The following article is reprinted with permission from the Ark
Valley, Kansas News.
Like the steam engines he loves, Mahlon Giffin is solid and
A tall, lean man with a leathery face tooled by sharing too many
expressions with the Kansas sun and wind, Giffin has ice blue eyes
that cut through the superficial.
Underneath his grizzled exterior, Giffin’s a warm, kind man
and that’s why his friends are fiercely loyal.
‘Anybody who wants to mess with Mahlon Giffin’s got to
go through me first,’ warned buddy and co-worker Tom
Terning laughs when he recalls how Giffin worked a math problem
in his head that a new engineering school graduate needed paper,
pencil and calculator to solve.
But it’s no big deal to the rural Valley Center resident,
just so much ‘rigamarole’ to a man who’s ‘getting
‘I’m trying to stay out of a rocking chair and keeping
busy,’ he said in a soft, gravel-and-smoke voice. ‘Not
making a lot of money, but satisfied. Money isn’t everything,
(it’s) peace of mind, finding a job you like.
‘If you’ve got a job doing something you really like,
you can turn out an amazing quantity of work and it isn’t that
fatiguing,’ Giffin continued during a break in setting up
Terning’s Steam Engine Show. ‘You try to work on a job that
you don’t like and just get doing the bare minimum, and it will
just put you up a wall.’
The 67-year old Wichita native went to Kansas State University
in 1936 to get an aeronautical engineering degree. Flying had
intrigued Giffin since before he could wear long pants.
‘My dad knew a bunch of people in the airplane
business,’ Giffin recalled. ‘That was back in the days of
Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, a bunch of those guys that were you
might say shoestring operators in those days.
‘That was back in the days when the old municipal airport,
now part of McConnell out there, was just an old open section of
ground,’ he added. ‘As a matter of fact, my dad’s boss
used to cut prairie hay every summer off that and then he’d
have the company picnic out there. They’d have the hay all cut
and baled and everything. Then they’d stack the bales up and
the bales were the tables and stools.’
It was those early memories that fostered Giffin’s first
While at K-State, Giffin went through the civilian flying
program and got his private pilot’s license in 1939. In 1941,
he was called into active duty in the military with an ROTC
commission. He served briefly in the since-abandoned coast
artillery before he transferred into the Army air corps. Giffin got
his Air Force wings in August 1942.
‘And who knows what the deal was, they kept a half a dozen
or so of us back for some special assignment,’ he remembered.
‘And then something happened, the special assignment fizzled…
but they kept the rest of us there as instructors.’
While in the service, Giffin trained pilots on the B-26, helped
develop an electronic navigations system, laid cable by plane in
the Burma theatre and participated in the Berlin airlift.
‘Twenty-four hours a day, airplanes in and out independent
of weather and everything,’ Giffin said. ‘They were using a
blind landing system. I was flying Air Force acceptance flights
Giffin said he also got to fly the first Air Force jet.
‘I tell a lot of these young pilots that are jet jockeys
today, ‘Hey, you guys aren’t messing with anything new, I
did that way back before you were born,’ ‘ Giffin said.
‘And they look at me like, ‘Hey, he’s lost his last
marbles,’ but it’s true.’
After the service, Giffin worked at an electrical manufacturing
plant in Chicago and then New Jersey before coming to Boeing. While
there, he farmed part-time. When Boeing lost its military contract,
Giffin left for Cessna, where he worked testing the Citation until
a doctor told him he had to quit.
At Cessna ‘it was just deep fatigue,’ he explained.
‘Well, I was living essentially two lives. And I’d been
doing it for 17, 18 years. And the old human body, for most people,
can just do about so much. Anybody can put out a big effort, for a
brief period, but to keep it up 16, 17, 18 year sit eventually
takes its toll. And I’m in my own mind convinced that
that’s what the problem was.’
Giffin guessed he quit Cessna in 1969. Then he returned to
‘I haven’t spent that much time farming fence row to
fence row,’ he said. ‘I just been doing what I felt like I
wanted to do and the rest of the time the ground’ll lie
Giffin also does custom harvesting, which he began doing in
‘Worn out three combines here in the local area,’ he
mused. ‘But I’ve cut way back on that custom harvesting. Do
what I can do, when I can do it, so that’ll keep it
But now, Giffin’s occupying his time helping Terning build
steam engines. He also has a replica of the steam-powered tractor
his father used when he moved to the farm in 1933. And he’s
building a miniature steam-powered tractor for himself.
‘Steam has always intrigued me,’ he admitted. ‘I
took quite a bit of stuff in thermodynamics in college. Mechanical
engineering, of course, and in those days, that’s what it
‘Steam is still a big power item,’ Giffin added.
‘Most people don’t realize it, but basically all this
atomic energy stuff is just steam plants. They’re just using
atomic energy as the power source to generate the steam.
They’re still using steam machinery.’
Giffin and Terning also have traveled the country delivering
steam engines. They claim to have some great stories about their
travel, but won’t tell them to just anyone.
What Terning and other friends like to tell is what a genius
But reminding Giffin of that just brings a short guffaw.
‘I don’t know where they come up with that,’ he
snorted. ‘Math and arithmetic, et cetera, you know, everyday
stuff that the average person uses, has always been kind of a hobby
for me memorized math tables, squares, square roots, all this kind
of stuff, you know. Don’t do it to impress them, but it’s
amazing, around a place like this, how often just having those
numbers back there in the back of your head, you can pull them out
of your head and to them it looks like something fantastic. But
really and truly it isn’t. It’s just a memory.’
Giffin also works hard honing his powers of observation.
‘I’ve always tried to when I look at something, really
see it,’ he explained. ‘A lot of people will look at
something and you ask them what the heck it was a couple, five
minutes later, and they’ll tell you, ‘Hey, it was a
car.’ They don’t know whether it was a jeep or a four-door
deluxe sedan. They looked, but they didn’t really see
Another habit Giffin formed is the ability to take his time on a
‘You’ve heard it many times, haste makes waste,’ he
said. ‘When you’re messin’ with something, be sure your
brain’s in gear and you’d be surprised at how much fuss and
muss and messin’ around that eliminates.’
Although Giffin’s modest about his abilities, he’s
mighty proud of the friends he has.
‘I think I’ve got a few friends, I don’t have a
multitude of friends but I think I’ve got some pretty
high-quality friends,’ he bragged. ‘They give me a lot of
satisfaction. And I hope our acquaintance is worthwhile as far as
Giffin’s friends’ children call him ‘Grandpa.’
It’s a title that fits. And he relishes it.
‘I tease them an awful lot, but I guess that’s one of
the privileges of being grandpa,’ he said, his eyes twinkling.
‘I kinda watch their mom and dad sweat watching grandpa put bad
ideas in their head.’
Giffin said his life’s a pleasure rather than a drudge.
‘I get a lot of pleasure out of life,’ he said.
‘Realizing full well that it isn’t going to last
He attributes his happiness to the simplicity of his life.
‘An awful lot of people think they have to have a lot of
things going on in order to be satisfied and happy,’ he said.
‘And maybe they do, I don’t know, but it sure doesn’t
apply to me. My wants are very simple.
‘Just get a little something pleasant out of each and every
day, because nobody knows how many tomorrows you’ve got
Giffin doesn’t wear a watch, and it’s probably been a
long time since he kept an appointment calendar. It was the hurry
and pressure that drove him away from New Jersey and big East Coast
money. And he’s firmly rooted on his Kansas farm.
‘What you really get out of life, an average person could
get several times over as much real pleasure of living in this part
of the country as you ever could back East,’ Giffin mused.
Because he’s living his philosophy, Giffin feels he’s
‘By other standards, I’ve been a major failure,’ he
said. ‘So it depends on what yardstick you’re using to
‘I think my life has been successful,’ Giffin continued.
‘But now to be able to say I could write you a check for a
hundred or two hundred or three hundred thousand dollars I
can’t do that.
‘And if that’s a success, then I guess I’m a