I sensed something unusual the first time I ever entered the blacksmith shop. If you’ve never found your way into the interior of one of these establishments, you lost out on a part of life that seems to be gone forever and you are also missing out on part of the history of mankind.
On my first entry Leo’s shop etched its smell into my memories. The combination of soot, hot metal and a coke fire smoldering in the forge were new and mysterious to me. I had gone there with my oldest brother to have my mother’s pair of sewing scissors sharpened. It, in my young mind, was the workshop of a wizard. It was a place of creation.
Everything in the place seemed to be covered in the black soot created by the art of blacksmithing. My mother had instructed me not to touch anything because of the dirt. There were belts attached to pulleys that seemed to disappear through a hole in a wall or into the dark recesses of the ceiling. These belts and pulleys sprung to life with the flick of a switch. It was mesmerizing for a boy of five years.
The stooped over old man with the dirty glasses working in the shop was Leo. By the time I first met him he was well past his sixtieth birthday, but still was a bear of a man. He proved this by picking up and moving the rear axle of a pickup truck he’d been working on just to accommodate us.
In the years before WWI, when vaudeville was still one of the most popular forms of entertainment, Leo had worked across the United States and Canada as a strong man in a vaudeville troop on the Orpheum Circuit. He was also a juggler in that group. He had gone to a traveling circus in his youth and taught himself to imitate the jugglers in the circus and that visit ignited his desire to perform in front of an audience. This is something that might have continued, but he enlisted in the Army during the First World War. Most of these vaudeville acts dissolved as movies and other theatre became more common.
He bought a local harness shop when he returned from the war and converted it into a blacksmith shop but didn’t retire until he was eighty. The man, even though his formal education stopped at eighth grade, taught himself the flute and piccolo. No lessons, he just played until it sounded right.
The thing I discovered on my first visit to the shop was that Leo had built a telescope. On that day he perched me on a chair and told me to look through the scope at the steeple of a church, three and a half miles distant, spearing into the sky. The telescope was so powerful that even at the distance we were away I watched as birds desiring a brief rest alighted on the cross that topped the church. I was in awe.
He invited my brother and any friends we wanted to bring with to come to his house after dark to come look at a planet or two through an even larger telescope he had built. Mom told me I was too small to go, but my curiosity for astronomy had been awakened.
Over the next dozen years, I made a number of trips to the hill on the outskirts of town just behind Leo’s house to look at our sister planets in this solar system. I have seen all of them thanks to the lenses of discovery that Leo, with the huge hands of a blacksmith, had crafted with infinite patience into a fine telescope. My eyes have seen planets, moons, comets and other galaxies that mankind didn’t know existed until something less than a century ago.
Leo was a patient teacher. He would gladly talk astronomy any time he had the chance. When I had an afternoon paper route, I would often times stop by for a moment and after I placed the pristine white newspaper in Leo’s giant soiled hands I would gaze through the ever-present telescope, sometimes focused in on something as mundane as a patch of flowers on a hill.
Leo died when he was over ninety, but in his life, mankind had evolved from horse and buggies to automobiles and in that same time the skies above us had progressed from the realm of the birds to powered flight and then spaceflight. That he lived to see the first men land on the moon was a befitting gift for a man of talents so varied as his.
Arian is a short story contributor to the Sentinel & Rural News. Arian has written two full-length thrillers which have received critical and popular acclaim. Arian lives in Bruce, WI, with his charming wife, Arlene.Profile
The Sentinel & Rural News covers the news and events of Clark County and southern Taylor County, as well as regional news that affects those areas.