Archive for May, 2012

Hank, Part 2

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

Some days I feel like writing about technical stuff, and some days I don’t feel like writing at all. Today I feel like Part 2 of the Hankamer saga. You might want to find a comfortable seat, and some strong coffee. I know it took both of those for me, because I wrote, edited, and posted this one in a rare, single-day posting spasm.

I’m working from a list of memories I jotted down about 5 years ago. I don’t know why so many of Hank’s actions stuck in my brain. It’s not really practical to recount them all – it would be like an unresearched, half-way biography. But I can at least group some of the stories in categories that make sense to me. And I will, as promised in Part 1, eventually tell you how he helped me retain the love of my life. Here we go.


Like many of life’s best memories, some of my memories of Hank revolve around food and drink. I remember simple meals around their small table with Barbara and the three girls, and Hank examining a can of sauerkraut from the ‘fridge, saying, “Sauerkraut can’t go bad – it already is bad.” Meaning, of course, that fermentation had already taken place. Sometimes we would strike out from the shop at 3AM for pecan waffles at the local (and somewhat sketchy) Waffle House. He kept a case of Carling Black Label beer bottles in the shop refrigerator, and he gave me a bottle of Jack Daniels when I turned 21.

After he and Barbara had split, and he was living by himself, he prided himself on his ability to live on a tiny expenditure for food. He made friends with the local grocer, and would get a discount on dented cans, and buy cheese, and meat just after the expiration date, for pennies on the dollar. He would freeze the perishables, make a big pot of soup, and live on it for weeks. He even developed his own cost-saving approach to dish-washing. He kept a mixture of clean water and dish soap in a bowl next to the sink. He would dip a few fingers in the soap, then wash and rinse a single dish, leaving his fingers clean to dip for the next dish.

And when I would visit, he would make tasty sandwiches, the origins of which I dared not ask. But I never got sick, either.

Edie Avenue Campus

The Hankamers lived in a small white house on Edie Avenue, near Grant Park. His shop was a single-car garage outfitted with storage shelves, and an electronics bench equipped with an oscilloscope and a signal generator that he claimed would output “from DC to daylight.” That shop is where I rebuilt my truck engine, but I wasn’t the only beneficiary of Hank’s wisdom. He would help anyone who wanted to learn, as long as they would do the work, and obey his “rules”, which mostly meant cleaning up after yourself, and putting the tools back where they belong.

Fairburn Campus

About the same time he and Barbara were growing apart, he bought a house in Fairburn, surrounded by several acres of land, and already equipped with a couple of open storage barns. I really think he was trying to make a nice home for Barbara and the girls, but it apparently wasn’t enough. It became his “campus.”

He built a 3-bay steel building between the house and the outbuildings. One bay housed his electronics bench, parts, and surplus equipment, and an overhead storage area. The second bay was mostly power tools for wood- and metal-working, and welding, and the third bay, complete with a service-station-grade hydraulic lift, was for vehicle maintenance and repair. It was clearly designed by, and for, a multi-talented fellow.

He wasted no time in filling up the old storage barns with surplus gear, much of it bought through state auctions. After he died, his daughter Dale told me it took her 6 years to clean up the mess, since some of the equipment included chemicals that are now classified as hazardous.

But it was an amazing collection. When Papa Chandler was looking for a particular replacement engine for an old riding lawnmower, Hank poked around one of his barns and found one in good working condition. A few years later, I actually found a replacement heat exchanger for the old Carrier furnace that warmed our house on Birch Street.

Even the house in Fairburn turned into a storage and work area. He kept the kitchen and his bedroom intact, but the living room was full of radio-controlled airplane parts and other experimental toys, and there was always a giant stack of electronics magazines at hand in the, er, “reading room.”

Work and invention

His shops were not for show, but were practical and well-used. His skills ranged from electronics, to machine shop welding, wood-working, and repair of vehicles of all types. And, although his name doesn’t show up in the hallowed listings of the USPTO, he was a prolific inventor. Here’s a list of the ones I can remember.

Automatrix unit

The first project I worked on at Tech recorded lectures as a audio channel and a “blackboard graphics”channel. The blackboard graphics were generated by the professor drawing on an Electrowriter.

Electrowriter "transmitter"

But the cassette tape on which the signals were recorded did not turn at a constant speed. The variation was not audible for recorded speech or music, but caused the output device to wiggle more than a half-inch, meaning that output of the hand-written content was illegible.

Hankamer solved the problem by designing and building a circuit board based on a new “phase-locked loop” chip. The “transmitter” circuit recorded a precise carrier frequency along with the Electrowriter signals. Then the “receiver” circuit measured changes in the carrier frequency due to tape distortion, and adjusted the Electrowriter signals on the fly. I thought it was totally amazing. Hank then manufactured several complete units consisting of the circuit board, a cassette deck, and the necessary knobs and plugs to allow a teacher to record a lesson, then play it back multiple times, with the “blackboard graphics” displayed on a projector screen.

This doesn’t seem very amazing in this day of PowerPoint, iPhones, and big-screen TVs, but in the era of mimeograph machines and punch cards, it was pretty hot stuff.

Hankamer needed a company name for his various endeavors. Some wholesale companies would only sell to a company, not an individual. So he settled on a name that covered vehicles, electronics, science, and even math: Automatrix. So his cassette devices became known as Automatrix units.

Mag tape position detector

Another idea our group worked on consisted of reel-to-reel tape decks containing professorial lectures with the same blackboard graphics. The plan was for a teaching assistant or individual learner to connect another Automatrix device to two phone lines, then enter a code to select which lesson was desired. The appropriate tape deck would fast-forward to the beginning of the lesson, then play the lesson over the phone lines.

One problem with this plan was finding the beginning of each lesson. The tape decks were being controlled by a program running on a PDP-8 minicomputer. So Hank built and mounted a photocell device on each tape deck that would sense a piece of aluminized tape manually applied at the beginning of each lesson. It was not as cool as the phase-locked-loop circuit, but still cool.

And that solution gave me my first insight about how fast computers were, even at that time. To the human eye, the aluminized strip flashed by so fast it was barely visible. But starting when it first “saw” the beginning of the strip, the computer could process hundreds of instructions while it waited for the end of the strip to finally pass by.

Telephone ring detector

Another part of that project required the PDP-8 to answer a telephone and connect the circuit to the output of the tape deck. I was at Hank’s house one night when he first tested his circuit. He had designed it so that, when it answered the phone, it would reduce the volume of the stereo that he played while he was working. He expected to hear a portion of a ring on the phone, then it would answer. But while we were sitting there, the stereo all of a sudden just dropped out. He cocked his head sideways, then smiled, picked up the phone, and said, “Hello.” The circuit had detected the ring well before the phone’s bell could start making noise.

LED highway flasher

One of the last projects he worked on was an idea for using LEDs on highway flashers rather than incandescent bulbs, which took a lot more power. At the time LEDs were mostly low-power, low-output indicators. But he designed a flasher that used 4 yellow LEDs spread out across a reflective surface that amplified the light from the LEDs. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to market it before high-power LEDs were developed, originally for truck side markers, then eventually almost all automotive lights, and even traffic lights.

Other Pursuits

After he had left Ga Tech, he kept finding uses for his skills. He fell in with a group of RC airplane enthusiasts who flew planes in a field near the Purina Plant south of Atlanta on I-85. He quickly became the go-to guy for all technical questions.

I went to the field with him one afternoon, and he was particularly delighted when this nondescript 20-something kid showed up with his plane. Hank, in typical understatement, said, “Watch this.” The kid proceeded to put on an RC aerobatics demonstration the likes of which I have never seen since. Steep climbs, loops, barrel rolls, breath-taking dives when he pulled out at the last second, letting the plane skim over the ground less than a foot over the concrete strip. He had flown so much he just had an innate sense of how the plane would react, and which way to twitch the stick, regardless of which direction the plane was heading. For the last show, he put the plane in a near-stall climb, where it slowly cork-screwed upwards at 30-degree angle off vertical, seeming to defy both not only the law of gravity but most of the other laws of physics. Finally he twitched the stick and the plane flipped over on its back, then headed down to the ground for a landing as smooth as silk.

In addition to the RC plane interests, Hank was always looking for ways to help people. There was a “hippie” couple living in Pete’s old farmhouse who always needed something. And a big black guy named Brady that Hank started a dump truck business with. Brady drove the main truck, and knew the contacts and other drivers, and Hank knew how to keep the trucks running on a shoestring.

To complement his hardware knowledge, he started to learn programming, in assembler, naturally. I think he could see how things were headed in the electronics world.


Hank drove a sort-of plain-looking El Camino that was as fast as a proverbial bat. Once on a short stretch of Techwood Drive, a smart-aleck passed us, and Hank said, “There was a time I would have run him into the wall.” Probably just as well I didn’t know him at that time. Oddly, I know next to nothing about his upbringing, or any part of his life before we met. It just never came up. I do know that his father died of stomach cancer, so Hank’s death by heart attack probably came as a surprise to him.

One night he was working on a truck, and asked me to go to the International Harvester dealership to pick up a part for him. He suggested I take his Kawasaki, but he warned me, “Just don’t wind it out in first gear. I’ll explain when you get back.”

When I got back with the part after a very careful ride, he had pulled out a chart of the torque curve of the Kawasaki engine. He pointed to a near-vertical section of the curve, explaining, “If the engine hits that RPM in first gear, the front wheel pops off of the ground.” Well, so there.

The first car I actually owned was an Austin Healey Sprite, which several of us drove for the few years I had it. That car taught me many, many lessons, and eventually wound up at Hank’s while my friend Andy rebuilt it for his niece.

Another project truck was the F-150 into which Hank installed a 6-cylinder marine diesel. He had to install extra springs on the front end, a heavy-duty transmission, and a special differential, but when he finished, as he explained it, “You can start it in any gear – it just takes longer for the truck to catch up with the tires.” I guess since he is dead now, I can reveal that he installed a small oil heater in his shop for which he would buy “heating oil” which, coincidentally, would burn quite nicely in the F-150.

One night while he was building his steel building shop, he let me drive the bulldozer on the lot. I will simply say that, while I had fun, actually trying to level ground with a dozer is much harder than I would have guessed.

Another time he proudly showed me a used Isuzu sedan he had picked out for one of his daughters. Just as I was thinking to myself, “Why an Isuzu?” he said, “This is one of the greatest automotive engines ever built,” and I had no doubt.

But maybe the best Hankamer vehicle story starts with my family on vacation at a rural corner of Smith Lake. We had driven over to a family trailer for a week at the lake, and just as I exited the expressway near the trailer, our old Suburban started making a serious-sounding racket proportional to the engine speed. I nursed it the next 10 miles to the lake, and the next morning pored over it gathering data. Then I paddled a canoe for 30 minutes to get to a pay phone outside a closed cafe, from which I called Hank.

After I reported my data and observations, he agreed with me that it sounded like engine bearings. So for the next week, plus a few days, with a car borrowed from a relatively close aunt, I rebuilt the bottom half of that Chevy V-8. (Fortunately, I had brought my big tool box. Driving old cars is a good teacher.)

Anyway, the bearings were definitely worn out and needed changing, but the audible problem turned out to be a peculiar failure of the air conditioner clutch, which was easy to silence for the ride home. (Easier than silencing the progeny, who had to rough it in an un-air-conditioned vehicle.) But in retrospect, all of us have fond memories of the week at the lake when Dad rebuilt the engine. With Hank’s help, of course.

Friendship and Humor

Hank was a good friend to many people, and not just because of his technical expertise. He was fun to talk to, knowledgeable about current events, and had a good ear for music. He introduced me to several musicians I had totally missed, perhaps the most significant of which was Jackson Browne. Not long before his death, he gave me a jazz CD by the Modern Jazz Quartet, a soundtrack from the movie “No Sun In Venice.” It is a lightly instrumented performance that he loved for its sparse tightness.

On the other hand, he would hardly be called a social guy. Our family had started a tradition of hosting a drop-in get-together on Christmas Day. When he actually showed up for one, I’m not sure who was more surprised, him or me.

When a mutual friend joined a company that showed promise, Hank encouraged me to buy some stock by doubling my investment. Although the amount seems small today, it was a significant thing for him to do. When the company finally re-organized, I got back all we had invested plus a little interest. Nothing to be ashamed of in the world of small investments.

"Pickle Fork"

Perhaps the geekiest funny thing I remember him saying happened when I was changing out a ball joint. To separate the ball joint from the tie rod, you use a heavy steel tool with a tapered tip, split to slide on either side of the bolt, with a heavy handle where you pound with a hammer to effect the extraction. When I described what I was doing, and the tool I needed, he said, “Yeah, you need a pickle fork.” The mental dichotomy between the miniature silver fork used to spear gherkins and the heavy tool used to separate an automotive assembly still amuses me.


Long after Hank and Barbara had divorced, tragedy struck the family. Their youngest daughter was murdered in an Atlanta park. Hank kept her picture on his refrigerator in Fairburn until he died, as far as I know. He used to call her “Jo pig” around the little table where we all ate when I first met them. She was his baby girl.

But to add insult to tragedy, there were rumors circulating among Jo’s acquaintances that her Dad might have done it. I suppose her circle of friends had heard stories about her Dad being sorta strange, and jumped to conclusions about him. There was never a formal charge levied, but an article in the local alternative paper kept the rumor alive for a while.

Eventually the talk and the rumor died out. Hank was definitely a different sort of person, and who knows what kind of talk went on in the family after the separation and divorce. But the whole premise was preposterous to me.

He continued to live his monastic/electronic existence at his Fairburn Campus until the day he went to sleep healthy and woke up dead.

A few years after his death, that same alternative newspaper published a follow-up article. It seems that a prisoner in the Georgia penal system had to have his DNA tested relative to another case, and it turned out to match the DNA traces found on Jo’s body. So Hank was vindicated after all.


Well, I have finally reached the part of the story I alluded to at the end of Hank Part 1. There are two Hank stories that fall into the “love” category.

The first is about Hank and Barbara, and he said it one night as we were talking about marriage, possibly about my plans therefor, and probably after a few Black Labels. He reminded me of an old tale. It is said by some that, if a couple makes a chalk mark on the wall every time they make love during their first year of marriage, and then erases a mark every time thereafter, they will never erase all the marks.

He looked at me with his typical half-grin and a conspiratorial roll of the eyes, and just said, “It ain’t true.” I don’t know what broke them up, but at that time and to that man, their relationship was good.

The other story happened in the middle of my courtship and marriage, which is a story that deserves its own posting. In short, the love of my life had gone to a different state and had decided to marry someone else. I was talking about ifs and buts, and maybe even considering playing some sort of game to trick her back, when he brought the whole thing back to its essence.

“Have you told her you love her?” he said. “That’s all you need to do. Make sure she knows you love her, and it will work out.”

I spent that summer doing a lot of things, recording a banjo album with my cousin and Bill Blaylock, appearing on a bluegrass stage with monster picker Roni Stoneman, and singing in the choir at our old church like I didn’t know any better. But the one thing I didn’t do that summer was worry. Oh, I missed her, and I wondered how things would turn out. But, perhaps in part because of Hank’s advice, I didn’t worry, because I did tell her that I loved her.

The End

So, how should I end this interminable saga?

I suppose with a few last comments about Hank. Like Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Hank loved finding quality, sometimes in the most unexpected places. And, like Pirsig, I know he had his own kind of craziness, his own Phaedrus-demon. But he was (I suppose it could go without saying, but won’t) definitely memorable.

So, was he a mentor? Did I follow his advice?

In some ways, yes. I still work on cars, although not always as successfully. I still repair electronics, often just by the tried-and-true method of just taking things apart and putting them back together. I own an engine stand, a motor lift, and an air compressor, and a bunch of tools, most of them clean and in the right place. And I still have a great appreciation for Quality in everything I do.

But in other ways, no. I don’t stay up late working in my shop, and it shows – it’s a mess. I don’t own an oscilloscope or a signal generator. I have spend a lot of my life doing things for churches and church people, and playing in a band that specializes in concerts at drug rehab centers.

But, perhaps best of all, I really did marry the girl that Hank gave me the advice about back in ’74, and, four kids and plenty of love later, we are still at it.

I think my time spent with Hank was not wasted.