My dad was a hard-case – no doubt. Build a garage, dig a sewage line, whatever it was, he never hired it out; he did it himself. If he didn’t know how to do it, he learned, then did it. Another thing about him: he was the most determined man I’ve ever met, before or since. If I’d ever doubted it, it was confirmed the day he determined to cut down a huge, old tree. It was an over-hung Red Oak that set mid-way up a steep hill; nowhere could you could stand on that hill that one foot wasn’t lower than the other.
That oak, a doughty old warrior standing leafless and alone on the hill, had taken on years and lightening once too often and had gradually died in these repeated conflicts. At its base, the diameter didn’t miss three feet by enough to argue over. Dad elected to fell it uphill. The ‘why’ is now lost to memory, the inflexibility behind his decision, never in doubt.
Early morning he began. I watched him off and on from a ‘safe’ zone he had described. He got some boards stuck into the ground so he’d have a level place to chop and to cuss. He began the long process of chopping a deep “V” – or kerf – into the uphill side of the trunk. I watched as he began: confident, well-placed arcs of power sent chunks of wood as broad as his palm flying free. He used a ‘double-bit’ [or two-edged] axe. As he drew the tool back from the tree and cocked it above his shoulder for another swing, he spun it one hundred eighty degrees so that both bits would wear equally. The mist of morning burned off, and still he worked steadily, his axe swinging and spinning, horn-locked with that huge tree; Ahab stabbing at his whale. Periodically, he’d stop to mop his brow and gulp a couple swigs of beer from the honey-brown quart bottles so popular at the time.
It might be of interest to note that Dad didn’t shirk his part in helping to make the “browns” popular. This conclusion I reached having personally viewed Certificates of Gratitude from various distilleries. He judged the difficulty of a task by the number of quarts consumed finishing it. Having dug a trench for our water main, a neighbor asked how long it had taken him. Dad looked off thoughtfully. Satisfied his reckoning was accurate, he nodded. “`Bout three quarts, give or take.”
Through the morning, this chop, mop and swig cycle repeated as I periodically checked on his progress. Shortly after noon, the first part of the job was done; a large “V” sat deep in the trunk. And still the tree stood strong.
After lunch, it was time for the chain saw. Dad was now shirtless, sweat-banded, and dripping-wet. His saw made an angry snarl as it chewed through the heat of afternoon. While cutting, Dad would look up and set his hand on the trunk, trying to detect any sign the tree was about to go – and which way. Miscalculation on a big tree could have cost him a great deal more than he wanted to pay. Dad knew, once he saw the tree start down, the best thing to do is cut off the saw and run as fast as he could – in that order; for sometimes the butt end of the tree will come after you like a demonic presence; and it moves quicker than you do.
Eventually, balance was slowly overcome, and that tree, reluctant to go to ground, began a slow leaning. It seemed to pause, set its knees and push back. But even from where I stood some distance off, I could feel the cracking through my sneakers. Mighty fibers, over one hundred years in the forming, were overwhelmed by their own weight as this giant succumbed at last to the great shouldering might of gravity. It dashed itself heavily upon the ground.
I never knew why Dad took notions like he did or why many of them came stiffened with such insistence. Felling the tree downhill would’ve taken half the time. But Dad took this notion. That mighty tree would bend before he did. And so it was.By Lucky Garvin [email protected]