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Ah, Let the Chips Fall Where They May

August 10, 1986|Zan Thompson

Benjie just came back from a salmon fishing trip to Alaska with his friend, Albert Ackerman. Benjie is a small gray dog with tight curls and an easygoing disposition. Just the right kind of a companion for a fishing trip.

Saturday they were back in their enchanted mountain, where the Pied Piper is Albert's brother, George Ackerman, a master woodcarver.

Every Saturday, fair or foul, George opens the doors and welcomes the men and women who are his students. They stay for hours, learning to carve wood. It's an escape hatch from what they do every day, a piece of time where everyday problems disappear in a flurry of wood chips and sawdust.

George Ackerman is their master teacher, their taskmaster, their arbiter, the man who gives them the gift of creating something beautiful or funny, happy or majestic.

He holds it all together with a system that doesn't show, and easy net of discipline and encouragement that keeps them going past the rough spots and thinking they figured it out for themselves.

This island of laughter and companionship is in the middle of a junkyard, a car-wrecking corral full of old cars and vans in all stages of dismemberment.

The actual building where George teaches woodcarving is a rabbit warren of a building, pocketed with rooms. Some of them are full of what looks like the leftovers of a not-very-tony yard sale, and some are set up as pristine shops maintained by students who like to leave their work and tools at George's place. One of these belongs to Lorena, a machinist.

The woodcarver who took me to this grown-up playpen is a tall, genial lawyer named Paul Tepper. He says, "I have always had a shop in the garage but Nan wouldn't let me make furniture. The house was already filled. I had some redwood so I carved a figure and took it to the office and put it on a windowsill. A client came in and said, 'Did you carve that?' I leaned back in my chair and said, 'Yes, I'm a woodcarver.' 'That may be so, but you sure need a lot of help,' he said."

That's how Paul Tepper began to attend the Saturday getaway sessions. Now he's a member of the board of directors of the California Woodcarvers' Guild, a bustling organization with 42 chapters and a head office in the town of San Simeon.

His classmates are professional men, law enforcement officers, teachers, businessmen. They present carving shows sponsored by the California Woodcarvers' Guild on a regular schedule up and down California.

George is very proprietary of his students' work. He has a master craftsman's pride in their work and he wants them all to win ribbons.

Nan Tepper told me that one time her husband, Paul, took a second and George thought it should have been a first. It is highly possible that the next time that judge was looking at the work of one of George's students he took a careful second and third look.

Before George Ackerman became the favorite teacher of so many woodcarvers, he was a technical writer and engineer. And he was a portrait painter.

One day he was talking to Nan and she asked him how he happened to change from painting portraits to woodcarving. "When you work with wood, you don't have to make your own shadows. They are in the wood. The wood makes its own shadows."

George Ackerman's name is on the top of the jungle telegraph for every homeless dog and cat in Canyon Country. Right now, there are about eight in residence.

One of them, a 6-month-old large white dog, probably Samoyed and German shepherd, who weighs about 86 pounds, was kind enough to sit on my lap. I'm sure she just wanted to make me feel at home.

The leader of the pack and boss of the spread is Lady, who is part pit bull. She is, indeed, meaner than a junkyard dog. George said: "She's never rude to people but she bosses every dog, even the big German shepherds. She doesn't want to be mean. It's just her nature."

George has a warm tolerance for character quirks, forgiving and welcome. "Actually," he said, "the cats run Lady, which means they run everything."

He's down to three cats right now. The coyotes are desperate marauders, but the word about George will be out among the itinerant cat crowd and he'll soon be back up to the customary eight to 10.

One dog is a sweet, slender Italian whippet whose name is Breezy. She eats the cats' food, "but it's just her nature. We don't spank her. We just lift her down."

The shepherds are Corporal and Zeke, and there's an elderly brown Labrador whose name I didn't catch.

No one tells the dogs to move, and they settle right in the middle of the narrow, main workroom. Paul Tepper executed a difficult one-leg balance over immense Zeke in order to use an electric drill. It would have been a credit to Baryshnikov.

One of Paul's classmates is Dr. Jules Zuckerman, a dentist who said: "This is my R and R. I look forward to being here all week."

Jules is carving the face of man out of an olive tree root. The head looks like an ancient prophet. "The head is in the wood. It tells you where to carve to let him show."

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