Lee Brown: engineering

England to Italy in 30 odd hours!

Before we got to China we were very busy in the UK specifying and purchasing the equipment that was needed in China. We purchased one machine from Italy and had to visit the Italian supplier to perform acceptance trials on the machine. The UK agent warned us about using KLM airlines as he had problems with them many times previously. Our company took no notice and promptly booked us on KLM. The plan was as follows: flight from Birmingham to Schiphol, Amsterdam then Schiphol to some airport in Italy which I can’t quite recall. The trip should have took no more than 6 hours door to door. The memories I hold of this trip will last with me forever, here’s the catalog of disasters.

The flight from Birmingham was delayed, finally getting us to Amsterdam late the same night. We had missed our planned flight from Amsterdam to Italy which also happened to be the last one that day. We were told we would be given a hotel for the night and fly out next morning. Problem: Jack’s medication was in his suitcase in the plane’s hold and they weren’t offloading the luggage. Schiphol is a massive airport and somewhere in the middle of it they have a medical centre. Jack knew all of his medication so we set off to find the guy in the pharmacy who could help. It was now nearly midnight and only a few people where around. We walked for what seemed an eternity and eventually found the hatch which could provide what Jack needed. Jack eventually got through to the guy what tablet he required and luckily they had them, just not in the required dose. Jack needed 5 mg and these came only in 20 mg tablets or something like that. Not to worry we could sort that out later in the room. Well… in the room Jack hurriedly placed the tablet on the table surface and took out his pen knife. (He carried this on his key ring attached to his trousers and although was challenged he always got through airport security!!) I heard a ping and the tablet shot from underneath the blade of the knife across the tiled floor never to be found again. Preparing for another walk to the pharmacy Jack stopped me. ‘Go to bed son, I’ll be ok til the morning’. It must have been 2 or 3 am by now anyway so not long to go.

Our planned morning flight was around 10am so we still had visions of making it to the Italian Plant by mid afternoon. We boarded the plane, taxi’d to the runway and just as the engines should have roared into life all went silent. The upshot was a technical fault which would mean us changing planes. By the time we had disembarked, retrieved our luggage and re-loaded any thoughts of getting to work that afternoon had gone. We finally landed at our Italian destination late afternoon, jumped off the plane and went to retrieve our cases. As the final case was lifted from the belt and the passenger scurried towards the exit me and Jack (still at the conveyor belt) just stood and looked at each other. I’d got my case but Jack’s hadn’t arrived! We found the desk responsible, filled out the forms and headed for the exit. We were picked up and took to our hotel somewhere near Lake Como. Unfortunately the fun didn’t end there. Jack had no clean clothes, toiletries, medication or as he told the rep who had picked us up … pyjamas! ‘I can’t go to bed without pyjamas mate,’ Jack explained. God knows how we did it but at 7pm ish we dashed about all the shops surrounding Lake Como and managed to obtain everything on the list. I learned recently Jack still has those pyjamas!! haha

Can we see the Play ?

I have met some amazing engineers and characters during my engineering career; Jack ranks up there with the best. He had a way of controlling a situation with superb phrases that were never aggressive or rude but got to the point. One of my favourites was at a meeting with a potential supplier of equipment. We were spending some big money and companies would always send in the ‘artillery’ at the initial meeting, sales directors, managing director, managers, engineers … the full monty. At one particular meeting we had listened to all the bulled-up introductions, and posh business cards were flying around everywhere. After more than enough chitchat, Jack stood up, arms raised, that big smile adhored his face. Like a conductor he beckoned to them all, ‘Well Gentlemen, we’ve met the cast, now can we see the play?’ He looked at me and smiled as the big guns on the opposite side of the table were nodding at each other, hoping someone would take to the stage. I’ve never used that saying as it could only come across like that from Jack. I’ve not forgotten it though and neither I guess have the ‘artillery’!

Dancing in the street

On one of our first visits to China we were working in a factory about half hour’s drive from Changchun. Changchun is a city in the north of China with a similar population of London but probably never heard of by most Europeans. The company, Dahua, were based in the Jilin province far up in the North and it was freezing. We were driven to and from the factory by the same driver. We spoke no Chinese and he no English but somehow we got along with a few laughs and mutual respect. We just sort of bonded. The drive back was usually late. Mostly the days were long, cold and frustrating and I was glad Jack was there. I hope I offered him similar support. Quite often during the drive back to the hotel we would see local residents out in the street in a large circle performing a dance while waving red hankerchiefs or similar to an accordion type street musician. The houses/apartment blocks surrounding them were bleak to say the least and I wondered if they congregated as a means of socialising and helping to keep warm, or was just better than sitting alone in these dark, bland looking homes. What I do recall is they all looked to be having a great time. Night after night we would pass them. One evening as we approached the group I beckoned our driver to pull over. Our chauffeured Black Audi pulled over and I opened the door and got out. I remember shouting ‘Get out Jack, we are going to have some fun’ as the group stopped the dancing and looked over in bemusement. Next thing I remember was joining the circle attempting to follow the ‘moves’ of the dance group while waving a red hanky in the air. I looked back and a few yards behind me there was Jack, attempting the same, that big warm smile on his face. We to’d and fro’d attempting to follow the locals footsteps and jumps around the dance circle. It was a particular freezing Chinese night. We gave it a few minutes and then as quick as we joined we were back in the Audi being whisked away whilst waving to our dance compatriates smiling and laughing at the chaos we had caused. I’d like to think we offered some spontaneous cheer to those locals that night and wonder if they still speak of the night two crazy ‘round eyes’ jumped from a limo and joined their festivities, if only for a few moments.

Best Chat up line Ever!

Jack and I were joined by Graham, the project leader. We were now in Dalian, the ‘home’ of the production facility we were setting up. Evenings existed of a beer and meal in the hotel. The hotel was excellent although not much around it. There was a sports centre attached so myself and Graham indulged in a bit of Badmington each night after work before hitting the beer. I’m a firm believer if you look hard enough you will find, and lo and behold the three musketeers found a welcoming bar nearby. As we stood at the bar having a beer, chat and laugh we were approached by three young Chinese ladies who obviously worked at the bar. They seemed really interested in what we were doing there. Graham and I chatted and explained we were working here and spent our spare time at night playing some sport at the hotel and then tried to find places for a relaxing beer. I looked around to see where Jack was. He beckoned to the bar tender not for a drink but a piece of paper. He took out his clutch pencil from his jacket inside pocket. Ehhhh? Five minutes or so went by and Jack and the lady were engrossed at the bar over scribblings on the paper. Inquisitively I walked over to find Jack had drawn a detailed schematic of the production line we were installing, explaining the process off machining flywheels and brake discs!! The look on the girl’s face was priceless. How can I put it – ‘confused but with considerate politeness’. Jack all over, he lived and breathed his job.

Badminton, not the horse trials! (A follow on from the ‘Best Chat up line Ever’)

We walked out that bar, bellies full of beer, and a bill for about 36p plus an invite to return the following night. We went a few nights running and each night got better. We always seemed to ‘attract’ the same girls and I’m sure Jacks lessons in the casting and manufacturing of flywheels seemed to be getting through. As soon as that piece of paper crossed the bar and his clutch pencil left his inside pocket and that big smile appeared on his face I knew he was in his element. The girls had challenged me and Graham to a game of badminton and said they would meet at 6pm outside the hotel sports centre the following night. We never thought they would show but sure enough they were there as arranged. It was all totally innocent and as we took to the court in our mixed doubles teams I whispered to Graham what his other half back in the UK would say if she could see him now. He grinned as much to say ‘life would be over” and I knew the same could be said for me. As we walked to our positions on court I we looked up to see Jack in his familiar ‘David Bailey’ pose, that big grin on his face as he was clicking away without a care in the world. Graham warned him those photos needed to be deleted. I doubt Jack took any notice and who know if and where they may someday surface! Unfortunately the bill seems to be increasing rapidly but not for what we were consuming. To the extent one night Graham reckoned the bill amounted to nearly £300 so that was the end of that!!

Waltzing Matilda

One night, we managed to find a restaurant with a ‘European’ feel to the menu. We were pretty much the only four in there apart from a large group of around 20 Europeans seated on one long table nearby. We ate our food and carried on with a few beers. The large group began a sing along with all the old favourites coming to the fore, ‘Roll out the barrel’, ‘Show me the way to go home’ etc etc. We were invited to join them and soon forged friendships amongst a few beers and general chit chat. I recall Jack needing the Gents. The door was a few yards from the end of the long table. As Jack disappeared the next song happened to be ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In a flash, my Aussie pal appeared from the Gents and standing at the head of the table conducted the sing-song in a way only Jack could. A great big smile and both arms flailing around like a conductor on speed. Ha ha, another daft memory that will live with me forever.

Toolroom at Dawn

Jack’s love of his job was so apparent and inspired me so much. I could also graft and we sort of bounced off each other. One memory sticks out in my mind in particular. The project was at its installation phase. This is where so much unseen work goes in to solve all those small annoying problems that no one could be expected to foresee. I remember Jack telling me they were just a row of dominoes and to keep knocking them down one by one. This row seemed to go on forever and some buggers just didn’t want to fall down! They were long days and this particular Saturday was particularly draining. Me Jack and Graham (the project leader) were still there when pretty much everyone else had gone. Jack had managed to arrange for certain willing Chinese personnel to remain with us. Those who he deemed may be required to help push over a few more dominoes. We got to around 10pm and Graham looked at me and asked how I was doing. I was physically and mentally knackered and I knew Graham was in a similar state. Graham announced we were calling it a day. I remember looking over at Jack who had some part of a jig or fixture in his hand that needed a slight modification. ‘Be with you in a minute,’ Jack called across as he put his head down in that familiar pose and scurried out the office to find the toolroom guy he had persuaded to stay over some hours earlier. Graham and I just looked at each other, looked at the floor and shook our heads in mutual respect for this amazing friend and colleague. I was always really aware of Jack’s age during this project and tried to look after him best as I could. It was all a waste of time, Jack had more energy than the rest of us put together.

Letter of the Apology

While in Dalian we had drivers to take us to and from the factory. At the end of a long day we were having to wait for the driver to take us back to the hotel so started to use taxis. They were as cheap as chips, the equivalent to £1.50 if memory serves me correct. We used them a few times and they were efficient cheap and on time. One evening we all clambered out the taxi at the hotel and Jack shouted up ‘I’ll get this guys’. As the taxi disappeared we asked Jack if he was ok as he was looking at his money. It turned out the taxi had charged Jack around the equivalent of £15 for the trip back. Jack muttered something under his breath and we all just laughed it off and went to the bar for a well earned beer. We mentioned it the following morning when we returned to the factory but more in general conversation not a complaint. Little was said and we got on with the job in hand. We returned to the UK, beavering away on the project until it was time to return once again to China. Collecting our luggage at Dalian airport we came through arrivals to be met by our lift to the hotel. As we cambered into the mini bus we were presented with an envelope containing a hand written letter and some Chinese currency. The letter as I remember translated to an apology like no other.

In summary the company traced the dodgy/desperate taxi driver who overcharged Jack. The letter contained a sincere apology explaining the guilt and shame the driver had bought on himself and his family and begged our forgiveness. The Chinese currency equated to, yes you guessed it, around £15 sterling. Jack had done it again, the only team member to get a free ride home with a letter of apology like no other!!

When we did get the odd day off we would be out round the towns and cities exploring. We somehow ended up on some out of service warship and whilst looking around Jack grabbed the gun in the photo. Some official on the ship came across and asked if we would like to fire it! We gave the guy a few quid and out he came with some shells. Jacks face was a picture as he let fly. I thought I’d lost the photo but dug around some old laptops and discovered it.