Southern Life

I don’t know why I like working with my hands. It doesn’t seem to run in my family, a fact that leaves me puzzled. If I didn’t inherit a disposition for it and didn’t get it from hanging around my father’s or my grandfather’s woodshop, just exactly where did it come from?

I guess I’ll never know, making it one of life’s savory mysteries, the kind we can only shake our heads at, marveling at the unexpected pleasures we sometimes stumble across.

My own path to the woodshop has been a stumbling one. I took 7th grade shop class, a nine-week introduction during which I managed to produce one of the ugliest gun racks ever built. About all I remember doing is the final stage of gluing the green felt into the curved cutouts that were to hold the guns. I have seen elegant gun racks, but this was not one of them. My curves did manage to curve, and even did so without too much wavering, but they had no panache. And why I picked a gun rack to build is another of life’s mysteries: nobody in my family hunted much, especially me after the very first day I went out with my brand new Daisy BB air rifle, took aim at a hapless bird on a limb and shot it dead on the spot. That prompted a tearful burial service complete with a tiny wooden cross, followed by weeks of guilt and a lifelong aversion to guns and hunting.

If there is some clue to the mystery of why I enjoy building things, it may be that as a boy I was lucky enough to be around a few people who were good with their hands. Some I only watched, but others I actually worked alongside. Seeing their competence, even wizardry, with tools and machines tools must be what hooked me.

The first of these mentors was Jimmy Lee, who tended the equipment at the family business. Jimmy Lee was a tall, bony, largely silent black man with little education from his boyhood in 1940s segregated Alabama. Despite his lack of book-learning, he possessed a priceless store of common sense and practical skill that did a lot to keep my grandfather’s farm – converted into a quirky nine-hole golf course during the Depression – in operation. His long fingers could ease their way into the tightest places on our 1940 Ford tractor, and he seemed to have an intuitive feel for how any machine worked.

What I learned most from Jimmy Lee was patience. He never lost his temper. A bolt head might snap off, a screw thread in an engine block might strip, but he never showed a trace of frustration. Later when I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” I immediately thought of Jimmy Lee. It made perfect sense to me that a largely uneducated black man who grew up in the segregated South and probably knew little, if anything, of Buddhism would be a living embodiment of its principles.

Another mentor was old Mr. Bailey, although he was not by any stretch Zen-like. After spending 40 years building tires at break-neck speed at the BF Goodrich plant in town, Mr. Bailey approached his carpentry at the same pace. I worked for him and his son for a time after college, and may have learned as much about how not to do things as I learned about how to do them. But while Mr. Bailey lacked Jimmy Lee’s patience, there was still much to be admired. I remember him barking out instructions in his backyard shop one morning when he had an order from a lady for kitchen cabinets: “Cut me a sheet of plywood 36 inches by 23-and-a-quarter.” That was it. Mr. Bailey had no plans, no drawing, nothing but a picture in his head and years of experience to go on. By late afternoon that lady had the first of her cabinets, and it didn’t look half-bad, even though I was stunned we built it without ever drawing up a plan.

Another teacher was Ted, a hippie furniture builder who created elegant cabinets with lines that seemed Japanese to me, although I knew nothing about design. Like Jimmy Lee, Ted seemed to gather something deep, even spiritual, from his work. He and his wife were building a timber-framed home in the woods, and I was the helper, spending most of my days smoothing giant beams with a hand-plane and hauling rock for the foundation. But I got to watch while Ted did complicated lay-outs using a square, a rule and a very sharp knife, marking out the mortise-and-tenon joinery, which he then precisely cut with a variety of saws and chisels.

Once again, the main lesson was patience. With 400-pound beams, there was no way to fully test his work until we hoisted the pieces into place with ropes tied high in a nearby tree. The joints fit perfectly. Ted had even calculated – and accounted for – the shrinkage that would occur as the fresh-cut oak timbers dried out slowly over the coming months. I left that job shaking my head in amazement.

My brief apprenticeships to these talented craftsmen ended in my 20s, and I spent most of the next 30 years building sentences at newspapers. I enjoyed that a lot, but eventually the yen to build something useful with my hands hit again, and at some point I bought a small table saw and started poking around in the garage.

To my surprise, I found building furniture a bit like building sentences: it’s all got to stick together, one part fitting to the next. If it doesn’t, it’s readily apparent: messy, inelegant, missing a simple coherence and clarity, a functional beauty. Both activities require a lot of contemplation over how things are going to come together, but they also take a willingness to let go, to not over-think, to just trust your instincts.

The pieces I build now often turn out only a shade better than that long-ago gun rack I made in 7th grade shop class. But the satisfaction of building them is deep and sustaining. The slow, step-by-step process of thinking through a design, of figuring out how to join the parts and in what order, the discipline of remaining patient when mistakes are made or unforeseen problems crop up –  all are valuable lessons I often find helpful in other parts of my life.

I hear shop class has been eliminated in most of our schools now, a relic, I guess, in our frenetic culture and economy that demand speed, convenience and bargain-basement prices. I look around at today’s kids, many of them perpetually bent over some tiny electronic device, and wonder where we’re going. They make computer-driven woodworking machines now, so I guess the days of hand-built satisfaction may largely disappear. If it survives, it will be thanks to a few stubborn coots seeking something more than just the end product.

I find that a shame.

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Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.