Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022
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Carve 'em, cowboy!

Carve 'em, cowboy!

I carve horses. No, it's not some sort of sick equine butchery -- they're made of wood and are the rocking type used by carousing grandchildren. The Erbs have always carved wooden toys for kids from the earliest days in Switzerland to the present day in Waterloo County, Ontario.

My Opa (grandfather anglicized to Pops during the 1940s, when German was politically incorrect), gave me my first pocketknife at age five and showed me how to whittle. He'd cuff me on the head when the cutting edge was not held away from me. You could do that back then and Children's Aid didn't come storming through the doors.

This started a love affair with wood and creating shapes from it. Initially, when my children were small, I carved little toy boats and cars. Later on, I graduated to larger things such as a Star Wars Deathstar, Barbie houses and, then scooters and wagons.

As the children got older, I embarked on a career building boats. My boats were quite notable in that they were all native wood and every single one of them leaked. This was considered a mark of character and not necessarily a flaw. In fact, my children mostly decided that all boats had to leak somewhat.

Later, though, when my children became adults, I started to make furniture for them and this was rather rewarding, except that it was all straight lines and joints.

It wasn't until recently that I stopped doing carpentry and started sculpting wood. The arrival of six grandchildren over three years, plus two more via my office manager -- whom I have known since she was a toddler and regard as another daughter -- meant there were eight rug rats who simply had to have a memento from their Opa, in memory of my Opa.

Why horses? After all, I don't really like them. They're smarter than me and are fond of practical tricks like sneakily stepping on your foot or peeing on your shoe, usually followed by a classic horse laugh. But, we have lots of horses and buggies around Kitchener and it just seemed traditional.

Books about horses are as easy to get as are books on carving. The wood I use is plain pine from the lumber store. At the start, a book on Victorian rocking horses provided directions and, later on, books on carousel horses provided lots of ideas. I now make up my horses from sketches.

Carousel carving is much more popular than I ever realized. The citizens of North Bay, Ontario, got together and built a complete carousel that is so magnificent, it should be considered one of Canada's National Treasures and is certainly an inspired example of community spirit.

For me, carving is just fun. Sketches or plans are easily enlarged on a photocopier to whatever size you want. Templates are easily cut out from cardboard. The tools are simple and easily obtained. The head, legs and tail can be done separately to keep the workshop from getting too crowded.

Hollow blocks of wood can be glued together to reduce the weight; they also make neat time capsules for letters I write to each child with old newspapers, toys and other mementoes. They may never be opened, but the children all know they're in there and hopefully that legend will be passed down.

Horse hair for manes and tails is certainly available here in Mennonite Country. Buttercup! Boomer! Daisy! Salty! Stormy! Thunder! (and soon Geronimo) to the rescue! Varnished horses are a challenge: there can't be any goofs in the wood or they will show. Painted horses are more forgiving and light fibreglass auto-body filler easily corrects mistakes.

I hate painting rooms and flatly refuse to wallpaper. Painting my carved horses, though, came as a pleasant surprise. Acrylic paints clean up easily with water and subtle shading can be stencilled in. Some water-based varnish gives good gloss; plus it's nice to work with stuff when you could drink the solvent, should you wish to.

In a brief period of insanity, I decided to make an armoured horse covered in gold leaf. Stormy is a horse as black as night covered in gold-scale armour and a gold mask with a spray of peacock feathers and red jewels decorating the saddle. This was my first experience with gilding and these sheets of very fine gold foil were set out all over the workshop.

The glue had been put on the horse and was just getting to the right stage of tackiness for me to apply, when Floyd, our great Retriever, came in, tail wagging. Gold flew all over the place, mostly on the dog, some on me and very, very, little on the horse. I couldn't really even yell at him because he didn't know what he'd done wrong, so I went out to buy more gold leaf.

Jewels are fun and kids like them, but not all parents do. There was a brief dispute with my son about decoration. "No jewels on the horse and no carved flowers, Dad; he's a boy." "Oh come on, he's a little kid and likes bright things. Besides, you used to borrow your sister's pink tutu." But alas, my son was unshakeable: no decorations.

Little girls like ponies with long manes, big eyes and rather sedate postures. They love to comb the manes and talk to them. Little boys like running, rearing horses that are full of action. That's the fun of it, you can match the horse to the personality of the child.

My long-suffering wife put her foot down about sanding in the basement, even though I pointed out that a fine film of pine dust throughout the house gave it character. So I've been banished to the back shed, even though I also point out that the hobby keeps me out of pool halls and strip clubs. Alas, we're doomed to suffer for our art!

Future plans? Well I'm 62 now and probably will not be going through the joy of a busy family practice forever. But I would like, once I retire, to build a small carousel for the city that I've grown up in. It would be six or eight horses, and designed like a big music box with a number of prongs on top that would allow it to make a music box carousel sound when it was pushed around. And pushed it would be -- after all, the children's parents need the exercise as much as the children need the enjoyment.

I'd donate it to the city and ask that it be put up in front of one of the retirement homes. The older people would enjoy watching the children play and, as no one over the age of 70 ever seems to sleep much at night, it would probably be under constant surveillance so that drunken university students couldn't ransack it.


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