It spills out of the Munich Convention Center’s 18 halls and into most of the surrounding parking areas. It attracts 620,000 people over the course of a week, almost half of whom come from outside of Germany.
When I heard about it last fall, I knew I had to find a way to take my son, Ian. For a construction-machine-obsessed 5-year-old, it sounded like heaven. There was just one hitch: I couldn’t tell if it was open to the public or if it was an industry-only event.
To my son’s chagrin, I have no construction industry connections. But I did have the number of the Munich convention center’s press office. In March, I called and asked spokesperson Johannes Manger if I could accredit my 5-year-old as a reporter.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “You want a press pass for your 5-year-old?” Manger repeated slowly.
“Well, obviously that won’t be possible using the online accreditation app,” Manger said. “Come by when you get here and we’ll get things sorted.” A few weeks later, Ian was officially accredited as a “press team coworker.”
My 3′ 11″ coworker and I set out from our AirBnB in central Munich early on a Tuesday morning, headed for what I hoped would be 5-year-old Valhalla. I brought Ian’s wooden push-bike to help us get around, along with lots of snacks. As we walked, he set out his goals for the next two days. “I would like to try each construction machine,” he told me. “Each digger, each dump truck, each excavator.”
While waiting for the subway, I tried to explain the concept of a trade fair. There would be construction machines, but it wasn’t a construction site. People would be selling things, but there would be nothing we could buy. And there would be a lot of people. I put my business card in the press-badge holder around his neck with emphatic instructions, just in case. If we were separated, he should find an adult and ask them to call me.
We crammed into the subway, which was packed shoulder to shoulder for the 20-minute ride to the convention center on the edge of Munich. Ian, sitting on my feet, was quiet for a while. Then a vital logistical question floated up from down below: “Daddy, will there be potties at that fair?”
Bauma is big business. But the best part of the exhibition—climbing on, around, and into construction machines—is free. After scanning our badges, we made a beeline for Caterpillar’s hall, probably the most crowded exhibition space at the fair. It was pulsing with people and noise, and featured the Peoria, Illinois, company’s finest “iron,” in the industry lingo.
There were tracked bulldozers, wheeled forklifts, and articulated dump trucks with beds the size of backyard swimming pools. Ian was quick to realize the dump truck door was open, a convenient staircase leading directly to its two-seater cab. Soon he was sitting at the wheel, peering out the windshield at what I imagined was a field of dreams.
From the high-up perch Ian spotted a long row of 301.7 CR mini excavators halfway across the hall. They were a favorite storybook character come to life, a scene straight out of Little Excavator, by the author of the Llama Llama Red Pajama series. “This is crazy! Look at all the Little Es!” Ian shouted, as though greeting old friends. Soon he was sitting in one, jiggling the joystick and bouncing with excitement.
The rest of the morning was pretty much just like that. I would spot some unlikely piece of machinery from a distance, and Ian would race over and climb inside. The report from the cab of a Scania big rig, thoughtfully outfitted with a smartphone cradle? “The steering wheel has a type of monster on it,” Ian reports as soon as he has descended the ladder. “And how cool is it that you can put a telephone in there?”
Everything was amazing. Ten-ton Prinoth tracked dumper? Amazing. Road cutter with a blade taller than Ian? Amazing. Ice cream wagon “coincidentally” parking right next to where we were snacking on cold leftover pizza? Amazing.
In the afternoon, we watched machines maneuver. The big companies at Bauma (the name is a contraction of the German word for construction equipment, Baumaschinen) compete to put on the most spectacular or entertaining product demonstrations: Volvo deployed a half-dozen excavators dancing to the theme song from Beauty and the Beast followed by a “bullfight” enacted by a bulldozer and a dump truck.
Komatsu brought a 25-foot-tall, 400-ton mining excavator. Between shows, visitors lined up for selfies in its massive bucket, big enough to comfortably contain a basketball team. Wacker Neuson had a brass band in lederhosen and yellow sunglasses dancing atop electric wheeled loaders and mini excavators. As the machines maneuvered behind the tuba and trumpet players, Ian perked up. “Why do they need music? Is it going to be a machine fight?”
Trekking from booth to massive booth, I was tempted to be cynical. The whole place verged on caricature. An overwhelmingly male crowd, drinking beer and gawking at construction machinery.
Yet as Ian weaved fearlessly through the crowds on his little wooden push-bike, I found it surprisingly easy to put myself in his shoes for a bit, to marvel at the sheer awesomeness of it all. (Bauma made me feel small and overawed, and I’m 6′ 5″.)
There was a lot of money at play, for sure, but also an innocent enthusiasm; lots of beer, but no booth babes. (Four-hundred-ton excavators don’t need sex to get attention.) Cranes and diggers and dump trucks on tank tracks inspire awe even in cynical grown-ups, maybe because they make us all feel a little like children in their gargantuan shadows. From the faces I saw, I suspect everyone at the fair—from CEOs to children—held on to some part of the wonder I saw in Ian’s eyes.
And even though almost everyone was there to do business, no one begrudged Ian his time in the driver’s seats. It turned out all that accreditation stuff wasn’t necessary. There were lots of kids at the fair, from little ones in strollers to teenagers roaming in field-trip-size packs.
In fact Bauma is open to anyone for the price of a ticket. During the week, it’s mostly industry types and construction professionals, sometimes with their families in tow. Many of the biggest companies have “driver bars” at their pavilions to reward loyal clients and operators with Bavaria’s best brews.
Over the weekend, construction fans and families flock to Munich from all around the region. According to Manger, 16 percent of the visitors have no connection to the construction industry, and almost 30,000 are under 14.
Munich, meanwhile, nearly shuts down. Bauma is the biggest thing to happen in Bavaria outside of Oktoberfest, and accommodations can be booked up years in advance, with bare-bones hotel rooms reaching $500 a night.
To get above the fray, we took a ride on a three-story construction elevator in exchange for filling out a survey. That helped Ian spot an ice cream stand selling ´4-euro ice cream cones, which I told him we could visit after we split an 8-euro bratwurst.
Some things came for free. We stopped to watch a small excavator with a curious hydraulic attachment—it looks like a few rubber balls on opposing fingers of a metal hand—manipulating concrete pipes and pieces of masonry behind a low fence.
Suddenly the attachment swung alarmingly toward us, bringing a length of concrete pipe to a stop within inches of Ian’s face. Inside, resting on a tiny pile of dirt, was a packet of gummy bears. Somehow the operator had tossed the candy on the ground, then expertly used the pipe to scoop it up and swing it over for Ian to grab. The pipe swung back into motion. “Thanks!” we yelled over roar of the machine. Ian looked up at me with a smile. “That guy was really nice! He gave me gummies!”
When I was a new parent, I was baffled at the certainty of Ian’s love for big machines, the way it seemed predestined. I naively, egotistically imagined that my input would shape his interests, that nurture would be the most powerful part of the equation. I bought into the idea that gender differences are social constructs.
My wife and I gave him cars and trucks, but we also dressed him in gender-neutral colors and made sure his toy chest was outfitted with purple balls and pink dolls. I got him a toy kitchen, complete with dishwasher, so he could work alongside me when I made dinner.
Most of that was money wasted. From the time Ian could point, he insisted on stopping for anything large, clattering, and construction-related. Building sites were regular destinations. His favorite activity was emulating the machines he loved. He could spend hours moving dirt, with a focus and single-minded purpose that I found hard to fathom.
I’m pretty sure I know the moment the obsession began: In a minivan on the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin, during a visit home to the US. Ian was perhaps 15 months old. Out the window, there was a flash of yellow, a dipping steel bucket, a pile of dirt. I heard a chirpy “backhoe!” from the back seat.
It was his fourth intelligible word, maybe his fifth. Backhoe was joined shortly afterward by “akalak,” which we soon discovered was a catchall for the excavator branch of the construction machinery family tree. (“Cuck,” unfortunately, referred to most other things on wheels.)
Ian has diversified his interests but has not given up his love for big machines—or their operators. On our morning commute to preschool through central Berlin, he makes a point of waving at all the construction workers we pass from the bucket of our cargo bike. When they smile and wave back, he pumps his fist in exultation. Recently, I successfully installed a faucet in our kitchen sink. Ian paid me the biggest compliment he could think of. “Dad, you could work on a construction site!”
As someone whose tools are a pen and laptop, taking my son to a construction machinery trade fair meant disappointing him: Not only could I not afford to buy a four-ton excavator to park outside our apartment building, I couldn’t even drive one. “I want you to be a construction worker!” Ian implored as I explained, once again, that we didn’t need any construction machinery.
“I do a different kind of work.”
“But you could do both!”
Meanwhile, I’ve learned an important lesson: Nurture is no match for nature. A friend sent me a study recently in which researchers gave wild rhesus monkey babies a variety of human playthings. The young males showed a marked preference for wheeled toys. Ian’s passion for diggers came from him, not from me.
By the next Bauma, scheduled for April 2022, I suspect that my son’s single-minded devotion to earth moving will have slipped away. He’s got other toys now, other interests: Dinosaurs and Lego, Batman and Ninjago. Passing from a cavernous hall full of mining equipment to another focused on concrete, we spent a while examining a dense patch of Caterpillar-yellow dandelions. “Now I’m surrounded in flowers!” Ian exulted. “A whole family of them!”
The following day, we made our way back. This time, we wandered outside for a while, under overcast skies. For every Caterpillar or Liebherr or Volvo exhibiting machines with six- and seven-figure price tags at Bauma, there are dozens of smaller players, companies that specialize in products I had never heard of or given much thought to.
Over 3,700 exhibitors from 63 countries showed up this year, more than any since the fair began in the 1950s. Meandering through a forest of cranes, we made hard choices: Did we want to see road construction machines or drills? Scaffolding or construction elevators? Grabber attachments or giant buckets?
As far as Ian was concerned, the winner of the fair was Hydraram, a Dutch firm specializing in demolition attachments. The wares on display were impressive all by themselves. Steel shears designed to snip cars into confetti, ripper claw attachments capable of dismantling entire buildings, and a hydraulic concrete crusher attachment with jaws wide enough for a grown man to lie down in between that weighed nearly 10 tons.
Their whole stand could have fit in the footprint of Komatsu’s giant excavator. But Hydraram brought something extra. They were the only stand at Bauma with animatronic dinosaurs. An orange-and-red raptor stood at the entrance to their crowded stand, waving its tail back and forth. (At its feet, incongruously, was a bright-orange foam-rubber Donald Trump head.) Nearby, an oversize battle bot reminiscent of Iron Man was mounted on a blue robo-dino.
Safety precautions were what you’d expect from a booth set up by guys busy selling the modern-day equivalent of T-Rex jaws: There were none. As I stood staring, idly wondering how much a 20,000-pound crusher claw would cost and how you’d transport it, Ian brought me back to reality with a tug on my hand. “Do you want to touch the dinos?” he asked. “They feel really good.”
Overhead, the sun had broken through the clouds. A blimp—sponsored by Zeppelin, naturally—circled overhead. I posed Ian next to the wheel of the biggest dump truck I had ever seen, a monster Volvo designed for work in mines and quarries. Its tires topped six and a half feet. Ian didn’t even clear the axles. I had to stand on tiptoe to see over them.
Before I knew it, he was scurrying up the dumper’s steel access ladder like it was a jungle gym on the playground at home. Weaving through the legs of grown men waiting in line to inspect the cab, he yelled down to me before ducking into the operator’s cabin. “Hi, Dad! I’m ginormous!”
Wandering inside, we came across a gold mine: Volvo’s hall was far less crowded than Caterpillar’s, and all the machines were open. Ian climbed a set of stairs set up next to a wheeled EWR 170E excavator, impatiently waiting for a Volvo sales rep and potential buyer to clear out. Soon my 45-pound boy was perched at the controls of a 42,000-pound machine. When he emerged, I asked what he thought. “For a moment I thought the excavator belonged to us,” he said wistfully. “But it didn’t.”
Over the next hour, he methodically tested out each piece of Swedish iron—or at least the ergonomics of their cabs and their fancy touchscreens. Then he noticed a set of high-end driving simulators in the corner, designed to teach truckers to conserve fuel. There was a line, and I didn’t want to wait.
But Ian was undeterred. He stood patiently until a spot opened up. The instructor, a smile playing on his lips, pushed the seat all the way up and asked Ian if he could reach the gas pedal. Ian said yes—he was ready to agree to anything if it meant driving a truck—but a quick look at his legs was all it took to know the answer was no.
Pushing the seat back, I pulled him onto my lap and buckled us in. I shifted the truck into drive and gingerly pressed the gas. Ian gripped the steering wheel. We pulled out onto a country road just as the sun was setting, and Ian veered us from one side of the “highway” to another.
Several times we nearly plunged over a cliff into a sun-dappled river. (It was a very pretty simulation.) After a surprisingly exciting five-minute drive in which we never exceeded 30 simulated miles an hour, we unbuckled the seatbelt. The instructor congratulated Ian. “Do you want to be a truck driver now?”
“Yes!” Ian shouted. “I want to be a truck driver!”
I silently gave thanks that Ian won’t be legal to drive in Germany for at least four Baumas.