It’s not just guns: a scene from the war on guitars

RIP, Ovation. This is a more upscale model, but the same color.

RIP, Ovation. This is a more upscale model, but the same color.

If you were in 10th SF Group in the early 1980s, you might remember a guy who had a funny-looking red guitar with a couple of appropriate stickers (like one from Soldier of Fortune) magazine on it. He sang the usual parodies — a pop hit “Don’t you Forget About me” came out as “Don’t you give me VD.” And the unit songs, like Bovine, Frog and Lopez’s “You Don’t Bludgeon a Seal,” which was about the cute pups of the marine mammal, not their naval namesakes, who could have that cold-water swimming $#!+, as far as we were concerned. And a few originals, like “Night Patrol”:

On a night patrol you live in fear,

That the sound of a breaking twig might reach a foreign ear.

Good people, good times, a good guitar. The guitar was truly weird, although by the time it was made in the 1970s they’d started catching on. Product of a spinoff of an aerospace company, it was the first acoustic guitar to be widely available with electronics built-in. Behind the red soundboard, with its odd pattern of holes, was a polymer bowl; the neck was a space-age graphite composite material, molded to an aluminum armature and set automatically by the factory. Every part came out of the autoclave perfect, and was fused at the perfect angle. It wasn’t entirely indestructible, but it was close. (Singer Jim Croce had one, and in its case, it was fine after the plane crash that killed him). There was very little maintenance required, an important factor for an instrument that would be palletized by team members, or worse, the group riggers under the guidance of Air Force loadmasters.

Best of all, Col. Richard W. Potter, Jr., Commanding… hated that guitar. “^$$*!! I hear a guitar.  Sergeant Major, I told you to keep that guitar off this deployment!”

We bet, when you saw “the war on guitars,” you thought we’d bring up the Government’s war on Gibson Guitar Company, which weaponized Federal agencies stretched laws to do — because the head of Gibson, Henry Juskiewicz, was a Designated Enemy of The Party. Nope. Henry can defend himself quite ably, and has done so. Google is your pal if you don’t know what we’re talking about. But that guitar that so entertained (or irritated) Green Berets at airstrips, SFOBs, isolation areas and Lord knows where else across America and Europe was an Ovation, spun off in an imaginative attempt to apply aerospace technology to guitar making. Just because the guy who ran an aerospace company, Charlie Kaman, who made rescue helicopters for the Air Force and Navy, was a guitar player who got the idea of combining the technology with his hobby — kind of like Sullivan with Armalite, actually.

Dannel Malloy, the anti-gun and anti-manufacturing Governor of Connecticut hasn’t just attacked the gun industry in the Nutmeg State, you see; he’s attacked all industry, and industry has reacted. Sikorsky, for example, moved its R&D “Hawk Werks” to another state, where they wouldn’t have to deal with Malloy’s pals, the mobbed-up unions. Because, who would want his state to be the home of the future of helicopter R&D?

Kaman, itself once a series helicopter maker itself, makes odds and ands for other defense contractors more than it makes helicopters any more. Even though its K-Max was revolutionary, today’s DOD actually would rather hire that heavy-lift capability from Russian or Ukrainian Mi-26 operators.

And Ovation finally closed its doors. A Hartford Courant writer, Dan Haar, was there, which is a delightful irony, because the Courant is all for whatever The Party decrees, and manufacturing is bad and evil, except for the Jobs, which don’t offset the Evil Profit Thing enough to survive. Or something. Anyway, here’s Haar going all sentimental with the last workers as they literally lock up the place.

Just about everyone had said farewell a few weeks earlier, when production stopped.

Back on that glum day, six or eight guys had climbed up into the tower of the 1840s mill building and rung the iron bell 47 times — one for each year Ovation made guitars at the New Hartford factory on the Farmington River.

Now, with the machines gone, just two factory employees remained: Howard Ives, a master craftsman who made the high-end Adamas line of instruments, mostly by hand; and Mark Lamanna, who joined the company just out of trade school three decades ago and rose through the ranks to head production for the past 10 years.

Lamanna stood with David Hurley on the vast, L-shaped, wooden floor, noisy with the task of making 15,000 instruments a year not long ago, now silent and empty except for two lone tables and rows of ancient wooden support columns, painted white. Hurley, whose family owns the historic building, is president of the Hurley Manufacturing Co., a spring-maker that shared the complex with Ovation.

via Closing Notes Of Ovation Plant: Memories And Music – Courant.com.

Ovation guitars are going to be made, probably to a lower standard, in some place like Indonesia or Vietnam; they’ll either be a lot cheaper or make middlemen a lot richer, and old, American Ovations will join the ranks of treasured vintage instruments.

Haar catches part of what Connecticut, America, and the world lost in this one plant closing, quoting Ovation luthier Mike DeNoi:

“I miss the people, believe me,” he said. “I spent more time with these people than my family. I know the skill level of these people. It’s such a waste; you can’t replicate this.”

That idea of needlessly lost skills kept coming up, and it’s hardly new. This complex was built by a once-great textile operation that made ships’ sails — the Greenwoods Co., which had its own village on this site, with a dam for water power. It exited Connecticut way back in 1901.

When a factory closes, its demise is a public marker in the community’s memory, like a hurricane or a flood. Waring. Fafnir. Ideal Forge. Scoville. So many more, all gone — even as we celebrate this weekend the 200th birthday of Sam Colt, linchpin of all Connecticut manufacturing.

There is a roomful of ironies in Connecticut celebrating Sam Colt even as all right-thinking people there — definitely including Haar and the Courant — demonize his products and the people who build and use them.

You might not ever have heard of Hurley Manufacturing, the remaining company in the building vacated by Ovation, but we bet you have one of their springs. Among their products is the recoil spring that Colt ships in every AR-15, M16 and M4.

Are they next?

If we were the governor of Texas, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia or one of the Carolinas, just to name some places where manufacturing in general and gun and defense manufacturing in particular finds a welcome embrace, we’d be looking up David Hurley’s phone number.

11 thoughts on “It’s not just guns: a scene from the war on guitars

  1. Joe L

    “Connecticut… Still Revolutionary!”

    Thank god we spend our tax dollars to show everyone how biz friendly our state is with those commercials. The funny thing is that at the end of the commercial, they show a Pratt + Whitney 747 test bed aircraft taking off and I think the shot was taken at their facility in Florida!

  2. Jim

    Its really a sad thing here in Malloyistan, although he’s just continued a tradition that goes back a few decades. I live in the Naugatuck Valley, an area that was as heavily industrialized as anywhere else at one point. Almost all of that is gone now. What I cant understand is how a politician or party can be so anti-manufacturing, yet they toss out the welcome mat to every parasite who doesnt want to work..anywhere..ever..If thats not a recipe for crime and decay I dunno what is..and thats exactly what we have here. Its only a partial reason, but they taxed industry so heavily for so long, to support the terminal non working class, that they either folded up shop or went elsewhere.

  3. aGrimm

    And here I thought the 10th SF Group’s highest achievement in musical instruments was the Kazoo. Learn something new everyday.
    One of the Marines I served with could play a mean flatuahorn. He wouldn’t do well in CT either as they would probably hit him with a global warming tax.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Actually, many SF guys play an instrument for some reason, and parody and original songs have always been a sub rosa part of the culture. I also knew a guy — big tough, scary-looking dude with a working-class background and mien — who married an opera singer from the Met, and she’s got him singing now in community opera. Seeing him in tails or costume cracks me up.

  4. P. Beck

    “We don’t need no Group Commander…
    HEY! Kattar! Leave those teams alone!”
    (Sung to the tune of Pink Floyd’s, ‘The Wall’, while pissing in “Dead Ed’s Head”, at The Fort, following Flintlock 80)

    IIRC, there were two guys leading the drunken sing-alongs back then. “J.S.” and “D.M.”

    Whenever it wasn’t the SGM leading everyone in Wehrmacht marching songs.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Yeah, and the charming 1st Bat tradition of calling everyone by SS rank — which I think was a reaction to 5th Group clinging to “Dai-uy”, “Trung-si”, and “Bac-si” 20 years after the colors returned to Bragg!

      I learnt the Seal Song, which I never heard sober and thus couldn’t play at the time, from Carlos C. at O&I school — he learned it directly from Lopez, one of the three authors.

      That Lopez was later a helicopter pilot, they later again an NCO in 20th Group, now he’s got a contracting outfit. A good mo fo, often confused with an unrelated VN-era Mex of the same name.

  5. P. Beck

    “You don’t bludgeon a seal just ’cause you want a meal,
    ya do it ’cause you want to hear the little bastard squeal.”
    “You hit ’em in the head and ya’ do it just for kicks,
    then ya’ poke ’em in the eyes with yer eye pokin’ sticks!”

  6. Bones

    Very nice.

    Although when you mentioned Dick Potter so early, I thought you were going somewhere else. I’ll bet you could start a great Dick Potter thread on this site. It’d be an avalanche.

  7. Chris

    Charilie Kaman was quite a guy. He sold his helicopters by giving a demo flight flown by a housewife who had 20 minutes of training prior to flying. He tested rotor assemblies on the lawn of his mother’s house. He was willing to take risks to try new ideas. Over time though, the people he hired to run his companies became increasingly timid, and many fizzled.
    ex-KSC-guy

  8. Steve Skubinna

    Back in ’96/7 I was aboard USNS Niagara Falls when we had a K-Max det doing VERTREP, and those helos were the most amazing things I’d ever seen flying stores. Little flying cranes, two aircraft managed by seven guys, and they moved stuff faster than the H-46s did then or the H-60s and Pumas do today. Plus they were way cheaper.

    The helo did not make the cut however, due to three reasons: one, single pilot, no passengers (even though every shooter carried two helos that could shuttle pax and the carriers had six or more). Two, VFR only (like we ever VERTREP in restricted visibility anyway), and three, Not Invented Here. The latter was probably the major reason. That and opposition from the Naval aviators’ union.

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