In Deep Winter, with Snow Falling

In deep winter, with snow falling, I like to be sitting on a couple of milk crates in someone’s woodworking shop, keeping company while that person re-works the paneling in an old door, or puts together the pieces of a newly stripped kitchen chair.

Woodworking shops are preferred, because they smell the best, but I’ll take just about any kind of shop at all – cabinetry, picture-framing, even a small machine shop set up in somebody’s garage.

There’s usually a heater going, sometimes even a coal stove; up on a dusty shelf there’s a radio playing, too – bluegrass and country, but turned down. And an old dog asleep in his place under the workbench with the vise.

There’s that slow, steady rhythm as the host moves from miter saw to planer to jigsaw, then back to the work table, picking up a rule or a pencil as he goes. My father was a carpenter and a fine craftsman, as was his father before him. Those rhythms are in my blood.

I’ve sat around in a lot of shops, lending a hand when needed – “Here, steady this end while I rip it on the twelve-inch” – but mostly just lending encouragement and good cheer. I’m not much of a craftsman myself. I can saw and nail and paint, and shovel and dig and tuck-point, but beyond that I’m not much of an artisan. Still, being in that world makes me feel good.

My father and grandfather had shops of various kinds, and they also had what they called “sheds,” which were makeshift buildings filled with a variety of building materials they had accumulated. My grandfather Tom Carter was born in 1872; my father Bob Carter was born in 1910. Between them, they had seen a great many things, and built a considerable number of houses and bridges and warehouses.

They had acquired every conceivable kind of raw material – marble and limestone, concrete blocks, bricks of all sizes and shapes, spools of wire, barrels of iron hooks and fasteners for assembling forms, half-filled nail kegs, seemingly endless stacks of used lumber, along with a bewildering variety of hand tools such as spades, shovels, picks, mattocks, grubbing hoes, tamps, long-handled shovels, scoop shovels, sledgehammers, axes, hatchets, screw-jacks, and pry bars.

I spent my childhood in such shops and sheds, poking around among the treasures to be found there – the mysterious block-and-tackles, the great coils of rope, the oxy-acetylene bottles, the rusted iron stoves, and the rooms full of unidentifiable parts and pieces that had been ripped out of earlier structures and brought home and stored in the shed, in case they were ever needed again. My grandfather had been a young man during the hard times following the Panic of 1893; both he and my father had lived through the bitterest years of the Great Depression. They did not throw anything away.

Of the 1890s I learned little from my grandfather, who died when I was six.  From my grandmother, Effie, who survived him by a quarter of a century, I heard quite a few interesting tales. I can recall her saying that the name of the first president she could remember was Grover Cleveland.

I lost no time in determining, in my grandparents’ library, among the musty old reference books kept there, that Grover Cleveland had been elected to the presidency in 1884. My grandmother, born in 1878, was six years old in that year. That seemed to me a very long time ago, and yet she could remember something that happened then, just as I knew at the age of six that in April of 1945 President Roosevelt had died, and had been succeeded by President Truman.

I did not stop to reason that Cleveland had been elected to two non-consecutive terms, and that my grandmother might have remembered him from a time as late as 1892, when she was fourteen, which does not seem so remarkable a feat – of noticing who was president, or of remembering that fact. Still, Cleveland’s name was a bench-mark. It helped to anchor me in my grandmother’s past.

Her grown-up name was Effie, but we called her “Nannie.” She spoke quite knowingly of the Blizzard of ’88, when she was ten years old, and when she and everyone else on the Hinshaw farm, a mile south of Windfall, Indiana, had been snowed in for several days. This in turn would prompt her to take down a copy of Whittier’s long poem Snow Bound, and read us a few pages, which lent credibility to her eye-witness account of the great blizzard of her youth.

She spoke of Coxey’s Army, although it was years before I  understood what that was all about. And she talked of the World’s Fair of 1893, the Great Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which, unfortunately, she had not been able to attend. She had fallen ill that summer, on the eve of the family’s departure by train to visit the fair, and had had to stay home.  I can barely imagine, even now, what a disappointment that must have been – not to have seen the Fair.

Her younger brother Glenn, and her stepbrothers and stepsisters, did in fact attend, and brought back small souvenirs to present to her, as if in compensation. She had kept them for half a century, and on those wintry evenings sometimes my two cousins and I were allowed to get them out of their special drawer, and arrange them on the kitchen table, and listen to her talk about them.

One was a pincushion in the shape of a miniature laundry basket.  The size of a man’s thumb, cast of lead, it held a red-and-white checked cushion into which the pins were stuck. On the bottom were the faint letters “World’s Columbian Exposition 1893.” Attached by a white ribbon to one of the handles was a tiny pearl-handled pocket knife, the smallest I have ever seen. Whether the knife came from the Fair I do not know, but it was something we marveled over.

There was a small cream pitcher made of red and white glass that bore the engraved names of her father’s sisters, Jennie and Eliza Hinshaw, who lived in Mechanicsburg, Indiana. This item bore a date of 1899, long after the Fair, but it was still part of the treasure kept in the drawer. The piéce de resistance, and the artifact that fascinated us most, was a wooden egg exactly the size of the soft-boiled egg each of us sometimes got for breakfast. (This curious egg is now in my possession. Here is a photograph.)

It is pale yellow, imprinted with eight-pointed stars, and bears a line-drawing likeness of Columbus, who looks strangely like an Italian Santa Claus, with a jaunty hat from which two curling feathers project. On the opposite side, between the flags of the U.S. and Spain, is the legend:

1492

Christoforo

Colombo

1892

If you look closely, beneath the legend, you can make out a line explaining in English that this souvenir had been “Made in Germany.” A product of global cooperation, then, in celebration of a fair for the entire world.

The egg was, for my two cousins and me, the holiest of relics. Studying its inscriptions, and talking about the discovery of America, and about the Fair itself, and Chicago, and why the Fair began in 1893 rather than the four-hundredth anniversary year (the people sponsoring the fair simply couldn’t get it together in time) usually kept us occupied until bedtime. But I have not yet come to the best part. Always save the best until last, as my grandmother might have said.

The egg was particularly mysterious because it always stood on one end, and the proper end at that, so that the image of Columbus appeared rightside up. But how did it do that?  Even as a child I knew that it was not easy to balance an ordinary egg on end. Curiously, my grandmother did not seem to know of the story of Columbus and the egg, and it was years before I learned it from other sources.

According to this possibly apocryphal tale, Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was no great accomplishment, challenged his critics to make an egg stand on end. When they failed to do so, he tapped the egg on the table, flattening its tip. Voila! Of course the shell was broken in the process. But the upright egg provided a startling example of the unconventional thinking that had propelled Columbus to the New World in the first place.

I was confronted, then, at a very early age – say two or three years – by an egg that was not really an egg but certainly looked like an egg, and was made of wood, with pictures on it, and that always stood upright, like the Steadfast Tin Soldier. When you flicked it with your finger, it bobbled for an instant and then returned to its original position. I and my cousins were determined to get to the bottom of this.

Our grandmother showed us that the egg was hollow, and consisted of two hemispheres fitted together. In the bottom of the lower half, quite visible, was a small circle, about the size of a penny, of a substance she identified for us as lead. Screw the hemispheres back together, place it on the table, tip it over, and immediately it rights itself. In due time this simple process brought forth comments from my cousin Lowell, two years older than me, concerning the law of gravitation, Newton, the Principia, and other arcane matters.

We learned from my grandmother, too, that within five years of the Fair, which celebrated the great friendship between America and Spain, those two nations had gone to war, and a number of her neighbors and high-school classmates had hurried off to join the conflict, and been uniformly disappointed if not downright repelled by the entire business.

My grandmother, motherless at the age of two, had as a small child been raised in a Quaker household presided over by the two maiden aunts, Jennie and Eliza Hinshaw. They had brooked little dissension when it came to the subject of war.

And what of my father and my grandfather, who, oblivious of what was being discussed in that warm kitchen, were probably at that very moment out in some small town or village, dismantling some old building, or preparing to move one to the opposite side of town – they were champion house-movers – and could be counted on to bring home a truck-load of spare and used lumber and cast-iron debris which they would store in their various sheds behind the main house and in other locations.

In another entry I shall tell of the strange and marvelous concrete house father and son constructed during the Depression, primarily because they had nothing else to do. Suffice it for now for me to describe one of the ways in which, according to my father, the two of them were accustomed to scraping together a little cash during the most difficult years of the 1930s.

In those days the last of the Interurban cars still shuttled between the small towns of central Indiana that made up the “gas belt” of the 1890s – Kokomo and Marion, Anderson and Alexandria, Tipton and Elwood, and points between.

The fare between one town and the next was seldom more than a dime or fifteen cents, and with the proper manipulation of transfers and a wink to the friendly motorman, you could parlay that fare and make it all the way to the Traction Terminal in downtown Indianapolis.

My father and grandfather, upon discovering they had a spare day with nothing in particular to do, and sensing that the weather would be fine, would gather up the necessary tools – a variety of trowels and a makeshift mortar board – and stow these items in a couple of metal buckets. They would board “the car,” as it was called, for the town they had selected to canvass.

On arriving in Lapel or Pendleton, say, or one of the crossroads villages, or even one of the larger towns, they would fan out and study the chimneys on the houses they passed.  This was in the mid-1930s; most households were still burning coal. Chimneys were essential, but since money was scarce, many had been allowed to deteriorate. Some leaned precariously, others had lost a great deal of their mortar and would not draft properly.

Upon spying a defective chimney, or chimneys, my grandfather would speak with the person who answered the door and offer to tuck-point the chimney for a nominal amount – fifty cents or a dollar. I suppose if the chimney needed extensive restoration, and additional bricks inserted, the charge was slightly higher.

Not everyone subscribed, of course, but it was clearly an opportunity for the householder, even during the Depression. Skeptics, or the initially reluctant, were undoubtedly drawn off the porch and out into the side yard, where they could see the chimney while listening to a litany of misfortunes that would descend upon the house and the roof, and upon them personally, unless the chimney were repaired.

When my father and grandfather had lined up half a dozen such projects, they would find their way to the lumber yard or the hardware store near the center of town and purchase a sack of cement. They probably filled the second bucket with sand from an abandoned lot or building site. Back in the target neighborhood, my grandfather, acting as hod-carrier, would get water from a backyard pump and mix the mortar, while my father, still in his early twenties, would find a way to get up on the roof and chip out the dry mortar with the point of his finishing trowel.

They would proceed in this fashion from one neighborhood to the next, sometimes spending the entire day tuck-pointing chimneys, buying their lunch for a quarter apiece in a greasy spoon on the town square, catching the Interurban car back home again in the afternoon, and sometimes having made eight or ten dollars for a day’s outing.

During the harshest winter months of the Depression they could not range about or work outside, so I assume they stayed in their shop, near the coal-fired pot-bellied stove, and worked on repairing and sharpening tools and getting ready for spring. In later winters, after my grandfather died and my father came home from the war, I too spent a certain amount of time after school in those shops, playing somewhere in the loft with my cousins, or begging to be allowed to go outside – to go sledding, perhaps – but I paid little attention to what my father and the other grownups were doing.

I think mostly they were just sitting there, taking it easy. I think that during those winters in the 1930s my father and grandfather were happy to be in a warm place, out of the cold. I think they enjoyed being there amid all the odors and smells – the pine of the planks, the rosins, the glues, the sealers, the disinfectants, the paint, the sweeper’s dust.  They were surrounded by their tools and their materials, and this must have given them a sense of reassurance during those hard times. They were ready for just about anything, and everything they might need was immediately at hand.

Curiously, the best woodworking shop I ever saw was in Benton Harbor, Michigan, on the grounds of the old House of David compound, and it was presided over by a woman. It consisted of a series of high-ceilinged rooms of considerable size, all filled with the necessary planers and routers and table saws. I assumed that in earlier times it had been an all-purpose carpenter’s shop, since so many of the House of David’s original structures were made of wood. But when I accidentally discovered this shop in the early 1980s, it was entirely devoted to the framing of pictures – that being one of the few remaining sources of income for the dwindling number of believers in the colony.

On my trips through that part of the world I fell into the habit of stopping at the shop with a couple of prints I wished to have framed. I would drop them off, then come back five or six months later, pick them up, and order frames for additional prints. Each visit gave me the opportunity of chatting with the proprietress, who was then in her eighties, and who explained that she had come originally from England in the 1920s, with other members of her family, in order to join the religious community of the House of David. She had arrived as a teen-ager, married another immigrant, and remained in the commune all that time, working at a variety of jobs and finally entering into the vocation of picture-framer.

Her framing studio was extremely peaceful. Winter or summer, the north light was extraordinary, entering through banks of tall overhead windows. The two of us would sit on high stools at a plank table made of oak and examine and measure the prints, and then from the surrounding walls she would take down samples of picture frames she thought might be appropriate.

Her collection of frames was vast, the largest I have ever seen, and when the soft, even light illuminated the dozens of rows of vees made of oak and maple and walnut, and all the painted varieties and widths, the effect was memorable. While she and I talked about framing and matting, we would also discuss stories from the Bible, for she was quite religious and extremely knowledgeable on such subjects, and I learned a great deal from her.

Twenty years later, I have forgotten her name. But I remember that her hands were, strangely, without thumbs. She had lost both thumbs, she said, due to an illness when she was a small child. It did not seem to matter. She easily moved about the frame samples and the different pieces of rag-content matboard, and she had no trouble picking up any item or tool, large or small.

Our talk was often of the more arcane and unusual elements of the Bible, such as Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor, or the angel seen by Balaam’s ass, or Mark’s account of the nameless young man with the linen cloth who ran naked from the place called Gethsemane.

I last stopped to see her, to pick up my final set of framed prints, in the late 1980s. Yet I can still remember her shop with great clarity. I have never seen a room so filled with light, or a space made so splendid by the marvelous objects it contained. The tomb of Tutankhamun was, as Howard Carter called back to Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Herbert, filled with “wonderful things,” but it was a place of darkness, and the shop in Benton Harbor was a place of illumination.

The picture-framing shop has remained for me, in the years that have followed, a perfected version of the shops of skilled workmanship I knew as a child. In my imagination it is kin to those that even now I consider myself fortunate to be able to visit and to spend time in.

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