I made the earth shake.
I was learning the intricacies of operating an excavator when I dropped the bucket a bit too enthusiastically and it hit the ground with a molar-rattling thud.
Perhaps I should have been concerned that I might have damaged a very large and expensive piece of equipment, or that I could have knocked my ever-patient instructor, Dave, off the side of the machine as he talked me through the controls.
But instead, I was delighted. As clunky as my execution was, I had done it. I had successfully sat at the helm of a 50,000-pound, $215,000 Komatsu excavator and lowered the boom (ahem, that's what "we" in the industry call the big arm that operates the bucket) to scrape up a heap of clay soil and then drop it down again.
I would be the envy of third-grade boys everywhere. Even my dad, the retired farmer who shook his head when his sixth-grade daughter couldn't figure out how to stop the garden tractor so just drove it in circles until the gas ran out, might have been proud.
It would be my high point at Demo Day, a fun event staged by the North Dakota Construction Leadership Council last Thursday to showcase the perks of construction careers. In efforts to recruit the next generation of Mike Mulligans or Bob (or Barb) the Builders, the NDCLC invited students, adults and the occasional clueless member of the press to try a hand at operating heavy equipment like an excavator, a 165-ton mobile crane and a remote-control Bobcat skid steer.
Wisely, the organization had us all sign waivers and watch safety videos before we could really do some damage. Each equipment station also had a trained operator present who showed us how to run the controls.
It was like driver's ed on steroids, except the driving instructors were friendly staffers from local construction companies instead of grumpy junior high coaches who had to teach driver's ed because it was in their contracts.
Even so, I was leery. These big, expensive machines are intimidating, as is the prospect that a bunch of experienced operators might watch me as I accidentally bulldozed someone's garden shed.
I needn't have worried. The equipment stations were set up in the demo yard at General Equipment & Supplies, Inc., so it was very hard to damage something unless you were trying to replicate the car-chase-through-the-mall scene from "The Blues Brothers."
Once I climbed into the cab, I learned the equipment was a lot easier to operate than anticipated. Some of the newer stuff is so sophisticated that, if programmed to dig a trench only 4 feet deep, it will absolutely refuse to dig another inch further.
The controls are a lot like joysticks, which may be why the gamer-savvy participants from local high schools seemed to take to the equipment like a 12-year-old takes to Tik-Tok. If the controls had been two levers on a yellow triangular console - like they were on my family's Radio Shack Pong game - I could have successfully dug a trench to Michigan. But these controls were a bit more Next-Gen than that.
Thankfully, my very first trial run that day was on a machine that didn't seem quite as intimidating: a pint-sized Bobcat skid steer. The training operator turned out to be someone I knew, Swanston Equipment President Molly Swanston. The mischievous Molly had concocted a game to make our lesson a bit more interesting: The goal was to maneuver the skid steer's bucket so it could scoop up a basketball perched atop a construction pylon, then swing it around and plunk the ball in a 5-gallon pail.
With all due respect to Molly, this seemed inordinately complex to me. When does one need to use a skid steer to pick up basketballs in the real world anyway? Couldn't I just use it to knock down an outhouse?
When it became obvious I wasn't going to pick up the ball anytime in this decade, Molly kindly suggested I just try moving the pylon. At some point, I mixed up my levers and crushed the orange pylon like a bug. It popped back into place, but my ego didn't.
Next station, please.
This, too, consisted of a skid steer, albeit one that could be operated remotely by a tablet or iPad. This seemed better suited to my abilities; after all, I have turned simultaneous operation of several TV/Netflix/DVR remotes into an art form. The operator, Mason, gave a quick tutorial on how to operate the machine with a tablet.
Mason said the day when all construction equipment could be operated remotely is approaching fast. I could see why: The control panel on the tablet was even simpler than the controls inside the vehicles. I had previously watched a YouTube demonstration in which some bored-looking German dude used a remote to make a skid steer do cookies and then tooled it around an arena like it was the General Lee. My demonstration was considerably less YouTube-ready, as I inched forward with grandmotherly caution, then dropped the bucket on the ground with an indelicate clunk.
After these two rather timid trials, I was terrified of the excavator. The sheer size of it was so intimidating that I wondered if I would be able to climb into it. I joked, to no one in particular, that maybe they could use the crane to lift me into the excavator. (Insert laugh track here.)
But the excavator turned out to be the gentle giant of the three, even if I tried my best to create Fargo's version of the San Andreas Fault. It helped that my new bud Dave was right there, so he could calmly chime in whenever I uttered a panicked: "Now what?"
This certainly seemed preferable to learning how to drive an excavator by watching YouTube, which - as terrifying as this seems - you can actually do.
It made me think they should invent a two-seater teaching excavator, in which the instructor could slam on the brakes or take over the controls whenever the student was about to, say, run into a fireworks warehouse. (I really need to bring this up with the folks at Komatsu.)
Afterward, I was grinning from ear to ear. I really hadn't expected to enjoy operating a piece of heavy machinery as much as I did. I announced that if this reporting thing ever didn't work out, I was going to run an excavator.
Somewhere, Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel are shuddering.