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Ground Force
John Garrity
August 13, 2001
Short on workers, the Florida project taps into an unlimited resource—college interns
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August 13, 2001

Ground Force

Short on workers, the Florida project taps into an unlimited resource—college interns

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It was no longer raining; it was pouring. Curtains of water fell on the University of Florida Golf Course, and sensible souls sat in the comfy clubhouse, watching nature's performance through plateglass. The crazy ones—the Mexican workers and the college interns—were still out there, laying sod on the banks of the 1st tee. Two shirtless young men took slabs of turf off a forklift and flung them toward the tee. Other young men picked up the slabs and placed them on the slopes in staggered rows, followed by Mexicans with machetes, who hacked off overlapping pieces. Tom Weber, the project manager, was out there, too, grinning and shouting orders as water streamed off his nose. It was the sandbag scene from any flood report on CNN, but the buoyant energy of these workers suggested that they were motivated by novelty, not desperation. They were singin' and dancin' in the rain.

"That was dramatic," Weber says. It's the following morning, and we're standing outside the construction trailer under a cloudless sky. Black irrigation pipe is stacked everywhere, and piles of gravel and bunker sand form an Alpine profile. "I didn't ask them to work in the rain," he continues, "but they pulled together as a team. I liked that."

Unity is a concern to Weber because one third of the workers on this job are summer interns—college students with little or no experience in course construction. "Normally most of my employees are Latinos, hard workers who know what they're doing. But this year I've had to look outside."

To find laborers, Weber spread the word among his friends in the golf construction industry and asked for help from university officials. He wound up with 16 young men who said they were willing to work 12 hours a day in tropical heat, in choking dust, in ankle-deep mud—and if they didn't actually say that, Weber was sure they'd like the work once they got a taste of it. For their sweat and toil, the interns are getting $8 an hour and three months of free housing in a nearby apartment complex.

They're also getting a quick and dirty education in course design. Right now, for instance, some of them are prepping the number 2 tee box for sod while others are wielding shovels to help shape bunkers on the 18th hole. The work is unlike any college course they've taken. Only Weber or one of his crew chiefs gives instructions to the interns. "We live in Vagueville," says Ken Gibson, a landscape architecture major at Kansas State. "They want us to work things out on our own."

Around noon the interns begin to arrive at the trailer, which doubles as their lunchroom. Tracking mud and chunks of clay on the linoleum floor, they sit at tables and unwrap sandwiches they've bought across the street at the deli in the Publix supermarket. Everything is tranquilo—the buzzword they've picked up from their Spanish-speaking coworkers. "Tranquilo, relax," they tell one of their mates, who for the second time in as many days has lifted his soft drink by the lid and spilled most of it on the floor. When I ask what they've learned from two months in the Florida sun, one says, "How to run machinery." Another says, "I never realized how much thought goes into the smallest detail." A third says, "Drainage. I've almost got this gravity business figured out."

"What some of us have not learned," says Ben Taylor, who graduated from Florida in 1997 with a degree in accounting, "is how to tell a man from a woman." This remark draws sharp laughter and a few "oooohs." Everyone glances at a blushing intern, who pretends to be preoccupied with his sandwich. "Bad night in New Orleans," he mutters, drawing more hoots.

Eight hours later—and strictly in the interests of full reportage—I join the interns at the Salty Dog Saloon, a campus hangout. The Salty Dog is long, narrow and filled with young people having a good time. A coin-operated pool table commands one area of the saloon, like a baptismal font in the nave of a cathedral.

The first thing I notice about the interns, who have gathered along the bar in back, is that they all have scrubbed faces and wet shower hair, evidence that they stopped at their apartments only long enough to clean up and change. The second thing I notice is that they're already nostalgic about previous visits to the Salty Dog, their favorite watering hole. "We're like a bunch of sailors in port," says Kevin Wachter, who studies crop and soil science at Michigan State.

Weber, who is having a drink at the bar with his corporate-chemist wife, Julie, is indulgent when it comes to the interns' free time, as long as they perform on the job. "Work is work and play is play," he says. "If they don't know the difference, they have a little growing up to do." It's clear, though, that he admires the kids who can both work and play—someone like Australia's Steve Lalor. "Steve's an amazing worker," says Weber. "He gives it his all every day." Weber laughs. "He gives it his all every night, too."

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