Today would have been Grandpa Walt’s 130th birthday. Alas, he didn’t see his 70th birthday, dying in a telephone booth, calling his oldest daughter, Helen, to tell her he wasn’t feeling well. Walter was the 6th of 10 children. He lost everything in the Great Depression, and moved from Iowa to Central California. Three kids, one of them WC’s dad, his wife, 12 suitcases and three carpenter’s toolboxes stuffed into an old Ford pickup, over a hot August summer, fighting through dust clouds, bad roads and too little money.
But they made it, to Stockton, where Grandpa Walt found work with an uncle as a finish carpenter, building mostly furniture and kitchen cabinets. Except for five years as government inspector for army supplies during World War II, he worked as a carpenter until, quite literally, the hour of his death.
And the little WC remembers of his paternal grandfather is watching him work as a carpenter. Grandpa Walt didn’t like or use power tools. He preferred hand tools, and his wood shop was filled with gleaming, immaculately clean and razor-sharp woodworking tools. Watching him build cabinets, it seemed to WC that the wood flowed and shaped itself under his gnarled, arthritic hands.
He built a toy sailboat for WC and WC’s brother, maybe 18 inches long. The joins were flawless; even the grain matched. The stern was dovetailed to the hull, tiny little cuts. The bow was perfectly mitered, a curved, variable angle miter. It had real ribs, a rail, two masts with crossbars and a beautiful keel. No nails or screws. He shaped the keel with a hand plane, shaving off feather-thin slices of wood. He let 7-year old WC sand it and rub linseed oil into the wood, showing how to make the grain stand out. WC can see it in his memory even now and still smell the linseed oil.
When the oil was dry – and it seemed to take forever – we took it to a park and sailed it across a pond, with two old handkerchiefs as sails and the rudder tied straight with a bit of thread. It flew across the park pond like a dream.
When Grandpa Walt died in 1958, WC inherited the boat, a pocket watch and four hand planes, shipped to us in Alaska C.O.D. by Grandma Ida. The boat was lost in the 1967 Fairbanks Flood, floating off downstream somewhere from a shelf in WC’s basement room. The pocket watch is in WC’s curio cabinet. The planes are in a box in the garage, mostly untouched for the last thirty years. But the best inheritance are the memories, watching wood magically shape itself under this hands, the texture of a tack cloth, the smells of wood shavings and linseed oil.
Happy birthday, Grandpa.