Tom's Corner

Discovering Today
Tom Irons

Chapter 7
Tucson & Glass

       “July 13, ’79 Last day @ TRW” … Reads the first entry in a journal I started upon leaving TRW. The Long Beach house was in escrow, and as soon as that closed I planned to make a quick trip to Ohio for a family reunion before heading to Arizona.

       The journal continues:

“Friday 27 July 1979: Today ended two and one half years of planning and work. It marks the completion of the first step of my realizing the goal of building my own home on land of my own. Today escrow closed on the house in Long Beach. I was given a check for $26,913.80, a very nice profit for two and a half years of energy. After tying up lose ends I headed the toy truck east and this evening finds me in Needles, California. Tomorrow I’ll aim for Amarillo, Texas. It’s hard to realize that I’m unemployed and free — strange how I fight that feeling— the need for security is so great. I like being on the road.”

       In the coming years I’d retain the love of the open road and find myself needing less and less security. Ultimately I saw the lie behind the myth; there is no such thing as security in em-ployment (or for that matter, in life either).

       I had said my good byes to friends and pointed my Toyota truck toward Ohio. I had Anna Lee Waldo’s newly released tome of Sacajawea on the seat beside me. I had freedom in my heart, and the Charlie Daniels Band on the tape player was knocking out the fiddle duel of "The Devil Went Down To Georgia".

       Driving east I felt like I had the world by the tail. I knew that I did not want to ever again have to dance to Corporate America, nor have to answer to someone else’s beck and call. I wanted to be free to set my own schedule, chose my own path, and live my own life. By now I knew the fallacy of declaring ‘I will never’ but it actually came close to happening that way. In years to come I would recognize (those few times) the value of short-term employments outweighed my concept of personal freedom. Those times weren’t many in number but did hold high value to me.

       The only fly in the ointment was the fact that I’d had to leave Gayle behind. I had chosen to make a try in Tucson and did not know how our relationship might play out. I had hopes that she would chose to join me once I was established.

       The visit in Ohio was a good one, but most of my family seemed amazed that I had sold the house in Long Beach and left TRW for an unknown future in Arizona. I couldn’t explain it because I didn’t understand much of it either. I simply knew it was what I had to do. I had started on the path to learning the oh-so-valuable lesson that sometimes you have to simply trust in yourself and in the Universe.

       It was during this visit that I took a drive out to the old farm and stopped to speak with Gene Winemiller. Gene was an Ohio farmer and both Mother and I felt that Dad would have liked this hard working man. He had taken the time to walk all of the fields before making an offer on the farm. I believe he could see, as Dad did, the potential of those 287-tillable acres. As the years passed I saw how Gene continued to buy up neighboring farms just as Dad had said he wanted to do. Gene was a short, heavy set man with a florid face constantly burned raw from the sun, wind, and dust of his fields. I believed him to be a man of integrity, and one who took pride in his work. In the course of showing me all that he’d accomplished I spied an old cast iron bathtub and asked him why in the world would he let something like that lay around in a field? Didn’t he know what those things were worth? He explained that it hadn’t cost him anything and figured to maybe use it for watering cows. “Why?” he asked, looking between the tub and me. “You want it? If you want it, you can have it- but you’ll have to load it by yourself. My back went south about a week ago and I can’t hardly lift a beer.”

       I told him, no, I didn’t want to take his tub, as it was valuable. If nothing else he could sell it and turn a pretty penny.

       “No,” he insisted, “If you want it and can use it, go on ahead an’ take it.” Then I saw a grin slowly spread across his sun and wind burned face.

       Thinking there must be something I didn’t know, I declined again to take the tub. Again he insisted that I have it. “Yep, if you can load that tub into your truck all by yourself it’s your’n.” Then I knew. He was thinking I’d never be able to lift those 400-pounds of cast iron and glass glaze. I harbored some vague, hazy, guilt-like feelings but at the same time, an adult was definitely challenging me; someone I looked up to and wouldn’t mind impressing.

       “OK, if you’re sure you don’t need it. I will put it to good use.” With that said, I climbed in my truck and backed it up near to the old tub. I climbed out from behind the steering wheel and hauled my ever-present horse blanket along with me- a possession of extreme value when dealing with cold, rain, hot asphalt, injury, or just plain nap time. After lowering the tailgate I draped the blanket over it. Surreptitiously eyeing Gene, I squatted down to the tub, grasped one edge and slowly stood up. One end of the tub came with me. Once I had it vertical and balanced, it was only mildly awkward. Using a back-and-forth movement and simultaneously shifting the 400-pounds, I slowly walked the six-foot tall hunk of iron up against the blanket-covered tailgate. I let it rest there while I jumped up into the truck bed. After warning Gene to step back for safety, I simply levered the top of the tub down. The bottom of the tub slid back and the tub fulcrumed at the mid-weight point as I guided it onto the blanket that was stretched out underneath. It was an easy task to slide the blanket and tub up near the front of the truck bed, roll the tub over 180-degrees, and wedge it against the bed wall where I could tie it securely.

       Before climbing down from the truck bed, I carefully shook out the blanket and folded it up. All through the loading process I had stolen glances at Gene. The initial look of amazement I had noticed as I ‘walked’ the tub toward the tailgate had never left his face. Now he stood looking at me, a smile wrinkling his round red face. “That was a pretty neat trick. I’d say you’re definitely your father’s son. I never met him, but since I started working the farm here I’ve run into a lot of people who thought pretty highly of him. Your Mom, too.” We talked for a few more minutes until work pulled Gene away. I drove slowly back into town with the prize tub and a little larger ego than I’d started the day with.

front row Richard, Frances, Mother, Alice
back row Tom, Fred, Nancy


       The road-trip west was uneventful and easy. I was thrilled to be heading toward unknown prospects, a new and different future, and freedom. In a few short days of travel I found my self submerged in the stifling heat of the southwest. The summer sun beat down without mercy on the quiet Tucson valley as I wheeled my Toyota truck down Sunset Road toward Jack and Liz’s desert home. Reflected waves of heat cast dancing mirages along the horizon; graced by four mountain ranges. Armed saguaros seemed to be waving to me as I scooted along the dusty jeep track. I had lightness in my heart and a song on my lips; Waylon Jennings, "Amanda", and I were coming home once again.

“12 Aug: Arr Tucson”

       My journal entries are short, many in my bastardized shorthand, and there are long lapses at times, leaving the reader to fill in the background as best as one can. In re-reading this splotchy history, it is apparent that I’ve always been careful not to commit to paper anything that would incriminate or embarrass others or myself.

       The event that allowed me to even consider returning to Tucson was a December surprise of 1978. About a week before Christmas, I received a phone call from Jack. He, Liz, and their new son, Aaron, were in the area. They had been on their way north to spend the holidays with Liz’s family, but had been stopped by vehicle problems. Jack explained that Liz refused to stay with his folks and they couldn’t afford to get to hers’. “Can we stay with you for the holiday season?” he asked.

       “How does Liz feel about that?” I wondered aloud.

       “It was her idea,” came his surprising reply. It was hard to believe, but no amount of voiced doubt from me could shake Jack’s certainty that Liz did indeed want to stay with me.

       “Well, sure, I mean, if she really wants to,” I stammered. “I do have a spare bedroom but it’s small and not very well furnished.” Jack assured me that was “no problem.”

       By the time they drove up to the house, I had decided that the right thing to do was give them my room, the master bedroom, with its big king sized water bed. I took the little spare room with the single bed and no furniture. They made no attempt to discourage my offer. For the next two weeks ,I provided food and housing and even gave Jack some money for Christmas gifts.

       It was this time spent together, I suppose, that encouraged Jack to approach me the following spring with the idea of our teaming up to earn money together when I got back to Tucson. Now, here I was.

       The morning after my return to Tucson and after a quick breakfast, Jack ushered me into the small laundry room he had tacked onto the west side of the house. He proudly showed me the diamond, stone, felt, and cork wheels he had purchased with the $500 I sent to him. The wheels were mounted on short pieces of lumber that had been nailed to the exposed wall studs. Old rusty motors were attached to the wheel mounts with V-belts. “I used cooler parts like we discussed,” Jack announced proudly. “A lot of the stuff I had laying around. What I couldn’t scrounge I bought from Grainger.”

       The rest of the morning he showed me what he’d learned about hand-beveling glass. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. With in a few days we discovered that we needed horizontal wheels to complement our vertical set up and when we started discussing this, Liz entered into the conversation and put her foot down. “I want my laundry room back.” She allowed no room for discussion on the subject. Truthfully, Jack and I agreed with her. When we’d moved the dryer outside, it rested against the west wall in the sun and rain and was available for all the pack rats in the neighborhood to make into a wonderful condominium.

       So, Jack and I went out in search of a building to house our ‘studio’. It didn’t take us long to locate and rent a tin shed near Arizona Feeds. For $125/month we had 300 square feet of rough concrete floor, corrugated tin walls and roof, and a sliding door that we could put our own padlock on. There was no insulation, no heat, and no way to keep the dust and wind from whipping through the place. Dust and dirt are mortal deterrents to producing quality bevels because they can cause scratches in the surface of the glass by sticking to the wheels. When we started making mirrors, we became aware of just how important a dust free environment was. We liked to claim that until mirroring, the word ‘scratch’ wasn’t even in our vocabulary.

       Our landlord was an old, crusty, ragamuffin named Pete who was constantly trying to find ways and logic that would support his cause of raising our rent. We had to continually threaten to move out when he tried to change our initial agreements. After a couple of months we agreed to pay an additional $30 a month to cover the excessive electrical costs he claimed our equipment created. Still, he harped at us. Finally I got so upset with his need to bicker I told him to go ahead and install an electric meter, (which he already had threatened to do) and we’d pay the going rate for each kilowatt we consumed.

       When the next month’s electric bill arrived, much to Pete’s surprise and our satisfaction, we had not quite used $20 worth of energy. Naturally he decided he liked the $30 a month system better. We told him to forget it.

       Soon after reaching Tucson I located a small two-bedroom apartment down in town. It meant a significant outlay of cash each month, but I was not about to repeat the experience of staying with Jack and Liz for an extended period of time. She might be making friendly noises now, but I did not trust her for the long haul. Also, I wanted the freedom having my own place would afford. I could envision entertaining a lady now and then and wanted to have a comfortable place to do so.

       Through the fall months I had been actively seeking a piece of land that I could purchase. I’d told Jack that I’d be willing to front the money to build a studio that would house our growing business and provide me a small place to live. The idea was to find a parcel of land close enough to his place such that he could walk to work. He agreed that he would help me build it as I had helped him build his house in 1975. It seemed like a great idea.

       In mid-December, a FOR SALE sign blossomed on a 5-acre parcel of land just down the road from Jack’s driveway. Bruce Wachter, a neighbor, called to tell me that he had seen it on his way to work that very day. Jack and I immediately padlocked the workshop and raced out to the prospective property. Perched on the corner of Sunset and Sunset and sprouting dozens of saguaros, native Palo Verde, and multiple types of cacti, the piece of real estate was deemed a very possible site for our needs. The land was twice as long as it was wide and had two washes trisecting it that raised concern about available building sites.

       Our next action was to physically remove the FOR SALE sign, hide it under a nearby Jojoba bush, and call Bruce. He was a professor of geology at the University and very savvy about desert construction. He had offered to walk the property that evening with me if I found it of interest. I took him up on the offer.

       Purchasing real estate is seldom simple and this transaction was no exception. I had multiple conferences with a lawyer friend of Jack’s to deal with the existing deed restrictions (the realtor had told me there weren’t any when I questioned him on the matter). At the first attempt at closing the escrow officer asked me if I was aware of the restrictions. I said I’d been assured there weren’t any. Upon learning the truth I forcefully ejected the realtor from the proceedings and asked for an extended closing date. Two months later, after the drama subsided, I was the proud owner of five beautiful, natural, unblemished, Sonoran desert acres.

       Logistics for construction began almost immediately. I had a small driveway scraped from Sunset road south to the selected building site taking care to avoid damaging any major plants. A water line was run from the nearest main, and this required 1500 feet of plastic pipe. An electric panel was erected such that it could be mounted on the block wall that would face north. I then began drawing up a building plan.

       As the days progressed, Jack and I split our time between the construction site and the workshop. Then Liz announced that Jack had to find a paying job since we did not have enough income from the glasswork for them to live on. I could see and even understand the reality of Liz’s demands. It was quickly determined that Jack’s idea of repaying me for the work I had done for him in 1975 was not a viable option. After some discussion, it was decided that I’d hire Jack to work with me. One of my big concerns was that I would not have the building completed in the six months time frame required by Pima County; another was that I did not want to hire a work crew. I knew that my little stash of money would evaporate quickly when I started buying construction materials. However, paying Jack for his help served two purposes: 1) it allowed us to continue construction on the new studio together and 2) it met his income needs.

       Whether it was glass or concrete block, we worked together and grew closer as only good friends can.

       We quickly tired of hauling our tools back and forth to the worksite so I bought a small tin shed that we erected nearby. Poor, naïve fools that we were. The first Saturday night came and went and the tools went with it.

       Summer came early as we dug, cleaned, and poured footers, laid up stem walls and readied the foundation for the pouring of the floor. I was certain that having a well-finished floor was important to dust abatement for a glass studio. I wanted to be able to sweep it without fighting lines and rough spots. Neighborhood friends came on the day I’d scheduled the cement truck. I’d arranged with John Calentine to be the straw boss for the project. I also brought plenty of iced beer.

       When the truck drew up to the site- Bert Leach sidled over next to me and quietly said, “You might have the driver drop just a small pile of it so we can see what we’ll be getting before committing to the entire load.” As the cement slid down the chute I knew immediately that what I was seeing was no way near satisfactory. The sand and gravel to cement ratio was far out of balance. All the men agreed I should reject the entire load, which I did, immediately.

       “It just needs to mix a bit more,” The driver whined.

       “Mix all day and you won’t improve on that mess,” one of the men spat.

       “Well, I can be back with a new batch in 20 minutes,” The driver assured the group. “But I can tell you the boss ain’t gonna be happy what with you rejecting this an’ all.”

       “I don’t care what your boss feels, just bring me a batch we can use.” I told the driver.

       With 20 minutes to kill, we all decided to test the beer while we waited. Good to his word, the mixing truck topped the hill just north of the building site 20 minutes later. “Any bets on quality?” Bob Lockyre asked the group.

       “Yeah, I’ll bet he just added some cement and water,” Came from Joe Dorner.

       A second test pile proved to be no better than the first and we heartily refused that truckload, too. “Now I know the boss isn’t gonna be happy,” warned the driver.

       A quick discussion with the group of men ensued to examine the possibilities. I quickly raced off to Jack’s house to order a load of concrete from Tucson Sand and Gravel. Pulling up to the site in a cloud of dust I announced to the men, “They’ll have a truck here in less than 30 minutes.”

       “Good enough,” someone said, “that gives us time for another beer.”

       Just as we were popping the tops on another beer, a pickup truck trailed by a billowing cloud of dust topped the hill and clattered down the road toward us. Slewing the battered Ford F-150 to a stop in the middle of the road the driver threw open the door and leaped from the cab. I stood up and started to walk toward him before seeing the name of the company on the truck door; B&B Concrete. This was obviously the ‘boss’ who was “gonna be unhappy.” I stood and waited for him to cover the distance between the road and where I stood.

       “You the guy who rejected that concrete?” he demanded as he continued to shorten the distance between us.

       “Yeah, I guess I am.” I stated in a level voice, noting that he was slowing his approach as he drew nearer. Glancing over my shoulder I realized that the other five men had all stood and were moving quietly up behind me. It must have been an impressive sight because by the time the angry ‘boss’ drew to a halt in front of me, he had lost most of his steam and all of his bluster. “There’s nothin’ wrong with that ‘crete. I been mixin’ an’ sellin’ ‘crete for over twenty year an’ never had a load rejected.”

       “Well, hey, first time for everything.” Joe Dorner offered before I could respond. Snickers and a couple of outright laughs followed Joe’s sage observation.

       “I’m not buying it, I don’t want it. Tucson Sand will be here any minute,” I told the man. “ You might want to move your truck before they block you in.”

       Mumbling and swearing under his breath he turned on his heel and departed, stomping off across the desert toward his truck.

       Five long hard hours later I had a beautifully finished slab. Carefully scribed in one corner was: T. Irons 6-’80.

       The one hitch in my get-along came when the county inspector failed my attempt at plumbing. Jack and I had consulted a clerk at Payless Cashways Hardware and Lumberyard who assured us he knew how to plumb and could walk us through the process. He sold us elbows where sweeps needed to be, inch and a half pipe where two inch was required, and he forgot to mention the need for a vertical vent. It was no wonder we failed. When the inspector indicated all would be well if I simply crossed his palm with a few bucks, I played dumb. “No problem. You just tell us what we have to fix and we’ll fix it.” I assured him.

       Two days later, after making all the necessary corrections and having them checked by a friend who had extensive plumbing experience, I called for a reinspection, smug in the knowledge that we had done everything the inspector had pointed out as problematic. Before he had even closed the car door he announced, “I can see from here you’re not ready for a vertical pressure test.”

       “We sure as Hell are.” I shot back. And we were. I had been walked through the test by a neighbor and everything was ready.

       “Well, you didn’t change out that elbow there.”

       “You didn’t say it needed to be changed. It was just fine with you two days ago. Besides, it meets code”.

       As he stood in front of me wiping his left palm with his right hand and looking down at his shoes he said in a plaintive voice, “I sure wish I could think of a way to help you here. I’d hate to fail you over one or two connectors. Yeah, I’d really like to help.” Looking up he rubbed the thumb of his left hand across the fingertips and flashed a toothy smile my way.

       Then I became certain of what he wanted, and I simply lost it. Grabbing a handsaw from the nearby pile of tools I turned on him. Extending my arm out in front of me so that the saw touched his chest just under his chin, I started it vibrating so that it smacked the bottom of his chin and his chest. When he realized he was under attack he backed toward his car and I followed every step of the way. By this time Jack was trying to call me off. Convinced I was making a big blunder, Jack started dancing around me and pleading, waving his arms and doing his best to get my attention. In later years I would come to wish I had listened to him. Had I simply paid the inspector off, I would not have had the challenges I had to deal with regarding the septic system for the next 25 years. But right then I was seeing red. I told the inspector to get off my property, and not to ever set Just as we were poppingfoot on it again if he valued his life.

       As the dust cloud from the inspector’s car slowly dissipated across the desert, Jack asked the big question, “What are we going to do now?”

       “We’re going to dig up this drain-waste pipe and get rid of it. Then we’re going down to the county offices and remove the plumbing from the plans,” I announced angrily. And that’s what we did. Over the years I would plumb the building in small increments. It was not until 1985 that I completed the septic system and indoor bathroom.


Sept 12 (1980) Completed roofing Bought electrical eq.
  14 doing elect & going well
  17 Passed electrical final
  18 Completed bldg for county—await final
  19 Bldg Finaled—doing plumbing
  20 Started moving shop
  23 Built loft
  25 Moving of shop completed just a couple of small jobs to do to finish getting operational. V/B tonight. Our team, “The Eruptions” won 6 games. League should prove to be fun. Bought insulation for living area today will start that tomorrow.”



       We worked the entire summer and on the 28th of September, 1980, I moved my few personal possessions into the new studio. Being free of playing rent on the apartment was really important for me, and living in the desert was even more so.

        The studio was quite rustic as a home went, but it had tremendous potential as a work place. My intentions had been to build strong and for as little money as possible. I had no experience in doing finish work, so none was accomplished. I figured I would be able to finish the place in the coming years. Due to the plumbing inspection fiasco there was no toilet, but I had plumbed in a kitchen sink. In the studio I had placed Gene Winemiller’s large cast-iron bathtub. For showering, I nailed a garden hose onto the end of a roof joist on the south side of the building. This worked well until early December when it became too cold to shower outside- even in the early afternoon.



       The living area I allotted for my needs was 10 feet wide and 20 feet long downstairs, and the overhead loft was 10 feet by 13. I used a three-burner propane camp stove and a crock-pot for cooking my meals. I chose a stainless steel bar-sink to serve as the kitchen sink because of its small size and $5 price tag. I made a plywood counter and shelves to hold my food and the few dishes I owned. A used refrigerator completed the necessities of my culinary requirements. Knowing that I would eventually want to improve the features of the kitchen, possibly needing to lay in new pipe for plumbing someday, I installed a temporary red brick paver floor. It was a cheap, fast, and satisfactory choice for me.

       Windows throughout the structure were small, too small, and the interior of the living area resembled nothing so much as an animal den; dark, musty, and cramped. The west-facing windows looked out onto a raised berm wall. I had employed this method because it reduced the effects of the afternoon heat.

       I knew just how brutal the Arizona sun could be, and wanted to use as many tricks as I could to reduce it. A four-foot roofline overhang extended to the south to keep the summer sun from hitting the long south wall. The upstairs peak resembled a wedge of cheese- I figured the natural slant would direct the hotter air inside the building in a natural flow up and out the windows. The studio roof contained six-inches of fiberglass batting and six inches of dead air space. All of these tricks allowed me to use low-cost evaporative cooling instead of the expensive air conditioning most new homes had as a matter of course.

       Each night I’d climb the steep ladder to the loft, pick up my bedroll, climb through the window opening, and sleep on the roof under the stars.

       It was a tradition that on Sunday mornings most of the neighborhood would gather at John and Mary Calentine’s to play volleyball. John had created a court on the desert floor and covered it with sand. Some of the cacti had been trimmed back, but there still were a lot of dangerous spines lurking just off the court. Cholla could, and would, ruin a volleyball with just one sticker. Once an errant ball had touched one of these numerous and large plants, the ball would have to be filled with a goo to cover and seal the inside bladder or it would constantly lose air. With the extra weight and stiffness from the goo, the ball became heavy and hard, stinging and hurting the arms or fingers of the players. More protective fencing went up, out-of-bounds balls were chased with greater alacrity, and we encouraged each other to strive for careful hits.

       When I arrived on the scene I offered to show the players how to bump, dig, and spik using three hits each time the ball came over the net. This was a new concept for most of the athletes and drew some criticism. Some of the community embraced the idea of quality ball while others simply wanted to “have fun.” Mary Calentine was the one who found the Pima College class in volleyball, and six of us signed up immediately. On our first day of class we met Mark and Jane McCabe, a couple in our age group, Roger Hawk and his lady, Terry, who were a few years younger than us, and little Danny Wilhelm- a close friend of Roger’s.

       As the semester drew to a close the instructor, Betsy, encouraged the class to form teams and to sign up in the citywide recreation program. This was the birth of the ‘Dust Devils’, our neighborhood team and Roger’s team the ‘Eruptions’, which I would be invited to join in the next league. In subsequent leagues, more of the neighborhood would join until we took the torch from Roger and carried in into the mid-1990’s.

       During this time, in the studio, Jack and I were producing beveled glass panels. Jack had made a rubbing of a design of an old panel he saw in an antique shop in southern California and the owner had said if we could make good reproductions of it he would buy every panel we could make. It was this design that taught us how to cut ¼-inch plate glass and how to bevel. The construction of the first panel was the hardest and took the longest to accomplish. There were cuts so intricate as to be almost impossible. Jack was, by mutual consensus, our expert in glass. He had taken a short workshop in Phoenix from a well-known studio. When he started cutting the plate glass for the bevels, he would arrive at a point that he could not go beyond and I would take over for him. Sooner or later, I’d achieve some degree of success, show him what I’d learned, and he’d resume the challenge. It was this fashion of encouragement and support that allowed us to get through that first, beautiful, sparkling work of old world art. The memory that always comes to the forefront is of Jack standing on a pile of glass shards, at a table which is covered with glass fragments, his lower arms sparkling with glass chips, his cutter in hand, as he exclaims, “I think I’ve got it!”

Jack with beveled panels



       In June of 1981, to the newest song from John Denver, "Some Days Are Diamonds", I made (what turned out to be) the last trip to California and Gayle. For some time, we had entertained the idea of marriage. She had come to Tucson to look at the possibilities for her there, and I had spent time in Orange County looking at the job opportunities for me there. Both of us checked out schools for her boys. Earlier in the year, she had explained to me that she couldn’t move to Tucson because the schools were extremely inferior to those available in California. I had to agree. I had personally visited the Marana high school and saw for myself the abject inadequacies of the district. Now, she had told me that she’d found a man she planned to marry. She felt I’d like him. He owned a gold mine in Arizona. I understood, but the pain was overwhelming.

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