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Finding the Way

| November 22, 2010 7:50 AM

I was sitting at a window table at a bar on the corner of Sherman

Avenue and Fourth Street, in a stool high enough for my feet not to

touch the floor, watching the last of the November light fail and the

rain stripping the leaves from the trees.

There's a brooding that stirs in me when the light goes and I try to

catch what's left of it from a long wooden table.

I'd always believed if a man fell in love with a craft, the rest of

his life would sort itself out. I'd just had another birthday and I

was beginning to wonder.

Afición, passion, vocation. They were beautiful words, but lately I had doubts.

And The Press newsroom was on quite a tear piecing together bad news articles.

I was brooding on my barstool.

Not even the waitress could make me smile.

I needed a good story, a story that made me understand something.

There were two ways to spend the winter and one was dangerous. I

needed to slide my feet down, even if at first they touch a barroom

floor.

My editor had told me about the Stickman , a man who lived on the back

side of Tubbs Hill near 10th Avenue and peeled branches into manicured

walking sticks.

"He doesn't do interviews," my editor said. "But try."

It's a start, and the next day the rain was falling diagonally through

the pines, covering the base of the hill in a fog the way the steam

lifts off the lake first thing in the morning and I could see the rows

of stripped and sanded walking sticks propped against the wall under

the Stickman 's carport like fence posts leaning from years of wind.

I knocked on his front door. He slid open a nearby window.

"I noticed all your sticks," I said. "Did you do that?"

"Yes," the Stickman said. I could only see his face through the window

but it held no trace of worry the way adult faces can.

"Do you sell them?" "No," he said. "Give them away?" "You got it."

I asked if I could see them.

"It's raining," the Stickman said. "And I was reading. But I suppose I

can throw on some shoes and a coat."

He took me under the carport and let me handle sticks of aspen and

maple as precise as billiard cues, some as thin as a maestro's wand,

some bent, some with knots, all as smooth in my hand as a bar of Dove

soap before it's touched water.

"I like my sticks to have a little curve," he said, thumping one on the floor.

I told him I liked straight and true and he gave me a maple. It was

one of 3,000 sticks he'd given away in the last two years, 7,000 since

he began whittling six years ago, and he gave it to me from the back

chest and there was that soapy feeling, lining my hand.

"It's perfect," I said, above the thump of rain.

Then he said he liked to sit in a chair facing Tubbs Hill and feel the

bark in his hand while the world passed by. Tubbs Hill was his front

yard, he said, the deer and eagles his neighbors in the winter and

tourists during the summer.

"It's November. Have you seen one of the bald eagles yet?" he asked.

I said I hadn't.

They wait for everyone to leave and they'll just sit there, wings

tucked in, chest puffed like an army general.

Then he told me about the nine deer that come down the hill while he whittles.

"You think you're being watched," he said. "And you are."

I didn't think about a notebook. "I give them away," the Stickman

said, motioning back to his sticks, "to teach the kids not everything

is for sale. That's an important lesson for the kids. Especially

nowadays."

For the first time, I got a clear good look at his face since the

window and it did not have one line from worry.

"Norman," I said. He'd told me his name was Norman a little earlier.

"I just had a birthday."

"I feel sorry for your generation," he said.

He said when he was my age he was beginning a family in California,

but a guy couldn't raise a family on one salary these days.

He was retired, a Vietnam veteran, and when he isn't whittling he's

driving a taxi shuttle for disabled children. Then he thought a

second.

"I do this," he said, nodding back at the wall of sticks. "Because I love to."

I thumped my maple on the floor, like he'd done. And there was that

feeling on the pads of my fingertips, like ivory or the skin of a

woman's back.

" Afición," I wanted to say - passion - but didn't.

Instead I told him I would come back and visit him when he was

peeling. When I came back the next week the sky had broke and the sun

was out and I chatted with him and a group of his friends standing in

his driveway and it was then I told him I wanted to do a story on him.

"Ah hell," he said. At his feet was a pile of shavings from a day's

work. I'd brought with me an un-peeled stick I'd found, which was the

deal if you took a finished one from him.

"I don't advertise," he said. "Because I'm not a business. But I like you."

A family bicycled by and waved to him.

"What the hell," he told me. "Have fun with it."

I said I would. I promised I would.

Then I thanked him, and turned for the hill with the maple in my hand

and climbed the back side of the trail to watch the dying light

blanket the glass-like lake and when I had a good, clear view through

the pine branches, I kept climbing.

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