It was just last week. I was helping a friend move. I kept telling myself “it’s the right thing to do”. I buried thoughts of my surgically altered knee and two shredded rotator cuffs. I put aside the reality that everything gets heavier every year including me. I put all that in my denial file and stuffed it right between two stacks of important phone numbers at the back of my brain. I just thought about Mitch coming over on an evening in January when it was 10 degrees to help me unload our moving truck. Mitch and I both have a funny idea about the “right thing to do”.
We’re in the basement of the house that had been in Mitch’s family since 1954. I’m thinking, “ just grab one end of something heavy and shuffle your feet until it’s on the trailer”. “Do that 1,000 more times and we’ll be done”. Mitch calls out from far side of the basement, “Hey man, do you want that old Stoker’s chest?” “It’s full of old tools and I don’t want to f’in fool with it.” “You sure you don’t want it?” I asked while taking a peek inside. I must have heard Mitch say “Yeah, take it”, but by then I had already seen the two soldering coppers. My face twisted up into a bemused grin and all I could manage to say was “cool”. I was already back in Metal Shop.
It was 1977. I was attending public school for the first time since 6th grade. I had been attending a private Christian school and after 4 years of that, I was desperate to grow my hair like a rockstar, wear blue jeans and drink caffeinated beverages. I simply wanted to be…normal. As I sit here today, I can honestly tell you that was never a realistic goal or option.
My plan had been to attend public school with my friends. One catch. My public school friends lived in another school district. The solution would be to take a vocational course not offered in my district but offered in the other school district. That is how I came to attend Metal Shop at Maplewood High School and meet the acquaintance of Mr. Buford Simpson, my shop teacher.
At risk of civil liability I have chosen to use his real name. Besides being well beyond the scope of my talent or imagination to make up that name, it’s just too perfect. It offers a picture of his character, albeit superficially, that I could not paint with 1,000 words. I was then and remain to this day respectful of Buford, eh, Mr. Simpson. He was the closest thing to a Drill Sergeant that I will ever have in this life.
Simpson stood about 5’5”. Kind of a round fella with slicked back hair and black rimmed glasses. He usually wore pressed dress slacks with a white short sleeved dress shirt and an awkwardly short neck tie. A School board ban of tobacco on school property did nothing to discourage the ubiquitous smoldering Lucky Strike clinched in the right corner of his mouth. Metal Shop was his domain.
Buford Simpson had been a Merchant Marine Port Master of a shipyard during WWII. He was uniquely qualified to handle tough kids at a tough school in a tough neighborhood. He was a leader of men. He was a quick and astute judge of character. He was authority personified. He tolerated NOTHING.
Once I had the remarkably bad idea to burn my initials into the side of the welding booth with a cutting torch. I carefully checked in both directions. Good, smoke was wafting from the open space between the top of the shop wall and Mr. Simpson’s office. “Better do this quick before he decides to come out and check on us”, I thought. I start my “D”. Somehow I know he is directly behind me. I turn the flame down on the torch so that I don’t injure myself when I inevitably flinch.
He begins with his favorite rhetorical question, “Are you stupid, Son?!!” Ouch, I was not accustomed to Mr. Simpson’s “full attention”. I had often been quite entertained by watching Buford unload on one of my classmates, usually thinking, “I would hate to be that poor S.O.B.” and “What an IDIOT. Did he really think Buford wouldn’t catch him?” It was my turn now. “Does your mamma love you, Son? ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t!” And so it went, another 5 minutes or so of Simpson’s verbal blistering and the hysterical laugher of my peers. I got off light. “Get yer ass back to work and stop screwin’ around!” was the last warning I ever needed from him.
Things were different them. I have seen Mr. Simpson literally drag a student to the office by his ear for doing something stupid and dangerous. He once filled a metal pitcher with water and poured it through a metal funnel into the ear of a sleeping student. He ordered my best friend Rocky out into the rain where he was instructed to “Dance with your mouth open until you drown”. After 10 minutes Rocky was allowed to return to class, just short of his objective.
Consequences were immediate and unpleasant. Mr. Simpson was charged with teaching a trade to boys who had no real advantages in life. He taught boys who attended a school that literally boasted a felony of the day. I remember the afternoon Kyle came to Metal Shop with shotgun pellets embedded under his skin. The world was not going to be kind to the kids of Metal Shop but at least we would go into it with a skill. A dangerous, difficult, life altering skill.
What is a soldering copper? It is a rectangular copper block weighing about 2 lbs. and pointed at one end. The other end is connected to an eight inch steel shaft and a six inch wooden handle. It is the mother of all blunt instruments. You stick the pointed end into a gas powered crucible until it is red hot. You then dip it into a mason jar filled with acid (not kidding) and proceed to melt 6” X 2” blocks of lead onto cut and bent metal projects, such as pitchers or funnels. 20 or so teenage boys standing at 2 long benches for two hours each school day.
I never welded for a living. My life would be different than most of my classmates, some of whom did not live to see their senior year. However, I would be willing to bet that anyone who passed through Mr. Simpson’s Metal Shop would, to this day, be able to make a funnel with a soldering copper.