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by Wayne Brown

The old man sat on the bench out front of the little country store. It was his chosen place. His son-in-law owned the little store so the old man could pretty much do as he pleased. He didn’t want or need much other than a comfortable place to sit in the shade so that he could whittle and contemplate whatever came to mind.

Most days he whittled with his old pocket knife. He kept it razor sharp for this task. He never knew what it was he was going to whittle. The wood kind of took shape with each cut and he just followed his instincts.

Sometimes he made a small work of art in the form of a fish or dog or a pig. Other days, all he had to show for his work was the shavings at his feet. Either way, it was a satisfying way to pass the time. The shavings from his whittling spread out at his feet and clung to his plaid flannel shirt and khaki pants.

The old man watched the flow of cars along the two lane country highway. He noticed their license plates, the number of folks in the car, the luggage tied to the roof. He tried to imagine where they were heading or where they were coming from on their trek down the road.

Sometimes they stopped at the little store. They pulled up front of the small porch where he sat. They wanted gasoline most of the time. Sometimes they ran into the store to use the restrooms and grab snacks. These were the ones he really liked because he could get a close look at them.

Most paid no attention to the old man. Some of them totally ignored him and some of them offered a silent nod of the head as acknowledgement as they moved to and from the store. Most were in too much of a hurry to care about him or what he was doing there.

That was okay with the old man. He just wanted to sit and whittle.

There was a time many years back when he had driven the big locomotives. He had ridden the engineer’s seat for decades taking freight back and forth across the country pretty much from sea to shining sea. He had spent a lot of time alone in the cab of those engines. He had seen the backside of America, the parts that folks who travel the highways don’t get to see.

The train went just fast enough to get there and just slow enough for him to soak up the beauty and awe of all the faces of America he could see from the rails.

Having seen all that, it was not difficult for him to imagine why some men chuck it all and spend most of their life riding the rails. The life of a hobo could have some benefits.

The one thing he disliked about the trains is they required him to be hands-on. There was little or no time for whittling and contemplation. Now that he was retired, his hands were free to create articles of wood and his mind was free to sort through the thoughts and memories of his life and place each one into its proper folder.

A white Toyota mini-van pulled up in front of the gas pumps. A man exited the driver’s side and headed for the pump. A small boy aged five or six climbed out the right side door. He ran between the pumps and stood momentarily on the island looking up at this dad.

“Now you stay where I can see you, Joey. And you stay out of the lanes here so no cars run over you,” the boy’s dad said, smiling at him.

The boy pointed in the direction of the old man. “I’m goin’ to the porch, Daddy.”

His father nodded his approval and the young boy quickly bounced up onto the porch where the old man sat whittling away on a stick of wood. The boy bounced up onto the next bench over and pulled himself against the back. He watched in fascination as the blade cut away the wood from the stick.

The old man worked the wood, rapidly cutting notches here and there, shaping it gently from a stick to an object of art.

“What’re ya doin’?” the young boy said, never taking his eyes from the knife.

The old man stopped momentarily and looked in the boy’s direction. Giving him a warm smile, he replied, “Just whittling.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I am using this sharp knife to turn this stick of wood into something that I want to create. It might be a dog, or a horse. I just might carve it into something that looks a lot like you. It’s called whittling. I like to do it just to see what I can create. It gives me pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. You know we all need a sense of accomplishment.”

“Yeah, my daddy told me that one time.” The young boy looked up into the old man’s face. “Can I try that whittling?”

“Well, I don’t know. This knife is mighty sharp. You would have to be very careful,” the old man answered.

“Oh I would,” said the boy. “Please can I try it, just once?”

The old man looked over at the dad who had finished filling his tank and was now standing at the edge of the porch watching the exchange.

“You need to ask your dad, son,” the old man said, pointing to the boy’s father.

“Can I, Dad? I’ll be really careful.”

Joey’s dad patted him on the head. “Okay Joey. But only if you’re very careful and you listen closely to this man on each cut. I’m going inside to pay for the gas and get us something to drink.”

Joey nodded and looked at the old man for his approval.

“What’s your name?” Joey asked as the old man carefully handed the stick of wood to Joey to hold in his left hand. He then took the knife by the blade between his fingers and held it out indicating that Joey could take it into his right hand.

“My name’s Charlie. What’s your name?”

“Joey, my name’s Joey!” said the boy, excited to be holding the knife.

“Now, listen to me Joey. The first rule of whittling is to not cut yourself or anyone else. You always take your cuts going away from you and then you very carefully handle the knife with your palm holding the wood steady with your thumb. That way you can cut the small notches to give it shape.”

Joey nodded solemnly.

The second rule is to remain patient and let things flow naturally. You don’t want to force it, just let it come to you,” said Charlie as he directed Joey’s small hands in making his first slices with the knife.

They both worked at it until finally Joey was handling the knife carefully and comfortably. Charlie was able to take his hands away and watch the joy on the boy’s face as he began to cut at the wood.

After a bit, Joey’s dad returned and watched proudly as Joey demonstrated how he could whittle with the knife all by himself.

His dad smiled and said, “That’s great, Joey. You need to thank your new friend for allowing you to learn to whittle and then we have to get on toward home. Mom will be waiting dinner for us.”

Joey nodded his understanding as he returned the pocket knife and stick of wood to Charlie.

“Thank you, Mr. Charlie. It was nice of you to let me learn to whittle.”

Charlie took the items into his big hands.

“Maybe I’ll see you again sometimes, Mr. Charlie,” Joey added.

Charlie smiled. “I’d like that, Joey. You come on back anytime. I’ll be right here.”

Joey and his dad headed back toward the minivan.

Charlie looked down at the whittling. “Hey, Joey, come back here for a second will ya?”

Joey looked up at his dad who nodded his approval. Joey ran back up the steps to where Charlie sat on the bench.

Charlie held out the piece of wood to Joey. “You keep this. Next time you come back, bring it with you and we will work on it some more. Then, one of these days, when your dad says it’s okay, we’ll look into getting you your own knife for whittling.”

Joey grinned from ear to ear, grabbed the piece of wood and yelled, “Thanks Mr. Charlie. I’ll be bringing it with me next time and I hope it is soon!”

With that Joey turned and ran to catch up with is dad at the van.

As the father and son drove off down the road toward home, Joey sat in the passenger seat turning the wood in his hand and imagining what he could make with it.

“I am going to make something real good with this piece of wood, Daddy. I am going to make something to give to Mom for her birthday and Mr. Charlie will help me. I want to do it because Mr. Charlie says we all need a sense of accomplishment.”

“Charlie’s right about that, Joey. We all need that. We’ll get back to see him real soon. You just take good care of your wood until then,” his dad instructed.

Joey nodded indicating that he planned to do just that.

Back on the bench on the porch, Charlie sat with his knife in his hand and the wood shavings on his lap. He watched the van head down highway. This time he knew who was in it and where they were going.

He folded the blade back into the knife and slipped it into his pocket. He brushed the wood chips from his clothing onto the floor of the porch.

On some days, Charlie carved cats, dogs, and pigs. Today he smiled as he watched to van go out of sight. Today he knew that he had carved a friendship, something that would last a lifetime.


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