Pirouette of man and machine

When the construction crews arrived to repair the road in front of her house, the 'ballet' began.

After years of listening to the mind-numbing, truck-rattling ka-thunk, ka-thunk of tires hitting potholes in the heavily scarred road in front of our house, I felt euphoric. Winnebago County, in rural Illinois, had finally scheduled major road repairs, including drainage culvert replacements.

The Road Construction Ballet, as I have come to think of the troupe of workers who arrived one bright summer morning, would perform in front of my home.

I wanted to burst into a rendition of the "Hallelujah Chorus."

Instead, I nonchalantly meandered down to the end of our driveway to watch. Our property, located at the bottom of a V, was key to handling water runoff. Through the years, the culvert in front of our house had filled with soil that had washed down from cornfields and properties located uphill from us.

The roadworkers would remove the dirt, cracked cement, and old asphalt – and then shape and fill in the road edges for the next phase of the construction.

I grinned and waved at the lone man without a machine. He carried a can of spray paint and a shovel. He, the maestro, shook his baton – I mean, spray can – and tapped his shovel. He looked insignificant next to the three-foot-wide maws of the backhoe's hinged bucket or even the more conservative scoop of the Bobcat.

I motioned a request to watch, and he answered with an expressive shrug that conveyed, "Yeah, yeah, just stay out of the way."

Then, with no wasted motion, he waved a large 18-wheeler dump truck into position beside the backhoe.

The performance began.

Gingerly the backhoe sat on its metal treads in what had been the waterway that separated my front yard from the road's edge. The rotund man who sat like a king on his throne in the behemoth road-eater's cab moved his hand forward and the machine responded as though it were an extension of his reach. It stretched its mighty Erector-set neck upward and forward and then downward before using its massive teeth to tear out a chunk of the cement culvert.

As easy as a child grabbing a handful of sand, it tore away the dirt and stone and lifted it skyward. Gulping the mouthful and then swinging smoothly toward the semi-truck, it spat the bite into the empty bed.

I thought the semi would shudder under the assault. But at the last minute, the giant gently laid its load onto the truck's bed as if it were tucking in a babe for the night.

I looked at the portly king in the backhoe cab and gave him a thumbs up of appreciation for his skill. His face transformed into the grin of a kid at play.

For the next two hours I watched the perfectly timed ballet of men, machines, and trucks. The backhoe rhythmically chewed a trough along the road. In tandem, the handsome Nordic giant who wore the Bobcat like an overcoat followed with intricate pirouettes, scooping and depositing, leveling and smoothing fill dirt. The rhythm of this construction ballet moved to the beat of the Viking's gum chewing.

His performance also coordinated with the steady stream of dump trucks that brought piles of yellow dirt and gravel. When the Viking finished smoothing, a truck slipped ahead of him and into position. The trucker, satisfied with the location and angle, released the tailgate and the dirt slipped beneath, forming a tidy pyramid with only a fine dust rising into the blue sky.

Careful not to run over the little sports vehicles and family cars whizzing by, the dump truck tiptoed off stage, to reload for its next performance. The Bobcat, right on cue, moved in for another series of pirouettes.

Between the Bobcat, stage right, and the backhoe, stage left, the spray-can man with the tiny shovel meticulously scooped bits of dirt off the roadbed. He conveyed messages – via animated facial expressions and bold hand gestures – for all the performers from the backhoe operator to the truck drivers.

At both ends, just offstage, stood two men holding signs that told the waiting traffic when to enter the scene. In their other hands, they held phones or walkie-talkies and communicated verbally with the backstage crew filling and emptying trucks behind the scenes.

I applauded, gave thumbs up to the man and his shovel, clapped and bowed to the king of the backhoe, and wiggled my eyebrows at the sexy Bobcat Viking.

But, like true thespians, they remained focused on their performance.

Cleaning the last bit of dirt off the road, the spray-can man – with shovel swinging – followed the machines offstage.

Intermission began when the road crew jumped into a truck that drove up and whisked them off at the stroke of noon. The tires played a ka-thunk, ka-thunk tune, but now I heard it as a prelude to Act 2: road paving.

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