My grandparents on my mother’s side were farmers and pioneers. They lived on a farm in a remote area of Ohio and didn’t have a lot of access to stores and the big city. They grew most of their food, they tanned leather, made their clothes and even made their own soap. They were proud people and taught us all not to be wasteful with anything, and that everything and everyone has value.
I live in a different world. The world of the Internet, WalMart and the Interstate. I don’t have to grow my own food or make my clothes. Everything is readily available and convenient as long as I have money and a car. But still there is a pull there. A yearning to create things and be self sufficient and rely very little on the outside world. A lot of people feel this pull, I believe. Some go to the extremes and live in log cabins in remote Alaska and shut themselves off from civilization like hermits. I can understand embracing this simple way of life. (Especially with what the country is going through right now.) That’s not for me. Although I feel a pull to deny the industrial complex, it’s on a much smaller scale. To simply create something real that I can point to and be proud of. Partly for the challenge of it and partly for the educational experience. But there is something else too. A need to prove myself, test my limits. And it undeniably connects me to my ancestors, a pioneering people that persevered in the face of hardship. I’ve been this way all my life. Just look at my past projects:
Could I grow my own food? I did this in California with help from my kids. We tilled the earth, planted seeds and watched as our seeds took root and flourished. It was wonderful having fresh tomatoes and corn and green beans and potatoes. I don’t know which was better the learning experience or the eating.
Could I build an airplane and fly it? It seemed impossible, but the challenge of it hooked me. A few years ago, I built and flew a small airplane called an Airbike, a single-seater, classified ultralight. The project took me about a year and a half. Mary helped me with surface preparation and painting. There is no thrill quite like lifting off the runway in a craft you have built with your own hands. It is at the same time scary and just a little terrifying. But that’s the stuff that makes you feel alive. And after you’ve survived it, you feel a bond with all those who’ve gone before you and accomplished the same thing, including the Wright brothers.
Could I build a boat? It took me about a year, but I built a 14 foot wooden skiff in my shop. A Norwegian design. It was fun and I’ve taken it out a few times fishing in the Indian River here in Florida. I’m very proud of it and every time I take it out, someone will ask me where I got it. It doesn’t look like any of the other boats.
Could I bake the perfect sourdough bread? I decided this would be a good challenge since I love sourdough bread and I’d never baked anything before. I sent for sour dough starter from a company in San Francisco and downloaded some instructions and tips I found online. I adjusted the ingredients and rise times, shooting for something with a full rich taste with just the proper sour note. After about a month of baking, I felt I was getting close to perfection, but I ran into a problem. A domestic one. One day Mary said, “Will you please stop baking bread!?” I said ,”Why?” “Because I’m eating it!” I’d noticed. I would go out and rake the yard and when I returned, half the loaf on the cooling rack would be gone! She apparently couldn’t control herself around warm bread, so for the sake of my marriage, I had to pull the plug on that project.
Can I make my own shirts? Still to be determined. I found an old sewing machine in the back of the bedroom closet. It had been in the same spot for at least fifteen years. I think I had bought it years ago because it was on sale and I thought Mary could use it. I was wrong. I wondered if it still worked so I pulled it out, dusted it off, sat it on the dining room table and began reading the book. I remember as a boy watching my mom sew. She was pretty good at it and made many things: skirts, dresses, blouses, etc. She probably learned from her mother when she lived on the farm. In no time I had the machine going. The hardest part was mounting the spool of thread and then threading it through all the spindles and tensioners and such. I repaired a shirt with a frayed hem and a pair of pants. I asked if Mary had anything to repair and she gave me two pairs of slacks. She said I did a good job. I was pumped! I wanted to create, to make something. Something good and honest and untouched by industrialized America. Something I could point to and say I made that. Maybe it’s in my genes, from my self-sufficient grandparents.
When I began my writing career, I tried to buy a Hawaiian shirt with a writing theme. I wanted to make a statement. I’m a published novelist. Images of typewriters or books or authors would do. But I couldn’t find anything like that. All I could find were floral prints and the occasional car or airplane shirt. Armed with a Simplicity pattern for a men’s Hawaiian shirt, I decided to go on a search for fabric. The Internet has everything. Maybe I could find some good print fabric and I could make my own shirt. Luck! I found a site www.Spoonflower.com which had thousands of designs. They had good quality print cotton fabric with images of typewriters, Edgar Allen Poe, books, bookshelves, all kinds of things. Even better luck! At this same site I found an area that would allow me to design my own fabric! So, I’m designing a print that will feature all my book covers. With a shirt made of this stuff, I will be a walking billboard for my novels. I got Shaunna Heth’s blessing, she’s the amazing artist who has done my covers, each one a work of art unto itself. So I’m off to create fabric and a shirt or maybe two. (I’ll have to wait and see how the first one goes.) I’ll be posting on my progress.
Why do I feel this need to do things, make things? I don’t know, but I have to give thanks to my grandma and grandpa Wikoff and their indomitable pioneering spirit and their ability to solve problems and their humbling quality of giving thanks for what they had and never boasting about their accomplishments. It’s just the way they were and perhaps how we all should be. I raise my glass and salute all those who create useful things, not because they must, but because of the sense of accomplishment that always comes from it.