October 12, 2022
Forty-eight years ago, I was finishing my freshman year at a community college. I was on the Dean’s List but I was also broke, working two jobs, and living in my parent’s basement. The odds on becoming a high school shop teacher looked very long. The deadline for registering for second year classes loomed and my heart just wasn’t in it. So, after securing a few names from my old drafting teacher, I nagged a crane company, a motorcycle manufacturer, and a gear shop for six weeks before one of them gave me an application to fill out. As luck would have it, only the gear shop had any open spots in their drafting apprenticeship class. Their chief draftsman was taken aback when I revealed that I was not that interested in a career as a draftsman but instead saw it as a step towards becoming a designer of machinery. He had never had an applicant who looked that far down the road. Despite me not having any family connection to the firm, he endorsed my application. A drafting apprentice was the least prestigious person in a program that covered 30 trades and employed over 100 people. Only a third of the 6,000 hours was even in the drafting room; two mornings a week we went to the local technical college and a third of our time was spent in the shop. I may be the world’s worst machinist, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Aside from attempting to run machine tools, I worked in the foundry lab, got in the way at the pattern shop, marked symbols on drawings in the weld shop, and personally escorted the company president’s sailboat parts around the shop for various repairs. When required, I gave shop tours, ran errands for executives, audited purchase orders, handed out holiday hams and turkeys, poured beer at company parties, and generally tried to make myself useful. There was surprisingly little teaching about gears, though. Within the largest gear manufacturer in the country, only a select few were expected to know anything about designing gears. It was almost by accident that I was admitted to that inner circle.