By John “Doctor Z” Zamora
I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and turned 70 in February, 2019. I Joined the Army right out of high school along with my two best friends, enlisted in March entered on June 18th 1967 and served in the 82nd airborne division.
Ever since I was a kid, I had wanted to be a paratrooper. I reported to basic training in the summer of ’67 and it was hard. After graduating basic they sent us to AIT training which was skills training. It was easier than boot camp and I was trained as a radio technician, then I went to Jump School Ft. Benning GA. On the first day they told us it takes a special person to jump, and if at any time you wanted, you could withdraw and they would reassign you, no questions asked. Of course, nobody did. The next morning at 2 am all hell broke loose. The instructors roused us out of bed and they really began pushing us. By the end of the first day 300 guys had dropped out. The Drill Instructors called the quitters dying cockroaches and humiliated them out in front of the barracks for what seemed like hours. Back then, the DIs were allowed to “take liberties” with the training methods that just wouldn’t fly today. I told the guy next to me there was no way I’d be a cockroach. It was three times harder than the worst days of basic, but I made it through. The first time we jumped from a plane it was fabulous, but I cracked my head on landing and felt the pain. The second jump was worse for the fear, but I had learned from my mistakes and stuck the landing! Ironically, three of us had volunteered for the Army and asked to be sent to Vietnam, my two best friends were killed between Christmas day 1967 and January 12th 1968 … I spent my enlistment time stateside assigned to riot duty.
Paratrooper Zamora circa 1967
When I was discharged, there was a bias against Viet Nam era Vets and it was hard to find a job. I had taken Ford auto mechanic’s training, but dealers wouldn’t hire me. Then I saw an ad for service technician at Morrison Industrial for forklifts, I thought how much different could forklifts be? First, I was given a long, written test, which I wasn’t good at. Then they gave me a long list of part numbers to sort through. They said it should take an hour, but I was done with 100% accuracy in about 15 minutes. I didn’t get the service technician job, but they hired me for the parts department.
49 years in the lift truck industry
Lanny Saurman and John Roe were mentors at Morrison. They taught me that just because the order was placed, it didn’t mean the customer was taken care of, you have to make sure it’s right so you don’t have to clean it up again. After a few years at Morrison, I took a job at the Clark factory in Battle Creek, MI.
I spent the first year at Clark writing technical manuals for the service department. It required me to spend a lot of time with the trainers to learn the ins and outs of the trucks. Bob Winter and Larry Wagner were the trainers at the time and Bob was Clark’s electric truck specialist, which I was very interested in, so I learned everything I could from Bob. Clark wanted to start field training, and Bob didn’t want to travel. Clark management set me up as the field trainer on a temporary basis. I got the job permanently after three months when I proved to them that I could do it. I was the trainer for Clark for 25 years. When they moved from Battle Creek, MI to Lexington, KY in 1987, I was one of just 116 people they moved. In 2001 Clark was having hard times, hemorrhaging cash. They laid off 50 + senior people and I was out of a job. Jeff Winner was the service manager at Komatsu and hired me on the spot as one of their regional service managers. I worked there for nine years until Komatsu decided to merge the forklift business into their heavy equipment operation and I was laid off again.
I was 62 years old and no dealerships or forklift companies would hire me. I couldn’t prove it, but I was too close to retirement. I think they wanted somebody who would be around longer. Then, I saw an ad for a manager in South Carolina with EP. I faxed in my resume and not 20 minutes later, Sang Tian called me to set up an interview. I said I could come in tomorrow, but she said she had to fly in from China, so we set it up for the next week. I met with Sang, John He and Ken Cox. Ken served in the 101st Airborne in Korea and we started trading stories. Sang had to interrupt us so we could get back to the interview! They wanted to test my skills, so we went out back and I drove a forklift all around, aced the test. When I left Ken said to Sang, hire him! I was offered the job and I started the next Monday. Six months later, Big Joe was bought by EP, the companies were combined under the Big Lift brand in the US, and I had a new boss, Dan Rosskamm. I was transferred up to Chicago to work out of the Lombard office.
We had a trade show in Ft Meyers, FL where we were showing a new 3,000 lb. jack. It had been delivered from our Dells plant, but had been damaged in transit. Somebody had picked it up with a forklift in the wrong place and smashed the switches underneath and the contacts were all broken. I was sitting in a training seminar when Bill Pedriana, the Sales Manager, snuck up next to me and whispered, “I need you!” We left the seminar and hurried back to the show floor. This is the first time I’ve seen the new truck and now I have to figure out how to fix it! I figured out how to bypass the broken switches and hot-wired the truck so it would work, but customers kept turning the key switch which would reset the sequences and it wouldn’t work, so I’d have to do it all over again. This went on for the whole show.
We were awarded the delivery pallet truck account for Pepsi with our EZ30 and later the EZ40 pallet trucks. Pepsi wanted a dedicated service rep, so Dan assigned me. I traveled so much that I was barely in the office. Dan asked me how much time I actually spent in Chicago in a year, I said 4-5 weeks, so he said move home, you can travel out of Kentucky.
When we sold the first batch of trucks to Pepsi in Aliso Viejo, CA they were shipped 2 trucks to a pallet with the tiller arms and control heads in separate boxes. I had to assemble them at the Pepsi distributor and it took about 2 hours per truck to assemble, test and adjust. There were 65 trucks and there was no way I could get them ready in time. I called Dan and he said he would get me help. Well, Dan caught the red eye and together we assembled all 65 trucks. The president of the company actually came out to help and we busted it in the hot sweaty warehouse to get it done. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. I respect him for that.
We then went to Tucson AZ for another 60 trucks. While there, I got a call from Aliso Viejo, the trucks were breaking the pallets. I realized that the drivers needed to be trained on how to lower the backrest, so I flew back to California to train them while Dan continued working on the trucks in Tucson. When I finished training the drivers in California, I flew back to Tucson to get their jacks completed. Dan stayed to the end. From that point, Pepsi knew that if there was a problem, I was on the next plane to fix it. I guess that’s how I got the nickname “Dr. Z” – when there was a problem, Pepsi would call “The Doctor.” I’ve always believed that the salesman sells the first truck, customer service sells the next one. If you don’t take care of the customer, there won’t be another sale.
Half a century of changes in the industry
A lot has changed in my time in the business. The first trucks I worked on were Electric Clark Clippers and Carloaders. They were resistor controlled, had stacks of graphite discs that looked like little waffles. When you stepped on the gas pedal, you would compress the air gap between the discs and the truck would move, press a little harder and you would hit a limit switch which would bypass 1/3 of the stack and you’d go faster, continue to press and you’d pass the next switch and you’d reach top speed. They were very smooth-running trucks, but the discs were fragile. If you had an uneven floor or were bouncing in and out a trailer, the discs would break and the truck wouldn’t move. You’d have to rebuild the assembly to make the truck work. It seems like all I did in those early years was rebuild the resistors!
Then they switched to GE controls with diodes and rectifiers. In the early days of solid-state the components weren’t too reliable. They would burn out and you’d have to run fault testing to figure out which part was bad, then replace the rectifiers, diodes or the circuit board which took time. Now everything is transistorized. You still need to run fault testing to diagnose the problem, but you just swap out the whole controller assembly. There is no repairing, just replacing.
I’ve spent my life trying to make people work safer. I’ve probably conducted a thousand training sessions and I’ve seen a lot of crazy things. I’ve seen guys climbing up the mast of a truck to reach stuff on the top shelf, I’ve seen people stack blocks on the forks, trying to get a few more inches of lift. I’ve seen steer tires worn down to the rims, people riding on the forks, if you can think of it, some “misinformed individual” has tried it. That doesn’t even touch on the reckless driving you see every day in a facility.
A major point in my training has always been about not exceeding a truck’s rated capacity. I’d give the example: your truck has a 5,000lb. rating and you’ve got a 5,500lb. load – can you lift it? There’d always be someone say… “Sure, just get a couple of BIG guys to sit on the counterweight to “balance it.” I’d just shake my head and say NO… that’s not the correct answer. I know that’s how they did it but not the safe answer. If I did it once, I did it a thousand times! People are always trying to make the truck do more than it was intended to do. They abuse the vehicle then blame the manufacturer when it breaks or want to sue because they got hurt. I always tried to make them understand if you damage the truck it can probably be repaired, but its next to impossible to replace a limb, and if you die no amount of money is going to bring you back.
I was fortunate to travel the world training people from Africa to Asia, Europe to South America, every state in the Union and most of the Caribbean. I had some great times, and some scary ones too. The sticky situations are the ones that really stand out. I once flew into Venezuela with connection to Trinidad and Tobago. Somehow, I got the wrong stamp on my passport and I was barred from leaving Venezuela. The local Clark rep said to tuck $300 into my passport and hand it to the customs inspectors. Obviously, this is not standard travel procedure. There were the three inspectors at the gate, each pocketed $100 and let me get on the plane. They said don’t come back because my papers were illegal! I never did!
Dr Z conducted training sessions all around the world
In 1983, I was in Nigeria conducting training for Clark. It was a country in constant turmoil. The foreign workers all stayed in designated camps for safety. I was staying in the American camp, but had to go 5km to the German camp to eat. The military had set up a roadblock about ½ way there one night. My driver stopped at the checkpoint and a soldier came to my window and said, “What do you have for me?” I said I don’t have anything for you. He stuck his rifle in the window and repeated “What do you have for me?” I scrambled to pull $50 out of my wallet – all I had, and he let us go. I told the driver to take me back to the American camp. Needless to say, I didn’t have dinner that night. The country was very poor, the people were very poor, and the government was so corrupt they were stealing everything that came into the country. I stayed my three-month commitment but was glad to get out. Back home nobody believed my story until a little while later when a military coup took over the entire country.
Last year, I was asked to visit a Pepsi facility in Texas to look over their fleet of E30 jacks and help to make up a list of repairs needed to get one more year of use out of them. I was told that I couldn’t do anything until after three in the afternoon as the jacks were all out on the road. I returned at three and the Pepsi mechanic and I started a list of needed repairs as each jack was returned from the delivery routes. At 7:30 pm the mechanic said “I have to go… I don’t get overtime.” I told him to go ahead because I only had two more to look at. I finished up and walked through the deserted facility, passed through the door and into the lobby. The door to the warehouse closed behind me as I tried to go out the front door which I discovered was locked. The warehouse door had locked behind me and the office staff had gone home. I was trapped in the lobby! I got a little panicky and started banging on the inner door hoping someone would hear me… they didn’t. I called the person that asked me to visit in the first place, but he was in Boise, Idaho. No help there. I was really getting worried. What if I have to stay in this 8ft by 10ft lobby all night. Nothing to eat or drink and No bathroom facility… What to do? I was praying and contemplating my options when I heard a door close and footsteps inside the plant. I started banging on the inner door again and yelling. The door opened slowly and a driver said, “Are you ok?” I yelled “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” He had left his coat in his truck and returned for it. He let me out through the side door. I was so glad to be out of there. I’ve never been in jail, but I can imagine what that must feel like when the door slams shut.
Big Joe sent me to China a few times and I had fun working with and meeting the management team and the engineers. I was fortunate enough to go at a time when EP was beginning to grow and I got to see its’ early stages of development into a magnificent facility they have today.
I’ll miss the camaraderie with the people at Big Joe. Dan, Andrea, MJ, Tina, Billy, Bill, Kevin. They were there when I started. Of all the places I’ve worked I got the most gratification and respect at Big Joe. I didn’t feel bad about leaving Clark or Komatsu but leaving Big Joe will be hard to take.
I hope to take a long motorcycle trip with an old friend out to the Grand Canyon, from there, I’ll see where life takes me.