It’s funny how something you see can stir a memory. I was in a client’s office the other day and he had an old roll top desk. Seeing this desk reminded me of a character I knew as a kid, Mr. Tom. My grandfather’s brother-in-law was a man everyone called Mr. Tom. He was married to my Pop’s only sister Ula.
My Pop was one of five children, four brothers and one older sister, Ula. My grandfather, two of his brothers and Ula all lived on land that had been in their family for generations. Pop got the original house and 250 acres, each brother had three hundred acres through the woods and across the creek and Ula and Mr. Tom lived down the street from Pop on 100 acres her Dad had given her as a wedding gift. The youngest of the siblings joined the Army after high school and moved to Florida never returning to the town named after his family.
My grandfather was built like a cinderblock, short and stocky. All four brothers looked and acted identical, same build, height, speech, hair and mannerisms. It was eerie to be in the same room with all of them together. Sadly, Ula looked like them as well only with very big boobs in a homemade dress. As sweet and kind as she was Ula was not a pretty lady, likewise Mr. Tom was no George Clooney either.
Mr. Tom was a carpenter, handyman and operated a small saw mill. He was a mechanical genius who, according to my Pop, could fix or build anything he set his mind to. At six-foot four with a very large and prominent nose and honestly the biggest ears I had ever seen on a human being his homely face was one you would never forget. He wore denim bib overalls 365 days of the year. He even had a “clean” pair he wore to church with the white shirt Ula made for him and he never left the house without his ratty fedora perched on top of those massive ears.
Mr. Tom loved to talk in a deep booming voice high above the heads of everyone else and he loved to laugh. He truly could suck the oxygen out of a room with his chatter. He always had a joke to share with the opening line “Did you hear the one?”. My grandmother, not the most tolerant woman in the world, thought he was a “Fool”. When she would see him walking up their long gravel driveway she would always ask my Pop what Mr. Tom was coming to tear up now. She didn’t buy the fact that he was a mechanical genius because he tore up her stove a hundred years ago trying to fix it and couldn’t put it back together. She never forgot and never forgave. Grandmother was not a fan of “Tom Fool” and Mr. Tom knew that and would needle the shit out of her. It was, as an eight year old, very entertaining to watch.
So back to the roll top desk, Mr. Tom made beautiful desk out of oak that he cut himself. The problem was that he couldn’t or wouldn’t sell them. My Dad tried to buy one for $300.00, a princely sum in 1970. Mr. Tom at first agreed but then got very anxious about it and said no. Dad then offered him $600 and at that point Mr. Tom got agitated and told us to leave.
My Dad relayed this story to his mother which was just the stick she needed to poke Mr Tom with whenever she saw him. Only a fool would pass up $600 for a silly desk and honestly, in her mind, how nice could it have been since they were made by such a fool.
I had not heard anything else about the desks until fifteen years later. Mr. Tom had cancer and one of his son’s was in town for the weekend to help his mother care for him. His son decided to go through Mr. Tom’s workshop, a place he had not ventured through in many years. Amongst the tools, sawdust and scraps of wood were objects covered by sheets along the back wall like so many ghost. He pulled one sheet off and uncovered one of Mr. Tom’s treasured desk. In the dim light he realized there were many more sheets, 54 to be exact and under each a beautiful roll top desk.
His son was stunned and loaded one in the back of Mr. Tom’s truck and took it to the antique dealer in town. The dealer was struck by the craftsmanship and the detail of the desk. The wood was beautiful with a deep rich grain obviously hand rubbed with care and attention. He told Mr. Tom’s son it was one of the most beautiful pieces of furniture he had ever seen. When asked if he was interested in selling it Mr. Tom’s son answered yes, make me an offer. His reply was $1,500. Mr. Tom’s son beamed and asked did he want 53 more just like it at that price and the dealer said yes.
As Mr. Tom laid dying in his bed, he told his family he would haunt them the rest of their lives if they let him die in a hospital, a moving truck backed up to the workshop and loaded the 53 remaining desk. Mr. Tom never knew and his son never told him. He died four days later.
The $81,000 carried Ula along for many years. Mr. Tom also made beautiful mantle clocks that his son found and sold to the same dealer. My Dad finally got his Mr. Tom desk paying the dealer $2,000 which I have already called dibs on, the rewards of being the oldest. It is a work of art to smallest detail made with love and care by a very unique man long ago. When my grandmother heard what her son had paid for one of those silly desk made by her nemesis her response was as we expected, “You’re a fool too”. Sorry grandmom, Mr. Tom won this battle.