Stan Crader

Author & Lecturer on Writing About Rural America

Stihl in America – Blog 3

1958 – The Dodgers leave Brooklyn, America launches its first satellite, Elvis joins the Army, and two Jersey business partners board a plane at New York’s Idlewild International Airport bound for Germany. Millions were captivated by the first three events; few, other than family, noticed the latter. Gordon Williams and his life-long friend, Harding Smith, had high hopes, charisma, and a business plan. It would take all they had to offer in order to make the deal with Andreas Stihl, the father of the chainsaw.

Idlewild International Airport

Together, Gordon and Harding had more than hope, charisma, and a plan; they had a bond built on values, fidelity, loyalty, and integrity. While not exactly family, their relationship was several generations deep. Their great grandfathers, grandfathers, and fathers had been close friends—and that bond had been handed down through the generations.

Both men were slowly making their way toward the gate-door and waving good-bye to a host of friends and family who’d come to the airport to see them off on their night-flight over the wintery waters of the Atlantic. It was back in the day before strict security measures prohibited non-passengers from gathering in the gate area.

As soon as they passed through the gate-door and onto the tarmac a gust snapped the heavy steel door closed behind them, filling both men with a, no turning back now, sensation. The two hesitated under the protection of a small canvas awning with its frayed edges dripping and flapping in the wind. A ramp attendant holding an oversized umbrella motioned for them to follow him. Gordon draped his large arm across the thin but formidable shoulders of his friend, Harding, sort of a lingering pat, grinned, and said, “Here we go, Smish.” Gordon had nicknames for everyone. With that, the two men, holding their fedoras with one hand and clutching their brief cases with the other, hustled through a chilling winter drizzle under the partial protection of the attendants’ umbrella, to the waiting Pan Am emblazoned, Super Connie. They were the last to board.

Later that same year, 1958, President Eisenhower would participate in a ceremony christening Pam Am’s first Boeing 707 designed for trans-Atlantic flight. The christening ceremony kicked off an elaborate celebration which included a plane load of dignitaries being flown to Paris for a party hosted by Juan Trippe, founder of Pam Am. While Pam Am’s inaugural charter flight would inspire Gordon to do something similar nine years later, the Boeing 707, the inspiration, and much more were yet to come. In 1958, the Lockheed, pressurized Super Connie Electra, crude by today’s standards, was the pinnacle of luxury in trans-Atlantic airline travel.

Albert Gore, JR, ten years old at the time, was enrolled in DC’s prestigious St. Alban’s Elementary school, and had yet to invent the internet. Tim Berners-Lee the true inventor of the World Wide Web, was only three and learning English in England. Suffice it to say, communications at the time were archaic by 21st Century standards. Gordon and Harding wouldn’t be in contact with family until their return. Phone calls via the trans-Atlantic cable, at $12 per three-minute increments, combined with the time change, weren’t feasible or affordable.

After climbing the air-stairs, Gordon and Harding were greeted by a friendly, statuesque stewardess who took their overcoats while another showed them to their linen-draped seats before taking their drink order. They joined a nearly full flight of well-dressed passengers, men in suits and ladies in dresses; that’s the way airline travel was in 1958.

Knowing Harding liked to keep an innocent eye on the ladies, Gordon settled his large frame into the window seat. While Harding enjoyed his nerve calming Irish whiskey, Gordon sipped on a Scotch, gazed out the oval window and watched the two engines on his side roar to life, and listened while the same occurred on the aft. Each engine start was followed by a fuselage engulfing plume of smoke caused by oil that had leaked into the combustion chambers of the lower half of the eighteen cylinders on the massive Pratt & Whitney radial engines. Since trans-Atlantic passengers were generally veteran flyers, the spectacular start-up exhaust generally went unnoticed, unlike domestic flights when the sudden belch had to be explained to nervous first-timers.

The unsynchronized, low frequency wha wha wha of the giant supercharged engines was sufficiently loud enough to drown out the annoying alcohol induced passenger cabin chatter. The notion that he’d be making the same flight, eight years later, along with 144 of his customers, in a privately chartered KLM DC8 Jet was beyond Gordon’s wildest imagination. Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) was the world’s oldest airline in 1958, and remains so today.

Harding noticed that the hem on the stewardess assigned to their area extended below her knees, indicating she was new, possibly in training, and still on probation, which meant they’d receive excellent service. The more tenured stewardesses were allowed to shorten the hem and sometimes depended on their athletic looking legs to substitute for passenger attentiveness, particularly, when attending to gentlemen business travelers. While the primary duty of the stewardess was passenger safety, and each was well trained in emergency procedure and first aid, the flying public would soon expect the stewardess to function as an in-flight waitress.

After a final spray of deicing glycol, the Connie taxied into position. The pilot stood on the brakes while the co-pilot moved the throttles, propeller pitch, and fuel mixture full forward. Once satisfied all four engines were developing full power, the Captain released the brakes, allowing the massive propellers to turn horsepower into thrust by taking continuous giant bites of cold dense air, tossing each bite rearward and moving the plan rapidly down the runway and finally airborne. Passengers sitting abeam the propellers orbit hadn’t a clue regarding metal fatigue or the consequence of the tiniest sliver of propeller, damaged by runway debris, breaking away and the chance that centrifugal force would carry the sliver through the cabin. Sometimes it’s best not to know.

Gordon looked out the window and enjoyed the flickering nightlights of New York City until the plane was completely enveloped in the overcast; he then turned to Harding “What time is it, Smish?”

“Why don’t you wear a watch, Gordy?” Harding had never known Gordon to wear a watch or anything resembling jewelry. It was a rhetorical question.

“Why should I?” Gordon asked. “You always have one.” Harding’s laugh was always one of those contagious full body affairs that were impossible to go unnoticed. And in that instance, unfelt. His entire seat, along with the drop down tray for the passenger sitting behind him bounced with each chuckle. “I tell you what,” Gordon continued. “If we close this deal I’ll think about asking Anne and the kids to buy me a Cartier for father’s day.”

Harding, caught off guard both by Gordon’s willingness to consider wearing a watch, for which countless friends and family would be appreciative, and his knowledge of a very expensive timepiece, was momentarily speechless. Harding finally had the temerity to ask, “Why a Cartier?”

Gordon turned to Harding and gave him a what-planet-are-you-from look. “He invented the wristwatch” When Gordon sensed Harding hadn’t made the connection he explained. “Just like Andreas Stihl invented the chain saw. If I’m going to sell saws made by the man who invented them then it only makes sense that I wear a watch made by the man who invented them.”

“Does that mean you’re going to buy a Mercedes too?” Harding asked. Gordon stared out the window and didn’t answer right away. By then they’d climbed well above the clouds and were being treated with the light of a full moon’s reflection lighting up the under cast like a painter’s blank canvas.

“First things first, Smish,” Gordon finally murmured.

Harding never gave the time—it didn’t matter. As if on queue, both men reached for a cigarette, Harding a Camel, and Gordon a Lucky.

Cartier, Gordon explained later, had invented the wristwatch in 1904 for an aviation friend, Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian, was the first to fly a heavier than air craft in France, and had asked his friend, Cartier, to build him a time piece that would be easy to access and read while flying, when both hands are occupied.

When circumnavigating the globe, the shortest distance between two points is rarely a straight line, particular going east or west. The route from New York to Germany took them northeasterly up the east coast toward Newfoundland and then easterly skirting the southern tips of Greenland, which was covered with ice, and then over Iceland, which, ironically, was not covered in ice, and finally southeasterly over Scotland, England, and France, toward Stuttgart, Germany. It’s known as great circle navigation. This technique is due to the world being shaped more like a basketball with someone sitting on it than a symmetrical sphere.

Typical flight crews at the time were WWII Army Air Corps veterans. While a trans-Atlantic flight wasn’t to be taken lightly, crewing a well maintained Lockheed Constellation over friendly territory from which nobody would be attempting to shoot them down and through airspace absent of menacing Luftwaffe Messerschmitts, made the flights seem, relatively speaking, akin to the proverbial walk in the park.

Each crew flying the transpolar route over the Arctic was equipped with a winter survival kit, including a 7.62 mm AR10 carbine for use against polar bears, in the event the plane was forced down onto the polar ice. The passengers, comfortably seated in the warm pressurized cabin and somewhat sedated, were oblivious to the perils of crossing the Atlantic at night and unaware of the rarely-necessary assortment of arctic survival equipment. Most were excited about the exotic nature of trans-continental air travel, which was still in its infancy; others were hyperventilating into their sick sacks. The Titanic had long since been forgotten.

Gordon finished his Scotch and placed his brief case on the lowered seat-back tray and was enveloped with the musky smell of the attaché case’s damp top grain cowhide. After retrieving a file of documents covering the chainsaw market in America and the attributes of two-step distribution verses dealer direct, he closed the brief case and reviewed the documents, committing the information to memory. It was a routine he’d repeat several times during the long flight. The purpose of the trip was to gain the exclusive rights for selling Stihl in America. He needed to be prepared for any and all questions pertaining to the market potential and his carefully thought out sales strategy.

Gordon and Harding, two men of extraordinary character were about to meet their match and more. Andreas Stihl had invented the portable gasoline chainsaw in 1926. As a consequence of a true inventor’s dilemma, Andreas Stihl, after observing the brutal and laborious techniques of loggers in southern Germany’s Black Forest, decided there had to be a better way, giving credence to the saying, “Need is the Mother of invention.” The consequence of his observation was the portable chainsaw, which wasn’t all that portable, weighing 140 pounds and requiring two men two operate and access to electricity. It was nonetheless a paradigm shattering new product that quickly revolutionized logging worldwide.

Flying east through the night, morning comes quickly, literally eight hours earlier. While it was midnight in New Jersey, and the drizzle had turned to snow, the Pan Am flight enjoyed a clear-sky sun rise bathing the Western European continent. The captain’s gravelly voice came over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re now crossing the border between Germany and France and beginning our descent.” Those next to windows looked down and imagined a line across the landscape separating Germany and France. After a short pause the pilot continued, “We’re now crossing the Maginot line,” confirming in Gordon’s mind that the pilot was a WWII Army Air Corps veteran. Gordon looked around the cabin and knew instantly which passengers had served in Europe during the war—those that had, instantly dropped what they’d been reading and were transfixed in time, staring reflectively into space or out a window.

France’s line of defense between them and Germany had been built in the 1930s and named after their Minister of War, André Maginot. Not visible from the air, the Maginot consisted of 22 large underground bunkers and 36 smaller fortresses, and numerous blockhouses, all fortified with weapons and supplies, and connected by rail. It was a feat of major undertaking and at the time thought to be a work of genius. However, the fortifications hadn’t been placed in the areas of rugged terrain and the tenacious Germans had simply marched through those areas during the war, deeming the costly building of the French fortresses futile and useless.

Gordon’s mind was flooded with things he’d been told and those he’d experienced firsthand near the French-German border. Earlier, he’d studied a map published by Pan Am of the likely route of the flight and had noticed they’d be flying south of but near the Argonne, where Alvin York, during WWI, had valiantly lead a small squad on a mission where they destroyed 20 machine gun nests, killed 32 Germans, and captured 132. York subsequently received a battlefield promotion to Sargent when all of the officers in his squad had been killed and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

Gordon then tearfully recalled a couple instances of his own WWII experience. In one instance he’d been transferred to a new unit who’d lost their machine-gunner. Days later he learned that a close friend, who’d replaced him in the former unit, had been killed in combat and Gordon realized that it could have been him. And another close call was when his unit had taken refuge in a farm house. Thinking it a safe distance from the fighting, Gordon found an upstairs bedroom. He’d only slept an hour or so when he awoke and decided it better to return to the main floor and join the rest of his unit. No sooner had he left the bedroom when a German rocket hit the house destroying most of the second floor. He would have been killed had he not returned to the main floor just moments prior to the attack. He learned later of his Mother’s premonition that he’d been in danger on that particular day. And she’d had similar premonitions that eerily aligned with days when Gordon’s unit had experienced heavy fighting and casualties. Knowing that Andreas Stihl had supplied the German army with chainsaws, and served a short time in prison for doing so, Gordon then began to worry of lingering animosity that might remain with Mr. Stihl or any others with whom he’d be meeting.

Gordon elbowed Harding awake and let him know they’d begun their descent into Stuttgart. Neither had been able to get much rest on the flight and Harding was a little miffed that Gordon had awoken him just when he’d finally succeeded in restful sleep. Gordon convinced Harding that he’d been asleep for over an hour when in fact he’d only dozed off moments earlier. They discussed the legend, the man recognized as the father of the chain saw, and the purpose of the trip. It would be the biggest deal of their lives. The task before them was to convince Andreas Stihl and his staff that their plan was the right strategy with which to re-enter the American market.

stuttgart airport

Stuttgart Airport

It wasn’t as if the duo arrived hat in hand, unannounced, at the door step of Stihl’s Waiblingen headquarters. After weeks of correspondence with Reinhold Guhl, Stihl’s VP of export, explaining the proposition, they were anxious to meet him and he them. Rineholdt, waiting for them as soon as they’d cleared customs, welcomed them to Germany, and drove them to one of Stuttgart’s premier hotels, the Turmhotel, a towering historic edifice to German architecture, complete with a Mercedes star mounted on the roof, situated adjacent to the train station and Stuttgart’s famous Koenigstrasse, the longest pedestrian street in Europe.

turm hotel

Historic Turm Hotel

It was a short meeting. Rineholdt, Andreas’ VP of marketing world-wide, served as translator. Even though Rineholdt spoke excellent English, based on subsequent meetings, Reinhold’s translation during that first meeting is anybody’s guess. Rineholdt liked what he saw in Gordon and Harding and liked what he heard in their plan, and made sure that the translation to Andreas was favorable.

Due to westerly winds, trans-Atlantic flights heading west (home) are much longer than those heading east, but it didn’t seem that way for Gordon and Harding. Regardless of the confidence with which they’d convinced friends and family of the logic of the trip, and the repeated reviews of their presentation before and during the flight, they were fraught with fear of failure and doubt, aggravated by a severe case of insomnia. While the flight home was several hours longer, including a fuel stop in Shannon, Ireland, where they’d purchased several bottles of Irish whiskey, it seemed shorter for three reasons. First they had in hand a one page contract signed by Andreas Stihl, granting them the exclusive rights for selling Stihl in the United States. And second a celebratory gift from Andreas, a bottle of Kirschwasser, literally translated—Cherry Water; it was anything but. Kirschwasser, a brandy or schnapps, or sometimes called Bavarian Kerosene, at 80 Proof is a long way from a breakfast fruit drink. The third reason was packed in the luggage compartment below, two Stihl BLK saws, similar to what Gordon had seen during the Oregon visit.

The other passengers on the flight were delighted when sleep finally came for the raucous celebrating American businessmen. Gordon and Harding arrived home having slept for nearly eight hours but not necessarily feeling refreshed. They’d soon need a bigger warehouse, and more money.


One Page Contract – 1958

Blog 4 – The ‘other’ early players

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