When Clifton E. (Sonny) Parker was drafted 26 years ago, he already knew how to work. The Army handed him a pick and shovel, he recalled last week. "That was right up my alley. I made monkeys out of all of 'em."
At 53, Parker is still swinging a pick and shovel in a way that makes strong, young men blanch. "I'm the best," he says. "They can't keep up with me."
And now he's the only. Parker is the last of a breed of digging men. In Anne Arundel County, where almost half the population still uses on-site water or septic systems instead of public water and sewer, Parker is the man to call when a hard digging job comes up in a bad place.
He digs his holes manually, something no one else does. When a hole is needed where machinery can't go, Parker gets the call.
"As far as I know he's the only one," says John Bink, head of the agency that oversees and approves septic installations. "He's a name around here."
The only wells Parker works these days are dry wells--eight-foot-wide circular holes that serve as the final dispersal place for runoff from septic tanks. Dug wells for drinking water were outlawed in the county for health reasons about 15 years ago. Today, all drinking-water wells are drilled deep into the ground by machine.
That's no skin off Parker's back. Manually dug water wells were the nastiest jobs of all, he says, because that type of well was only four feet across. "It was all short-pick and short-shovel work," he says. "You had to have a strong back to work all day bent over."
The deepest water well he ever saw was 135 feet, dug by his father in Epping Forest when Parker was 10 years old. His father lowered him down to the bottom in a bucket after the work was done. Parker says it was so deep, "When you got halfway down, you thought you were going back up again." That was the year he started working, and he's been digging ever since.
Earlier this month, Parker and two strong, young assistants dug a dry well and a trench for a septic tank in Sherwood Forest, an old summer-home community high on the bluffs overlooking the Severn River. They work there often because machinery can't get into the woods and ravines.
That was an easy job. The dry well only had to be 20 feet deep, which meant Parker never had to rig any dirt-hauling apparatus. "You can throw 20 feet," he says. "After that you need a bucket."
He had 21-year-old Aaron Brown demonstrate. Brown took a shovelful of red-brown dirt and leveled it off. "That's all you want, a nice level shovelful," says Brown. With an easy motion he swung the five-foot shovel back and hurled the payload high overhead.
"Once you learn the art," the muscular Brown says with a smile, "you got it made."
Parker and his crew take pride in a willingness to do what others can't or won't. Brown says they recently took a job replacing a 750-gallon septic tank with a 1,250-gallon tank at a house in Arden on the Severn, where a backhoe wouldn't fit.
"The lady said there was no way we could get that tank in and hooked up in one day," says Brown. "At 6:30 in the evening we were sitting on the porch, eating cheesecake and sipping iced tea. The lady told her husband, 'They deserve their money today.' "
No two days of work for Parker are ever quite the same. Each hole presents new problems of access, new questions of safety. In 32 years he has never been injured, he says, but there is the constant danger of a cave-in, which would bury a man.
He once saw a workman buried when the sides caved in on a trench. The backhoe operator frantically dug to retrieve the man before he smothered, but succeeded instead in decapitating him. "He was probably dead already, anyway," says Parker.
Parker believes the holes he digs are safe as long as he keeps them perfectly round, so the sides support each other. If they get out of round, the danger is serious. He measures each hole by the rack of the eye, as the boatbuilders say, and generally uses no shoring.
Trenches he is more wary of, because the sides don't support each other. A nice, deep hole in the ground has a certain aesthetic appeal to Parker and his men, anyway.
Sitting at lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant on a steamy August day, Brown says, "Down in the hole is cooler than this building. It's nice and cool and quiet. It can be raining outside, all you feel is two or three drops."
With Parker nearing retirement, the question arises, who will do the hard jobs machines can't get to when he gives it up? He has two sons, but neither is interested in digging.
Brown, proud new father of a month-old son, plans to take over. "That's all I want--a house and my own business. I'm giving him five more years. No, maybe only two."
Parker just laughs. "I don't know who will do it," he says. "And I don't care."