by Dorothy Ainsworth
Octogenarian John McCormick was a frequent customer at the Copper Skillet where I worked as a waitress. About the time he started coming in, I was in the process of building a vertical-log piano studio and worked on it every day until my 2-10 PM shift began. John always sat in the comfortable dining area, but evidently he could hear me babbling about my daily progress to the regular coffee-break customers who sat at the counter.
One day he hobbled up to the cash register to pay, and quietly said, "If you ever need any help on your construction project——any help at all——please call me." He slipped me his phone number and limped out the door.
I thought, "E-gads! He can barely walk; how could he possibly help me build anything?" I shrugged it off, but it seemed odd, so I wondered about it.
Soon after that, I was having trouble figuring what size cable and turnbuckles to use in my unique roof design, and I remembered John's offer. I called him on a whim, and sure enough he rushed right over and proceeded to solve my problem with a mind that worked at lightning speed. He made some sketches and calculations and spit out the answer like a computer. I was in awe.
It turned out that he was a retired civil engineer, an inventor, a brilliant mathematician, an experienced builder in his younger days, and a member of SCORE (volunteer consultants to help people starting out in small business). He had also raised a family.
Our friendship blossomed. He was a fascinating man who was still in touch with his inner child and had an intense curiosity about anything related to science and mechanics. To top it all off, he had a fun and playful sense of humor hidden behind his somber demeanor.
This was quite evident one day when he was helping me wire an overhead kitchen light. I didn't have a short ladder, so he bravely climbed onto a rickety barstool to reach the light fixture. Being a tall and gangly man (not to mention old), he teetered precariously before finding his balance. Then he reached both arms way up high to fiddle with the wiring.
That's when his pants fell down! All the way down to his ankles, revealing long black silk socks connected to boxer shorts with garters. It was beyond ridiculous, like something you'd see in an Esquire cartoon! We were both laughing so hard I could barely manage to hoist his pants back up so he could step down before he fell down. I then fixed his problem with a rope.
I learned a lot from John. He taught me how to use clamps as extra hands when working alone. He taught me how to do the wiring in the studio and coached me every step of the way. He was patient enough to simply take a deep breath and exhale a long sigh when I kept wrapping a wire splice until all the electrical tape was gone. I was insufferable; it must have been terribly frustrating for him, but he always came back for more.
When almost everyone else was discouraging me from taking on such a complicated design (8-sided roof structure converging into a 4-sided cupola) for my first building project, he encouraged me and helped me. He became my best friend.
I was a young and vibrant 46 and had a big strong boyfriend named Kirt, who was going to college and had very little time to lend a hand. I wanted the challenge of building the studio myself anyway and called for help only when I was desperate.
One day I was desperate. I was working on the interior of the studio and had just finished tiling the hearth where the wood stove would go. The 300-lb. Franklin fireplace was sitting on one side of the room, and the hearth was on the other. I didn't have a hand truck nor the money to buy one.
John was visiting that day and I turned to him and said, "How in the heck am I going to get this stove over onto the hearth?" His answer surprised me. This perfect gentleman, who had never displayed any sign of impropriety before, said defiantly, "Let muscle-man do it!" I was shocked! It dawned on me that John was sweet on me. How could I have been so naive?
The secret was out. There was a long, uncomfortable silence before I said, "I have to run to the hardware store, but I'll be right back. Do you want to go?" For some strange reason, he said he'd stay and wait.
The store was 20 minutes away, but I hurried so I wouldn't keep my good friend——turned would-be jealous lover——waiting too long. When I got back and burst through the doorway I saw him sitting in the unframed window-seat opening, nonchalantly sipping a glass of water. The woodstove that had been right there beside him was gone.
I quickly looked across the room, and there it was——centered on the hearth, exactly where I wanted it. With eyes wide and mouth agape, I looked back at John. He winked.
It was the sexiest moment in my building history! With that wink, worth a thousand words, John at 88 was as charming and ageless as a man can get. It made my heart skip a beat and brought a blush to my cheeks.
But not only that, he proved that brains and experience can compete with brawn and youth——and sometimes win! He had ingeniously used some scraps of iron pipe to roll it over.
Sadly, John died a year later, but I feel very lucky to have known such an intelligent, generous, wise, and wonderful man. Because of John, I learned never to prejudge anyone (only a fool would judge a knight by his chinked and rusty armor) and never to underestimate the knowledge and abilities of seasoned citizens. And I learned one more thing: no matter what the age, a man is a man is a man, and that's appealing in itself. He was a most unforgettable character!