the blacksmith

(via flickr, creative commons)

(I wrote this awhile back, and dusted it off for a bit of an antidote to the current Sturm and Drang.)

As I steered our ’56 Ford pickup down into the gravel yard of the blacksmith shop, I was already having second thoughts.  I’d been sent on an errand by The Boss.  Well, she was really my husband’s boss, but I was a handy unpaid extra, and got pressed into service now and again.  Okay, more often than that, but I was young and eager to please, and had trouble saying no.  She sometimes even conned me into to setting her hair in curlers.  My husband had been hired as Lloyd and Irene Doerfer’s ranch hand, a catch-all term that included farm work, ranch work, birthing calves and lambs, even once being required to sleep out near the animal pens for a few nights to try to shoot a rogue predator (and no, arrests don’t always work) that periodically and wantonly killed stock.  He was an enormous feral dog who had been killing for sport, and would take out several lambs every night.

The odd predator hunting a meal wasn’t unusual, and it was easy to figure that they had to make a living, too; that sort of loss came with ranching.  But when they killed for the sport and didn’t eat their kills, it was considered bad form and too costly, and somebody needed to end that critter’s life.  This time, Steve got appointed.

Luckily, he didn’t end up ever seeing it or shooting it.  Damn, I always forget the name of that kind of dog: big square-jawed black things with some gold here and there, paws big as teacups; nasty old things.  I’ll be sure and tell you when I remember.

He’d had to kill the odd rattlesnake, and before you get all preservationist on me, consider what it’s like to be under a combine or tractor fixing something, and find one curled up in the machine above you: you’d shoot the sucker, too, or grab the nearest shovel or big, badass wrench.  The ones you can safely scoot with a forked stick into the weeds or relocate altogether, fine; but who’s kidding whom about whose life’s more important here, right?

So; I’d just followed the directions given to me to Albert’s blacksmith shop, with instructions to pick up a harrow he’d been repairing, and to ask if the Doerfers could pay him later for the work.  Piece of cake, right?  Then why were my senses on such high alert?

I pulled the truck into the large yard, got out, and looked around.  An enormous weathered-wood hay barn stood at the far end, and a small, single-story grey house covered in asphalt shingles seemed to be melting into the ground at a right angle to it.  Its small fenced yard seemed a bit superfluous, given its questionable condition; the rumpled black screens of its porch provided and air of secrecy behind them.  Half a dozen cats in assorted colors gamboled about the place, rather shabby, unhealthy-looking cats; more than likely wild ones that never got their shots.  It turned out that Albert’s brother Joe and his sister Mary lived there.  I might tell you his story later; it’s a good story.

The yard was a veritable metal museum; metal in stacks and orderly piles: rusty iron, old hot water tanks, rods, rebar, sheet metal, pipe of every description, wheel rims off wooden wheels in assorted sizes, iron mesh, culverts, you name it.  Well, there would be: Albert was the Last Blacksmith in the valley, and he did some welding, as well.  He could fix or make practically anything metal, and would, as long as you could sweet-talk him into it, as I’d one day discover.

It was clear where the action was.  A long, low shed with open barn doors hunkered under a deep ditch-bank, and I could hear the murmuring of voices and the clanging of metal coming through the open doors.  Several trucks were parked outside, which meant their owners must be inside.  Hmmm.

I walked toward the shop, and was hit by the smell of coal smoke, tobacco smoke, and hot metal; my tongue instantly felt like I’d been licking a coal scoop, and the acrid scents made my nose wrinkle in defense.  I peered inside.  It was like looking into a dark tunnel in contrast to the bright sun of the day.

The few windows were naturally covered in grime from the smoke and soot from the forge, and the light from the open doors only penetrated so far.  The banked coal in the firebox at the far end added a reddish glow to the air, and as Albert pumped the bellows to make the fire burn brighter, tiny sparkles of coal dust lit up in the air.

“What do ya want?  Who are you?” I jumped at the voice, I’m sure.  An array of old men sat in beat-up wooden chairs and benches around the perimeter, all staring at me expressionlessly.  Once my eyes began to adjust to the dim light, I could make out five of them, plus Albert who stood at the forge.  I glanced up at a chalk sign overhead, which read:

Cash only.  I don’t give credit.  If you don’t have any money,

don’t bother me because I don’t have any either, and I can’t live on promises.

 Blink.  Uh-oh; I was supposed to ask if he’d charge this to the Doerfers.  Gulp. 

The men chuckled on cue, of course, most likely at the expression on my face.  I explained who I was, and the mission I was on.

“Hmph.  They want their harrow, do they?  Well, get in here.”  I advanced, but admittedly, rather slowly.

“Well, it’s finished.  “You got the money to pay for it?”  I explained that I didn’t; could he charge it for a bit?  The old-man chorus erupted in laughter; they’d suspended their smoking, chewing, and whittling to take part in the sport; their eyes turned toward Albert almost gleefully.

He must have been in his late sixties or early seventies, dressed in tweedy, zig-zaggy blue and gray denim coveralls, his head covered by a blue denim cap that he wore backwards (the old trend-setter) a patina of coal sheen was over his clothes and visible skin.   He had small but bright blue, watery eyes, and one of the biggest noses I’d ever seen.  Meaning no disrespect, but it might rather have been called a proboscis; it started between his eyebrows, jutted out in a major curve, and then hooked under at the tip, as though it might have been made to serve a dual purpose.  It made him look a little fierce, to tell you the truth.  And it made his eyes seem even deeper than they really were.

“Well?  They think I’m made of money?”  The gleam in his eyes might have belied his gruff talk.  Okay, then; it looked like I had a part to play, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was.

“Do you want me to come back?”  I tried.  (Ah; such bravery, such courage!)

Then they all howled: Girl Scared; Game Over, I guess.  Some crowd.  The Doerfers might have warned me; perhaps they were having me on a bit, too.  I could picture how merry their eyes would be when I got back with the damned harrow, and they would ask, “So; how did it go with Albert?”

“Nah; I’ll let you take it.  Just make sure they come and pay me.  Next week’ll be okay.” He corralled some of the men to help, and we all trooped out to the place where the harrow was resting, all lined up square with another shed.  We hoisted it into the bed of the truck.

They sent me off with friendly waves and laughter, the old farts.  I would come to know them all well one day, but that day they were just the extras in my personal Albert Trial by Fire play.  I’d survived it, at least, and it might have even been a little bit fun.

A couple years later we bought twenty acres of a ranch across from Albert and Elsie’s place.  We were homesteading our bit of it, fenced it, made improvements to the land, and then started to build a house.

This was back in 1973, and you need to know that we were considered interlopers, the first wave of change in this part of the canyon in a long time, and none of our new neighbors took all that kindly to us.  Rats.  We worked hard at cultivating their friendships, and being helpful, and by and by things went better with most of them.  One day when we were at his shop, Albert invited us to see their home place.  Whoa, who could resist that invitation?

“You’ll want to meet my chucker,” he said.

‘Er…What’s a chucker?’

“You’ll see,” said he, his eyes dancing with anticipation.

We all piled into one of the trucks, and drove up the road to his place, where he gave us a brief tour of his home farmyard.  We were introduced to his wife Elsie, a tiny, bespectacled and smiley woman whose hands were twisted by arthritis.  She wore a large silver crucifix around her neck; somehow it was clear that she was never without it.  You know how some people can just exude piety?  Elsie was one of them.  She was so wee, slightly bent with a dowager’s hump, and fluffy grey hair that still held the dents from her hair rollers; I swear you just wanted to hug her!  Amazingly, she had a smaller version of Albert’s nose; how very peculiar!

Once we were out back, Albert went into one of the henhouses; when he came out, he was sporting a little bird on top of his head!  It was nestled in his hair just as comfortably as could be; he reached up now and then to pet it as it re-arranged bits of his hair with its little beak.  He explained that chuckers were related to partridges, who were related to pear trees, or something…

Ah-ha!  This is who that cranky guy really is on the inside: just another softie with a gruff exterior; a disguise?  Well, old man, you’ll never fool me again; I’ve got your number now.

A few months and a few shared potlucks at their place later, we needed some spikes to fasten some of our house’s post-and-beam logs together.  I got the job of taking lengths of rebar down to Albert, to see if he could cut them into lengths, then heat them and shape one end of each into a point, creating very large nails, in effect.

At least this time I knew what I was walking into; but then again, maybe not.

 His chorus was there again in the dark, they howdy-ed; I howdy-ed back.

“What do you want?” Albert, all gruff-voiced, but with eyes twinkling.  I explained what I wanted.

“Oh, you do, do you?  I got too much work to do; I can’t help you.”  He gestured around at what I supposed was backed-up work.

“Well, can we do it another day then?  I’m not in any huge hurry.”

“No, goddamit.  We’ll do it today, but you’ve gotta help.”

Wo-jeez.  Help?  “Help how?”

“With all of it.  I’m gonna teach you how to draw iron.  You want these made or not?”

What in the hell had I gotten myself into?  The old men cast their eyes down, but I could see smiles tugging at the corners of their mouths.  Christ.  This must be perpetual entertainment for the old cusses; didn’t they have some place to be?

A few shakes later I told him, “All right, I‘ll give it a go, but I’ve never…”

So he threw some more coke on the fire in the forge, pumped the bellows a few times (dangit, I wish he’d let me do that!), and while it heated up, we went outside and cut the iron rods together; I measured, he cut the pieces off with the acetylene torch while I held them off the ground for him. He continually reminded me to look away from the flame or risk burning my eyes out; his welder’s mask would protect his.  Finally we had twenty-four sticks of rebar; they must have been about fourteen inches long.  Onward, to the forge!  (Hoo boy.)

While the old men watched, he stuck the tips of the iron sticks into the fire, and they soon glowed red-hot.  He gave me some heat-proof gloves, and donned a pair himself.  He pulled a stick out, held it by one end, and rested the glowing end on the thick, broad iron ledge that surrounded the forge.  Goddam, it was hot.  He picked up a small sledge-hammer, and began to pound on the glowing tip.  He turned the piece as he worked, and aimed the hammer blows toward the end, and sort of let the sledge slide outward at the same time (got that now?).  My stars, what a din; bang, slide, bang; a point started to form.  Well, shiver me timbers!  It worked!

“See,” he asked, “how you’re sort of drawing the iron out?”  He repeated the moves; then pulled one out for me.  It was three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and the glowing end shimmered as though it were alive.  He handed me my very own short-handled sledge.  Make or break time, I guessed.

I’m about 5’9”, and I’d done plenty of hard work, so I was pretty strong, for a girl, as they say (yeah; I want to whack ‘em around when they say that; but it is purdy funny.).  I smacked that rebar with my hammer; and smacked it (clang, bang) some more, and a bit at a time it started to taper a little bit at the end as the sparks flew off.  Wendy and Hephaestus on the job; oh, if my pop could see me now!  (Not so much about that MBA you wanted me to score, huh, pop?)

Albert kept yelling at me, with lots of goddams  thrown in, and showed me his nifty method again and again. I kept at it, of course.  The old men crowed with delight.  (Shut up, ya geezers. I’m gonna get this down.)

He’d probably shaped four before I finished one; when he looked at mine next, he exploded.

“If you weren’t so goddamn big, I’d throw you into the fire!”  I went weak and totally folded up with laughter at that point; everyone did, really.  (Okay, get it together, Wendy.)

And goddamn if I didn’t.  I had to take some rests here and there, but gradually I learned how to draw iron out with that old man cranking and crabbing at me the whole way.  We both poured sweat there by the forge, pounding that metal; my muscles were screaming with fire and pain, but I wasn’t about to give up until we’d finished them all. We cooled them by dipping them in a big pail of water, and the steam made that sssshhhh sound you associate with blacksmithing.   Finally they were all laid out in a pretty row, though you could sorta tell which were Albert’s and which were mine…Damn, they looked nice, though!  He beamed at me.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, we forged a warm camaraderie there that day that lasted until he died.  He patted my shoulder awkwardly when I left, but couldn’t help saying, “Ah, hell; I just hate letting such poor work leave my shop.”  (Check, old man.  Gotcha.)

Over time we became good friends, and spent a lot of time together doing neighborly things.  Now and again Albert would chug up the hill in his old Chevy pickup to bring me little gifts he’d made out of metal; wind-chimes, a special hay-hook, an iron bell to hang in a tree… a heavy-duty digging bar we dubbed ‘the Killer Bar’.  I’d had to pry a lot of giant rocks out of the ground at our place over the years, and that bar never once bent an inch.  I loved that old man, I swear.

He was eventually felled by Parkinson’s disease, and was sent to the new local nursing home once Elsie couldn’t care for him any longer.  It was a flowery, fancy sort of nursing home, and it was hard to see how he’d last long there in such a foreign environment.  We visited him a couple times, but he died after being there only two or three weeks.  Thank God, really; he must have been ready to go.  Life without Chucker, or the old men’s Chorus would have been bleak, I reckon.

Oh, yeah; and that dog was a Rottweiller.  Nasty, slobbering, box-headed thing; told ya I’d think of it sooner or later…

(cross-posted at Cafe-Babylon.net)