I have fond memories of a proud black man man I knew growing up as a boy in the South. He had a very strange name and he was also a very strange old man in a nice way. His name was Cleed Spurlock and he was a wood craftsman – he worked with his hands making things from wood and restoring old things into new. Cleed’s skin complexion was very dark and he was a rather short man with slow movements, which made some people consider him odd. He had a ready smile and his hands were like large, leather baseball gloves – they looked comic and out of place on his able, enigmatic body. I assumed his hands were magical since everything they touched turned into a work of art. Cleed was not book educated but he knew things about wood and other things that no one else knew. He was also an usher at our church so I would see him on Sundays wearing the same black suit and ready smile.
Cleed lived alone and had no wife or children. He didn’t talk much but he was well-known because of his wood craftsmanship. He kept to himself and didn’t allow others to watch him work in his little shop except for me. For some reason he liked me and wanted to teach me some of the secrets of his special craft. To be honest, I really was not interested in working with wood or with my hands. Every time he would tell me that he was going to make me his apprentice, I would snap back, “No, I’m going to college to be a writer.” I was only about fourteen then. Cleed just smiled.
One summer I watched Cleed work on an old dresser that looked fit for the trash. When I asked him why he bothered with such an antique, he said, “There’s a good piece of wood under there, boy. You just have to know how to strip it down to its core and then you’ll see its beauty.” I had no idea what he meant but I continued to watch him over the next few days as I witnessed him turn the old relic into something that looked brand new. It was indeed like magic and if I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed it. As a matter of fact, when I looked around his shop, everything looked new. He told me that each piece in his shop had once looked just as poorly as the piece I had just witnessed him restore. He said he just seemed to have a knack for making things beautiful and he didn’t know how or why. Most of the things he restored he said he found in the trash or along the side of the road. “Just a little sanding and polishing is all she needs,” is what Cleed would always say. Whatever money he made from selling them to people was pure profit. Sometimes he sold the pieces back to the same people who had discarded them – they didn’t even know or recognize it was the same piece they had thrown away.
When I finished high school and was ready for college, I got plenty of gifts and encouragement from my friends and family. I was college bound and couldn’t wait to leave home. When I went by to tell Cleed I was going to college, he surprised me with a small gift box wrapped with a handmade bow. I opened the box and took out the contents – it was a small chisel, just like the ones Cleed used in his shop to chisel wood. I must have looked perplexed because Cleed said, “Just in case you change your mind about working with your hands or if you want to come back and be my apprentice.” I didn’t know what to say because I couldn’t tell if he was serious. Then he laughed and said, “Congratulations boy. Go make us all proud. And don’t forget all I taught you about working with your hands.”
During my first semester in college I declared my major to be English as I had planned to become a writer. One of the first assignments we had in class was to write a narrative story with comparisons or contrasts. I didn’t know exactly what the instructor meant so I asked him for more information. Mr. James Curtain, our English professor, said that he wanted us to tell a story and include something that shows a comparison or a contrast. He said the story could be a true story or it could be fictional, something we make up. Since this was our first writing assignment, he told us we could make it only three typed pages but that it was due in two days.
I spent all day wondering what to write about and how to get started. I didn’t have a clue and every time I thought I had a good narrative idea, I couldn’t find a comparison or a contrast. It seemed I had developed writer’s block at an early stage in my writing career and that was not good. That evening one of my new classmates came by my room and invited me to a freshman class party at the Adams Center. I decided to go and stay for a little while to try and clear my head.
I was having a good time at the party laughing and joking with friends until I noticed a shy boy sitting down looking lost. I walked over, introduced myself to him and asked his name. He said his name was Lex, short for Lesince – an odd name I thought.
Lex told me he hadn’t wanted to attend college but that his parents made him. He said he didn’t think he belonged in college. I sensed Lex was suffering from an inferiority complex. I was dumbfounded and didn’t know what to think. Lex seemed just the opposite of me. While I was highly encouraged to attend college and was eager to be there, Lex wasn’t. As I searched my mind for words of wisdom to offer him, I again developed writer’s block. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. And then Cleed and his chisel popped into my head. I looked at Lex and said, “Just a little sanding and polishing is all you need Lex.” He looked at me and said, “What?” I smiled and said, “You just have to strip yourself down to the core and then you’ll see the beauty. You’ve got a good piece of wood under there, boy.” The way Lex smiled let me know he understood. We became the best of friends and subsequently Lex went on to make the Dean’s list his first semester.
When I got back to my room I had my narrative story with its comparison and contrast. I decided to write about my experience with Lex and the comparison and contrast I made to Cleed’s wood. When I turned in my paper I was eager to have Mr. Curtain read it. He asked us to read our stories in class and I volunteered first. Everyone enjoyed my story and they admired the clever way I used Cleed’s wood in the story. Needless to say, Mr. Curtain was impressed and I got an A. I called home to tell my mother about my good news and told her to tell Cleed. My mother got quiet for a second and then told me that Cleed had died the day before I called. She said he’d had a stroke. I drove home that weekend to attend his funeral.
While standing in front of Cleed’s casket, I didn’t know what to say or do. He had on his black suit and ready smile, but the undertaker had covered up his hands with large white gloves. With everyone looking, I removed the gloves one by one and then stuck a copy of my narrative in his hands for him to keep. I then told everyone that the gloves hid the best part of Cleed because his hands were like magic. No one argued with me and my parents smiled as I sat down. Without realizing it, Cleed gave me something special by sharing his special gift with me and I wanted to give him something back in return. I will always remember the hands of Cleed Spurlock. Although I never wanted to be his apprentice, he did teach me a lot about working with my hands – maybe not so much as a chiseler but definitely as a writer.