Tribute to a craftsman extraordinaire

You-Can-Call-Me-Al installs the belfry spire.

We received tragic news via the Facebook scuttlebutt feed the other day.

St. Johnny reported to us that You-Can-Call-Me-Al’s son was advertising an estate sale. Of You-Can-Call-Me-Al’s estate.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al cuts a hole in our kitchen floor, preparing for the tile “rug.”

You-Can-Call-Me-Al was instrumental in reconstructing the old Methodist church into our home. A gifted master carpenter, he transformed many ugly corners and edges into beautifully trimmed details. He did almost all the tiling in Church Sweet Home: the master shower, the kitchen tile rug, counter backsplash and the floor-to-ceiling fireplace. He also spent many days on ladders and an articulating boom in order to construct our Garage Mahal and reconstruct our “rooted” belfry. I prayed for his safety many times when he was crawling around like a monkey in the upper reaches of our church structure.

We might have finished our converted church without him, but it certainly wouldn’t be as pretty as it is.

Dreadfully, the Facebook estate sale indicated You-Can-Call-Me-Al had died the day after Christmas. Tyler called You-Can-Call-Me-Al’s son immediately, he picked up, and he confirmed that yes, sadly, You-Can-Call-Me-Al had died accidentally on December 26.

The morning was early, and Tyler and I were on the road. The coffee in our mouths lost all its taste.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al was dead.

We almost couldn’t believe it. The news was shocking. You-Can-Call-Me-Al was my age. He lived a big an rollicking life, but he died way too young.

Whatever his demise, we loved You-Can-Call-Me-Al. He was almost always kind, optimistic and up for anything. He was an invaluable resource and sounding board on all things construction related and on many life matters, too. I remember one day he showed up at the worksite with an enormous puffball mushroom he’d run across. “You just slice it and fry it in butter,” he said, depositing it on the countertop. “Delicious, I promise.” He was right, of course. Delicious. His extended his generosity in many other ways, too—he led us to a free big-screen TV for the garage, a complete set of wicker furniture and even an entire kitchen’s worth of pre-owned cabinetry for our basement.

He shared many meals with us. “I don’t know how many times we had breakfast together, lunch and dinner,” Tyler said. “Nothing fancy. Sometimes on lawn chairs or on a pile of wood we had stacked up someplace.”

While Tyler wrangled with many a undependable contractor, You-Can-Call-Me-Al was not one of them. He lent us tools and borrowed Tyler’s, and he always returned Tyler’s calls. We tried to help him out when he was in a pinch. During construction, he checked on the house while we were out of town multiple times. Tyler hoped to rope him into the basement remodel last summer, but You-Can-Call-Me-Al was coping with an excruciating back injury. He showed up one day, and I could see the pain all over his face.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al in his signature tie-dye giving high fives on the roof of the garage.

“It was more than an employee-employer type of thing,” Tyler said, noting they fished together on days off more than once. You-Can-Call-Me-Al was as good an angler as he was a carpenter. “Fishing together was always a treat. Because we’d always catch fish, that’s part of it.”

A week or two before Christmas, Tyler invited You-Can-Call-Me-Al to admire his work in the basement. He was proud of the work he did for us and interested in our progress. Ever polite, You-Can-Call-Me-Al said nice things. He did not point out the uneven or unstraight places that surely would have been addressed had You-Can-Call-Me-Al been working at Tyler’s side.

That was the last we saw of him.

“Occasionally, he’d say I did a good job and pat me on the back, which is something other contractors didn’t do,” Tyler said. “Because he knew so much about everything, getting a compliment from You-Can-Call-Me-Al meant a lot. I miss his smile, man.”

One of his last acts as a contractor for us, You-Can-Call-Me-Al relooped the bell pull in the belfry last spring. For some reason, it fell off its track and the bell was inert. In a matter of minutes, You-Can-Call-Me-Al climbed up there and fixed it right up. Ding-dong, ding-dong could again be heard in the village.

“You-Can-Call-Me-Al said more than once how blessed he felt to be there after he lost his wife (who died of cancer a couple years before we met), how he felt blessed by us, and how he felt peace in that church,” Tyler said. “He said that more than once when were were working together. We shared blood, sweat, tears and beers when he was working side-by-side with me daily.”

When you hear our bell ringing, you can thank You-Can-Call-Me-Al. We will miss him forever.

You-Can-Call-Me-Al rings the bell after repair.

In honor of You-Can-Call-Me-Al, here’s the story in Church Sweet Home of how I met him and how he became involved in our project.

Then I experienced another one of those moments of serendipity that had blessed us throughout this project.

I went to the post office to ask about whether we were the getting a mailbox or post office box. I had already been there four times without hearing a clear answer.

As we stepped into line, a man who held open the door for me motioned to let me cut in before him.

“No, go ahead,” I said.

But he was a gentleman of the generation when etiquette demanded ladies first (let’s be honest, he looked to be my age). I accepted his offer.

I explained my problem to the man behind the counter, beginning with this description that had become familiar to my lips: “I bought the old Methodist church, and we’re turning it into our home.” Etc., etc.

During a pause in our conversation, the gentleman behind me asked, “You’re remodeling a church?”

“Yup, we are.” I smiled.

“Do you need any help?” he asked.

“Yes! You know anyone?”

“Yeah, me,” he said. “I’m a master carpenter. And I do other things.”

“Do you know any tilers?”

“Yes, I do tiling.”

“Do you have a card?”

He fished a card out of his pocket. By now I was ignoring the postal employee. I read the card, and an old Paul Simon song floated into my head.

“Al? Can I call you Al? Do you have time now? My husband is at the church. He handles all the contractors. You could go talk to him now.”

“Sure,” You-Can-Call-Me-Al said. “Where’s the church?”

And the polite gentleman went to the church, introduced himself to Tyler—You-Can-Call-Me-Al—and told him, yes, he could tile a shower for us. He did it all the time.

Rest in peace, You-Can-Call-Me-Al.