flanging 56

Since this blog is about flanging I’ve posted mostly about flanger operators.  In fairness, I should mention a few press operators and other non-essential people.  Roy C. and Jim W. were two press operators in their forties at the time I came onto first shift.  I’ve already mentioned Roy C.  He was the one who tried to put out the shed fire with a bucket of solvent.  He was tall and lean and, despite his lack of prowess at fire fighting, a very good press operator.  When Brighton acquired a hydraulic press to form small thin heads he was the operator who helped set it up and get it going.  He also helped set up the boring mill to machine these small heads.  He designed the chucks used to secure the heads while they were being trimmed on the mill.  This was the job he was doing at the time he retired.  Away from work, he was an avid sportsman.  He often brought in his compound bow to target shoot at lunch break.

Jim W. was another press operator about the same age as Roy, and he was just as skilled.  Since he was short and portly, the two made a good Mutt and Jeff.  They were inseparable at work.  Away from work Jim enjoyed scavenging.  He drove a pick-up truck around on garbage night to collect gems people were discarding, then took his finds to flea markets to sell.  I don’t know how much money he made doing this, but he provided a useful service, keeping still-functional items from clogging up landfills.  Both Jim and Roy were easy-going and always ready to share their knowledge of pressing heads with newer employees.  What I remember most about the two was that they didn’t rush, they would press a head smooth and true no matter how much time was allowed on the job.  Heads they pressed would always be to a good radius, free of flat spots and humps and wrinkles.

Felan R. wasn’t a press operator, but he always hung with Roy and Jim.  Felan was a forklift operator of about the same age.  He was full of colorful aphorisms.  He is the one who advised, when I was having trouble loading a head into my machine with a forklift, “to put a little hair around the hole” to make it easier to find.  Another saying of his, in reference to whether what he was eating tasted good or not, was that “it’ll make a turd.”  I’m sure there were other sayings, Felan was full of them, but those are the ones I remember.

The three of them retired sometime in the 90’s.  Roy and Jim came out of retirement to help Jeff Hock.  Several years after Trinity bought Brighton in 1987 – I’ll get into the details of that soon – Jeff Hock started up a new head shop as a department of Enerfab, a much larger company based on Spring Grove Avenue in Cincinnati.  He talked Roy and Jim out of retirement to train his employees on presses.  He also hired Leotis W, (aka Badeye), to train his new flanger operators.  We understood Badeye doing this, he had been fired by Brighton.  But Roy and Jim doing this was like a stab in the back.  At the time we considered Enerfab to be a competitor, there was a constant drone from the office that we needed to drive them out of business.  And here Roy and Jim were helping them out, to our detriment and the detriment of the company they had spent their lives working for.  Roy came by for someone’s retirement dinner and told us we had nothing to worry about, that the new head shop at Enerfab was neither big enough nor skilled enough to harm us.  But he never came back, he knew how we resented him and Jim doing what they had done.

Felan R. died of heart failure not long after retiring.  He was overweight, and had some serious health issues before he retired.  Jim W. is alive, if not very well.  He slipped on the ice while shoveling his driveway one winter and seriously injured his back.  I heard he was nearly paralyzed.  But I’ve also heard he has somewhat recovered and is walking again.  Roy C. I haven’t heard about since that retirement dinner he attended.  Since no news is good news, I assume he is doing well and enjoying his retirement.

flanging 55

In April of 1982 we signed another contract.  I don’t recall the details, but I know it wasn’t as lucrative as the contract three years earlier.  And there was no strike.  Shortly after, the bottom fell out.  The recession of the early 80’s was the worst the country had experienced since the Great Depression.  Gilbert F. called it the Reagan Recession.  Not as bad as the Great Recession of 2008, but second only to that.  The economic slowdown hit Brighton late that summer.  There were the usual layoffs.  I had worked there for nine years by then, but I was still on the cusp.  This was the closest I ever came to being laid off.  Third shift was eliminated, once again.  Second shift was reduced to a skeleton crew.  But that still wasn’t enough.

Geoff L. did what no plant supervisor had ever done before or since.  He cut the work week down to 32 hours.  The just-signed contract had to be re-opened, since it stated we were to work a minimum of 40 hours a week.  But the union went along with the company on this, since the intent was to save employees’ jobs.  Some of the older employees didn’t like this.  Most of them had been laid-off years earlier, so why should they suffer now to keep younger men from being laid-off?  A valid argument.  Only this time the recession was worse.  Geoff was trying to keep the doors open.  At some point it becomes more profitable for a company to close than to pay a handful of employees to do much of nothing.

In August the company went to a 32 and a half hour week.  Which meant we worked 6 and a half hours a day for 5 days a week.  The union had requested four 8-hour days, which would have been better for the employees.  But Geoff wanted to keep shipping open 5 days a week, so that when we got work it could be handled on our normal basis.  The union had countered that he could put shipping on this schedule, and the rest of the shop on a 4-day week.  But Geoff wanted everyone on the same schedule, and the union wasn’t in a position to demand anything.  If Geoff didn’t get what he wanted, it definitely meant more lay-offs and possibly meant closing the shop until business picked up.  So, despite the inevitable griping, the union agreed.

I was the least senior flanger operator still employed.  Which meant if one more flanger operator needed to be let go, it would be me.  Which also meant I was the one who was assigned all the odd jobs, to keep me busy.  I did a lot of cleaning and painting and grinding at this time.  The people still operating machines really slowed down.  They tried to stretch jobs out in order to stay busy.  Those 6 and a half hour days seemed longer than 8 hours.

My workday during this time was 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., which included an unpaid half-hour lunch break.  Which gave me a lot of free time.  You’d think I could find a part-time job to compensate.  But this was during a bad recession, and even low-wage part-time jobs were hard to come by.  Besides, I had gotten divorced a month earlier, and I had a 9-year old son living with me.  His 4-year old brother started out with his mother, but joined us not long after turning 5.  So I couldn’t leave him home alone any more than I had to, and I certainly couldn’t afford to pay any more in child care.  I did find a job I could do from home.  This was the 80’s, remember, and working from home was unheard of.  But I did cold-calling for an insurance agent, finding people receptive to having the agent call them to discuss insurance.  Yes, I was one of those annoying people who called at dinnertime to try to sell you something.  But I did okay at it.  It was a relatively new practice then, and I had a human voice, not a robo-caller, and I didn’t have a foreign accent.  I picked up lists of phone numbers from his office and returned them as soon as I could.  I was paid for the number of people willing to be contacted.  It wasn’t much money, but it helped, it kept me busy, and it was something I could do while staying at home with my son.

Work picked up a little bit in October, and we went back to a 40-hour week.  I happily quit my job for the insurance agent.  But we still weren’t out of the woods.  We got 3 unpaid days off at Thanksgiving and Christmas which, combined with the two paid holidays, gave us a week off for each holiday.  In February of 1983 our work-load finally picked up, and I was no longer doing so many odd jobs.  But it wasn’t until the following summer that Brighton had enough work to start calling people back from lay-off.

That was the worst slow-down I ever went through at Brighton.  Geoff L. swore he would never do that again.  Apparently Brighton lost so much money it would have been better for the company to have closed.  But by keeping the doors open and keeping their work force intact, the moment things did pick up Brighton was able to get the jump on competitors.  So going to a 32-hour week probably helped both the company and the employees.

flanging 54

Leroy W. was another senior flanger operator on first shift at the time I transferred in 1979.  He was in his late thirties to early forties at the time.  Tall and rangy, he was someone who kept his nose buried in his work.  The only time he spoke to anybody was to complain about Badeye.  Leroy had the bad luck of working on the same machine as Leotis W.  No one could keep up with Badeye.  He was the fastest most productive flanger operator I’ve ever known.  But Leroy was expected to keep up.  Back then the management was good at pitting employees against each other.  If Leroy ran the same jobs on the same machine as Badeye, then he should be able to accomplish as much.  Only no one worked as balls to the wall as Badeye.  So Leroy complained that Badeye abused the machine, which he did, and that Badeye’s heads weren’t as good as his, which they weren’t.  But the company didn’t care.  Badeye’s heads were good enough, and the machine could be repaired.  What Brighton cared about was his amazing production.

That was probably the reason Leroy was a nervous wreck, from trying to keep up with Badeye.  He wasn’t always a nervous wreck.  When I first met him he was funny, when I could get him to look up from his work and hold a coherent conversation.  But as the years passed he grew goofier and goofier.  Another thing he complained about was that the jobs kept getting more difficult.  He had a point.  It seems over the years that customers keep getting more and more exacting, wanting more and more specs held to tighter and tighter tolerances.  While at the same time the machines keep deteriorating through wear and tear and lack of proper maintenance.  So we are expected to do more and more with less and less.

Operating a flanging machine is stressful.  I don’t know if I have emphasized that enough.  Things can go south so easily and quickly you either spend an hour fixing something that took a second to screw up, or you screw the piece up so badly you can’t fix it and it has to go back to the press, or you screw the piece up so badly it can’t be fixed at all and it is scrapped.  This isn’t always the operator’s fault.  I’ve had orders where the customer has requested a minimum tolerance to tight there is no way you can form it without thinning the metal out.  One customer wanted a quarter-inch thick carbon steel head with a .240 inch minimum thickness.  There is no way we could form that head with less than .01 inch thin out.  Also, carbon steel is relatively soft and easy to squeeze. On top of that, mills that supply the metal can’t guarantee the thickness, it can come in a little heavier or a little lighter than ordered.  So such small allowable thin out meant the metal could be under minimum thickness before we ever touched it.  The point is, if you operate a flanging machine you are going to scrap heads.  You may try to shrug this off as unavoidable, but over the years it wears on you.

In addition to these pressures at work, Leroy had difficulties at home.  He was married and raised a family.  But by his late fifties his nerves were shot.  His wife leaving him seemed to be the last straw.  He grew goofier, and messed up more and more heads, and began missing work a lot.  Following his divorce he bought a mobile home and moved into a trailer court.  He told me he bought a pressure washer and started a job on the side cleaning trailers with it, though the money he could make doing this couldn’t be much.  Finally, Brighton fired him sometime in the late 90’s or early 00’s.  He was missing a lot work by then. I think he was trying to get a disability for nerves, but those are extremely difficult to prove.  I never heard if he did good with his pressure washer business, or if he went to work anywhere else after leaving Brighton.  By now he should be retired.

 

flanging 53

Ira B. was another flanger operator I began working alongside when I transferred to first shift in 1979.  He was 10 years or so older than me.  He ran number one flanger.  This was one of the bigger machines.  It could form three-quarters inch thick steel cold, one inch thick steel hot.  But he wasn’t on the machine for long after I arrived on first.  In the early 80’s the first shift inspector, Don M., retired, and Ira took over his position.  Which was good for me, because that opened up number one.  I began splitting my time between the blue valley flangers and number one flanger.

It was good having a former flanger operator as inspector.  Ira understood what could and could not be done on a flanging machine, and what was important and what was not, and what could be let go and what had to be maintained.  Sometimes inspectors could be picky about things they didn’t really understand.  On the other hand, sometimes you could snow inspectors who really didn’t know what they were doing.  But we couldn’t snow Ira.

Ira B. didn’t remain in inspection for long.  The first shift foreman, Al B., quit working because of his heart, and Ira was promoted.  He was okay as a flanger operator and as an inspector, but he was rotten as a foreman.  He hounded the men constantly about taking too much time on the jobs and talking too much and leaving their machines.  He got worse when Tom H. joined him.  In the mid 80’s third shift was discontinued, and the foreman came to first and worked alongside Ira.  It was a bad situation.  Tom H., a former press operator, was put in charge of the presses, while Ira, a former flanger operator, was put in charge of the flangers.  Tom was as bad of a foremen as Ira, but they both became worse as they tried to outdo each other.  If something was wrong with a head, Tom blamed the flangers and Ira blamed the presses.  It got really toxic between them.  They were both big guys, and I thought they’d come to blows.

In the late 80’s Brighton bought a metal fabrication plant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River.  Ira was promoted to plant supervisor.  He, an engineer, and a salesman moved there to run the business.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  We have difficulty shipping really big heads.  The plant in Sharonville is twenty miles north of the Ohio River, and some wide or tall loads have to follow a torturous path to get there to be loaded onto a barge.  Whereas the plant in Arkansas was on the Mississippi River. So they could fabricate oversized heads then load them onto a barge at their site.  But Ira had problems from the get-go.  They couldn’t find enough qualified machinists and welders to do the work.  And the ones they hired were really hard to manage.  Hunting season would open up and the plant would have to shut down, everyone took off to go hunting.  Ira was part of the problem, too.  He was abrasive as a foreman, I can’t imagine what he was like as plant supervisor.  And these Arkansas men weren’t taking any lip off him.  It got so bad I heard some of them came by the house he’d bought and threatened to burn it down. The salesman, Rich W., was the first to come back.  Apparently he and his family had been threatened, too, and he insisted he either came back to Sharonville or he was quitting.  As for the engineer, I’m not sure, but I think he did quit.  He ended up going to work for Jeff Hock in the early 90’s when he started a head shop at Enerfab in Cincinnati.  Ira was fired. I think Brighton blamed him for the failure of the Pine Bluff plant.

Ira B. moved back to Covington, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, and opened up a second-hand store.  He had always been good at trading and swapping.  His nickname was Haney, the character from the old TV show ‘Green Acres’ who could swindle anything out of anybody.  He must have done good with his store, because I never heard of him doing anything else.

About a year ago, I heard he had brain cancer.  It’s inoperable, and he’s been given only months to live.  But for the last 20 years or so he at least was able to do what he enjoyed doing, trading and wheeling and dealing.