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Thursday, February 18, 2010

JJ: Les II

Les put up a building about eight blocks west of my store, making the bottom into a barrel shop and the top into duplex apartments, living in one and renting the other. In later years, he bought a nice house on Conley Drive at the west edge of town. The front half of the shop when I was acquainted with it was where the heavy work was done, with a couple of lathes, a deep-hole drilling rig, an old cut-rifling machine, a couple of milling machines, a reaming setup and a metal planer. The back half was office space, a button rifling machine that Les designed and built, belt sanders and a bead-blasting cabinet. One of the features of that back room was a hole in the floor where Les test fired the guns he worked on and periodically mined the lead out of for reuse. A little room in the middle of the shop housed the bathroom and the equipment for bluing barrels and gun parts. It needed a "Lethal Fumes" sign. The floor was always littered with old newspapers, metal scraps, and the stray overlooked pile of dog droppings. Metal working is a messy process requiring copious amounts of oil to cool and lube the metal as it was worked. The newspapers soaked up most of the excess leakage from the dogs and the machines. (I think all old-time machinists smelled of burnt oil as it always soaked into their skin and clothes. I could almost always tell a book that Les had owned before I ever saw his stamp in it simply by the odor and the invariable greasy fingerprints on the pages.) During most of the years I knew Les, when he went home at night he turned his two Chesapeake Bay retrievers into the shop and threw a master switch that turned off all the power. (Some brave or stupid soul did try breaking in to the shop one night. The police called Les when they discovered a broken window. The dogs wouldn't let them investigate further. When Les arrived they went in and found two excited dogs, some broken glass, and a fair amount of blood under the window. As near as they could tell, whoever broke the window made the mistake of reaching in to unlatch it and somehow managed to get his hand or wrist trapped in a Chessie's mouth.) His morning routine was flipping the power back on, feeding the dogs and putting them into their pen, starting a fire in his home-built stove, and then shoveling in the old newspapers, steel scraps and other debris off the floor as fuel. Yeah, steel burns if it is fine enough. The swarf, or cutting from the lathes and mills, was that fine. It would melt and burn once a good hot fire was established. If you feel some disbelief at this, try shoving the terminals of a good 9-volt battery into a wad of steel wool: it is an excellent fire-starter. Les also did general gunsmithing and repair and bought and sold guns, though his heart and income were wrapped up in the barrel making business. When Brian Sipe was starting out Les advised him that if he wanted to die broke he should be a gunsmith, but if he wanted to make money he should make barrels. Brian has been a barrel-maker for many years . . . TBC (Me)