ODE TO CHUCK
My first ever pottery kiln was a used kiln which I named Chuck. I remember the first day he came home with me- oh the joy! I had been throwing pots at home and then hauling them twenty miles across Tulsa to a public art studio to fire them. You can imagine how thrilled I was to have my very own kiln- even though he had quite a few years on him ... to me he was perfect and new!
Fast forward to today; Chuck was made before serial number 300,300 so we know he is somewhere between 45 and 50 years old. Yes, for a kiln, Chuck is very old.
We’ve had some pretty serious talks in all our time together. I’ve patted him on the lid like a faithful workhorse, brought him back from the brink of death like a skilled surgeon, fought with him like a frustrated boss, and communed with him like a best friend.
I trust Chuck. He is a safe place to put my precious creations. He was with me when I was raising my children, he was there when they left for college. He has seen me through multiple surgeries, births of a grandchild and the tearful passings of family, friends and fur babies. Chuck has moved with me thousands of miles across America -twice! He was there when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, He has been with me thru a lot!
Chuck is sturdy, strong and built to last! Even with catastrophic events, kilns can be fixed- the parts can be replaced, the elements changed, the fire brick rebuilt, new hinges screwed in, the lid and wiring can all be replaced- they can be used and used and reused ...seriously to death!
Chucks model was retired after four decades and I’m pretty sure Chuck was the only working one left in existence but even then, his manufacture managed to keep me up and going with modified parts. I’m sure I became the dreaded call at the factory. The caliber of people that have worked with me are unsurpassed. Every time I call the factory they are happy to walk me through what ever repairs (with modifications) I am making. Their personal care of me and Chuck has been impressive to say the least! Can you imagine servicing a 2nd or 3rd generation client 50 years after the original sell? I now have four kilns, Vera, my test kiln, Chuck, my old boy, Dave a beautiful large kiln, and the newest addition, Dave Jr. — yup he’s all fancied up and digitalized.
By Chucks last Birthday, some of his parts could no longer be adapted, but he HAS been in the heat of the fire (pardon my pun) three thousand times or more. Yes, he’s been to the front lines of battle for years. In all fairness, he’s probably earned relief. He’s been patched and pinned over and over, there are patches over his patches but every fix has brought us a few more years together.
Chucks battle scars became endearing; the first chip in the fire brick when I went to unload my first ever 18” platter; the first dent when I tripped and fell into him with a kiln shelf. My first move, my first (over fired) misfire, when I sat at his feet and cried for three hours trying to pry pots off his shelves. The first time I reworked a switch by myself and mis-wired it and seriously caused a bullet like hole in his steel cover plate from the shooting flames. All of these were milestones in his life... and mine.
In the beginning of his life with me I noticed character, but after a decade, a personality, and suddenly one day I woke up and realize I had a real sense of loyalty to Chuck.
I’m not crazy- I do know kilns aren’t people. They aren’t even pets. But there comes a day when that old thing feels like something; no, SOMEONE, that has been with me thru everything life could throw at me! No, Chuck may not be flesh and blood, but he certainly seems to have a type of soul— his milestones have become my milestones, his damage has become my damage, and indeed his life has become mingled with my own.
Time has a funny way of collapsing and expanding at the same time. It seems like it was yesterday; it seems like a thousand years ago. That’s what it feels like every time I contemplate saying goodbye to trusty ol’ Chuck. If this Kiln were a car it’d have at least a million and a half miles on it. I say it all the time now days, “Chuck, my trusty friend, You. Done. Paragon. Proud!”
Recently my husband (very tentatively) approached me and said, “Sarrah - I’m so sorry, but don’t you think, just maybe... well.... that it’s time to let Chuck go?” Though normally ‘them is fightin’ words’, I could only hang my head and cry because I knew he was right. All I could say was “This is a very very sad day.” I think Chuck over heard us talking and he seemed sad too, mostly because I was sad, and maybe a little because we’ve spent a lifetime together. His final gift to me was a final firing of some (element safe) Saggar-ware and two creamation pottery pieces. Very fitting, I think. His passing seems not only sad but significant.
All my fellow potters have given me those understanding sighs and the sympathetic nods, perhaps the deepest kind of sympathy and respect they can muster- they each know all too well the grief. Its always sad to say goodbye.
Now remains the question of what happens to this old mans body, which is sort of like choosing between burial and cremation. Rand urged me to try and sell him for $100 OBO, but I didn’t feel like explaining all of Chucks issues, which would inevitably show him in a bad light; he deserves better.
I could donate his body to science... which in a kilns’ case means donating him to a desperate potter. They would know nothing of his former glory, they wouldn’t know the day he glistened and gleamed. No, I fear, Chuck is past the point of restoration and kilns are hardly antique collectibles.
The reality is, when I haul him out of the kiln room doors today, he will be gone, I’m not sure I can bear it, but I know he wants me to go on. Thank goodness I have Chuck Jr.
No, Im not crazy, I know Chuck wasn’t alive, but it doesn’t make his passing any easier. Goodbye my faithful friend. Goodbye Chuck.
A week later....
Last night I dreamed a dream;
Chuck is going to be reincarnated!! I’m going to remove all his switches and elements, maybe his firebrick too, add a ceramic fiber insulation blanket, make some ceramic blanket holding buttons, order some high fire wire, build a pulley system, cut a hole for propane, make his lid his base and make him into a gas raku kiln! Chuck isn’t going anywhere; he and I have another journey to make and we are going to make it together!
Oh the joy!
Sarrah Hurst Groves