operation favorite

In my lifelong quest to become my father’s favorite child, I was always looking for ways to elbow my way towards the forefront. Since I couldn’t do it by being a naturally loveable person, I had to attempt it in other ways.

For example, there was the little wooden rocking chair that had come into our possession via someone’s death, Uncle Steve’s, most likely. Its cane had worn out years ago, and it was missing a back and a seat, but flaws like these were never enough to warrant sending it into the trash heap. It was old and it came from a dead relative, which was enough to qualify it as a Precious Family Heirloom, and we’d no sooner have thrown it away than we’d have thrown away the grandkids, although if it was up to me I’d have thrown away the grandkids. Its lack of a seat was a mere flesh wound, especially in the hands of my father, who – if he didn’t have the perfect tool for a particular job – would just make the tool himself, and who had a vast library of “how to” books in the basement, books we were always encouraged to borrow, as long as we read them sitting upright at the dining room table in a stiff-backed chair, with no food, drink, or highlighters in sight. And if his “Art of Chair Caning” book had been personally autographed by Plato himself, none of us would have been surprised in the least.

The little rocking chair had been earmarked for Corey, who’d planned to read the Art of Chair Caning and do the project herself, but then Corey went off and got married and basically gave up all rights for ever starting any project ever again. The rocking chair was now up for grabs, and this is where, in a screenplay, it would read: Exit COREY, stage right. Enter STACEY, stage left. Time for me to make my move. Lights off, Corey, Lights on, Stacey!

“The Milford Adult Education offers a chair caning class,” I said to my dad when I was home that year for Christmas.

“What’s a chair caning class?” interjected a random brother-in-law in the background. “Is that some kind of an S & M course?”

Idiot.

“And I’ve always wanted to take it,” I finished, nailing the hammer home.

Now, while it’s true that I “wanted” to take the class (I had a set of dining room chairs that badly needed to be re-caned), I never really WANTED to take the class. It ran for 9 straight weeks, 3 hours every Monday night: 27 hours spent doing manual labor and learning a new skill, and I wasn’t a fan of either. “No new people; no new skills” is the motto by which I live. But once the ball was set in motion, it couldn’t be stopped, and that is how, on the evening of Monday, February 11th, 2002, I found myself pulling into the parking lot of the Milford Adult Education Center with Uncle Steve’s cute little rocking chair perched on the seat next to me, just as eager to be restored to its former glory as I was eager to be propelled to the top of the Favorite Daughter Ladder.

The class itself – Chair Caning 101 – was taught by a cheerless man named Charles Plasky and his equally cheerless son, whose name, upon introduction, I immediately forgot. Instead, I simply began referring to them as “The Charles Plasky Father and Son Chair Caning Team,” and their first act that night was to explain the two basic methods of chair caning (the traditional hand-caning method, i.e., the hard way, and the pressed cane method, i.e., the easy way). Their second act that night was to determine into which of the two categories our chosen projects fell.

Now, if your chair had a series of drilled holes around the perimeter of the seat then sorry, but you had the “hard” kind. Channel your inner Pocohontas because you’re going to need her as you sit crossed-legged in the sand baking under the desert sun, weaving your entire seat completely by hand, one individual strip of cane at a time, in and out and in and out and in and out of every single one of those tiny little holes. “Woe is me,” said one of my classmates despondently. “I started this chair last spring. No way am I gonna finish this in nine weeks!” No, no you’re not buddy, so shut up and get weaving.

(For the record, whether your chair required the hard method or the easy method is completely dictated by the original design of the chair itself, and is not, I repeat, NOT a testament to the laziness of the person who’s re-caning the chair.)

On the other hand, if your chair had a narrow groove lining its perimeter (instead of a million drilled holes), you had an “easy” kind of chair: all you do is buy a piece of prewoven cane out of a catalog (if you look stupid enough, Charles Plasky will even measure your chair and tell you what size to buy), press it into the groove, and glue it in place. Voila! Done, just like that, in a few short hours.

So you can imagine my delight when the Charles Plasky Father and Son Chair Caning Team determined that I alone in the class was the sole possessor of a chair that fell into the easy category. If I felt the immediate disdain and loathing of the rest of my classmates, I couldn’t have cared less. It wasn’t my fault my chair wasn’t the hard kind. I wasn’t the one who’d built the chair. I wasn’t the one who decided to drill one narrow groove around the perimeter instead of a million individual holes. I’d simply rescued the chair from the Land of the Misfits and was playing the hand I’d been dealt. I would be done with my chair in the NEXT class! Yes!

And, I was. And, under the expert guidance of Charles and Son, the little rocking chair turned out great. How could it not? The two were talented, seasoned professionals who did most of the work on it themselves and didn’t let me get involved until the very end. The rocking chair was perfect, which was great, since my dad hated a job done badly so much that one time, when he was putting up a wall, he didn’t like the way the wall looked, so – even though it was a perfectly functional wall and he was going to cover it up with another wall anyway and no one was ever going to see it – he tore it down and rebuilt a better better-looking wall. Then he covered it up with another wall and no one ever saw it again. That is how much of a perfectionist he is, and I say that in the best sense of the word. If you want a job done right, get my dad to do it.

So, having done such a great job myself, you can imagine my surprise when, after regaling him with the details of The Great Caning Project of 2002, he said, “WHAT? You did WHAT??? You used PREWOVEN cane and GLUED it into the chair?? What’s the point of that? You were supposed to weave the cane by HAND! I even had all the stuff to do it with … it was in the bag!”

The bag. Oh. I’d forgotten the bag. I think it was still in Pittsburgh. I didn’t even know what was inside the bag but its contents obviously would have changed my life. (If this were a movie, this is where somebody would open the bag in some dusty old warehouse and it would glow from within as if it contained somebody’s soul, accompanied by a heavenly chord.)

In my defense, what did I know about caning chairs? That’s why I was taking the class, not teaching the class. If there was something the Plaskys weren’t telling me, how was I supposed to know? They didn’t exactly strike me as the kind of men who’d be open to idle chitchat and method-questioning. They had a successful chair caning business of their own and if they looked at my chair and told me how it needed to be re-caned, who was I to question them? Further, how were they to know that the fine specimen seated before them who couldn’t even measure her own seat backing correctly was fully expected to hand-weave her own sheet of pressed cane, and that assigning her the quick and easy route (when there was always a harder, longer, more painful alternative) flew directly in the face of the Fonas Family Creed of “Assembly Required”? I’d refinished a valuable family heirloom with a piece of prewoven cane? I might as well have told my family I was living in sin with an atheist.

Upon learning what I did to poor Uncle Steve’s rocking chair, my dad slammed down the phone, jumped on his Harley, and rode all the way up to Connecticut, not even stopping for gas when he needed it, just riding on the fumes of his fury alone. Swashbuckling grandly through the classroom door, he pushed past the Charles Plasky Father and Son Chair Caning Team, ripped the prewoven cane out of the rocking chair and threw it out the window.

“Do it right or don’t do it all!” he warned, rasped and threatened all at once, not meaning to sound like Clint Eastwood but sounding like Clint Eastwood anyway. He then made the entire class start their projects all over again, even the guy who started his chair last spring, but instead of it being a nine-week class, he changed it to a thirty-five week class, three nights a week, six hours a class, plus mandatory open studio on weekends, and we weren’t even allowed to buy the loose individual strands of cane we needed for our chairs from a catalog: we had to grow them ourselves in the Housatonic marsh out behind my house, and fashion our own chair-caning tools out of cat paws.

And, while that might not be exactly the way the story ended, that’s how it ended in my mind.

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