Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bodark Tree

“Here,” said Mark, my high school best friend. He had handed me a chisel that looked ancient except for a brand new wooden handle that was surprisingly heavy and smooth in my hand. “What is it?” I asked. “Bodark. My dad made it.” Mark's dad, Joe, collected and restored old woodworking hand tools; the wood he had selected for the chisel's handle was new to me, a tree I later learned is native to New Mexico, where Mark and I were growing up, also called Bois d'arc and Osage Orange. It felt incredibly dense and hard, like you could drive nails with it, and it had a beautiful, rich, red-brown grain that shimmered softly under the linseed oil finish. “Bodark, huh? Never heard of it.” “Yeah, Dad has some growing out on the North 40 and he likes to use it for tools 'cause it's so tough.” That memory is more than three decades old, but I can still feel the heft of the handle in my hand. I remember, too, our subsequent conversation about how difficult bodark is to work and that Joe constantly had to resharpen his blades when doing so.

Joe is a remarkable man. He is not obviously so: in appearance he has perhaps a bit more nose and less chin than might otherwise become him and a slight stoop that could come simply from being tall or may be the result of having taken a German sniper's bullet in the neck in World War II. Neither is he overtly muscular, but he has always had an air of surety, as one who harbors great strength and great love. As a boy in the throes of puberty, I found him intimidating, despite his friendliness. Whenever I see him, he often betrays a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, like he knows something I don't, which over the course of the decades of my friendship with Mark, I have frequently found to be the case. By vocation, Joe taught high school industrial arts, wood working and drafting in one of the toughest schools in the city and, as I recall, well respected by his students and peers. By avocation, he is or has been a collector, a woodcarver, a carpenter, a proprietor, a dog breeder, a vintner, a marksman, and -- how to say it? -- the maker of the best tamales I have ever tasted.

Since Mark and I were young, I had coveted Joe's tamale recipe. Unlike Mark, I was not native to New Mexico, but I fell in love with its cuisine soon after transplanting there at age 12. The tamales at Mark's house were amazing, with smooth masa that was tender and not too thick and a filling that was just hot enough with ripe, red New Mexican chili peppers to demand your attention, but not so hot as to overpower their rich flavor. And there was something else, too, a mouthfeel, a creaminess, a rich depth to the filling that I could not place; Joe said that was from his secret ingredient. For years, I begged Mark to tell me what it was, but he didn't know either and Joe wasn't telling. Once, when we were teens, Mark asked Joe to teach him how to make the tamales and Joe said, okay, just get up early next time he made them and he'd show him everything. On tamale-making day, Mark got up at 5:00 a.m. and went into the kitchen, only to discover Joe had already finished the filling. “You got to get up early to make good tamales,” Joe said. Eventually, when Mark and I were well into our thirties, Joe gave his secret to Mark, which he then shared with me; I won't betray it here, but suffice it to say that it both shocked me and made perfect sense given the history of this peasant food. To this day, I have never found an equal to Joe's tamales.

It seems that whatever Joe sets his mind and hands to he does exceptionally well. His homemade wine is the only such wine that I have ever tasted that was worth drinking, and, more than that, very tasty. He doesn't limit himself to brewing wine from grapes, either: one year when Mark and I were in our early twenties, his family's apricot tree, a towering green orb of Bunyanic proportions, provided such a banner harvest that they couldn't eat, give away, can, or dry the fruit fast enough. So, Joe pitted the overripe orange lumps, tossed them into a barrel, and let them sit until they “got real good.” The following spring, Mark brought a precious bottle of this experiment's results over to my apartment to share. Like most wines based on sweet fruit, it was strong, but it drank with the mellow smoothness of its ripe parentage. That's Joe: subtlety in strength.

Scattered about Joe's home are various pieces of handcarved furniture, Joe's handiwork. I recall most clearly the beds: head- and footboards with radially symmetrical petal designs in a bas relief and square posts with finials. The wood is dark and solid; the beds feel as firmly planted as if the mattresses were on the floor. Apparently Joe began carving at a young age; I believe he carved the master bed as a wedding gift. And, along with his love of carving has come a passion for hand tools, of which he has literally hundreds. Mark showed me his workshop once: walls almost entirely covered with hand chisels, lathe chisels, handsaws, planes and other tools of all types and sizes, none new and all carefully cleaned, restored, and brightly sharp.

Not long after he retired from teaching, Joe was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “Doctors give him a year or two,” was Mark's news. Joe proceeded to take up a fight with his township over some land he owned and hired out to be farmed – a few acres that the family ironically calls “the North 40” – but that the town wanted to develop. After winning that battle, which took a couple of years, he tore up a knee while chopping down a bodark tree, so he got a knee replacement. He spent the next several years maintaining and upgrading properties he has scattered about the state and yard-saling every Saturday with Mark – he loves a good deal and has a sharp eye for good quality hand tools that just need a bit of dressing up.

It's now been twenty years since the doctors gave him his terminal sentence and, like the bodark he works with, his toughness has surprised pretty much everyone but those who know him well. Recently, though, his health has been dealt a series of heavy blows and it's beginning to look like his time here is winding down. Of course, Joe has exceeded people's expectations so many times, I feel like nothing is sure, but even bodark breaks down eventually, I guess. In any case, for me, Joe has always been a model for how to live your life, for what it means to be a man. He exemplifies listening to your heart and acting on your truth, loving life and those with whom you choose to share it to the best of your ability, and doing so unpretentiously. I suspect Joe would take issue with at least some of my characterizations of him and it's certainly possible, even likely, that they come in part from the awe with which a younger generation may view its elders, but regardless of whether he would accept my description of him as accurate, this is who he has been for me and represents the gifts he has given to me. I am grateful, and hopefully a better man, for knowing him. I think of him whenever I see a bodark tree.