Things have been pretty hectic around here the last couple of months. We had to get orders out for Christmas and my daughter got married on New Year’s Eve. Ya gotta love those deadlines. We had a lot of family in, and all the old stories where retold. My brother and sister had read this blog and made some funny comments about our childhood. We also got into the more serious times too.
My brother and I talked about the old pinewood derby car days, and how we worked so hard to make them perfect so dad would approve. We never quite got there, but he always gave us great accolades for our effort. I began to think about the times with dad, even though those years were short, I realized that when I was sixteen, I made the most perfect piece of woodworking I would ever do.
Dad taught me how to fish. It wasn’t just the typical spin casting, though that’s where I started, we eventually got to fly fishing. I had been attempting fly fishing with his rod and reel for a couple years when I was 12 he gave me my own gear for Christmas. There are many stories of fishing with dad, making my own lures, funny adventures, camping stories, but this story is one that took place four years after I received my very own fly fishing gear.
Dad was sick, real sick. It was about Thanksgiving in 1973, and I was trying to come up with the perfect gift. It had been a tough year. Dad had been sick for a while but there had also been, earlier in the year, a time when he had looked and felt better than I had seen in a long time.
We had taken a vacation to the Ozarks and had tried our hand at trout fishing. When he had energy to fish, as usual, he would catch fish. To this day it amazed me how you could be in the same boat, same bait, and the same depth and technique, he would be catching fish and you would have a “drowned worm”. I remember Dad getting pretty aggravated before we left because our gear wasn’t all ship shape and where it belonged. That inspired me on what I was going to make for Christmas: I was going to organize our gear and make a rod holder.
I sketched up my idea and took it to my neighbor, Bob. Bob was like a grandfather to me. He had a great wood shop, he was old school and he enjoyed showing and teaching his skills. He had a sixth grade education; he was one of the best design engineers I have ever worked with, at any level. His practical experience seems to have no bounds. He made a few small suggestions, a little change here, add this there and I was off and running.
The rod holder I designed was actually very simple. I made it so it would hold our rods ready to go at a moment’s notice. Ya gotta go when the fish are bite’n, no time to waste. I select the finest walnut that Bob and I had, and went to work. Making the same thing now would take me a few hours, I spent days on this rod holder.
The rod holders were laid out perfect. The end grain was sanded so smooth a fly couldn’t hang on. I had gotten special brass screws and finish washers to use to hold it to the wall. I applied 4 coats of varnish--all hand rubbed. It was almost Christmas day and this thing was perfect. Dad was sure gonna be surprised.
My sister was home on winter break from Centre College, and she was a big help. She would cook and clean and keep the house tidy to ease the burden off of mom. Mom was able to pretty much just be with dad. Phil and I were still going to school but we were doing what we could to help. My brother and I would take turns watching dad at night so mom would get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Phil and I would alternate nights watching dad, and often skipped the first few hours of class to get a little sleep. It was like that for a few months.
Dad loved a wood fire. My brother and I started making fires in the living room fireplace to make him comfortable, and pass the time. Dad would get restless being in the same spot so long and occasionally move down stairs where we would get another fire going
Unless you have tried to burn wood in an open fireplace for more than just a cozy, romantic fire, you cannot appreciate the amount of wood they can consume. Phil and I would come home from school and split wood. Men from Phillip Morris would bring pickup truck loads for us to burn. We would split wood for what seemed like hours. “Ya think that’s enough?” With a pile of fresh split wood it seemed a sure thing that we wouldn’t be back at the wood pile till after school. Yet, it seemed like more often than not one of us would be out in the freezing cold, splitting wood at 3 am.
Dad was a big man, 6’4” and when healthy about 240 lbs. I was about 5’10” and 130 lbs soaking wet. By this time dad had lost so much weight that my brother and I were picking dad up and carrying him were he wanted to go. Radiation treatment back then was more voodoo than science, things were tough but all of us were optimistic, and besides it was Christmas.
Christmas day came. Phil and I had a roaring fire in the living room. Mom and Colleen had Christmas dinner already started. Dad had always made breakfast on Christmas, as I recall it was a team effort that year.
It was time for presents after breakfast, and I waited till last. I gave dad the rod holder just wrapped in paper, I guess I just knew a box was too much for him to handle. Dad pretty much just stayed on the sofa in the living room. He had his feet up with his slippers and robe on. I remember vividly him slowly removing the paper, taking his time to inspect my gift. He ran his fingers over the end grain, with the piece lying in his lap. He sized up the construction and design. It was probably too heavy for him to lift; he just held it there in his lap. I still remember him running his finger over that slick flawless finish.” Son this is perfect. When I feel a little better I know right where we’ll put this.” In that instant, I knew dad and I would never go fishing again.
On January 29th 1973 I watch my father die in my mother’s arms. The bravery with which they faced that day has never left me. My mother was a nurse, I am sure from the very beginning she knew what was the probable outcome. She never complained or assigned blame, she was always grateful to God for what we had. A few days later my brother Phil, with very little practice or preparation, set a high school world record. He ran in the Mason Dixon Games, something my dad had started taking us to when we were little kids. He had a reporter for the Courier Journal run up to him in all the excitement of the moment. He was asked what it was like to set a world record, how do you feel? The only comment he made was “ I wish my dad was here to see it”, he turned and walked away.
In my life to this day, it is the single greatest athletic feat I have witnessed. I was the only one who knew what he had been dealing with for months. My sister pulled out of school for a semester and really kept the family going during those days, mom was mentally and physically exhausted.
It wasn’t too much later I took the rod holder out into the garage. I began to screw it to the wall. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my sixteen years. I was by myself, it was on the wall, I cried.
It will be 38 years since that day, come January. I have received many honors for my work. We have represented our state, and our country. Designed and produced gifts that have been given to royalty. It’s always something special, and humbling, when everyday people select something that we have made with our own hands; and then giving it with a deep love to someone special. Or a family building their dream home and selecting us to make cabinets or other dream designs and ideas they have always wanted.
People work so hard for their money. Hours at jobs that they may not always enjoy, or that take them away from their family and loved ones—and then, with those same hard earned dollars, they select a piece of our work to place in their home or give as a gift. There is no greater compliment. Yet when my dad gave his approval on that rod holder that Christmas 38 years ago, it became the most perfect thing that I will ever make.