Adventures in Surveying

Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek



Adventures in Surveying


Another dream, another chronicle about disparate events in the past that somehow got stitched together in the dream itself.  This chronicle combines a bit of forestry field work, a bit of practical applications of things learned in school, a bit about softball; and all wrapped up in a bit of residual resentment.  Were it not for an abiding recollection of bits from an anonymous poem,


                             All races are not won by the faster or stronger man

                   Sooner or later, all races are won by the man who thinks he can


the impetus to attempt a disparate chronicle might not have gestated.


The main theme in the dream was actually about softball and the specifications of the standard softball diamond.  Whereas the dimensions of a baseball diamond are 90 feet from home plate to first base and 90 feet between bases, in softball the dimensions are scaled down to 2/3rd of a baseball diamond.  That is to say, distances between bases are 60 feet.  And whereas the designated distance from the pitcher’s mound in baseball is 60 feet, 6 inches; the correspondingly scaled distance in softball is 40 feet, 3 inches.  Because baseball and softball are played around the world, it is fundamental to know and use the standard dimensions when laying out the diamonds that might become permanent fixtures in stadiums and public parks.



The journeyman plugger traits in the Footloose Forester contained just enough moxie about baseball, softball, and surveying to spur him into action in making small contributions in the local communities where his peripatetic legs took him.  Time now for a few stands of the dream and how they were stitched together in the dream.


In the sparsely populated islands of Cape Verde, we American ballplayers played softball on strips of beach sand, seldom used soccer fields and anyplace else that was big enough and flat enough engage our hitting and fielding skills.  Those places were very scarce.  Only two locales were actually big enough to accommodate a properly sized softball diamond and a passable outfield.  The Footloose Forester took the lead in marking locations on the ground where home plate should be, and the imaginary lines of fair-foul markers of the outfield.  That is where the surveying comes in.  To do it right, it would require straight lines, 90° angles between bases, and precision distances of 60 feet between those bases.  And of course, the marking of the pitcher’s mound at a distance of 40 feet, 3 inches.  


It was no coincidence that the official baseball diamond design of 90 feet between home plate and first base became an international standard.  The velocity of a struck baseball, the swiftness of the fielder to handle a typical ground ball, when combined with the ability of the average runner to reach first base before the fielded ball arrives in the mitt of the 1st baseman—were all factors in deciding the standard dimensions.  The same principles hold true in the game of softball, with softer balls and different bats.  Conservative columnist and baseball aficionado George Will once wrote a nationally syndicated article about the genius of matching the dimensions with the limitations of men to challenge those exact dimensions.  At this stage, a personal recollection about the dimensions of a softball diamond emerged from the otherwise pleasant dream of the Footloose Forester.  It was all about his journeyman’s knowledge of surveying, his love of softball, and his decidedly slowest running speed as the oldest guy on the team.  Those dreams sure mix things up!


Fortunately, as a practicing forester, the Footloose Forester owned two professional grade hand-held compasses and had an appreciation of the architecture of the baseball diamond.  First, he sought permission to use a vacant field in the village of Assomada, for a Saturday sporting event between the Americans and our sporting Cape Verde counterparts.  That was easy and they eagerly got the approvals themselves.  All of the counterparts loved softball and all of them had been trained in trained in Cuba, where they learned how to play baseball and softball.  Next came laying out the field.  The plan was to arrive on Saturday morning at 7:00am, and with the promised help of an American friend, and to lay out the field with a 100-foot measuring tape and compass.  The friend had a hangover and didn’t show up.  The Footloose Forester instead enlisted the services of two young Cape Verdean boys who eagerly followed instructions in broken Portuguese.  When 9:00am and gametime rolled around, the final touches had not yet been completed.  The American Ambassador, one of the arriving ballplayers, asked my hungover friend why it took so long.  To which my evasive friend said, “I don’t get involved with these things.”  Slow, silent burn.


Some years later, at another makeshift ballfield in Kenya, the Footloose Forester had occasion to challenge the dimensions of the softball diamond laid out by a young functionary from the US Embassy.  He was a ballplayer, but likely from among the category of lumpers who thought that his pacing of distances was good enough, as he firmly marked the spot where he thought 1st base should be put.  And he resented the opinion of the Footloose Forester who thought that the distance was in excess of 60 feet.   It was no happenstance that the Footloose Forester offered to measure distances with the long rope he had marked at home with the sole purpose of laying out prospective but unmarked ballfields.  He carried it with him that day, as well as the compass he intended to use to spot the fair-foul trees beyond the outfield.  After all, he knew that we would have to play ball on a new field today because our regular softball field was reserved at that time.


After it was determined that the paced estimates conducted by the embassy guy were 6-7 feet too long, the Footloose Forester tried to assuage the air of umbrage by saying that, as the oldest player on the field, his creaky legs needed every advantage.  Of course, nobody stood up for him.  But lone wolves know what to expect. 


The upper field at the International School of Kenya was where we usually played, and there were no disputes about where the bases belonged.  The Footloose Forester had previously marked out all the exact placements and inserted wine corks into holes that he drilled into the ground.  The idea was to avoid looking for the marks each and every time we dropped the bases before a ball game.


Elementary surveying techniques were also put into play at the International School of Kenya by the volunteer Footloose Forester who laid out a compass-and-pacing course for both the girl scouts and the boy scout troops, pursuant to earning merit badges.  It was satisfying seeing them learn new skills that might stay with them into adulthood. 

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