Just Eighteen and the World Comes Crashing Down Around Your Ears


Richard Bishop

© Copyright 2011 by Richard Bishop 


Photo of a maroon 1947 civilian Willys Jeep.

I was born in Richland, Michigan, on 9 November 1930, in the middle of the U.S. Depression. In 1934, together with me, the youngest at the age of 3, my Family moved to Kalamazoo County and my Father began operating a middle-sized Farm of 240 Acres. As a Farm Boy, I was always conscious of the difference between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots.” We were not “dirt” poor as the word goes, but we had to watch every penny to cope with the times. Even so, no patches on our clothes and no Bean Sandwiches in our lunch boxes, gave us a mark of distinction among our peers.

For this, we thanked our Mother, Laura Lucille (Crays) Bishop, a former School Teacher. For several years, she covered the area of Kalamazoo County in Southern Michigan as an “Interviewer” for the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) passed under U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Her always being “well-dressed” and her being truly sympathetic to the Depression status of Farm families (as one of them) when she moved around the countryside, always impressed the neighborhood and gave her “her own special standing” in the community.

Our Mother was also a good cook (from her Indiana upbringing) and when it was our turn for the community “Threshing Crew” to come around in the Summer to harvest the wheat, or in the Fall for filling the Silos with chopped corn, she could set a table for 15 -20 hungry neighbors equal to the best cooks of the area. She was also an excellent Seamstress and this helped to promote the motto that she fully embraced: “clothes make the person.”

Despite our humble surroundings and with the tenacity of a Bulldog, she gave us values definitely middle-class. After school, daily, she hammered on our characters as a Blacksmith forges the iron before it becomes malleable as steel. Most of this had to do with: “keeping up appearances” which, together with our sizeable Farm and raising our own food, insured that we children were each accepted seamlessly into the community as “well-off” (quite beyond our actual means). Looking back on it now with hindsight, I see that with both Parents gainfully employed with steady work (no matter how low the income), we could be said to have been better off than most victims of the Depression.

We three children all went to a Fractional, one-room schoolhouse, nearby (¼ mile away). I couldn’t wait and started there at the tender age of four. Later, beginning with the Seventh grade, we each rode a school bus one hour each way, on the zig-zag route to the Mattawan Consolidated High School, about 16 miles West of Kalamazoo.

My Parents were justly proud of the fact that my older Brother (6 years older than I) had earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Western State Teachers College (now Western Michigan University) and had moved on to a good job with the Bank of America (for the next 30 years) in California. They were doubly proud when my Sister (3 years older than I) was accepted into the WW II Cadet Nurse Corps (this Corps was disbanded shortly thereafter because of War-end). Nevertheless, my Sister persisted towards her goal and by successfully passing the State Exams, earned her certification as a Registered Nurse. Later, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from Alma College while she functioned as the College Nurse. Both siblings had accomplished their goals by “working their way through College” and had not been a burden on the Family Budget. So you see, in my Family, there was no question about whether or not I would go on to college after graduating from High School. If there was any question to be answered, it had to do with how to finance it.

At the beginning of my Junior year in High School, I bought an “old-timer” automobile from two Brothers in my Class. The car was a 1925 Model T Ford Coupé, and was already 20 years old. It had wooden wheel-spokes that were painted yellow while the rest of the passenger car was painted Mr. Henry Ford’s color of choice: “you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black!” I felt that when I later went to college I would look “smart” tooling around the campus in such a vehicle. This ego trip cost me all of $ 25.00 which fit my modest circumstances, perfectly.

Little did I know just how much of my life could be taken over by a mere vehicle (i.e., the hours you spend contemplating and arranging for “fixes” is the price you pay for the supposed freedom gained by owning wheels --later in life, I learned that buying a Computer could do the same thing!).

While living in these tight-budget circumstances and at the tender age of sixteen, I duly graduated from Mattawan High School in May 1947 and after a Summer of work and scrimping & saving, entered the Fall Semester at Western Michigan College of Education (now called Western Michigan University) in the School year 1947/48.

I had applied for and luckily, was accepted for a local Scholarship (only offered for residents of Kalamazoo County) covering Tuition and Books which would cover the entire 4 years if a “B” grade average was maintained. This was my first step in getting off the Farm and seeing the World like my Brother and Sister had done before me.

During my first college days, the car that I thought would make me look “smart” wasn’t the instant “hit” that I had foreseen. The college girls didn’t chase me down for a ride in the “quaint” automobile because the “rides of choice” were the older (obviously well-heeled) college boys who were cruising around in shiny, late-model convertibles. But on the side of the public in general, it may be remembered that in Wartime, from 1941 to 1945, no brand- new automobiles appeared in the U. S. market and who could blame the poor starved public if they now saw, up close, a juicy new model of automobile “to die for.”

But, I saw firsthand that if you were a rich kid, you flaunted it. Notwithstanding, although I was big and looked older than my age, there are some things a seventeen year old cannot hide very well -namely his stage of maturity and any vestiges of insecurity about his financial status in Society.

The WW II Veterans going to college on the GI Bill were accustomed to strange military vehicles of transport and were now too mature to “pay heed” of such an ancient civilian contraption. So, after a while of driving it around campus (without much notice) during my Freshman year in college, I sold the Model-T Ford to an old friend from my High School Class of 1947 for Thirty Dollars.

While my “early campus days” of facing life without a car sounds like a gutsy step by me (no wheels, no freedom), in the end, life sort of evens things out with other rewards. Lucky for me that Western Michigan College of Education was in my hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, because my Father had just bought a brand-new 1947 civilian model Willys 4-wheel drive Jeep that he let me drive to college classes every day.

It was equipped with a radio and heater and was painted in a sharp maroon color with cream colored wheels and decked-out with nicely “double-stitched” canvas sidings and top. Without the canvas, it became a “spiffed-up” Jeep. Better yet, it became a brand-new “wind-in-your-hair” convertible!

The WW II Veterans of my acquaintance who were sick of the sight of Military Jeeps just snorted “Humpf!” But, I didn’t mind that, because the coeds said that the “new car” was “really cute” (instead of just “quaint” like the Model T Ford Coupé) and they liked the Jeep just fine! Ah, yes, while sporting a brand new car, the secret of my humble financial beginnings was safe; the Model T Ford Coupé could not have done that for me!

While in my second year of college, I continued the Family tradition of “working my way through College” and worked nights at the XXXX Fishing Tackle Company making Fishing Reels and together with their Sister firm, the XXXX Products Company, making small Automotive parts. I split a shift with another college student, i.e., I worked 8 hours from 16:00 hours until midnight 3 times one week and then two nights the next week. This averaged out to be 20 hours a week which the College, evidently, did not object to, if your grades did not slip.

Apparently, the XXXX Company did this not only from the “goodness of their hearts” but their factory actually profited from this “reduced” cost labor arrangement and so, as a result, they kept a standing offer open to college students for night-shift work. The jobs were eagerly snapped-up by the students who made sure, by being super-reliable, that they hung onto these “plum-jobs.”

But the work was exhausting manual labor. The Operator in the ROTOFINISH Department (where I worked my shift) had to wear rubber boots & rubber gloves and a rubber apron. Brass parts for fishing reels or ferrules for automobile dashboards were tumbled in a rubber-lined barrel with water and a grinding compound. The burnishing time for a typical load might be 35 minutes for a load and there were a dozen machines to program and keep busy during an eight-hour shift.

The patented name for this licensed process was: “Roto-Finish.” Hundreds of small parts were burnished to a shine in this way preparing them for later electroplating with nickle and then chrome. The parts for a load for one machine could weigh up to 200 lbs.. Between loads, the rotating barrels had to be flushed out with a water hose (the same for the cement floor, at shift-end). The parts boxes waiting to be processed held from 40 to 75 lbs of parts each and had to be manually unloaded into the tub or reloaded for dispatch on a stock-truck when finished.

A portable electric chain-hoist on rollers dangling from a ceiling “ I ” beam was used to load each machine by lifting a rubber-lined tub about 5 ft. long and 3 ft. wide (with a narrow snout) and two ft. deep. This “ I ” beam was constructed running across the factory building the full length of all the machines (12) and was built with each end fastened to roller “dollies” that moved on two other “ I ” beams crossing at a 90 degree angle high above.

The Operator, while loading or unloading the machines, had to see to it that the tub-load of parts was well-balanced on the hoist and that the parts did not shift uncontrollably fore or aft with too much tipping.. He also had to make sure that different parts were not accidentally merged together.

Additionally, a few machines used steel shot (very like B-Bs, but sometimes much, much smaller), to do the burnishing. The operator had to make sure the right size steel shot was used so that parts with threaded holes did not become blocked (and ruined) with a steel shot permanently stuck in them.

As mentioned before, The Operator in the ROTO-FINISH Department had to wear rubber boots & rubber gloves and a rubber apron. At Winter outside temperatures, this costume was hot enough (through unventilated {trapped} body-heat) to be quite uncomfortable. But, in fair-weather temperatures of up to 85 degrees in the Spring or Fall, every hour or so, the Operator poured the accumulated perspiration (sweat) out of his boots and gloves. The skin on the hands and feet became salt-water soaked and crinkled white by shift-end.

Despite my Farm upbringing and having been tempered there by hard work, my constitution just barely accepted this strain and I found it very easy to say “No” when being invited out to have a refreshment with a few of the employees when the shift was over at 24:00 hours. But, I kept telling myself that this type of manual labor was at least clean and not smelly like some farm work that I had known!

Sometimes, I grabbed a quick Cheeseburger and Coffee on the way home at “Hamburger Haven,” a college student hangout near the campus, and then, when at last home, fell into bed hoping to get, early the next morning, a little time to prepare for a nine O’clock class. It goes without saying that on Weekends I “crashed” and slept as much as possible.

One week-day evening, I showed up at the XXXX Plant for my normal 8 hour shift unaware of the life-bending events about to occur. On the way in, after “punching-in” at the Time-Clock, and while walking past the “Electro- Plating” Department, some employees were talking about Maintenance men having been there that day and that they had done some welding high up by the ceiling (20 ft. above) by the chain-hoist and on the “ I ” beams in the ROTOFINISH Department. That should have set me “on alert,” (with my hair-onend) but alas, it didn’t ring any alarm bells.

I didn’t have long to wait find out the significance. After only about 30 minutes into my shift, I was loading a tub of parts mixed with steel shot into a ROTO-FINISH machine at 16:30 hours when --Screech, Clank, Pow, Wham, Bam ! --the tub which was suspended on the chain-hoist at about 4 ½ ft. off the floor, scraped my two thighs on its way down to the floor. In 0,0 seconds a 500 lb. “ I ” beam came crashing down and whacked me across my right arm on its way down to resting (at a 90 degree angle) across the top of the center of the 5 ft. long tub; missing my head and body by about 25 inches. What a clang it made when one end bashed and bounced on the concrete floor while the other end was propped up by the rubberized tub. The sound was like 25 steel crow-bars falling off a wagon onto a concrete pavement. Scads of B-B sized steel shot rolled in all directions and there came a deadly silence all over the building for a long instant, punctuated only by the sound of running and dripping water, which, in turn, was suddenly overcome by the slapping sound of footsteps as people came running from everywhere.

The first persons on the scene, naturally, wanted to know if I was OK. I just stood there in a daze wondering what was wrong with my right arm. They led me to the First Aid Station and sat me down in a chair there. The Night Nurse saw the contusion on my arm turning blue in color without the skin being broken and put it into a sling immediately. After complaining about the front of my thighs, I dropped my trousers and we saw a mark on each thigh-front rapidly turning black and blue . . but, again, the skin was not broken.

A quick visit by car to the nearest Hospital Emergency Room (driven by the Assistant Foreman), an X-Ray showing only one bone broken in the right arm (the inside one, the Ulna) exactly half-way between the elbow and the wrist joint, a quick pull in setting the bone, a fast-setting Plaster Cast, and another X-Ray to check that the setting was OK, were the end results of that Shift. To my great relief, the two thigh marks turned out to be just bruises.

A week or so later, on a visit by me to the Factory, my presence elicited remarks such as: “Are you going to Sue? And my answer always was: “No, if they pay all my Doctor and Hospital bills, we’re square.” Of course the questions arose because the inquiry found faulty welds in the maintenance work on the day of the accident.

One end of the 500 lb. “ I ” beam, under load, tore loose from its dolly (this was where the “extra” welds were supposed to have prevented this from happening; instead it had weakened the old welds!) and the weight of the chain-hoist together with the tub of parts and steel shot, irresistibly levered loose the other end as well and with a screeching groan, the whole steel beam came clanging down with a deafening noise; tub, hoist and all.

My luck within the unlucky industrial accident was: 

(1) That the metal beam had pushed my right arm down (like a Karate chop) and it had swung downwards and backwards out of further harm’s way, and 

(2) The tubs were built with swivel roller-wheels on all four corners giving it about 3 ½ inches clearance from the floor, so my feet and toes were not injured (although a direct hit by a corner swivel roller-wheel could have caused great damage), and 

(3) The beam missed my head and body completely because it was constructed to pass (although 20 ft. overhead) exactly over the center of the tub (2 ½ ft. from the back of the 5 ft. tub) -to help balance it. As in the above stylized diagram, the World came crashing down around my ears while I was pushing forward on the right backside corner of the tub. I didn’t have time to rush around saying, like Chicken Little: “The Sky Is Falling!”, “The Sky Is Falling!”

The night Maintenance man, whom I knew slightly (and who was not involved in the sloppy welding work), formally apologized to me in behalf of the XXXX Company; indicating that the Company had arranged for monetary compensation for a limited period of time.

Now, all of a sudden, at age 18, I was “King-on-the-Hill” because they paid me a generous fixed-amount for the time lost on shift for the next few weeks (until the cast came off) and some Physical Therapy time thereafter, as well. With my modest beginnings, imagine getting paid (while going to college) and doing nothing to get it. This temporary steady income added up to welcome extra pocket-money (at 18 years of age, I never dreamed of saving this money; instead I decided to flaunt it, as if I were a rich kid). I was really exultant when the Doctors performing the follow-up examinations extended the compensation cycle by putting on a newer (and cleaner) cast for another couple of weeks or so.

My tooling around the campus in the Jeep only took on a somewhat different aspect. Because of the stiff plaster cast on my right arm, I was able to shift gears in the Jeep with little trouble since the gearshift lever had an exceedingly short “throw.” Steering with my left arm was “old hat” because I had been doing it that way for years. Putting on the canvas top and sides always required help so there was no change there. So actually, in driving, there was really very little encumbrance because of my temporary infirmity.

Except in the classroom. I’m naturally Right-Handed. But I had to learn to write my notes with my left hand since the plaster cast covered most of my right hand held in a sling in a “flat” position across my abdomen. While its relative position actually facilitated gear-shifting (after taking it out of its sling), it was not for holding a pen or pencil. This was because the cast extended to 3 inches above the elbow and prevented me from rotating 90 degrees left (counter-clockwise) and laying my hand flat on a table; which is the position required for writing, after elevating the hand and wrist a couple of inches.

Suffice it to say that I became good at it enough with my left hand to scribble notes and take exams (including essay-type questions). I became adept at other things as well with my left hand. I still pour boiling water (without spilling a drop) from a pan into my and my Wife’s instant coffee cups with my left hand after more than 60 years.

I can still throw a football pass with a good spiral, left-handed (but not very far). Too bad that I did not have the inherent talent to become truly ambidextrous from this incident. But maybe a longer convalescent period together with more intensive manual practice would have done the job!

After a couple of Semesters, I decided to forego the night work and let my savings from Summer jobs carry me along. Additionally, I was able, on occasion --but quite often, to work between classes with my Father on the Farm (for pay). This arrangement worked until I entered the Military on 6 September 1950 while the Korean War was in progress. This was my second step in moving on out to see the World.

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