A Yankee Notebook

November 9, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – The big stake-body truck backed up to a spot near the cellar door, raised its bed, and dumped a cord and a half of green split firewood in a big pile. I had no idea of the degree of mechanization that had brought that wood to my front yard, but whatever it had been, it was over. The old-fashioned hand work was about to begin. Briefly, I considered running a Tom Sawyer type of contest: Guess the number of chunks in this pile and you get to wheel it in!  But the sequence was backwards. Like it or not, I was the winner, without even guessing the number. Out came the old wheelbarrow – How many hundreds of cords have we moved in over forty years? – and the first heavy chunk of hard maple bonked into the empty steel tray. Here we go.

Over the past 65 years I’ve perforce reflected often on the phenomenon of repetitive jobs. There’s usually nothing to do but reflect when faced with the task of transporting a large number of things or a large amount of stuff from here to there; or when asked to peel, cut, and core a bushel of apples; or when roofing a cabin a mile from the end of transportation. How the Egyptians, the Druids, and the Easter Islanders managed without the wheel is almost beyond imagining.

Enter the wheelbarrow, a creation of genius (invented, an old boss of mine used to say, to teach Irishmen to walk on two legs): a simple lever with two handles at one end and a wheel at the other. Most of us think of the regular garden variety when we hear the word, but old-timers often used a low-slung version, with a flat deck hanging almost to the ground, to move large rocks for building walls. L.L. Bean adapted the idea to the one-wheeled “deer carrier,” a stretcher with a wheel in the middle beneath and handles before and behind for two operators. With a good heavy deer strapped to it, it also helped in discovering cuss words you never knew you knew; two men could more easily drag the deer than maneuver that top-heavy contraption through the woods.

Fifty years ago I could wheel firewood as long as I needed to. The bending to pick it up, the twisting to unload it onto a pile, and the heavy walking went unnoticed in the humdrum of the day. Now, an hour or two is plenty. The knuckles complain when they clamp onto a heavy chunk of red oak, the back when it bends and straightens a few dozen times, and the legs after multiple trips from the pile in the yard to the one in the cellar. But it’s got to be done, and there’s nobody here but me, so I hope for cool weather and just get to it. To help keep the mind alive, I rehearse the Gettysburg Address, “The Ballad of Salvation Bill,” or “Two Old Bachelors,” but it doesn’t really work. Too many interruptions by mundane considerations – like, I wonder if I can handle another chunk or two on this load?

My first real job, as a pot-scrubber in a Cape Cod summer camp, was a breeze: scrub the pots, take the garbage cans to the hogs, clear poison ivy (I seemed to be immune), and scrub the garbage cans. $150 plus room and board for the season. The second, in the summer of 1951, paid far more: 75 cents an hour running a machine in an old firetrap shoe factory. My machine, which featured a tiny steel bird’s beak that pulled brads from lasted uppers, would have been shut down within ten seconds by an OSHA inspection. It occasionally swallowed a brad, heated it up, and spat it back out. My T-shirts were a mass of little burn holes. Nobody else there but the manager spoke English, so i was left with my own thoughts, if I had any, the whole day long. The following summer I got another repetitive job, but at almost twice the pay, scrubbing grease pencil markings from the screens of new GE television sets as they went by me on the assembly line.

All this prepared me well for 35 years as a contractor. There weren’t until fairly recently any hydraulic assists for unloading trucks, moving materials, or raising sheetrock or plywood to second or third floors; it was all by hand. The whole crew turned to, except for the halt and lame, to get the job done, in an endless cycle. I used to quote Hotspur’s bit in Henry IV, Part One: “Why, look you, I am whipped and scourged with rods, nettled and stung with pismires.”  Nobody on the crew got it, or to their discredit, even asked. The pismire, a disagreeable, stinging ant named for the smell its formic acid secretions produce, often carries food to its nest in the same kind of cycle. I once heard a foreman in Texas describe a gang unloading a railroad car as “Piss-antin’ lumber.”

And so we did. It was easier in a crew than alone, because you knew everyone else shared your situation, you could try to catch the man ahead or stay ahead of the man behind, and you could chaff each other whenever inspiration struck: If, for example, somebody took twice the usual load, you’d ask if he was too lazy to make two trips. Witty stuff like that.

But this week I was alone out there: load, wheel, rank,; repeat as often as necessary; put the heaviest chunks up front where they lift easiest; keep the weight low and evenly balanced (never forgetting the day I dumped a load of hot asphalt sideways into a rose bush at the Lake Placid Club); pile the biggest chunks near the furnace, where they dry amazingly fast. When the wind stirred, I could hear Robert Frost’s “...sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.”  For a few weeks the cellar will be redolent of the same aromas, but by the time I fire up the wood boiler around the first of December, the wood’ll be dry and ready to go. That boiler and I have been learning each other’s habits, and we’ve got now to where it’ll hold a bed of coals for me to rake up before breakfast and lay some kindling for a fresh fire.

Yesterday, delightfully cool, I could predict how many more loads it would take to get all the wood in. I was off by a few chunks; but finally, reaching down for one last piece, a half-circle of yellow birch, I uttered the timeless New England victory cry: “Here’s the one I been lookin’ for!”

Photo by Willem lange