Archive for January, 2012

Hank, Part 1

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Background

With the support and encouragement of my parents, I built a crystal radio from a kit when I was 10. At the age of 12, I built a tuner and amplifier, followed by a Heathkit electronic organ when I was 14, both also kits, so I knew how to solder. As a teen, I helped my church youth choir put together a “portable” sound system from an old 2-channel Bogen tube PA amp, so I knew a little about sound gear. After four years at Georgia Tech, I was beginning to get some self-confidence. As part of my degree program, I took an Educational Technology class from Pete Jensen that included sound recording as part of a lab assignment. But when I got to the lab, nothing worked, so I found a soldering iron, re-soldered some connectors, re-connected some cables, and then completed the assignment. Later I saw Pete, told him what I had done, and said I hoped he didn’t mind. He said, “You want a job?”

At the time, I had a student job, which supposedly consisted of cleaning up the Physics department machine shop. I mostly played with the lathes and milling machines, which was educational and fun for me, but not so productive for the shop. After few minutes of reflection on Pete’s offer, I realized this could be a win-win-win, so I took the job.

A couple of days into the job, Pete took me over to the Engineering Experiment Station around 3:30 in the afternoon to meet Hank – 3:30 because of Hank’s unorthodox schedule. He usually arrived at work between 2 and 3 PM, when he would check his mailbox, chat with co-workers, and maybe do a little work of some sort until 5 or 6, then head home. At home, he would have supper with Barbara and their three girls, then go out to his workshop and work until the wee hours of the morning, partly on Georgia Tech stuff, and partly on his own projects.

On his way to bed as the sun was rising, he would often meet wife Barbara as she was getting up to get their three girls ready for school. I was single and naive, and I thought that they had a perfect marriage. Both of them were clever people, and they seemed to get along really well. I thought he and Barbara understood each other. It was only when things started to unravel that I began to understand how hard it must be to try to sustain a marriage with that sort of schedule.

Shop work

His shop was a concrete block building behind their small house near Grant Park, which I suppose was a one-car garage at one time. The shop had a couple of large industrial racks reaching to the ceiling on either side, and an electronics workbench at one end. He had a television mounted overhead, and a stereo system with big, high-quality speakers he had built. He would work through the night, either with music playing, or watching classic movies on Ted Turner’s upstart cable channel.

Hank hated the loud, obnoxious commercials that made money for Ted during the movies. One day he realized that the movies were all black and white, while the commercials were all in (garish) color. He quickly built a circuit that could detect the presence of the chroma burst required for color pictures, and, when it detected the chroma burst, would kill the audio. He bolted it to the bottom of the TV and turned it on. The audio played normally while the black and white movies were playing, but as soon as a commercial came on, the sound went completely dead.

After a few days of my visiting the house, eating dinner with Barbara and the girls, and hanging around the shop, Hank finally put me to work. Depending on the time of year, I would either work on televisions or air conditioners. He would pick up abandoned stuff from trash piles, bring it home to fix, and then sell it for bargain prices.

Fixing air conditioners usually consisted of cleaning them up with a hose and a brush, then, after they were dry, troubleshooting the control circuit. I don’t remember ever replacing a compressor, or recharging a unit (although he may have done that), but I do remember changing quite a few thermostats and control pushbutton assemblies.

Fixing televisions usually consisted of replacing either the picture tube or the flyback transformer. He taught me early on how to ground the high-voltage lead of the picture tube to make sure there was no stray voltage lurking around. Because I already knew how to solder, replacing flybacks was easy. And replacing picture tubes was even easier, except for the danger of dropping the tube and causing an implosion. Fortunately, I never imploded a picture tube.

One night we had repaired a rather disheveled television in a veneer cabinet. (Remember when televisions were made like pieces of furniture?) Anyway, this television, which was already unlikely to bring top dollar, was missing one critical component: an on-off switch. Hank pawed through several boxes of leftover electrical and electronic hardware looking for something that would work. All of a sudden, he flashed a familiar, lop-sided grin, and he pulled out a switch intended for a tall stairwell or closet light. It had a pull-chain extended by a six-foot-long string. We installed it and wired it in, and he said, “There – a remote control.”

Engine work

I can’t remember how long I had been hanging around Hank and his shop, but eventually I needed to rebuild the engine on my GMC pickup. My Dad bought it for me new in 1971 in exchange for my painting the house and doing other miscellaneous repair work around home. If I remember right, the truck cost $2,100, and came complete with a 307 V8, 3-speed manual transmission, a heater, and front disk brakes. There was even a warning sticker on the tailgate, notifying any tailgaters that this truck was equipped with Disk Brakes, so watch out!

The truck had a slow oil leak that I didn’t discover until I was driving back to Atlanta from Athens one night. A few more years of occasionally running low on oil eventually took their toll, and somewhere around 80,000 miles, circa 1975, the oil pressure was low enough that I needed to rebuild it. So naturally, I took it to Hank’s. I pulled and rebuilt the engine with his oversight and his tools, which he was glad to lend me as long as they were cleaned and replaced every night. I can’t remember how I got around during the rebuilding, but I suspect it involved Hank fairly often.

It’s probably worth mentioning that I had been working on cars since before I could drive. My Dad showed me how to change the oil and lubricate the steering and suspension on our Chevys. Eventually, under his guidance, I moved up to re-packing front wheel bearings, and replacing brake shoes.

In 1970, my friend Dyches and I bought a 1964 Austin-Healey Sprite from a desperate student. The car had been sitting on the side of the road in Atlanta since Thanksgiving, and by this time it was nearly Christmas. The student happily took $50 for the car. Dyches and I pulled it back to the Physics shop with his Oldsmobile and a tow rope, and we got it running without buying any parts. After a few months, I bought out Dyches’ half. I learned a lot about auto repair with that car. Trial and error, mostly error.

So I was more than ready to learn from Hank when the opportunity arose.

Why?

Around this same time, a friend gave me the classic Robert Pirsig book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It really resonated with Hank’s view of the world as he had expressed it to me over pecan waffles during midnight runs to the Waffle House. The book weaves multiple threads, including the nature of quality (an important topic for Hank), the demons of psychosis, and, yes, the joy of motorcycle riding and maintenance. I re-read it a few years ago, and was surprised to see how much of my current world view is still consistent with Pirsig’s book.

Since Hank’s death many years ago, I have occasionally mused about the nature of our relationship. It was certainly a friendship. And he was a very significant mentor in a wide variety of technical areas. I don’t think he was a father figure to me, because I already had the best possible father figure, in the person of my actual father. Finally, I wondered if the reverse might be true – that I was a “son figure” to Hank. I guess that makes as much sense as any other theory.

A couple of years ago, I started trying to document what I could remember about his life, not necessarily to encourage anyone to emulate him, although there was much good in his life. I guess it was mostly because, of all the people who have had a positive effect on my life, he is definitely near the top of the list. Like many of us, he lived a quiet life, and, because of his family situation, much of what he did and said remains unrecorded, even unremembered. Thanks to the internet, I can perhaps change that in my own modest way.

In the next Hank posting, I’ll tell you how he helped me retain the love of my life.

Leisure Lake Living

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Written Sunday, January 15, 2011

We moved into our new home on July 8, 2011, exactly 27 weeks and 2 days ago (thanks to wolframalpha.com for the calculation). I went on my first canoe ride on the lake TODAY! Ok, I must confess, in the spirit of truth, that I have been on a couple of kayak rides. And I’ve even tried Ben’s rowing shell. But this is the first time I have been in my canoe. (Here’s proof.)

picture of dock taken from canoe

Fuzzy Picture of Dock Taken From Canoe on Lake

The fact is, as much as I love living here (a lot!), I feel like I am working harder than I ever have. In addition to maintaining a larger house, I have already had to move the dock out three times to accommodate the lowering water level, build an extension to the walkway (I did have help from Bo and Franklin for that) and repair one of the winches that ripped off in last week’s 30 mile-an-hour gusts (with help from my multi-talented spouse).

And for the first four months I was also finishing up the remodeling job we left undone when we moved out of the old house. Our renter has been most patient, but it needed to be done.

Before you start feeling sorry for me, however, we have had many great times here already, with multiple gatherings, organized and impromptu. The entertainment potential we saw when we first looked at the house has been borne out many times over. And I won’t even mention the ot-hay ub-tay, from which I crawled less than an hour ago, limp as a noodle.

There’s plenty of work left for this year. But I feel like I made a symbolic step in the right direction during my New Year’s break. I amended the title of my iPad to-do list. Instead of House Work, it now reads House Work and Play.

Truth

Friday, January 6th, 2012
  • Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God? – typical courtroom attestation
  • It’s just a little white lie; it won’t hurt any one. – frequent justification
  • Does this dress make me look fat/old/slutty/… ? – typical opportunity for a little white lie
  • I don’t exactly lie. I practice what I like to call ‘Truth Management.’ – Christian singer from the 80s, being more honest than it might sound
  • A lie can get half-way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. – source unknown
  • The Bible is full of true stories, some of which actually happened. – source unknown
  • Sometimes I love you, and sometimes I lie, ’cause no one feels anything all the time. – Bo Bedingfield, song lyric, pending release
  • Would you lie to protect a loved one? – classic truth-teller’s dilemma
  • Would you lie to protect a surprise party? – Well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?

I am in favor of truth. Telling a lie means remembering at least three aspects of an event – what really happened, why you don’t want to tell what really happened, and what story you made up instead. That’s a lot of work, and a lot of complexity.

Here are two truth-related stories. The first is one of dozens of stories related to my late friend Philip Hankamer. Maybe one day I’ll share more of his stories; he was quite a character.

This first story took place during a rather large equipment relocation in a building with a raised floor. The equipment being brought in required lots of small power distribution cables to be located under various specific floor tiles, and one large power feed cable which would connect to the main power supply cabinet.

A well-meaning but hapless post-grad was in charge of coordinating the move, and provided a detailed diagram showing where all the cables were to be placed. But, after the equipment was placed, and the electrician began connecting the cables, the main power cable was found to be four feet short, and no one knew why.

As all parties stood around staring down at the drawing, and the floor tiles, and the cable pieces, the post-grad spoke up. “That is my fault,” he said. “After I gave the drawings to the electrician for the estimate, we decided to move the equipment four feet, but I never communicated that to the electrician.”

The electrician had, naturally, allowed extra footage for all of the cables except the expensive power feed, which he had carefully cut to reach the specified location.

“Just do whatever you have to do to fix it. We’ll pay for it,” said the post-grad.

Here’s the point of the story. After everyone else had left, Hankamer turned to the post-grad and said, “That was amazing. I have never seen anyone take direct responsibility for an error like that. People usually try to spread the blame around.”

Well, it was the truth.

The second story is about four college students who had tired of dorm life, and were looking for a house to live in. They found a nice old house within walking distance of the campus, and then, in the naive exuberance of youth, decided to see if they might buy the house instead of renting, because that would be, like, way better. So one of the more “responsible” of the guys called the number listed in the want-ad, and asked the lady who answered if she would be interested in selling the house instead of renting it.

Bad move. The house had been in the family for years, and even the hint of such a final separation offer was enough to bring the lady to tears. She was quite upset and made it clear that she did not want to even discuss the house with him anymore. Unfortunately, the student had given the lady his name.

Another of the four students waited a reasonable interval, then called the number to discuss renting. The conversation went much better, and a deal was struck. All was well until…

…the renter required a list of the persons who would be occupying the house. But she already had a bad impression of the first student based on the abortive attempt to “buy” the house. Not a good scene.

So he lied. He used a false name on the list of occupants. Of course, this meant he couldn’t write a check to her. Or answer the phone with his real name. (This was long before Caller ID.) And he had to remember to use the fake name in any house-related correspondence. And someone else had to sign up for all the utilities. And it just bugged him for the entire 12 months they lived there, having that constant lie lurking in the back of his already fragile, college-student psyche, reminding him of it every day he lived in the house.

Eventually he confessed. Coward that he was, he waited until they were moving out, and the potential fall-out was minimized. She had a hard time understanding what he had done, or why, and had pretty much forgotten the “can we buy your house” phone call. It didn’t really even matter – he could have skipped the whole thing, because the student and the lady would in all probability never have any contact with each other.

But he felt that he had to tell her.

It was, after all, the truth.

Yes, both of these stories are autobiographical. The second one happened first, and may have led to my inexplicably blurting out the truth in the first story.

Since those days, I have seriously pursued truth, and often mused about the questions and comments that I listed at the beginning of this posting.

I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I intentionally tangle up aspects of truth by invoking misleading precision. (“That depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”) And I confess that I practice “truth management” sometimes. But I have come up with a test question that helps me decide when to tell the truth and when to “finesse” it, or at least to decide whether I am actually being noble, or just devious.

It seems like a good question to close with.

“If I decide not to tell the truth in this instance, who am I trying to protect? Some other party, deserving of the noble protection of my carefully crafted falsehood, or my own slithery self?”

That sheds an amazingly clear light on most of my Truth Decisions.