Mr. Bauer jumped up from his sitting place on the first day I arrived in Idar-Oberstein, and pitched right into showing me the chain making machines, presses etc.
Ever since that day, when I meet him again, he re-introduces himself. “I’m Ludwig”. Like all the past times, I’ll continue to call him Herr Bauer.
There are three relatives of Jakob Bengel who come to work in the factory each day, right at 7am. Sadly Mr. Bauer does not arrive at that time, but it can be forgiven. While the family members are in their 70’s & 80’s, Mr. Bauer is almost 90. He’s been volunteering to give tours at the factory for about 2 years and worked much of his life as a steel engraver at a different company. He seems to be the only one who knows how the machines work at Bengel, and this worries me a bit. There may come a time when the foundation decides that as a protected “denkmal” the tools and tooling can’t actually be used, as they are also a protected archive. Again I am very grateful I get to blow off dust, poke around and try to use what I find.
Herr Bauer is a master at a job that does not exist anymore. He used hand engraving tools to cut and file into a block of steel to carve a positive “punch” or “hub” that would make a jewellery stamping. The punch was always made and hardened, and then a softened piece of steel was heated and pressed into it, (and then hardened again), to make the die (recess.)
The Bengel factory has a corner set up with his tools, the first dies he cut, his diploma, and occasionally, without warning, he also wanders in which is the best. One case holds the very first hub and dies he cut. He became a steel apprentice in 1943 at the age of 15, and trained for two years as a “lehrling” before he began his life’s work. Looking at his first punches, and imagine him cutting and cleaning steel with such finesse, makes me consider the huge gap of expectations of young people from this era and now. My son is almost 12 and would be impossible to image him or his schoolmates undertaking something like this in the next years.
First punches carved my Mr. Bauer between the ages of 15-17.
I remember when I first arrived in Germany more than 15 years ago, I was pretty shocked to hear that all students were not on the pathway to University, as it the American Dream. Towards middle school both the learner the and the school system start to acknowledge the student’s interests and aptitudes. Some students will go on to “Gymnasium” high school which will lead to university, and some will go to a “Realschule” or Berufschule”. Students on this latter path usually work within a firm and do theory/book learning at school when not working as a trainee or apprentice. You might be on this pathway if you are learning lay cobblestone driveways, repair aircraft, become a goldsmith, etc. Germany acknowledges that it will need all different types of workers to support their economy, so they do an excellent, (in my untrained, outside opinion~), job of training students well for work they can do. This engenders a sense of pride in the work that is done, and in most cases, a comfortable living wage is earned. I also undertsnd that if one is not on the pathway to university, but decides later that is right for her, there are ways to get there. Vocational training and unversity are free for everyone, so people are by and large very well educated.
As the years go on, I mourn the loss of a sense of pride in doing hand-work and seeing it as a rewarding life pathway that has happened in North America. As the world becomes globally linked, and the economy and quality of life continues to rise around the world, (as it should), we all have the aptitude to design, manufacture, desire, and purchase goods. People who can build, make and repair locally will always be in high demand.
Hand tools of a steel engraver
Mr. Bauer is definitely in high demand by me. Often when I ask him if he can help me get a tool working, he’ll say, “Lets do that on Wednesday” (three days from now!) I have been advised to adjust my expectations about what can get accomplished in my 2 months here, and “enjoy the atmosphere” and make good contacts. I am trying to ignore the New Yorker side of my personality and just do this.
Likely it will be the small observations I will take away. One day Mr. Bauer and I were looking for the two pins that fit in a hub and die, and allow them to register against each other in the press. In a factory filled with more than 20,000 punches, we could not find two pins that fit. In frustration, Mr. Bauer took a pin that did not fit, popped it in the lathe, and just started grinding it down to size with a file to make it fit. It was kind of refreshing as every time I have used a lathe in the past it seems like it took an hour to set up, and then I spent countless hours trying to make a finished piece of work. For Mr.Bauer it is just a huge tool in his toolbox. His gnarled hands are knowledgeable, just like my grandfathers were, capable of making or fixing almost anything.