Monthly Archives: November 2015

The “Little” Chief

There was one incident at AC/R School in which my primitive artistic ability proved useful. Week Three of the course was devoted to the construction and function of the various valves required in a refrigeration system. These valves were rendered graphically on large pull-down screens suspended above the classroom’s chalkboard. One evening in the middle of the week a small group of us returned to the classroom after hours to study the graphics and discuss the topic. After we had studied for a while, and felt satisfied in our understanding of the material, conversation turned to the Chief Petty Officer who was that week’s instructor.

I am convinced that upon promotion to Chief – the Navy’s equivalent to a senior sergeant in the Army or Marines – instructions are provided on how to be a “hard ass”. And this chief had apparently learned his lessons well. Although small in stature, he was quite authoritative, and had the “small man” attitude; with jutting jaw, piercing eyes, his chief’s hat worn at a jaunty angle, and the ever present cigar between clenched teeth. Although he was quite intimidating, he was also an excellent instructor, and we liked him*. At the same time, he was easy to mimic and caricaturize. And this is just what we were doing when I got an idea.

Without a word I stepped to the chalkboard and started to draw a shoulders-up picture of the Chief, with emphasis on the prior mentioned traits. I managed, somehow, to get it just right, and the guys I was with were delighted. The group decision was to leave it, and to pull down one of the graphics, covering the sketch until class was in session the next morning.

We told no one of what was lurking behind the pull-down, so when the chief turned and raised it to access the chalkboard, the class erupted. Even the normally taciturn instructor smiled, and the drawing remained on the board for the rest of the day.

*On the day when we were to gather for the class photo, we were told to select one or two of the instructors to be in the picture. This Chief was our unanimous first choice.

Fun in San Diego

When traveling downtown, singularly or otherwise, to visit our favorite bars, or to take in a movie, or some such entertainment, the Rosecrans Street bus would conveniently take us from Gate 6 of the training center to the Army/Navy YMCA on Broadway, San Diego’s “main drag”. From this central location we could easily walk to the aforementioned bars or theaters, and if we were interested in further travel – one Saturday, for example, we spent a great day at the San Diego Zoo – a bus from Broadway would take us anywhere we wanted to go.

But more than a few evenings were spent with some of our “submariner” classmates, a couple of whom had cars. With them we would carouse the city, and the surrounding area. From a bar which we liked, called “That Place Across The Street From The Sports Arena”, which was located, well, you know, to the many and varied entertainments of Ocean Beach, we – under the guidance of those maniacs from the nuclear subs – managed to walk a fine line between good clean fun, and “somebody call the cops”.

Late evening returns to our barracks were often preceded by stops to a couple of places then found only on the west coast – the “Taco Bell” and “Der Wienershnitzel” restaurants across the street from Gate 6. “Lights out” was the barracks rule after 10 PM, and our two-man rooms were too small for a party, so individuals and groups returning from a night’s liberty, laden with their favorite fast food stuffs, would gather in the only shared space in which the lights were still on – the Head*. We would sit on the floor and share a communal “picnic” of tacos and burritos, sausages and fries, and paper cups full of some pretty good German style baked beans. Great, great fun! Even though we usually had to be up early the next morning for class.

*This being a typical Navy facility, with lots of “idle hands” of junior rank, the Head was always quite clean.

1968 – AC/R School, San Diego, CA

Soon after my return to Thor Power Tool Co, the truly remarkable year of 1968 began with my taking leave to re-join, temporarily, the Navy. I had applied and had been accepted to the Navy’s 8-week Class-C Air Conditioning and Refrigeration School. So on January 5th I arrived in San Diego, California to attend the training session. During the induction process, I met a fellow named Ben, whom I thereafter called “Benjie” – a name borrowed from a Rod McKuen poem – who would be my roommate for the next eight weeks.

Yes, I said roommate. At NTC San Diego, students attending the advanced C-Class courses (Petty Officers all) were currently subjects of a new housing program. Rather than the traditional barracks, we were housed in a dormitory-like building with 2-man rooms. Somewhat small (cozy), these rooms were very much like the 2-man staterooms which junior, and mid-level officers would share onboard a ship (or, as I would later discover, like dormitories on virtually any college campus). Two small – but real – beds, closets, desks and chairs, plus an actual door providing us, as enlisted men, with luxury and privacy far beyond our expectations.

Great accommodations, as well as a new friend and roommate, were the beginning of an altogether great Service School experience. The next pleasant surprise was my performance in the classroom. Never having been good at being a student, I tended to evaluate myself – as others did – on my own grade school and high school record. And so I had little presumption of much more than just an “acceptable” performance.

I was therefore quite pleased when I found myself fully engaged in the subject. The key principle underlying the workings of a refrigeration system was easily grasped, and was fascinating in the simple elegance of its function. Each week the class was devoted to some element of the subject – basic principles, the function of the control valves, system service, etc – and at the end of each week a test measured each student’s understanding. Pretty standard stuff.

Despite having previously been a poor student, I had always been pretty good at tests – having the ability to recall pretty much anything I had heard or read – if asked the right question. This, and my genuine interest in this subject combined and at the end of the first week, when testing time came, I found that I had the subject nailed, and aced the test.

The remaining weeks of the school became a matter of learning the material, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the challenge, not to merely to pass but to achieve the highest score in the class. This latter proved beyond me, however, as the class contained several First and Second Class Petty Officers from the Nuclear Submarine Service, all of them very smart. At the completion of the course, I ended up settling for the fourth highest average score.

A Life Changing Decision

By the end of November of 1967, I was settling in and becoming quite comfortable in the soon to be mine generator repair area in the Automotive Repair shop at which I had found a pretty good job. It was at that point however that two things happened, more or less simultaneously. First, the long strike at Thor Power Tool Company finally ended, meaning that I could – if I should want to – return to the second shift drudgery of the milling department. This would have been extremely unlikely, had it not been for the second thing.

At that same time, my request to the Naval Reserve to attend the eight week Air Conditioning and Refrigeration School, held at the Naval Training Center in San Diego California was, surprisingly, approved. This news excited me greatly. The possibility of learning – or at least getting a good start in – air-conditioning and refrigeration, for free from the Navy had seemed to be an interesting and potentially rewarding career opportunity.

So I was faced with a dilemma. My co-workers at the repair shop were each a highly skilled specialist in some aspect of automobile repair, from carburetion, to engine rebuilds, to transmissions, to brakes and exhaust, and I was slowly joining their ranks in the area of auto and truck generators, alternators, and starters, as well as the mysteries of the ignition system. The expectation, at this point, was for me to relieve the retiring shop owner, and assume control of the generator area, and thus would begin a good, steady, enjoyable, and well-paying career.

It would also mean that, as life moved forward, no longer would new adventures rise up from future’s horizon.

The siren song of the Air-Conditioning/Refrigeration School was strong – as was the ever-tantalizing appeal of a step into the unknown. And, truth be told, the thought of eight mid-winter weeks in San Diego was an added bonus.

So the deliberation within me went like this; If I stayed at the auto shop, my future was pretty much set. I kind of liked the work, it was easy and I seemed to be pretty good at it. Counter-intuitively perhaps, I was more than a bit bothered by the fact that it was forever. And of course also meant turning down the AC/R School, in which I did have a genuine interest.

If I returned to Thor, on the other hand, the rules would require that my job be held for me while I was away for temporary military service. This meant that after the school I could return to my steady – if boring – job while the possibilities of yet a better future were allowed to unfold. No such possibility existed at the generator shop; if I left for eight weeks, I was gone, for good, and upon my return I would be jobless.

This may have been the deciding factor. I informed the shop’s owner that I would be leaving. The quick panoply of emotion he displayed – shock, anger, calculation as he realized he himself would have to return to the generator shop until he found my replacement, and finally a grudging if somewhat resentful acceptance – made me feel quite bad at what I was doing.

He had accepted me, mentored, and trained me, and had badgered me into learning so that I could replace him personally in the shop which he had founded, and be a part of its continuation for another generation. And now he felt – quite vocally – that I had betrayed all of this. I found it hard at that moment to disagree with him. But it was, after all, MY life and I felt that had made a difficult, but correct decision.

Events would – eventually – prove this to be true.

The Generator Repair Shop

I had passed the summer and fall of 1967 – while the strike at Thor continued – drifting more than a bit, job-wise. I worked briefly at the Kmart Auto Center on N. Lake St. in Aurora, mostly doing brake jobs on tired old family sedans. The work was generally boring, and the atmosphere was tense, due mostly to the pressure from management, which stressed speed and turnover as a key factor in job performance. So I moved on.

I worked at a truck repair shop which specialized in overhauling the engines and transmissions of trucks ranging in size from large to very large, and in the utilizing whenever possible – day or night – their massive tow truck, which seemed capable of moving virtually anything from anywhere. Despite my navy experience I was relegated to basic service, oil and filter changes, wheel mounting, etc. Boring! So I moved on.

I worked at a Standard Oil filling station on the corner of Route 25 and Montgomery Road for a short time. Ditto! Ditto.

Actually a lot of what I earned that summer came from doing tune-ups and other routine maintenance for members of the group, and sometimes for their other – non-group – friends. The work was similar to what I had been doing, but it was on my own schedule. And some of those guys had some pretty cool cars. But the work was spotty, and a regular income, though more restrictive, was better.

In the autumn of the year, after my return from Instructor Training School, my cash reserves were dwindling. So I responded to an ad in the Beacon News and applied to an auto repair shop on the west side, near the no longer new YMCA. The low sprawling building in which the shop existed was subdivided into specialty areas, including carburetors and fuel injection, auto electrical systems, brakes, tires and suspension, exhaust systems, and the repair or rebuilding of starters, alternators, and generators. This last “shop within the shop” was the domain of the owner, and he was planning his retirement. Hence, the job opening.

I got the job, and performed pretty well. The repair and rebuilding of generators and alternators was easy enough – in principle these were simple mechanisms, actually. What was interesting where the variations on the theme. Each manufacturer, it would seem, incorporated its own unique and occasionally puzzling design quirks, often requiring some thought as to both the nature of the flaw, and the manner of the repair.

You would never know, however, that I had performed well based the actions and comments of the owner. Aside from actual instruction, his teaching method was based upon intimidation, criticism, and beratement. Despite this he was pretty good at his job, and also in passing on what he knew, and I so learned quite a lot in a fairly short time. The process was sometimes degrading, but I came to realize that when he wasn’t there – which he soon would not be at all – I was having a pretty good time while satisfactorily getting out the work.