AVON, MINN. – Lured by curiosity and the prospect of metal-on-metal aggression, more than 50 veterans crowded into the shop at Ken’s Custom Iron outside of town on Friday to learn about the ancient craft of blacksmithing.
The opportunity had a distinctly military appeal. With the noise of hammer on anvil, the heat and the roaring flames of the forge, the whole thing had an intoxicating air of danger about it.
It was the second year the small custom metal fabrication company in central Minnesota opened its doors to veterans, its own modest effort to show appreciation amid the flag-draped spectacle of corporations, fast food restaurants and mattress sales thanking veterans for their service.
“What we’ve got into this is nothing to what the veterans have put in,” said owner Ken Zitur, his hands blackened with coal. “We want to give something back to the veterans who have given so much to us.
“If you are a newbie or just have a thought you’d like to try, you can come here and pound on some hot iron before you invest in a hammer and a forge. Hopefully I’ve sparked their interest so they can learn blacksmithing and take it with them for the rest of their life.”
The event last year was focused on veterans with disabilities. On Friday, it was open to anyone who served.
Zitur admitted there is no science behind his theory, but he believes blacksmithing can offer an outlet for those suffering from trauma, or anyone who might need a brief escape.
“There’s got to be guys out there, veterans, and they deserve a shot, too,” he said.
Jeremy Ketcher and Aaron Othoudt were battle buddies. In military jargon, they watched each other’s “six,” meaning they had each other’s back.
It worked for them during a deployment in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 as members of the Minnesota National Guard. They figured it would work again Friday in Avon, pounding white-hot iron bars as civilians. After some quick instruction, their effort took on a competitive feel as each hammered at the iron bars pulled from the forge.
“We were both interested in pounding on metal. So we came here not knowing what to expect. So now we are here pounding on metal,” said Othoudt, who said he arrived thinking he wanted to make an ax but quickly realized he might have to take a class to improve his skills. “This is more complicated than it looks.”
The event allowed him to spend some time with his Army pal, but it also afforded him a chance to get away.
“Definitely while you are here, you are here,” he said. “You are not focused on anything but here.”
The whole Veterans Day experience was new to Jeb Taylor. After 20 years in the Army, he’s only been a veteran for about three weeks and is still coming to grips with the term applying to him.
He came to Friday’s event with Sean Riley, a fellow former member of the 82nd Airborne Division. In fact, Taylor was the recruiter when Riley signed on the dotted line. A fly fisherman and amateur knife builder, Taylor said he can appreciate the focus needed to become skilled at blacksmithing.
“I would say there might be something cathartic about creative endeavors, and this is certainly something you can touch and feel; and at the end of the day that’s certainly fulfilling,” Taylor said.
Riley, who had deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in his 4 ½ years in the Army, described his service as “a unique and irreplaceable experience.”
When Veterans Day arrives, he thinks of it as a time to reconnect. Like in a blacksmith shop in Avon, Minnesota.
“When it comes around I make more of a point for reaching out to some of the friends and guys I served with,” he said. “It’s a nice reminder to keep in touch and see how everybody’s doing and lets the guys know you are thinking about them.”
He added: “I’ve come to terms over the years with not being able to explain what it’s like to somebody who hasn’t served. I’ve never figured out how to put it in words that someone else can understand.”