If you're one of the few who's followed this blog throughout the two thousand pages of its' creation, you will notice that I write rarely of my Dad and of my younger life. It's not to say I didn't have a great childhood; I was blessed. It's just a difficult childhood to put into words with any semblance of coherence, therefore I've always left it outside the attentions of my writings.
I am the first born son of a southern family steeped in heritage and tradition, filled with fervor for maintaining said traditions, and undisputedly old-fashioned in some of its beliefs. Be that as it may, I grew up to be the 4th of my entire family tree to attend college and later developed into a technocrat/jack-of-all-trades cyber-geek. This last week has brought a lot of my childhood back to me, sometimes in waves of nostalgia and other times within inches of tears in memory of the things I don't get to experience any more.
My dad moved away when I was in my teens, to the mountains of North Carolina and later to the mountains of Georgia, where he resides today atop his mountain; and I use that term in the possessive sense quite by intent. Gone are the days when I woke at 5 AM to the sound of my father warning me to get out of bed and help cook breakfast before heading out to join him on the job site. Sometimes we were building houses. Other times we were remodeling and restoring antique furniture. Of more rare occurrence were the times when a new child was born into the Jordan clan, when upon being considered old enough to help I was honored to work with Papa in the shop downstairs to hand-craft and painstakingly detail a new hardwood study desk. To this day I remember helping papa build the desk for Katie, (I'm 95% sure it was hers) my cousin, the first family piece I ever got to help with that I can remember.
I danced excitedly around him all morning, begging to jump in and help him while he painstakingly hand-sanded the cornices and drawers, ever careful not to leave the slightest rough spot that would scratch someone or mar the perfectly smooth finish he had worked hours to create. Only after careful inspection and relentless cleaning would a piece of furniture be deemed ready for staining and sealing. He was wearing white overalls that day with smears of wood caulk and carpenter's putty, and a hat, not a ball-cap like people wear today, but an old fashioned hat with the button-back, stained and spotted from myriad paints, solvents and stains. I know now that he let me help as a way to spend time together, for more likely than not he had to go back behind all my over-exuberant sanding and resmooth the spots I'd over-sanded.
When the desk was finally ready for staining Papa went over to the bench and took down an old cool-whip container he'd had Nanny save for just such an occasion. With the patience of old world kings, he would get a stir-stick and stir the stain for what seemed like forever, to be sure it was properly mixed throughout. Dad would simply have put a stirring bit on the end of the old blue Makita and had it done in 10 seconds, but for some reason I think papa took enjoyment in doing some tasks the old way, even though he knew quite well how to speed up the process. He talked to me the whole time, sometimes singing songs and sometimes whistling a nameless tune that I would later try to emulate (and in doing so drive the dog away). When the stain was ready to go into the container, he deftly poured half the cool-whip container full, careful not to spill the dark liquid on the desktop. One drop of stain that dried before the rest was applied and you would forever be reminded of the mistake by a dark blotch that would never go away. He told me these things in a gentle manner, passing on the knowledge he had to me in the only way he knew how. My papa was not a man of harsh words to most folks.
He handed me a torn white rag of washed denim, not cotton, because cotton would leave streaks and wouldn't spread the stain properly. I've never ever remembered that until right this moment. I clearly recall the rag being made of a white blue-jean-like denim, something he'd probably saved from an old pair of coveralls or some such clothing. I looked up and him and listened intently to every word he said, promising to be a good helper, not to mess anything up, and promising to do a good job on the desk if he'd let me help.
No sooner than the rag was in my hands, but certainly not a split second later, I spun to the desk to start staining with Papa. I'll never ever forget the rag plunging halfway into that cool-whip container, while my hand continued on in too much of a rush, knocking the entire container over and splashing dark oak stain all over the left side of the desk. The afternoon sun shining into the west shop windows was shrouded in a spreading pool as the dark stain ate up the light in its travel across the freshly sanded cream desk top, splashing back to run eastward as it ran into the side of the desk. My heart broke that moment and my eyes filled with tears, not at the mistake itself, but at the thought of letting Papa down on something he had so carefully built for his grandchild. I knew that moment he would never again let me help with anything, that I was banished to the yard from now on, maybe even going to get spanked for messing up his work...
I can still remember him saying "whoo... Lordy Lordy son. I guess we had better get this done quick." He patted me on the head, put the stain soaked rag back in my hand and told me to get the left side while he got the right side. If you know anything about staining furniture you know that the darkness of the color is directly proportional to how long the liquid stain touches the wood's surface. If you want a darker stain, you let it sit a few seconds before wiping it off. Never do you let it remain for more than 3 or 4 seconds. Papa actually laughed as we literally slopped stain across this desk, trying to get it into the corners, tops, sides, legs, drawers, cubby holes, and everywhere else we possibly could to get it off the top of the desk. I think we stained the entire desk in less then 30 seconds... When we were done trying to smooth out the dark spots and get the excess stain off he took me upstairs while the desk dried and we had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. When Dad asked about the desk and how it came out, Papa just smiled and said it was done... then he winked at me.
Katie, if you are to read this and ever wonder, now some twenty two or so years later, that is why the stain on your desk from Papa is darker than the stain on mine and Raymond's desks. I hope you'll forgive the mistake made in haste but I also hope you'll be comforted in the fact that making your desk is one of the best memories I ever have of the time I spent with Papa.
With Papa, I was the youngest heir to the family traditions, which consisted of learning the trade for the sake of heritage. With Dad, I was the oldest son of a proud craftsman, responsible to work hard, learn the trade, and continue the traditions of my family. My father was never a gentle man, which is not to say he was "rough" either, but more brusque; akin to having a bear for a pet. He's a gentle companion, but you never forget that he's a bear, and when he finally DOES growl it's too late. My father taught me the value of hard work, of how to be a man in a man's world, and of how to succeed through dedication to doing good work. I won't say he's always been the absolute best person and sometimes he's made mistakes, but he's always been one to teach me things whether he ever knew it or not.
I say all these things to get around to a point, from which I have massively digressed. The point is that now that I'm grown and I have a career of my own, I often wish my life were different. I don't want to chang who I am, for who I am is a person I'm happy to be, but I do wish I had a life that allowed me more time with my dad, to learn, to build things together in the woodshop, to hone the secrets of craftsmanship and workmanship that only a true craftsman can ever master. For all the things my father may not sometimes be, I can say with all honest that there is no better craftsman of wood anywhere in the world than my Dad.
My father never graduated high school. My father never went to college. My father probably can't spell algebra to be honest and doesn't know what it is, which is NOT to insinuate that he's at all illiterate, only that he never bothered with higher math. My father IS a craftsman, a tradesman, a wood worker with no equal. I remember growing with Dad and Clink (a guy named Howard Clinksgale) and going on job sites to talk to an owner about a house he wanted to build. Looking at bare sand and concrete mix, with no plans before him my Dad and Clink could sit for ten minutes with a pencil he kept tucked inside his hat for just that occasion and a receipt for a pack of cigarettes and completely spec out a house from ground to rooftop. Again, I grew up the son of a tradesman, not just a contractor. When Jordan's Woodshop took on a new project my Dad, Papa, and a few other hired hands would build the house, pour the foundation, mix the concrete themselves, lay the carpet, run the plumbing, build the roof, and nail each shingle into place personally before finally walking away from a finished house.
I remember another story I'll share, one less genteel, yet equally as memorable. The one thing my dad never ever did was fight in front of us kids. A huge man by any standard, he doubtless used it to his advantage on multiple occasions, but only ever twice in my presence as a child. We were working in Oyster Pointe, a new condominium development at the time, in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Dad had gotten the contract to do some of the decks and trim work on some of the condos that were being built. Naturally, other contractors were doing similar work on other condos in the development area. One such contractor was named Scott. Scott was a young blonde, well muscled roofer working on installing a roof on the building adjacent to the one Dad and Clink were working on. As Clink called down measurements from the deck, Dad would cut the stairs out, cut the deck planks, etc. Eventually he and Clink would start laying down the deck.
I remember hearing Scott talk to his crew, calling out and laughing at the "old man" working next door with a hammer and nail. Scott's crew were laying plywood and shingles with a roofing gun, a pneumatic air gun made to increase the speed for these kinds of jobs. They lobbed curses, made jokes, and just generally tried to get a reaction out of Dad. No one who didn't watch him constantly would pay attention to the way my father nailed down floor boards. With arms as think as iron and as strong as steel bands, he would gently lay the board into place on the deck, tap it once on each end with the butt of his 22" hammer handle, and then you would hear three sounds; "Pop, Pop, BOOM"
The first pop was the sound of the hammer placing the nail in the wood, seating the tip. The second pop was the sound of the nail being tapped slightly harder between his two fingers, to make sure it would stay in place when he removed his hand. The third sound, the BOOM, was the sound of a small-headed trim hammer attached to a hatchet handle, driving a two and a half inch galvanized deck nail all the way through a 1.5" salt treated deck plank and firmly into the 2x8" joist. If you've never laid deck, you have no idea how hard you have to pummel a piece of steel to get it to do that in one shot. When I asked him once why he didnt use the nail guns we had... after all Clink used the nail guns... he showed me why. A nail gun shooting a greased nail with 400 pounds of air pressure behind it half the time bent the nail rather than driving it all the way into the wood, or else it would leave the nail head exposed causing you to later trip over it, tear your bare feet, or otherwise make a nuisance of itself.
As the days wore on, Scott and his crew persisted, making fun of my dad, calling him names, and generally being post-adolescent idiots. I don't remember exactly when it started but someone on Scott's crew started talking about arm wrestling and how Scott would beat the old man if the old man wasn't too scared to try. To my Dad's credit it took quite a few days of this to finally get to him and make him hit his breaking point.
One day, let's call it the third day, Dad finally responded and told Scott that he was tired of hearing his mouth and that if he really wanted to arm wrestle that bad to prove his point, Dad would agree. Scott is 24 years old, well muscled, tan, and shirtless with long blonde hair. Dad was in his late forties, gray, in a Jolly Roger t-shirt and blue jeans, and red from years of working in the sun. Dad walked over to the plywood stack that Scott's crew has stacked up to use on the roof and laid his hammer on the wood surface. Scott walked up, swaggering and laughing with his crew at how badly he was going to beat this old man, not that I ever knew what that would prove. So what if a young roofer is stronger than an old carpenter?
I watched my dad fascinated, never before having actually seen him do something like this. He always told me that if I started a fight, he's whip me until I couldn't sit down. I remember I had watched over the top, the movie. I had seen arm wrestling as a kid in the movies. I remember pointedly turning my hat around backwards, as in the movie, and thinking this was surely going to be interesting to watch. I'll admit it now, I was a little scared that my Dad was going to get beat. I mean this young guy was BIG. Howard just stood behind Dad with his arms crossed and a smile on his face and the young roofer strutted up to the table and laid his arm on the plywood top, ready to take on the old dude.
Dad said nothing, did nothing. He just walked up, put his elbow down on the table and took Scott's hand, and looked him in the eye. Scott called it down, "ready, set,", etc. When the moment finally came, Scott leaped into his right arm, muscles rippling as if he had live horses under his skin straining to pull for him. Dad's arm went about ..oh... two inches to the right. He never blinked, no cool bunching of herculean muscles, no name calling or anything else... he just sat there, holding this huge guy back as if he hadn't even started yet.
The young roofer strained, turned red the white in alternating patterns of physical and mental stress as this old man held him off, never trying to take the win, just calmly holding him there.
Finally, I don't remember the words Dad said, but their effect was to say "so, have you learned not to let your eagle mouth overrun your mockingbird ass?" (I used to hate it when he said that phrase to me.) Somewhere in the middle of Scott's assuredly witty retort, things went horribly wrong. I don't remember if he really just pissed dad off with his attitude or of he actually said something to provoke it. All I remember was that before I could blink, Dad simply pushed...
It was over in less than a heartbeat. That was the first time in my life I ever heard the sound of bones breaking. Dad looked him straight in the face and somewhere between that nanosecond and the next, the bones of Scott's forearm were jutting crookedly out of the meat of his arm, gleaming white in the harsh light of the hot July sun. Dad let go of his arm and walked away, picking up his hammer and going back to work. Later in life, yet when I was still younger, Dad told me rule two of fighting.
1) Rule 1: If I ever started a fight, he would whip me until I couldn't sit down for a week.
2) Rule 2: If I ever lost a fight, the punishment would be the same or worse.
I'm 30 years old, to turn 31 this year. I have lost one fight in my life, when I was 8 years old, after which I quickly determined that no beating in a fight could hurt half as bad as the one I'd get when I got home if I lost. Since then, woe be the luck of the man who made me get into a fight.
That's not a story to brag about my awesome Dad, though he always did seem larger than life to me when I was younger. Its an example of the kind of things I had to learn. Papa was the gentle one, the kind one who sheltered me from life's displeasures. Most would say that was the best kind of love. Dad was the warrior philosopher, the one who taught me to always be fair, but never ever to lose. Never start trouble, but always be the one to end it. He taught me the hard lessons of life.
Today, after many years of infrequently communicating with my Dad since his move to the mountains, he has finally decided to get into the 21st century. We jokingly call him the Mountain Man down here, and he's finally decided to get the family on the Internet so he can communicate with his grand kids. Now, he even wants a web site! It's amazing to me to think how far this family has come. I grew up in a world where my heritage was displayed proudly on the hand-carved "Jordan's Woodshop"sign on the white side of the wood shop. Now, I'm bringing my family's heritage to the new cyber-century with www.jordanswoodshop.com. Its not live yet. It only exists now as a temp site located at: http://jordanswoodshop.building.officelive.com, but I'll be working on it in my free time over the coming weeks and months.
I really look forward to the idea of being able to be part of my family's trade-craft again, even if it is in the digital world. I would love SO much if he lived closer so I could spend evenings and weekends in the woodshop with him, but he's made his mind to live on the mountain and I doubt that will ever change, no matter how much I wish it would, so I will content myself with the enjoyment of teaching my dad how to use Yahoo messenger, email, and how to sell his custom furniture on the web.
Well, that's enough rambling for me for one night. I think I'm going to get off the PC for awhile.
Anyway, I just wanted to say that I love you, Dad. I'm glad you're on the net and I'm glad we can be "Jordan's Woodshop" together again! I've missed you. We've had some hard times in our family, some really hard times, but regardless of the good or bad, you've always managed to teach me things, whether you knew it or not. I wish sooo much that you could be closer, that I could learn from you the way I used to, that I could absorb the talents you have so I can pass them on to my own children one day, that I could build bird-houses in the shop on the weekends, and drink coffee with you in the mornings the way we used to growing up. I miss that...
Till next time.