Every time I sand a piece of wood, I think of Alan Carmichael. As the scoutmaster of my Boy Scout troop (122), he surely imparted many important life lessons to me, but all I remember is pumice. It came about during a discussion of neckerchief slides. The slide was a place in the Boy Scout uniform where we could show a little personal style, and hint at coolness. Scouts who had been to Philmont Scout Ranch, for example, could sport a Philmont neckerchief slide to indicate that they had hiked the high peaks, and you hadn’t. World Jamboree attendees could show real class with an exotic slide they had picked up in a swap with some scout from Finland or Italy.
Then there was the handmade slide. A favorite was the cross-section of a tree branch. This rough circle or oval of wood grain, carefully sanded and finished, conveyed a heady mix of nature, woodcraft and handiness. Alan Carmichael was the master. His wood grain was beautiful, and the surface as smooth as glass. We all knew how to use progressively finer grades of sandpaper, but nobody could duplicate Alan’s results.
At a troop meeting one evening I said, “Mr. Carmichael, how did you get your slide so smooth.” Everyone stopped talking and leaned forward. Alan looked at each of us carefully, and said softly, “Pumice.” Our questing expressions said, “Tell us more,” and he continued, “After the finest grade of sandpaper, I use a clean cloth, a little pumice and a circular motion.” To this day, my benchmark for smoothness is Alan Carmichael’s neckerchief slide. I’ve come close, but I’ve never equaled it.