Monday, April 18, 2011

Steel Trap

“I have something to show you. Wait here,” he gestured to the chair in the kitchen. This is not the first time that he’s said that. Dad’s full of random artifacts that at first glance don’t really look like much, but then when he explains you end up thinking about it for days.


See, he’s the kind of guy who has a stack of newspaper pages on the bookshelf in the small TV room near the front door of his long ranch house. He reads the newspaper every day, cover to cover, and often finds something randomly interesting about an article. He tears out the page and sets it on top of the stack. Over the years that stack has grown to about 12 inches high. My mom pleaded with him to throw it away. But on a frequent basis he rifles through the stack and finds the exact article he was thinking of, and he almost always knows exactly where in the stack that one article is.

This time the thing he wanted to show me wasn’t in the stack. He pulled out an envelope from the photo processing place; my nieces and nephews tease that their Dziadiu is the only person left on the planet who still shoots with film. He sets the photos in front of me.

In the picture is a museum exhibit of a nuclear bomb. It’s a B83 gravity bomb that weighs 2,400 pounds, 18 inches in diameter, and 12 feet long. He points to a metal plate somewhere near the midpoint of the fuselage.

Then he pulls out a photo from another envelope; in it is a metal object resting on a granite table. I recognize the table; Dad has these granite tables at his machine shop. The stone doesn’t chip, so it’s easy to slide precision measuring instruments on the surface to get an accurate reading on some part he’s made. See, Dad is a machinist, job shop primarily. Other companies come to him to make components that go into bigger things. Over the years he’s made things like engine parts for the F-14 fighter jet, and hinges for missile silos on submarines.

He points to one end of the part, and sure enough it matches the metal plate on the picture of the nuclear bomb. “I made 360 of these things in 1981,” he points out. “And then we went on vacation in New Mexico and I see one on display in a museum in Albuquerque.”

Turns out, he still has a few of them at the shop, and he dug one out when he got back from his trip. At the time he didn’t know that these parts would be used on a nuclear bomb. He had suspected they would be used on cruise missiles. But that was a common thing at the time. He got most of his work from defense contractors back then, and most of the time the part he produced was so obscure he had no idea what it would be used for. And that was precisely the point.

We scratched our heads over the random nature of how he found one of his pieces. I scratch my head at how he was able to recognize the one at that museum that day, after having produced it 30 years ago.

It’s not just the newspaper articles that he remembers. It’s everything.

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