The Chain Saw

Lucky Garvin
Lucky Garvin

In my early teens, when not in school, I could usually be found buried in the forested hills of our eighty-eight acres in New York State. There were spare spots in those woods, of course – the work of earlier woodsmen or the caprice of pollination – and other places you couldn’t shoulder your way past the thick growths of Black Walnut and Pine; Maple and Hickory. White Birch accented the hills but never grew in close clusters; more a stand-alone tree.

Other than the fact that we had a fireplace to fill and cold New York winters to endure, I’m at a loss to remember why cutting timber held such fascination for me. Perhaps I fancied myself a lumber-jack.

I had a double-bit axe which I taught myself to use. I found an old two-man saw which I oiled and eventually learned how to sharpen. I would tighten my axe in a vice and freshen its edges with a hand file. I wasn’t much hand at it at first, but, over time, the art came to me.

Then I would set out, blue-jeans and tee-shirt, file in my back pocket, axe held at the neck and the two-man bouncing across my shoulder. My sneakers parted knee-high grass and burst through small tendrils that ran tangled along the ground.

Soon I would be hard at it, chopping as for a coming Ice Age.

The saw proved a disappointment: it was devotedly two-man. For one “man” to draw the five foot blade through a circumference of trunk was set the saw to such a shimmy that it bound in the notch leaving me cursing and looking quickly over my shoulder to see that Dad had not walked up on me. He stood strong against profanity except when it was his turn.

Eventually, I happened onto a one man saw, but quickly decided that, while it didn’t bind as much as the two-man, it was still a good deal of work. I’d just as soon chop.

Soon I could fell a tree where I wanted it to go. Eventually, it became a test of craftsmanship. I would set a stick on the ground, then try to “nail” it with the falling tree. Then came the limbing and sectioning. This was tricky because I had to carry the log home on my shoulder. No truck. My tee shirt served as a rolled up cushion against the harshness of the bark.

Cut the log too long, and not far into the journey home, your miscalculation would come hard at you. Cut it too short and, in one sense of things, you wasted a trip. You could’ve carried more.

It dawned on me that true loggers used trucks. So I appropriated one which was close at hand. Problem: It belonged to my father. I’d run it into the woods, toss in lengths of timber indiscriminately [the truck was indifferent to the load and didn’t need a T-shirt cushion] and then back to the woodshed to cut the logs to fireplace length; and do all this before Dad arrived home. Once in the woodshed. I had to break up the chunks. Splitting firewood is a science in itself. I would set each log up on a mammoth, beaten chopping block and look carefully for a fault; strike it fairly with my axe, and know the satisfaction of split sections dropping from the block into the dirt. For the stouter logs, I used a sledge-hammer to drive heavy wedges inch by inch into the densely fibered, cantankerous grain. That hammer weighed twelve pounds in the morning, fifty pounds by noon.

Carelessness is as endemic to teenagers as acne. One day, I forgot and left the truck out. Dad arrived home and spotted it. My belly tightened to stone.

“Against the law to run it on the main roads,” he advised as he walked towards me.


He grunted an acknowledgment – and an end to our conversation -without ever breaking stride on his way into the house.

That was it.

Life with Dad, overall, was like coming ashore on a hostile beach. But, for all the problems he and I had, never once was I punished – or even fussed at – for sins committed while working; in the line of duty, so to speak. Working was a ‘free pass’ from his wrath.

Knowing Dad now knew about, and passively consented to, my use of the truck, I couldn’t get his chainsaw out of my mind; I night-dreamed about it; I day-dreamed about it. But driving a truck is one thing, cutting your leg off and bleeding to death in some remote swale on our property while your parents are off at work was quite another. Even I could piece that puzzle out.

So, weighing the fact that my father had not been consulted – and would likely take a dim view of it – and adding to that the certainty that I would either die crushed under a bucking tree, or sever some body part I would later dearly miss, I studied the matter closely and came down on the side of poor judgment. I used the saw very carefully for several weeks.

Of course, I forgot to put the saw away one day. He came home. If he ever glanced at the saw, I never noticed. Thank God! Once he goes into the house, I can sneak it back…

“Don’t cut your leg off with that thing,” he muttered passing into the porch. He turned, “Son, that’s a chain saw; it’s a tool, not a friend. Number two, it wants to hurt you bad. Number three, it’s very, very patient. To this day, near fifty years gone, whenever I pick up a saw or power tool, my Old Man’s words come back to me. I’ve never been injured seriously by a tool but…  “Remember, boy, the saw is very patient.”

The way we render memories is a curious thing. There’s some hidden force, I fancy, editing or softening the edges of reality. I suspect slogging through those blackberry vines and briars, having your breath cramped out of you by the log on your shoulder, stumbling over stumps and the irregularities of the ground, lugging the logs out by hand, having branches swat at you every step of the way, and still trying to thumb the sweat from your eyebrows before it would blur your way, was not the fun I now remember.

I rouse myself from the caress of my past. There’s a warmth in those grainy, washed-out memories. I smile at that youngster struggling so hard to win some small scrap of his father’s reticent approval. Maybe that long-ago boy didn’t choose his tasks well or his methods wisely, but he had a spirit that draws me close to him, a spirit I admire.

So now, many years later, that youngster, balding and notably less spry, is back at it. I’m cutting firewood again; the saw and me. “Herself Whom I Adore” wonders why I love to cut . . . “You going into the retail firewood business, Gahv?”

So the next time I went cutting, my mind turned to her question. The saw’s a jealous thing. You ignore her and she’ll bite you. There’s no such thing as a “clean” chainsaw cut. They’re ragged, and gaping, and hard-prone to scar. You might have spent years in solitary companionship with her, she doesn’t care; she knows nothing of loyalty. “Pay attention to me,” the laughing, spinning edges seem to say. Pay attention or suffer for your dereliction. I watch those teeth hum into the hardest oak, and I know her threat is not an idle one.

So I focus. As it cuts, a sharp chain spits out thumbnail size whittlings; later, as it dulls, the result is more a snorting of dust flumes and black smoke and sawdust. And, dropping tree or limb, mind how it will fall, for either can brush aside my two hundred pounds as easily as I move to a next thought. On these certain things you are permitted to concentrate; let your mind stray further at your own peril.

And with that, all other concerns in my life become subordinate to her present threat. So, like years long ago, I cut and drop and limb; I section and split and stack. I cuss and I sweat. I hurt and I puff. And I rest; and, cloaked amidst the roar and the smoke and the sawdust, I find an oasis of peace, and I give thanks to that young boy who taught me true joy of it all so many years ago.

By Lucky Garvin
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