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Murphy’s Law, witnessed by Fred Keene

Fred Keene of Gayland Street worked in various Burlington municipal departments for almost 40 years, including the cemetery, water, fire and highway departments, before retiring in 1998. He also cleared trees for developers during Burlington’s growth years. Out in the field, on the job, he’s seen plenty of things go smoothly, but plenty more go very wrong. Which would you rather read about?

7 Ellery Lane, Burlington, MA
7 Ellery Lane
John Ellery French, namesake of Ellery Lane, Burlington MA
John Ellery French, namesake of Ellery Lane

The Ellery Lane incident
Ellery Lane is named after J. Ellery French, who lived at #7 when the area was his own Hill Top Farm. The house is still there. The adjacent barn, however, had to come down during development of the surrounding neighborhood. Popular wisdom holds the best way to drop a barn is to yank one of the corner posts. A crewman wrapped a chain around the post, but to ensure he was far enough away from the barn, he tied the first chain to another chain. Just to be super-safe, he tied that one to a third chain. With the third chain wrapped around his backhoe shovel, he started backing up, facing the barn. Popular wisdom also holds that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Under immense pressure, the first chain snapped and sent the other two flying backward with such velocity that they crashed right through the window of the backhoe, narrowly missing the driver’s head. He had committed an adult version of shooting himself with a rubber band. “Thank God he ducked,” says Keene. “That chain would have taken his head right off.”

The Angela Circle incidents
The little dead-end off Locust Street, once the Smith cow farm, seemed a mini-magnet for bad luck. The developer of the street hit a bit of ledge at one point, forcing the relocation of a driveway. Simple enough. Just one measly tree, about 10 inches in diameter, was in the way. Since it was already leaning toward Locust Street, Keene figured he’d drop it onto Locust while no cars were around and then quickly cut it and drag it off the street. Mind you, this is many years ago when traffic was much lighter. He cut into the tree until it was about to fall, but held off to make sure nobody was coming. He looked both ways. All clear. He looked both ways again. All clear. The moment he made the final cut, however, a woman in a VW Beetle came around the corner heading toward Winn Street. Horrified, Keene yelled at the top of his lungs, to no avail. The tree came down and karate-chopped the Beetle right across the windshield. Amazingly, the woman was unhurt. It just so happened that she was on the way to a funeral. “It was almost her own,” says Keene.

One of the houses on Angela Circle suffered the same fate. A big tree with apparently complicated weight distribution suddenly rotated as it was felled and came crashing down onto the roof of an almost-finished house — a rather expensive mulligan.

The Briarwood Lane incident
A 1946 AutoCar truck broke down on Winn Street right in front of the American Legion. It was headed for the new development called Briarwood Lane, behind the Library, and it was pulling a trailer with a bulldozer on it. No problem. The developer had a brand new Chevy Suburban. He hooked the Suburban to the AutoCar, slipped the AutoCar into neutral and started lugging the whole package — the truck, the trailer and the bulldozer — up Winn Street. He successfully made the turn onto Sears Street. So far so good. Up Sears Street he chugged. Then he turned onto Briarwood, the home stretch! But when he hit the downhill portion near the end, he had a big problem. The Suburban stopped just fine, but nothing else had any brakes. Not the dead AutoCar, which was in neutral anyway, and certainly not the trailer carrying the bulldozer. By the time the whole entourage came to a twisted, wretched halt at the end of Briarwood, it was time to buy another brand new Suburban.

The Rahanis Park incident
It was time to make the annual skating rink. Directions: Just add water. The water department hooked up a 1½”  fire hose to a fire hydrant. The designated skating rink-flooder from the recreation department showed up to take over the operation. As he walked over to the hose, the water department guy turned on the water and walked away. The hose started flailing wildly. This situation is no joke. Firefighters undergo training to handle runaway hoses. The recreation department worker had no such training. Within just a few seconds, the nozzle gave him such a thrashing that he left the job and never worked for the town again.


The Terry Avenue incident
Back when Terry Avenue was a dirt road that led nowhere, Keene was driving a dump truck when the transmission let go. The driveshaft had detached from the front and was plowing into the dirt. Resourceful Keene found a piece of conduit pipe, hung it across the truck frame and used it as a temporary support for the driveshaft. This was good enough to at least get the dump truck off to the side of the road. While waiting for a mechanic to arrive, Keene and a colleague left to get a quick coffee. When they returned, they were surprised to see the mechanic’s truck had already arrived. But where was the mechanic? Already under the truck? Oh no! They pulled up as quickly as they could, to warn him about the makeshift driveshaft. Alas, they were a moment too late. The mechanic moved the conduit pipe and received a dump truck driveshaft to the forehead. No serious injuries. “It just knocked some sense into him,” says Keene.

The County Road incident
One of the highway department guys developed a bad habit of leaving his pants unbuttoned. This meant his shirts would often pull out of his pants, so he’d have to tuck them back in every few minutes. While he was doing work on County Road with a crew of others, an elderly woman decided to bring a tray of snacks to the guys. As she walked out the front door, tray in hand, the loose-pants guy decided he should at least attempt to look proper in front of a lady. But as he attempted to tuck in his shirt for the umpteenth time of the day, a gust of wind blew his pants out of his hands and right down to his ankles. All eyes fell on the woman for a reaction. She surveyed the scene and asked, “Oh boy, when does the music start?”

The Winn Street incidents
Re-paving a street adds a couple inches of height, so highway crews have to first raise the height of catch basins and manhole covers to accommodate the new layer. But before that can happen, the guys have to jackhammer around the edges of those structures, so they can get at them. The resulting chunks of asphalt are tossed into a dump truck and hauled away. Simple enough — except when the dump truck driver accidentally hits the lever and raises the dump bed, then drives away unaware that hundreds of asphalt chunks are falling out the back. That’s exactly what happened all the way down Winn Street from St. Margaret’s Church to the Route 128 ramps. Twice.

The Center Street incident
One snowy day, a highway crew was unclogging catch basins on Center Street, to make sure water found its way into the holes. About halfway up the hill, the crew pulled the truck over near Burlington Swim & Tennis, and proceeded up the hill on foot. Behind them, the truck slipped out of park and quietly rolled down Center Street, out of view. After a half hour or so, the guys came back to retrieve the truck. But there was no truck. Bewildered at first, the men noticed tire tracks in the snow. The guys jogged down the hill and found the truck wrapped around a telephone pole near Winn Street.

The wooden ruler incident
When the guys received morning orders from their supervisor, they got a stern tongue-lashing about broken rulers. The crew used folding, wooden rulers for sidewalk work, but fate always seemed to frown upon them. The supervisor was getting tired of buying new ones, he said, as he handed over yet another brand new pack. Less than five minutes later, at the top of Center Street, the first work of the day began. A crewman knelt on the sidewalk and unfolded a ruler. The end extended past the curb and hung over the street while he took some measurements. Bah, no big deal. Along came the first car of the day, with an elderly man behind the wheel. He saw the road crew and decided to pull over and ask for directions. OH SNAP!

Rookies. Ugh . . .
When you’re working with new asphalt, it tends to stick to your tools. The best technique for cleaning them on-site is soaking them in an oil-filled wheelbarrow. A little fire under the wheelbarrow heats the oil and breaks the asphalt’s grip on the tools. That’s oil, not gas. A new guy failed to respect the difference and turned the wheelbarrow into a lake of fire. On another occasion, a new guy splashed some gas onto the fire itself to give it a little boost, and caught his own hand on fire. In his panic, he flailed his arm until his wristwatch went sailing upward — and came down directly onto another crewman’s skull. On another occasion, a brand new guy, first day on the job, was told that if you apply kerosene to your boots, they won’t stick to fresh asphalt. This meant the soles, of course, but the new guy didn’t quite grasp the concept. He promptly removed his boots and dunked them into the bucket of oil.

And finally, on Chestnut Ave., a highway department supervisor found he needed a truckload of fill. He sent a protegé dump truck driver back to the highway yard to get some. When the truck returned, the bed was empty. “Hey, didn’t I tell you to get fill?,” the supervisor asked. “I got him,” the protegé said, pointing to the passenger seat. In the seat was his highway department colleague, Phil.

Fred Keene at age 18 with his ’51 Chevy, at the end of Fairfax Street

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