Two Wheeled Freedom

It was a momentous day, and Short Stack was reveling in it.

Childhood is filled to the brim with things you can’t do and I can remember the various breakthroughs of my own youth, signifying the sometimes tangible advances of a life well spent. This summer has been rife with them it seems, or at least it seems so to me, but then again, being a parent, I’ve become hyper sensitive to spotting them. Watching one’s children grow is one of the most amazing, painful, joyous and mind blowing experiences I have ever been exposed to and today my little boy, the same little boy whom I held as a new born, can ride a bicycle ALL by himself.

He has wheels.

And this makes me both ecstatic and terrified.

Bicycles mean one thing to a kid, and that is Freedom. Freedom to go visit a friend. Freedom to take yourself to the store. Freedom to go flying off a home made ramp, crashing spread eagle in the gravel at the end of some driveway. High speed, distance covering, skinned up and bleeding freedom.

Growing up, my house sat on the corner of one fairly busy road and a very quiet and sleepy dead end. When I took my little red and white Schwinn out, it was to the dead end street I’d go to pedal in car free bliss among the familiar driveways. That was where all the fun was to be had really, anyways. It was the seventies and young families dotted the landscape all the way down, where the road terminated incongruously at the edge of a hay field. Traffic was non-existent other than father’s coming home or going off to work while hoards of other kids my age zipped back and forth, helmetless and careless on their own bikes. The road was paved, flat and level. It was perfect for learning to ride and I took to it with glee. I can actually remember the moment my own freedom began.

Dad was enthusiastic, if not a little bewildering, at coaching me. There was a lot to remember and I don’t blame him at all for over explaining the mechanics and best bail out practices. (I understand now, having viewed the situation through my own parental point of view with my on children.) He wanted to give me the best chance for success.  Barring that, he wanted to give me the best chance to only suffer grass stained knees in the event of a full blown directional failure rather than a teary trip to the bathroom for cotton balls and antiseptic with Mom. This was the moment those horrible little, loud, clattering wheels came off for good. I was going to ride on two wheels!

The sensation of rocking back and forth from one training wheel to the other still percolates away, half forgotten in the back of my mind and I can still just recall how uneasy it made me feel as I waited for my bike to bump from one to the other as I scooted along. The chance to do away with that and bike on my own was a compelling. In the warm spring sun, I watched Dad flip my bike onto its handlebars and seat, tools lying in the grass of the front yard, ready for surgery. The adjustable wrench made short work of the nuts holding those little, noisy outriggers to the axle and they were discarded like pulled teeth at the edge of the grassy workspace. With a flip of the patent, we were ready to go.

“Ok, Buddy. It’s all set. I’ll hold it still while you climb on.”

There, in front of the house, I clambered aboard my mighty little steed and looked down the diminutive hill that would lead me to the side yard and then onward to the edge of the dead end street.

“Just take your time. If you feel like you’re going to fall, just tumble to the side. The lawn’s pretty soft and you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to use your breaks and watch where you’re going too. Remember to steer. Keep looking strait ahead, not at me. You can do it!”

Naturally, this being the decade that it was, no one, not even kids on their very first biking attempt, wore helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, body armor or any of the other things we’ve since deemed required to keep children safe. It was just my own pink flesh covered in whatever thin clothes I might have been wearing at the time. Being warm out, the chances of that being shorts and a tee shirt was pretty good, thus leaving my knees and elbows exposed to sand-papery disaster.

With a gentle push and my white knuckles wrapped around the handlebars, I trundled bouncily across the lawn, tiny knees pumping all the way.

“Yeah! You’re doing it! WHOA! Where ya going?”

The image in my mind of the grass at the edge of the yard giving way to a sharp line of asphalt is clear as a bell. I can even remember the sensation as the jouncing of the lumpy lawn gave way to the smooth hum of pavement. I knew at the time that I wasn’t cleared for road riding yet and that there were, no doubt, things that my Dad would wanted to prep me on first, but I was on a roll and there was no way I was stopping. In retrospect, I’m not sure that stopping was an option even if I wanted to. Using the breaks was a far more dangerous procedure than simply continuing on forward, so I just prayed for a clear path free of oncoming vehicles and kept going. A few minutes later, my triumphant return to the yard was besmirched only with a sloppy dismount as I tumbled onto the lawn. I didn’t care, though. I was hooked. I had smelled success!

That day is one I’ve thought of on and off for years and years, and to be honest, I’ve remained a bit proud of my achievement the entire time. It’s hardly equal to a solo crossing the Atlantic or standing on the peak of Mount Everest, but it was a personal Everest of childhood achievement. A rite of passage, to be sure and as such, it was important to me. It still is, I guess.

I’ve only ever seen that day from my own point of view. This all took place in the time of the analog world and if it were going to be recorded by my parents, it would have involved a bulky Super 8 movie camera or the actual snapping of shutters. To my Father’s credit, at that moment he was paying more attention to me riding for the first time rather than fiddling with F-Stops and focus. All of this is recorded only in our memories.

Where we live now does not easily lend its self to learning the skill of bicycle riding. The dirt road in front of our house is strewn with potholes, which, though great at slowing down overly enthusiastic traffic, may as well be bottomless pits of doom to those learning the art of bicycling. We’re also at the top of an impressive hill, which would make a duplicate of my own learning experience end in a most spectacular and gruesome way. Toss into this my son’s natural cautiousness, and you can see why it’s taken him a while to warm to the notion of putting feet to pedals. We’ve tried, on and off for two summers to get him comfortable with the two wheeled machine, but the spark of his own interest just wasn’t there… until now.

I don’t know what possessed my wife to drag out his bike this time, but I’m not the only one who’s glad she did. Something… some amazing connection in his little brain, just… worked, and pretty much right off the bat, too! He got on, aimed himself down the dirt road (happily, away from the hill of doom) and away he went. No help. No push. Just, ZOOOM!

Navigating successfully around the potholes, he asked me to critique his performance.

“How’m I doing at avoiding the holes, Dad? Did you notice that I’m steering around them?”

He always talks in this frank, almost clinical manner. It cracks me up to no end.

“You’re doing great, Short Stack! Keep pedaling and watch where you’re going. Don’t forget that you have breaks! Just use them easily or you’ll skid.” Watching him go, I don’t know who was more excited. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. Watch those feet go! Pump! Pump! Pump! I had to run to keep up and we quickly left my wife and our daughter in the dust.

We chatted as he scooted and I jogged beside him, trying not to let my stomach turn as I noticed his perfect, unblemished bare knees and exposed elbows. As he went, his engineer mind was a buzz of activity and he wanted to dissect some of the finer aspects of bike riding. Being the analytical, science minded critter that he is, he was doing some hypothesizing about why he stayed up.

“I think I know this works, Dad. It’s because the air is getting pushed around me as I go and when it splits, it pushes me on each side and holds me up!” He’s never at a loss on ideas and I actually hate to correct him sometimes since his ideas almost always have some merit. He’d never forgive me if I didn’t tell him the truth, though. I tried to keep my breathing level and speech even as I ran along.

“Actually, it’s your wheels. They act as gyroscopes. The faster you go, the better job they do at keeping you stable. That’s why you feel wobbly when you’re going slowly.”

“OH!” He likes gyroscopes. “In that case, I should ride REALLY fast!” And just like that, he immediately outstripped my top running speed, blasting off ahead of my ability to keep up. I know that it won’t be the last time this happens in one way or another.

We spent the better part of two hours out on the roads, biking and running. We only had one upset which involved a parked car and a moment’s inattention, but no injury to the boy, bike or car was made and he quickly resumed his newly gained avocation. Finally, it took some bribing with a freeze pop to get him to eventually head back to our house. On the way home he said that he felt like he could ride all day. He was very proud of him self, and rightly so.

“Dad? You know what? I think I’m the happiest kid on the island today.

I looked down at his beaming smile and blasted my own right back. “I bet you are, Buddy. I’d definitely say you are!”

Later that evening, Short Stack turned to his mother with a serious face and made an announcement. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You might not know this, but you met a new person today.”

“Oh?” Her eyebrow arched and our son straightened.

“His name… is Speed.”

As new names go, Speed is a pretty awesome one, and he earned it. He went faster under his own power than ever before and it’s a skill that will literally take him far as well as set him up for other successes. I’m very proud of him, not just for learning to ride, but also for taking his next step. It is, after all, a big deal for anyone to achieve.

Now, let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to change his name to, Ramp Boy.

The Long Trail to Happiness

When Action Girl and I decided to have children, one of the things that I couldn’t wait for was to find out what their “thing” would be. Everybody’s got a “thing.” At least, every kid seems to. I think a lot of adults forget their passions when they get lost in adolescence and are forced to focus on areas of academia where minimal interest resides. That and peer pressure, of course. There is no cleanser more astringent than the scorn of your contemporaries. So many childhood passions are lost through these effects and I wanted to be a powerful force in the corner of my children’s imagination versus the rest of the world. The older I become, the more sure I am that a person’s true strength lies directly within the sphere of their passions.

Thomas Jefferson once said that a man who loves his work never works another day, and I think that’s about right. He also said that he was all about freedom and yet owned slaves, so I’ll grant you, you do have to keep an eye on TJ. Still though…

My son, Short Stack showed his cards early on. There was a brief flirtation with trucks, which is far from unusual for small children, but that had ended pretty abruptly the moment he saw his first rocket.

I believe he was two and a half.

He’s six now and has been focused like a laser on his own personal prize since the day he realized that that he could have something to do with them. Like any parent, I ask my kids every so often what they want to do for a job when they grow up, just to test the waters and see where the wind has shifted in the previous weeks. Last week, Short Stack’s answer was, “I want to build propulsion systems for new kinds of rockets.”

Oooooh kay.

My four year old daughter, Lulu Belle though, is a very, VERY different little critter. She want’s to be a cowgirl.

Or maybe a fairy.

Nope… a cowgirl.

Or princess.

Maybe a cowgirl princess?

But Pirates are good too!

Hey, dad. Did pirates ever play with cowboys?

Tell you what, dad. You be Dale Evans and I’ll be Roy Rogers.

YEE-HAW!

(I love the fact that I somehow wind up being Dale. Better than being assigned Pat Brady, I suppose.)

And that’s about how it goes. She loves playing dress-up from her considerable pile of costumes she’s amassed and they all get a work out, but the cowboy hat, vest, sheriff’s badge and pink handled six shooter get by far the heaviest work out.

The fact that we can not possibly live farther away from the Western Plains and still be within the boundaries of the contiguous United States only adds to the perplexity on how this all got started. To the best of my knowledge, I never pushed the cowboy lifestyle to my children, but Lulu Belle seems to have embraced it with a fervor previously reserved only for children born between 1940 and 1955. When it comes to requested video entertainment from my young daughter, it’s usually black and white episodes of the Lone Ranger or the much loved, Roy Rogers. She knows all the names of the characters, their horses, origin stories and will back them up with her own cap gun when things get tough.

Clayton Moore would be proud.

So now, I know. Lulu Belle wants to be a cowgirl. I’m not sure how this translates into a life for her, let alone an income stream, but we can deal with those details later. What I do know is that right now, it makes her the happiest. When her brother discovered his love of aerospace, I pandered like hell to it. His room is an homage to NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Shuttle program. When he was four, I took him to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the shuttle Discovery take off. I’ve tried as hard as I could to feed him what he craves the most in the hopes that it will allow him to be as happy as he can be.

Now it’s time for sister.

The trick is, since the 1960’s have long since ridden off into the sunset, finding good cowboy material has gotten substantially trickier. We watch the old shows on YouTube. We dress up in cowboy gear, though some of it has to be manufactured right here in our little house due to scarcity in the market. We talk in cowboy-ese and naturally, she has her very own Wonder Horse! You remember those, right? The giant plastic horse mounted on a frame by means of exceptionally squeaky springs.

If there is anything she loves more than pretending to be a cowgirl, it’s making up stories, (Can you guess what they tend to be about?) and this has now spilled over into bedtime. For the last little while now, once the bedtime books are all read and the light is out, she’s hit me with a request which I find hard to pass up. She wants a story, as she puts it, “You tell me. Not from a book.”

I’ve told her stories about me growing up. I’ve told her stories about things her Mom’s done. I’ve told her fables as best as I can recall my Aesop. The thing is, if you don’t have a theme, it’s hard to pull up a good story on the fly. That’s when she pointed out the elephant in the bedroom.

“Dad. Tell me a story about a cowgirl!”

It took a minute or two for me cook up the basics, and an additional night for us to ascribe names to the players, but we’ve gotten it worked out pretty well now.

In a valley in Wyoming, sits a small ranch. The road that runs in front of it will take you to town. The paths that lead away from the ranch will take you to the high pasture and then on to the aspen forest. Another path goes to the pond while a third leads to Big Rock, which has a breathtaking view of the valley below. To the West, the Rocky Mountains tower, capped in snow. The inhabitants of the ranch are a girl of unspecified age named Annie and her Horse, Thunder. Thunder, naturally, lives in the big red barn next to the corral. There’s also a shed where Annie keeps her tools.

Now all she needs is a friend. Enter some occupation diversity.

In our very first story, I also introduced Piper and Scout. Piper has short, red hair and lives in Colorado. Scout is her trusty, silver airplane with the big blue stripe that goes all the way down each side. They met when Piper got lost and had to land at the ranch for directions as the evening closed in. Naturally, Annie invited her to stay for dinner and the night and the two have been best friends ever since.

Sometimes the stories are just about Annie and Thunder. Sometimes they’re just about Piper and Scout, but her favorite stories include them all.

It’s still trick to come up with a believable and engaging story arc off the top of my head, but I must confess, I think I’m enjoying them just as much as she is. With each evening of me kneeling on the floor next to her bed in the darkened room, the world of Annie and Piper gets more and more vibrant. We now know about the fixed hole in the barn roof, how long it takes to ride to town and the tree Annie chopped down up in the aspen forest. Last night, I couldn’t help my self and after my little cowgirl was asleep, I sat down and wrote out that night’s story.

I’ll share it with you, if you’d like… But you have to wait for bedtime.

The Junk Whisperer. Part III

My folks had discovered an actual camera store in Dover, New Hampshire at some point and when I told them about the Brownie, they were kind enough to stop in and pick me up a couple of rolls, ready to meet my sander and get resized to fit. Now with everything I needed to go put this old beautiful box into action, only one question remained: Color or Black and White.

Hmmm.

Black and White film holds a special and dear place in my heart. Many years ago, a much younger and substantially more awkward version of me could often be seen stalking interesting shadows and high contrast compositions with my trusty steel body Minolta. It had belonged to my father when he was young and now I had taken to it with enthusiasm. It shoots 35mm and though it only has one lens and is not a snazzy SLR, (i.e., Single Lens Reflex, meaning that the range finder lets you look right through the lens of the camera and not out a separate little range finder in the upper left corner of the camera) it still took the best Black and White photos I’d ever seen. I spent many a happy hour, late at night in the campus dark room developing and making prints of my black and white images.

Color though, offered another, special possibility.

In this crazy-fast, laser like perfected digital age, the phones we have crammed in our collective pockets can take pictures of stunning resolution and clarity and for some odd reason, this ability has kicked off the craze of the “retro-ing” of pictures. The ability to saturate the colors, fade the edges and fake a little light bleed at a corner here and there has become increasingly popular. I have to admit, I find it somewhat perplexing.

I’m looking at you, Hipsamatic and Instagram.

Without a doubt, the images made with these bits of software do indeed look genuinely old school and  the filters and effects used on each uploaded image are often dutifully stamped into the accompanying text of the Facebook post by the shooters.

Lens: Edward Q

Film: Kobe’s 1971

Flash: strobe

…Or some such thing.

I mean no offense to the legion of happy iPhone photographers out there, but when I see these images, my mind quickly drifts to of all the actual filters and lenses that still lurk to this day in dark and dusty, forgotten drawers and backs of closets in homes across the world. They sit unused and unloved and it somehow seems a cheat to let the computer oldify the photo if you have the tools to do it the right way from the very beginning. To me, it feels like buying carrots at the store, sticking them in the ground only to pull them out and call them homegrown. Sometimes, doing something the hard way makes the end product that much better.

To my mind, anyway.

It also makes me slower on the draw, so I guess victory can be claimed on both sides.

Carefully loading the black box with my precious eight frames of ISO 200, color film, I carried the Brownie out side, trying to look at the world with my dusty, rusty photographer’s eye. Something I hadn’t done in far, far too long.

What initially came thundering back to me was the realization that I had eight shots and that was it. For the first time in a long time, I had to really consider my shot rather than just blaze away. It was going back to hunting with a muzzleloader after having used what is essentially, a machine gun. I had become used to snapping off a double fist-full of pictures, looking at what I had, and the culling the duds. In the end, I’d still have three or four pictures that were worth keeping of any given object or situation. Unless your funds are limitless, it doesn’t work that way with film.

I thought about subject

I’m drawn to photographing stuff. I like stuff! It doesn’t move, it’s timeless and you can fiddle with it to get the best effects. The problem is that it can also be impersonal. A photo of a boat on a beach is great and all, but it doesn’t get coveted by your great grandchildren, it doesn’t solve a family mystery and it probably won’t be attributed to you if you’re not there to claim attribution. This time around, I was shooting for something to go in a family album. I was remembering the picture that Great-Grandma took of her child and husband

Scooting around in the flower garden next door, a fancily dressed fairy princess and a serious butterfly hunter caught my eye. My son, Shortstack is six now and his sister Lulu Belle is four and to our great relief and enjoyment, they are each other’s best friend as well as sibling. I also tend to have a slightly biased eye when viewing them. They were the perfect subjects

In this case, their near constant movement would only add to the image. It is how I see them nearly all times unless they are asleep. Blurry.

Holding the camera at chest height and looking through one of the range finders, I lined up my subject.

The shutter swings. SNAP!

What a sound.

I catch her again as she flies along at the edge of the garden.

SNAP!

After a few seconds of cajoling and kindness, I get both of them to stand still long enough to line them both up, capturing a moment of their youth to celluloid.

SNAP! Number three out of eight taken.

The day is beautiful and breezy as the chilly afternoon wind kicks up off the Atlantic and blows the treetops. The three of us head out for some adventure and the Brownie comes with us.

As my two dear children enjoy their time with some kites at a nearby field, I stand off to squeeze them into the tiny field of my camera lens.

SNAP!

Sun at my back and turning the Brownie on its side, I look through the landscape range finder and take one more picture, just to be safe.

SNAP! Number five.

The kids are very interested as I take each photo and are more than a little bugged that I can’t show them the image like on my phone. I wonder if they think I’m making it up. To temper them I take a few more with my digital and we talk about which ones came out best.

That evening, I can’t resist the siren song of low angle sunlight and I joyously give in and search out my last three images. These are for me.

SNAP!

SNAP!

SNAP!

In the end, it wasn’t that long a wait to get my film back from the photo place in town. The hardest part was just getting around to driving it over, and then back to pick it up. I had forgotten how exciting it is to open that little glued envelope. Things could go so wrong. You won’t know until you fan them out and see for your self. There is no going back.

The Garden Series:

The Kite Series:

The Boathouse:

There they are. All eight in all their glory.

I still have the roll of black and white, but that will have to wait for another time and a different method of printing. The photo place I had brought this roll to only develops and prints black and white about every six months, so I’m left with a problem. I could leave my used rolls of film with them and wait like a patient little soldier, or…

It’s a thought to terrifying to think.

Should I?

I know how, after all.

There’s really not that much to… developing it all… my self!

 

All I need is an enlarger.

Oh, and a developing can.

Well, I need the chemicals too. And lets not forget the baths and a timer. Not to mention tongs, a water supply, drying racks and a bunch of other minutiae I’m no doubt forgetting.

I wonder what corner of the basement would make the best dark room?

 

Uh oh…

The Junk Whisperer, Part II

The word, “camera” is a squishy little noun. It can mean so many totally different objects these days. To my children, the word, “phone” is synonymous with camera. To them, it’s something that lives in your pocket at all times and is capable of taking movies as well as stills and then send them effortlessly to the other side of the planet as fast as your wireless carrier can charge you. When I was their age, the manifestation of the word “camera” might have meant the Polaroid. It was capable of taking hideous, blurry, square snapshots that faded dully with the passing years, BUT let you actually see what you had snapped a photo of with only a few minutes of mindlessly waving the picture in the air in the strange and vague hopes that this would somehow produce a better image. They were great!

What I had picked up was different.

Hanging in my living room is a picture of my Great-grandfather and my Grandpa. It was taken in about 1917 and in it, my Grandfather, whom I only knew as an old man, is perhaps three or four. My Great-grandfather, whom I never knew, looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He would not live to become an old man like his son.

There are several reasons beyond the obvious why I love this photo. One is that my Great-grandfather is an unbelievable match for my own Dad when he was that old. If you had shown me that picture as a child, I would have wanted to know why Daddy was wearing those funny clothes. Another reason is that my Grandfather and my own son don’t look alike. They look identical.

Seriously.

There is no question in my mind what my little boy will grow up to look like. The match is pretty much perfect.

All this is enough to crank up the voltage on the sentimentality-o-meter but the last reason for my attachment is the photographer. It’s my Great-grandmother. Saying that they didn’t have much money is a huge understatement, but one of the very few indulgences they enjoyed was a Brownie camera, and from what I understand, she enjoyed it mightily.

For those of you who’ve never seen a Brownie before, it is quite the interesting little box. Made for much of the twentieth century in one incarnation or another, it brought photography to the masses. They only cost three or four dollars and took, if not wonderful, then reasonable pictures. For the first time, almost anyone could chronicle their lives on film. It was a huge change and really started in earnest photographic record keeping for average families.

Now Great-great uncle Horace wasn’t just a name in a list, but a face you could spot familial connection with. I know that’s what it does for me, any way. The moment I bought my very own Brownie on that internet auction site, it somehow made me feel that much closer to the people in that family portrait as well as my Great-grandmother. I liked that. My problem, I knew, was that there was no way I was going to be contented with simply leaving it on the book shelf to gather dust.

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll do that too! But I was going to need to take this little bit of history out and see what I could get with it as well. It needed it to work.

A handful of days later, it arrived. The auction photos had been less than clear and the item description was seriously… sparse, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the package. It’s probably the main reason I has no competition in buying it. TO my elight, other than some surface rust on the front, some smudgy optics and a sticky shutter, it looked surprisingly sound. Like a giddy eight year old with his father’s pocket watch, I quickly took it down to parts, cleaned everything that looked cleanable and added a little bit of thin lubricant to the moving bits. After reassembly and a few dozen cycles of the shutter release to break it back in after who knows how many decades of neglect, everything was moving happily and snappily! Now all I needed was film.

Ah… film.

It’s a little startling to realize that the word, “film” is very quickly becoming a forgotten word that will eventually slide into anachronism. Buying film? Whoa! Do people still do that?

A few do, as it turns out.

Film for a camera built in nineteen-thirty-something though, is harder.

Back in the celluloid days, film came in a zillion different sizes and formats and the choices were aplenty. The Brownie’s particular type is called 620 and it was sold everywhere and even cheap, compared to the more modern 35mm which most of my contemporaries are familiar with. 620 is a large format film with each negative bigger than some prints that I own and a fresh roll providing a paltry eight exposures. It has also not been commercially produced since the 1980’s.

I never let stuff like thirty-five years of obsolescence deter me. That just makes it more satisfying when you get it all running.

Many professional photographers still shoot actual film in their cameras and for really posh portraits, they use a format called 120. Luckily it’s almost exactly the same size as 620.

ALMOST.

The film its self is the same, but the spool that the film is wound on is just ever so much bigger. Just bigger enough, in fact, to not allow it to work in a Brownie. Don’t think for a moment that this didn’t happen by design.

Ugh.

Solution number one is to strip off the film and hand wind it onto an old 620 spindle. It sounds simple except that it needs to all be done in perfect darkness, there’s a finicky little tab at the end of the film that you need to get in just the right placement and… you need some old 620 size spindles. Solution number two is to ever so carefully use a belt sander to grind down the oversized spindle without ripping the film still curled around it.

Given a choice, I will always go for the belt sander. Always.

Who wouldn’t?

So, a little time in the basement and a scun knuckle or two and, poof! Film for an eighty year old camera!

How would it work? Would it work at all? Does it leak light? I had no idea. Even if the pictures didn’t come out, snapping them would be part of the fun.

The Junk Whisperer. Part I

I must be nuts, because this is definitely on the list of, “Things I don’t need to do to my self” and yet, without more than a moment’s hesitation, I happily hit the confirm button and my new EBay purchase is on its way to my greedy little hands. After the initial giddiness wears off in the following seconds, I get a minor case of the regrets.

Dear Lord. Why did I just buy that? It was hardly out of my budget at a whopping one cent (plus twelve dollars shipping and handling), but I can’t help but think of the time it will take up in my life once it arrives.

This is a very bad habit that I need to get a better hand on. Somehow, I just can’t listen to the rational voices in my head when it comes to hobbies, especially when they are old, anachronistic and involve unappreciated pieces of history. The bit of my brain that knows better than to linger over stuff like this tends to get shouted down but the other voices in my head screaming, “That’s so cool! You can do this! It’s going to be so much fun!”

And therein lies the root of the problem. I can do it… And it WILL be fun!

All my life, I’ve approached much of my world with the attitude that I fix something if I can just get it apart and set my mind to it. Over the years, it’s given me the opportunity to joyously get way, way, WAY in over my head in all sorts of situations. Oddly, it’s really my ideal definition of a good time.

Most of the doodads we encounter in our lives is not beyond our ability to noodle with if we just try. You have to be ready to be really, really horrible at it first, but if you keep trying, you’ll see that you get a little less horrible each time you return to the task. Most of what we see as someone’s neigh-magical ability to make a cake, do electrical wiring, care for a newborn, build a greenhouse or identify types of trees just comes down to being okay with looking like an idiot until you work it out and get proficient, and most people don’t want to appear to be that fool, so they never try.

Having spent much of my life looking foolish, I don’t tend to shrink away from a little extra dose. I guess that I figure that if you’ve got egg on your face, you might as well just shrug and order another omelet.

The excuse is that someone, “can’t do that” when face to face with something that falls outside their area of expertise, is at heart, a huge copout. It’s not that they can’t, but rather don’t want to try and fail… Which makes sense too, I suppose.

It’s just not how I’m wired. I should know. I’ve rewired much of myself.

BZZZT!

The cool part is, the more that you poke at random tasks and skills, the less intimidating the world becomes. Without hesitation, you’ll start picking up tools to give something a try. You’ll open the cookbook to soufflés and give it a wing. You’ll crack open that electronic gizmo to see what exactly is making that crunching noise when you turn it on. It’s not magic, after all!

The downside to this state of mind is that you simply can’t look at something without wanting to dive in and try it your self. Couple that with a love of all things old and semi-forgotten, and antiques shops turn into your personal crack house. Access to EBay is like having your drug dealer on speed dial.

All that stuff.

All that broken stuff!

All that broken, cheap stuff that, with some care, might just work AGAIN!

Soon, you’ve visualized the sad, broken widget staring up at you with big, mooneyes and you, yes YOU, are its only hope. If you don’t fix it, then it will become trash and rust away to time. How the hell are you going to ever look at your self in the mirror again?

So you buy it, you clean it, research it to the best of your abilities and perhaps buy two or three more of that same item to scavenge for parts. After all, they haven’t made tin radial sprockets in that size or shape since… oh… 1932.

Being a sufferer of this type of thinking, I have leaped head first into far too many such projects and though I often succeed at breathing life back into some heavily patinaed (read: rusted) and misused whatchamacallit, what I don’t have is the time, space and money to pursue many more of these little diversions. I’ve tried to call it quits on this sort of endeavor, but complete success is an illusive thing. I have managed to stem the flow a bit though. That’s why my latest transgression was bugging me so much. Not only was it a failure on my part to stay the hell away from some new/old machine that would need my attention, but it involved a whole new array of potentially cool and fun items that I could oh-so-easily slide into picking up for bargains here and there. Naturally, a whole bunch of bargains tend to equal real money once it’s all added together.

Oh, and I’d need a new place to set it all up.

AND utilities.

Plus a secure cabinet for chemicals.

And some ventilation.

What I had bought was a camera.

Key to the Past

“What are you doing down there?”

This is something I’m completely used to hearing from my wife when I’m at my workbench in the basement. Half of the cellar is my undisputed domain and although my wife has no issue with that, she does get curious and/or concerned when whatever I’m doing isn’t under her watchful eye. It’s not a lack of trust issue as much as making sure that I’m not burning up time on a task that is utterly frivolous and fool hearty. I’d like to say that she has no reason for this concern… but I’d be speaking an untruth to say that my track record is without blemish. I’m rather drawn the overly-ornate-task-for-no-reason, in a moth to a campfire sort of way.

No. It’s worse than that.

A raccoon to a bag full of trail mix might be more like it. Both the raccoon and I know that it’s going to be awesome and it takes some serious countermeasures to keep us away.

“I’ll be right up. I’m… getting a key fob for the spare front door key.”

I wait with head cocked toward the staircase.

There’s a thoughtful pause from the cellar doorway. “I don’t want to know, do I?”

After more than twenty years of this sort of thing, my wife is getting better at reading situations like this.

I put my head down and move faster. The key fob was not lie in the least. It’s exactly what I’m up to. The part that was not proffered was that I was actually constructing one from scratch. It was going to be sort of special actually, at lest to me.

We are going away for a couple of days and our good friend Coley is coming over to feed and water the cat for us. To do this, he needs a key. More accurately, what he needs is a second key since the one we lent him last time we zipped off overnight was regrettably lost. The lost key was really sort of my fault since I had simply slipped the key off our ring and gave it to him all by its self. He had put it in his pocket and at some point, it had slipped out and was gone. For most folks, this isn’t a really big deal. You just go and have another one made for a buck somewhere. What made this a bigger problem than normal for me was that my front door key is the good, old fashioned, skeleton type.

At one time, all keys pretty much looked like mine. It’s long, toothy with a large ring at the back and cast in bronze.

I love it.

When Action Girl and I had bought our house, I was tickled to see that the front door still had the original lock and knob assembly from when it was built in 1900. There was a modern dead bolt carved in above it, but still, after a hundred years of upgrades and remodeling, it was perhaps the only bit of architectural originality still possessed by this pile of timber. It was the last piece that hinted to where it had come from and how far back. Everything else was new-ish. At least it had been new in the 1950’s, 1970’s and 1990’s. A lot of the house was faded and worn, but the beautiful front door still had its lock. What was missing was the key.

I’ve seen a lot of old doors in my time, interior and exterior and one thing is nearly always true: the key is long gone.

Big, jangly skeleton keys get played with by kids, lost out of pockets or worst of all, put somewhere “safe”. Shortly after moving in to our new home, I found myself in the as yet unfamiliar shed out back, rooting through the few items that the previous owners hadn’t bothered to take with them when they moved. I have no idea what prodded me to stick my fingers into the cobweb covered eaves in there on a hot, summer day, but when I came out with that key, the first thing that went through my mind was, “NO WAY!” Without hesitation, I bolted to the front door, completely expecting to be disappointed.

I wasn’t.

This was perhaps the first time in my life that I had ever found a skeleton key that matched some far off lock. Giddy with the discovery, I decided then and there that this would be my front door key form then on. I gleefully put it on my key ring and there it has stayed. The hard part was getting copies made. Pretty much no one can duplicate them any more. Even locksmiths. What I needed was a real, honest to goodness, old fashioned hardware store. The kind with dusty bins of patina covered metal bits and pieces, marked with faded labels written by hand. Luckily, there’s Dupuis’

Dupuis’ is everything a hardware store should be. It’s musty and badly lit. Items on shelves had been stocked easily as far back as the Carter administration. There were unboxed items for sale that probably had gone out of production a decade or more ago, but still had a place of honor at Dupuis’. My eighty-eight year old grandfather calls this place the, “Iron Monger’s Shoppe”.

I call them amazing.

The whole place is like a museum to hardware Americana. Oh… and they can cut skeleton keys. Usually, when I have keys made, I just drop them off and come get them later on, but not in this case. When I saw the belt driven, cast iron lathe that they used, I had to stick around and watch the process. About 20 minutes later, I had two copies and happily forked out the ten dollars per key. It was worth that much just to watch a master key maker at work using vintage tooling. Many years later, it had been one of these copied keys that our friend had lost and now, I was going to do something to help that from happening again.

Embracing my love for the nostalgic, I rooted around in a box down in my basement looking for something special. Long ago now, my other Grandfather, my Father’s Father, had passed away leaving behind a few objects of interest. His tools mostly now hang on nails at my parent’s house but one particular collection went to me. This grandfather of mine had been an avid appreciator of firearms and through owning more than a few, had also embraced the hobby of loading his own ammunition. My own Dad doesn’t have that much interest in guns having gotten his fill shooting at groundhogs and crows on the family farm as a youth and then later, drilling with an M16 in the National Guard. Firearms never really did much for him and so, over time, he drifted away from shooting. For whatever reason though, the fascination seems to have skipped a generation in our family and I happily use the guns that I inherited and even reload just like my Grandfather did, often times using his equipment. This was why I was in the basement. That’s where the reloading supplies are.

At the bottom of the plastic tote I was pawing through, I found the faded, stained and repurposed Schraft’s Chocolates box that had long ago been picked by my Grandfather for a new duty. When my own Dad had been just a young boy, it had been filled with fired, cleaned and de-primed Colt .45 brass. The pistol that had once fired all this brass was long gone before my time, probably traded away for another pistol or rifle that had caught his eye, but being the picture of an old Yankee, Grandpa had naturally not thrown out the brass. There might be a use for it, after all! I doubt that he had expected it to take something in the time frame of sixty years, though. As for the bullets…

In the spring, the ground thaws and burps up all manner of stones and lost items as it heaves. If you happen to be at the firing range and look at the sand berms behind the targets, you can also find loose bullets! Here, having spent a winter or two in the soft sand, they wiggle their way to the surface and glint in the morning light like lost bits of treasure. I can never resist grabbing a few and here, on my reloading bench, I sift through the scarred and dirty projectiles until I find a nice, copper jacketed .45 round. The soft sand had left no mark and the paper target that it had gone zipping through probably didn’t slow it in the smallest way. It looked new aside from the rifling marks on its flanks.

“Okay, Grandpa. You’ve got the brass so you must have the reloading dies too…”

I often talk to him when I’m sifting through his belongings. It’s been twenty-seven years since I could talk to him face to face, so chatting to his spirit will have to do. I like to hope that he can hear me somehow. It would make us both happy, I think.

Sure enough, I find the right bits and pieces and after about 10 more minutes of work, I have a perfect looking .45 round, minus the powder and primer and plus a hole that passes right through the base of the brass to allow the addition of the key ring. I give it a quick buff with some emery paper and… not bad, If I do say so my self!

“Hey, basement troll.” It’s my wife, Action Girl. “If you feel like joining us above ground, Coley’s here for the key.” With not a little bit of triumph in my step, I emerge to a warm handshake and a cold beer with our friend. Coley and we have gone shooting several times together in the past and he laughs when he sees the new key and accompanying fob.

“Well, I guess I can’t lose that one!” he chuckles as he pops it in his pocket.

Our vacation now over, our friend had returned my front door key with my Grandpa’s bullet key chain. Making it probably wasn’t the most constructive use of my time, but it was certainly an enjoyable allotment of some of my minutes. The added bonus is that every time I feel it in my pocket or see it sitting on the sideboard, it reminds me of him, the old style key sort of echoing the history for me. My children will never get to know my Father’s father, hear his voice or see his face form into that crocked smile like I have, but there will be a little bit more of him in my house now, and that’s good.

And the best bit for me is, when I want to do something with him, all I need to do is creep down to the basement and uncover my bench. He’ll be there, waiting in that old chocolates box full of spent brass and reloading dies, and I’ll chat to him a bit while I load up for a day at the range with our guns or just maybe just mess around making another doo-dad to help keep track of one of the keys to my front door.

The Old Ways

I have always had a fascination with cemeteries, the old ones, anyway.

Growing up in New Hampshire, the heart of the “old”, New World, gave me some wonderful opportunities to spend rather a lot of my younger years walking among the stones, reading the inscriptions and appreciating the handwork that went into them. My particular hometown was settled in 1735, and though there are other towns and cities a few hundred years older in these parts, I always thought that the mid 18th century was a respectable time for a New England town to start. It also gives the old burying grounds some wonderful character.

It gave them slate stones. And there is nothing like a slate stone.

Slate is simply amazing material. It is both fragile as glass and stronger than steel. It will shattering easily if hit by anything of any hardness, (a lawn mower, a car’s bumper, even the frozen ground if it falls in the winter before the snow covers the brown grass) but if left unmolested, it will hold the smallest detail of the craftsmen’s chisel for hundreds of years without wear or blemish. It will not take a high sheen, and yet, it will not loose any of its beauty for lifetime, after lifetime, after lifetime. I have always loved slate stones.

On weekends or long summer evenings, I fondly recall going for bike rides with my Dad, a man who also enjoys a good stroll through a graveyard. It was he who really got me interested in the stories you could find there and the two of us would often wind up in one after a bit of peddling around our end of town. I can think of one burial ground in particular and for two distinct reasons. The first is that it is located on a very old crossroads, not more than a stones throw down the street from an old, 18th century tavern, now a private home. The character of the whole place seems frozen in time and I have no doubt that if you could bring a town man from 1780 to that spot, he would know exactly where he stood.

If not for the fact that he would also be very, very dead.
But hey…!

The echo of ages past is strong there and adds real gravity to the tall, black slates standing like quiet bedsteads in the tall grass and leaves. The second reason that particular place stands out in my mind is because it’s where I ate a spider. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t forget and it’s not something I’d recommend making a habit out of.

As I walked through the old grounds, I had turned my head to say something to my father. At the moment my neck swiveled back forward, I walked between two stones, directly into the web cast between them and, POP! The spider went right in. It was an… interesting moment. The problem was that he was pretty far back there, past my tongue, actually. Spitting him out would have required more tonsil control than I had, so, there was only one thing to do. I didn’t even have any water to wash him down. I recall a lot of grimacing, squinting and dry swallowing.

Despite my little impromptu meal, I still enjoy visiting these places, though now, with a wary eye cast about for unexpected webs.

I tend to travel with water now, too.

Spiders or no, I keep going back. I can’t help it. I find these places to have a magnetism I simply can’t pull away from for long. Oddly, they make me happy.

Well, maybe not happy. Peaceful.

Alive.

Serine.

I think I know why. Here, in the burial ground, everyone is good. They are mothers and fathers. They are sons and daughters. They are old, young, middle aged, and missing but for a stone. Their past transgressions are lost to time. They are just families.

And sometimes, more and more now, it seems, the families are there, but missing stones, which brings me to Susan Jane.

In the ancient cemetery down the road from my house, lays in rest a mother and two of her children. A son, George, died as an infant. He daughter, Susan Jane, died when she was five years and eight months old. The year of Susan’s passing was 1835 and that’s more important that you might think. The mother, Lucinda, had passed away only a few years after her daughter, and her slate slab stands true and clear to this day. The V cut letters are bold and easy to read. If you get close enough, you can see the individual chisel hits in each letter. Only the telltale scrapes at the bottom from careless lawn moving mar the smooth surface. Lucinda’s slate stone stands out sharply in comparison to her children’s unreadable white lumps. By the 1820’s, slate was fast falling out of favor for gravestones and marble soon took over completely. You might wonder then, why her stone was slate, while her children’s were marble. Well, even if you didn’t, I’ll still tell you why:

A lot of people bought their own grave markers in their young adulthoods. They would simply store them in the attic, shed or basement until they were needed. It was seen as a way to get what you wanted on the stone as well as being a courtesy to your family. That, and you didn’t have to set aside part of what you left behind to pay for your marker. Think of it as grave insurance. I’m willing to bet, this is why Lucinda’s stone is slate. It would have still been in vogue when she entered childbearing age. Her young children had passed after the age of slate had pretty much come to a close. And this is a problem.

We are loosing about a hundred and seventy years of history in the blink of an eye, because it’s cut in marble.

Marble is a beautiful stone. It’s wonderful to carve, brilliant when polished and, sadly, melts like salt when exposed to air pollution and acid rain. When I first found Lucinda’s stone, I crouched down to read the inscription, checked her age and then, looked around. She was married and in her thirties so there were probably children here too. To her left, a small marble stone and to her right, a slightly larger one. They were nearly unreadable. The only parts I could decipher from the smallest stone was, “GEO.” at the top, and the word, “died” Everything else was scrubbed away. The larger stone had slightly more. The name was obliterated through pitting, but, “Daughter of Benjamin and Lucinda” as well as the month and day of her death. Most of her name, the year of her death and her age were missing.

It was a worthy hunt.

One of the wonderful things about a small community like the one in which I live is that someone is bound to know local lore, and mine was no different. It only took about three tries before I found the right person to talk to. In her possession was a book compiling all the inscriptions, names, placements and dates of everyone in that particular cemetery. It had been made long ago, before the ravages of pollution had done such a number on our past. She had everything I was looking for. I was ready for the next step.

Now, the family to whom Lucinda and her children belong has long since left this island. They are scattered to the winds and I have never heard of any of them returning for a visit. At least not in the past eighty years or so. I wouldn’t know where to begin to start looking. What I do know is that in just another five or six years, the last traces of text on George and Susan Jane’s stones will have disappeared forever. The pieces of marble that mark their final resting place are now broken at ground level and crumbing like bread. Soon, they will sink away into the soil. This will happen within my lifetime. Marble has betrayed yet another piece of history. But slate though…

So, with my love of the old ways, much of my time spent doing one form of art or another and my particular interest in this one family, their last mark to show they were here, I’ve decided to do something. I’ve decided to carve in slate.

Some people don’t even call slate a stone at all but simply metamorphic rock. I don’t really understand this but the semantics really aren’t important. What are important are these facts:

Slate carves like nothing else. It is so soft that you can scratch it with a hard fingernail, and yet, it will stand unmarked by three or four hundred years of weathering.

It has a very fine composition, unlike the fat crystals you’ll find in granite and so the detail you can get in slate outshines the finest granites.

Also, slate is the best at resisting that enemy of graveyard inscriptions everywhere, the lichen. Granite might be stronger and Marble more brilliant, but both succumb to lichen quickly and loose their identity beneath a thousand islands of the little blooms of growth. Slate, so long as it isn’t toppled or split, will out live all other options by centuries. Plus, I find it beautiful in its simplicity.

I have decided to start with Susan Jane’s stone first and have already done some test pieces. The profile of her original stone is still identifiable and so, I’ll mirror that in her new stone as well. As for decoration, if there ever was an image at the top (called the tympanum), above her name, then it is gone entirely now. This took some serious thought and in the end, I picked something that I hope would have made her parents pleased. Here in Maine, the black cap chickadee is not only our state bird, but a sweet little bird as well. It stays here all year long, through all seasons and its call is immediately recognizable and beautiful. Hearing and seeing one has always made me smile. It’s a tiny little thing, but then, so was Susan Jane.

What has surprised me the most about this endeavor is the reaction I’ve received from those whom I’ve talked with and the positive remarks have been very encouraging. So now, I have some more work to do this winter. Right now, the ground is frozen hard as the grave markers in the burial yard and a fresh coat of snow has been pulled over the children’s markers like a heavy down quilt. It will be some months before I can bring in the new, purple-black marker and set it home beside Susan Jane’s mother. I’ll bury the old stones just below the sod so they can be retrieved if desired, but I think it likely they will rest there with the occupants for a long, long time.

Who knows? This could be habit forming and with time and practice, I might just become proficient enough to make some real work out of this. In the mean time though, I’ll happily continue on in this fashion. I’ll look for the shattered or pitted slabs, now unreadable or just about to become so and see if I can help out in my own way.

Perhaps some day, a hundred years or more from now, some wandering soul taking a walk through the cemetery will stoop over to read the stone of a little girl who died when Andrew Jackson sat in the White House, read her short story and marvel at how crisp the letter cutting is. They might reflect on what she saw in her brief years and remember her name for just a little while longer.

What I do know is, without a new slate monument, she will never be seen at all. And that would be too bad for all parties involved.

So, I’ll make my self a sandwich for lunch and sit down with it, the blank stone and chisels and eat as I chip away on this sunny afternoon. We shall see how it turns out and if it’s worthy of marking such a long lost treasure.

Just hold the spider, please.

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