A Day In The Field – Month 9 (or …)

Mad Moments 5 (or …)

How Projects Get Messed Up (or …)

Spring 2007

I dragged ex-boss Tom out to Alamo Road today. Well, come to think of it, he rather foolishly volunteered (must have been a dreadful meeting on the schedule …), choosing a day dedicated to digging holes in the road shoulders.

This unpleasantly arduous activity was ordered by some officers and talking heads up in air-conditioned Baghdad. During a recent telecom they asked whether the road is really 9cm thick all the way out to the edges. While I stifled giggles and rolled my eyes, Tom leaned toward the phone speaker and said, “For the most part, yes!”

A typical Tom answer, this is accurate without necessarily being true. It was offered with the hope that (for the most part!) they’d be satisfied and move on. Really, of all the things to be worried about on this project, the edges of the road probably ought not be on the radar. These aggressive vocal overseers of ours could worry about the subbase, the base, the thickness of the asphalt in the lanes, or in the center, or better yet, the constitution of the asphalt itself! Really, if so inclined, Tom and I could suggest some really important things to worry about … but Tom is a secretive and diplomatic fellow.

My own inclination would be to tell all these generals and colonels and majors and paper engineers every single deficiency of the project. Left to my own forthright devices, I would tell them that due to their constant, unholy pressure to get the work completed at the stated expense of quality, they’re now in no position to be whining and fretting to us about the outcome. I would also point out to them (politely, and using the word ‘sir’ as often as it struck my fancy) that their own pitiful budget was understood at the very beginning to be inadequate to the needs of this light military transport road, meaning the design was substandard even before, by the way, they changed the designation and intended use of the road from a light military transport road to a heavy military transport road halfway through the project without having provided any collateral shift in funding or design in order to accommodate their own changes …

But that’s just me.

Where was I? Oh yes, the telecom wherein the brass are beating on us (again) and Tom is taking it … Is the asphalt 9cm thick on the edges? For the most part it is.

“Go measure it,” someone snapped at us through the phone speaker. I made a nasty face at Tom. He made a nasty face back, then leaned toward the phone speaker and chirped, “Roger that!”

I’ve noticed that when Tom thinks an order is stupid, he says, Roger that! instead of something more normal for a civilian, like ok. I’ve noticed that most of the military men respond to stupid orders with that phrase as well. I’ve decided that I’m going to practice doing it. I’m going to try to remember to add “sir” to the end of it to see if Tom can keep from busting out laughing when I say it.

Just for the record, digging eighteen holes at five kilometer intervals down the shoulder of a 109 kilometer road in 120F wearing a full uniform and body armor … sucks.

About four hours into this farce we finally hung it up. Sweat-stained and a bit sun-dazed, we climbed back into the Land Cruisers and told the PSD men to take us home. I stared out the window wondering how the colonels would take the news that only about seventy percent of the road edges were to spec. The answer to that didn’t take long to figure out, so I emptied my mind and just stared out at the beautiful expanse of gold sand, effectively ignoring the stupid road we were now driving back north on, passing all the stupid little holes we’d chipped into its shoulders.

“I think,” Tom said suddenly, turning to look at me with a satisfied expression on his face, “that we should write up the scope of work for the maintenance contract on this road so that the contractor has to make all the patches to the road in shapes of different animals.”

I stared back at him, trying to catch up. Road patches in the shapes of animals?

Ignoring my blank stare, Tom went on. “Then we could just say, There’s a new pothole out by the lion, or The giraffe area needs a surface treatment – it’s unraveling.

We both turned our heads to look straight ahead, between the heads of our PSD men in the front seats, through the ballistic windshield glass, and down the long straight black asphalt road we were traveling. Huh.

“It might help keep the convoy truck drivers awake,” I suggested. “The road has so few landmarks of any kind. This would give them something fun to look forward to. They might say, Oh good, we’re already to the rhino – we only have the mouse, the lizard and the tiger, then we’re already on Tampa!”

“We could have the contractor post signs,” Tom added. “Just a picture of a rabbit or a donkey on the sign. Then people would know where they were in the dark.”

I turned to stare at Tom again for a moment. His cheeks were sunburned, but other than this idea of road patches in the shapes of animals he didn’t seem sun-addled. His mysterious knack for maintaining a sense of humor and essential calm in the face of profound stupidity and aggravation might no longer be so mysterious; a creative imagination is a valuable resource. 

“What?” he asked.

“I just had no idea,” I admitted.

I turned back to my own window and stared out at the desert, now choosing animals that might be appropriate to the environment: lizard, goat, hawk, toad, sheep …

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