When Life Hands You Wood
It was the late ’70s. America had firmly declared, “We give up” in the Vietnam war, Nixon had resigned, oil and energy were forming America’s crises du jour, and America’s young adults were experimenting with what turned out to be a quaintly innocent version of the “me” era. I was in the very representative statistical center of that generation, and personally gave sociologists no reason to consider altering their charts and graphs. I half-heartedly attended college, half-heartedly worked as a bicycle mechanic, lived in a half- furnished apartment, and generally avoided any activity that might one day lead to permanence. I was having a very fine time, half-intentionally following the grand cultural dictum of the day to “find yourself.”
One day, in the midst of my happy, lukewarm life, a leaflet showed up in the mailbox sent from the local high school. It was an offer to expand myself by taking one of their many evening “Adult School” courses, which were not courses really, but organized activities geared around a variety of topics that ranged from Charm And Self-Improvement to Welding. Another disconnected activity seemed just the thing. I signed up for Wood Shop.
The first evening in the shop was full of anxious anticipation. We met our instructor, Mr. Art, who delivered the obligatory safety lecture and then gave us all booklets full of minor shop projects from which we would choose what was to keep us busy three times a week for the next month. I was immediately drawn by deep and strong forces to the lathe. My project would be a five-foot-tall coat tree turned from glued-up scraps of Douglas fir that I had scavenged from a local building site. I was completely enthralled with the idea. Carving away at a rapidly spinning piece of wood on a hefty machine tool was simply irresistible. Mr. Art gave me a short lesson in how to get a piece of wood securely mounted on the lathe, some basic instruction in how to attack the whirling chunk with a spindle gouge and parting tool, and set me free.
Somehow I got from A to B without major mishap and produced perhaps the ugliest coat tree ever, one that nevertheless pleased me greatly because I had made it, and because it stood up fine in the corner with only a single matchbook under one leg to achieve verticality, and because it even held coats if they weren’t too heavy. But the main thing was that the lathe seemed to fit me like old sneakers. I felt at home there, operating the various lathe parts, saying their fabulously practical industrial names—centers, drives, belts, spindles—and of course holding cutting tools against spinning wood and watching amazedly as the chips flew and the piece transformed from roughly square to smoothly round. It seemed a match made in heaven—a natural connection between some part of me, hard-wired by God himself, and an industrial-era machine. At the lathe, I was at peace. It might easily have become a lifelong obsession but as things turned out, when the course ended, so did my association with the wood shop. I wouldn’t touch a lathe again for thirty-five years.
Shortly after the course I met a good woman and found myself succumbing to another primal urge—to establish family. Securely fixed in nesting mode I couldn’t help but notice that my friends who had eschewed finding themselves and had gone instead to college for the financial payoff were doing pretty well out there in the big world. Thus college and a “professional” career promptly became my plan and path, and I handily became another statistical center—a boomer in the ’80s, accumulating money and things. To tell the truth, it was pretty okay, what with the wife and kids and no worries about where our next meal would come from. But sure as sunrise after sunset, when the kids married and moved out and the time came to retire from my official career, the “inner me,” apparently long latent but clearly not defunct, called again.
I purchased an old Oliver 167 spindle lathe that had been used (and mildly abused) by Elmira High School shop students back in the ’60s. It was a scratch-and-dent special with the motor and all the controls except its original Reeve’s drive long removed. It was just right. I happily set about installing a new motor and controls, banged out a few dents, and in no time was back in form. I was a woodturner again, feeling like I had never left. The old, satisfying, long severed connection had been repaired—mind, heart, and hands neatly reunited. I returned to the wood shop like a native to the jungle, home again, busy and happy, and also strangely aware that I was, once again, solidly in the center of yet another bell curve. I was a retired boomer with a hobby virtually opposite in character to that of my career, nursing a nagging wonder about what life might have been like had I, decades earlier, heeded a whispering, primordial call.