— Chapter Nine:Taking the Stage —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne,
Once again, it was Stewart’s Uncle Russell who stepped in, questioning Dottie about Stewart’s plans for the future. She told him that she had no idea what he’d like to do, “But I think he should be an architect.”
Uncle Russell’s own son, Ned, had enrolled a year earlier in the program at Drexel University and was on track to earn a degree in mechanical engineering. He’d received a ’64 GTO from his parents as a graduation present, and had enlisted in the cooperative educational program at Drexel. Stewart’s uncle knew that his sister had little money to fund college for her son, but mentioned a three-year program available at Temple University that, as a state-related school, could provide a cost-feasible option to a traditional four-year college program.
Russell let Dottie know that he was willing to help out with some of Stewart’s expenses, but that Ned’s education at Drexel was expensive, and he couldn’t absorb too many costs since Ned still had more than three years of school remaining.
Dottie approached Stewart with the idea, letting him know that, from what she had learned, Temple offered an architectural technology program as well as similar programs in electrical and mechanical engineering. Although she had discouraged an education in the arts, she mentioned to Stewart that architecture could be an outlet for his creative talent and that his father’s Uncle Bernard had made a good living designing golf courses throughout the United States and Canada.
Without an alternate plan, Stewart requested and completed the application for enrollment and despite his unexceptional grade point average and less than stellar score on his math SAT, he was accepted into Temple Tech upon the receipt of $500, a partial fee for his first semester attendance.
The summer went by quickly for Stewart. In July, he asked Dr. Fell’s son for permission to use his compressor and the rectory’s one-car garage to paint his car. The minister granted him his approval, and Stewart used the cash he’d received after graduation to purchase a gallon of primer and two gallons of Fathom Blue lacquer needed for the task. When the car was completely coated, he cleaned up the garage and removed the masking tape from the windows and drove home, later sanding and rubbing the top-coat to a glossy finish.
Over the summer, Stewart cut lawns, washed cars, and watched a lot of daytime television. When friends or relatives asked him what his plans were for the fall, he’d reply that he was going to go to Temple Tech, a not-quite-good-enough school that he privately acknowledged was “a school for losers.”
After submitting his application by mail, he never had a desire to visit the school, or even to look over the brochure for the subjects taught. Although his mother had suggested the architectural program, Stewart was interested in cars, and he assumed that mechanical engineering technology would best be suited to his short-term goal of maintaining and fixing his car. What he didn’t realize was that his main interest in cars was not in their mechanical function, but in their shape, color, and overall visual appeal. He enjoyed custom cars more than he did antiques, and was fascinated with pinstriping, scroll work and hand-sculpted body panels.
He had learned to replace brakes, and execute oil changes and the other necessary routine maintenance which he performed on the ‘52 Plymouth, but what he enjoyed most was customizing its appearance and personalizing it as best he could with the little money he had.
To that end, he purchased end-lots of white and blue vinyl at a discount fabric shop and, using his grandmother’s sewing machine, pleated the material into door panels for the car’s interior. He rummaged through the junk yards along Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia to find parts that could be swapped out, such as the grill of a ‘55 Oldsmobile to replace the ‘52 Plymouth’s original “tooth” front-end assembly.
Stewart added a radio he found from a 1953 Plymouth, and traded car washes and lawn services to two of the sales staff members at the local Pep Boys store for a set of seat covers, wrenches, and an electric drill they pilfered from the store’s inventory.
Throughout the summer, he continued to earn money for gas, brushes, enamel and other supplies from the profit made from his humorous Ed Roth-style caricatures he painted on his friends’ cars, but he never pursued any new ideas for a cartoon strip after making his presentation of “The Readers” to the Fellowship.
Though thoughts of a career in art were off the table, Stewart had begun conceiving in pencil, marker and watercolor, a gallery of futuristic automobiles, with a similar intensity he had applied to the spaceships he’d crafted in his third grade class at Simon Muhr.
When not drawing or working, he spent his time that summer hanging out with kids from his old neighborhood who had no plans for college. One volunteered that as soon as he was 18, in August, he was going to sign up for the military, and another was going to work with his father repairing sewing machines in a clothing factory in North Philadelphia. Two others had no plans, except to keep their cars running and make whatever money they could by parking cars at Drexelbrook, an event center in Drexel Hill, joining work crews they were referred to by friends of their family, or searching for an entry level job in an office or factory, hoping to gain experience and more responsibility as they learned the ropes.
Stewart, who lived near the 69th Street Terminal, had only a short walk to the West Philadelphia elevated line which descended under ground to become a subway at 46th Street, and ended its run near City Hall at 15th and Market. From there, the Broad Street line ran north and stopped near Temple’s Stauffer Hall, a converted bank building housing classrooms and administrative offices for the technical school. Temple had no four-year engineering program at the time and the nine-story building housed most of the classrooms for the technology students.
Stewart had never visited the school prior to the day of orientation, at which time he was asked to select the program he was most intent on pursuing. Long tables were set up with displays listing the courses in each program, along with rolls of white prints displaying the skills of the draftsmen who had since graduated, and several of the books used in the courses. One table, promoting the architectural program, held cardboard models of three houses and a commercial building. Another, promoting electrical engineering, displayed hand-wired electrical gear and printed circuit boards.
Although fascinated with the models, Stewart was drawn to a table that held a miniature automotive frame, complete with an operating front suspension and gear box that turned the front by rotating the steering wheel connected to the gearbox, an arm and a tie-rod projecting from it. Stewart knew little about how a steering box worked, but as he turned the steering wheel, the instructor explained the action inside the miniature box, and how lengthening or shortening the arm would alter the degree to which the front wheels would turn.
“Who made this model?” asked Stewart.
“It was the final project of a student who just graduated. He constructed it guided by his plans,” said the instructor, unrolling a complex annotated pencil drawing.
“He only had to complete the drawing, but by working with his father, a machinist, the two were able to create the working model from the plans, proving that the plan was accurately conceived.”
Stewart was fascinated by both the plan and the beautifully built model that was pleasing to the eye as well as operational. The whole assembly was sprayed with matte black paint, and it looked more like a sculpture than a functional object.
The instructor asked if he was signing up for the engineering program, and Stewart paused before answering, but then said, “Sure!” after which he wondered whether his judgment was correct, but then decided that no matter which course he chose, he would most likely fail to fulfill his expectations of himself, and would never be able to execute a model as perfectly as the one that inspired him during orientation.
When he got home, he told his mother what he’d done and she was surprised, but not shocked, by his choice. His grades in algebra had been marred by his lack of precision, and his skill in mathematics was minimal, at best. She also understood that Stewart was notoriously forgetful and consistently made errors in his calculations, even when adding and subtracting small columns of numbers. He had grown to love reading literary novels, but when asked to write a paper on one, no matter whether by hand or by typewriter, he’d make numerous mistakes in spelling, grammar and even by including duplicate words in a sentence.
His enjoyment of reading had little effect on his comprehension of instructional materials, and he was lost when trying to follow diagrams. His teachers had told Dottie that Stewart lacked the ability to think linearly; he would begin in the middle of any problem, and work back and forth from the center, and then to the beginning, skipping to the end to find a solution.
This disability had begun to appear for Stewart when he entered the 7th grade, although his teachers were never to discover any name for the syndrome until much later in Stewart’s life. It became most evident in junior high when he was called on to take work home, where Stewart had no place to study. He was distracted by the sound of the television set playing constantly in the living room, and could only study in the bathtub with the water running. He was drastically disorganized by his own thoughts, which resulted in him blanking out when trying to remember an answer to a questions posed to him by his teachers.
The problem never corrected itself, but Stewart adjusted to the challenges well enough to advance from one grade to another with a C grade average.
Studying enhanced his forgetfulness, so Stewart decided to stop the practice during the first semester of his senior year of high school and received his first A in a major subject: English. He also surprised himself by making the Honor Roll and receiving B’s in all of his other courses.
As he began his studies at Temple, when faced with a challenge he couldn’t understand, he’d ignore the teacher’s explanation and experiment with ways to solve the problem on his own. This process worked well on subjects such as psychology, semantics and literature, but poorly on subjects such as structural engineering, thermodynamics, chemistry, physics and calculus.
Because he chose to enter the field of engineering, he knew that he was placing his education at risk, since any failure on his part would appear to teachers as inattentiveness and a belief that Stewart was neither studying nor caring enough about his subjects to prepare for an exam or to participate in any discussion on the subject in the classroom.
Stewart knew he grasped the concepts of most of the subject matter and retained the information of his assignments, but he needed processing time to shift the input of data from his short-term memory to his long-term memory to have it become a useful part of his education. His errors in written compositions and his repeated mistakes in his calculations weren’t due to a lack of interest or desire to perfect the quality of his equations and sentences, but instead resulted largely from the disconnect between the number or word he put on the paper, as it mistranslated to his hand from his head.
One of Stewart’s required courses was drafting, a manual skill Stewart had taken as a subject in high school. He’d learned to print numbers and letters neatly, and could produce nicely drawn images of gears and pulleys or other devices, with their neatness and clarity only somewhat marred by the ghosted images of mistakes he would correct after each miscalculation of a measurement or other error. Sometimes he would need to change one word or number so many times that he’d wear a hole through the paper or drawing vellum before finally handing his paper in to his instructor, at which point more mistakes were often found.
Stewart knew that a traditional path through his education seemed highly unlikely, but he also knew that he, alone, had to find his way past his limitations.
During his first semester at Temple, a guidance counselor spoke to the class about scholarships that were available to any student whose parents made less than $5,000 a year. Stewart knew that after taxes his mother made less than $4,000, so he raised his hand and applied for a state scholarship that eventually covered his entire tuition.
Stewart also learned of the co-op work program at Temple Tech in which he could be placed in engineering-related companies for one of three semesters and earn a small salary while using the skills he learned during the other two semesters in class. Stewart signed up for the program, and because he had a car, he could travel to companies not easily reached by others using public transportation.
After his first two semesters at Temple, Stewart was given a position at Stein Seal Company, a manufacturing facility not far from Connie Mack Stadium, the ballpark where the Phillies played baseball until 1970. Lubinville, as the building was called when it was constructed in 1910, was home to a film studio and surrounded by houses similar in appearance to the one he had lived in at the age of eight on North 13th Street.
Each day he’d drive through West Philadelphia from Upper Darby, then through Fairmount Park, crossing into the deteriorating neighborhood. He’d listen to the top-50 tunes and the popular radio station WIBG as he followed Indiana Avenue to the entrance of the massive building covered with glass-paned walls and ceilings that rose 20 feet into the air. The former film studio that once housed more than 20 movie sets at a time stretched nearly 200 feet across a landscape of yellow pine boards and was populated by more than 60 men at work on lathes, drill presses and shearing, milling and metal-bending machines.
The engineering office was erected on stilts and was perched high above the factory floor. Rolls and rough castings were turned into bushings, bellows and circumferential casings before being fitted with graphite to retain lubricants and reduce friction between shafts and their various housings. Stewart had never dreamed of the various uses for seals needed by so many commercial industries and the military.
His jobs were varied and many were very boring, including the cleaning, numbering and packaging of carbon rings, the copying and folding of large prints, and the cataloging and filing of brochures and manuals necessary for the engineers and designers who required the technical data and measurements of standard components compatible with the products manufactured by Stein Seal.
Stewart would sing quietly as he worked, but loud enough to annoy his co-workers who could hear him as he crammed far too many brochures into each storage cabinet. He never thought to ask if there was another cabinet available, or if he should remove duplicate or outdated information. So eventually, with no room left inside the cabinets, he would chuckle to himself as the engineers and designers broke nails squeezing their fingers into the drawers to retrieve materials from the overstuffed cabinets.
Although not organized, Stewart wasn’t the least bit stupid when it came to taking on a job that no one else could handle. During renovations to the department, the blueprint machine, which measured nearly 6 feet wide, 5 feet high and 4 feet deep, couldn’t be moved to a new location through an existing doorway and up a stairway. When his boss brought up the problem, Stewart volunteered to take the machine apart, and move it section-by-section to its new location.
No instructions were found for the machine, which had been there as long as the company; they were most likely stuffed in with others in the file cabinet where all other brochures were kept.
Stewart’s boss was familiar with the intern’s limitations, but could also see that Stewart, who was usually shy, showed confidence that he could accomplish the task. Since no other employee had volunteered to take on the task, he gave Stewart the “okay” and provided him with the tools requested for the job.
As Stewart proceeded to take apart the machine, his boss asked, “Won’t you need a pad and pencil to document the steps, and perhaps some small bags for parts?”
“No,” said Stewart. “I’m good.”
As he removed each part, he placed the component against the wall before removing another. There were pulleys, gears, and electrical boxes that formed an additional row. Shafts, keys, and chains that had been attached to a motor formed a third row, which also included enclosures, feeder plates, a belt, gear housing and a wiring harness.
Much of the process was within sight of the engineers and designers, and they watched Stewart work with amusement, placing bets on whether the machine would ever be functional again, and concerned for how long it would be before they could make prints from their drawings.
Once the machine was disassembled to a size that could easily be carried through the passageway, Stewart separated the large pieces from the smaller ones, packed the loose components into shipping boxes, and then began to cart the disassembled machine up the stairs to its new location.
Stewart showed no concerns with the reassembly as he began to rebuild the machine in its new space, but there were times when he was shaken by a missing piece, usually found hiding under a larger piece yet to be assembled. But on the floor below, Stewart’s boss genuinely feared that he’d overestimated Stewart’s skills, knowing that if Stewart couldn’t reassemble the machine, he would be left with a piece of equipment with no instructions, and which most likely could not be used again.
After about an hour of relative silence in the engineering department, Stewart’s boss climbed the stairs to assess the damage and found Stewart singing to himself while working.
“How’s it going?”he said.
“Fine,” replied Stewart.
“Do you need any help?”
“No. I’m good. I would like a Coke if it wouldn’t be much trouble?”
“Sure,” said the boss, as Stewart went back to work.
The engineering team on the floor below watched their boss as he hurried down to the ground floor, and then arrived back up about five minutes later with a can of Coke, which he took directly upstairs.
It seemed that many more parts had been added to the machine as he handed Stewart the Coke. Though he’d been gone less than ten minutes, the hood was in place and Stewart announced, “I think I’m almost done.”
“Do you think it will work?” asked his boss.
“Yep. It should,” answered Stewart. His boss decided to stay and watch as Stewart completed the assembly, and was pleased to see that, from the outside, it looked much the same as it had before being dismantled.
Once the handles were reinstalled, Stewart placed the plug into the new machine and flipped the switch to start it up. The gears seemed to turn properly, but the long lamp that exposed the prints failed to light.
“Uh,oh,” said Stewart.
“It’s not working!” exclaimed the boss.
“No, it’s not,” answered Stewart, scratching his head. “Do you have another bulb for this thing?”
“I don’t know.”
After thinking for a moment, Stewart said, “When I was disassembling the machine, I saw a long box in the corner, behind the print-folding table. I thought it was for printing paper, but let me see if there’s a bulb in there.”
As Stewart ran down the steps and through the office, all eyes were watching. They heard Stewart rustling with something in the print room, and then he hustled back upstairs carrying a long tubular bulb.
When he got to the machine, Stewart unfastened four screws from the housing encasing the bulb, rotated the bulb until it was free, and then replaced it with the one he had found in the box behind the folding table. He crossed his fingers and smiled at his boss, and then turned on the machine.
Though Stewart was sweating bullets, he never let his nerves show, and after the light came on, he inserted a vellum drawing and waited for the feed to engage. It did, and the machine delivered a perfect copy.
Although there were few skills that Stewart had that fit the needs of the engineering department, his status in the department was elevated by his boss and the others in his group. Word circulated throughout the shop about his accomplishment, and from that point forward Stewart was treated with respect. On occasion, he’d even get a question from a millwright or a designer on his opinion, and as long as it had nothing to do with numbers, he provided actionable advice.
Before the end of the summer semester, he was given an assignment to design and build a storage cabinet for rolled prints. Stewart estimated the amount of wood he’d need and, without a plan or drawing, optimized the space provided and produced a storage locker that was both functional and pleasing to the eye.
Stewart wasn’t asked to return to Stein Seal for his next co-op appointment, but did receive a good review from his boss before returning to school. The guidance counselor shared the assessment with Stewart: We weren’t quite sure how best to use Stewart when he joined our department. He was a bit strange and aloof, and sang to himself as he worked. It didn’t take long to realize that Stewart was not a conventional thinker, and most likely not suited to the engineering profession. As we got to know him, and witnessed his skills, we grew to value his gifts, and knew that when left to his own way of doing things, he was an asset to our department.”
Before leaving Stein Seal Company and returning to school, Stewart created a caricature of each member of the staff of the department, including the receptionist and a member of the cleaning staff. He executed them at home from memory and without any photographic reference before mounting each one on black mat board.
He made sure in creating each cartoon portrait, that he expressed a special quality or feature about the person drawn, and was mindful to present each in a way that made that person feel important in the group.
On his final day of work, Stewart handed the drawings out to the entire team. He was asked by many of those he illustrated why he was attending a technical school when he obviously had talents more suited to a career in art than in engineering. His answer remained the same: “I know that I’ll never be able to support myself or a family by creating art, so I need to learn a trade. If it’s not to be in engineering, maybe it will be in the field of money management or city planning, or any other I can use to secure my future...or maybe I’ll just continue moving blueprint machines.”
Everyone laughed at his answer, when Gus, a stocky man who sat across from Stewart’s drawing board, commented, “Well from what we’ve seen, you’re going to have a tough time, Stewart... unless your aim is to sink every ship in our navy, freeze up every engine in every airplane launched from our carriers, and ruin any chance the world has of ending hunger.
“You have skills, but except for a knack at making good guesses, you don’t have a chance in hell of making it as an engineer.”
Stewart knew that Gus had a point. He also realized that the world didn’t work on his terms, and that he would have to be the one who would eventually need to adapt.
For many years after Stewart left the company, the story of the blueprint machine relocation was legendary at Stein Seal. Any time a solution couldn’t be calculated, understood, or was deemed impossible, someone would say, “Try it Stewart’s way,” and everyone would laugh, and then they’d go about solving the problem the correct way.