Caveman Al: Figuring it out

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Caveman Al lives and works in a small apartment, or “cave,” in the back of a building on Commercial Avenue in downtown Anacortes. It doesn’t need to be large, because everything he creates is miniscule.

Even his business card, on which he refers to himself as a hermit, is only 1 x 1.75 inches. It states his first name only, not because there’s no room for his last name, but because he won’t divulge it. “I have no secrets,” he says, “but I want my work to stand on its own.”

Al was born in 1934 in Adna, Wash., a small town outside of Chehalis. He is the middle of 3 sons. “I’m the Jr.,” he says, explaining that his older brother Neil was named after someone other than his father.

At the time of Al’s birth, his father Allen was a bus driver, teacher, and principal at the local K-12 school, and his mother Lorene was a housewife. Later his father worked as a YMCA and USO director, and his mother worked part-time in retail “counter sales.”

Over the years, the family moved from Adna, to Spokane, to Seattle, to Ellensburg. “My father continually got better jobs,” says Al.

When they lived in Spokane, Al was set to start first grade when he came down with rheumatic fever and was sequestered at home for almost a year. Sweeping his arms around his workshop, he says, “That’s when all this started.” To keep him occupied, his parents gave him pieces of cardboard, a pair of scissors, and bottles of glue and paint. His first project was a miniature school bus.

“I’m so fortunate I had the parents I had,” he says. “They recognized my talent, and fostered it. They gave me everything I needed." He spent countless hours at his worktable in his bedroom. “My mother would scream when she saw it,” he says, “because it was so messy. But it was my special place.”

When his younger brother Gary got rheumatic fever a few years later, he was hospitalized over Christmas. The family wanted to put a Christmas tree in his hospital room, but that was not allowed, so instead Al made him a miniature one.

Although Al started first grade a year late, he made up for it when he skipped 7th grade, in Ellensburg. About that time, he saw a ¾-size wood shop at Sears and immediately coveted it. “It included a table saw, band saw, joiner, drill press and lathe,” he says, “for only $390.” Still, that’s what his father made per month.

Unbeknownst to Al, his father signed a contract to purchase it, because Al was under the legal age to sign a contract himself. But Al signed one anyway, thinking that he could, and the salesman played along. “It was one of the neatest things that ever happened to me,” says Al.

Al paid for it himself, earning money doing odd jobs at the YMCA, working as a secretary, janitor, and teaching what was then known as “tumbling.” From then on, his special place became his basement wood shop. “I wasn’t very social,” he says. “High school classmates told me later that they didn’t know what to make of me.”

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(Walnut Manor)

Al graduated from Ellensburg High School in 1952, and went on to college in Ellensburg at Central Washington College of Education (now Central Washington University), where he majored in commercial art and joined the ROTC.

“ROTC was mandatory at that time,” he says, “because of the Korean War.” He refused to wear his wool uniform because it irritated his skin, and alienated the ROTC major. (Al has since been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and skin sensitivity is sometimes one symptom of the condition.) The vengeful major ensured that Al was drafted into the U.S. Army.

By then his parents lived in Anchorage, Alaska, where his father worked for the USO. Shortly before Al was drafted, knowing that he would be, he went to Alaska to join his parents.

Alaska was not yet a state. “There was a law at the time that said if you were in Alaska at the time you entered military service, you had to serve in Alaska,” says Al. “I guess they figured you could take the rugged environment if you lived there.” He went to boot camp at Ft. Richardson and then was stationed at an inland post then called Big Delta (now Ft. Greely). Al was in charge of sports and theater activities on the post.

After serving 2 years in the Army, Al returned to Seattle, where he worked in the camera department of the Bon Marché, starting off as a salesman and working his way up to buyer. He worked there for 8 years.

He got married in 1962 and a year later the couple had one child, their daughter Monica. When they divorced a few years later, Al got custody of Monica. Al soon remarried, becoming father to 4 stepchildren. Eventually that marriage also ended in divorce, but Al remains good friends with his second wife.

Although Al has no formal training as an engineer, that is what he became. When stereo systems were first being marketed, he got a job at what is now Magnolia Hi-Fi in Seattle, selling turntables, tape recorders, amplifiers and speakers. While there, he designed and developed an innovative switching system, enabling his employer to connect various components so different brands were more interchangeable.

Then he went into wholesale electronics, working for companies in Washington and California; twice tried unsuccessfully to start his own businesses, in Washington and Texas, where his brother Gary lives; and finally found job security as a temp in the electronics field, working steadily for a variety of companies, bouncing around several states working on special projects.

Al’s first wife settled in Sedro-Woolley, and their daughter Monica often drove up from Seattle – partly to visit her mother, and partly because she loved Skagit County. Tragically, in 1985, Monica was killed in an automobile accident on one of her visits. She was 22 years old.

Al retired after working as an electronics temp for 15 years, in 1989. For a while he drove around the Northwest in a mobile home, his residence and workshop. He parked his mobile home for several years on 6 acres in Bothell, where he collected 6 antique Saab sports cars, each painted a primary or secondary color: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.

Finally he decided to explore Skagit County, to see what Monica had loved about it. He understood immediately, and leased his current premises in July of 1996.

“Everywhere I’ve been,” he says, “I was trying to climb to where I am now. I’ve achieved total happiness, total peace of mind, and total love for what I do. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and start working.”

Accompanied by the music of Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, Al designs houses on a computer, in Turbo Cad on Windows 98, as if they’re real houses, then he assembles them in miniature. Everything is exactly to scale: room size, furniture, people, and landscaping. “I see in scale,” he says. “I want to create something that if you see a photo of it you can’t tell if it’s real or not.”

He also designs many of the tools he needs. “Most of the fun is figuring out how to do it,” he says, “and to make the things that help me do it." Al keeps close track of his time in a well-organized notebook. His sculpture called “Out to Lunch,” a temporarily abandoned construction site, took him 8,127 hours over 8 years to create. “Walnut Manor,” a hexagonal 2-story home with removable top story, took him even longer.

His favorite piece is always the one he’s working on at the time, but technically, he’s most proud of “Maple Tree.”

To make leaves, he refers to photographs for accuracy, reproduces them in miniature on his computer, prints them out on vellum, and cuts them out one-by-one with small chisels. Then he paints them a realistic color and glues them invisibly to the branches of the tree.

Everything Al creates is for sale. Some pieces are made on spec, others on commission. For commissions, he and his client agree on a price beforehand.

Al’s Gallery of Small Sculptures is located at 615½ Commercial Avenue, phone 588-0827. For more information visit Caveman Al's Web site.

Teru Lundsten is a freelance writer and personal historian. To view more of her work and read about the services she provides, visit BriefLives.net.