What’s a Chukker?

 

I believe it was the spring of 1965. In another month, that will be 50 years ago. I remember a lot of the details but the dates are hard to pin down.

To lay the groundwork for this story, let me say that total employment at Electro Instruments was probably about 250. I was Foreman of the Test Department and had 23 technicians working for me. Our job was to trouble-shoot the instruments coming off the assembly line and fix any wiring errors or cold solder joints and replace any defective electronic components. Once we had the unit running, we calibrated it with precision voltage standards and “sold” it to a Quality Control Inspector and also to a Department of Defense Inspector if it was to be shipped against a government contract. When we presented the unit to the Shipping Department it was the culmination of the efforts of every department in the plant.

One morning, I got a call from my boss, Pete Dreesen, the Director of Manufacturing. Pete said that his boss, Jim Zeigler, the Vice President of Operations had called and invited the two of us to lunch. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Working stiffs like me didn’t ordinarily go to lunch with 2 levels of bosses, but I met Pete and Jim in the lobby at 11:30 and Pete drove us to a nearby restaurant.

I didn’t know Jim well, only having had a few brief conversations with him. It was normally business stuff, where he did the conversing and I did the listening. I knew he lived on some acreage on the outskirts of Alpine, a small town in the foothills east of San Diego. I had also heard that he had 7 kids so that’s probably why he had the big place. He was a nice guy and I liked him.

We were hardly sitting down in the restaurant before Jim announced that he wanted to start a company polo team. The three of us didn’t really know anything about polo so we started listing the things we thought would need to be answered in order to get this project off the ground. Jim mentioned that he had a couple of horses for his kids to ride but doubted they would make very good polo ponies. Jim and Pete both knew that I had a horse and asked about her. I told them that she was coming along but I bought her for her confirmation and sweet disposition and she wouldn’t be good for polo. Polo “ponies” are actually big, strong horses that love to run and are so competitive they will run over anything in their path. Jim said that was ok because he had been talking to the people that own Bright Valley Stables, up in Harbison Canyon, on the way to Alpine, and we might be able to work out a deal to rent horses from them. Also, they would give us lessons on riding English saddles and the fundamentals of polo.

Recruiting a team might be a tough job. We would be taking off work an hour or two before quitting time at least one day a week for English riding lessons. The hourly direct folks wouldn’t want to lose the pay. The salaried people could work extra hours if they needed to in order to stay on top of their jobs. A large percentage of our workforce was women. We had hired quite a few experienced women from the aerospace industry so they were older, more “grandmotherly”, types. Most of the rest of the women were young mothers that had to get home after work and pick up the kids at the baby sitters (Day Care was a term that hadn’t been invented yet). Our pool of riders was shrinking fast. We decided to post the story on the employee bulletin board so that we wouldn’t mistakenly exclude anyone that was interested.

We tried to think of anyone who rode horses for pleasure or knew anything about horses. The only horseman I knew was Steve Scott, a custodian working 2nd shift. Scotty was in his 60’s and his health wasn’t too good. He had come over from Brawley, California in the Imperial Valley where for years he had been the “Hay Boss” for a large cattle feeding outfit. Every year the city of Brawley holds the Brawley Cattle Call, a big western celebration featuring a parade and a rodeo. Scotty was one of the organizers of that annual event and even after moving to San Diego, returned to Brawley to take part in it. Scotty and I were having a cup of coffee one day before he went on shift and I mentioned that I had recently bought a horse but hadn’t saved up enough for a saddle yet. Scotty said he was too old to ride but had brought his saddle with him from Brawley and I was welcome to use it as long as I needed it. He brought the saddle, a fairly new roper, to work with him the next day. I used it for several months and returned it with thanks. I know this paragraph about Scotty hasn’t much to do with the polo story but Scotty was really a “good old boy” and I liked him a lot and enjoyed writing something about him so you could see him.

Getting back to business, our luncheon meeting lasted about 3 hours and we made plans and discussed obstacles until we thought we had covered everything. We knew we were facing an uphill battle but decided to take things in order and go as far as we could.

The first day of riding lessons, eight of us showed up, all managers or supervisors and all salaried. We had all ridden “western” but didn’t know one end of an English saddle from the other. The man who owned Bright Valley Stables had an accent and I think he must have been an Aussie rather than an Englishman. He was a good instructor and soon had us all mounted and riding around a ring. The lessons were fun and informative. We all enjoyed them because while riding around in circles in the ring he corrected our “seat” and the way we were posting and also talked to us about the tack and the rules of polo. It would be more exciting to tell you that somebody got thrown or that we had a runaway horse but nothing like that happened. We had a few lessons with most of the guys in attendance. Some weeks, one or the other of us would have to stay in the plant and take care of our department.

Jim knew of a Dr. Herring that lived in Lakeside, a town between our plant and Alpine. This Dr. Herring had a polo team that he sponsored and played on and Jim arranged for us to watch them play one Saturday morning. It was fun to watch the guys play. I don’t know if they were any good but it didn’t make any difference because they were having so much fun. One of the “attack” guys hit a pretty good drive and all of a sudden he and one of the defensive guys were in a mad dash to get to the ball. The collision was like those you hear in the NFL. Ker-Whap!!! The “attack” guy is knocked off his horse and hits the ground, breaking his forearm. Doc Herring took one look at the arm and loaded the guy in his car. He took him to his office in town, x-rayed and set the bone, and put a cast on it. They were back at the game in a little over an hour. The Doc wouldn’t let the guy back in the game. 

This broken arm was hard on our team as two of our members abruptly quit. They said they had come out for fun and that didn’t include broken bones.

Things kind of went downhill after that. It became harder and harder to get the group together. Managers and supervisors are in those positions partly due to a sense of responsibility and that makes it hard to abandon the challenges of the job in the middle of the afternoon and go play. We knew at the outset that it was going to be tough. Besides the other problems, we had no horses, no tack, no horse trailers, no cheap places to board horses, and certainly not enough discretionary income to float the whole thing. It was fun while it lasted.

Dave Thomas
February 6, 2015

 

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