When I was a kid, way back in the 1940s, my mother took the Saturday Evening Post magazine and I loved the fiction stories.
Several of them were the recurring adventures of the main character and my favorites were Tugboat Annie, about a widow who took over her deceased husband’s tugboat and held her own against the aggressive male competition in the harbor, as well as Alexander Botts, the incompetent but supremely self-confident Earthworm tractor salesman who always seemed to come out on top in spite of his bumbling.
The Botts stories, which were published from the 1920s into the ’60s, primarily in Saturday Evening Post, were written by William Hazlett Upson (1891-1975), who graduated from Cornell’s agricultural college in 1914 and worked as a farmer for a couple of years.
Upson joined the U.S. Army in 1916 and served in France as an artilleryman during the World War before joining the Cleveland Tractor Co. in 1919. As he told it:
“I did not know anything about the Cletrac, and I did not know anything about the tractor business. But I was young. And I was confident. I had enlisted in the Army knowing nothing of military affairs, and in only two years I had worked my way up through sheer merit from private to private first-class. Having done so well in the Army, I felt I could do even better in the tractor business.
“I barged into the office of the president of the company, Mr. Rollin H. White himself. I told him how good I was. I asked for a job. He referred me to Mr. George Pontius, manager of the service department. I told Mr. Pontius how good I was. He hired me as a service mechanic. I then told him — with a degree of caution unusual for me in those days — that although I was one of the finest mechanics in the country I was not completely familiar with the particular machinery they were making.”
“Mr. Pontius thereupon assigned me to a (company) tractor school. For several weeks I toiled and sweated. I took apart several Cletracs. I put them together. I scraped bearings. I ground valves. I adjusted carburetors. I cleaned magnetos. I played with pistons and piston rings, rocker arms, push rods, tappets, gears, shafts and hundreds of other parts.
“And I fell in love with the tractor business. Every night I studied books about machinery and internal combustion engines. After two weeks, I was sent out as a trouble shooter. The West Penn Power Company was having difficulties with a fleet of six of our tractors that they were using in the construction of a power line.
“When I arrived on the job I was received as a very important person. The chief mechanic conducted me to a tractor and respectfully asked if I would show him how to adjust the carburetor.
“I assumed a very impressive bedside manner which I had been practicing. But right way, a problem. The tractors I had worked on at the factory had had no hoods over the engines. But this tractor had a hood.
“It was held in place by four fancy catches of such a new and elaborate design that I had no idea how to operate them. So there I was — the factory expert who was supposed to understand everything — and I couldn’t even open the engine hood.
“I did some fast thinking. I would have to get rid of this chief mechanic for a few minutes. I said, “How would you like to run over to the shop and get me a few tools?”
“What sort of tools?” he asked. “Just tools,” I said. “A screwdriver, a wrench, a pair of pliers.”
“He opened the toolbox on the tractor and produced everything I had asked for. I tried again.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’ll need a shorter screwdriver, a longer monkey wrench, and a heavier pair of pliers.”
“He looked puzzled but was sufficiently awed by my prestige as an expert to follow my instructions even when they didn’t seem to make sense. He disappeared into the shop.
“While he was gone I had plenty of time to get those fancy catches open. When he came back I had no difficulty adjusting the carburetor. I had learned all about that in the factory tractor school.”
At that time, Cletrac used three lower track support wheels in each track and the wheels ran in roller bearings that weren’t protected from the grit, mud and water that was the crawler tractor’s natural environment.
Inevitably, the bearings failed after only a few days use and the power company’s chief mechanic complained bitterly about this to Upson, who continues the story:
“Again I had to think fast, I said, “Sir, I agree with you entirely. You have been cheated. You have been treated unfairly. You have been bamboozled. You have been done dirt. I apologize on behalf of the company. Now that I am here, I can promise you that your troubles are over.”
“I had come to several conclusions. First, having had no experience with this problem, any solution I might dream up would be mere guesswork. Second, mere guesswork would be better than nothing.”
“Third, the trouble was apparently caused by dirt filling up the empty spaces around the rollers in the bearings. Fourth, if there were no open spaces there would be no place for the dirt to lodge.”
“Fifth, I would have to get rid of these open spaces. We took out all the little rollers. We melted up some babbitt metal and we poured solid babbitt bearings in all of those truck wheels.”
“Then we started the tractors and hauled supplies for the power line through the worst swamps and gravel beds we could find. After two days, our babbitt bearings were still going strong.”
“They had lasted longer than any of the roller bearings. And they looked as if they would last indefinitely. The chief mechanic and I congratulated each other on our superior wisdom and engineering skill.”
“And I came back to the factory full of pride and joy.”
After explaining what he had done, Upson wrote: “Unfortunately, Mr. George Pontius was not favorably impressed.”
“He said that it was not my job to redesign the tractor. I was not supposed to make unauthorized experiments by pouring hot babbitt into truck wheels which were designed for roller bearings.”
“I was not expected to tell the customers that the tractor was built wrong and that I knew more than anybody else in the factory. I answered these comments by modestly pointing out that I had fixed up the tractors so they ran perfectly — at least until I got out of town.”
“And I had left the customer completely satisfied — for the time being anyway. Mr. Pontius came back with the suggestion that I was perhaps a little too good to work for anybody as conventional and matter-of-fact as he was.”
“With my superior abilities, he felt sure that I could do better elsewhere. In other words, I was fired.”
• • •
Upson later worked as a service mechanic for the Holt Manufacturing Co. and then Caterpillar, while writing a few short stories that he was able to sell.
He left Caterpillar in 1924 to become a full-time writer, including more than one hundred Alexander Botts adventures. I’ll tell you about Botts another time.