In End Grain

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Walk down Main Street in Anysmalltown, U.S.A., and people acknowledge your existence from their porch rockers. They don’t have to say anything, just use their body to move the chair in a friendly, neighborly sort of way. Porch rockers are a part of our popular culture, a bit of Americana.

The chair I bought was not new. The runners were worn thin from countless hours of use and the wicker seat needed a pillow to keep the sitter from falling right through. The chair had seen better days, but the price was right and with a fresh coat of paint and a new seat, this rocker would be ready to ride.

The plan was to take the chair to my folks’ house over the Christmas holidays and refinish it there. I wanted to bring life back to this old, tired rocker and put it on my empty front porch where it would welcome all visitors.

I strapped the chair to the roof of my VW Beetle with a length of clothesline wrapped around and through the car. Of course the line happened to pass across the front seats at about nose level, thereby giving the driver the option of sitting with his forehead inches from the steering wheel or behind the line with his nose propped up on the taut rope. In any event, it was an awkward four-hour drive.

Equally awkward was the refinishing. Removing paint with chemicals is almost a death wish. Brush on the Jiffy Paint Remover and watch it work. The paint blisters; the skin on your hands blisters; your tear ducts go into overdrive; and all living creatures are forced to evacuate the premises. The paint comes off layer after layer. Green, brown, grey, white, the rocker’s many lives are peeled away.

After removing the bulk of the paint it was time to sand. While sanding the rocker, I got to know it intimately. I became familiar with every groove and worn spot and came to appreciate the craft involved in its original construction.

I painted the rocker red. Not a pale bashful red, my chair was a fire engine red rocking machine. As for a seat, I did not have the patience or resources to replace the wicker. Instead I formed a piece of plywood to fit snugly in place and upholstered it with a scrap of quilt material that added a special touch. My hours of labor were justly rewarded. I looked forward to returning home to display my rocking chair on the front porch.

For the return trip I put a sturdy rack on the VW. Using every precaution not to scratch the new paint job, I wrapped the rocker in a blanket and secured it to the car rack. Everything was tight and ready for the ride

On the trip home the air was cold and clear and the radio seemed to be playing all my favorite songs. The Bug was cruising at top speed and I was feeling good. Then, about half an hour past the Hershey exit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike my chair went airborne. It didn’t happen with a bang somuch as a whoosh. The car rack simply slid off the roof, sending all my hard work into flight. With a doubletake in the rear-view mirror, I almost lost control as the car swerved and the rocker sailed out of view. Visions of an explosive crash swept through my mind. Was there any traffic behind me? Was the chair kissed by a Peterbilt doing 90? As I opened the door and fell out of the car, I spotted it.

The chair was sitting in the middle of the road as it had sat on the car. Unharmed, not a scratch, no other cars in sight. It actually looked smug sitting there, as if it had pulled off a practical joke and was enjoying its moment in the sun.

With no small effort I managed to get it back on the roof, scratching the car but not the chair. I wrapped the clothesline around the chair and rack and through the car, recreating the hazards of the previous trip.

After a slow drive home I placed the chair on my porch. It looked good. It had found a new life and I knew it would be but minutes before the neighbors would stop by to inspect my refinishing job. ‘

Uurrp!’ Up the stairs came our first visitor, Fat Charlie, adorned with the quart can of beer that seemed to be permanently attached to the end of his arm. Charlie was from Ilbred Gully, an oil refining town bordered by a burning river. In Ilbred Gully, a man is judged by the size of his beer belly and the duration of his burp. Charlie was the pride of his community.

‘Uurrrp!’ As he flopped into the rocker, his behind hit the porch. ‘Hey, what kinda piece of junk is this?’ Rolling onto all fours, Charlie slowly stood up. The chair didn’t. It lay there in a half dozen pieces, splintered and split, broken beyond repair. Charlie didn’t spill a drop of beer. –John Mahoney

This article originally appeared in the February/March 1987 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine

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