2017-12-01 / Features

Steady Hands

Woodworker Ron Ream can’t see his own creations.
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

Ron Ream stands in his dining room, ticking off the pieces of furniture he built by hand in his modest house in Aaronsburg.

“I did the cabinets in the laundry room. [My wife] couldn’t wait that long for me to make the kitchen cabinets,” he says with a chuckle. “But I made that extension table — you can put three boards in it. I made the corner cupboard out of cherry, and then the server out of cherry, and the jelly cupboard out of cherry. And the couch table over there.”

He is nodding in the direction of his handiwork as he goes, every piece an example of the woodworker’s excellent craftsmanship and attention to detail.

“And then there’s the washstand over there in the—” Ream pauses suddenly, turning toward his wife, Candace, in the kitchen.

“Where is it, in the corner?” he asks her.

“Yeah, where that light is turned on,” she says with a smile. She isn’t speaking to him, though; he can’t see the light, the washstand or his wife’s smile. Ron Ream can’t see anything at all.

Ream, 75, was born and raised in this speck of a town just past Millheim on Route 45. Apart from four years spent in the Navy and another few working on aircraft in Pittsburgh and then New York, Ream has called Aaronsburg home his whole life. He knows the forests and farms around here by heart, with one small quirk: Everything in his mind’s eye looks about the way it did in 1976, the last time he saw any of it.

That’s the year he suffered two terrible losses in quick succession:  First, his infant girl died of complications with her lungs, just after a seemingly trouble-free delivery. Two months later, Ream headed out with some friends for an afternoon of turkey hunting and was shot twice in the face by another hunter’s double-barreled shotgun.

“I heard the shots — Boom! Boom! — and I remember red going across, that had to be the blood in my eyes, but that was it,” Ream says of that November day’s tragedy. The pain brought him to his knees; he was alone and at least a half-mile from his car, his buddies scattered along the neighboring knobs and gaps of the gently sloping mountains. Don Witherite, Ream’s longtime friend, was out there that day.

“I can remember hearing shots but I was down low, I had no idea it was a member of one of us [who got shot],” says Witherite, who had another commitment that evening and left the area before Ream made it out of the woods.

Luckily, the stranger who’d shot him realized his mistake and came rushing to Ream’s side. The man helped Ream to safety while insisting that he’d shot at a turkey and Ream had gotten in the way. (Ream is certain no turkey was nearby.) An ambulance was called and Ream was rushed to Geisinger Medical Center, where he began his new life in darkness.

“It was shocking, devastating,” says Candy, who had married Ream 18 months before and was still reeling from the loss of their daughter.

Witherite heard the news the next day, and visited his friend in the hospital.
“It was tough to see him like that,” he says. “I knew he worked in a body shop on automobiles, and I was thinking ‘How is he gonna handle a job?’”

Witherite was half right — Ream didn’t last long at his old job. But he quit because a beloved hobby was ramping up into something that would provide an income and, more importantly, a new sense of purpose.

The man who’d made a living working on airplanes and fixing cars had also long dabbled in woodworking, occasionally asking a local cabinetmaker for pointers. It was a skill he was determined to return to after relearning his way around his home and workshop. His first project was a picnic table for his two stepdaughters, and as local friends and family saw his handiwork, orders for picnic tables began piling up. Over the years, that expanded to include everything from gun cabinets to dining room tables.

He doesn’t design his own furniture, but can replicate just about anything that already exists. “A lot of times if somebody wants something built, if there’s a piece like it somewhere, I feel it, measure it and I pretty well know what they want,” he says. “I have a good feeler.”
Building, sawing and sanding by touch rather than by sight is a slower process, but one that brings him great satisfaction.

“You have to just respect the tools. You can’t be afraid of them,” he says. The first sizable piece of equipment he bought was a radial arm saw, which he has since worn out and replaced. Today his workshop is equipped with all manner of professional woodworking tools, behemoths with blades. The space is as dusty as any other, but darker than most. Everything has a place and is carefully returned to its home after each use — a necessity for Ream.

Measuring, he says, is the most difficult part of woodworking blind.

“You can’t just put a mark down there and saw something off,” he says. “You gotta go through all this other rigmarole.” That “rigmarole” involves using his thumbnail as a guide, along with a folding carpenter’s ruler that has a grooved metal extension, which he carefully positions against the saw blade before he cuts.

“I nicked myself a couple times. I’ve brought blood in the house,” he says, explaining how he wraps duct tape around the wound before heading back out to complete his task. “When Candy comes home and sees a roll of duct tape out, she knows I did something.”

Candy Ream serves as her husband’s eyes when he needs a hand picking out boards with a certain grain or without blemishes. “It’s still hard when he makes something and has boards mixed up and you have to tell him. That part is still very hard,” she says. “But do I stand out there and watch and inspect? No.”

Seeing his finished pieces is always a reason to marvel, but watching the process is something she’d rather not do. “I still don’t like the planer. I still can’t watch him do that,” she says. “He’s always been really careful, but I don’t hang out there and watch him, because it’s scary.”

Ream’s workshop is just steps from his house, allowing easy access to work on projects at his own pace, which he admits has slowed in recent years. When he isn’t woodworking he can be found fishing or playing cards, two other hobbies that needed workarounds after his accident. He punches his own braille letters and numbers into his decks of cards. His friends are good about calling out their cards as they lay them down, and not only is he sharp enough to remember every card placed on the table as the game wears on, Witherite says, “he’s reading the cards that you still have in your hand.”

He’s largely given up fishing the streams around Centre County (“I get my bait [hung up] in the trees.”) in favor of casting from a boat. Ream grinds off the tip of a sewing needle to form a tiny fork, over which he lays his fishing line and pushes it through the hook’s eye — a real time saver.

“When you spend all that time out there and the guys are catching fish and I’m still trying to get the line through the hook,” he laughs, describing the frustration of attempting a simple task he once took for granted. It’s a genuine laugh without a hint of bitterness, which Candy says was there just about from the beginning of this new journey.

“He hardly ever took pity on himself or said, ‘Why me?’” she says. “He is forgiving. He’s never said, ‘You ruined my life.’”

“It’d make it a long day if you did that,” he replies.

In a world where you can be defined by what is taken from you or by what you give back, spending time with Ream makes two things clear: The first is that the most impressive thing he’s built, by touch and by faith, is the life he leads.

“It’s just so humbling that he can do something to make other people happy, and seeing his finished products is just absolutely amazing, knowing that he can visualize it in his mind, but he can’t see [them],” Witherite says. “The guy is just an amazing individual.”

The second is that although he spends his days in darkness, Ron Ream gives off light. •SCM

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