Some Words on Wood and Wings

 ~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

I can’t remember not working with wood. My father was an amateur woodworker. He built some really nice furniture for our house – a hallway entry table, a coffee table, and end tables in the “early American” style – with little more than a radial-arm saw and some hand tools. It was an antidote to his high-stress small-salary white-collar working-class job as an insurance adjuster. He was known as the top adjuster in the Los Angeles area; that, of course, did not get him a particularly high salary. But, as a confirmed “company man,” he took his job very seriously and was ultimately damaged from the chronic stress. He didn’t get much of a retirement; the lung cancer, aneurisms, and vascular disease made sure of that. But along the way, woodworking provided a creative outlet.

My first year in high school he got me a summer job as a construction laborer with a contractor friend; that was an education in itself about the use of wood and other materials in building construction. It also gave me an initial understanding of the ways of the working man’s world. The contractor specialized in demolition of fire-damaged buildings and their reconstruction – he called himself a “building surgeon.” The experience of tearing down old houses taught me how they used to be built decades before. Even in 1954, I could see that they didn’t build them like they used to. But I digress.

Gruman F6F-3 Hellcats in tri-color camouflage_May_1943

F6F Hellcat

When I was about 9, I built a model of a World War II fighter plane. It was a Grumman F6F Hellcat carrier-based fighter, which had dominated Japan’s infamous Zeros in the Western Pacific in 1942 and ’43. The real Hellcat was mostly metal, including armor plating for the pilot and engine-oil cooler – two “mission critical” on-board systems. I made mine mostly out of balsa wood for the structural parts such as ribs and bulkheads, tissue paper for the skin, and “airplane dope.”

Just like the older airplanes, you paint the tissue paper (linen on a real 1920s biplanes) with airplane dope, a quite volatile organic compound no doubt illegal in California today. The dope soaks in and dries like a lacquer, transforming the paper into a strong light ‘skin’ for the airplane.  That model had balsa wood bulkheads and ribs just like the airplanes of the 1920s and early 1930s; the real ones, of course, had used mostly spruce.  That Hellcat model I made must have been almost 2 feet long – but I was smaller then, maybe it was 18 inches…or less…  Along with numerous other airplane models, I also built some model boats, including the classic Chris-Craft speedboat, that one with a skin of thin mahogany veneer. Only about 7 inches long, it had a little electric motor, a brass drive shaft through the keel, and a little brass propeller. I ran it in a local pond.

Well, as life would have it, from college and graduate school and through most of my working life I did little woodworking, except for building two houses – but that is a story for another day. All that time, I never lost my attraction for wood nor the desire to work with it again. But, ah ha, jubilación! (That’s retirement, en español.) Once settled in Santa Fe, I began to take classes in the Fine Woodworking Department at Santa Fe Community College, which has a national reputation for its high quality instructors, program, and well-equipped shop. At the onset, I decided that I would take my time with whatever project I undertook, learn everything possible and enjoy the process. So much to do, but I had all the time in the world, as a Mad Jubilado.

“Time is money,” the saying goes. But that is just a way our overheated over-production over-consumption predatory economy keeps us focused on serving it instead of serving our lives. Time is actually Life itself. That is why, when I am in the woodshop fully engaged in a project, seeking elusive perfection in wood, time dissolves into life. To live is to ‘take’ the time needed to live. Life is a craft; live it.

Craftsmanship, Flying and Boredom

Craftsmanship is the opposite of boredom.  One does not usually think of digging a ditch as a matter of craftsmanship. But when I dug that ditch at age 15 as precisely as possible to avoid boredom, I had no idea that I was becoming ‘craftsman-like,’ but I was. If you do anything with craftsmanship, striving to do it well is a positive experience. Doing something well is not the same as being a “perfectionist,” which is simply taking precision beyond reason, into compulsion. We all know from high school geometry that a perfect circle does not exist outside the mind of Euclid, or a perfectionist. But in engineering drawing or architectural drawing we need to convey technical-spatial matters without ambiguity.  Achieving a circle that appears to be perfect to the user’s eye is rather enough.

I was quite proud of myself when I landed my little Piper PA-28 at San Luis Obispo airport after an instrument approach “to minimums” – about 220 feet above ground I think it was. That “Minimum Descent Altitude” is a “decision point,” the split second when you have to either have made visual contact with the runway or immediately execute a “missed approach.” At that point a pilot must decide whether to try again or to divert to an alternate airport with better weather.

That night the sky was crowded; several planes were trying to get into SBP. The controller put me in a holding pattern for probably 20 minutes. It seemed like an hour. piper_warrior2_panelAs each aircraft attempts the approach, those waiting fly the holding pattern, a rectangle with rounded corners, each at a different assigned altitude. When one aircraft lands, the next begins the approach and the rest descend to the next lower altitude, waiting their turn at the approach. It is tedious, very stressful, and definitely not boring. Lucky for me, I had just finished my instrument training and my flying skills were probably at their peak. I landed after spotting the runway just seconds from having to call a missed approach.

It was 1980, and in a way it was the culmination of a dream I’d had since early childhood. There are many challenges in flying. But an instrument approach, at night, in clouds when the airport is only visible the very last second – or not –is probably the epitome of flying challenges, except, I suppose, for aerial combat. I had been accepted into the Air Force Aviation Cadet officer training program after a year of college. But then they decided that they had too many pilots and cancelled further classes. That was not long before the Vietnam war ramped up. Maybe that was just not my time to fly. Anyway, I never got around to learning to fly until several years after grad school.

Some skills, like flying, require constant practice.  Some are “mission critical,” like an instrument approach to an airport runway, when choosing to land or execute a “missed approach” involves a split-second survival decision that requires polished skills. Others, IMG_1112like fitting a part so that it will look just right in a piece of custom furniture you are making, can be much more leisurely in execution.  Neither is boring.  Craftsmanship is never boring. I don’t do instrument approaches anymore. It takes so much practice and I do not have to be there before the storm clears – I’m retired. Now, I practice woodworking at a more leisurely pace, and fly mostly for fun, without the pressures of having to get there “on time.” Besides, I have so much to do and all the time I want to take. None of it is boring.