Meet some of the great 'books' that shaped my youth

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 2, 2005

I often say the best books I've ever read are the people with whom I sip coffee.

But what about my life B.C. (i.e., "Before Coffee")? The fact is, I never really developed much of a taste for the robust brew till I was into my 30s.

When I was seven or eight years old growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., I might have said the best books I'd read were the adults who shared with me the gift of their time.

There was Mrs. D, my Cub Scout den mother, for instance.

I still remember the afternoon I was sitting around her dining room table with other boys my age as she got out some of those empty old cylindrical Quaker Oats boxes and other craft supplies.

She guided us in changing these everyday household items into a marvelous railway steam engine – a rectangular cereal box for the cab, bottle caps for wheels, a thread spool for a smoke stack, and lots of black paint.

Our reward for a job well done was twofold: a tall glass of milk served with warm chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven; and the promise of a surprise Saturday morning visit to her husband at his workplace.

Her husband was a real steam locomotive engineer. And that Saturday morning he took us boys up into the cab of his gigantic engine, showed us how the coal, fire and water came together to move the engine down the tracks, and then let each of us sound the whistle. What a treat!

A few years later, I might have pointed to our upstairs neighbour Mr. Walsh as one of the best books I'd ever read.

Mr. Walsh raised purebred beagles. Daisy was his favourite. He showed me how to feed her, groom her and walk her.

The walks were especially wonderful. For nearly two years, Mr. Walsh would knock on our door most evenings and off we'd go down the street with Daisy. On those walks, we always had great talks about hunting, fishing – and especially about how to find just the right kind of fat, juicy night crawlers for baiting our fishhooks.

His was the gift of availability.

During those years there was another book I read voraciously, too: Rev. Walter Vail Watson (adults always seemed to refer to him by his whole name). He was the pastor of the small Presbyterian church I attended.

His greatest contribution to me was his belief in the wholeness of the Christian church – he refused to be pigeonholed into any of its historical compartments, and encouraged his flock to do the same.

His life was a collection of chapters all to be read at the same time. While pastoring our own biblically conservative church, he simultaneously chaired his denomination's more liberal social outreach programs; lectured in Baptist, Methodist and Roman Catholic colleges; and got along fine with the local rabbis. Amidst all this, he was never too busy for parlor games with our young people's group.

He himself was a book about the Book.

Then, of course, there was my dad, a book not about crafts, steam locomotives, outdoor sports, or ecclesial pursuits, but about the fine art of upholstery and interior decoration – and in particular, about the spirituality of restoration.

I love telling the story of how, when I was in my early teens, he had me work with him in his shop.

It was my lot to strip the covers off stuffed furniture. Using a tack puller, I'd take out all the brass-headed nails and upholstery tacks and remove the old, tattered coverings, till all that was left were islands of cotton padding, broken springs, and cracked wooden frames.

This was where Dad took over the crippled skeletons I had just laid bare – a challenge for his artistic temperament. Gluing and refinishing the wood, repairing the springs, adding new padding, fitting the new fabric, and finishing it off with new brass-headed nails, he transformed ignominy into honour, reaffirming a piece of furniture's true identity and worth.

The book that was my dad was about amazing grace. In a throw-away society where the old and tattered are so readily discarded, Dad could see into the soul of a chair or chesterfield and find hope for new beginnings.

Were he still alive – he passed away in the 1980s – he would be 107 this week. On his birthday, I will lift my cup in a special toast to him:

To Dad, a book written not on keyboard or paper, but on my heart!


© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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