WT Business Beat

By Nick Wakeman

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Sliced and diced

In the aftermath of the recent breaks of the undersea in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, there were concerns that they were the work of terrorists.

Reasons for the breaks are still murky, though the consensus seems to be that a ship's anchor dragging the bottom during a storm is to blame.

Since no one has claimed credit for crippling communications in large chunks of the world, I suspect that the cause of the breaks is too simple to satisfy conspiracy theorists.

But the incidents remind me on a very grand scale of a communications catastrophe my brother Dennis caused when we were growing up. And since it is a Friday, I thought I'd share.

Our grandfather had a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley on the main road between Luray, Va., and Stanley, Va. My parents live there now. In the two fields along the road, Granddaddy mostly grew corn.

I think it was probably the late 1970s, and Granddaddy asked Dennis to plow the field using a subsoil plow, which goes deeper into the ground to break up any hardpan that can form. Breaking the hardpan helps the soil drain better.

Granddaddy had a 1951 John Deere B tractor and a single-bottom subsoil plow. That meant that Dennis could only plow one row at a time, with the rows about 18 to 24 inches apart. Spread over 10 acres, it makes for several long days.

Dennis was maybe 14 or 15. Strong and eager, he went to work. Back and forth across the field, lifting the plow at the end of each row and dropping it back into the ground to start a new one. Sinking the plow into the soil would set the two-cylinder John Deere to popping as it pulled the subsoil plow to its full depth of 24 inches below the surface.

It wasn't long before Granddaddy noticed that his phone was dead. Dennis had very neatly sliced the cable running from the road to house. He didn't cut it just once; he cut it with practically every row he plowed.

Granddaddy was a little perplexed because the cable wasn't supposed to be where Dennis was plowing.

No big deal, the phone company had someone there quickly, who re-laid the cable and left.

Meanwhile, Dennis kept plowing. Back and forth, back and forth.

Suddenly, telephone trucks and supervisor cars were arriving in a hurry.

To put it into a little bit of country vernacular, these men were hopping mad and fit to be tied. And poor Dennis was their target.

They got him off the tractor and began yelling. Communications had been severed across the county. The connection to outside world was cut.

These men were not nice to him. They threatened him and told him he would be financially and criminally liable for the damage he had done.

Remember, Dennis was a kid and these were grown men trying to intimidate him.

But it wasn't long before Granddaddy noticed all the commotion and came down from the house.

A quick profile of Granddaddy: He wasn't a warm and fuzzy kind of guy. He was stern and strict with a very strong sense of right and wrong. When they were still milking cows by hand, pity the poor cow that tried to kick Granddaddy when he was milking her. He was quick enough and strong enough to grab her hoof in mid-kick and flip the cow over.

You didn't want to be on Granddaddy's bad side, but if he was coming to your defense ? even then in his early 80s - you couldn't ask for a better ally.

He also was smart. Not only a farmer, he was an electrician, a minister and a retired high school principle.

When he arrived on the scene these men tried to do to him what they were doing to Dennis, but they didn't stand a chance.

He asked them ? already knowing the answer: "How deep into the ground is the cable supposed to be buried? Answer: 36 inches.

"And how deep does that subsoil plow go?"
24 inches.

"So, are you telling me that you didn't bury your cable deep enough?"

Then he asking about the right of way and showed these men that the cable wasn't even laid in the right spot.

The men really started to stammer when he showed them that their own man ? not Dennis ? had cut the main cable. Dennis didn't do anything wrong.

Soon these guys were apologizing to Granddaddy and to Dennis. They couldn't have been nicer as more people arrived to rebury the cable.

Dennis got back on the tractor and went back to work.

I can only hope that if some poor sailor gets called to the brig to explain what happened with the anchor and the undersea cable, that he has someone like my Granddaddy to defend him.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Feb 22, 2008 at 7:22 PM


Reader Comments

Sat, Feb 23, 2008 Justin Porto VA

Nick, It is amazing to see that although the times and technologies change, the human aspect of the equation always seems to remain the same. I cannot remember how many times at my old residence and then on my farm in Mechanicsville VA, and now in Iraq, the human foibles wreck havoc with technology. Cable TV lines cut by workers, now internet cables buried underground mere inches below the surface are constantly being cut despite markings laid by utility companies. I wonder if the ship's captain can talk his way out of a maritme fine saying that the cable should have been buried 3 fathoms, vice the 1!

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