MY FATHER, THE MACHINIST…and more

Fall is quickly passing and signs of winter are in the flower gardens. Nancy and I returned in late October from two weeks in New England. I told stories at the Power of Words Conference in Vermont; and after that, we spent eight days on the Maine coast. This latter quiet time gave me an opportunity to reflect on my past two years of work on the mouse story–an animal fantasy that is set at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America–and volunteering at the National Museum of Industrial History. Do I want to continue my focus on promoting the book and creating other stories related to our industrial past?

I have decided to cut back on my volunteer work at NMIH as a gallery guide. I spent a year trying to generate an interest in talking about a big room full of machines. I could not convince myself to spent time learning about the machines and talking intelligently about what they did in a steel mill. I gave visitors a general introduction to the four exhibits in the museum and then left it to them to read and understand the purpose and task of each machine. And, there were many visitors who applied themselves to learning about the machines. There were also many visitors who lost interest like me and left the museum after a half-hour of looking at machines. I think they need more stories about the people who ran the machines and less about the machines.

Along that line of thinking, I want to share –perhaps just the beginning–a biographical sketch of my own father WHO WAS A MACHINIST! Yes, my father spent forty years of his life working in a steel mill. After an apprenticeship, he worked mostly on a lathe crafting replacement part for machines that had broken down in different parts of the mill. This required him to take measurement and sketch plans for crafting the replacement part.I still have the micrometer he used to measure objects to within one ten-thousands of an inch. He loved to show me as a boy how he could measure the thickness of the evening newspaper. He was proud to be a man who not only ran a machine; he made the parts that facilitated the function of the machine. But the story I want to tell is not about the machinist, I want to tell about the young man who became a machinist.

My father, Cecil Warren Gray, was born into a family of simple country people who lived in the hills of western Pennsylvania. His mother was the daughter of farmers who had emigrated from Germany in the late 19th century. His father was a son of English blood. The family came to America in the early 17th century, but somehow they managed to remain poor for three hundred years. Cecil’s father was a coal miner who died at the age of forty-one after a mysterious incident in the mine. Cecil was seventeen at the time and already trying to find his place as an adult. He had finished his education after the eighth grade and started to work at a variety manual labor jobs.

There was one strong influence that I think directed young Cecil’s future. His uncle, on his mother’s side of the family, was involved in the discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania and eventually followed the oil industry to Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century. This spawned in young Cecil a drive to go west. Two time in the early 1930’s Cecil set out from Pennsylvania to go west. One trip ended in Oklahoma where he lived in the home of his rich, oilman uncle for a short time. For some reason he did not stay with his uncle and find work in the oil fields. This was never explained. Maybe he was not ready to settle down in one place. Another time he headed west, only this time he was headed to California. He made it to the west coast, but again he could not, or did not want to settle down to find work and make a new life.

Many nights as a boy, I listened to my father’s stories of his adventures going west. When he had money he traveled by bus and by train. When the money was exhausted, he hitch-hiked and rode freight trains as a hobo. I remember one story of him hitch-hiking somewhere in the Midwest and being pick-up by a Chicago gangster–as my father described the man. Another story told of riding a freight train somewhere in Texas and being kicked off the train at a water stop somewhere in the vast plains of west Texas. He was chased by local hooligans and saved his life by running faster than they could run. Another story told of sleeping under a bridge on a stormy night. The river flooded and washed away his only pair of shoes.

As a boy my imagination was stimulated by my father’s stories of adventure. Of course, his stories–if I think about it– were contradicted by the man that I knew all of the time that I was growing up. My father was the machinist. He got up every morning at six-thirty and went to the mill to work. He punched the time clock, worked eight hours over a machine, punched the time clock again and came home for evening supper. Maybe I had the best of both worlds. I had the stability his boring machines provided and periodically I heard his wonderful stories of adventure. Now I see that my father, Cecil Warren Gray, was both a machinist and a storyteller. Maybe I should not be too hard on people who love machines. Even they have stories. Maybe I am convincing myself to begin interviewing retired steel workers to bring to life their stories?

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