There's a little arcing triangle of concrete behind the house, connecting the driveway that goes to the detached garage to the little strip of sidewalk that runs down the side of the garage, where the ordinary door with a knob and a window is. There's wood over the window opening, and a metal plate over the cat door someone cut in the ordinary door, long ago. The arcing edge of the concrete meets a low brick wall that extends from the back of the house to a point even with the corner of the garage. Thus there's a spot for a gate between the parking area and the back yard proper. The arcing edge of the concrete defines a small open area between it and the wall, by the steps down from the back door of the house, useful as an herb or flower garden and a place for a bench and a seat. Where the arcing triangle of concrete meets the low brick wall dividing the parking area from the back yard, nearest the house, are two circular depressions that held 1947 U.S. pennies until the late 1980s, when they weathered out, and below them the initials 'L.H.' and '1947' are scribed into the surface. I've always loved the human touch and mystery of the coins, initials, and year. My surname begins with 'H' also, though there is no possible connection. This home was built during the war, a small one in a small group at what were then the northern outskirts of town. The home has been in my family since the 1970s, when my parents bought it as a rental property. My brother and I are currently sharing it.
The driveway is one car wide and four cars long, and the edge of the concrete driveway is 18 inches from the side of the house. There is a small concrete walk from the driveway to the front door. At some point, someone poured concrete into the 30 foot long, 18 inch wide gap for reasons of practicality. This might have been 'L.H.', but the quality of the fill is different from the other slabs. The surface has long been cracked and thin, with grass and weeds springing up along it every year when it gets warm again. Modern chemicals have made for simple eradication of these interlopers. The corner near the back of the house has broken down enough in the last couple of years to make wheeling out the city-issued bins for garbage, lawn trimmings, and recycling require a bit of a dance, since there's always a car or two in the way, leaving no room to maneuver around it. Earlier this week a spot with a quarter-sized hole gave way as I retrieved something from my truck, revealing a cavern of about two cubic feet, carved by years and years of late winter rains, even extending half a foot under the slab of driveway. Clearly, it was time to do something.
A few years ago, when I was still married and living up the mountain, we came into possession of a decrepit wooden hot tub and the associated pump, heater, and filtering equipment. We needed a slab for it to rest on, so we made forms and a friend who does rebar for a living set up a mesh of reinforcing steel using spares he had on hand. The lumberyard up there had a system whereby one could bring home up to a cubic yard of premixed concrete in a four-wheeled plastic tub with a trailer hitch. The tub had a dumping mechanism and made pouring that slab very simple. Child's play, really. While I did manage to get the hot tub to where it would hold water, my marriage ended before I ever got the equipment hooked up. The new owners of that house have added a couple of rooms to the back, so that slab was broken up and removed.
With the calculator on my 3GHz linux box I was able to determine that I needed about a half yard of concrete for a 3.5 inch replacement slab. I called around down here in the flats but no one offers a similar system to the lumberyard up the hill. Bringing one of those tubs 20 miles down the mountain would be ridiculous, and hard on my truck. I found that a nearby equipment rental place has a four-wheeled mini-mixer trailer with a 1.5 yard capacity and they fill it with sand, gravel, and concrete when you rent it. Very convenient and cheaper than gathering the equipment and materials separately.
So yesterday I got out the shovel, sledgehammer, and wheelbarrow to remove the old concrete. I didn't have to even swing the hammer, just dropped it firmly onto the surface; cracks spread and planes tilted. It was more like a veneer of cement over coarse gravel than actual concrete, though this may have been the work of 50+ years of water. My brother was home and soon was working the hammer and pick while I manned the shovel and wheelbarrow. In a couple of hours we had the whole thing out and in a couple of piles in the driveway, between his extra truck and the garage. The mixer wasn't available so I reserved it for today. I then took extra care putting soil back and tamping it to an average 3.5" depth and prepping a small square of grass at the end of the garage-side walk to take any excess concrete. The walk ends with a square half the width of the walk, but on the side away from the garage. Odd. We decided we ought to fill in the little hole in the walk a contractor bashed out for the grounding rod for the garage electric, too.
At 1 PM I went to the rental place to get the mixer and concrete. It was two stoplights, six stop signs, and one 90° turn away. I asked if the 1/2 yard would be 'generous', since I'd calculated I'd need 0.56 yards (though the house foundations encroached a bit into the volume to be filled). The guy said "Sure", but sent four bags of just-add-water ready-mix along, just in case; I wouldn't be charged for what I didn't use. After a briefing on the mixer controls - turning in mix direction and dump direction, tilting up and down - and a warning that the trailer and concrete might 'push' my Tacoma, I was on my way with the gleaming white mixer on a blue frame.
I pulled into the driveway directly across from ours and backed into our driveway pretty as you please. This was after initially trying to back in with a turn from the street and then pulling around the block to let the backed-up traffic clear. Soon I was dumping slurry into the wheelbarrow, wheeling it over, and dumping it into the space while my brother spread it and worked the bubbles out. It was shortly thereafter clear that it was going to be close. I grabbed the four bags of ready-mix from my truck and dumped them into the spinning mixer, retaining limbs and packaging and only inhaling a few lungfuls of powder. Added water, let it mix, and it was clear we'd still be short. I dumped the last barrow of concrete into the trench with about six feet left to fill. I grabbed the keys to my brother's truck and dashed to the rental place to get eight more bags of premix, leaving my brother to work with what we'd poured already. Of course, the Middle School near one of the four-way stop-signed intersections had just gotten out, so precious minutes were lost coming and going. During the return trip wait I realized that my brother had been stuck with most of the work of spreading and smoothing the slab. When I got back we dumped all the bags into the mixer and had just enough concrete to finish the main job, plus barely enough dregs for the other two areas.
We improvised a hand float, since they didn't have one at the rental yard, and managed to get a decently flat but somewhat rough surface. Better footing when wet, I rationalized. Edges rounded and control joints cut, we proceeded to a fairly quick general clean-up. The mixer wouldn't actually tilt down enough for the water to pour out freely, but cleaning it out wasn't too bad. As I brushed splashed cement from the outside of the rotating drum some protruding bolts around an access panel took a couple of tiny chunks out of a couple of my fingers. Those were the only injuries between us, though some mildly sore muscles are in store, no doubt.
When I returned the mixer I made some noises about the initial "1/2 yard" being a little short and we punched some numbers on his four-function calculator. He came up with 0.55 yards required. I reminded him I'd said 0.56 when I was first there. He'd said 12 bags were about 0.25 yards and I reiterated that my area and volume measurements couldn't have been that far off. He ended up not charging me for four bags of ready-mix, and I was fine with that.
Back at home we did a little more smoothing and clean-up, then found a couple of 2008 pennies to press into a corner of the slab; being February, 2009 pennies might not even be available yet, let alone easily found in a pocket. Mike started to scratch our initials into the cement, but the gravel near the surface was a problem. Chalk that up to not using a float. We wetted it down and then covered the surface with plastic. A little while ago I went out and scratched, shallow and crude, our first initials and '09' near the pennies, just because.