Uncle Mack And The Woodworking Trip

They say that every story has a moral.  The moral of this story is:  make sure, upon pain of potential death or horrible disfigurement, that you use the right equipment — mechanical, and human, too.

It was the early ’80s, when Kish and I lived in the D.C. area and Uncle Mack and Aunt Corinne had a suburban spread out in Reston, Virginia.  One of his former law partners had decided he no longer could use some woodworking equipment and had asked Uncle Mack if he wanted it.  Uncle Mack — always avidly searching for some new hobby or interest — responded with an enthusiastic yes.  The price of the equipment was a drive to this fellow’s retirement home on the Maryland eastern shore to pick up the devices and drive them away, and Uncle Mack asked if I would give him a hand.  Being an ever-dutiful nephew, I said yes.

I drove out to Reston on a wet Saturday.  Uncle Mack had somehow obtained an actual delivery van to use — a wise decision for which I have been forever grateful, because I probably wouldn’t be here to tell the tale otherwise — and we set off.

After a long drive through D.C. ‘burbs and over Chesapeake Bay bridges we arrived at the guy’s house and went to his woodshop.  Calling it a “woodshop” really doesn’t do it justice, because he had every known piece of equipment that could be used to cut, shape, bevel, or sand wood — from stand-up metal equipment like band saws and mitre saws, lathes and belt sanders, to grinders and hand tools for detail work — as well as a supply of raw lumber.

Uncle Mack’s eyes took on a glint, and I could see that he was envisioning making fine wooden birdhouses, beautifully finished wooden bowls, lovely moldings, and entire rooms of sturdy yet delicate furniture with Amish-quality craftsmanship.  He wanted it all.  At one point I remember him looking longingly at a thin piece of wood with the retiree.  They agreed it was a really nice piece of wood.  “Cherry, eh?” Uncle Mack said.  “Sure, I can use that.”  It was indeed a terrific piece of lumber that might be turned into a bannister or a baseball bat.  It was added to the delivery pile.

I learned that day that old woodworking equipment is heavy.  The stand-up devices were made of metal from top to bottom and weighed approximately 200 pounds apiece, with narrow bases and wide table tops and sharp edges.  We huffed and puffed and wrangled them into the delivery van, but — how to store them to prevent damage during the drive back?  We had no clue, and no cloth wraps.  So we simply placed them upright in the back of the van, moving them next to each other cheek by jowl, until the rear of the van was jammed with metal, power tools, planks, boards, and blocks.  The  van sagged with the weight, and the retiree’s woodshop was denuded.  He looked wistful about it, but his wife appeared to be delighted.

After thank-yous and farewells, we started back, with Uncle Mack at the wheel of the overloaded van.  As we approached one intersection, moving at a pretty good clip, the car in front of us stopped suddenly and Uncle Mack jammed on the brakes.  We felt the momentum shift in the rear of the van and then heard staccato banging back there.  The next thing I knew there was a loud whang! from right behind me and I felt the metal shield that separated the passenger compartment from the storage area shiver with a strong impact at about my neck line.  After the sudden stop that poorly stored stand-up woodworking equipment, with all its razor-sharp saws and points and metal edges had come hurtling forward and toppled like metal dominoes, and only the metal guard had saved me from being beheaded by the edge of a falling band saw.  When we realized what had happened we both breathed a sigh of relief, then burst into laughter.

We finally got back to Uncle Mack’s house, and reasoned that we should drive the van into his back yard so we could move the heavy equipment directly through his walk-out basement to the inner basement that would be his shop.  When we drove the overloaded van into the back yard it promptly sank axle-deep in the soft ground.  We unloaded the van, tracking mud through Aunt Corinne’s beautiful basement, until the woodshop was crammed full, then tried without success to rock the van out of its deep muddy ruts, coating the backyard with mud droplets as we did so.  Finally we gave up and I drove home, grateful to have survived the experience.

I don’t think Uncle Mack ever used any of the woodworking equipment, or that fine piece of cherry wood.

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