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Sam Cook column: Watching a master of movement at work

Operator Jeremiah Babolik of Pine City, Minn., uses an excavator with a “muncher” to chew through concrete and sort recyclable metal from rocky material and other debris during the demolition of the KDLH and Palladio Buildings earlier this month.( Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

I want to be Jeremiah Babolik for at least two hours. Maybe all day.

Standing in an alley above Superior Street in downtown Duluth earlier this month, I’m staring through a chain-link fence watching Babolik tweak the controls of a Caterpillar 330 CL excavator.

He flicks a lever. The yellow boom extends like the neck of a brontosaurus.

He nudges a lever. The boom descends.

He eases a lever. The bucket gobbles a mouthful of concrete rubble.

The 330 CL, Babolik’s baby, lifts the 3 cubic yards of rubble and swings it 60 degrees. With the bucket still lifting and swinging, Babolik unfolds the bucket. The debris plummets to another pile.

Babolik is segregating the remains of the former  KDLH-TV building. Concrete rubble in one pile. Steel and reinforcing bar in another. Waste debris in a third.

From Pine City, Minn., Babolik is an operator for Veit, the demolition contractor on this job. The building is being razed to make way for Maurices’ new corporate headquarters.

I don’t know Babolik. I ask if I can get some time with him, but I am told he is too busy. But that doesn’t keep me from watching him for a while.

He sits in the glassed cab of the excavator, jiggling and bouncing in his seat as the machine does its work. He is stout, tanned, with short dark hair under his hard hat.

The excavator clanks and groans and whines and beeps. Its tracks are on ground level, and its insatiable maw is eating from the basement. Now Babolik, like some prehistoric bird tending its young, lifts and swings each mouthful of debris, feeding it gently to a waiting semi-trailer.

What at first appears to be a coarse operation in fact requires a deft touch. Now a piece of bent steel rebar dangles dangerously outside the frame of the trailer. That won’t do. Babolik maneuvers a single steel tooth on the lip of his bucket inch by inch until it snags the errant rebar. He tucks the bucket just so. He lifts the rebar and deposits it in the trailer.

When the truck is full, it leaves, and Babolik continues sorting.

He’s a master. He can shake and jostle a bucket full of debris, dropping rebar in one pile, concrete in another, sorting on the fly. Sometimes, he uses the gigantic bucket as a broom, brushing at a pile of debris like someone making a backhanded swipe at a blackfly.

Using the “thumb” attachment on his bucket, he can extract a single strand of rebar from a pile of concrete. He can cut loose a bucketful of concrete chunks while he still is lifting and swinging, effectively tossing the debris where he wants it.

Watching him is like watching anyone who has mastered a physical craft — a butcher extracting a roast from a steer, a fishing guide filleting walleyes, a potter throwing a vase. Whether your tool is a sharp knife or an excavator, it all comes down to efficiency and grace.

Now Babolik appears to be wrapping up for the day. He curls his bucket until its flat side is on the ground. He moves the giant arm laterally in short strokes, tidying up his piles of debris, just another shopkeeper sweeping up at day’s end.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samcookoutdoors.

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