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Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker, by Roy Underhill

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, VA

Roy Underhill is many things—woodworker extraordinaire, teacher, author of woodworking and public speaking books; many have called him a saint. But Roy is now even something more—a novelist. And what an entry into the world of fiction! Imagine yourself in the midst of pre-World War II Washington, D.C., then a sleepy cowtown, not yet the pressure-packed, high-paced fishbowl it has become. Ho hum. Can't be much going on there. Seems like a sure recipe for boredom, doesn't it?

But Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker is no dreary recitation of the daily grind of public servants at their bureaucratic routines. Racing—and I do mean racing—through its pages is a dynamic and wholly unexpected tale of mirth and mystery that is frankly hard to put down. A quick read, Calvin Cobb takes you on a wild ride through 1937 Washington's social and political scene.

The setting itself—reflecting Roy's famous wit—is preposterous on its face. Calvin Cobb, naïve and reserved, is chief of the Broadcast Research Section of the Department of Agriculture. You think you know what that means, don't you? Well, you're probably wrong, and you'll have to read the book to understand why Calvin and his all-girl team put a supercharged tractor to work, only to end up with you-know-what on their faces.

Calvin's team is precariously housed in the tower of the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House. In their high perch they employ punch card tabulators to process the results of their research, all the while developing their capacity of their machinery and advancing computer science to new levels that provoke the envy of others.

A chance encounter with a fascinating woman leads the reserved Calvin, who's studying Dale Carnegie on how to improve his social skills, to try his hand at broadcasting—as a radio woodworker, of all things. Despite Calvin's doubts about his program's value, his audience grows rapidly and requests for plans for each show's project start rolling in. Calvin's whiz team adapts their computer to keep pace with the inquiries as the show's popularity blossoms and the mailbags requesting plans grow to burgeoning but unexplained numbers.

Thrown into the mix are an unpleasant encounter with the FBI over the matter of a misplaced digit and a charge that Calvin has bilked the government of millions of taxpayer dollars. A wild ride to escape the police on the back of a vintage Indian Scout. A trolley ride to fashionable Glen Echo Park, all the while smelling of pig dung. A frightening encounter with government auditors who threaten to shut down his section, all because—can you believe it?—Calvin's pet rat ate his audit report. Midnight encounters with a gifted woodworker who moonlights uninvited in Calvin's workshop and whose Stanley no. 45 combination plane Calvin admires.

Fun, fast-moving and filled with vivid though sometimes arcane period details about farm machinery, computing and radio equipment, government agencies and cat faces staring out from marble walls, Roy creates unique and engaging characters whose fate propels the reader's interest from one chapter to the next. Yet despite the heavy overlay of humor that pervades the story line and many of its details, the novel also bears a valuable social message as Calvin confronts the racism and anti-Semitism of the day.

The ending, which I won't reveal here, is both dramatic and—like the rest of the book—absurdly humorous. A wild ride indeed!

I have but a single criticism. A former Department of Agriculture employee like Calvin, I only wish Roy had waxed eloquent over the marvelous white oak doors and transoms that line the many halls of the South Agriculture Building, once the largest office building in the world. It is a point of humor among USDA employees that the regular, almost cell-like arrangement of offices along the red tile-paved halls reflects the design proclivities of its architect, who also built Leavenworth Prison. But even lacking these architectural features, Calvin Cobb is so richly detailed that it readily transports the reader into the midst of that earlier time and place.

To conclude, I will pose two questions. Will you enjoy this book? The answer to that is a resounding "yes"! While the book makes recurring references to woodworking techniques and tools, this is by no means a woodworking book. It is, instead, a farce with lots of human interest and flights of fancy. As a result, both woodworkers and those with no interest whatsoever in our favorite avocation will find this book a pleasant diversion, no, a total hoot! In other words, you can give a copy to your spouse or partner, expecting them to revel in it and you can then read it when they are finished. But the even bigger question is this—now that Roy Underhill has gotten a first novel under his belt, what does he plan to do for an encore? Just as was true for Calvin Cobb, his eager public awaits his answer.

CLICK HERE to order your copy of Calvin Cobb: Radio Woodworker

The reviewer is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living with his wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who believe they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He can be reached by email at .

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