I remember back when I was a pup, my dad used the phrase “all wool and a yard wide” to describe a couple of his friends. At the time, I was totally stumped as to what that would, or could, mean. After all, I was a literalist (still am) and could not see any connection between the person he was talking about and yard goods. I didn’t know where the description came from – seemed totally foreign to me – and it was only years later when I began to speculate that its origins may have been in my Scottish grandmother’s lexicon. It sounded like something she might have said.
Well, as is the case with much of what we hear as youngsters, the description grew sturdy cobwebs for years in the back corners of my subconscious mind, partly because my dad didn’t utter it often, but mostly because I probably wasn’t terribly interested in it at the time. It was just a curiosity, low on my mental list of vital things to remember. But the phrase stuck, and I was well into adulthood when it sprang into use for the first time in my own vernacular, like a fully-germinated seed sprouts from fertile soil. It felt comfortable, as natural and warm as the thing it literally describes, — like my grandmother’s personality. I like wool, even the “scratchy” kind that was the norm before I ever heard of fine, Merino wool. And although I now have high-tech, lightweight synthetic clothing for my hikes and cold weather bike rides, I still hang on to the woolens in my closet and wear them often. They take me back to earlier, treasured times in my life. I like to wear wool, feel it, and even smell it – even when it’s wet. Its earthy aroma reminds me of campfires and hikes or fishing on cold mornings as the steam rises from a river or lake. It signals me that I’m connecting with something almost as old as civilization. And Dad’s phrase has come to take on clear meaning for me.
I also remember when I first met “Shorty” in the early 1970s. We were at church, and I liked him instantly, even across the room. He is, in fact, short — significantly shorter than his lovely wife Dee. But within seconds of shaking his firm, beefy hand I realized that his small but supercharged eyes were on a level with mine. Not literally, you understand, because I’m much taller than he. But his presence projected, in a very comfortable and friendly way, his confidence — that he was completely happy with who he is. There isn’t a drop of Napoleon complex in him. And when he introduced himself as “James H. – ‘for Handsome’ – Shorty Ludwig,” his ready smile made his weathered face crack with lines at the ends of those supercharged eyes. He was warmth and friendliness at their best. He was and is, in a phrase, “all wool and a yard wide,” as I would come to learn through the ensuing years of our friendship.
Intuitively I noted there was an earnestness, an earthiness about him that always made me relax. He was able to zero into the relaxation to find teachable moments, and he could pour his homespun wisdom into my young heart. He did so with alacrity. Although Shorty was a banker, he was first and foremost a man – a man’s man. I don’t mean the high-testosterone variety of swashbuckling masculinity that latter phrase may conjure for you. I mean in the best sense of the term. In my years of association with him, Shorty consistently radiated the sense that he was more comfortable in jeans and wool shirts overlaying cotton long-johns than in his business suit; that he preferred to be outdoors squirrel hunting or splitting firewood rather than at his desk; that he preferred to talk about his family, his home improvement projects, or growing up in the country more than his professional work. Nonetheless, it was clear that he loved his work because he loved people. He reminded me in that way of my own dad.
My memory also recalls the first time Shorty came to visit when my wife and I moved our family of small daughters to a farmhouse in the country, circa 1977. Shorty and I had been friends by then for five years, but when Linda and I announced we were moving to the “hinterlands” of our Midwest state, Shorty was all support and enthusiasm and offered at once to come on a weekend with his teenaged son Warren to help me lay up enough firewood for winter, since the house we’d chosen had only a fireplace for heating. I saw the visit as another great opportunity to spend time with both, to listen to Shorty’s stories and his remarkable humor and to watch the father-son relationship to which I aspired. As I recall, the visit surpassed all my high expectations. The weather offered those crisp, pristine days of October-blue skies that slowly grew out of the black country nights and dark shadows of the mountains, pregnant with heavy morning hoarfrost to be gradually burned off by a warming sun that simultaneously glorified the hardwoods in the surrounding forest. Perfect weather for splitting wood.
As we pulled on our boots and set out the door after a hearty breakfast of eggs, potatoes, Linda’s biscuits and coffee, Shorty was already cracking jokes and getting us stoked up for the task at hand with his lighthearted banter. Another way he was like my dad, this; very adept at finding the humor in almost any circumstance or creating it on his own if nothing offered to aid or no foil was at the ready. Mind you, I planned to enjoy the day’s work, but an early, cold morning is not my best time of the day. I need time to warm up, time to contemplate the day, time to wrap my head around what lies ahead and rise to meet it. But Shorty’s humor had a way of easing me into the day with a half-grin on my face and in my heart.
In anticipation of this particular weekend, I had cut several pickup loads of fallen trees and a couple of green ones into firewood and had them in a pile near the house. There was a lot of down timber on the farm, dropped and left by the construction crew who’d built the house, so firewood was abundant. My new splitting maul, axe and wedge were nearby, and Shorty had brought his own well-used tools. Well, the three of us weren’t fifteen minutes into the brisk day’s labor before I broke the hickory handle out of my brand new maul. My frustration bolted to the surface. But Shorty was “on the spot” with his humor, gently chiding me with a chuckle and that ever-present sparkle in his eyes as he softly quipped, almost as if in afterthought, “Mike, ya gotta keep your butt behind you!” Unlike my dad (and admittedly, perhaps because he isn’t my dad), Shorty’s quick-witted admonition snipped my short fuse and triggered a “What do you mean?” – another teachable moment. So he showed me how to split wood with the “wrong” foot forward so that the length of my maul handle didn’t “grow” on each stroke. He even anticipated my natural discomfort with the new position by acknowledging that, since I was probably a ball player, the new stance wouldn’t feel right at first, ballplayers always being taught to lead with the leg opposite to their throwing or shooting – or in this case, chopping – hand. Right handed, lead with left foot and vice versa. Well, his instruction worked. As a matter of fact, his humorous remark has found application in my life in other areas unrelated to splitting firewood. Life always works better that way. Lead with your butt, and you’re gonna have trouble. Simple, straightforward, “Shorty style.”
Yesterday I learned that Shorty is struggling with life as his physical body seems to be wearing out. My eyes filled with tears as I saw his face before me, the balding head, the small but vigorous eyes, and that weathered skin with the pronounced smile lines. But my face also smiled and my heart smiled within as I recalled the bigger, better part of Shorty that lives in my memories. I’m certain that, as he contemplates leaving this world for his eternal home with his Master, he’ll be keeping his butt behind him and putting his best foot forward with all the honesty and humor that make him what he is. Shorty is one of those guys who made peace with life and with God early on, and who has lived in that honesty and peace throughout. He always lived his Christianity more than he talked it. I’d lay you two-to-one odds that when the unnecessary introduction is made in heaven, Shorty will use that same line he used on me, with as big a grin as back then: “Hi, I’m James H. ‘for Handsome’ Shorty Ludwig.” I don’t recall that my dad ever met Shorty, but I’m certain that Dad would have described him as “all wool and a yard wide.” And although he really is short, he’s as big a man as I’ve ever known. He’s “all wool and a yard wide.” The “genuine article.” The “real deal.” Guileless.
Carpe diem. Vita brevis.
© May, 2010, Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights reserved.
Note: I penned this in November, 2006. My good friend “Shorty” moved on in early 2009, leaving as marvelous a legacy for family and friends as any man ever left.