‘Bending nails’ story one that is remembered for a lifetime

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at Herald-Dispatch.com.

My grandfather was a craftsman.

Although he operated a lumberyard by day, he pursued his passion in his spare time, building unique pieces of furniture that found their way into exalted positions in my childhood homes. Grandfather clocks — his specialty, were not copies of others’ designs, but rather his own creative ideas enshrined in solid black walnut.

Sometimes he would consent to apply his talents to a neighbor’s house that needed attention or repair. As a boy, my father would help.

Once they built a new set of steps for a family friend. Per his father’s instruction, Dad had driven big nails to hold the thick lumber in place. But when his father told him to crawl under the steps and bend the nails up against the lumber, my father challenged him.

“Nobody will ever see those nails,” Dad argued, not wanting to crawl in the dirt and waste energy on something that did not show.

“Maybe,” his father replied. “But I’ll know they are there.”

Dad never forgot that experience and regularly reminded us of its message. Every time something needed doing that did not “show” and we could “get by” without doing it, he would recall the “bending nails” story.

“I have not always bent all the nails,” he once wrote, “but I’ve never escaped hearing that tape start playing when I ignored responsibility.”

My father was a craftsman, too — not of wood but of words. Although he may have struggled to see the value of a carpentry technique, his ability to translate an everyday experience into a timeless life lesson was a talent he applied effortlessly and often.

Stories that stick with you a lifetime — his specialty — were often crafted beyond the boundaries of his workday, too, finding prominent places beyond his ministry to the minds of the larger community. “Bending nails” was an instant classic, one that can still haunt, plague, stimulate or motivate.

What do we do when no one is looking? Do we bother to bend the nails?

Upon my father’s death, one column reader e-mailed me about a chance encounter with my father before his hospitalization. She had witnessed Dad leaving the supermarket with a few bags of groceries. Someone had left a cart in the middle of the parking lot. It wasn’t in my father’s way; but it wasn’t where it should be, either. So after tucking his groceries in his car, with a slow but even pace he fetched the errant cart and patiently guided it back to its proper place.

No one asked him to do it. No one was watching him, so he thought. He just saw a job that needed to be finished and completed it.

Although I’ve lost that reader’s correspondence, her story still comforts me. Even when life had slowed him down, my father walked his talk in that parking lot, continuing to add that extra touch — the true mark of a craftsman of wood, word or deed.

I wonder if he was thinking about bending nails.