Thursday, January 04, 2007


When I was in school, I was pretty lucky to have had the benefit of what is now considered a “classical” education. I went to an all-male school, in which we learned certain things by rote, when that was appropriate, read the classic literature (Homer, not Salinger) in the original where appropriate, and corporal punishment was meted out with equal vigor for academic failure as well as for bad behavior.
Trust me when I tell you: I got a lot of asswhippings.
Academically, I wasn’t up to the standard of that school, for a variety of reasons, the most common being attention span. I could do really well for the first nine days of school, and I wanted to be off hunting or fishing or something other than sitting in a classroom with a scratchy suit on. So I drifted. Didn’t pay atention. Didn’t like homework.
Anything I applied myself to, I did well. I got a’s effortlessly. I hated history(freaky, becuase I LOVE it now) I hated english. (we had to read the dumbest goddamned books) I HATED just about every subject there was, with the exception of chemistry and physics. FOr Chemistry, we had Father Ed Frizzell. He was tack sharp, and knew his chem back and forth. Physics was Father Moskal, an aging patriarch who had actually started the school, and I learned most physics from him- before I was in class. When I got to my senior year, which is when we took physics, we had Wayne Woolford. I swear to god, Wayne wore tweed underwear. he had a little book marked off in quarters of an hour for each student (12) and would mark “NIS” (not in seat) if we were up and around (which was strictly verboten). He had about as much control over the class as a fart in a hurricane, and it showed. I did well in the class but not brilliantly. When Fr Moskal taught, he’d demonstrate principles of physics by little homemade mechanisms, or cutaway/dismantled objects. Fired up a small gasoline engine in class to demonstrate it’s principles, and from it the class learned more than all the diagrams in textbooks could ever tell.
Wayne, on the other hand, relied entirely on the text, and it was a drag. I always regretted not having Physics until the year after Fr moskal retired, but you have to do what you have to do, I guess.
Anyway, when I went to Purdue, I found that academically, I was about a year ahead of the students that had come from public schools.(though I was far from the first i my class in high school) I did most work with little effort, and frankly, had “boredom” added to the “short attention span”. And then I saw what Purdue was producing, as far as engineers were concerned. At that time, Inland Steel was hiring apprentice millwrights at $25k a year, starting pay, and Mechanical Engineers at $16k a year.
So I left, went to work at Inland, and let them pay for the balance of my engineering education.
I went through a millwrights program, where I learned to weld using stick, gmaw, tig, subarc, and a number of other disciplines. I learned pipefitting. Pipefitting seems like a stupid occupation, doesn’t it? Not so. A pipefitter does calculations in his head that would stagger a mathemetician, at times. I learned machine operation- I can run a lathe, a mill, a surface grinder, a blanchard grinder, a shaper, a planer, all sorts of stuff. I don’t consider myself a machinist, or a toolmaker, because in my mind it takes ten years to make a real machinist, and another twenty to make a toolmaker. Nothing but experience can give you those skills, no matter how good you are. I learned enough metallurgy to get by. I spent time working on, and had to learn to drive, just about eveyr kind of heavy equipment known to man, from little bobcats and loaders to huge cranes and forklifts capable of lifting a locomotive engine.
Since finishing that apprenticeship, I have continued to learn, and I always will- I know there is always something around the corner to learn, and where machines are concerned, I’m excited to do so.
Recently, I happened across a pile of old pictures that I had stashed away years ago, and though I had been under the impression I only had one picture of Dad (more on that jan 21) and now it seems I have another.
This particular day, less than a year before dad’s death, I had come down to visit. Dad was grilling chicken- that’s a bottle of marinade next to him there. Mom was gone and he and I sat in the yard and played with the dog, smelled the chicken, listened to the whippoorwills in the neighborhood, and talked. Dad never talked much, but whern he did, it was always worthwhile. Below the fold is the conversation, as I remember it.
“I didn’t want you to go to college at first. I thought you’d do better as a mechanic, or a machinist.”“that’s what I’m doing now, pop. I never was any good at sitting in class.”“me neither. I sometimes wish I had more education but I was glad to not have to sit in that classroom anymore”.“I like my job, pop. I like what I do, and it’s a good job”“I know. I’m glad you got to find out college wasn’t for you. I’m glad you understand what real work is”.“I understand, pop”.“Chicken’s ready to be turned”He got up, opened the grill, flipped the chicken- the aroma still a comfort memory“You remember Bill’s kid, ____? ”“yeah, yeah I do, pop. What about him? He went out east to school, right?”“Yeah. He was what, at Ford, we call an educated fool”“I think I know what you mean, pop. Good grades. No common sense”.“yep. He’s in management now, a shift supervisor. He don’t know his ass from a fire engine”“I’m not surprised. he was always a cocky bastard”.“the people who have to work for him all hate him, and he gets his car keyed once a week or has to put new tires on his car.”“That doesn’t surprise me either”.“well, I was afraid that’s what you’d be. Let’s eat.”
That’s all that was ever said. Mom came home, we ate in silence. I was still young enough that I thought I knew everything, but it seemed already that dad sensed I wouldn’t grow up to be a spoiled brat, who thinks he knows everything, and wants his way no matter who it hurts. I think, in that moment, he knew I’d make mistakes, but I think he also knew I’d do OK.
Thanks pop.