Fire In the Hole
Great moments in building history: Digging usually never leads to fire
Among the many skills that must be mastered by a jack-of-all-trades, digging a hole would seem to pose the fewest problems. But life’s challenges are not always found in difficult jobs. As I have learned, they will sometimes spring up in the most innocent of tasks.
A few years ago I fashioned my career as a musician around various odd jobs, many of which were offered to me by my friend Jeff, a real-estate broker. Jeff always seemed to have a small job that fit both my schedule and his desire for cheap and quick labor.
Some of these jobs required inventiveness, like the time I painted the inside of one of his houses where the tenants had moved, but their dog’s fleas remained. Plastic garbage bags slipped over my feet and taped above my knees worked reasonably well as a defense against the fleas, given the limited leaping ability of the tiny critters. But I ran out of ideas when confronted with painting the baseboards, and I had to resort to chemical weapons. Always ask about animals when taking a job.
When I delivered a new refrigerator to one of Jeff’s rental houses, I introduced a new rule for my truck: always tie things down. I instituted this rule halfway in the delivery trip when in my rear-view mirror I watched a full-size fridge execute a perfect back-flip dive.
But perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve encountered was digging some holes for a fence I was building at Jeff’s house. He had tired of tracking down his dog, a Samoyed of great wanderlust, and asked if I would build a fence around his waterfront home. The project seemed well suited to my tools and abilities at the time, so I agreed to start the next day. My survey, layout and construction progressed smoothly, though the sandy soil slipping through the post-hole digger presented a small challenge. Soon I had all the posts and the rails planted. Next came the gatepost, which I planned to install next to the house.
I began to dig, but after I got down maybe 2 ft., I was startled by a sudden, loud pop as a small flame sparked from the bottom of the hole. Having already dug two dozen holes that day, I recognized this as being abnormal hole activity. I saw nothing in the hole, so I continued and plunged the digger into it one more time. Again a loud pop with smoke and flame. This my poor brain was unable to digest, so I decided to get a second opinion.
My friend Kim, another musician-cum-handyman, was doing some interior painting that day. So I went inside to fetch him to witness this strange affair. I directed him to stand over the hole as I thrust the digger down. Again the hole spit fire and smoke. “I don’t know what it is, Mike,” he said as he jumped back. “But I sure wouldn’t dig a hole there if I were you.” As I stood there scratching my head wondering how to move a hole, Kim went inside. He returned a moment later and said his power tools and the household appliances no longer worked, which meant I had probably found…
Electricity, at least in my experience to that date, had always entered a house from overhead; buried lines seemed somehow unsafe. Suppose it rained, and the roads flooded? Kim and I went inside to scan the phone directory under Electricians, Goofball Repairs A Specialty, where we also discovered a free service for locating buried lines called, oddly enough, Mis Quik. So, good construction engineer that I was, I made a belated call to them and then knocked off for the day, leaving Jeff to cope with the electricity problem.
Jeff called the electric company that afternoon, but the repair crew did not arrive until 1 a.m. As Jeff showed the workers the hole and explained my problem with the gatepost, they obliged by putting a neat loop in the service wire around where the post should go and then filled in the hole. But they asked what had happened to the fellow that dug this; he severed a 220v service entrance line, and the humidity should have been just enough to make a good connection. Did he survive?
I still have the post-hole digger, with three quarter-sized bites taken off one blade. But the real shock that day wasn’t where I was digging, but how. You see, to bind the loose, sandy soil as I dug, I had used the garden hose to water down the dirt in the holes. But at least I knew that when standing in soggy mud, if something strange spits fire at you from a hole in the ground, you don’t reach in with a hand but poke it with a sharp stick instead.
—Michael Brubaker, Savannah, Ga.