By Hugh Abner
[44 Years and Counting Manufacturing Batteries and Battery Machinery]
It is beginning to look as if I might be asked to do a few more of these little discussions that will touch on the minor sides of battery and machinery manufacturing so it is time I quit lying about why I have had been involved for these many years.
When I have been asked how I got into the industry my standard answer has been that my ambition was to live in Florida and a Florida battery company hired me. Some of that is true but the real truth is that it is a punishment for doing something bad many years ago. So if I am going to expect you to trust me with the things I say in the future you need to know the truth.
As a teenager I had two good friends and we had the common bond that we liked to spend time off from school during the Christmas season camping out down in the swampy area s of our local major river, the Altamaha River of southern Georgia. Camping, hunting and fishing all away from the oversight of adults was simply the trade off of being a kid in a small town. If we had been from a large city then we would have had endless downtown things to do that might have been, (I will never know), good also.
One particular trip though ended up with not so many thrills as it did moments of regret. I was not the leader in what we did to get off in a wrong direction but I was a full participant.
We wanted to add a new experience and take with us a very high intensive search light. Today we could have bought it at most any hardware store but back then the light power we wanted was only on automobiles. The leader of our threesome had an automobile head light from one of his father’s repair jobs. We needed a battery.
The leader of our group had done his research and he new where there was a battery. There was some sort of area in town that had many small shops, something like an industrial park without security fences and gates. Along side one of the buildings was parked a wrecked car that had a perfectly good battery in it. Three little hooligans with a pair of pliers and the cover of darkness would not have a problem simply taking, yes stealing, this battery. It was done. The stealing part went by without a hitch. The part of charging it up and making sure it was topped off with water, yes even distilled water, went by smoothly. We met together to go and check on the charging process.
When time for the big event finally came we got off with an excellent start and reached our camp site on the river without any problems with the boat or the motor. Times could not have been better. In fact it seemed like it was taking forever for the dark of night to arrive so we could use our light. We did not even have any interest in hunting during the day time. One of us even got fidgety and decided to fire off 5 rounds of shotgun fire rapidly just for something to do.
It was the wrong thing to do and we learned why in a kind of dramatic way because right after the shots were fired we began to hear boat motors crank up from both directions of the river. All of them could be heard moving in our direction. Soon there were 10 or 15 boats all full of hunters pulling onto the bank of our camping spot. “What is the emergency?” was shouted out to us. We had to meekly explain that there was not any emergency that we just fired our shotgun without a real reason. One man then said,” Boys, I am Mr. So & So and I am the mayor of Jesup, Georgia”. “Out here on our river we have a rule that if any of us get into trouble we will let it be known by firing our guns rapidly 5 times in a row, just like you did and so we now have interrupted our afternoon of hunting because of your ignorance. Let this be a lesson”. They all then left us and we did not have much to say to each other for the rest of the day.
Finally it became dark enough to gear up and begin our night hunt. At this point I have to mention something that none of us three have ever discussed but it must have been on each of our minds all night long. That is – what would we have done if we had actually found something that night to shoot. We knew the woods were full of our hometown people that would hear us and we knew any night shooting would be questionable and it dammed sure better not be at anything like a deer. Well, we did not spot anything but we sure spent the night trying and each of us took many full terms at carrying the light, the gun and especially the heavy battery.
With just a few moments left before dawn we each climbed into our tents and went to sleep. I woke up with our leader laughing and hollering for me to wake up. He wanted me to look out at our earlier rising partner. There he was standing over a small camp fire but it took a moment to adjust to what I was seeing. Looking at one leg it looked like he had on a pair of jeans but there was a hole in it but the other leg was bare. There was not any pants leg at all. That side was like shorts made from cut off jeans. The acid from the battery had destroyed his clothes. Our leader quit laughing and climbed out to check himself. He did not have any problems. Now it was my turn. My jeans were o.k. but for Christmas my mother had given me a brand new corduroy jacket and a large portion of the front were gone with nothing but inside stuffing material hanging out. I was in trouble.
No, there is not a happy ending here in any manner and our future river trips were scaled back.
My partners, as far as I know were not burdened with any further punishment for our crimes. Our leader went on to establish a huge contracting business in Atlanta where he specialized in building churches. Imagine that! The other partner survived through the Vietnam years and completed a great military career. For me the punishment continued by following me into my career. My explanation follows.
Ooohh, the battery industry has given me much to be thankful for and in the early, early days things would happen and I did not connect them to any kind of punishment stemming from stealing a battery years before.
For example, during the years of learning to operate multiple grid casting machines things would happen. One night I was operating the machines but there were two of the four where the grids simply would not fill out in the center of the castings. I brushed and recoated the molds with mold release, (Cork), many times. Finally I began to get good results because I had increased the temperatures a bit in the feed lines and the molds. I finished out my shift with low production but at least with some production. The next night when I came in there were several pallets set over in the return to re-melt area. There were many red tags on them and it was obvious the Q.C. folks had thoroughly done some hands on bending and distorting them. As it turned out the extra heat that had gotten me through the night before had caused a crack to develop where the two grid panels are joined together, you know, the part that forms the feet of the grid. So these kinds of things happened and I just moved on to other experiences.
One time our company bought an old, old – I mean ancient – battery factory and they moved me away from Florida to manage it. The factory was shut down and had been near bankruptcy so it had many problems. One of its major problems was that the pasting equipment was not operable. Many things had to be corrected because we just had to paste plates before we could even look into any of the problems we were going to have in assembly and formation.
It got to the point where our home office back in Florida was calling twice a day and asking me if we were pasting anything yet. I got pretty good at being able to recall and report the list of items that were completed and not completed. They were not impressed with my list or my ability with it. In fact they were making it clear that I should soon give a positive report. I got together, again, with the right people and we, again, made tremendous efforts to get things repaired and a time came where it seemed that pasting would begin the next morning. I went home relieved.
The next morning I simply started the day by asking if we were ready and someone tried to tell me something that sounded negative. I stopped him and I told him that – No! – I was not listening to anymore problems. We simply were going to start and that was it. He said, (and I will never forget the moment), “All right sir!”. A few moments later I went by the paste mixer and it was humming. I just knew I was ready for any Florida phone calls. My “All right Sir” guy came up to me and told me “there was something I needed to see”. I was young then and those words were not frightening to me like they are now. In fact – now – a person does not really have to say them to me because I read them on his face. We went to a certain spot in the factory and he stopped and pointed to the ceiling. At first glance I did not notice much because it was black dark and smutty looking in our ceiling. He said, “Look at the plastic pipe”. The gray pipe was not straight. In fact it was moving. It was bending and sagging. We got out of the way. He said, “I tried to tell you that we had not cut the sulfuric acid until late last night and it was not cool enough to pump over to the mixer”. We stopped. We did have a bit of fortune though because the pipe sagged but never broke. The mixer operator was skilled enough that he kept the paste from over heating so we did paste one mixed batch. Florida called. I reported that we were pasting but there was a problem which we were fixing so we might have to stop until the next day. And that is what we did.
Even at this point though I did not make any connections or have any thoughts of punishment. It was a few weeks later but in the same factory that the punishment revelation occurred. I was in the factory one night by myself and I was waiting on the night formation attendant to arrive. We did not have battery chargers like most of the world even then were using. We had three giant Caterpillar engines connected to generators. At the battery locations where a circuit of a few batteries would be connected to this overall generation circuit the amount of amperes required for the circuit was manually controlled by connecting the battery lead wires and clamp to a long coiled resistor. As the battery charged and began feeding a back voltage the amount of the coiled resistor was reduced in order to keep the amperage supply up.
This night I was out in the factory with my flash light. We did not have but one or two lights in the building so all night work was done with a flash light. The engines were humming away. All sounds seemed natural. Suddenly the Caterpillars began to slow down and for a moment they stopped but then it seemed like they were trying to start back up but with a different sound. A red glow began to appear at the resistor coils of each battery circuit. The red glow got brighter and even became close to white or at least a shiny yellow. I made it to the Caterpillar room. They were rotating and shaking. I went back to the formation area and now I could see good but sparking began. A violent spark would occur and then the coil would go black again. All this happed in less than two minutes. I began to disconnect the batteries and while I was doing it I figured out that they were discharging back through the generator so I knew that as soon as I got them all disconnected the back flow would stop. I did not have any idea where the main circuit breaker for all this was.
Finally it was black dark again and all the Caterpillar engines were slowly rotating to a stop and as I watched the big shafts that connected them to the generators slow down and as I stood there in the dark with my flash light the revelation happened. I was being punished for stealing a battery. I was very young. I had a long way to go. Now I am use to it but over the years I have seen similar things happen to others and I always wonder – what were they being punished for?
My night attendant did come in and he explained that sometimes the supply of natural gas to the Caterpillar engines would fail and he showed me where the main breakers were. He said we would have to wait awhile but that the gas problem would soon correct itself and we could start things back up. It did and we did.
I probably can help others with their punishments though by suggesting that it is a good thing to always listen even when you do not want to and it also helps when you ask folks to make sure you have been shown all the little things you just might need to know. Such as where the main breakers are and then while they are educating you they might even explain why you need to know.