FROM BLOOM TO BAR
The smith reached into the ash at the bottom of the burned out furnace and removed the bloom, a lump of iron with entrapped air and a jagged surface whose holes were clogged with bits of slag. Sponge iron, as it was called, was of no practical use, but the smith knew that it was far from worthless. Tongs plunged the bloom into the forge where it heated. The glowing bloom was placed on a heavy anvil and powerful blows from the smith’s hammer began to work the lump, driving the molten slag from the iron. Fifteen times the iron was heated, hammered, folded and hammered again. Each time the result contained more iron and less slag. Finally, the smith held a bar of pure wrought iron, ready to be formed into something useful.
Other men called him ‘Crazy Gugs’, but I just knew him as Grandpa. I remember him as a short, wiry man with calloused hands that would sit in a chair and tell stories. I am ashamed to admit it, but I always felt a bit afraid of him, and I sensed that hurt him, but as a small, quiet child of five or six … I felt how I felt. It was only later that I learned the hidden truths about how much that man had protected us, his family. I remember stories from Grandpa about the blood of Roman Centurions flowing through our veins, and about what it meant to be the ‘pater familias’ – the father of the family.
My Grandpa helped build the roof on the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. He told me about how the workers had to carry bundles of slate up steep ramps covered with snow and ice. He told how the men would have a few drinks because it was too dangerous to do sober, but a little wine gave you the courage to stop thinking about the height or falling so you could just do what needed doing. My Grandpa taught me a man just does what needs doing to get the job done.
My Uncle Sailor, a professional card counter and gambler, needed a stake to get back on his feet after a run of bad luck. Rumor had it that there was a big employee poker game in the warehouse at the Wards Bakery in Newark, so Sailor got a job sweeping floors until he could get into that game. As soon as he cleaned out those workers, he took off with his new stake to parley it into a big score. My Grandpa just stepped in and took his place at work, sweeping floors. It was several weeks before someone finally realized that the person working was not the person they had hired, but by then he had been doing a good job and showing up for work reliably, so they kept him on for the job. My Grandpa taught me the importance of making your own luck.
My Grandpa owned an apartment building. One night, an unmarried nurse that rented one of the apartments was followed home from getting off work at midnight by a man who became ‘too friendly’ on the bus. Rather than running to her apartment, she ran up the stairs to the common entrance and knocked on the door to my Grandpa’s apartment. He met the stranger at the stoop, hit him with a blackjack (a leather bag full of lead shot) and threw the man down the flight of iron stairs to the sidewalk in front of the building. “Stand up and come back up here so I can kill you” was all my Grandpa said as the would-be molester fled up the street. The ‘pater familias’ defends his home and everyone in it. My Grandpa taught me that.
FORGING THE BAR
The smith held the wrought iron, drawn from the forge glowing bright red. The possibilities are endless. It could still become anything. The smith examined the bar and His needs and chose. The infinite possibilities collapsed into the single perfect destiny. The bar would become what the smith had chosen to make it. The hammer began to fall in its steady rhythm, pounding the rod between the hammer and anvil. It is actually the hand that holds the tongs that wields the skill. The hammer does the work, but the tongs position the metal to determine exactly where the blow will land.
What appears to an outsider as an act of brute force, is actually a delicate ballet. Each blow on the hot metal compresses the atoms and aligns the grain, making the piece both harder and stronger. However, as the metal cools, stress gets trapped inside the metal and threatens to shatter the piece. Thus the skilled eye of the smith knows when to apply force and when to apply heat. Heat will release the internal stress, but too much and the additional strength will be lost. It is the experience of the master smith that allows him to alternate between heat and force to shape the piece, harden it, and still maintain strength without breaking.
Tears streamed silently down my cheeks as I walked the broken bicycle back home. The beating had hurt. The shame hurt more. I had been humiliated. They did it because they could … no, not they. Him. Red. Fat Pat. He was 6 inches taller and twice my weight, but the coward still chose to jump me when it was 3 to 1 odds. The other two mostly stood and laughed. They were there to stop me from running and to magnify my public shame. This was on Pat. Honor demanded a response.
I arrived home and I wanted to scream and break things. However, this was not a time for rage. This was a time for control. I set the bike on the floor, repairs would have to wait for another day. I hated this new place and these new people and these new rules. I hated my father for abandoning his wife and children to this hellhole. I had no use for the ‘invisible unicorn’ god of my childhood. Real problems need real solutions. Pat had just become a problem that I could not ignore. I found an old roll of electrical tape, and glanced at the bike. Perhaps it was not useless after all. I removed the chain and Master Lock that prevented theft and clicked the lock closed on the last link of the chain. It was just the right length. I began to wrap the opposite end of the chain in black electrical tape to form a stiff, but functional grip. A few practice swings to get comfortable with the feel and I shattered an old board in the garage with the lock. A small smile, not of happiness – that emotion had left with my old life – this was a smile of satisfaction. A smile of purpose and resolution.
I went back to the streets, the chain swinging by my side. “Where are you going?” said someone of no importance. I was focused on only one target and only one goal. “I am going to beat Pat to death.” I replied matter-of-factly.
I never found him, so Pat lived and I stayed out of prison. I assume he must have heard that I was looking for him, because to this day, I have never seen him again. Yet it was a transformational moment for me. A switch had been flipped that could never be un-flipped.
All those years of being taught by my parents about how a ‘gentleman’ was expected to behave. All that advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. “Self Reliance” talked all about living ‘deliberately’ and on your own terms and at peace with nature. Those rules might have worked in the ivory towers and ivy halls of my old life, but they did not work in my new life. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions” … the streets will eat you alive long before you ever get a chance to “march to the beat of a different drummer”.
Grandpa tried to warn me about the streets. Thoreau set me up for a beating. Lesson learned.
“Power flows from the barrel of a gun” – Malcolm X
FINISHING THE BLADE
The object in the hands of the smith bore the rough form of a blade, but it was not yet ready for its intended use. First the blade form must be quenched by heating to a very carefully selected temperature and plunged into liquid to rapidly cool it. This heating and rapid cooling causes the metal to lock in a non-crystal structure that makes it extremely hard and allows it to hold a very sharp edge. For a blade, rather than a chisel, this can actually make the metal too hard and likely to shatter rather than bend. So the smith carefully heats the blade again, not enough to undo the quenching, but enough to release a little of the excess hardness and restore flexibility.
Finally the edge of the blade is ground to ideal sharpness, the entire piece is polished, and the blade is fitted with a guard and handle so that it can be used. It is now ready for the work for which it was created.
So far I have focused on what may seem like negative events. At the time they happened, many were frightening or unpleasant. Looking back, I do not wish that I could change them. These are the events that refined and shaped and hardened me to become what I am. I am happy with what I am. I am a warrior.
I once read that men are instinctively warriors. If a warrior follows no one and no higher cause, he is a brigand. If a warrior follows a king and a higher cause, he is a knight. So every man is either a brigand or a knight in his heart. Both wear armor. Both wield a sword. Both enter into battle. The difference is only one has a cause, a leader, a purpose.
The events of my life trained me for war. They also provided me with the experiential knowledge of what it really means to be a brigand. This allows me to value my knighthood as more precious than one who never knew the life of a brigand. It also allows me to talk honestly with people that have also been there.
I want to end on a story of Light this time:
The first year after I got saved, I continued in a loose association with my old life. I attended a Catholic Charismatic Fellowship and read the bible and tried to do more good in my life. What I knew about the Bible would fit on an index card. During my second year, I went to college far away and was active with the Christian Fellowship on Campus. I attended no church and had given up the worst, but not all, of my old habits. I viewed these College Campus Christians as my new Gang. With all of the loyalty that entails.
At the start of my third year as a Christian (second year at the Community College), the administration decided that the ‘Muslim Club’ and ‘Jewish Club’ were ‘cultural’ organizations, but the ‘Christian Club’ was a religious organization and potentially violated the separation of church and state thus placing their Federal funding at risk. “So effective immediately, this club is disbanded and you are forbidden to meet on the College Campus” said the donut-eating campus security guard that weighed more than any three of us combined.
As he left, I just smiled. I have been in gang fights. I had a 10” Kabar in my pocket at that moment. “All we really need is a room to meet in. What can Barney Fife really do to stop us?” I said to the group of stunned students as soon as he was gone. We met clandestinely for over a year, in a different room each week. It required invitation by word of mouth and maintaining contact to find out where the meeting would be next week. The group exploded in size.
I learned a lot of valuable lessons on the value of persecution and the faithfulness of God that year. I also learned that I am what I am, and what I am is something that God can work with. So I have no complaints about the path that led me here. It turns out God had meant it for my good and his glory.