The Indian and The Canoe

Originally posted elsewhere on 11/19/08. Posting here for you to read.

Grandpa made things. I am sure growing up during the Great Depression taught him to be frugal, but making things was part of who he was. I think I share some of that with him. I look at things and think, “I wonder what I could make from that.” I face a problem and ponder how I might come up with an ingenious solution fashioned out of what I have on hand—something that is cheap and effective. It is a challenge, a skill, and an art. For me, it is also almost like a game.

Many things Grandpa made in his life sprang from necessity. Early in his married life, he built a cinder block house for his young family. It was a tiny house, and it wasn’t beautiful, but he made it with what nickels and dimes he had. Over fifty years later, the he still had the wheelbarrow he used to mix the mortar for that cinder block house. I know, because I used it. The wheel is a simple metal rim, one of the handles has been replaced, and it has more rust than those many years ago. Grandpa never got a new one, because what he had still worked.

If Grandpa made, and fixed, many things out of necessity, or frugality, it was what he made for amusement that earned him more recognition. A story told to me—with no small amount of marvel—was how once in his youth, my uncle Kevin wanted a motorcycle. As a result, Grandpa scrounged up an old engine to a mini-bike and using that engine as a foundation he built a functional wooden motorcycle. It was the epitome of ingenuity.

Whenever an idle moment came upon Grandpa, he was always making something. It was as if his hands could not remain still. I remember visiting, and seeing Grandpa sitting at the kitchen table, snipping apart soda cans to make miniature airplanes. He made a collection of them, and they hung suspended from the ceiling as if caught in flight. Visiting our house for a birthday party Grandpa found some oddity outside and began whittling a whistle. It worked, too, if you knew how to use it.

Grandpa loved music, and had an ear for it. Without the money to afford lessons, anything he wanted to learn he taught himself. He taught himself how to play the piano, the guitar, and the mandolin. He could fix pianos too. He could tune a piano by ear, and even attempted a piano tuning business. I have some of his business cards. There was an entire box of them sitting in storage, apparently untouched. “Accurate” and “Reasonable” the cards say. Accurate and reasonable he was, but a business man he was not. Unwilling to promote himself—as the languishing box of untouched cards testifies—the business went nowhere.

Of all the many things Grandpa could do, and of all the many skills he had, and the things he made, what stands out the most to me in speaking about who he was and what he could do were the Indian and the canoe. Grandpa always had a fascination with frontier American life, in particular with Native Americans. He would read about them, about how they did things, and how they made things. He made a pair of moccasins out of a deer hide. He fletched arrows. Then he made the Indian.

To call it amazing was an understatement. As a first time attempt it was unbelievable. How, exactly, he constructed the life sized realistic figure, I don’t know. He used some type of plaster for the skin, but the effect was almost startlingly life-like. One day I walked into the garage, arriving for a visit, and there the Indian was, standing tall and proud, his face creased with stern lines, his steady eyes staring into the distance. You could stand there and look at him, noticing every care given to the details.

As a first attempt the Indian was certainly not flawless, but with raven black hair, loin cloth, bow, and pouch, he was undeniably a unique and meaningful work of art. To simply walk into the room was to know it was art, made by a real artist. If Grandpa had refined his skill he could have made statues worth significant money and made a name for himself as an artist in his old age. Instead, he made the one Indian, and never made another one again.

Then he made the canoe. If the Indian astounded my child’s mind as a work of art and something beyond the ability of any mere mortal, and certainly a Grandpa (so a child’s mind thinks), the canoe impressed me on a more technical level. You can actually make a canoe, all by yourself? You don’t need some special machinery to make it? And it won’t sink?

It didn’t sink. It seemed nothing was impossible for Grandpa. He painted the canoe bright red and took it out for excursions on the pond. He even let me paddle the canoe.

I don’t know how Grandpa made the canoe. I’m sure he read something about it somewhere. Whether it was just an idea that he built upon and pieced together himself, or careful directions that he discovered somewhere, it was a knowledge collected together in his own mind and destined to die with his mind.

After the canoe, Grandpa never did another major creative project. His days as an artist were waning, and for me the Indian and the canoe would always stand as symbols of what he was, and what he could have been.

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