The Craftsman

Deeply ingrained in Henry’s personality were certain principles of behavior, certain unshakable habits, from which he never strayed: “Say what you’re supposed to say. Do what you’re supposed to do. And always be accommodating.”

Henry cared about his appearance. His shoes were always shined, he wore slacks and nice sweaters, and his carefully tucked sport shirts made him look neat and trim. He had reddish-brown hair and modest sideburns. At 5’5″ and 118 pounds, he was one of the smallest male clients—taller than Chuck, but not nearly as substantial. His manner was tentative, unsure, and that, together with his size, made him seem young. His thirty-nine years showed only in the cracked skin on the backs of his hands and, especially, in the bags under his blue eyes and the deep, startling crow’s feet around them.

Henry was courteous and friendly. Whenever we passed in the hall, he’d watch closely, waiting for us to make eye contact. Then he’d nod, say “Hi, Glenn,” and give me a little wave. He tried hard to be helpful. Once when he was on my campground cleanup crew, I asked him to clean up around some nearby picnic tables. “Yeah, okay Glenn,” he said, nodding and smiling, then walked toward the area I pointed to. I forgot all about him until, a few minutes later, I looked over and saw that he’d kept right on going: he was now a hundred yards past the picnic tables, way beyond the campground property line, out in the middle of some farmer’s crops, still searching diligently for cigarette butts.

“Henry!” I shouted. His head popped up and he looked around. “Henry!” I said again, and this time he spotted me. “Henry, what are you doing? Come on back!” I shouted, motioning for him to come in.

He smiled and waved back at me, just like any two friends saying hello to one another across a wheat field. I called out to him again, and suddenly he realized that I wanted him to rejoin the rest of the crew. A little nervous, he called back, “Yeah, okay Glenn, I coming.” He scurried back through the crops, wondering where he had gone wrong.

Yet Henry was a good man to have on that crew. He picked up the little scraps of paper that some of the other clients, lusting after the big pieces, overlooked. He was always looking, always working. Before lunch he’d scrub his hands with great thoroughness, so he was invariably the last person to leave the restroom.

During lunch at the campground he was well-mannered and quiet. He needed the full thirty minutes to eat because he took small bites and chewed each one for a long time. Occasionally he held up something from his lunch box and said, “Cookie” or “San-wich,” then showed me the sign. One time he said, “Got girlfriend.”

“You’ve got a girlfriend?”

“Yeah, see my girlfriend tonight.”

“Tonight? Well, that’ll be nice.”

“Yeah, girlfriend. Doris. Doris Hines.”

“Right, I remember her.”

Doris had been a client the first few months I was at the Center; then she dropped out. She was a large, talkative woman, and Henry was quick to attend to her needs. But once in a while Blanche would get ideas, and then these two 200-pound women would squabble over this slight man. Doris knew how to control Henry, however: if she didn’t like what he was saying in the lunchroom, she’d silence him by pouring her lukewarm coffee on his lap.

Part of Henry’s sex appeal was his gallantry. Frequently he tied Becky’s apron since she couldn’t do it herself. But one day when Blanche summoned him across the workfloor to do the same for her, I sent Henry back to his seat and told Blanche she could tie her own apron, like the rest of us.

Henry had an IQ of twenty-six, and his intellectual disability was classified as severe. His vocabulary was at the four-year-old level. Because of his learning difficulties, he had led a cloistered life. Born in the early 1940s, he was removed from first grade after six months because he could not keep up with his classmates; at age twelve he spent a month in Boulder; and he was in Special Education for a short time in its early days. Other than that, he stayed home until age thirty-two, when he came to the Center. A few years later, he missed almost six months of work when his mother repeatedly took him on unannounced vacations. At age thirty-six, Henry began saying that he’d like to go out on more dates and take trips with friends who were about his age. His social worker, feeling it was time for him to break loose from the parental home, recommended group home placement. His mother objected, however, so Henry continued to live with her.

When I first knew him, in 1980, Henry wore glasses, which he especially needed for seeing close up. Somehow he broke them, and when, several months later, the Center asked his mother if he’d be getting new ones soon, she insisted he had never worn glasses. So Henry did without.

One day in late 1981, I noticed films over both his eyes. His mother was notified, but it was his sister who finally took some action: she brought him to the city where she lived and had his cataracts removed. In April 1982, shortly after I left the Center, Henry returned to work with his eyes clear and his glasses on.

For about a month Henry worked in the Spanish/Florentine room, applying antique paint to the decorative trim on these glasses. I tried to teach all the antiquers which color paint went on which glasses. Henry had no trouble identifying colors, but my tutoring sessions with him always seemed to miss the mark.

“Henry, we use silver paint…” [I held up a jar of it.]


“Yeah, Henry, silver paint…”


“That’s right—on the blue glasses…”


“And gold paint…” [I held up the other jar.]


“On all the other glasses.”


“Well, yeah, gold paint on the other glasses. The ones that aren’t blue.”

“Other glasses.”

He saw me nod, so he nodded vigorously.

“Okay, Henry, what color paint would you use on this blue glass?”

“Blue glass. Yeah.” He thought that answered the question.

“No, Henry. What color paint would you use on this blue glass: would you use gold or silver?”

He looked intently at the two jars before him, studying each in turn—as though, if only he examined them closely enough, they would somehow divulge the answer. Slowly, deliberately, he raised his index finger—by this time the other clients in the room had stopped working and had turned to watch this little drama—then brought it down on the wrong jar: “Gold paint.”

The clients groaned, and I shook my head. “No, Henry.”

Then Henry shook his head and finger and said, “No, no, no!” like someone scolding a small child.

“Remember, Henry, on the blue glasses we use silver paint.”

“Silver,” he said, then waited for me to nod before he himself nodded with assurance, as though it were all clear to him now. “Yeah.”

If nothing else, these sessions did impress on him the importance of color, so before he started a glass, he always checked with me to be sure he had the right paint.

Obviously, Henry’s receptive language skills were weak. He assented without understanding, and he watched the nodding and shaking of my head to figure out what he was supposed to say. Deeply ingrained in Henry’s personality were certain principles of behavior, certain unshakable habits, from which he never strayed: Say what you’re supposed to say. Always be agreeable. Do what you’re supposed to do. Always be accommodating. And always defer to authority.

Any time there was a conflict between a client and a supervisor, Henry aligned himself with the supervisor. In the Spanish/Florentine room, if I was trying to get Leroy’s behavior under control, Henry would lend his support by telling Leroy to be quiet. Leroy would whirl in his chair and shake his fist at Henry. Leroy and Henry were not exactly kindred spirits.

When Leroy and the world diverged, Leroy got mad, and told the world to get in line. When Henry and the world diverged, Henry got flustered, and rushed to get back in step. Leroy insisted on commanding his battalion, while Henry only hoped he wouldn’t get kicked out of his.

Leroy felt his opinions were the only opinions, while Henry deferred to the opinions of others. He saw himself as a perpetual apprentice—a permanent underling in the hierarchy of life. Leroy obeyed his impulses, while Henry obeyed the rules.

Henry was the least important person he knew. Acceptance by other people was what mattered. His self-confidence was shaky, and any failure to win approval brought back in a rush all the similar failures that had preceded it. He expected to err, so he moved tentatively. He believed in his own smallness. Like anyone who wants to be liked by everyone, he led the life of little worries.

What Henry wanted more than anything was to earn the approbation of the authority figures in his life—his mother, his supervisors, his teachers. To win the approval and appreciation of the people he looked up to, he had to do what they wanted him to do, the way they wanted him to do it. He had to do every task the right way, the way it was supposed to be done. Over the course of his life, he had developed the work habits that would make this possible. Being careful, diligent, and methodical—these traits had become hardwired in Henry’s personality.

In the Toy Department, when he was first learning to do the final sanding on our rocking horses, Henry had held back, reluctant to use his strength for fear of damaging the horse. But as months passed, he realized that the animal would not be harmed if he applied pressure, and he became one of our top sanders. His woodworking skills went way beyond this, however. He was the only client I had who could do the head-and-neck assembly on our horses. This was a complicated task that required a dozen different tools, but Henry had it down pat.

He began by positioning a template on the animal’s head, getting the edge of the template and the edge of the wood exactly even. With the precision of a draftsman, he used his pencil to mark the drill hole. After putting the head in a vise, he carefully lined up the drill, and his hands were steady as he bored the hole. He inserted a dowel into the hole—this would serve as the rocking horse handle—then eyed it closely to be sure it was centered. He secured it by driving a nail with measured force, never denting the wood.

He squirted an even stream of glue along the edge of the head, then toenailed the head to the neck, hammering with great accuracy in a tight corner. Then, one stroke at a time, he countersunk the nail just the right amount. He covered the hole with wood putty, but never slopped it on.

After clamping the neck to the body of the horse, he used predrilled holes to bolt them together, and the assembly was done. As the animal took shape, Henry moved with assurance from one step to another and one tool to another. He was a meticulous woodworker, respectful of his tools and immersed in his work.

When talking with other supervisors, I would occasionally describe Henry as a craftsman. One supervisor made light of this designation, wondering whether it could properly be applied to someone whose ability to understand seemingly simple instructions was sometimes so limited. But understanding can take many forms. Confusion in the face of the often bewildering accretion we call language does not preclude clarity and proficiency in the world of tools. Being conscientious and attentive to detail, working carefully and methodically through a process toward a goal—these are essential elements of craftsmanship. They are also manifestations of clear, orderly thinking. An understanding of the process of assembling a horse, the organic unity of it all, existed whole and entire in Henry’s head and in his hands.

From the way he dressed to the way he washed up for lunch, from the way he scoured the campground for cigarette butts and bits of paper to the way he assembled a child’s rocking horse from pieces of pine and a tableful of tools, everything Henry did, he did with care and precision.

“Nice work, Henry,” I’d say, when he completed the head-and-neck assembly on another horse.

“Thank you, Glenn,” he’d respond. “Thank you.”

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