August 6, 2010

Woodshop, Tackle Boxes, Towers, and Good Men

I want to tell you a story about a man.

When I was a boy, from 8 till about twelve, my home life was powerfully shaped by alcoholism. There was always fear of irrational behavior and possibly screaming fights between my parents. There were mountains of disappointments from promises not kept, living in fear, never any money, and pretending it was all somehow normal and OK. My dad worked nights, slept days, and there was no place for me during his drinking time on the weekends. The other men of my family had long since run away from each other and I was left, alone, with my mom and sister to try make sense of it all. That's really the very short story.

Our next door neighbor was Mark Moore. Our houses were barely twenty feet apart and he was no stranger to the drama going on in our house. Mark was the father of two girls a little older than me and a very gentle man. I would later learn Mark had a different brand of insanity going on in his house, and his refuge was the woodworking shop in his garage. It became a refuge for me too.

The sound of his table saw was always a call for me to go hang out at Mark's. I loved the smell of fresh cut wood and the amazing ease with which Mark could turn raw lumber into useful objects. I don't remember anything of what was said between us, but I do remember working with him to build a footstool. For a kid from a house with maybe a screwdriver and pliers, actually helping to build something captured my attention for weeks. Going over the stool pattern, the sensual pleasure of sanding wood, the smell of the bit in wood when drilling holes, and using a hammer to put the thing together was all a thrilling experience for me. I still have that stool.

Mark was also the guy who introduced me to "getting the meat." One day he said, "Hey, you wanna go fishin?" Mark knew how to draw out the fishing foreplay. That single question meant days spent looking at maps and talking about where to fish. We discussed what to fish for, bait to use, what to do if you get a fish, and spent time getting the rods ready and hours of practice casting in the back yard. Then there was the big moment when he introduced me to the magic of a tackle box. When he opened the lid of that green box, I saw a collection of all the mysterious implements men use in this kind of hunt. There were lures, old bobbers, spinners, leaders, old line, line weights, knives, all enveloped in the most masculine fragrance a 9 year-old had ever encountered. I later learned it was the smell of thirty years accumulation of beer, gasoline, fish guts, and pipe smoke. To me it seemed each item in the box cast a unique spell and would be as irresistible to the fish as it was to me. While it's odd to me, I can only remember going fishing with Mark once and, except for a little catch-and-release sunfish, getting skunked.

We lived near Highland Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. The once highest point in the city was the thirteen-story Highland Park Water Tower. It was built in 1928, and when I was a kid it was a monolith that dominated my world. When Mark learned the tower was going to hold its annual two-day opening, he invited me and my best friend Larry to go along for the adventure. It was a long, 151 step climb though a very dark vertical tunnel, until we burst out into the light at the top. Until that moment, I had never seen a vista of that scale. Mark gave us each a boost up to see over the guard fence and pointed out all the important places in my universe. I saw my house, my school, the movie theater, the Mississippi River, the State Fair grounds, and even the distant downtown centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul. On that day, my sense of the world I inhabited came together in a much larger picture. I knew more about where I was and how my local haunts fit into that picture. That's what good men who risk involvement with boys do, even with out trying. Lift them up, teaching them about the world of men, giving boys a bigger picture of the possibilities, and helping them to see where they belong in the male order of things.

Mark died years ago and I missed his funeral. No one told me. But just the mention of a man with the same name, Mark Moore, I overheard yesterday, has flooded me with images, and feelings of love and gratitude for his influence. He taught me so much about being a man without even trying. He found countless ways to bless me with appreciation, compliments, and caring. He was a soothing balm for my imploded, anxious, and very ragged boy soul. I know he enjoyed the company of a young guy looking up to him, but his attentions made my world safe and much less frightening just because he was there.

Thank you Mark. I love you.


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