It Takes Two to Rivet

When  I emerged from my hotel room Wednesday morning, the first thing my eyes landed on, directly across the hallway, was the notice shown above.  I'm not really sure how I'd missed it the evening before when I checked in (it doesn't speak very highly of my powers of observation, does it?) but somehow I did.  So, two things to note here: 1) what a great idea to run your meth lab in a cheap hotel room - if I ever decide to start my own meth lab, I'm going to use this idea, and 2) how funny is it to have a no smoking sign on a meth lab?  I had to shake my head when I remembered that not 20 miles from where I stood I had seen a giant painted rock topped with a life sized statue of Jesus that warmly welcomed me to the pious state of Indiana.  Our predominant culture would have us believe that the ills of society are located elsewhere than these bucolic byways of the heartland, but here's the reality of it folks.

I was soon off to Wapakoneta (say: WAUGH-PAUGH-kinetta), Ohio - the birthplace and home town of Neil Armstrong.  There, in what I'm sure looked futuristic for 1972, is housed the Armstrong Air and Space Museum a few blocks from the site where the first man to step foot on the moon was born.  The modest little museum boasts a charming set of artifacts including Armstrong's 1952 membership to the American Rocket Society and the most impressive chunk of moon rock I've ever seen.

After having just been to the Air Force museum where history seemed to be handled with cowhide welding gloves, I was pleased to see mentions of not only the Russian space program, but a nice large panel picturing Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.  I made sure to let the staff know how much I appreciated their balanced approach, especially in light of the specificity of their collection.

I also appreciated the populist nature of the place - there was a whimsical darkened walkway that utilized mirrors and holiday lights to mimic the infinity of space and a whole room lined with popular science fiction movie characters and games to help hold the attention of the kids.  I think people oftentimes need something more down to earth (pun intended) to help them access the inconceivably enormous concepts of the cosmos.  And as proof, the kids I saw at the museum seemed to be loving it, myself included.

I couldn't stay long, though, because I had a date with an aluminum angel in Jackson Center.

Jackson Center, Ohio, is where a visionary fellow by the name of Wally Byam opened an Airstream trailer factory in 1952.  From this factory would be launched what has become the very essence and icon of travel trailers, yea even AMERICA.  Happily, the good folks at Airstream offer daily tours of their factory and for me - to walk through and witness this amazing spectacle is/was/always will be a dream come true.

I was so paranoid about making sure I could go on the 2:00 tour that I arrived shortly before noon.  I guess that says volumes about how much of an Airstream geek I am.  You see, as long as I can remember, my idea of heaven was waking up first thing in the morning and running out to the Airstream trailer that would be parked in front of our house during my grandparents'  visits.  It offered me a mobile experience of my beloved grandparents (8 track tapes of Lawrence Welk while you're eating your Frosted Flakes, anyone?) wrapped in a shiny streamlined package.  My grandparents were never without an Airstream the entire time I had the pleasure of knowing them and it seems as integral a part of me as learning to drive or falling in love.  I'd imagine it's really even the source of my deep passion for anything made of aluminum or that has rivets.

While I was waiting for my tour of the plant, I strolled about to explore some of the many fascinating specimens parked on the grounds.  I'll share a few of my favorites with you.

Here's a 1937 Airstream Clipper.  This trailer is a very early model from the Airstream product line (the very first factory-made Airstreams were sold in 1931) and I don't know if they ever made a better looking trailer than this one.  Look at all those adorable windows and that flirty tail! 

This modern Airstream motorcycle trailer (which is not currently in production) was parked in a bay in the service center:

Below is an extremely rare Bowlus Road Chief, waiting in line for the folks that handle restorations.  The Bowlus Road Chief was the first travel trailer in history made of riveted aluminum and it was produced from 1934-36.  One of Wally Byam's early jobs was as a salesman for Bowlus and it's obvious he was greatly inspired by the design. A company in California has begun reproducing these amazing trailers by hand and you too can have one for the price of $100K.

Check out where the door is located on the Road Chief - on the end!  When Wally made his first trailers, he relocated the door to the side.  That's our tour guide Jim with the microphone.  He's worked for Airstream since 1962.

Okay, this is probably the most unusual vehicle I saw on the entire tour.  Looks pretty ubiquitous, right?  See the gentlemen in green, about to open a panel on the back?  That's where the casket goes - the family rides inside.  This is an Airstream hearse!  The gentleman with the black shirt was a guest on our tour and actually worked in the factory (not the Jackson Center location) that manufactured these units.

At 2:00 sharp, almost 50 of us set off to tour the manufacturing area.  As with most factory tours, we weren't allowed to take pictures (actually, we were allowed to take a few photos which is highly unusual), so you'll have to make do with my euphoric descriptions instead.  From the moment I set foot inside the cavernous building, a grin stole across my face whose rigor did not relax until much later that afternoon.  The first thing that struck me is what a hand made trailer the Airstream is.  There are a little over 600 employees who turn out not quite 50 trailers a week, with a back log of around 1000 trailers on order.  There aren't any moving assembly lines or robot welders, just a lot of happy looking folks, building banquettes and bucking rivets.

Another thing to mention is that I've been on a lot of factory tours, and they're usually very antiseptic.  You're far removed from the action for legal reasons.  On the airstream tour, we were tromping through work areas, stepping over pneumatic lines and kicking little pieces of aluminum aside.  It was so satisfying to be right down in it.

I was absolutely thrilled to watch as all the elements of the trailers came together.  Twenty foot long panels of sheet aluminum being drilled for riveting, giant rounded back ends being scooted across the floor to be placed in position on the cutouts of the floors, gaskets and windows and microwaves being carefully inserted.  As I watched with intense fascination, something huge sunk in: Airstream is that rare bird that refuses to give in to pressure to modernize (Worship at the altar of almighty productivity!) because it would take away the very thing that has made them what they are.  What made me realize it was to watch the riveting process.  Riveting is a two person process - always has been, always will be.  Sure, you can rig up a robot to do it, but then it's not really riveting.  Wally Byam (along with J. Paul Getty of Spartan trailers) was one of the first to use the newly WWII popularized technique on his trailers and the company has steadfastly maintained their commitment to this value for over 85 years.  It's a testament to their integrity that they refuse to do it any other way, even if it means they can't streamline their production line.  I love that.

We were able to take a few pictures at one of our last stops on the tour - the end of the assembly line where each trailer is run through a 95 PSI pressure water bath to detect leaks.

At the end of the assembly line, they cut us loose so we could look inside some of the nearly finished trailers.  Check out this new model they're making that has a rear opening door:

All I could manage to say as I admired the leather seating, stainless appliances and granite counter tops was, "Man....this is definitely not my grandfather's trailer!"  What a fantastic experience.  And I thought I was in love with Airstream before.  My date with an aluminum angel plunged me hopelessly, deeply in love for all time.

With aluminum stars in my eyes, I headed back to Wau-paw as the locals call it, where I'd overnight in a hotel room whose window overlooked the dome of the Armstrong Air and Space museum.  I had read that the museum was lit at night and was eager to shoot some photos in the pleasant evening air.  It was nice to watch the building change as the light receded and disappeared.

When I finished shooting and walked back toward the hotel, I encountered two really friendly fellas enjoying the cool summer evening in the parking lot, knocking back some long necks after a long day of work.  We struck up a conversation, and I didn't return to my room until at least an hour or two later.  We talked up a storm, about noodling, Ireland, Jack London, how to tell a bad motel - it was awesome.  Kelly and Jay are mechanics, employed to go from town to town fixing the big railroad machines that roll along the tracks and repair the rails.  I plied them with questions about their job and then we traded tips on unusuual places we'd visited.  I had so much writing to do, waiting for me back in my hotel room, but the voice inside my head patiently reminded me that this human intersection was probably the most deeply satisfying part of what I do when I travel.  I was giddy with love for people when I finally insisted I HAD to get back to my room and do some writing.  Who knew Ohio could be so swell?

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