“The gypsies know my future,
the angels know my past,
I roll around this big wide world
to find a love that lasts.”
— Excerpt, River Song, by Tom Rush
I did not sleep much on February 28th, 1971 because I was nervous about starting my apprenticeship at The Falk Corporation. The decision to drop out of college after a year in favor of a full-time job seemed a bit like failure, but I was out of money and anxious to begin “real life.” So I tossed and turned — worried about whether I was doing the right thing; whether I would be late for work; and whether I would be any good at the tasks required.
Little did I know that I had stumbled into my life’s work. It sure did not seem that way the first day — or for most of the first three months. Revising thousands of bills of material by scraping off the British seal numbers and lettering in the U.S. replacements for 8 hours a day sounds absolutely stupid when written about in 2017. But 46 years ago we did not have personal computers, computer-aided drafting or spreadsheets. We had rooms full of file cabinets packed with drawings, bookcases lining the walls with “guide books” to help you find the correct parts lists and drawings.
It was a system that required brute force rather than finesse. Six apprentices started every year, with only two or three expected to complete the training. By necessity they got the grunt work, i.e. — thinning the herd and finding out who could get things done, even when the goal did not seem worth reaching.
I was a good candidate for this job. When you come from a family of laborers you cannot go home at night complaining your wrist hurt from scraping Mylar sepias all day. My old man would have laughed his butt off, so I kept my mouth shut and persevered. It was so boring I started to experiment with different methods, such as scrapping a dozen bills in a row and then writing in the part numbers. I made cheat sheets with new part numbers on them so I did not transpose the numbers in my boredom.
My productivity soared.
And my supervisor came over to investigate.
It wasn’t the last time management looked over my shoulder, surprised as they were at a change in longstanding methodology. It got me noticed; it got me in trouble occasionally. But mostly, it got me mentors who enjoyed explaining why the “old way” had been developed, and who were equally excited about ways to improve productivity.
It was a blessing to find a career at 18 that has fed both my family and my mind. I would not have stuck with it without the example my father set, however. So you whippersnappers out there — stay off my lawn and stick to the task. You may build a great life along the way.