Machine-Shop Mayhem

When I transferred to Southern High School before the start of my junior year, I was put in the Tool & Die class. In Tool & Die, we went into the machine shop and made things out of metal using band saws, drill presses, grinders, lathes, milling machines, etc. If we couldn’t come up with a project of our own, which had to have Mr. Benson’s or Mr. Blackburn’s approval, then Mr. Benson or Mr. Blackburn would give us a project to work on.

When you met Mr. Benson, one of the first things that he would do is ask you, “Are you a Christian?” Then depending on your answer, he would ask you where you go to church or tell you who Jesus is, then the conversation went from there. Even though I wasn’t successful at finishing many projects, I tried to be a hard worker, which Mr. Benson would like to point out about me whenever he introduced me to a visitor in the shop.

Mr. Blackburn reminded me of a cowboy, especially when he was having a good day, because he would walk through the machine shop and yell, “Yee-haw!” He also wasn’t at all ashamed to talk about how much he loved his mama. But whenever Mr. Blackburn heard gears grinding, someone horsing around in the shop, or any other commotion that didn’t sound like productive work, he would yell, “What the heck?!” Mr. Blackburn also had a younger brother who ran the machine shop at Louisville Technical College in downtown Louisville.

During the course of my junior and senior years, I cut my left thumb on a band saw, ground the first knuckle of my right thumb on a grinder, wrecked a milling machine, and I had some other accidents that were too minor to remember. The funny thing is that I, at one time, had the desire to become a machinist.

The milling machine is used to cut the sides of an object perfectly parallel. Picture a milling machine as a vertical spindle that rotates in clock-wise and counter-clock-wise directions at high speeds. At the top end of the spindle is the bolt that tightens the cutter onto the bottom end of the spindle. The project that you are working on is attached to a table by a vise that can be moved horizontally and vertically using cranks. The motor is housed in the back near the top.

I remember the milling-machine accident the most, because it happened near the end of my senior year, and because it was the most destructive of any of my accidents. I was starting on a project making parallel clamps. I had cut two pieces of aluminum using the band saw and I had to mill them parallel. I had already finished a set, but did Michael Jordan stop practicing after he made his first three-point attempt?

First, I tightened one piece into the vise. Then I needed to change the cutter. I took the wrench, stepped onto the stool to reach the bolt, and loosened the bolt to change the cutter. I was successful at removing the undesired cutter. I put in the desired cutter and began to tighten the bolt. That’s when my elbow hit the switch and knocked it into the “Forward” position.

The milling machine was set in the neighborhood of about sixteen-hundred RPM. The handle of the wrench came around so fast that it would have likely knocked me unconscious had I been standing a couple of inches closer to it. The wrench handle continued to make its way around until it hit the motor housing. What followed sounded like–how should I describe it?–a tortured Asian elephant? Following that was, “Whoa!” by the students with Mr. Blackburn yelling, “What the heck?!”

By the time I turned off the mill and hit the brake, nearly all of the guys (and some girls) in the shop had run over to my area, and Mr. Blackburn yelled at me, “Why didn’t you turn off the darn power?!” Apparently, the student who had trained me on the mill the year before didn’t inform me of the switch behind the machine that was used to cut off the power supply when doing such work on the mill as changing the cutter. I also made the mistake of using the wrench that was used to tighten the vise instead of the crescent wrench, which would have fallen off of the bolt when the machine started up. The sad part is that I was aware that I was using the incorrect wrench.

As Mr. Blackburn went to work on checking to see how much damage was done, which I’m sure the outcome was that I stripped the gears, he was fussing about how much those milling machines cost. I forgot what the figure was, but you could purchase a used car for what the school gave for that single milling machine. Ahhh, that doesn’t help, does it? Well, it sounded expensive.

Even after Mr. Benson later talked to me and told me that I just had him and Mr. Blackburn worried that I had gotten hurt, I didn’t do much more work in the machine shop. I played the old carry-a-piece-of-metal-around-the-shop-for-an-hour-and-pretend-I’m-working trick.

I find that the best way to make myself feel less stupid in a situation like that is to tell people, “I do stuff like that all of the time, it makes my day more exciting.”

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