Full disclosure: Ol’ Whitey got a soft spot in his brain for Jarheads, the result of an emergency lobotomy as a young child, performed arthroscopically with a stainless steel cattle syringe by his USMC combat engineer uncle Will (Mom’s baby brother), home on leave from Nam. Uncle Will survived the war, eventually attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. His wife, Aunt Dolores, a no-shit Tennessee State Senator, is also a retired Leatherneck Light Colonel. Unsurprisingly, staunch Republicans both.
Here in Flagstaff we got our very own Vietnam-era Devil Dog named Wil—spelt with just one “l” at the end—and this one is a damn sight more personable than my uncle and aunt. Talkin’ here ‘bout Wil McNabb, founder and chief craftsman at McNabb’s Fine Jewelry Studio at 18 North Leroux. Fifteen-hundred square feet of baubles and bangles and rings and things, some made local by McNabb, others concocted by a dozen hand-picked artists in the U.S and overseas.
I stumbled in one day looking for a leather watchband to fit my bottom-of-the-line Rolex Oyster Perpetual self-winding chronometer. Found me a black one. Been back two times with broken bracelets, on orders from Miss Yum Yum. McNabb’s fixed the clasps in a timely manner for a reasonable fee, prompt and professional.
McNabb the man came to Flag just after high school in the mid-1960s to attend NAU and escape his allergies to the Bermuda grass in Phoenix. A self-described “good student, but not an overly enthusiastic one,” he soon tired of his classes in the business school and joined the Marine Corps looking for adventure.
Boy howdy did he find it. His first 13-month tour of duty, in ’67 and ’68, got him a front row seat at the Tet Offensive, first in Hue City, then on the last convoy into Khe Sanh before the NVA slammed the door shut. Radioman McNabb experienced that historic siege from inside the wire, eatin’ issue rations thrown off the back ramps of C-130s that couldn’t land ‘cause of the incoming artillery. He skeedaddled with the last trucks out, when the Top Brass decided to evacuate ‘cause the place was no longer worth fightin’ for. His second Southeast Asia tour—at Phu Bai in ’69 and ‘70—was somewhat less exciting: his unit was “only rocketed occasionally.”
Back in the States, McNabb worked stocking shelves at the long-since-gone El Rancho supermarket on Route 66 (current home to Designs West furniture) until local jeweler and Korean War Army Veteran Jim Anderson took him under his wing. “Always good with my hands,” McNabb found he had a knack for the trade. He developed his skills the old-fashioned way, time in grade, eventually attaining certification through the Gemological Institute of America. A couple more stints working for others, and McNabb opened his own shop, first in a small back room at the Flagstaff Artist’s Cooperative, then in the mid-1990s at his current location.
Presently it’s a team effort. McNabb’s wife Sue handles sales and arranges the display cases. Watchmaker Tom Woodall brings 48 years’ experience to the table. Tall drink of water Tina—the stalwart bench jeweler, not the alpaca from Napoleon Dynamite—takes up the slack. McNabb does a lot of commission work these days, and his bespoke rings command anywhere from a cool grand up to several thousand bucks. Not bad for a one-time grocery stock boy and erstwhile USMC Sergeant.
The Marine Corps secured its long-term future with Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Former (never “ex”) Marines of note include actor Lee Marvin, PBS NewsHour plankholder Jim Lehrer and two-time Medal of Honor winners Sergeant Major Dan Daley and Major General Smedley Butler. Daley lead a WWI assault at Belleau Wood, France, shouting, “Come on you bastards! Do you want to live forever?” Butler retired and wrote the classic political pamphlet, “War is a Racket,” more relevant today than ever. You can find this short treatise on the internet, and I highly recommend reading it.
I also strongly suggest a stroll through McNabb’s store. He does sell some mighty fine jewelry, and you never know what might grab yer fancy. Artwork of any flavor is always a worthwhile purchase, and rings, bracelets, earrings and necklaces are the best way I can think of to decorate your body, short of a good tattoo. Of course, if you go out in public you should prolly wear clothes, too. Just sayin’.