Pulling, twisting, turning, ripping. Dust fills the workspace, and the smell of cat urine makes the air unbreathable. Pliers, a hammer, and a flat screwdriver break bones, tear tendons, and remove foam and cotton fill from the chair that I adopted from Wendy at work. I wipe sweat from my forehead and pry up sharp tacks hold the brown fabric flesh tight across the wood frame. The upholstery I pull from the chair is heavy with decades of dirt and oil and skin. It sits in a slump on the floor of my garage, lifeless. “That is disgusting!” My wife has returned home earlier than I expected. “It smells like cats. Did they have cats?” Yes. They definitely had cats. “I got it from a lady at work. It needs a lot of… work.” I have been breathing in the smell for forty-five minutes or an hour, and I don’t really notice it any more. “I will open a window.” She turns to leave, but I stop her, “It’s a Gunlocke.” I flip the chair on its side and lift it to show her the lower-case cursive “g” engraved on a metallic marker underneath the seat. The elegant mark catches her eye just like it caught mine. My wife suddenly seems more interested in this project than others I have found. “JFK sat in a Gunlocke chair in the oval office. These things are like a thousand bucks a piece. They probably got it at a thrift store or something.” She says that she is excited to see how it turns out, and tells me to shower before I come to bed.
I don’t usually sweat this much. I lean over the chair to get the right angle, and a bead of sweat bargains its way between my eyebrows and down to the end of my nose. I imagine myself sitting in the chair that John F. Kennedy sat in fifty years ago as he signed important policies, and made critical decisions. Important decisions… like… I guess I will have to look it up later. Cold War? Cuban Missile Crisis? I think that was JFK. I learned about JFK in school, but the reading assignments are a blur and my notes are no more than a smudge of graphite in my memory. Of course the video of the assassination is clear and present, and popped into my mind the moment I mentioned his name.
I discard the soiled upholstery and the worn seat cushion in the trash can outside, and the air in the garage begins to clear. I now have a chance to see the frame of the chair, stripped but sturdy. I now face an important decision of my own. I have the honor of cleaning and restoring this historic piece, but how exactly will I bring it back to life? The new upholstery must be clean and courageous to match the chair itself. The frame is solid; crafted of a rich hardwood. I will refinish the wood with a rich stain; anything more or less than that would be disingenuous. I will preserve and restore the pronounced, natural grain. The man or woman who created this chair forty years ago would have rather seen it destroyed than defiled with a cheap, patterned material or coated in latex paint. It will take me several nights of sanding, and probably more sweat. Finding the right stain might be a challenge, and a respectable upholstery material may cost more than I originally planned, but when I am finished it will be an item to be proud of for another forty years or more. This Gunlocke will belong on display in a museum or at the state capitol, but my living room will have to do. I have sold a few of the pieces that I refinish, most are given to friend; a few have even ended up back in the dumpster after I discovered they were damaged beyond repair. I will keep the Gunlocke for myself. This lost and found piece is special, but not just because of the name. My chair is made of strong materials, designed carefully, and crafted by thoughtful hands. It has history and integrity that has allowed it to withstand the years of abuse and neglect. I feel something like contempt as I think about the years of cat urine that were allowed to soak into the cushions. It was nearly destroyed because the owners forgot its value, or maybe it was just passed down to a generation who did not appreciate it. Of course, I realize, there are things that I have forgotten or neglected myself. JFK for example.
I turn out the light in the garage, and I get in the shower. Hot water washes the dirt out of my hair, and rinses the smell from my hands.