West of Woolwich: Native skill ... so soon forgotten

Posted Wednesday, September 19, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: Native skill ... so soon forgotten

by Fred Kahrl

Recently I lamented here the quiet … nearly secret … demise of the oldest building at the Bath Iron Works

Corp.: the Machine Shop. As I tried to suggest, a fascinating history could be written about the many and diverse products that were produced there, many of which had nothing to do with shipbuilding.

 But I don’t want my moment of reflection on the “Shop” to pass without saying something about the craftsmen that worked there.

When BIW overhauled the USS Detroit in 1976 it was the newest such vessel in the U.S. Navy, but it was built with some of the oldest parts. It’s four boilers and twin steam turbines were actually one half of the power plant of a WWII battleship IOWA that was about half-built at the end of the war, and was mothballed in Seattle, WA. Twenty years later the battlewagon’s 200,000 hp “engine” was divided between the Detroit and her sister-ship USS Seattle.

So, even though the Detroit was only ten years old when she came to Bath for her first scheduled overhaul, many of the systems associated with the powerplant were already 30 years old. One of the consequences was that not only were some replacement parts simply not available … several of the companies that had manufactured these parts were no longer in business and the design plans were “MIA”*.

 Consequently, BIW had to take the “old” part, decide what it’s tolerances were when it was new, and then build it from scratch.

To oversee the overhaul of the Detroit’s engines, the Navy had called out of retirement a civil service engineer who had worked for the Superintendent of Shipbuilding at Puget Sound Shipyards where the uncompleted battleships had been laid down. He was stocky and a bit rotund, with a shiny pate and a “Friar Tuck” fringe.

He was given one of the surplus classrooms in the BIW Apprentice School on the third floor of the Personnel Building, which was next to my office.

We got to know one another, even to the point that I had him give the Apprentice Machinist students several fascinating lectures on Navy Quality Control in WWII shipyards.

He used all the tables in “his” classroom to pore over new and old blueprints and ship plans, and to pile up various machine parts that had been replaced with new or remanufactured replacements.

One day I found him sitting at a table with a thick aluminum plate in front of him that had a maze of channels cut into it that distributed hydraulic oil to more than a dozen ball-valves seated in the plate. I was concerned that he may have hit a problem that couldn’t be solved, but the opposite turned out to be the case. It was a “new” part that had been created from blank stock by several old machinists in the BIW shop.

“You know,” said the old engineer reverently, his hands lightly stroking the plate, “You just don’t see work like this anymore. Some of those old-timers down there have forgotten more about what you can do with a Bridgeport (Milling Machine) than most of your apprentices will learn in a lifetime.”

I came to understand that this was the rule in BIW’s shop, not the exception … incredible ingenuity coupled with almost instinctive skills, after years of embracing the work as a challenging craft, not just a job.

As senior managers spent more time in their offices and less time down in the yard, their ability to appreciate these workers and the fruits of their talent diminished, so by the time I went to work there in the early 70’s hardly anyone with offices on “Mahogany Row” knew that a Bridgeport was not just a city in Connecticut.

Thus, an appreciation for these achievements was often limited to the shop where the work was performed.

But even more clandestine was the work of the men (then) who kept the machine tools, large and small, not only running well but also maintaining the incredibly small tolerances necessary for the machines and their operators meet the requirements of the work.

One such man was Ike Dunphy, an almost entirely self-trained mechanical genius.

I met Ike when I was a teen-age summer “dock monkey” at the marina in Robinhood Cove on Georgetown Island. He had been hired as an entry-level helper to the boatyard’s marine mechanic.

Ike always wore a dark green mechanic’s coverall that would never wash completely clean. It hung on his lanky frame like it was on a scarecrow, and his hands had the permanent darkness of having been handling oily machinery his whole life, as well he had.

He was a good fit with the senior mechanic because Ike rarely had to have anything explained twice. On a singularly memorable day I looked down on the two men lying in the bilges of two big powerboats tied up side-by-side, working on the inboard engines. Ike would call out periodically that he had completed something, and the older man would holler out some more instructions on what to do next, visualizing Ike’s engine even while he was up to his armpits with a completely different engine repair of his own.

Fifteen years later I came back from the service and went to work at BIW, discovering Ike accidentally one night on the second shift in the almost silent machine shop, overhauling one of the larger horizontal turret lathes. He was married now, with kids, living in a recycled summer cottage tucked up on a ledge behind the marina in Robinhood. I am sure the cottage was never quite big enough for them, and must have been a real bear to keep warm in the winter. But Ike seemed more than content.

Sometimes his taste for beer put him in danger of losing his job, but he kept scraping by. He was just too good at his solitary job, tending this dark industrial chasm full of fussy and demanding machinery.

My favorite memory of Ike was planted one night when he was the only thing going on in the Machine Shop on second shift. I chanced upon him only because he had several large worklights set up on stands around the hulking 8-inch horizontal boring machine, the biggest contraption in the shop. The strange glow that resulted ignited my curiosity as I passed, and pulled me into the otherwise darkened cave.

He didn’t hear the door close behind me, and I had a clear view of him about 20 yards away, dwarfed by the two-story tall machine beside him. Cigarette precariously dangling, he was poring over a roll of schematics spread out on the 5-ton cast iron layout table. On the floor between the mill and the table he had spread clean, white dropcloths, and spread over them in careful order were more than 200 parts that might be thought of as the “guts” of the boring mill. Even the mill’s 30-foot toolshaft had been dismounted onto a little cradle on the floor.

Even with only a layman’s understanding of Ike’s task, I shivered to think of what lay ahead for him in getting the mill back together in better shape than when he started on it.

Silent still in my pocket of darkness, I suddenly heard the thin, faraway sound of a radio playing. It was nowhere near Ike, but rather high in the steel rafters of the building. I craned my head back to see a dim lightbulb barely revealing the shape of the overhead crane operator in his seat, reading a book, his radio a solitary companion high above, save for an occasional pigeon moving to a better perch for the night.   

Ike’s work had a span of needs, from the tiny parts carefully arrayed in pans on the layout table to others so heavy that he needed the crane’s assistance to move and set them.

The rustle of him turning to another schematic was abnormally loud. The cigarette smoke twisted languidly above him into the darkness above the glare of the lights … lights refracting off his heavy safety glasses.

He picked some hand-sized part out of a shipping box, and squatted down at the “business” end of the toolshaft after very carefully setting the cigarette on the edge of the table. His hands were out of sight, but I could hear the smooth contact between precise parts.

Ike was humming. The crane operator turned a page above me.

I slipped out of the door very quietly, certain that I wanted hold in my heart’s eye that unspoiled moment, that vision of Ike as master of his element. No praise that I could give him could match his own satisfaction, knowing full well the value of his skill and his contribution to the shop’s good work.

There were other lights on here and there in the shipyard, lights that would reveal other special skills being applied to special tasks should I visit each illumination.  A hundred stories that will never be told as they fade under the glare of automation, of production uniformity, and the drumbeat of deadlines.

As so many like him, Ike was overtaken by his habits and left us while still too young. Many knew him for his good cheer, his good humor, and his good heart. Only a few truly understood how valuable he had become to the shipyard and to the reputation of its Inside Machinists.

I hope I may be one of those few.

* MIA – missing in action













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