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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Wood Smoke

Today I remember Rob and John.

He smelled the wood smoke before he saw the house. It brought back many memories. Funny how the olfactory glands sparked memory, fired up the brain, rekindled a childhood. The road hadn’t changed. He knew each pothole, each turn, and each rock. It had been a while, two decades since he’d been here and yet it was so unchanged. Trees were wider of girth, some were felled to protect the power lines, another hit by lightning, and some new ones just starting out. He could still name the trees he had learned as a child. He stopped at a familiar place that showed the start of a path into the woods. A path he would use to escape and to fantasize a future life or to while away the day. He built forts in those woods. He built tipis of fallen trees. He tried to assemble a treehouse in a rather massive oak, without success because he refused to use manufactured wood, just found wood. He got a platform of sorts constructed, but that was it. When he discovered a hunter used it as a blind he destroyed it. They posted the land after that.
He looked in the rearview mirror to see the dirt road he had just come down and was reminded of how he used to ride his bike on this road to escape into town or to go to a friend’s house. He loved the ruts and the hills and the turns as he pretended his bike was a motorcycle navigating a motocross course. He winced in pain as he remembered the day he came around a corner face to face with a delivery truck and ended up on the hood. His face was lacerated, his arm broken, and the front wheel of the bike destroyed. With his face pressed to the windshield, he saw the terror on the driver’s face. He then knew what terror looked like. His dad took him to the doctor’s office, admonishing him all the way for not paying attention. The bike was fixed, his arm was fixed, his face was fixed; but it was a couple of months before he was fixed and able to ride his bike again.
He turned his head to peer down the path and recalled how many times he followed it to another adventure. Sometimes he carried fresh cut limbs or took things with him in a backpack. He had this saw that folded up like a jackknife and he would use it to cut saplings or dead wood so he could construct a fort or a tipi or fashion a walking stick. He was careful what he cut. He would forge though the low brush cutting as he went to create a path, not too noticeable, but a path he knew existed. He would make turns, circle back, and go in a direction away from a final destination so as to prevent interlopers happening upon him suddenly. He learned this from the turkey he’d chased through the woods after a snow. The turkey went in circles, never a straight line and when the turkey came to a tree with a fork in it the turkey would jump through the gap so that the fox chasing it would get hung up because of its belly. This was when he realized how smart the turkey was and understood why Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird. He wondered if his paths and forts or tipis still existed.
His dad had taught him how to use a chainsaw, how to split wood, and how to stack it. They used wood from their land to heat the house. His dad wanted to use wood to cook, but his mother nixed that idea. They did have a wood stove dad would use to slow cook his venison stews and keep a kettle on to provide the needed humidity in a house that burned wood. He used the oven to heat food rather than the microwave. Dad still liked to keep a foot in the past and that stove reminded them of that. Mom liked the stove when she had a party and needed more stove space to keep things warm or to do the slow cook. But she relied on the gas stove to cook, no electric stove in this house, and the microwave to reheat her cooled coffee and make popcorn. He remembered dad taught him how to make popcorn on that stove and by the time the popcorn was ready so was the melted butter. Later he found the microwave more convenient. His dad never ate that popcorn and he found he threw away more popcorn than he ate unlike the popcorn they made on the wood stove. How and why did it taste differently?
Dad and he would go into the woods and find a tree to fell. After a careful selection, which included type of wood, always a hard wood, location within a grove of like trees so they’d be thinning one out so others could grow better, and ease of felling it. After a few years, dad would let him choose a tree. Once chosen, dad hugged the tree, mumbled something, and then started up the chainsaw. Dad taught him how to make the wedge and then make the final cut to bring the tree down with a crash and without harming its neighbors. Dad would then cut the remaining stump at ground level and the boy would place that stump in the wagon they had brought to haul back their first cuts. Dad would cut the tree into logs for easy transport back to the house for splitting. The stumps would serve as the chopping block for that tree. Dad would limb the tree and the boy would haul the limbs into the woods and pile them up for safe havens for small animals fleeing larger predators or just for homes during a winter. There were many such piles littered about the woods in various forms of decay depending upon their age. The boy used to go around in the warm days to see what critters actually took up residence. He never found any animals, but he did find remnants of nuts, animal droppings, and fur where they bedded down.
They’d haul the logs home, stack them for further cutting and then splitting. The boy learned to bury the wedge with a light tap of the maul and then in two maybe three whacks split the log. With each tree they chose a different pattern to stack the wood. Sometimes between two trees, free standing in a crisscross pattern, or the combination of the two as they built crisscrossed columns and stacked the wood between two columns. Dad rarely covered the stacks. He would use thin limbs cut to the length of the stacks and place them on top like a ridged roof so the snow would not collect on the stacks. The air would do the rest to age the wood. It was some of these limbs the boy would use to make his forts or tipis and that treehouse platform.
He sat there in the car and remembered the day he felled his first tree. As they were walking in the woods looking for the tree to fell, dad turned and said, “Today you are going to pick the tree, fell it, and then cut it up for transport.” During their previous trips, dad had gone through this process; he would talk out loud so the boy would learn the process. Dad was teaching the boy. It was similar to Samuel Clemens recalling how he became a Mississippi River boat pilot and obtained his new name, Mark Twain, in his Life on the Mississippi. The boy, like Twain and most students, listened but not as carefully as he should have. It was another reminder that we learn by doing. The boy found a tall and straight ash tree amongst many and decided this grove needed some space. Dad approved and so the boy fired up the chainsaw and cut the wedge and then made the final cut as the tree fell gracefully and softly. All went perfectly.  He cut the stump, which his dad then hauled off to the wagon. He and his dad had changed jobs. The boy proceed to limb the tree when all of a sudden he found himself lifted off the ground, out of breath, with a screaming chainsaw flying by his head, out of his hands only to land sputtering to a halt a few yards from where he ended up on his butt gasping for air. Just before the accident, he heard his dad screaming, “NO!!” The boy had made a cardinal error. He was positioned all wrong and he tried to cut a trapped limb he should never have cut. It was spring-loaded and when he cut it the cut limb sprung right at him and caught him in the chest.  It could have killed him. Father and son sat there for a while assessing the situation and dad retrieved the saw and asked if his son wanted to continue. The boy knew that when he fell off the bike, he had to get back on. He applied this logic to the chainsaw and fired it up and deconstructed that tree with respect and skill. Dad took him to the doctor to assess the damage admonishing him all the way for not paying attention. Nothing was broken, but he would be sore for a few days. He gained a special reverence for that tree as he split the wood. When he placed the first log from that tree on the fire that fall he mumbled “thank you.”
As he sat in the car, he touched his chest and remembered the pain. He felt his heart beat and smiled as he remembered the night he lost his virginity in front of the fireplace. He was a junior in high school and a popular girl took an interest in him. His parents took off to the big city two hours away for a party. They weren’t going to be home until three or four in the morning, so he decided to bring his girlfriend over to eat popcorn, watch a movie, and makeout. One thing led to another and he lost his virginity while they lay on the floor in front of a roaring fire. As he drove her home in silence, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek and told him not to worry about her getting pregnant because she was on the pill. He didn’t even think about pregnancy or any other complications that may arise. He was stunned into silence at what just happened. He didn’t know that this was the last time he’d have sex with her or any woman until he went to college. In a few days he felt itching and then saw a rash developing on his penis. He told his dad about it and dad asked his son if he had sex. The boy was embarrassed when he said yes. Dad drove him to the doctor admonishing him all the way for not paying attention. The doctor remarked at how quickly the boy had grown up and gave him some ointment and a prescription. His dad gave him a pack of condoms with the filled prescription when he came out of the drug store and told his son to use them the next time he had sex. He instructed his son to put one in his wallet, which wasn’t used until his freshman year of college when a girl put it on him so she wouldn’t get pregnant. It was much better lovemaking.  He and she had a good first semester of college. He wondered where she was now.
He had sat there long enough and resumed his journey down that familiar dirt road. When he turned the last bend in the road, he saw the house, the source of the wood smoke and smiled. He stopped the car and just watched the smoke escape the chimney, follow the ridgeline, and meander into the woods to defuse into many streams as a warning to the trees that this is what they may become one day.

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