Light of February’s waning Snow Moon streams through icicles hanging off the gutter, barring my bedroom window -- under house arrest. The moon is enough that I don’t turn on any lights. Not yet. Walking around the house, window to window, I peer out. Looking for breathing shadows. Nothing. Banjo cracks one eye from the couch, sighing, knowing that me being up this early means I’m leaving. Out you go, boy, I whisper. Opening the back door, icicles break like wine glasses. A man once told me he buys all of his wine glasses at the Dollar Store - their sundae cups, he said, they never break -- swearing even his heavy-handed sister couldn’t do them in. Perhaps it was really just a hint that I should buy some Dollar Store wine glasses -- a warning, or else he might break mine too. If, that is, I was ever to ask him over for dinner.
As I close the door, I hear a few more glasses break. Aftershocks. So much for trying to be quiet.
Coffee percolates light inside and out by not so much its caffeine, but rather its warmth. Pouring my first cup, I’m reminded, I need to find socks, by the kitchen’s cold wood floor. Dark eyed juncos are out early this morning, getting their fair share of breakfast before the jays wake. Landing on snowbanks, they make angels like children, imprinting their faith in flight.
Driving north, Longs Peak hangs up clouds from last night’s snow. You can tell they want to leave, but can’t -- for her words, kind or un, make them linger. Using them as pawns, she blocks our view in, and hers out. Tired of being looked at all day -- of being climbed and photographed and placed on cheap postcards. Fame can take its toll, even on a mountain. This morning, she pulls the curtain and only shows her buttresses of mottled tundra grey. The scene is static, with movement implied -- as if in a painting by Monet or Degas or Niemeyer. Swirls of white, grey into curls as the gusts age. They’ve a short lifespan, wind-gusts, but also one curiously long. For who knows where they go, after they blow. On. Somewhere. Taking and holding the answers, The Poet sings, to all of the questions we ask generation after generation...they’re there, but they’re blowing in the wind. So good luck. And despite my distance of warm car comfortable silence, I know that on that mountain right now, it’s a blizzard of a shouting match.
But so it goes that things often aren’t how they appear from a distance. And it’s not until you step close enough to the museum wall, making the guard sufficiently nervous, that you can see the details...and the meanings hidden therein. For a short while, at least, until the guard sternly bellows “ma’am, please step away from the painting.” But for a bit of time -- for one of those wrinkles -- you can see the swirls.
Today is going to be a day of decision making. I was warned, prepared for it to be so. Wood and thread and guides. I loved the splitting and sanding, and the planing. But now comes the “interior decorating” aspect of rod making, Frank describes, “Most people’s favorite part...”
“All these little decisions?”
“Huh. I think my favorite part is the planing.”
“Yeah, mine too....”
The excitement of moving in has come and gone. The satisfaction of nesting is complete. The U-Haul truck has been driven back cleaned out and emptied of its life, delivered. And now, busted tile work before the fireplace needs replaced, bathroom cabinets need handles, and paint chips off the spare bedroom’s walls need to be taken to the hardware store to see if they can mix a match.
Yes, of course you bought a fixer-uper.
Frank brings out a cardboard box full of reel seat wood -- some factory ready, some needing turned. “This one here, Mike Clark gave me.....and here’s some walnut...that might be good. Pistachio. Madrone. Oh, and here’s crabapple. Spaulted crabapple. I’ve really been liking that lately. Looks like those old world maps....you know?”
“Yeah, I love those kind...”
“Ah and here’s some olive tree...from Israel! I even have the papers to prove it.” Frank laughs with the strange satisfaction of being able to prove something you probably never will have to.....yet still, it’s nice to have the backing should you need it.
I stare at the pieces of wood, and remember my grandmother’s yard in front of the big white house on Charles St., homing a small crabapple tree. Every year it blossomed white just in time for Easter, and before it, generations through photos passed. There, I am documented from infant in dress and bonnet, to teenager in flannel and boots (there came a time when I refused to wear dresses...even, to grandma’s Easter dinner. My mother calls me difficult). A few years ago, it had to be cut down, the crabapple. Due to disease, I think. But that tree in my grandmother’s front yard on Charles St., grew alongside a family...and as it died, its other branches fell away too.
I take the smaller piece of crabapple to start. Frank assures that I can turn more than one -- because sometimes, he says, when they’re turned, the wood ends up looking drastically different -- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. You just never know how it will go...especially in worse. And so you turn and keep on...chipping down to its core, to see what’s inside.
In a way, this all reminds me of my childhood fascination with rocks. I was sure that inside, they all held something interesting, something special. Hollowed cores of color like the gems at Natural History Museums. They weren’t pretty on the outside either, and so it seemed to me a pretty logical possibility that there might be such beauty in my own backyard, too; thus, I took it upon myself (enlisting the help of my sister, of course), to sort through and hammer open all the rocks I could from our backyard -- and a few others pilfered from the neighbors as well. They were childless and enjoyed these shenanigans. Or at least, that’s how I justified it. We only got scolded once for leaving the hammers in the driveway -- not for splitting open the rocks as you might think. And so, we kept on searching for the special ones. There were a few, and I kept the unique ones on shelves in my room, covering up mason jars of water beetles I didn’t want my mother to find. Although eventually, she did -- and made me promptly march them all back to the Hanscom Park pond.
Frank shows me how to work the lathe, and how and when to adjust the blade. “And go slowly” he warns, “too fast leaves lines.” So I sing a song in my head. A slow ballad hymn to keep time -- to keep me even.
The lathe is hypnotic -- its blade creeping with a line like stain...eating down the wood to something different than we saw, but what was still there all along -- whether we saw it or not. Everything blurs, and I concentrate on moving slowly and evenly.
I keep singing to myself.
Stopping the lathe to check on progress and measure diameters, Frank points to the dark lines “That’s the spalting....the disease. Ironic, huh...that’s what makes it interesting.”
“And what makes it beautiful...” my voice trails off, the lathe starting again.
I turn another piece, this time walnut. And when I’ve finished, holding them both up next to my rod, there’s just something about the diseased one...it fits. “Hey! Look, it’s a mountain range!” I notice excitedly, holding the crabapple up for Frank to see.
“Yeah! Yeah, you’re right...it is....and those smaller spault lines coming down...those could be streams, you know?”
They could be. “This is the one!”
Perhaps sensing the emanating relief of a decision made, Dick steps back into the shop.
“The mountains!” I say, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, “they’re in my reel seat!”
Dick puts on his glasses “well..sure enough...they are!” The glasses ride up his nose as he grins, “that’s cool.”
Next, I sand down the cork grip, watching Frank do one for another rod first -- paying attention to how he moves his hands, where he places the sandpaper, and for how long. Soon, I begin on mine. The cork molds down, looking malleable, like clay on a wheel. After awhile, the sandpaper gets hot from friction, and I stop to check the shape and diameter. “Go ahead and put your hand on it....see how it fits.” Frank urges.
Almost perfect. Just a little more off the middle. And...there...
Now Frank pulls out cigar boxes of thread. “These change color quite a bit under a coat of varnish...” he notes, placing a goldenrod yellow spool on the table, then a brown “that’ll turn ox-blood,” a tan, and another golden. Under where the cork grip will later be glued, Frank wraps samples of each thread, and then applies some varnish. Like looking at paint sample strips, I bend down and squint. Eye level. Then lengthwise. Standing up again, Frank suggests “let’s go outside...natural light helps a bit.”
I grab the reel seat.
Gutters drip melting snow. Spring will come.
Holding the rod and reel seat together, two colors immediately get crossed off. Judiciously letting my eyes make the final vote, I let them wander on the rod. Side to side. Up and down. And back. Where do they want to go? To the darker brown...yeah, that’s it. Frank nods in agreement. Then after another round of wrapping and varnishing I decide on black trim wraps, picking up the spaulting.
That done, we glue on the cork and tip tops, and fit the ferrules together. “Ferrules are worth taking your time on,” Frank says. So I file slowly, with a cautiously scared hand. Finally with some effort, they push together and pull back out with a delightful and ready pop.
And finally, we blue them. “The females are always the most difficult...” Frank comments off hand.
“They always are...right?” I laugh.
“Well, I didn’t want to say that...”
“I know...but I did.”
Darkness presses against the glass window, sneaking through cracks from an old bullet hole, reminding us of Time. Frank slides the three parts of my rod into a sleeve and then a tube. “Take this home with you tonight...but make sure to bring it back with you to Estes in the morning so you can start wrapping.”
“I’ll be sure...”
There is silence. And shadows. I glance up at the culms of cane stored above, overhead the workbench, which gives the shop a feel as if you’re in a south pacific hut with Iowa barn doors - those doors, a two part invention of gate and friendly window -- the kind Mr. Ed’s head used to talk from on Sunday nights...but only those Sunday nights I spent at my grandparent’s house with cable. I remember Frank telling me how someone once told him that he should cover those doors up. “But they’re the best part of this place!” he replied. And so he didn’t. And I’m glad.
As I glance up, I think about those culms, and how they’ve been split and sanded, and planed and glued, and sanded again; and how now, they’re fitted with ferrules, tip tops, and a cork grip. And standing here with view of beginning and nearly end, it really shouldn't be possible. But then again, many things in life are that way, unbelievable when you look back and see how far you’ve come.
“This is my rod...in this tube....” I say, looking back down...
“Yeah it is...and it feels alright, doesn’t it....” Frank smiles.
Listen to the story: