‘I Was There’

long-trail-west-IMG_2320-copy

Some people say I work too hard. But whenever I look at the above family photo, I think: I’m not working hard enough.

The photo is one of my favorites, and I first saw it as a young child. It shows my grandfather, Joseph T. West, at left. At right is my great uncle, John W. West. And in the center is my great grandfather. They’re about to begin a hike at Vermont’s Lincoln Gap on the Long Trail, the oldest long-distance trail in the United States.

The photo was taken at 2 p.m. on Aug. 29, 1932.

That day, my great grandfather died on the hike from a heart attack. My grandfather instructed his brother John to stay with body while he climbed back down the trail to get help.

My great grandfather was 45 on the day he died.

My family has a history of heart problems. My grandfather endured bypass surgery and then collapsed from a stroke while on a walk to the local market in the 1980s. My uncle, Tom West, died of a heart attack – way too young – in 2011. And that’s for starters.

So every time I encounter this photo I am reminded of two things.

  1. Watch my numbers. I’ve closely monitored my cholesterol and blood pressure since I was in my 20s. Exercise, diet and pills keep my numbers in check. This might not be enough (ask my cardiologist about my gene pairs) but it’s better than fatalism.
  2. Do not delay. I kind of assumed I’d leave this world at age 45. Not for any good reason – brains are funny and stupid – but merely because of the photo and the family story behind it. So I worked like hell to get “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” out before my 45th birthday. Every other book I written since has been a gift.

None of us know when we’re leaving this earth. But this photo always reminds me that my days are numbered. So I don’t sit around. I tell myself: build something. Write something. Get the next book published. Get everything out of your head and onto paper before your head is a cinder in a cremation furnace.

Is this morbid? I don’t really care. I do know that this photo has kept me going since age 11 or so, and so I am weirdly thankful for it.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. In regards to the title of this blog post, my mother’s copy of this photo has a handwritten note on the back from Uncle Johnny. “The day dad died. Aug. 29, 1932. 2:00 p.m. Lincoln Warren Gap. I was there!”

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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29 Responses to ‘I Was There’

  1. Mark Kessler says:

    Great Photo, I don’t live too far from the gap and have hiked it many times. Also I think you worked on an article or two I did with PW around 2001-02 when I was in Cincinnati, enjoying your blog – Mark

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  2. Sydney Smith says:

    We used Data General computers at work in the 1980’s. I read that book! Anyway, they were cutting edge at the time. We had email amongst ourselves long before anyone else did. This was the USDA Forest Service.

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  3. Dean Wolfe says:

    I too have the unlucky genes. My father died at 79 heart disease, my uncle at 81, my aunt at 78. That’s only my fathers side. My mother’s side isn’t much better. All preceded by bypasses and heart attacks starting in their 50s. I watch my numbers, eat right, exercise, take pills, etc. In other words I try to be the poster child of good heart health. In the fall of 2015 I went in for a treadmill test. They would not let me leave the hospital, I had a double bypass the next day at 7 am.

    Life is short. We built our own home, every board, because that’s what we wanted to do, we sailed to the South Pacific on a boat we built, and I try to spend as much time in the shop as possible. I am fortunate to have a like minded life partner who supports my crazy ideas. Take time for love ones and don’t stress out over things that you can not control (my biggest challenge).

    As you said, you never know when your last day will come. Every day is special.

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  4. Yo Chris — I’m a complex systems scientist (and a furniture maker) — and recently lost 60 lbs. Forced me to dive into the literature. The sad fact is that most of the diet/longevity stuff is BS. If it were a Welsh Chair, it would collapse under the fanny of your Great Aunt Gertrude. You want to really eliminate your chance of a heart attack? Cut sugar and refined carbs. Sugar is a metabolic destabilizer, and what happens is bad stuff happens on top of that, which lets sugar off the hook. Think about it this way — your body runs on sugar. But you were never meant to eat sugar. Kinda like your car engine. It runs on gas. But you don’t start it by pouring gas all over the manifold. My guess is that you’re one of the skinny people still manifesting metabolic syndrome. You don’t gain weight — but your ticker clogs. To understand how all this works, read the weight loss posts on my blog, empathy.guru, which is all about how communities create knowledge. Start here: https://empathy.guru/2017/09/17/weight-loss-by-the-v-memes-iii-whats-the-v-meme-stack-look-like/

    and look to the Readers Guide for an aggregation of weight loss posts. It’s kinda like discovering that you don’t have to finish the underside of a table top with the same finish as the top. Disconcerting and liberating at the same time. The good news? Wine. The bad news? Beer.

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  5. johncashman73 says:

    I think your Uncle Johnny and I would have been friends.

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  6. And yeah — I DO know it’s hard to call BS on your cardiologist. But when they just keep giving you another pill as you age, it’s really a sign that they haven’t really thought any of this through. FWIW — I put myself out there on FB in front of my classmates during the process (I was raised in Portsmouth, OH, just up the river from you.) Together, I think about 30 or so of them lost 30 or so lbs. And healed their metabolic syndrome. What can I say? I was always known as the brain.

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    • mitch wilson says:

      Wow, Chuck. Quite the generalist. Not really a brain. You don’t seem to understand the concept of individual genetics. And it seems to me that there is a somewhat relevant individual involved here whose father was a physician. You’re really a cretin.

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      • Choirboy says:

        When speaking to a general public, we can talk about studies and tests and statistics and this and that, and in those terms I think Chuck is probably more right than wrong in that the medical/govt establishment got it wrong a few decades ago and things are only just now starting to improve, and that pharma isn’t helping. Statins are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs to the general public and yet have been shown to only decrease risk of heart attack in men over 50 who have already had a heart attack; the rest of the population has the same risk of heart attack but lovely cholesterol numbers.
        That said, we aren’t talking about the general population, we are talking about a particular individual with a particular genetic makeup. I think we can trust Chris to make his own informed choices as far as treatment and prevention. The individual always trumps the generalizations.
        Chris, fascinating and bitter family story. You keep being you, and we will enjoy your work as long as you choose to do it. I think you are already on the right track to not having a heart attack by adopting your apparent “I don’t give a crap what you say” attitude 🙂

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  7. Eileen Kradel says:

    Christopher,I do not know why we,the parents and grandparents are surprised by the wisdom of our children, but I do know it is greatly appreciated.

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  8. ejcampbell says:

    First, I knew and worked (indirectly) for your uncle at Dara General from 1977 to 1990. Very smart and honorable man. I still have my copy of the book.
    Second, I shared your dread of reaching “that age”, the one at which my father and both grandfathers died of heart attacks. For my family, it is 55. I am now 69, thanks to the same regimen that got you to where you are. The post really spoke to me. Thanks for saying it all out loud.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Anthony says:

    This is a day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it. It’s how I try to live.

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  10. My dad and grandfather both died at 62 of eerily similar cardiac conditions. My grandfather’s first retirement check was in the mailbox the day we put him in the ground. I know the feeling well. My wife thinks it’s morbid, but to me, it has been weirdly freeing.

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  11. John McColley says:

    Chris, aside from your LAP blog are you aware of any other resource that catalogs points of interest to woodworkers around the country? Museums, woodworking schools, tool shops, etc.? That would be a great resource for someone to pull together (hint, hint).

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    • kerry Doyle says:

      You could add On the Natural Edge, Edwardsville Illinois, to cool places to buy wood.. Local trees, quartersawn, crotch, etc. all with the wood artist in mind.

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    • mike says:

      It is awesome when people volunteer others to do what they can easily do themselves.

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  12. Joe Babb says:

    Good post. I myself was glad to make it to 67 which is the age my dad passed from a heart attack. Glad to be alive. Never apologize for enjoying life.

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  13. Brad Heck says:

    Momento Mori – Remember Death. Stoic philosophy uses the thought of death as a motivator like you have.. not a reason to give up as in, “it doesn’t matter anyways, I’m going to die eventually”.

    Thank you for sharing how you use thinking of Death as a motivator to get things done and live your life. Too often people put off living and think, “when I’m in my 60’s and retire I’ll do these things I’ve wanted to do my entire life”, well, what if you don’t make it to that age??

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  14. M. Corbeau says:

    It sounds as if you are psychologically prepared for your sixties. Death is my companion every day and night. We take walks together, go swimming together, work in the shop, and eat, drink, and sleep together. Styx has quite a sense of humor and is never fatalistic. One thing she taught me is that a privileged life is not one filled with wire wheels and shimmering things. Privilege is being able to perceive your place in the flow of the river; to look out into the night sky and feel the lump in your throat that comes from knowing you are part of something more majestic and mysterious than any of us will ever understand. Sure puts human affairs in perspective. Puts a smile on my dour countenance every day. Bon jour, M. Corbeau

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  15. Bob Glenn says:

    In 2015 I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 69. Most don’t survive a year, but do to catching it early the turmor was surgically removed and in July I will be in a very small minority of four year survivors. It has changed my life, interestingly for the better. No day goes by without me being in the shop doing what I like best, building things. Chris, we’re going to be alright. Dressing boards with a hand plane is good cardio excersize. Don’t wast a day. Bob

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  16. So that’s why you’re so thin. Keep up the good health.

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  17. Jessamyn says:

    I learned about this entire story at Uncle Johnny’s funeral when I saw a version of this photo. I should be more on top of my cholesterol (have been pill-resistant) but definitely share your feelings of

    – never believing I’d live this long
    – trying to pack in a whole lot of things I want to do as soon as possible

    I’d been hiking Lincoln Gap before I knew it had a story. Hugs from a cousin.

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  18. ikustwood says:

    ouf…

    That was a hard post. For your family and for the reality you live each day… and for my weaknesses. I try to get out of :” I will do it when child older, finished the contracts, parents are taken care of, etc.” I just end up always in the same corner. Anyway. Thank you for sharing. Will keep your photo in mind.

    Stay healthy . We need you.

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  19. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    Chris, I’ll resuscitate you any time, free of charge! By the way, this was a thoughtful post. I liked it.

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  20. tominpa says:

    Thanks Chris, we greatly appreciate your devotion to the woodworking world and LAP’s ever varying topics on the blog.

    I have been doing a lot of studying of overall health trends from many angles and countries, and it seems that if you eat more vegetables and greatly minimize meat, oils, dairy, sugar, and processed foods you will be much better off. Several doctors out there are reversing heart disease with a strict green diet for people with no other medical options. The Standard American Diet is very sad indeed. It is tasty, cheap, fast, addicting, and backed by boatloads of corporate pressure/advertising. The broccoli and swiss chard industries are not taking over any of the meat, egg, or dairy industry anytime soon. They say that to some degree, genetics loads the gun but lifestyle pulls the trigger. I know it is not what people want to hear and it is a hard sell to eat more like those vegan people. I am not vegan, I still eat meat but very infrequently. My blood levels have greatly improved and I lost weight without really trying. I won’t drop any names, but the doctors are out there on youtube, you can believe them or not. I am stepping down off this dovetailed soapbox. Better health to all.

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  21. Marhk says:

    Time for a thallium stress test (or maybe a coronary CT calcium score).

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  22. John Zalesak says:

    Hey Chris – Long time reader, First time poster. If you are male in my family (both sides), 59 is the magic number. I am at 55. I run around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to do more and different things. My wife says I have FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. I say she nailed it.

    Cheers!

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  23. johncashman73 says:

    Chris, if you have future health related posts, please, please disable comments.

    Liked by 1 person

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