MICHAEL CONNIFF © 2018
Father was not the type to arrive on the doorstep of an industrialist without a plan. On the trip north, he had in mind the nation demanded by the automobile: the ribboned roads stretching from sea to sea, the service stations sprouting up like so many weeds, even the slick dealer showrooms the market one day would bear. As they rode down one country road and up another—as the Ford broke down time and again—Father’s carnivorous mind became obsessed with the notion of quality. It would be decades before the infrastructure he envisioned could catch up to his vision: in the meantime, the average owner of the Model T was heading down the road to spontaneous frustration. The car was a work of genius, no doubt, but on the journey north every inch came under Father’s unflinching scrutiny. Keep in mind he had no help whatsoever in his quest for the twin gods of efficiency and reliability: his research came about right there on the road, where the Model T’s mettle was tested at every turn. At a time when filling stations were at best hundreds of miles apart, Father was forced to become a de facto mechanic, expert in all the quirks of Ford’s damnable machine. As they sailed finally into Dearborn, on a day so bright it might crack, Father formulated his first notion of a manufacturing process that rewarded the care of the craftsman rather than the application of dolt to bolt. There was no crash of lightning to mark this intellectual event—nothing more dramatic than the whining of the atomic child and the tidal sickness of his mother—but by the time the Ford factory came into view, Father knew he was on to something small.
Henry Ford told Father he was always welcome to come calling, but the invitation was nothing more than a nod to Ford’s friend, to Father’s father, the great Edison. Father was absolutely the last man Ford expected to see hat in hand, but there he was with Mother and bawling child, with the Model T muddied—in contrast to the gleaming chariot with Ford in the backseat, in the car driven by an underling who never looked up.
“Good day, Mr. O’Kell,” Ford tipped his hat without even lipping a smile. “Your automobile needs a good washing. And so do you, young man.”
It was true. Without time to present himself properly, Father looked like a random cast-off of the industrial age. His oily hair sprung in sprockets. Grime from the final breakdown slathered his beard. His best suit was ripped to rags from the lifetime spent beneath the body of the Ford.
“But Mr. Ford—I—”
Ford was gone before Father could come up with an answer to his own comeuppance. But the next day Father was ready: hair slicked down and back, beard trimmed into submission, his next-best suit spit-shined by Mother in the beam of the Model T. This time Ford flew by with the barest of waves, a pattern he would repeat all week, much to Father’s consternation. There was so much he had to tell Ford—so much to share about reliability on the open road—but on Friday Ford did not even deign to look up from his daily newspaper: the bastard son of Thomas Edison had ceased to exist.
Welcome to the longest weekend of Father’s life. As he awaited his fate, Father looked far worse than he had that first morning in Dearborn, when Ford himself suggested a bath for both man and machine. His belt held up strips of cloth that had once been his pants. The tips of his fingers were bloodied from battles with the internal combustion engine, and there were ugly cuts up and down his forearms as if his skin had been used to sharpen a knife.
Fortunately for O’Kell generations to come, Father toiled through the night to dissemble Ford’s great American icon, reducing every strut and nut to its natural state of pure metallic potential—working through the weekend as bumpers and doors lost their identity in a heap of scrap. He took what was left of his next-best suit to spit-shine Ford’s creation: every screw gleamed in the morning sun like treasure shining on a beach. With all the parts now arrayed on the ground outside the factory gates, Father could see clear as day what it would take to make a better mousetrap. The automobile, he believed, had to be treated as one might a fine reproduction, with the craftsman’s care taken to tame every screw. Labor should work in teams, the better to treat each machine as a one-of-a-kind creation but one step down from a work of art. Only then could Ford’s automobile meet its Maker.
If anything, Father looked like a wildcat refugee from an oil field, a wild man who belonged deep beneath the earth. He also stunk to high heaven. The only remnant of civilization in his attire was the gleaming top hat that came with the keys to the Hat City.
“And your point, Mr. O’Kell?”
The Ford creeeched to a stop at Ford’s command—just as Father had predicted.
“I know your Model T better than I know myself,” Father said.
“Anybody can take my Model T apart,” Ford said. “Let’s see if you can put it back together.”
“I can have it back together by noon.”
“If you do, then you can write your own ticket with me.”
Don’t underestimate Father’s genius for re-thinking matters immediately under his nose. As the aforementioned apostle of the practical, he had taken time on the trip north to sketch the inner workings of the Ford in great detail with thin wire on copper. All he had to do now was to put the puzzle back together: by mid-morning, the Ford looked fresh as any new discharge from the factory floor. Father used the sideboard as a pillow: he fell into a sleep so deep he thought the man shaking his shoulders must have been an angel alighting with a sound bit of advice.
“Hallooo!” came the scratchy voice of Henry Ford. “Get the hell up before it’s too late!”
Father bounced to his feet like a sprung spring.
“Mr. O’Kell,” Ford said, “I am a god-fearing man, as you know. I believe in God and family and the United States of America.”
“I know, sir.”
“I don’t believe in bastards. I don’t hire bastards. You understand?”
“Yes, Mr. Ford.”
“You are a bastard. The bastard son of Thomas Edison, a great man. But a bastard nonetheless.”
“Yes, sir. I am a real bastard.”
“I am looking for loyalty first and foremost,” Ford said. “Do you have any—or are you just another socialist?”
“I want to make lots and lots of money. Pots of it.”
“Then you are a capitalist just like me and your father.”
“You must learn the automobile business from the ground up, Mr. O’Kell,” Ford said. “You will start with the River Rouge operation. And your allegiance to me must be absolute. Absolute. Is that clear?”
“I am giving you this opportunity because I hold your father in the highest esteem. The highest. His is a mind that comes along but once a millennium. Exceptions must be made for such genius—your father’s, not yours. The only genius you’ve shown so far is for making trouble.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Ford.”
“Don’t be. A little trouble in the right places can be a very useful lubricant. You worked as a spy for your father upstate, did you not, Mr. O’Kell? The whole AC/DC nonsense?”
“I did sir. But I am looking to invent—”
“Tell me precisely what you did.”
“I tried to pave the way for Direct Current in a town by showing people how dangerous AC could be.”
“And how did you carry out your plan?”
“I would find a runt—a stray dog—and I would strap him to Westinghouse’s electric chair. Then I would electrocute the dog—using Alternating Current—in front of a big crowd.”
The great industrialist stood still as a statue, his arms wrapped about his elbows like rope.
“You are just the man I’m looking for,” Henry Ford said.
On the day Father walked into the plant, production of the Model T was a hobgoblin of little tasks. Workers wrestled with every spoke and wheel, and automobiles-to-be were left idling for want of paint or a worker’s panting efforts. The bolts and screws Father remembered from the road sat about the plant like treasure neglected.
“You!” someone shouted at Father. “American!”
Father was dressed in the dirty overalls of the common man, with nothing to betray his mission. He now lived with Mother and the baby Tom the same as the other workers, in housing provided by Ford Motor Co. They would now buy all of their food and their clothes at the Ford store, where credit was readily and happily extended. If they asked for medicine, a Ford employee would gladly sell it to them whether they were sick or not.
“You deaf man?” the voice screamed at Father again.
The shout was all bark with no bite behind it. Father could see the big voice came from a man half his size, with blotches for cheeks, with black hair that curled down around his neck and over his ears, the curls coming to rest on the ledge of his eyebrows. The little man looked dog-tired, but there was an electricity about him that no amount of grime or gook could hide.
“Armando Barra.” The man stuck out his hand. “You hate it here. But the people you love.”
Father had at first missed the music of the man’s accent.
“Is easy here,” Armando Barra said to Father. “Work like dog, maybe die like man. I call you—”
“Jake,” Father said. “Jake O’Kell.”
“Mandy people call me,” Armando Barra said.
“You’re the supervisor here?”
“No! No! No! Just a nut. A screw.” Armando Barra clapped Father on the back. “I show you everything, Jakee.”
You might look long and hard to find a Ford biographer willing to give Father his proper due—but no matter. Copper on wire provides the proof of his genius: the tell-tale date of his inspiration is the telling scratch in the corner of each plate. Night after night Father would sit up in bed, the copper in candlelight against his thighs, Mother dead to the world beside him, the Atomic child deader still. Day after day he listened to the sermons of Armando Barra.
“We are so stupid in doing this and then that and then this,” Armando Barra told Father.
“I don’t understand.”
“The Model Ts,” Armando Barra said. “One here. One there. One pointed this way, one that. How you get this done quick right away? This make no sense. Ford way is for stupid.”
“What would you do?” Father asked.
“Automobile go there to here. Straight line. From here to there the best.”
“Some kind of line? That’s what I’ve been thinking.”
“Straight line. Car move from here to there. Is done. I put on horn. Beep-beep. Then you put on wheel—you turn wheel, is okay. Somebody else put on door. Somebody else put on something else somewhere else.”
“And by the time the Model T goes from here to there—”
“In line, Jakee,” Armando Barra said.
“Yes. In a straight line –
“The car she is done.”
“But what could be worse than that?” Father asked. “A man putting on horns all day. Every day.”
“For five dollars, I wear horns all day.”
“Five dollars? Are you crazy, Mandy? Are you nuts?”
“You give working man more money, Jakee, he do what you say. He be quiet. No five dollars—big trouble Mr. Henry Ford.”
“What do you mean?”
“Worse,” Armando Barra said. “Revolution.”
If the new economics of labor owed its origin to Armando Barra, then the implementation of the assembly line owes everything to Father’s persistence. Father lived and breathed the idea, but none of Armando Barra’s truths were self-evident to the man who would part with pennies only if he could turn them into dimes.
“That’s all well and good, Mr. O’Kell,” Henry Ford said. “But that’s not what I’m paying you for. I am far more concerned with eliminating all traces of the labor movement from the Ford Motor Company than I am with your production line.”
“Assembly line,” Father said.
“Regardless,” Ford said.
“But if you’re paying them five dollars,” Father said. “Why would they want to join a labor union?”
“Five dollars?” Ford said to Father. “Did I hear you correctly, Mr. O’Kell?”
“You’ll make more cars. You’ll make more money. And you’ll keep the Bolsheviks away from your plants.”
“And this idea of a line—”
“An assembly line, sir.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about any of that, young man. I don’t need a line at my plant. I need a spy. What have you got for me? Who’s the instigator?”
“I don’t know. I just got here.”
“Need I remind you of the terms of your employment? You are to do for me precisely what you did for your own father. That’s the least you can do for a friend of Thomas Edison’s—a friend of your own flesh and blood! I want a name, Mr. O’Kell, or you can clear out of here forever.”
In Dearborn the baby Tom was surrounded by other children—by Gino and Luigi and John Barra—for the first time he could see how wonderful life could be without the madness of hatters abuzzing about him. As Mother grew huge with Eleanor, Armando Barra’s wife grew to spend more time with the Atomic child: she became the mother Mother had never been. When Mother finally took to bed with Eleanor, she knew her baby boy, her firstborn, had a chance for a life here with the Barras: she knew the future could push all the madness into the past.
Maria Barra knew something was very wrong with little Tom, but she knew too what a mother’s love could do. When he shivered and shaked and made the hooting sounds of the lady hatters, Maria Barra covered him with blankets and rocked him like a baby. When the atomic child took down his pants to show himself, Maria told him No!—but gently, as she pulled his drawers back up to where they belonged.
Day and night, mother and child, husband and wife—the life of my parents came to revolve around the Barras. Father and Armando Barra worked side-by-side at work, mumbling all the while about the way things might work in their assembly line. During the day, their wives and children played together, and at night—once Mother took to bed to await Eleanor’s arrival—they gathered close to the stove while Maria Barra cooked her pasta and special sauce. There was nothing common about these gatherings for Father, a man who had been on the run nearly every moment of his life. He thought of Ford’s warnings with foreboding, yet he refused to admit these evenings with the Barras might someday end. Maria Barra had one rule for her dinners: no talk of Model Ts or Henry Ford.
“These times family,” Maria Barra said.
The men could talk only of children and family, or they could sing or play games with the new strange language expected of the Barras in America. Sometimes Father would tell his story of what life was like before electricity, when all the world would grow black as night every single day—dark as death as he lit all the lamps in the last town along the canal with his long pole. To all of them now, a life without power seemed an impossibility, because anything seemed possible in America.
“God bless America,” Armando Barra said before each meal.
Five dollars, the workers whispered on the floor of the Ford plant.
The five dollars came to mean something very personal to Armando Barra because his son, Gino, was very sick. Before, for the Barras, there had been enough food and a few clothes from what Ford was paying, but now everything was medicine, medicine. The more sunken Gino’s eyes, the more the Barras sunk into debt. The people who worked for Ford at the store were only too happy to supply all the medicine Gino Barra needed—on credit.
“I figure it out,” Armando Barra said. “I work all night until 1930, I pay for all this medicine.”
“Ford’s not going to do it,” Father said to Armando Barra on the plant floor. “Five dollars is out of the question.”
“Then he pay other ways,” Armando Barra said.
By then Father knew Armando Barra was the man Ford was looking for. In the eyes of management, the small man was nothing more than a big voice, but to the workers he was the one who could take their grievances and make them come to life. The blotches beneath his eyes were even deeper than before, and the worry about his Gino never stopped—but Armando Barra never stopped talking to the workers about what the world might be like on five dollars a day, with the Model Ts moving from there to here, the factory a place where men brought order to machines. The small man did not have to stand up on a soapbox to be heard—he never spoke to more than two or three workers at a time—but over time his words became their own, and they could no longer stand to be told what to do by Ford. The number of Model Ts they produced could no longer keep up with demand—Ford wanted more work for less money—and the more automobiles they made, the more Armando Barra and the workers demanded a say in their own destiny. Finally Ford told Father to meet him on the road that led away from Dearborn.
“You have a simple choice, Mr. O’Kell,” Ford said. “You can tell me and keep your job. Or I can fire you and find out myself.”
Father knew it was true: Ford would find out.
“How much?” Henry Ford said.
“Five thousand dollars,” Father said.
“I would have given you more,” Ford said.
“I need it now,” Father said. “Tonight.”
“Spare me the theatrics, Mr. O’Kell. “I’ll count your money out right now.”
Ford went to the back seat of the Model T and opened up a suitcase. He counted out the cash from the suitcase and put it into a leather satchel.
“You know that ideas of yours? About the assembly line? It’s starting to grow on me. How else am I going to keep up with the demand?”
“Armando Barra is the man you are looking for.”
“Of course,” Ford said.
“And the five dollars a day?”
“Not a chance,” Henry Ford said.
He handed the satchel to Father.
“Count it,” Ford said.
“I don’t need to,” Father said. “I know you’re not a cheat.”
“I don’t care what you think of me, Mr. O’Kell. Nor should you care what I think of you.”
“You think I’m a bastard,” Father said. “And now I am.”
The next morning, Armando Barra knocked on Father’s door, ready to resume the great debate over how their assembly line might work if Henry Ford could only see the light. His second knock was as worthless as the first, and so Armando Barra leaned his face close to the window and rapped hard again, this time with his fist. But it was empty inside. Jakee and his wife and the strange child were gone. So was their Model T.
Another Model T pulled up alongside Armando Barra at that moment: it was a new automobile, gleaming even in the morning mist. Three men much bigger than Armando Barra jumped out. They had on dark overcoats and hats pulled down in front.
“I go to work now,” Armando Barra said.
“Afraid not, wop,” the biggest one said.
“I go do my job,” Armando Barra said.
“We’re just doing ours,” the biggest one said, and then he knocked the wind clear out of Armando Barra’s body.
Armando Barry was still flinching from his broken ribs the day Henry Ford took him into management as the foreman in charge of the first assembly line ever assembled, with workers more than happy to get in line for $5 a day.