Chapter Three - Part C
DID HE SAY "FANCY BRAIN SMARTY PANTS?"
Brons, Age Fourteen, 1978
“Oh no, please no, God, not the click click buzz,” I thought as a million butterflies freaked out in the pit of my stomach. My heart thumped in my chest as my eyes looked around the room at every other terrified ninth grader.
Who does he want this time? Who will be the one to face the principal’s wrath and probably the justice, deserved or not, of his big wooden paddle?
Click click buzz was the sound the school’s intercom made as it was turned on and warmed up to request the presence of a student in the administration office. Principal Baker’s ire was legendary.
I referred to Ray Baker as Principal Morgan in my first book. Changing his name was done so out of respect for his children. They are all grown now.
Panic drove me to quickly take stock of my recent actions that could qualify, or even be confused, as worthy of punishment. I weighed my behavior against my ongoing audit of the principal’s mood. Depending on Mr. Baker’s demeanor, just the sight of me on any given day was enough to ignite his rage that no one wanted to encounter, especially the principal himself.
Nobody feared Ray Baker’s temper more than Ray Baker. He was powerless to prevent or control his fiery explosions. What made him even more volatile was his knowledge that I knew his struggle. He was painfully aware that I could see what he didn't want anyone to see: his shame.
He was brutal, yet I had empathy for him. Terror can open a window and allow a kid to look inside an adult they fear. While some mistakenly think of it as a skill, I’ve always thought it to be more akin to the primal instinct of self-preservation.
The entire school, staff and students alike walked on eggshells every day. Many had an unhealthy relationship with the principal.
The ten second warm up of the click click buzz only served to intensify the dread in the room. A chilling silence befell our class, albeit for the pitiful whimpers of pupils worried that the click click buzz might call their name.
"Mrs. Simpson?” The familiar intercom voice asked.
“Is Brons in your room?"
My heart raced, my mouth turned to cotton, and a lump grew in my throat as the collective relief of thirty other fourteen-year-olds formed a cacophony.
There was a pause in Alice's voice; Mrs. Simpson, a well perfumed and stylish young woman, looked at me and pointed to the door with a look of satisfaction on her face that was reminiscent of Almira Gulch, the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz. I liked Mrs. Simpson, but I had her sold on the idea that I hated her guts and that it was more trouble than it was worth to call on me in class.
“Oh, and Mrs. Simpson?"
"Tell Brons that his father is here," Alice said as if to free herself from any messenger guilt. Well, that and the fact that Alice’s husband was one of Dad’s friends.
Mrs. Simpson’s disappointment was palpable as I took a deep, calming breath in the good news that my dad was there to get me.
On occasion, Dad picked me up from school about fifteen minutes before the final bell rang and took me along on errands. The vision of my father with that crooked smirk standing at the end of the hall wearing his Mobil Oil uniform ... I hardly have words to describe the feeling. It's so memorable that it's as if I could reach out and touch him at this very moment.
I pulled my coat from my locker and walked the perfectly polished floors toward my dad. He was holding something. I had a good idea what it was and started to smile at the telltale sign of the tips of his index finger and thumb coming together to crease the item over and over. Finally within arms reach he handed it to me, a fifty dollar bill.
The federal minimum wage in 1978 was two dollars and thirty cents per hour. When considering withholding taxes, and a fifteen dollar contribution to a Christmas club account at the local bank, fifty dollars was roughly the take home pay of a local sawmill worker. Adjusted for inflation, today that fifty dollars has a value of around $250.
I was well aware of the symbolism of the fifty dollar bill but still required explanation unique to the circumstances. "Where? What?" I said as I looked at Dad with amusement while shaking my head inquisitively. I never knew what my father was going to get me into next, but it was always fun, challenging and yet terribly nerve-wracking!
"We're heading over the mountain to a machine shop," Dad said as he grinned and collared me around the neck with his muscular arm.
These jobs or “capers” as we sometimes called them, just like the very first one I participated in to move Banker George's safe always came with a fifty dollar bill and bonded us as father and son.
Dad loved solving problems. I suppose he always had the skills but his abilities took on a life of their own during World War II when his superiors recognized his talents and made him the company "fixer."
Our conversation never missed a beat as we passed through the plate glass front doors of the school. We accepted the biting March winds without mention on our way to Dad's green Ford pickup. The decibel level and timbre of our voices subconsciously lowered as the slam of the truck doors sequestered us in the ambient hush of the cab. There was poetry in the way Dad and I communicated. It was fluid even when stepping on each other's words. We finished each other's sentences and communicated without speaking, using gestures and facial expressions. I've never had that strong of a connection with any other human being, and I'm quite sure I never will again.
Dad started, "Amos Bigler owns a machine shop. He's got about thirty men. Everything—tools, lathes, drills, you name it—is powered by air from a very large air compressor with supply lines and sub-tanks throughout the building. But there are a few problems he didn't anticipate. I see problems, too, but I want to know what you see when you look at it."
Dad continued, “Mr. Bigler has a mammoth diesel engine with a giant sprocket wheel that sits just outside the building and turns a series of smaller sprockets and gears on an huge air compressor inside the shop. It's just like the chain on your bike but much, much thicker and longer. So mull those pictures around in your head till we get there and then I'll show you more. Amos Bigler invented this system, and it's hard to fathom that he gets the kind of power he needs from compressed air to make a go of a machine shop, but it works. It's very ingenious, although it has a few design flaws that are right down your alley."
My older brother, Craig, was born with a natural talent for mechanics. He was a prodigy when it came to gears and engines and the motion of pieces and parts. By the time he was a young teen, his gifts were obvious to everyone. I didn't like him, mostly because he bullied me, but secretly envied his abilities. I'm mature enough now to admit that the attention he received because of his talents was a small part of why I didn't like him.
As we started down the other side of the mountain, I began to worry that once we got to the machine shop, I wouldn't have a clue how to help and just look like a bumbling idiot. Butterflies were fluttering in my stomach and I thought I might throw up.
"I don't know why you think it's right down my alley, Dad. I'm the least mechanical person in the family."
Dad replied, "That may, or may not be true, depending on the situation, but you are the neatest and most organized person in the family. Craig is gifted, but so are you, and you see problems before they happen along with the solutions to fix them."
"Even if that were true, how is that going to help a guy in a machine shop full of tools that I never saw before and have no idea how to use? Am I supposed to tell you or the business owner what I see?"
"You can give your opinion directly to Mr. Bigler," Dad said.
"Oh geez, I don't think I can do that, Dad. It makes me nervous, and what if he thinks my ideas are stupid? I'm just a kid!"
"For the love of God, Nelson, have a little faith in yourself. Just tell Mr. Bigler what you think as if you are an authority on the subject."
“But that's just it. I'm NOT an authority!”
"Well, you are today. And so what if you screw up? That's how we learn. Faith Nelson. Faith!"
"I'm still not so sure, Dad."
If I would have been brave enough to say it, I wasn't afraid of what the owner might think of me. He lived on the other side of the mountain, and I'd probably never see him again. I was afraid of disappointing Dad. What if he finally came to his senses and realized I wasn't as smart as he thought I was? What if we stopped doing these little jobs? It would not be an understatement to say I was seriously doubting myself.
I assumed that Mr. Bigler was either Amish or old order Mennonite. Any business in Central Pennsylvania operating on air driven tools was undoubtedly necessitated by the Amish aversion to all things electric. As we drove down the bumpy lane to Bigler's shop and farm, the absence of electrical poles and wires confirmed my assumption.
There was nothing remarkable about Mr. Bigler's machine shop from the outside. It was just a large, no-frills concrete block building with a fresh spray of bright whitewash.
"It's a loud place," I yelled to Dad as we got out of the truck.
The workshop was full of men, many of them wearing wide-brimmed Amish hats.
I saw the problems within seconds. I now understood why Dad brought me, but I needed him to help me focus. There was an unhealthy mist of oil in the air that covered everything. There were even puddles of it under the big drive-chain. I not only smelled the oil but tasted it, too. It was collecting on my skin, hair, and clothing. It all made me very uncomfortable, and that was exactly what Dad was counting on. When I'm uncomfortable my brain goes into overdrive looking for fixes.
I could barely hear Dad's voice as he hollered, "Mr. Jackson! Mr. Jackson, meet my son, Nelson!"
"Jack" Jackson reached out his oily hand, and it was all I could do to get a grip. “All this oil, this is just nuts,” I thought.
Mr. Jackson was wearing high-top rubber boots, a tight rubber apron, a dust mask to filter the airborne oil, and a black ball cap. He squirreled his face around to try to hoist his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. He gripped a wooden pole with a window squeegee attached to the end and used it to push spent oil that dripped off the chain and on to the concrete floor. He squeegeed the oil to a narrow channel where gravity took it away.
I had never in my whole life witnessed a business that was so loud. Then, just like that, the engine turned off, and the chain slowed to a halt. All that obnoxious grinding and banging stopped and the whir of the lathes fell silent. There was peace on earth.
The workers quickly gathered and put away their tools. They walked out the door to a repurposed school bus for a ride home. Mr. Jackson kept pushing oil drippings with a squeegee.
I continued to study the problem, but the mess was so unnerving I couldn't find my focus. My brain was trying to think of possible solutions for the ridiculous amounts of oil that covered everything. I just kept shaking my head and thinking what an awful mess!
"Nelson, this is Mr. Bigler. Mr. Bigler, my son Nelson," Dad said.
"How are you, Nelson?"
"I'm well, Mr. Bigler, and you?"
His thick accent and wonderful homespun vernacular were common among the Pennsylvania plain people.
"I'm just dandy!”
He turned to Dad and said, “So Clair, this is the boy with fancy brains."
"Well we're about to find out," Dad said as he looked at me, nodded his head, and grinned.
According to Dad, Mr. Bigler designed this ingenious system to power his tools without electricity just several months ago. The wide chain, should it be starved of lubrication, would cause overheating and seizing. Worst of all, even though the chain wasn’t super fast, it was fast enough that if it broke, it would send metal through the air like bullets.
A large drum of chain oil lay in a hanging cradle above the gears. A small but constant stream of oil drizzled on to the chain from a rudimentary nozzle screwed into the bung opening of the barrel.
Mr. Bigler pointed out, "We tried to just drip, drip, drip, the oil, but it splashed all over the darn place, and it's so hard to keep a consistent drip."
"What happens to the oil Mr. Jackson pushes into the channel on the floor?" I asked.
"Well, it has dirt and metal shavings and what-not in it, or we'd just reuse it on the chain again. So, we collect it and burn it for heat it in a waste oil furnace.
"Okay, I think I might see a fix, but I have to talk to my dad outside."
"No, Nelson, you can talk right here," Dad said.
"No, really, Dad, let’s talk in the truck."
"Just go outside with the boy, talk, talk! Jack and I'll be in here cleaning up. BUT, let me just tell you Mr. Fancy-Brain-Boy, if you can dream it up we can build it." Mr. Bigler said with a very confident smile.
Dad and I sat in the truck.
"Do you see it, Nelson?"
"I think I might see a possible solution, but I couldn't focus with all that mess."
"Okay, then let's just sit here for a few minutes and think. Forget about the mess. I'll keep time for ten minutes."
I took several deep breaths and allowed my mind to return to the motion of the chain. The talk began in my head as waves of dopamine and the smart feeling started to roll in. "Dad said not to think about the mess, but the mess is a big part of the problem. To prevent the mess is to prevent the problem, kinda, but without the mess the chain gets hot and breaks, and that’s a huge problem."
My memory moved slowly to every part and piece, and with the time I had left I thought only of the oil as it drizzled from the barrel like chocolate syrup from a Hershey’s can.
"Okay, it's been ten minutes. Do you see it, Nelson?"
“I think I do, but I have to feel the viscosity of the oil, and I need to know how many gallons they are using per day."
“It has a low viscosity, and they go through a little more than a fifty-five gallon barrel a day,” Dad said.
“What happens when they run out and have to change barrels? Does the whole place shut down?”
“Yes," Dad said.
"Those shutdowns cost even more money in lost production than the oil itself, right, Dad?"
"Yes, oil and downtime costs are well over $200 a day."
"So, if I bring down the usage to fewer than five gallons a day and there are no more shutdowns and no more mess, what's that worth?"
"A lot, Nelson, but we're not here to hustle this man for a buck. We're here to help Mr. Bigler because he's a good customer."
"I don't care about the money, Dad, but I can't believe you, of all people, don't see the bigger picture."
"If you're talking about the obvious safety and wasted oil problems, of course, I see those, but I would like your input on the most efficient fix. I have some ideas, but they are less than ideal. That chain needs oil, and it's not like they can convert to electric."
"Here are the things that I think are a problem, Dad: One, men aren't wearing safety glasses because they just get smeared up with oil, and that's dangerous. Two, men who must wear glasses to correct their vision can't see because of the oil, and that, too, is dangerous. Three, men are exposed to oil, breathing it and swallowing it. It's on their skin and in their eyes, it's whipped up in the air by all the tools and the chain itself. That's really bad. There are all the hazards of oil covering everything from the tools to the floor, and that chain is going to break someday, and someone WILL get hurt. I hope those things are obvious to everyone, but four, just as big as all that is the fact that it is Mr. Jackson's job to keep the oil cleaned up. What happens to him?"
"Oh, I get it," Dad said as I could imagine five or six light bulbs popping on in his head.
There was a pause in the conversation as Dad thought about the consequences of Jack Jackson losing his job.
"What do you know about him, Dad?"
“Well, he was with a segregated tank battalion during World War II that liberated village after village in France. He participated in the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. I know he moved here from Alabama because he thought it would be a better life for his family. His wife cleans houses, and he has a son who wants to go to college for electrical engineering."
"What's he make an hour, Dad?"
“Oh I don't know, Mr. Bigler is very generous with his workers; I'd say five or six dollars an hour. I can't imagine Mr. Bigler ever letting Jack go, but we'll ask him about that."
It was time to say it. I couldn't hold it back any longer, and this seemed like the right moment. For as much as Dad and I talked, we very seldom talked about my academic problems. It was something Dad simply could not face, especially after the conference where the Geisinger Medical Center doctor declared little hope for my future. I didn't want to talk about it, either. It was too painful, but there was something I had to get off my chest.
"I'm not going to make it to college, Dad."
Dad's face quickly took on an angry grimace.
"We don't know that, Nelson!"
"Yeah, we do, Dad, and it's time we face it. I'm never going to have the grades to get into any college, let alone Harvard."
Since I had been big enough to walk, Dad said, "I don't care if it takes every damn cent I have, you're going to Harvard."
That afternoon, sitting in Dad's pickup truck was the moment that we both had to accept reality. I had swallowed that bitter pill long ago, and now I had to force it down Dad's throat.
My favorite thing about Dad was his optimism, but in this case, he was in denial, and the sooner we put hope out of its misery the better. I was embarrassed for myself but even more embarrassed for Dad every time the subject of Harvard entered our conversations.
I've never been able to talk about this aspect of the relationship I had with my father, not even inside the trust I felt with my former wife. The only thing greater than my own disappointment of being denied an education was seeing my father come to terms with the fact that college and law school were nowhere in my future. I watched Dad die a little that day.
I was a boy a few months shy of my fifteenth birthday about to solve a problem that real men were struggling with, yet I was a complete and total academic screw-up. It was all I could do to write my name, and reading something as simple as a grocery list was barely in my skill set. I didn't feel dumb, but I questioned if maybe Dad was just trying to make me feel good about myself. After all, smart people could read, and I couldn't. Smart people got good grades, and I didn't. The Geisinger doctor said I was dumb AND defiant. My teachers didn't like me, and my principal despised me.
Now I had to get Dad on the same page regarding the acceptance of my fate. Life beyond my local educational failure did not include Harvard Law or any other school.
All that said, I recognized a moment to connect the dots. Vicariously, if you will, I was going to get to college by making sure another young man about my same age did get a degree. I guess you could say it was a spur of the moment plan B.
"Dad, let's make sure Mr. Jackson has a job so his son does get to college." If Mr. Bigler ever lets Mr. Jackson go, promise me that we will move the Jacksons to our side of the mountain and Jack works for you."
Dad smiled, nodded and presented his hand. We shook on the promise, with Dad saying, “I'd hire ten men like Jack."
"Okay, Dad, let's see if we can fix this mess, and yes before you even ask me. I have a Plan B!"
We got out of the truck, and Dad stopped and looked down at the ground for a moment before shutting the door; he was still processing our conversation. He gritted his teeth and drew a deep breath.
I waited in the cold air as Dad wrapped his mind around a reality he didn't want to face.
When he lifted his head again, he was smiling. I'm not one hundred percent sure why he had a grin on his face, but knowing Dad as I did, I'm pretty sure he was moving forward with plans B, C, D, and maybe even E in the form of other dreams to quickly replace the one that just perished in a fire of reality.
We went back into the building where Dad had a little talk with Misters Bigler and Jackson.
My presentation went something like this:
"Mr. Bigler, my dad encouraged me to speak with authority. For as much as I wish I were a brainiac, let's not pretend I'm anything more than just a teenager. Admittedly, I'm pretty good with words. I have some skill, according to my dad, at identifying problems and then using my words to articulate solutions. I just wanted to say all that before we start, and also say that I see your ingenious mind and I'm not here to pick on your invention."
"Fair enough, young fella, but I can take it, so let me have it."
"Well, sir, I'm wondering if you know anything about our friend Joe Barnes from Barnes' Auto Body Shop?"
"No, no can't say that his name rings a bell, I'm Amish and sure don't know much about cars."
"Well, Mr. Barnes lives on our side of the mountain and paints cars at his auto body shop with a spray gun. The paint goes into a pressurized tank and sprays out of the nozzle of a paint gun."
"Oh, my ya. Yeah, I've seen many a paint sprayers, sure, that’s how we white wash our buildings!"
"I think, sir, that there's too much product going on this chain because you have to drizzle a fairly heavy stream of oil to get the coverage you need. What if you build a smaller heavy steel drum, fill that drum halfway with oil, and pressurize the drum with air? Are you following me?"
"Oh, ya, ya, I see it in my mind, oh my, yes, young man, you're talking about spraying oil on the chain instead of drizzling it on!"
"Yes, Mr. Bigler I believe you could put an end to this mess if you could somehow attach a spray nozzle to the bottom of your newly constructed drum. Then place the sprayer at the proper angle and distance over the chain and shoot a very fine mist of oil on that chain.
"Yes, I can see it, Nelson, and we could fuss a bit with how much pressure we need to get as much, or as little, oil as we need!"
"I agree, Mr. Bigler. Also, build a shroud around your sprayer and at least the top of your chain to catch overspray; I think you will cut down the amount of necessary lubricant to three to five gallons a day instead of sixty."
"Your daddy was right. You're a smarty pants!"
Now feeling a little more confident I thought I would take a chance with something I knew could be a deal breaker.
"Sir, you've got to get this chain outside of the building for the sake of your men."
The side of Mr. Bigler's mouth curled up and his head tilted as he thought perhaps my brain wasn't so fancy after all.
"Look, Mr. Bigler, if a chain breaks, it could kill someone's father, son or brother. You don't want that, sir."
Mr. Bigler looked at the floor and shook his head, "You are right, young fella, I sure don't want that."
"Mr. Bigler, I suggest you build a ten by thirty foot concrete block addition on the side of your building and isolate the engine, chain, and compressor. What you save on oil and productivity will pay for your addition in a few short months. You'll be down for no more than a week, and of course, you’ll have to find another way to heat your shop. Perhaps Dad can put a cheap second hand fuel oil furnace in for you. Or, if you could use your ingenuity to capture the heat produced by the diesel engine to warm your shop you would have a BIG win on your hands."
"We'll try it, we'll try it!" Mr. Bigler said.
"And may I suggest a plan B, Mr. Bigler?"
"Yes, why surely, young man."
"Are you a sole proprietor, sir?"
"If my ideas don't work and you can't modify them to your needs, I suggest you hire an attorney to form a corporation and allow your business to stand separate and apart from your person. Then rent this building to the corporation and run your enterprise with electricity. You would be the owner of the corporation's stock. That may or may not satisfy your bishop as to who is buying the electricity. I would think you are not subject to a religious prohibition from owning stock in companies such as Ford, McDonald's, or GE, so I can't imagine a religious rule barring you from owning stock in any other corporation."
Mr. Bigler cocked his head to one side and again gave a few nods as his brain computed the possibilities.
We shook hands, exchanged a few more pleasantries, and we were off for our side of the mountain.
Dad laughed as he opened the truck door for me, "Hop in, Smarty Pants Fancy Brain Boy!"
"Don't you dare, don't even!" I said. I smiled while thinking about how easy nicknames can catch on in rural areas.
"We won't tell your brother about this."
"Oh, Dad, I think we should."
"Okay, maybe we should."
For as good as that problem-solving session felt, I went to bed sad that night. I asked myself the very question that made me so angry when others asked, "If you can do this, why can't you do that?" My schooling was a problem I couldn't solve.
By the way, all reports from Mr. Bigler came back positive on plan A. It worked!
It was my very first and very last trip to a machine shop. They're way too noisy for me.
Incidentally, corporations have now become fashionable among Amish entrepreneurs who are not only consumers of electricity but many forms of computer and communication technology such as cell phones and the internet. I'm not claiming credit for the idea and simply realize it's a good workaround that other problem solvers have seen as well. There is always a way ...