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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service


The fir is smooth to the touch, surprisingly soft. I am in charge of sanding the front pieces of the kitchen cabinetry we are building in the guest house at my dad's old place.

I sand with a power sander, and then pass my hand over the surface to brush away the sawdust to look for imperfections and marks on the grain. I expect wood to be hard, I guess from bumping into it at times. (Like the time when I was dead drunk after drinking with my soccer team, and walked head first into the tree in front of my apartment. Left a mark on my forehead for days.)

But the freshly sanded piece of fir is not hard at all. It is almost velvety, as my hand brushes along the surface.

My buddy Del who works as a contractor is showing me how to make the wooden frames that will house a refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, sink and drawers and shelves. As well as supporting a big stone counter top.

To be on the farm on this day is to understand the bursting energy of spring. It is sunny but not hot. Birds of brown plumage with plump orange breasts and black birds with bright splashes of red across their shoulders zip all over the place.

Even the butterflies seem amorous, as one determinedly chases another through the trees.

Wild young trees are springing up in the creek bottom, and edible watercress proliferates at the water's edge alongside prickly nettles. The stream which usually dries up to a tiny trickle in the summer is now rushing through its turns and into pools.

You can hear the sound of the water from all around the 8-acre farm which is on the road up to Julian.

Accustomed for years now to holding a pen, typing on a keyboard or gripping the phone, I must relearn long-lost skills to work with wood. Del uses power tools, power sander, nail gun, power lathe, power drill.

I had forgotten somewhere along the line that I used to work with all those tools, but without the power.

My dad worked it seems all the time. The only time I would see him relaxing is when he would get home from his work teaching at Pasadena City College, open a beer and sit in the big chair by the fireplace, listening to a liberal radio commentary, as my mom was getting dinner ready.

We ate almost invariably at 6:30 and, while we kids had a lot of freedom, there was hell to pay with my mom if we weren't back by that time.

But my dad would spend the weekends between carpentry and the darkroom. And I was often his helper. So I learned to pound a nail straight and pull it out when I missed, to sand by hand, hold a drill in place as it started a hole, using the left hand gently around the shaft to hold it steady while the right hand pushed and cranked.

What I had completely forgotten was the planer with the two knobs that allowed you to lean on it and push hard along the surface of the wood, and how the shavings curled up through a slot above the blade in tight circles.

So I knew it and yet I didn't. One pass of the power planer did the work of a fair amount of muscle and sweat with the hand planer. The nail gun really was like firing a gun into the wood, but it left no marks from where the hammer head missed the nail and dented the wood next to it.

What I remembered was the smell of fresh sawdust and cut wood. And the smell of varnish as it was brushed onto the smooth pieces.

Del and I put together a drawer for the cabinet, which involved some tight measurements and precise sawing, including an inside groove along all four side pieces into which we slotted the bottom piece for the drawer. I got to do the work that was less precise, Del did the work that he called "tricky."

After a series of measurements to make sure the drawer would slide smoothly, we screwed tracks onto both the drawer and the cabinet that allowed the drawer to glide smoothly in and out, and fit snugly when closed. It was a good bit of work to make just the one drawer. But satisfying indeed to transform what had been pieces of wood leaning against the wall into this small feat of engineering.

What startled me was when I was brushing my hand along the wood, and looking for imperfections. I saw the skin on my own hand more sharply. It had started to take on a parchment quality, slightly shiny and quite pale, almost translucent, as the joints and veins were outlined beneath.

And I saw my dad's hands, that were big and strong, and yet, at the same time, they held a dark room developing canister or a woodworking tool with delicate fingertips and a precise grip. His thumb would be pushed down from the joint and bowed inward so it worked in parallel with the other fingers, like a cone.

Those hands, I realized, looked and worked a lot like mine.

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