Friday, January 14, 2011

WRITING ON THE WALL

In August 1965, when Howard Crane packed up his earthly belongings and headed to the western plains of Canada, I'm sure he had no idea what his life would have in store. The Cranes lived in Wellsburg, NY, a small town right on the Pennsylvania border. Together with his wife and four children, Howie traveled in their 1956 Chevy for five solid days to arrive at the school. Big changes awaited the family, but they were able to settle in and slowly assimilate into Prairie life.

Howie had trained as a tool and die maker and upon hearing of the need for another machinist at the school he responded. Having had some previous connection, as his youngest brother had attended Prairie High School and his sister had attended the college, he was somewhat familiar with the school. Later on his mother served on staff, working in the Prairie Bookroom. Prairie President L.E Maxwell had also shared the work of the school in the Crane's church and so it was not a complete culture shock when they arrived on campus.

For the first few years Howie worked with Mr. Zweifel or "Pa" as we knew him. Pa was from Switzerland and was a highly trained machinist in his own right. The Zweifels were our neighbors when we lived on Prairie Crescent and in the winter I would often see Pa on his cross country skis coming home from work. He also loved the mountains and made many trips to Banff and area for hiking and climbing.

You may wonder why Prairie needed two machinists but let me assure you that these "behind the scenes" workers kept the place alive and humming. Parts were machined for literally every department on the campus, from the garage to the electronics department. I remember when I was doing student work in the recording studio and we needed a bearing or some other part to keep the old tube Ampex tape recorders rolling, we would pay a little visit to the machine shop. Many of us wondered if there was anything these two couldn't make!

Prairie had a fascinating potpourri of shops. It was enough to give a young boy ADD. Every time you opened a door you would discover a new piece of machinery or someone hard at work on a project. Many a staff kid was the recipient of this unique gift. I remember times when Mom would have to deliver the little red Ford Falcon to the garage for an oil change or to have the winter tires put on and I would duck into the many shops in that area of campus. John Hamm and later Forest Cummings were right next door, always in the middle of a spark show. They ran the welding shop. We would take our broken bikes to them in the hopes that maybe the front forks could be fixed one more time. We invented "offroading" before it was popular! On some of these trips I would visit the machine shop, home of Howie Crane and Pa Zweifel.

Entering the door to the shop opened up an entire new world. Howie would greet us with a big smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Wearing a blue shop apron and clear eye protectors, he would welcome us to his place of service. Large metal lathes, milling machines and drill presses were strategically placed around the shop. Small tools of a precise nature were also important. Punches, scribers, tap wrenches and micrometers were the instruments with which these two men implemented their craft. But there was one fixture that had nothing to do with machining and everything to do with people . . . measuring people.

On one side of the shop was a dedicated wall where Howie would measure every visitor who was willing to stand against it - heels in, shoulders back, chin out. Howie would get his stainless steel ruler from his desk and placing it on our heads he would carefully mark a small line on the wall and write our names and the date. As the years went by hundreds of staff kids were measured on this wall in many colors of ink and pencil. A real work of art. It was fascinating to watch the growth of not only yourself but also your friends. Howie always engaged us in meaningful conversation as he patiently went about the documenting of our heights. I have often said I wished Prairie had been able to preserve that section of the wall for the museum, because of the enormous human element attached to it.

In a recent note from his oldest daughter Gil, she shared the following memories: "We kids used to hang out at the machine shop when we could. I would sweep the shop for him and clean the sink. With the dime he would give me, I would go to the Staff Store for a box of Smarties to share with him. Dad had a big metal block with different sized holes in it, and a box of various sized screws - a puzzle block. I would try to fill as many holes as I could with screws. A wonderful way to keep a child busy. It was always fascinating to watch him create parts for various machines on the variety of lathes. He taught me how to use vernier calipers. He was amazingly particular, down to thousands of an inch, incredibly precise, always calm and patient. Even as a young child I realized that he was of amazing character."

Sometimes it is the seemingly little things that we do that can have long term impact. Howie's soft spoken demeanor and thoughtful care for people won him friends young and old, many who are still in touch with him to this day. Thanks to Howie we also began a wall at our home when we were kids. Dad would measure us up against the cinder block wall of the Crescent house. When Cathy and I got married and had children we carried on the tradition. From our kids to their friends and visitors, sometimes even pets, all were logged on the wall. When we sold our last house in Three Hills, my Aunt Lois painstakingly transcribed every line off the wall to a long sheet of paper to be copied over to a new wall.

So if you come over for a visit and you see me fetching a pencil and a ruler, you had better measure up!

www.prairieboy.com

© 2011 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.

2 comments:

  1. Steve, I read your memories of your grandpa Norbo's driving with amusement and vivid recollection. He was indeed a "going concern" behind the wheel. There were a couple of other older drivers (whose names I won't mention here) that made a stroll on the streets of Three Hills a real exciting event.
    But, thanks for your "grandpa" musings. Very enjoyable; I could see the people in my mind's eye.
    All the best, Ed Wallan

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  2. Oh man, no one took a photo of the side of the shop where kid's heights were recorded? You are right, too bad it wasn't preserved, that would be something for those kids to come back as adults and see:)

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