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.
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.