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Working with Hayden Carruth (1921-2008)


ISSUE:  Spring 2013

Come work with me awhile, Hayden,
I can use your company in the shed
among tools your hands have never lost
remembrance for. This jack plane was a gift
from Sally’s father, a man who made his own tools
when he had to. I’ve had it more than 30 years.
Don’t wince at the rust. On this island
the air seems always damp. The iron needs
an edge. We flip the lever cap, slide the pieces
off the frog, & use a quarter to loosen the screw
that holds the clamp. Who taught you,
Hayden? I learned from Mr. Baldwin,
my high school shop teacher, who wore loud bow ties
& grieved his way through tough & troubled kids.
We start with a coarse stone & a little light
oil. I use a guide I found on a yard sale table
on the mainland to keep the blade atilt at 30°. Against
all logic to push it forward instead of pulling back,
but it works, the sound a bit like something dragged
across a concrete floor. A dozen strokes, a dozen more,
& then we switch to the harder stone to wear away
the burr. Arkansas’ best. I learned to check an edge
against the nail of my thumb. Just drop, & see if it snags
or simply slides away. Setting the blade back in the throat
is always hit or miss. Expose too much
& gouge the wood; too little brings an empty
rattle. We want that perfect curl, the sole gliding
with the grain, the saw marks giving up, knots
like small exploding novas. You know it, that slight good
ache in the elbow, the shoulder turning with the hip,
the soft shush & shush like soothing a fussy child.
You can work till the heel of your hand hurts, & sweat
stains the wood. There’s a stack of cedar boards
stickered a dozen paces from this shed. I love the smell
of cedar when it’s planed, so sharp it burns
the nose, then dances onto the tongue. The boards
will have to wait. A coat of oil against the wet,
& the plane goes back on its shelf. Just maintenance,
Hayden. Busy work, a bit of labor to push aside
the fear of you sick again, as though imagining your hands
on mine could somehow hold you here, as though
it’s enough, the basic lesson I’ve learned from you:
The job’s not done until it’s square, & level, & true.

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