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And other tales from the Colorado School of Trades

ancient machine shop; lathes, grinders and heavy tools

As a part of our effort to let readers get to know us better, Paul is sharing a number of short stories that he wrote for friends over the years. This series details his "follies after retiring from law enforcement and the military".

Letters To Mom (cont'd.)

Now we are going to talk about contamination and gakking. I’m going to give credit where credit is due; I believe that the term gak or gakking came from my good buddy Chris Berg, a notorious inventor of words. Gak is very much like its big brother, F@

5 months into the gunsmithing program at the Colorado School of trades finds me in the machine shop. The “December Class” which started with 14 is now down to 10. Two lost within the first week of December and whose names I never knew. We lost Train Wreck Moseley and Grizzly Adams at the conclusion of Basics.  Two more are now teetering on the edge as they struggle with all the requirements of precise machining on lathes and mills. Whereas the smallest tolerances experienced in Basics was .002 thousandths of an inch. In machine shop some tolerances are .0001 ten thousandth of an inch. You can’t see it, but we (and the instructors) have tools that will measure it. 

Our matriculation from Basics to Machine Shop was not the grand step up that the Peckerwoods of the December class expected or hoped for. The instructors gave us 6 small sticks of high-speed steel, some blueprints and told to grind our cutting bits for the lathe.  High speed steel is harder than normal steel and therefore will cut normal steel if shaped and applied correctly.  The troops of December Class find that shaping the pencil sized bits of metal on the grinder is easier said than done. Eventually the six lathe bits are shaped and turned in for grade. A big fat whopping “C”. Seems there were “Facets” on the lathe bits. Now realize that most machinist in the modern world buy factory-built super hard bits that cut flawlessly, but the Colorado School of Trades believes in getting back to the basics. Never mind that matches were invented over a hundred years-ago, we will use flint and a steel to light our fire.

Lathe bits turned in and graded but no lathes are open to start the machine shop course, so the December Class is farmed out to welding shop and wood checkering in stocks.  I end up in welding, which is great, I own several welders and I know how to weld or thought I did.  We are working with TIG welders, or Tungsten Inert Gas welding.  It is doing neurosurgery with a welder.  TIG welding involves holding an electrical source in one hand and a thin wire of filler rod in the other. A foot pedal determines how much amperage/heat gets applied. The entire process is much like the “rub your head, pat your tummy” exercise of our youth with a foot pedal thrown in for good measure. One of the first projects is to take a thin hack-saw blade and build a ¼” ledge of weld beads on the edge of a hack-saw blade. One tiny bead of weld material laid down on the next to get to the required ¼”, or about 8 perfect passes.

Now we are going to talk about contamination and gakking. I’m going to give credit where credit is due; I believe that the term gak or gakking came from by good buddy Chris Berg, a notorious inventor of words. Gak is very much like its big brother, F@#K. Gak can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb or anything else that you want it to be. As these progress reports have a varied audience, gak is probably a very good replacement word. And for the record I learned to curse at the foot of a master, my father, US Navy Chief Warrant Officer James Smith. If curse words were oil paints, he could paint you a Hawaiian sunset in four-letter words. Does anyone know what a “slab sided son of a bitch” means? I do not. But back to gakking.

So, when TIG welding if your tungsten rod gets anywhere near the base metal or the filler material it bursts into a pretty green halo and contaminates the weld. You gakked it. After gakking a weld you have to regrind your tungsten rod and grind all the contamination out of the weld joint.  Which often brings you back to the grinder of lathe bit days. I’ll try not to get into too much machinist/gunsmith geek stuff as I try to describe some of this. The grinder is a stone wheel eight to ten inches in diameter, spinning at about 1750 revolutions per minute. When you push a piece of metal against the spinning stone wheel, it removes metal and as a byproduct heats the metal incredibly fast.  The whirling stone is inherently dangerous, but you get used to it. About six weeks ago I was grinding out the gakked portion of a practice weld on bolt handle, a 1” x 6” cylinder of steel with a smaller handle of steel welded on to it to replicate a real bolt-action rifle bolt. So, I’m grinding the gak out of this “L” shaped piece of metal when I get careless. Faster than you can see it, the grinder has taken this piece away from me and snapped it across my index finger before shooting it across the room. Gak! Gak this gakking mother gakker, that gakking hurt!!

Somehow, I passed TIG welding and made it onto one of the lathes in the machine shop. Out of 24 lathes I am lucky lathe number 12.  The lathe is a giant whirling death machine. In the classroom portion of machine shop they have lathe safety movies like the old movies that we used to see in Drivers Education like “Blood on the Asphalt”. The lathe safety video is an hour of dead and dismembered folks that got careless around a lathe. It’s big, it’s scary and nothing stops it. Gak!

Over the past 4 weeks I have done some amazing things on the lathe and I cannot help but think of my Dad who was an aviation machinist in the Navy. I use some of his machinist measuring tools and I can sense him talking to me through these calipers and micrometers. I cannot seem to crack the 4.0 ceiling and I work like hell to stay in the 3.0 range. It is so easy to gak something on the lathe. A 40-pound chuck is spinning your material at 770 revolutions per minute. You have your choice of several wheels and levers to determine what happens next to the material. Hit the wrong lever and you are in “Lever Panic”. You will by design hit all the wrong levers to get into a safe place. You just gakked your work piece. I have however made several tools that I will use as a gunsmith and today successfully made a muzzle brake and threaded a practice rifle barrel to receive the brake.

And then there is math. It’s not for nothing that my college degree was ultimately criminal justice. I was on a science track before I flunked out of college at San Diego State and started a glorious military career as a private in the United States Marine Corps. For the record, math and science classes were hard!  

But now as a fledgling machinist, I find my days filled with math. Trigonometry, to be exact. For those of you graduated high school a few decades ago, trigonometry is that icky stuff involving sine, cosine, tangent, secant, etc. It’s all about using right triangles to figure out dimensions around a circle.  I wish that I had paid attention as a high school sophomore in trigonometry. My “Trig” teacher was a sweet woman named Mrs. Doring.  We all called her Boring Doring (behind her back). Besides being as simple as sugar water, her only claim to fame was a pair of giant jutting breasts held up by some space age gravity defying bra. Me and my earliest peckerhead buddies would place bets every day as to which giant breast would capture her string of beads when the end of class buzzer sounded. Left or right? Place your bets. Much more interesting than sine and arc sine.  

Rather than investing the time to study for class, me and my running mates devised elaborate work-a-rounds to pass trigonometry.  We were Animal House before it ever hit the big screen. We figured out how to get Mrs. Doring’s ditto masters out of the garbage can in the teacher’s workroom when she first ran off tests and quizzes in the early morning. With that beautiful purple flimsy in hand, we would find one of the skinny Bill Gates math nerds to solve all the gibberish for us without endangering a single brain cell on our part!  In the random event where we could not “prepare” adequately for an exam or quiz, we went low tech.  We had Trig during 5th period, right after lunch. A number 2 pencil snapped off in the lock would leave Mrs. Doring muttering about why her key wouldn’t fit in the lock. The janitor was called to resolve the problem, but there would be no test for 5th period trigonometry. Is it any wonder why I am now in reform school? Mrs. Doring, wherever she may be, must be relish the irony of one of her most delinquent pupils forced to learn that sine (90’ – q) = cosine (q).  Betcha $50 the beads are over the right boob…

More when I complete machine shop.

About The Night Police:


If you can't get enough of true crime podcasts, documentaries, and police procedurals, former law enforcement officers Chris Berg and Paul James Smith has written a book that you'll be unable to put down. The Night Police (March 24, 2020) is a no-holds-barred, unflinching, fictionalized version of real events that Berg and Smith experienced firsthand during their time in law enforcement in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. A look behind the curtain of the gritty world of policing. This is a book that will have readers turning pages and leave them wanting more. Click Here To ORDER BOOK

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