Pittsburgh Years

Tough Times






aving had the bejeesus scared out of us while getting the family to Pittsburgh, Nola and I now, for the first time in our lives, became careful with money.  Out of a monthly salary of $675 a month we saved $300, a lifetime record for two former spendthrifts who hadn’t had a care in the world.  Not driving was another first, and the two are not unconnected.  I seemed quite unable to exercise the old Mercury that we had bought on the road-trip here and which now rested comfortably in retirement in our garage.  Like the proverbial one-night stand, it would have seemed disturbing to once again have become intimate with her.  She had serviced me once, but now I was shy of her.

All of us at Blaw-Knox received rather modest pay raises automatically now and again as the years after the first now began to multiply.  These increases were rumored to have been keyed to increases mandated by the union contracts of Blaw-Knox’s unionized manufacturing workers, nevermind that we in Engineering weren’t in the Union.  The theory, considered fact within the drawing room, was that in this way the company would preclude the Engineering people from forming a Union of their own.  It may have been true.

It seemed that there was only one route to a more substantial increase in pay and that was to be promoted to a new job-title, or grade.  There were several defined classes of draftsman and of engineer, each with a separate pay range. Within each range mid-management had limited discretion.  Although I never asked for a raise, sometime after I had become a fulltime designer, leaving drafting behind, I received a pretty big one without asking for it.  In my way of thinking it was not cool to beg; if they wanted you, they would pay for you.  

Money was being saved now and it was building up pretty good, a sharp turn from our former profligacy.  Curiously, this novel dipping of the toe into the dark and unknown pool of rectitude was accompanied and enhanced by the purchase of a personal ledger with which thriftiness could be tracked.  A budget was developed, each penny accounted for, my first adventure into the unknown and strangely attractive world of green eyeshades and quill pens.  Unsurprisingly, this was merely an interlude which warped our lives only long enough to taste the delicate fruit of parsimony.  After a while I was beginning to relax a little financially.  But then sometime in 1963 the employment situation at Blaw-Knox went from feast to famine.  I of course had been unaware of this normal business cycle—well not really unaware of it, I simply associated this cyclicality with family businesses and naively assumed that big corporations were somehow immune to these vicissitudes.

The telltale sign of famine at Blaw-Knox was when people were put to work developing “standards”. This work doesn’t directly make any money for the company, but at Blaw-Knox advantage was taken of this small window of time to improve and expand the standard­ization that I later came to think of as a signature of the company.  All engineering companies of a certain size have some engineering standards but often they were more formality than reality.  But Blaw-Knox’s were integral to their way of doing business.  They were well documented and used religiously.  It is curious the way a company of many, and varied people, like a complex organism, can, with training and exercise, take on a defining personality in much the same way that individuals do. 

Our workload was apparently slowing down rather dramatically.  It was understood that people were to be laid off.  I was somewhat nervous; I was doing the work of a designer and now getting paid for it, but I wasn’t really an engineer, which severely limited my options for moving from one company to another, should I have had to.  I seemed to have convinced the people at Blaw-Knox that I could design but I knew with certainty that I couldn’t go hunting for a job as an engineer.  By this time I had gotten very used to steady employment and I liked design a lot.  I was no longer anxious to return to Naperville; though there were still a few relatives there, and many friends, those bonds had gradually loosened.

Blaw-Knox, and most of the other large engineering companies in town, employed two classes of workers: regular, everyday workers like me, “direct” workers employed by the company to design what they had sold.  And then there were workers known as “Job Shoppers”.  Shoppers work for a separate company, one that “contracts out” employees on an hourly basis, typically for a short time gig—but sometimes for many years—to the company actually doing the engineering.  The companies that employed job-shoppers were commonly, and a little pejoratively, called “body shops” by the direct employees.  A job-shop can employ both engineers and draftsmen and “shop them out”.  Shoppers are ordinarily the first to get laid off when things get slow, acting as a safety valve in the up and down engineering micro­economy.  Job shop employees do not expect, and often do not want, steady employment.  There are people who prefer temporary employment, hopping from job to job, often with extended periods of relaxation in between, when they are “on the beach”.

While it varies from individual to individual, job shoppers on the whole get paid more money than regular employees at the same level, but they don’t get much, or maybe anything, in the way of benefits, and their hold on a job is tenuous.  In a sense shoppers are the cowboys of engineering, enjoying their independence and often willing to move long distances, even overseas, to find temporary, high paying, work.  They were often bachelors—if that term is still extant—and, if they were not, their families knew to expect long absences, or perhaps they moved around as one.  There were then, and I assume there still are, periodicals or Internet sites with extensive advertising tailored directly to this class of temporary worker.

The routine of laying people off was fascinating, as—in a morbid way—watching a public hanging seems to have been at one time.  When the time came, in the large single room devoted to our department, all eyes focused on one office at the end of the room, that of the Chief Civil Engineer.  Somehow, quietly, propelled by glances and whispers, the awareness of the proximity of Fate circled about the room.  Then the process went like this: the Chief Engineer, Forest Williams, would march out of his office with a determined, almost military, bearing, the look on his face showing manfully his distaste for the unpleasant task in which he was now involved, but one which he felt ought to be profession­ally executed.

He would stop next to a particular man and ask him to please come to his office.  The two, ceremoniously, would march back together, the Chief Engineer leading, all eyes hypnotically following the pair.  People whom the Chief Engineer had passed-over in his outward march might now breathe a little easier, but only tentatively since, the order and length of the list remaining unknown, the executioner could be back their way next.  After only a minute or two the ex-employee would walk back from the chief engineer’s office and wordlessly begin to pack up his belongings.  This process would repeat itself mesmer­izingly, real work essentially suspended, until the current list had been satisfied.  If the downturn was severe, this scenario might be repeated weekly, for months.

Almost always, job shoppers were released first unless they were indispensable to a current project.  After the job shoppers had been let go the knife then began to slice out the least valuable of the regular employees on some opaque scale that measured utility.  Rumors ran rampant among the cognoscenti as to just who would get it next.  Though a little nervous, I did not receive a visit from Chief Engineer Williams, perhaps because the numerator of my cost to benefit ratio was small.

There was yet another safety valve that was occasionally set off when work became very, very tight: the loaning out of employees to other engineering firms in the city.  This was an incestuous business; each engineering company in town had intimate knowledge of the work load of each of the others.  En extremis, a company like Blaw-Knox might make an agreement with another company that at that time had a lot of work: They would lend some of their employees to the other company for an agreed period of time at only a modest surcharge over their actual wage.  Blaw-Knox would not make much money doing this; the advantage for them was that they did not have to lay off key people; they would be available again once the company’s fortunes turned around.  In the long run this was deemed a better process than indiscriminately firing people on the downside, and then hiring brand new employees on the upside, having then to bear the cost of breaking the new ones into their special way of doing business.

Another unifying factor was that many of the engineering people had previously worked for more than one local company, and occasionally a particular person might even be loaned or rehired back to a company for which they had formerly worked.  In this slow, roiling manner, common standards were promulgated throughout the city’s entire engineering community, making the municipality itself a locus of a particular subset of the craft, steel mill engineering for example, and the design of bridges.  In Houston or Dallas, refinery design similarly became standardized; in Detroit, automobile manufacture; in New York, finance.

One day, during a severe downturn, I was summoned to the office and told that I would be loaned out to a company named Swindell-Dressler, probably for about six months.  As always, I was nervous about change, but I had not been consulted and I didn’t seem to have much choice in the matter.  Swindell-Dressler was located only a few blocks away on Smithfield street across from Kaufmann’s department store.  They had just signed a contract to design a new steel mill near Gary Indiana for the Bethlehem Steel Company and they needed people quickly.



 reported for work on the assigned day with another Blaw-Knox employee, John Lawford, an engineer.  We were to be the first of quite a number of “loaners” to this company.  I didn’t know whether I would now have to revert to drafting or whether I would stay in structural designing work, but apparently I had been “sold” as a designer since the two of us were told to start work right away designing the foundations for the mill.  This suited me fine; I liked designing foundations.

The people designing the superstructure of this building—within which several football fields could comfortably have been fitted—had already determined the loads on each column found­ation.  The specified loads were huge, nothing like those of a chemical plant with their piddling little tanks and pumps and vessels.  Here the loads consisted of massive ladles of liquid steel, huge cranes and machines and, at the finishing end of the mill, heavy rolled coils of sheet steel—the product.

This was for me a new class of engineering.  To an engineer, a mill building is quite a fascinating structure.  But to an architect it looks more like just a big, and very boring, shed of corrugated, galvanized steel.  Steel people use steel things.  In this mill—a modern one and still typical of the mills of today—the process worked like this:

Ladles of liquid steel go into the building at one end and are poured into a massive machine called a “continuous caster”; the caster “casts” this stream of now-cooling liquid metal into indefinitely long, rectangular, metal bars slowly solidifying.  Still very hot, and thus soft, they then feed automatically in an uninterrupted flow into a rolling mill which gradually rolls the still-very-hot, but by now solid, metal into thinner and thinner, wider and wider and longer and longer sheets until, at the end of this very long machine, the long, and now-thin sheets are trimmed and rolled up into coils.  These coils are then shipped to Detroit, and other points, where they go to make up the bodies of our automobiles.

This process is much more efficient than the older process: After first pouring the liquid steel into billets which then solidified, they were stored until the rolling mill was available.  Then these heavy billets had to be heated again in order to roll them out once more, an expensive process (and one that is no longer used).

Since steel weighs nearly 500 pounds per cubic foot—and we’re making steel here—and the machines we’re making it with are steel, and the building that protects the machines (there aren’t many people working in here) are also made of steel, things get pretty heavy.  The fascinating thing about this for engineers is that it distinctly reminds them of the erector sets that they played with as children.  And, as they grew from 2 feet tall to 6 feet tall, this erector set grew with them and, in fact, outpaced them, growing to a Very grand scale indeed.

Text Box:  
Column and Foundation
The steel columns that support this vast structure are, in turn, supported at ground level on large concrete piers which, in their turn, below ground, are supported by an even larger “pad” of concrete that spreads out the concentrated load of the columns so that the soil is able to support it without settling or otherwise reacting badly.  A thin metal rod for example might be rather easily pushed into the ground, but fasten a flat plate on its end and then try to push it in.  The concrete pad acted as that plate would have, in effect spreading the concentrated load out so that the relatively small pier with the very heavy load on it would not sink into the ground.

The group leader for this project was a fellow named Rudy Dias.  I think he was a Filipino.  A nice guy, he was  short, strong, tightly-wound, and usually smiling; a bundle of energy, constantly in motion.  After Lawford and I designed the first foundations they looked awfully big to he and I.

Rudy said, “They’re too big.”  He was going only by feel, by past experience.  But the sizing of this type of foundation is pretty cut and dried: divide the force (given to us by the structural people), by the pressure that the soil will carry per square foot (given to us by the soil people), and you get an area—pretty simple; but the area was very, very big.  Lawford and I questioned the loads.  They were orders of magnitude bigger than any we had ever designed-for before.  So Rudy brings in his steel guy, who had given us the loads, to question him.  And this guy says, “The loads are right.  It’s a new type of mill.  Just design the foundations.”  So we did.  But these foundations were so big—in fact the each of the pads themselves were easily the size of a house and, 8 or 10 feet thick.

While still at Blaw-Knox, part of my “home studies” program was the so-called plastic design of steel structures, a method of analysis that was then rather new, and it had never before been used at Blaw-Knox.  Since it was a method that had recently been endorsed by the American Institute of Steel Construction I had been able to “sell it” for use on several structures at Blaw-Knox.  This technique was a method that both simplified the design of an otherwise complicated structural steel framework and also often provided a structure of less weight and thus less cost. 

Confronted with the design of these large steel mill foundations, I wondered if this basic technique could not be adapted for their design.  Concrete, because of its brittleness, cannot be taken into the plastic range, but its reinforcing steel could be, and that might lead to less reinforcing steel which meant simpler placement of the concrete around the reinforcing.  In theory, I knew that plastic design could be used for the design of a concrete superstructure reinforced with steel—though to my knowledge it had never before been used in such a way.  But a foundation was fundamentally different than a superstructure in this respect: the yielding of the steel—implicit in this design method—would involve a change in the distribution of the reactive soil forces on the foundation itself, which made it a much more difficult engineering problem.  Over a week or so at home, and mostly just as an exercise, I developed an incremental distributive mathematical method to solve this problem.  When I used it on one of the foundations for the Bethlehem plant it did indeed lead to much more “reasonable” foundations, though still very big.

As a matter of interest I showed the calculations to Lawford and walked him through them.  He was intrigued and thought we ought to show this method to Rudy, our boss.  Rudy already thought the foundations were too big and was worried about whether the concrete could in fact be flowed around so many reinforcing bars that were required in normal methods.  I don’t know if he understood my new method or not, but he was a shaker and a mover and he said he wanted to take it to the chief engineer, the man responsible for all the civil engineering at Swindell-Dressler, a person I had never met.  This made me at once pleased and nervous.  I didn’t know this guy and he was said to be tough.

The next day Rudy and I were called into the chief engineer’s large office on another floor of the building.  His name was Georgevic and I had been told that he was a good engineer but a tough Serbian—I had become used to this routine ethnification of people and barely noticed it anymore. (Having now, at bars, become acquainted with a number of Serbs it seems to me that the phrase “tough Serbian” was somewhat redundant: they’re all tough—even the women.)  Anyway, I went through the process with Georgevic.  He paced me through the explanation on his own terms.  He asked a number of questions that I thought were rather perceptive, considering that by the time one becomes a chief engineer, one’s political skills are ordinarily superior to one’s engineering skills.  But after satisfying himself that the underlying theory was correct, he said to go ahead with it.  Whether his judgment was as analytical as it seemed to be, or whether he also simply thought the foundations were just too big, I don’t know.  In either case, all the foundations for this mill were designed by this unusual method and as far as I know it is still standing there, which is the first aim of structural design. 

November 22, 1963
President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas
The news raced through the department

As the foundation design simmered down to routine checking, I was called over one day by Rudy Dias.  He asked me to, “Take a look at these plans.”

I looked them over casually and asked back, “What is it?”

“It’s a basic oxygen furnace,” he said.

I had heard of them but had never seen one: they are the reactor that liquefies the steel for casting.  It was a very large furnace of the class.  It tipped over to pour out the steel after it had been liquefied into the casters.  And, while its configuration and operation was well understood, this was apparently an extraordinarily big one and they wanted some stress analysis done on it; they had already chosen the size of the various components and they didn’t want to change them especially, but before they built it they, quite reasonably, wanted to get an idea of whether it was strong enough.  The loads involved, as everywhere in steelmaking, were very heavy.

Ordinarily a mechanism like this would not be a structural engineering problem; it would be a mechanical engineering problem. But most mechanical engineers in construction practice have largely lost any theoretical knowledge they might have brought with them from school because most mechanical components have become so standardized that they are simply chosen from a catalog of the manufacturer; any design work that has to be done has already been done by mechanical engineers working for the manufacturer.  But this was a custom furnace, and so large that it had to be fabricated in the field.  So I spent a few weeks making some assumptions about how the loads would be handled by the structure of the furnace, did some stress analysis, and told them I thought it was OK.  After this incidental mechanical project was done I was returned to Blaw-Knox, where ordinary work resumed.  But now, everything here at Blaw-Knox seemed to Lawford and me to be of miniature size.  



eanwhile, my parents in California were having financial problems.  They had moved to Hemet, California, some few miles farther inland from Riverside and San Bernardino in southern California.  It was a retirement community then, and probably still is.  But my father had little thought of retiring; he was still proving himself, at least to himself.  It had taken several years for him to figure out just what form this would take, but now he had. With his background as a builder, he now wanted to build retirement homes.  So he bought a full block of land, hired subcontractors, and started building away—the name Buena Vista street strikes a memory chord; at least it was somewhere near there.

Text Box:  
The Naperville Clarion Explains
The plan was to eventually surround the block with various sizes of condos, right next to each other, and then, in the center, privatized so to speak by the homes as a peripheral barrier, to put a common recreation building and a swimming pool, with walks and flowers and other such quintessential, southern-Californian beautifica­tions.  It would be at once a place to live and a place to socialize.  Not that my father felt any strong need to socialize, but he saw that need in another people and thought to cater to it.

Hemet and San Jacinto are flat as pancakes, but they are surrounded scenically by the San Jacinto mountains.  It is very hot in the daytime there, 120°F, but then it cools off pleasantly to 70° or less at night; the air is very dry; even in the middle of the day if you’re in the shade you won’t be very hot, though if your car sits in the sun for only a few minutes you won’t be able to touch the steering wheel.  This territory is what is called semi-desert.  One of its characteristics is that practically nothing except sparse, dry grass grows there naturally, but if the land is irrigated, or otherwise watered, things grow like crazy and you can grow nearly anything.  Water is to southern California as oil is to Saudi Arabia: about the only thing that keeps the place going.  The trouble with irrigation is that a lot of water is lost to evaporation. Ominously, my dad had a solution for this.

In southern California, flowers and grass and other plants are regularly irrigated in the cool of the evening and in the early morning by automatically-timed spray nozzles that turn the water on and off, and occasionally surprise pedestrians calmly walking down the sidewalk of a morning.  If growing things are not watered there, they simply dry up.  But spraying water up into the air like that, wastes it: evaporation.  To Easterners at that time these reservations about wasting water would have seemed a notion carried farther than necessary, but if you’re living in southern California, and paying a lot for water, you get the idea rather quickly.

It seems to me that he had the recreation room built first, and of course that became his new shop while the rest of the condos were built.  It was a place where he could tinker around with his new ideas.  Building homes had become routine so he wanted something else to occupy his mind.  He had always thought that plastic was a great material, even in those days just after the war when plastic had first begun to be used commercially.  I remember still, when I was in seventh grade, which was in 1945, that he had touted-up plastic to us at home over the dinner table.  Then I repeated some of this at school—I seem to remember something about a plastic bicycle—and was nearly laughed out of the classroom.  It must have embarrassed me because I still remember it.  Plastic then was brittle and had little structural value.  I don’t know if they now make bicycles out of it, but they do make nearly everything else from it, including car bumpers!  He always seemed to be a few decades ahead of his time.  But now it was time for irrigation.

Dad’s idea—it was not original to him; I think he had read it somewhere—was that irrigation, at least for small gardens and plants around homes, could best be achieved by routing water through small diameter, flexible plastic tubing buried just a few inches underground after first putting regular pinpricks in its wall to let the water leak out continuously and very slowly. Burying it underground eliminated evaporative losses, thus using less water.  The trick was that the pinpricks in the tubing wall had to be big enough to let the water out while remaining small enough to keep the sandy dirt from plugging up the holes, just the kind of stuff he liked to work on; could a patent be far away?

One of the first condo units completed was purchased by Charlotte Hermes, my mother’s best friend—and fellow drinker—from Naperville days.  She had divorced her husband, Ralph Hermes.  Subsequently she had married an older man, retired from the insurance business, and he had some money.  Since I don’t remember his name she remains Charlotte Hermes to me.  But this undoubtedly made my mother very happy.  She now had somebody there from the old days, and not just somebody, her best friend!

Unfortunately all this was costing a lot of money, and of course he was not selling them very fast either, not quickly enough so that the money flowed in faster than it flowed out.  Nola and I sent him some money that we had beavered-away with our new program of financial rectitude, not a very great deal as building costs go, but it seemed quite a lot for us at the time.  But never mind, we assumed we’d get it back eventually.  We didn’t.  But this is only the intermission of this saga.