Back to the Drawing Board:
A Belated Father’s Day Homage
We make ourselves in our father’s sunshine and also in his shadow:
what he beams down we bend away from.—Adam Gopnik
July 7, 1930: there stands my father, Ernst Klauss, sixteen years old, slightly over a year into his three-year apprenticeship as a technical draftsman at Orenstein & Koppel, a heavy-equipment manufacturer in Berlin. He offers a cool, neutral expression—a confident young professional interrupted at his work.
My father characterized his teen self in a portion of the short autobiography he began in 1973: “I was a dreamer and learned only what I liked. But that was not enough to keep the average of all studied subjects up. My parents and myself found that out, and the decision was made that I should learn a trade. With that my childhood ended.”
“The first year of the apprenticeship was mostly occupied by making simple drawings and changes to existing drawings,” he wrote. Sent to the company’s plant in Spandau for his second year under the comprehensive nature of the program, he trained in several mechanical trades: machine operations, forging, welding, and assembly work. There, amidst the clangor, noxious smells, and potential dangers of the factory environment, he learned and assisted in the rigorous and precise labor of industrial production. He came to understand the connection between the representation of a three-dimensional object and the toil-- mental and physical-- that was involved in creating the finished product, the machine and all its parts.
Although work and the intense learning process dominated their daily routine, my father and his fellow apprentices relished their camaraderie and the chance for occasional hi-jinks. Remember, they were still just young men. A picture from those days shows them hoisting heavy machine parts, laughing and joking in a mock power lifting contest. The innocent comedy of the scene reminds one of a Buster Keaton movie. My father recounted other episodes of tomfoolery that could have turned into disrespectful misadventures for the crew. But they never had to face the ire of their superiors; a certain amount of high-spiritedness was allowed as long as it didn’t interfere with work.
In his first two years, my father had acquired the skill of rendering and interpreting technical drawings and then, through further hands-on labor, gained a solid grounding in the processes of technological manufacturing. The last year of his apprenticeship took place in the firm’s design department. He doesn’t elaborate on the particulars of the job he did there, but perhaps he helped conceive and improve components for some of the company’s products or assisted in the design of new ones. Whatever forms the work took, it completed the final refinement of his professional beginning. In total, his apprenticeship proved to be a valuable and extensive educational experience, one that prepared him thoroughly to enter the German work force.
Unfortunately, although he had excellent credentials, he could find no job in his profession when he finished his training in 1932. As is common knowledge, German society, in almost all its aspects, was in a fragile state after the Great War and never achieved stability under the Weimar government. The withering effects of America’s Depression spilled over into many countries, and in late 1932, the German unemployment rate had risen to 25%. The Nazis, under Adolf Hitler, took advantage of the deep and widespread civil unrest and seized power in 1933.
After almost a year of unemployment, my father landed a part-time job at the Post Office early in 1933. When the economy had begun to recover (though it was shaped primarily to further Hitler’s expansionist and belligerent aims), he found employment as a technical draftsman with the German Steam Locomotive Simplification Office. He explained the reason for the opportunity sarcastically (but unerringly) in his account: “Finally, in 1936, the government ran out of unemployed Nazi members in my field of work.” Had he made that remark openly back then, it could have caused him severe difficulties. In 1938, newly married, he answered a newspaper ad given to him by his father: “An Army proving ground in Pomerania is looking for draftsmen and designers. Write to…”
My father—recruited as a draftsman-- started working at the Peenemuende Army Experimental Station on March 1, 1939 . Because of his technical acumen, he soon rose to other duties and responsibilities. It was at Peenemuende that most of the early complexities of rocket technology were first encountered and provisionally addressed; there that revolutionary field of science advanced rapidly—though, it must be emphasized, purely for the development of weapons of mass destruction.
My father was part of the team that transferred their nascent technology to the United States in 1945. The teenager who had first found his calling at a drawing board in 1929 retired from service with NASA in 1970 as a Senior Technical Assistant to the Director of the Quality & Reliability Assurance Laboratory. With this short homage, I know I have merely touched upon a small portion of his life, but that was my aim: to highlight some early aspects of his working life—the making of the man—and to provide a brief mention of the later times, those we know from studying history, listening to people’s experiences, or by having lived through them ourselves.
Continued Next Week with Part II
Memphis, TN - Last week was a strange one for me. Starting with attending a reunion of Vietnam War era B-52 associates and ending with the re-connection of some old time friends. It was strange being with a bunch of old (probably average age of 75+) aviators who once manned our nation's great B-52 bombers. It was hard to believe we have all grown so mature and hard to remember the youths we were when we flew the eight-engined giant aircraft.
Strange events continued when I got a phone call from Mickey Drake, my next-door neighbor when I lived on East Clinton in 1960. I haven't seen or spoke to him since then - 55 years ago. He saw my story in the latest Old Huntsville magazine and tracked me down. We spent a lot of time reminiscing about our childhood days there.
I've also been corresponding via email with Chip Smoak, from good ole' Lee, who happened to move into a house about three blocks away from me while I was on my cruise. My travels have kept us from actually getting together, but it seems strange to have a high school classmate living so close to me.
This morning I got an email from an Air Force friend I have not seen since 1988. We were very good friends when we were stationed together in Ft. Worth, Texas, back in 1978, and grew distant over the next few years. Today, just out of the blue, I get an email from him wanting to catch up.
Saturday, Sue and I attended her class reunion, and I am still excited about our upcoming one in September and seeing all of you again.
I still have strange feelings about how time has flown and how sometimes we just seem to loose touch with people who once were a major part of our lives. It often gets me in a melancholy mood these days.
Click on the image above to see the information about the
upcoming joint '64-'65-'66 2015 Reunion.
Some Nick Names of Note
Collins (CE) Wynn
Fuzz, Snuffy, Droop, Goose, and Chis were the nicknames of all the members of the Goose Gang, an unofficial Lee High School fraternal group which focused mostly on cars, cruising, girls, beer and liquor of all kinds. The nickname Goose Gang derived from our sometime mode of transportation, Milton Shelton's dad's (Si) 1954 or so white over blue Mercury sedan, although there were times we were forced to use alternate transportation.
Fuzz is mine; it was assigned to me one day at Optimist Park in maybe 1958 or so when one of the wiseacre ruffians from the neighborhood made this remark about my physique (even at that young age) "Damn Son, it looks something crawled up on your chest and died!" Fuzz I became that day and with some of my inner circle I have remained all these years. One day, while wearing a white shirt in class, an unnamed LHS teacher asked me if I was wearing a black undershirt. Had I been a little wiser in worldly matters I would have responded to her innuendo but I was just a knucklehead kid stumbling through the world trying to figure out what to do next. Oh well, maybe next time!
Snuffy is an obvious choice for Mike Smith; Snuffy Smith being a character from the newspapers of the day. Mike was also called by his middle name at times, Bruce, implying to us, the uninformed, unwashed, and uncaring, a level of unwarranted femininity. May not be funny now but it surely was then in a group of 14-16 year old boys. Bruce = Caitlyn; go figure. Wait long enough and all things are true.
Ah, Droop! This is possibly the finest most descriptive and accurate nickname ever given an individual. This is Walt Thomas. During the 1958-1959 football season we did not have a locker room for athletics so Coach Myhand made adjustments and we used the area behind the auditorium stage that had a door coming out into the hall just across from the office. Inside there was nothing but folding chairs arranged in a semi-circle so there was absolutely no privacy. After our first practice there we were changing back into our street clothes when a number of us together noticed Walt's drawers were so old and baggy they nearly reached the floor. With great delight 'Droopy' resounded throughout the room. Over the next few years his nickname Droopy became Droop where it has remained since. Actually we were all in the same boat (no new underwear except at Christmas); he just got the name first.
Because the Blue Goose has already been mentioned, Goose is pretty obvious as well as James Milton Shelton. He was originally Milton, then Goose, and now Jim as an adult. Goose is the only name that comes to mind when I think of him and I use it even in conversations about him today without conscious thought.
Chis is fairly obvious as well being Mike Chisum who lived Andrew Jackson Way near the school at the time. Mike has had strong family ties to the Dallas are since around 1900 or so. I understand he is in the Washington DC area now.
From Our Mailbox
Subject: Need Up-to-Date email addresses and Phone numbers
Barbara Diane Fox Mueller
Rita Susanne Fletcher Strawn
Carolyn Sherrill Quillin
Sandra Bulman Ober
Janis Cobb Shannon