I was seven years old the first time I saw concrete poured and worked. Sixty-one years later, I am still fascinated by the stuff. What is effectively a liquid can be readily formed and shaped while fresh yet hardens into one of the most durable materials known.
Structures designed by Roman engineers and formed by their tradesmen over two thousand years ago still endure to this day. In fact, according to Berkeley Lab, “… the best Roman concrete was superior to most modern concrete in durability…” and its production generated less adverse environmental effects. (https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2013/06/04/roman-concrete/#:~:text=The%20Romans%20made%20concrete%20by,triggered%20a%20hot%20chemical%20reaction.)
It may surprise some readers to learn that I have no clear memory of the Coliseum being built. Our new house in Todd County is another matter. When workers poured the basement floor in 1961, I watched as they screeded to level the pour. I was fascinated by how the floating process turned the rocky surface into a smooth texture. It still seems magic to me the way a good finisher can bring a polished sheen to the final finish.
While a teenager, I helped with a couple of small sidewalk pours repairs in Browns Grove, Kentucky. In my early twenties, I helped Dad pour a garage floor at my parents’ place about thirty miles away in Hickory. Not having any rubber boots and not wanting to ruin my shoes, I opted to work barefoot. Dad was skeptical as to whether or not that was a good idea; he had rubber boots.
After a few hours of wading around in fresh concrete, I rinsed my legs and feet off with a garden hose. Then Dad and I went bass fishing at Kelvie Nicholson’s pond. As was my usual fashion, I waded around the perimeter, working A Texas-rigged plastic worm along the cover at the edges of the pond and catching several largemouth bass.
The next morning, I woke up with painful red sores splotching both feet. And, in spite of having taken a shower as soon as I got home the night before, my toenails were still the color of the mud in Mister Kelvie’s pond!
I read later that fresh concrete can be extremely alkaline (pH levels of 12 or higher; anything above 7 is the opposite of acidic). At that level, it becomes caustic. Even though it doesn’t burn immediately like acid would, it definitely causes damage.
I also discovered that it causes toenails to become soft, porous, and absorbent! The alkaline burns healed within a couple of weeks, but my custom-colored pedicure was another matter. I watched for nearly a year as those orange-ish crescents grew their way out, finally clipping away the last visible vestige of that whole experience. I haven’t worked concrete while barefooted since then.
I was reminded of that long-ago episode just two days ago. When I was letting my friend B.J. help me pour his new porch floor section on Monday, he told me he didn’t have any rubber boots. “I guess I could work barefoot,” he suggested.
I’m still trying to figure out why I didn’t just go ahead and tell him, “Yeah, that should work. It’ll be easy to wash off later.” Maybe I have learned a little empathy after all. That Golden Rule thing is a doozie, isn’t it?