If you remember from our last “episode”, 93 year old Fiddlin’ Clyde Harper
and I had hiked ¾ of a mile up Rock Creek to take a look at an old millstone resting in the creek bed. We were taking a little break before hiking back to meet his cousin Andrew at the river crossing. I asked Clyde for some particulars of making a walking stick like his. It was such a beautiful, useful thing.
(When I say walking stick, I don’t mean a fancy cane. It was a hardwood staff nearly as tall as Clyde himself. He calls it his “Life Stick”.)
“You want the par-tick-alars of makin’ a life stick?” he asked with proud glance at the stick.
“Well, it takes least two sticks to make a goodun’... sometimes more. The first stick needs makin’ when you are old enough to have the sense to learn the lessons it teaches about the makin’. I made my first’un when I was about 15…. carried it till I was mostly grown. I reckon you’re old enough to start one,” he said, looking over at me with a squint and without cracking a smile. “My learnin’ stick was an oak….this’uns a maple. I ‘spose if you’re a big man oak or hick’ry is just fine…..they was too heavy a stick for me. I think maple would be a good pick for you as well.”
“Truth is, when it’s time, a good stick will find you…if you’re out a lookin’ for one too much thinkin’ will lead you to the wrong’un….this stick here found me when I was helpin’ to clear a piece of land for a fella. I axed down a maple and when it dropped this stick broke clean off and was a laying there in front of me. Important thing is to find a green’un….once found you need to peel it right away. The bark peels off a green stick pretty slick...’specially if you find it in the Spring…..if you wait a day after its broke off a tree it’ll be a chore to get the bark off clean …..also, of course,” he said pointing to the knots, “break off the little branches. With this’un I just done that with my hands.”
“My first stick learned me that it’s a good idea to leave bark at the top and bottom of the stick be…gives you a grip when you are a reachin out with it, like we done when you pulled me up the bank. ‘Course you want the middle smooth for every day handlin’. Once you get it peeled you need to size it. A useful stick should be as twice as long as your right leg measured on the inside. The center should be about the size of a quarter but mostly it should allow your third finger to just touch the pad of your thumb when you have a good grip on it. Cut some off the top and some off the bottom and leave those ends flat...you learn quick that carvin’ out pointy ends is not a good thing.”
“Once cut to size I dripped some wax over the ends that I saw-cut (to help keep it from cracking) and set it out in a cool, shady place for about a week to dry. Direct sun’ll crack it for sure.”
“After dryin’ I got me an old sock, filled it with wet sand from the creek and rubbed it up and down the stick to smooth out the rough spots, ..‘'specially round the knots. After that, I used some of my ma’s Bon-Ami powder and finally some ash to make it smooth. Wipe it down real good after the ash.”
“Some folks would whittle out a snake or somethin’ on the stick at this point….I never saw the need.”
“We didn’t have no store bough varnish so I used some boiled-down and cleaned up pine sap, turpentine and beeswax to seal it up…it’s somethin’ I use’ta to fix up my fiddle with when the shine was a wearin’ off. (When he says “boiled down” he means heated up to liquefy and “cleaned up” means to scrape any pine bark out of the sap.) Takes about three coverin’s to make it perm’nent. Put it on extra thick on the ends ‘cause they take the hardest beatin’. That’s about it far as the makin’s concerned,” he said, “If you want it to be a life stick you have to use it most every day for somethin’,.. yes sir, a good life stick need to be used.”
“Clyde, I was thinking there must be some magic in that stick the way you found that turtle and all those crab spiders and briars were jumping out of your way…..” I said with a laugh.
Then, with a rare grin of his own, he said, “Oh, they’s some magic alright..but it aint no proper mountain granny witch spell’n or nothin’ like that. The magic comes on its own when the stick knows it’s for sure your life-stick. I’ve been carryin’ this one for 70 years and it took near’ta 50 a’fore any useful magic showed up.”
Apparently Clyde and I had been “resting” for a good bit in that spot because Dooley came running up followed by a worried Andrew and wife close behind. I’d forgotten all about getting Clyde back to the road for the pick-up. They’d been to church, had a covered dish lunch afterwards and still had been at the river crossing for a long time waiting for us to show up. I apologized, especially since they had come up the creek in their Sunday clothes. Thankfully Andrew had a couple of pairs of work boots in the back of the truck so their good shoes didn’t get ruined….although, Andrew’s wife is probably going to have a few blisters from wearing the oversized boots.
I hope they bring Clyde back soon; I still have a lot of learnin’ to do.
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