As a ten year old boy, I was full of intellectual curiosity. Growing up in the New York projects, reading was the only escape from the daily vicissitudes of project existence. Reading provided a portal for my imagination and my soul. Rather than deal with the daily existence of crime infested hallways which intruded upon my sleep, and therefore my dreams, I could be anything and anyone I wanted to be, in the mind of a kid. Intellectual stimulation was my magic carpet which conveyed me from the dangerous and mundane elements of my life. I could hop from being John Glenn the astronaut to Kirk Douglas the Viking in my imagination. I was a happy child indeed!
My parents, striving for a better life for us, moved to Northeast Philadelphia, where my life drastically changed. This change allowed me to manifest every aspect of my imagination in concrete terms. Living in proximity to the beautiful Pennypack Park, I could build castles, tree houses, and examine the protozoans in a puddle with a microscope, which we could now afford for me. My father, who could now afford a 1957 Chevy, conveyed me to all sorts of interesting places in Philadelphia, from the Rodin Museum to the Philadelphia Zoo.
The place that absolutely captivated me was a little known treasure in the Philadelphia area, the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Rising out of a small parkland setting, this place put me in mind of medieval castles seen in some of my favorite movies. Carved stone gargoyles sitting on parapets put me in mind of the movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This beautiful place absolutely stunned me in its beauty and magnificence. They gave us a free tour, and I was captivated by every nook and cranny. Each and every part of this edifice was hand crafted by master craftsmen, hired by the industrialist John Pitcairn from European guilds back at the turn of the 20th century. They still give free tours of this cathedral.
On our first visit, my father and I stumbled upon the craftsmen’s buildings on the grounds of Bryn Athyn. This accidental discovery, little did I know at the time, would profoundly affect my life. There was an old world craftsman standing there, in the blacksmith shop, taking hot metal out of a fire and hammering it into different shapes on the anvil. His name was Al Walter. This looked like pure magic to me. This “Merlin the Magician” was altering a hot piece of metal, and forging it into the shape of an animal’s head, with sparks flying and the clang of the work he was doing on his anvil. Every aspect of his work reminded me of sorcery; he was creating something from nothing, like an alchemist. I was so excited watching this man ply his craft, I could hardly breathe. This was one of the most exciting things I had ever seen in my short life. Al Walter, taking a short break from his work, explained to my father and I that he had served an apprenticeship as a young boy my age in blacksmithing, stone carving, and wood carving. This master craftsman, and “magician”, was creating works of art for use in the cathedral that were pure beauty to behold. His kind explanation of the type of work he was doing had a deep impression on me. My father, very imaginative and full of curiosity like me, took me back to see this workshop many times as I was growing up.
Years later, while I was studying astrophysics as a graduate student at Villanova University in the late seventies, I was also searching for employment in my field. At that time, due to cutbacks in NASA, jobs in my field were hard to come by. Frustrated while looking for work, and being nagged by my dad to get a job, I perused the classifieds in the Inquirer. Looking in the “A” section for an astronomer’s position, my eyes floated to the next ad for an “apprentice blacksmith position”. My father was hollering-angry, saying “I didn’t spend all that money getting you an education to become a blacksmith”! Like any future blacksmith, I suddenly developed a deaf ear.
Remembering my youthful encounters at Bryn Athyn in a pleasurable light, I was determined to land that position. While all the other applicants showed up in blue jeans and sneakers, I showed up in a suit and tie. During the interview, the master blacksmith of the shop was there, a man named Fyodor Czub, who reminded me of Al Walter. Mr. Czub liked the fact that I had enough respect for his knowledge and MYSELF to dress up in a suit. They hired me immediately.
I went on to serve a five year apprenticeship in this craft under Mr. Czub. Incredibly, Mr. Czub didn’t speak one word of English, and I didn’t speak one word of Russian. For five years, he taught me through pantomime and through Russian translators in the shop. I wanted to learn this craft so badly, that the language impediment was never a problem. In fact it was a bonus, because I learned by following his lead, just as he did as a young boy in Russia. The language we had in common was respect for this craft, and a love of iron and steel as a medium. Believe it or not, forging hot iron and steel still feels like magic to me. I went on to start my own tool forging business, grateful for the happy coincidences that allowed me to learn this craft. It is with profound gratitude that I remember the inspiration Al Walter and Fyodor Czub provided for me. Who would have thought, that a little boy with a profound imagination, would someday become a magician in metal!