STARTUP, Wash. — Above the orange glow of a portable heater hangs a shiny didgeridoo. The long wind instrument of Australian aborigines fits right in at Art King’s eclectic workshop where everything, including the wide planks beneath his feet, seems to pay tribute to woodcraft.
Walking sticks, many topped with large carvings, line two walls in this curious room that somehow manages to be cozy in December’s cold.
King lives in the hamlet that is Startup, pop. 676 more or less, a community of wide open spaces that’s a stark contrast to the state prison in Monroe where he worked for 30 years as a corrections officer.
He’s 66 with boyish blue eyes. He wears a straw hat inside his shop and spins yarns as effortlessly as he whittles sticks.
His stories zigzag through time, revisiting his childhood on 200 acres in the San Juan Islands where his family made money for the kids’ school clothes by hunting rabbits.
He still goes back to the islands to tend a cemetery where generations of his family are buried.
The walking staffs are hewn from cascara, vine maple and diamond willow.
The carvings are gleaned from Goodwill stores, garage sales and wherever else King and his friends happen upon them.
King puts them together with care. He calls these creations dignity sticks. He gives them away to two groups of people he has always respected: the elderly and veterans — and often elderly veterans.
He once gave one of his walking sticks topped with the carving of a horse to a woman in a wheelchair whose legs had been amputated. She told him she cherished the gift. It took her back to a time in her life when she rode horses.
It was a man living at a local rest home who gave him the idea to give the sticks to veterans. Two of the man’s sons were Vietnam War veterans.
“He just asked, ‘Would you mind making them one?’” he said. “It was something humbling being able to do that for them.”
King, too, had wanted to serve in the military. He didn’t qualify.
“I had asthma very bad and they wouldn’t take me,” he said.
Last summer, King spotted Army Sgt. 1st Class Dave Sivewright running through the Skykomish Valley carrying a large U.S. flag on a staff.
King rolled up behind him and told him he wanted him to give him something. Sivewright later stopped by King’s home. He left with a dignity stick.
One thing led to another and King was introduced to Randi Bowman and Christina Nelson, who work for the state Employment Security Office in Monroe. Bowman, who spent more than eight years in the Army, works with disabled veterans.
King gave Bowman a dignity stick topped with a symbol that carries deep meaning in her life.
“It is a wooden combat boot and it is beautiful,” she said. “When I was in the Army, I got blisters on my feet all the time. I bought my girls a T-shirt that says, ‘My mom wears combat boots.’”
Now, Bowman keeps extra sticks in her office, which she hands out to veterans.
She remembers the reaction of one vet in particular.
“He held onto that stick the whole time we were talking,” she said.
Nelson has seen veterans, many who endured hardship upon their return home, reduced to tears when they are given their own walking stick.
“For me, it was a moving experience. It got to me a little bit,” said Gerry Gibson, an Army veteran from Sultan who served in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart as well as two Bronze Stars. “Everybody really appreciates it.”
Gibson is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Stoehr Glidden Post No. 2554 in Sultan. More than two dozen fellow members received dignity sticks as part of a recent Veteran’s Day ceremony.
King has grand hopes for the dignity sticks. Someday he would like to see inmates at the Monroe prison make them. He has known skilled artisans there and figures it can be a small step toward atonement. For years, he assigned them tools and admired their craftsmanship. “I know for a fact they can do beautiful work,” he said.