Before embarking upon our extended July visit to Lost Brook Tract (where we are as you read this) Amy and I made our food list. Per my recent Dispatch it is quite a list, including a fair number of fresh or perishable items. At the top of the list is bacon, we have to have bacon. Now we both love bacon as much as the next person, if not more, but normally we wouldn’t opt for it as it is unwieldy, doesn’t keep well and makes a real mess.
But we need it: not for the bacon itself, but for the bacon grease.
I am not any sort of skilled woodworker or carpenter. If you asked me to build you a cabinet you’d be sorely disappointed. But I know my way around building things out of wood reasonably well for an amateur due to a number of factors. For one thing my father was a lumberjack and cabin builder as a young man and he imbued me with his experiences and much of his wisdom when I was a little boy. We had a pretty good tool collection in our basement during my youth and I loved to build models and various structures, most of no practical worth but invaluable as products of a boy’s imagination. Dad and I built my first tree house together and I went on to build several more with friends through the end of high school (and one just a few weeks ago for my nephew). It is from my father that I learned to smear a two-person crosscut saw with bacon grease and have at whatever tree, log or other obstacle needing cutting.
Then there was my grandfather, John Rinkema, who was a master carpenter in Chicago. I was pretty young when he was still around but he made an indelible impression upon me. John was a full-blown Dutchman who looked, acted and sounded the part. His life was overflowing with incredible stories that could fill a thousand Dispatches, such a colorful and resourceful character was he. I’ve got room for one story, if not a thousand.
Not long after emigrating from Holland in 1923 John fibbed his way into his first carpentry job even though he’d never built anything. Desperate to support his family he saw that carpenters would just show up at job sites, each ready to go with their own prized toolkit. So he put his own kit together and blended in. I can only imagine what it was like for him at first but he learned the trade well and became one of the better known home builders on the South Side of Chicago, eventually building hundreds of houses largely by himself including the one I came to know in which he lived his last years.
In the period during prohibition and just before the crash of ‘29 carpentry work began to disappear and John, never at a loss, switched to the lucrative business of bootlegging. He built his own still, producing mash in the basement and moving it to the trunk of his car in an underground tunnel he had run to the garage. Not having considered beforehand the problem of the reeking odor that would emanate from the mash pit he was turned in by fed-up neighbors and shut down. So he rented a small farmhouse from a prominent Chicago criminal attorney who was building a grand estate out in the country on old farmland. There, without the knowledge of his landlord, John went back at it.
Things went downhill rapidly due to a rather bad twist of fate. Not far from the little farmhouse another prominent Chicagoan was building an estate. Unfortunately for John this gentleman was Joe Saltis, a rival and sometimes ally of Al Capone who by the time of this story had ironclad control of bootlegging on the entire Southwest Side of Chicago. Saltis apparently smelled John’s little enterprise and being intolerant of any independent entrepreneur on his turf he paid John a little visit. The fix was in on the South Side as they say… two hours later the police showed up and arrested John on bootlegging charges.
John faced years in a penitentiary. Worse still, he knew that his well-connected lawyer landlord would now find out what his tenant had been up to and would undoubtedly respond by greasing the wheels of justice. John feared the worst. But to his surprise, his landlord was quite amused with his Dutch lessee and immediately took his case! The result was a meager three month sentence in the new Illinois state prison on California Avenue in Chicago. My mother tells me that to avoid embarrassment her mother, when asked by acquaintances where John was during those three months, would reply “Oh, he went to California.”
By the time I knew John Rinkema he was my old Grandpa but he was still a mountain of a man with a barrel chest and hands the size of dinner plates. Oh those hands! Grown of healthy Dutch stock, forged by hard work and construction labo, yet under the command of as gentle a grandfather as ever could be, those hands would swallow up his cat Columbine when he went to pet her; literally her whole body would disappear under his caress. Or he would scoop me up onto his lap, the powerful fleshiness of his palms a distinct memory, like being elevated on a soft bed set atop by iron beams. Or, best of all, he would take me into his basement and cradle one of his hand tools, perhaps a massive auger with a wooden handle polished to a deep, dull sheen by his powerful grip, by his sweat, grasped and turned a thousand times and more.
John loved his tools. He had some power tools including a table saw and a press that looked like it ought to be in a factory. Two of those power tools frighten me to this day in their memory. One was a power planer with a blade that looked unstoppable. The other, possessed of a terrifying sound when it fired up, was a Mall Belt Sander. You could have sanded through someone’s forearm in about ten seconds with that thing. But the defining characteristic of his toolkit was his amazing collection of hand tools. He loved them – you could tell that by the way he held them, especially the older ones that dated from his early years. He would show them to me and even tell me that he might give me some to keep, but other than a couple of small chisels he never did. He simply could not part with his beauties. And why should he?
When I reached my early teens, Grandpa brought me to the basement and presented me with a bunch of tools. For whatever reason he had decided it was time to pass on something of himself. The significance of this was not lost upon me and I was greatly honored. Knowing how they had worked upon my imagination he gave me the planer and the belt sander. Then came the big moment: with a significant bearing he pulled out some hand tools: a pair of piers like they used to make and which I still have, a pair of tin snips, a selection of huge, rusty rasps and files and, best of all, a big old auger with a polished handle. Humbled, I thanked him and promised to put the tools to use as befitted him and them. He beamed with pleasure.
To be truthful, I used some of the tools very little. Both the planer and sander were out of the league of the kind of projects I did and the rasps and files were of only occasional use. But that auger… I fell in love with it. It took me but little time to get the hang of it and once I did I gained the knowledge that fellow aficionados of hand tools know: for power and precision there is nothing like it. Better than that is the feel of it. You can sense every detail of the wood into which you drive the bit or screw. The life and power and fibrous strength and rough beauty of that wood comes right through the tool to your hands and your heart.
Many years later I went through a divorce in which I lost most of my personal belongings. Among them was that auger, a fact not noted by me at the time but sadly discovered some time later when I went to use it. It is not outside the mark to say that I was bereft, thinking of John Rinkema’s love for it.
When we acquired Lost Brook Tract a year ago, with its run-down lean-to to be repaired and with Shay’s Privy to be built I began to collect a set of hand tools to bring up to the land. Being miles from anywhere – including any power line – everything we do there was going to be done only with hand tools, a circumstance about which I was delighted. I needed an auger, no doubt about it. For the hundredth time I felt regret over losing John Rinkema’s beautiful hand tool.
There was no such deal to be found at the local hardware store but fortunately an older gentleman down the street who is an avid woodworker held a tool sale out of his garage. I figured there was a decent chance he might have one but sadly I was wrong. “I had one just yesterday,” he said, “but it sold right away. Those things are hard to find.” At that point I thought I might simply have to be disappointed. I told the gentlemen about our purchase of land and our plans to use hand tools in the wilderness, then turned to go, fated to be auger-less.
But hark! I was saved! And by Santa Claus no less.
There is this guy here in Madison who drives a bright red pickup truck with the plate IM SANTA. Now there are always guys who look something like Santa and play with that fact, vanity plates and all. But this fellow is at another level. Were you to drive past him in his truck you would do a violent double-take even if you did not see the plate. Trust me on that. I mean he is the spitting image of Kris Kringle. He’s an interesting man. He has all sorts of humorous, frustrating, even tawdry stories of his work as a Santa-for-hire.
Long story short, Santa happened to be walking into my neighbor’s garage as I was preparing to leave, looking for some tool or other. He overheard my comments about the land and evidently decided I might be a worthy tool user.
“I’ve got one of those! I’ll sell it to you. I’ve got a couple, actually. You can take your pick.”
“You do? That’d be just wonderful.”
“Of course I do. I’m Santa, after all. I’ve got a workshop.”
So off to Santa’s Workshop we went.
His workshop was in his basement. He took me down the stairs and flipped on the light. There revealed to me was the closest thing I’ll ever see to John Rinkema’s basement, right down the unusually long hand-built work table strewn with every kind of tool and scrap of wood imaginable. I swallowed a little. He rooted around for a moment and produced two augers, one of them the very image of John’s. For all I know it was the same model. The round handle, worn by years of use, was polished to a dull sheen. i paid a fair price for it and that was that.
So you see, kids, there really is a Santa Claus.
Last summer, when I built Shay’s Privy, I did it with this auger. For the first time in years I felt that magical, almost buttery sensation of screw biting into good pine. For a moment, Grandpa Rinkema was back in my life, his hands scooping me skyward.
Photo: Santa’s Auger, ready for work