OFF MY ROCKER
You older folks know the term, “Off his rocker.” For you younger readers, it means being slightly crazy. But, it means other things, too. I do my best work when I’m off my rocker. Actually that is the only time that I do any work. As it turns out, if someone else is in my rocker I get even less work done. Are you confused yet?
Back in about 1972 when I was a young man and knew everything I had a job working for the Episcopal Mission Society in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. At the time, it seemed like just a job, something to do till something else better came along. Remember, that’s back when I knew EVERYTHING. In retrospect, it was a great job and besides receiving modest pay and no benefits I got meals and a squeaky bunk in a cabin on the mountain top with a cold water shower and all the firewood I could cut and split. How good does it get, eh?
In the Spring time I swung a day off, a Saturday if I remember correctly and left home in my 1965 VW Beetle carrying only my camera and a sandwich.
The Catskills were at that time a wonderful mix of old and new, civilization and almost primitive rural communities and crossroads. While the fashionable people from NEW YORK CITY came to the Catskills to play and relax in the most up to date resorts, just a couple miles in any direction you could bring you to little cabins in hidden valleys which had been occupied by the same family lines since the Revolution.
New York State Highway 17, AKA “the Quickway” was a modern wonder, traveling through the mountains in a series of cuts and fills with magnificent overlooks and towering walls of native rock and trees. But, carved in with less expense, less noise and way less dynamite were the township roads, often still topped with native clay and gravel and about one and a half cars wide. The little bridges, crossing a multitude of clear, cold trout streams were usually narrower.
It was the little roads I traveled that day by plan and desire. And, whenever the mood took me, I stopped and photographed the views that caught my eye and heart. There were huge hemlock trees, massive piles of bluestone shards and tiny springs and creek crossings. My sandwich went well with a tin cup full of cold spring water. I didn’t know anything about water-born diseases then and never suffered for my ignorance. Now, I suppose there are signs at every spring warning of possible death if you drink the water.
About mid-afternoon as my little Volkswagen was sliding down a muddy section of grotesquely inclined roadway (remember, it was in the Spring) I passed a spot of what looked like the brush not growing well near the road. Nailed to a stick was a hand painted sign that said, simply, “Junk for sale”. It turned out to be someone’s driveway, just a muddy two-track up a slippery incline between trees and bushes which brushed against both sides of the little Bug.
At the top of the drive appeared a cabin and a little log barn. The cabin was complete with two windows and a door on the long side and one window and the stone chimney on the short side. Smoke rose out of the top and mixed in the treetops. A long “settin’ porch” ran the length of the house. On the porch was a small boy, probably about ten-years old dressed in overalls and muddy boots. He was friendly but cautious and showed me the table full of “junk”, old rusty pliers, a hammer, some old blue canning jars, a little box of thimbles, that sort of thing. I noticed that he had been sitting in an old wooden rocking chair. It really didn’t look like much, it too was for sale, and I needed a chair at my place. So, I ponied up the four dollars he asked for. It never dawned on me to negotiate a better price. Even then I guess I knew that a dollar more or less to a poor man could make a big difference. I left him happy, and I was happy myself, the signs of a good trade.
The old rocker did fit into my VW with the back seat folded forward. And, when I got back home at the end of the day I learned that I was right . It was just an old wooden rocker, with a worn seat. But, by golly, it was comfortable, and it made a satisfying sound when it rocked. All the joints, wood-to-wood connections were pinned with wooden dowels. My magnet didn’t find any nails or screws. A few minutes with a damp cloth took off quite a lot of dust, grime, smoke and hand prints. In the sunshine that came in early the old chair glowed with a deep golden hue. I was glad that the cleaning had not removed the “creak”.
Over the next several months I spent most of my “off” time in that old chair. People stopped to visit me and would beat me to it, sitting and rocking and smiling as it creaked. When the time came to move back to Wisconsin I had to make a big decision. I was traveling light and everything I owned fit into my Volkswagen, except the rocker. Heck, I had only paid four dollars for it, I could leave it right there. But, something made me search out a friend who was traveling to the Midwest a couple of weeks later and I persuaded him to pack my rocker along. He left it at my parent’s home, very early one morning, on the back porch in such a fashion that they could not open the door. They re-arranged the living room furniture, pulled out the rags that sealed the front door against the winter weather, opened all the locks and brought my old rocker in. My Mother said, “You mean you bought a four-dollar chair and made Dwight carry it all the way here? And then your Dad had to open the front door and get it all fixed again, just for this? This old chair?”
Through the years that old rocker has been with me and later, my wife, at my apartments in Indianapolis, and our duplex in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, then our first home in Silver Lake, Wisconsin and our home in Iron River, Michigan. The years roll on and the old rocker gave us a perch to rock babies as their teeth came in. It was a nice place to sit and talk to the Grandparents on the phone and read a book. It came with us to Louisiana and moved right into the violin shop with me.
Louisiana is known for it’s antique trade. Some of its small towns thrive on the antique trade alone. So, I should not have been surprised when several antique dealers came into the shop to look at and admire my old rocker. A couple wanted to buy it then and there. A couple of others were more informative and guessed that the rocker was made by a well known American named Stickley, a long time ago.
In my sometimes-cramped shop, the rocker still has the place of honor, near the center of the room, facing the front windows and door. I sit down there after lunch some days, and fight to stay awake. Some folks who come in sit down and doze off right away, so comfortable is the seat and the sound.
The rocker came into quiet prominence after Hurricane Katrina when many, many people were on the street, on foot and on their last dollar, and just about out of dreams. Every day, sometimes several times a day, persons with nothing better to do would walk into the shop, “just to look around”. Their homes were gone, their pets were gone, and in many cases some family members were gone, too. They were in Hammond, just waiting, biding their time till they could get back into New Orleans to see what was left, and to try to start over.
Many of them needed a rest room. Some needed cash for food, and we took care of everyone who asked to best of our abilities. But they all, every single one of them really needed someone to listen.
They were full of stories. They were full of questions and complaints and they were full of sadness. And as they sat in the rocker, and it creaked with each movement, they sat and talked and cried and remembered. After work I’d go home and wipe my face as I told my wife the details of the lives that had been shared with me that day and she suggested that I write a book titled, “Stories From The Rocker”, partly to record these little vignettes of heroism and history, but also to help me unload the weight of it all off my own shoulders.
That was late summer 2005. It is now 2012, and finally we can get through a day or a week without anyone saying, “…back before the Storm…”
My old rocker is still there, and it still comforts visitors. It is the “chair of honor” for mothers and grandmas who visit the shop with their families of budding violinists. Children, of course, like to sit and rock enthusiastically and hear the chair creak. Gladly, most of the sadness is gone now.
As I look back, I have to wonder if that family in the Catskills has missed the rocker as much as I have loved it. Or, maybe Mr. Stickley made it for this purpose, to travel and bring comfort to the weary.