Shop Class

Shop Class

Written by Jack Flory

In my first installment, “When I Was A Boy,” (Issue 150) I spun a yarn of growing up as a budding audiophile by using song titles as references. Many of the people who know me well and had previewed the piece said I left way too much out. So, I’ll add a few more installments to fill in some of the blanks along with some streams of consciousness along the way just for entertainment.

No, this piece is not like Bill Cosby’s rendition of “Shop” at all. My life’s version is closer to elements from “Driving In San Francisco.” Somehow, it’s all worked out and I’ve made it over the top of the hill, past the stop sign.

Like it or not, my high school had a well-established caste system. Students were ranked by the categories of College Prep, General Business, Future Farmers of America, and Industrial Arts, pretty much in that pecking order. Most kids destined for college were put into one of the College Prep sections and taught subjects they would need after high school, such as higher mathematics, foreign languages, and so on. For the most part, the athletes (jocks) got put into Business, the farmers in the FFA classes and those that didn’t fall into one of the obvious groups were placed in Industrial Arts.

The year I was in tenth grade, my school added Electrical Shop to the list of available classes. They’d had a long previous history of Wood Shop, Metal Shop, Auto Shop and Auto Body Shop. I elected to take Electrical Shop, as I thought I would learn electronics and it would be an easy boost for my grade point average. As it turned out, I was the only one in that class with any intention of learning electronics. Everyone else was there to learn how to wire a house and they were convinced I was there to destroy the grading curve (I did).

Since my school was in a fairly rural area, they didn’t have a large budget for furniture, and some heavily-used workbenches had been acquired from somewhere. They were greasy, grimy things painted US Navy battleship gray. Our first task was to refinish the workbenches.

Most of the class was truly proficient with such manual labor. Or maybe it was the chance to breathe volatile organic solvents that really got them going. In any case, all the gray paint was scraped away. Lo and behold, there was beautiful butcher block maple under all that greasy grime and paint. A little poly finish and we had some nice benches, but we still had to sit on metal stools that were quite uncomfortable after a while. This would become a real problem later.

The next step was to attach green tunnels down the middle of the benches. This separated four kids into two on each side of the bench. The tunnels were then fitted with power supplies, meters and all kind of things designed for a preprogrammed lesson plan from the manufacturer. I suspected the real purpose for the tunnels was to keep the equipment from being stolen. A real electrician was brought in to connect power to the tunnels, ending the dreams the hoodlums had of “Burning Down The House.”

Having outfitted the shop to his liking using free student labor, the shop teacher then started his lesson plans. Ohm’s law was first on the list. It quickly became obvious this wasn’t going to work. multiplication and division were beyond the math skills of the hoodlums in the class, and I already knew that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” power equals I2R, where I is amperage and R is resistance in ohms. Save that thought. We’ll come back to it in a later installment.

While most kids my age were Desperately Seeking Susan or someone like her in a purloined copy of Playboy, I had hit on the Holy Grail. Somehow, my father had wrangled a copy of the Amateur Radio Relay League Handbook and brought it home, maybe by accident. It had lots of articles detailing schematic diagrams and pictures of how to build radio transmitters and receivers. This was way better than naked women. Years later, this culminated in my Amateur Extra Class radio station license. Yep, I had become a certified Nerd with a capital “N” and with the ARRL Handbook, I had a ready supply of future projects.

The Radio Amateur's Handbook, 1959. The Radio Amateur's Handbook, 1959.

My 11th grade project for shop class was to build a device to slew the clock on a telescope. I got the plans from Sky and Telescope magazine. Small telescopes such as those most amateur astronomers use have motors that are sensitive to the frequency of the power source. In our case, 60 Hz from conventional electric power. The trick is to get main axis of the telescope lined up on the star Polaris, and then take an exposure with your camera through the main telescope, letting the clock drive follow the stars. However, in almost all cases of deep-space photography, the exposure is long, and needs some hand guidance to avoid having the stars look like trails of light. This is accomplished by aligning the spotting telescope on a bright star and then backing out the focus until the star almost, but not completely, fills the spotting telescope. Even a slight error in tracking is obvious with this methodology. Then, you press one of two buttons to either speed up the frequency or slow down the frequency as needed.

By now, I was 16, had a driver’s license, and the use of our family’s Jeep. It was a “Dangerous” combination. My grandmother had fallen ill and my parents left me Home Alone most weekends. I had a part-time job at the local grocery store bagging groceries, and had a few extra coins in my pocket. I wasn’t really flush with cash, but had enough to get tickets for Steppenwolf, The Kinks and an occasional theater production. Yes, girls were involved.

For my 12th grade shop project, I found the plans and schematic for a stereo preamp in Popular Electronics. Transistors were all the rage and everyone wanted to design DIY projects. I started by etching my own circuit boards, drilling the holes, and then soldering all the discrete logic components to them. Being a nerd, I got the idea it would be cool to mount the circuit boards on the top of an inverted Bud box. The volume and tone controls would be inside the box. Each channel consisted of two 3-inch square circuit boards I mounted on risers so they could be seen in all their glory. This certainly wasn’t the best shielding for electronic noise, but there wasn’t as much of it back then. And, the preamp didn’t sound worse than our family’s Zenith. When my parents were out of town, this became my bass guitar amp, going through the preamp into the line inputs of the Zenith.

I had become interested in theater and became the only member of the stage crew. As it turned out, the shop class teacher became the sponsor of the stage crew. Being the star performer in his class had its special bonus. I received a standing hall pass that enabled me to cut out of boring things like study hall and an occasional class. As the only member of the stage crew, I got to pick the work I wanted to do, and also took responsibility for the lighting.

Soon, several of my friends figured out that I was hanging out in the auditorium while they were stuck in study hall. They too, wanted to be part of the stage crew. We became a little mafia of the stage. If you wanted to do something in the auditorium, you needed us to help. Not only were there the usual and customary school plays, we also worked on the senior class fund raiser. Every year, the senior class brought in a “real” act and charged admission to raise money. One year, we did a Shakespeare production with actors from New York. Another year, we had the O’Jays play a concert. Along the way we had some fun. Whenever the school principal spoke during an assembly, there would be a time when the kid running the sound system would shut him off. The principal would tap the microphone and it would work just fine. As soon as he spoke again, nothing. Then a big howl of feedback. Today, I would surely have received a text with the ROFL emoji after that one, but the iPhone wasn’t a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye just yet. (Integrated circuits had just been invented. Fairchild had one in production with five transistors.)


This book could come in handy too! Learn Electronics Through Troubleshooting, Second Edition, 1977. This book could come in handy too! Learn Electronics Through Troubleshooting, Second Edition, 1977.

All this was beginning to grate on the nasty creatures in the class, and the late 1960s wasn’t just the dawning of “The Age of Aquarius, it was also the dawning of the age of Super Glue, and two of the shop class hoodlums, brothers, had discovered they could glue a straight pin on the end of a ballpoint pen. One of the them would sneak up behind me as I walked down the hallway headed toward shop class and jam it into my posterior. Of course, this delighted everyone in the hallway. And then, I had to sit on that metal stool.

I became primed for revenge. I had no real plan, other than the fact that my mother had made it clear to me that being expelled from high school wasn’t in my best interest. This was especially true as I had a scholarship in process. All plans for revenge were cancelled and I swallowed my pride. Believe me, it never occurred to me to settle differences as high school kids do today.

I went off to college and pretty much stopped thinking about all the indignation I had encountered in high school. However, “Revenge Is Sweet.” It’s sweetest when you have nothing to do with it, even if you don’t find out about it until the call comes years later for your first high school class reunion. It might not have been “Instant Karma,” but it worked for me. The older hoodlum brother hadn’t listened to the “I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” The younger one was involved in a construction accident and fell from a roof. I ignored the reunion. I would never return to that place again. Instead, I found solace in skiing, the great outdoors of the Rocky Mountains and my art. C’est la guerre and I won.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss building my first pair of speakers.

Header image: from Radio-TV Experimenter, spring 1961.

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