Working at Henry Pratt Company: Part Two

Of the two senior Industrial Engineers with whom, and for whom, I worked, Lynn was a bit older, and perhaps a bit more “grounded”, and as such was, I felt, the senior I.E. and the procedural foundation of the department. Joe on the other hand was more of a free spirit, making him more of the “think out-of-the-box” innovator. From my perspective, as mentors go, this was a nice mix

At first, I associated more easily with Joe. Also, he was a great fan of football and had been a coach at some Junior League level. He and I attended many semi pro games in nearby Joliet Illinois, were he lived. Also a couple of preseason “College All-Star” games at soldier Field.

Despite this it was Mr. Beu with whom I formed a more lasting friendship, which continued after we had both left Pratt, fading only with my relocation to another city.

Despite the differences, or perhaps because of them, I valued my associations with each, learning enough from them so that by the time I moved on to a new job – as a real Industrial Engineer in my own right – I had been given a sound foundation, from which I was able to advance fairly rapidly.

But despite the work, and the learning, I had a great deal of fun working at Pratt. The people of the various departments by whom I was surrounded in the crowded office were, for the most part, easy to get along with. And my immediate colleagues, Lynn and Joe were, each in their own way, pranksters, assuring that the department environment was always, to say the least, interesting.

Working at Henry Pratt Company: Part One

Henry Pratt Company, headquartered in Aurora with, at the time, a second plant in Dixon Illinois, was, and is, a manufacturer of valves. In particular, butterfly valves, which are opened or closed by the rotation of an internal disk (the butterfly of the somewhat stretched metaphor).

My job, as “rate setter” was to apply work standards to various machining and assembly operations – such as the drilling of necessary holes in component parts, or assembling a disk to a valve body. This meant, mostly, adding calculated time values to the controlling paperwork of such work assignments, for the purposes of establishing costs, scheduling, and of course measuring the performance of those actually doing the work.

I have often been asked, over the years “what does an Industrial Engineer do”. To this I have responded with the oversimplified, but accurate answer that “an I.E. is a sort of combination time study man*, and efficiency expert”, and developing, and applying, work standards is at the very heart of all. So, as I would discover, I was in a pretty good position to learn the basics.

Other than IE Department supervisor Frank Fontana, who turned out to be much more than a pretty good boss, there were two genuine Industrial Engineers in the department. In the curious title structure which named me a rate setter, these two senior engineers both held the title of “Methods and Standards Analyst”.

I can only say that I am eternally grateful for these two fellows, Lynn Bue and Joe Ryan, who, each in their own way, quickly became colleagues, mentors, and friends.

*Or woman, as was becoming a reality in my early years in the profession.

Bob’s Betting System

The trip to Vegas, which cost me my job at Thor Power Tool Co and thus was the proximate cause of the change in my life’s trajectory, was the culmination of an odd relationship with an even odder fellow who was, at the time, the quality inspector for the machining department in which I, sort of, worked. Bob J___ was my father’s age more or less, seriously overweight, and with one leg shorter than the other. Bob was also something of an intellectual, an expert in, among other things, comparative religions, collectable coins, and a self-proclaimed psychic. I found him very informative and altogether fascinating. He could go on, at length, on any number of topics, and I was happy to listen and learn.

One of Bob’s notions — the one which led to the Vegas trip — was a variation on a strategy which, I later learned, was widely known as the “Gambler’s Ruin Formula”; a technique of simply betting a dollar (or any desired amount) on an even-money bet – Red/Black, Odd/Even, Pass/No Pass, etc – and if you won, great. If you lost, simply double your bet until you won. Bob’s variation was that every time you doubled your bet after a loss, you added an amount equal to the initial bet. This way, when you eventually won, you would win that amount for every play; not just for the ultimate winner.

What made Bob’s method so compelling was the added trick of always betting on what had previously just won. This was founded on the principle that nature does not like an extended series of “back and forth”, and that two-in-a row was always not only possible, but indeed likely.

While I still believe the idea has some merit, it certainly requires a measure of luck — and a large bankroll. Nature actually does, from time to time, allow for extended back and forth runs, which soon require large bets to keep going. The one dollar bet becomes three, which becomes seven, which becomes fifteen, which becomes . . . So after four losses the next required bet is thirty-one, after having already lost twenty-six. In 1970, when my resources fell well short of limited, an investment of fifty-seven dollars — in an effort to win five — at a time when a dollar was worth much more than it is now, was a HUGE risk which, as it turned out, I was not really willing to take.

The fact that I did not suddenly become rich notwithstanding, the trip to Las Vegas was great. This was around Easter time, and still snowy that year in Aurora, so the Nevada climate was a treat – although we traveled from the airport to our hotel through a sand storm (which the locals blamed on a just completed atomic bomb test somewhere to the north). This was, remember, the old 1970 Las Vegas. Getting around was easy. The famous hotels were the Stardust, The Dunes, The Sands, The Flamingo, the earlier, smaller Caesar’s Palace, etc. Rooms were inexpensive; we stayed at the old Hacienda, at the end of the strip in a space now more than occupied by Mandalay Bay.

The lounge shows were free, a well-known singing group called The Ink Spots were the regulars at the Hacienda. I saw comic Jackie Mason at Cleopatra’s Barge in Caesar’s Palace. Being a fan, I arrived early to claim the end seat at the bar, where I was just a few feet from the performer.

And everywhere were cheap, unlimited, and altogether excellent buffets, open at any hour. It was all great fun. I even won $100 from a quarter slot machine at the airport. I hated to leave.

Music In Transition

As the turn of the decade brought major life changes to me personally, the music which launched us into the 1970s was also in transition. The ‘60s ended with the hard, angry songs of protest, and the jarring melodies of acid rock. 1970 started with Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”, and the music of the new decade led us, eventually, to a milder time.

My favorites in the early months of the that year included Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, “Teema Harbor” by Mary Hopkin, and Brook Benton singing “A Rainy Night in Georgia”. This last a song which my father later admitted he loathed, but, knowing I liked it, never asked me to turn off when it came on the car radio as we drove to or from work. Also, from Simon and Garfunkel’s last, brilliant, and Grammy-winning, album “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, came my second all-time favorite song, “The Boxer”.

As the new decade progressed, we moved further and further from the works of late ‘60s groups like Blue Cheer “Summertime Blues”, The Amboy Dukes “Journey to the Center of the Mind”,  Jimi Hendrix “All Along The Watchtower”, Cream “White Room”, and lest we forget, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown “Fire”.

We children of the 60s were growing weary, I think, of the angry music which mirrored the “days of rage”, and other shrill aspects of the end of the ‘60s era. We instead began to embrace the likes of The Carpenters, Bread, Three Dog Night, Neil Diamond, on to Elton John, and God help us, Tony Orlando and Dawn (The pendulum sometimes swings too far).

 The Beatles suddenly faded, and soon dissolved. Many blame the breakup on Yoko, but let’s face it, great as they were, when you reach the point of singing of “toe jam football”, it’s sort of time to move on. And so it was that perhaps the greatest rock & roll band of all time transitioned as well. In the early ‘70s Paul McCartney, and the rest of the Beatles, emerged as solo artists. Sir Paul (and Linda) distinguished themselves with “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and others, as well as the music of their new group, Wings.

John Lennon, despite Yoko, produced memorable music, while my favorite Beatle, George Harrison, overcame one – unfair, in my opinion – legal setback to do marvelous things, both as a solo artist with such songs as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and later with the superstar collaboration The Traveling Wilburys “Handle Me With Care”. Even the much under-appreciated Ringo did some very good things, getting, but not really needing, a little help from his friends.

And so, despite a bit of a sag in the middle (The Disco Years), the 70s, at the beginning – and again at the end – was a great time for music.

Two Weeks in Seattle

By attending Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration school in the spring of the year, I had more than met 1968’s obligation to the two-week ACDUTRA – active duty for training – which the Navy required of all reserves on an annual basis. However, a posting on the Yeoman’s Bulletin Board at the Aurora Armory announcing a two week training cruise aboard a reserve destroyer based in Seattle, Washington caught my attention. I submitted the appropriate request, which was approved, and at the beginning of November 1968, I was off to the great Northwest.

Weather-wise Seattle was pretty much as promised, particularly since it was November. It did rain quite a bit. But also, as promised, when it didn’t rain, and the sky cleared, it was indeed spectacular. The sparkling Puget Sound, the tall, well washed, verdant green pine trees everywhere, and the magnificent, craggy, snowcapped mountains looming above it all made it one of the most beautiful places one might imagine.

Like my now long ago first shipboard experience – two weeks aboard a Chicago based reserve destroyer escort – we didn’t really go anywhere. We left Pier 91 on several occasions to cruise the sound; to Tacoma and back. And once we ventured out through the Straits of Juan de Fuca to somewhat tentatively poke our bow into the cold North Pacific. But we spent a lot of time tied up to Pier 91 performing maintenance (in the guise of training). Since I was now an “expert” on refrigeration systems, this is how I spent much of my time. But if you ignore the cold, grimy conditions of the nearly hidden spaces in which some of the refrigeration equipment was mounted, the work was interesting, instructive, and not too difficult.

I know I enjoyed Seattle in the broad sense, but my somehow my strongest memories are the songs “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, a lasting favorite, and “Wichita Lineman”, by Glen Campbell. And the rotating bar at the top of the space needle, where the stunning view was constantly changing; repeating itself every 30 minutes.

Another lasting impression is of a very large, very ornate, old-style theater on Pike Street where I saw Jane Fonda in the movie Barbarella. I will admit that in costume she was visually stimulating, but I didn’t then, nor do I now, forgive her antics during the war. That said, the movie, though more than a bit silly, was entertaining.

A couple of nights before I left Seattle, I was in a cocktail lounge somewhere, grumbling conversationally about the weather. One of the gentlemen – strangers all – with whom I was chatting said to me in all seriousness, “You say that now, but after you leave you’ll want to come back”. And you know, he was right. Although in all these years I never have gone back to Seattle, I have always wanted to. And as I write this I say to myself yet again, maybe this year.

The flight home from Seattle to Chicago was the perfect finale to a great couple of weeks. I was traveling in uniform, and “on standby”. After the paying customers had all boarded, I was not only awarded a seat, but a seat in First Class! This proved to be one of two new experiences that day; the first of course being my upgraded flight status. And since the drinks were free – and because it sounded so cool and sophisticated – I ordered my first, and only ever, scotch and soda. But it really was fun all in all, and ever after, when I’ve traveled in the cattle car of coach, I’ve known what I was missing.
A final thought.  I wrote my first poem while in Seattle for my two-week training cruise. Bad as it probably was, I’m sorry I no longer have a copy.

On my first visit to the Space Needle, on the grounds of what was formerly the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, I was struck by the carousel, and the “wild carnival horses” with their “toothy grins”. The bright colorful paint now, some years later, chipped and faded, as they stood silent and neglected on a damp, foggy, and still November day. And so, inspired by the works of Rod McKuen, I sketched out a short, sad poem titled “After the World’s Fair”.

That it is gone forever is no real loss to anyone. But I do wish I had more than just a vague memory of my first poetic effort.

1970 – The Old World Falls Away

While the end of the “Sixties” would come a bit later in the year at Kent State University, a major life transition began for me at Easter time of 1970. This was the time when I did a very foolish thing which again, through complete serendipity (or perhaps just blind dumb luck) turned out to be probably one of the smartest things I have ever done. And that was to get myself fired from my job at Thor Power Tool Co. I drifted a bit through the spring and early summer before I lucked into a job as a trainee in the Industrial Engineering department at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora. And thus a long, successful career as an “I.E” was launched.

The job running screw machines at Thor was comfortable, easy, and for me, a dead end. By this I don’t mean to impugn my father’s years running similar equipment at Thor. His was an honorable, respected, and committed service as a highly skilled set-up/operator of very difficult machinery.

I had received a transfer to the automatic screw machine department, largely on my father’s reputation and was assigned to the easiest machines, and while I believe I could have been a pretty good machinist – I quickly grasped the concept of the multi-spindle screw machine, which the old-timers said was so difficult – I was, in fact, a terrible employee. With no real interest in the work, I was indifferent and totally unmotivated. I made up for doing poor work by not doing very much of it. In April, when I was denied a vacation, or a leave, to go to Las Vegas for three days, I went anyway, and when I returned, I didn’t have a job. In retrospect, my attitude is, good for them, I deserved it.

68 Charger

The ’68 Charger

As much as I liked my ‘61 Tempest, after a year and a couple of months I began to feel the need to upgrade. My father was a “Chevy man” and following the family tradition I was quite fond of the Camaros of the late 60s and disliked all Fords on general principles (although I would go on to own three Mustangs in my life – so far).

But the car which caught my attention in the spring of 1968 was the Dodge Coronet. So after no small amount of thought, some consultation with Mrs. B, who ran the Thor Credit Union, I made my way one afternoon to Aurora Dodge, located on N. Lake St. in North Aurora.

I was extremely disappointed that they did not have a Coronet on site with the right set-up, and which was – importantly –the right color. I had already made up my mind as to what color I wanted. Medium green – what many would call avocado – with the darker avocado green vinyl top. (I had not yet succumbed to the notion that every car I owned must be Ferrari Red). No problem, I was told, I could order just such a car as I wanted. I understood and accepted that reality, but I was still rather put off by the idea that, having now decided to act, I would need to wait an additional several weeks for the car to arrive.

However, they did have, – right there, not 50 feet away – a different model, that I might like, with precisely the right color combination. Willing to at least take a look, we walked to this alternate selection. At first sight I knew this was my car. As much as I liked the Coronet, this 1968 Charger R/T, with a 440 Magnum engine, and Torqueflight automatic transmission, road wheels – and without the notable “Rumble Bee” stripes – was not just significantly better, It was perfection.

This was the car I had to have. I have no doubt that my face gave me away, and even if I had been skilled at negotiating a good deal for myself, it was probably out of the question in this case. This car was more expensive, from the start, than my earlier choice. But I did have the backing of the Thor Credit Union, and make-able payments could stretch as far into the future as necessary. I say again, this was my car.

So couple of days hence, on Friday afternoon, the deal was done and I could pick up my Charger. This event was almost delayed due to a brief, but heated, disagreement with my mother who wanted – for some incomprehensible reason – to wait until Monday to add the new vehicle to the family insurance policy. But I prevailed, and took possession of my new car on my way to what promised to be a very long second shift in the milling machine department at Thor.

Arriving on time, more or less, I parked my new car in a (daytime) supervisor’s slot right outside the window of the area in which I worked. Walking by the window often and gazing out at my new beauty was just too much. When the lunch break came at 7:30, I feigned some malady and headed out on the town to show off.

At about 8:30 the next morning my mother knocked on my door, waking me to tell me how beautiful she thought the car was. So all was again well at home. That weekend, and beyond, I made the rounds. The car was a big hit at the Office, and also when it revisited North Lake Street to cruise the Sears parking lot and Tops Drive-In.