The Journeyman’s Journey

Spring in North Carolina is a busy season. Our tulip trees, dogwoods, and lilac are all in bloom. Home Depot runs out of mulch by Sunday afternoon. If I’m out on the greenway at dusk, the booming hoots of great horned owls remind me…with apologies to Tennyson…that it’s not only young men whose thoughts lightly turn to love in Spring.

It’s also the wood-rot inspection and repair season.

Most builders now use plastic for exterior trim, but for homes built in the 90s or earlier, it’s wood. You do what you can by painting and caulking, but nature is relentless. Every Spring, you push on suspicious looking places and find spots as soft as Play Doh.

This week, I was chiseling away at a windowsill. I hammered and drilled all around until I reached good wood, then slathered in a generous blob of bondo. It reminded me I have a dental exam next week. It’s not the way the pros do it but, eh…a little sanding, a few coats of paint, and good enough for a few more years.

I took a break, sat on the steps, and and opened a Budweiser. My hammer got me thinking about my grandfather.

“Throw off the bowlines, ” Mark Twain famously exhorted. “Sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

This philosophy apparently resonated with my grandfather who astonished his family by leaving Norway a century ago, seeking adventure in America. Two years later, his wife and daughter joined him; other kids soon followed. For many years he supported his family as a bricklayer as the envious folks back home lived vicariously through his letters.

At age fifty, he took another leap of faith and pursued a lifelong dream of owning a farm. With no farming experience and nothing but his wife, self-reliance and faith, he bought 35 acres with a ramshackle farmhouse and a pond in upstate NY. He built a three-story barn with a grain elevator using only hand tools. He ran the farm for 20 years before retiring to FL.

Somehow, several of his tools found their way into my garage, including the hammer I was holding. All are ancient; he brought them with him and who knows how old they were then.

My grandfather’s claw hammer (L) and a leather mallet

I fell into a reverie and had a sudden image of my grandfather. He was sitting on a beam three stories up on his half-completed barn, holding the hammer. It was a beautiful spring day, late ’40s or early ’50s. He sat with satisfaction, gazing out on his 35-acre parcel, exulting in what would be the next chapter in his life. I use that hammer frequently during woodworking projects. I can envision my grandfather and Pop…who had the hammer for a number of years…watching me, maybe making wisecracks or critiquing me. I think about Mark Twain’s admonition, the brevity of our years, the courage needed to set sail. How small the world seems now and if dreams as big as my grandfather’s are still possible.

My grandfather’s hammer. I wonder in whose hand it will be in another hundred years.

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