The Crafty Halfback
Malcolm took to Mountain life like a duck takes to water, or perhaps a hog to slop; or insert whatever cornball rustic comparison you want to make.
He bought a cabin on a piece of land beside us and moved in full-time, unlike the Florida folks who come up here just for the summers.
We call the permanent ones “halfbacks,” since they originated in Ohio or some other snowy state and then buy a summer cabin in the Smokies, which often becomes their total home.
“My living room back in Tampa was larger than this whole house,” they like to say. “But that’s okay... the big one was too much so we sold it.” And they became good citizens of our little town, half way back to Ohio.
Most winters we don’t get much snow. And even when we do, like the past year or two, they’ll say some- thing about how they grew up hard, wading through waist-deep snow just to get to school each day. And saying we hillbillies are wimps to let a little snow close schools and offices. All in good fun, of course.
Malcolm had originally come from some place in New England, maybe Vermont, and had taught English at a junior college down near maybe Orlando. Said he couldn’t wait to live full-time in the mountains and have a little woodworking shop.
“What can you tell me about a biscuit?” he asked.
I started a long-winded explanation of my old grandmother’s bread cooked on a woodstove and he stopped me. Turned out he was talking about some way of joining wood with a hidden bit of metal, something he learned from the woodworking magazines.
He was good at questions like that, for which I had no answers. Because I didn’t read those. I get tired of constant television and I do read a lot; he was an ex-English professor so I asked him about some of the books I read. More on that in a moment.
He started hanging around the crafts festivals. My wife dragged me to some of them and I knew a few of the local artisans, simply because it’s a small town.
Dave Barry, famous humorist (and perhaps one of the few Miami residents who don’t have a cabin in the Carolina mountains), once defined crafts as a process where you take perfectly good raw materials and make something by hand that is not only useless, but also hideous to look at. His take still works for me, for most crafts.
Anyway, after looking at all the various crafts items unloaded on innocent tourists, Malcolm decided to specialize in walking sticks. Homemade wooden walking sticks, but done professionally, by the master woodworker person.
Modest purchases soon stocked his workshop. Little stuff we all take for granted – a vise, some sanders, an electric drill. Then he bought a little jig saw at a yard sale.
He said all the fancy stuff he saw for sale in the woodworking magazines would have to wait; he was going to start off slow, and he was on a mission.
“Come and help me” he said. “I want to get this first one just right. I may need some advice from a native.”
I needed to see him anyway about a book so I went over. I had paid $26 for a hardback novel by a top American writer and thought it was awful. It repeated itself over and over, was terribly wordy, and the plot was almost incoherent. Obviously I needed guidance to appreciate it.
“lt seems to me,” I said, “that a man can be a leading literary lion but still be a very poor storyteller.”
You have no appreciation for technique, for real writing talent, Malcolm told me, saying that the man has legions of followers who faint with gratitude at the appearance of yet another novel of his. Malcolm told me I might want to stick with something more in keeping with rural tastes.
“You Appalachian folk artists are a surly lot,” I replied and he burst out laughing. We know each other well and I knew he’d love being called a folk artist. Especially since he had not made a walking stick yet.
“Help me hold and mark this plank...please?”
Malcolm had bought a walnut plank at a flea market from a Georgia shyster who only charged him double the usual per-foot price, and he planned to cut it into strips with the jig saw and then sand and finish each strip into a useable walking stick.
I pointed out that cutting a straight line down his nice walnut plank would be nearly impossible with the wobbly hand-held jig saw, but he ignored me and we proceeded.
“You can truthfully say no two of these will be alike,” I said, and he glared. They were wavy and curved, not quite as straight as the proverbial arrow.
“Don’t need the perfection of the Machine Age” he said. “Too boring. And besides, each one will be a marvel of my finishing technique. Customers will look at the beautiful glossy finish and forget the small imperfections.”
We got a dozen cut out and he began a frenzy of sanding, attacking each one with several sanders and rounding off all the sharp edges. It took him two weeks to get the 12 walnut sticks ready to finish.
Then he began his so-called secret finishing pro- cess, which he supposedly learned from the magazines. It apparently involved several applications of sealer and steel wool and gloss finish.
He planned to try his wares at the next crafts fes- tival, still a month or two away. I arrived at his shop one day as the big event drew near. He was slowly waxing each one with a layer of furniture polish. I had to admit, they looked like glass.
“I bet I sell out...people will love them,” he said.
“I hope you do,” I assured him. “But lots of woodworkers get hurt by their equipment and I bought you something today to help you remember the danger. I want you to hang it here in the shop and read it every day.”
He looked puzzled as I unwrapped a brown-paper packet. I got it from a craftsman on the other side of town, I told Malcolm, a craftsman like yourself. “He’s a woodburner,” I explained, seeing acceptance grow slowly on Malcolm’s face.
From the package I slowly brought out a polished oak board with a message burned into its face and held it up against the wall for him to see.
In a tasteful script, it read: “A man with a liberal arts degree should never be allowed around power tools.”