Joseph E. Fleckenstein, 9/12/2016

Current Occupation: Electrical Engineer
Former Occupation: Electrical Engineer
Contact Information: Joseph E. Fleckenstein has published over 30 items. The list includes articles in magazines, technical papers, online courses for professional engineers, a patent and, more recently, literary short stories in Prick of the Spindle, Story Shack, Out of the Gutter, Gravel and Down in the Dirt. In October, 2015 CRC Press published his 400 page, technical book Three Phase Electrical Power. Additional bio particulars may be viewed at his website www.WriterJEF.com.

 

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A Subtle Play

Sitting in front of his computer, Eric Schuler started to nod. The afternoon was passing too slowly. He decided the situation warranted caffeine, perhaps much caffeine. In the lunch room he found the coffee pot that had been left empty by the last person to use it. He filled the coffee machine with water and, opening drawers, began searching for a fresh packet of coffee. Another development engineer, Mason Warner, who was also in need of coffee, came into the room. The two engineers had worked on several projects together and were well acquainted.

Eric was the younger of the two. He had graduated from engineering school five years ago. Eric was slender and of medium build. Although reserved in demeanor he was tough underneath. He kept in good physical condition by visiting a gym regularly and running several times a week. At Bricksen Hydraulics, Inc. he looked up to Mason much as he would to an older, wise brother.

Mason was older than Eric, a family man with a wife, a mortgage and grown children. He enjoyed beer as well as eating, and his profile showed it. Mason often took time to educate Eric on the Company’s product line. He pointed to the cabinets over the coffee machine.

“The coffee is up there. Pam moved it there the other day.”

Eric retrieved a packet and emptied it into the machine.

“It’ll be few minutes, but I’m waiting. I’m in need of a jolt. The stuff I’m doing is boring, although it does seem necessary. The late night party didn’t help matters. For sure I don’t want to be caught napping like Warren Beaton.”

“What do you mean? What happened to Warren? I noticed he hasn’t been at work for a day or two.”

“You didn’t know? Levan caught him sleeping in front of his computer. Shook him by the shoulder and gave him an ass-chewing. Told him to go home and do his sleeping there. He’s making him take a week off without pay.”

“No, I didn’t hear about that. As you might have noticed by now, people don’t talk to one another much around here. Nobody wants to be accused of gossiping on company time.”

Both watched the level slowly rise in the coffee pot. When the dripping stopped, each poured a cupful and sat at the nearest table. After taking a sip Mason looked at Eric.

“How long have you been with the Company?”

“A little more than two years. How about you?”

“Me? Eleven years – eleven long years. I would have liked to go elsewhere but I couldn’t. I had kids in school and now my wife has a good job in town. Moving would cause too much financial pain.”

Chuck Longenecker, one of the designers, entered the lunch room and went directly to the coffee pot.

Eric took a sip of the hot coffee.

“Ah, I needed that.”

Both sat in silence and watched Chuck look for a cup. Eric caught Mason’s eye.

“You’ve been here long enough to know Paul Levan. Does he ever say good morning?”  

Mason turned to see if Chuck was watching and then raised a finger to his lips. Eric had started to say more but stopped short. Chuck Longenecker poured his coffee and headed for the door, turning to see who had been speaking. Together, Eric and Mason rose and in silence walked to Eric’s cubicle. Mason finished his coffee and threw the empty Styrofoam cup in Eric’s wastebasket. He turned to Eric.

“Have you found a girlfriend since you’ve been in town?”

“Yes, Pam gave me a number of a niece and I called her. She’s a school teacher by the name of Gina. We’ve been on two dates. She’s a pleasant and interesting girl but nothing serious.”

“If you are not doing anything Saturday evening why don’t you and Gina come over to the house? I’ll throw something on the grill. You can meet my wife. She’s from Pittsburgh too. You two can talk about rusting steel mills. We’ll have a few beers and play some cards. I’ll assume you like bratwursts and baked potatoes.”

“Thank you. That would be great. What time?”

“Say around seven.”

***

Saturday evening Eric and Gina appeared at the front door of 3328 Cindy Drive. Eric knocked and shortly Mason appeared.

“Welcome. I suggest you walk around the house to the backyard. That way you won’t break any bones tripping on live animals.”

Behind the house Mason’s wife, Maxine, was in a lounge chair and reading a paperback. Introductions were made. Mason handed a bottle of Pinot Noir to Mason.

“Here’s something to go with the meal. I don’t know though. Does red wine go with bratwurst and potatoes?”

Mason shrugged.

“I wouldn’t know. I’m from Milwaukee. We don’t drink wine in Milwaukee. It could lead to mass unemployment. Just kidding. We’ll try the wine later and find out. Right now we have a case of Milwaukee Miller dark at the ready.”

Maxine approached Gina.

“Are you from Ft. Wayne, Gina?”

“Yes, I’m sorry to say. Are you?”

“No, I’m from Pittsburgh much like Eric.”

“Oh, Eric often talks about Pittsburgh. The hills and the rivers, but no I’ve never been there. I know nothing about Pittsburgh.”

“Some people say Pittsburgh is a good city to be from. Would you like a beer or perhaps a mixed drink.”

“No, thank you. Maybe later. By the way, I liked your beveled glass front door. Very different. You don’t see doors like that in the newer houses.”

“Thank you. I’m glad you liked it. We bought it at an antique dealer a few years ago. Mason installed it himself. Come on, I’ll show you the house while the guys are tending the grill.”

The two women walked toward the house, chatting. When they opened the rear door a cat streaked around their legs into the back yard. The men brought bratwurst and potatoes to the grill. Mason lit the grill and placed the food above a low flame.

“That’s going to take an hour or so. How about a beer in the meantime?”

“Sure.”

“Be right back.”

Mason returned with two bottle of Miller’s dark and handed one to Eric.

“There are more where these came from.”

“Dark. You like the dark?”

“It’s an old Milwaukee tradition this time of the year. It has something to do with the breweries cleaning the vats in the springtime. I like this one because it has a good punch to it and not because it’s dark.”

“I don’t remember drinking any dark beers before.”

“You would if you were from a beer town. Listen, Eric. I would like to tell you something. You’re a likeable guy. In a way you remind me of a younger me. Except that you are smarter. We both moved to this little town to take a job offered by Paul Levan.”

“Do I detect regrets?”

“Yes and no. The job puts food on the table. No complains there. As long as I do my work, keep my head low and my mouth shut I will probably be able to keep my job until retirement. But, if I were younger like you I would be gone in a flash. This Levan guy is hard to deal with. I’ve become good at biting my tongue.  In fact I’m expert at it.”

“Does that have anything to do with your raising a finger to your lips the other day in the lunch room? I was merely going to asking if Levan was in the practice of saying good morning or not saying good morning. I walked by him several times since I’ve been here and I always said ‘good morning’ but every time he simply ignored me. As far as I am concerned, it’s no big deal one way or the other. It’s merely that I thought it seemed strange. He was more than congenial when I came for the interview. In fact he invited me to his house for drinks that evening. I met his wife and we all talked for a while.”

“There are some things you need to understand. Paul Levan does not like anything other than praise and admiration. It’s part of his plan to remain as head of engineering department well into the foreseeable future. And, you need to know that he has a network of spies to help ensure he remains number one. The rumor is that he rewards his informers well. Some of them, incompetence aside, have kept their jobs because they are willing to rat on their unsuspecting coworkers. That designer, Longenecker, who came into the lunch room the other day when we were talking, is said to be one of the spies. From what I can tell that is most likely a true rumor. It’s hard to tell for sure who the others might be.”

“Strange.”

“Some of the stories are hard to believe. There was a designer a few years ago who went into Levan’s office to ask for a raise. He said he hadn’t had a raise in seven years. I knew the guy. He was a hard worker and good at what he did. Levan thought he, chief engineer, should be the one to not only decide who gets a raise but when and how much. He did not care to have underlings challenging his generosity. To make an example of the guy he had him transferred to quality control where his hourly rate was decreased by five dollars. The man did the job for a month and then quit the company.”

The brats started to drip fat onto the flames and smoke began to rise from the grill. Mason walked over to turn the brats and potatoes. Satisfied that all is well at the grill, he went inside the house and shortly returned with two more cold beers. He handed one to Eric.

“Drink up.”

“Thanks. These dark ones are filling.”

“Inside I have some ale. We’ll switch to those next. Before the sausages are ready and we go inside, there is something else I wanted to tell you. I saw your resume before you came with the company. Levan often sends resumes around before he hires someone. I don’t know why. Anyway, I could see you have a promising future. But, I must tell you, probably not at Bricksen Hydraulics. I’ll tell you why. Levan has been pressured to hire promising engineers, engineers like yourself. The sales department has been pressing hard for product improvements and new products. The salesmen keep saying our line of actuators is behind the times and in need of upgrades. Levan said he would look for new talent but it is all a show. He personally designed many of the company’s products in years gone by. Those products have Levan’s name associated with them. It appears he is encouraging progress and product improvements but in actuality he’s been a major impediment. After a new engineer acquires experience, Levan finds an excuse to get rid of him. I’ve seen it happen and you, personally, can expect no different treatment. He intends to keep Paul Levan’s light shining the brightest. Screw the company’s bottom line.”

“Interesting. I appreciate the insight.”

When the brats and potatoes were ready, Eric and Mason went inside where the women were waiting. Maxine had placed salads on the table. The Pinot Noir was opened and each had a glass with the meal. After desert Mason fetched two ales from the refrigerator and handed one to Eric.

“Oh, I don’t know about another beer.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t you know ‘Bier auf Wein das lass’ sein aber Wine auf Bier das rat’ ich dir?’ ”

“No. what’s that mean?”

“My grandfather told me that. It’s an old German saying that means one should not drink beer after wine but that drinking wine after beer is ok.”

“You would be at home in Milwaukee. You only had one glass of wine. You’ll be ok.”

“I’ll try it. At the worst I’ll only get sick.”

After supper they played Texas hold ‘em for pennies. The men continued with the ale while the women drank sodas. At 1:00 a.m. Eric declared it was time to go. Standing, he thanked Mason and Maxine for the evening. While driving Gina home Eric was quiet and pensive. He was trying to put Mason’s comments about Chief Engineer Levan into perspective. Maybe formulate a plan. He started feeling nauseous.

***

Monday morning Eric was early to the office. By 9:30 o’clock he figured he was eligible for a break and walked to Mason’s cubicle. He tapped on the frame of the entrance.

“Ready for a break?”

Mason placed his computer in sleep mode and rose.

“Good idea.”

The two walked to the lunch room. Eric filled two cups and passed one to Mason.

“This one’s on me.”

“You’re too generous.”

“We enjoyed ourselves the other night. Thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it. Maxine and I were glad to have you over. We’ll do it again sometime. That Gina’s a pretty girl and smart too. She took all my pennies.”

“I gave more thought to your comments about our chief engineer. Your observations explain a lot of situations. For example, several times I made a number of recommendations for product improvements. These were no brainers. It’s not as though I am a genius or anything like that. Anyone would have recognized the need. Yet, Paul always found a reason for turning them down. My career will be going nowhere if I cannot point to designs and contributions that I have made. It’s the business I’m in. It’s how I earn my living.”

“You’re starting to catch on. But, do me a favor. Please don’t tell anyone I coached you. For sure that would be my end here and it might happen at an inconvenient time.”

“You have my word. Of course. Listen, I‘ve been giving thought to sending my resume out again. Perhaps the time has arrived for me to make a career change.”

“Are you hoping to stay in Ft. Wayne or doesn’t that matter?”

“I have no connections here, so I can go anywhere there is a good opportunity.”

“You’ve been around the block a few times. Any suggestions as where might be a good place to start?”

“Well, I suggest you might consider our customers. Some of them might be in need of an engineer who knows hydraulics as you now do.”

***

Eric came to the conclusion that, all things considered, Mason seemed to be correct in his assessments. It might be time for a move. After sending resumes to several prospective employers he promptly received two interesting invitations for interviews. One firm, Dobson Equipment, seemed especially attractive. Dobson was a firm that had consistently placed large orders for hydraulic actuators and accessories with Bricksen Hydraulics. Gradually he began to wonder why he waited so long to consider leaving Bricksen and its corrupt engineering department.

Eric’s interview at Dobson went well. The chief engineer told Eric that Dobson was considering him for a role in the selection and application of hydraulic components. The following week Eric received an offer of employment that included what would be a sizable pay increase. The following week he called the chief engineer at Dobson and they agreed on a starting date three weeks in the future. Eric said he would like to take a vacation of two weeks and then another week to find an apartment and move. The chief engineer at Dobson said that would be fine and that he looked forward to having Eric on his team of engineers.

***

As often happened on Monday mornings, Eric and Mason met for a coffee break. They were sitting in the lunch room when Chuck Longenecker came in for his coffee. Actually, they were expecting Chuck. Eric was sitting with his back to Chuck and the coffee machine. As Chuck was pouring coffee into a cup, Eric starting talking to Mason.

“As I mentioned, I could not believe what happened. That son of a bitch Levan turned down my suggestion for changing the seals on the Model X600 actuators. Just because he selected the seals ten years ago does not make it the best today. Boy, he can be hard-headed.”

Mason was careful to avoid saying anything derogatory about Chief Engineer Levan. Yet, he felt obliged to respond one way or the comments by his friend.

“Are you sure that Paul designed that sealing configuration?”

“That’s what I was told by designers who were here ten years ago.”

Chuck took interest in the conversation that he was overhearing. In order to remain within earshot he pretended to look for something in the drawers near the coffee machine while shuffling objects back and forth. Eventually he felt obliged to exit the lunch room.

Mid-afternoon Paul Levan had his secretary tell Eric he was wanted in Levan’s office. When Eric approached the chief engineer’s office he found the door open. Nevertheless, he knocked on the open door. Levan answered immediately without looking up from the letter he was reading.

“Come in.”

Levan walked to a point in front of Levan’s large oak desk and stood, waiting. Paul continued reading a letter without looking at Eric. In time he spoke without looking up from the letter.

“Close the door.”

Eric walked over and closed the door. Neither man said a word for a time. Eventually Levan placed the letter on the corner of his desk. Without looking at Eric he told him to have a seat.

“Eric, how long have you been with us?”

“A little more than two years, sir.”

“I’ll be frank with you. We liked your resume when you applied for employment with us, and we thought at the time that you could bring fresh ideas to our Firm. We considered you an engineer with potential. As you might be aware by now the Company is very much in need of product updates and new ideas. However, you have not been of any worthwhile assistance to us to reach that end. I am obliged to bring your employment with the Firm to an end. Today will be your last day with us. You have two weeks’ vacation coming so we will officially consider your last day as two weeks from today. We will send you a check at the end of the month.”

Eric looked dejected.

“I’m sorry you look at it that way. I tried my best.”

“You can clean out your desk today and go home whenever you are ready. An hour should be adequate time.”

“Yes, sir.”

Eric had nothing worth taking in his desk so he put on his jacket and exited through the front door.

***

Two months after Paul Levan fired Eric, Bob Ransome, General Sales Manager, walked with heavy steps to Paul Levan’s office. Evelyn, Paul’s secretary, was doing her nails, but she put her tools away when Bob approached.

“Mr. Levan is talking with someone at the present.”

Bob continued on his path.

“I don’t care.”

He opened the door and walked into Paul’s office. Paul and Chuck Longenecker were talking. Paul was startled since few people would walk through his door without an appointment or without knocking first. Bob pointed a finger at Paul.

“Remember that engineer Eric Whitfield that you canned some time ago?”

“What about him?”

“He’s now selecting hydraulic components for Dobson Equipment, one of our biggest customers. Our salesman who calls on Dobson, Jim Gribbins, called me a few minutes ago to give me the good news.”

Paul Levan stood.

“Interesting! I hadn’t heard that. Why worry? I don’t see a problem.”

“Paul, tell me something. How in the hell are we supposed to sell our products to guys who are fired from here? In addition, I understand he didn’t like our line of hydraulics while he was here. He was continually suggesting improvements – I was told. Some, I also heard, were good ideas. I hope you had a reason for letting him go.”

“Bob, I’ll take care of what I am paid to do and I’m sure you will take care of selling what you are paid to sell. As far as Eric is concerned, well, he was not coming up with any good ideas while soaking up a good salary. I figured we had better ways to spend the Firm’s money. It’s not the big deal you seem to imagine it is.”

Bob Ransome pivoted on his left foot and briskly exited Paul’s office without another word. After returning to his office he called the president’s secretary and asked for an appointment. He added it concerned the Company’s chief engineer.  

***

All things considered, Eric was pleased he had pulled up stakes at Ft. Wayne and moved to a strange city. Packing and engaging a mover was a chore. He said good-by to his small circle of friends. They wished him well. He had one last date with Gina. They both agreed they enjoyed each other’s company. Long ago Eric decided having a good paycheck and interesting employment came first. The other amenities as friends will naturally follow.

Eric found the atmosphere at Dobson Equipment different from what he had experienced at Bricksen. New ideas were encouraged and there was a team spirit. The Firm’s continually increasing sales seemed to suggest a successful game plan. Five weeks after joining Dobson, Eric was at his desk reviewing the drawings of a prospective new hydraulic actuator configuration when the receptionist called.

“Eric, there is a salesman here by the name of Jim Gribbins. He says he is with Bricksen Hydraulics, and he said he would like meet with you if you are available.”

It was a visit Eric expected as he knew Dobson regularly bought hydraulic components from Bricksen.

“Tell Mr. Gribbins I will be out in a few minutes.”

When Eric entered the lobby, Jim Gribbins stood and extended his hand.

“Eric, I’m Jim Gribbins and I am with Bricksen. Our sales manager, Bob Ransome, called me to tell me you had joined Dobson Equipment. I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself.”

The two men shook hands. Eric invited Jim to his cubicle. After they were seated Jim was the first to speak.

“I’m sure you will like it here. This is a great outfit. I’ve been calling on Dobson for over ten years. Your predecessor, Bill Fegley, was a sharp engineer, and he bought tons of hydraulic equipment from us over the years. As you may know he retired a few months ago.”

“Yes, I was told Mr. Fegley retired. I saw a number of drawings with his name on them.”

“I called today merely to let you know that we at Bricksen had a good working relationship with Dobson over the years and we hope to keep it that way. We will always strive to meet your needs for hydraulic equipment.”

“Well, I am pleased to hear that. Of course I will try my best to give an honest evaluation to whatever you have.”

“That is all anybody would ask.”

Both the salesman and the engineer were silent for a spell. The salesman was first to speak again.

“Oh, I almost forgot. The sales manager at Bricksen asked me to tell you. You no doubt remember Paul Levan? He was the chief engineer at Bricksen.”

“You say ‘was chief engineer’?”

“Yes, he’s no longer chief engineer. The president fired him a few weeks ago. He’s been replaced by one of Bricksen’s engineers. You probably know him. A guy by the name of Mason Keller. I understand he has been at Bricksen for some time and knows the product line.”

Eric smiled.

“Yes, I remember Mason.”

Jim reached into his shirt pocket and retrieved a namecard.

“Here is my namecard. I usually stop by here at least once a month to meet with the purchasing people, but today I came in merely to make your acquaintance. If you need anything please give me a call. Maybe next time we can go to lunch?”

“Sure. I always welcome a chance to get out of the office.”

Eric walked Jim to the lobby where they shook hands before Jim exited through the front door. Smiling to himself, Eric returned to his cubicle.

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