People are Fascinating

June 30, 2009
Tony Vasko recalls some of the memorable characters on the ramp.

People are the fascinating part of the business. They are as varied as, well, people are. Some are naturally happy, unflappable and seem to sail through life with none of the stress and strain of others. Others are the true “Gloomy Gus” that used to fill the comic pages. They attract the problems that the happy ones avoid. Of course, most of us are between the two poles and vary day to day, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. Working with people is an art in itself, supervising them still another.

One mechanic used to wander about the hangar it seemed, never engaged in anything particularly useful. Julius wore a cast-off khaki sweater that was holed in places above stained and nasty-looking trousers and shoes whose soles had expanded from the effects of Skydrol hydraulic fluid until they resembled those of a circus clown. He maintained a perpetual three-day growth of whiskers and was not fastidious about his bathing. When he walked, he rolled with the gait of Charlie Chaplin in the old silent films. Everyone smiled, as he was good-natured and could be depended on to eventually bring a part or tool if sent to fetch it. Or maybe not. Useful mechanical work was beyond his scope. Of course, it being a unionized airline, his pay had automatically risen with seniority so he was making top dollar and he was on day shift. An old general foreman told me, “Julius is my fault. When he was hired and on probation, he made us all laugh and I never noticed he wasn’t doing anything. I let him slip through and now he is bullet-proof.” A lesson to remember.

When I was an instructor, my classroom was next to the one used for ditching and emergency procedures training for flight crew and flight attendants. The “ditching” instructor had called me one day, saying he would be a bit late and to tell the class of flight attendants that were scheduled to wait for him. I was running a DC-9 maintenance class with the ineffable Julius as one of the students. As the students, mechanics and flight attendants arrived, I waved them all into my classroom, not mentioning that this was a maintenance class. The F/A’s looked a bit puzzled but took seats, one next to Julius. She kept on looking sideways at him a bit queerly, noticing his unshaven face, the famous sweater and the pants as I launched into locations of emergency equipment on the DC-9. A few minutes into it, the ditching instructor arrived and rescued his somewhat-annoyed charges who flounced out having realized they had been cohabiting with mechanics.

A while later we took our coffee break, and I ran into the flight attendant whom had been seated next to Julius. I asked her what she thought he was. She said, “I thought it was one of our captains on his days off.” So much for the pilot’s mystique.

Julius was not the only one. There was Ziggy who was good natured, hard-working and totally inept. He at least could assist. I remember one day he was sent up into a DC-8-63 to open an emergency exit. It was outward opening, hinged at the bottom and had a cable system to take up the weight of the heavy door as it swung downward. Unfortunately, the cable broke — not Ziggy’s fault at all — and the door managed to dent the fuselage skin. When asked what he had done, his lower lip folded down and tears came to his eyes, as he looked up to heaven and said, “I did as I was told, I opened the door.” Ziggy was one whom things happened to but somehow could not be blamed for them.

Then there was Mel who had been a tank sealer, one of that strange breed who crawled through small openings in the wings and repaired the fuel tanks. He had transferred to line maintenance as several years of being a contortionist in a confined space finally told on him. He had a dismal view of life, maybe brought on by his former job. We were on the graveyard shift and as the dawn started to break, he looked up into a cloudy sky and actually smiled. “I think it is going to rain,” he said.

We were not in a drought so the reason for his happiness was not evident. When I asked him why a rainy, dreary day was good, he said, “I live next to a schoolyard playground. If it rains, the little kids can’t play outside and keep me awake.” There were some problems with being on night shift.

Of course, Vinnie M. on graveyard had a cushy assignment. He was the sole autoshop mechanic on duty. No fancy GSE title in those days. As such, he made a supplementary living off the coffee maker he had in the auto shop. He brought in Danish or donuts for the rest of us to buy. He did brew a thick rich cup of mud that kept you going on night shift when the snow was blowing. It was well worth the nickel he charged. He also had the gift of raising the dead in the form of the put-put engines so beloved of in the ground servicing equipment. This being the 1950s before the solid state ignition systems were around, starting them was always a challenge. His can of ether maybe helped a bit, too. He could also get the World War II surplus ground equipment going, even some of the power units. Fortunately, the aircraft in those days of 28V DC were not too fastidious in the matters of voltage regulation.

Crazy Felix was a short, stocky mechanic who was tough as nails but had a wife who was even tougher. He brought the paycheck to her, uncashed and she doled out his pocket money. He would leave work at the end of the shift and could not linger as she apparently timed him. His lead man, Vinnie M (not the auto shop Vinnie), used to rag him about being hen-pecked. One morning when paychecks went out, he really got onto Felix saying he wasn’t a man unless he joined us in going to the Owl Tavern after work and cashing his check and having at least one beer. Felix squirmed his best, but finally gave in. The next night we were treated to a bedraggled Felix chasing Vinnie and screaming that he had ruined his happy marriage and his wife had locked him out. She really had — for several days too.

Another lead I worked for had the bad habit of liking to taxi aircraft fast and even going fast enough to lift the nose wheel on occasion. This was not good. He never did damage any, but sure scared a lot of us. A customer (we were a repair station) put a stop to that finally.

Of course there were those you looked up to. Ralph W. was my lead man when I started. He knew everything there was to know about DC-4 and Constellations. He was like many a vet of the big war. So was Ted S., who was the night shift supervisor. You listened to them, because they knew what they were talking about. All the leads and supervisors had come up from the bottom and knew their jobs and knew what to expect from you. They shared their knowledge. If you are lucky, you will start out with someone like that. Later on at Eastern, I became a temporary supervisor. It is not easy to work for a lead one night and be expected supervise him the next and then return to working for him a few days later. Mergie was my lead on the Electra phase checks. He looked at me and said, “I know you and what you can do, you know me and what I can do. You give me the work to be done and let me do my job and this will be easy.” He was right. I selected the work for that shift, he assigned his people. It all worked out. It was good advice. Know your people, give them the work, then let them do it. But you have to know your people.

The ultimate horror though is to work under a paranoid personality. Such was my fate for a period. When he took over he told us he knew we were out to get him but we never would because he would get us first. Really, truly his words. The group of us, all technical supervisors, gulped. He ranted on for a bit and then told us to return to our bases and he would let us know what he wanted. When my guys asked me how the meeting had gone, I told them. I then said all we could do was our job, that we were good at it and to forget about him, we were working for the airline, not a person. Fortunately, we outlasted him.

So there are many types in the business. After a while you start running into repeats of types although there are always the unique few. You may as well enjoy them.