A Memoir of Friendship and Craftsmanship

I do not know why it took me so long to pick up Archie’s Way: A Memoir of Friendship and Craftsmanship by Richard Ezra Probert. The book came out in 1998 and I immediately brought it home with the intention of reading it. Alas, I am a greedy reader, always thinking I can read more than there is time for, so stacks of good intentions accumulate around me. Now, eighteen years later, while “organizing” my writing room, I came upon the book and moved it to the top of the teetering pile.

Archie’s Way is the story of a man on the younger side of middle-aged who grew up learning woodworking from his grandfather and music from his father. As an adult, he becomes a musician, and then a professor, but, continuing to like woodworking, he accumulates tools and lovingly restores a turn-of-the century house for his young family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The restoration newly complete, the house is suddenly ruined by the raging floodwaters of the Susquehanna River after Hurricane Agnes strikes. Devastated, Probert, packs up his tools away, and moves his family across the country to the north woods of Wisconsin, where he had accepted a job teaching music..

The memoir is about his reawakening to craft after such devastation, and the curmudgeonly older man, Archie Rausch, who rekindled his craftsman’s soul. Archie, dropped out of school at a young age and through determination, passion, and the ability to learn from others, became a highly skilled metalworker and woodworker. He earned his living as a metal worker, making parts, machines, and tools often of his own design. Customers knew that he could figure out how to make anything from metal. He was a woodworker too. He built the comfortable house he shared with his wife Lillian and all the furniture in it, a cabin in the woods, and various sheds and workshops. He lived what we might today call an integrated life; there were no boundaries separating his work from his passion. It’s how he lived and how he thought about how he lived, that makes the book interesting, even for those of us who work with squishy mud rather than the sharp edges of wood and metal.

As Probert gradually earns Archie’s respect beginning by doing the tasks the older man assigns him, in time doing projects together, Archie’s ways seep into his music making. He writes, “…since getting to know Archie, I treated the score more like Archie treated his drawings, as a guide to an end product that, I was delighted to discover, was in my hands, or ears, as the case may be, to finish. I likened my music making to cabinetmaking and machining, where each of the parts fits perfectly to create a whole, an idea, its own unique architecture. I reconciled myself to the notion that art and craft are too closely allied to draw a line between the two.”

The book is a paean not only to working with one’s hands, but to tools and machines. It is a love story to the workshop, the space one creates in which to work. And though it is written as a man’s book – men working together – male friendship – men and their tools – it really is not a man’s book at all. It is a deep appreciation of a life in craft. “Within a fifty-mile radius of most people, there are craftsmen making the finest furniture, machining intricate pieces from blocks of steel, fashioning boxes, lamps, cabinets, model steam engines, and all sorts of gadgets. These are quiet people who judge quality by the way a thing is put together. They have enormous pride in what they do and how they do it.” Clay, wood, metal, glass, fiber – it’s not the medium that matters, but the attitude.

Happily, this small book, written nearly two decades ago, is still available. It would be perfect for a potters’ reading group. Is there such a thing?

Happy New Year!

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