Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rogues and Raconteurs

"I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I've lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage."
-John Steinbeck
I've always liked Steinbeck. He was a great writer in both the sense of his ability to craft language, and his way with truth. More people should probably read him, though I wonder how many can still truly identify.

And I think I've chanced upon the name for the bookstore/coffee & tea shop/tobacconist's I want to operate someday in the naming of this entry. Rogues & Raconteurs: Fine Books, Rich Coffee, Exotic Tea, Rare Tobacco & Other Vices

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Horrible People

She called me, "I'm feeling masochistic, and I don't know what to do". Her options she said were to go to her ex, who is infinitely bad for her, or to find someone else to satisfy her need.
Finally she asked, "How good are you with a knife?"
When I was done there was blood on my sheets, drying on my hands and the scalpel blade. The rich smell of copper and flesh filled my nostrils. Incised into her back was a rose, of a delicacy that surprised even me. The only errors in it were where she had arched her back, or wriggled, in combination with one of the deep throaty moans she'd make each time I drew the blade deep and long across her back.
Walking out the door she was happy, and seemed somewhat spent. I, on the other hand, was on an endorphin rush that kept me above the water for several hours afterwards.
It had been years since I took a blade to someone else's flesh for their pleasure. Since I had allowed myself to revel in the smell of blood, and the careful, small, shallow movements of the knife; the orchestration of damage to the tune of moaned responses. Afterwards I was on a high to rival all the alcohol, strong cigars and danger I've put myself in chasing adrenaline. I'd hurt someone, and she had liked it, and I was ecstatic.

I've hurt people in my life. Emotionally, physically, angrily, panicked, out of fear, in defense. It's been justified, and unjustified. I've left people in tears, and occasionally (always with reason, the immediate need to keep breathing) injured. And every time I've hurt, torn someone with a word or dealt a physical blow to someone to defend myself or another, when it was over, when I was walking away, I've had that sick knot in the pit of my stomach. I don't like doing harm. I don't like violence. Even if I am right, even if I was justified in my argument, or my attack. Never has it made me feel better to lay true harm on someone else - Glad I was alive, reinforced in some conviction or another that had been central to the argument, these things yes, but there is no high from that kind of harm for me. I don't want to tear someone apart emotionally. I don't want to feel my palm driving that man's nose inwards, his head against the tiled bathroom wall, the ceramic breaking beneath his skull as he goes limp under my hand. I've never wanted that.

But I do want to feel her smooth, soft, curved body pressing against mine. I want to feel her heat, and her sweat, and the smoothness of her skin, and her hot blood on my fingertips. I want to feel the air fill her lungs as she draws in to release a moan that will vibrate through her diaphragm into my pressing hands as she arches her back into my blade. I want to feel the radiance of her smile as she enjoys the subtle pain, the impermanent wounds.

There is hurting people, and then there is hurting people. I know the difference. I'm good at both - but one is easy. Cruelty, maliciousness, is easy. It rises up and all it takes is a word, a contortion of muscle, to leave someone scarred, bleeding, tormented.
The other is difficult. The other requires empathy, and kindness, and gentility, and strength, and force, and will. It is not something everyone can do, not something for just anyone to play with.

There is a difference between the types of hurt inflicted. One does not equate the other.
Yet too many think it does.
Too many assume sexual sadism is the realm of serial killers, rapists and torturers. People who inflict themselves, inflict inhuman pain on the unwilling, undesiring, and defenseless. This is tough for those of us who enjoy the exchange of giving/receiving pain-pleasure, but the real problem is - Too many people who are capable of sexual sadism, look at it this way. It is the infliction of pain and harm that excites them. They relish in terror and suffering. And this extends outside the bedroom. They treat others with a cruel hand, the misery they bring to others irrelevant to their own glee at hurting and domineering.

I was reading another blog tonight, and the author was saying she very much enjoyed this area of sexual exploration but was discouraged in that, "The biggest problem is that the only people who're willing to do horrible things to me are... well, horrible people, and will keep their knives to themselves, thanks."
This really sums it up.
On both sides of the coin are horrible people who want to participate in horrible things for the sole reason that it allows them to be horrible to someone else. It is not a mutual thing - It is not a give and take. It is a take, and take only, activity for them. They trade is misery and suffering.

Some, I imagine, wont see the difference. They will see the blood, and pain, and enjoyment and immediately file those participating as "horrible". It is not their cup of tea, and outside their scope of understanding. And so be it. Just another example of how this is not for everyone.
This realm is something unique, to be participated in by unique people.

When I was done with my friend's back, before she left, before I found myself lost to adrenaline in the absence of her flesh to consume it, she was expressing her surprise to me, looking over the pictures of the process on my digital camera. "This is a side of you I've never really seen" she said.
And its true. Most people know I am kinky. I am an open book, and my friends know who and what I am. But, along with that, I think most make assumptions - Because I don't push it. Unless you want to explore it with me, I am happy to let you do that. Explaining is just too much work sometimes. And really, unless you are on my side of this, there is no good explanation of my intentions, my attitudes, and the care and gentility with which I approach hurting someone for their pleasure. The empathy to know which touch is right, and which is undesirable, the kindness to be unreserved in exploring their desires, the strength to maintain control of an inherently dangerous practice and the restraints (or lack there of) with which I practice it, and the will to put it all together in a focused, concentrated, effort for mutual benefit. And even then, there is no good explanation unless you are someone I am willing to do that with - Which is, really, a select few. Some people's masochism is self destructive, and I refuse to indulge that.

The assumptions created by the horrible people leave a stain on the rest of us. Their actions and their cruelties muddy the waters for those of us doing "horrible things" without being horrible people.
Its a fine line - And a misunderstood one. The line of just enough pressure to not go too deep, without having so little as to make no mark at all.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Something happened once. It happened in a field. It happened in a pair of towering buildings in the middle of Manhattan. It happened in the capitol of a nation. It happened in all of these places, pretty much at the same time (well, all the same morning, anyway).
It was a grassroots effort. It started in the middle of nowhere. You probably cant pronounce the name of the place. The men behind it weren't executive, politicians, royalty (related, maybe, but didn't have the King's ear, you know?) - They were just men. A doctor, a group of students. The kind of people who stand on the plaza and protest with hand-lettered signs on Saturday afternoons.
But these men didn't picket. They didn't organize a rally. They weren't protesting police brutality, the military industrial complex, school board stacking, downsizing, for or against gays in the boyscouts. There was no march, there was no yelling, no sign waving. No, there was none of that.
These men, these architects and students, they talked, and planned, and after years of work, and training, late nights of strong coffee and papers scattered all over their kitchen tables as they studied, they all got up early one Tuesday morning, and went to the airport. All nineteen of them. They were dressed cleanly, professionally. They were polite to airport staff, security, flight attendants. They traveled light, and they all carried box cutters in their carry-on bags.
American Airlines flight 11, United Airlines flight 175, American Airlines flight 77, United Airlines flight 93. All four planes, each of them carrying a small handful of these nineteen men, took off without incident. People relaxed, started to read, maybe have a drink to settle their nerves about being so high in the air. And then these nineteen men acted. With all their belief, all their conviction, all their plans, they brought home that war had changed. Everything that was vertical, went horizontal like never before.
And they got away with it. For the most part. The only resistance came on Flight 93. A few people decided they weren't willing to go quietly. They weren't there to be moved at the whim of a man, or four men, with razor-knives. They decided it was time to "roll". They snuck calls to their families, told them they loved them, and then they acted. Not without incident. That plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, harmlessly, save the lives on board.
Flight 11 and Flight 175 took down the largest monuments to commerce, engineering, and human ability then standing in Manhattan. Flight 77 hit the ground outside the center of this nation's military establishment, driving a concussive fireball, burning wreckage, and the ruin of human flesh through one wall.
Seven years ago, that shining Tuesday morning, everything changed. And for awhile we were united, in our anguish, and our hate - We were equal, and driven, and we showed the world what humans are capable of. Not just destruction, not just hate, but something greater. The lives given that day, running into burning buildings, overpowering fanatics with knives, showed the true depth of what it is to be human, the true greatness we're capable of.
We stood, and we fought, and died, and survived, and endured. We knew who our enemy was, we were clear in our purpose, and our hatred, and we acted on it.
And now, seven years later? Everyone seems to have forgotten. Everything has gotten muddled. Too many lies, too many excuses, too many people who, once again, cannot find in themselves to rise above their own lazy self interest. Because, without a great evil, without a great wound to make them all bleed, to give them the push necessary, it just takes too much work to rise above. And now? Remembering just serves to illuminate that. So, they don't. Most people just don't.

I do.
I was just over a month shy of my 16th birthday on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th 2001. I was a boy then, a mature, strong, well educated (I finished high school the following spring) boy, but still a boy. Today? Without arrogance, I feel I've claimed the title of man. The events of September 11th 2001 are a great part of the influences and experiences that helped to shape me in those formative years and put me on the path.
9/11 is, for those who remember, what the Kennedy assassination was for our parents. It's the new "What were you doing when..." question. I think it was a more fundamental event, for everyone, than the assassination of a president - It shook foundations harder, deeper, and changed more. Presidents had been killed before, it was nothing new. It wasn't the pointy end of an innovative thrust in the shape of the world. 9/11 was. If you're paying attention everything is now Before 9/11 or After 9/11.

After 9/11 I became an EMT. After 9/11 I decided the military was in my future - Elite Light Infantry, come hell or high water. There is simply no other option.
I'm stuck in that day - I was angry, I was shocked, I was hurt, and as a teenager 3000 miles away there was nothing I could do. I heard about the deeds of the passengers of Flight 93. I watched fire-fighters and police strive, and die, and survive, and help others, and lose friends, and go back again - I felt proud that these men and women were of my nation, my species. I felt sad I wasn't among them. I was angry that I could not partake in retribution against those responsible.
As these few short years have passed from that awful day, as I have gotten older, my desire, my drive, my belief in the necessity of being a strong hand, a helping hand, in times of need and disaster and chaos has only gotten stronger. It will happen again - The "front line" will again come to our home, our cities and we will need to bring another front line to their homes, their cities, to match the flexibility of the non-nation state warriors of our enemy. There will need to be people ready to meet those challenges head on, with heart, and with strength. I don't know if I have it - All I know is that I have to try. There is no other option.
I am of the 9/11 Generation - Its an indelible part of who I am, what I will become. Its my choice to hold onto it like this, but it's also my responsibility. Because I do remember, and with memory comes responsibility. To all the fallen, the voiceless, faceless, named and unnamed, who died screaming, died trying, died fighting, burned alive, running up the stairs when the towers came down. To all those who survived, and will never get the dust out of their lungs, or the sight and sound of bodies, formerly people, hitting the pavement because the alternative was burning to death, out of their mind. That's why most people don't remember - Memory brings responsibility, and that takes work.

9/11/2001 - Never forget. Never forgive.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Go Back - Bad Air

It began at REI, on a rescue mission, and a few other places, the idea that our little group of rogue hikers should go into an old mine. We are weekday slaves, working for the simple goals of exhausting ourselves, endorphin rushes, eating red meat and drinking good beer and Scotch whiskey every weekend. Our frequent lack of preparation, equipment, or a plan is something of a running joke between our small group, so the idea of taking this ethic into an abandoned mine tunnel seemed perfect. Why? Not to higrade minerals, not to drink, party or vandalize as so many do, simply for that one age old reason; Because it's there.
The sun was sliding low in the sky as we gathered to leave from the house. We had decided to go in the evening, so that Joe, our 'expert' via experience (the only one of us ever to enter an old mine previously) could finish a shift at the bar. The three of us, all roommates, gathered to inspect our two hard hats. We found them to be indeed hard-hats, and divvied them up according to who had the hardest head and therefore didn't need one. Ian, our resident (and very lost) Dane, decided he would go without and we set off.
The road from Socorro to Magdalena is a twenty-six mile stretch of highway rising nearly 2000 feet in elevation from the Rio Grande river valley to the mountain village. Passing through a rocky section at the northern end of Box Canyon before rising up onto the flats, the road carries the westward traveler inexorably into the Magdalena mountains. Dark golden with deep shadows in the late afternoon sun, the “Maggies” seem to tower over the road, standing taller above the black ribbon as it disappears between low lying foothills. With the windows rolled down, and the smallest of us folded into the narrow extended cab backseat of my old truck, we tore down the road, iPod jacked into the blown stereo fighting for sound dominance over the wind and unmuffled exhaust system. We laughed and were silent and sang along and were fixed in our place, time and purpose as we came roaring into town.
Magdalena rose before us in its most tarnished and weather worn glory. A town of roughly nine-hundred permanent residents, and a few dozen communal dogs, it was once the largest cattle rail-head in the world, as well as a center of mining activity. Now it lays nestled in the mountains, a wide spot in the road, with pretenses of being a struggling art locale. Making a left off the main drag onto a dirt street we begin to climb higher into the mountains. The music was turned down to discuss who knew where we were supposed to be going and so I could relate a story of the old house of ill-repute, which now belonged to a retired kindergarten teacher, perhaps a descendant of its last madame. Small town sounds filtered in the open windows, only to be left behind for the desolate crunch of gravel beneath tires as we left town once more.

The mine opening was small, hidden behind brush in a carved out section of hillside, a few hundred yards up-slope from the old head-frame. None of us knew what it was, it wasn't the mine we had come to find. We all agreed it was the one none the less. A small hole, carved into dirt and loose rocks, with shoring set a few feet in, it appeared to descend slightly and quickly entered darkness. Atop the shoring further down the tunnel, rubble and rock had collapsed, but the shoring held, creating no blockage. Painted around the entry timbers were multiple warnings, some of them unreadable from age, some of them rather fresh; "Go Back!" in white, and under it in black "Bad Air". We looked at one another. We breathed deeply of the cool air emanating from the breathing hole. We grinned. Joe donned his hard-hat, turned on the headlamp and hopped over the first timber dropping into the tunnel. He moved forward a couple of paces and looked back, a grin saying "C'mon you apes, wanna live forever?"
A short ways into the half-man-height entry tunnel there was an old steel door, propped three quarters open by rocks and time. Beyond was the carved out rock of the mine, ceiling barely standing room high. The darkness swallowed us deeper, sunlight making only fearful steps further in. Several yards down this tunnel we entered a larger opening which branched off in three directions. The floor was strewn with litter; old batteries, an ancient GE camera flash array, and small pieces of trash indistinguishable but distinctly human. To our left a head high tunnel carrying straight into darkness impenetrable by even our brightest LED lights. To our right a small crooking tunnel that turned downwards, descending into another bifurcation of lower tunnels. Straight ahead was a narrower, again man height, tunnel which had to be accessed by crossing a single loose board of indeterminate age covering a narrow, barely shoulder width, shaft which ran deep into darkness beyond the throw of any flashlight. We chose the right hand path, and entered on hands and knees into the lower tunnel junction via the low ceilinged, dropping and curved short tunnel. Beyond we found two tunnels of undesirable looking stability, which looked both cramped and to have been victim to recent collapse activity. We turned back, going back up to re-decide our path.
The path, as we chose it, was over the rickety board, which seemed to hold each mans individual weight without complaint. The darkness below our feet stretched away, untold depths beckoning a slip, a fall to the conspiracy of gravity. Across the board, beyond the beckoning hole, we went deeper into the rock and earth. As in the first atrium-like intersection of tunnels, small traces of human activity were present, primarily in the form of dead batteries strewn about the floor.
We passed a left-hand side tunnel, continuing straight into the depths of the mountain until we came to an obvious area of collapse. The tunnel roof dropped two feet or more in a quick grade, reducing the height to no more than three feet. Snapped timbers, splintered as if blown apart and crushed down onto themselves, lined the compressed tunnel walls. Great sections of rock protruded between beams, their smaller cousins, shattered remnants of the mountain's labor, scattered the floor. A fine dust sat on everything, powdery gray like the surrounding stone. The tunnel continued on like this beyond the play of our headlamps. We turned back.
The side tunnel we'd passed before, now on our right, seemed the best bet and we struck off into it. It was head height or better, and remained well shored. A few cracked timbers, and the usual small rubble on the floor, but no worrying amounts of damage. We continued on as this tunnel curved, and branched into another.
One branch led to another, led to dead ends and turn arounds, and returns. Along the walls were the occasional spray paint graffiti markss, remnants of post-mining explorers hell bent on being remembered by other idiots, and the more common pure black scribblings of miners, written with finger tips coated in lamp black. These soot scrawls hung on the walls, fresh as the day they were written, telling stories of the men who had pressed finger to stone that they too might be remembered, even if only to themselves. Most of them were over a century old, and many of them carried finger prints so clearly that at a turn we expected their author to be standing beside us. We looked, and did not disturb, and continued on down the tunnel.
At one seeming dead end, the side tunnel we had taken ended abruptly in a wooden chute, coming out of a higher tunnel, some four feet above the floor we stood on. A single rope of old hemp hung down from the chute. We grabbed hold and climbed up clamoring over the old oak framing and the rusting ore cart jammed into it at the top. The tunnel we entered sloped up steeply, rotten steel rails along its bottom lost in debris and loose dust that slipped under foot. Bracing hands and feet on opposing sides of the shaft we shimmied our way up and into a larger room. The confluence of three tunnels, all collapsed not far in from where we stood, had a ceiling fifteen feet over our heads, and was partially filled with rubble. In our lights everything flickered and flashed, including the very dust stirred under our feet. A rampant crystal growth covered almost all exposed surfaces. Bundles of millions of long, tiny crystal formations, sprouting out like glass thorns in all directions, none larger than a needle, and many finer than hair, laying across the rocks and dirt in great long bundles. We spent several minutes in awe, examining the crystal growth in all its fine forms and shapes before moving further on to explore the tunnel we'd branched off from to find this room.
This exploration lead, in eventuality, to another dead end, of sorts. At the end of a tunnel, we found the rocks smoothed and round, carved by years of water erosion, not picks and hammers. The rock turned back, a hollow to the side, and its smoothed features continued up, drawing our eyes to look for a ceiling we found absent. Instead, rising up into blackness was a smoothly contoured shaft, five feet at its widest and extremely smooth. A single hemp rope, knotted every foot or so, hung down from the blackness ascendant. We mingled at the bottom, gazing upward, like fearful natives below an eclipsing sun, until one of us struck upward with a hand, seizing the rope firmly and jerking it savagely. It pulled taught and held fast. Grabbing it with the other hand he pulled, bracing his feet on the wall and letting his weight hang. The rope held. He began to climb, hand over hand and with braced feet, into the blackness. He disappeared around a slight bend in the shaft, the rope quivering in the jaundiced beam of my incandescent headlamp the only reminder that he was in fact still there. The rope fell still, and his voice came down to us. The rope was securely fixed at the top, and fairly new it seemed, and we needed to come see what he was seeing. So up we went, one at a time, pulling ourselves up the rope, feet bracing and pushing on the rare shelf or rough surface of the surrounding rock. Thirty feet or so later, we emerged into a huge space. Blackness surrounded us, the walls and ceilings all nearly out of reach of our lights. The floor was hidden under masses of rubble, rocks large and small piling across the expanse. The cavern sloped distinctly downward, toward where we stood and beyond, into a piled depth. Spires of rock rose near the walls, carved out by water, lending an ancient temple like quality to the room. Bats scattered in our light, flitting and darting into the shadowed recesses of the walls, and upwards into the fractures and secure dimness of the ceiling. One side of the cavern gave way to another water carved tunnel, this one sixty feet wide or more, and half piled with debris, descending at a steep angle into unknown tunnels below. The cavern rose, sloping to an upper plateau of broken rock and dust, into which opened the remains of another mine tunnel. The rubble and combination of cracked, fractured and smoothly worn walls and ceilings suggested eons of water flow, creating labyrinthine structures deep in the mountain, suddenly invaded by hand picked and drilled tunnels of mens design and craft. The resulting years depredation of stone finally took their toll and rock broke and collapsed, dropping tunnels out, and widening the cavern. Fresh air permeated the space, a cleaner, more flowing air, than lower in the mine tunnels. We followed the movement of it up the man-carved tunnel, hoping to find an exit, until we came to a dead end of rubble. The air continued to flow, and the tunnel was rife with cracks and openings a bat could easily have moved through, but passage for a man was impossible. We turned back, moving out of the laboriously carved tunnel and back into the great cavern, carved by the violent casualness of water over eons, and victim to its own instability in the face of invasion. We made our way back down over the subterranean scree slope, until we reached our tunnel down. One after the other we knelt, grabbed the rope, swung around and climbed down, hand under hand, feet braced slidingly, on the smooth walls of the shaft.
Backtracking we reached the site of one of our previous side-tunnel excursions, and had a minor debate on the way out. I insisted the tunnel we were in was the right way, but one of us was convinced that the curving tunnel to our side was the way. We disagreed, but would leave no man alone beneath the earth, so we followed. After a short exploration he realized his error, and the three of us returned to the right path.
Darkness ended abruptly as we entered the last stretch of tunnel before the entrance, a fading gray-blue light slipping its way inwards, in a darting insurgency against the shadows. We crawled past the old iron door, and out into the fresh air and late afternoon flat light of just past sunset.
We walked slowly down the slope, back past the old headframe towering monolithic and iron above a four hundred foot shaft. Our footsteps crunching in the rock, we simply lived: Breathing, tired, covered in dust and bits of debris, firm in our conviction that we were lords of the Earth, and that all our worldly concerns lay behind us, other ghosts in the subterranean playground of fortune seekers and fools.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


My grandfather was a blacksmith, among many other things. He was a machinist, woodworker, saddle-maker, rancher, shootist, father, husband. He was everything he needed to be, to have the life he wanted to have. A quintessential New Mexico high-desert renaissance man. The kind they don't make anymore.
He died in 1972, of cancer that did what men and cattle and austere living never had been able to, more than a decade before I was born. Growing up was like living in a burned forest of his life. The skeletal remains of his work, his things, decorated the landscape of my childhood home, and my childhood imagination. The lathe he had built from spare parts and hand-made parts, sitting hulking in the corner of the ranch workshop, dusty and partially draped in oily canvas. His forge, a great iron bowl on legs, resting under an elm tree surrounded by scattered scraps of steel and copper. The original homestead house and shed, great tumbled piles of red-rock, partial walls and tin roofs, had become his scrapyard - Home to old cars, motors, bizarre and cryptic innards from locomotives and transistor radios, great piles of scrap iron and spring steel. Rust, and earth, and rotting wood, scraps of oil cloth and canvas, mysterious handmade tools of unknown ends and meaning, bits of silver and leather, the growing green corrosion of old copper - This was how I knew my grandfather. How I felt his presence, so obvious in its absence by what he had left behind. Some of it still in use, some of it languishing, victim to entropy, abandoned by the mind that had conceived of it, and its usefulness. A mans works, like children, orphaned to the timeless hand of oxidization and death.
I grew up knowing men could make things with their hands. My grandfathers bones lying scattered around the house, my mother's art on the walls and pottery on the shelves, my fathers photographs, bridges and buildings he built, surveyors maps. I knew that these were the possibilities of human hands. So when I was fifteen, and found myself cultivating a taste in fine knives to compliment the taste in fine guns I'd been raised with, the natural path seemed to me to be making my own. I couldn't find the perfect knife for sale, or at least couldn't afford it, but I certainly felt it possible to make one.
I acquired a few more tools and set to work, quickly making a savage dent in my fathers collection of files and rasps. I initially approached knife-making via the stock removal process: Taking a raw bar or piece of steel, of roughly the desired length, width and thickness of the finished knife and simply grinding away everything that didn't look like the desired result. Although effective, and fairly common, this is a somewhat wasteful method of making anything as a good portion of the investment in raw materials ends up as dust on the floor of the shop. My learning process eventually lead me towards blacksmithing, as it allowed the best use of materials, with very little waste required. Being able to use an entire piece of steel by heating it and hammer forging it into the desired shape without the need for heavy grinding both provided a better financial return, and allowed a greater artistic range of possibility. Some shapes and angles are simply easier to forge into a piece than grind out of one.
In the late spring of my 16th year, I approached a blacksmith in the nearest town, Magdalena, about apprenticing with him. John was kind enough to allow me into his shop, to help with his projects and learn smithing in the process, while also getting to pursue my own interests at the forge as my skill improved.
John had learned to smith while in the Navy as a SeaBee. Once upon a time, large naval ships had forges inside the ship, attached to their machine shop, to facilitate the ease of repair and fabrication of parts while at sea. John was a product of this environment - It was there that he had made his first knives, and begun hobby smithing as a way to keep himself entertained and explore his creative depths. After the Navy John had continued educating himself at the forge, and refined his craft over the decades. Neither a production, nor a modern, smith John worked at the forge because he enjoyed the work, and the tradition of making much with little. His shop, built of block and wooden framing, was more reminiscent of an early 20th century mountain smithy than anything else. There was no power in the shop, electricity would only let him light the place and stay out there all night long John said. The doorway was usually open, as were windows, the regular draft allowing fresh air to continually circulate, carrying out smoke and fumes from the fire. John's forge itself was built from bricks and stone, by hand as the rest of his shop, and was fed only with coal with fuel. A hand-crank blower provided the necessary airflow to bully the fire into the required heats for smithing. Propane was a foreign idea, relegated to some of the books and issues of Metalsmith that scattered John's workbench. It was, as far as I am concerned, the best way to learn the art of blacksmithing. We used scrap materials, salvaged steel and iron, wood for handles that John had harvested himself, and did all our filing, sanding and polishing by hand. It was hard, dirty, sometimes frustrating work - And at the end of our weekly sessions I left tired, filthy, and sometimes chagrined at my own folly in the shop, which John always corrected sternly, but not wrongly.
I wish, looking back, I had spent more time there. I visited John weekly for several months, on into winter when the cold weather finally drove us out of his open, uninsulated and power-less smithy. When spring began to give way to warm days however, I failed to return. I had become invested in the other pursuits of a teenage boy, and feel victim to my own timidity as well in broaching the subject of returning. But I never forgot.
In general smithing was one of the many things I let fall by the wayside between the tail-end of high-school and beginning college. I had gathered the materials to build a forge, and made some small efforts at restoring my grandfathers forge and blower, but had never actually carried my intentions to completion. I still made knives, and still fully intended to get a forge up and running, but it just didn't happen. I let myself believe I didn't have the time, or resources, to devote to forging. Equipment languished, coal I had bought became dust in the bin, and my regrets at not continuing my smithing piled up deeper and deeper.
Finally, in the fall of '06, something changed. I'd changed schools, to be closer to home and pursuing my degree in an environment I liked better, and was spending quite a bit of time on the ranch. In mid October I went out and started rummaging among the derelict pieces of my grandfathers life, and set about cleaning up his forge. The forge itself, an iron bowl almost three feet long, two across and six inches deep, atop four sturdy legs, was in fairly good condition. The old hand-crank blower however needed more work. After several soakings in penetrating oil, and careful taps with a deadblow to loosen up old rust, I managed to free up the impeller with a final effort of elbow grease. Once free'd the impeller turned like it had never been stuck, and produced great volumes of air with even a moderate turn.
The first firing of the newly restored forge, late one cool October evening, was one of the most satisfying experiences I've had yet - I was thrilled to see my own work restore functionality to something my grandfather had built so much of his life with. Those first flames, dancing up between chunks of pinon charcoal, carried away old ghosts of neglect and regret, both for me and the tools under my hand.
Since then I have expanded my smithing from just blade-smithing into artist blacksmithing in general. Very few things are as satisfying as spending an afternoon working over a hot fire, getting covered in ash and grime, only to produce something fine, and delicate and shining, and above all, functional at the end of it. I can become lost in the work of tending the fire and shaping, directing, and cultivating hot iron into a tool or other thing of beauty - Things fall away from my mind as my hands set into their work, each blow, drop of sweat and burn from hot slag reaffirming a capability essential to every man since sun first rose on a flint knapper on some faraway plain - To be able to make the things you need, create the world you desire in your locale, to provide the life you want for you and yours. There is nothing more complete or satisfying than this.
My large forge is a permanent part of the ranch. It is both too large, and has too many ties to that place to ever be moved to town. I feel strongly about this, although its a source of regret while living in town pursuing my degree. Or, was a source of some regret. A friend's fiance, Pat, himself a blacksmith who had let his hobby lapse in pursuit of his degree, had left a small old coal forge sitting under an elm tree in his future bride's front yard, and was sad to see in languishing unused. A short time after being introduced to him, Pat gifted me with this small forge, so as to see it put to good use. Once again I had in my hands an old, but loved, tool - Once essential, now relegated to artist, hobbyist and anachronist in the majority of the world. It took some time, but I finally have fired it up, and am ready to set about using it in earnest.
Since I first came to New Mexico Tech I've been taking Metal Arts or Armor making classes offered in the fine art department of the community college. The instructor, Theresa, is one of my favorite people, and I feel comfortable calling her a friend. Since I first started learning from her, we've repeatedly discussed the addition of both propane and coal forges to her class-room. Though not one of the Teaching Assistants for her classes in past semesters, my role in the classroom has become increasingly instructive as I've stuck around longer and longer, and the interest in building forges and adding smithing to the regular curriculum has increased. A year ago, at the beginning of the fall semester, I arrived for my first day of class with four bags of quickcrete, as an incentive for Theresa to stop talking and start acting on the forge plans. A year later we still have no forge, but somehow my impulsiveness and dedication finally led me to being the only paid TA for her classes, and we're actually starting to get some work done. I've also taken a select few of the other long-time students on as semi-students of my own, to come to my house and work my forge, and learn what they can from me about smithing. It was to this end that, after I'd returned to town late one recent evening, my friend Nick, his wife Raven and I gathered in my yard under the glow of a worklight. Bags of charcoal, a shovel, a small pile of hammers, a piece of railroad rail and a heavy post were also gathered. We dug a hole, set the post, and mounted the railroad rail to it with some hastily forged clinch-nails, and built a large charcoal fire in the forge. The hand crank blower rattled a steady rhythm as its gears ran along on chipped teeth to turn the fan, driving air into the growing, cracking, sparking fire. We stood gathered around it, faces lit an orange glow, sparks reflecting in our eyes, and shared a collective smile. My neighbors were having a party, and as their house and yard filled with mostly freshmen Tech students, they observed us with confusion, question and stunned silence. No words were said across the fence, they stood back from the rising sparks, spoke in hushed tones to one another, and fell silent as the ring of hammer blows rained out all competing sound in the small space between houses. Eventually my roommate, himself an accomplished knife-maker, joined us and we four stood, working the blower, tending the fire, driving hammers into hot steel, shaping and drawing the tools of our futures, the works of our lives. We stood a separate tribe from those across the fence, speaking our own language of fire, and ash and the timeless ring of hammers.