Time edits your memories. It sands off the rough edges that were once painfully sharp. It makes some moments clearer by evaporating the fog of being involved. Time throws most of your past into some hard-to-access memory dump. There it hides without an access code until something triggers it which happened recently to me because of the approaching Fathers’ Day.
When you’re young what you know is so terribly important because you don’t know much. Your small amount of knowledge is very precious. That tends to get overwritten with adult life. Other things become more important taking up space and time. When one reaches the other end of life those childhood memories, faded and ignored for so long, often return sometimes with an echo of sadness, sometimes with a sweetness long forgotten. Writing about Linden Tree blossoms recently brought back a memory from those early days, an era when we did not have a TV or a phone. Computers were experimental and the size of houses. They wouldn’t be common for half a century. For entertainment we played cards on Saturday night, usually Sixty-Three while enjoying burnt popcorn dressed up with oleo washed down with flat soda.
I had two fathers, one who sired and one who raised. The sire, Vasilios Tsapatsaris, died young, only 33, when I was six. It’s odd now being past 60 and nearly twice as old as he lived, as if I’ve ended up being the mature adult for both of us. He never got a chance to live to the age of contemplation, to out-live the insults and errors of ones youth. He didn’t live long enough to know what kind of man he was or could be. Nor did he live to see his son or daughter grown. For most of my life he has been a long, low gravestone in a Greek cemetery far away, more a mystery than a man.
And then there is he who raised me, my stepfather, “Dad.” He’s a mystery, too. Quiet. A gentle giant. A heavy-weight boxer had he chosen that career but did not. He preferred to fix watches and clocks. But, dad could lift a motor out of a car by hand and not grunt. I saw him do it once. I also remember a time when I was a freshman in high school. I weighed 135 pounds and was arguing with my mother. It was getting heated and loud. Dad came over and with just his left hand — he was right-handed — lifted me off the floor… that got my attention. With my legs dangling in mid-air he calmly told me not to ever argue with my mother again. Message received. I lived with him and my mother for some 18 years but I never knew him well. Yet his influence was strong. His presence guiding. I’m not sure we ever discussed anything of significance but we did things together. Neither of us liked team sports but on April 8th, 1974 we watched Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s homerun record. It was good for him, me and Hank. Another thing we did together involved the Linden Tree, or Basswood as we called it.
Dad smoked a pipe so we made pipes. We didn’t make pipes because we had to, or because the store-bought ones were bad. We made pipes because we could and it was enjoyable and the evenings long especially in the winter. First we’d go out into the local fields and look over several wild apple trees. They weren’t crab apples but apples trees from tossed away cores and opportunistic seeds. Every apple seed is totally different than the parent. One never knows what apple tree awaits in a seed. We examined the progeny closely.
Applewood was the briar of choice in that it is a sweet wood. We’d find a large branch to whittle the bowl out of. It also had to have an intersecting smaller branch at just the right angle to receive the stem. This selection of wood was then roughly carved, and done so rather quickly, in a matter of a couple of hours. When it was a rough pipe shape into simmering water it went. Boiling the carved block drove any sap out so the bowl wouldn’t crack as it dried or when hot tobacco coals were in it.
After several hours of simmering, the wood was allowed to cool. Next the drilling began, creating the bowl and then the delicate task of drilling the much smaller intersecting stem holder. Once drilled and the holes met into the simmering water it went again to make sure all the sap was gone. Later the bowl was carefully shaped and sanded until smooth and presentable. Final polishing was done by rubbing the bowl on the side of your nose. The oil on your nose makes the polished wood shiny. Now it was time to make a stem.
For the stem we would find a basswood that had been coppiced, that is, the tree was cut down and sprouts had sprung. There one finds not only some of the best edible parts of the basswood in spring but also young stems with soft centers. We’d find some the right size, take them home, remove the bark, size them to the stem hole and then with a wire ream out the core. With a bit of sanding and a twist the pipe was complete, ready to be stoked with Dad’s old standby tobacco, Prince Albert… in a can.. which later would hold earthworms for fishing. We made some corncob pipes, simple, much easier, but they never commanded the pride of an applewood pipe.
There’s still one of those applewood bowls at my mother’s house in Maine, all these decades later. I’m going to get my hands on it one of these days. It’s a concrete connection to Dad, of the time we shared, and the lessons I didn’t know I was learning.
We lost Dad about seven years ago, near father’s day. He was 86. A man with a wry sense of humor, he told me not long before he died that he didn’t feel any different in his eighties than he did when he was in his twenties.
“That,” he said, “proved what a pathetic young man I was.”
Somehow I doubt that.