What? Beans in your ears?

My Mommy told me “Don’t put beans in your ears, beans in your ears.”

Remember that song?

It comes to mind every time I slip my hearing-aid domes into an ear canal. It feels unnatural. You’re not supposed to put cotton swabs, pencils or beans in your ears. You might break your ear drum. It might get stuck in your ear and they’ll have to take you to the hospital and use a giant vacuum to suck it out. And your brains could be sucked out in the process.

And if you put a bean in your ear, it will get stuck in there, take root and you’ll have green beans growing from your ears by late summer.

Don’t put beans in your ears …

So here I am, sitting with two electronic beans in my ears. And I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.

I don’t like the tinny sound. I don’t like the feeling of fullness.

I don’t like the sounds I’ve been missing,
the dog licking,
shower dripping
keyboard clicking.

It’s all too loud.

For years I’ve tried to ignore my failing hearing. I first became aware of it when my spouse would tell me a smoke alarm was going off in the basement or the reel on my 16mm projector was making a squeaking sound. I didn’t hear it, so it didn’t exist.

Next came errors in reporting, especially at meetings ,where I would have to quote speakers in rooms with horrible acoustics. Sheepishly, I’d have to ask them to repeat themselves after the meeting, if I could track them down in time.

I noticed that the sound from the telephone receiver was much louder in my right ear than the left. In fact, when people spoke into my left ear, I just didn’t hear it. I even had a psychic tell me I had a bad left ear, and that was 20 some years ago.

It all goes back to 1976 or so, when I was bill collector for Sun Finance. Remember finance companies? Yes, I worked for one. And one evening as I was doing collections, I acquired a new disability. I was knocking on the door of a delinquent debtor, who happened to live in a block house down on the lakefront in Conneaut. The house had an enclosed block porch, and I was standing in that area when two misfits tossed a pack of firecrackers into the enclosed area.

The blast floored me. When I came too, I had incredible ringing in my ears, and no hearing.

I went home and figured it would go away in a couple of days. Slowly, the hearing did return, but never the ringing. Tinnitus, they call it. And the hearing, although recovered, was never the same.

Ruth, God bless that sweet lady’s heart, played along with my hearing loss when we were dating. She patiently repeated things and showed great empathy, even though she has great hearing. But I could not deny that something was seriously wrong, and that I was going to get myself in trouble by playing along like I knew what people were saying to me. Only in one-on-one conversations, with no background noise, could I understand the words. I just nodded and smiled, and I often wondered how many times I did that when the other person was trying to tell me that something gross was hanging on my face or that their mother had just passed away after a lingering illness of 42 years.

Years ago I saw an ENT doctor about the problem, and he suggested some super-expensive hearing aids to try to block the constant ringing and regain some of the high-frequency loss. The cost was around $12K. In case you are unfamiliar with how all this works, hearing aids are not covered by health insurance. They are smarter than that. So it was always out of the question.

Last month I decided to have my hearing checked again. The audiologist charted on a graph the frequencies that I could hear. It looked like the graph of the coming stock market crash when Donald Trump is replaced by a Democrat or Libertarian. The audiologist just shook her head and said “You ain’t hearing much, buddy.”

I can’t hear frequencies above 1 kHz. The left ear is especially bad. It might as well be dead. The audiologist told me that I’ve compensated all these years by using the right ear, but it’s on life support. But at least it can be helped with a hearing aid.

Armed with the results of my hearing test, I went shopping online for the dreaded hearing aids. I selected a pair from Audicus. Cost more than a full-frame Nikon DSLR.

I’ve had them for about three weeks now. The company is good to work with, but did I mention I don’t like the hearing aids?

Granted, I can now hear what the preacher says during the sermon, and I’m starting to realize that a lot of the stuff that I thought he said was OK, isn’t. Well, I may exaggerating on that.

And I’ve discovered that my little car is extremely noisy (suggestion: if you suffer from hearing loss, you can save money by purchasing a noisy, subcompact car). I recently wore my hearing aids while driving and was amazed at all the rattles and rumbles in that car. And I noticed for the first time since I purchased the car I could hear the turning signal clicking. I just figured it was some modern thing, that the turning signals no longer clicked. Then I realized why Ruth was always poking me to turn off the signal.

When her told her that I discovered my car was noisy, she said “I knew that.”

“You mean when we went on our first date? Was it noisy then?


“And you continued to date me?”


Now that’s love!

And that is why I will eventually get used to wearing these darn things, these beans in my ears. I want to hear to her voice, and I want to hear all of life, cacophony and music alike. I don’t want to end up like my mother, although I probably will, who had to be screamed at because she refused to wear her hearing aids, and who had to constantly turn to my father and ask for an interpretation of what I just said.

Hearing aids are expensive, they don’t sound anything like “natural hearing” and they are a pain to wear. They eat batteries like Christmas morning. You always worry about that silly retaining strand sticking out of your ear like an old man’s hair that hasn’t seen a razor since adolescence.

And it feels like there are beans in my ears.



Never had so many calls

Are you lonely?

Does your cell phone never ring?

Do you have an afternoon to waste?

Go to a website where you inquire about health insurance plans for individuals.

Such was my Monday afternoon as I launched my search in the land of Obamacare.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone. It’s Sandra.

Sorry about that.

On Friday I got my letter advising me that funds are no longer available to pay for my position with Ashtabula County. Health insurance ends at the end of April.

Being 63 and without insurance is about as scary as having Donald Trump for President or being an empath at a covert narcissists’ convention.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone. It’s Devin.

Sorry about that.

So I plugged in the personal information, including my cellphone number, in two websites. And I am telling you that within five seconds of hitting send, the first call came in.

A nice young lady by the name of Nicole took all my information and offered a policy with no deductible at only $275.89 a month. What is this, Chinese health insurance?

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

It sounded too good to be true. I mean the COBRA premium was something like five times that, and it has deductibles.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that. It was another one of those calls.

Nope. No deductibles. Funny thing, when I asked for something in writing, via email, they aren’t able to do that. Humm.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that. You guessed it.

Based upon the person’s unwillingness to put it writing, I wrote it off.

Besides, at that point, I had five more calls waiting.

The next one wants one to know, right off the bat, how much I can afford every month for health insurance.

“Well, let’s see. I just got laid off. I’ll probably not be able to get unemployment because I have a business. Um. How about nothing?”

The next guy asks me the same question. But he wants to know how much I could wire him today to get the ball rolling. Brother, I think it’s dice, not a ball, that’s rolling.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that. It was Samantha. Wow what is smoking? Nobody should be so upbeat on a Monday afternoon in gray, dreary, windy, rainy northeast Ohio. Then I check the area code. She’s in California. Figures.

The phone stopped ringing. I continued my search online, preferring to put my money into a medical sharing account with a Christian organization. I found a portal for these plans and received great service from an agent whose quote was much more in line with what I anticipated. And so I asked her, why a sharing plan with $10,000 deductible is still twice as high as the premium for a plan that has no deductible.

I won’t share the answer, although it is rather obvious. I smell a rat whenever there are so many sales people jumping onto an inquiry from

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

one old man trying to

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

get some health insurance

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

just in case.

A the Linesville Spillway in Pennsylvania, hundreds of fat carp compete with each other for one slice of bread tossed into the water. I think it’s that way when some sap like myself fills out one of those online forms seeking a health insurance quote. The enthusiastic, persistent calls suggest to me there is both a lot of money to be made in this business and the consumer is being taken for a sucker (like the lips on that light fish). Who regulates these guys? And what ever happened to the affordable in the Affordable Care Act? When your income equals zero, nothing is affordable.

I’m exhausted from swiping the phone and listening to these hot shots promise me the world.

But you  know what’s really scary?

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

If I am unemployed for very long, or folks don’t buy our books, I may have to work in a call center, selling my soul for

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

health insurance.

What a sorry state of affairs. But at least I’m not lonely. I have along list of numbers I can call back.

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

I have learned that I can identify the nature of the call by the five-second silence before they come on the line. And the background is filled with the chatter of other

Excuse me, I need to answer the phone.

Sorry about that.

“agents” “assisting” “customers.”

I am going to turn off the cell phone. I am going make some soup for my lovely wife. We are going to have a quiet evening in the cottage.

I will deal with health insurance, tomorrow.



Secure the shadow …

I am probably as addicted to reading camera and lens reviews as any photographer or “gear head.” Often, as I droll over the latest DSLR body or lens that I can’t afford, I have to remind myself that I don’t have time to use to their full potential the two Nikons and assorted lenses that I already own, so why waste my time and mental energy even bothering to look?

Of course, I can justify the window shopping as staying abreast of developments in the industry. But since I pretty much hung up my professional photographer’s vest a few years ago, after cataract surgery forced me into the world of reading glasses, I’m just kidding myself. There is a fine line between staying abreast and lust. Despite what that devil on the shoulder would tell you, it usually does hurt to look at that Adorama email or Nikon Rumors website.

We build mausoleums for our exhausted bodies, but give little thought to preserving our digital lives. Words, moving pictures and photographs ought to last beyond the cloud or life of a smart phone.

With the passing of my mother recently, I am reminded of the short distance I have left to cover in this life. The hair is almost gray, the hearing shot and the legs ache. Somedays the fire that once burned like the one in my woodstove on a windy night is but a few embers when it comes to getting out the camera and exploring the forest, lake or some lonely street with it. Having used an SLR since I was in high school, yes way back in 1972, I’ve documented pretty much all I can think of documenting. There are thousands of slides to be scanned, thousands of negatives whose images are likely to be forgotten if I don’t take the time to scan them, describe them and file them before the last few brain cells expire.

Our world is awash in images. Pictures are as cheap as words. I chose the worst possible occupations at which to make a living, photography and writing. Everybody with keyboard and Internet connection is a writer, and everybody with a smart phone is a photographer. You can find a photograph of just about anything online and if you can’t, capturing one is as easy as finding the subject. And when you’re done with the imaging, it will be worth pretty much what every other picture is worth online.

Paid assignments are rare and far between; there’s always a “good camera” owner on staff these days who can take the annual report or marketing photos that the company once called upon a professional to do. Parents, dads in particular, have a good excuse to buy expensive camera gear as soon as the mom finds out she’s three days pregnant.

Living in a small, blue-collar, Midwestern town where art is not much appreciated or understood makes the challenge even greater. If a photographer puts a great deal of effort and thought into making an image, develops a style or exhibits technical mastery of the media, it is likely to go unnoticed because the viewer’s cell phone is capable of producing a facsimile. I’m always amused by cell phone photographers who take pictures of other photographer’s work at art shows and festivals. I spent one gruelingly hot summer sitting under a canopy at area festivals, attempting to sell enough prints to pay for the space. After two such weekends of wrestling with a 90-pound canopy, forcing a smile as people strolled by and being broiled on asphalt, I sold the canopy and sent the matted prints to a consignment shop.

On a rare occasion I had the camera handy as I was working in the garage one winter evening. My wife had left me and the garage and property felt so lonely; life felt so bleak. I felt like half a circle, the person who was supposed to make me feel whole had left, and all that remained was this lonely cottage and bleak landscape. There was in the fresh snow only one set of tire tracks, further reminder of my solitude. Looking at the image today, I recall the pain I felt, but the casual viewer sees only a window, snow and trees. If the viewer finds some beauty in that, the image resonates. But it will never resonate with the viewer as it does with the image maker, who was in the moment, not just the scene.

I have a theory that if people want to purchase photographs to hang on their wall, they will have prints made of their own work because it is much more meaningful to them than the work of another person. They were in the moment, and their expression of it reflects what they were feeling and awakens those emotional memories every time they look at the picture. A sunset photo with a tilted horizon and blown-out sky will still trump a perfectly exposed and composed one if it is of a favorite place or vacation.

Ironically, this plethora of mediocre, easy done images comes at a time when photographers are positioned to capture extraordinary images because of the capabilities of equipment at our disposal (assuming the photographer works on Wall Street or has a solid line of credit). Lenses that are f/1.4, sensors that can see in the dark, optics with razor sharp resolution, software that can compensate for a host of shortcomings in both the equipment and person operating are standard.

Oddly enough, when I read equipment reviews the illustrations rarely depict the full potential of the lens or camera. We’re so obsessed with “bokeh” that ketchup bottles and garden flowers are used pressed into subjects for these reviews because they are handy. The old walk around the neighborhood and shots of brick walls also abound in the reviews because the new owner just had the lens delivered on his lunch hour and wanted to shoot some images with it so he could post a quick review, that is tell the world he just put down $2,000 for a lens that will be used to take pictures of street lamps. And if he has time, he’ll make a video of the item being unboxed. What’s with that?

As I look back on the subjects that I wasted film and time on, I’m frustrated by all the flower, forest, waterfall and sunset photos. Why did I take these things? 40 years later, and the sun is still setting, the leaves turning and the snow falling. Prosaic stuff.

A portrait of the late National Geographic photographer Volkmar Wentzel, photographed in Aurora, W.Va., was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had an introverted photographer. I gained his trust when I pulled out the tripod for the session; being old school, he liked the fact that I recognized my shortcomings and desired the sharpest image possible. Ironically, the shot I liked best was done without a tripod, in a “down” moment.

Too seldom did I turn the lens on the human life around me. Introverted and fearful of confrontation, I’ve always had an aversion to photographing people. Even buildings scared me, in the event someone ran outside and challenged me, or a passerby in a car would shout the same stupid thing, “Hey take my picture.”

Why oh why did I ever get interested in this stuff?

I suppose it is because as an introvert it is easy to hide behind a camera. I am by nature an observer, and even if a camera is not in my hand, my mind is often noticing the light, the expressions, the play of colors, the compositions that take form as life interacts with life within the frame of the infinite second. Images are metaphors to me, and unfortunately few other share that metaphoric interpretation of what they see.

Laziness is another reason I take photographs, and that ties into my work as a writer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The one magazine I write for pays 10 cents a word, so that’s $100. But they only pay $25 for a picture, so the adage isn’t correct, or at least it has not been adjusted for the plethora of both images and words. No, a picture is worth not much. And it is much easier to snap a picture than to study a subject and really get to know it to the point a description can be put into 1,000 words rather than 36 megapixels.

I see metaphor in the things I photograph. I made this image last spring as I struggled with the heartbreak of divorce and recovery from the emotional wreckage in my life. Those things hung as deep shadows on the wall of being, but a vine of hope was emerging through those shadows, following the light upward.

What we forget in all of this is that what we’re capturing is not the real thing but a reflection, it is all a reflection or a shadow of reality. The only thing we really capture is what goes into and stays in our brain. If the researcher is lucky, we’ll take the time to write it out in a journal that has paper for pages and leather for a binding, that is cared for and treasured, and in a few hundred years opened and studied. That’s probably the best we can hope for.

In my mind, at least, a photograph does not become a document until it is committed to paper and preserved for the future. And words, such as these, are nothing more than thoughts as long as they float around the sphere as bytes. The same holds true for video; indeed, I wonder if we can truly call any “film” that is produced electronically and distributed in the same manner as “film” until it reposes on the silver-emulsion.

I find all of this rather distressing given how many people store their family’s memories on their cellphones, in the cloud and on hard drives prone to failure. Perhaps it is a blessing that all those selfies of smiling faces, tongues protruding toward the lens and noses distorted, will be someday lost forever. Then again, they were only shadows.

Earlier this week I ran across an advertisement in an 1868 newspaper. It was from a photographer’s studio; it simply stated “Secure the shadow ere the substance fades.” This morning I am reminded that the substance of mother has faded, her shadow disappeared from the walls and floors of my life. What I captured in the living years is all I will have of her on paper. And I regret that I did not pay more attention to those shadows when the substance was still with me. This, despite having thousands of dollars worth of equipment at my disposal. The camera and lenses stayed in their satchels, safe from harm, safe from shadows, whenever she came to visit. The most recent photograph I could find was from my father’s 84th birthday party in 2016.

My parents, Carl and Cossette Feather, and my cousin, Greg Rumer, and his wife Michelle, at Dad’s birthday picnic in 2016. Lucy was more interested in the food than the camera. It is the last picture I have of my mother; what happened to those other 16 months? I failed to “secure the shadow.”

It is a good memory of her; she was smiling and raving about how much she enjoyed the party and meeting the daughter of the man who built our stone cottage. My cousin Greg and his lovely wife Michelle had joined us; Mom and Dad brought their dog, Lucy, to the party. It was a good moment. And it reminds me:

“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.”

And so during a break in writing this, as I walked through the kitchen trying to remember what I went out there for in the first place, I saw Ruth’s cats, Max and Ruby, posed at the top of the steps on her heirloom sewing machine. My D750 was handy, and I quickly put an old 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor on it and forced these old eyes to manually focus for a couple of shots.

Shadow secured.


Hats off to this artist neighbor

For the artist, the road to perfection is littered with tests, failures and near-perfect pieces that admiring eyes never see.

Had you been in the Geneva workshop of woodturning artist Ron Tomasch the evening of February 7, you would have seen in the trash bin one half of a wooden cowboy hat with a broken top. The prior day, after Ron invested six hours of lathe work into the piece, the hat’s top suddenly snapped off as it spun on the lathe, sending the hat flying toward Ron. The artist’s chisel had removed a critical layer of wood around the top, the piece was ruined.

Ron took the “failure” in stride, walked across the workshop, flipped the switch on the band saw and made a longitudinal cut through the hat. The postmortem examination revealed that he still had a ways to go in hollowing out the object, but had misjudged the amount of material remaining at the top.

“Sometimes ‘oops’ things happen,” Ron says. “I’ve had a couple of them where I punched through (the rotating wood with the chisel).”

He doesn’t give up. Within minutes of having his day’s work destroyed, Ron was in his truck headed to the tree trimmer’s lot where he’d found the piece of ambrosia maple that he reduced to shavings and a topless hat. Working in hand-numbing cold, he cut two more chunks from the log of the freshly felled tree and prepared one of them for his lathe. The next morning, he was back in the shop, a wiser, more skilled woodturner determined to make a hat.

Turning heads with his work

Determination and a passion for challenge keep Ron on track as an artist. Although the 69-year-old woodturner has been turning since he was 8 years old, he neither tires of the hobby nor has learned all its tricks and intricacies.

As vice-president of the North Coast Woodturners Association, Ron has the pleasure of booking into the club’s learning events top talent from the profession. Four to five times a year, he gets to meet and learn from professional turners, who sometimes visit his shop or allow him to turn in their shops.

“I’m the one who gets to talk to all these guys,” says Ron, who has lived in Geneva for the past four years.

The Olmsted Falls native came east following a chance meeting with Isabell Quayle, a retired teacher and licensed drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor who lives in Geneva. Ron calls Isabell his “girlfriend.” They met at Geneva-on-the-Lake, a place Ron once frequented as a young man, but had not been back to for many years when he decided to revisit one summer day several years ago. He and Isabell struck up a conversation, exchanged cell phone numbers and parted ways. A short distance west of Geneva, Isabell called Ron and asked if he’d like to meet her mother. He turned around, came back for introductions, and the conversation continues.

“We decided we’d get together, and I knocked down her garage and built this,” Ron says of the 850-square-foot workshop he built behind Isabell’s house on Geneva’s east side. The shop is equipped with a dust collection system and all the comforts of home, right down to a large freezer. But the freezer does not store food; it has been cleverly repurposed as a drying kiln for the lumber Ron turns on the three lathes in his shop.

“A woodworker can never have enough tools,” says Ron, a statement reinforced by the plethora of power tools, many of which run on 220-volt current, and neatly arranged hand tools strategically placed, neatly ordered, throughout the shop. The attention to safety, lighting, convenience and efficiency evident throughout the shop bear witness to Ron’s penchant for perfectionism and professionalism in all he creates here.

Ron with some of his work at the Bridge Street Art Works, Ashtabula Harbor.

Turning since childhood

Ron credits his late father for introducing him to wood turning.

“I grew up with three sisters, so my Dad made a lathe out of wood and I would go the basement and make a few things on it,” he says. “But I wasn’t very good at it.”

Ron devoured mechanical arts classes in junior high school and honed his lathe skills in senior high. Marriage, children and the responsibilities that come with those commitments kept him away from lathes for many years. His journey back began when he was a truck driver; Ron made a delivery to a store that sold lathes, and when he learned that the inventory on the delivery dock was for an upcoming sale, he purchased one of the lathes before it even entered the store.

The tool remained boxed in his basement for three years before he finally had time to delve into it. He joined the North Coast Woodturners group 10 years ago and began accumulating the tools, skills and friendships that would enrich his retirement years. In the process, the basement workshop of his house in Cleveland became very cramped.

Fate seemed to be at work for Ron in meeting Isabell, who just happened to have the old garage that needed to be razed. Isabell introduced him to the community during a Grape Jamboree, where decided to get a booth and attempt to sell some of his creations.

Ron says the most common question he heard was “what do you make?” And after hearing it perhaps one too many times, Isabell just blurted out “He just makes stuff.”

“And I thought, ‘That’s a pretty catchy title,’” Ron says.

I Just Make Stuff—especially hats

And so it is that the license plate on Ron’s pickup is “I J M S” and “I Just Make Stuff” is on his T-shirt and business card.

He makes items that challenge and enlarge his skills as a woodturner, items that beg to be released from a block of potential firewood, and functional items, like pet urns, pepper mills and, yes, wood cowboy hats.

He makes the hats in both miniature and full-size incarnations, like the one Kentucky woodturner made for President George W. Bush, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and singer Charlie Daniels.

Ron credits JoHannes Michelsen, a Manchester, Vt., wood turning professional, with originating the process of transforming an 80-pound chunk of wood into a hat that weighs less than a pound and is 3/32s of an inch thick in most places. Ron discovered the project about a year ago, purchased an instructional DVD made by Michelsen and got hands-on instruction from Columbus, Ohio, woodturner/firefighter Mike Trucco. Ron says Trucco told him to expect lots of failures if he was serious about learning the techniques and skills demanded by the project.

Ron’s custom-made hat; it brings comments wherever he wears it.

On a scale of 1-10 in difficulty, the cowboy hat rates a 10, says Ron. He has no idea how many woodturners are regularly turning out hats, but this much he knows: Any turner who is successful at the project also has a string of failures behind the finished product.

In the year he’s been turning the projects, Ron has turned 15 successfully. “But 12 of them failed. Most of them kept cracking,” he says.

Conventional, very sharp carving chisels are used to chip away at the wood block from which the hat is released. Ron prefers Thompson tools (http://thompsonlathetools.com/), both for their quality and the fact they are “made by a woodturner for woodturners” in North Olmsted. Ron sharpens the tools numerous times throughout the six to seven hours of turning that are required to reduce the block to a hat.

In the process of turning a hat, several garbage bags full of wood shavings are produced. The shavings pile up to knee-high and coat the hand tools on the walls with aromatic streamers. Because the wood must be carved when wet to take advantage of its pliable nature in that state, water drops fly off the log and Ron wears a face mask to protect his vision. Although it has its hazards, Ron prefers to work with freshly harvested wood, as in within 24 hours of being felled, in order to have the higher moisture content in the wood.

There comes a point when Ron must hollow out the inside of the hat to a depth of 3/32nds of an inch. Many things can go wrong at this point and reduce the unfinished piece to firewood. While he can and does use calipers to gauge his progress, Ron finds that shining a bright light source through the translucent wood provides a good visual guide.

A light outside the hat guides Ron as to the thickness of the wood remaining as he hollows out the hat’s interior.

Once the hat is successfully turned, the round opening must be compressed to an oval and the flat brim pulled upward to create the characteristic form of a cowboy hat. The wet hat is placed into a custom-built jig that allows Ron to slowly add compression to the side and flex the brim using strong rubber bands. The process continues over 24-36 hours, during which time the wood can suddenly crack. Ron’s been known to sleep with the jig next to his bed so he can get up every so often and add more pressure to the piece.

“Once it is dry, completely dry, it will never lose its shape,” Ron says.

Finishing takes days because Ron is as meticulous about the smoothness, uniformity and quality of every piece he produces.

“Most people get to the point where they don’t like to do the sanding. I don’t mind it. I want my finishes to be perfect,” he says.

Time is perfection’s currency. Ron says it will take him 40 to 50 hours of work to produce one hat, which he sells at Bridge Street Art Works for $250.00. The artist doesn’t even want to do the math to figure out his hourly wage.

“I do not make a profit,” he says. “What I make from selling this stuff, I use to buy more stuff to turn things with.”

“This is a hobby for me,” he adds. “It’s not to make a living. It’s a hobby I’ve done my whole life.”

Ron’s work is for sale at Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge St., Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio.

Reach him by email at ron@ijustmakestuff.com, or 216-438-1003.

Ron turns a bowl in his Geneva workshop.


Spiritual lessons from a prodigal dog

My  mother passed away Monday evening (January 29, 2018).

I had visited with her earlier in the day, and I knew her time with us was very short. She had run the race, the finish line was near. 85 years. She was tired. She was ready to go home.

The next two days were a swirl of details as we prepared for a private family viewing and service on Thursday. My mother wanted it that way. She always said calling hours have turned into parties these days. And she didn’t want a bunch of people staring down at her as she lay sleeping. I can’t argue with those things. And we honored her wishes.

I was comforted by the knowledge that my mother trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and had walked with him throughout her life. She would be with mother and father, both of who passed away far too early in life. It had been 50 years since Mom’s father died. Still, the weight of grief pulled upon my shoulders and heart.

On Wednesday morning I went about the usual morning ritual of feeding the two dogs and three cats, putting the two dogs out for their morning business and getting this body ready for public display. We live on two acres with a woods and creek on the back side of our lot and no neighbors for several hundred yards. I usually just let the dogs out to roam the yard. It was cold and snowy Wednesday morning, and they aren’t that fond of either one, so I knew they would be barking to come back inside within a few minutes.

Brody was first to bark. He’s the old black Lab and he loves his creature comforts. I brought him in and called for Polly, but she didn’t come running around the corner of the house and bounding up the steps like she usually does. I didn’t think much of it. She enjoys a good roll in fresh snow.

Five minutes passed and I went back to the door to get Polly. I called for her and stepped outside to see if she’d gone into the front yard, but there was no response.

I made the coffee and went back to the door. Again, no Polly. I began to worry. It was 5:30 a.m. and nothing was stirring out there. What could have happened to her?

I donned boots and coat and went searching the yard for her. Nothing. No response to my calls. Next came the high-beam LED lantern, and a more thorough search of the yard and neighbor’s yards. Not a sign of her.

Afraid that she’d crossed the road and went into the neighborhood where we walk her, I got in the car and started driving the area.

Not a sign of her.

This continued until it was time to leave for work. With a heavy heart made even heavier by the anxiety of having my beautiful, black, flat-coated retriever missing, I went to work. On the way into the courthouse, I saw the dog warden and told her about the missing Polly. She put a lost-dog notice on her Facebook page and made a list of suggestions for finding her. I called the city police and alerted them to look for her, went to the Animal Protective League shelter to see if she’d been brought in and put a notice on the radio station.

I printed posters and distributed them to neighbors, searched the ravine behind our house in case she’d fallen into it and gotten trapped under brush. After work, Ruth and I went to numerous neighbors’  houses and talked to them in case they’d seen Polly. She had disappeared without a trace.

It made no sense. Polly is a one-family dog. She has anxiety issues and is very afraid of noises, strangers and being alone. She’s my shadow around the house. If a stranger knocks on the door, she goes around and around in circles and barks. She loves being indoors. It just didn’t make sense that she’d run away, especially on a cold morning, or would have gotten into a stranger’s car. But where was she?

I took Thursday off for Mom’s funeral. The grief was crushing for both Ruth and I. The pain of loss was doubled by the anxiety of losing a very sweet canine member of our family.

Someone posted on the dog warden’s Facebook page that a black dog had been seen entering a cemetery drive about a half-mile from our house, on the other side the ravine, the morning she disappeared. I immediately jumped on the lead and drove around Pleasantview Cemetery before going to the funeral services. I spent an hour up there calling her name and walking the deep ravine that surrounds the place. I saw footprints of a dog, but no Polly.

After the services and dinner, I returned to the cemetery. A cold wind was blowing from the northwest and the temperature falling rapidly. The forecast was for a single-digit night. But no Polly.

I slept fitfully thinking about her. Many scenarios tortured my mind, none of them pleasant. My comfort was that perhaps someone had found her and given her a warm home for the night. I thought I heard dog barking throughout the night, and got up to check the side door to see if she was out there, going around in circles and barking to come in. But it was only a neighbor’s dog, or my imagination.

Friday was a combination of taking care of some work appointments and searching for Polly. Feeling that my father might appreciate the opportunity to take his mind off the grief, I enlisted him to assist. He drove the neighborhood for three hours. But no Polly.

Friday evening, as darkness enveloped the cottage, the heaviness of heartbreak and loss settled upon us like the falling temperatures. Ruth and I sat in front of the wood stove and played a game of Scrabble, but my mind was on Polly.

About 7 p.m., my cell phone rang. It was the police dispatcher. “Are you still missing a black dog?” My heart raced. I feared the next words would be “We found one dead alongside the road.”

That’s the INFJ, always thinking the worst.

But the news was hopeful. An officer, patrolling the cemetery after dark,  had seen a black dog running lose in it, but the dog would not come to him. The dog ran into the woods and disappeared. She suggested we check it out.

Ruth and I were on our way within a minute. She grabbed some dog bones, and I the lantern.

We drove around the large area with windows rolled down and calling Polly’s name. I drove toward the back, where I’d seen paw prints in the snow two days earlier. Nothing.

I stopped the car and we got out. Shining the lamp toward the center of the cemetery, Ruth caught a glimpse of movement. It was Polly, and she was running full speed away from us.

I made a beeline to intersect her while Ruth jumped in the car and headed toward the front of the cemetery. As I closed in her toward the edge of the ravine, she disappeared into the murky forest. I walked the ravine begging her to come back. Suddenly she reappeared about 50 feet from me. I froze, got down on my knees and allowed her to slowly approach the light. By then, Ruth had arrived with the car and treats. It was a joyful reunion.

Polly was cold, exhausted and starved, but showed no sign of injury. Back home, she gulped down water and food, then settled into a long nap by the fire.

Ruth and I thanked God that our prayers had been answered and we’d just witnessed a miracle. As we lay in bed that night, reflecting and talking, I sought a deeper meaning in all that had occurred.

Metaphor number one was that I found comfort in the picture God had just painted so vividly using my love for Polly as an example. My mother was safe, at home and with her family who’d gone on before her. For several days she had wondered in that middle ground between life and death. The light came into the darkness, and at first it scared her, just as the headlights of our car and the beam of the lantern had spooked Polly. Torn between life and death, my mother struggled toward the light.

A tender, caring voice was calling her. The voice of one who wanted to take her to a place of rest. And she followed.

I thought of Polly resting comfortably and without care in front of the fire, and I saw a comforting picture of my mother, at rest, loved, forever secure. She will never have to wander the cemetery of this life again.

I also saw a metaphor for God’s love for me. For many years, I saw God as an angry deity always ready to punish us when we went astray. “Bad things happen when we disobey God.” That was the message drummed into my head for years by preachers who knew much of God’s anger and righteousness but little of his grace and mercy.

In the image of my relentless search for Polly, I saw an example of unconditional love seeking those who belong to him but have gone astray. I was putting all my time and resources on the line to find her, to rescue her from certain death. Yes, she had disobeyed and ran off to pursue her own interests. At first, the adventure must have been grand, but then it turned to loneliness and confusion, and ended in a place of death, separation from her family and their love.

She felt alone, no doubt, but I was looking for her, and I would not give up I kept returning to that place of death into which she had wandered, hoping that she would hear my voice and return.

And so it is with God. He keeps coming back to find us when we go astray. He knows that we are lonely, cold, scared and full of anxiety, despite how much “fun” we are having on our excursion into the world, away from the safety of home. He seeks us, he calls for us, he shines his light toward us. Yet we turn and run away, out of fear that he wants to punish us with those arms, rather than welcome us home as the prodigal son.

Eventually we can run no more. We are famished from trying to subsist on the empty calories of this world. And we bow down, expecting a whip across our back. Rather, we feel a hand of love, the hand of a father. We expect punishment, we receive grace. We expect expulsion, we receive a ride home. We expect a night in the dungeon, we’re given an honored spot on the carpet in front of the fire, covered with blanket, pampered with a pillow.

Love never fails. It seeks the lost and forgives; it seeks the best for us, even in the midst of pain and loss. His love never fails. But I would not begin to understand the depth of that love if I first had not felt the pain of loss and loneliness of losing a loved one, a family member. God longs for us to come home to him and prepares a place for us. If I can love a dog this much, how much more does God love my mother, love me? I can only begin to fathom it with the shallowness of a human heart.

I wonder why I had to suffer three days of separation from Polly, why the anxiety and agony of worry had to be added to the grief of losing a parent? And then it occurred to me how long God has to wait for us to turn around and come back to him. A week? A year? A decade? God is patient for us to get our priorities right and does not give up on us while we go astray. Yet when he does not answer our prayers pronto, in our time frame, we lose patience with him.

There is much to be learned of God in grief and loss. And in coming home.

Polly enjoys the comforts of home after three days and two nights on the run.


End of life decisions

So today I watched my father sign the paperwork that places my mother’s quality of life in the hands of Hospice workers.

It was meeting I never wanted to have. No child wants that, no spouse wants that.

Yet, no spouse or child wants to see their loved one cry in pain and beg for relief.

My mother, 85, has known so much pain in her life. I’ve seen her suffer through eye ulcers, bursitis, a knee replacement, colon cancer/surgery, gall bladder attacks/surgery, a torturous foot condition that required surgery, bowel-obstruction surgery, baker’s cyst, broken hip/surgery, arthritis, infections and many of the prosaic pains that come with living in a fallen world. And I am certain there have been others that have gone unnoticed by a son often too occupied with living.

And then there was the pain of bringing me into the world. Whether we like it or not, we all have a hand in the pain and suffering of others, even those closest to us, people we dearly love.

I want her pain to end. I want her to never have another day of pain in her life. Don’t we all want that for those we love? And so we make hard decisions. We watch our father cry. We cry. We sign.

And we think about our own mortality. We think about the day we may have to do the same thing for our spouse. Or when the spouse does that for us.

These events spark conversation, the kind that occurs at the end of the waking day, when the lights are off and you hold each other tight and thank God for giving you each other and for being pain free at the moment, at least free of physical pain. You talk in whispers and with damp eyes, with hugs and snuggles. The comfort of knowing that this person next to you is in it for life, in it for the long haul. The sweetness of knowing that no matter what, there is someone there who understands you and is your champion and your friend, who won’t sell you out for a career or promotion, for membership in a big-fish/small-pond good-old-boys and girls club. Someone who understands the sacredness of the marriage vow.

That’s what I’ve seen my parents model for 65 years. They’ve had incredibly tough times in their lives. This is one of them. But they are still holding hands. The metal bar of the hospital bed may separate their bodies, but their souls, nothing is going to separate them.

It’s all on the line for each other. Always has been. And today, Dad signed on the lines. Form by form, he did, we did, what we thought best for “Tick.”

I find myself living day by day these days. We celebrate when Mom does not have pain, when she sips water, when she is able to look at pictures of the wedding or just out the window at the snow. I wait for the report every morning from her bedside, as my father reports on her night and condition upon arriving at the nursing home, then her afternoon later in the day. We live day by day, and some days hour by hour.

She begs to go home. I can’t blame her. Other than “wife” and “husband,” I don’t think there’s a sweeter word in the language than “home.”

At the end of the day, we all want to go home. We all want to know there is a place where love, the familiar and rest await us. To be surrounded by our stuff, the things that remind us of our story or are stories themselves. The familiar sounds, smells and patterns of light that play across the hardwood floor in ways unique to our home and setting. There is only one place like home, and on our sick bed or death bed, it is the place we long to be.

All of this is a shadow, I remind myself. For those who follow Christ, our real home can never be here, and our longing not for this world but the eternity where he is found. Sick or healthy, living or dying, our deepest longing is to be with him and in the place he prepared for us,  beyond the shadows.

The movement of our pen across the paper casts a double shadow, resignation on the one side, compassion on the other. We sign the papers knowing this is best for our loved one, that the pain of loss in this world will be forgotten in the next. Tears will be dried. Love perfected. Painkillers and the paperwork required to get them will be unnecessary.

Death is but a shadow of the journey.




A covered bridge date

My third “date” with Ruth was a long one; four days back in October 2017.

We started planning it as soon as it was evident that we had a lot in common and needed some extended together. As it turned out, by the time we actually were able to make the trip, we were already engaged, although we had kept it a secret. Aiding in that effort was the fact that the ring I bought her was too big and had to go back to the artisan not once, but twice. And so we say we were engaged three times before we got married.

The McGee’s Mill Covered Bridge in Clearfield County, Pa., where I presented Ruth with “the ring.”

I proposed to Ruth, the first time, at a covered bridge near Clearfield, Pa., during our second date. Yikes! I know that sounds that like rushing things, but we’d talked two to three a hours a night, plus had sent something like 600 emails to each other by that point. We got to know ourselves and each other during those long conversations and emails, and it just felt so comfortable.

Still, actually being with another person for an entire day is a lot different from being able to say “goodbye,” put the cell phone back in the bag and get on with life alone. So we planned an all-day adventure in Columbia County, Pa., exploring the covered bridges of a county that boasts Pennsylvania’s third largest concentration of 20 legacy wooden bridges.

Ruth was well organized with a picnic that included our favorite meal, cheese and crackers, plus enough beverages and ice to sustain us for several days in the field. In fact, I got so involved in loading her car with the bags of food and plastic silverware, I forgot the tripod from my own vehicle.

And so I had to wing it and hold all the shots of the bridges we visited. For architectural and landscape subjects, I use my Nikon D800E and Zeiss optics. Both the 35 f/2 and 50mm/f2 Makro were all I needed.

We couldn’t visit all 20 covered bridge in one day, so I picked those of greatest interest and within the same vicinity. At the top of the list were the East and West Paden bridges (38-19-12 and 38-19-11, respectively), the only “twin” covered bridges remaining in the country. At one time, Ashtabula County had twin covered bridges at Farnham, south of Conneaut. One was over a mill race, the other over the creek. They were on a dangerous curve and by the mid 1920s had been eliminated. The old mill that stood there is, likewise, long one.

Back in the days, the 1920s, Conneaut, Ohio, had twin covered bridges at Farnham, the site of a mill.

Twin is a bit of a misnomer, for the bridges are of different design, despite being built by the same builder and in the same year. W.C. Pennington charged $720 for the two bridges, named for John Paden, who operated a sawmill nearby.

While the East bridge is original, the West structure is a “reconstruction,” the original bridge having been washed away by a flood in June 2006.

These are not working bridges; they were bypassed in 1963 and repurposed as the centerpiece of Twin Bridges County Park. Picnic tables benefit from their coverings. We crossed the bridges and strolled down the lane to the driveway of a beautiful farmhouse, a photo of which now hangs in our living room, a sliver of a memory from that date.

A stone wall along the driveway and lovely lighting drew me to this private residence near the East and West Paden covered bridges in Columbia County, Pa.

The bridges we visited were all painted red, which turned out to be the most colorful subject matter on this October journey. The fall of 2017 will be remembered by landscape photographers in the East as one of the dullest and most uneventful in recent memory. That said, we did come across some acceptable foliage change along Huntington Creek, Fishing Creek Township. The Josiah Hess bridge awaited us here.

This delightful Burr arch bridge is 110 feet long and was built in 1875. It has a very pronounced camber, or slight arch, to the deck. Ruth soaked up the scenery while I went to work photographing the bridge under less-than-idea light. At least it wasn’t raining.

By the time we reached the Patterson Bridge, the sun had busted through the clouds and the light had become too contrasty for my tastes. This little bridge spans Green Creek and was built in 1875. It has windows on one side, and slanting roofs extend from the bridge to prevent water from entering from the windows—after all, the whole purpose of covering the bridge trusses was to keep water and weather off them. I’d never seen this treatment before on a covered bridge.

Our travels also took us to the Fowlersville and Kramer covered bridges before we decided it was time to get ice cream. We found some at a huge crafts fair near Bloomsburg, then headed toward a spot Ruth recalled from her childhood, one that promised a vista of the Susquehanna River and sunset. It sounded perfect to me; the engagement ring was in my pocket, and I figured a sunset would be a great setting. But we never found the place and ended up watching the sun’s departure over a pasture as we searched maps and the GPS screen in the car for the wrong turn we’d taken.

So on the way back to my motel room, I asked her to pull off in a park and take a walk. Turns out the park was in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, not the most romantic spot in the world. We started walking toward the river, but the mosquitoes were bad, so I just stopped and gave her the ring, which was too big.

We laughed and hugged and promised we’d get engaged a third time. And we did, without benefit of covered bridges, in Clearfield, on the fourth date.

The gallery located on the home page exhibits a selection of images from our outing, one of what we hope will be many, many more in the back roads of the Eastern United States.



The Story Quilter’s Threads

I love a good barn.
My paternal grandfather had a lovely one, perched on a hillside of the farming village of Eglon, W.Va.
I recall him telling me that he and his wife, Maud, built the barn in the 1930s, when they married, moved to the land, built their home and started farming and raising a family.
Traveling to the farm as a child, I always went to the barn with my grandfather, where he kept a few beef cattle and an assortment of barn cats. The cats often got a few dinner-table scraps, which I’d enjoy placing in a bowl and then wait for them to come out of hiding for the food.

My grandfather, Russel Feather, farmed this hillside for decades. His barn is at the far right of the photo, taken in 2004. The farm has been trashed and it makes me sad to go by there and see the disrespect that the new owners have shown to the place, once my grandfather’s pride and joy.

The barn was a bank barn, with access to the pasture off the back, facing Route 24, which ran along the ridge behind the barn. The first floor, below bank grade, was block foundation and provided stalls for the cattle. The second floor and haymow were timber construction and provided storage for the revered tractor. Theframed part was sided with vertical wormy chestnut boards.
Aside from the smell of dusty hay and petroleum products, the most vivid memory of that barn was watching the way the sun played through the cracks in the siding. I played “peek-a-boo” with the sun as it traced its morning course across the barn siding, peaking in and out of the cracks and casting slits of yellow, dusty light onto the hay and cats.

Thus it was that I choose to open my feature documentary about barn quilts, The Story Quilter’s Threads, with a time lapse of a sunrise through barn siding. The barn is a circa-1900 German-built dairy barn owned by Dale and Margaret Toukonen. The segment was filmed on a Sunday morning in September. While the camera shot a frame every second for an hour, I worked outside capturing the stirrings of the horses and solitary sheep on this equestrian retirement resort, “Wind Horse Farm.” Aside from the horses owned by the Toukonens, the elderly horses on this farm were working horses, in a circus or on a race track, for examples, and are living out their days in the comfort and care of this Williamsfield Township former dairy farm.
I got know the owners through the Ashtabula County Barn Quilt Trail, the steering committee of which I am a member. The Toukonen barn was one of the first to receive an 8-by-8 barn quilt. Barn quilts are quilt patterns painted onto high-quality sign board. They usually tell a story, and in this case the story is that of the farm’s name and its branding symbol, enclosed by a quilt pattern.
The Toukonen farms’ story is one of several selected for The Story Quilter’s Threads, which focuses on southern Ashtabula County barn quilts. The barn quilt trail steering committee did not design it this way, but most of the barn quilts that are actually on barns and have a story connected to them, are in the southwestern section of the county.
From March to November of 2017, I interviewed barn quilt owners about their choice of pattern, quilting heritage and the story of the barn itself. They are stories from a bygone era, a time when a family could still make a living from the family farm, and when a man’s word meant something. Several of the stories are about loss and commemorating the life that was snuffed out by age or farm injury.
The landscape in Williamsfield Township, where much of this film takes place, is gently rolling and well watered, thanks to being near Pymatuning Reservoir and the swamps that feed it. Footage from the first aerial photography attempt for the film had to be set aside because the fields were soggy and crops struggling in July. A second attempt in early October was much more satisfying, with the sunrise over Pymatuning Reservoir and patchy fog providing a delightful greeting as we circled the Housel barn on Simons South Road.
The film received its premiere at The Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva on the Lake, Nov. 20, 2017. I offer it for sale on DVD at this website as a fundraiser for the Barn Quilt Trail.
Samples of The Story Quilter’s Threads can be found at The Feather Cottage You Tube Channel, along with the time lapse from the Toukonen barn.
What I didn’t plan on as I was setting up for the shot was the number of barn cats that would wander in and out of the scene over the course of filming it. They confirm the suspicion that much life occurs outside of our awareness because we simply don’t take the time to observe it. Our movement about the sun creates the arc, but we are so accustomed to taking still photographs using a 1/250th second slice of sunlight that we think of it as a static phenomenon.
The moving image, on the other hand, falsely reveals an organic being, the sun, arcing across our sky, when it is actually our spaceship that is making the elliptical journey. Both the arc and the compression of time are thus illustrations of something larger, the spinning of dusty arcs into days and threads into stories, The Story Quilter’s Threads.

A side note on Williamsfield Township. This area was hit by a tornado in November 2017 and three years earlier took a hit worldwide when it was declared “the most stressful neighborhood in America.” My experience here was completely opposite. It is a peaceful, lovely corner of Ashtabula County where Amish and Yankee farmers work side-by-side, barns are preserved and the farming heritage treasured. I hope the video captures a piece of that.

Calemine’s Patriotic Shoe Repair Shop

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Guerino “Reno” Calemine died this year. Feb. 23, to be exact.

He was almost 91, but up until a few days before his death, Reno was still working in his shoe repair shop at 25 Armstrong St., Keyser, W.Va.

“He was the ‘Mayor of Keyser,’” said Bart Lay, owner of the Solar Mountain Records shop, next door to Reno’s shoe repair shop. “(His passing) has left a big hole in the community. He lived a great life, right up until a week before he died. He was just rocking.”

I met Reno during a Goldenseal Magazine assignment trip in the fall of 2016. The affable Reno welcomed me into his shop, and we spent an afternoon talking his work, family and passion for life.

 “My father started in 1904,” Guerino said, launching into the story of how his father, Dominic immigrated from Italy, survived a narrow escape from death and found a way to make a living despite a disability sustained in that escape.

“He came here when he was 16 years old,” Reno said. “He came by himself. He landed in Rome, New York, where he paid $5 to get a job. He worked a week, then was let go. “That’s the way they treated immigrants back then,” Reno said.

Next came a job in a nail factory in Youngstown, Ohio. Then Dominic received word from a cousin, John Fanto, that he could get him a job on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Piedmont, W.Va.

“He got a job on the work train, and that’s how he ended up in Piedmont,” Reno said of the town near Keyser.

As was the custom, the workers played poker in a caboose when the work was done. “Another train came along and collided with their caboose. Two people got killed, and my father’s legs were smashed, all broken,” Reno said.

At the Keyser hospital where the injured were taken, Dr. Hoffman insisted that Dominic’s mangled leg be amputated. Dominici, unable to speak English, adamantly expressed through an interpreter that he would be extremely “disappointed” with the doctor if that happened. After several impassioned exchanges about the leg, the doctor agreed to do surgery. Reno said the doctor wired together the pieces of his father’s shattered leg.

“And you know, I saw an X-ray of that leg when my father was 80 years old, and you coulc see the wire still in there,” Reno said.

His father spent a year in the hospital; Reno said the railroad paid for his care. A nurse, “Mrs. Romig,” took special interest in the immigrant and taught him how to speak and read English. When Dominic was finally released to resume his life, he decided to stay in Keyser and open a cobbler shop.

Reno said his father learned the trade as a child and teenager in Italy. With Keyser being a railroad town and enjoying prosperity, there was plenty of work to be had, even though the town already had several shoe repair shops. His father set up shop in a frame building on Armstrong Street. The little shop, run by an immigrant with a limp, prospered.

“In 1913 he went back to Italy. Apparently, he had made enough money that he could afford to close up this place and go back. While he was there, he met his wife, Teresa Calemine. No relation to each other,” Reno said.

Dominic brought his bride to the United States and he resumed his cobbler work in Keyser.

“He liked Keyser, and this is where he wanted to stay,” Reno said. “My father and mother are both buried here.”

When America sent its young men into the battlefields of World War I, Dominic tried to enlist. But he was rejected by the armed services because of his injury. So Dominic did his part by being the most patriotic person in Keyser. He played the part of Uncle Sam in minstrel shows and parades and sold Liberty Bonds at his shop.

“He sold more Liberty Bonds than anybody else around here,” Reno said. “One day, he came to work and the sign was on his shoe shop: “Calemine Patriotic Shoe Shop.”

The name stuck, and to this day Reno proudly holds fast to the patriotic legacy of his father and mother. The couple had four boys, all of who served their country. Three of them became cobblers, as well.

Carlo, the first born, was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack came. He served in the Army Air Force throughout World War II and received several Purple Hearts.

“He had shrapnel in his head, and they buried him with that in there,” Reno said of his brother, who lived to be 89 and is buried in Wisconsin. He chose a career path other than shoe repair.

Orlando, the second born, went into shoe repair in North Carolina. He was the shortest lived of the boys and died at 68.

Reno, born March 5, 1926, was next in line. He entered the armed forces as soon as he turned 18 in 1945. He was assigned to Camp Lee, Va., where he taught shoe repair. While that seems like a strange military assignment, Reno said there was a need because so many wounded soldiers required orthopedic footwear.

A sergeant who taught in the orthopedics section gave Reno access to the lab and Reno learned human anatomy and orthopedic skills.

“He let me fool around in there, and that’s where I really picked up the skills to take care of wounded soldiers,” Reno said.

Julio was the last child born to the couple.

“He was in the shoe repair business, too. He went into it in the Cumberland (Maryland) area. He retired 10 years ago, and he wanted me to retire, too, but I never did,” Reno said.

“He told me he wished he had not retired. He told me, ‘Retirement is not the best thing when you are our age. All you do is sit and sit. And pretty soon you can’t walk,’” Reno said.

Julio, a widower, lives in Michigan, where his step-children live.

Reno heeded his brother’s advice and refuses to suffer the same fate brought on by inactivity. Depending upon the company he’s in, Reno has several explanations for why he continues to work.

“I’m here because I didn’t want to stay home,” he said. “My wife pays me $50 a month to come over here.” When pressed, however, Reno admits he does not get a stipend from his wife, Elva, a retired nurse.

He said that working late into life is all about self-preservation.

“I want to stay mobile until I die,” he said. “If I keep working, I’ll be that way, that’s the trick. Whoever said that retirement is the golden years is crazy. Those people who retire and sit down end up in the nursing home. Retirement is not the golden years unless you keep yourself busy. The truth is, the golden years are those years leading up to retirement.”

“There ain’t no disgrace to growing old. It’s just inconvenient,” Reno adds.

His shop is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If Reno has a doctor’s appointment or other personal obligation, he calls his friend, Greg Rotrock, who comes down and opens the shop.

“He has the key to this place, and when I can’t come over, I give him a ring. I’ve always kept this place open so (his friends who loiter in the shop) have a place to go,” Reno said.

“I usually have company from the time I am open,” he adds. “If I am busy, I don’t pay any attention to them and go back and work.”

Reno and his comrades take their seats in the front of the 14-foot-wide shop. They sit in the four elevated, repurposed metal kitchen chairs on the shoeshine platform that came from a Main Street, Keyser, hotel. The platform is made of marble and the stanchions are pure brass.

“This was a five-seater,” Reno said. “But this place is too small for five seats, so (his father) cut it down to four.”

The shoeshine station is closed for business; if a customer wants his shoes polished, Reno uses a lathe-like machine in the backroom. But for decades, the shoeshine station was the busiest spot in the shop. Reno said there were numerous dance halls in the Keyser area in the first half of the 20th century, and no dapper gentleman would go to a dance without a shine on his shoes. Dominic, and later Reno, paid young men to shine shoes long after the repair shop closed on Saturday evening. Many of those men who worked for Reno still stop by to reminisce about those days. “Jimmy, Gerald, Bubb … Reno said, naming off a few of the dozens of young men who made money shining shoes for him.

“The place would be open until 9 or 10 p.m.,” Reno said. “There were five shoe shops in Keyser in those days, and there were three more in Piedmont.”

A black-and-white shoeshine cost a nickel, a white shine a dime and tan shoes were 15 cents when Reno began polishing shoes at the age of 8.

“This is where I learned the shoe repair business,” Reno said, pointing to the row of seats.

“I bought my first bicycle with money from shining shoes,” Reno adds. The bicycle cost $24. Reno said that he also purchased all his clothes with his shoeshine money; his father allowed him to keep everything he made, but he did pay his father for the polish he used.

“Ever since I started shining shoes, I never asked Dad for money,” Reno said.

Reno received free vocational education as part of the deal. The first task he learned in the workroom was removing the soles from shoes.

“Step by step, that’s how I learned,” he said.

The shoe repair business is the only job Reno has ever known.

“There was never a better boss,” said Reno, who worked with his father for decades. His father taught him that it makes more sense to the job right the first time rather than rush through it and risk having to do it over again and alienate a customer. Reno retains that work ethic.

“If it took me all day to put on a pair of heels, that was OK. He wanted it done right,” Reno said. “ ‘Speed comes after perfection,’ he used to tell me. ‘I want you to do the job right.’ And he always said ‘The customer is always right. Right or wrong, he or she is always right.’ We tried to do everything right.”

Reno and Elva raised two children on the wages he earned from the shop and Elva from her job as a registered nurse. Reno trained their son, also named Guerino, but he chose a career in food service.

“He retired from Kentucky Fried Chicken, he was a vice president,” Reno said proudly. His son and his wife, Sue, live in Culpepper, Va., and have a son, Guerino “Jody” Calemine III, a lawyer, and a daughter, Jillian, a physician and researcher in California.

Their daughter, Carla Hastings, lives in Keyser and has a son, Howard J. Hastings, Jr., who has six children. Reno and Elva have two great-grandchildren.

Reno is one of a handful of cobblers left in West Virginia. Even in metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., finding a cobbler can be difficult said David White, who drove 110 miles from Ashburn, Va., to have new soles put on his dress shoes. Even factoring in the cost of driving 440 miles, White considered it a bargain.

“For $27 I got a new pair of shoes,” said the U.S. Coast Guard/Navy commander retired, who grew up in Keyser.

Reno tells his customer that the job was a tough one because modern shoes are not manufactured to be repaired. He pulls out the mangled mess of plastic that was the original sole. Reno said using the old technique of putting soles on shoes with nails no longer works because the materials won’t accept the nails. For David White’s shoes, Reno tried a new type of adhesive that will, with any luck, do the job as well as traditional methods.

Reno said the job probably would have cost his customer two to three times as much in a metropolitan shop, and chances are the shop would be that of a tailor or dry cleaner that is a drop off point for the cobbler. Even Reno could not survive on the shoe trade from Keyser alone, and his completed-work shelves are filled with shoes, boots and purses from out-of-town, out-of-state and occasionally foreign customers who found the shop through word of mouth.

“If I were to advertise I would be so doggone busy,” Reno said. “But I’m doing fine this way.”

Reno said that most of what he makes in the shop goes for overhead: taxes, insurance, utilities and rent. He has always rented the storefront at 25 Armstrong Street since it was built in 1959, following a fire that caused heavy damage to the wooden structure on the same location. Reno said the fire was March 5, 1959. As flames raced toward the shoe shop, neighbors and strangers alike pitched in carry out the cobblers’ precious equipment and tools – the economic lifeblood of two families.

“I was so surprised at how all these people came out to save the shoe shop,” Reno said.

The equipment suffered smoke and water damage, but was salvaged and stored in a building across the street from the shop. The next day, Reno and Dominic received an offer from the bank where Reno had recently signed for a $6,500 loan to finish Reno’s house. At first, he was worried the bank was not going to honor the loan commitment after reading about the fire. Instead, it was an offer to set up shop in a building next to the bank, a former whiskey store where bank records were stored. The space was huge.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy? I got enough to pay without that big place,’” Reno said. But the bank was more interested in keeping a cobbler’s shop open than getting what the space was worth, and for the next six months, while a new block building was built on the old site, the shop was located next to the bank, now the library.

“I had a (cobbler shop supplies) salesman come in and told me that I had the biggest shoe repair shop in the world!” Reno said.

Nearly 70 years later, Reno worked with the same vintage tools and equipment that were purchased by his father and salvaged from the fire. Reno said one of the reasons he can keep his prices low is because the equipment was paid off long ago. He keeps it running with a stash of spare parts. Reno takes care of his equipment because it has to last him the rest of his working life, which he anticipates will be the rest of his life.

“It is OK if I die over here because that will mean that I died on my two feet,” Reno said. “As long as I can come over here and work, I am going to do that.”




Tottering season

Nature totters between summer and winter. The weather between rain and snow. The light between flat and awesome.

The parting of the clouds is like that of zipper between heaven and earth briefly rent. Actinic light rushes through the slit, paints the old fence row with a wide brush dipped in autumnal luminance.

A heron makes a pass of the scene, stretches its wings across the variegated branches, its form a white dash against the brooding sky. Heads up, eyes straight ahead. Gasp. Awesome!

The zipper closes. The light fades. Stillness. Darkness. The heron is gone, the autumn fading. Did they ever exist?

The rain begins to fall. It almost looks like snow.