Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Renaissance Man

Tom Steinbach 1932-2014
In 1975, when two young kids drove cross country from St. Louis to Chewelah, Washington, they were beginning an adventure that would last a lifetime.  But they didn't know that they were following in the footsteps of another adventurer.

We first met Tom Steinbach (and Dorna, and Teena, and John, and Mike - it was a family business...) in 1980 when we contracted with Steinbach Construction to pour the foundation for the house we were building.  But because of Tom's outgoing and inquisitive nature, the relationship grew.

Pretty soon Tom was helping me with difficult framing issues - have you ever built a house?  Framing is solving one problem after another.

And grew.  Tom and his family essentially adopted us...  he became an older brother to Jane and I, and he and Dorna became surrogate grandparents to our children (since their real grandparents lived 2500 miles away).   Our children were part of Teena's wedding, and the Steinbachs hosted Easter egg hunts for Adam and Erica.  Tom and John even participated in the Christmas Eve toy assembly ritual at our house.  He introduced me to goose hunting and trout fishing (but alas, thru no fault of his, I am no good at either), and flying (yes, Tom was a pilot).

Above all, Tom was curious.  He was always thinking.  Some of our best conversations involved the Big Subjects:  the meaning of life, cosmology, etc.  But not always big, tho always from an unusual angle.  One particular thought that comes to me in that vein as I write this was a remark he made as we surveyed a woodlot he held behind Quartzite mountain - he asked me to imagine the tons of wood that were being created literally from thin air every month in that woodlot.

Tom was gifted mechanically - he was an inventor.  Have you ever been to a real sawmill?  I suggest you go to one, and then contemplate the fact that Tom built his own.  And I remember that he stole a march on the power tool industry when he came up with the idea of using propane to power an air nailer instead of compressed air, the idea being that this would be an internal combustion tool, burning the propane one explosion at a time to drive nails (my small contribution was to use a piezo ignitor as the trigger).  Dragging an air hose around not required!

I cherish the memories of those discussions.

Tom was also a collector of what today might be called practical knowledge:
  • How to hammer a saw blade (look it up)
  • What varieties of wood were best suited to each purpose (use locust for fence posts - instead of rotting, it will take root)
  • How to run 3-phase tools on 2-phase power
  • How to straighten a warped cast iron saw table by building a fire under it and then cooling it slowly
  • How to build a metal-cutting chop saw using an automotive power steering pump for the hydraulics
  • How to supply his house with all the water it needed from a small spring way up the hill behind the house
  • He ran a few cows occasionally butchered one.  Have you ever cut up an animal?
  • His house was heated with a wood-fired thermostat-controlled furnace... that he built.
And as if that weren't enough, he was an artist:

Tom carved this squirrel on a yellow locust log harvested from his property on the Flowery Trail in Chewelah.
Tom was a true Renaissance Man, and the world will be a poorer and drabber place for his passing.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nicely written!


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