An excerpt from “Calvin Cobb – Radio Woodworker: A Novel with Measured Drawings,” by Roy Underhill.
Banging buckets echoed down the hall from the clock tower entrance. The painter was done for the day. The stacks of ordered papers on Calvin’s desk no longer made sense, and he gathered them into a single pile.
“I’ll be up in the lab,” he called into Linda’s office as he escaped down the hall. He drummed up the stairs to the ninth floor and walked to the door squeezed between two empty storerooms. He crouched slightly as he passed down the short corridor that led into the square base of the clock tower, but once he emerged into the room, he could stand twenty feet tall if he wanted. Four huge frosted glass clock faces crowned the upper walls of the chamber. Four shafts driving the clock hands converged overhead with bevel gears that doled out the seconds from the clockwork on the floor above. Visitors felt tiny beneath the giant clock faces — smaller than mice in a grandfather clock. But the sense of being inside something intentional, something measured and deliberate, appealed powerfully to Calvin.
Slit windows in the walls, narrow like archer’s loopholes in a castle, gave views of each compass point. Calvin peered through the east window by his workbench. With the trees not fully leafed out yet, he could still see the mottos chiseled into the facade of the new Justice Department building up the street. In large letters under the window of the FBI director’s office were the words “No free Government can survive that” — a disturbing statement if you missed the subsequent “is Not based on the supremacy of law” that continued around the corner.
Those FBI men up Pennsylvania Avenue were, in part, responsible for the stack of golden-hued, white oak boards leaning against the wall beside Calvin’s workbench. He had salvaged this mellow timber with growth rings as tight as a deck of cards from the demolished cabinetry on the atrium floor far below. The cabinetry had all been purpose-made in the 1880s as specialized organs to digest the United states mail — oak cubby-hole kidneys for insufficient address, oak hopper-table livers for postage due. But after the postal operations moved out in the summer of 1934, the FBI moved in, waiting for the completion of their new building up the street. They demanded uniform desks in uniform ranks and broke up the oak woodwork in the atrium with fire axes and stacked it for the dump, exposing embarrassing rectangular outlines on the marble floors where ten thousand nightly moppings had left fossil seashores of filth. Calvin, staying late in the evenings, had rescued as many planks as he could and given them sanctuary in the tower.
He unlocked his wall-mounted tool cupboard and took a plane from the shelf. The cabinet had belonged to a European master stamp engraver and some of his old prints were still tacked to the doors; Dürer’s the Knight, Death and the Devil on one, and on the other, an unknown eighteenth-century engraver’s Virtue Fleeing from Décolletage, showing a young man pursued down a flight of stairs by a quartet of busty young beauties in spectacularly low-cut gowns.
This afternoon, with everyone else ready to slip from the iceberg, he lifted a plank still bearing shreds of varnish and deeply stained with purple ink, and laid it on the workbench. He took up his jack plane and went to his compulsive work. The old surfaces — stabbed by angry clerks, passed over by millions of love letters, bank orders, Christmas cards, draft notices, invitations and regrets fell in corkscrew shavings to the floor. He finished planing the long board and resumed his work on a glass-fronted wall cabinet for Linda’s stacks of punched cards. he cranked his bit-brace auger, turning the center bit into the oak to rough in a mortise. “Why do you choose a center bit for this work Mr. Cobb?” he asked himself in a high and barely audible voice.
“Well, Miss Harper, for a shallow hole, a center bit actually cuts faster,” he answered himself. Tan shavings wound out-ward in an unbroken spiral. The central pike of the bit poked through the far side of the plank. He turned the plank over and inserted the center pike into the hole, and bored down again until the bit pushed into open space, carrying with it a speared button of oak.
He worked until the sunlight rectangles cutting through the slit-windows of the castle grew rust-red. Out the dusty west window, a deep sun fired diagonal rows of clouds into scarlet furrows that left the Washington monument in stark silhouette. A bunt of his hand knocked the shavings out of the rabbet plane and he locked it and the other tools back in the cabinet. Closing the cabinet left him facing the old engravings tacked to the door faces. He stared at one of the lusty women in Virtue Fleeing from Décolletage. He would find a set of colored pencils. He would color her eyes Delft blue.