was not yet built (until 1961). Within twenty-four hours of my graduation as a Structural Engineer I was in West Berlin as a refugee from a regime that was to last for another thirty-five years before going socially and economically bankrupt.

The British flew me to West Germany and for a couple of years I worked as an engineer for a consulting firm in Mannheim and a large construction company in Munich. As an engineer on the construction of a NATO airfield in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps I discovered that I didn’t want to spend my life looking at yellow construction equipment and gray pre-stressed concrete and I decided to turn around and `take the road less travelled by.’

I never have been able to come up with a good explanation why I emigrated to the United States, but emigrate I did in April 1957, and three weeks later started a surveying career in DeKalb County, Indiana, as an assistant to the county surveyor. This was my introduction to the Rectangular Land Survey System and the missing corner monument.

In November 1958 I was drafted into the U.S. Army (the Army was interested only in my physical condition and cared not about my German citizenship) where I spent the greater part of the two-year hitch at El Paso’s Ft. Bliss. Uncle Sam needed me only after 5 PM as a night-shift draftsman of electronic diagrams for anti-aircraft-missiles. To fill out my idle daylight hours I violated regulations by taking a part-time job with Cook Engineering on Yandell Street, designing subdivisions in and around sprawling El Paso, in the process saving enough money to allow me, three weeks after my discharge from active duty, to buy a house and to get married to a sweet Mexican girl (after 55 years she is still as sweet).

In Texas I underwent a transformation that is difficult to explain. For the first time in my life I experienced a feeling of "belonging," a spiritual awakening, an attachment to the Southwest as if I had always lived "west of the Pecos." I devoured books of its history, culture, geography, exploration and yes, surveys. My favorite writer was (and still is) J. Frank Dobie, that master storyteller of the Southwest, from whom I borrowed the title of this article.

In 1961 I became employed as a geodetic surveyor with Limbaugh Engineering of Albuquerque (on Carlisle Blvd.), and from 1964 with Koogle & Pouls Engineering on Copper Ave., executing control surveys for aerial mapping projects located from the coastal islands of California to the snake infested woods of Arkansas. Working with the national geodetic control network in the days before GPS meant climbing with plenty of heavy equipment (the tellurometer alone weighed 38 pounds, not counting a 6-volt lead acid battery) onto mountaintops to USC&GS triangulation stations. Love for "America the beautiful" was a byproduct. After eight years of constant travelling the job had lost much of its initial romance and caused me in 1969 to join the U.S. Forest Service. As I discovered a new meaning of the word "marriage" I also discovered an exotic new variety of "boundary problems."

This is not the place to dwell on Forest Service boundary problems the involvement with which became a major commitment of my career. Suffice it to say that a key ingredient of these problems is a poor understanding by some folks (including some surveyors) of the nature of the Public Domain. The Forest Service is not a landowner in the ordinary sense of the word and cannot approach boundary disputes in the same way a private landowner can. As an administrator of areas defined and governed by congressional legislation, if a suggested solution of a particular problem is not based on federal law it cannot be done.

Six years as a cadastral surveyor on the Kaibab National Forest (on both sides of Arizona’s Grand Canyon), two years on the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and finally a 1977 transfer to the Lincoln National Forest in Alamogordo, New Mexico, required registration in these states (I was already registered in New Mexico), and involvement in professional organizations. As a member of NMPS I had the "pleasure" (if that is the appropriate word), of being president in 1984, and the distinct pleasure of having been named Surveyor of the Year in 1999, an honor that I attributed mostly to the use of my pen. In 1994 I retired from the Forest Service and from practical surveying into the care of my wife, several local coffee shops, my home in Tularosa, and my travelling and writing hobbies.

This at last brings me to Benchmarks newsletter and the column I called Antepasados. Benchmarks had its ups and downs since its inception in April 1974. When it almost died in 1986 the late Albuquerque engineer and attorney Bob Stephenson came to the rescue as its editor in March of 1987 [see: 30 Years of Benchmarks, May 2004] and it eventually evolved into the fine publication it is today. In the April 1988 issue of the Newsletter Bob included a quiz. "Name the patron saint for the surveyors?" he asked, "Who has their hand up? . . . Someone who is real good on saints needs to check this out." I sent Bob a reply which he published in part in the May issue. In a more informative article I wrote "Of Gods and Boundaries." I received a letter from Bob: "Fred, you write very well, would you write a regular column for the newsletter?" I did just that and continued it 138 times over the next twenty years. You know the rest of the story.

I selected the name antepasados (Spanish for `ancestors’) because literally the word means "those who passed before us." I choose passing to mean walking rather than passing away, which is more appropriate to the subject, even if those I write about have long since taken their last step. According to Bob Stephenson, one can always retrace a surveyor’s footsteps by the empty whiskey bottles he left behind, but I am more inclined to see them as "often preceding the boldest of pioneers." I shy away from writing about the living; they are liable to spoil a good story by not living up to the character I like to assign them. For a great story about a surveyor–he has to be dead.

But there is something else I have tried to accomplish, to make the stores interesting not only to the surveyor who comes home from a challenging day at the office or a wearing one in the field and wants to relax, but also to a non-professional. I strove to entertain rather than to teach and to make learning a by-product. If I aroused anyone’s interest he or she can always find additional and perhaps better information elsewhere.

The many gratifying comments from fellow surveyors (and some of their secretaries) I have received over the years have convinced me that I have not wasted my time.

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns.

A 3.162Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE