BARNEY STARTED a woodworking business when he was just a couple units shy of graduating with a degree in Basket Weaving, or whatever. He called his business The Burl Barn, and for many many years he said he'd go back and finish up that degree. Not that a college degree would impress the tourists who buy his journeyman carpenter redwood burl slab tables, mirror frames, bowls, chests, and chainsaw carvings. It's probably for the best he never got it. Knowing him, the same stuff sold by Barney, Ph.D., would automatically get jacked up to twice the price.
I found myself working for Barney when I was fifteen after my dad, a highly skilled carpenter himself, had taken a few minutes after teaching one afternoon to walk across the street from the high school and talk with Barney. I didn't know if Dad went over there with the express purpose of lining up work for me or if it just happened, but the immediate result of their conversation as I saw it was the loss of my weekend trips to Africa. Dad had also been the one to introduce me to the hardback copy of Tarzan of the Apes crouching up in the shelves of the high school library some years earlier.
I did not feel lucky to have the opportunity to work part-time in a burl shop. Sure didn't look like no Opar to me. If I impressed him with hard work after a test run weekend, he might be inclined to keep me on part-time for awhile. I had had other part-time jobs before. Lawn mowing, pool cleaning.
When my well-knit body strode, Adonis-like, down the driveway my first Saturday morning at 8 am even though "Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle" would be on in only a couple of hours, I saw a guy with messy hair, high-water pants and suspenders standing in the shop doorway holding a steaming cup.
"You're late," he said, holding his hot cup up to his face and sounding like Phobeg in the dungeons of the City of Gold. "I'm Barney, put the signs up." This he said with a wave of his hand as he gulped from his mug and went back in.
I wasn't sure I heard him correctly. What exactly did "put the signs up" mean? I looked behind me. Near the road, on the left hand side of the wide drive lay something that looked like an overturned sign. I walked over to it and turned it up. In big arching letters the sign read THE BURL BARN. Beneath the letters a nineteenth century-style hand with a cuff at the wrist pointed to the shop. Seeing no other overturned signs, I walked back down to the shop.How I longed to take to the trees, and search for the spoor of Horta, the boar. I was annoyed at what was evidently a test of Barney's authority and my capability, and resented being put in a position where I had to endure games, but I was both too young and too old to refuse the job.
Beyond an open Dutch door with latticed windows various redwood items neatly filled the display room. A short length of chain demarcated this room from what was at that time the larger and less tidy shop area. Barney leaned behind a wooden counter with the cup between his hands like an Irish guy in a pub. All very European.
"You're late," he said again.
"I thought I was supposed to be here at eight."
"That's right, you were," he said, raising his voice and launching into a lecture. "When you go to work you should show up at least ten minutes early, at least. That's just how it works in the real world and that's how I run my shop." He walked around the counter, removing one end of the chain from a nail as he passed, then returning it, and walked out of the shop, motioning with a finger or two for me to follow.
On the right hand side of the drive next to a telephone pole lay a piece of scrap wood, on the underside of which I saw after Barney propped it up bore the message OPEN. This he did with an air of superiority that, again, a commencement speech would never have helped, every fiber of his very being saying, "See, stupid?" Come to think, he actually did say that. I thought he was stupid to assume I knew where some stick was lying in the dirt. Then he swaggered back down the drive like Phobeg or Buto or Duro, down into a little grove of trees in which was piled a mountain of redwood burls. He chose a small one which seemed to have strayed from the mountain and heaved it several yards away, where it landed in dead leaves and yellow grass.
"This pile of burls needs to go over there," he said.
"I can't afford to throw my back out messin' around with this." It sounded more like a lecture than instructions. A lot more.
"Gotcha." I grabbed a biggie and tossed it where he'd thrown the first.
"Don't break 'em! These things make me money. This is how I earn my living. Do I go over to your house and break your things? I don't want you to walk 'em over either. It'll take you forever. I don't like paying people to do things the wrong way. I've been running this business for a buncha years now. You were probably in diapers when I started this."
I had in fact recently fashioned a loin cloth. From a pillow case. And worn it down at the bridge.
After inspecting for a little bit, Barney swaggered back into the shop.
Amazingly, I found myself enjoying the work--mostly because he wasn't there--working up a sweat, getting paid to workout. I felt like a character from Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read somewhere Burroughs stayed at the Benbow Inn. What about a guy raised by Bigfeet? I wondered. Putting my body on auto-pilot, I stared into the Pelucidar of my pineal gland.
I remembered Barney from years before. My buddy Mike, a red-haired smartass, had spent the night one fall Friday, and the next morning we got up early to have fun. We played ping pong and dorked around at the Whispering Woods Motel until we got bored. Then I told Mike of the fun we could have down in the forest throwing spears and knives and making rope swings. We intended to get a couple of Cokes and some candy at the store, until we noticed two things: that neither of us had any money, and that there was a dark mass of smoke billowing over the trees at the north end of town. Figuring we could maybe do a little work to make some snack money, we walked down to where the smoke was and saw a gigantic burn pile. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Where there had always been a mass of tick brush and poison ivy, that was all gone. Now it was dirt and trucks and guys throwing debris onto what looked like a two-story burn pile.
Mike asked a man if we could help out, and the man said it was okay with him, but we should ask Barney.
"He's over there," the man said pointing with a shovel. "The one with the suspenders." He needed them, with that big gut. Without suspenders, it would've been like trying to put pants on a giant egg.
Barney stood on the side of the smoldering pile yelling orders to a man operating a skid loader trying to drop a tree on top. When Barney hopped down, Mike said out of the side of his mouth, "Okay, ask him."
"You do it," I replied to the side.
Then the man with the shovel appeared.
"Hey Barney!" he said. "You got a couple of boys here want to do some work."
"What do you want to do?" Barney said to us.
I looked at Mike.
"We just want a little money for some Cokes and a couple of candy bars," Mike said in a manner both dismissive and hopeful. "Just a couple of bucks. Maybe five bucks."
"Each?" Barney said incredulously.
The man with the shovel laughed. We smiled like ballsy little imps. Things looked good for us.
"Tell you morons what," Barney said, scooping up a rusty strip of metal at his feet. "I need the trash around here picked up. Pick up crap like this, and any wood you see like that"--he grabbed a splintered stake lying in the dirt--"and toss it over there out of the way. I want all this crap cleaned up." He tossed the rusty metal and the splintered stake in the direction he'd indicated and said, "Then we'll talk about pay."
Afterwards, Mike and I agreed that Barney was a dick.
We kicked a few things around trying to look like we were working hard for about twenty-five minutes before someone said it was lunch. After awhile, Barney reluctantly parted with four ones, reminding us not to tell our folks he'd let us split a Coors. Warm.
He was standing in the doorway again now, with yet another steaming cup. Smoke rose from the shop chimney. Under the trees I barely noticed the gray morning drizzle.
"Break-time," Barney said. It didn't sound friendly, but more like an order. As though I were a machine he figured couldn't go the distance without rest.
"I'm not done," I said all friendly-like, pausing with a ridiculously big burl in my grip, aware that I was holding it as if it were lighter than it was. Not for nothing had I read all those Tarzan books.
"It's 10:30," he said to my surprise. I couldn't believe how fast the time had flown by. "You do a man's work, you take a man's breaks," he said.
"That's okay," I patiently replied, chucking the ungainly chunk to the top of the new mound with the speed of a striking panther. "I'm almost through." By that I meant I was halfway through. Yes, let the Tarmangani retreat to the civilization of his coffee and his shop, I thought. And next time, don't interrupt a man when he's working.