Copyright © Henry Strobel 1999. All rights reserved.
Chapter 1. Growing up in Indiana
Chapter 2. My Continuing Education
Chapter 3. An Engineer in California (These chapters being a summary of my life before Oregon)
Chapter 4. Violin Maker & Publisher in Oregon
Chapter 5. Man the Worker, Man the Artist (Thoughts on work and art)
Chapter 6. Simple Pleasures, Quiet Treasures (The "personal essays" proper)
Chapter 7. The True and the Good (The philosophy department)
from Chapter I - Growing Up In Indiana
I was born and raised in southern Indiana, as were my parents and grandparents, with the exception of grandfather Eberle who was born in Trier and brought here as a child. Little is known of my distant ancestors in Europe, and only a flight of fancy connects me with German violin makers of similar names. On the other hand it was the very real lot of my gentle farmer father to be drafted into the Great War, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, the British Military Medal, etc.
Tell City was a Swiss settlement, named of course for William Tell. Its specialty was the manufacture of furniture from the local maple and oak. St. Meinrad Abbey, twenty miles north, had been founded in 1854 from the Benedictine Abbey of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. So there were religious influences and European craftsmanship and rural independence in my background.
My passions then and now have always been to make things of beauty and things that worked, elegant in design and efficient in function. I was creative and curious, drawing, wood carving, making powered model airplanes. As a boy in that pre-computer world I began with a crystal radio and eventually designed and built my own camera, darkroom and enlarger, my own high fidelity and amateur radio equipment (multiple conversion single-sideband receivers and transmitters). I knew the RCA tube manual by heart. We were late in getting television (the first one arrived as a repair project of mine). I was a National Science Fair finalist (1954).
My teachers were of the Benedictine order, which, from the sixth century on, considered work as prayer, and developed a tradition of learning and artistic skills. St. Meinrad had its own commercial stone quarry, dairy, garden, woodlot, printing press, and steam electric power plant. On the highest point of the hill was a medieval-looking eighty foot high concrete water tower. On top of this my physics professor built a sixty foot guyed steel tower. I vividly remember the day he and I climbed to the top and lifted the twenty meter antenna array up onto its rotor.
from Chapter II - My Continuing Education
"Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on." Samuel Butler, 1895
I landed in Prestwick, moved into the red sandstone Adamton House (a quasi-castle which served as the officers' club and bachelor officers' quarters), took the train to the port of Southampton and retrieved the car, commenced self-education in driving back to Scotland on the "wrong" side of the road in a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side as well, elementary education. I subsequently drove a lot throughout Britain and parts of Europe, but the trains were the thing. I explored London via its tubes, rode the Flying Scotsman between London and Edinburgh. I commuted by rail to evening classes in electrical engineering at the Paisley Institute of Technology near Glasgow. In these days before "Beeching's axe" decimated the railways, yes, I rode the steamers, the warm, wet, cindery-smelling spent steam wafting through the open window to the rhythm of the pistons and click of the wheels.
I shared the house with a pilot from the Air Rescue Service, and sometimes caught a ride with his crew to Munich, then passing Mittenwald by rail and visiting Innsbruck and northern Italy. I got to know well the Strobels who operated a bookbindery in Innsbruck, visited with relatives of a friend in Vicenza, Verona, and Venice; dinner in Padova with fashion plate cousin Carmela, chaperoned by her brother. Those were good days for an energetic and enthusiastic young man - seeing St. Peter's and the seven hills of Rome, lunching on the train out of Paris on a baguette du pain and a boiteille du vin (stick bread and wine) - and cheese, always. The usual travel adventures, and some not, as a personal tour of the village of Hameln - remember the Pied Piper of Hamlin - with a green-eyed young lady of Hanover I met on the train.
The Bridge of Ayr at Twilight (Copyright © 1963 Henry A. Strobel)
from Chapter III - An Engineer in California
Quite a change in a few days from officer and gentleman to student on a budget, from the short days of the Scottish January to a short stop home in winter-bleak Indiana and on to San Francisco where the tulips are blooming and the Mediterranean cypresses evergreen. I was still young then, but I knew that I had made no mistake in leaving the military, which I had never considered as more than temporary.
San Francisco, with its bay and hills of singular beauty has always been a magnet for the adventurer, for those looking for a change. My objectives were simple, to get educated, get some good wine and weather, a job and a family. For all these San Francisco was abundantly suited. Founded in 1776, the year of American independence, with the establishment of a Spanish fort (presidio), and of the Mission of San Francis of Assisi by Father Junipero Serra, it became the city of San Francisco in 1850, populated by gold miners and gold diggers, flamboyant politicians and floozies, Chinese, Germans, Italians, Irish, and other conventional sinners. In 1855 the Jesuits began the University of San Francisco, where I registered in 1965. In 1967 I received a BS (Physics). So then I had the bases covered, at least superficially, in arts and sciences.
Sunny Sunday Sailing on San Francisco Bay, Indian Summer of 1968
Of course I worked too during this superannuated student sojourn, the first summer at a large aerospace company in Palo Alto. The following year I worked most days as a project engineer at Lynch Communications Systems in San Francisco. I stayed on there after graduation until 1969, when I left with the chief engineer Donald Green and others to form Digital Telephone Systems, Inc. in San Rafael, north of San Francisco. Both Lynch and Digital were in the business of making equipment for telephone companies, Lynch mainly multiplex transmission equipment, while DTS made line concentrators and pioneered in digital PBXs. I was the first employee after the three principals, and a minor stockholder, first a project engineer, later a chief engineer. Never overly brilliant, I did have a natural knack for bringing good equipment together with elegant, efficient design. I was a shirt-sleeve design engineer as much as a manager. It was not so much my belated physics degree as my previous decades of dedicated electronics avocation that had prepared me for this. I was involved in every step - concepts, physical and electronic design, field trials (I fended off lightning in Florida, cacti in Arizona; I experienced tobacco-road America, Italian bureaucracy, the crash of a PBX in a large hospital; I met some wonderful people.) Our products were bought or licensed by a great many telephone companies and corporations worldwide, including the Bell, GTE, and United companies, the Swiss and Australian government telephone systems, etc.
The Fairfax house was up in the foothills of Mt. Tamalpais with sliding, winding roads and wonderful views and deer in the back yard. The cat had a near terminal fight with a raccoon the first night. It was a tiny great earthquake era summer cottage with trivial plumbing but a good fireplace. The violin workshop was cramped below, but looked out over apricots, plums, and a pungent bay tree. I missed San Francisco's foghorns and cool salt air, which rusted my bicycle and my tools, but not the city itself. A nice place to visit, but . . . I met Susan, an accountant (the prettiest one ever I saw), at a friend of a friend's in San Francisco. It took a few years, but I think we both knew right away it was to be. We married in 1973 at St. Rita's church in Fairfax.
from Chapter IV - Violin Maker & Publisher in Oregon
My mid-life change of career had early roots. About the fourth grade I had read a book in the public library, a saccharine story of the life of Mathias Klotz, the proto-typical violin maker of Mittenwald, and at that age it impressed and inspired me. I also studied the violin in elementary school and picked it up again from time to time thereafter. When I left Scotland, I brought a violin with me. Not a very good one, and it inspired me to make my own. Working in Palo Alto in 1966 I had found the violin shop of Leon LaFosse, who provided me with tools, Hungarian maple, German spruce, and unfailing encouragement. My principal distraction from engineering in those days (apart from young ladies, sailboats, and such) was learning violin making. I read everything I could find on it and got to know most of the violin makers in the area, imbibing the elixir of arcane information at every opportunity. In each house I lived, in San Francisco, Fairfax, and Novato, priority was given to the workshop. I came to have a double life - although a full-time engineer I also had a commercial violin repair business, first registered in California in 1978. I had made several violins, but I knew I would learn the most from examining and repairing many instruments, and this I have continued to do. The great thing here is to be aware of one's limitations and responsibilities for the property of others and the heritage of the past. I have always been strictly conscientious to "First, do no harm."
The plan was to move to Oregon and build a country house of our own. We had explored here some years before and so in early 1985 I came again, empowered by Susan and the children to find the right place. When I found it I knew it, just as when I had met Susan. Such a beautiful place, but there was already a (one layer) house on it. Fine, said I, we will live in the first storey while we add the second. I meticulously measured the house, and by the time the loose ends were tied up in Novato I had bought the place and drawn the plans. We moved in; I hired a congenial, competent carpenter and we carpentered. Wary of rain, we first built the upper walls and the second roof. Only then did we cut up the old roof and defenestrate it piece-wise. This time the library (where I sit typing now) took first priority, looking out over Mill Creek in the back yard. Gradually the violin shop areas were expanded, along with the business.
Exacting, repetitive work, but there are compensations, and the atmosphere of the violin workshop is pleasant to proprietor and visitor alike. Good violins are magical, agile, functional sculpture. The visiting artist plies them with Mozart, Bach, or Bruch to the accompaniment, next door, of plane and gouge shaping and fitting the flexible, figured maple, the simple, straightforward spruce - soon to be married by the glue of beasts, anointed with the oil of walnut and lavender, colored with madder and earth of Sienna, tensioned with the inner strings of sheep, stroked with the tail of a Siberian stallion, and so to sing.
The right wood (with the right work) makes the violin, and a violin maker could hardly choose a more fortunate place than Oregon. Fine Engelmann and Sitka spruce are here and maple in abundance, although a lot of the Oregon maple has a homely look from its rapid rainy growth. It was my great good fortune to find a log of singular, exquisitely figured, acoustically superb maple. A logger, son-in-law of a local cellist friend had cut a tree several years earlier of the most beautiful, broadly, deeply "flamed" maple, four feet thick. It had grown slowly at a high altitude and was already nearly seasoned. I bought several cello length sections of this log, cut them into wedges on a "head rig" (saw mill), and still have a good reserve of it in our barn loft. This is my "holy" wood, which makes glorious sounding instruments - in spite of my best efforts. Only God can make a tree - at least such a tree.
from Chapter V - Man the Worker, Man the Artist
"Why did I write? What sin to me unknown
Dipt me in ink, my parents', or my own?" Alexander Pope
I reckon I have been moderately successful in three professions, engineer, luthier, and writer. It is interesting that I was not specifically, formally educated for them. I was equipped with a broad education, not the specialized training of an apprentice, but of a free man. (The classical liberal arts were those "befitting a free man.") Beyond this, I had a habit of self education, and most important, an artist's need to make good things.
from - Chapter VI Simple Pleasures, Quiet Treasures (Personal Essays)
Leisure moments of reflection, wonder, or inspiration need not be scheduled. They can occur interspersed with our work, giving it meaning, refreshing us. The days were warm and breezy last week. An oak of one hundred and twenty-five springs was finally, irrevocably dying in our yard despite years of encouragement. "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven." It was time too to trim two other huge oaks where they were doing our roof no good. (I have seen some older folk, fearing loss of control, lash out and destroy their surrounding, sheltering trees, which they see as encroaching - pray God, not I.) So our friend and woodcutter was called. He is an artist, he is not summoned but comes in season, his own, and is worth waiting for. Travis of Louisiana, now of Sublimity, Oregon studied the defunct tree, the lay of the land, the neighboring trees. Thoughtfully, decisively he plied and nudged that terminal tree with saw, mallet, and wedge. Answering his ceremonial call of "timber," the great trunk groaned, giving up the ghost and lay down graciously in the prescribed place, hardly grazing its fellows. Twelve feet of its straight trunk were destined to be sawn into boards for furniture, the rest to warm our house in winter. The balance of the work, removing some massive limbs from the other oaks without damage to the house below, was accomplished with poetic skill. I was designated the ground lineman, applying a side pull when directed, detaching the lines from downed branches, helping with cleanup and cold drinks. I watched Travis manipulate his rigs and tools, belly down a long stout limb deftly making firewood almost overhead as he went, and finally rappeling straight down, disdaining use of the pedestrian ladder. Meanwhile two red-tailed hawks circled overhead and the music of Mill Creek played on.
My thoughts ranged back over earlier times - my father and I at either end of a crosscut saw over a windfall tree, pulling alternately in true cooperation, then making firewood of the branches with a bucksaw over a sawhorse. Reflect. Don't let the noise take over. Our thoughts are "jammed" by the workday, by television, the print media, the internet. Our minds and memories are overwhelmed by the indiscriminate flood of ephemeral information and worse. Simplify; choose what is important; jettison the rest; live unencumbered and travel light through life. (If I only could.) Marshal your moments. Listen to the quiet.
Mill Creek is home at times to great salmon, wild ducks, the odd beaver, and truly great blue herons. Green things grow wonderfully here. In the fourteen years of our residence the arbor vitae hedge I planted and the oaks arisen since from acorns now tower over me. A fine five-trunked alder by the creek died several years ago, replaced now by eight foot holly and cherry volunteers. The cherry seedling may well have been propagated by an epicurean bird from the cherry trees we planted on arrival. In the face of all this fertility and vitality, the proclivities of my father still break out and I plant again. Talk about "carrying coals to Newcastle!" The deep rains of this spring have inspired the wild foxgloves frequenting the rose garden to new heights - of ten feet! We smell the roses, literally. Blackberries and blueberries and cherries plump Susan's pies. Our grape arbor is varied: Adam's old Concords still bear indefatigably, seemingly impervious to any peril. I have added pale green table grapes and a dozen vines of deep purple Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet clearly prefers California to Oregon, requiring vigilance here against powdery mildew. Usually I do not bother, consigning all to juice and jelly (Susan remains unenthusiastic), but I did make wine a couple of years, once adding sugar to the bottles for a second fermentation and rejoicing in a serendipitously successful sparkling wine. I recall Karl Roy, our German violin maker visitor from Mittenwald, Bavaria being quite complimentary, perhaps only being polite, but knowing Karl, perhaps not.
In my Indiana boyhood, rain was not unusual through the summer. To water our lawn as we westerners do would have been unthinkable. Glorious cloudbursts were the norm, noteworthy only for their occasional conspicuous absence. My father would then scan the sky daily, studying whatever clouds appeared and fretting over their course. As the end of a drought approached we could feel the imminent return of the rain. The birds and tree frogs knew it too and announced it presagingly. The advance wind rustled, it calmed and cooled, there were flickers of lightning, rumblings of thunder, the leaves turned and waited, great drops plopped in the dry dust, the wind surged, the downpour began as little primitive shivers ran up and down my back (you know, the kind you feel when you're singing and it's going just right.) A good place to be when the rain arrives is in a front porch swing - even better in a barn loft under a tin roof.
Just as man does not mean much unrelated to God and neighbor, possessions and tools do not mean much unrelated to their owners and users. They need purpose and appreciation. I have just finished adjusting and polishing a violin I made for a young man six years ago. He carried it in today for its annual checkup, concerned as customary for its inevitable signs of age and use, edges worn from zealous practice and varnish telling of the clutch and touch of cheek and hand and dusty rosin residue. I told him that such signs of service (never of neglect) are veteran badges of honor and need not be continuously "restored." I welcomed this violin back as a maturing child, glad it had early found a compatible mate, appreciating it and helping it to appreciate. Jim played this baby through high school and through the conservatory rigors of Rochester and still cherishes it. Having spent so much of my time with such things as these, it feels good to have known success, at least in fathering a few of these bona fide fiddles. Use had given its varnish a pleasing patina, the golden ground showing through the upper color here and there. But what pleased me most was its sound, fine and forthright when young, but now surely a smoother contralto. So I charged him for its new strings, but not for French polishing its wear marks, which now bear a new-found respectability.
It is April - a wet winter made our meadow-lawn moistly mossy and full of violets in purple fresh profusion. But the grass is surging, so Henry Jr reluctantly revved the mower the first time of the season, considerably dampening the exuberance of the violets. But a wonderful sun reigns, the wild plums are blossoming everywhere. (They thrive under the oaks.) It is warm and springy and I feel the sap rising. Easter morning, rebirth, cycle of life, new life, spiritual life, earthly life, Rita phoned from New York, Susan resplendent in a rare new Easter dress, choir was fine, augmented to uplift all by George's violin. But April weather is a changeling - sunny showers and hail well met. Blue forget-me nots now profusely populate the backyard meadow, pretty the people, sweet the babies in church, all trying to be good, at least not flaunting the bad, hardly a hypocrite among us.
from Chapter VII - The True and the Good
Insofar as man is man, he wonders. He wonders about who, what, where, and why he is. How he is distinct from or part of God and nature. What is true, what is good, what is important. The problems of evil, physical and moral.
So far, we speak of everyman's natural philosophy. Beyond this the religious man perceives a revelation from and a personal relationship with God, his source and his end. A gift, a grace.
In times past, as in the middle ages, there was a greater awareness of absolute moral law, and of sin, and of corresponding guilt and shame. In more modern times scientists tried to do away with God and faith, psychiatrists tried to do away with guilt and shame, philosophers tried to reduce philosophy to symbolic logic and morality to pragmatism, teachers were afraid to teach morality, and the media were left free to teach immorality.
We can't foresee all the new or "bioethical" choices we may have to make. What we must do is apply the principles of natural law with an honest conscience. Such principles are that:
Every human being has dignity and rights.
Human life may not be terminated directly.
Every human being has responsibilities to others.
Love and child-bearing are properly within the family.
Death is natural and a transition to life with God.
An act with both good and bad effects is good if
it is not bad in itself, and
the bad effect is not the means of the good,
the bad effect is not intended but tolerated,
the good effect is proportionately greater.
We spoke of time in this context at the beginning of the Personal Essays chapter, where I took a leaf from Leisure the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher. There are strong resonances with this in Time and the Soul by American philosopher Jacob Needleman. Time is basic to the meaning of life, of immortality. He suggests time is racing for us because we deceive ourselves that all these pressing little tasks, irritating annoyances, troubling emotions, are important. Time cannot be saved - it can only be given. Truth conquers time - truth is eternal. Someone who is too busy is always worrying. An automatic series of distractions keeps trying to steal our time but we need not give it to them. Let us step back, look at ourselves, see how we are growing, where we are going - or where time is taking us. We can choose to become wise, to grow in the image and likeness of God, to live in God's presence. The answer to the problem of time is to know God.
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Matthew 6:19-21
Copyright © 1999 Henry Strobel. All rights reserved.