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Monday, Mar. 3, 2008 | A little while after 7 a.m. on a cloudy morning, Matt Crouch sits in the cab of a hydraulic crane at a construction site. The cab is a control booth barely big enough for him, his operations manual binder, a package of Girl Scout cookies and a cup of 7-Eleven coffee.

A barely noticeable movement in Crouch’s right wrist affects a dramatic swing in the crane’s arm. The buttons and knobs and levers in the cab might be a video gamer’s dream.

“It’s like a video game that you can’t win,” he says. “You just keep playing and playing.”

On the ground, Justin Rembold is the “oiler” — the crane company’s employee responsible for setting up the crane, directing Crouch, the operator, and helping workers attach the blue nylon slings to the machinery to move it.

The first big task for the morning is to lift a steel frame into the hole where the cooling units will rest. Crouch swings the arm over to Rembold and some other hard-hatted workers, who attach slings and metal shackles to the corners of the frame. Rembold and Crouch communicate with staccato directives and hand gestures, and the frame is lifted and slowly moved over to the hole, where Rembold directs the careful dropping of it to the concrete floor.

“Hey, good operating,” a worker shouts toward Crouch, in the cab.

“Hey, what about the guy directing on the ground?” Rembold complains, good-naturedly. “It’s always the operator that gets all the glory.”

Crouch and Rembold have come this morning from Lakeside-based Brewer Crane and Rigging Inc. — one of the region’s five or so “good-sized” crane companies — to lift the building’s air conditioning units into an adjacent underground cooling room. Typically, office towers house their cooling machinery on the top floors, but that’s not the case in this building, at least not anymore.

These are crane operators, the workers behind those cranes that have hogged the San Diego landscape during its urban renaissance. They run the cranes seen everywhere from downtown’s burgeoning residential condo community to Kearny Mesa, where they are today. Like toothpaste cappers on an assembly line, Crouch and Rembold know their own chores in excruciating detail. On the big picture, they’re a bit foggy.

Today, they happen to be at the city’s most infamous construction site. It’s the Sunroad building, the too-tall building, the building that was constructed 20 feet higher than the Federal Aviation Authority’s guidelines say it should have been because of its proximity to Montgomery Field. It has swung open some formerly closed political doors, cost high-profile jobs, monopolized newsprint and airtime, and gifted fodder to challengers’ political campaigns.

San Diegans with even a surface knowledge of the long-running debacle know “Sunroad” has become a synonym for controversy here; the height of the building spawned a towering scandal that escalated last summer.

Now dozens of construction workers labor to lop off the offending 20 feet. They mill around the site, their faces shadowed by hard hats, the dirt clouds they stir up coating the shining glass facade in a layer of light brown dust.

Today, Crouch and Rembold are two workers tasked with a piece of the cleanup from an issue that, for most involved, couldn’t be over soon enough. But it’s a regular day on the job for buddies Crouch and Rembold; they barely realize they’re working in a building’s immense political shadow.

“I know they had to hack off the roof,” Crouch says. “When I heard that, I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ Wasn’t it because of the airport or something?”

The truck itself boasts in a windshield-wide sticker: SIZE DOES MATTER. A few off-roading and dirt bike magazines poke out of a pocket between the front seats. Instead of the typical beep-beep-beep of a construction truck in reverse, this one sounds a siren. It could technically lift about 800,000 pounds. Crouch says it’s one of the biggest hydraulic cranes on the West Coast.

After climbing a ladder to Crouch’s perch in the cab, a visitor notices him munching on his Girl Scout cookies. He monitors a computer panel that shows him how much pressure the crane is holding.

“This is my office,” he says.

This is the coveted spot. Crouch maneuvers the arm of the crane from here, wearing a backwards baseball cap, a navy hoodie printed with “Valhalla Wrestling” and khaki work pants.

Crouch was an oiler — Rembold’s job — for three years at Brewer before he took the test to be an operator at the casual invitation of a co-worker. He aced it, he says. Most Brewer employees work their way up from the yard, starting at $13 per hour, to operator, earning up to $41 an hour, plus benefits. More when they’re called for overtime, which happens often.

Crouch moved from Sacramento when a friend exited the military and encouraged Crouch to join him here. He’d never been to San Diego.

He’s worked for Brewer for six years. He bought a condo in Lake Murray a few years ago, “right before things dropped.” Sometimes, Crouch visits a site the week before a job to help his bosses assess the task, he finds out the night before where he’s going.

Throughout the morning, the team moves the cooling units, several blue-and-bronze pumps and fans and odd-shaped pieces of the cooling machinery. At points, the other workers chime in on Rembold’s directions and the scene resembles the confusion of a sedan full of people trying to help a driver parallel park in a tight spot.

For each piece, Rembold jogs between the spot where the machinery rests, waiting to be lifted in, and the hole where workers guide the pieces into place. The goateed Rembold wears jeans, a gray thermal long-sleeved t-shirt, a yellow safety vest and a navy bandanna to cushion his shaved head from his hard hat. He’s slipped his hands into beige gloves with red stars printed on them.

On his helmet, Rembold wears union stickers and construction company logos and “SemperFi,” the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps.

He served for four years in the Marines, stationed at Miramar and Yuma and Egypt — “saw the pyramids,” he says — and Puerto Rico. Before that he played linebacker for Mesa College’s football team and worked for his grandfather’s company, a pile-driving and crane company. In between, he worked part-time as a bar bouncer.

Rembold, who grew up in Pacific Beach, eventually tired of dealing with “the drunks” as a bouncer and found a job at Brewer through his cousin. Now he’s an oiler, looking to soon work his way up to “the seat.”

Rembold is quick to spot solutions to quirks in the morning’s tasks. When slings slip off the awkwardly shaped pieces of machinery, he looks at them for a minute, then finds another way to attach them. When he finds the corners of a couple of pieces are sharp, he runs to a storage bin for some pieces of padding to slip between the edges and the slings so they won’t be severed under pressure. Crouch jokes he’s being too paranoid.

“Safe than sorry, man,” Rembold says. “I don’t know what the weight is.”

Later, Rembold makes a basketball hoop with his arms, challenging Crouch to score a basket with the crane’s arm. Attached to the arm are nylon slings with metal shackles attached, dangling at a length of probably 15 feet from the big hook. The slings swing as Crouch moves the arm toward the hoop Rembold’s created.

“I test his skill, but usually I just end up getting hit in the head with a shackle,” he says.

Rembold says he feels 23, though he admitted he and Crouch just turned seven years older than that. They and some of their co-workers are “real close,” Rembold says. They go off-roading and dirt bike riding in the desert, he says. About 60 guys work for Brewer, and a small handful do each of Rembold’s and Crouch’s jobs.

Several hours into the morning, the men swap jokes on their walkie-talkies and discuss the jobs they’ve heard are coming up. The company sends crews to Los Angeles and a recent one to Mammoth. There are rumors of more exotic locations, too. Both say they’re interested in this work indefinitely.

“I like what I do, so — it’s one of those jobs you could do a long time,” Crouch says.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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