Page 53 of Wheels

Erica chatted brightly. Obviously she liked Hank Kreisel, and the evening out, and now the swim, had been good for her. She appeared glowing, her youthfulness evident. She had found a bikini among the available swimwear; it was exactly right for her tall, slim figure, and several times Adam noticed Kreisel's eyes stray interestedly Erica's way.

After a while their host seemed restless. He stood up. "Adam, like to get changed? There's something I want to show you, maybe talk about."

So finally, Adam thought, they were coming to the point - whatever the point was.

"You sound mysterious, Hank," Erica said, she smiled at Dorothy Kreisel. "Do I get to see this exposition too?"

Hank Kreisel gave his characteristic twisted grin. "If you did, I'd like it."

A few minutes later they excused themselves from Mrs. Kreisel who remained, placidly sipping coffee, in the living room.

When they had dressed, Hank Kreisel guided Adam and Erica through the main floor of the house, explaining it had been built by a long-dead auto mogul, a contemporary of Walter Chrysler and Henry Ford. "Solid. Outside walls as good as Hadrian's. Still are. So I tore the inside apart, put new guts in." The parts manufacturer opened a paneled doorway, revealing a spiral staircase, going down, then clattered ahead. Erica followed, more cautiously, Adam behind her.

They walked along a basement passageway, then, selecting a key from several on a ring, Hank Kreisel opened a gray metal door. As they entered the room beyond, bright fluorescent lighting flooded on.

They were, Adam saw, in an engineering experimental workshop. It was spacious, organized, among the best-equipped of its kind that he had seen.

"Spend a lot of time in this place. Do pilot stuff," Kreisel explained.

"When new work comes up for my plants, bring it down here. Then figure out best way of production at cheapest unit cost. Pays off."

Adam remembered something which Brett DeLosanto had told him: that Hank Kreisel had no engineering degree, and his only training before beginning business for himself was as a machinist and plant foreman.

"Over here." Kreisel led the way to a low, wide work table. An object on it was covered by a cloth which he removed. Adam looked curiously at the metal structure underneath - an assemblage of steel rods, sheet metal, and connected internal parts, the size about equal to two bicycles. On the outside was a handle. As Adam turned it, experimentally, parts within the structure moved.

Adam shrugged. "Hank, I give up. What the hell is it?"

"Obviously," Erica said, "it's something he's submitting to the Museum of Modern Art."

"Maybe that's it. What I ought to do." Kreisel grinned, then asked,

"Know much about farm machinery, Adam?"

"Not really." He turned the handle once again.

Hank Kreisel said quietly, "It's a threshing machine, Adam. Never been one like it, or this small. And it works." His voice took on an enthusiasm which neither Adam nor Erica had heard before. "This machine'll thresh any kind of grain - wheat, rice, barley. Three to five bushels an hour. Got pictures proving it . . ."

"I know enough about you," Adam said. "If you say it works, it works."

"Something else works, too. Cost. Mass-produced, it'd sell for a hundred dollars."

Adam looked doubtful. As a product planner, he knew costs the way a football coach knows standard plays. "Surely not including your power source." He stopped. "What is your power source? Batteries? A small gas motor?"

"Thought you'd get around to that," Hank Kreisel said. "So I'll tell you. Power source isn't any of those things. It's some guy turning a handle. Same way you did just now. Same handle. Except the guy I'm thinking of is an old Eastern geezer in a jungle village. Wearing a slope hat. When his arms get tired, a woman or a kid'll do it. They'll sit there, hours on end, just turn the handle. That's how we'll build this for a hundred bucks."

"No power source. Too bad we can't build cars that way." Adam laughed.

Kreisel told him, "Whatever else you do. Do me a favor now. Don't laugh."

"Okay, I won't. But I still can't see massproducing, in Detroit of all places, a piece of farm machinery" - Adam nodded toward the thresher - where you turn a handle, for hours on end, to make it work."

Hank Kreisel said earnestly, "If you'd been to places where I have, Adam, maybe you would. Parts of this world are a long way from Detroit.

That's half our trouble in this town: we forget those other places.

Forget that people don't think like we do. We figure everywhere else is like Detroit, or ought to be, so whatever happens should be our way: the way we see it. If others see different, they have to be wrong because we're Detroit! We've been like that about other things.

Pollution. Safety. Those got so hot we had to change. But there's a lot more thinking left that's like religion."

"With high priests," Erica put in, "who don't like old beliefs challenged."

Adam shot her an annoyed glance which said: Leave this to me.

He pointed out, "A good many who are moving up in industry believe in rethinking old ideas and the effect is showing. But when you talk about a hand-operated machine - any kind of machine - that isn't a forward change; it's going backward to the way things were before the first Henry Ford." He added, "Anyway, I'm a car and truck man. This is farm machinery."

"Your company has a farm products division."

"I'm not involved with it, and don't expect to be."

"Your people at the top are. And you're involved with them. They listen to you."

"Tell me something," Adam said. "Did you put this up to our farm products people? Did they turn you down?"

The parts manufacturer nodded affirmatively. "Them and others. Need someone now to get me in a board room. So I can raise interest there.

Hoped you'd see it."

At last it was clear precisely what Hank Kreisel wanted: Adam's help in gaining access to the corporate summit of his company, and presumably the ear of the president or chairman of the board.

Erica said, "Can't you do it for him?"

Adam shook his head, but it was Hank Kreisel who told her, "He'd have to believe in the idea first."

They stood looking at the contraption with its handle, so alien to everything in Adam's own experience.

And yet, Adam knew, auto companies often did become involved in projects having little or nothing to do with their principal activity of producing cars. General Motors had pioneered a mechanical heart for use in surgery, and other medical devices. Ford was working on space satellite communication, Chrysler dabbling in planned communities. There were other examples, and the reason for such programs - as Hank Kreisel shrewdly knew - was that someone high in each company had taken a personal interest to begin with.

"Been down to Washington about this thresher," Kreisel said. "Sounded out a lot of guys in State. They go for this. Talk of ordering two hundred thousand machines a year for foreign aid. It'd mean a start. But State Department can't do manufacturing."

"Hank," Adam said, "why work through another company at all? If you're convinced, why not build and market this yourself?"

"Two reasons. One's prestige. I don't have the name. Big company like yours does. Has the marketing setup, too. I don't."

Adam nodded. That much made sense.

"Other reason is finance. I couldn't raise the dough. Not for big production."

"Surely, with your track record, the banks . . ."

Hank Kreisel chuckled. "I'm into the banks already. So deep, some days they think I held 'em up. Never had much cash of my own. Surprising what you can do without it."

Adam understood that, too. Plenty of individuals and companies operated that way, and almost certainly Hank Kreisel's plants, their equipment, inventories, this house, his place at Higgins Lake, were mortgaged heavily. If Kreisel ever sold his business, or a part of it, he could reap millions in cash. Until he did, like others he would continue month by month with cash flow problems.

Again the parts manufacturer turned the thresher handle. Inside, the mechanism moved, though accomplishing nothing now; what it needed was grain to bite on, fed into a quart-size hopper at the top.

"Sure this is offbeat. Could say it's been a dream with me. Had it a long time." Hank Kreisel hesitated, seeming embarrassed by the admission, but went on, "Got the idea in Korea. Watched guys 'n dames in villages, pounding grain with rocks. Primitive: lots of muscle, small results. Saw a need, so started figuring this gizmo. Worked on it, on and off, ever since."

Erica was watching Hank Kreisel's face intently. She, too, knew something of his background, having learned it partly from Adam, partly elsewhere. Suddenly a picture took shape in her mind: of a tough, hard-fighting United States Marine in an alien, hostile land, yet observing native villagers with such understanding and compassion that, years afterward, an idea born at that time could stay with him like a flame.

"Tell you something, Adam," Kreisel said. "You too, Erica. This country's not selling farm machinery overseas. Leastways, not much. Ours is too fancy, too sophisticated. It's like a religion with us - the way I said: everything has to be powered. Must be electric, or use an engine, or whatever. What's forgotten is, Eastern countries have unending labor. You call for a guy to turn a handle, fifty come hurrying like flies - or ants. But we don't like that idea. Don't like to see dams built by coolies carrying stones. Idea offends us. We figure it's inefficient, not American; we say it's the way the pyramids were built.