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Why Operating Heavy Equipment Lights This 69-Year-Old’s Fire

We know what you're thinking...how could operating a back hoe possibly be inspirational? Trust us, Jane Bernstein's story from Diggerland will make you want to excavate your own passion.

I like construction equipment.  Though I don’t recall mentioning this to my daughter Charlotte, it’s easy to imagine walking past a construction site with her, stopping to gawk at a big yellow excavator, with its operator working the giant claw, and saying, “Wow. I’d like to try that someday.” Maybe I confessed this more than once. If so, she didn’t say, “Mom, you already told me.” Instead, she told me she’d heard about this place called Diggerland, where I could operate a piece of heavy equipment, and would I like to go there for my 69th birthday?

Crushing some shit sounds really great and #cheaperthenagoodanalyst.

Are you kidding? Of course!

My friends were mystified.  They are good, sophisticated women who reject gender stereotypes, but when one said, “I don’t understand.  You’re so small!”  I realized this particular desire didn’t compute with what they knew of me: writer who sits in her room for hours, sporty, sure, but an English professor, and, for God’s sake, a senior citizen.

Charlotte does not share my obsession either: She would chaperone.  But when she emailed her friend Eddie, a filmmaker like herself, his response was immediate: “Crushing some shit sounds really great #cheaperthenagoodanalyst.”

Diggerland: Off to the Dirt Pit

So on my birthday morning, I dressed in my Crow Bar T-shirt, jeans, and lace-up boots, and we set out for Diggerland, a construction theme park in West Berlin, New Jersey, where Eddie and I had each booked an hour on an excavator.

Most of Diggerland’s 14 acres are set aside for kids whose interests are aligned with Eddie’s and mine, and when we arrived we saw mini backhoes, loaders, farm tractors, and diggers driven by park operators or children at least three feet tall.  There were rides adapted from construction equipment, like the Greased Beast, with its industrial-sized dump truck body, and activities with a tangential connection to construction: on our way to the conference room for our training session, we passed little kids lined up along a trough, emptying bags of dirt into a sieve and running it through the water, like prospectors of yore in search of gems.  

Attempting to operate the machine myself felt like that childhood task of trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach.

A 40-ish man averse to chit-chat was seated at the table when we arrived. He’d sold construction equipment and had booked time on the earthmover.  The first of two videos we had to watch was short and crudely made—scenes of people acting badly—smoking, gabbing on the phone, leaning way out of the cab unbelted.  Next came an actual John Deere training video in which responsible folks operated an excavator and an earthmover.

I considered my shortcomings for the first time:  poor spatial abilities, no mechanical aptitude, difficulty paying attention to verbal instructions.  There was no heavy equipment in my childhood, no cars on blocks, no power tools. The only time I saw my dad use a screwdriver was to dig out crabgrass.

This rumination was cut short when my foreman, a slender young man I’ll call Andre, gave me a headset that would keep the two of us in radio communication, and we headed out to a massive dirt lot, where I slid into the seat of a 53,440 pound John Deere 225C excavator. A joystick was on each side of the seat, and on the floor were two brake pedals.

My excavator had a giant boom, or arm, that controlled the stick attached to the bucket, and a full range of motion—up, down, left, right.  The carriage swiveled, the tracks went forward and back. Over the headset, Andre explained what the joysticks did in each position, then moved onto the pedals.

Imagining the most awful blunders I might make, I heard a reasonable voice that said:  It’s an amusement park. Calm down.

Attempting to operate the machine myself felt like that childhood task of trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach. I was concentrating hard, but my mind wandered to the unsmiling man in the conference room—what was his deal, anyhow?—and how embarrassing and disastrous it would be if I tipped over this monster.  I listened intently to Andre’s instructions through the headset: “Okay, move the right shifter up, move it to the right, to the right,” and I wondered how he came to this job, imagining the most awful blunders I might make, and hearing a reasonable voice that said:  It’s an amusement park. Calm down.


Me and John Deere

Diggerland has two origin stories, the first in the UK, where Hugh Edeleanu, chairman of H. E. Services, a supplier of digging construction machinery for hire, hosted a “family open day.” He noticed that the employees’ kids were more interested in sitting in the equipment than in the amusements set up for them. He opened the first Diggerland in Kent in 2000.  Soon came three more parks in Durham, Devon, and Castleford.

Around the same time, Ilya Girlya, looking to diversify his family’s construction company, opened a year-round waterpark in West Berlin, NJ. After he got that operating successfully, he heard about Diggerland and opened the first American outpost in 2014. At these parks, the adult options are geared toward grownups who want to ram and crash.  Dumper racing is big in the UK. In New Jersey, you can arrange to have cars brought in to crush and destroy.

I did not want to crash anything, least of all my excavator.  I wanted to control it, and when Andre finished the basic instructions, it’s what I got to do.  As soon as he stopped talking, I began to feel what the controls did, to make mistakes and correct them myself, until I got into a rhythm in which I was able to move the boom, lower the bucket, grab some dirt, swivel the stick to drop the dirt onto a pile, move the boom back to the hole to dig some more, all in a fluid, deeply satisfying way.

One hour in a total flow state:  No anxiety, no worries, no extraneous voices, only the pleasure of operating my machine.

Once I had this down, Andre radioed me some tasks.  First: dig a big pit; remove the log that was wedged end-up in the pit; then retrieve a giant tractor tire from the stack of tires at the side of the lot. This meant swiveling the boom, lowering the stick until the bucket’s claws could nab and keep hold of the tire, then swiveling the boom back to deposit the tire in the hole and filling the hole.

One hour in a total flow state:  No anxiety, no worries, no extraneous voices, only the pleasure of operating my machine.

I was sad when my time was up.

Crushing It

Eddie’s task was different, I learned when we met up.  No doubt a more skillful operator, he was asked to retrieve a tire and work it over the log stuck in his pit. That was fine, because it had been thrilling to work through my own new skills, to overcome my sense of being an inept,  slow learner, to be reminded of the way I do learn, and the utter satisfaction of being ultra-focused on a task—any task. It was all Eddie and I could talk about.

Later, we wandered into the gift shop, trying to find our names on mini-license plates and other construction-themed souvenirs.  There were no little Janes, no Eddies or Charlottes either; so I bought a tiny hinged yellow sign that said: Destiny at Work. This seemed more nuanced, more appropriate for the mood that day and the days that followed, when I felt I could move heaven and earth.

By Jane Bernstein


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