Georgia's roadside robot builder wants your love [photos]

Georgia's roadside robot builder wants your love [photos]

September 23rd, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Allan Chesser talks about his construction replica of the original 1984 Terminator, the T-700, that he displays in his front yard on Martha Berry Highway in Rock Spring, Ga.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Georgia's roadside robot builder wants your love

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a series on area residents taking unusual paths through life.

ROCK SPRING, Ga. — There once was a boy who didn't want to go to school. The other kids made fun of his lazy left eye, his uneven hair, his cheap Kmart track shoes.

He couldn't pay attention to the teacher, his grades were bad, and boys chased him home for sport. A redheaded kid flicked the back of his ear all class. He was afraid to dress out for gym. He ate alone.

But there was a girl, two rows to his right in homeroom. She had blond hair, twisted in a braid to her waist. And she wore a plaid shirt and yellow pants. And unlike him, she always seemed clean. And unlike him, she got along with people. And when she sharpened her pencil, she smiled at him. And when other boys teased him, she said, "Pay them no mind."

She liked him. She liked him not.

Then one morning before school, he saw a brown Ford station wagon parked in front of his home. As he approached, he saw a girl in the back seat. The girl.

He looked at her. His throat clogged. He ran back inside.

___

Under a shagbark hickory in his front yard, Allan Chesser considered the detached, charcoal gray arm of a robot. He wondered if his work was any good, and if more refined people would consider it art.

"I don't know what I've made out here," he said, sweating in an oversized black Carhartt T-shirt. "But it's something."

The arm, formed with carved PVC pipe, PVC fittings, wheel mounts and bolts and screws, is part of his latest creation, a 6-foot-tall statue of a T-600 Terminator. He had worked on it for three months, pouring half his paycheck into the materials. The statue was the third piece in his collection inspired by movies he loved, along with a T-700 Terminator and a Predator.

Today was payday. And after taxes, he had $618.77, the product of two weeks at Five Star Foods, where he stuffed sandwiches and chili dogs into plastic containers. The money wasn't great. But who was he to look down on it? This was almost double what he got at his old job as a Save-A-Lot stock boy.

Instead, Chesser focused on what he would do with the money. He needed more plumbing supplies.

Specifically, he needed half-inch PVC pipe and flex couplers. The pipe would connect to fixed studs in the hamstring area of the T-600. On the other end, two conduit, half-inch clamps would sit on the pipe. The clamps would attach to the flex couplers. The flex couplers would attach to horizontal pins. The pins would attach to a part of the statue where the legs meet, which Chesser called the "arbor point" but is more plainly known as "robot groin."

Together, all these parts create the appearance of pistons on the sculpture. He had already done this twice on the front of the legs. But he needed them in the back, too, because that's what the picture of the T-600 on the Internet showed.

Before taking up this craft four years ago, Chesser did not describe himself as creative. He's still not sure the label fits. His work is a kind of found art, mixed with a factory hand's instincts.

Take the torso of the T-700, his first creation. Chesser assembled it with wood blocks, stereo speakers, a potato slicer, a battery box and a radio receiver unit, all screwed to a pole in the middle, like a Christmas tree. Pipes flow and twist from the figure's chest, made out of a shower hose, a fuel line and a conduit hose off a respirator. Chesser cut the leg off a walker to make a collar bone. He ground down cabinet hinges to form fingertips.

On this particular morning, though, he had to wait for his supplies. Check Into Cash's LaFayette office would not open until 2 p.m. But while he waited, he studied his T-600, a thicker and more menacing statue than the T-700. Something wasn't right with its arms. They were 3 inches too long, Chesser decided. They looked silly.

He disassembled them from the torso, plopped them onto a table under the tree and unscrewed the wrists, made of wheel mounts, from the forearms, made of threaded rod. He measured how much to cut away and twisted a nut onto the rod to mark the spot. He grabbed a rotary tool and pressed down on the metal. It screeched. Sparks sprayed.

"I got to be careful," he said. "This piece gets red hot from friction."

Chesser lives on U.S. Highway 27, in an old, two-bedroom house with his brother and his brother's girlfriend. Much of the exterior white paint has chipped away. On the inside, there are holes in the floor, rats in the holes and mold in the bathroom.

Chesser's statues stand on the front yard, looking out at the road. Drivers honk as they pass. But when he works, he doesn't notice them. He doesn't notice much at all.

His mind works differently from most people's. He remembers what he ate on the first day of first grade: a peanut butter sandwich, a bologna sandwich and a banana. He remembers his older brother's friend's handle on Citizens band radio 40 years ago: Speeder.

When he's around people, which isn't often, he doesn't so much talk as rattle off a deep well of obscure facts and theories. He will speak for 10 minutes about why neurons become what some believe to be ghosts, or about how Einstein's "spooky action at a distance" concept is scientific proof of God.

"As long as you see sparks," he said, pressing into the rod, "you're making headway."

Chesser struggles to climb out of his rabbit holes. He feels sick when he has to meet people, especially women. He has not been diagnosed, but he thinks he has some sort of mental irregularity. His sister wonders if he is on the autism spectrum.

But after more than 50 years in obscurity, he found his niche. His quirks are his strength. Without them, he couldn't make these statues. And these statues bring him praise, something he has never experienced before.

Almost every day, strangers stop at his house and photograph themselves with his work. One woman, a biker chick, flashed a breast at him, he claims. He keeps a printed-out email from another fan, who described him as a savant.

"I didn't even know what a savant was," he said. "I had to look it up and Google it up. It was a pretty good term. People call me all kinds of terms, never anything bad. They say I'm an artist and I'm a genius. I just wanted to build a Terminator."

Now, Chesser wants more. He hopes someone will offer a job doing this craft full time for good money, at least more than the $10.25 an hour he gets on the assembly line. He wants to move into a nice home or even someone's nice garage. More than anything, he wants a wife.

He envisions a woman showing up to his home. His work will fascinate her, and she will ask him out.

"Don't put a lot of pressure on it," he said, the cut hallway down into the rod.

The rotary tool whirred.

___

When Chesser was 7 years old, a neighbor boy waited outside his home to fight. The boy was skinny and a couple of inches shorter than Chesser, but he was aggressive. He stalked Chesser almost daily.

"I was terrified," Chesser said. "I was afraid to even go up the street. I was afraid to go out to the ice cream truck."

Chesser's father got tired of his son's cowardice and pulled him outside, toward the boy. He told Chesser this was the last time the boy would pick on him. He ordered them to fight. Other boys crowded around. Chesser stood frozen, and the little boy wailed on his stomach. The other kids egged them on.

Finally, the boy hit Chesser in the face. That was too far. Chesser squeezed his eyes and swung, blindly hitting the boy until everyone else pulled him off.

The boy cried. So did Chesser.

"It made me feel bad," he said. "And it made me feel bad when I hid from him. So it was a double paradox. Either way, it sucked."

Adults didn't understand Chesser. He rarely spoke in school and sneaked off to the library to read Carl Sagan. At his aunt's house, he read the New World Encyclopedia for hours. He ripped apart radios, TVs and his brother's 8-track player, studying how the parts fit together. His two friends were several years younger than him.

"I barely remember them," said his sister, Kimberly Chesser. "He didn't even date, that I know of."

Despite his curiosity, he daydreamed and struggled through class at Rossville Junior High School. In eighth grade, administrators ordered a mental evaluation. They never told Chesser his diagnosis, but he remembers a principal saying he was actually quite smart. Just misunderstood.

The administrators formed a plan. Instead of going to class, Chesser stayed in an office with the guidance counselor, Anne Cross. She was the school's one bright spot. She encouraged him, told him he was going to surpass everybody his age. He just needed to learn how to interact. He told her about problems between his parents at home, and about his fear of other students.

His grades rose from Ds to Bs. Then summer came. He dreaded seeing the other students again, and he never showed up for ninth grade. Cross called his mother.

"Talk to Allan," she said. "Don't let him do this."

Instead, Chesser picked up trash for a garbage service, worked as a security guard at a bank, manufactured seats for Lookout Saddle Company, bagged cloth for Borg Textiles, bagged cloth for Yates Bleachery, ran a conveyor for Synthetic Industries, heated and bent pipes for Metro Boiler Tube, made banners for V Mo Graphics and operated a frame at Crystal Springs Bleachery.

"Just menial, dead-end jobs," he said.

Don Green, his supervisor at Crystal Springs Bleachery, said Chesser didn't interact with anybody for years. He inspected cloth as it ran through a frame, looking for oil stains and spots of mold. The frames were identical, but Green said Chesser demanded to work on the same machine every day. While others took breaks and chatted with each other, Chesser remained alone for eight hours, stepping away only to use the bathroom.

When Green invited Chesser to Thanksgiving, Chesser ate alone in the garage.

"His mind is way out there," Green said. "He's really intelligent. But he just wouldn't put it to use because he wouldn't be around people. He couldn't do that."

"I hate it," Chesser said. "I know there's everything in the world wrong with it. But that's just who I am."

At home, he tinkered with guns, a hobby he developed at 13, when his grandfather left him a Harrington & Richardson Pioneer 22. His mother was OK with Chesser owning the gun, because it didn't work. But he took the weapon apart, piece by piece, until he found the flaw: A tiny spring under the loading tray was bent, causing the tray to fall out of place and shells to slip into a small wedge inside the barrel. They were stuck there, and they wouldn't fire. Chesser straightened the spring with pliers and placed it on the tiny studs where it belonged. Problem solved.

As an adult, he fixed an old Derringer by manufacturing new half-inch firing pins with a press. He wanted to make his 12-gauge shotgun look cooler, like a gun he saw on "Jurassic Park," so he ripped off the stock and replaced it with his own piece, formed with a flag holder and aluminum scraps from a factory. He painted the gun olive drab green and sold it to a Dade County sheriff's deputy.

In November 2014, his nephew pulled up a website that showed how to build models of film characters. He pointed to an Ironman suit. Chesser didn't like the concept; it didn't have enough "mechanical attributes" for his taste. When he scrolled down, he saw the T-700 Terminator. He was drawn to the intricate pieces and took a screen shot of the image on his tablet.

At Save-A-Lot, where he stocked shelves and wrangled shopping carts, Chesser told a co-worker about the image. He needed to build one himself, he announced. His co-worker laughed. He sketched a blueprint during his break and later built his first part, a bicep constructed with wood blocks wedged inside a cut-up piece of plastic.

Dennis Lewis, a retired mechanical engineer, tracked Chesser's work on the first statue every day as Lewis drove from LaFayette to Chattanooga. He was impressed with Chesser's eye, how he could form a hand with conduit hangers and wood.

About a year ago, he brought Chesser and his statues to the Con Nooga convention. Later, the organizer of LaFayette's Jayhawk Festival requested the work, too.

"He thinks on a different level," Lewis said of Chesser. "He gets so focused on things. He gets to talking about something, he gets down into the detail on it, and I tell him, 'You lost me now. You're over my head.' Whatever it is, he gets so intimately knowledgeable about it."

___

At a desk in Check Into Cash, while a clerk looked up his account, Chesser shared his latest dream: the creation of "metal tissue." As far he could tell, nobody has invented it yet. But he believes an electric current can cause metal to expand and contract, like muscle. He stared straight ahead, not looking at anyone in particular.

"You pass a current through a wire, it creates an offset, which is the magnetic field," he said. "You can take the magnetic field and induce the electrons in the copper to move, push. Now, assuming in a mercury thermometer that's going on. That heat, which is energy, which is reacting on that metal, causing it to expand like that — who's to say an electric current can't do the same thing? It's just a reverse of that energy. You know what I mean? It's an electric form of that."

He handed the clerk his paycheck.

"I hate to sound older than I am, but it's true: Manufacturing is gone," he said. "They call it, 'Well, we do this to make it more economical to manufacture,' which is good and everything. But if you look at the stuff back in the day, it was right. It was made right. Oh God, it was wonderful. You won't find stuff like that no more."

The clerk bit. He asked what Chesser does for a living.

"Are you talking about the things down " the clerk said, after a brief explanation.

"Mmm hmm," Chesser said.

"That's you?" the clerk asked. "I love those things."

"Yeah," Chesser said. "I'm working on a T-6 right now. Or a hybrid of it."

"Oh gosh," he said. "I always look at them every time I drive past your house."

Chesser spoke uninterrupted for two minutes about how he built the statues, until the clerk had to take a call.

"You might be the next Picasso," the clerk said, earnestly, after hanging up.

"Picasso," Chesser repeated, trying out the description for himself.

"Artist," the clerk told him. "Or Leonardo, the sculptor. It's possible."

"I don't know," Chesser said.

The clerk handed him $606.39. Within two hours, Chesser bought 12 screws, a ratchet screwdriver, two flex couplers, E6000 permanent adhesive, two MIP adapters, two PVC pipes, six cans of spray paint, ear buds, tennis shoes, a Monster energy drink, a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper, a can of Longhorn snuff and a pack of Marlboro Blacks.

He had $494.49 left. When he got home, he gave his brother's girlfriend $150 for groceries.

___

A week later, Chesser was out of money. He was also finished with the statues. Then he wasn't.

The torso of the T-700 was too tall. He ripped it apart and cut the pole in the middle of the statue, the part where all the pieces connect. He tossed aside four of the wood blocks that stacked on the statue's stomach and assembled the rest of the parts back together, five inches shorter than before.

One afternoon, he walked outside and found two TVs in the yard. People in town do this sometimes, leave him a tribute. He pried open the back of a wood-paneled set. It was filled with dust and cigarette residue. Useless. But the other TV, a Sony big screen from the 1990s, had potential.

He cut the plastic frame with an oscillator saw, creating two small pieces. He tapped holes into them and bolted the pieces to the upper thighs of his T-600. The thighs looked sleeker.

Two weeks passed. Someone left him a medical easy assist pole. He cut it with a hacksaw and placed it inside the lower legs of the T-600, like metal calves. Now he was finished, he said.

___

Chesser hugged a woman as she got out of the car.

He had not seen Anne Cross in 40 years. He didn't know she was still alive until last month. But Cross, 81, heard a former student was doing something interesting on the highway. She heard that he remembered her fondly.

Chesser apologized for dropping out and said he hoped she didn't beat herself up too much over his decision. How he turned out wasn't her fault, he said. He was young and dumb.

"It's been a rough life since school, Anne," Chesser said.

Immediately, Cross was a guidance counselor again. She asked to see Chesser's work. When he walked her over to his statues, she gasped. She told him he had great potential. He had an engineer's mind, she said, and great things were still in front of him.

A truck drove by and honked.

Cross offered Chesser an old dryer she just replaced, as well as some of her father's old tools. She encouraged him to make a business out of his work. He explained that he had received offers; he just didn't know a proper price point.

She told him to keep his receipts, which would help him figure out the value of his art. He needed to log the hours he spent on his project, too. His time was valuable, she told him.

"They have to understand how much effort it takes," she said. "If you charged for the labor alone, you'd be a wealthy man already."

He shrugged.

"If I sold them," he said, "all them compliments are going to disappear. And I'll take money and spend it. It'll be gone."

"No," she told him. "No. You keep building."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.