We departed the Detroit area and headed to Indiana to visit a battlewagon shipmate of mine from USS IOWA (BB-61), retired Master Chief Dale Hilliard. Dale is now a nurse at the sprawling General Motors truck assembly plant in Fort Wayne, and took us there during a driving rainstorm on Wednesday for a tour. What an amazing place! It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a big assembly line; Suzanne had been to an RV motor coach plant a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t nearly as large. At this plant, 3,700 workers and staff build 1,500 Chevy and GMC trucks on three shifts every day of the year. We arrived during one of two 20 minute breaks, and it was relatively quiet; then the line started up, and it mutated to something akin to a very loud automated ballet.
Starting with a bare frame, a truck gradually appeared, with some robotic elements like windshield installations, but mostly hundreds of men and women at assigned stations installing everything from instrument panels to brake lines to radios, tires and fenders. Quarter ton trucks were mixed in with half ton and 3/4 ton bodies, with computer-run delivery of the correctly mated and painted sections and parts. Fork lifts carrying parts and removing empty bins raced around as if they were on tracks, but they were actually driven by skilled operators who knew the plant floor better than their own bedrooms at home. The average worker has only 42 seconds to complete his or her task as the gradually loaded frame moves steadily past their posts. It was a fascinating visit, and I may be ready to buy a half ton Chevy truck… if I can only figure out how to shoehorn it into our Florida garage…
After our tour, it was time for dinner. Dale’s wife Becky was babysitting their three year old grandson Rowan, so had to take a pass, but Dale suggested we stop at the Neon Armadillo road house restaurant; Dale assured us that we would find the fried armadillo really yummy. Being a sensitive, New Age kinda guy, I could feel My Lovely Bride’s stomach already rebelling at the thought, but she is a trooper – in the Navy, when you’re in a foreign country, camel hump and monkey meat are often on the menu… how bad could armadillo be? We rolled up into the Neon Armadillo’s parking lot, and there were only two cars there. “Great, we’ll get a good table.” Then Dale steered his GM HHR around the building to a full parking lot in front of Sapporo Sushi! I could hear Suzanne’s unspoken “HALLELUJAH!” over Dale’s laughter… we had a fabulous meal; the servers even wore kimonos, a very nice touch. (You don’t meet many blondes named Heather wearing kimonos in Japan.)
Dale also took us to a Hoosier winery, the Country Heritage Vineyard, and presented us with a very nice Cabernet that I am enjoying as I write… who knew that the state that produces wheat, corn and soybeans also has well-regarded vineyards? (I have to make one comment on our attire… you may notice that we are all wearing fleece and/or windbreakers. The temperature outside was 44F, and it was raining. Back home we call this a raw, cold, miserable day. Dale must have thought we were wusses, because he actually had air conditioning on at his house, to reduce the humidity! When we left the next morning, having parked right next to Dale and Becky’s house, he brought out a bag with brown eggs and venison summer sausage (there’s breakfast and lunch!) Thanks, Dale, for a wonderful visit.
We had a relatively short 4 hour drive from LaOtto to the Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois… so we thought. Our GPS person, Jill, was given all our dimensions (23 tons, 62 feet long, 13 feet high, 9 feet wide), so as to route us around minor obstacles like 10 foot underpasses and wooden bridges designed for horses and sheep. In spite of our inputs, on the approach to Chicago, Jill directed us onto an Expressway that emptied onto Lake Shore Drive, an automobile-only artery that leaves a huge RV driver stranded on the wrong (i.e., “low”) side of numerous train tracks. When we tried to turn to get outside of the city, 12′ 6″ bridges kept blocking our way. The choice was to keep driving deeper into the city or knock off our three roof air conditioners. We finally arrived at a one lane, one way street with parked cars on both sides. Pedestrians looked at our coach like we were from another planet. I could hear them thinking, “Where the heck did those guys come from… Florida?”
The stress level was rising for both of us, but thankfully Rudy and Gretchen were keeping their cool very nicely. I kept muttering, “ISN’T THIS INTERESTING?”, and it actually seemed to help. Nevertheless, I asked My Lovely Bride to call for police assist. It was too hard looking up a non-emergency number, so for the first time ever, we called 911. The dispatcher answered, heard our plea for assistance, and said, “It doesn’t sound like an emergency.” Suzanne muttered, “If we stop traffic in downtown Chicago, it will be an emergency!” I wondered if Mayor Rahm Immanuel would send one of his personal troopers out to give us a hand… Then the dispatcher gave us the number for the Traffic Clearance desk. A nice cop asked where we were, and Suzanne told him… he replied, “You can’t be on Lake Shore Drive… you’d have been arrested by now!” (Yeah, well, we had already passed three squad cars without comment, flashing lights or even a request for a donation for the upcoming Policemen’s Ball.) He gave us directions to follow (six different turns that finally got us to I-90) that were flawless, and I offered to buy him a beer. Even with his expert directions, there were several very tight turns on narrow metropolitan streets with our long rig, but it all went well. I knew we were safe when we started seeing 7-11’s instead of wall-to-wall brick row houses…
We finally arrived at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, after losing only an hour on our “Scenic Tour” of the Windy City. It has warmed up here, a balmy 48F with only 30 knots of wind; we’re expecting 36F tonight! Our poor little Gretchen was shivering on her w-a-l-k, and we will have to look for fleece jackets for her and Rudy; those were left at home because “Who expected this bitterly cold weather in mid-May?” We have stayed here before, and last year we arrived to a flooded campsite (assigned by a bureaucratic lady in an office far removed from the CG) with lots of empty spots that were not flooded… Suzanne drove up, spoke to the lady, and heard, “Oh, that’s not possible; those sites don’t flood; in any case, it’s too bad, because even though you’ll be here for five days, someone has assigned other visitors to those spaces on Friday or Saturday, so you can’t have any of them.” That was last year; today, we arrived at our campsite, found only 5 of 20 sites occupied, and all but two of the remaining sites flooded (we’re only 50 feet from Lake Michigan, and it’s been raining for days.) Suzanne drove up to the office, found the same lady, and had the exact same conversation as she had last year… “Sorry, even though there’s no one there, you’re assigned to site 15, it can’t be flooded, that site never floods, that’s your assigned site, and you can’t ask for another site…” Can you say, “Groundhog Day”?