Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An All-American Garage

In Praise of Texas Dave

As an earlier post showed, helicopters are an essential part of Antarctic science support, and while there are “night” flights (since it’s never truly dark, the term doesn’t mean much), the main fleet is generally busiest during the working day. (McMurdo and the South Pole are on New Zealand time, since that is where our nearest land connections are and since 95% of staff come here via that entryway. Our “day” is not linked to Washington D.C. or any specific US location.)

That makes sense, but if they fly by day, that means they get fixed at night. Head wrench Dave let me sit on one of the repair sessions as they overhauled 7 Papa Hotel.

It’s cool but not cold inside the hanger, no wind of course, and as with so many garages all across America, the tools are out and the music is on: in this case ZZ Top. No beer in this work place: these are seriously professional men, and no nudie calendars, ditto, but otherwise I could be back in East L.A., 1965, listening to the dads change the oil or figure out how to make two bucks stretch to three.

I envy this crew’s competence and their ability to be independent within the larger team. Each of them had a job to do in the larger whole, and each did it, no bitching, no slacking. Their shift starts at 5 p.m. and some nights when things are just running that way, these guys will stay until 7 a.m. to be sure the aircraft are all in perfect shape when the morning flights lift off. When I interviewed scientists, they all praised the pilots, but when I interviewed the pilots, all praised their ground crews.

You don’t get this in academia, not so immediately anyway. True, I sit on committees, get involved in collaborative art projects, and while it can be productive, even fun (the art more than the committees), you never get this sense of pooled effort building step by step into larger and distinctly completed tasks.

Is it just the tools? The things I need for my own work—books, ideas, maybe a 4 gig thumb drive—don’t have the material heft and presence that garage tools do. A good camera can come close but is not quite the same. Sometimes I like to go to Lowe’s and just walk up and down the tool aisle, admiring the elegance and timelessness of most hand tools, and thinking vaguely praising thoughts about the sorts of people who can just take a screwdriver, a saw, and a hammer, and just start doing things until bingo, they have built a house.

The order of this kind of work place appeals to me too: that old cliché of a place for every single thing, and everything in its place. Maybe I just wish that my garage at home was as big as a helo hanger, complete with spare part rooms off the side entry. Maybe it’s just the order of it all that is so reassuring: I can’t even keep my pens from disappearing from my pen drawer, let alone remember where the caps and refill cartridges are. I still have the silver pen and pencil set I got for 6th grade graduation, or at least, I still have the empty box. The actual items themselves are still around, somewhere. I just couldn’t tell you where.

Is it the memory of past projects done well that makes a garage such a wonderful place to hang out in? English teacher Bill Vaughn lives near me in Palmdale, and I must have finished twenty or thirty home repair jobs or art projects in his garage. (Why his and not mine? His wife is a fabulous cook, but the plain truth is, Bill has more tools—and more cool tools—than anybody I know. If you want it done right, take it to Bill’s house.) I get happy just walking into his house. We may not even solve the next problem, but who cares? The tools are there, the music is on, and work gets done.

Inside the hanger tonight at McMurdo, the music was playing and the bolts were coming off in their carefully planned order, but I had a lecture to catch in Crary Lab and these guys did not need me cluttering up the work space.

I left them to it, knowing that by the first mission of the day, 7 Papa Hotel would be done, back out on the pad, fueled up and ready to go make science happen. Thanks, guys, for inviting me over.

1 comment:

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