Editor's Blog

Aliens Among Us: A Tribute to Engineers

December 23, 2010
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The engineer built this retaining wall to the same specs as the Hoover Dam.

I’ve been thinking a lot about engineers lately and concluded they must be alien beings. For reasons I do not understand, God sent these advanced life forms to earth to keep people like me from mass chaos. There must be an engineering angel whose job is to keep us from self-destruction.

Two recent developments led me to this epiphany.

This summer, I started demolishing a retaining wall and deck my father built back in the 1960s. The cinderblock wall and cement deck functioned beautifully around our above ground swimming pool for most of my youth.

Then, in the 1970s, my dad transformed our pool into a garden, and it has been producing tomatoes and onions ever since. Unfortunately, my father passed away and the secrets of his cement structure were lost forever.

The structure was showing some wear and tear, so the “smart” thing to do was to knock it down and return it to its long-ago status as a grass-covered hill.

“This will be a piece of cake,” I told my family members. “Just a few hardy swings with a sledge hammer and we’d reduce the structure to rubble.”

Somehow, I severely underestimated its structural integrity. The cinderblock wall wasn’t so bad, but the cement deck apparently was built to the same specs as the Hoover Dam.

The pad was several inches thick and hid an encased a wire mesh. Nearly a half century later, it was still solid as a rock.

It took five adult men countless hours to slay the beast. We only missed our target demolition date by three weeks.

Did I mention that my father was an engineer? This is the same guy who reveled in assembling televisions from 500-part kits (Heath kits), so it was really brainless of me to think this structure would come down in less time than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

If I would been in charge of this project it would collapsed decades ago. It would have caved in the pool, creating a tidal wave that would have flooded our basement. The insurance adjuster would have concluded a tornado blew through our yard. I would have nodded in agreement.

The second development that made me think about engineers was an announcement from GM that it is discontinuing its Pontiac brand of cars. You can read the mournful details here.

When I read this story, I was transported back to 1977, the year I graduated from high school. The first car I owned was a 1968 dark green Pontiac LeMans. I sometimes called it a Pontiac “Lemons,” but in all honesty it was far better to me than I was to it.

My other nickname for my LeMans was “The tank” because the Pontiac engineers created a beast of a car. It was fast, tough, safe and durable, the perfect car for a teenager with no common sense.

That poor car was driven excessively hard and recklessly. I squealed the tires, took turns on two wheels, ran over curbs, and raced on Woodward.

I even engaged in dangerous games of bumping into my friend’s bumpers. We stopped short of whiplash, but not by much. But thanks to some great engineering, the front and rear bumpers sustained only scratches.

The LeMans also endured a couple accidents that added some dents to the side panels. One time I drove it for six months without a muffler before getting a ticket and finally visiting the Muffler Man repair shop.

My attempts at maintenance were minimalist. I loved driving it, but not working on it. Despite my meager TLC, the car kept on going. I finally retired it in college when a friend found me another car for a cheap price.

I’m not sure why I agreed to buy the “new” used car and sell the LeMans. All I know is I have regretted the decision. If I could go back in time, I’d keep the LeMans and treat it better. Maybe, I would still own it today.

I don’t know about you, but every time I drive over a bridge, ride an elevator, or fly in a plane, I am thrilled to know that somehow an engineer made these things work.

As you ring in 2011, offer a silent toast to engineers – the aliens who make our lives better.
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