ElderFriends and the Art of Blacksmithing

Bending Metal

ElderFriends Jack Slack and Laura Heng talk about a blacksmith lesson.

ElderFriends Jack Slack and Laura Teng prepare for a blacksmith lesson.

The forge roared to life. The firebrick blazed as it absorbed the heat. Laura Heng threaded the metal bar – about 4 feet long and an inch wide – into the forge as Jack Slack watched closely.

The goal: Heat the middle few inches of the bar to a glowing bright red, then quickly, and carefully, remove the bar from the forge and bend it around a mold to create a saddle, essentially a U-shape.

It’s an early lesson in the art of blacksmithing. Jack, now 78, is the teacher, the elder. Laura, at 32, is the apprentice and the friend. Jack’s wife, 73-year-old Jennifer, serves as the forge master and safety warden. Jack had a stroke in 2010, leaving his left side paralyzed. He offers blacksmith lessons from his wheelchair.

The Slacks and Heng met through Full Life Care’s ElderFriends, a companionship program that matches elders and volunteer participants. They usually get together every week, have a blacksmith lesson, eat dinner and then pile up in the living room to watch TV before Laura heads home. They chat, tell stories and laugh – the laughter is especially loud when they flip through the latest sumo wrestling magazine.

Laura has come to visit for more than a year. The Slacks have become part of her family, she said.

“They’ve met my family, my boyfriend,” she said. “They even attended Khmer New Year services at our Temple. I think they had a good time.”

The Elders

Jack and Jennifer met in San Francisco in the summer of 1967. Growing up in Midland, Michigan, about 130 miles north of Detroit, Jack picked up “The Art of Blacksmithing” by Alex W. Bealen.

“That was the book that started it for a lot of blacksmiths,” Jack said. “It talked about the skills that were being lost. It energized a lot of people, including me.”

That energy led him to the West Coast to a blacksmith school and eventually to San Francisco to work. That’s where he met Jennifer, who came to the U.S. from London to work as a nanny.

“I came here and met Jack and fell in love. My parents were not too happy,” she said. “But I wanted to travel, to have an adventure.”

Adventures were plentiful. They had a transit bus and started on a tour of the country. When the bus broke down, they hopped on Jack’s 1962 BMW motorcycle. In the end, it had 100,000 miles. Today, the pieces are spread out on the floor in Jack’s shop. He has plans to rebuild it so all the controls are on the right side. He’ll add a sidecar for Jennifer – she tended to fall asleep on the bike, and a sidecar will keep her upright, and give him some extra stability.

Eventually, the couple moved to Seattle. Jack opened The Blacksmith Shop in the Grand Central Building in Pioneer Square in the 1970s. He ran the shop for 25 years, specializing in ornamental work such as coat hooks, fireplace pokers and dinner bells. He also made exceptional architectural pieces and built tools.

He was one of the first in the country to have an open smithy, where people could watch the process. Throughout his career, he shared his knowledge with others interested in the trade.

In 1979, Jack co-founded the Northwest Blacksmith Association (the NWBA), and saw the organization grow to more than 600 members.

“Blacksmithing is not a dying art,” he said. “I’m impressed that Laura wants to learn how to blacksmith.”

The Friend

Jack’s face lit up when Laura came around the corner; take out from a local barbeque joint swinging from her hand.

“There she is,” he said. Jack was wrapped in a lavender-colored snuggie adorned with peace signs.

“Look at you! Only a certain kind of gentleman could pull that off,” she said.

Laura works and is enrolled at Seattle Central College, working to eventually obtain a doctorate in nurse practitioning.

Her parents are from a small village outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. Both had fled the war and refugee camps and made their way to the U.S. in the 1970s. Laura grew up in Seattle, earned her degree in fashion design, then took a job in the industry in New York.

“You either love it so blindly or it’s not enough,” she said. “It got to a point where I was asking why I am demanding discounts from a Taiwanese family when there was just a typhoon in Taiwan. They didn’t know where their family was yet, and I’m having to send an email saying they are charging us too much money.

“I couldn’t do it anymore.”

She returned to Seattle in October 2015.

“I was busy in New York. I loved the pace, loved how I was engaged every day,” she said. “When I came back to Seattle, it was not like that. I didn’t really connect with people in Seattle when I came back. It was just different from when I left.”

She looked for volunteer opportunities, and found ElderFriends.

“It took a while to find a connection,” Laura said. “They wanted to find me someone special.”

“Aw! Look at what you got instead,” Jack said.

The Lesson

About an hour after they started the forge, it’s almost go time. The center of the metal bar was burning red hot.

“You have to practice what you’re going to do,” Jack said. “Otherwise you have too many irons in the fire.”

Jack and Jennifer had already walked through the process a few times before Laura showed up. Laura and Jack talked through the steps several times. Then Laura and Jennifer did a few practice drills, walking through it, miming the movements. Those are the rules.

Jack has a number of ground rules: No texting, no drinking, no phone calls, nothing that could distract you when you’re working. Metal glows at about 900 degrees F. No horseplay allowed.

Go time. Laura pulled out the metal strip, Jennifer took the other end. A couple of side steps to the mold, then they bent it into a nice U shape. Laura gave it a few taps in the center of the U, then sprayed it with cool water.

It took about 30 seconds.

As the student and safety warden cleaned up, the teacher puffed on a celebratory cigar. Afterward, the elders and the friend made their way into the house for barbeque and a new episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”

“They make me happy,” Laura said. “Jack and Jennifer are so smart. They teach me something every time.”

See our ElderFriends in our annual video.

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