Army Men
January 1, 2013, 10:08 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


Once, when I was 8 or so and things were 8,000 ways different than they are now, I saw a thing that defines the word transformation. It’s funny how such things stick, and haunt, and turn life into a ponder-able thing on an ordinary evening.

One of the things you consider doing as an 8 year old is to band together with your contemporaries and go aft a’glang canoeing or camping in the wild or such, all the while coiffed in a green uniform with sundry badges and the odd bit of brass. Sort of a precursor to military things, these Scouts of the suburbia with kerchiefs about the neck and high topped canvas sneakers.

Part and parcel of any grouping of 8 year olds is to have a leader or two, an adult, because letting loose a tribe of wet nosed leaderless boys on the wilderness is akin to premeditated murder on a mass scale and highly undesirable. Naturally, since the adults thought up the idea of Scouting in the first place, it became necessary for them to see it through and provide a requisite ratio of Dads to boys and equip the Dads in complementary uniforms, plus a whistle and a very official looking hat. Snappy they were, the Dads, if not a touch self conscious. I never saw my Dad wear the hat around my Mother, for example.

I don’t know if they still do it this way, and somehow I would doubt that they do, in this generation of being correct in every way, but back then there was a huge thing about marching. Drill they called it. Standing at attention, about face and march your little feet in a smart military fashion with arms stiff, faces solemn and minds clear of 8 year old thoughts. In reality it was more like a herding of the asshats. Small boys respond to terse commands with giggles and pokes and talk of farting. And not a lot of cooperation. The Dads were given to privately tossing a coin to see who got Drill Duty, and we all got the feeling that the glum selectee would much rather be off with his fellow tossers playing pinochle in the Janitors Closet of the Baptist Church, rather than out in the parking lot trying to make two dozen small idiots do a proper right face or two.

There was certainly something to roll eyes at. When you assemble (or try to assemble) a group of kids in the church parking lot on a Friday evening when they were fresh from dinner and full of themselves, a reasonable man would vote for pinochle every time.

That all ended when my Dad showed up. Rather abruptly, it ended.

Understand that Dad was the mildest of men. A man short of stature and unremarkable in a lot of ways. Soft spoken and given to condescension. He had suffered my brother and his foray into Scouting and now it was my turn. And one Scouting evening, under a flawless summer sky, he drew Drill Duty. I knew enough about Dad to know that he would never volunteer for it and call attention to himself but he likely didn’t think much of the other Dads drawing straws to avoid any unnatural suffering at the hands of us, the tribe of drooling nose pickers.

He situated himself with a pass of the hand over his hat, adjusted a pair of dead-green RayBans and coughed. I remember that cough. It wasn’t a clearing of the throat sort of cough, but a signal. A rumble, as it were. A few small eyes glanced at him.

“Ten-HUTT!” And there was no tittering from the plebes, because the man had just gone from mild mannered to rockets roar in the space of ten seconds. We snapped to, because there simply wasn’t any other choice in the matter. There was no arguing with that command and no need to.

I swear, within a few minutes we were gliding around that lot as if connected by a tight string. Dad fell back to half quarter but the voice never ceased, counting a cadence or barking the occasional signal, and it was a voice full of gravel and steel. If I hadn’t lived with him for all 8 of my years and didn’t know that it was he behind the sound I’d have sworn there was another man back there, a basso profundo man, driving his charges around a parking lot by the force of his will and the terrible chill that ran up your spine with every change in direction, every harsh sounding command.

It was over in perhaps 20 minutes, we rolled to a halt and faced forward in perfectly spaced order, broke to a parade rest stance and listened. Dad removed the sunglasses and tucked them into a pocket, frowning over a smudge, and spoke. “That was fine boys, a little more work and we’ll be marching like soldiers. Now then, dismissed!” And that was it. The voice was back to that of a 45 year old businessman, stuck in a parking lot on a summer evening with two dozen kids wearing funny hats.

Somewhere on the ride home I leaned over the front seat, in those days of no seatbelts at all, and broached the subject. “Dad, did you ever do Drill Duty before?”

His voice was very mild, even if his answer was short. “Yep, used to do it quite a bit, son.”

I waited, but that was it. He never was one for long explanations. And I never was one to run off at the mouth and prod for answers, and I suppose that was his legacy to me, for I do much the same to this very day. The whole thing might have laid there as a forgotten moment of life but for my Mother, who often fleshed these things out and filled in gaps as Moms often do. A couple of days later she asked, “So, how did Scouting go on Friday?”, as she always did.

“Dad had Drill Duty,” was my answer. Nothing about Tommy and his hidden pocket squirt gun, or learning how to stack firewood. “We marched really good, too.”

She smiled at the pile of bed sheets she was folding and smoothing and spoke as if I wasn’t there. “I’ll bet you did, if your father was in charge,” she murmured. “I’m sure you did.” There was something there, even an 8 year old could hear it, and her eyes were large behind her glasses.

“Dad showed us how to march to a quarter.”


“And keep in step with the one in front of us.”

“Yes, that’s what soldiers do.”

“Mom, was Dad a soldier?”

She laid the sheets in a plastic bin with the edges crisp and lined up with each other and was very matter of fact. “Well of course he was honey. Everybody was a soldier back then. Your Uncle and your Father and everyone.”

Everyone a soldier. “Did they wear green, like my army men?” Once you get an 8 year old rolling there’s no stopping him, and I had a vision of Fathers and Uncles tumbling out of the big plastic bag full of green plastic army men that I kept on the shelf in my bedroom. Some with a rifle, some with just a pistol, some kneeling and some running.

“Yes honey, they wore green,” and she laughed just a little, because she knew that at any minute I was going to ask if they were green in the face and hands, like my army men. Or if my Dad had carried a green machine gun, or some other fool thing.

It wasn’t an every night event, but somehow it seemed the right night to haul the bag of army men downstairs for playing before bedtime and set them up. Right on the thin carpet, sprawled out with the toes of my sneakers digging in, eyes at soldier level and spacing the small figures in even ranks, facing an unseen enemy since I only had the green ones. Tommy had the full set, he had green AND gray, but for now the green would have to do.

Dad rustled his newspaper and held forth from the Eyrie of an easy chair as platoons advanced and a steady Chung-Chung sound effect whistled from the battlefield, or a Blam! as one of my stiff little men was twirled and tossed a grenade at an enemy pillow. He glanced down and chuckled.

“Where’s your Sergeant, I don’t see him for all the smoke and commotion down there?”

I hadn’t a clue where my Sergeant was, and said so.

“Why, he should be here!”, and Dad plucked a solitary army man from the fray, one with only a .45 pistol drawn and hanging from his right hand, the left arm thrust forward in a directive sort of way. “He should be at the rear, showing them the way to go!” The soldier was moved to the back of the whole group, a little bit to the right quarter. “There, now the army has somebody to holler at them and make them march up that hill.” And Dad leaned back satisfied, and rustled his paper again, and said not another word.

In the way such things were discussed they were not discussed at all, and I suppose it was another ten years before I had much of a grasp of what my Dad did as a soldier. It came out in little scraps of conversation and was never volunteered, sometimes popping up at the oddest moments from the jog of a phrase or a song on the radio. Things would happen and Mom or Dad might lose the careful veneer for just a second and say, “Remember that? They were playing that song just before I left to go to Carolina back in ‘42”, or “That’s the same car Bob Ellington had before the war, the one his father put in the barn and wouldn’t let anyone drive after he . . .well.” Tantalizing fragments, and if I were to follow up on them the moment would pass, and the subject changed, and 1942 had never happened and was a chapter unpublished. But eventually, a story emerged.

The little Sergeant at the rear of the field. Sent to Carolina and put in charge of hundreds, maybe thousands. Training, shooting, bayoneting and sleeping in canvas tents. Months upon months in a searing Carolina heat, and rolling out polished units of green plastic to be packaged in large numbers and shipped off to war. And not a war fought on suburban carpet, facing down the divan or davenport or end table, but North Africa. And not a troop of 8 year olds marching around a parking lot, but a platoon of men lashed through the swamp with curses and mosquitoes and full packs.

Drill Duty, indeed. A voice full of the steel that the very .45 at his hip would know.

It came to my Mother to end the story, one porch twilight, and she rocked in her wooden chair and looked far out into the backyard with me, in a rare mood for the telling of tales and the making of dreams.

“He was scheduled to go on the very next transport ship. His whole Division, they were set to go and he was working those men 14 hours a day in that heat.” Something about the way she said “that heat” was familiar to me, the boy from upstate New York where heat came from a stove and not from a noontime sky. “His Captain was the one who wrote me the cable and it came just the week before they were due to leave and he said I might want to take the train and come.” She was silent for a moment. “The Captain said your Dad was in the hospital and might not make it. Pneumonia, he caught pneumonia in that heat and they weren’t sure if . . .”

She was working it out, in hitches. “There wasn’t any money for trains, even if you could get on one. Everything was about the soldiers going here and there, you know.”

She rocked, and fussed with the cat in her lap. “But he came home. All those soldiers gone over there, and he came home. Why, he was the only man his age around here for quite a while.”

It was something to consider. North Africa led to Italy, then to France and Germany. Little green men, and a long road in front of them. Everyone a soldier.

And the many who knew the sort of Drill Duty that got them around the road, and off to the side, with a small man at their rear telling them to get up the hill.

There isn’t a way to go back and change things, and I doubt mightily that Mom or Dad would want to, since they had 4 children to get started on. Four lives that likely exist because some piece of bacteria laid their Father in a hospital bed and left him watching thousands leave to go shoot and march in the way he taught them to.

But I often wonder what Dad must have been thinking, on a summer evening, watching small versions of himself step smartly around the church parking lot with hats cocked to the right and arms swinging.

Wanting for nothing, but a bag full of green plastic men on the shelf at home, silent and waiting.


out of mind and heart
March 20, 2011, 8:15 am
Filed under: Family, Shop


At six in the morning I poured the last of the kerosene into the heater and set it afire.  The shop in the woods was cool and slow to heat, as it always is, and a dark monolith standing in the only clear island amidst a small ocean of sawdust was cold to the touch.

Today, the day the monolith Diorama sets sail to the north.  This Sunday today.  Up until 15 hours ago we didn’t know if today would happen, whether the delivery was a go or not, what small miracle would need to happen for all of this to fall into place, this cabinet made into something that will touch and affect so many and so much.

Maybe I’m making more of it than is really necessary.  Then again, maybe not enough.  I spoke a few days back about things taking on a life of their own out in this shop and boy, has it ever happened this time.

A few practical matters first.


I commented to JK on the phone last night “My God, I’m six feet tall and I can’t see over top of the darn thing.”  Shown here without the front door, which is ten feet away in the prone position getting a stain bath.


It is, by all standards, a monolith.  Dark indeed.  Remember the sidewalls of this shop are 12 feet tall, so it may not look as imposing as it would in your living room (not that you’d want it there).  I’ve got it sitting on some of those sliding coasters that have been hanging around the shop on a dusty shelf since Pterodactyls flew and might just send them along with the unit.  Either because I don’t want them or they might just be needed to keep it from depressing somebody else’s concrete floor (I kid, it’s impressively heavy but not that much.)


The aforementioned door, just stained.  Hoping that this stain will blend with everything else.  Wood being weird and especially since it’s oak, the stain tends to do weird tricks in the light, different shades appear then change as you walk around it.


Like here.  In bright light it looks like almost a natural finish, but it ain’t, not by a long shot.  I nicknamed this hinge “Old Stiffy” since it came from the maker without the natural floppy action of its mates.  Happens to work quite well with the door that will go on it, so all the better.  The door needs to drop open and remain somewhat stationary.

All the mundane details.  The screws I found to fit these hinges, for example.  Only available in stainless steel.  Chrome stainless, to be exact.  Not exactly a match for bronzed metal.  But a shot of black enamel paint and they blend in pretty well.

Or the turntable, which I dare not photograph less the natural order of the universe be disturbed.  26” in diameter, it sits atop a spinner mechanism that is 12” round.  It’s heavy since it’s all hardwood, glued up from 3” strips.  And since it’s hardwood it has a mind of its own and wants to warp and move and the whole apparatus has to be balanced and screwed and shimmed and bolted so that it spins (through two narrow as hell slots!) naturally, and smoothly.  Delicate is not the word.  Exasperating might be.

But spin it does, and slowly, as it should be for a display unit.  Can’t really make it spin fast and you wouldn’t want to, since the pictures that will set upon it should be viewed slowly I should think.  Deliberately.  With critical eye.  The point of this whole cabinet is to display the Diorama and make the unit fade into the background.  I had to keep that in mind the whole time and it wasn’t easy.



The bottom drawer again.

JK asked about the costs involved in this thing, and I have a rough idea.The hardwood and plywood and stain and all the little stuff is probably in the range of $700 American.  That’s materials.  Easy.

The labor?  Good lord.  Look, I know how much my labor is worth (some of my colleagues would say “not a speckled damn”) and about how many hours are in this thing.  It’s part and parcel of what I do, or should know how to do.

Usually pricing labor for a customer is a matter of figuring how many hours and hoping you’re correct about the time involved, multiplying by an ever variable labor rate per hour, gasping at the total and then wondering just how much this poor soul can afford to pay.  That’s the way I do it, anyway.  A better business practice would be to get the labor and be hard hearted no matter how much it is, probably throw a fat markup and profit factor on it as well.  Such a practice on 60 hours of labor would put this thing at well over $5,000.00 for the total.  Possibly more than that.

It’s a prototype, as JK keeps reminding me.  It’s also a necessary part of her Masters Thesis.

I‘m not charging for labor.  Have no desire to, because it’s my way of helping this project along.  I haven’t the funds to contribute to her project in any other way.  You charge meagerly for prototypes in this business in any case, and hope for repeats on final design (and I can assure you, there needs to be many design improvements from my plain offerings on this one).

And practical things again, it still needs to ship north.  All the way to New York City, where it will be shipped again and reside in a museum.  Can you imagine?  Still haven’t wrapped my mind around that concept.


The shipping.  There’s no way to make a long story any shorter than to speak of something so ordinary as shipping a cabinet from the Carolina woods to the bright lights of NYC, and all the whys and all the soul that will go with it.  Out of mind.  Out of heart.

We will speak of this later today.

I’m not sure . . .
March 16, 2011, 7:44 pm
Filed under: Family, Shop


. . . what to say.

A tragedy came to our door today, in the midst of progress on the Diorama.  Seems that tragedy stalks this family with a relentless and determined pace.

In the mechanics of such things that were pre-ordained to happen, I submit some pictures of the past 48 hours of work.  The unit is stained and ready for clear finish, which is normally very fast.


The turntable finally spins.


Right side.


Spinning another arc for a surprise feature, more structural than decorative.




The upper unit, dry fit for hardware.  Immediately disassembled for finishing.


Face door dropped.  The arc, to support the upper sides and create a stereographic effect is revealed.


First stained item, the bottom drawer.  I looped one of the picture frames around the drawer front for color comparison, it’s pretty close.  Once dry, I’ll check and see if it needs more toning,


The top lid masked with tape and ready for finish.  Flat black inside, stain outside.

Sorry for the brevity.  It was a very productive session.

diorama structure
March 13, 2011, 7:19 pm
Filed under: Shop


So we left off with a bunch of glued up parts and racks of materials.


Start from the ground up, I always say.  Here’s the base of the Diorama, looking for all the world like an upside down end table.  3 x 3 legs planed and cut to length.


The legs were haunched  to create a shoulder where they enter the base, then bored, screwed and glued. The screw holes were plugged with oak bungs, milled on the drill press with a cutter nobody else has, a stainless steel sweetheart, and I’ve got 4 of ‘em.  Keeps me warm at night, such things.  Holes, meet bung.  Thank you Beavis.


The drawer is made and installed.  This will hold nothing more exciting than sand, as a counterweight for something prone to be top heavy.  The drawer pull finally arrived and wound up being the first of the hardware to see action.  Has to come back off before stain is applied, but what the heck?


The Diorama base completed.  Laid the next level on there to feel out the turntable.


This might have been the most fun thing of all.  Whipping the big router (no longer made, something about too much horsepower and just totally unsafe, heh heh) around to make a perfect turntable circle.


Here’s a thought.  Let’s make the upper unit a little more, shall we say, Victorian.  Panels for sides, instead of just a flat chunk of plywood.  There’s one of the cool hinges (which the bastards didn’t send any screws for, and caused me no end of running around).


A tighter look at the panels.  This will be the upper unit and lid.  Most of it anyway.  Lot of work in these little pieces of goo.


She breaches!  The upper unit from the front without the drop down door or front of the lid.  A keen eye (and enlarging the picture) will show the turntable poking through the side in a narrow slot.  Lost a year off my life on that slot, I did.  The turntable is offset to allow this spinning function and it slots out on the back as well.  Call it a touch of whimsy.  Or physics.  Round meets square and all that.  Cool 26 hp tractor in background.

The two “fronts” will be flat instead of panelized for a couple reasons.  They were originally intended (and still could be) as a surface to mount a viewfinder in, like a stereoscope.  And the bigger drop down front will be used as a surface to mount a map or instructions on the inside face.


A gnarled hand showing where the hinges will go for the lid, on the back of the upper unit.  Now mind, surface mounting these hinges in no mortice, or leafed in like a conventional door would be, goes against all modern construction methods.  Mounting like this, like a steamer trunk hinge, is just plain wrong.  Unless you paid a small fortune for a decorative hinge from Victorian days.  In which case it’s all good.  Had to admit I wrestled with this one for a while, just to defeat the paradigm.  I’m thinking the front will be similar, an exposed hinge.  Plus, more bung holes!

Ally picked up the finish and flat black paint for the inside.  Once the front is finished and mounted, we paint.  We stain.  Then we is done.  This thing ships to NYC this coming weekend assuming my driver isn’t off chasing skirts again.

And we all know how that goes.

Hey JK, any thoughts or concerns?



March 10, 2011, 6:25 pm
Filed under: Shop


The frames arrived today.

This is important because we match the pre-finished frames for color to the Diorama unit.  The frames are white pine, there are 4 of them, and Julio in Juarez spent his lunch hour lavishing them with staples and shrink wrap.

Just kidding.  I’m sure Julio would have no end of good things to say about me.


The visible opening is 15½” x 19½”.  The matte cut size (see, I know some art stuff) is 16 1/8 x 20 1/8.


A close up, or at least as good as my poor camera can do.  The finish is very flat and very dark!  They all appear to have arrived in good shape.

Now if JK could just leave a comment, here’s a question.  Do we want the finish as flat as the frames or is some semi-gloss okay?  Or should we whip out the steel chain and do a little distressing on the Display (that’s another artsy term, distressing) just to give that aged appearance?

I might just clobber it with a club for the hell of it.  My planer broke down and put me behind schedule for a day and I’m looking for something to beat on.

Next update should show some structure and have much hilarity.  No time to be sitting here making entries, I got work to do.

Enter the Madness
March 6, 2011, 4:25 pm
Filed under: Shop


I’ve always divided builds into 3 equal parts.  Transport being the first, the mobilizing and shipment of materials.  Reckon it’s safe to say that a great deal of that was completed this week.  Part two would be the construction phase and three – the finish and hardware stage.

Plywood and some of the hardware was picked up on Friday and a couple hundred board feet of red oak hardwood on Saturday.  Some of the pre-machining was accomplished at the big shop where I spend weekdays slogging for the man, a major help when it comes to processing plywood that only comes in 4 x 8 sheets.  Whacking that up in my little shop can be problematic to say the least.


Here’s the oak hardwood, fresh off the truck and already serving as a handy horizontal surface for other things.  This generally takes, oh . . . about 15 seconds after it lands on the sawhorses.


Pre-cut drawer parts and cabinet components for the “Other” job, the Kitchen Island.  Shot one side with catylized lacquer prior to assembly, a quick way to get some of the interior finish out of the way.  That Devilbuss spray gun is the Ferrari in an otherwise Chevy shop, and I’m continually amazed at how cool it really is.


Proof that I really do look at the drawings.  Just before changing them on the fly.  Continuously.  The Spinner (my hardware guy insisted on calling it a spinner, rather than a Lazy Susan) can be seen to the left.  Simple ball bearing goodness and very low profile.


A drywall cart full-o-parts, plywood parts in this case.    Somewhere in there are two cabinets.  Or one cabinet and a piece of furniture, to be accurate.


My ancient guy, 15 years old and falling apart (at least the unimportant OSHA parts, like a proper guard) but still cutting dead nuts square.  Eighty bucks worth of blade, and I’ve got several of them.  All to get that hardwood to rough length, then to the table saw for rough width, then the planer for thickness and finish width.


Which yields you this.  A stack of like parts.  And there are many such stacks to go.  Doors and panels, drawers, tops and components.


Gluing up the legs for the Diorama.  There are 4 separate legs in there that will net 2½ x 2½ square.  At this point they’re a little long so I can cut to net length later.


Gluing up the turntable for the Diorama, the heart of that piece.  It’s way oversized in both directions too, and will be cut into a round circle when the glue dries.

Not shown are all the door parts (Island) and panel parts (Diorama), the Butcher Block top for the Island, and about 30 pounds of sawdust.  And all the resulting kindling wood to be fed into the fireplace and oyster pit.  Seems a pity ‘cause it’s some darn fine kindling wood.  Expensive, too.

So at the end of the day we’ve got a bunch of stuff pre-cutand roughed out, always the nastiest and messiest part of the build (although the raised panel stuff is a pain too).  Glue is drying.  Have received the Diorama latch, awaiting the hinges and pull and the pre-finished picture frames with the all important stain color to match.


Fastest part of the whole affair.  Assemble on the Island carcass is done, with the drawer and tray slides in place.  Simple.  The inside has the clear finish already done, the outside will get a stain but it’s relatively light.  I call these my battleship cabinets, since they’re built to a spec that only the US Navy could appreciate.  I mean, who on earth still uses solid oak drawer slide backers?  Let alone veneer core plywood at $65 bucks a sheet.  I shall always be poor, but my stuff doesn’t fall apart.  Not ever.

It all starts here
March 3, 2011, 6:29 pm
Filed under: Family, Shop



Because it all has to start somewhere.  And isn’t that a lovely little fire coming from the kerosene heater on a chilly March day.

For a few frantic posts, I’m going to relate in semi-live time the goings on at the little shop in the Backwater. The one behind the house.  The one elected to produce a special piece of furniture for someone special indeed, the sister of Ally, who will use this as part and parcel of her Masters Thesis.  I don’t know quite how many posts will  occur as part of this (not that, you know, a lot of them occur at any rate) but this is an easy way to put pictures and history together for the building of this thing.

Plus I got the shop all cleaned up and wanted to show off, if you want to know the truth.  Lookee.  12 foot side walls.  A concrete floor laid and smoothed by one of the finest finishers I’ve ever worked with.  A modest handful of small machines and a boatload of hand tools, most of which aren’t shown here.  But will be, soon.

I’ve worked in better and worse.  Hell I work in the most advanced place in this part of the country every day with millions of dollars in equipment and edifice.  But better is not always the best when it comes to the stuff you do on your own. You’re wanting the quiet and stern emptiness of the discipline on your own, without several dozen opinions standing nearby.  It’s more peaceable, sure, you can slurp a beverage and curse freely if need be.  You often do a little of both.  I’ve done so for nearly 35 years now and like the selfishness of spending the time away from all others in pursuit of . . . whatever emerges, I guess.  There’s a plan to this of course.  I know what to build.  But sometimes it takes on a life of its own, somewhere amidst the sawdust and the screaming machines.


Here’s a chunk of scrap wood.  I ought to burn it in the fireplace or the oyster pit, I really should.  But I look at it and it has a beauty in that end grain, and I’m old in the way of looking at things like this.


It ought to say something about how I roll that a planer and a propane grill occupy bench space all at once.

This weekend, the madness begins.  Short timeline, much to do.

And in the truest sense of feast or famine, a nice lady has requested an island cabinet for her kitchen.  Same time frame.

Let the madness begin.