There is a song my dad wrote quite a few years ago called "Wood."
It has the sound and feel of a ballad, but not a love song exactly. It's the
kind of legacy ballad, like the kind of thing that a father wants to convey
to a son. The basic gist of it is that the father wants to impress upon his
son the importance of working with wood, that there is a sort of placid peace
that comes from working with the grain, the texture and sawdust. It speaks, also, of how we are all like wood, being shaped and smoothed throughout our lives by our experiences and the other lives that touch us. Listening
to the song I could intrinsically rationalize the sincerity of the lyrics and
their inner truth, but I couldn't really connect with it or understand.
I got a taste of that, though, in the most unexpected way. Now I can say with
utter certainty that I know what that song meant and how it fits. I'm not
so foolish as to believe or think that the song was meant for me specifically, from my dad,
but I took it to heart just the same.
Some people get a thrill out of having birthday parties, getting drunk and
crazy with one's friends as a celebration of one's birth. I don't go in for
that kind of excitement; parties were never a "thing" for me. I preferred
to sit back and relax on my "special day" and to do things that
please me. If family or friends wish to hold a small gathering where a cake
is topped with some candles and that silly song is ear-shatteringly
blurted out, that's fine, but it's not a media event. To me, my birthday hangs in the
same place as Christmas or Thanksgiving, where people who are close to each
other can celebrate life and fellowship- as much as it is a celebration of my
life, it's a celebration of the other lives that have touched mine. It is a
day meant to be shared with people who have earned the right, y'know?
I hadn't seen my family in almost two months. I called my parents that morning to let them know that I was still alive,
that I had moved and that I would be returning Dad's truck to him as soon as
I got my own car fixed, which should be just weeks away. It was Dad who'd answered
the phone and he sounded glad to hear from me. Not the kind of glad that bespoke
impatience for having possession of his vehicle longer than anticipated, but
genuine happiness to hear from his son.
"We have a cake for you, you know," he told me. "And a present.
It's not much, but we'd like you to have it."
I felt humbled, truly. "I see," I said over the phone. "Well,
when should I come by to pick it up? It being my birthday an' all, I don't really
have anything pressing to do that I don't want to do. I haven't seen you guys
in awhile. Today would be as good a reason as any to visit."
"Come by whenever you want to, son. I'm not going on the road for a
week or so, so I'm not going anywhere today. Jesse would probably like to see
I didn't believe it for a moment. "Dad," I said, "be serious. He's more
interested in Playstation 2 and playing his guitar. I'll be lucky if I get so much as a hello from him."
Dad laughed over the line at the truth of my statement. "Well, maybe you're right, but
he is your little brother and he hasn't seen you in awhile. He might forget
what you look like, teens being low on attention span like they are."
"Okay, then," I replied. "Since I'm not doing anything important right now,
how 'bout I come out in the next hour or so."
"Sounds good, son. I'll see you when you get here. I'll most likely be in the
shed, working on my fly rods."
"Right on, Pappa. I'll see you soon." I hung up, checked my email
one last time and packed my stuff up.
I got to the house stinking and sweaty, the A/C in Dad's old Chevy Blazer having been useless in combating the heat of a scorching May day, but glad to see the wide open area
of my parent's five-acre homestead. It's not like a ranch or a farm, as you
might expect in the Tennessee hills areas, but it was quaint and nice. Lots
of green grass and trees and, of course, a dog languishing in the
shade- a golden retriever named Bingo. Bingo got up lazily, his aging frame
hunkered and ready to run in greeting, but his old body just not up to the task.
I approached his tail-wagging form and petted him congenially. "How ya
doin', boy?" I asked the dog. "Still fat, I see." Bingo just
lolled his tongue at me and wagged his tail some more, glad to receive a seldom-seen
My little brother, Jesse, came outside to see who had driven up. "Hiya,
Jay! Happy birthday! Dad's in the shed if you want to see him. I've got a
friend over and we're playing on the Playstation, so I can't talk long. Good
to see you!" He waved to me, his long, lanky arms like shimmering twigs
in the bright sun. His hair has gotten redder, it seemed, and I could swear
that he'd sprouted even more freckles. At fifteen, Jesse had grown into a gangly
young man with a foul mouth and devilish attitude, totally expected when it
comes to teens these days, but a good enough kid. He's just a kid with a head
full of steam, a body full of hormones and a bit too big for his britches.
When he reaches twenty he'll even out and be a hell of a guy. For now, he's
exactly what I would peg him for: a lovable, snot-nosed kid who just happens
to be my brother. He ducked back into the house quickly to get back to whatever
game he was playing before I could wave back. I think he might have heard me
thank him for wishing me a happy birthday, but I'm not sure.
I shook my head at the predictability of my younger brother and strode out
to Dad's work shed, past the pool and into the backyard. I could hear the sound
of a drill or motor of some kind drone from within the barn-looking shack
and knew that my dad, musician and stage performer though he may be, was happily
making a different sort of music for an audience of one: himself. I could
feel the vibes of happy craftmanship literally pouring out of the shed, through
its double doors, and beckoning me to come and visit for a while.
I didn't bother to knock on the barn's door and just opened it quietly. There
he was, my dad, bent over a strange contraption with a piece of sandpaper in
his hand. The device in front him, clearly homemade with the kind of parts that
were contrived of whatever happened to be lying around at the time, consisted
of a medium-sized industrial motor, a thin rubber belt, two parallel pieces
of metal about a meter apart from each other and some oddly-placed vice grips.
A length of bamboo wood was spinning between the two pieces of metal longways,
being rotated by the motor and belt assembly. I gazed upon this contraption
with praise and reverence. It's the sort of thing I could imagine taking pride
in, had I built it myself. Something that has a purpose and function and is
utterly necessary for some craft, in this case, sanding a shoot of bamboo rod.
I waited silently until Dad shut off the motor and extracted the piece of wood
from its moorings to inspect the quality of his work. He glanced up at me with
a look of complete serenity and unconcern, set down the piece of wood on his
workbench and opened his arms. "Welcome home, son," he said gently.
Dad is tall and solid, a typical West Texan grown into a bear of a man. He
is as gentle as a lamb in most cases, but his size makes a person reconsider
the notion of ever making him angry. And in all the years I've known my dad,
he has never raised his hands to his children in anger. He is a perfectly loving
father who tends to his family the way a shepherd might tend to his flock.
I opened my own arms to welcome the bear hug from my dad. I know it's trite
and perhaps a little strange, but of all the people I could get hugs from, my
dad's are the best. They're like these completely encompassing embraces that
wrap you up and envelop you in warmth and kindness, like you're hugging someone's
heart rather than a barrel of a chest. There are few people I will openly express
affection to, but my family gets first dibbs, every time. What for all my
faults, they still love me. What better reason to give that love back?
"Did you see Jesse?"
"Yeah," I said with a shrug. "Briefly. I take it he's got Jeffrey
Dad smiled. "Yep. They've been thick as thieves, those two. During the
school year they used to get out of the house more and ride bikes and stuff,
but now you can't chase them away from that damn game machine. Jesse's been dating
lately, but he's always got time for his friends."
"Was I ever that social?" I asked. I honestly couldn't remember.
A glazed look fell over Dad's eyes, like he was looking down the wrong end of a telescope and trying to see something very small and distant.
"Yeah, a bit. Not as much, though. You never really got into the social
thing much, Jay. You had your friends, but you were more interested
in inventing things and reading. Always living in your head." He glanced
up at me. "Still writing?" he asked.
"Some, yeah. A few stories here and there. Nothing major. Writer's block,
mostly. I can't seem to write anything that... kicks me in the ass." I
decided to change the subject. I didn't come there to complain. I wanted to
see my dad, to find out what he was up to these days. The last time I visited
my parents I ended up walking out of there with a $150 check with my name on
it because they'd needled and picked and poked to find out what my troubles
were- and the money helped in the immediate, but didn't solve the bigger problems of adulthood that I was facing. But does it ever? I always feel guilty about taking money from my parents, even if they
won't take no for an answer. I didn't want to get into my troubles. Not yet.
"So... what you working on here? Another fly rod?"
Dad glanced down at the forgotten and unfinished section of would-be fly rod
that he'd set down on the workbench. "Oh. Yeah. Just touching it up a bit.
Felt the urge to do something with my hands, y'know. Kinda like writing music,
that is. When the muse hits, I have to act on it, like an itch. Hasn't bothered
me much, but the last few days I just can't seem to put this down. I got this
drive to finish this damn pole. Ended up starting another one in the process."
I picked up the piece of wood gingerly, feeling the fragile weight of it in
my hand. It felt soft and silky smooth, remnants of sawdust flaking off the
shaft of wood as it floated lightly through the air. "So what's up with
this one? Just sanding it down or evening it up a bit?"
Dad picked up a micrometer, a tool that looked like an F with a ruler on
the handle. "Trying to measure it and make sure that it's the right size
for when I put the cork on. You caught me just as I was finishing up that part."
I handed the wood back to him. "Well, don't let me stop you, Dad. I know
what it's like when you got the monkey on your back. We can talk while you
work, if you like, or I can go watch Jesse play his games."
He smiled and took the piece of wood from me. "Go ahead and stay, son.
Lots of time and lots to talk about," he brushed past me to another workbench
that was littered with all manner of odds and ends, most of it looked like scraps
from previous projects which never quite made it to fruition. He caught me staring
at the unfinished fly rods, seven of them broken down in three-piece bundles
and lined up against the bench wall. "Works in progress,"
he told me. "You know how it is," he said glumly. "You start
something, get a ways on with it and the passion just sort of fizzles. Gotta
put it down for a while until the mood strikes again."
I nodded with understanding. "Stuff that seemed like a good idea at the
beginning but needs more attention than anticipated. Stuff to get back to later,
when the time is right. The place where I put such projects is what I call 'The
Graveyard', a place for dead ends."
"Exactly," he agreed. "This one here," he picked up the
fourth one to the left, "is a real beaut, I can already tell. Dressed and
ready to go except that it needs the eyes and the cork handle needs to be sanded
down." He took off the rubber bands that were holding the three pieces
in their bundle and put the pieces together quickly. Inside of a few seconds
he held a seven-foot fishing rod in his hand, admiring its length and flexible
wag as he waved it up and down. "Here," he said, handing it over to
me, "hold her. She feels light as a feather." I couldn't help but
get the impression that he was bragging over his work in a wierd sort of way,
the way that one craftsman might show off his work to another, even though I
know practically zip about rod-making.
I took the fly rod, holding tentatively onto the unfashioned cork handle. He
was right, it felt like I was holding air, despite what my eyes were telling
me. When I snapped it gently, to make it flex and bend a little bit, I finally
felt the weight and the bounce of the pole itself. It felt smooth and supple,
like a whip that didn't quite snap as fluidly as it should, elastic but sturdy.
"Feels nice," I said appreciatively. It had been almost ten years
since I held a fly rod in my hand. I felt like a novice all over again, back
when I first held a fly rod in my hands at the tender age of eight years old- at Dad's urging, an effort for a father to get closer to his son.
And, of course, Dad was the one who had taught me how to fly fish. "How long
did it take to make this one? All told, not the actual time in weeks, but hours
Dad paused to think about it for a moment. "I'd say about twelve hours
on the low end, eighteen at most. Not bad, huh?"
"When you first started out, how long did it usually take for you to get
to this point?" I peered at the butt of the rod and noticed that it already
had his signature on it in bold, stained text: Dan Seals.
"Oh, God. Something like that, when I first started out, used to take
upwards of eighty hours. Back then I didn't know much about
what I was doing. Stumbling in the dark, mostly." He said it off-handedly,
like a pro might speak of his earlier days. Dad had started building fly rods
for himself only six years ago, a very short time by comparison. It started out as a hobby, something to do when
he wasn't on the road. Apparently, he had gotten good enough at it that he was
becoming more proficient and productive. I realized, then, that the unfinished
rods which sat before me would be finished sooner than any story I might have
begun years ago. At the rate Dad was working on them, he might complete one
"Dad," I said carefully, "this is a work of art."
"Oh, nonsense! It's just your old man's shitty hobby. That's all."
I smiled knowingly. I knew that he spent most- if not all- of his free time
in the shed, working with his tools and building these fishing rods. It drove
Mom nuts. As far as she was concerned, he might as well still be out on the
road when he's in the shed. Proximity does not always equate to more time spent
with one's family. Dad had found another vocation, without even knowing it.
Or, perhaps he was fully aware of it and was just trying to keep it secret.
I pointed at the signature he'd placed on the rod. "Dad, you've named your
work. Dan Seals, series 209. Signed and numbered. You selling these things
yet?" It was a natural progression, I thought. When people make things
by hand that others might find useful or interesting, they usually try to market
them and make the work worthwhile. My dad, Baha'i, country music celebrity and father
of four, was becoming a professional fly rod maker, right under our noses. My senses kicked
in, seemingly for the first time, and the smell of wood and glue and sweat filled
my nostrils. This was his place, the place where he lived. Working on the road
and being in front of the audience, that paid the bills, but Dad had found a
new love, other than his wife and the Faith, and this shed was not just the place where he tinkered around, it was
the place where he lived, a new home away from home.
Dad waved off the question as though it might be silly to even ask. "Oh,
nothing that ambitious yet... but I have thought about it. I was thinking the
other day that... you know... this stuff I'm doing, it's getting to the point
to where I do really good work. Like, this is my really good stuff and the songs
are just... words. Words that you can't touch. But these rods, man, they're real. I can hold them
and feel them and use them. They're good work. But then I caught myself. There
I was, getting a big head, like I was a pro. I'm not that good... not yet. But
I'm working at it. I think I'm almost to the point where I could start selling
these things as a side business."
I handed the fly rod back to Dad. "How many have you finished, like completely?"
He took the pole apart quickly and bundled it back together seemingly in the
blink of an eye. He didn't answer my question right away and instead reached
for a small black book, which he handed to me. "It's all there," he
said. "Every rod I ever made, from start to present. All their measurements
and unique qualities. Their different makes and colors. Everything. The first
twenty are done, about half of them crap, and the other half are either still being
worked on or were dead projects because they didn't pan out and couldn't make
the cut." I leafed through the small book, unlined pages filled with his
chicken-scratch long hand, numbers and weights and colors and measurements
and times and dates and series numbers... it was like looking at a spec manual
without the clean text.
"Dad... there's got to be something like..."
He finished for me, "Forty-seven so far."
I closed the book reverently and put it back in the place where Dad had picked
it up from. "Jesus, Pappa. Do you work on these things when you're on the
He laughed nervously. "Sometimes, yeah." He reached into a glass
mason jar that was filled with Macanudo cigars. He bit off
the end of an extracted cigar with a quick bite, spat out the tip and lit it with a Bic disposable.
After a few puffs on the cigar to make sure it was well lit, he said, "Those
numbers and stuff, those are for when I eventually start selling these things.
If someone looks at a particular rod and likes it better than the others, they
can say, 'I like lot 213, with the seven-ounce taper more. Can you make one
just like it?' Then I'll go back and look at the book, like it's a road map.
The stain of the wood and its natural imperfections will set it apart, but it'll feel and work just like the original because I've recreated
every last exact measurement. Neat, huh?"
I nodded. "Templates," I said. "We do the same thing in web
design. Always save the source material and layout in its raw form in case a
new client wants a replica of previous work. I have hundreds of megs of source
files for that exact purpose. But when you recreate something, it's not really
art, then, is it? The art lies in the original draft."
"Hmmm..." he said softly. "You ever heard of Red Skelton?
I'd heard the name a few times and I think I might have seen something he had been in, but I couldn't place a face wth the name. "I think so, yeah.
"Well, at some point in his career he decided to turn himself in a clown.
That was his schtick. Being a clown. Later on, when being a clown didn't pay the bills anymore, he started to do these paintings
of clowns. Nothing really impressive like the famous artists, but decent work.
People caught on to the name recognition and he sold his paintings at sixty grand
a pop. Is that art? He thought so and decided to capitalize on it. Simple
paintings that anyone could do with a few years of practice and training, but
he made some really good money off it. That's kinda like what I want to do. I'm getting older and can't do the music thing like I used to- not sure if I want to, really. If I'm
lucky people will recognize my name and I'll be able to make this pay off. Like, people come to a concert and buy my rods instead of T-shirts. If they don't," he shrugged, "I think I'm going to sell them anyway."
"Have you gotten any commissions for work?" I asked.
Dad laughed. "Not yet, but there's this funny story. This old guy, has
to be something like eighty years old, owns this rod making company, right?
Well, last year when I was trying to improve the process of this stuff, I sent
him one of my rods to see if he could give me any pointers. He gave me some
suggestions and stuff, which helped a lot. I actually own a couple of rods that
his company makes. Damn fine work. Anyway, he calls me some months later here
at the house. And, get this, he says, 'Danny, I really liked the quality of
your work. You show promise. My company doesn't have many people with your kind
of skill. I was wondering if you would like to work for me, making rods.' Crazy,"
he shook his head. "I guess he wasn't aware of the demands of the road,
how much time it takes up from my schedule. It's a challenge for me to just
do this on my own and in my own time. If I'm not on the road or at the house,
I'm in the studio all day or running errands. I told him that I just didn't
have the time to do it, that I was home for all of a couple weeks at a time
and it'd be impossible. But it was strange. Here I am, sold millions of records
with a few number ones, and he's trying to get me to work for him as a rod maker."
"And that's what prompted you to consider going into business for yourself?"
"Well, kind of, yeah. I mean, if a man who's been making rods since he was eight
years old and knows his business inside and out wants to hire me, then I guess
that means I'm on to something. Maybe it's not just a hobby after all."
"You love it, don't you, Dad?"
He looked down at his shoes and took another puff of his cigar. I lit a cigarette
while I waited for his answer, reminding myself of how incongruous the smell
of cigar smoke and cigarette smoke mixed together can be. I miss the smell of
pipe smoke and recalled that Dad used to smoke pipes a lot when I was younger.
I wondered why he quit smoking pipes. "I never thought I'd fall in love
with doing something other than music, but here I am. I found a name for it,
though. When I first discovered it, I was looking around the libraries and bookstores,
trying to find books on it so I could learn more. Woodworking, arts and crafts,
fishing... nothing really seemed to nail it on the head. I went to Barnes and
Noble a couple years ago and told one of the clerks what I was looking for,
in as much detail as I could think of, and he goes, 'Oh, you're looking for
the engineering section.' And he pointed me to it. Son, I tell you, I set
eyes on those pages and I found a world of magic. I was crap in math back
in school, but now it seems like a fairy tale to me. Those numbers tell a story. I mean, the way they make
a pencil just... it's magical to me. So I found out that on top of being a
musician, I'm also an engineer."
I smirked at hearing that. I'd known it since he started this strange endeavor.
I wish I'd known, then, that he was trying to put a name on it. I'd taken it
for granted that he knew. "Well," I said, "apparently, you're
a damn good one. If you were a writer, I'd call you prolific. You've done
an amazing amount of work for just having learned how to do it. Some people,
like that guy who tried to hire you, study that stuff for decades and still
only do mediocre work. You're not just an engineer, Dad. You're a natural
at it. What's more, you're a natural because you love it."
And in a shocking epiphany, it was then that I understood the meaning of
that song, "Wood." For years I'd been rather honest about and proud
to say that I hold my dad to be my greatest hero, a man that I aspire to be
like. As the fullness of that epiphany dawned on me, that aspiration doubled
and trebled- quadrupled. My mind fell into a momentary abyss, trying to imagine
all the experiences Dad might have had in his life, experiences I'd never even
heard about. I tried to imagine the hardships and false-starts of his dreams,
the cusp-like distractions that life manages to throw at nearly everyone at
one point or another. And I found myself hitting brick wall after brick wall,
unable to really piece together the vast expanse of my dad's life. What for
all the things I knew about him, all the things I know about him,
those shared memories are but fragments of his entire existence.
And through it all he has somehow come through it happy, if just a touch reserved
about that happiness, and tempered. He has grown in ways that I often find myself
wishing that I could grow.
For the first time in my life I was looking at my dad in a completely different
and unique way. He was no longer just "Dad", but something far more
impressive. More than a fellow adult. More than an elder. More than a living
example. He was an inspiration. Somehow, some way, some day
I would endeavor to find my own version of wood, my own secret obsession,
something so secret that even I don't yet know that it's there, waiting for
me to discover it. Years on down the road I will be stumbling around in a book
store somewhere and I will be asking some kid who is a sixth of my age for
guidance and he'll say, "Oh. You're looking for the engineering section."
Or something like that. When that day comes, my dad will have been long gone
from this world, set into a grave by his family and loved ones. He will have
been many years gone. But at that moment he will be standing right next to me,
whispering and laughing softly, silently urging me to discover a new love, a
new life. Out of the laden mists of time and memory, he will speak to me of
This, above all else, is the most priceless of gifts- on any day, but most
especially on my birthday. Bought and paid for with time, trial and error,
with life, love and passion. And he never knew just how precious a gift it was,
for naming my dad as an engineer, when I had known him all my life as an entertainer,
had rendered me speechless.