Magie Norie

By Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS

I was running the gun, a 1908 Buff & Buff transit, for a simple home site survey. It was 1963, and the 30-second instrument was state of the art for the private land surveyor, even if it had been manufactured 55 years ago. It was called a 30-second instrument because the divisions on the vernier were graduated so that one could directly read an angle to a minute of arc, and, we firmly believed, a skilled instrument man could estimate down to half a minute: 30 seconds.

We had staked the front two corners of the rectangular lot by occupying one square corner, sighting the other, and chaining out the distance to the nearest lot corner to set the first front corner. We chained the width of the lot to set the other front corner and chained from there to the far square corner as a check. A failure to check (more than a tenth of a foot discrepancy) would force us to chain back to confirm the values. Rarely, persistent discrepancies were proportioned away.

I was setting the gun up on a front corner and preparing to turn the first set of angles to one of the rear corners when a contractor interrupted our work. The contractor knew that my father, who was running the crew, was also the design engineer of the subdivision where we were working.

“Hey, Gene,” he said, “we need some help over here.” The man pointed to a house under construction a few hundred feet away. “We can’t find the house connection. Can you help us out?”

Because my father had designed the subdivision, it stood to reason he would know the exact location of every sanitary sewer wye from the main. My dad, of course, said he would see if he could help.

Instead of continuing with the lot stake out, chainman Emile and I followed the contractor to a long, narrow trench that had been excavated parallel to the concrete sidewalk. There were several laborers working in the trench and grumbling among themselves in a local dialect often mistaken for French. The trench was three-feet wide, four-feet deep, and ran practically half the width of the lot. The sides and flat bottom of the excavation were shaved smooth by men who were skilled at their trade. The uniform tan-colored soil appeared to have been previously undisturbed.

“I think they skipped the house connection here, Gene,” the contractor said, as he gestured with his hands at the clean trench and sweating workmen.

“Maybe they just stopped short of the right of way,” my dad said. “Give me a minute.”

He walked back down the street to a house with a car in the carport. He walked up to the door and knocked. A woman, who must have been watching my dad come up the walk, answered the door instantly. We watched as he spoke with her for a moment. She disappeared into the house but left the door slightly ajar. When she returned, she handed my father two wire coat hangers. He tipped his hat in thanks as she closed the door and walked back to us, unwinding the hooked ends of the hangers.
“Stevie,” he called to me, “get me a pair of pliers and two Coke bottles from the truck.”

I jogged over to our truck and retrieved a pair of pliers from the tool bucket tucked into a corner of the truck bed. The passenger side foot well was our temporary holding area for empty soft drink bottles and Moon Pie wrappers. I selected two six-ounce Coke bottles. I brought the items to my father, wondering what the old man was up to.

Dad took the pliers and, nodding toward a hose, instructed me to rinse out the bottles. He had straightened out the coat hangers and now used the pliers to snip off the misshapen ends. He straightened the remaining minor bends until he had two smooth wires, each about 18 inches in length. Satisfied the wires were sufficiently straight, he bent right angles into one end of each hanger. He now had two stiff wires that were straight for 14 inches and ended in 4-inch handles.

I returned with the freshly rinsed bottles and handed them to my dad. He tucked the wires under one arm, produced a bandana, and dried the mouths of the bottles. He was walking toward the trench while he was doing this and, when he reached the end of the trench, he stopped and placed the four-inch wire handles, one each, into the bottles. He held the bottles, one in each hand, so the wires extended away from him parallel to each other and four inches apart.

He looked at me with his patented mischievous smile and winked. “Watch this,” he said.

He began to slowly walk along the street-side edge of the trench. He had advanced about one third the length of the excavation when the wires suddenly swung toward one another until they crossed and settled perpendicular to their previous position. Dad continued moving, and the wires swung back into their parallel configuration. There was no way he could have twisted the bottles to influence the wires to move, but they had clearly moved.

Dad scuffed the edge of the trench beneath the spot where the wires had crossed. He restored the wires to their parallel configuration and walked to the end of the trench. The parallel wires did not waver.

He turned around, waited until the wires settled into their parallel configuration, and walked back. When he reached the scuff mark the wires came alive again, crossing as before and straightening once more when he passed the site.

“Dig into the edge of the trench here,” Dad said, pointing to a spot beneath the scuff mark. One of the laborers looked up with an expression I could not interpret and stabbed the edge of the trench with his spade. A section of soil sloughed away from the wall of the trench, revealing the capped end of a sanitary sewer house connection.

“There’s your house connection,” he said.

The laborers abandoned the trench while the contractor was thanking my dad for finding the connection. When he left the worksite, the laborers parted like the Red Sea and scurried out of his way, maintaining a circle of 30 feet away from my dad, some crossing themselves and muttering. I heard one say “Magie Noire.”

“How did you do that?” I asked when we returned to our survey site.

“I just witched it up,” Dad said. “My father taught me how to do it.”

“Does it work every time?” I asked.

“No, not every time but often enough to try,” Dad admitted. “I think it has something to do with magnetic fields and induced currents.”

“What does ‘Magie Noire’ mean?” I asked.

“Black Magic,” my dad said.

Today, when real-time network (RTN) receivers, electronic data collectors, and powerful three dimensional, computer aided drafting (3D CAD) programs send a single day’s worth of field data to my workstation, information that would have taken weeks to collect in 1963, I, like those laborers of half a century ago, cross myself and mutter, “Magie Noire.”

Stephen Estopinal, PE, PLS is assistant division manager and senior project manager at SJB Group, LLC in Louisiana. He has been involved in the practice of land surveying for more than 50 years and is the author of A Guide to Understanding Land Surveys, 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009.

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