OPINION – A cowboy went to see a blacksmith about some new shoes for his horse. The smith was busily hammering a piece of red hot steel so the cowboy stood there biding his time. He looked around, picked up a nearby horseshoe and instantly threw it back down. The blacksmith favored him with a knowing grin and asked, “Still hot, was it?”
“Nope,” came the reply from the red-faced cowboy, “I just like to look at things real quick.”
I remembered this joke as I got my first hands-on introduction to blacksmithing earlier this week.
I was taking part in an annual family retreat at Monticello College in the Four Corners area. Each summer, the school brings in a number of professionals from a variety of fields to help develop the leadership skills of its students, their families, and faculty members.
The subject matter for this year’s presentations ranged from economics to financial self-sufficiency to choir to Shakespeare. It also included a number of presenters teaching the manual arts. These are the hands-on skills that used to be a part of our national character before America transformed into what Hillaire Belloc called the “servile state.”
More than a century ago, Belloc warned:
The future of industrial society… is a future in which subsistence and security shall be guaranteed for the Proletariat, but shall be guaranteed… by the establishment of that Proletariat in a status really, though not nominally, servile.
What Belloc meant was that modern conveniences are powerful persuasion to give up our independence. We don’t mind becoming servile because we enjoy the positive benefits it confers. As a society, we are far too conditioned to simply run to the store whenever we need anything.
We act as if this has always been and will always be the natural state of mankind. We feel entitled to our conveniences.
Sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of the empowerment that comes from knowing how to do things with our hands. If nothing else, we gain a far better appreciation of the ingenuity and skill of those who came before us.
There are skilled modern metal fabricators who work their magic with welders and cutting torches but nothing will make you appreciate all the metal objects in your life like watching a blacksmith at work.
Mike Mendenhall is a blacksmith from the Cache Valley area. His skills go far beyond just blacksmithing. Mike is also an expert on how to create authentic Revolutionary War era items. As we worked at his forge on a hot summer afternoon, Mike drank from a copper canteen lined with tin identical to what a minuteman would have carried during the War for Independence.
But rather than buying this item off of Ebay, Mike knows how to make it himself. That’s the mark of a guy who can get things done.
The sheer number of tongs, hammers, anvils, and various other tools of the trade that Mike brought with him was astonishing. His bellows was an authentic blacksmith’s bellows from long ago and Mike told us that, prior to restoring it, it had been part of someone’s coffee table.
Right up front, he gave us the cardinal rule of blacksmithing: Assume that every piece of metal is hot.
This is of critical importance when you’re heating metal to 1,400 degrees or more and then handling it and shaping it before it cools too much. Mike taught us how to work the bellows to heat the metal in the forge to the proper temperature without melting it. On a summer day, this heat will dry you out like a piece of popcorn.
He showed us how to seize the piece of metal we were working on and to quickly transfer it to the anvil and properly flatten, thin, and shape it. To say that this is harder than it looks is a huge understatement. The angle of the hammer face must be perfectly flat or you’ll create unsightly divots in your metal.
Drawing the metal into the proper shape on the anvil is also intensely challenging considering that you’re working with metal that’s hot enough to burn right through clothing if you were to drop it.
Mike patiently mentored each of us through the painstaking process of creating a striker for flint and steel. It was a very worthwhile experience thanks to his willingness to share the benefit of his hours spent learning by mentoring those of us who wanted to learn.
There are plenty of complainers who follow individuals around while squawking their disapproval. We could use more people like Mike Mendenhall, who use their knowledge to empower people rather than tear them down.
Each of us has opportunity to encourage others to forge their own personal greatness. So why don’t we do it?
Bryan Hyde is a morning commentator on Talk Radio 590 KSUB and an opinion writer in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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