Thursday, December 10, 2009

the parts magician

When you call the parts guy and order a set of brake drums for your aged (but still in service) water tanker, and the guy types the part number into the computer and is silent for a while, you know you've got problems. When he finally blurts out, "We don't carry parts for Egyptian chariots anymore . . . ," you know you've got BIG problems.

It happened to me last week, and after calling half a dozen parts dealers and getting the same 'Why the heck do you want brake drums from the Bronze Age?' innuendo each time, I began to despair. It would be criminal to scrap a $50,000 vehicle just because no one makes the two hundred dollar part anymore . . . but I suspect all small volunteer departments have the same dilemma.

I ran the problem by one of my captains, a trucker by trade, and a guy that knows his way around trucks and parts and dealers. He suggested another place, so I tried them and the guy typed the part number and was silent, like I expected.

"Yep, I can get the drums here by Monday," he said finally.

"You what?"

"I said, I can get them here by Monday."

My turn for stunned silence. Then, "Why can you can get the part by Monday, when the rest of the world has never even heard of it?"

"They probably didn't type the 'B' after the number."

I didn't bother asking how he knew to type the 'B' after the number. Savvy parts people are a rare breed all their own, and there isn't much point trying to penetrate their psyche. When I was a bushwhacker, there was a parts lady that had the whole inventory memorized and catalogued in her computer brain . . . by part number. She never smiled and wasn't particularly friendly, but if you needed a U-joint or a planetarium gear, she could find it fast. Even if it was buried in a Stone Aged cave in Cambodia. If it existed on earth, she could find it.

I suspect all fire chiefs, especially those in small departments with hand-me-down trucks, have a list of these inventorial wizards carefully tucked away in a secret crevice of the fire hall. I could probably use mine to extort some serious cash some day:

me (holding "the list" by two fingers over a raging bonfire): I want 7.9 million dollars, or the list is history.

fire board members (quietly discussing among themselves): He really isn't too bright is he. He could have asked for 10 million and we would have had to give it to him.
I had to strike a name off the list the other day. One of my most valued parts genies retired, leaving a black hole in the universe of machine commerce. I'm going to lobby for legislation forbidding these folks to ever, ever retire, on the grounds that it compromises national security. Some things are just not replaceable.

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