Shop Talk

To work at the Douglas Aircraft plant, you had to know the jargon.

Shop Talk.jpg

In the late 1940s, I got a job at the Douglas Aircraft plant in El Segundo, California, where AD-1 Skyraider dive bombers were being crafted in great abundance. My first priority was to learn the jargon that covered everything from tools to storage areas.

Mechanics usually had their own hand tools, but the factory stocked the more unusual stuff in the tool room, where items could be checked out. Some of the tool names were descriptive enough: A very fine, flat file for hard metal, for instance, is still called a mill file. Another, intended for soft metal, is a vixen file. Still another is a bastard file. A lead hammer is just a lead hammer, though it was sometimes called a persuader.

To measure the pull required to actuate certain devices, you checked out a fish scale. Not a nickname—it was the same kind of scale that fishmongers used to weight their wares.

When an aircraft’s hydraulic system had to be pressurized to power various systems without firing up the engine, you called for a hydraulic mule. Powered by an electric or gas motor, it furnished hydraulic pressure to retract or extend the landing gear, flaps, or what have you.

When you needed to rivet together parts in an area with no room for a conventional rivet gun and bucking bar, you checked out a rivet squeeze gun. This device operated on air pressure and had a pair of jaws, one of which was stationary. If the jaw moved in an arc, like the jaws of pliers, you were using an alligator squeeze. If the jaw moved linearly and the stationary jaw and moveable jaw looked, in profile, like the letter C, the tool was a C-squeeze. If you had a very small space to work in and only light force requirements, you checked out the diminutive baby alligator squeeze or a baby C-squeeze.

A typical visit to the tool room might go like this: “Gimme a 2X gun, a scoop of dum-dum, a handful of those icebox rivets, a can of MEK, and 25 feet of one-inch spaghetti.” A 2X rivet gun had twice the hammering power of a 1X gun. Dum-dum was a sealant called EC-801 Compound, MEK was an acronym for the solvent methyl ethyl ketone, and icebox rivets would lose their unique properties unless they were kept chilled. Spaghetti was Irvalite plastic tubing, through which electrical wiring was routed.

“A tray of number 10 Clecos, a tray of 21s, a hot dimpler set for five thirty-seconds, a Christmas tree, a bottle of zinc chromate, and some chrome pickle.”

“I wanna check out the hookah and the Ouija board.”

“Twenty-five three-sixteenths Hucks and collars.”

The mechanics’ favored area of the tool room was Mom’s Kitchen, which was run by a pleasant older lady. When you wanted spark plugs, you went to Mom’s Kitchen to draw a couple of racks. Two racks each held enough spark plugs for one Wright R-3350 twin-row radial engine.

The area got its nickname when employees discovered that because the cabinets were equipped with heating elements to keep spark plugs dry, they were dandy for heating lunch. Chili, baked beans, soup, and hot dogs sure beat cold, stale sandwiches.

This practice was against company rules, of course, as it took up room intended for the spark plugs. And true, the plugs were left out in the open, exposed to humidity while the ovens were chock full of food. But the place smelled heavenly, just like a real kitchen. After lunch, the plugs were dutifully replaced in the ovens and restored to their dry state. However, the occasional explosion of a can of overheated ravioli made such a mess that management used to conduct surprise inspections to see just what was inside the cabinets: Champion spark plugs or Campbell’s chicken noodle.

Mom would often singe her fingers attempting to get the food out and hidden and the spark plugs back in before management arrived in an unannounced sweep. She was usually successful, having gotten advance notice through a first-rate signal system run by the mechanics. Mom also had seniority, more than most of the management team. Even when they found food in the ovens, nothing much happened.

So it was, with the help of vixens, bastards, mules, alligators, baby C-squeezes, and fish scales, we managed to build airplanes, nurtured by piping-hot contraband lunches from the big spark plug ovens.

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