Glenn Miller - The Anvil Chorus

Brand-spanking-new-fangled punch press

Milling machine


It may seem odd that I move from writing about my mother directly to The Shop, seeming to skip my father. But in my memory, dad and the shop are essentially blended into a single batter, the batter from which my cake was baked. This may sound hyperbolic but it is not. I find it somehow odd to think of my dad and the shop separately. As I look back now from my 70 year-plus vantage point I see clearly that my experiences with dad and the shop perhaps did more to shape my life than any other single factor. In part this is because his life and his interest, as mine later, was largely about work.

That’s all we ever called it, The Shop. Certainly the name was short for The Blacksmith Shop, which is what it was when I was very small and first started going there. It was located at the northeastern corner of the intersection of Washington and Jefferson streets. A rather grand Barnes & Noble bookstore now occupies this site.

I remember my uncle Ake (actually my great uncle, but these fine distinctions were lost on me then) standing at an anvil beating a red hot metal something-or-other. He was not a large man but he was built very sturdily. Using his left hand, he held the metal with large iron tongs on top of the anvil and beat it to shape with a large smithy’s hammer in his right hand, his leather apron and gloves repelling the hail of sparks exploding from each hammer blow. Every so often he would bury the piece back into the coals of the forge and pump the bellows a little to keep the metal yellow-red and soft. Then at the end, when he was finished with the piece, he would quench it in a great barrel of very dirty water causing a tremendous hiss of steam. He got a kick out of scaring me by doing this and laughed like the devil. But I knew he liked me, and after awhile he let me pump the bellows when I was at the shop after school. I must have been about seven or eight which would make it in the early 1940s. 

Later I came to see that my dad considered uncle Ake an anachronism, and even as an impediment to his modernization plans for the shop; Ake owned a share of the shop. This was my first exposure to the notion of ownership. I was even more impressed to learn that my grandmother, whom previously I had seen only as a kind of great-housewife, had a say¾in fact a controlling one since my grandfather died¾in the affairs of the shop, of which she knew little, and that my Dad, who had seemed the human incarnation of The Shop, was merely managing the business for Grandma. This seemed odd, I suppose because the relationship had previously been so invisible¾one of my first double-takes.

I have an even earlier, and almost dreamlike, memory of a gigantic, heavily muscled horse, suspended in the air a with a very wide, leather, sling harness around her belly, hanging unnaturally from chains and pulleys attached to a large wooden beam in the ceiling of the shop. She was a foot or so off the ground. One of the horse’s forelegs was bent back from the knee and supported familiarly on the smith’s leather-apron-covered lap as he, sitting on a short stool, pounded the horseshoe nails¾which were, oddly, rectangular in cross-section¾into the horses huge hoof. I wondered if it hurt, though she didn’t seem to mind. I think the sight of such a powerful animal in such an abnormal and helpless state was what burned the scene in my mind.

However smithing at the shop didn’t survive much after the end of the thirties when the shop was, in somewhat overlapping succession, transitioned into: a modest welding shop centered around keeping farm implements, snow plows and similar equipment in repair; a sales outlet for John Deere tractors and parts; a small defense plant, occasioned by world war two; and finally a manufacturer of various small parts for the telephone system, as a subcontractor to Western Electric at the Hawthorne works, in Cicero—Al Capone’s hang-out near Chicago—a company with a very long history, now a part of Lucent Technologies.

The shop was more than just a place where work was done. To me it was an extension of home. My father spent much more time there than he did at home. Later, I did too. My brother was sometimes there, but not as much as me. My mother was practically never there. In some way—unsaid but nevertheless real, at least with respect to the shop—my brother was teamed with our mother, while I was paired with our father. Perhaps it had something to do with primogeniture. At the time I didn’t think much about it but in retrospect it seems rather odd since both my parents seem to me to have been quite liberal in most respects.

The shop was pervasive in our family, at least it seemed so to me. Even when we were at home, the talk was often about shop matters: orders that had to be filled and things we were trying to build. When I worked there in the summer, I would often ride in the car with my dad to the shop in the morning at eight. We would tear down Benton Street, turn right on Main and then left on Jefferson avenue. At noon, it would be back the same path to home for dinner and then once more back to the shop at one o’clock, to work until five. I was never quite sure why dad drove so fast. Was it because he just liked driving fast? I think it was just that he was in a hurry to get back to work and while driving he was already turning things over in his mind, not thinking much about the road, or me. Often, he went back after supper to work or dream for a few more hours. Lost in thought, he would think about machinery he wanted to make, or products, turning prototypes around in his hands, inspecting them and completing them in his mind. In a sense, the shop was like working a farm, the work and home parts of one’s life so closely aligned that the boundaries were fuzzy.

I went down to the shop¾an odd phraseology since the whole town was pretty much flat, but that’s how we said it—even before I was old enough to go to school. If my Mother had to go out, my Dad had to take me to work with him. My brother usually went with Mom. Dad didn’t particularly seem to mind the babysitting, and he didn’t pay much attention to me while I was there. I was just sort of on my own. I liked it though because it was different and we got to go out for dinner at noon at a small restaurants which was later to become The Rafter House.

There were always a lot of interesting things to watch at the shop: my Dad sharpening a plow on the big dual-wheel grinder, with conical streams of sparks shooting back from the abrasive wheel like a comet, creating a noise so loud one can hardly imagine it; at the same time another man with a cutting torch might be following a white chalk mark (apparently seen even through dark goggles) on a large sheet of steel, again with a train of sparks shooting out the back to scatter on the floor; someone else might be arc welding a broken snowplow blade mounted on the front of a huge truck filled with cinders for the road and steaming off its winter cold and wet in the relative warmth of the shop. Hammering and banging and grinding went on until you literally couldn’t hear yourself speak. Not to mention the peculiar smell of metalworking, an amalgam of burning oils and paint, the vaporizing fluxes of the welding process, and other components unknowable. I sure was not anxious to go back home.

Once, not paying attention, I walked right into the edge of a large, thin sheet of steel lying horizontally on a workbench, cutting myself precisely in that little, symmetrical, indented place we all have just below our nose. This means I was nearly four feet tall. Dad had to take me to the doctor’s office for a few stitches. It seems remarkable today that a small boy was free to wander among all that equipment and potentially dangerous activity, but it didn’t seem unusual to me then, and I don’t think it was considered so for that time period. People assumed risk more freely then. I don’t recall anyone wearing safety glasses, steel-toed boots, and certainly not hard hats or paint masks. I do however remember getting informal instructions like, “Don’t bother the men when they’re working. Stay back from the grinder. Don’t look directly at the arc welding”—I ignored this last one once and my eyes felt like they had sand in them for couple of days, justifying one of my dad’s often repeated sayings, “Bill, you always have to learn the hard way.”

In the thirties, my dad began selling John Deere farm implements to the farmers that surrounded Naperville. In agriculture, tractors were replacing plow horses, and large, towed arrays of plows, disks and drags replaced the more modest implements that horse could manage for preparing the fields, while threshers and combines gradually took over what had been a largely horse-powered harvesting process. I remember seeing a picture of me, about three years old, with long (for a boy), very blond hair, wearing a light blue wool sweater, seated proudly on the seat of an immense, shiny, new, and very green tractor in a John Deere showroom that I think was in Moline Illinois.

That the blacksmithing business was disappearing suited my Dad just fine. He didn’t like blacksmithing in the first place: not modern. But unfortunately he didn’t like selling farm implements either: you had to deal with farmers. These notorious tightwads could whittle down a deal until you wondered if it was worth being in the business. (Plus as I recall from conversations at home he had a bad taste in his mouth with respect to farmers in the first place because he had gotten stiffed by some of them during the depression when they were unable to pay their bills.) What he really liked was inventing things.

I remember being kind of proud when someone¾my Mother?¾mentioned that he held a US patent. It was for a welding cart, a cart with two rubber tires that held a tall, steel “bottle” of oxygen, and another stubbier one of acetylene¾very heavy steel cylinders maybe 12 or more inches in diameter, with valves on their tops. Together these gases powered a “torch” used for cutting or brazing metal. I remember a story told—perhaps apocryphal—of an accidental tipping over of a loose welding tank. As it fell the valve ruptured and the bottle, propelled by the gas escaping under very high pressure, took off like a rocket right through the masonry wall of the shop and up Washington street scaring the bejesus out of horses and people alike and causing God knows what pandemonium and damage. The welding cart invention assured that this didn’t happen, and that you could move both these heavy bottles easily to where you needed them. It also had compartments in the sides of the cart for all manner of small tools and various torch tips, and a sparker to start the torch’s flame. Forebodingly, this was not the last of his inventions—nor of mine for that matter. Foreboding because he preferred designing things to selling them which, while known to be necessary, seemed to him somehow rather degrading. Whether through nature or nurture I developed the same bias, and with the same relatively poor business result.

The shop was in the form of a tee. The original part was a blocky rectangular, two-story, brick structure, perhaps 40’ x 30’ with heavy wooden beam and column floors and roof. It seemed very large at the time, in the way the first house one lives in seems quite large until you get out in the big world. The floor deck was of 2” x 12” planks, and very rough¾one could easily get splinters in one’s feet if barefoot. Later the first floor was concreted over. There were two large sliding wooden doors big enough for wagons, trucks and tractors; one door faced Washington Street, the other Jefferson Avenue. A small office was crammed into one corner, definitely an afterthought, and a very Spartan toilet room abutted that. This part of the building was pretty old. I can remember grainy black and white photos of it taken from across Washington street with the firm’s name, F. S. Goetsch & Son, painted on the brick¾my great grandfather and my grandfather, neither of whom were alive when I was born. When the war started, a one-story wood-frame, sloped-roof addition was tacked onto the back. This part, with a concrete floor, was to house the “machine shop”, where jigs and fixtures, and tools and dies were fabricated for the manufacturing “lines” housed in both floors of the original building. At about this time my father had pretty much taken over the business, and he had the snappy words “Can do” painted at an angle in italic, added after the company’s name on the front wall, the single small bow to advertising or promotion he had been known to take.

My father’s familiar name was Bud. That was what everyone except children called him (they called him Mr. Goetsch and my brother and I of course just called him dad). But when he signed his name he used his first two initials which were “W. V.”, standing for William Valentine, before his last name. Of course he was born on Valentine’s day. This was in 1907. Later, in my zeal to appear mature, I followed tradition, signing my name “W. M. Goetsch”. My father had a very beautiful signature¾all his handwriting was elegant, without being effeminate. (I tried to emulate that as well, but with my disinclination to practice things I fell short, so eventually I evolved my signature into an unreadable, but I thought distinctive, swirl, on the theory that the next-best thing to having elegant handwriting would be to be seen as a sophisticate who could no longer be bothered to have it be readable, like a doctor.)

At some point I worked at the shop after school, and in the summers, for pay¾fifty cents an hour sticks in my mind. My jobs were to sweep up at the end of the day, clean the bathroom and load the Coke machine. (I drank a lot of Coca-Cola; so much in fact that, by twenty-six, all my real teeth were gone, and I had full dentures.) Sometimes I would help paint the ceiling and the many pipes that ran along it, and similar low-skill tasks. Strangely, I liked this painting. My Dad would sometimes look at what I had done at the end of the day and say, “Good job, Will.” He called me Will when he was pleased with me.

Dad was a stickler for cleanliness at work. He used to talk disparagingly about other shops in general, and particularly of another machine shop in Downers Grove¾a town about ten miles closer into Chicago¾that was dirty and dark, typical of that era. I remember going there once with him. Dad knew the man who owned it, and sometimes they gave us their overflow work. This shop had either no windows or completely blackened windows. No light penetrated from the outside. Bare bulbs illuminated the workstations.  It was very dirty. And it still had an old fashioned pulley system: a long, constantly turning shaft near the ceiling running the length of the shop. In earlier years shops designed this way had all their machinery powered by a single steam engine located just outside the shop. Leather belts from the shaft at the ceiling went down to cylindrical pulleys on the drill presses and other rotating equipment. Later, as was this shop at the time, the system was retrofitted and the shaft was powered by a large electric motor.

Our shop had lots of lights and clear, clean windows. (That’s another job I could do.) The walls, ceilings, and even the equipment were painted light colors: greens, blues and grays. The floor, by then concrete, was painted a battleship gray, and it was swept every day. I know because I often did it. First you sprinkle sweeping compound everywhere¾a kind of colored, oiled sawdust meant to keep the dust down. The sweeping compound had a dual benefit for me: in the first place it was fun to spread, making the semi-dirty into the truly dirty, then, as you swept, you got real satisfaction as the clean area boldly established itself. You began by using a straight broom, sweeping from the walls, a few feet toward the center of the room. After the entire perimeter was done in this way, and also the equipment bases with their metal filings, you then took a large push broom and swept everything into a few central piles that you then shoveled into barrels. It would take an hour or more for one person. Often my dad helped me after the shop had closed for the day, perhaps in hurry to get home for supper, or to go to the Midway, a bar up the street, for a drink.

When I was older—perhaps twelve, or fourteen—I remember performing hours of boring, repetitive work at a punch press, drill press, or spot-welder, the same motions, over and over. You could hardly wait for the fifteen minute break, taken at 10:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon, and you invented little mind games to keep your thoughts away from what you were doing, while still keeping your hands out of the way of the business part of the machine. My Dad often put in hours at this work too, but mainly he just kept track of things. In some perverse way he seemed to relish the challenge of boredom, performing the same small task over and over with the attitude that each time, no matter how constrained the process, it should be done more perfectly than it was the last time. I was to be impressed with this peculiar outlook many times before I grew up. I think he wanted me to gain this habit of mind too, and he gave me many opportunities to practice. I never achieved this Nirvana. Instead, I determined I wanted to be a suit and tie man who worked with his head. I did. But now, after many years of having my neck constrained by the collar of a white shirt, I loathe suits and ties, preferring jeans or khaki pants and tee shirts.  (At the shop everyone wore what were called, simply, “work clothes”: green pants and a long sleeved green shirt—both usually greasy and dirty—and heavy shoe-boots that came up to your ankles.)

The fun stuff for me was the lathes, drills, saws, shaper, grinder and milling machine in the machine shop part of the shop. I wasn’t good enough to use this equipment for real, but I could practice on a machine if no one else needed it. Once in awhile I would break a cutter, or otherwise mess up, but I never was “bawled out” too badly. After awhile I could do some of the simpler pieces, and the men might actually use them if they turned out ok. This was how I learned: watch, mess up, ask questions, try it for myself. That may have been part of why I never liked regular school much; I liked being on my own, asking for help only when I needed it.

Three or four men, and very occasionally my Dad, who was the best welder, did the actual work of designing (there was a big drawing board on the—cleaner—second floor) and making jigs and fixtures, and tools and dies in the machine shop. I’m sure the men often felt I was in the way, the boss’s kid. But they would explain things and show me how to do things when I asked them. I think I escaped the out-and-out tag of boss’s kid because I had most of the dirty jobs in the shop, like sweeping up and cleaning the toilet.

It didn’t register at the time but looking back, after working in very much larger, and more hierarchical companies, I am struck by the collegiality in the execution of the work at the shop. While my dad was definitely the boss, no one hesitated to argue with him about something technical, or suggest a better way to do something. He would never say to a worker (or to me), “Do it this way.” He preferred the more subtle, “Let’s do it this way.” He seemed to take workers’ feelings into account, although I doubt he thought of it in that way, it was just the way he was used to. Gentle reader: today you probably think this normal, and now it mostly is, but as I was shortly to learn in the harder environment of urban Pittsburgh, that was not the norm in shops of the time. It was due not only to my father’s nature; it was, I believe, a characteristic of a small farming town, and of family agriculture in particular, where at one moment one might be the boss (it was your farm) and the next moment you might be the worker yourself (helping work a neighbor’s farm during a busy time, for pay). When everyone knows everyone else, their strong points and their faults, a certain amount of egalitarianism makes labor more effective and life more serene.

If there were layers of command at the Shop it was that the machine shop people who, with my Dad, designed the production processes, instructed the people who worked on the line how to run it, and even they occasionally stood their turn on the line as well. So everyone was pretty much treated the same. At the peak, I suppose there may have been five or six people in the machine shop, one in the office (one of my uncles), and perhaps twenty, male and female, in production. (I can’t remember what the women war, but I think it was pants.) The number of production people varied with the work load while the machine shop people were pretty much always the same. During a production run that might last a few months or a year, or even more, the machine shop men kept the lines in workable condition and designed and built the line for the next contract, or made improvements to the shop itself.

I remember a small manufacturing line that was built at the shop in such a way that the women who operated it—this was war-time—could do the job around a circular table while the parts circulated to them around the edge of the table, instead of the traditional linear production arrangement. This arrangement allowed them to spend their shift gabbing to each other around the table as though they were playing cards and it made the time pass faster, alleviating the boredom of what was essentially just a very repetitive job.

Once, at a morning lunch break at the Rafter House for coffee and doughnuts (Coke, for me), a rather dirty- and bedraggled-looking man with very few teeth sat across the u-shaped counter from my father and me. I looked him over. To me he looked like a bum. To my surprise my dad knew him well and talked to him easily as an equal. I was surprised. Later after he had left I asked my dad about him. He said that this guy worked harder than any other man he knew. He had a business putting up fences and worked very long days. In fact, my dad said, he had quite a bit of money as a consequence of his hard work and took care of his mother and donated considerable to his church. This attitude was characteristic of my father; he  didn’t care what you looked like or even how smart you were or what you did for a living as long as you worked up to your potential and were a good person.

He didn’t talk very much about any of this, and was not prone to giving philosophical advice. You had to ferret out pretty much everything you learned by watching. But one thing he did tell me once, and it stuck with me, was that as long as you worked just a little harder than the next fellow you’d do all right. I found out later that he was right.

Two products that he designed stand out in my memory. The first, conceived when I was about 13 (making it probably about 1947, just after the war) was an aluminum U-control model airplane. (He had rather eclectic interests.) My friend Vinny and I had for some years been interested in model airplanes, and we (mostly he) had built several using the traditional balsa wood stringers and diaphragms, and doped (painted) paper fabric. U-control planes had (have? Are they still around?) a very small reciprocating engine powering a small wooden propeller perhaps 5 or 6 inches long. They are flown in a circle controlled by the pilot who occupies the center of the circle, turning round and round as the plane flies at the end of a pair of thin metal wires some twenty or thirty feet long. The wires enter the side of the airplane and control the attitude of its elevators, the small control surfaces at the rear of the horizontal stabilizer that is mounted at the tail of the airplane. The pilot can make the plane fly higher or lower by twisting the control handle vertically, which twists the elevator up or down, which causes the airplane to go up or down—sometimes disastrously so. There were clubs of model-builders who built and competed in flying these planes. They could be looped. You could try to pop a balloon tethered to a thin stake in the ground¾the challenge here was to get the balloon, not the ground. Two or more “pilots” could get in the center at the same time and “dogfight” their airplanes by attempting to clip a paper streamer from the tail of the opposing airplane¾it lent verisimilitude when the model planes looked like warplanes. There were many other standard maneuvers could illustrate an experienced model-pilot’s skill.

The problem, as my Dad soon observed, was that an inexperienced kid who had spent weeks or months building a beautiful model could convert it to a pile of toothpicks and wastepaper the first time he flew it. The ground is hard. The answer? Aluminum. He headed for the shop. The men were put to designing and fabricating a nearly indestructible model airplane with tiny rivets holding everything together, just like a real airplane. Testing the many prototypes was great entertainment for me and my friends for over a year, and my status was considerably elevated among the crowd of model airplane enthusiasts, as we were the only kids with an aluminum airplane in a balsa-wood world; it was like World War Two airplanes mowing down old World War One wooden biplanes.

Another rather slick invention of my dad’s, I thought, was a folding butterfly chair. It is beyond my descriptive power to explain a butterfly chair with words, much less one that folded, except to say that it consists of a hammock-like, canvas seat suspended from the extremities of a mobile-like frame made from a single metal rod twisted vaguely into the shape of a butterfly. I don’t think I could even draw one. (What a challenge for a writing class.) Anyway, here’s the problem with them: they’re basically porch furniture¾today we would say patio furniture, porches having largely gone the way of the Whippoorwill¾and the frame takes up a lot of room in the winter when you want to store it because they don’t stack. The answer? Make a folding, and thus more compact, frame. He headed for the shop. The men were put to designing and fabricating a folding butterfly chair frame. Some months later we had a bunch of really nice chairs that folded. This was more of a challenge than it might seem on the surface. You can hardly conceive of how to bend the single rod that makes a normal butterfly chair, one that doesn’t fold. To make a folding one is roughly comparable to figuring out one of those trick puzzles where you have to unhitch two little tangled up and twisted metal wires with just the right dexterous twist: trivially simple once you’ve done it, but a real mindbender if you’ve never seen it done slowly. And a folding butterfly chair had never been done before! If I sound as though my Dad had some don Quixote-like characteristics, he did. But I mean it gently, as well as sympathetically since the Quixote gene was obviously passed to the next generation. Genes are the truly eternal entities.

Dad was the company’s only salesman, and selling only an unpleasant hiatus to be undertaken reluctantly after nearly running out of contracts to perform and thus new lines to invent—and money to be made. (I was fated to repeat this usually fatal approach to the business cycle when in business for myself many years later, and this was not the only foolish business practice of his I was later to reprise.) I have mentioned that dad liked inventing things above all else. I have not mentioned that nearly all were stillborn in terms of making money, except of course for the custom equipment made for contracted-for production runs.

He was not all work. He enjoyed simple things like playing catch with my brother and I and whomever of the neighbor kids might be on hand. He liked throwing balls to Bootsie, our dog. In the winter we often enjoyed board games at home like Sorry, Parcheesi (Monopoly took too long for him) and others that are now only vague memories. All four of our family would usually play. He rarely or never played cards, with one exception that I will mention later. Mom and my brother liked any kind of card game or board game, and were very good at them. (Even today my brother competes in bridge tournaments.) Dad’s attention span for this amusement wasn’t too great (though a drink helped considerably and my mother usually joined him in that). I was sort of ambivalent: I liked games, but not enough to get genuinely good at them, and perhaps I was unconsciously emulating dad: real work somehow seemed more important, or so I seemed to think. This is another father-first son, mother-second son dichotomy I suppose.

My folks also liked dice games. I believe they learned them at bars where, in those days, one could play the bartender for a drink. A rather imposing leather cup lined with green felt was used to shake up the dice with much gusto and banging of the cup on the bar. The game of choice was called Indian dice, although I recently spoke with a fellow from North Dakota who remembered the game I described, and he said they called it Horse. I remember my mother and father amusing themselves over a few drinks alone at home playing, usually for the high stakes of wooden matches. On occasion though, when dad would give my brother and I our weekly allowance on Friday (I think a quarter each—one would think that the older brother should get a little more), he and mom would then proceed to take it away from us a penny or nickel at a time playing Indian dice or poker. They didn’t give it back either. I’ve not had much of a hankering for gambling since.

We (very) occasionally took short vacations. I remember a trip to The Wisconsin Dells. Mother, father and the two boys made the trip—I don’t remember if Bootsie made the cut or stayed at grandmas, although it is not inconceivable that she might have joined the party. We stayed several days in a small cabin. At the Dells, near the cabin, we stopped at a small stand run by real Indians (that would be the American type back then) and dad bought all four of us genuine Indian bows, each with a tension appropriate to our strength, as well as arrows to take back home. While staying there he once used his bow, and one arrow (presumably expendable), to assassinate a wandering cock rooster that had had the temerity to wake him at dawn. Back home, he lined the entire rear wall of our garage with bales of hay so that we could continue target practice with the big garage door open. We all became quite good at it.

Another trip I remember was taken during the war. We drove from Naperville to Aransas Pass, Texas. Where my dad obtained ration stamps for gasoline I have no idea. Frequent stops were made along the way so that we could pee in the bushes, and other stops were made for simple meals at a tavern or a quick picnic at roadside with sandwiches my mother had packed the night before. At night we stayed in simple motels which as I recall cost about $3.00 a night (interestingly, that is actually more expensive than today in constant dollars and considering the superiority of the rooms now). Routine inspections were made of the quality of the room before the deal for the night was consummated. When we got to Aransas Pass we stayed in a small cabin, this one built right on the large sand beach. My brother and I spent hours and hours getting sunburned and then brown on the beach while constructing quite elaborate, and rather futuristic sand sculptures. It was mesmerizing and we really had fun. Mom and dad seemed to spend a lot of time in the cabin doing whatever it is parents do when they are sure their kids are safely out of the way.


The Shop in the 1800s
The men stand in
Washington Street

Typical shop run by pulley system