Forty Years of Service, Seeing with His Hands and Ears

by Pablo Ros  |  December 15, 2015

Forty Years of Service, Seeing with His Hands and Ears Mike Conrad with a fire engine similar to others he’s worked on at the Los Angeles Fire Department. (Photo by Erica Zeitlin)

As he has every workday for the past 40 years, Mike Conrad goes to his job with Los Angeles County, where he serves as a mechanic. Among other things, he has rebuilt air system brake calibers, fire pump pilot valves and automatic transmissions, and made harnesses for vehicles. Unlike his colleagues and fellow AFSCME members who once stared in disbelief, however, he works without the use of his eyes.

Conrad, 64, was born three months premature and placed in an incubator before people knew the dangers of overexposing a baby’s still developing eyes to oxygen, he says. As a result, he’s been blind since birth.

But blind doesn’t mean non-seeing. To watch him work on an engine, say his coworkers, is to witness how a person can see with his hands, exercise full control of the tools at his disposal, and do as good a job in repairing an engine as anybody could with perfect eyesight.

“The first time I watched him I was pretty shocked,” recalls Andreas Jung, a helicopter mechanic who is chief steward of AFSCME Local 119. “I’m a mechanic myself so I thought it was pretty impressive. It’s really something to watch him work on a piece of equipment, to watch him assemble something. There’s not enough praise I can give him.”

Harry Wong, also a mechanic who is president of AFSCME Local 119 and has known Conrad for 12 years, says Conrad’s work as a mechanic is not just a job for him.

“He has a passion for doing this stuff,” Wong says.

Although the first time he went to a union meeting was out of curiosity, Conrad said he quickly saw the value of becoming involved. Over the years he served as secretary of his local and on the local’s executive board. Jung says Conrad remembers the local’s history during the past 40 years in great detail and is a valuable resource.

“He seems to recall all the negotiating sessions and who said what,” Jung says. “Hopefully we can get him to come around while he’s in retirement and help with any issues. I’m sure he will.”

Conrad’s passion for mechanics goes back to his love of cars, which started when he was a child.

“I had my first car when I was 12,” he says. “It was a 1956 Ford Victoria, black and white two-door. My dad gave it to me.”

Conrad’s love of cars grew with every automobile he touched with his hands, telling them apart by the door handles, and by the sound of their engines, like the sound of the Ford Model A, which he loves and is unlike any other to him.

“I like especially the old cars,” Conrad says. “They’re more distinctive, they’re different. The new cars all seem the same to me pretty much.”

Conrad says he has 20 cars, including old trucks, and even a Studebaker.

“When I retire I’m going to start working on them,” he says.

Conrad has many plans for retirement, which he says is just around the corner. Besides four decades of service for the county, he has stayed active in his union. When he retires, he plans to volunteer for his union, become more active in Access Services, which is transportation for the disabled, and serve at Braille Institute, among other things.

“I think I’m going to miss the daily routine,” he says. “That’s why I have to keep myself busy. I don’t just want to sit around watching TV.”

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