Whoa! Didja get the numbers off that truck?!?

April 20, 2003 - 12:15 p.m.

Where is Lee, and who is he?

This is a story about a guy named Lee. Well, I think his name was Lee, I really canít remember. It really isnít important to the story. Letís call him Lee for the moment.

I met Lee 26 years ago when I was going to school in Fort Wayne. We worked at a small shop that made prototype printed circuit boards and thick film resistor arrays. It was a family owned business, run by a very smart guy named Bud. (I donít remember his name either, but Bud will suffice.) Bud was a shrewd and frugal guy and he filled a niche in the electronics business that was Fort Wayne. He landed business with many companies around town, one of which was a company that made the first electronic calculators. Calculators were the height of electronic technology at the time, the microprocessor was just being released to the hobbyist market, this was shortly after that company named after fruit had been established.

My job at Precisioneering (I do remember THAT name) was to run a tape drill. A tape drill was a CNC (computer numeric control) machine used to drill holes in circuit boards. It had four drill heads and beds that the drill heads drilled into. The drill heads were stationary and the beds moved around underneath them in an X-Y fashion, driven by synchronous motors. You programmed the hole patterns in it by taping the PC board artwork on one of the beds and lined up the holes in the artwork by means of a scope-type thing. It was like looking through a projector microscope, you lined up the hole and punched a key on a Teletype machine. You methodically moved the bed around and programmed each of the hole positions into it, by drill size. The Teletype would punch out a binary code on a paper tape machine that corresponded to the X-Y coordinates of each hole on the board (hence the name tape drill). It would drill all the holes of a specific size, and then back the beds off and wait while the user installed the next size. Then it would continue on to drill the next size in the next series of holes. We would feed a spool of this tape into an optical reader that controlled the movement of the beds. It would move the beds to the right position and tell the heads to descend and drill the hole (using compressed air) and move the beds to the next point, and on and on. It was primitive by todayís standards, but very effective. You could drill 36 PC boards at a time.

Learning how to operate this crude machine was very difficult. It used solid carbide drill bits, about twenty bucks apiece (in 1977 dollars). They were high speed drill motors, so you had to get the motor RPM just right and the feed rate just right to keep from breaking drill bits. These bits were so hard and sharp you could drill through glass without breaking it. I know, I drilled a hole in a Coke bottle to prove it.

Budís son Ken taught me how to run the tape drill. It took a month to figure out how to do it. I went through a lot of drill bits. When one broke, you had to finish the entire program, it wasnít smart enough to back up at any point. I got good at it though, and felt proud of my accomplishment. I was such a smart guy. So smart in fact I felt I could teach anyone how to use the tape drill.

Bud hired housewives as most of his employees. He knew that women were better suited to the precise detail that electronic circuit board production required. He kept them all part time to save on health insurance costs, and took care of them well, so they were a pretty happy bunch.

Bud liked me, and wanted me to do more than just tape drill work, so he decided to hire another woman to run the tape drill. Ken was less impressed with this move, he was a bit of a chauvinist. He didnít think I could teach a woman to run the tape drill, but I laughed and made a bet with him that I could. He took the bet. I won.

The tape drill was a noisy and intimidating thing. You had four high speed motors screaming, the X-Y bed whizzing back and forth, and four air cylinders popping and hissing when the thing was underway, drilling holes through fiberglass. Evelyn was intimidated. She had never done such a thing in her life and was afraid of it, truly afraid. I calmly and methodically stepped her through the process, in much the same way as the drill heads worked their way through the boards. It took awhile but I taught her to master the thing. Ken and I were the only ones there who truly knew how to run the thing, even my boss (a woman too) didnít know how to really work it. I was more of a smart-ass back then than I am now, and my boss copped an attitude about me (deservedly so I can say in retrospect). That was part of the reason that Bud moved me on to other things.

Thatís when I got to know Lee. Lee was an engineer, and a good one. Lee worked for IBM. He did brilliant work at IBM from what I was told. He had a wife and family and a nice house when he was an IBM employee, so I am told. But Lee was an alcoholic. Booze shaped his career there, to the point where he lost it all. He lost his job, his family and his house. He was at rock-bottom and homeless (so I was told) when he met Bud. He took the Pledge and started his rebuilding at Precisioneering. Lee was merely a helper there at first, sweeping floors and scavenging the gold from the circuit board cutters. They sold the gold bits to a recycler and reclaimed it. Lee worked his way up; using the intelligence he was born with. I worked with Lee for several months and I was impressed with his ingenuity and cleverness. Lee was a private man though, and he had mementos of his former career sprinkled throughout his office/lab. Lee was responsible for many of the money-saving techniques used at Precisioneering and he was a master at taking ordinary things and turning them into precision instruments. Bud was able to see the scientific goldmine he had in Lee, and used him effectively. I could see also that Lee was thankful that heíd found Bud and was given his second chance.

I thought about Lee this morning. It was a strong feeling, I donít know why. I thought about what Lee had accomplished, and I guess in a way his rebuilding mirrors the path I have taken recently. Alcoholism runs in my family too, but I think I dodged the bullet. But I do know what it feels like to come close to complete disaster. I know the gnawing feeling you get when you come close to losing everything youíve worked for your whole career. That feeling keeps you awake at night, and it stokes the fire inside to get past it.

I would bet that if there still is a Precisioneering in Fort Wayne that Lee is there. I donít know what path Bud and his son Ken have taken, but Iím sure itís a successful one. Iím sure Lee was a part of it.

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