The Salt-of-the-Earth by David Mathias

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You donít meet many people named Harry anymore.  I donít know if it was ever a common name but itís certainly less so now than it used to be.  It was my maternal grandfatherís name.  I was named after him and though Harry is my first name, I donít go by it Ė even my parents have never used it.  But it fit my grandfather Ė itís a salt-of-the-earth name and he was a salt-of-the-earth man.

I wasnít interested in woodworking when he died in 1982 at the age of 64.  I was in college and had no idea that someday making furniture would become a passion.  My grandfather, born in 1917, grew up at a time when few young men continued their education beyond high school.  He was no exception and rather than pursue a prep course of study he attended a trade school.  He may not have studied the classics but he learned to do everything, including work with wood.

Having come of age during the depression my grandfather believed a job was nearly sacred.  I listened often to his stories of trying to find work after graduating in 1935, of working for 25 cents/hour and being glad to get it.  When he had an opportunity to get his first good job, as a boilermaker at an oil refinery, he sold himself as the best boilermaker they had ever seen. 

The only hitch was that he didnít know what a boilermaker was.  But he got the job and kept it until his health forced him to retire 34 years later.  That was an important lesson for me, a kid who grew up during a time of prosperity.  What I think about now are the other things he could have taught me.  The conversations we could have had about woodworking.  The old-school lessons lost.  If only Iíd been interested enough to ask.

Last year my parents moved from the house they had lived in since I was 15.  The last time I visited they were preparing for the move.  From a closet my mother had pulled a small chest her father had made about 40 years before.  He designed and made it to store papers on his boat, a cabin-cruiser he named Loco.  For nearly as long as I can remember itís been full of mementos.  My mother and I spent some time going through the contents. I enjoyed reading his high school graduation program.  Even my mother hadnít known that he had won his schoolís carpentry award.  But what captured my attention was the chest itself.

An unremarkable design, this small piece is handsome, well proportioned and very functional.  Constructed of mahogany it has a hinged lid and brass handles on each end with a brass clasp on front.  I discovered details that I never would have noticed before I began woodworking. What I saw was impressive. 

After 40 years of use, many spent stuffed to the gills, the well-executed joinery is still tight.  The surfaces are still flat.  The original finish is still perfect.  The look is still pleasing.  Without a shop-full of tools, without a shelf-full of books, magazines and DVDs and without Norm, he achieved exactly what we all strive for: He made a cherished heirloom.  I hope, eventually, to have that chest.  I have no particular use for it but Iíd like to have it around. 

And if I do my job as a father, someday my two boys, now aged seven and five, will fight with each other to decide which of them gets this small treasure made by a man who died two decades before they were born. 

I think Harry would have liked that.

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