The ancient stairs groaned in their creepy way as we descended into the catacomb that was his basement, a place which looked much more like a place where things go to die, rather than a place where they might be born.
Dry-stacked limestone walls surrounded us there, making the rooms seem eerie and out-of-place, like the deep recesses of an Egyptian pyramid, to a boy born in a modern world. The smell of oil paint, Japan drier and unseen sawdust filled my nose and my mind. He pulled the little strings on the bare lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling and the room came to life.
Peering up and over old, paint-spattered bench tops I saw many strange and menacing things. Glistening steel and sharp teeth glared down at me as I looked wide-eyed back at them in awe and wonder. Afraid to touch, I stuck by him, he, ten times larger than I. He could easily reach up and pluck at the clouds it seemed, to such a little boy.
“What shall we make, then?” he asked peering down at me over his glasses.
“Can we make anything? Anything we ever want?” I inquired in amazement.
“Anything at all.” he said, with such a tone that it convinced me for a lifetime.
“A cradle for Katrina, please. For her dolly. For Christmas.” I replied.
“Very well.” he said, as reached inside his ever-present gray cardigan and pulled a Camel from the pocket of his chamois shirt, the color of just-tanned buckskin. “You will make a cradle.” He lit his unfiltered cigarette, which looked tiny between his big fingers. The end glowed bright as a firefly across the yard.
“Me?!?” I gasped, glancing back again in fear of the shiny-toothed monsters surrounding me.
“You. Just you.” He exhaled. “I’ll be right here to show you how. Now, go pick out your wood.”
“But I don’t know how!” I confessed, walking over to the boards. “What’s the difference? It all looks kind of the same.”
“Look closer.” he advised and I noticed the tiny grain. “Now pick them up and smell.”
As I sniffed at the various boards, the aroma of fresh-milled wood was burned into me forever; many smells, actually. Each variety is distinct and unique, like playing in a spice cabinet.
“That is how we tell.” he said. “If we can’t tell the colors, we rely on our noses.” reminding me once again of the colorblindness I’d inherited from him.
“This one’s heavy.” I said. “How come?”
“Every wood weighs differently.” he replied. “The one you’re holding there is mahogany. Much heavier than others. Good for furniture, boats and things…. but we don’t have enough for a whole cradle.”
“It’s just a dolly cradle.” I said. “Does it matter?”
“It always matters.” He noted. “Walnut’s good for furniture. Hard, strong and straight-grained.” I nodded in feigned agreement, not having any idea what all that stuff meant.
Gathering up our wood, we went to the bench. He pulled over a foot stool, made by his own hand. The naïve little boy who climbed up on it had no idea that it hadn’t always been there, but had been made just the prior weekend for him to be able to reach the bench on this occasion.
He showed me how we measure, with funny square pencils and folding wooden sticks with little lines upon them and I practiced, practiced, practiced. I hopped off the stool, ran around the room and measure everything I could find, joyous at my new-learned skill, while he secretly marked out the correct measurements on the backside of each board.
“Stand back now and don’t come close until I stop.” he said, as he pulled a monster from its shelf and plugged it in to the wall.
“What’s that?!?!” I yelled to no avail, then I plugged my ears as the most horrific scream came from the whirling teeth while they tore through my walnut boards.
Finally, the thing stopped screeching and the room was filled with dust. Suddenly it looked like the space-lasers on television in those places where the sunlight shot through the basement window into the room, cutting their perfect path through the darkness.
“Ok, come and get on your stool.” he said.
Over the next hour, I learned about hand planes and sandpaper and heard descriptions of dovetails and box joints and their long history of purpose. I learned of wooden dowels and drilling holes and handsaws and backsaws and chisels and files… and more important things, too, like how to get a sliver out and how very much it hurts when a hammer hits little fingers after it doesn’t find the target quite right.
Slowly, Katrina’s cradle took shape.
“Now it’s your turn.” He said, handing me a one-toothed machine of my own. I studied it curiously, turning it over and over. There was one blade with little tiny teeth along its edge. I knew not to touch that part. Still, it was heavy and scary in small and uncertain hands.
“Hold it like this, he said. See that curved line we drew?” I nodded, speechless. “Now, see that blade there? You’re going to follow the line with the blade while it goes up and down. It’ll cut exactly where you point it.”
“Will it hurt?” I asked nervously.
“Of course not.”, He said. “Unless you don’t hold it just like I showed you. Just pull the trigger when you’re ready and follow the line.” Then he plugged it in.
Slowly, carefully, I lined up the jigsaw, peering through the safety goggles that were twice the size of my head, more to give myself time to steel my nerves than to find the line. Finally, I pulled the trigger and it came to life. It was far more difficult to keep from getting distracted by the vibrations in my hands and by watching the little bits of sawdust dance across the vibrating board than it was to make the actual cut, but soon enough, it was done and the scrap piece clapped the concrete as it hit the floor.
“Did I do it right?” I asked, bewildered.
“Just fine.” He said, probably less than true, but not wanting to discourage. After cutting the other rocker, we went to make lunch.
“Wash your hands with the good soap.” he said. I knew what the good soap was. The good soap was called Lava and all I knew about it was that it had magic in it from real volcanoes and it could get off any dirt, even the grease from when I was exploring the underside of his cars in the garage. Good soap.
Lunch was always fun, because for some reason we liked all the very same things. That day, we opted for Braunschweigert and Cheez-Whiz sandwiches instead of peanut butter and ‘bread & butter’ pickles, because we’d already had those the day before and we liked to mix it up a bit. He gave me a little plate with a few pieces of pickled herring on it to snack on while he finished making our lunch.
We ate our sandwiches and Fritos, plus some little Butterfingers for dessert, which he always kept in the pantry for me. Well, he said they were for me, anyway, but I always noticed some missing each time I came to visit. I never said anything, but I was always pretty sure he liked them just as much as I did. Maybe more.
We went back down the creaky stairs and for the first time, the basement looked…. different. Not scary at all. No monsters. No ghosts. I can’t really explain it, but it never looked the same after that morning as it had before.
We spent the afternoon learning about glue and clamps and how you shouldn’t stick your fingers in the stain, because it’ll still be there when you go to school on Monday unless you wipe it off with a rag and smelly stuff and how you should never set the brush down in the sawdust.
I’m not sure how it all happened, exactly, but by the time we swept up and put everything away, when we pulled all the strings on those bare light bulbs down there and walked over to the steps, I took one last look and there it was on the dimly lit work table, a walnut baby cradle, just like a real one you could buy, but better, and I was really excited for Christmas. My big sister wouldn’t believe that her little brother made that for her all by himself.
Upstairs, at the kitchen sink once again, we washed side by side with our magic soap ‘just for boys’ and I felt pretty big right about then. It was dark outside.
“Here. Take a soda and some crackers and go watch TV in the den. Hogan’s Heroes is almost on. I’ll get started on dinner. Your grandmother will be home soon.”
“Ok.” I said, trotting off. I stopped and stuck my head back around the corner. “Grandpa? I said.”
“Ya?” he said, turning to look at me, with his shock of white hair and his big white caterpillar eyebrows.
“Thanks for teaching me.” I said.
“Ya. You betcha.” He replied, with a hint of a smile that only a grandson could see.
He died one day when I was in the 8th grade. The office people came and got me while I was in math class. It felt really weird because the only time I’d ever left school during the day, for a dentist appointment or something, he was always the one to pick me up, waiting outfront in his funny little orange Opel that looked for all the world like it couldn’t hold a six foot six-inch Norwegian giant.
We buried him on Superbowl Sunday, probably his favorite day and keeping tradition with one of his many sayings, it was “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra in the middle of January”. I bet God had a hand in that one.
I’d spent nearly every day of my entire childhood under his watchful eye and I guess I turned out to be a lot like him, only I’ll never be quite as good. Not at life, anyway; just building things, because ‘we can build anything’. I’m still learning about life, though and even though mine’s half over, I carry him with me always and one thing is for certain… I still can’t open my tool chest without seeing those huge hands guiding my own. Since then, I’ve built much: furniture, houses, wooden boats, even a dogsled, but nothing as memorable as that one small cradle; my very first creation.
Someday, I hope to lead my own little boy down some creaky stairs and show him what a man is capable of when he applies himself with concentration, determination and creativity. These things should be handed down though the generations, along with the very most important rule I learned the day:
“Don’t play with grandpa’s toys.”
Copyright© 2006, Christian Fauchald