Q&A with Charles "Daddy" Taylor
Photograph by Mark Thiessen and NGC
The patriarch, technical advisor and all-purpose voice of reason for the Rocket City Rednecks team is Travis Taylor’s father Charles Taylor, AKA “Daddy,” who worked as a machinist on the Apollo space program and a slew of military satellite projects too secret for him to tell us much about. (“When he wasn’t huntin’ for raccoons, he was fixin’ up some rockets,” as Travis explains.) Daddy recently spent some time talking with writer Patrick J. Kiger about the glory days of the space program, how farms are a great breeding ground for inventiveness, and why the young folks need to put down those game controllers and smart phones, get off the couch and get their hands dirty building some actual real-world stuff.
Q: You’re great at fixing stuff. Where did you learn that?
I learned that growing up. My father was a diesel mechanic, fixing road-building machines. When I was kid in the 1940s and 1950s, he was working on the construction of the Interstate highway system, and we traveled up and down the East Coast. I went to six or seven different schools. But our family also managed to spend six months of the year back in Alabama, on my grandfather’s farm, and I started doing farm work early. Now if you’re working on a farm, you have to learn how to fix things, because things break a lot, and you usually don’t have the money to go out and buy a new one. You have to be a carpenter, a welder, a machinist, a cabinet maker, whatever. You know that old joke about keeping something together with baling wire? We actually used to do that. Things would wear out, we’d patch them any way we could, and wear them out some more. Most of my childhood was work. I didn’t get to do what my son Travis did, which was to build things just for fun.
Q: You’re also very talented at finding interesting new uses for things. Did you learn that on the farm as well?
When you work on a farm, even if you can’t fix something, you don’t throw it away, because you might be able to figure out how to use the parts to get another machine to work. Farmers do that to survive. They’re great improvisers. We do that a lot in the show—for example, the episode in which we use my meat smoker as the breastplate for the Iron Man suit. We also use my boat trailer as the frame for a submarine.
Q: Is it true that you learned your leadership abilities by plowing with mules?
Well, I did actually cultivate the crops with mules. My dad got to use the tractor, but I was younger, so I got the mules. They do develop your management skills.
Q: It’s amazing to think that you worked in the U.S. space program, even though you didn’t go to college. Tell us about that.
Actually, when I got out of high school, I was offered an academic scholarship to Huntington University in Alabama, but I decided to get a job instead. I started working as an apprentice to a toolmaker, and earned my journeyman status. Then I took another job in 1966 with Wiley Laboratories in Huntsville. Shortly after I started, they moved the Saturn V’s lower stages onto the Wiley premises, to do destructive-type testing to simulate what it would go through on a space launch. I was assigned to do some machining work for one of [Marshall Space Flight Center director] Dr. Werner Von Braun’s best friends, a scientist named Wilhelm Jungert. It must have worked out pretty well, because when the guy came back again, he asked for me again. Finally, my boss just said, “You go with him, and do whatever they need to do on that rocketship.” So from then on, I was with those German scientists.
Q: So what did the rocket scientists have you doing?
Well, basically, Jungert and the other Germans were there every day, and they did a little bit of every test you could imagine, like bombarding a rocket part with sound waves or whatever. Basically, whenever something broke, I’d go back and make a replacement part, and then we’d try to break it again. It was fun. I was 21 years old, and the Germans told me I was the youngest person ever to work on the Moon program.
Q: How long did you work in aerospace?
About four years. After Wiley’s contract with NASA was up, I went to Heat Technology, another contractor. There, I built satellites and rockets, and worked on the SST. [Note: The SST was a government-funded supersonic airliner, intended to compete with the European Concorde; it was cancelled by Congress in 1971 due to cost and environmental concerns.] I worked on other very highly classified things, secret projects. For one, they put up a canvas tent around me so that other workers couldn’t see what I was doing. It got really hot in there, I remember. I also worked on projects related to the Vietnam War, such as the guns for helicopters.
By the early 1970s, the government contract work started disappearing, and we were facing layoffs. So I left and took a job with General Motors at their plant in Alabama. I worked for GM for 27 years, 26 of it in management as general supervisor of skilled trades, before I retired.
Q: In some ways, you would have been right at home in the 1800s and early 1900s, when a lot of self-taught innovators without fancy scientific degrees were inventing the technology that helped make America great.
Well, I don’t want to put myself in the same class as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, but I really admire those them and their stick-to-it-ness and imagination. And I grew up working with my hands like they did, so I guess I am sort of a throwback. I’m a history buff, and I learn from what other people have done before me. I don’t depend that much on the computerized skills of today. I like to go back to the old-fashioned way of doing things. You’ll see us do some things that go back to the blacksmith days.
Q: You go back to the blacksmith days, yourself.
When I was six years old, I lived across from the town blacksmith. He would let me play in front of the shop, until I’d start to aggravate him. Then he’d put me to work, pumping the bellows. I’d last about five minutes. But I would just watch him work. He made horseshoes, parts for wagons and machines, patch whatever you needed patched. That left a lasting impression on me, to see how that man could make things.
Q: You all seem to have a lot of crazy fun on Rocket City Rednecks, but you say there’s also a message behind the madness.
There is a subliminal message. We need to regain that American spirit, the sense of being can-do people. Most of the inventions that the world has relied upon for the past 150 years have come from Americans. But we can do it again, if we can just get off the couch and get busy with our hands again. We’re hoping that all the fun we have will inspire the younger people. We’re saying, get out there and learn to make things. You don’t realize how much fun you can have making things, working with your fingertips, making things you can touch. That’s what I think about when I think about Henry Ford. You can’t be as driven as he was, unless you’re enjoying it.
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