The Bevel Gauge

A Flashback Friday Presentation

Before starting full-time studies at Boston University, I worked various jobs to pay my part-time tuition at Metropolitan College. Some of that work was as a personal attendant for older people. There was the doctor who thought he was still in practice in Dorchester and the former wool shipping magnate who dragged me to all the finest private clubs in the Boston area, and at last, there was the ship carpenter.
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.

E Pluribus Unam

A Flashback Friday Presentation

At a Library Association luncheon, I sat with a slight acquaintance just hired by a library system as an assistant director. A smaller system hired me.
Ostensibly, our engagements were motivated by impressive resumes. We were competent professionals. But we both agreed our hiring was inspired by an organizational need to show diversity. He was the first African American hired in a senior position. I the first Latino-American.
He mentioned that his new office was being built custom for him right out in the central circulation area. A principal feature of the office was a glassed-in front. The office design placed him on view continually. I was greeted with an important-sounding title and name for the center I would head. We both snickered.

The typical hamfisted American mode of looking at race and ethnicity had missed the true diversity we represented. He – descended from African Americans, Cherokee, English, and German ancestors. Me- descended from Catalan, Hungarian, German, British Caribean, and Scotch. Neither of us planned on being in glass cages for long. We snickered again; both sides could play at manipulation.

Our organizations took count.; That was tokenism.
The future was recognizing diverse heritages. We were the future.

The Shell Game

A Flashback Friday Presentation

“luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.” 

The speaker of these words was the rather infamous first-class petty officer John O’Toole. Destined never to become a chief, he was swimming towards retirement. Along the way, he offered bits of sage advice to drifty shit misfits in uniform like me. After the second pitcher of beer at the bar, he’d offer tips on all and sundry items of life aboard a ship. Everything that is except how he ran his racket as a ship’s bootlegger. Onboard, it was John who, according to legend, had three barrels from which he rendered scotch, bourbon, and rye. The ship was built in the Second World War but still served through the sixties. Along the way, so many renovations and rebuilds had occurred that, supposedly, compartments appeared on no known plan and were complete mysteries to the Master At Arms. In the crevices of forgotten spaces, John’s barrels brewed up the best hooch available outside a base with a Seabee battalion running the still.

We, of course, did not know if any of this was true. But none dared doubt it publically; it was the stuff of Nautical and Naval mythology. Sailors love the mythological; it makes up for their otherwise dull life at sea.

Sailors also like to place small bets on almost anything; they are called pools. An anchor pool would be to predict the date and time the ship anchored. Pools were organized based on when a sailor’s wife had their baby, the baby’s eye color, or if the weather would blow up. In my day, the pools were for dimes and quarters- If kept quiet, nobody minded. But John’s barrels were legendary. Every deployment, there was a pool on whether or not the Masters at Arms would discover them. On every voyage, nothing was found. The Master at Arms uncovered lots of activity, but not the infamous barrels.

I want to say that the night John blessed me with the formula for success or clued me in on his secret, but that did not happen. Years later, I ran into a former shipmate who told me the secret. There were no barrels. They were just a distraction. The hooch was snuck aboard before each deployment in sealed cruise chests by confederates who shared equally in the take. I have no idea how the whole thing was secret for so long. But, the barrels eventually became so famous that they became the absolute focus of the racket and the search. A shell game. Where are the barrels?

Over the years, I’ve discovered that John’s formula pretty much had it right. Luck was fickle and could run hot or cold. Providence could get you in a lot of trouble while intending to “save” you, but planning could ease the berth between the two.

I understand that there was a pool among the former crew when the ship went to the shipbreakers. The pool was for finding the barrels.

The Heating Pad

A Flashback Friday Presentation

When we had the stunning black double-pawed Smidgen as our cat, she was always very businesslike about how the sleeping arrangements were ordered. If my wife was at work, she slept between my ankles, either above or under the covers. She insisted my hygienic standards were deficient, so I’d often wake up to a pink tongue cleaning me. Besides, I needed to get up to feed her and the dog.


She used another ritual if my wife, Mom, was at home. My wife, a night shift nurse, has popsicle toes. So she would often use a heating pad to warm her feet. Smidgen discovered very early that the heating pad was about as long as she was stretched out. She understood that although Dad had purchased it at Christmas for mom ( a selfish act to be sure!), It was meant for her. At first, she was willing to share. I’d walk through the bedroom and observe Smidge and Mom cuddled comfortably together. That escalated the day that I discovered her stretched out upon the pad when my wife was at work. The look she gave me was pure “if you love me, you’ll turn it on.” No deal.


Smidge had an alternative source of warmth. I had an old-fashioned flatbed scanner. The lamp in it produced enough heat to warm a small room in the winter. And when I worked at the computer, she would lie on it to supervise me. To me, it looked a lot like she was sleeping. But I was diplomatic; she was double-pawed, and that means double the claws.
As lovely as the scanner was, she coveted the heating pad. She began to monitor when my wife would go to sleep. She would then wait until my wife was soundly sleeping and get into bed for a cuddle. Gradually the cuddle turned into her arching her back with claws dug into the covers. She was gently pushing my wife toward the edge of the bed. As she pushed, she claimed more of the bed and heating pad. Over months the little brat became more and more aggressive.


At last real victory was hers. I entered the bedroom, and Smidgen was stretched across the bed’s width and in full possession of the heating pad. My wife huddled on the edge of the bed, holding on to the final inches of mattress.
Locking her out did no good. She’d somehow take those big double paws to the knob, suspend herself and twist the knob open. When I showed up to scoot her off the bed, there was a display of innocence. That cat could have won an Academy Award for her acting. Didn’t I know that it was her heating pad – part of the Divine Rights of Cats, guaranteed in the Consitution? She needed it; how could I deny her?


The next Christmas, my wife received an electric blanket. I had supposed the war for the bed to be over with room for both of them. But she turned up her nose at the blanket. She outrightly refused to sleep on the bed if it was on. She retreated to the flatbed scanner with ill-concealed distaste.
The issue seemed settled until the electric blanket failed one night, and the heating pad came out of storage. A victorious Smidgen strolled slowly into the bedroom to assume her proper place on the bed. The message seemed to be – never attempt to thwart a cat in her pursuit of pleasure.

Joltin’ Joe

A Flashback Friday Presentation

“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” – David Sarnoff

I received the job offer on the twentieth of December, and I was ecstatic. It was the most desirable present of the 1980 holiday season. However, on the twenty-third, I received a call that the big boss wanted me in his office on the 24th. Being eager to make a good impression, I agreed – holiday or no holiday- this was the job that cut me loose from the Operating Room and gave me a shot at working as an anthropologist. 

When I walked in, two staffers nodded and told me, “Joltin’ Joe is upstairs waiting for you. Go on up.” I couldn’t tell how to take the Joltin’ Joe bit, so I thanked them and went up the stairs. My first impression was that I was walking into the edge of a fog bank. Then I caught a whiff of strong cheap tobacco. Joltin’ Joe was a chain smoker. Striding into the room, I was confronted by a large burly man who seemed to like wearing good Harris Tweed in size too small and short-sleeved for his frame. My immediate impression was of an overdressed gorilla. I damped down the satire – this was my boss.

Within five minutes, I confided that my initial appraisal of an overdressed ape was too kind. Joltin’ Joe lost no time in ripping into me about my apparent deficiencies based on the only two words I could get out – “Good afternoon.” 

The verbal assault lasted for about a quarter of an hour. It became clear that the candidate he had wanted to get the job had not made the final cut. Having spent my graduate years at an Ivy League school not known for pampering Ph.D. candidates, I merely let it flow over me. The tactic was designed to make me indignant and defensive. Preferably to have me walk out on the job before I started. I smiled; been there, done that. I smiled and said, “will there be anything else, sir?” the gorilla in tweed grew red in the face and yelled some more.

Afterward, I went out for a couple of drinks with the two staffers who had greeted me. They filled me in on Joltin’ Joe’s tactics of intimidation. Their favorite was the monthly profile meeting. Two program heads were invited in for an “informal” chat on their program’s progress. One received praise, and the other was criticized for minor or imaginary faults. The tactic was designed to keep the staff competitive. It was managed in a rather hamfisted manner where favorites and villains were arbitrarily switched.

Nevertheless, it bred solidarity among potential victims. In those days before email, we talked back and forth, informing our colleagues about what the inquisition of the week might be. With a fair number of programs, each of us had time for recovery between Joe’s torture chamber appearances.

Don’t get me wrong. We didn’t emerge from these laughing in the sunshine. Joltin’ Joe had absolute power to make our lives hell, and there are limits to the abuse a person can take. But, most of us lasted because our projects were exciting and of benefit to the public. So, we found ways to cope. 

Some of our coping mechanisms were a bit twisted. I found my means of coping by chance. 

After several years my resume had grown, and I received other work offers. Eventually, I was offered something that I couldn’t refuse.

For some time, Joltin’ Joe had been actively seeking to fire me. Having kept good records and having done my job, he tried to fabricate reasons to fire me. Unfortunately, his efforts were hamfisted but tiring to respond to, like his monthly meetings. 

Accepting the new job, I planned out how to get the maximum effect from presenting my resignation. I showed up at Joe’s office about five minutes before he was due back from his lunch and placed my resignation letter prominently on his desk. I then went to lunch with some coworkers.

After a long lunch, I took a leisurely walk back to my office. I wasn’t behind my desk five minutes before the phone rang. It was one of the staffers at the main office. “Lou, what did you do? He came back from lunch and started screaming and yelling. I think he broke things in the office and was cursing you!”

I explained how I had tied a knot in this particular devil’s tail while making promises in my resignation to assist him in replacing me with someone equally skilled. Somehow I felt that I had taken the high road in ending things that way.

Shadow

A Flashback Friday presentation from 2020

Whatever I did, something was wrong with the grapevine I was carving. My mentor Warburton took one look and snickered. I decided that as a sign that it was terrible, quite terrible.
He suggested I knock off for the day and return to it tomorrow. “But before you go, stack and sticker this maple.” That’s what life was like with my off-and-on mentor. Rather than just telling me what was going on, he’d let me think on it until there was an “Ahaaa” moment. No such moment came for the vine leaf. Later that week, I contemplated chucking it. “Don’t do that. Not until you have an idea of what went wrong. You’ll repeat the mistake.”
Warburton took pity on me. He grabbed the carving and walked to his workbench. He shifted the carving around in the light. “See how the shadow cast by the sun changes the carving’s appearance. Look for where your work is out of balance. You’ve spent so much time working under light from one source and angle that you can’t see the error in your carving. Use the shadows. Think also in terms of the light where it will be displayed.”
I found the spot that needed fixing and cut away a too-heavy bit of vine. It was now balanced.
Thinking back, it sounds like something from Jedi Training Camp: “Use the Shadow.” But it works.

Well, It Wasn’t Easy – a Flashback Presentation form 2020

Jay Hanna ends his handy book on Marine carving with a story. It seems that he was interested in how a talented shipbuilder had accomplished a particularly masterful bit of carving. The old gentleman reflected for a while and then commented: “Well, it wasn’t easy.”
That’s the story behind this hoop tray portrait ordered by a cardiovascular surgeon from New Jersey. Poor photos, off angles, no information on the builder, year of construction, model, or any of the usual stuff you expect for a commission. I had to correct for perspective on the design because he could never seem to get me a photo in the real profile. Somehow I finalized the design and carved this portrait. When asked by a friend how I had managed to do it, I thought about Jay Hanna’s story and said: Well, it wasn’t easy.

The surgeon was overjoyed at the portrait but not sufficiently that he paid the balance due. I was grateful that it has always been my practice on this sort of commission work to take a substantial deposit up front to cover materials, research, and costs. Since then, if a prospective client balks, I walk.

For further information, read my post on putting curses on sales until paid for:

Heading Towards The Breakwater

A Flashback Friday offering

We determined to take a break from our usual round-robin with songs. So, stories it would be. When my turn came, I started by asking who’d take bananas aboard at the start of a cruise. “No way. The only thing worse is to have a woman aboard or sail on Friday.” another voice, “Hard to avoid having a woman aboard when your wife loves to go out with you; no, the worse thing is to change the name of a vessel.”

I replied that the worse thing was to have a Jonah aboard. This statement was met with silence. Very little could be worse than having a Jonah on board. Into this void, I stepped.

It was just before my divorce, and I was still crewing for my father-in-law on Psyche. He agreed to have my wife’s friends up for a cruise down to Blue Hill and back home. Taking our time, two days out and two back. But accommodations would be tight. I’d be sleeping in the cockpit with my wife, the Cap’n, and the two guests below. After all, my wife refused to learn to dowse a jib, let go of the anchor or cook on the Shipmate stove. So, the crew – me- was needed. 

All was fine until a line of squalls came through the first night, leaving me soaked through my foul weather gear. The anchorage was iffy, so I stayed in the cockpit while the four below played cribbage into the Middle watch. The next morning a halyard parted, and we had to rig a new one. The Cap’n, ever the tightwad, had thought he’d make it through the season on the worn-out lines. That night a pressing reason was found why no one could relieve me in the cockpit. The wind came around from the east, and it was cold.

The following day the Detroit Diesel was cranky. The Capn’ decided while at Blue Hill to look into the problem. My wife and her friends went shopping. I stayed with the Cap’n in case he needed something. It looked like we’d be off by noon, so I went shopping for lunch fixings.

The mechanic fixed the problem but warned the Cap’n that he needed a complete overhaul. That afternoon the sail to Rockland was right into a smokey sou’wester. No fun. Then the guests got seasick- from the chop, I assumed. Getting to Rockland, the Cap’n decided on anchoring. The guests were feeling better and offered to help. Somehow the anchor, line, and all went over the bow, lost forever. Somehow the cable and line had come undone. We had no choice but to opt for a mooring. By the time we had moored, everyone wanted nothing so much as to go ashore and eat at a restaurant—a poor choice. The evening cribbage game was interrupted as the guests, my wife, and the Cap’n chummed the fishes with their Fishermans Platters. I had had steak and suffered no consequences.

Later, my wife started the accusations of having a Jonah aboard while looking directly at me. The Cap’n tried to silence this line of discussion before it went any further. But, the friends took up the cry of Jonah in support of their friend, my wife. 

I doubt they understood what they were doing. Before too long, it looked like a screaming fight was going to develop. Everything that had gone wrong got laid at my feet in the next half hour. The Cap’n looked grim, and it looked like he was losing control of the situation. Into that void, I stepped. “Well, there’s only one solution for a Jonah. He either leaves the boat, or he’s put off the boat. If I’m such a Jonah, I’ll go. Grabbing my seabag, I got into the skiff, untied the painter, and rowed ashore. At this point, my wife seemed to realize that Daddy – the Cap’n- was now without a crew. ” But, who’s going to help Daddy?” Stealing a line from Gone With The Wind, I hollered back, ” Frankly, my dear; I don’t give a damn!”

I had a fantastic night in a motel, showered, and shaved. The next morning I ate at the Rockland Diner and put out my thumb to get home before they did.

It was a sort of predictor of things to come. So, within two years, my birthday present to myself was a bus ride from Wiscasset to Boston. It all ended in divorce, unfortunately. But, I’ve never been referred to as a Jonah since.

All this was met with silence. Finally, one of my friends said, “Wes accusing someone of being a Jonah is serious stuff.” To my right, my other friend added: “Accusing with no proof could imply that the accuser was the real Jonah.” 

Accuse someone of having poor skills as a sailor. Accuse them of being a lousy cook. Accuse them of stupidity. But a terrible thing to do at sea is sticking the Jonah label on them. It’s like a stripe of paint down your back. It holds and ruins your reputation.

Kizu – flaws – a flashback post from September 2018

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KIZU – FLAWS


My Judo sensei was relentless, he’d walk around us casually, then without warning sweep or throw us to the ground. With a smile, he’d then point out the weakness or flaw in our stance that allowed him to throw us.
Flaws are like that. We aren’t aware of them until it may be too late to fix things.
The maple bowl pictured here has some kizu ( Japanese for flaws) that were not apparent while carving but became a nuisance while sanding. They are a result of insect activity in the maple before it was cut down, and were not obvious on the bowl blank.
While I could try to deepen the bowl beyond the kizu I might just wind up revealing more of them. The carver here has three courses of action: toss the bowl into the reject pile; finish the bowl with the imperfections hoping that the beauty of the bowl exceeds the flaws, or practice a bit of kintsugiKintsugi is the Japanese art of perfecting through imperfections. You’ll see many artfully repaired objects in Japan that we would simply throw away.
One place you’ll see kintsugi in this country is in turned burl bowls where imperfections are filled with silver or composite turquoise. I am thinking of doing something like that here.

The old carver that mentored me always pointed out that good carvings rose above flaws, and large reject piles were a sign of a poor carver.



Whitespace

A Flashback Friday presentation from 2018

The carving shown here is in the Chase House in Strawberry Banke, a unique museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that preserves the 300-year history of a waterfront neighborhood. The carving is attributed to ship carver Ebenezer Dearing and is in the formal parlor. The rest of my family toured the house while I examined this carving. It’s carved in White Pine, almost certainly carved as a separate unit on a temporary base. Once carved, the artist removed it from the temporary support and undercut or “backed” the ribbon work so that it appears free of the surface beneath it. After finishing, it was added to a flat ground piece that comprises what I’d call the under mantle. I can’t tell if the work was originally painted or left in its natural color.
The carving was probably done in the mid-1760s when Dearing owned the building and timewise fits into the Georgian Period for design. I invite a ton of criticism, but the undercut ribbon work and some other design elements suggest that earlier baroque design practices influenced the carver. That was why I poured through my carving books at home for similar models and, not finding them looked online. Finally, I found only one that echoed the ribbon work.


After frustrating myself for several hours, I went to bed and, like all too often, dreamed about the issue. In the dream, my old mentor Warburton was scoffing at me and pointing out that the style or Period of the piece mattered very little. “It’s the design intent of the artist that’s important. Whitespace Louis, whitespace”.
Later the next day, while looking at the photos, I realized that among the reasons I admired the carver’s technique and design was because of his restraint in how he filled the space available space is filled. What is not filled with the design is as important as what is. Additionally, the design is well balanced as a mass within the tablet it occupies. Yes, Mr. Warbuton, Whitespace.
I’ve always admired the virtuosity of the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical carvers. Well, to be fair, I’ve envied their mastery of the craft. But, while respecting them, I never wanted to follow them. I’ve always found the majority of the work to be too crowded.

And that’s why I like Ebenezer Dearing’s carving. Proper use of whitespace.

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