AS A MAN, I BELIEVE THAT, every now and then, a man should do something manly. So when I got invited to the North Texas Earthmoving Field Day, my manly reaction was: "Heck yes."
The North Texas Earthmoving Field Day is a very manly annual event organized by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), which is part of the Texas A&M University System. The Earthmoving Field Day is a massive gathering of big studly machines of the type you sometimes see in the distance, pushing around humongous masculine piles of dirt. The basic idea behind Earthmoving Field Day is that people looking to buy heavy equipment can actually climb into the cabs of these machines and grab the controls and perform a "hands on" assessment of their capabilities, by which I mean have a whole bunch of manly mechanized fun with those babies.
When I was maybe 6 years old, I spent many hours on a dirt pile next to my house, making roads and stuff with toy trucks and bulldozers. This was hard work, because in addition to pushing the heavy equipment around, I had to make the motor noise with my mouth -- BRRRMMMMMM -- for hours on end, keeping a fine mist of spit raining down on the construction site. Almost all boys do this, yet for some reason most of us, when we grow up, rarely operate any piece of equipment more impressive than hedge trimmers.
I flew to Dallas on an airplane full of hedge-trimmer-owning briefcase toters from the world of dot-com. But I entered a new realm entirely when I rented a car and drove west for a manly piece, into the country, until I saw a large testosterone cloud on the horizon, indicating the Earthmoving Field Day site. I joined a parade of pickup trucks headed for the top of a big old hill that was in danger of sinking under the weight of dozens and dozens of dozers, graders, loaders, trenchers, backhoes, cranes, skid steers, rock crushers and every other dang kind of machine that is designed to deliver, in no uncertain terms, the following message to the earth: Move.
We're talking about some large units here. We're talking about machines the size of your house with wheels the size of your car, machines that get zero miles per gallon and have the word "WARNING" in big black letters all over them, followed by statements that inevitably begin, "TO PREVENT SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH . . ."
Walking around, admiring and climbing into these rigs were hundreds of guys, virtually every single one of whom wore work boots, Wrangler jeans, a T-shirt and either a ball cap or a cowboy hat. Most wore belts with large manly buckles, some of which were pointing almost straight down under the weight of bellies large enough to contain Richard Simmons. These guys don't belong to health clubs: They chew tobacco while digging the holes that become health clubs.
I was given a tour of the field day by the guy who started it, Mike Griffith, a Texan who pronounces "vehicle" as "vee-hickle" and uses many Texas expressions such as "that vee-hickle is slick as a whistle." He gave me a ball cap and drove me around on a rugged vehicle that he preferred to drive directly through dirt mounds, rather than around them. Mike showed me various field day activities, which included safety seminars and skills competitions. But the main activity, which at any given moment hundreds of guys were engaged in, was randomly digging big holes and then filling them back in, or moving a mound of dirt the size of, say, Vermont, from one side of a field to another, and then moving it back. And if you don't think that would be fun, then you are, no offense, probably a woman.
I got to operate several pieces of equipment, including a great big yellow thing that is technically called an "excavator," although most of us would call it a "steam shovel." This thing could knock down a post office in five minutes, and -- this is why I love America -- they put it into the hands of a humor columnist. Onlookers ran for cover as, with my ball cap firmly on my head, I yanked randomly on the control levers, causing the giant metal shovel to zoom and flail around like a crazed robot dinosaur on speed. But I stayed with it, and finally I managed to pick up a huge wad of dirt, move it 25 feet and drop it, slick as a whistle. In the old days, it would have taken a humor columnist weeks to do this.
Satisfied with my day's work, I went to the food tent and lined up with the other men for a manly meal of barbecued meat slabs with extra cholesterol brought in by truck. Then, sadly, it was time for me to return to the world of dot-com hedge trimmers. The only evidence of where I'd been was the dirt on my shoes. Also, there was some moisture on my rental car dashboard. Because, driving back to the airport, I couldn't help making the motor noise.