Tear Down This Wall

Sometimes even experienced workers make mistakes.

Tear Down Wall.jpg

Many years ago, after first cautiously sticking my head out the front door of an aeronautical school, I went to work at the Douglas Aircraft plant in El Segundo, California. Working swing shift, I was initially engaged in drilling oodles of little holes in aluminum sheet. Management soon recognized my potential and promoted me to dimpling the same little holes so flush-head rivets could be installed.

Sometimes even experienced workers made mistakes. These were called “butches,” short for “butchered.” Douglas management went ballistic if you screwed up a part. You were to dutifully take the butched part to a supervisor, who would chastise you severely. He would make a mark in a black book that tracked each person’s butches and warn you that management would not look kindly upon repeats. Early on it became apparent that you would never come out ahead, careerwise, by running to the supervisor each time you butchered an assembly. So we came up with an alternative.

The plant was enormous, nearly a mile long and a couple hundred yards wide. We worked in the department that made the leading edges of AD Skyraider wings, next to an unused section walled off by tall cabinets and large shelves. We called it The Wall. This corral held all kinds of stuff that was unused, at least temporarily. Management had turned off all the lights over the space, and since the entire plant had not one window, it was quite dark over there. No one ever went in. In fact no one could ever get in, unless they were on a bulldozer.

After looking in all directions for supervisors, and determining that none were watching, a worker who had butchered a part would fling it toward The Wall. It would sail grandly in an arc, maybe 20 feet high, over The Wall and into that dark and cluttered area. No audible noise was made; there was so much noise—the pounding cacophony of riveters, dimplers, and presses—you could hardly hear yourself think, let alone hear some rinky-dink piece of aluminum hit another one.

We got used to seeing parts sailing over The Wall. Because of the success of the disposal procedure, the leading-edge butch rate plunged to near zero. Supervisors were convinced the lecturing was paying off.

Of course, the sheet metal parts and assemblies were being consumed at an alarmingly expedited rate. But in an aircraft plant of that size, and with the sheer numbers of AD Skyraiders being churned out, wing leading edges and other pieces like them were made in great quantities, and the surplus stored for future use. Managers often forgot where they put them. The individual raw pieces were turned out like popcorn, so it would be a long time before anyone noticed they were running short. Though everyone (but supervisors) was aware of The Wall, no one could see over the top into the vast interior where the butched parts trajectories’ ended.

One day, management had a crew from a photo studio come in to take pictures of the factory interior for a financial report. The photographers decided that for one series of shots, they needed to be high up. Just below the roof were motorized cranes that traveled on I-beam supports. The photographers ascended in a jury-rigged basket, high above the factory floor. As fate would have it, they trundled to the area surrounded by The Wall and dangled over it.

“Stop! Stop!” one of the photographers shouted excitedly down to a worker on the floor. “Jesus! What the hell is this?” The photographer was shining his flashlight downward. “It looks like the damned North American aviation salvage yard!” (That was a popular place for junk collectors to congregate, right next to our plant at the corner of Aviation Boulevard and Imperial Highway.)

We watched in dread a few days later when the big overhead lights came on above The Wall. Then, piece by piece, The Wall was torn down. We could, for the first time, view with mounting awe and apprehension the repository for all those ballistically disposed parts. We were aghast at what several years of hurling parts through the air had produced. Management was even more aghast at the multitudes of butched nose ribs, external-stores mounting trunnions, web sections, hat sections, and gun mount stiffeners.

Right away, the leading edge parts butch rate returned to normal—that is, abysmally high. The former parts impact zone was now wide open, brightly illuminated, and in full use. People worked there assembling landing gear. We had nowhere to throw butches, nor anything to throw them over. (One guy, just out of habit, hurled one over his shoulder. It arced expertly into the landing gear assembly area, nearly braining one of the innocents working there.)

After it was all over, management, rather than terminating us, just made sure we all remained. It was even worse than getting fired. But for management, it was better. Where else would they find another bunch of bozos willing to work for 79 cents an hour?

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.