Session with Merlin Hawkins
Not so long ago I could pick up a phone with a cord and dial 7-3323 and the big man would answer. More recently I had to dial 88 then the number. He would answer and every other problem I was having would just disappear like smoke in the wind. Eighty plus years of living big gives you a confidence that can span any distance even the grave. I long to dial his number and hear that voice and feel that safety. Late at night after the world has done its best to knock me down and I’ve gotten back up one more time smiling and bleeding, I dredge my mind for the number to call that will push me to morning. His is that number and though a kind warm voice will still answer that phone it’s not his. I fumble to find someone that can put me back together the way that man could, and though many of you have generously taken my calls, the hole remains.
We build legends of our dead, we forgive them their sins and enlarge their deeds. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and you won’t get anything else from me. We make legends because it’s the right thing to do, and in his case it’s damn easy. On this lonely night I will brag to the moon about my papa, and you are welcome to read it, but don’t expect measured humility, the man stands like a giant in the forest of my mind.
Here is one of his stories, told to me from his chair in the living room of the house he built from wood he salvaged from a lumber yard that was washed out in the Vanport flood on May 30th 1948. The flood struck three days before his 26th birthday. Seven years earlier he was in high school, starting guard for the Ridgefield Spudder football team. On a Friday in October of 1940 he was hot mopping the roof of the Five-Cent store in downtown Ridgefield. As he described it he was chopping logs of tar with an axe, making hunks the size of fire wood. When he told the story he held his hands up to show the size. The distance between his palms was about twenty inches. Then he would throw the hunks of tar into a boiler. Then he and his boys would take a bucket of the liquefied tar and a mop and spread it out over the roof.
Hot sticky hard work, the kind you could only get if you were big and powerful and unfamiliar with the idea of complaining. As he was throwing one of these logs of tar into the boiler he got “distracted” as he put it, by someone in the street, later he admitted the someone might have been a certain redhead Humphrey girl. As he was looking down into the street, standing all tough and manly he forgot to pull his arm back after tossing the log and boiling tar splashed up his arm coating his left arm from knuckle to bicep.
He showed me with his right hand, tapping his knuckle on his left hand, an arm that at this point only had one finger and a thumb on it. He lost three fingers when a table saw bit him at seventy five, but that’s a different story. He dragged his fingers all the way up his arm to above his elbow. My mind reeled at the thought of hot tar on that arm that had labored so hard and taken so much abuse.
He went to the doctor who was a bit dismayed. Papa explained the doc couldn’t take the tar off with anything except maybe gasoline and besides what was under that tar was the worst burn anyone could imagine, and besides he might lose the arm to infection. So the doctor prescribed leaving the tar on and waiting for it to fall off on its own accord. The hitch was my grandfather wasn’t suppose to use the arm for a few weeks, or until the tar fell off, no work or anything strenuous.
That’s when Papa set the doctor straight. He said, “Doc that’s going to be a problem, you see I play starting guard and we got a game tonight against Castle Rock, and we hate Castle Rock, and we are undefeated in fact we haven’t lost a game in three years.”
So he reaches his arm out in front of me and shows me how he jammed his tar coved fist into a shingle weaver’s glove and then wrapped leather up around his forearm. He smiled and winked when he said, “I left just enough of the tar sticking out the top of the leather. So the other guy would know it was there…” The entire time he is telling me this over his left shoulder there is a large framed photo of him in three point stance in his football uniform, and he has the same smile on his face as he does while he tells the story. That un-forcible smirk of a man who knows his power and knows his ability and has put fear away, because he already saw the scariest of scaries when he was a boy.
And I say “What happened?” and he gives me an even bigger grin and says, “We won.” Like that hadn’t really been at question. Then he threw his head back and laughed like a lion.
I could see in my mind the opposing line man dropping into his stance across the field from my grandfather and seeing the leather, the shingle weavers glove and the tar at the top of those massive arms and I am guessing he found someone else to block.
I wanted to know what a shingle weaver’s glove was for two reasons, one I had never heard of one, and two it sounded like the meanest of all gloves. He described it as a stiff leather glove, that had some metal in it, like a steel toed boot for your hand. Which I imagine would not be strictly legal in high school football these days, but hell they made everyone a lot tougher back then.
On Saturday he would have been 90. On Saturday I missed him harder than I think I have ever missed anything in my life. I spent the day building a seven-foot wood topped table reinforced with steel square tube legs and stools. I spun up the table saw and ground the metal until it glowed cherry red in the studio, I threw sparks and sawdust everywhere. I stared at the hot metal in my gloved hand and thought about the burn he had survived, I felt the heat through the leather in my palm and I thought about keeping going no matter what, and I thought about him, I thought about his strength, I thought about his kindness, I thought about his hands, I thought about his love for family and Ridgefield. I worked until it wasn’t his birthday anymore and then I went home and slept a dreamless sleep. The next day was a Sunday morning and I would have given everything I have ever owned or will own, to drive up to his place and make him breakfast and sit at the foot of his chair and hear even one more story even if it were a story I had already heard. I would have given my whole world to dial that number and here him pick up. I still would.
He called me Trouble and I am still causing it every chance I get.