I’ve often thought about what great luck it was that five years after Dad died Mom happened to meet Pop Johnson. Just having had Pop Johnson for a stepfather would have been enough to make me feel that way, but Pop, in addition to being a wonderful guy and a great role model, came with a couple of side benefits.
One was moving out of New York to New London, Conn., his home town.
That was basically a move from the city to the country because New London, although almost triple the size of Payson, sat right in the middle of a stretch of countryside that was an ideal place to grow up in.
And grow up in that stretch of countryside I did! I was outside a lot more than I was inside.
The other benefit was even more important. When it came time for high school, I attended Pop’s old alma mater, Chapman Tech.
Tech had a special endowment, which paid for us to go to school an hour and a half longer than the kids in the other two high schools. Those two extra periods were spent in shop classes.
Think of it! Shop classes two periods a day for four years. That’s a lot of time.
In that amount of time something more than iron, and wood, and steel are shaped. Kids are shaped too.
In our freshman year, two weeks of drafting alternated with two weeks of woodworking. We learned about wood. What made it strong, flexible, and lasting. How to shape it, smooth it, finish it. Everything there is to know about wood, and about the tools that shape it.
That first year, I crafted five-year-seasoned black walnut into a fine coffee table. I came to love the sound of a block plane shaving wood, the feel of a well-sharpened wood chisel in my hand, the shaping and smoothing of hardwood, and the sounds and smells of the shop, especially the smell of linseed oil.
Sixty-four years later, my brother Charlie has the coffee table.
But I have something more important. A lot more important.
I have an attitude toward work that blossomed and grew during those classes.
The second year we alternated between hand forging, wood lathe, and advanced mechanical drawing.
That year I turned out a 30-inch tall Honduras mahogany pedestal that’s sitting in my living room. I also forged cold chisels I still use and a huge screwdriver that went into Pop’s toolbox.
I tell you, I loved the smell of a hot forge, sparks flying under my hammer, red hot steel taking shape as I worked it, the ring of the anvil.
Third year we had metal shop, auto mechanics, welding, and blueprinting.
I made a ball peen hammer, a set of calipers, wood turning chisels, handles for the hammer and the chisels, and more.
Fourth year we were free to choose any project we wanted to do, but we had to make all of its parts. I turned out a gate-leg dining room table, laboring over beautifully figured cherry. And I had the extra fun of making brass hinges, ferrules, steel screws, and even a handful of nuts and bolts.
It is truly amazing how those classes shaped my life. I came out of high school knowing more than just how to write a nice sentence, quote the preamble to the Constitution, tell a base from an acid, and calculate how long it takes two trains to collide head-on if one is going 40 mph and the other is going 60 — why they would do that I don’t know. I learned things I began to use from the first breath I drew after I tossed off my cap and gown.
And I learned that there is nothing — nothing! — any more satisfying than being able to do something with your own two God-given hands. That has made me a happier, more complete, more fulfilled person, and left me with the attitude that if someone else can do it, the least I can do is take a whack at it.
Sadly, I didn’t go to college because our part-time counselor told me I absolutely could not be the chemist, physicist, or biologist I had always dreamt of being. “You’re color blind,” she told me. “No matter how long or hard you work you’ll fail.” She advised me to become an English teacher — like her.
Well, she was the expert, so like a dumb-adze teenager I believed her.
Instead of going to college I went to work in a chain store, where because of my attitude about using my hands I went from stock boy to assistant manager in just one year. I had it made. They were already talking about me becoming a district manager.
Thank you, Chapman Tech!
For reasons we need not go into, however, I ended up in the Air Force. Once again my attitude paid off. I loved working. I even turned down a commission because it would have meant watching others do the work instead of doing it myself, and that wasn’t me.
I spent 21 happy years in the Air Force, the last four of them in England. Thinking the Air Force would supply us with household goods as it did everywhere else, I didn’t ship our stuff overseas; I left it in storage.
As a result we not only had to buy furniture, but the walls of our house were totally bare.
I was going to buy some prints from the Sears wish book, but after having had to buy a house full of furniture I was broke.
I had given Lolly an oil painting kit for Christmas. I looked at it and thought, “Why not? Paint some stuff, Garrett.”
Why not? Try no talent, no training, and color blind.
But what the hey! I had learned to plane a block of wood, hadn’t I? Off to the library I went. I came back with a book. I read. I painted. I screwed up. I read. I painted. I screwed up.
To make a long story short, I sold over 200 oil paintings while I was in England, found a whole new aspect of the world which had escaped me before, enriched my life in many new ways, and even got back to the wonderful smell of linseed oil!
Thank you, Chapman Tech!
Oh, and after I left the Air Force I went to college, took a degree in chemistry, physics, and biology, and taught chemistry and physical science for eight years.
Thank you, Chapman Tech!
Thank you for teaching me that if you work at something, you just may be able to do it.
Send your kids to a school that gets their hands dirty!