The Writers’ Circle: I sure hope that staple holds


By James R. Van Liere
PREVIEW Columnist

On Dec. 20, 1956, I was officially released from active duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and returned home by Greyhound bus in time to spend Christmas with my parents and three brothers. It was certainly wonderful to be back in Colorado, even though when Mom and Dad picked me up at the bus station, it was a cold winter night, but at least the cold was much more bearable in Colorado.

Now that I had fulfilled my active duty military obligation, it was time to find a job for the next nine months until I started college in the School of Engineering at the University of Colorado. Because I wanted to start working in the area of engineering and surveying, I applied for a job with the United States Geological Survey at the Federal Center in Lakewood, Colo.

I was accepted into the Topographical Division and assigned to work as a rodman for an engineer named Eugene Alexander. Gene and I spent the next eight months working together, the first four months in Denver and the second four months in Kremmling, Colo. Gene’s job as a field engineer was to take a preliminary copy of an upcoming topographical map to the field and with a plane table and alidade verify the location of various physical elements shown on the map.

This preliminary map, compiled from aerial photos, is printed on yellow mylar with red lines representing contours, houses, roads, et cetera. Because it is difficult sometimes to distinguish a haystack from a house or barn, or get a precise ground elevation because of trees and brush, or accurately locate section corners, property lines or contour lines, it is necessary to field verify these items to ensure the accuracy of the map, or quadrangle.

My job as rodman was to stand at various points with a stadia rod so Gene could sight through an alidade to verify the location and elevation of these points. In addition, I helped look for section corners and sometimes drove the station wagon as we moved down a country road with Gene sitting on the front fender holding the plane table over his shoulder and alidade in the crook of his arm. I had to be very careful not to accelerate too fast or stop too quickly, or I could send Gene backward over the fender or shoot him forward like a rocket. Of course, OSHA would have a fit today if they saw us doing this.

Gene and I had many adventures and one of the most memorable for me occurred that spring right after the farmers started planting their fields. We were doing the Eastlake Quadrangle northeast of Denver, which at that time was just farmland. Gene asked me to walk down the road about 500 feet, cross a small, 2-foot wide irrigation ditch full of dirty water, climb over an old barbed wire fence and take a shot next to a huge old cottonwood tree located in a low spot in an old cornfield.

I had just crossed the ditch, and while standing on the middle wire of this three-wire barbed wire fence getting ready to swing one leg over to jump on the ground, an old farmer stepped out from behind the cottonwood tree about a hundred feet away and said, “Jump off that fence kid, and I’ll blow your damn head off.”

There he stood with a Winchester .30-30 pointed straight at me and I am wondering what’s going to happen next. The staple at the fence post holding the middle wire I was standing on was starting to give way. I didn’t know whether I should fall to the left and get shot, just stand there until the staple gave way and I straddled the top wire (Heaven forbid), or fall to right into that ditch full of dirty water. The old farmer, whose name I still remember, yelled, “The last surveyor who came through my property cut a 10-foot-wide swath for a pipeline right through my cornfield and that ain’t going to happen again.”

Somehow, I managed to explain that we were just making a map for the government and if he would give me his name, I would make sure that he received a “free” copy. The word “free” certainly perked up his ears because he leaned his rifle against that old cottonwood tree and told me to come on down. That was a relief because that staple was about to give way. I climbed off the fence and walked over to him to get his name and address, and get that last shot that Gene was waiting for.

As government surveyors, we were instructed that if we ever met an irate citizen, we were to get their name and address and the government would send them a free copy of the map when it was completed. After Joe and I talked a minute and I explained what we were doing, we parted company on amicable terms and I climbed back over the fence, being careful to make my crossing next to a more secure fence post. 

I then walked back to Gene, who could see me by the cottonwood tree but was too far away to hear anything. Obviously curious, he simply asked what all the commotion was about. After I explained everything and gave him the farmer’s name and address, his only comment was something to effect that incidents like that go with the job. As far as I was concerned, that was the first time I was threatened with a gun and, as it turns out, it would not be the last time. But that is another story.