|Killing the Goose...|
Chapter 9: Hard Lessons
Ford Interiors had thirty or more assigned modelers, several stylists and draftsmen and a few studio engineers. The clay properties consisted of every interior car part you could think of and some that you couldn't. Product Planners, Body Engineers and an assortment of other specialists roamed the studio constantly in small packs. In my three months or so in Ford Interiors I never saw a black face or a woman among them.
Here, I got a taste of what it meant to work a standard overtime schedule, four hours for four nights a week plus five hours on Saturday. Because of the long hours we were expected to work, Ford gave us a paid dinner hour that some modelers would use to pad their paychecks by staying in for dinner and grabbing a meal off of a food service truck.
This is where I met George Rogers, Ford's first African-American clay modeler to last long enough in the Styling Center to become an A-modeler. Although he hadn't made it that far in 1967 with five years of experience behind him, he had obviously made it through the 90-day probation period, which gave him a legitimate claim to being Ford's first African-American modeler.
None of Ford's five black modelers, one black Modeling Manager or one black stylist worked in the same studio so I wasn't surprised that it took this long for George and I to meet. I was also not surprised to see George's light complexion or to hear him speak the way he did. He enunciated every word so precisely that it gave his speech a slightly stilted quality vaguely reminiscent of an English butler. He seemed so uncomfortable around me that I quickly learned to avoid him.
The overtime schedule put extra bucks in your pocket but it reeked havoc with most modelers' home lives. The divorce rate was high and many modelers became dependent on O.T. money to sustain their lifestyle.
I made up my mind not to fall into the overtime traps that I could avoid. Other traps could be avoided only with inside knowledge.
Going to Ford Interiors with the SP on my record was like walking into Schiloff's school with that imaginary dunce cap on my head, only I didn't know that I was wearing this one. My studio boss and our Clay Modeling Manager did.
The Clay Modeling Manager of all the Interiors studios was still Leonard Stobar. He was the man who presented me with the typed version of Vic's Performance Review. Both of us signed it in a confidential meeting. I remember him asking me to be sure that I read the whole thing, which I did, and asking me if I was satisfied with it. Of course I was satisfied. According to the way the Performance Review was written it appeared that I was already being rated a notch above average.
The face of the PR form was divided in half with one or two large boxes marked SP for Satisfactory Plus on one side and Vic's words about me becoming an asset to the company on the other half. The two inside pages were filled with little boxes in several specific categories labeled O for Outstanding, E for Excellent, SP for Satisfactory Plus, S for Satisfactory, SM for Satisfactory Minus and U for Unsatisfactory. In every category, Vic had marked me SP or above.
On the back page the O, E, SP, S, SM and U were listed again with a short description of what they stood for. O described what I would have expected to see for a Master Modeler. E appeared to correspond to the talents of a Sculptor. SP looked like it was written for an A-modeler, S for a B-modeler, SM for a B-modeler in trouble and U for a B-modeler who didn't make the grade. Common sense told me that I was already operating near the level of an A-modeler according to Vic Clark's words and at that level according to Ford's definition of Satisfactory Plus.
Common sense, confidentiality and belief in the fairness of the system were ingredients for deception. It took special knowledge to understand that the O and E were not reserved for Masters and Sculptors, that SP was borderline and S was the same as failing because SM and U meant absolutely nothing. SP meant that you were going nowhere. S meant that you were as good as gone. Confidentiality made it possible to hide gross inequities in the system by allowing only the O's to know where they stood. Belief in the fairness of the system together with employee ignorance of what the ratings really meant protected confidentiality.
When I walked into Leonard Stobar's office I'm not sure that he knew who I was. When I walked out I'm pretty sure that he forgot who I was. I never saw him again.
At that time I was working for a Master Modeler in Ford Interior named Ty Hervonen. Unlike the working Masters in the studio, Ty never wore a smock in my presence and I never saw him without a dress shirt and tie. In fact, I can't recall ever seeing him without a sports jacket on his narrow shoulders. I don't want to call him "shifty-eyed" but the thing I remember most about him apart from his small frame and friendly smile was that his sharp gray eyes shifted a lot.
I knew Ty from the brief time I was sent to Ford Interiors on loan from Preproduction Interiors with a Sculptor named Les Jacobs from another studio to do a panic job. This was one of those infrequent occasions when you couldn't destroy another modeler's work because the job in progress was already a wreck. It looked as though someone had started to model an instrument panel of one design and was in the middle of tearing it up to do a new one when he got pulled away to a hotter job. That sort of thing happened with a fair amount of regularity. Occasionally, the abandoned job became hot again and someone else would have to come in and take care of it. This was one of those occasions.
Les threw himself into constructing the instrument cluster, the most difficult part of the IP. Working from the same sketch, I modeled the passenger side. We had to make the model ready for a show the next morning and there was at least a week's worth of work to be done on the instrument cluster alone. This was a situation where modelers usually worked around the clock but for reasons I can't recall we had to quit before midnight. Les had too much on his hands to help me in any way so I was on my own for the entire project.
It was a bear for both of us.
The morning before the show some of the roving men in suits who had shaken their heads in despair at the idea that it was possible to make the model ready to show gathered around it in amazement. The cluster was a little rough but given the time involved to model it from an equally rough sketch, it truly was amazing. I could also see small flaws in my side of the model. All in all, though, the whole model did look pretty good.
One of the men said, "At times like these you find out who your real modelers are." The other men nodded their agreement. Though none of them was present to see who had done what, all of them were looking at my side of the model!
The first time I thought I had something special going for me was when the Personnel guy asked to keep my scale model car. This was the second time. I could barely contain my elation. I didn't know then that Ty had given Les 100% of the credit for the job even though all of Ty's complements were directed toward him. Because my side of it looked as good as it did, Ty assumed that Les had overcome the handicap of my presence and done all of it himself. That's what I meant by having your "batting average" drop a lot when you hit a grand slam. Ten years later I would see the same thing happen to one of the first women modelers hired by Ford. She did half of the work. I got all of the credit.
Doing the passenger side of an instrument panel in a panic situation didn't mean that I did half of the work. I had perhaps a third of the work that Les had to do, but I did it well enough to give him time to do his two-thirds as well as he did it. If I hadn't done my part the whole model would have been a mess.
After the show, Ty brought me down from my high by "kindly" offering to show me how to use a wooden spline. That's how I knew that he didn't believe I had done it. A spline is a tool that he knew I had to have used expertly to model the passenger side of the IP .
Once I got my permanent assignment to Ford Interiors I noticed a big change in the normal working environment I was used to. The studio was much larger. It had more properties. It had more people. Yet, I never heard the n-word or anything close to it from anyone in the two or three months I was there.
Les Jacobs had also been assigned to the studio and Ty Hervonan again paired me up with him. We worked together on a seat and another instrument panel in situations where we could get to know each other a little better. I learned that he had fought with the Army in Korea, that he had seen men killed in action, that he had seen Turkish troops kill with knives and that he had won some medals. He learned that I was on the color guard in the Reserves where I served in ceremonys that awarded medals posthumously to soldiers who had been killed in Vietnam. It never occurred to me that Les never taught me any of the little tricks he learned to make him such a terrific modeler. I learned by observing and copying what I saw.
The man who made a point of teaching me was John Ebijer, a short, muscular working Master Modeler with an Errol Flynn mustache. John was fun to be around. He seemed to be even-tempered except for when someone made a gratuitous remark about his height. The ease with which he performed some tough modeling tasks was thrilling. It was like watching an All-Star third baseman snatch a sure base hit out of left field on a funny bounce and throw the runner out at first. I wished that I could have worked for him instead of Ty Hervonan.
For a few minutes I did work for John Ebijer.
Les Jacobs and I were modeling a strange looking front seat that a young, rebellious stylist whose sketches we were working from referred to as an "ergonomic" seat. It was a project that everyone but the young stylist knew was destined for the clay ovens because of its peculiar contours. No one else had heard of ergonomics and the idea of making a seat that fit the natural contours of the body did not fit the styling conventions of the '60s. Les and I knew that the studio exec was just letting the kid play for awhile and that his ergonomic seat would never make it to a show. If we had been doing it in the Preproduction studio it would have been different. But this was Ford Interiors where we were supposed to be making models of real things.
In short, I wasn't doing anything important.
John came up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to follow him. He asked me to draw a knife line on a clay header in an area that he said was too high for him to reach. I struggled to draw the line in several steps using mechanical guides to bisect all of the crosshairs on the clay that were supposed to define the line. Suddenly, John was standing on a narrow bench eyeball to eyeball with me showing me a one-step method of drawing the line without the mechanical guides. He directed my attention to what I had to see and feel to know why it was not merely acceptable but essential to miss some of the points.
The secret was to take a good look at the surface from several perspectives and use the curvature of the knife blade to do most of the work. Confidence that I could draw a better line than the points on the clay indicated did the rest. How many times had I seen Tom Beubian and Les Jacobs do the same thing and attribute it to either sloppiness or a level of skill that was years ahead of me?
This could have been one of the things that Tom had tried to show me but gave up in exasperation because he felt I was resisting him. Tom did not have a teaching style that meshed with my learning style. Sometimes I did resist him because I thought he was taunting instead of teaching. Sometimes the question of why he wasn't a Master Modeler when he appeared to have all of the skills to be one made me wonder whether he was really as skilled as I thought he was. That question made me wonder whether he was always giving me the best instruction. It was also possible that Tom never attempted to show me the one-step knife line method because he never thought about it.
Accomplished modelers did some things so automatically that they skipped right over the little things that made the biggest difference when they tried to pass on their knowledge. If they couldn't draw a good line though a point, they knew they had a bad point. If they couldn't do it with several points the way I couldn't do it with the header, they knew they had several bad points. They looked at things like that as indications of inborn talent. If I'd had the confidence that some of the other modelers had in themselves, I would have learned the one-step method on my own.
Ironically, I had used the technique on the panic job I did with Les because I didn't have time to plot points or to follow points that had been plotted for me. The time crunch made me attribute the excellent result to a lower standard of accuracy and a little bit of luck.
I hadn't learned a thing.
The lessons of my personal success on the panic job were that I could do some things better in three dimensions than stylists or draftsmen could do in two dimensions and that I didn't need supervision to do everything well. If I could see it in my mind I could do it in the clay. It was the same thing as the psycho cybernetic imaging exercises I did every night, only the less time I had to think about the specific techniques I would use the more likely I was to use the ones I needed.
You could always find better ways of doing things. A modeler who didn't learn something now and then was a modeler who never improved. But you didn't need an arsenal of a thousand little tricks to be proficient. Confidence was the key that unlocked a thousand doors. Confidence gave you what you needed when you needed it. Sometimes the very best modelers needed help. When they did, they knew to ask for it. A modeler who didn't know when to ask for help and when not to ask for it had a long way to go to become one of the best.
The lesson in confidence that I learned from John Ebiger put me far ahead of where I would have been without it. But another big lesson came from Bob McLeod, the man in Harry Finley's studio who showed me what double-back tape was and it had nothing to do with modeling.
A modeler I didn't know who had recently worked in Lincoln/Mercury Interiors turned his head in my direction when I responded to someone calling my name. He went into his toolbox and pulled out a couple of small steels and brought them to me. They had my name on them. He told me where he'd gotten them and said that he had seen more tools there with my name on them.
I walked down the hall to Lincoln/Mercury Interiors with the newly returned steels in my hand debating various plans with myself to get some of my other tools back. All thoughts of missing tools went out of my head as soon as I walked in the studio and saw a small group of modelers gathered around Bob McLeod. He was sporting a sweatshirt with a parachute on the front of it and answering questions about what it was like to jump out of an airplane.
For as long as I could remember I had dreamed of jumping out of airplanes. I spent hours jumping off of porches, garage roofs and high flying swings imagining myself as a paratrooper. In Basic, I had envied the trainees who were going on to Jump School after they had finished their Advanced Individual Training. Back in civilian life I dreamed again of floating to earth in a parachute harness every time I saw a skydiver on TV. I didn't know there were skydiving clubs in Michigan. Moreover, it never occurred to me that such a club anywhere in the country would accept black people as skydiving students.
It appeared to be an expensive sport with the plane I'd assumed one would have to rent and the equipment I'd assumed one would have to buy. Bob dispelled that notion by telling the gathered modelers that the plane belonged to the club and you could use their equipment the way you could use a bowling alley's shoes, pins, balls and lanes for a modest cost. But going by everything I'd seen first hand and on television, the only way a black man could jump out of an airplane was to buy his own or to join the Regular Army.
I didn't bring up the race question but when I told Bob that I wanted to do what he did, he locked his eyes on mine and said, "Then why don't you do it?" I caught the challenge in his face but I'm not sure that he caught the surprise in mine that such a thing was possible for me or that a white man would take it for granted that the only thing holding me back was guts. To me race was still the issue that took the most guts to face. The overriding question now was how much of it was only in my mind?
By this time I had dozens of B-modelers and A-modelers I could compare myself to, which reinforced my interpretation of the Satisfactory Plus I received on my Performance review. For the most part, the B-modelers did satisfactory work considering their level of experience and the A-modelers were a definite assent to the company. Some of them could do some things better than I could. I could do many things better than some of them could. Overall, I could see where only one of them was ahead of me in technical skills, but not necessarily the skills of a clay modeler because I didn't see what he could do with clay.
George Shartier was an A-modeler who worked upstairs in Corporate Projects. Philco appliances were designed and modeled in that studio. Special projects like the city of the future under glass that I had seen as a child in the Ford Rotunda also came out of that studio.
George was an electrical and mechanical genus as well as a peerless craftsman, who designed and built a scale model wooden radio control car with a black lacer finish so deep and shiny that it looked like polished metal. Its hood, doors and trunk opened and closed. It had functional headlights, taillights and blinkers. It was ahead of its time.
Someone talked George into bringing his one-of-a-kind car into Ford Interiors to show it to the guys who either hadn't seen it or who wanted to see it again. All work stopped. We moved clay properties out of the way so that we could form a circle around a clearing on the hardwood floor to give everyone a good view of George's priceless toy in action.
For all of its metal-like appearance, it was still a wooden model with a thin wooden roof supported by thin wooden pillars to allow for an unobstructed view of the interior. George handled it with care. He asked the rest of us not to touch it as we watched him put it on the floor at his feet. He then stood with his remote control unit in his hands and put it through its paces.
He rolled it forward a few feet. When he stopped it, the break lights came on, delighting everyone in the crowd. He backed it up and made a couple of turns, flashing the turn signals before each turn and setting my mind awhirl with possibilities for model-making that I hadn't dreamed of. Those possibilities were still whirling around in my brain when George maneuvered the car too far away from him and too close to a surface plate to risk moving it again by remote control.
Like a disaster unfolding in slow motion with everyone involved in it moving fatally slower, a modeler reached down and grabbed the car by its fragile roof and tried to lift it. The pillars cracked with a sound that froze everyone in place with horror. George's masterpiece on wheels was now a thing of the past.
As awful as that moment was, I have since come to realize that it wasn't the disaster for George that it appeared to be. The masterpiece was gone but the master lived. News of what had happened made George Shatier's name synonymous with excellence throughout the Styling Center. That was the reputation I wanted to have. Although I'd never done anything as involved as George did, I had done enough to make me believe that it was within my reach given the level of talent that surrounded me.
Some of Ford's B-modelers could have been model-making stars in Hollywood. I found that out when a famous Hollywood automobile came to Dearborn in the fall of '67.
I was a big fan of the campy year-old TV show Batman with Adam West and Bert Ward. I loved the Batmoble. On television it looked fantastic. When Ford arranged to have it brought to the Styling Center I was shocked by how badly flawed it was inside and out. The highlights on the fiberglass shell did not flow evenly, the detail work was shoddy and the cool lights and buttons on the instrument panel were nothing more than strips of Dayglow tape and poorly cut, poorly mounted cardboard. All of the fake stuff looked faked. Yes, the Batmobile still looked good on TV but only because of the way it was shot. Close up I could see that I knew enough to make it look better from any angle or distance.
That's what the Batmobile taught me. I was young, smart, hard working and ambitions. I had rare marketable skills. I was also black. I saw few black people in front of the television and movie cameras and in the behind the scenes looks the public got from time to time I saw none. If I had seen just one, and had my future at Ford not looked so bright I might have tested my luck in Hollywood.
Whatever I didn't know to make any vehicle look the best it could look I could learn. The Ebijer lesson and the Batmobile taught me that I already knew more than I thought I did but I could see that some modelers had it all over me in confidence. An older B-modeler named Felix DeRose stands out in my mind today as one of them although he didn't in 1967.
I met Felix and another B-modeler name Bob Jamison one night on overtime in a basement studio called the L-room. The L-room was where scale model trucks were made that would have been too large in full size to fit in the main Truck studio on the main floor. Bob seemed to be on the right track but Felix was so lacking in the fundamentals that he gave me the impression of being hired right off the street no more than a few weeks earlier. He didn't know how to use a spline. He didn't even know how to read a scale or a brown-line drawing.
Nevertheless, Felix's outgoing personality and his confidence in the face of his overwhelming technical handicaps should have told me that he was gong to succeed. I saw how well he succeeded when I met him and Bob Jamison again at American Motors in 1973. If you count only the years I spent in modeling, 1973 was less than two years away from 1967.
In mid December of 1977 my dreams of becoming an A-modeler at Ford in three or four more years came apart like the pillars of George Shartier's remote control car. Ford was making deep cuts in its modeling ranks. Since none of us was officially informed of the layoff, all we had to go on were rumors. So far the rumors had gotten it right. Ford was going strictly by seniority and each man slated to go was being told individually. There would be no two-week or two-day notice. An hour after you got the bad news a guard escorted you to the door.
The big unanswered questions were how many and which ones? Was the cutoff date set for modelers hired before or after my starting date in late July of 1966? Was I on the list to go? Would I have been on the list if I hadn't gotten run over by that car at Fort Wayne or if Paul Schiloff hadn't kept me in school for four or five months longer than necessary?
I got some idea of how far back the cutoff date was at lunch when Calvin didn't show up and Sam told the rest of us that Calvin was one of the casualties. That meant the September hires were on the list and possibly some of the modelers who'd been hired in August. The kid who carried the condensed Bible hadn't come to the Body Engineering cafeteria in months or socialized with anyone at the table so nobody knew his fate. Rumor had it that the modelers hired in '65 and the early part of '66 were safe but Sam and Nehemiah were still worried.
Back at the studio everyone sat, stood or walked around like prisoners of war waiting for the commandant to announce which of them were going to be put before the firing squad. You can't do the arithmetic of rational decision making without the relevant numbers. How many modelers was Ford going to lay off? How many had already gone? How many was Chrysler hiring? How many had Chrysler already hired? GM wasn't in anybody's equation because GM wasn't hiring anybody. American Motors wasn't in my equation because AM wasn't hiring blacks.
On November 17 the dribble of laid off modelers turned into a flood. I had seen them packing their tools and walking out with a guard one at a time all morning. Some of them, like a young, newly married B-modeler in Ford Interiors named Bill Wight, were almost in tears because of the debt burdens they had recently taken on in anticipation of working lots of overtime. From conversation I'd heard between Bill and other modelers before the layoff I got the impression that I had come to Ford only a few weeks ahead of him.
As soon as the first modelers were officially released word spread quickly through the Styling Center that they might have been the lucky ones. Chrysler was hiring the modelers laid off from Ford as quickly as Ford was letting them go. Bill Wight said that he was going there as soon as possible. Now I began to worry about not being laid off soon enough to get a job at Chrysler.
As always, race was a legitimate part of my concern. Chrysler had two black modelers. Judging by its "special" treatment of Jim Brooks and Charlie McCuen and its rejection of Charlie, the color of my skin was a mark against me. Did the number three automaker feel that two black clay modelers were enough?
When Ty Hervonan told me that I was wanted in Personnel I knew that I was going there to turn in my badge and receive my walking papers. I was a married man now with financial responsibilities to my wife. How was I going to tell her? What was I going to do? I was devastated.
I walked back to the studio like a zombie, not at all prepared for the overwhelming sense of failure, helplessness and humiliation that I felt. At least I had made my mark in Ford Interiors as an individual or so I thought until I opened the door and heard a modeler I thought I knew at the end of counting the studio's layoff casualties. " Bill Wight, Ray Frigard and that colored guy "