TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The roar of a propane tank and the clang of cold steel hammering hot red stock echoed down an otherwise quiet small-town street. It was the sound of Norman “Buddy” Thomas at his anvil forging another creation.
What started as a bright, high-carbon, 1084 steel bar blackened and glowed red as it “soaked” in the forge. Repeatedly the knife maker grabbed it with a thick leather glove and long steel tongs, turning to his anvil where he pounded it toward the shape he envisioned, then returned it to soak some more.
“It’ll be a hunter,” he said of the blade-to-be, but then paused with a nod toward fate. “That’s the idea anyway; sometimes you make adjustments along the way.”
Aside from a hearing aid in his left ear and a slight inflection in his voice, the clues are few that Thomas is deaf, a fact that made growing up in public schools in Tulsa difficult socially, he said. He can hear “a little bit of some things” with the hearing aid, and he is a good lip reader.
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This month, Thomas was named Disability Employment Awareness Month spokesman by the state Department of Rehabilitation Services, the Tulsa World reported. He wants to use that title to inspire the public to recognize disabilities are not insurmountable and inspire others like him to drive past things that might hold them back.
He has absorbed a few blows in his 37 years, but his determination makes it clear that he is much more the hammer than stock. His disability does not shape his life. He does the shaping and the disability is just a part of the life he has forged and the dreams he continues to mold.
The Tulsa native lives in Quapaw with his wife of 16 years, Sundae, and two girls, Annaleigh, 12, and Kaitlynne, 9, born three years and one day apart, Oct. 28 and 29. He owns Tree of Liberty Bladecraft and Forge, through which he has made more than 200 knives and other implements and sold them the past four or five years. He is also the shop manager and a graphic artist at Metal Fab Trophy and Screen Printing in Miami.
His Tree of Liberty business name is taken from a Thomas Jefferson quote and is his nod to the country’s founders, military veterans like his father who served in Vietnam, and his own sense of freedom and independence, he said.
The coincidence in the T-shirt shop name makes him laugh.
“It’s kind of an ironic thing isn’t it? I work for a T-shirt shop called Metal Fab when I have a passion for this,” he said as he turned to check on the bar stock in his forge.
Thomas still considers himself an apprentice knife maker but his passion is strong. Friends gather in his driveway on weekends for “forge-ins” and spend the day working on projects and sharing techniques. His anvil rests on an old stump between a storage shed and the house and his single-fire propane forge is on a temporary stand.
A small back room in his house, the one that still has bare sheetrock walls covered in dust, is where he finishes those forged blades, creates handle stock from burl wood and resin, and creates blades using stock-removal techniques like grinding, cutting and sanding.
“I put a fan in the window and towels under the door to keep the dust out of the house when I’m working in here,” he said.
He pointed to an empty corner of his backyard to share his vision for the future.
“That’s where we’re going to build the shop,” he said.
In the short term, Thomas has his sights set on the Blade Show, where hundreds of blade crafters will gather in Atlanta, Georgia, in June 2018. He registered for the first time and plans to take several dozen new knives to the show.
He’s also talked with the people at History Channel’s Forged in Fire, a television show that features blade-making competitions. He wants to earn Journeyman Smith and Master Smith ratings under the stringent testing requirements of the American Bladesmith Society and one day become a full-time blade crafter.
“The masters, those guys are really, really good,” he said. “They’re like, I don’t know, almost gods in my eyes.”
Talk to Thomas for any amount of time and it’s clear he will hammer away until that dream becomes reality.
A childhood accident took his hearing when he was 3 years old and his parents took him to a pre-school where he received specialized training in learning to speak.
“That actually kind of messed with my social life,” he said. “It confuses people into thinking you can hear, you know?”
As a result people made assumptions about him that it’s apparent he doesn’t like to talk about. He was not treated well. He instead turns to his high school years, spent at the Oklahoma School for The Deaf in Sulphur. He came home to Tulsa on weekends.
He had his first introduction to metal working there, and he also graduated second in his class with a 4.0 grade point average.
“That’s where I really blossomed,” Thomas said. “I have a lot of people to thank for everything I’ve been able to accomplish.”
His wife and daughters are at the top of that list. All three are hearing but they know sign language. “They make me so proud every day,” he said.
He said he was surprised and proud to be named spokesman for awareness of the deaf and that he wants to use that narrow window to inspire people to look beyond limits.
He has seen people in the deaf community put limits on themselves and seen the same from those he would call hearing people.
“It saddens me that (some deaf people) think they can only get to a certain point in achievement. I think the sky is the limit,” he said. “For people in the public, for hearing people, we want them to understand what it’s like for us but to feel like we can achieve what anyone else could do. There are no limitations.”
Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com