John E. Riutta was formerly head of binocular and spotting scope development for Leupold & Stevens, Inc. He now publishes The Well-Read Naturalist, writes extensively for various outdoor publications, and whenever possible sets aside his laptop in order to write on real paper with the fountain pen that he’s used since college.
Back when I was a boy I spent untold hours in my father’s body and fender shop watching him carefully undo the damage so many of our friends and neighbors had either done, or inadvertently had done, to their automobiles. While the pulling of dents from doors or the pounding out of creases in crumpled fenders was always interesting, it was his preparations for repainting the portions of formerly bent metal he had restored to their proper shapes that really captured my boyish curiosity.
Slowly, meticulously, and with a level of practiced attention I have to this day yet to witness anyone putting into any job, he sanded the surface to be painted with increasingly fine grits of sandpapers until he was at last working with one so smooth to the touch I could not for the life of me understand how it could ever make the slightest difference to the surface he was sanding. Then, when he was finally satisfied that all was ready, he would finally begin to apply the paint. When he was finished, a pane of glass could not have been smoother.
One day, I recall asking him why he put so much time and effort into his work; after all, he could fix more cars if he didn't take so much time with each one (I think my class was studying a unit about the invention of the assembly line in school that week). He gave me a compassionately serious look and told me “you get out of things what you put into them.”
This all came back to me not so very long ago when seated at the kitchen table one evening rubbing saddle soap into the leather of my prized Filson field satchel
to which I had treated myself to last year thanks to my selling a few more magazine articles than I had anticipated. I remember the day it arrived from Seattle, its brass fittings gleaming against its dark brown leather - vegetable tanned bridle leather so thick and stiff that the pellets from a closely fired twelve gauge would likely have harmlessly bounced off it like hailstones off a flat rock.
The note included with it said that regular applications of saddle soap would slowly relax the leather. The owner of a local saddle and tack shop entirely agreed that it would - in about ten or so years. “You’re going to have to put quite a bit of time and effort into that case,” she said, “but if you do it’s going to be a real beauty.” So now once a month I empty it of my belongings, unhook the strap, lay it out on the table alongside the saddle soap and a few thick cloths, and spend part of the evening ensuring that the rich amber colored soap is well rubbed into the coffee brown leather.
In a world in which everything from blue jeans to baseball caps are mass produced in far-off lands in ways that make them look worn, faded, and long since broken-in the day they arrive in the shop, the leather of my satchel - made by hand not much more than a hundred miles from where I have lived my entire life - has, after nearly one year of daily use and regular soapings, just ever-so-slightly begun to yield its original stiffness.
My daughter, who will one day carry this satchel as her own long after I have “gone out of print,” often sits and watches me going through this monthly ritual. She hasn't asked the question yet - but I know it is coming one day. Until then, we just talk about matters of both great and little importance while I work on the leather. Dad meant more than he said that day - it’s not just the “things” in life into which one needs to put careful attention, but then I suspect he knew that I’d someday come to understand his unspoken meaning as well.