"It's hard to imagine that we ever operated without it."

—Bobby Burge, PE—
Principal, Burge Martinez Consulting, Inc.
San Antonio Texas

Contracting, Beer, Christmas, and Wives

by Raymond A. Meinhardt, CFRS
(reprinted by permission)

I am a contractor and I am also a brewer of beer. Now, some may ask about the connection, and aside from the fact that contractors like to drink beer, I think the real connection between contracting and beer brewing is that they both involve making things.

Now, every Christmas I continue the family tradition by brewing up a few special flavored batches to give away to our clients as a thank you for the past year's business, and, as I began to plan 6 months ahead (yes, even contractors can plan ahead) for this year's batch of brew, I felt that I wanted to do something more in the traditional style of my German ancestors. Fortunately for me, it just so happened that when I went home to St. Louis for a family gathering, my mother told me that she had come across an old recipe of my Great Grandfather. When I say old, I mean old in the truest sense, as his secret formula was hand written on paper that had become brittle with time and had ink that seemed to be fading even as we watched. While this itself posed a problem, another problem was that it was written not only in German, but also in the particular local dialect of his region. Translating proved to be a challenge, and although we were able to recover about 80% of the recipe fairly easily, the rest had to be researched using the internet and by talking with other experienced brewers. What we ended up with as a final recipe that called for some real "old world" techniques that are not used today and would require the building of some pieces of equipment that are no longer available. However, being a contractor AND liking beer, it was a challenge I was ready to take on, and four months and a few hundred bucks later, I was ready to try Great Grandpa's recipe and techniques.

In keeping with one of the techniques, I had to use an old fashioned ice box — the type where you placed a large block of ice in an insulated box to keep things cool. Each day, therefore, required checking to see that there was still some ice in the box and to see that the temperature was within range to keep the fermentation process at the right pace. Well, on the third day of the fermenting process, I came home from work, and when I opened the brew box that I had situated in the garage, I noticed that one of the air locks on a large batch of brew was clogged up. (The air locks are designed to allow excess gas pressure created by the fermentation to bleed off without bacteria entering back into the brew.) Here is where things get interesting, for as I removed the lock to clear it out, what happened next can only be described as a volcanic eruption of beer and foam that sprayed EVERYWHERE. This included not only the ice box itself, but the garage wall and floor — and me. Panicking, (while beer and foam are dripping everywhere) and knowing my wife was soon to be home and would completely freak-out on the mess, I got busy cleaning things up.

Now, as I was busy with my new-found endeavor, I failed to notice our two dogs, Shaggy & Baby Girl, doing their part to help clean up the floor. (Come on now, you all know how dogs clean things up — lick lick lick, slobber slobber slobber.) Well, as I turned around, there they were, busy licking the beer and foam from the floor. When I told them to git, Shaggy looked up at me and the look on his face was priceless. For you see, his face is all black, and as he raised his head, he had foam all around his mouth and looked like he was wearing Santa's beard and had on his face the expression of "What?!" Baby Girl, on the other hand, didn't miss a lick as she continued to clean the floor.

After about 20 minutes, the three of us were finished cleaning up, and that was just in the nick of time for as I put the last rag away, who walks thru the front door but my wife. She said "Hi. What's going on?" Suddenly, the term dead meat went through my mind, and reverting to the contractor of my younger years, I answer, "Oh, nothing much." No sooner had I gotten these words out of my mouth than I saw what I thought would surely be my death. It was Baby Girl, who, with a slight sideways motion in her step — it being almost a 4-legged dance — came "walking" up to my wife. My wife looked down, and noticing that something was "off", asked what was wrong with the dog. Still in my young contractor mental mode I replied, "I have no idea", and as nonchalantly as I felt I could get away with, I swept Baby Girl up and carried her off. My wife, however, followed me into the other room and persisted with questions about what was wrong with the dog. I pretended to look Baby Girl over (knowing full well what was wrong), and I persisted in telling my wife there was nothing wrong. A little while later Baby Girl was fine, and indeed, she appeared to be quite happy for the rest of the day.

This is not the end of the story however, and as we settled down for an evening of TV and small talk, I decided to tell my wife everything (leaving out the part of the volcanic eruption) that happened before she got home. Of course, she let me know then that she knew all along why the dog had a sideways step to her walk — because she could smell the beer on Baby Girl's breath, and she further told me that she was just waiting to see how long it would be before I 'fessed up as to what happened.

That evening taught me a few lessons I had forgotten

Lesson #1
Even though I am a professional contractor who specializes in working with engineers and many of our projects involve detailed plans and processes, I am not immune to project disasters that lurk in the shadows. No matter the project, how big or small, important or unimportant, you always have to be on guard for anything.

Lesson #2
Think! Danger lurks in the smallest details, and in this case, I failed consider how much pressure may have been built up in the fermentation tank before I removed the air lock. Just think about what would happen if this had been a high pressure hydraulic hose on a piece of construction, or lab equipment, or a radiator cap on one of the company trucks!

Lesson #3
Always properly store your records and try to keep a back up record just in case. Great Grandpa's recipe disintegrated to dust after we copied it.

Lesson #4
Dogs make lousy drunks, and they smell really bad.

Lesson #5
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER try to lie to a woman who is a wife and mother. You will not fool her for one moment and she will see right through your line of bullshit every time.

Closing Comment
As professionals, we learn that life is an everyday learning experience. When we make mistakes, after beating ourselves up about it, we must learn from those mistakes — to improve and enrich ourselves with experience. If we don't learn by our mistakes, then we fail to grow and advance not only our professional careers, but our personal lives as well. It is also our responsibility to teach and show others, to lead by example.

Thanks for listening and please note that no animals were harmed at anytime. They are quite happy.


Editor's Commentary —
Somewhere in lesson #5 is the further lesson to never, never, never lie about what is happening on the job. Not to the owner, not to the contractor, not to the architect, not to the engineer, not to your boss, not to yourself. Think about it. What if you are an earthwork contractor and you find out that your "guys" forgot to call the testing lab for density testing on that lift that is now buried by 5 other lifts. What are you going to do? Keep on trucking?

Let's step outside the box, however, and think about what it means to you and your credibility if the geotechnical engineer comes to the job site and sees you ripping out yesterday's compaction work, and, on his inquiry about it, you tell him what happened. Whom do you think that the geotech is going to "press for" the next time he is discussing a critical job with a client? Somebody who is going to try and cover up mistakes ..... or YOU?

Putting the shoe on the other foot, what if you are the geotechnical engineer on a job, and the contractor mentions to you during one of your field visits (you DO go to the field don't you?) that the pier bottoms sure seem to be in some mighty soft dirt (yeah, they will call it "dirt" — get over it), and you instantly knew that you, or one of your own, had miscalculated the bottom depths of those piers that the contractor at that very moment was drilling? Knowing that the contractor has probably worked plans for every engineering firm in town, and drilled more piers than you will ever design, what do you do? Do you get flustered and defensive, and tell the contractor that his job is to do it per plan, thus incurring risk for yourself, the contractor, the owner and others; or, do you "visit" with him and rework the design even if it means extra depth and extra charge?

Back to that contractor — the guy with the 8th grade education — next time HE is asked by an owner about which engineers he knows of that are all about doing things right, whom do you think HE will mention to this potential client — one of the other guys ....... or YOU? I think we all know the answer. Good people work with good people. Now go hunt for good people and get to working with them. Leave the rest behind.