Heckbert, Fred

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                                              Mr. Fix-it Planning a busy Retirement
                                                      By Joanne Cadogan


Fred Heckbert loves to take things apart, see how they work, and put them back together. "School wasn't my thing at all," Heckbert, 62, said in an interview. He recently retired after working for more than 42 years at Lounsbury's in Chatham. "If they had taught me how to take things apart and put them back together, I know I would have applied myself and done well," Heckbert said. "Instead we had to study Latin and Literature. That wasn't for me."

"My father used to do a bit of work with radios, so I started working with them when I was young. I was always curious about how things worked. I'll never forget my first ser¬vice call.

"My Dad got a call from Hugh Harrison, my school prin¬cipal. His radio wasn't working and Dad said, 'Why don't you go? If you do a good job, it might help your grades.' Well, I went and fixed the radio. It didn't help my grades though," Heckbert said ruefully. Heckbert left school in Grade 10.

"I applied to take an NRI radio repair correspondence course out of Chicago. When I enrolled they sent me books, some assignments and a rubber stamp with my name, address, and student number on it. I still remember my student number. It was E247C5T. "I worked real hard at that course. I learned all about vacuum tubes, power supplies, how a radio works. I even did some broaching work on TV. But we didn't have TV in those days, so it wasn't much use to me."

With all Heckbert's hard work, radio repair was still just a hobby. He used his certificate to repair radios and propel his own growing interest in HAM radio construction and operation. But he had to find other work to pay the bills.

He got his first job with a road crew running a roller. Later, he hired on with the construction crew building the Fraser pulp-mill in Newcastle. He was making good money - $297 a month - enough to support himself and his new wife, Verna. But one day something hap¬pened that changed his life.

"I'd sent away for an RK5 masco disk recorder. There were no tape recorders in those days, and this machine was one of the first to record sound. "Anyway, I was visiting my friend Sherwill Cass. His father, Reeves Cass, was the manager at the hydro plant. While I was there Powell Stackhouse, the manager of Lounsbury's, dropped by to see him. As they were talking I winked at Sherwill and started recording what they were saying. Neither of us said a word to them about it," Heckbert said, with a hint of that original devilry playing in his voice. "When they stopped talk¬ing, I started to play back the record of their conversation. Powell Stackhouse jumped up and said, ‘What's that? That's me!’ He'd never heard anything like it and offered to buy the record. I said he didn't have to buy it and I gave it to him. A couple of days later he called and offered me a job at Lounsbury's for $100 a month. I was making almost three times that working on the mill, so I asked him if he could pay a little more. He said, 'I can't pay you more but, you've got to consid¬er the fringe benefits. You get to buy your clothes, your cars and your appliances at cost.' I thought it all over and talked to Verna and despite the drop in pay, I decided to take the job." Thus began a relationship which would last for 42 and a-half years.

                                                    Heckbert Far Cry From Lonely Repairman

Fred Heckbert recently re¬tired after working for more than 42 years at Lounsbury's in Chatham. But he still remembers his early years there. Shortly after he went to work for the company, he was sent on his first training course.

"There were four of us going. A fellow from Bathurst, myself, a man from Richibuc¬to, and another fellow from Moncton," Heckbert said. "The course was in Saint John, so the guy from Bathurst made arrangements to borrow one of the cars from the lot there and drive us all down. It wasn't until he reached the Chatham store that he told me there was a hitch. He said, 'The radio on this Oldsmobile keeps cutting in and out and it's driving po¬tential customers crazy. They told me I could use this car to drive us to school, but the radio has to be fixed when I take it back.' I listened to the radio and concluded the problem was probably in the condenser. The only way to fix it was to pull the radio out of the dash. I told him it would take me at least two hours to fix it and if I did, we were going to be late. School was starting that day. But he said, 'It's got to be done. Go ahead and do it.' So I did. When I finished, we got in the car and drove to Richibuc¬to. The radio was working fine, except when we got above 20 miles an hour. I figured a static elimina¬tor would fix that. So when we got to Richibucto, we told the fellow we were picking up there to install one. By the time we got to Moncton, we realized the radio needed some work on the tuning, so we got the guy there to do that.

"We were late getting to Saint John, but that was one beautiful working radio by the time we got there. We were pulling in stations from everywhere. We might not have learned as much as we were supposed to at school, but the company got one dandy car radio out of the deal."

Heckbert hadn't been work¬ing at Lounsbury's long when the first transistor radios were introduced. "The guy who was leading the service session on the new radios said once these new transistors came out, we would all be out of a job. Transistors replaced all the tubes and most of the other parts in a radio that commonly broke. And as far as he could see, transistors would never break. He wasn't quite right, but he wasn't far wrong. Transis¬tors were a big improvement. At that point I realized I was out of my league with all my training in vacuum tubes.

"So when Lounsbury's ran an ad for a white goods service man - that's someone who re¬pairs washers, dryers, fridges, ranges and deep freezes - I applied for the job. The manager was surprised I answered the ad since I already had a job with the company, but I explained I wanted to change fields, so they hired me."

That's when Heckbert's long career in white goods began.

Here are some of his most memorable moments: - "When automatic washers first came on the market, the manufacturers didn't know what to do with the suspension system. They didn't realize how to isolate the shaking of the machine from the rest of the house - so most early models had to be bolted to the floor," Heckbert said. "I got a call one day from a priest who had purchased a new model that didn't come with bolts. He said he needed a new washer. It turned out the load in the washer got off balance and the machine began to jump back and forth. The floor in the house was slightly slanted, so the machine started to move downhill, bouncing as it went. His housekeeper went into the laundry room to find out what was making all the noise and ended up running, screaming, from the house. She thought the washer was alive and it was chasing her. I offered to try to fix the problem, but the minister told me his housekeeper wouldn't come back until he got a new machine." - "I went to one new model training course in Moncton with Mervin Manderson. The instructor said, 'This new washer is so strong that if two of you can get one drop of water from the laundry at the end of its cycle, you can load the machine in your car and take it with you when you go.’ Well, Mervin had a really good body - he worked out with weights - and I thought I was in pretty good shape too, so we decided to give it a try. The two of us ended up on our knees in front of the entire class trying to squeeze a single drop of water out of the laun¬dry, but we couldn't. In those days washers had a 1,140 RPM spin cycle," Heckbert said. "Today they've slowed that down to about 500 or 600 RMPs. They had to slow it down because the old models got the water out, but the clothes came out so wrinkled you couldn't get the creases out with a stick of dynamite." - "I got a call from a fellow one day when I was working on televisions. He said his set was broken and he needed a new one, how much were they," Heckbert said. "I said, 'Look, a service call is only $6, why don't I come out and try to fix it.’ ‘He said, 'I don't think you can fix it. I was watching the hockey game last night, and I was drinking a little beer (in those days beer came in quart bottles). The picture started to shake during a crucial part of the game and I threw a beer bottle through it.’ I said, ‘Look, a new picture tube is only $39 or $49. Even if you need a couple more parts, that's cheaper than the $289 it will cost to get a new TV. Why don’t you let me try to fix it?' ‘He said, 'Well, to tell the truth, after I threw the beer bottle through it, I dragged it outside on the lawn. Since it rained all night, I think I need a new one.' At that point, I had to agree with him."

                                                         Curiosity Leads To Change

Fred Heckbert never has been able to curb his curiosity. And he has the memories to prove it. "When my father died, my mother asked me if I'd like to have his Waltham watch. It was a beautiful watch, so of course I said yes. She said, 'I'll give it to you, but you have to promise me one thing. You'll have to promise not to take it apart.' I thought about it and said, 'Mom, I can't promise you that.' I never did get the watch," said Fred Heckbert, with a fond chuckle.

His curiosity is why, now that he's been forced to take an extended disability leave from Lounsbury's, he plans to take on some special projects. "I'd like to explain why I had to stop working," Heck¬bert said. "I've had several opera¬tions for hernias over the years. Before my last opera¬tion, the doctors said they wouldn't bother trying to fix the damage if I intended to keep doing this kind of work. My job requires moving heavy appliances and lifting washers full of water - when the two tubs in a washer are full of water the machine weighs more than 300 pounds - so it didn't matter how good a job the doctors did, if I kept working, I was going to end up in the hospital again."

Resigned to a less labour in¬tensive retirement, Heckbert has decided to study and even¬tually make use of solar energy.

"I actually started work on this about three years ago," he said. "I've been cutting the tops of fridges that were headed to the dump and saving them in my work-shed. I've got lots of copper coils I've collected over the years, so I'm going to rig them up as collectors and try to heat water to heat the house from solar energy. I bought a book about solar energy that said only 25 per cent of the available energy from the sun could run almost everything North Americans use."

Heckbert suffers guilt pangs over the damage he may have done working with Freon gas during his career. The substance has been linked to damage of the atmos¬phere and industry is trying to eliminate its use altogether. "We didn't know it was harmful. When it came out, we all thought it was a beautiful gas," Heckbert said. "It was much better than the S02 originally used in re-frigeration. With S02 if the fridge had a leak, you had to move out of the house the smell was so bad. Freon didn't have any smell at all and it was easy to work with. We had no idea it was damaging the environ¬ment." To atone, Heckbert is going to try to use solar power to cut his consumption of less en¬vironmentally-friendly energy. "Sunshine is free. It doesn't hurt the environment, and I think we all share in the re¬sponsibility of protecting this planet for future genera¬tions."

When he's not tinkering with copper coils, Heckbert plans to be tickling the ivories with a new musical group he has formed through his asso¬ciation with the Holy Trinity Church. "Christianity is very impor¬tant to Verna and me now. And I've always enjoyed music, so I'm looking forward to playing more."

Heckbert is looking forward to a productive retirement, but he's still going to miss the friends he made over 42 and a half years working with Lounsbury's. "I couldn't have accom¬plished what I did without the love and support of my wife, Verna, and my family. They've been great," Heckbert said. "If could just say one thing to my friends and colleagues at Lounsbury's and to all the cus¬tomers I've dealt with over the years, I guess it would be: Thanks for 42 a half years of business. God bless you all. Fred.”


Source: Miramichi Leader – November 18, 1992

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