Friday, April 11, 2008

The Apprentice's Toolbox

They were told to be there at 0730 and, with rare exception, they always were, at least on that first all-important day. There was never less than thirty-two of them, never more than thirty-six. The youngest had just turned fourteen, the oldest was a day shy of eighteen. There were no exceptions to this rule.

It was always a mixed bag that stood nervously outside that hangar door, with an occasional turban or fedora among the cloth caps. Especially nervous were the Africans, knowing they were in a country where lynching members of their race was still considered an acceptable form of behavior. A sprinkling of Orientals rounded out the racial mix but often confusedly so since some were lanky six- footers. The confusion was compounded by native- born Chilean named O'Hara who spoke better German than Spanish and a Chinese boy whose mother tongue was Portugese.

And English, of course. English was another rule for which there was no exception. English was the language of aviation.

At exactly 0730 the door opened and a man bearing a clipboard stepped out. Without greeting or preamble he called the first name, got a startled reply from the surprised boy who was told "One-one," and saw his name ticked off the alphabetized list. The man went on to the next name and the one after that before he noticed the first boy was still there, a picture of worried indecision.

"Table one," the man said slowly. "Table one, place one. Inside," the man gestured abruptly with his pencil and went on to the fourth name who became 'one-four'. Number five became 'two-one' and the mystery was revealed as soon as the boys entered the building.

The tables were right there, impossible to miss since they occupied half the extensive space. Varnished maple tops a solid two inches thick, four feet wide and eight feet long, supported on steel legs painted grey. The ten tables were clearly marked with their numbers and the four places at each table was also marked. But the boys hardly noticed.

The remaining half of the space was occupied by an airplane. The boys immediately recognized it's make and model although few had never seen one in the flesh. Having their eyes fastened to the plane made it difficult for them to find their places at the tables but all eventually did so, even though their heads remained cocked toward the airplane. The airplane was why they were there. It was a dream come true, a thing too exciting to ignore.

But as soon as they were all at their places the man, who said simply "I'll be your instructor," explained sorrowfully that they would all have to go back outside. Someone had created a bit of a mess - - two cigarette butts -- and it would have to be cleaned up.

First one then the other of the guilty boys confessed their crime and moved toward the door but the man would not allow it. It had to be all or none. That's how things were done here. And so long as he was in charge, it would be all.

Brooms and dust-pans were found and the area in front of the building given a brisk but effective sweep-down. But by the time the brooms were put away several boys had forgotten their numbers. And again, it was all or nothing. Rather than look up their numbers individually the man called the entire roll.

Each table held four drawers and the space under each table was marked off into four sections. Inside each drawer was an identical kit of tools and an inventory sheet. Each boy was required to inventory his tools as the instructor called them out, marking them off on their inventory sheet which the boy then signed. Lining up by their numbers, the boys were conducted to a room on the far side of the building where they turned in their inventory sheet and received back three shop coats of a size appropriate to their build. Or nearly so.

The shop coats were glorious things of white cotton twill, embroidered across the back with the winged symbol of their employer. They were told to reserve one of the shop-coats for special occasions and to keep the other two properly washed and mended, for it was now their daily uniform.

Properly frocked and tabled, the boys were then addressed by an older man in a three-piece suit and gold-rimmed glasses, obviously someone important from the Front Office. The man spoke in a friendly, familiar fashion, smiling often and making it clear he thought them a welcome addition to the company, which is why the company was willing to go through the expense of training them for three years, providing them with their shop coats and working space, their basic kit of tools and of course the all-important toolbox to keep them in...

At which point the Instructor leaned near the Important Man and told him they were out of toolboxes at the moment but just as soon as some came in...

The Important Man didn't care for this news. Not one bit of it. He frowned and when he did so all the warmth went out of that wonderful airplane- filled space. He reminded the Instructor that the apprenticeship program was costing the company thousands of dollars and that there was a right way and a wrong of doing things and any attempt to properly train an apprentice who did not have his own toolbox was obviously wrong. They would have to send the boys home and reschedule the start of their training... at least, for any who were still qualified, for some later date. Insert here a dramatic pause, during which apprentices had been known to faint, burst into tears or lose control of their bladder.

"I suppose I could have them make their own toolboxes," the Instructor mused in a tentative way.

The Important Man gave the Instructor a scornful look. "That wouldn't do. They'll have those toolboxes for the rest of their lives. Everywhere they go people would see those toolboxes with our logo on them. We couldn't allow any shoddy goods... "

"Oh, they wouldn't be shoddy," the Instructor assured him. "Built to spec, every one of them."

Here the Important Man turned toward the boys. He didn't look pleased. "Are they up to that? Some of them don't have any training at all... "

"I'm sure they can do it if we give them the chance," the Instructor coaxed. Thirty-six rigid faced boys silently screamed 'Yes! Give us a chance!'

And so it was. The boys were trooped to another building where four sheets of sixty-thou 17ST was sheared into strips sixteen by forty-eight inches. In another shop each boy was given a piece of one- by-one by eighth-inch aluminum angle along with a paper cup half filled with rivets. In the Steel Shop each boy received a section of piano hinge, two luggage latches, a small hasp and a piece of 3/8" cold-rolled steel bar ten inches long. Juggling this crazy assortment of stuff, cutting themselves on the sheet metal, dribbling rivets, they scurried back to their classroom. It wasn't yet nine a.m. of the first day of their apprenticeship and things seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket. Or in a toolbox.


It was all a bit of a show of course.

Over the next two weeks each of the apprentices, save those who slipped quietly away and never returned, used the materials to build his toolbox. The sheet of aluminum -- when properly cut -- provided enough material to fabricate a toolbox approximately sixteen inches long, eight inches wide and ten inches deep. The corners of the box were reenforced with angle while the steel rod was bent to form the handle. The box was assembled with eighth-inch rivets having a one-inch pitch.

For many of the boys it was their first exposure to metal-work. For others, it was their first use of feet and inches and all those confusing fractions, so unlike the innate simplicity of their native metric system. And for most, it was their first experience with dust pans and brooms and working alongside a total stranger from exotic lands such as Nigeria or Oklahoma.

If the truth be told, a few of the toolboxes were less than spectacular when it came to workmanship. But each was built to spec. And each passed a rigorous inspection, not only from the Instructor but from the student's peers for here again, it was All or Nothing.

The resulting box was acid-etched with name of the apprentice and with the logo of the particular school. The details of the toolbox -- and of this story -- vary from school to school, with a Northrop toolbox being distinctive from a Spartan, as a Loughead differed from a Fleet. But the principle remained the same for all: With the manual arts, you learn through experience. Building your own toolbox was simply the first step on that path. But there was a far more subtle lesson being taught, one having to do with the nature of airplanes and teamwork.

Many a mechanic... and not a few executives... still have their 'apprentice box', often prominently displayed on their Trophy Wall among their photos, diplomas and other tokens of accomplishment.


How about you?

Ever used a cleco? (or know how they got their name?) Ever made a buck-head? Have you been properly introduced to Mr. Smiley?

Building the basic box is akin to building the basic airplane in that you first fabricate the parts then assemble them into subassemblies and the subassemblies into the whole. Along the way you must do some accurate cutting and filing and drilling as well as figuring out half a dozen problems built-in to such a project, such as 'How do I get all twenty pieces of sheet metal out of this 16x48 panel?'

Frankly, it's a lot of work. And nowadays work is considered a bit old-fashioned, especially if it involves something you've never done before.

But the concept behind the Basic Box applies equally well to composites, welded steel or even wooden construction practices -- the Basic Box is meant to provide the means to an end rather than an end unto itself.

Want to build the Basic Box from fiberglas? No problem. There are at least four acceptable methods of arriving at the desired finished product. Howabout wood? The same applies to wooden construction. Or to steel. And in each case the object is not to provide you with a toolbox, it is to teach you welding or wood-working or many possible variations when working with composites.

So you do the work and in doing so, learn the required techniques. But it isn't some Quick & Easy, smear a little epoxy on the table sorta thing. Nor do you weld half a joint and skip off to the next booth to get a three minute 'education' in scarfing plywood. Under the Old Rules you not only acquired an in-depth knowledge of the required techniques and procedures, you made a useful thing, something that would last your lifetime, something better than anything you could buy... and something that could only be made by human hands.

Want to buy a 'prentice box'? I'll be happy to sell you mine. For ten thousand dollars :-)