Sunday, October 28, 2012

Not everybody can be a machinist.

My toolmaker mentor Charlie told me this story about something that happened to him during WWII when he worked at the Naval shipyard in Bremerton Washington. Prior to this he was working in and around the San Francisco Bay area. His wife Olga saw an ad in a magazine or newspaper looking for machinists to work in the navy yard. Around that time in 1940 or early 1941 everybody knew that the United States was going to get into the war, it was just a matter of time. From Charlie and Olga's perspective this looked like a good opportunity to get a jump for some long term work. In fact she sent his work experience and a letter to the navy yard without even asking Charlie if he was interested. True to his nature he was always focused on his main interest which was machine work and tool making. His wife looked after him most of his life. Without her he would have been a wreck.
This story starts when I was looking for something in an old beat up Gerstner top box in his shop one afternoon. Poking around in one of the drawers I came across a pair of old angled hold down parallels. These are a special type of parallel used to help clamp parts in the vise. They have a little angle on them that makes the part seat down in the vise by the clamping action of the jaws. With the old time vises this was a real problem until Kurt came along and changed vises forever for the better with their Anglock principle.
This is similar to what I found that day in the toolbox. Stamped along the length of the parallels was a name that I didn't recognize. I said to Charlie how come all his tools have other peoples names on them. Did you raid somebody else's toolbox and pick out what you liked? His reaction was totally unexpected. Normally Charlie was a pretty happy guy when as long as you were talking shop or technical stuff. If the conversation drifted toward humans and their feelings he would get uncomfortable. When I asked him about this innocent tool he got very serious.

He began to tell me a story that still upset him even after sixty years. Shorty after Charlie arrived to work in Washington the United states entered the war. The Japanese had attacked Pearl harbor so this was the topic of much nationalistic discussion at the navy yard. Apparently there was a second generation Japanese machinist working at the machine shop at the time of the attack on Pearl harbor. The mood in the shop changed to a simmering hostility toward this Japanese machinist. Some of the old hands in the machine shop were openly threatening toward this young American born man. Charlie on the opposite hand was openly supportive of this young man and backed him against the hostiles. He pointed out that this young man was born in this country and that we were also at war with Germany where some of the more outspoken goons were actually born in Germany. This had the effect of fanning the flames of hate to near explosive levels.

Some rumors were intercepted by the boss of the shop, an old Swede that Charlie told me had a photographic memory among his other skills as a shop foreman. There were real threats against this young Japanese man and Charlie. The goon squad threatened to toss them into the empty drydock and have a little unfortunate "accident". The Swede not wanting to lose a couple of good guys moved them both to night shift to get them away from the gathering posse. This quick thinking move calmed the waters for a while. Not long after they were moved to the night shift the young Japanese man was rounded up and escorted out to be sent to an internment camp along with his family. Charlie never saw him again. Unfortunately this is not the end of this sad story.

On the night shift Charlie found himself assigned way off in a corner of the shop to the gear department where he worked almost alone. This was something new for him. Never having had to make many gears this turned out to be a really great opportunity for him to learn another aspect of machine work. He ran gear hobbers and shapers making all kinds of gears to support the shipyard. He described some large worm gears and worms he had to make in that department for gun turrets of ships. The worm shaft that I thought was impressive was one made on a lathe using four steady rests simultaneously. He would cut the thread between all the steady rests then move the rests and finish the un-threaded portion where the steady had been running.  The first worm shaft he did like this was a forging of some steel alloy and would not cooperate and turn straight after removing the forging skin. They ended up replacing it with cold rolled bar stock to get the job done on time.
Puget Sound Machine Shop.

One of the other duties that the Swede assigned to Charlie was teaching a night class of young machinists. The yard was booming because of the war and they couldn't hire enough machinists and skilled men to handle the massive workload. A few nights a week they held an apprenticeship class in the machine shop to train new men. One of the projects they used to teach shaper operations were these little angled holdowns.

I'm not clear on what the time frame is at this point but the war in the pacific is raging and men, materials and equipment are heading out to sea in huge numbers. Bremerton was one of the places were battle damage repairs were sent and ammunition was streamed out to ships patrolling the pacific. One of the other things that was happening nearby the main naval base was a secret area where they were working on torpedo development. Charlie found out about it when the Swede asked him to make some very tight tolerance fine toothed gears that turned out were for some of the test torpedo's drive system. At this time torpedo's were less than perfect and submarine warfare was becoming very important.

Most of the gears he made at the Bremerton yard were on the smaller side. Another interconnected gear making story is a set of coarse pitch gears Charlie made at another company in the bay area years later that got rejected in inspection. He whipped out his gear tooth vernier and showed the inspector the numbers were correct for the tooth chord which is what the vernier can measure. The inspector corrected him because apparently there is a chordal correction that is used to compensate for large teeth on smaller pitch diameters. It is so small on fine pitch gears it can be ignored but on large teeth it makes a few thousandths difference to the pitch diameter. Fortunately the pitch diameter comes out big so its a simple matter to re-cut the gear a little deeper. Working in the Bremerton gear shop and making fine pitch gears for instruments and torpedo drives they just ignored this correction because it was smaller than their ability to measure.

I never heard how many students were in the machining class at Bremerton. From Charlies description there may have been ten or more students in the program at any one time. As part of their training they had to complete several projects to graduate the class. One project was the angled parallels where the students learned shaper operations and another project was one of those two way v blocks ones like the Starrett 567 block where they learned mill and grinding work. I see "student" versions of these v blocks at flea markets occasionally. They all seem to have the obligatory stamped name and class numbers hammered into them.
These are the only projects I recall from the story as it was related to me. All the students had to stamp their names on the projects. Most likely to keep people from turning in the same part ten times for a grade. The parallels I picked up out of the Gerstner had a name stamped on them. Charlie told me this was one of his students in the machinist class. I wish I could remember the name but I cant. So for this telling of the story I will just call him Robert Smith which is pretty close.

Charlie told me that Robert had a hard time with machine work. As Charlie described him he had little or no mechanical aptitude. The class was difficult for Robert but not for a lack of his trying. He worked hard but everybody including Robert knew he would never make a good machinist.

Around this time the Swede asked Charlie how many people in the class wouldn't make it as machinists. When Charlie asked why the answer shocked him. The Swede told him that the military was looking for men to send out to the front lines in the pacific and had asked around at the shop if they had any men that weren't suited for the trades they could let go. After hearing this he told the Swede that all the guys in the class would make fine machinists and he didn't want to give any of them up. This closed the subject temporarily.

After this Charlie worked extra hard with any students that were not up to snuff. In particular he spent lots of one on one time with Robert Smith to bring him up as quickly as possible. He did improve but it was still pretty plain to see that he would never be suited for any skilled mechanical work. I asked Charlie if there was anything this guy was good at in the shop but I guess they never found what that was.

It was just a matter of time before the recruiters came back through the shop. This time they went directly to Charlie and asked him if he had any men not passing the training class. He fibbed and said no to them again. Their reply was they would be back and if he didn't have any men for them they would pick some themselves. This put tremendous stress on Charlie. He knew why they wanted them. They were losing men by the thousands in the pacific islands so they had to come from somewhere to fill the ranks. Sixty years later he is telling me this story in his garage and I can see it still upsets him.

So after a short reprieve the recruiters, true to their word came back and demand they needed somebody. It was either you pick or we pick, the choice was Charlies. Even after working with Robert Smith intensely it was obvious that he would never make a good machinist. He was one of those guys that lacked whatever it is that makes a good tradesman. His gift was somewhere else. Charlie was frustrated because the man tried so hard and because of this it felt like some deficiency in his teaching abilities that was the cause of the problem. When I taught welding at a vocational school we saw a similar thing. There were guys that just lacked the hand eye coordination to become proficient weldors. No amount of practice seemed to make a difference. They either lacked some critical mechanic gene or we were really bad teachers. It seemed like there was at least one person on average in any class that really weren't suited to the trade.

So under intense pressure to make a decision he made the only honest one he could. Robert Smith would never make a machinist so he should go and try to find something that he was good at. This satisfied the recruiters and they left with their man. I guess Charlie had a chance to talk to Robert before he left where he explained the situation. Robert let him off easy saying he didn't know why he kept him around so long anyway. He blamed himself and his lack of ability for not being able to pick up machine work from such a dedicated teacher. They were able to part ways on a good note. Months later Charlie got a letter from Robert telling him that he was learning some new things and seemed to have found something that worked for him and his abilities. This was a huge relief to Charlie. I never got what it was that he found success at, it seemed vague in the story as he told me. So after this everything is back to normal and the training class graduated and a new crop of prospective machinists started on their new careers.

Quite some time later, months or maybe even years the Swede comes to find Charlie. The training class had ended and Charlie was back on day shift in the lathe department. The Swede comes up to him and tells him he has a couple of visitors at the office. Not used to having any visitors at work Charlie went up to the office to see who it was. As he approached he saw a well dressed man and woman waiting near the office. The Swede slinked off and left Charlie to make his own introductions. They introduced themselves as Robert Smiths parents.

After the introductions Charlie asked how Robert was keeping. They gently explained that Robert had been killed on some island in the pacific. He had volunteered to go ashore and do something and was killed in action and buried on the island with the other casualties. They went on to tell Charlie how much they appreciated how Charlie had helped Robert when he was struggling in the machinist class. Apparently Robert was a good letter writer and told his parents how Charlie had tried so hard to overcome his lack of mechanical aptitude. His parents had driven from somewhere out of Washington state to personally thank Charlie for all he had done for Robert when he was there. The kicker was they gave him a little package. When he opened it the parallels that Robert had made in class were in it. They said that Charlie should keep them as they had no use for them and Charlie might like them as a token of appreciation from them for helping their son.

Now I understood why he was so serious about these innocent parallels in his tool box. I cant imagine how he must have felt talking to the parents of this guy he played a part in sending to his death. Sixty years later the sting was still there for him. They didn't blame him at all, in fact they understood more completely than Charlie. These people had so much empathy they made a special trip to thank somebody that had shown kindness to their son.

In my experience it takes all types to make the world go around. Not everybody is cut out to be a machinist. Robert Smith may have been great at whatever he was doing that day on the island. This was an important lesson for me too. I was very lucky that I found out what it was I liked to do and was good at very early in life. I have worked with so many people that are miserable in their chosen work and hate every minute of it. I feel sorry for them since learning the simple secret of enjoying my work and staying true and honest to doing what brings me joy and satisfaction. The value of doing what it is you like to do and are suited for cannot be underestimated.    


  1. Wow! Fantastic and moving story, thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for the comment.



  3. Thanks for the write up quite moving.

    All the best Harold

  4. When I was an apprentice fitter and turner, there was an apprentice boilermaker who was also never going to make the grade. In our day an apprentice could attempt his Trade Test voluntarily before the end of the contracted period and thereby qualify early, or take the Test at the end of the contracted period, at the National Centre for Trade Testing. This man's instructors, knowing his lack of ability, advised him to wait until the last possible moment. Even if he failed his Trade Test, his period of indenture would expire and he could leave their care in a more or less honourable manner.

    Great was the surprise in all quarters when the results showed that he had passed the test! To this day I do not know what became of him, but I do know he had no intention of practicing his trade.

    There is much need of your preliminary practical observation of mechanical aptitude.

    On a lighter note I heard a flying instructor discussing his method for weeding out "no hopers" before they wasted time and money on flying lessons. On some pretext, he would ask the hopeful to do him a favour and ride the bicycle provided to a designated hangar and ask a pre-arranged question. If he had not mastered the skills to ride the bicycle competently, he was never going to cope with flying!

    Russell Dold from Germiston, South Africa