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  • John 11:14 am on December 2, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , howard hughes   

    In The Shadow Of Howard Hughes' Houston Plant – Part Three 

    Hughes’ mother didn’t trust the then swampy climate of Houston – cholera, malaria – and wanted to raise her young son “away from the mosquitoes” on the outskirts of that growing city. I have not read any books about Howard’s life, but I know that much is true.

    Photos of the Hughes Tool Co. in Houston, old school. None of Howard’s urine was stored here:

    At the company I worked for, all of those factory guys worked hard, and at shift-change many of them would stand around at various open trunks of cars, sipping beers and laughing while changing out of their work boots. The terrible things always happened on my various sick days. For instance, the time a man lost four of his fingers at the machine press – sheared them right off! My coworker, Darryl, happened to be sneaking out back for a smoke at the time, when all of a sudden this man is running towards him waving his hands in the air. Then, he noticed the bloody hand. Darryl grabbed him and laid him down for he was in shock. Help soon arrived but in the long run, most of the fingers could not be re-attached because the man refused blood transfusions, for he was a Jehovah’s Witness. That’s what I was told, I don’t know jack about the Jehovah’s. I tried to read about it once, and still didn’t understand – just like the sport cricket. I read about that once but when it’s on television, I still don’t know what the hell is going on (same goes for Aussie Rules Football). But, as the man’s wife arrived a bit later to pick her husband up from work, Darryl was the first person she saw, and his shirt was covered in blood. Against the shrieks and wails, all Darryl could get out was “He’s okay! he’s–going–to–be–okay!”

    On a lighter note, and in times when the paperwork slowed to a trickle and things got dull, I would venture over to the other side of the plant to visit and shoot the breeze with the chief metallurgist at his little office – which for a lab, was the messiest, hoarding-est pile I have ever seen. And this company was trying to become ISO 9000 Certified. But the chief was a brilliant guy and as is usually the case, he got away with it. He had his large black Labrador dog there sometimes with him. This pooch laid around mostly, and was actually afraid of the rain and storms. In his youth, he had been caught in a flooded backyard, and had the misfortune of walking through a floating colony of fire-ants. The rest is history – he remembered the ant stings and bites and he never trusted another storm again.


    If you’ve never stood next to a heat-treating furnace and felt that intense heat, well, you’re not missing much, especially in the summertime. But all aglow at 3 million degrees, conveying bright red metal from it’s bellowing doors, it’s quite a sight to behold. At one end of this large building was an engineer and manager who did not like or get along with my boss. In fact, they were no longer on speaking terms. My boss was an arrogant know-it-all and coupled with his judgmental religious views made him a pariah almost at the plant. This other manager knew the initials to my boss’ name were “MSG”, as did everyone else – a factory thrives on paperwork. But this other man somehow went and obtained a large placard, probably discarded from a Asian restaurant, this being the era when the media was attacking such establishments for using seasoned salt – bearing the crossed out “MSG” using the red international symbol-thingy. This other engineer, who did not like my boss, hung that sign at the back end of the factory, for all to see. I enjoyed seeing that every day because it was the perfect insult. And in a time before a lot of political correctness and snowflakes going to HR to complain – back then, one had to suck it up and get over it.

  • John 12:44 pm on November 28, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: freddy fender, howard hughes   

    In The Shadow of Howard Hughes’ Houston Plant – Part Two 

    Howard, Jr. was said to have lived briefly in the Eastwood area near his plant while building an airplane at his aunt’s home on McKinney St.

    From Wikipedia:

    The huge main plant for Hughes Tool located in Houston, Texas, fronting Harrisburg Blvd., had grown to be one of the biggest oil tool manufacturers in the World. It had the latest, largest, and most automated equipment for foundries, forging, heat treating, and machining anywhere. At its peak during the Texas Oil Boom, it was a center for manufacturing, design, research, metallurgy, and engineering for oil field technologies. This included the drill bit (well) and tool joint product lines critical for oiland gas drilling, some of the first technologies for ram blast bits for drilling in mines, geothermal drilling, and a hydraulic powered jackhammer known as the Hughes Impactor. It also manufactured a line of truck and crane-mounted earth augering machines (“diggers”) that were most commonly used to produce holes up to a depth of about 120 feet (37 m) for building and bridge foundations. It even had a fully functioning drilling simulator inside its main research lab where production or prototype drill bits could be tested on any kind of rock at temperatures and pressures normally encountered in actual drilling operations. In 1972, Howard Hughes sold the Hughes Tool Company; it had been the consistently profitable part of his empire, and produced the profits that built all the rest from the very beginning.


    The VP for the oil company I worked for down there was a starchy, upright, dick-head; his mercury was always rising. A few times a month I had to attend his morning tag-ups in the breakroom. These meetings were filled with anxiety; he was known to fire people right there on-the-spot. I was present at one of these firings, in which the victim rebutted angrily, “You better watch your back!”

    Most of the office workers got to work when it was still dark outside, myself included, and in the following weeks I noticed the Venetian blinds were closed on the VP’s office windows – or else become a fish in a barrel to some sniper fire. Our ancient security guard, Carl, was also by then carrying a big .357 Magnum – he had recently been upgraded from the walking, unarmed variety of rent-a-cop. But Carl was fired a few months later – one day he dropped his pants to take a deuce, the holster dropped also, hit the floor and the gun went off – Darryl and I traced the bullet hole through several baseboards and rooms before reaching a dead end. Nobody was injured, and poor Carl as legend had it, no doubt in shock, had his hands up, pants around his ankles, shuffling out of the stall as you will, shouting “I’m okay! I’m okay!”. I missed Carl after he was gone. He was an avid reader and like myself a big Civil War buff. After I loaned him a few books, he’d always return them in a few days, having read the entire thing.

    But just so you don’t think that VP was ALL bad, he did cater in barbecue once a month, albeit with a catch – you had to donate a pint at the blood drive – and a mobile blood van was wheeled in to the parking lot. Participation was basically mandatory. Any manager without 100% of the rolls contributing was called to answer on the carpet. Unethical – Yes!  Illegal – Maybe. Donating blood is easy and quick compared to giving your plasma, which could take hours as the life is drained from you. And plasma pays more.

    RIP Freddy Fender.

    RIP Freddy Fender.

    And then there was Lupe. Lupe was some type of floor manager at the plant – exactly what he did all day I don’t remember, but he came into our engineering trailer a lot to double-check serial numbers – which were always correct. In the summer he was in there a lot, for the air-conditioning; in the winter, for the heat. He was about sixty back then and I never saw him not wear overalls, or without his clipboard. But he rocked those overalls, and in a time before the hipsters hijacked the entire overalls’ scene. Lupe was a jovial cat and he was always singing aloud one of the lesser-known Freddy Fender songs. I didn’t know it at the time, but to some, Freddy was the Elvis of Hispanic country and western singers; a real crooner. And in a time before the internet, Lupe didn’t like how I knew that Fender had been in prison once for marijuana possession in Louisiana. I had simply read that in my Rock Encyclopedia, I wasn’t judging the man and as always, it has to do more with my knack for useless pop culture and music trivia, than with judgment. But Lupe was such a Fender fanatic, it seemed as though he couldn’t see a photo of the man without yellin’ himself hoarse! Fender was not a one-hit wonder exactly – he was a two-hit wonder, like Weezer, his two big hits separated by a dozen or so years. I sincerely hope that Lupe is sitting in his rocking chair tapping his foot to some old Freddy song while his wife is in the other room heatin’ up the Cream O’ Wheat.

  • John 11:08 am on November 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , howard hughes,   

    In The Shadow Of Howard Hughes’ Houston Plant – Part One 

    It has always been interesting to me that big shot drill-bit mogul and one time tinsel town player, Howard Hughes, once ran his famous factory close to where I used to work in Houston’s notorious Second Ward neighborhood. The Hughes plant was actually on the edge of that ward and it is not altogether a bad or rough area, just working-class, although for some reason a few of the various wards of Houston get coupled with them a terribly scary adjective in the media. It’s an industrial and working-class area, given you don’t want to break down anywhere in the middle of the night and certainly not here, mostly because in days of yesteryear you may not find a working payphone to call for help.

    5425 Polk St.

    5425 Polk St. – the office building at the red marker is all that remains. It’s now a state landmark bldg.

    Hughes factory occupied a niche of the Houston Ship Channel area before that tributary was booming and while the surrounding neighborhood was growing and was still relatively peaceful and quiet. Now days, the surrounding area is not entirely devoid of depressing views, unless one can find beauty in the ocean of chemical plants off 225 which resembles a corridor to the entrance of purgatory for out of town laypersons – stretching for miles. An old girlfriend from glitzy nearby Deer Park, once remarked at how her blue-blooded friends from Baylor U were aghast at the very site while making the exit from the greater expressway on a trip as her special guests for a weekend. But, there’s that silver-lining of course: Those beacons and smokestacks of commerce which sprawl out before you create a hell of a tax base, making Pasadena, Texas one of the richest communities in the country.

    In the mid-90s, I worked in the area of course and got to know the Second Ward very well. “That’s a rough part of town!” I would be lectured by suburbanites, who didn’t know any better. But I didn’t see the danger, besides, what crook is going to carjack a broke looking kid in an ’81 Celica with bald tires. Gang-bangers don’t usually target the downtrodden in broad daylight, who may or may not have $3 in their Velcro wallet. But these were lean times, as the Celica could attest had she not been traded in later, her fate probably landed her in Mexico where she is now hauling chickens to market in Veracruz. How many times did she groan into my office parking lot on empty, only to be reborn by five o’clock and safely, somehow, get me home on fumes? But Fridays were always a windfall, and my temp agency had an office en-route to home and was close to Dad’s BBQ and Jack’s Gas, both old friends. Jack’s was a fill-up joint that also specialized in that southern delicacy: fried foods, for their odorous corndogs were ambrosial to an empty stomach, not to mention the big red letters on the side of the building: We Cash Payroll Checks!

    But life was measured in fivers it seems now – $5 for gas, three packs of smokes for $5, a dozen tamales from Carlos’ wife, $5 – orders placed on Thursday ready by Friday at quittin’ time. The “roach-coach” was expensive not to mention unnecessary. Others may wax nostalgic about slumming at the roach-coach but that game got old quick, for just down the street was Super Chicken n Rice, an Asian family run joint, the Wok Café, or “Hamburgers”, more old friends. Super Chicken is still there, including the logo- a superhero chicken wearing a cape. For $2.99 you used to get two big mystery pieces deep fried and large scoops of what was referred to as fried rice. On the way to this skid row of deliciousness one could while waiting in traffic, ponder the plight of the panhandlers or optimists who were selling things found the previous night in a dumpster or set by the curb. I would then have to remind myself that I was almost homeless, one paycheck myself from such self-employment. One destitute couple routinely offered for sale three or four cheap oil paintings: a schooner on the sea, a bowl of fruit, etc., but I am not sure if they ever sold one or what became of their dog, who probably regretted meeting them: He could do better on his own.

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