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By all means, take a seat

By all means, take a seat

Have you ever been to an event somewhere and wished the host had a lot more folding chairs to sit on to watch the action so that you could get a better view of the back of the head of that guy in front of you?

Of course not. For the best view, no one goes with a sea of folding chairs. They go with bleachers. In some cases, they go with bleachers that fold up and can be out of sight when the action isn’t going full-blast. Take a moment, pull at the right spot and you instantly have seating for a couple hundred people whose bucket may not fit every bucket seat known to man. Once the fun is done, minimal effort lets you fold those seats up like an accordion and put them away, in a sense. 

All we need to do is fold these up and move them out the door.

Really, though, does anyone ever truly put away an accordion? No closet will fully contain those memories. That’s why we have therapists. 

Sherill and I found ourselves with an interesting situation. After buying my former elementary school in Ridgeway to use in a shrimp operation, we realized that very little of the everyday infrastructure of the school remained. There were no desks, no chairs and no lockers to remind us that this building had once been a school. Oddly enough, there were still intercom loudspeakers in every room, but the clock next to the speaker was gone. Time no longer exists at Ridgeway Elementary, but you can still be called to the principal’s office. 

Thank you, Dr. Freud. 

What we did still have was bleachers in the gym. Can’t say that I ever spent a lot of time in them since I left school. Each time they were used for an audience, I was usually one of the people being viewed, not one of the spectators. A quick look at them left me with the impression these certainly weren’t the same bleachers we had in the 1970’s. When you tap on them, they have a ring. I seem to remember wood bleachers.

Either way, they weren’t really much good to us today. Sherill wanted them gone so that we could maximize our use of space. We weren’t going to have throngs of people wanting to come in and sit in the bleachers to watch shrimp grow in a tank. For that level of crowd excitement, there is The Golf Channel.

So get the bleachers out of there. First, pick a destination for them. Check with your local schools to see if any of them need a set of bleachers. And by local schools, I mean every one except for the public school that used to own this place. Anyone who swipes every single clock in the building and doesn’t leave me a locker for my Hello Kitty backpack full of Oscar Mayer Lunchables isn’t getting bleachers handed to them.

What they need is bleachers

We checked around. One school was interested in the bleachers, but there was a math problem. They were in great shape and a perfect fit, except for one thing: When you rolled them out for maximum seating, you were left with just a couple of inches between the front row and the lines of the court in front of you. Sure, Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson would love to have their court-side seats that close to the action, but the people on the court really wouldn’t. There needs to be some separation. That big clear wall at the hockey game isn’t exactly a sneeze guard. 

Another idea hit Sherill as she sat and watched one of my cousin’s kids showing her steer at the fair. There was no surplus of seating to watch the show. What The Mighty Howard County Fair in Cresco really needed was more bleachers! She did some checking and was able to meet with the Executive Secretary to look at the bleachers. He was quite interested in them and was willing to accept our generous donation. (I did some quick Craigslist and eBay work and found bleachers anywhere from $1000 to $27,000 for each 20-foot section.) He would get in touch with his fair board the following week when they met and see what they could do. 

The production schedule for the shrimp operation jumped to the forefront about that time. Sherill needed to get a bunch of spray foam work done in the classrooms and other areas we planned to put pools for the shrimp. The big project would be the gym. One of my cousins does spray foam work, and he went to school there about the same time I did. He’d gladly foam the gym, but we needed to get the bleachers moved away from the wall to get it done. 

That’s when I discovered how forward-thinking the school system had been. They saw America’s obesity crisis coming and they ordered extra-sturdy bleachers to accommodate all of the extra-sturdy audience members to come in future years. 

You can get kindergartners to move a folding chair. You can probably get a couple of fifth-graders to move a La-Z-Boy. (Ahem. Attention future public event facility builders! I’d pay a little extra for La-Z-Boy seating compared to bleachers and I’d bet I’m not alone.) You can’t get just anyone to move a set of bleachers. 

Actually, in a way, you can. They have wheels under them. They fold up and fold out quite nicely because of those wheels. Unfortunately, those wheels are in a fixed position. You have two choices for movement – straight forward and straight back. 

So, pick them up and move them, right? Did I mention these bleachers were in Ridgeway? This was not a project done in Cresco, the home of multiple manufacturers of durable and LIGHT aluminum trailers. These bleachers are steel. You and a couple of your goon-ish buddies don’t pick up a set of 20-feet-long-and-five-rows-high bleachers like a couch.

So, open up the big front door and take them out that way. 

Would that we could. Sadly, this gym was built in the 1930’s. They built two big doors for grand entrances. They were both two regular house doors wide. One set came with a big metal bar down the middle for the latch, since that one was next to the outside wall. The other one went into what was the library. This wasn’t a machine shed with a series of giant entry doors. 

My cousin got started on the spray foam work. He reached a point where we needed to do something with the bleachers so he could keep working on the walls. When another load of equipment showed up one day, I went to the local co-op to borrow their forklift to get the semi unloaded. That’s when I decided to try something as we moved pallets around. Heavy steel bleachers should be excellent candidates for transport with a forklift. Sure enough, I was able to slide in and get the bleachers lifted without doing any damage. They also folded up to about 48” wide, so they weren’t completely flopping around all over like Jell-O. Aim the forks at the center and they’d lift and move just fine. 

The whole rigid-wheel thing got me thinking. If all we could do was move the bleachers forward and maybe slightly sideways at an angle, this wasn’t going to be easy to get them out of the gym and onto a trailer to be transported to Cresco. This wasn’t a matter of only zigging and not zagging. We needed them to go side to side. Then we could shoot them out the door into the library, make a quick drivers-ed-quality turn and then go out the front door to be loaded. Push without lifting and you'd either wear the wheels off so they wouldn't roll, or you'd do major damage to the gym floor. You could potentially do both.

Oh, to swivel

One of the fair board members had stopped by that day to look at the bleachers and the scenery layout to figure out how we could make this project work. We had discussed side to side movement and he said he’d bring along a couple of dolly carts to see if they’d work to place the bleachers on to make them more portable. “Guys use them to put under snowmobiles all the time so they can move them on cement,” he told us. 

Caster carts for snowmobile transport

Seemed reasonable to me, but I still thought caster wheels might work, too. We’d been looking at the steel door with the giant bar blocking the opening and realized after dusting it off that there were two Allen screws holding the bar in place. Once the two Allen screws were removed, the center bar latching system could be removed and the doorway was suddenly wide enough to get the bleachers through it. We’d go from about 34” of space for our 48” bleachers to more like 68”. All we had to do was figure out a way to get the bleachers to go perfectly sideways from where they were. 

Oh, to swivel.              

I was lamenting this engineering issue with Sherill that night, trying to explain what I needed to do. If only I could find caster wheels with a bolt going up from the wheel instead of the flat plate with four screw holes you always find on caster wheels. 

Sherill suddenly got up from the table and walked into another room. She came back with a bag. “You mean something like this?” she asked as she pulled a package out and showed it to me. 

Lo and behold, my thoughtful bride had a set of caster wheels with a bolt stem instead of a plate and she had them on hand!!! Bing, bang, boom, problem solved! 

Sherill had purchased the wheels with the plan of eventually putting them under a bird cage so that her parrots could be more mobile instead of being stuck in the same spot in the room. 

Finally, an upside to parrots. 

Bleachers with casters installed

Woody and I got some tools together the next day to head to the gym and get some caster wheels with bolt stems installed under the bleachers. Rather than doing some kind of Indy-pit-crew-quick-change routine where we’d get one set of bleachers out the door and then swipe the wheels from it to get the next set prepped, I had managed to find a few more threaded stem caster wheels when I was at a hardware store a day or two before. We’d get four wheels under each set of bleachers and be able to wheel them out the door to an awaiting forklift and then put them on a trailer to head to their new home. 

The various fair board members would be there around 6:00 to get the bleachers loaded. Woody and I got the first two wheels put on the back of a set of bleachers with holes already there. The under side of the front part of the bleacher frames needed holes drilled in them. We got those drilled and put the new wheels in to be attached with the nuts and washers we brought along. 

Look before you squash

Small problem. My caster supplier went retro on us. Taking us all the way back to my days in elementary school in the 1970’s, they went with a popular idea. Nope, not a leisure suit or disco ball. They went metric!

Metric. How very . . . Jimmy Carter of you. 

I called headquarters to see if we had any metric nuts. Yep, no problem. There should be some. A quick trip home and I discovered there were no metric nuts of the size I needed. That meant a quick trip to town to see if the farm supply store had any. I got there with about fifteen seconds to spare before they closed the door. They had exactly what I wanted. I got back in my car and got back to school at about the same time that the crew showed up to load the bleachers. Now we actually needed to make Indy-pit-crew-quality time.  

We lifted the bleachers with the forklift and got a set of casters put on in reasonable time. One quick move of the lever and I set the bleachers down so they could be effortlessly shuttled out the door. 

The metric casters folded like tin foil. The bleachers were sturdy. The metric stuff was weak. Jimmy Carter strikes again. 

No big deal. We’d simply lift the bleachers up again and put the snowmobile carts under them and steer the bleachers toward the door. 

Same result

Jimmy Carter is my Newman.

This was essentially a group of farmers working on the project, so we’d make this happen and we’d use what we had on hand. We had about five or six people, a skid loader, a forklift and some really heavy cargo to move out a narrow door that wasn’t in a straight line. 

We’d drive the skid loader in the doorway and get the forks on that under one end of the bleachers and put the forklift on the other end. Starting with the set near the door, this wouldn’t be too bad. 

Bleachers out the door

Ever notice that farm equipment isn’t getting smaller? The skid loader the crew brought with them wouldn’t fit in the door. We could get the forks in, but that was it. The rest of the machine was too beefy. 

Time to get creative. I’ve jockeyed enough bales and other stuff around to have some experience. We’d take the forklift and get under the bleachers in the center. Then I’d back up toward the opposite wall and make another move forward at the proper angle to get the bleachers to end up right next to the door and still be square with the world. Lower the boom, run the forklift down to the other end and lift them up as the guy in the skid loader lifted from his end with just his forks inside the building. We’d back up until the bleachers were centered on the sidewalk and then the skid loader could switch from an end position to a center position and load them on a trailer. 

Making your size 15 shoe fit a size 7 foot

Once again, size matters. By the time we got the bleachers out the door, we kind of had the skid loader almost up against the wall of the school on the other side. He had just enough room to get himself rotated out and back onto the sidewalk. When I say just enough, we’re talking an inch or two, not a couple feet.

Remember the part about small farm equipment? When we got a bigger skid loader years ago, the service manager at the dealership asked how I liked it. It doesn’t bounce, I told him, which is a problem. 

“What? A smooth ride is good, isn’t it?” he asked. 

It’s not the ride. It doesn’t bounce. When I’d hit stuff like fence posts and building walls with the little skid loader, it would bounce off. This bigger one tends to shear stuff of and crumble it. That's not good.

Sherlock Shrimp's spray foamed gym

All I could envision this particular day was the wall of one classroom getting crunched by a skid loader as we tried to jockey some bleachers out in a good faith effort to help our local 4-H crowd.

Bleachers on real wheels

In spite of all the caster collapsement, we managed to get all three sets of bleachers out successfully. They were loaded onto trailers, fastened quite securely (without any involvement from me) and transported to their new home. The crowd will have decent seating at next year’s Mighty Howard CountyFair, the gym is now completely spray foamed and ready for further development and my opinion of Jimmy Carter and the metric system is still in the basement where it has always been.


Jeff Ryan is Guy No. 2 in the operation of Two Guys Farming, Inc., near Cresco, IA.

Read more blogs from Jeff.

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