They've saved an unknown number of American military lives, including that of a future U.S. president, and now the Patten family of Palm Beach County is throwing a life preserver to the Gulf of Mexico.
For more than 60 years, from great-grandfather Fred Patten (my great uncle) to 17-year-old Robert Patten (my grandfather), the family has designed and manufactured inflatable life rafts used by the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense and NASA.
A contract for 600 inflatable tubes to float fireproof boom used to contain the massive oil burns from the Deepwater Horizon spill came their way last month.
So, in a nondescript warehouse off 10th Avenue North and I-95 in Lake Worth, the Patten Co. is working to save the gulf, one 6-foot-long segment of nylon and polyvinyl chloride tubing at a time.
"It hurts my soul," said Robert Patten Jr., grandson of company founder Fred Patten, about the environmental impact of the April 20 oil rig explosion. "We love the beach. To see that up there on the coast, it would break my heart. This is work for us, but I hate it."
Patten spoke last week as he fed two pieces of shiny orange fabric through a head-high, seam-sealing machine that requires the coordination of a percussionist to operate. Both hands and a foot are going at once. A second operator who stands on the receiving side of the seam sealer is also needed.
It's loud and sweaty work. Industrial-size fans and hissing machines make chit-chat impossible.
Patten is working alongside his son, who is on break from Royal Palm Beach High School, to hasten construction of the segments, which slip inside the fireproof boom to keep it afloat.
The initial boom order by manufacturer Elastec American Marine has increased to another 1,000 segments, or bladders, and Patten is hoping to manufacture 80 per day, double his current output. About 10 workers are toiling on the $150 bladders.
The Patten Co., which is co-owned by Robert Patten Sr. and his brother Stephen Patten - sons of the founder (and my cousins!) - has a fluctuating workforce. But with a recent life raft order, the 63-year-old company is at about 75 employees.
"It's mostly a feel-good business," said Robert Patten Sr. "You are making life-saving equipment."
But it all started with a death. In 1934, U.S. Navy Lt. Robert M. Patten's plane crashed into the ocean while performing military maneuvers. It is believed he died while waiting for rescue. (my grandfather. I never knew him)
His brother Fred thought he could have been saved if he had a life raft.
Fred Patten also joined the Navy and soon became responsible for engineering inflatable life-saving equipment. His first raft for the Navy was a one-man inflatable that Patten Co. still manufactures.
Fred Patten also was responsible for developing full-size inflatable tanks, troop carriers and B-26 bombers that were used as decoys during World War II.
"We can respond pretty quickly to some odd types of problems that arise in the military," Stephen Patten said.
After the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion that killed seven astronauts, NASA ordered dozens of one-person rafts from Patten that could be carried at the bottom of parachute packs worn by shuttle crew members.
The company is also working on inflatable jacks for military vehicles that can be used in the sand. Other innovations include an inflatable slide that can be used to escape buildings and a 50-person life raft.
The Patten Co. factory has been at the same site in Lake Worth since 1955, although for many years Fred Patten refused to post a sign, fearing it would be a target for America's enemies. Patten died in 2008 at age 96.
At 90, he received a letter congratulating him on the milestone from then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Thank you for designing and developing the inflatable life raft," Bush wrote. "This remarkable raft has been responsible for saving many lives. I am told that number includes my father."
In 1944, former Navy pilot and President George H.W. Bush was shot down during an attack on a World War II target. He spent four hours in his inflatable raft before being rescued.
Tune in next Friday when I'll be having a guest author. A good friend and incredible writer. She'll be giving away some goodies to help celebrate her new release!