Saturday, March 28, 2009


They say that smell is the strongest sensory trigger. While walking down to the shop this morning I caught a whiff of something smokey and iron. It immediately made me think of Sarge, a blacksmith/former navy man who had once worked the field trial circuit, which my stepfather ruled for decades with muscled dogs like Five Card Stud and Bootstrap.

A field trial is a competitive event in which hunting dogs track and point flocks (or cubbies) of quail clustered in the brush. The judges, trainers, scouts, and spectators are all on horseback, and Sarge's job was to re-shoe the horses when necessary. Sometimes my brother and I rode along with this herd of horses and handlers (called the gallery), but more often than not we were left to our own designs in the plantation parking lot, a big field bordered by barns, stables, lofts, sheds, and various other outbuildings. Sarge was the one lone adult left in the lot, and drawn to him by the charky stink of the forge fire we were unofficially put in his charge.

Sarge was as compact as the anvil on which he clamorously hammered and he wore an oil tanned apron that skimmed his ankles like a dress. He had egg white hair and the moony face of Mickey Rooney post Skidoo. Every so often Sarge would let us have a couple whacks on a spare shoe with his heavy headed sledge. He'd grab the hot iron with his tongs, hold it at the anvil with one hand, and indicate where it was to be struck by tapping the spot with a small hammer. It was then up to me or my brother to deliver the mighty blow that would shape the shoe.

One morning Sarge dug into his apple box of horse picks and starter rasps and trimming nips and fished out a slingshot. I had some experience with braided rubber bands and yoked sticks (that snapped if I pulled the band too far back), but never had I seen a device such as this. Black like his apron, it was made from metal not wood. Rubber as thick as the tire tube of a ten speed looped down from the yorks and a metal wrist brace unfolded from the the slingshot's contoured grip for increased leverage and power. "If Navy Seals used slingshots instead of sniper rifles," Sarge once barked, "they'd all have one of these babies hanging on their hip."

Good old Sarge. In addition to showing me how to mold hot iron and knock over upright shotgun casings with slung rocks, Sarge taught me how to stand, legs wide like the slingshot yorks, while "shaking off the dew," (and once my gaze slid over to what Sarge called his "lizard," which was short and barreled like his body.)

And so this whisper of smoke and iron on Main Street this morning makes me think of all these things: the extravagantly named pointers, their tails stiff and straight as rulers, the glowing horse shoes with their poker red tips, the slingshot with its molded pistol grip and thick garden hose of rubber, and last but not least, Sarge and his chunky, quarter roll Johnson, darkening the faded barn-siding to the color of blood or gushing like a horse into a bristling clump of broom sedge.