Friday, April 26, 2024

Trumpet story post mortem

     As someone who loves his job, I don't keep scrupulous tabs on my hours. The penumbra between working and not working is so gradual and hazy, that doing so would be impossible. Am I on the clock lying in bed in the darkness, thinking about the lede to a story? Sitting in Orchestra Hall listening to a symphony? Life and work are like two ballroom dancers, in tight embrace, gliding across a polished floor. Best not to try to pry them apart.
     Technically, I'm scheduled Monday through Friday. But every Sunday morning I'm prepping Monday's column. Not that I'm complaining. Monday afternoon might find me working in the garden. Both the Sun-Times and I seem satisfied with the arrangement.
     I'm expected to turn in three columns a week, to run Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Before the blog, I used to smile, inwardly, when somebody said they read me "every day," thinking, "What are you doing the other four days — hallucinating?" But now of course there is this blog, where that is possible.
      Though sometimes circumstances dictate that I write one or two extra columns in the paper, reacting to breaking news events, and I don't mind those —it's good to be wanted. Though last Sunday's epic about trumpets was something of an exception, because involved so much work — what with driving to Elkhart and three trips downtown connecting with Conn Selmer and the CSO. I was ready to involve Schilke, another trumpet company in Chicago, and a guy who makes mouthpieces in the Fine Arts Building, when I realized I had gotten far beyond anything that could reasonably be put into a newspaper. The column got shifted to Sunday, because there is more real estate to fill, which was fine, but I didn't want to then disgorge an extra column too.
     The original plan was to miss Monday. But then I decided to break off the two Morgan Park High School students from their reduced role at the end and let them shine a bit in their own column. So that ran Monday. And Tuesday, batting out a blog post about the Seder, I fluttered my fingers over the keyboard and thought, "You know ... this is good ... maybe it should run in the paper." So we ran it Wednesday, and I'm glad, as a lot of readers seemed to really appreciate the column.
     But I did take Friday off, mostly to show I can. I d0n't want to be one of those guys who can't not work, can't step off the treadmill. Though it left me with the question of what to run here. My first thought was the picture above, a Conn Selmer worker checking the straightness of a length of tubing. And a few words to go with it. A whole lot of words, now that I look at it.  One does tend to go on. And on.
    There was something about the photo that appealed to me; the pose, obviously, something almost triumphant about his attitude, like the Bowman and the Spearman, the deco Native-Americans on horseback at Michigan and Ida B. Wells, with their straining bows. Maybe it was his goggles, or the red — his shirt, some kind of scoop device in the foreground, and that beam — cutting the industrial gray.
     There's something appealing about photos of people in protective gear — masks, gloves, helmets. They must appeal to the little boy in me. Like this stooped fellow with his blue balaclava and ear cups. When I see guys who have jobs like this, grinding burrs off trumpets eight hours a day, I remind myself once again to try to appreciate the job I have, one that takes me wherever I want to go, when I want to go there. Because sometimes I forget.
     There are difficulties. A story like the trumpet piece, you are so immersed, it can be hard to stop. I get used to working on them, and hate to just let the subject drop. As it is, I plan to circle back to the CSO. 
     I hadn't planned on stumbling across the voodoo hacks — Bud Herseth's silver bridge ending up as patches on the bell of Esteban Batallan's trumpet — but in giving space to that, I had to lose some cool details of the production process. I woke up Sunday morning thinking. "I didn't mention the Crisco." The factory lubricates one of the 490 steps to make a trumpet with Crisco oil, which I found charming, the out-of-place foodstuff in a manufacturing process, like discovering that deep at the stern of a diesel ship is a collar of lignum vitae, a dense, oily wood;  the shaft passes through it, from the engine room, outside the hull, connecting to the propellers.
     Nor did I mention the workers who go over the finished trumpets, circling dings and scratches in a red china marker so they can be buffed out — nobody wants to spend $3,000 for a trumpet that arrives with a ding or scratch in it. Imagine doing that all day.
     There were two interesting errors in the original story. At first I called the organ on stage at the CSO "a church organ," which prompted two readers to observe that church organs are found in churches. I changed that to "pipe organ." And originally I hyphenated Conn Selmer. I had asked Mark Dulin, the artists' rep, whether it is hyphenated or not, and he said it wasn't. But working for the company didn't necessarily make him the final word, and looking over the corporate material, the hyphen seemed to be used more often than it wasn't, so we went with it, because the crown in the logo seems to be a hyphen. Then after the story ran, the Conn Selmer folks asked if we could take it out and, since it's their company and they should be called what they want to be called, I laboriously plucked all those hyphens out.
      I've gone into the weeds, haven't I? Time to wrap this up. I need the day off.
      You might wonder why I take photos at all — with ace photographer Ashlee Rezin right there. Three reasons, I suppose. One: force of habit; the paper was without a photo staff for many years, I just got used to taking my own photos. Two: it's quicker to take a photo than jot down the details of a scene, and I use them in constructing my story; and Three: to use here. I don't want to seize the work of my photographer colleagues, and so take my own shot to illustrate my blog posts, though the pro shots are always better, and I often seek permission to use them. Nobody has ever said 'No.'
    Anyway, a bit of background, in case anyone's interested. If not, well, there's always tomorrow.

Jim Dwyer buffing trumpets at Conn Selmer.


  1. I find all of this interesting, in a bizarre yet happy way. Who knew about the Crisco?

  2. Imagine having a task to accomplish at a job where you actually work on a piece of functional art that will last for decades and bring joy to so many without considering it drudgery?
    Never imagining someone would besmerch your effort in a newspaper column that will line a bird cage tomorrow

    1. Well, aren’t you nice?

    2. I work for a living like actual hard labor. You know a factory of sorts building things. And you're right, I'm not nice to some people but then there's other working guys them I respect

    3. And yet you apparently read the product of others’ labor. Do you think yours is superior because it involves physical exertion rather than mental? Or do you acknowledge that both have value?

    4. this started with Neil looking down his nose at someone pounding dents out of metal. im not sure if you understand what the literal meaning of product is my friend . its not working guys making a living demeaning others , its intellectuals reminding you every other article where they went to college.

      As an example, I open the paper to a repeat of Neil harpooning one of his favorite targets.

      yeah I read ,writing has value. Neils more than most

    5. My comment on the woman circling nicks on a trumpet was: "Imagine doing that all day." You must not think much of it, because you come away with "looking down his nose" and "demeaning." As I sometimes tell readers, I'm only responsible for what I wrote, not for what you imagine I wrote. Not wanting to do a repetitive job in no way is an insult to those who do. I wouldn't want to collect the garbage either, but I'm grateful someone does.

    6. I did read the words you wrote it began with You waxing poetically about what a great job you have done somewhere along the way you talked about. Imagine doing THAT All day, your italics not mine. So, if I somehow misunderstood this, I don't read minds. I just read words.
      I like the work you do another commenter said. It's great that you go into places of business and shed light on what goes on there. Again, I just don't think it's necessary to act like this is something no one should have to do. You say that's not what you're doing. I'll accept that but it's what it sounds like

  3. I once saw them making trumpets on a tv show & it was fascinating. At one point, the bell was totally flattened out & to solder it & then widened out again to make the bell.
    So many companies used to have factory tours, but now, most have canceled them, due either to concerns about trade secrets or safety. When i was 12 I went through the Kellogg's corn flakes plant in Battle Creek. No more, now they say how the corn flakes are made is a secret. And 10 years ago, I got a special tour of the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, because a relative worked for Kraft & knew a manager there. The most fascinating parts were how immaculately clean this old eight story building was & the massive two story high machine that was a couple of hundred feet long that not only cooked all the hot dogs, but also cooled them down & refrigerated them. They closed it a couple of years later. Also got a tour of the Parker Pen Plant in Janesville 50 years ago. What I remember were the special floor mats we had to wipe our shoes on, because there were tiny bits of gold floating around from making the nibs for the fountain pens & every month they were able to retrieve a few ounces of gold from them.

    1. Growing up in Chicago in the Fifties afforded quite a few opportunities for plant tours. The Leaning Tower YMCA bused us to the Schwinn factory on Kildare, where unfinished and unpainted bicycle frames clanked by on overhead chains. Every day camper got a little gold souvenir pin...a tiny Schwinn bike. Wish I still had it.

      When I was a kid, owning and riding a Schwinn bike was like driving a Cadillac. Schwinn still maintains a strong reputation for producing high-quality bikes. Production shifted (sorry) from Chicago decades ago, first to Colorado and then to a plant in Mississippi, which closed over thirty years ago. Schwinn bikes are no longer exclusively made in the U. S. All Schwinn bikes are now made in Taiwan and China.

      There was also a tour of the Tootsietoy factory, near Midway. They gave out red and blue souvenir cars. And the Cracker Jack factory gave each visitor a bag of "prizes"...rings, puzzles, stickers, and the like. Nobody thought about choking hazards then. They do now. The prizes are gone.

      Maybe the best tour was the Mars plant, on Oak Park Ave, Free Snickers bars. Three Musketeers, too. As we passed the giant mixing bowls, everyone in our group laughed loudly when my kid sister asked if she could "lick the beaters." I wondered how many times they had heard that one before. Probably every goddamn day.

  4. Elkhart. Any impressions?
    Most nights I think I could have stayed in Indiana.

    Then again, the toll roads are super strict like Hoosier women. A lot of fun but I wasn't made for a lack of deep dish culture with a side of mayo. As kids today say.

  5. Thank you! I am actually out of breath after reading that!
    Barbara MP

  6. Did you stop for food in Elkhart?

    I wouldn't be caught dead or alive there.

    1. Yes — my Conn Selmer host drove — he's based in Chicago — and buying him lunch seemed like the least I could do. He chose the place — Rico's at the Bulldog. A bar with food. I didn't really notice anything else about Elkhart. Though if it's anything like Hammond ... my son clerked there for two years. Initially I wondered why he didn't just live in Hammond for two years, rather than live in Chicago and commute. Then we visited, and my attitude shifted 180 degrees. I didn't even want him stopping for gas there.

  7. Michigan and Wells?

    Oh yeah, as in Ida B now we have the corner of Wells and Wells...only in Chicaguh.

    1. Yes, exactly. I added the full name, to avoid confusion.

  8. The trumpet series was very enjoyable. The tube straightener photo and the Michigan Avenue horsemen reference made me think of 1930s murals in a Diego Rivera style. The bounus was lignum vitae.

    1. The Museum of Science & Industry had a cubic foot of lignum vitae years ago. It weighs over 400 pounds & is used as a prop shaft bearing in ships, because it's self lubricating.

  9. I knew there was more to say about brass instruments, and it still is true. Not a complaint, but isn't Jim Dwyer buffing a trombone slide? Or is it a trumpet before the bends? On another note, I'm not sure what the US Navy uses as packing around propeller shafts exiting the hull, but it is a hardy substance. During a maximum speed test, 70,000 tons of aircraft carrier vibrates like nothing else I've experienced. Since replacing it requires a dry dock, between the vibrations and friction, the stuff has to be tough enough to last.

  10. These trumpet stories, and all the ensuing comments, made me think of the MASH episode in which Charles drives the whole camp nuts when he takes up the French horn. In order to stop the incessant tooting and squawking, the instrument is flattened by a Jeep. I've always wondered how many perfectly good horns were destroyed in the rehearsals. The scene was always somewhat painful to watch, at least to me, despite the comedic tones of the episode.

    Maybe that scene was so cringeworthy because the French horn was the first instrument I tried to learn in grammar school. Why the French horn, you ask? Because...I liked the way it looked, and sounded. All that intricate curved brass. My infatuation lasted about a month, while I tried to learn how to actually to play it. No dice. Switched to the clarinet, and then the sousaphone. No dice with them, either.

    Later on, my sister had five years of piano lessons. I still kick myself, for not following in her fingertips. I love the piano. Jazz, classical, ragtime, boogie-woogie, rock, pop, show tunes. Love it all. Oh, to be a piano man!

    "So you can keep your fiddle and your bow
    Give me a p-i-a-n-oh-oh-oh...
    I love to stop right...beside an upright
    Or a high-toned baby grand!"
    [Irving Berlin, 1920]

  11. Hello, Neil.

    I’d just like to thank you for the level of detail provided above, as well as within your S/T columns and other blog posts. I truly enjoy your writings about various manufacturing companies and processes within the Metro Chicago area. The area was once such a manufacturing hub and it’s heartening to know there are still items manufactured within the area carrying the Made in USA label and providing good paying jobs for locals. I especially enjoy these addendums containing overflow from your S/T columns. Please continue the great work! Thank you.


  12. I recently had the experience of touring a small cell lung cancer research lab. That was, I imagine, as fascinating as any tour anyone has enjoyed. I might be prejudiced since I have that cancer, but were I a writer, I could do it justice.


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