Have You Ever Set a 100' Lightning Rod in the Rain at an Ammunition Dump? I Have.

I've done some interesting things. I've built some cool shit, in cool places. I have had some great gigs. I have great stories. This adventure from the mid-seventies was nuts. I worked for a general contractor that did only military contracts. We did all kinds of stuff: electrical, cabinets, gas lines, stick framing, vault building, airplane hangar remodeling, that sort of thing. I have a bunch of stories and all my fingers and toes and, after all, isn't that the important stuff? I made a ton of money when a lot of my friends were struggling and I count myself blessed to have had that particular gig come along while we were making babies.

Hard hat, steel toe boots, leather aprons, big gloves, big hammers, trucks full of tools, ladders and scaffolds, we came prepared and we had quite a team. Each of us did it all but we each had our specialties. The lead was a carpenter, another was a drywall and paint guy, another a plumber and a pipe fitter and I was a welder and carpenter/cabinet maker. We all were electricians. It was simply amazing what we could accomplish. The owners were a hilarious Mutt and Jeff ol'skool team that hadn't swung a hammer since the 50s. At the time they were making a ton of money bidding on government jobs while we young guys did all the work. They hand-picked us and a couple of laborers and we got stuff done. They were masters of the lowest bid. You should know most government contracts are executed by the lowest bidder. Sleep tight.

This particular day began as a typical SoCal day but soon turned darker after we showed up at work and were handed a set of plans and an address. Out a lonely road on the Naval Weapons Station to a large ammunition staging area. I can't, with good conscience, reveal too much about it but you need to understand the amount of ammunition that happened to be there that day. There was a sign. Let's just say it was a no-zeros, 7-digit-number amount of foot pounds of firepower in assorted shapes and deadly sizes. So, roughly, that means enough force to move that many pounds that many feet.

I round the corner in my cool 70s van with the tool boxes built in, dragging a huge jackhammer behind me and Blink-Blink that's what I see. First thing, with coffee, expecting to have a smoke before getting started and right there is enough ammo to move a mountain a million feet. Crates and boxes, pallets and stacks and lots and lots of no smoking signs. It was a federal offense to smoke in this area. Strike one.

As it turns out, a garbage truck had backed into a 100' lightning rod and bent it so badly that it needed to be replaced. For safety reasons someone else had already removed the old one and our job was to set the new one. To add a bit of a challenge there were three others in place and they all had to line up. The "Rod" was essentially a tube that was roughly four foot across at the base and less than a foot at the top of it, 109' up. To set it we had to dig out the old base and prepare the hole, lower a base part that the rod fit into like a Christmas tree stand. Literally. It was a tube that the base dropped into and around its middle it had six big case-hardened bolts that operated exactly the way your tree stand does. Only this tree was huge and could take a lightning strike but, apparently, not a garbage truck hit.

So here we are, in the middle of all this ammo and we need to take metal tools and bang on metal things and jack hammer concrete and rebar with no sparks, and, need I remind you, no cigarettes!

We surrounded the hole with our trucks, tip to tail in a pathetic attempt to minimize the risk. Our guards, who went everywhere with us, brought out a couple of dumpsters to hide behind and we went to work. We had detailed plans and it appeared that they were off by only a little and with a few adjustments we started digging and pulling and yanking and sawing. Once we got the last of the old stand out and roughed out the hole we all felt minutely safer and the beautiful SoCal day grew grayer and grayer. I was the welder so at this point it was my job to take over and drop the stand in the hole, weld it together and make it stable so we could pour concrete around it.

One of my favorite things about this job was that we were a bunch of long-haired roughneck beer drinkers working on the Navy base. I had hair down to my ass that I wore in a manbun below the hard hat. My work-a-day ensemble included my welding leathers, a freaky fringe leather shirt a local Indian friend had given me that had ancient symbols of peace patched on it and a sun and moon and stars and stuff. I also had leather leggings and thick, heavy to-the-elbow gloves and a welding hood with a skullcap hardhat that I had to juggle on my head. To finish off this stylish outfit was the size 13 steel-toed boots that were just cartoonishly clompy. It was always good for laughs to stand there and shake my hair out when the Navy guys were hanging around. They were so much fun. We teased each other mercilessly as we made friends with the guys who were, as they said, "freaks incognito." It was the 70s.

These same guys were charged with the odd duty of guarding us and watching us at the same time. They were very serious dudes. M16s, side arms, muscles and batons and if they got the word to move you somewhere else or that you should not do what you were doing, you stopped doing it and moved. We were civilians and it was a different world there. With all the silly fun we had it was serious business. So much so that I can't even show you a picture of the job. It is blacked out on google maps. We were on American soil, somewhat safe, not really in the line of fire at a time when there really wasn't that much fire yet. It was a different time of life. There were times on jobs we did, however, that were simply scary as our big American machine came to life to protect or even just to check out a threat, perceived or otherwise. Frankly, some of the drills were as frightening as any real thing I've seen.  Standing on the tarmac when a squad of fully loaded Cobras comes at you as they come in for a landing, for instance, is one of the most frightening things you will ever see - and the sound... indescribable.

Anyway, welding the rig should be easy. You know those big generator/welder rigs you see on the freeway behind big flatbed trucks? I hauled one behind my old 70s hippie van most of the time. It was fun to go grocery shopping and drop off the kids with it. I did learn to back a trailer pretty well and can park one now right in your pocket. The welder was large and loud and had enough cable to reach down into the hole. I grabbed my bag of tools, a torch and ground clamp and jumped in. With shovels we had pretty much dug out the old hardware. I only had to cut off a few leftovers using the torch and grinders with sparks and flames and red hot metal in a hole surrounded by explosives. No big deal. Then they lowered the sleeve pieces in one at a time over my head and no one crushed me. I had to weld it all together. Again with the sparks and flames and red hot metal in a hole surrounded by explosives and very nervous men with guns. No big deal. Of course, having stood around giving everyone else shit while waiting it was now my turn in the well.

A part of the daily grind for us was doing the things we loved. Wrecking stuff and building stuff to support our big war machine. The camaraderie we grew among this fellowship of craftsmen meant we could trust each other to have our backs. Among this group it also meant sneaking rocks into your nail bags or removing the ladder when you were on the roof. I was the only one with armor on though, so my leather welding outfit kept me safe from damage. It rained bad advice and debris over my head the whole time. The fire extinguisher bit at the end was a bit much but I managed to get everything welded up, chipped, brushed and painted before the rain came and BONUS: I didn't blow us all up or set anything on fire. 

An interesting perspective from down there in the hole where the 100-foot pole would soon go: looking up into the cloudy sky through the ring of steel at the top, the ladder leaning at an angle shooting up into the clouds in a forced perspective reverse vertigo kind of way. A subtle reminder, the only sign I could see from down there, on the top of the metal stairway to the second floor office, "SAFETY FIRST Days since the last injury: 103."

While we all waited for the crane and the rain we watched in the distance the lightning off the coast, counting the seconds between thunder and light and wondering if we should maybe take a long lunch. The cement guy showed up so we also got to listen to the whine of the tub spinning and the swoosh of the 9 yards of rocks and goop sliding around in there. 1 yard weighs in at about 3-4000 lbs. There is a special sound to 16 tons of cement sliding around in a big spinning tank. A slow breaking-loose swoooshhhhhhy slide followed by the rattle of a few 3/4 inch stones rolling down the side. There are big scoopy arms in there just like in your clothes dryer that mix it up as it spins and at the angle the barrel sits at full, it works like Archimedes' screw pulling scoops of cement up to the top and letting it fall back in. Keeping it wet and moving keeps it from setting up too soon. Great sounds. Even better in the rain. When it started it was like the sky just opened up. Huge California rain drops hitting all the metal making pinging sounds off the lightning rod laying on the pavement.

It was really coming down when, finally, the crane guys shows up. We didn't mind the wait really. Getting paid union scale to sit in our trucks and drink coffee in the rain was great. The party was over when the crane guy jumped out of his cab with a cigarette in his mouth. The next thing you know he is on his knees with three m16s pointed in his general direction and, once reality is explained to him, he is guided back to his truck to change his pants and start the pick. We are all given the safety talk again standing there in my wet leather outfit surrounded by explosives and very nervous guys with guns in the rain with thunder and lightning. The drill instructor Navy dude, livid and red in the face, yelling at us like some bad boot camp movie opening scene.

The plan is to rig the rod with a big slip knot loop that gets tighter the more weight you put on it. We put a tag line on it to control the bottom and three of us grab the rope. The crane guy slowly takes the weight and, ever so slowly, starts to raise it up. Little by little, we gently swing it into place and signal the guy to lower it. It drops right in until it hits a snag on one of the supports which is sticking out a little too much. So I get to climb down there with a torch to cut it off. Once again, down into the hole; more sparks and flame and red hot metal. Only this time there is a hundred-some-odd feet of pole dangling from a slip-knot strap above my head, the tag line being held by the same guy who half unloaded the fire extinguisher over my head earlier, you know, just for laughs.

It dropped right in after that and we set the screws and poured cement with some left over. I dropped a guitar pick in there where it will be until the next garbage truck incident. We didn't sign the cement or leave our hand prints. A week later they re-asphalted the lot and there was no sign we were ever there. When we drove away and hit the main road a few miles down, you could see all four of the tall towers standing over and protecting all that ammunition as the lightning was now upon us and the storm moved on.

The road made the gentle turn that took me back to town, the view turned as well and, as I watched, all four poles lined up and disappeared into what looked like one. I nearly had to stop it was such a beautiful sight. No pictures allowed. Job well done, my friends. Every time I drive by there now I know that if I ever need a guitar pick, there is one under there. Under the third pole in... yeah, it may look like only one from here, but there are four and we stuck one in the middle.

Yeah. Ever set a 100' lightning rod in the rain at an ammunition dump? I have.

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