By Maia ten Brink
Meet Howard Peavey, the traveling serviceman who helps keep the Transportable Array of earthquake sensors running smoothly. When state-of-health readings show flooding, low batteries, or mysterious thumps in the night, Howard drives out to doctor to the seismometers. His hard work, intricate knowledge of bilge pumps, and courage in the war on fire ants allow the Transportable Array to continue to collect high-quality data that geophysicists and seismologists can analyze from the comfort of their office chairs.
Fellow seismometer serviceman Dan Knip says that Howard taught MacGyver everything he knows. Howard is a wiry, gray-bearded, suntanned New Mexican with a green plastic toolbox and a work ethic that’s both frightening and inspiring. The team members who work on the Transportable Array—scientists, analysts, programmers, managers, construction crews, and service guys—often receive late night and holiday emails from Howard containing eloquent reflections on seismometer performance. His service reports from the road describe patched leaks, snow-covered solar panels, and repaired wiring with a certain literary flair. Howard always has a conjecture about the cause of a seismometer’s misbehavior—even if sometimes it’s just the “freight train of fate” or “the phase of the moon, the dance of the bumblebees.” Luckily, adversity produces great comedy. His sarcastic wit and attention to detail give the more sedentary Transportable Array team members a vision of what it’s really like to open up a flooded vault to rescue the seismometer instruments within or to have a horse eat your straw hat while you work.
We’ve mined hundreds of emails and seismometer station service reports for Howard’s best turns of phrase and pithiest quotes.
Please Re-Schedule Your Earthquakes
Subject: TA_M55A clepsydra
The vault at M55A filled with rain between construction and installation… Since then the bilge pump has cycled eight times. M55 will be reworked in better weather. Until then, all earthquakes must be scheduled to arrive between pump cycles.
Service Report: 553A
The pond next to the station is patrolled by an alligator 5 feet long.
Service Report: Z54A
Ants nibbled all around the outer edge of the rubber gasket but haven’t tunneled into the vault. Not yet.
Terrain favoring a dry vault also attracts ants, tiny feisty welting fire ants.
Service Report: A27A
Antler, North Dakota
Resident border collie supervised the entire visit but did not lift a paw to help.
Service Report: J28A
Norris, South Dakota
Forty head of angus cattle supervised the visit and disapproved of my every move.
Exasperated By Leaks
Subject: TA_E40A about to flood, again
Fresh water is less conductive than sea water, but inundating the vault will not improve its operation. Sited in the low spot between two fields, this station should be equipped with an ocean bottom seismometer.
Service Report: 236A
Despite a continuing drought, six feet below grade, the floor is wet.
There is no justice.
Service Report: 444A
Pine Grove, Louisiana
Sudden noise in the seismic data that wasn’t fixed by locking and unlocking the sensor. Communication steadily decayed this week…
Replaced the sensor. Joy.
Experimented with different cellular antennae, height, orientation. No joy…
Sometimes the dragon wins.
Service Report: 631A
Del Rio, Texas
Held the pump closer to the floor and forced the switch on.
Sponged the floor.
Piled more dirt on the lid.
Crossed my fingers.
Circumstances I cannot reconcile:
1. The lid seals tight enough to create considerable vacuum while prying along the rim with a long lever.
2. More than a dozen gallons of water trickled through the dirt and around the seal.
The Life of a Service Guy
Subject: Wednesday morning’s leaky stations
Socorro, New Mexico
Survived a tornado on Sunday. Patched heavy leaks around the penetrations. Freshened the battery bank. Raised bilge hose out of the muck.
Service Report: M33A
Subzero windchill, little biting snowflakes, and waning light encouraged economy of motion.
Service Report: G31A
Conde, South Dakota
Removed weeds over nine feet tall…
None. Too busy watching for lions or elephants to attack.
ON NEXT VISIT:
Bring a chain saw.
Service Report: T38A
After the visit, a pickup truck slathered with opinionated stickers was parked in the driveway. Front door of the house was ajar. Door bell, knocking, and an aggressive puppy did not roust any human occupant.
The Original MacGyver
Service Report: KSCO
Wind turned my beach umbrella into a pretzel. Recycled the center pole to hold the communication antenna skyward.
Subject: TA_646A debris field
Most hurricane fencing along highway 23 is leaning into the property. The gate into the site is standing open. The caretaker house pushed north a few feet, exposing or tilting its pylons. Contractors cleared the driveway to each building or empty foundation. But the last quarter mile of abandoned rail grade going to the station is covered with two feet of coarse marsh reeds and litter. Glass and plastic bottles, buoys, a porch railing, half of a wooden power pole, sticks of bamboo, marine floats, pressure treated lumber, a wooden interior door with very old knob and latch, incandescent light bulbs ripped from their metal bases, an orange life ring no longer attached to a boat. Who knows what dense, sharp, pointy evil lurks deeper in the reeds. Two months after the hurricane, only the top surface of the reed mat has dried. Clearing 1/4 mile of rail grade with a bucket loader to reach the station will take extra time during removal… The vault is somewhere under a thicker pile of reeds.
Bowling Green, Kentucky
COMMENTS: None. Too many wood ticks.
COMMENTS: None. Too busy driving.
COMMENTS: None. Too thirsty.
COMMENTS: None. Roads are too skinny for multitasking.
Crystal City, Texas
COMMENTS: None. Too many mosquitoes, female type, intent on replicating and venting my plasma.
Subject: TA_HDA coffee stirrer combo
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
As long as Alaska’s commo [communication] infrastructure and commercial electrical grid are robust, seismic data will be continuous. And they were robust for months — until Monday.
But unlike most stations that stop communicating, HDA’s telemetry rate plot dropped from 2500 bits per second to single digits, not to zero. If true, this minuscule telemetry rate suggests HDA is intact and energized, but somewhere upstream, AT&T is now routing HDA telemetry through a coffee stirrer. Again.
AT&T is American Telephone and Telegraph. It delivered both communication services for decades. But five bits per second is too slow for speech or Morse code. If AT&T is now unable to deliver phone or telegraph services, it should be required to update its corporate acronym to ASS&S: Anemic Smoke Signal and Semaphore.
Service Report: ABTX
Another (!!) mildly curious pedestrian dug down to the lid in two spots, found the west lock, removed the tape, and twiddled the combination wheels.
Rising Star, Texas
Old parts break. New ones, too.
Padre Island, Texas
The ocean is audible without donning a seashell.
Dallas, South Dakota
Owners just returned from Hawaii. Sigh.
Hiking across pasture in sticky mud and rain: tolerable. Lightning: not so much.
Ants were hungry. Bilge was dry.