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The blacksmith shop was one of my favorite stops because my uncle Leon was the village blacksmith, and he would always drop everything and act like he was glad to see me. He would sharpen my skates or weld my bike and make me feel important. If there were people in the shop he would tease me and say, "Here's my nephew. He traded legs with a shikepoke and got cheated out of his ass." Everyone would laugh, and then he would say, "He's so skinny he could swim up stream in a garden hose!" I would be a little embarrassed, but I loved the attention. I liked the smell of the coal forge, the ring of the anvil, the sparks, and the bang of the trip hammer. To a twelve-year-old boy it was like a circus. I loved it.
I was going to be a Junior in high school, and the summer job I thought I had at the local drug store had been reclaimed by an older guy who had returned from the army and wanted his job back. My dad and uncle were discussing this over breakfast when my uncle said, "Send him over to me. I'll either make a man out of him or a mighty sick boy." I had mixed thoughts about it because I knew the transition from soda jerk to blacksmith was not going to be easy.
My first day on the job my uncle told me, "We need to put a little meat on your bones, but don't worry it will happen." He also told me this was more than a summer job. He said, "You are the last one I'm going to teach the blacksmith trade because we have the same last name." He said, "There is no competition within fifty miles so you'll always have a job. I said, "What about the guy in Highmore?" (a town 23 miles west of Miller) He replied, "That fellow wouldn't make a pimple on a blacksmith's ass!"
One of my first jobs was grinding and polishing plow lays after they had been sharpened. First all the nicks and flaws from the trip hammer had to be ground out and then polished at just the right angle so they would scour. Uncle Leon told me this was important because it meant they would turn the soil without having it stick to the lay. The plow lays were heavy and my butt made two trails in the sand going home that night. Uncle Leon assured me that the job would get easier, or at least seem easier. I knew the job was a hell of a lot dirtier then working behind a soda fountain.
It seemed to me like we had all the tools in the shop to repair anything. The drill press had adjustable belts and would drill holes up to an inch in diameter. The grinder-polisher had a huge electric motor. We had a threader that would thread rod up to three-quarter inch diameter, but the two coal forges and large propane forge, along with two 150 pound anvils were what made it a blacksmith shop. The wooden walls of the shop were decorated with the brands of the local farmers and ranches. I couldn't wait to make a branding iron and burn my mark on that wall. It would be a while.
My uncle was a German perfectionist who learned his trade from a German perfectionist. He told me, "Nothing goes out, that we worked on, that isn't right." I knew he meant it, and the shop reputation was safe with me because he taught me right. He told me the money was in the plow lays, and we got it down to a routine. Farmers would bring in the dull lays as many as six at a time, and we would mark their names on them with soap stone. In two or three days we would have sixty to a eighty lays, and my uncle would say, "It's time to run them." My uncle would start a fire in the coal forges using the hard coal we got from out of state. We would shape the points by heating them cherry red in the forges and drawing them out on the anvils with blacksmith hammers. After we had twenty or so with the points drawn out, my uncle or I would light the propane forge and heat the edges to be drawn out under the trip hammer. They were then dipped in a brine and acid solution to case harden the surface. Timing was important, because you could warp the lay if you cooled it too fast, and it would not fit on the plow bottom. The next stage was the grinding and polishing. That was my job because my uncle was the owner and the blacksmith and he was above that. I can only imagine what the temperature was in the shop when we were running lays. I do know it took a lot of beer to run those lays. My uncle would drink about three to my one, and we would sweat them out in a hurry. The beer drinking was more than a mild irritation to my red-haired aunt. My job was to put the empties in the coal bags and get them to the town dump before my aunt could take inventory.
I was getting to be an accomplished arc welder, but I wanted to learn to forge weld. My uncle showed me how to build the coal fire and get the hot temperature needed. He showed me how to taper the ends of a sickle bar and heat them to just the right temperature by the color of the metal. Then he taught me when to put the borax and iron filing flux on and lay the two parts on the anvil and hit them with hammer. My uncle's forge welds were always perfect and solid. It took me a year before I could match his work. He was more pleased than I was, but he would cover it up by saying something like, "Remember Morrie, there are only two blacksmiths in hell -- one bent a cold iron and the other one didn't charge enough."
My uncle never passed up a chance to show me how hard he had to work in "The Old Days." I got to help shoe a horse or two, but the job that impressed me the most was sweating the rim on a wooden buggy wheel. My uncle told me to dig a small ditch and fill it with water. He then took a tool, called a traveler, around the inside of the rim. This told him how much metal to remove to make the rim fit tight on the wheel. Then, with my help, we forge welded the wheel, heated it red hot, and using tongs, we lowered it on to the wooden wheel and ran a rod through the hub. Then, as quickly as we could, we ran the whole wheel outside and spun it around in the ditch filled with water. That rim let out a loud pop, and it was tight on the wooden wheel. My uncle Leon then asked me, "Do you know anyone else who can do that, Morrie?" I proudly answered, "I sure as hell don't!"
Winter was coming on and it seemed to me the town was getting smaller. I talked it over with my uncle, and although I could tell he thought I was making a mistake, I took a discharge from the National Guard and went active duty with the Navy. They reviewed my work history and sent me to metal smith school. I gave my uncle a lot of credit for teaching me the blacksmith trade and giving a work ethic that followed me right into the Navy. I made Second Class Metal Smith with proficiency pay my first hitch and went back to that blacksmith shop in South Dakota eager to show my uncle my newfound knowledge. I had 90 days to make up my mind to re-enlist or remain a civilian. After several weeks my uncle said, "I want to talk to you.", and he was as serious as the day he told me I was the last person he was going to teach his trade. He said, "Morrie, I will give you this blacksmith shop. I will go to Florida in the winter, and then I will come back and work for you during the busy times. You will make a good living, but all you will have is a dirty old blacksmith shop with worn out equipment." Then he said, "If you give the Navy 20 years, they will give you half pay for the rest of your life, and I can't match that." I called the Navy and told them I was ready to ship over two days later.
After I did my twenty and had made Chief in the Metal Smith field, I went back to that little town of Miller. The man who had bought my uncle's shop offered to sell me the forges and the trip hammer because he never used them. I told him no. When I reached the street, I looked toward heaven and told my uncle, "He wouldn't make a pimple on a blacksmith's ass."
© 2002 Maurice D. Karst
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