Monday 2 April 2018


by James Bates

builder's tea

Ernie Schaefer undid the twine and rolled out the leather onto his worktable. His practiced eyes scanned the surface noting some prominent stretch marks, deciding at that very moment to incorporate them into the project he was starting. Before he began, however, he took a moment to think about the cow whose hide he now had in front of him. The animal had once been alive, and if it hadn't spent its time strolling imaginary fields munching on sweet, fragrant clover, at least it had once been a living breathing creature of the earth. He felt in his heart a reverence for the animal, and he bent his head for a moment in a silent prayer of Thanks. Then he began to work.
            He was a retired shoe repair man, or cobbler, as he sometimes let slip if the moment was right. Working with leather was in his blood and he'd been working with it all his life; which might be considered odd, since he grew up in the city, far from any farms or ranches or small towns that may have fostered his craft, but that's the way it was. Ernie was first exposed to leather crafting in junior high shop class back in the late fifties. His first project had been a bookmark and by the time he was finished he was hooked. His parents, sensing his enthusiasm, bought him a Tandy Leather Making Kit for Christmas that year. He fate was sealed by the tools of the trade: a swivel knife for craving, stamping tools for creating intricate designs and a multiuse rawhide mallet.
            In high school, while others got jobs at restaurants or gas stations, Ernie found work at a Xavier's Shoe Repair in downtown Minneapolis. Xavier Dukakas, the owner, was a second generation immigrant from Greece. He was a robust man, short in stature and long in enthusiasm, who took a liking to the skinny kid who happened to love working with leather as much as he did. Mr. Dukakas (the name he preferred to go by) taught Ernie everything he knew about the craft of shoe repair.
            "Here, you hold the shoe firmly but gently," he told Ernie more than once when he was learning to finish the edge of a sole of a shoe on the burnishing wheel. "Like an egg," he said, pantomiming massaging  one in his hands. Then he laughed, "Or your girlfriend," he added grinning, watching his young protégé's ears turn red.
            Ernie eventually got the knack, learning from the older man that most things worth doing well in life required practice, and practice required patience. In truth, Mr. Dukakas was much more than an employer; he was a mentor, and Ernie worked for him until old age forced his retirement. Mr. Dukakas sold the business to him for a fair price and Ernie continued to run it until he retired at the age of sixty-six. He then sold the shop to an industrious young couple who wanted to use the space to start their own micro-brewery. Life went on.
            Shortly after he retired, Ernie was outside working in the garden he and his wife Emma maintained with loving care. He was just transplanting some hosta when she came up to him.
            "Look what I came across in the storage room. Your old leather kit."
            Ernie stiffly got to his feet and wiped his hands on his overalls. "I haven't seen this in years."
            "You know you could set up a work space in the furnace room" she said. "You always enjoyed doing your leatherwork."
            The moment he took the lid off the box memories came flooding back: the projects he'd made, the aroma of the leather, the smell of the dye and feel of the hide. He smiled at his wife, not having to be persuaded further, "Good idea."
Ernie's had his workshop now for five years. He has a website where he sells his Creations, as he calls them: purses, journal covers and cases. He gladly accepts orders, like the one he is working on today, a case for an iPhone 6s. He takes a tag board template he has made and uses an awl to mark out an outline on the leather. He uses a razor blade knife to cut out the pattern. Then he trims the edges with a skiving tool and punches out holes so he can eventually hand lace the case together. Today's work ends with him dying the leather deep violet, the color the customer requested. Tomorrow he will apply neatsfoot oil and the following day he will finish it with caranuba cream and hand stitch the case together. Then he will ship it to the customer. He loves the steps in the process and he loves working with his hands. He loves the feel of the leather. He loves the aroma in his workshop. He loves it all.
            He is setting the piece aside to dry when the back door opens. He hears voices and he starts to smile. Then there are footsteps hurrying down the stairs and he turns to greet his grandson.
            "Caleb," he says, eyes bright with affection, "How's my boy?" Caleb is eleven years old and has been helping Ernie for over a year. He's shown the same love of leather Ernie had at that age. Amazing but true, in an age of electronics, is this kid who likes to work with his hands.
            "I'm good, Grandpa," Caleb says, and then spies the cell phone case, "New project?"
            "Yep, it came in today." Ernie can't help but notice the disappointment in Caleb's eyes.
            "Oh... I wish I could have helped."
            "You can," Ernie grins and watches as his grandson's eyes light up, "You definitely can. The order was for two."
            "Yea," his grandson says happily.
            Ernie tells him, "In fact, I've been thinking about something. You helped me long enough. I think now it's time for you to make this one on your own."
            Their eyes meet, each of them knowing that something special has just taken place. They don't  have to say anything.
            Then Caleb's expression turns serious. He carefully selects a piece of leather and lays it out of the worktable. He runs his hands over the hide and closes his eyes and is quiet for a few moments. When he is ready he looks at his grandpa and smiles. Then he begins to work.         

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