Watching from a distance as Fred Sprinkle quickly set pilings with his excavator, I had the impression he was handling much smaller sticks of wood: Up went the pole, automatically swinging upright against the bucket, over and down into a hole scoured into the sand with water pumped out of the Gulf of Mexico. Eyeball for plumb, adjust, and on to the next one.

But in fact they weren't sticks; they were 30-foot piles with 12- to 14-inch butts, and it took only a few minutes to realize how skilled Sprinkle is with the controls. By 3 o'clock — a short day — the pilings were in. After five days for settling, as required by the local building department of Dauphin Island, Ala., they were ready for the...

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