John was the son of a ship carpenter who had worked in the East Boston shipyard of Donald McKay. John’s dad has worked on many of Mckay’s clipper ships. John himself had been a carpenter in several New England shipyards and was proudest of the work he had done during World War II in the South Portland shipyards building Liberty ships for the war effort.
This job did not pay me as well as babysitting the well-to-do. John’s brother controlled the purse strings and held them tightly closed for his brother’s care. His brother and nephew Paul were all the family John had, and where John was garrulous and generous, the brother was tightlipped and would play games with pay if you didn’t watch. But he paid in cash each week, which made the tuition bill disappear all that much faster.
John was a motor mouth, but on topics he knew, ship carpentry, his stories were fascinating. He’d been his father’s apprentice late in the old man’s life and had learned old-school methods alongside newer ones. His love in later years had been finish carpentry, and once a month or so, John would have the nephew and I dig out the old tool chest that had been his father’s and tell us about each tool and the tricks of how to use them. He maintained that the marine carpenter’s most needed tool was the bevel gauge. The bevel gauge is a long flat metal piece with a slot in the middle. Into the slot fitted a bolt and a closure nut on a long brass and hardwood handle. Adjusting the nut and changing the sliding metal piece’s angle allows you to approximate almost any angle you need. Because there were so many odd angles in marine cabinetwork, John maintained that you could not do without it. ” ninety degrees? Those are hard to find on a boat.”
The nephew, Paul, was a young man searching for a life. His father wanted him in finance with him. But he loved to hear the stories John told about shipyard work and also loved to quiz me about my interest in history and anthropology. His preferred companions were his uncle John and me. We could make an afternoon fly by swapping tales. I’d leave by four-thirty in the afternoon to go home, feed my cat, and get ready for evening classes.
It was a good year. I had time to study on the job, good companionship, and cash every Friday. It couldn’t last. One day I showed up to find that John had been taken to the hospital. Two weeks later, Paul called to tell me that John had died, and the ceremonies had been family only. Then he told me his father was planning on selling the tool chest and all the contents. He hoped to “recoup” some of the expenses of the funeral. I thought it was sad that a family heirloom chest of tools dating to the 1840s would go to auction rather than stay in the family.
Paul asked me: ” Dad has no idea what’s in the chest, and I want something to remember my uncle by. If I took just one tool, which do you think it should be?”
We discussed it. A set of well-crafted saws, chisels, and some handmade wooden planes were in the chest. But when we turned all the options over and over, we realized that it had to be John’s well-used bevel gauge, the indispensable tool.
The next semester I began to study full-time as an anthropology major at Boston University. I heard nothing further from John’s brother or his nephew.
Years later, though, I read an article in one of the Boston paper’s Sunday magazines; in the article, there was a photo of John’s nephew in his law office. In a case prominently set on the wall was John’s bevel gauge. The caption read: “My uncle’s bevel gauge is a reminder to me that not everything in life is square or plumb, nor does it need to be.”
Well, it’s true. We are a society that prefers things square, plumb, and regular, just so in their place. But life isn’t that neat, and that’s where a sort of mental version of the bevel gauge comes in handy.