Auto Plant Revived Dying Village : Worker on Assembly Line Builds Small-Town Dream

Times Staff Writer

Ralph Youngs' hometown and favorite place in the whole world is thriving beyond its dreams and showing signs of becoming downright citified, but when he was a boy, it had a chronic death rattle about it.

Smyrna was a wide place in the road then, a one-horse, one-traffic-light nuisance on busy Highway 41 between Nashville and Murfreesboro. Passers-through spoke of it bitterly because Mayor Sam Ridley's three-man Police Department didn't have a mite of flexibility or human compassion when it came to enforcing the speed limit.

When the Pentagon closed nearby Stewart Air Force Base and hundreds of military families moved away, some of the better houses in town stood empty and businesses failed. Interstate 24, passing just south of the city limits, was completed, and Smyrna became a name on an exit sign.

By the time Youngs was graduated from high school, he would have picked up and left if he hadn't loved the place so much, if his family hadn't been so rooted here and if he hadn't had serious plans for a winsome classmate named Anita McClaran.

As it was, he found a job 10 miles away in Murfreesboro, working on tanker cars being built for railroads--welding flanges, driving a forklift, operating a stamping press--and there he remained for nine years, until the company descended toward bankruptcy and for the first time he felt the emptiness of being laid off.

But today he is back home again in Smyrna, doing fine. He has a good job, old friends, a new house and nothing more than wispy clouds on his horizon.

And, in a small, unlikely, unacknowledged way, he is a hometown hero himself, for he and hundreds of young people strikingly like him were an important attraction for Japan's Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. when it decided to build a $660-million truck and automobile plant in this country town in Tennessee.

Smyrna's identity and its economy now rest on the thriving 72-acre Nissan plant, where Youngs works and where more than 3,000 technicians, aided by 321 computer-commanded robots and 19 miles of conveyors, will produce 230,000 Nissan cars and pickup trucks this year.

Non-Union Workers

The town has become one of the new capitals on the U.S.-Japan trade landscape, and the army of non-union Ralph Youngses in the Nissan ranks has become an irritant to organized labor and the United Auto Workers.

Nissan's move to Tennessee preceded--and perhaps precipitated--General Motors' decision to build its gigantic Saturn automobile assembly plant an hour's drive from Smyrna at Spring Hill, Tenn. Together the two enterprises stand to bring massive change to the face and the future of central Tennessee.

Now 30, father of two boys, husband of his high school sweetheart, owner of a $65,000 home in a new subdivision, guitar player in a country band, Youngs is a happy man.

"Sometimes," he said, "I think, 'Boy, I wish I had gone to college; maybe I'd have an easier job; maybe I'd be sitting in an air-conditioned office.' But when you think about it, I make more money a year than a lot of people who went to college--not everybody, but I'd say half or more.

Dislike of Office Jobs

"But besides that, I'm just not a suit-and-tie kind of a person. It's all I can do to put on a suit and tie to go to church on Sunday. I like to do things with my hands, and I just don't think an office job would suit me, unless they paid me $100,000 a year or something like that."

Last year, with overtime, Youngs earned more than $30,000: "By far the most money I ever made in my life," he said with satisfaction.

Financial security is within reach.

His wife, Anita, is a teller at a bank in Murfreesboro and makes enough to pay the monthly mortgage on the new blue house with red shutters in the Glen Rose Park subdivision. Ralph takes care of the rest of the bills and sweetens their savings.

Their sons, Jeff, 6, and Ben, 3, will not wear patched jeans, or pass up sports and the other perquisites of adolescence, as Ralph did, to earn money for a car. If anything, the father's concern is, to the contrary, that material comforts might come too easily to his sons.

Can't Have Everything

"I like to buy them nice things," he said, "but we're careful not to go out and buy them everything they want."

In Nissan's 1.2-million-square-foot body, frame and stamping plant, Youngs rotates among half a dozen tasks around the gigantic presses that stamp floors, door panels, roofs, tailgates and hoods from sheet steel rolled in Japan and shipped to the United States.

It's a noisy job that requires earplugs to protect against the clanging and crashing of the presses and the steady roar created by cranes, dollies, welding robots and conveyors as cars and trucks take shape and march through the plant at a pace of 1,000 a day. Even in such a din, Youngs gets a certain psychic satisfaction in seeing flawless parts stamped and stacked, and the rotation between jobs cuts the boredom of assembly line work.

For now, Youngs is not interested in moving to another part of the plant. He has no burning desire to be a supervisor and doubts that he has the personality to reprimand subordinates who need it.

Marvin Runyan, president of Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp., USA, and a former vice president in charge of Ford Motor Co. production, says Youngs is a fairly typical, though somewhat younger-than-average, worker in the huge plant.

Runyan was an important voice in the 1980 decision to put the American plant in the South and in Smyrna, and part of his reason was that there were thousands of young men like Youngs anxious to run stamping presses, tend robots, weld, paint, trim and bolt.

What made them attractive too was that most of them, like Youngs, had never belonged to a union. Fully 95% of the technicians in the sprawling plant are Tennesseans like Youngs.

"They are," said Runyan, "steeped in the work ethic, people who take great pride in their work and, therefore, do good work."

What they have accomplished in Smyrna has evidently produced astonishment in Tokyo. The plant here opened ahead of schedule, producing pickup trucks because, Runyan recalled, "the Japanese didn't believe we could match their quality, that we should do something simpler. Our trucks are as good or better than the trucks made in Japan."

Two years ago, the Smyrna plant began rolling out Nissan Sentra passenger cars, and now Runyan talks optimistically of expanding, of perhaps beginning to export Tennessee cars and trucks to Canada, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Youngs, proudly observing that Smyrna also builds trucks at a cost matching the Japanese plants, wonders whether the day is coming when trucks and cars built here might be exported to Japan itself.

But for all the prosperity it promised, for all the jobs it had for the Ralph Youngses across middle Tennessee, Nissan was not welcomed here without reservation.

World War II--"Dub-ye Dub-ye Two," as it is called at the VFW and American Legion posts--lives on in memories of the aging veterans of the Pacific Theater of Operations, who still haven't gotten over the habit of referring to their new friends as "Japs."

Among them is Youngs' own grandfather, retired Air Force Master Sgt. Morris Walker, 77, recently honored by the Smyrna Exchange Club for unfailingly flying the American flag from a tall pole in his front yard. Walker never came face to face with the Japanese in the war, but it was close.

For several months, he was a crew member aboard Army Air Corps cargo planes flying "the Hump" to deliver supplies to Gen. Joseph W. Stillwell in Burma. On his last mission, heavy icing of his plane's wings sent it into an uncontrolled descent toward the jungle. In a desperate effort to save themselves and the plane, Walker recalled, the crew pushed both mules and Chinese handlers overboard. Then, at 2,000 feet, clearly about to crash, the crew bailed out.

Once in the jungle, he recalled, they survived for weeks on fruit and barbecued monkey, successfully evading Japanese troops until they reached a stream and floated out of enemy-held territory at night.

More recently, Walker's contacts with the Japanese have been with his Japanese next-door neighbors, whose children visit over the fence and flatter him by calling him "Big Sergeant." Like everybody else in Smyrna, "Big Sergeant" has been out to visit and approve the plant that provides his grandson's paycheck.

"We've got General Motors and Ford and Chrysler with places in Canada and Mexico and all over," he said. "What's the matter with the Japanese coming here? They pay more than anybody else, and if they keep the unions out, I'm for them." Actually, for all the influence of the Japanese investment, the Japanese presence in Smyrna is now minimal.

Once the presses and the robots and conveyors were installed and the first pickup trucks began rolling off the lines, the dozens of Japanese engineers who had come to the area went home, leaving the plant in the hands of American management backed by Tennessee technicians who had been sent to Tokyo for training.

Not long afterward, the sushi bar that had opened in downtown Smyrna went out of business. The only Japanese Youngs has ever met was an engineer who came from Tokyo last year to supervise the installation of a fast new transfer press in the stamping department. He has seen a few others being shown through the plant aboard golf carts.

Although profoundly impressed with the Japanese technology and proud of the company where he fully intends to remain for the foreseeable future, he still arrives at work each morning in a Ford pickup truck, and Anita drives into Murfreesboro in a Lincoln.

There are fringe benefits for working by the hour, for serving noisy stamping presses, for being an anonymous soldier in the army of Nissan technicians in blue industrial uniforms. Not the least among them is that the job ends when bells warble quitting time.

Youngs does not take it home. The job stays at Nissan when he slips off to Center Hill or Dale Hollow Lake in the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau to camp and test his wits against trophy-sized trout. It is nowhere in his thoughts when he sets up his deer stand in the woods, loads his 30.06 rifle and waits.

Away from the job, he is his own man with his own dreams, his own mortgage and an eye out for a better opportunity. He'd like to have a few acres of land where he could keep some horses, but cheap, even reasonable, land prices around Smyrna have been swept away by prosperity.

Accomplished Carpenter

The best farms have already become subdivisions and highway interchanges. Youngs has become an accomplished carpenter, and in time he could be a real woodworking craftsman. He saved several thousand dollars on his new house by leaving the top floor unfinished, reserving the job for himself. But he sees no way that carpentry could ever bring him what he earns at Nissan, not to mention the insurance, retirement, vacation and health benefits that go with the job.

Sometimes when he drives around town and sees how fast it keeps changing, he fantasizes about being in business for himself. Smyrna has been growing in every direction since Nissan arrived. People are doing well and a few are getting rich. But Youngs confesses that it isn't his nature to take the kind of risk that goes with a new business.

"Anyway," he said, "it looks like Smyrna has got about everything it needs except maybe a movie theater or a bowling alley."

Dream of Stardom

There's one dream that stays with him, though. It never seizes control, but it is always there--the dream of being a country music star. A night or two a week Ralph and Anita Youngs and their group, Southern Blend, practice in the garage, and once or twice a month they play a gig somewhere in middle Tennessee.

The harmony and the beat honed in the garage are professional, and the Youngses declare that you can close your eyes and believe that their friend Chuck Mullins is Elvis himself.

But however promising Southern Blend, however persistent the dream, a stamping press at Nissan looms larger than a rhythm guitar in Ralph Youngs' future. Southern Blend plays no nightclubs because the Youngses and the rest of the group frown on drinking. They are not driven enough to pull up roots and hit the road in a tour bus, playing one-night stands at schools and community centers across the South.

In the scheme of Ralph Youngs' priorities, it is more important for his boys to grow up in Smyrna, play baseball, learn to fish and go to the Kingwood Heights Church of Christ on Sunday morning.

"I just wouldn't go on the road with the family," he said. "But I don't guess you could ever get famous without being willing to do that and without playing the clubs. We don't play the clubs because we're a family group and we just don't care for the rowdies."

In that light, Ralph Youngs is a satisfied man stamping parts.

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