On a summer evening, while eating supper, my dad would sometimes say “Ma, how’s about you pack us a picnic lunch tomorrow for cuttin’ fire wood?” I would stop chewing whatever was in my mouth and just LOOK at my dad. My heart would start to beat faster and the bite of supper I had in my mouth turned into a gigantic cotton ball. Oh, God NO!!!
Cutting firewood was always done on a hot and dry summer day. My dad had a ’66 Ford pickup that he had stuffed a diesel motor in to. This was before it was cool to have diesel motors in pickup trucks. He had an old canopy on the back of it so that we could ride back there and he could haul things under cover. The poor old thing would go anywhere and he was SO proud of it. I always laughed when it came rumbling up the road. It was one of those sounds a person hears and instantly looks up to see what’s coming.
He would load his chainsaw, a gas can that looked as though it had been through a hay baler, an old ammo can from the war in which his blade sharpening file and extra chainsaw blades were stored in and an ax into the bed of his truck. My mom would come out of the house with a picnic basket in one hand and a round aluminum Thermos water jug in the other hand. Dad would place them in the back of his truck, my sister and I would climb into the cab and away we went. This was quite a job as dad’s truck not only had the usual gear shift but he also had a 2-speed brownie transmission gear shift sticking up through the floor about a foot. One of us had to sit with our legs toward the passenger side of the cab and it made for a horribly uncomfortable ride. As soon as we were situated he would turn the key and the old Ford would rumble to life. He’d look over at us and say “AND we’re OFF! Like a herd of turtles!” I would laugh and my sister would roll her eyes and away we went.
He always cut firewood in the Gifford Pinchot national forest of Southwest Washington State. It took us about an hour and a half to drive up to McClellan Meadows. Up the Columbia River Gorge through Stevenson and on up into Carson. I knew we were almost there when we got to the big corner at Old Man’s Pass. I started looking to see if I could find my gloves I had stuffed under the seat on the last trip while my sister starred out the window.
The only air conditioning we had was the kind you had to roll down. The person sitting in the middle of the truck seat, with both windows down got a steady flow of air from both windows being down, which was nice when you were on pavement. When you got on a gravel logging road it became dust being blasted on you constantly and it went EVERYWHERE. Up nose, in my ears and down my throat. I tried to keep my eyes closed most of the time to try to keep the dust out of them, but I still ended up rinsing grit out of them when we got to where ever it was we were going.
When we got to the wood cutting area, dad would slow down and start to look for firewood logs. We would pass a clear cut with other wood cutters already set up and cutting. My dad would mumble under his breath “Sons-a-bitches”. Uh-oh, this meant we would go where there was no one else and cut our firewood there. This particular time he found a place about 20 feet up on a hill from the road. He stopped the truck and said, “There we go!” I know my jaw hit the floor and my sister let out a long, irritated sigh but dad parked the truck up the road a bit and said, “Let’s get at it!”
He gassed up his chain saw, checked to see if the blade was sharp and started up the hill leading up from the ditch to where the firewood was. To this day, I still don’t know how he saw a firewood log up there from the road. He managed to find the worst places to cut where there wasn’t a “Chinaman’s chance in hell” of there being anyone else around. It was always in a spot that was hard to get to. We would see other families cutting wood where the logs were lying near their rigs, being able to cut the logs up and throw them right into the back of their trucks. Easy! Not us, dad seemed to think it made us better kids if we had to suffer when cutting fire wood. As if wasn’t already bad enough!
Once he got up on the hill I hollered up to him and asked how he was going to get the wood rounds down to us. DUMB QUESTION! He says “Oh! I’ll give ‘em a shove down and you guys stop them from rolling across the road and down the other ditch. What?? All I can see happening is my sister and I getting squashed by huge rounds of wood. I asked him how we were supposed to stop them and he says for us to put our foot up and stop the round as its rolling across the road. Then he said we could find a big branch, hold it on the ground and let the round roll against it. That THAT would work too. I have NO idea what my dad was thinking or if he was just testing how tough we were, but we got ready to catch wood rounds as dad got his gear ready.
He fires up his McCullough chain saw and pretty soon, here comes the first round. Dad yelled “Here it comes!” Both of us froze. I had found a big limb in the brush and my sister had decided to use her foot to stop the wood round. As it came crashing down the hill, I got ready with my limb to stop it. Just before it hit the ditch, I chickened out and stepped to the side. It landed with a THUD, bounced up a little and luckily stayed in the ditch. We got the idea of standing each round of wood up on its end so with each one we built a wall of wood that would help to stop the others as they came crashing down the hill.
On those blistering, hot days up in the Timber, the dust and the bugs stick to you like glue, especially when you’re doing anything physical that makes you sweat. By the time we took a break for lunch, all of us were covered in dust and dirt. Dad lifted the old wicker picnic basket and water jug out the truck bed and we all had a nice long drink of that ice cold well water from home. That water was so wonderfully cool and felt so good going down. I started to drink too much and dad warned me “Better not chug that or you’ll get a belly ache”. I’m here to say, that at NO time when I was hot and thirsty did I EVER get a belly ache from drinking water too fast! It was one of those things parents always said that never made sense, but had a hint of warning and you listened immediately.
As we ate our lunch, the bugs would gather around us. Little black flies would come from every direction, landing on us and our food. They would buzz around our ears, try to get to your eyes; I’m sure I swallowed at least one with a bite of lunch. Mom had packed the usual, baloney sandwiches, homemade cookies and a few apples.
After lunch, we worked until there was a full load of wood for the old truck. We got all the rounds loaded up and could finally head home. The trip back home was the exact reverse of what it was heading up into the timber. Heading back down the gorge, there is a big old cedar tree just past a tiny little place called “Skamania Landing”. More of a wide spot in the road, but there was a store with a tiny café in it. Anyway, when I would see that cedar tree, I got excited, because I KNEW we were almost home! To this day when my husband and I drive up that way, as we pass that cedar tree, I always point out, “there’s my tree!”.
Getting home meant a whole other job started; unloading the truck. Dad would get his chainsaw and all of its stuff out and we would climb into the back of his pick up and start unloading wood. At first it was easy, just shove it out the lowered tail gate and it would hit the ground where it would be split up later. But then, after you get so many chunks on the ground they started to stack up. My sister would usually stay up in the truck shoving wood out the back while I was on the ground moving wood rounds out of the way. Of course, she would never really stop shoving them out of the bed of the truck while I was moving them and having the chance of maiming me with a chunk of wood was too good to pass up. She always managed to smash a finger or squish me in some sort of way. This was ok of course, as I would happily have done the same thing to her if it had been the other way around. Finally! Our job was over and our day of wood cutting was done. We could sit down for a while before supper and rest. I know as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was out like a light.
I think about going for firewood now as I sit in my air-conditioned home and think very fondly of those days of cutting firewood. Although my sister still makes me ABSOLUTELY crazy and knowing how awful the dust and bugs were; I would happily go one more time with her and my dad. Just to be around the smell of the timber on a hot summer day, to listen to the wind blowing through the tops of the trees; the funny “thud” noise your feet make as you walk through them. Even to hear the sound of those horrid flies buzzing around my head. It’s funny how some of the things I hated most as a kid, are now some of my most cherished memories. How I would love to go back to those times, just for one more day.