Calling All Yukes

The last of the machines was picked up Friday afternoon. The project is over. The weather proved so difficult that only 2/3 of the work is done and I’ll have to rent the excavator and bulldozer again some day. Perhaps I will have saved up enough money by fall.

Between the problematic weather and some machine breakdowns, the frustration was so acute it helps to look at photographs and remember how much beautiful work was actually accomplished. I’ll split the second week into two posts. I have cropped all photos in hopes of eliminating the need for a password.

The weather continued to skip around in the maddeningly capricious pattern that had established itself the moment I made firm plans to rent the heavy equipment.  One morning the excavator tracks were frozen solid and I had to bash out the ice as my friend cleverly tilted the machine to spin each track. Then within hours the temperature and wind rose and we had a thunderstorm.

Over the next days we had rain, thunderstorms, hail flurries, high wind, more rain. The surface of the ground became, in operator parlance, “greasy” — the top few inches of soil turned to mud and the big machine slipped and slid.

It meant constant corrections at the controls, and a lot more work for my friend. I knew he was tired when I brought him his lunch but he just looked out at the rain through my slapping windshield wipers and inquired mildly, “How come the weather is always shit when I’m out here?”

On Tuesday the Yuke arrived.

Last winter I’d mentioned to my friend that my daughter Lucy would be home for the summer and down at the farm with me. “Maybe she can drive the Yuke,” he joked. He had mentioned many times that we would need a Yuke to clear the back acres, but I had no idea what sort of machine this could be — for all I knew, it might have been a space ship. Lucy and I decided to get to the bottom of this mystery. She and I are the spellers in the family, so we googled every possible combination of letters. Nothing. I knew spelling was a challenge for my friend, but I asked him anyway. He had no idea. He searched his dictionary, called his son, talked to someone in the equipment business, then called me back. “It’s from the name of the company, y’ spell it something like E-C-U —” I interrupted: “Is it Euclid? Like the Greek?” “Yeah?” he said uncertainly. It turns out that in the 1950s EUCLID made the first big, articulated dump trucks. Though the company has since gone out of business, no one in construction speaks of “articulated dump trucks” — they speak of “Yukes.” (I have thought of putting up an entry on Wikipedia.)

A Yuke can carry tons of material and, with its 4-foot tires and 4-wheel drive, fight its way over terrain that looks like a war zone.

My friend knows most locals in the business and had in fact requested Brian, the Yuke driver. Nevertheless the moment Brian arrived, the male sparring began. I have worked with men for years and it always amuses me that the same men who are gentle and patient and even confiding with me are immediately foul-mouthed and needling when another male comes on the scene. Last summer I knew Luke, at 16, had proved himself in some fashion when the men began abusing him as one of the guys. The phenomenon doesn’t surprise me (I raise roosters, rams, and bulls, after all) but I have often reflected that it must be fatiguing to be a man.

However, my friend and Brian seemed perfectly content and got right to work. My friend would scoop the logs, dirt, stumps and rocks from the piles, and load it into the Yuke.

Brian would trundle the stuff away and dump it. Many tons went into the old gravel pit.

Notice the darkening sky. Soon it was pouring rain.

I was planting wheat when I heard thunder. I jumped in my truck and drove to warn the men, whose roaring machines would drown out the noise. My friend turned down the throttle of the excavator so he could hear me. He didn’t bother to answer, just smiled and sketched a zig-zag in the air with his finger. Only lightning concerned him.

“But where there’s thunder, there will be lightning!” I screamed up to him through the wind, but he was already back at work. I flailed through the mud over to Brian in the Yuke and begged him to keep an eye out.

“I been hit by lightning twice,” Brian said cheerfully. Oh, great. I got back in my truck, sopping, and decided to muck out the barn.

At noon I drove out again and we all ate in my truck, out of the weather. My friend had warned Brian at the beginning of the day that he would “work the piss out of him.” But of course, due to the division of machines, it was my friend who was working, harder and harder in the rain, while Brian stood watching and smoking as the Yuke was laboriously filled.

Unpacking his lunch, my friend sighed. Neither of us had realized just how tough the clearing job would be, and now it was too late.

“I wish there were something I could do,” I said anxiously.

“Hop up there and run it!” he said with a tired smile, nodding at the machine. He admitted his bad leg was aching. He could use a nap.

Then Brian arrived with his lunch box. It was at this point that I realized one of the benefits of male camaraderie. Men may allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of women, but with other men, they are more apt to be stoic and (at least in this case) happily profane. I listened through the rest of the break as my friend and Brian laughed over shared past jobs, misadventures, foolish co-workers, and terrible bosses. “Stupid bastard — buried the fucking thing — and then I said — broken manifold — ” I couldn’t follow most of it but they were very cheerful. It was obviously a restorative interlude.

Then back into the pelting rain. It is hard to overstate how difficult and slow the rain made everything. At one point the Yuke became mired in a deep mudhole and had to be pulled out with the excavator.

Lightning flashed (I didn’t see it; I was back in the barn — the men told me later). They just watched it warily and kept working.

Our original idea had been to have the Yuke for only one day. This plan was jettisoned early. It was a windy, wet slog — non-stop. Both men were stiff and tired by quitting time. “Why’d you call for all this weather?” Brian teased me as he left.

The second day dawned sunny. After another night of rain the ground was so saturated with water that it steamed in the morning cold, making the entire place look ghostly.

But again the skies soon darkened and a cold wind kicked up. I wrung my hands.

“Don’t matter,” said my friend. “Help dry things out.” Knowing how much the Yuke was costing me, he was determined to finish with it by the end of the day. He drove himself hard, barely stopping to eat. I could see he was exhausted and hurting but he would not accept Ibuprofen or take extra time to rest.

“I’m fine.”

“You are a mule!

I was cutting boards back at the barn when my cell phone rang. I had confided to Brian privately that I was worried over my friend’s health, and that if there were any problems he should call me immediately. My heart leapt into my throat. My hands shook so hard I dropped the phone. I snatched it back up. “Yes? Is he feeling sick?”

“Nope, he’s OK, broke a bolt on the bucket, wants you to bring one out.”

It took some time for the adrenalin to fade.

This was our second broken 4″ bolt. We carefully tapped out the old bolt and tightened down a new one. I chafed at every delay but the machines were being pushed almost as hard as the men.

My friend told me he had called home to tell his wife he would be working late. In past years, we’ve several times worked until 7 PM. However he just didn’t have the stamina any more. I was milking at 4:30 when I heard him bring the excavator in and park it. He was so tired he could barely climb down from the cab. I shoved my milk pail aside and went outside to hover worriedly. He started to apologize: “I wanted to finish but my eyes was goin’ cross-eyed.” He had tried to say something similarly apologetic earlier and I’d cut him off.

“Shut up!” I exclaimed. I never say words like shut up, but it made me crazy to see him so worn out by his health, the work, and the impossible conditions — and somehow feeling guilty.

He gave me a weary smile and shook his head.

“I’m a bad influence — teachin’ you bad language.”

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