Originally published in American Lutherie #37, 1994

by Nicholas von Robison


I reduced speed hoping the noise would go away, but no such luck. I had been traveling up US 395 from Los Angeles, and for the last half-hour I had not seen another vehicle, village, or even a gas station. Just dust, sage, and a few billboards. Then, RANDSBURG — 35 MPH. I dutifully slowed and glimpsing a hand-painted GARAGE sign, pulled over and shut her down in front of the big double doors. I squatted behind the left rear wheel and saw that the rubber bushing on the shock absorber had deteriorated and come off, so that the shock was metal-to-metal on the stud. Sensing a presence beside me, I turned, and was about six inches away from a pock-marked face with three days of salt-and-pepper stubble. He grinned — no teeth and purple gums. I caught a whiff of unwashed socks and potato skins. Another nanosecond and the potato smell registered as vodka.

“Looks like yer lost something there. I can’t fix ya up perfect, but I think I can jury-rig ya somethin' to get you down the road. Where ya headed, anyway.”

“Bishop. I built a guitar for a guy up there years ago and it needed some fixing, so I’m returning it to him.

“You play the gee-tar?”

“Not seriously. Mostly build 'em; forty or so over the last fifteen years along with a lot of other types of instruments.”

“While yer waitin’ for your vee-hicle, you might want to look up ol' Floyd Jenkins here. He’s built a slew of fiddles and folks say he’s damn good at it.”

He gave me directions on how to find Floyd’s domain. I walked out into the searing heat and found a loose cluster of tumble-down buildings and trailers, all of which seemed deserted. In front of one I found a mailbox with “Jenkins” on it, a seemingly forlorn and melancholy place. I thought I would pass this up. I turned and started heading back towards the garage in hopes of finding a store or a bar, somewhere I could get a cold drink.

A maelstrom of dust revealed an old red jeep as it approached me, and as it skidded to a halt, a red-headed, blue-eyed, full-bearded man in his thirties poked his head out. He reminded me of Ken Kesey.

“You looking fur me, Jenkins?”

“Sort of. The name’s Robison. I have a car being repaired and the mechanic suggested I look you up. I’m a luthier myself.”

“Well sheet, if you’re peddlin' any of that Watchtower stuff, I ain’t rightly interested. I’m a Baptist and a Republican.”

“No, no,” I laughed, “luthier is a French word. That's what most stringed instrument makers call themselves these days. Not all, but most. Even fiddle makers.”

“Sheet, I thought you said you were a Lutheran. Thought I was goin' to have to pull out the old 12-gauge and see how well you can dance. Hey, I’m only kiddin', man. You wanna see my fiddles?”

Floyd held the door open for me to his trailer and yelled for his wife, Loretta, as I ducked under his arm. Books and papers were strewn over all horizontal surfaces; articles of clothing littered the floor, hung from the backs of chairs. The kitchen sink was filled to capacity and had apparently been ignored for some time. Sorta like my place. Loretta emerged from a back bedroom, young, about nineteen or so, no doubt shapely, but her figure was augmented by a well-advanced pregnancy.

“Honey, this fella's a lutheriun like me and I’m gonna show him my fiddle shop. Think you could conjure us up a couple of brews?”

A couple of Old Milwaukees appeared. Floyd popped the tops and handed one to me, then drank his off in one three-second gulp followed by a prodigious belch, crushing the can and depositing it alongside some of its already-dead brothers on the ironing board as we moved to the back of the trailer. When in Rome... I tried to emulate that quick gulping and ended up snorting half of it back up and out a nostril onto my shirt front.

Floyd's shop was no more than 5'x6' and was probably initially intended as a utility room or storage area. There was a small bench, no vise in sight, and a bare light bulb in the overhead fixture was, as far as I could determine, the sole means of illumination. The swamp cooler rumbled above us. On the wall was a penciled caricature of Floyd with fiddle in hand and the following legend: My wife says if I make one more violin she’s leaving me... Lord, I’ll miss her. Floyd brought out an old dirty piece of sheepskin and unrolled it to show some of his tools. He had a couple dozen of some of the finest little carving tools I’d ever seen. He had knives, crooked knives, scoops, scorps, gouges, several sculpting adzes, and a couple other things I could only guess at their function.

“Made 'em myself out of truck springs and local woods.”

“What kind of wood is this anyway?” I asked holding up one of the knives.

“That there's desert ironwood I harvested about 50 yards behind the trailer. All my instruments are built with local woods,” he said as he brought out one of his fiddles.

“The top of this one is MacNab cypress, the linings are willow taken from a wash about a mile from here, the back and sides are palo verde, and fingerboard is Arizona rosewood.” (I had to look this last one up later — Vauguelinia californica.) “Sometimes I’ll use mountain mahogany for backs and sides, manzanita for tuning pegs, and I’m foolin' around with some pinyon pine tops.”

Talk about alternative tonewoods! This instrument still had work to go on it but I could tell that the workmanship was first rate. Instead of ebony purfling, Floyd had installed a fine, twisted gold wire in the groove which, with the off-beat woods, gave his work a likeable, eccentric aspect.

“What do they sound like?”

“Like a fiddle.” Floyd looked a little puzzled at this question so I didn’t pursue it. Apparently he had never thought using these desert trees and shrubs anything out of the ordinary.

“So if you're harvesting your own wood you no doubt have some power tools around, right?” Floyd reached into the corner and brought out a well-used double-bitted axe.

“OK, but once you get your log home you have to buck it into lengths...” He grinned and shook the axe. “...and then you have to work it down into billets...” He grinned wider, shook the axe, and did a little dance. I looked incredulous. I ducked under the bench hoping to find at least a handsaw tucked away, only to find some hewn wood hunks which could conceivably be raw fiddle tops. Aha! I found a rusty old coping saw hanging on a nail.

“Floyd you dog, you’ve been holding out on me!”

“Well how the hell you think I cut out the outlines of those fiddles? I won’t sheet you none, truth is, I don’t much care for power tools.” He held up a hand the span of a dinner plate and wiggled the index finger with a tip missing — 'nuff said. So he had been literally carving these fiddles out by hand and I wondered how long each of them took to make.

“This is number seven and I've been on it about three months with another two or three weeks to go. Number five I did in about five weeks. Me and Loretta weren’t getting along so good those days and when she’d put her mouth into overdrive I’d lock myself in here till she cooled down a bit.”

I learned that Floyd had earned a degree and teaching credentials. He was a teacher for the local high school and Loretta was a former pupil of his. Fiddlemaking was just a hobby although he had sold all the fiddles he’d made so far. His brother had a barbershop in Bakersfield; they’d hang a fiddle on the wall, and sooner or later someone would come in and play a tune or two, then offer some money.

Loretta conjured up another set of brews and we stood around outside talking of mundane things as I made ready to leave. I asked them how they liked living out here in the boonies and they gave me the stock answers: traditional values, unhurried pace, they know everyone here on sight, don’t ever lock the door even when they take off for a three-day trip to Vegas. Loretta paused, looking thoughtful.

“It’s beautiful out here. At night it’s like being the only ship on a dark ocean with a zillion stars overhead.”

A very evocative description. We gazed up and were quiet for several moments just taking in the magnificent heavenly diaspora until Floyd eased off a rumbling belch destroying our reverie. Loretta started tittering, I guffawed a couple of times, then we were both laughing hard — tears flowing and holding our sides. Spontaneous and silly of course; you had to be there I guess. The color was creeping into Floyd’s face but it was obvious that he was extremely pleased to be able to bring that kind of joy into the world by the simple act of expelling gaseous air through his mouth.

“Well... sheeeeit...” he muttered under his breath as he unsuccessfully tried to wipe the beginnings of a 'possum-eatin' smile off with the back of his hand.

I kind of hated to leave.

A few minutes later I was back on 395, moving up through the gears to cruising speed. I pondered the notion that aloneness, or isolation, was probably an underrated state of being. It builds self-reliance, dignity, and a kind of off-center clarity about the world that can’t be developed by consensus, political correctness, or subscription to the crowd. I was about to shift into fifth gear when I caught my reflection in the glow of the dash lights on the windshield. I saw I had been grinning, thinking about Floyd.

“Sheeet,” I whispered to myself.

I slammed the shift home and drove into the velvety darkness of the desert with Betelgeuse in Orion as my beacon.

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