Character was talented mechanically [UPDATED]Published 9:45am Wednesday, May 14, 2014 Updated 11:49am Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Yesterday, I deleted Stanley B.’s phone number from my cell phone. I’ve deleted phone numbers before, but not for this reason. His brother called me two days ago and informed me that Stanley, at the age of 77, had passed away. He and I have talked on the phone for the best part of 50 years.
We both grew up on farms not too far apart in rural northeast Iowa, but even so, with him seven years older, we didn’t meet until I was just out of high school.
Back then, I just knew that Stanley was a bit different. I knew he was never going to get married, that he had no interest in girls. I knew nothing more, and cared about nothing more. Stanley was interesting. That was all I needed to know. He worked at that time for another carpenter, and already showed unusual creativity at remodeling houses. Sure, he could build a new one, but as his skill level increased, he found, just as his customers did, that remodeling was a better use of his talent. He was gifted at it, no doubt about it.
But I met him and became friends with him for a couple of other reasons. One was cars. He bought, fixed up, and sold late thirties and early forties Cadillac sedans, those big old square, boxy things with suicide back doors and straight-eight engines half a kitchen long. At my age of 18, anything with four wheels totally engrossed me. It was about all I could think about, after girls.
He taught me that the cloth headliner in my old Chevys could be painted with house paint. And just like that, you had a nice, bright, white ceiling inside your car. It was amazing how he continued his whole life to apply his ingenuity to things like that.
I soon found as I ooooed and ahhhhhed over how he could make an old car look new again, that he was a genius with enamel car paint. “You don’t need to spray paint,” he told me, “you just have to get it thinned right so your brush strokes flow away.” You had to see it to believe it, but he could paint a car with a brush just as good as a car body guy could do it with a spray gun. Then he’d sell that Cadillac and soon begin fixing up another one.
In his shop with the cars were also several player pianos, which he took apart, fixing the wind-up mechanism as needed, tuning, refinishing, repairing broken keys and striker arms, and reselling, looking as good as new. If you have never tuned a piano, it may not sound like much, but there are hundreds of wires inside a piano. Difficult beyond comprehension.
And he could play the piano, too. Even then, his hands could roam over a keyboard with an enviable ease. I had taken lessons for several years, but he with very few, was light years ahead of me. I played piano (we called it keyboard) in bands for the next several decades, but he was always ahead of me. I’d like to say it was because he had a head start, but I know better. He had something better, something unteachable, and he enjoyed playing right up to his death. He would call me up, and say: “Listen to this,” and rattle off something. He was happily addicted to piano, and that addiction followed him right up to the grave.
I asked him once how he got started playing. Halfway up the stairs, he said there was a door into a kind of attic, and at the age of seven or so, he crawled in there and found a push-button accordion, which he took out and fooled with. His dad gave him a licking, and took it away from him.
He had to have it, he told me. He got it out again. Got a licking. And again. And finally his dad let him have it. With a few lessons, he was off and running.
I deleted Stanley’s number yesterday.
But I’ll always remember him.