Glenn Miller - The Anvil Chorus
Brand-spanking-new-fangled punch press
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
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 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
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
that he held a
The shop was in the form of a tee. The original part was a
blocky rectangular, two-story, brick structure, perhaps
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.
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
The Shop in the 1800s
Typical shop run by pulley system