Petar Maymounkov

The Roman Column

Fri, Feb 28, 2014

When I was a kid I used to spend long afternoons with my then-retired grandfather watching documentaries on all sorts of topics. The topic today is history.

For one reason or another, Greek and Roman miracles of history were common on then-communist channels (of which there were only three: 1, 2 and 3; 3 was a Russian channel). Perhaps because they were in no way offending to the slavic communist nomenclature. But who cares. I was having a blast and a quiet time with grandpa, who would sneak in a war story here and there as if the TV would provoke it serendipitously.

Well, one day we watched a builder and architecturing documentary, highlighting the impressive pedigree of Bulgarian architects—and it is impressive, by the way. But I was impressed by something else. They had figured out how to build bridges without gluing substances. Not only were the bridges beautifully clean looking—almost modernistic but with an ancient design—they also looked unique. To me, one thing mattered the most: The secret technique of structure-building that can accomplish bridges that are taller than they are long, with skinny-looking legs and clearly able to stroll through generations unbothered (more or less). And all of this accomplished at the expense of the most available obviously, I thought, commodity in country: the stone that is made out of granite.

So, naturally, I went on to learn a few things about parabolas and what-nots, mostly conclusing that now I can build bridges, as long as I order the stones comprising the columns in a parabolic fashion. At this point, it was only a matter of afternoons until I was going to have the chance to build my first bridge, and as everything Petar, it was going to be done with grandure and precision in design and execution. And an execution it was.

The thing is, afternoon in Sofia when you are sevenish are hot (in the summer) and quiet. But quietness has been a friend and an enemy to me since I know myself. That afternoon, quietness was an enemy and it had to be disturbed.

When I conceived my plans to change my neighborhood forever (and such plans occured weekly), I liked to design my performances with a small number of principles that gracefully dictated all follow-on execution details. On quiet afternoons, when breaking the silence was the objective, one of my design principles was to create a lull-before-the-storm scenario.

At 2pm, on said afternoon and for that matter on all weekday afternoons, the neighborhood really quieted down. This was because there was an unsaid law in our Bularian society that the interval 2-to-4pm is a relaxation time for the master (of crafts).

I had been eyeing a construction site a few blocks from my home. And construction sites are the best, because the construction masters would do one better than relaxing from 2 to 4pm. They would get hammered on Rakia (the Bulgarian Vodka-and-Whiskey), which to me meant more time for execution and more fun when chased by uncoordinated men.

I happened to pass by the construction site, on that one special afternoon. I happened to have been wanting to build a bridge. And I happened to have had a friend handy right beside me.

It took a few seconds to explain the plan to my friend and get a green light. It's not that I explained things well. It's that my friends never really understood my plans in their full complexity, but they knew that the repurcussions were always huge and that they usually didn't suffer much spanking (exceptions exist) at the end of affairs. So we went on.

Construction sites are great. Typically, you have wads of construction materials carefully arranged in front of the site street-side. Workers usually get hammered in the back. We gave them some time to go through their first round.

Here's the plan. I wanted to build an archway from one side of the one-lane street to the other. But to amplify the impact of the creation as well as to give myself a notch of extra challenge, there was a twist.

This had to be a three-column bridge with the middle column set right in the middle, of what: of the street of course. This project would require some risk, the tickle, that a car might pass by, which would completely ruin the undertaking as we would get terminated. This project would thus require speedier-than-normal execution and this was not going to be easy as the columns were to be 4 feet wide and square in section, and the bridge was to be 2 body-lengths high, relative to our bodies.

Once the plan took shape in my head, my rational mind kicked in to optimize the execution and accomplish perfect parallelism with the one friend available to me. We were going to start with the middle column, because if interrupted the other two columns would be of no use without the middle.

We had about an hour, within which we build one body length of the first column to spec. Using division-of-labor, one of us was transporting materials to the column site—him—and another—me—was building the column guided by real engineering principles learned from my parents. The column had a brick wall on the outside, which brick wall was to follow the ancient Bulgarian builder's principles of curvature. While the insides were based on modern principles of steel-rods-and-concrete core.

We were interrupted by a worker who spotted us from a higher floor. But read on, the column was destined for success. We got chased away, and I ran all the way home laughing.

At 6pm, three hours later, my father came back home from work and declare: “I saw a curious thing on my way back home from the parking lot: Some construction workers were undoing a column set in the middle of the street.” Four hours later! I knew the mission had been accomplished. Time for family dinner.

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