Above the Void

A long time ago, at a house not far away, someone poured a concrete slab over a wooden porch floor. Reinforced with woven wire and a few pieces of metal pipe, it was tied into the foundation of the house with reinforcing pipe. A concrete foundation supported its outside edge. A few pieces of pipe tied the south section of the porch slab into the center section of concrete, which was itself poured to repair an earlier version.

Underneath the southern slab, three wooden joists nearly sixteen feet long supported the ten-foot span between the other section of concrete and the perimeter foundation. At least two natural functions over time conspired together against the slab. One was an alternating cycle of drought and heavy rains.

An extended period of severe drought can turn soil and subsoil into dust or powder. If the drought continues long enough, that change can happen several feet below the surface. Absent sufficient moisture to bind the particles together, even clay loses much of its load-bearing capacity. Imagine a concrete footer resting on three feet of uncompressed talcum powder. This causes foundations to sink and settle. And break. Then, a period of sustained heavy rain can cause erosion and further settling of the soil, creating voids beneath the foundation. More settling and more breaks.

In this particular case, the southeast corner of the porch foundation sank three inches. Thanks to the reinforcing metal and the integrity of the concrete, the porch slab no longer rested on the foundation but suspended an inch or two above it like a cantilevered beam. Randa’s grandmother would have said, “There’s a crack under that porch big enough to throw a cat through!”

During the same decades of subterranean soil malfeasance, other mischief was afoot above ground. Shielded from light and sustained by trapped moisture beneath the slab, termites feasted at length—and breadth—upon the untreated timbers below the floor slab. Eventually there was nothing left of the joists but a few handfuls of spongy strands of cellulose. Near the north foundation wall, a piece of oak two inches thick, fifteen inches wide and less than two feet long was the only thing remaining that gave any indication of the support that had once been beneath the porch.

At some point, the entire weight of the north edge of the slab transferred to the pieces of small pipe embedded in the concrete. Those few pieces were no match for the four or five thousand pounds of weight along that edge of the concrete. Some of the pipe broke through the bottom of the adjoining concrete slab and the other pipes bent and sagged. The entire section dropped from two to three inches along that northern joint and completely broke free from the walls of the house forming the slab’s northeast corner.

It is dramatic testimony to the power of re-mesh and rebar, and properly mixed and cured concrete, that the slab held in place for years, suspended fifteen-to-eighteen inches above the ground. Supported only on the western and southern perimeters, it cracked but never buckled.

From all appearances, it looked like a solid slab with only superficial cracks. Only after a friend and I jackhammered away enough chunks along the west end to give us a view underneath could we tell the true status. It was quite sobering to realize that the slab we were standing on while operating a fifty-pound jackhammer was supported by… well… nothing. As we worked our way from the west end to the east end, chiseling off heavy chunks of concrete, we kept pulling out pieces of rotted wood from underneath the floor.

Life and the Lord have a way of testing us to the core. Whatever is subject to corruption will one day have its veneer stripped away and be exposed for its true nature. Both character and culture must be built upon something more solid than appearance and pretense. Otherwise, they become illusion and self-contradiction.

No matter how stern the stuff of the exterior or how shiny the finish, it must rest upon a foundation more solid than itself. Or else it will collapse.

H. Arnett


About Doc Arnett

Native of southwestern Kentucky currently living in Ark City, Kansas, with my wife of twenty-nine years, Randa. We have, between us, eight children and twenty-eight grandkids. We enjoy singing, worship, remodeling and travel.
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