The soap factory was going to be shut down. The people of Pied Gros, Louisiana, had been subjected to noxious smells, persistent flies, and environmental abuse for over 40 years, until 1969. The people had protested, filed suits, and appealed to elected officials for decades until the small fishing community finally won. However, the decision to close the facility was more likely the result of the manufacturer’s aging and antiquated equipment than community pressure.
The factory site was being sold, and a boundary survey was required.
The survey contract for the eight-acre tract went to Ledet and Sons, and the field crew assigned to the primary traverse consisted of Pappy Ledet, licensed surveyor and party chief; Dee Dee Dardar, instrument man and head chainman; and Leonard “Sauteur” Garibaldi, who did everything else.
Sauteur Garibaldi had earned his nickname (it translates to “Jumper”) because of the man’s incredible agility. He could, with a short running start, hurtle the hood of the ’67 Ford station wagon that served as the survey crew vehicle and never even brush metal. He could place the fingertips of one hand onto a car’s fender and transition into a handstand supported only by the fingers of that one hand. Pappy had reconnoitered the site and planned the traverse before they were given the notice to proceed, so when he met with the rest of his crew over coffee he had a speech prepared.
“Boys, this job really stinks,” Pappy said. “Half of the corners are marked. Clear trails follow the boundary ditches. Most of our work will be cranking angles and chaining.”
“So why do you say the job stinks?” Dee Dee asked.
“It stinks ‘cause every ditch is filled with a stagnate gumbo of putrid water, rotting carcasses, and maggots,” Pappy said. “It stinks so bad the vultures stay away.”
“It can’t be dat bad,” Sauteur said.
“Pooeee!” Sauteur exclaimed as the crew climbed out of the station wagon at the job site. “I was some wrong, me.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Pappy said as he started to unload the gear.
Sauteur responded by pulling out a bandana and tying it over his face while Dee Dee walked to the front of the car and vomited.
The first leg of the traverse followed a dirt road that paralleled the eastern boundary of the tract. Large iron bars marked the ends of the eastern boundary but were across the ditch from the road.
Pappy drove a hub and set a tack in a spot where he could see one of the bars and had a unobstructed view up the road to the north. He stacked a range pole behind the hub, and the crew hiked up the road to a point opposite the other iron bar.
There, Pappy set another hub and tack and directed Dee Dee to occupy it with the “gun,” a 20-second Buff & Buff. Dee Dee would keep Pappy and Sauteur on line as they chained south to the first point and then re-chained the line back north to Dee Dee.
The “chain” was a 100-foot steel ribbon that was marked and stamped at each foot from 0 to 100. One end of the chain was marked in tenths of a foot beyond zero. Both ends had sturdy steel loops tethered by a leather “rat tail.”
Sauteur unbound the chain and lay it along the line to be measured, starting with the 100-foot mark, the “tail” at the instrument. Pappy hooked the ring of 11 chaining pins to his belt; he was going to run “head” chain while Sauteur, who was “tail,” waited at the instrument.
Pappy reached the head of the chain and gave it a tug. Sauteur wrapped the rat tail around his hand, keeping the 100 mark on the tack, and resisted Pappy’s pull. Dee Dee directed Pappy on line. Pappy pulled the chain taunt and set the first pin at the zero mark.
Once Pappy set the pin he stood and shouted, “Come ahead!”
Sauteur dropped his end of the chain and walked south. The chain, pulled by Pappy as he, too, walked south, hissed through the short grass next to Sauteur.
“Chain!” Sauteur shouted when he reached the pin Pappy had set. He looked at the chain and saw the number 95.
“Take five,” he shouted and caught up the rat tail as the 100 mark neared the pin. He held the mark as Pappy pulled the chain taunt, set the next pin, and called out “Come ahead!”
Sauteur dropped the tail, pulled the pin, and moved toward the head of the line. The process was repeated until Sauteur had seven pins in his hand. Pappy had reached the south hub, waited until Sauteur reached the eighth pin, and then shouted “Foot.”
Sauteur saw the number 74 just ahead of the pin. He grabbed the chain and pulled the 72 mark to the pin.
“Give one,” Pappy shouted.
Sauteur allowed the chain to slide forward then held the 73 mark against the pin and yelled “73.” He knew the zero mark was now less than a foot away from the tack. Pappy was using the tenths marked beyond the zero to read how much the last pull exceeded 73 feet.
“Come ahead,” Pappy shouted, and Sauteur pulled the eighth pin.
Sauteur handed Pappy eight pins, so they had come 800 feet. 73 was held on the last pin. That made 873 feet. Pappy had read four on the tenths and estimated 3/100ths, so Pappy entered 873.43’ as the first distance chained.
“Let’s pull the distance from this hub to the bar before chaining back,” Pappy said as he wrote the first tally in the field book.
Before Pappy could stop him, Sauteur grabbed the head of the chain and took a running jump at the ditch. The chain whipped after Sauteur until it caught on something, stopping him in midair. He was yanked back into the ditch, butt first.
Maggots, chunks of putrid material, and black sludge-like water flew everywhere.
“Stay away from me!” Pappy warned as Sauteur crawled out of the ditch, retching. “Dee Dee,” he shouted up the road. “Box it up. We gotta run Sauteur home!”
The people along the road stared in wonder as Pappy drove by. Sauteur was standing on the tailgate of the station wagon holding onto the luggage rack, eyes closed, with the wind whipping back his hair and wearing only his boxer shorts. When they got Sauteur home, his mother put him in the back yard, washed him down with a garden hose, then put him in a kiddy-pool with a box-full of Tide.
Sauteur showed up for work the next day, head shaved, reeking of aftershave, and subdued. He would still perform handstands and other acts of agility, but everyone agreed the joy he usually expressed in doing those things was gone.