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The Frickenstick

This incident occurred when I was 11 years old.

My father was working in the dining room one morning while I was eating breakfast. It was a Saturday morning. I had slept late, and my mother and my brother had long exited to some function extracurricular at my brother's vocational school. My father had fixed me a breakfast of eggs and toast and some refried beans.

As I was about to dive into the beans, after finishing the eggs and toast of course, my father let out with an oath and an order.

"Dammit! This sash rig is shot, and we'll need a stick to hold the window open until I can get the rig fixed. Tell you what, sonny, you'll have to go to the lumber yard and get a frickenstick."

Looking back on the incident, I realize that, to save my virginal ears, my father had said "fricking stick", but what I had heard instead was "frickenstick".

"Be off then, sonny," he continued. "You can finish those beans after you come back. I'll heat them up for you, but I need that stick right quick."

"Yessir," I answered, and slid off the bench I was sitting on. In those days, although we had a very nice house, my family could not afford a regular dining table. We ate instead on a picnic table and benches. My father had made the table and benches himself. He had done it right after the second war to end all wars, and the wood which he had been able to procure had not been well cured, which was true of most of the wood then available. Accordingly, the wood continued to shrink for several years after the table had been put into use, so every few months during that period my father would have to renew the putty between the planks which made up the top of the table. This table, by the way, was not only our dining table but also many afternoons a kind of theater. Sitting at the table with boys from the neighborhood, my father would hold forth on his exploits as an actor and mariner, some of them quite famous. I loved to hear my father speak, even if I had no interest in what he was saying: his voice and diction were clear and comely, and his choice of words and grammatical structure were often fascinating. Perhaps his greatest love was the English language. I think I learned most of what I know about English from listening to him.

I went up to my room, got on a sweater and coat, and soon was on the street headed for the local lumber yard. Arriving there, I entered the front office and asked the man at the counter for what I needed.

"Sir," I began, "do you have any frickensticks? My father needs one."

The man, Mr. Downs, recognized me immediately and asked after the health of my father.

"He's fine, sir, tho' of late he's had a cold and is just now getting over it. But he's still strong enough to wrestle my arm to the table anytime he pleases to do so."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that. My own son is able, I'm afraid, to wrestle my arm to the table anytime he wants, tho' now and then he lets me win -- out of pity I'm afraid. But about your request for a frickenstick, I'm afraid we're fresh out of 'em."

Looking back on the incident, I know full well that Mr. Downs knew what was going on and knew that I believed there was a type of stick called a "frickenstick". He decided, however, to play along with the situation which my father had unwittingly created. "Well, let's do the best we can with this thing. Did your father say what length of frickenstick he wanted?"

I reflected. I couldn't remember him saying anything about a length. Nor did I ask, assuming that all frickensticks came in the same length, just as all yardsticks and broomsticks came in the same length.

"No, sir, he didn't," I answered.

"Hmm. Well, did he say what he wanted it for?"

"Yessir, I answered. "He needs it to prop the dining room window open. He can't get the sash rig to work."

"Ah, well, I've been in that house of yours often, your father and mother being the party throwers they are, and I know just the window you're talking of. Let's go out back and look at what we've got by way of something which might substitute for a frickenstick."

With this he called out, "Leon, come out here please. I need someone to tend the register."

With this call, there appeared one of his sons.

"Yes, father," he said as he came into the room.

"Master Arnall here needs something from the lumber shed, so we'll be going there."

Mr. Downs then handed Leon the key to the register and said he wouldn't be long. The two of us then headed out of the office building to a yard behind it.

"Fine lad, that Leon of mine. Can't say the same for the other one, I'm sorry to say. And that sister of theirs is an even worse bet for future success. The mother's spoiled both of 'em. How Leon survived her coddling I'll never understand."

Nonplussed to be the recipient of such tales out of school, I remained silent.

"And how is your brother, Curtis, these days?" continued Mr. Downs as we walked to another building.

"He's OK, sir, but having trouble in school. My mother had to put him in a vocational school."

"Ah, well, not to worry. You know, both Einstein and Churchill had trouble in their early years of school."

"Einstein, sir? Who was he?"

"The man who created the hydrogen bomb and rocket ships and much else. He's still alive -- a teacher at Harvard, I believe."

Arriving at another building, we entered it. It was very large and filled with stacks of framing lumber and plywood and many racks of trim pieces. Mr. Downs began walking along the racks of trim pieces. When he came to a rack filled with full-round pieces of various sizes, he pulled one out. It was three-quarters of an inch in diameter. With me following, he went over to a bench with a cross-cut saw on it and cut off a piece about two and a half feet long. Using a belt sander, he beveled the ends of the stick smooth. Then he did a piece of magic. He took a chisel from the shelf over the bench and with it cut out and smoothed a recess in the stick about two inches long. Next he took a wood burning tool from the shelf and very quickly burned into the recess "FRICKENSTICK".

"Well, sir, do you think that will do it?" he asked me.

Still stunned by his deft handiwork, I stuttered, "Yessir, I think my father will like it."

"Good!"

We then went back to the office building, and he rang up the sale.

"Well, how about a dollar? Do you think your father will go for that?" he asked me.

I had no sense of money in those days, wasn't very good at counting it even, but I had a profound faith in the rightness of anything which Mr. Downs would be a party to.

"Yessir, more than fair, I'm sure."

"Good then. I'll put the charge in your father's account page." With that, Mr. Downs wrapped the stick in heavy paper and handed it to me. I took it, thanked him, and left for home.

Once in the house, I handed the package to my father. He took the stick from it and began to try it as a prop for the window. He then noticed the inscription. "What the hell is this?" he boomed, looking at the inscription. "What word is this? Who put it there?"

"Mr. Downs, sir," I answered.

"Hmm. And how do you say that word?"

"'Frickenstick', sir," I answered.

He studied the inscription for a few seconds more -- perhaps even a minute. Then he began to howl with laughter. He then went to the phone and dialed a number. After a brief pause, he boomed into the phone, "Downs! This beats all! I didn't know you were a pyrographer as well as a woodworker."

There was a pause of a minute or two, then my father said, "'Pyrographer'? A pyrographer is an artist who writes on wood with fire. It's what you did on this stick. Very nice work. After I've got the sash rig working for the window, I'm going to hang this stick on my wall and put under it the name of the artist."

And, sure enough, after my father had put the dining-room window to rights, he hung Mr. Downs' creation on one of the living room walls and under it placed a plaque reading, "Frickenstick. Artist: William P. Downs".

Looking back on it, I remember being impressed not so much with the inscription itself, as with the sudden deftness with which Mr. Downs cut and inscribed the recess in the stick. That deftness was a beauty which I will always think of when I see a stick which has been worked by man.