Shop Class Helped me earn my mettle*

In the high school of the ‘80s, masters of the quick and deadly retort reigned supreme, and I liked to fancy I held my own with the sharpest wits among them.  It just took one class working with tools and sharp objects, however, for me to learn that I was not the sharpest tool in the Sever County High School shed.

I had been assured by my buddy Kevin Townsend that General Metals would be an easy class.  “Practically underwater basket-weaving,” he promised.  Having finished all my required “college prep” courses by my senior year, I figured what the heck, this class will be cake.

Cake it was not.

For one thing, the instructor was Rick Leone, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran.  He towered like a Spartan in front of us the first day as he lectured on what we were going to learn, how we were going to learn it, and by what dates we would have each component mastered.  He left no room for doubt, and I scowled darkly at Kevin as the reality dawned that this was NOT going to be anything like underwater basket-weaving.

What it turned out to be, though, was a lot of fun.  I had my eyes fixed on a comfortable career behind a desk and, more importantly, on my derriere, but that year, I discovered the intrinsic value and pleasure of working with one’s hands to create something of value.

And create we did.  We made barbeque grills, toolboxes, and a variety of other things.  I learned MIG, TIG, and arc welding and how to wield an acetylene torch and a gigantic cutting saw.  And not only did we learn to run a lathe, but we fashioned the bits we then used to cut the spinning metal to our desired specifications.

We even went out in the community and worked on real jobs.  A hotel called Mr. Leone about needing a set of metal stairs, so we went and built it.  The experience left us with an amazing feeling, impressed that we had created something useful.

Without a doubt, though, our crowning achievement was the fabrication of a miniature Pigeon Forge Fun Time Trolley, mounted on a go-cart and proudly driven in parades across the county.  Even though beginners like me played a limited role, it was really cool seeing the final project and imagining the admiring gazes it would draw from probably hundreds of thousands of people over the years.  If you have ever seen that little trolley tooting around, you can thank the classes of 1988-1991 at SCHS Vo-Tec.  And, well, Mr. Leone probably helped a bit too.

Safety was Mr. Leone’s number one priority.  He lectured on safe protocols, then demonstrated safe protocols, and then scrutinized our practice of safe protocols.  He drilled us continually on emergency cut-off switches, always using proper eye protection, gloves and safety equipment, and above all, never wearing loose clothing.  Students became walking encyclopedias of metal shop safety early in the semester.

One day, as we crowded around for Mr. Leone’s demonstration of lathe techniques, my position was at the end of the lathe where the spinning metal protruded, and my loose shirt (violation #1) snagged on the spinning metal because I was too close (violation #2).  In a nanosecond, the lathe began winding my shirt in, drawing me closer and closer to the spinning metal of inevitable disfigurement.

During the ensuing time-warp, I had a rushed mental conversation with myself.

“This isn’t going to end well,” I thought.

“This will be painful,” I confirmed.

Finally, “Hit the cutoff switch, you goober!”

I wildly smacked the huge, red emergency cutoff switch, and the lathe slowed to a stop, still drawing me down even closer until the protruding metal rested inches away from my pounding heart, very red face, and two very wide eyes.

Mr. Leone’s momentary shock at having the lathe shut down mid-demo was replaced with a grim look of consternation.  As he stood slowly, every student but me followed his lead and took a step back from the lathe.  Neither the impalement of my extremely stretched shirt nor my trembling knees permitted me to follow suit.

“Mr. Collins, are you okay?”  Not so much an inquiry of my physical condition as to my mental state.

“Yes, sir.” I lied sheepishly.

“Good,” he responded.  “Perhaps this is a good time to readdress our safety protocols.  Mr. Collins, why don’t you start by telling us the safety rules with regard to clothing.”

Still hunched over staring down at the machine, I elucidated clearly what had been drilled into my brain, “Loose clothing should not be worn around the equipment.  Any loose shirts should be tucked into the pants, Sir.”

“That’s correct!”

“Okay, who’s next?”  He continued eliciting an exacting and comprehensive litany of safety protocols from surrounding students, all while I remained bowed in literal bondage to the machine that just tried to kill me.

Finally Mr. Leone stooped, looked me in the eyes, and asked if I would like him to reverse the lathe and unwind my shirt.  Upon my prompt assent, the lathe released me from its death grip, and my dignity and freedom were restored with nothing the worse for wear except a severely stretched t-shirt that was promptly tucked into my pants.

Still, I had one thought for Kevin Townsend:  No one ever got killed in underwater basket-weaving class.

© Michael L. Collins

This column ran in the February 7, 2018 edition of The Mountain Press


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