Well, I’ve finished (and passed) my capstone, so I’ve basically graduated, and have been enjoying a little break for the first time in seven months, and haven’t really written much. I have a few (several, actually) buns in the oven, irons in the fire, whatever you want to say, that I’ll be working on soon. But I thought it might be worth posting the three stories I wrote for my capstone (I gave a preview of one of them a little while ago), which will last me a little while.
So here’s the first one. The goal with these stories was to write a non-fiction narrative vignette for each situation (whether the vignette is of the location, the environment, the employee, etc.). I got a 99% score on them, which is pretty good, although my teacher didn’t specify why he didn’t give me a 100%. I care very little about it, it affected my final grade so little, but the grades I got on my assignments were just so fucking arbitrary. I don’t think I should have gotten 100% on it, that’s not the issue, I just don’t understand why he chose 99% instead of 100%. They only had a rubric for the final (complete) assignment, so for the other assignments (first drafts of each chapter) he could basically give me whatever grade he wanted and I couldn’t do anything about it.
deep breath it’s okay, i’m done, i don’t have to put up with this shit any more
Anyway, here’s the first one. The name of the location is changed slightly, but still expresses the same thing, in an odd way.
The front gate, the entrance into the main building, it was all modern. Slick, but sterile.
The large, steel building made little visual impact, in fact I had passed by it many times without ever noticing what it was, but the two sets of security guards I had to go through made their mark on me. I knew I was heading somewhere few outsiders did and, while I had a camera and recorder, I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to use them. I debated about discretely turning it on, but decided against it. The government scares me, man, but they sure do a lot of interesting stuff.
They meticulously checked my identification, twice, which awarded me my guest pass, but they didn’t look through my bag or make me go through a metal detector, which I found surprising.
I was told that Joe would come pick me up and I took a seat at one of the few chairs scattered around the entry. This building was relatively modern, with relatively modern decor. While waiting, I saw a few people pass through, several into an auditorium.
I had expected Joe to come into this room through the hall beside the guard chamber, but he actually came in around through the front door, which he then led me out through. Joe was my neighbor, but I didn’t really know him. As I would soon learn, he liked talking. I had told him earlier that I had just wanted to watch him work. He said his work was boring. I said that was fine. But he seemed to appreciate having someone to talk to, someone to explain his work to just out of interest rather than, as he explained later, out of necessity for a client to understand what is happening.
He came in through the front door, which I didn’t expect. He told me that he’d show me around the facility for a little while, so I could see some of the areas they do physical testing, then head to his office.
“Is there anything particular you want to do?” he asked.
“Not really, I mostly just wanted to observe you work, and ask some basic questions about how you got into this job, what your degree is, that kind of thing.”
“Alright. I’ll be leaving in about an hour, so I don’t have much work left to do, but I can show you what I have.”
He led the way into a massive warehouse-like building. It opened into one large open room, which ran the length of the building, with a small office directly on the right, probably for security. Three sets of doors could be seen going along the interior wall, and we walked up to the first.
I was astounded by the sheer height of the doors. Floor to forty-foot ceiling – and I mean, really, floor to ceiling. There was no wall at the top, only door. He tried opening them, but almost wished that he wouldn’t. For some reason, I had a bad feeling about those doors. I couldn’t imagine why on earth they would need to be so large, and suspected them as a result. But he couldn’t pry the open, although whether that was because they were locked or simply their enormous size, I couldn’t tell.
We moved to the second door, which was more moderately sized, and opened without a problem. He began explaining what it was used for, and I asked if I could record this.
“Oh, uh, I’m not sure…” He saw the recorder in my hand, which had seemed to start recording of its own accord, and continued. “Our conversation, you mean? Sure, that’s fine. I just wasn’t sure about taking photos.”
My suspicion about photos confirmed, I thanked him and slipped the recorder in my pocket. Unfortunately, I didn’t look closely at the display, for if I had, I would’ve noticed that the section that normally said “Over 100 hours”, referring to the available space remaining on the memory card, now said something else. Only later would I learn that none of the recordings I made were saved.
He began explaining the machinery in the room again. A long, boxlike tunnel ran, hanging above the ground, the length of the room. He looked around for a light switch, since this room was currently in disuse and thus wasn’t lit up, but couldn’t find one.
“We can bring all of these rooms to, uh, around negative thirty degrees. I think it varies a bit between rooms, like some might be negative twenty five and others might be negative thirty two, but yeah. So, this tunnel here, you see, we can run water through that and bring the temperature down, to simulate ice on a river in winter.
“You see,” he said, gesturing below the tunnel, “there are these holes in the cement below it on either end? Well, that lets us cycle the water through it.”
I heard a sound behind us and whipped around. Someone was walking in the long room of the warehouse, and Joe greeted him as we left the room. That was the last person I would see in this entire building.
We went to the third room which, again, had more reasonably sized doors. This seemed to be the largest room yet, although the lack of lighting in the previous room made that hard to tell. This didn’t have any obvious machinery set up, mostly just a clutter of equipment, boxes, maybe even a small boat or two.
“So what we can do in this room is, you know, clear all this shit out, and then we can essentially create a scale model of a river in here to do testing. We can bring the temperature of this one down, too,” he said.
“A miniature model of a river? So, would that be for a specific river, or would it just be for rivers in general?”
“A specific river, a specific section of a river, yeah. They’re all very unique, and we need to test different things for them. We can get a detailed three dimensional model of a river, then scale it down and build it in here, and then test specific things with it. With a room this size, we can accurately scale down a river as large as, say, the Minnesota river.”
We left the room, then took a turn right, up some stairs, and the age of the building started to strike me. It was very obviously built in the 60’s or 70’s, and had changed little since then. The painted cinder blocks, the dull grey-green filing cabinets, all with the tiny castle symbol that marked them as Army Corps of Engineers property, the wood paneling. The main building hadn’t struck me in this way, but I just figured that it was of higher aesthetic importance.
He led the way to his office and offered me a seat, taking his own in front of his computer monitors. The desk, or desks, were set up in an L shape around him, and a dedicated coffee pot was on his right side, next to his phone. I had thought it might have just been sitting there, but it was plugged in.
“Can I get you something? Coffee?”
“No, I’m fine.”
He seemed relaxed, comfortable, and his voice reflected that. A scatter of cords, wires, devices, papers, and folders covered the long side of the L. Old, basic metal shelves, probably originals, clashed visually with reddish wood and green upholstered chairs, a modern mini-fridge, and boxes that looked decades old.
“So is there anything in particular you want to talk about?” he asked.
“Well, I guess, to get things started, how did you get into this job?”
Before telling that, he wanted to give a bit of his history that led to his working in this field at all. He started in engineering, at Rutgers, but ditched that after a year to switch to history. He soaked in all the liberal arts he could, then ended up finalizing with a degree in psychology. In that murky in-between period, between finishing a degree and starting a job, your real job, he spent his time working at restaurants, doing construction, and even starting a dog training business. He certainly could talk – that summarized pretty quickly, but the amount of details he gave was extreme, and I scratched them down in my notebook as fast as I could. It was natural, it wasn’t as if he just as chatty or rambling on, it was that he had a lot to tell and was detail-oriented enough to tell it all.
I never know where to look when I’m talking with someone. Their eyes is the obvious choice, but if you look someone straight in the eyes for too long, it gets a bit weird. It might seem threatening, for one, but additionally my eyes always did this weird thing. If I stared at something for too long, the exact point I was looking at would stay clear but everything else would dissolve and warp around it, until the only thing I could see would be those eyes, staring, alone in a world of murk and blur.
Once, while we were talking, I heard, or more sensed, someone passing by in the hall. The door was closed, and the glass was frosted in a way that, combined with the brightness of Joe’s office in comparison to the darkness of the hall, hid anything behind. It was just a general whoosh, the sound of movement itself, rather than the sounds created by movement, such as a creak or footstep. The building was empty, aside from the two of us and that phantom. When we first came here I had a sudden thought of Chernobyl, and that sense of atmosphere remained.
After doing the in-between jobs for a while, and feeling a bit divided about it, he decided to get another Bachelor’s degree, this time in civil engineering. He had thought he’d go into mechanical engineering, but the opportunity to learn a variety of fields with that degree introduced him to hydrology and hydraulics. As he described to me, hydrology is the study of how water finds its way into a river or other body of water, and hydraulics is the study of how the water moves once it is in the body of water.
After getting his second degree, he found himself in another in-between time, this time debating about whether he should get his Master’s. He worked, hard, in that time to save up a bit more money, then returned to college to get a Master’s in Environmental Engineering. After that, he worked in the Army Corps in Buffalo, then the Department of Agriculture, then found his way to CERDC, where he had worked for the past almost three years.
“So, we can just go now, if you think that’s enough, or I can work a bit on what I’ve got going here.”
“Whatever you want is fine, I’m up for either.”
He opted to do a bit of work on his current project, studying a river in Idaho. It was a one-dimensional study, he told me, which just measured the flow of water going up or down the river.
“You can do two-dimensional studies, which measure the flow of water in the river from side to side, but gathering the data is a lot harder and it gets exponentially harder to compute. Part of our job is efficiency – we could get more accurate results by using additional dimensions, but it would take much more time and a lot more money, for more powerful computers. Three-dimensional studies are possible, as well, measuring the flow of water from the surface to river bed, but I don’t know if many people do that, since it’s so much harder.”
He had three lengths of graph on the screen, comparing different variables. Temperature, wind speed, humidity, flow, stage, SWE, density, wind direction, solar radiation, AFDD. Two giant drill bits, the kind used to drill large holes through deep ice, leaned against the wall, partially wrapped in something, though whether that was to protect the walls or the screws, I didn’t know. I noticed a pair of sunglasses that he wore, although I don’t think I ever saw him actually wear them. They were just perched on his head the entire time.
While he was switching between diagrams, graphs, and charts, I thought of another question. “So, what made you interested in water, specifically?”
“Oh, well, when I was young I did a lot of camping and fishing and, because of that, spent a lot of time near rivers. Something about them interested me, just the way they flowed and the power of water, and I guess that eventually brought me to my job.”
Around four, he said he was done, and we headed out of the building. When we were out front, I noticed a little castle symbol, below the block lettered “CORPS OF ENGINEERS RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CENTER”, and asked him about it.
“Well, I don’t know as much about the castle itself, but the Army Corps of Engineers has been around for a long time. Since the Revolutionary War, actually. Apparently, General Washington appointed someone an Army Engineer, and that’s what the Army Corps of Engineers considers its origin.”
I had had no idea of its age. The building itself was old, of course, but CERDC was only one section of the Army Corps of Engineers, and I knew little about the group as a whole. CERDC had seemed imposing at the start. It made quite an impression, but once I was inside, it felt hollow and disused, the main exception being those obscenely tall doors in the warehouse. But the fact that it could feel old and disused, and existed as part of a group as old as our country itself, made it even more imposing in a way.