Back when Jimmy Carter was president a man joined the Benton County Secondary Roads Department. Larry Christianson joined the Benton County crew in June of 1978 driving one of those big rigs known as a maintainer. He finally parked his machine for the last time in September of 2021.
Larry has a son and daughter and is the husband of Deb. Previously he did a stint in the United States Army, worked on a farm and later at Collins Radio in Cedar Rapids. He knew that he didn't want to spend his life in a factory when the county job became available. For the past 43 years he has enjoyed working outside where he could see something new every day.
Larry's job is one of those jobs that you don't notice unless the job doesn't get done. I can assure you that in the section of the county that Larry was responsible for, you didn't even question if the job would be done, you knew it would be.
Benton County has 1,249 miles of roads 234 miles of hard surface roads, 925 miles of gravel and 90 miles of dirt road along with 327 bridges to maintain. There are 13 maintenance districts in the county.
I passed Larry several times on the gravel, taking my car over the row of gravel that he had just scraped back onto the road. And several times I was hoping that he had been down the road before I had in the wintertime. Living in the country, you learn to have a healthy respect for the roads, or you should.
Larry covered about 70 miles of road in his 35,000 pound maintainer (it weighs even more if there are blades on the front of them). The maximum speed of a maintainer is 29 miles per hour. When grading the roads, which involves moving the rock and dirt back from the edges where it sifts from all of the travel on the road involves 2 passes on each gravel road, one on each side. While doing this, the maintainer can only travel at 6 miles per hour.
I've seen firsthand the fun that Larry gets to deal with on my road. In the spring, if we've had a lot of snow in the winter, the north side of the hills will always be muddy. It's not the fault of the road crew, it's nature. After all of the cars, and school busses, and tractors pulling stuck cars out of some spots occasionally, we leave a nice mess for guys like Larry to fix.
In the winter, you learn that if it snows a "little," which means just a couple of inches, you can still get to town pretty easily. If there is more, it's going to be a fun trip, Not in the fun ha-ha sort of way, it means that you may or may not make it to the highway. I learned that you just be patient and wait for Larry to go by. If there is a lot of snow it's going to be a long wait. For snowplowing, Larry said that the best speed would be between 17 and 20 miles per hour.
On his first winter, Larry remembers that he had stay at the shop because the roads were too bad to get home. As a rookie he had a call that night to take his maintainer out to rescue some of the DOT trucks following an accident and the snow had drifted them in while they were stopped. In other times he's had to rescue sheriff's cars, and an ambulance in one case.
The wintertime shifts will run the drivers 12 or 13 hours on the road. He shared one experience that he had been out plowing and had gotten disoriented. He explained that when you hit the snow it flies in the air obstructing your view at times. When you travel miles and miles like this he said he couldn't remember which direction he was going, but knew he'd see some landmarks and get his bearings. And of course, he did. The equipment is now fitted with GPS so that they know exactly where they are, even if they can't see in the blowing snow.
Sideswiped once by a semi-truck loaded with grain, the truck ended up in the ditch and the plow pulled away with some damage to the blade. He said probably the worst part for him was filling out all of the paperwork documenting the accident. Fortunately, no one was injured in the accident.
Christianson said the thing that has changed the most is technology. The machines used to be stickshift and had steering wheels. Now he said that they steer with joysticks, something kids today might take to easily, but he had to learn. (and he did say that the county needs more drivers, so if anyone is interested in taking Larry's place...)
While Larry spent most of his time putting around for his job, he has also had a career racing motorcycles on the drag strip since 1974. He finished his career last year after a crash on his bike. He was a fixture at Eddyville, Cedar Falls, and the Earlville Raceway winning several championships.
Congratulations Larry on your retirement, and thanks for all the years of smooth sailing down my road!