“A Block of Wood,” Friend, Sept. 1988, 36
“OK, Randal,” Mom called to Dad from the kitchen. Dad turned off the dining room lights. When four-year-old Sarah saw my cake with ten flaming candles, she clapped with excitement and squealed.
Mom set the cake in front of me. “Make a wish, Birthday Boy!”
I stared for a moment at the dancing flames and the butterscotch frosting, then at the pile of presents in colorful wrappings. On top was the fanciest present of all, and I was sure that inside was the tiny, portable TV that I wanted. I wasn’t going to take any chances, though, so I shut my eyes tightly as I silently repeated my wish. Then I took a deep breath and blew out the candles.
Mom handed me my presents one by one: new dress pants, new school pants, and a shirt. But she saved the fancy package for last.
My heart thumped excitedly as she handed it to me. It was just the right weight, too, and I wondered if we had enough batteries for it. The ribbon came off with a tug, and I tore open the paper. And there …
There in my hands—I couldn’t believe it—was a block of wood! I stared at it numbly, then looked at Dad.
“It’s mahogany,” he said, looking both serious and happy.
“This present has a special message for you, Randy,” Mom said.
I turned the block over, hoping that one of its sides might have a picture tube and controls on it, but no such luck.
“We’ll give you a couple of clues,” Dad said, “but you’ll have to discover the meaning of the special message yourself.”
Mom started clearing the table as she added, “The first clue is ‘desk.’”
The only desk in our house was my father’s desk in the den, so I took my block of mahogany to the den, still hoping that maybe there would be a television for me there.
But there was no TV there and no notes telling me to look some other place. The desk itself was wood, but that didn’t tell me anything. And the only other wood on the desk were the eagle bookends Dad had carved years ago. Did they mean anything? I had no idea.
I went back into the family room and grabbed the remote control for the television. One of my favorite comedies had already started. As the television screen came to life, I noticed in front of it four narrow rectangular pieces of wood standing in a row, like four letter I’s or four number 1’s. They were old, gray, and cracked.
It had to be the other clue. They knew that I’d see them there. Dad’s always saying that I spend too much time watching television. “You have too much talent, too much potential to waste so much time in front of that TV set. Remember, action unlocks potential!”
“OK, Dad,” I’d tell him. “I’ll just watch my favorites.” The problem was that I had several favorites every day.
When a commercial came on, I took the four old pieces of wood into the kitchen. “These are the other clue, aren’t they?”
Dad smiled. “And what do you think they mean?”
I laid them on the floor, putting one piece horizontally on top of another and putting the bottoms of the other two together to spell TV.
Dad laughed and shook his head. “Randy, what kind of wood is that? Do you know?”
“It’s pine,” he said. “Remember that tomorrow when we go to Grandma’s.”
The drive to Grandma’s took about a half hour. During the drive I glanced often at the piece of mahogany, wondering why Mom had said that I should bring it. I didn’t think that Grandma would be too excited about seeing a block of wood, even if it was mahogany. And I wondered why Dad had wanted me to remember that those four old pieces of wood were pine.
“Randy, do you remember Grandma’s address?” Dad asked as we got closer to his old neighborhood.
As I thought, I could see in my mind the numbers on her porch—“One-zero-seven-five.”
“I don’t remember.”
When we turned onto Grandma’s street, I looked up at the street sign. Pine Street! Maybe, just maybe I’m starting to understand one of the clues.
After we snacked on cookies and I opened my presents from Grandma—a book and a sweatshirt—I asked, “Grandma, is there a house at eleven-eleven Pine Street?”
Grandma grinned. “That’s old Mr. Evangelesi’s house. He’s such a nice man, and he certainly was good to your father when he was growing up. It’s about time you met him, Randy. He’s expecting you.”
I walked down the street until I saw four narrow, weathered strips of wood above a porch: 1111. I mustered all my courage, then rang the doorbell. After a minute the door opened, and on old man with white tufts of hair above his ears looked out. He glanced at the block of wood in my arms, then squinted at me through his glasses.
“You look just like your father,” Mr. Evangelesi said. “A real chip off the old block.” He chuckled and held the door open, then stepped back a couple of steps and motioned for me to come in.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just held up the block of wood. He took it and turned it over, looking at it from different angles. Then he looked at me. “What is this?”
I was proud to know the answer. “It’s mahogany.”
“Yes, yes. Of course it’s mahogany!” he held it in front of me. “But what is it?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Wood. It’s a block of wood.”
“Uh-huh. That’s what I thought. Come with me.”
Mr. Evangelesi walked through a doorway and down some wooden stairs, leading me to the basement and into a large workroom. When the light came on, I was amazed at what I saw—shelves filled with beautiful wood carvings. If it hadn’t been for the large worktable and the saws, knives, chisels, and clamps, it would have been easy to think that this was a room in a museum.
I walked slowly around the room, looking at everything: a horse rearing with the wind blowing its mane, a lion stalking its prey, two muscular men wrestling, a beautiful woman praying, a large graceful vase with swirling rings of color in the wood, a twirling ballet dancer, a fish jumping out of the water.
“Go ahead. Pick it up,” Mr. Evangelesi said as I studied a wooden chain.
I was amazed as I picked it up and saw each link attached to its neighbors—all carved from a single piece of wood!
I got more and more excited as I examined a race car, an airplane, a small totem pole, a pirate ship, a flintlock pistol, and the most beautiful baseball bat that I’d ever seen. “Mr. Evangelesi, they’re just awesome! Everything!”
“You know, Randy, you could make things like these.”
“No, not me.”
Mr. Evangelesi smiled kindly. “Your parents think that you can, with a few lessons and the right tools. You know, your father said that he learned some important lessons about life when I taught him how to carve wood.”
I thought about the eagle bookends on Dad’s desk.
“Do you know why I have a basement full of beautiful wood carvings and those old beat-up house numbers outside?”
I shook my head.
“Contrast! Nothing was done to those numbers. They just sat out in the wind and the rain and the sun. And now they look old and ugly. But you know what? Even those four pieces of wood had a beautiful grain once, just like your mahogany here.” He picked up my block of wood. “But nothing was done to bring out the potential of those four pieces.”
He walked across the room, pointing at his carvings. “All these carvings were once like this piece of wood that I’m holding. But after I studied the grain, I began to see what each piece of wood could be. Then I worked until I brought out its potential.” He placed my chunk of mahogany back in my hands. “There’s a work of art inside there,” he said, nodding at the wood, “waiting to get out, waiting to be almost anything that you want and can imagine in there.”
“But you’re an artist, Mr. Evangelesi.”
“Well, thank you, Randy. But I don’t think of myself as much of an artist, I think of myself more as a doer. I have a motto that I’ve always tried to live by: ‘Action unlocks potential.’”
Those words hit me forcibly. Dad had picked up that phrase from Mr. Evangelesi. Until now, they had been just words to me. But now. …
I looked at Mr. Evangelesi and his beautiful carvings. I thought of my Dad and all the good things that he had done and all the good that he was still doing. Then I picked up the block of mahogany and turned it over in my hands. I started to see some of the things that it could become. I saw some of its potential.
Most importantly, I started to see my own potential, to see that by working on myself, instead of sitting around watching television, I could become a person of worth just as by working on my block of wood, it could become an object of worth.