Tuesday, February 13, 2007

80's Heavy Metal (shop)

A change of pace today.

No Uruguay. There will be no vague and cryptic trading advice. Just a story that popped into my mind after burning my finger last night from fuBarrio's childhood.

If you remember properly, fuBarrio is a Gen-X kid. Despite growing up with lots of "latchkey" friends, his home was not "broken", and his mother (for the era) was bordering on overprotective. Organized tackle football, motorcycles, and (gasp!) drivers licenses were the subjects of fierce battles in the fuBarrio liberation movement of 1969-1987....and not all of these battles were won by the freedom fighters.

That said, fuBarrio still attended public school. Many cultures have a "right of passage" where a boy moves into young adulthood around the age 11 or 12. Longview Washington had one of these as well. It was called "Monticello Middle School".

My own son is the same age now, and I can't imagine him being exposed to the same things. He doesn't live with me, but lives in my old home town, and understandably I was excited that he wouldn't be following in my footsteps to Monticello and instead attending the private school in the area.

Back then, things were really moving too fast for me to really take stock. But now, I can look back with a mixture of horror and amusement at the circus that was Monticello. While it's obvious that a bunch of adolescent kids can make for some interesting times...especially in the early 80's ("dazed and confused" time frame)....the things that really jump out at me as being bizarre were some of the adult "sanctioned" activities.

In fact, my humorous memory wasn't just from a sanctioned activity. It was a *requirement* for passing through the halls of Monticello as a young man. Mr Berglund's Metal Shop!

Mr Berglund had salt and pepper short cropped, slicked back hair and a small neatly trimmed moustache, and wire framed glasses. Nearly everything about Mr Berglund reminded one of a WWII era Nazi officer (at least as they were depicted to kids in the old movies)....every kid just knew he was in hiding and for some reason or another hadn't got the "memo" that he was supposed to go to South America.

Daring kids would snap out Nazi "seig heil" salutes behind his back....Often immediately after Mr Berglund had snapped off some some very directed orders.

Almost as if to mock us, Mr Berglund insisted on wearing a white labcoat/smock at all times. In retrospect, he was surely jutrying to protect his clothes from dirt and grime in the lab. However, coupled a with a young man's imagination, it made him appear as if he *was* some mad nazi scientist just emerging from an old school eugenics experiment -- science against nature in all its glory.

And, as par for the course (of course) Mr Berglund had a funny way of talking...a very "nasaly" quality, a speech impendiment perhaps, or an unplaceable accent. To this day I can't say "galvinized" without imitating his accent. But, keep in mind, a teacher the kids found strange would not an anecdote make. Mr Berglund was merely the ring leader of this circus.

Metal shop, a requirement for boys, if I remember correctly, was clearly some sort of throwback to America's heavy metal industrial past. A room with industrial height ceilings filled workbenches, benders/folders, lathes, grinders, acetyline torches, etc, with helpful warning posters strewn about warning the kids that improper use of any of the various and sundry peices of equipment could lead to loss of life and/or limb (literally).

Now, keep in mind, it wasn't just "willy nilly". Mr Berglund was very serious about safety and would generally show a Zabruder-esque quality film from 1950-something that demonstrated how to use one of these monstrosities without losing any of your 12 year old pink flesh in it. Then, Mr Berglund would do a quick "safety briefing" and demo of the equipment.

However, once the brief demo was over, kids were given a multitude of projects that involved demonstrating your capability on various tasks, self paced, and with only Mr Berglund to monitor a barrel of 30 monkeys in various parts of this large shop.

Imagine -- in one corner, two 11 year old kids in leather aprons and gloves pouring red hot molten aluminum into forms to create all manner of "forms" -- playboy bunnies, rolling stone lips, acdc album art, Copenhagen snuff logos, etc.

In another corner, a kid is sparking up the acetalyne torch to make a cut for his "table clamp". Another group are spot welding their "galvenized" sheet metal boxes. Meanwhile another group is sparking up an arc-welder (i sh*t you not) behind a screen to keep other kids from glancing over and scarring their retinas....but also keeping the one adult in the room from being able to actively observe to see if the kid is doing anything stupid.

As I said before Mr Berglund was serious about safety, and was quick to levy unusually large/stiff penalties for kids participating in what he perceived to be unsafe behaviour. The
reasons for this are obvious, but it had the side effect of leaving the more "minor" injuries unreported for fear of reprisals.

I specifically remember arc-welding for the first time -- unsupervised of course -- to fulfill one of the skills Mr Berglund's project was attempting to assess. Once done, he had been very clear that he wanted the kids to *remove* the heavy inflexible leather gloves, and raise the flash shield on the welding hood (obviously) before chipping off the "slag" -- left over, oxidized (i imagine) crap left on a weld after one is done.

Once this 11 year old chips off the slag, they should put the still *very* hot welded pieces into a bucket of cooling water until the steam stops erupting from the bucket.

I followed the earlier instructions and chipped off the blackened "slag" with my clunky gloves off....then, like an 11 year old, I laid the leather glove on top of the hot metal pieces and picked up the metal, using the glove like a chef would a baking pad to pick up a cookie sheet.

Of course, on the way to the bucket, my bare finger slipped past the edge of the glove and onto the metal, and luckily my reflexive drop landed the welded piece into the bucket. Of course, the incident went unreported and the rest of my day was spent pressing my blistered finger against the cold metal on the underside of my school desk framework in all my subsequent classes in an attempt to contain the mindnumbing pain.

To anyone over the age of 30, the description of Mr. Berglund and his metal shop probably doesn't sound all that strange....In fact, to some of you it probably sounds downright familiar! It only becomes interesting or amusing when juxtaposed with what is considered appropriate risk for children of the same age nowadays. I don't know what Monticello's educational requirements are now, but I'd be pretty suprised (even in an industrial town like Longview, WA) if it still exists in its past incarnation.

Delivering newspapers, mowing neighborhood lawns, and in some cases, even transporting themselves to and from school all seem to have gotten too "dangerous" or "inappropriate" for 11 and 12 year olds. The duty has fallen to Moms Dads, caretakers, nannies, and illegal aliens instead...Within that context, I have a hard time picturing the kids using the machine lathe in metal shop, unsupervised, to piece together intricate pipes and other assorted drug paraphenalia.....That said, if I get an alunimum cast, three-dimensional playboy bunny buffed to a mirror shine for father's day this year, I will stand corrected.



Timothy said...

Hey FuBario:

Thanks for the recounting of my metal shop days back at Bedford High School in Bedford, MA back in 1963-4. I had forgotten about the exposure to all those dangerous activities. I agree with you wholeheartedly; no way would you be able to find a Middle/High School that would allow a 12/15 year old today to enter the same room as an arc welder or lathe. I enjoyed you article immensely. Thanks for the wonderful memories.

FuBarrio said...

thanks for reading and the kind words.

yeah...i'm guessing that in those few holdouts that do allow such activity it's a little less lassez-faire.

my *first time* holding or using the arc-welder was with ZERO supervision.

i'm guessing nowadays (if anyone was crazy enough to allow 11 and 12 year olds to do such things) there would be an adult standing over the kid, coaching his/her every move.