The Absence of Steel

This week we watched as sidewalks, curbs, gutters and driveway aprons were installed on our street. We saw a lot of guys, heard a lot of Spanish, and endured the roar of many cement trucks. What we didn’t see was any rebar. What we didn’t hear was the clang of steel upon steel. What we didn’t endure was the smell of oxy-acetalyne torches. It’s not that we missed these things, just that their absence surprised us after decades of watching similar concrete structures being installed in Taiwan.

Michigan doesn’t get many earthquakes (and even THAT is an overstatement). Taiwan has few days without a tremor somewhere (and that’s NOT an overstatement). Maybe that’s why all of that steel goes into everything, even under surfaces that are only for walking on.

Not long after Dr. Ong Chongiau became president of Tainan Theological College in 2012 he had a chance to meet with another Dr. Ong, who was superintendent of the massive Tzu-Chi Buddhist Hospital. Both men were lifelong members of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. As he praised the work of Tzu-chi, the college president fished for similar compliments about Tainan, which pre-dates the hospital by a mere 120 years. What he heard was praise for persistence, but sorrow over the poor state of the campus.


That spurred a spate of landscaping and repair work. There were weeks when familiar sidewalks disappeared for replacement. Weeks during which the sound of the jackhammer was heard in the land, and the clang of steel and smell of cutting torches preceded the roar of the cement mixer. The palm-tree lined walkway from the gate to the college’s 117-year-old academic building, for instance, has more steel under it than an entire block of sidewalks, curbs and driveway aprons in Holland, MI. The same mild earthquake there that’ll damage nothing will result in rubble here.

I guess that engineers, like hearts, have their reasons, of which reason knows nothing.

David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.