Disclaimer: This chapter of my history blog contains very little Whip Mix history, but chronicles at a distance of 50 years how the ties between a family and family business were woven and then redefined into what has now endured for 4 generations. If this interests you, gentle reader, please continue.
The law of unintended consequences applied (in a good way) to the “Baby Stuart” articulator that Whip Mix had begun selling early in 1962. My Dad, Ed Steinbock, Jr, began to realize that over 45 North American dental schools were potential customers, and also that he’d best not be away from his seven children, aged 6 to 14, for extended lengths of time. So he hatched a novel, low-budget plan — take the whole family of 9 on an extended cross-country sales call that would include Canada, 10 dental schools and the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
Since motor homes had yet to be invented, Dad scrounged around and came home with a dilapidated 1949, 52 passenger school bus that most recently was in service as a local moving van. Christened by my Mom as Big Bertha, she went into the Whip Mix maintenance shop for a 3 month metamorphosis into what would never today pass a safety inspection. Well, we did put a big canvas strap around the Servel gas frig when we started driving each day so that it wouldn’t tip over and flatten one of us. With AAA maps in hand and bunk beds for 7 across the back, trundle bed behind the driver’s seat, 9 cubby holes under the 2 table tops, gas stove bolted to the floor, , storage shelves above the side windows, canoe and spare tire strapped to the roof, 2 empty plaster barrels to sit on and enjoy the view out the front window, a Craftsman toolbox full of hand tools and a socket set, and 2 bicycles that we tied inside the back door — – she seemed to me the modern incarnation of a Conestoga wagon!
Though she was just a traditional black and yellow Chevrolet school bus, to us she was a magic carpet ride providing plenty of escapades, a petri dish of family dynamics, a proverbial glue pot of family solidarity, a part-time purveyor of Whip Mix wares, a mobile engine repair course, an American history/geography lesson, one pot meals, near death experiences and at least one case of mistaken identity. But all that unfolded a day at a time over the next 9 weeks.
Without so much as a shakedown weekend near our Kentucky home, we each stuffed some clean clothes into our cubby holes, dad put dress shirt, slacks, tie and sport coat on a hanger by the frig, his articulator and face bow kit under a bench seat and we all headed WEST.
In St. Louis, our first stop, we parked in the shade beside the zoo so that we could visit all the animals while dad donned his business attire and caught a taxi to call on faculty at Washington University. After his school visit, he hailed a taxi and the driver was pleasantly surprised when his businessman fare asked to be taken to the zoo!
We found out the hard way in Omaha that open school bus windows at night are an open invitation for skeeters. So began the first of several visits to army surplus stores during the trip for low-budget military camo mosquito netting, ropes, tarps, etc so the kids could “camp out” under the stars, letting the folks enjoy some quiet time.
We also found out the hard way that the frig would have to be level in order for the pilot light to stay lit. After a cold night in the Snowy Range of Wyoming, we woke to awful headaches because the windows were closed, the frig was not level and so the propane gas kept flowing though the pilot light was not lit. That was a close call!
Mom & Dad spelled each other as Bertha’s driver, religiously stopping every 200 miles for gas (and a restroom break) as the fuel gage was broken. So, we knew that something more complicated was at work when the majestically big, in-line 6-cylinder engine sputtered and died while heading North on US 287 between Ft. Collins and Laramie. Changing the fuel filter and pump helped but her engine was again sputtering as we limped into Laramie to visit with a dental customer, Dr. Charlie Stebner and his family.
Clearly this called for sterner measures, so Dad taught us how to perform exploratory surgery in the Stebner’s driveway, taking hammer and cold chisel to the floor to expose the gas tank pickup tube fitting. We were ever so glad to finally discover Bertha’s problem – she had a cockroach clogging the gas line. I’m sure that brother Greg, now a urologist, surely reminisces on this as he searches his patients for kidney stones!
Each morning, when a parent pushed the floor mounted engine starter, God alone knew what life’s lessons would be in the offing before our heads hit the pillows that night. For the balance of the summer, Bertha’s breakdowns ran a gamut of ailments: Cardiac – her rocker arm shaft snapped; Joint disease – her front wheel bearing galled, growled and finally seized up; Nerves – her distributor shaft snapped; Circulatory – her radiator clogged, overheating the engine and warping the head so of course she blew her head gasket; Vision – her hood latch failed while Mom was driving — instantly obstructing Mom’s view when the hood covered the front windshield (for the rest of our trip we tied a stout manila rope between the blinkers on top of each fender); then Respiratory – her exhaust pipe and the muffler parted company somewhere in South Dakota, but by then we were almost back home.
The pinnacle of our fishing success occurred at West Thumb in Yellowstone Park. Down off the roof came our 18’ Grumman aluminum canoe, plus a stout spin casting rod and 7 eager anglers. One at a time, Dad paddled the canoe back and forth near the shore with one of us in the bow clutching the rod handle as we trolled a glob of worms behind a veritable Christmas tree of flashy spinners. Soon enough, a fish would strike and we’d reel in a 16 to 20” cutthroat trout. We were so proud to show off our catch at the fish cleaning station. But the other anglers, seeing the size of our crew – donated at least 15 more fish to our cooler. We ate fried trout for breakfast, lunch and dinner 3 days straight!
The Seattle World’s Fair was a cornucopia of learning opportunities. We’d line up first at the GE Pavilion each day for a view of the new-fangled box called a microwave oven that was used to cook a cake – AND we were first in line for a free slice of the cake.
In the Japanese pavilion, sister Lynn learned to sneak in the exit to their raw oyster bar. She loved the raw oysters, but was even more pleased with finding a cultured black pearl that was eventually set into a ring that she still wears on special occasions.
We developed an appreciation for the local kids when Mom took us into the newly finished swimming pool in Golden, B.C. where, even in summer, this town is surrounded by snow tipped mountains. The town’s kids were playing and splashing, and we’d each paid 50¢ to get in before we realized that the glacier we’d just visited was feeding the creek beside the pool and being diverted right into the pool! Naturally, Mom insisted that we get our money’s worth (and a good cleaning) by showing off our swimming skills. There were icy blue streaks all over us!
By the time we got home, brother Ted had cached enough scavenged animal and bird parts under the bunk beds and inside the spare tire to start his own natural history museum back in our basement at home. He even had the rest of us sneaking off the Yellowstone Park boardwalks to collect buffalo bones in a basin of geysers and boiling hot springs. He credits the trip as the genesis of his interest in paleontology which he eventually adapted into a book format which is regularly consulted by human paleontologists in the field as a text book.
Bertha’s stops in Portland, Seattle, Edmonton and Winnipeg resulted in annual articulator student kit orders– some of which continue to the present. I eventually returned to Portland to study dental materials under Dr. Dave Mahler in Portland who taught me that summer how to catch speckled trout. Dr. Zack Kasloff’s family in Winnipeg hosted us to a memorable roast beef dinner at their home at which brother David was heard to remark, “Eat up. The next stop may not be so good!”
At last we returned home to an overgrown yard and weedy garden; our horizons greatly expanded, and our family working and playing together as a team. I credit this summer odyssey with being the catalyst for forming a singular spirit of cooperation between all of us, not just the 4 of us who now work inside the company. Perhaps the experience of learning how to find and pass the right wrench, socket or feeler gauge under a bus a fender to your parent or sibling begets greater results in life than just a repaired conveyance. The values we learned such as trust, thrift, ingenuity, team work and caring have helped us make Whip Mix a better place to work, converted our customers into loyal friends and taught us to always look farther down the road to anticipate needed “course corrections” in our personal and business lives.
Big Bertha got us to the Pacific and back in a modern land version of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and she gratefully retired to our family farm and enjoyed providing shelter to us on weekends after we added a small wood cook stove. But eventually some hunters shot out her windows and mice worked their way inside the walls. Her last gift was an automotive equivalent of an organ donation – – Her 2 good front tires and the rear axle were donated to the St. Clare Church in Colesburg, Ky for their church bus. Perhaps parts of her are still out there helping broaden young minds and a child’s horizons.