Monday, January 10, 2011

Furniture in the Family

I awoke this morning to discover that today's installment of Catena Comics, a webcomic by my pals Tracy and DeBray Bailey, included a shout-out to this blog in the news blurb under the comic. I'm guessing that's where a few of you came from, if the sudden jump in stats is any indicator, so welcome. :)

I promised to tell the story I am about to share, but it hasn't been easy to prepare it. I've spent the last two hours doing something which qualifies as highly peculiar, even for me. I've been researching, photo-searching, and ultimately watching a few episodes of a 1970s television show called Welcome Back, Kotter. You might be wondering why I'm interested in a show that premiered on television a full year before I premiered in existence. Truth is, I'm not particularly interested in the show, but it was something that had to be endured in order to find what I needed.

Gabe Kaplan as Gabe Kotter; Marcia Strassman as Julie Kotter; no copyright infringement intended, etc.

Surprisingly, there are no decent screenshots that I could find which feature the Kotters' dining room table. The only one I found had the table covered with a green cloth while Mr. Kotter and his oddly-nicknamed students played poker. So I had to watch the show in order to take my own screenshot. But there it is -- the table.

Now, to explain the significance, I have to talk about someone very important to me, preferably without getting too emotional. My mother's father -- we called him Pop-Pop -- told me about this maybe a year or so before he passed away in 2006. He and I were very close; I mentioned him previously in this blog, when I recounted the saga of being forgotten by my high school football team at an away game. As stated there, he was a bus driver for our school district, but he only took that job after he had to retire from the true love of his life, which was woodworking.

Edmund Kratzer Custom Cabinets operated for 22 years out of a converted two-room schoolhouse. On a whim, I did a quick web search to see if anything came up for the name, and was amused to discover the existence of Kratzer Furniture, an Amish furniture maker. No relation, to my knowledge. We are, however, direct descendants of Johannes Kratzer, who gave money and a chunk of the family farm to construct a schoolhouse; the original building is gone but Kratzer Elementary occupies the land today. (I throw all this in not because it's relevant to what I'm getting at, merely in case anyone reading this recognizes the name.)

My grandfather was a master craftsman. I'm sitting in my own living room at the moment, and I'm surrounded by no less than three pieces of furniture made by his hand -- the coffee table, a trunk, and the credenza that houses my television. Up in the guest room is the desk he made me when I was twelve years old. He preferred butcher block cabinetry, although he could work with many different styles. Growing up, my sisters and I were amused by the family photo albums that contained not pictures of relatives, but snapshots of the different furniture pieces he constructed. It's just a little surreal to open an album adorned with the words "My Family Photos" and see pages and pages of tables, cabinets, and wardrobes. It wasn't merely a local business, although his workshop in the old schoolhouse was the only location (that is, it wasn't a chain). He told me once that he fulfilled orders from about 42 of the 50 United States, and one or two foreign countries.

By now you've probably figured out where this is headed. I wanted to find a picture of the Kotters' dining room table because I'm related to it. Pop said he didn't know, when he received the order, what the table would be used for; he found that out after he shipped the table to California. You'll notice, in that picture, that the tabletop is very definitively the butcher block style. The instant I saw it I knew he had been telling me the truth. I didn't really doubt it, because my grandfather never lied to me (unless you consider him pretending to be Santa Claus to be a lie), but I know his style and that was proof enough for me.

This wasn't his only famous order, although it may have been the one that was seen by the most people. I wish I could verify with him which morning talk show it was for which he made the table; I thought it was Good Morning America but it doesn't look quite right. Whichever one it was, the host of the show liked it so much he commissioned an identical table for his house. And then there was the matter of the ten tables ordered by someone in Studio City, California.

The order came in and he didn't think too much about it. Someone in Studio City wanted ten tables, he would make ten tables. He received the order and payment, both from someone named Marion Morrison. The name didn't mean anything to him, but my mother (who was a teenager at the time) came home and saw the order sheet stuck to his filing cabinet with a magnet, and shrieked. Pop couldn't understand what she was so excited about, so she had to explain to him that Marion Morrison was a very famous actor. He just used a different name when he filmed his movies.

You might have heard of him. He was known as John Wayne.

Pop laughed when he told me this story, saying how much he wished he could have kept the check. With John Wayne's real name as the signature, it's almost impossible to say how much that piece of paper would be worth now. But he needed the money, so to the bank it went.

The cabinet shop closed when I was fifteen years old, because Pop's health wasn't so good. That's an understatement, really; he had to have a quintuple bypass. But I remember how it looked, and I remember how it smelled, and I like to think that Pop is still making tables where he is now.

Yeah, I know that some people reading this are going to shake their heads and say that either my grandfather was full of it or I am now. I don't have any trouble believing his story, but I can see where someone else might. All I can say is that to the best of my knowledge, everything I've just related here is true. I can't prove it, so don't ask me to try. Some things are better taken on faith anyway.

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