After a week of teaching at the Woodwright’s School, of course we felt compelled to post an excerpt from Roy Underhill’s “Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker! A Novel With Measured Drawings.” Above is one of those measured drawings: Roy’s plan for a mallet featuring a “rising dovetail,” from “Grandpa Sam’s Woodshop of the Air.” To download it, click here.
Below is an excerpt from the novel.
The next morning, twenty minutes after Hattersley’s telephone call, Calvin heard the honk of the car horn eight floors below. He leaned out his window and watched three slim, pale-armed girls emerge from the car, their shadows racked in zigzags up the steps. The driver was already unloading another six mail sacks from the trunk. Linda’s graying hair, centered on her white-bloused shoulders, bounced down the steps to meet them. Anne and Verdie pushed a hand cart up the sidewalk and spoke to the driver, who quickly set to stacking the sacks on the cart. The driver leaned to speak into Verdie’s ear over the traffic noise. She turned her head up and pointed up at the office. She spotted Calvin and waved just as a mocking bird flew between them at the fifth floor level. He waved back and withdrew into the office, dropping back into his chair before his Abraham Lincoln—with Mallets Towards None script.
He stared at the grungy keys on his Underwood portable and jogged the M key, threatening the paper with the lower case strike. Somehow, the right combination of keystrokes would give him the story he needed. The door opened, letting in the hard, unmuffled noise of the machines. Ellen rolled in and laid two piles of unfolded letters on his desk. One pile required his personal response to woodworking questions and the others were just nice comments. The piles of letters on his desk already nagged at him.
He had forgotten which pile was which and he thumbed through one to read a random penciled letter.
“Dear Grandpa Sam, Sinse father died we have not ben abel to mark his grave with respect. He was a wood worker and carpeter and showd us how to make things too. We have used youre blessings to have a stone cut…”
He pulled the typewriter ribbon shift lever up and down, then lifted the cover and stared at the ribbon. His script was still nothing more than a title. Maybe Lincoln made this puzzle mallet when working as a lawyer and gave it to judges where his cases might be heard. He stuffed the letters into his top desk drawer. Another knock at the door and a Western Union boy entered with a telegram.
Calvin signed for it, tipped the boy fifteen cents and withdrew into that tight dread of wondering who had died. “TO CALVIN COBB STOP THANK YOU STOP BLESS YOU STOP FROM THE HOYDEN FAMILY SPRINGFIELD IILINOIS STOP.” He turned it over. Blank. He read the message again. Nice, but he wished all these folks would just send a sentence of a story. Does he have to telegraph back? “YOU ARE KIND TO THANK ME BUT DON’T STOP” Another quiet knocking at the door.
Linda stuck her head around the door with her finger held to her lips, she glanced back out and then wiggled her finger, motioning for him to follow her. He rose quietly and joined her behind a column in the hall. “Fifth floor,” she whispered, “the far corner.”
Calvin lowered his head enough to see under the railing. Across the huge atrium, in the corner of a floor of empty offices, two men stood quietly talking and referring casually to a clipboard of papers. Often enough, though, one or the other of them would sneak a glance up in their direction. Calvin leaned slowly back towards Linda. “Burroughs?” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Their hats aren’t right for Burroughs,” she whispered. “Too small.”
He leaned out again; the two men were walking down the steps toward the south doors. “GAO?”
Linda smiled. “GAO’s covered.” The creaking of doors echoed up to them and she resumed a normal voice. “Probably just IRS stiffs from next door checking out the new girls. Anyway, I just thought it was funny.”
“Well, let me know if they come back.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll chase ’em off plenty fast.” She followed Calvin back into his office, unable to see the hangdog look on his face.
The paper in his typewriter was totally blank, but Calvin pulled it out as if it were covered with errors. “What were you saying about the GAO not being a problem?”
She nodded slyly at him. “Guardian angels take the most unexpected forms.” She pointed back out the door. “And those two stiffs down there? Probably just more fans of your show.”
He bounced his pencil on its eraser, shaking his head at her efforts to cheer him.
She pondered him for a moment. “Have you been following the ratings of your show? The Hoopers?”
“Nah, just dealing with these letters,” he said flatly. “I guess we’re doing pretty good.”
A breeze fluttered papers on his windowsill. Linda seemed to suddenly inflate with the summer air. “Why don’t you get out of here? Go work outside for the afternoon! It’s a beautiful day out there.”
He sighed. “Maybe I will. I need to drop off the stamps anyway, we’ve got to keep ahead on the Treasury refunds.”
She stuffed blank paper onto a clipboard and thrust it into his hands. “You just go work on your script. I don’t want to see you back here ’til five o’clock. Alright?”
“But whatever you write today, I’ll need to type into the punch cards tonight. So you be sure to come back before you go home. Alright?”
“Alright.” He stood to attention and saluted. “Yes m’am.”
She scurried him out the door.
He dropped the stamps off at the new Post Office, picked up a ham sandwich for lunch at the commissary and found a bench on the Mall under an elm tree. He sat facing the Capitol, its ivory dome merging into the hazy sky. Between bites of his sandwich, he scribbled notes and dialogue lines. Tourists walked by—bicyclists, dog-walking couples, groups of foreign tourists—all kicking up trails of dust. He wiped the nib of his pen on a fuzzy elm leaf and settled back against the splintering rails of the bench. Workmen drove stakes into the ground, setting creosote-stained snow fences around a cluster of small wooden huts. He pondered this for a moment and then realized that they were preparations for next week’s Fourth of July crowds.
He stared at his paper. Wind stirred the tree and sent puzzle pieces of light dancing across the page. The dovetailed mallet was obviously a mistake. A rising dovetail joint was hard enough to understand when you could hold one in your hands and look at it—there was simply no way to describe it on radio. He looked up as a blue LaSalle pulling a streamlined travel trailer made slow passage down Constitution Avenue. Kathryn would love that. They could ride to the beach. She could take photographs of dune grasses while he typed his stories at a little table inside. Then she would come back in and he would brush all the sand from her feet.
Calvin turned with a start at the woman’s voice and slid half off the bench.
“Mr. Cobb? Excuse me, are you Mr. Cobb? We’re sorry to bother you, but the lady at your office said you might be out here.” The voice came from a small but strikingly proportioned woman in her thirties who was standing next to a tall young man who was uncomfortable with his own height.
Calvin staggered to his feet and belched throat-burning acid. “Calvin Cobb? No.” He glanced around to see who else might be watching. He looked back at them to see that, instead of disappointment, they were nodding and smiling to one another.
“Oh it is you! My son and I listen to you together. I’d recognize your voice anywhere! I know you’re trying to keep…discreet…but we both wanted to tell you how much we appreciate what you have done for us!” The young man grinned dumbly at Calvin until his mother prompted him. “Tell Mr. Cobb what you are going to do, Tad.”
“I’m going to Iowa State. I’m going to study to be a veterinarian, but I’m going to keep on working wood too.”
“That’s good,” said Calvin, too weakly to be heard above the traffic. “Woodworking is good.”
“We were able to come to visit his grandparents in Baltimore because of you. We drove all the way from Moline. I had no idea we would find you here. Oh, and I want you to know, Alan makes everything, he doesn’t just send for the plans like you know some people must do.”
“I’m glad,” said Calvin, now desperately thirsty.
“Well, I can see you were trying to get some rest, but it wouldn’t have been right for us not to thank you.”
“Well.” Calvin thought hard, breathed deep. “My pleasure. I’m glad you enjoy the show,” he said finally.
“Ohhh, you sound just like you do on the radio!” She smiled, tilted her head and flashed her eyebrows at him. She offered her hand. “T’ain’t there nuthin’ ah ken do? I love that!”
Her son, beaming, reached out his hand. “Thank you, sir, and I want you to know that I work hard to do good work.”
“That’s good!” said Calvin. “Keep it up!”
The mother turned away, tilting her head back over her shoulder. “We’ll let you work now. Bye. We’ll let you… ‘tend to your whittlin’!”
This had to be a dream. This attractive woman was flirting with him! She was now beside a taxi. She smiled again when she saw him looking. A friendly sunbeam defined her legs through her skirt for an instant. He glanced at his page with the sketches of the useless puzzle mallet.