Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Howard's End

Chain carved from a single piece of wood

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, when I was in elementary school I spent a lot of hours, especially in the summer, sitting outside in the shade on a concrete slab, carving shapes out of wood with my aging next door neighbor, Howard Steele (he looked like J.C. Penney to me). Recently, when I found the above photograph in a turn-of-the-century issue of the Strand Magazine (c1890s), it reminded me of Howard's specialty: He was good at "whittling" wooden chains out of a single scrap of pine, a trick that was pretty amazing to me at that age. He gave me my first pocket knife, which I used when I was whittling with him. Later, when I was in fifth grade, I took up ventriloquism. My sister gave me the head of a discarded doll, which I modified so that the mouth would open and close. One day when I came home from school, I was surprised and delighted to find that Howard had carved an entire wooden body for my makeshift sidekick, and my mother and a seamstress friend had made an appropriate miniature suit. I named him Mitch Mahoney, because he was supposed to resemble television bandleader Mitch Miller. It must have been the following year that, as I again walked home from school, I noticed as I neared my home that perhaps a dozen neighborhood women (my mother among them) were gathered on the lawn in front of Howard's house. As I approached, it became apparent that Howard, lifeless and propped up on a chair in the grass in the yard, was having a terrible hemorrhage, and the women were frantically trying to stop the bleeding with towels. After Howard died that day, I was given his pocket knife, which I still have, along with the one that he'd given to me. Oddly, now that all the years have passed, I can no longer remember which pocket knife was his—and which was mine.