Monday, September 26, 2011

Hoover Dam Stories: Alabam

If you were to ask any of the workers on the Hoover Dam in the 1930's who were the important men at the site, several names would be mentioned: Frank Crowe, Charlie Shea, Walker Young.  You would also hear the name Alabam, a man that one of the workers stated was 'one of the most important men on the job, next to Crowe.'  But, Alabam was not an engineer, or a government official, or even a general construction worker. Alabam's job was to clean the latrines.  And he took it seriously. 

Alabam was an older man and not physically capable of performing the hard labor required of a member of the general construction crew.  He was assigned to keep the latrines, then called the 'chick sales' or the 'Jiggs' or the 'one-holer', clean and well stocked.  It was not a glamorous job, nor was it an easy one.  Consider the number of 'one-holers' required for 5,000 workers.  Consider these sitting in the middle of the desert in temperatures over 120 degrees.  

Alabam was often seen with his shovel and his 'good necklace', a string of toilet paper rolls that hung around his neck.  He shoveled waste, threw lime, swept out the latrines and made sure they were always stocked with toilet paper.  He referred to himself as 'the sanitary engineer', and workers say he always had a good attitude about it. 

"Alabam" by sculptor Steve Ligouri

One of my favorite stories about the man comes from the oral history of a dam worker.  One day, a construction worker noticed Alabam fishing around in a latrine hole with a stick.  The worker asked what he was doing, and Alabam told him he had dropped his coat in the hole.  The worker said, "You don't want (it) after it's been down there."  Alabam's reply: "I don't care about the coat, but my lunch is in the pocket." 

Alabam was one of the thousands of ordinary men that found their way to the Nevada desert during the Great Depression and did whatever job he could find in order to survive.  It didn't matter what the job was, he put his heart into it and performed his duties in a way that gained him the respect of the other workers.  But is the common man, the latrine cleaner, ever remembered? Ever commemorated?  Well, yes.   

In the town of Boulder City, the city that built the Hoover Dam, a public arts program has sprung up in the past few years that includes several bronze statues commemorating the workers that built the dam.  There are puddlers, and women strolling through town, and children playing. And as you drive down Nevada Way, you will see a life-size statue of Alabam with his shovel and his necklace. The common man, the outhouse cleaner, never to be forgotten. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dam Dragon

I have been editing, revising, slashing, adding, rewording and reworking my WIP for several months now, and my deadline to have it 'finished' is October 25th. As I get closer to that date, it seems the fine tuning, getting the details 'just right', is the most difficult part of the entire process for me.  I have lived in the 1931 desert for almost two years, at least on paper, and I am so familiar with it, that I have become lost in the intimacy. 

Time for a change of scenery.

I often talk about moving my 'writing desk' to different places.  In the past year, I've written at the lake, in the desert, on a boat, in a plane, at a boxing match, in a hospital cafeteria, etc.  But, I'm not talking about that kind of change of scenery.  I'm talking about getting out of my world and spending some time in another.

Recently, Ciara Ballintyne, a twitter friend, asked if anyone would critique a short story she had written. I knew that Ciara wrote in the fantasy genre, and although I do read a lot while I'm writing, I tend to stay within my time period, or read authors whose styles are similar to my own.  At the time Ciara offered her story up for review, I was tired of beating my head against a wall with my own WIP and agreed to read it.  I needed to step out of my routine.

It was a beautifully written fantasy piece with dragons and fire and sirens, not at all what you would find in my current WIP.  It took me, temporarily, to a different place: a different world.

Since I was critiquing and not just reading for pleasure, I had to dive into that world for a bit. I had to analyze it, critically.  I had to be the thief, the dragon, the demon half-breed and the priest in order to see what they saw.  I enjoyed the story and the diversion, but when I went back to my own WIP, I discovered something else. 

Going to a different world for a bit forced me to see my own work with new eyes.  Eyes that now hungered for the color, the fear and the magic of other worlds.  Granted, I can't have a dragon swoop down on the Hoover Dam and set everything afire, but there were other formidable dangers that were just as daunting to my characters.  I can't really insert a magic-slinging evil fairy, but my villain could sling a few things of his own.  I went back through the first half of my manuscript and added more color and more fear.  It took only a few words, a few sentences here and there to heighten the drama and add that little extra bit of magic.  

As a writer, you do have to immerse yourself in your work and at times become the character and see what they see.  But it's also important to step out of that world and view it as a whole.  Sure, I could assume the role of a bystander atop a mountain looking down into the Black Canyon.  But thanks to a temporary vacation to another world, instead, I flew through the canyon on the back of a scaly red dragon. 

What a view.

Visit Ciara Ballintyne's website at:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Hoover Dam Stories: The Jumbo Rig

My father worked his entire life in the trucking industry and I eventually did, too, working twelve years in companies that specialized in land, ocean container and air freight.  So I have been around trucks most of my life and frankly, I like trucks.  Stick with me on this one.     

Before the actual construction of the Hoover Dam could begin, the Colorado river had to be diverted around the site. This required the drilling of four tunnels, each 56 foot in diameter and approximately 3/4 of a mile long through solid rock.  Using pneumatic drills, a few dozen holes were drilled into the wall and stuffed with dynamite (a lot of dynamite. It's estimated that it took a ton of dynamite for every fourteen foot of tunnel).  After the blast, all of the rock and debris had to be shoveled out and taken upstream and the process started over.  In the beginning, it took countless men, drilling, dynamiting and shoveling to make an inch of progress.  

The old, slow way. And that's a big drill.

Using ladders to drill the holes at the highest points wasn't the greatest idea. The pneumatic drills that were used were big and bulky and weighed about forty pounds.  The vibration that was generated from one of those monsters alone was enough to knock a man off a ladder.

So how do you drill thirty holes at different heights, pack them with dynamite and move all of the valuable equipment and workers to a safe distance before a blast?  This was a question that the engineers working on the project struggled with.

Then in steps the Jumbo Rig. 

To build a Jumbo: You start with something as sweet as this 1920 Mack 

 The Jumbo Rig, or Jumbo Truck was the brainchild of Bernard "Woody" Williams.  Why not create a scaffolding system on wheels?  Why not.  Taking one of the 1916 International flatbeds that he'd seen around the site, Williams had planks of timber mounted on the truck's bed that would accommodate up to thirty drillers standing at three levels to drill simultaneously.  At first this was slow, too, as the vibration caused by all of those drills being used at once required that the wooden struts be hammered back together after every round of drilling. But the idea was sound, and steel jumbos soon followed.  These jumbos had two platforms for drillers to stand on, the third level of men working from the ground.  It also had horizontal bars at the three levels, where the pneumatic drills hung by swivels.  The process then became: Back the truck up to the solid rock wall, drill the holes, pack them with dynamite, tie them together and then pull the entire truck a safe distance away while the blowman detonated.  Then clear away the debris and do it again.  

And you turn it into this.

Eventually, there were eight Jumbo rigs used in the construction of the tunnels.  Did they save time? Of course, in fact, the tunnel crews finished a year ahead of schedule. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 10, 2001

I dropped my husband at McCarran thirty minutes before he was to take to the Friendly Skies. It was a Monday night and he only had one carry-on, so getting through security would be quick. Plenty of time.

I hurried home.  My two sons and I were off to a middle grade school football game.  The stadium was packed, but we found our way through the crowd, me toting my backpack full of goodies and my video camera, and found a place to sit.  I don't remember who won, I guess it didn't matter. 

It was dark when we left the game and I'm sure I looked up at the steady stream of airplanes flying into Vegas.  Most people don't notice, but since my husband worked for one of the major airlines, I knew as long as they were in their standard path everything was fine.  It rarely deviated.  I couldn't imagine the night sky without the lights of the planes carrying thousands of visitors from all over the world to visit our city. We take comfort in strange things, this was one of mine.

The boys and I talked about school during dinner.  "D" was excited about his upcoming competition that involved building a city of the future. "T" was into sports and although he had signed up for soccer for the fall season, he was already talking about basketball in the Spring. 

After the boys were in bed, I watched the news.  Bermuda was expecting a storm.  Suicide bombers in Israel and Afghanistan.  All so very far away.  My husband called to say he had arrived safely in San Francisco so I got ready for bed.  The doors were locked, my dog on guard duty. We were safe. 
In bed, I thought about how the next several years would directly influence the rest of my sons lives.  Everything at school, everything at home, everything that happened around the world.  What kind of men would they become? In ten years, what would be important to them?   I could imagine "D"  an engineer and "T" in a more physical profession.  A fireman.  Yes. I liked that idea.

As I shut my eyes, I thought about the next day. Tuesday.  Nothing special.  Just another day.  I was okay with that.

How quickly things change.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Music to Edit By….

Music nurtures creativity and many writers incorporate music into their writing routines.  I know some who listen to show tunes, classical music or just their favorite mix while they write. I know a certain crime writer who listens to opera, and a chick lit author who states her best writing happens when she blasts ear-shattering acid rock through her headphones.  Everyone is different.   

I don’t listen to music while I write, preferring the sound of fingers to keyboard.  However, I do typically listen to music of the specific time period I am visiting before writing to get me in the mood.  Most recently my selections have been from the 1930’s and I have discovered a new appreciation for Eddie Cantor, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.  But modern music, or even music from the past thirty years, hasn’t played much of a role in my writing process.  Until recently.

I am now in the editing process of my novel, Ragtown, which is set during the 1930’s.  I am to the point where I have certain scenes that I am trying to get ‘just right’.  Last week while in the car, I was thinking of a specific scene that didn’t build the way I wanted it to.  Then Michael Jackson and KKLZ 96.3 saved me. As I sang along to “Will You Be There” I realized that was exactly the beat I wanted my scene to take: the crescendo leading to an amazing climax.  I went home, dug out my old Dangerous CD, and sat down to edit. It was just the example, and in this particular song the inspiration, I needed.  The scene is now just as it should be.   

Lucky for me, I am a lover of all types of music, which has played well into my latest editing technique.  I now have scenes that I have edited while listening to Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Guns & Roses “Welcome to the Jungle.” (Yep, that’s how I roll)

I DARE you not to feel it at the 2:35 mark

I doubt that I will ever change my routine during the writing process for fear of using anachronistic phrases that the lyrics might inspire.  I don’t want my 1930’s ragdoll referring to her love interest as ‘her boo’ nor do I want my protagonist referring to himself as the ‘real slim shady.’

But for editing, anything is game: as long as it has the right beat.   

What do you listen to while writing/editing?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

For the Love of Research

Last week, I stated on twitter that I easily do ten hours of research for every one hour of actual writing.  I wasn’t surprised that I heard from six other historical writers that said, ‘yes, that’s about right.’ I also heard from another half dozen writers in various genres who basically said, ‘you must be out of your mind.’ You do have to enjoy your subject and enjoy research in general. You also have to be willing to tuck 90% of what you learned into the Trivial Pursuit folder in your mind, because hours of research may give you one great chapter-or one great paragraph-or just one great line.

But here’s a secret.  Researching can be a lot of fun.  (Shh... Don’t tell, or everyone will start doing it.)

My dive buddy---I had the camera
The site of my upcoming novel, Ragtown, is now under Lake Mead, making it difficult to actually walk the wash area that was once a tent city and home to thousands of Hoover Dam workers and their families. I still wanted to go there.  So I slapped on the dive gear and visited Ragtown-- even donated a set of ankle weights and a dive knife to the site for future researchers to ponder.

Boxing night at the Hard Rock
I have a scene in my novel that revolves around a boxing match. I read everything I could about boxing in the 1930’s, and not saying I am an expert (ask me anything about Ray Sharkey or Max Schmeling), but I learned quite a bit. Still, I needed to ‘be there’ to write the scene effectively.  Luckily for me, I live in Las Vegas, where boxing matches are a dime a dozen.

Not a zoomed photo
How can you write about the intense yellow eyes of a Bighorn sheep unless you have looked into them?
I write about the prostitutes who worked behind the Railroad Pass Casino in 1931.  The small shacks are long gone, but I felt I needed to walk the path from the casino that led to 'Whore Row'.  How far was it? What was the view from there? I’m not unfamiliar with walking in the desert and I usually find something interesting that I didn’t expect. Yes, I found the proverbial dead body in the desert that day.

(Sorry, no picture. The Coroner wasn’t thrilled that I asked.)

My most recent adventure? What I call ‘eating rocks.’ I am currently working with Craig Childs, possibly the greatest nature/adventure writer of our time, a man who the New York Times calls “a modern-day desert father.” He bleeds sand and cries cactus juice. He suggested that I ‘taste the desert’, or at least the area near Lake Mead where my story takes place. Be a part of the landscape. Put a river rock in my mouth and see what it feels like.

I was hesitant, even though I knew it would involve a day at the lake, which is hard to say no to. And Craig is brilliant and hasn’t steered me wrong yet.  So I did it.
What happened? I will leave that for my protagonist to explain.

In the meantime, check out the 'modern-day desert father' Craig Childs at his website: