Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Bomb Shelter

Part Two 

Most backhoes are mounted on skip loaders and have modest buckets. In California, we use them mostly for trenching. The larger, truck-mounted backhoes have fearsome buckets and can fill a dump truck with 5 or 6 scoops. Accordingly, mine came accompanied by four dump trucks, all waiting patiently up and down the street as the operator rigged up for digging. I laid out my concerns to him.

"My laborers there are taking out the half of my front-porch slab that will be in the pit. I've shored up the porch roof, and the shores are outside the pit, but you need to be careful. I'll lose the roof, if you knock one out."
"No problem. You taking the pit right to the house? What about the foundation?"
"There's a basement there. I'm told that you can cut a straight bank with this unit."
"Man, I can carve a statue with this baby. You're building an addition to your basement?"

"Actually, it's a bomb shelter with access from the basement. You'll need to go down 12 feet, stay true to those lines and stay plumb as you go down. Those banks are going to be my outside forms."
"You're going to pour against dirt banks?  Twelve feet down?"
"Right. I'm aware of the risk."
"I shoulda known. I filled over one of these fallout shelters once with a track loader. I thought I busted my tailbone when the roof collapsed under me. I dropped 8 feet! Good thing I know your address. I'll know what to tell Al if he needs somebody here in a month or so."
"You needn't worry. The shelter I'm building will survive a blast, not just fallout, and you could run a tank over it with no problems. Right now, I'd prefer that you demonstrate your bank carving skills."

He was good, but he wasn't a sculptor. He cleared the porch-slab rubble and the lawn sod into the first truck, so the other loads would be good dirt. I had arranged with a dirt broker to take all the excavated material in exchange for bringing back what I would need to fill the top, after I'd built the shelter. As the long arm of the backhoe reached farther into the pit deepening before me, I gained an appreciation for the challenges he faced. He clawed lightly along my basement wall, took out huge mouthfuls in the center, and followed my line closely. However, he stayed 2 or 3 inches inside, at his suggestion. If he found any slough-off areas, I could handle them better with a hand trimming operation after he finished. He had to change positions to line up with each bank, position the trucks, and he moved through each operation with the skill of a pro. Before his work day ended, the last truck had left, he was rigging his equipment back to highway mode, and I had my pit. We had removed 150 cubic yards, and it showed. Our green lawn had been interrupted by a pit, 28' long, 12' wide, and 12' deep. In the twilight, it looked deeper and darker.

My wife came out and looked down from what was left of the front porch.

"I can't see the bottom - it's almost to the sidewalk!"
"You can see the bottom, and it's two feet from the sidewalk."
"Two feet? Someone could fall in!"
"I've got the laborers putting up a construction fence now."
"How long do we have to look at that horror?"
I shrugged. "Like I told you, I have a business to run. I'm going to do most of the work, up to the pour, so I'll be doing this evenings and weekends. It could be awhile."

  I didn't have much spare time the next few evenings, but I did get a ladder down, carefully braced so that it wouldn't slough off bank dirt, and I built a scaffold along the banks. That weekend,
I climbed down, and mounted the scaffold. I hung down a plumb line and began spading down the bank to establish a form surface for my concrete pour. I spaded a section, then stopped and measured in from the plumb line. People had been slowing down as they drove by all week, but now that they didn't have to go to work, they walked by in increasing numbers and took the time to stand and watch.

"Do you mind telling me what you're doing?"
"I'm building an addition to my basement." I had already decided not to mention fallout shelter. Too many stories were floating around about the cave-ins.
"Won't your house look strange jutting out like that?"
"I'm not adding to the house, just the basement. The house is already at the set-back line."
"Couldn't you add on in your backyard?"
"Over the swimming pool?"
Each answer produced a tougher question. Evasions seem to produce that effect.
"You're the only person I know who has a basement. Nobody builds them in California."
"The people I bought from were from Kansas. They didn't feel comfortable without a cyclone cellar."
I could sense the unspoken question bouncing from one spectator to the next. You're adding to a basement you don't need?  I described fictitious uses: wine cellar, clean-room lab, isolation room, then told them I couldn't talk further; I needed to concentrate on my work. When I told later visitors that, they wanted to know why I was trimming with such care.
"Actually, I'm looking for bones and artifacts. This is an ancient Indian burial ground."

Between trimming, talking, and scaffold moving, it took me the weekend and some evenings into the following week to complete my bank work. Now, I had to consider the problem I had been ignoring. By the time I raked the trimmed dirt into piles and restored most of the slab sub-grade, I had over seven tons to remove. It seemed unbelievable, but the math worked out. 800 square feet of bank area times a 2" removal confirmed the amount. There was no practical way to drop equipment down there; it would have to be hand shoveled out. At 10 pounds of dirt per shovel, that meant a lot of shovel loads to toss 13 to 15 feet up and far enough out to keep the banks clear. Since most of my normal work day was spent pushing a pencil, I wasn't in the best of shape for what lay ahead.

The next Saturday, I was in the pit early, tossing shovel loads. A new group of passers-by peered down from the sidewalk.

"Man, that looks like work."
"It was easier when I was only three feet down."
"You dug that entire pit by hand?"
"How else? No way to lift a skip loader out of here, this far down."
"What did you do with the dirt?"
"Gave it to the neighbors. They've been picking it up in wheelbarrows for topsoil."

I probably shouldn't have put out that bit of whimsy. It gave me relief from shoveling, and it was interesting to watch their faces as they deliberated between belief and skepticism. Apparently, some believed me. Months later, I would pass people at the mall or elsewhere and notice their stares or hear whispers about the guy that dug the huge pit in his front yard.

I came out of the pit that evening totally exhausted. Most of the pile was still down there, and I called two of our laborers who, had previously told me they could use weekend work. They came out the next day and one suggested a rope and buckets. I told them that was out: the man hauling up would have to stand too near the bank; the dirt had to be thrown out. They shrugged, dropped into the pit, and started shoveling and tossing. It was what they did for a living, and we had the pit back to slab sub-grade by the end of the day. They did admit that they wouldn't want to work that hard every day.

I had told them to come back the next day, and I took the day off from business to lay the plastic sheeting. I picked up rolls of 12' wide, 6 mil plastic, and we started from one long bank. We carefully rolled it down one bank and up the other, cutting it well back of the bank edge. When all the bank and slab areas were covered, we taped all the lapped joints. If we did get a heavy rain, we'd have a small lake, but that could be pumped out. Hopefully, this would also hold the present moisture in the dirt banks so they wouldn't dry out. I was now ready for reinforcing steel.

The rebar sub-contractor came out later in the week with a load of 5/8" rebar, and I worked with the crew to build a chute area and lay wood beams to span the pit. One man above cut and bent the heavy bars to order and passed them down to the men fabricaring the slab grid. They moved from tying that  to  hanging the rebar wall grid from the beams. At the end of the day, we had a forest of steel spanning the pit floor and climbing eight feet up the pit walls. The bars weighed one pound per foot, so we had several tons down there, sitting on little concrete cubes on the floor and hanging by wires from the pit-spanning wood beams.

"I'd get a slab poured as soon as you can," the foreman warned me. "There's a lot of steel propped up down there."
"With dirt banks behind," I added.
He nodded. "That too."

I was now at the point of maximum risk. Would it be a money pit or a hell hole? We'll find out in Part Three.

Jack Eiden


  1. Great story, well told. The dialog gives the story life and added dimension.

    A Faraway View
    An A to Z Co-host blog

  2. Lee: Thanks for the comment. There's more construction detail than I like, but the point of the story requires the reader to know the amount of work and risk that the construction required.

  3. Ive seen pits like this dug and can show pictures. Hope it don't rain on him.