A Loggers’ Nightmare

Rescuing the Rescuer

The sounds and smells of the lumber site accentuated by the heaving sweaty horses twitching logs to the skidway, sawdust from freshly cut pines, the saws and axes as they took their toll, the steely sound of sledgehammers strategically tapping wedges, the warning cry, “Timber!” followed by the whoosh and thud that transformed a tree into a log, all contributed to a never to be forgotten scene. There was always the hearty but subdued chatter, guffaws and camaraderie among the employed hands. My father, Albert, was the employer for these logging events. Harry Evans had his turn as boss during the haying season in the summer, since he was the dairyman on our mountain. His small Holstein herd produced raw un-separated milk that provided the richest cream imaginable, a third of the way down the traditional glass bottles. Lyman Boyce and his son Junior brought their magnificent team of near perfectly matched Belgium draft horses to the task. The red-brown and white equines were always curried and combed to perfection and added a certain class, a theatrical quality to every tree cutting. They were born to and seemed to love pulling heavy loads and were often inspiring in their efforts. Lester Knowles possessed a physical strength that surpassed all expectations based on his slender, sinewy body. We marveled over his capacity to lift, lug, pull or heave Olympian poundages like huge rocks, logs stuck between two stumps or a mired vehicle with the need to be freed that would intimidate two or even three average men.

We had come to own nearly two hundred acres of fine timberland by inheritance, passed down from my great grandfather, John Savage and grandfather, Edward Colby, and this lumbering was a supplemental means of providing for our family. It was exhilarating to me at fourteen to be welcomed as a helper into this environment by my father and the lumbermen who assisted him in these operations. Granted, I was pretty sturdy for my age and physically confident, having played varsity football and baseball the previous year as a high school freshman. There were regular compliments on, and confirmations for, my developing skills with the double bitted ax, crosscut saws and peaveys or cant’ hooks that aided in rolling and lifting logs, even though my tasks were generally confined to clearing brush, limbing the fallen logs and topping them off. I was a peer, one of the lumberjacks! The crew always seemed comfortable with my father’s inclination to reward me with the same proportionate share of profits from the board feet that we delivered to the sawmill.

Even though it was taken for granted at the time, I recall with admiration the workers’ pride in being able to guide a falling tree in such a way as to not unnecessarily damage the smaller trees not yet ready for harvest. They were conservationist, because they cared, long before the term became popular.

Unlike Northwest loggers where the common practice is for climbers to ascend the tall trees in order to top them before sending them on their fall to the forest floor, the practice was not common in our neck of the woods. Occasionally, however, it was decided that in order to avoid damaging a potential log due to its length or surrounding terrain, Ben Downing, a thirtyish ner’-do-well, yet reliable worker, would be called upon to perform the task, to assume the risk. He always attracted the anxious attention of everyone as he strapped on the climbers’ spikes, donned the safety straps surrounding his middle and the tree’s trunk while fastening the ax and saw to his waist that were required to do the job near the top.

Tensions lessened as Ben drove home the spikes, waddling confidently upward without hesitation, misstep or mishap. As he climbed it was necessary for him to remove the old dry protuberances that were once lush limbs of pine in past years, leaving the tree smooth to the bark. It was another event and we spectators shouted up our, “Atta go, Ben” and there was a smattering of applause, and we watched with fascination as he chopped the requisite notch on one side of the tree, influencing the direction the top would fall. Then, after securing the ax to a short line that dangled it along his right side, he grasped the saw that hung from his left hip and proceeded to cut through from the opposite side of the directional cut.

Suddenly it was apparent that everything was going dangerously awry. The heavy foliage at the top of the tree didn’t break away as expected but the fresh, new, moist wood quickly split and the two halves in separating pulled and crushed Ben to the trunk. He was obviously helpless. There was no chance, no hope, that he’d be able to push or pull the pressuring pole segments together. His ax and saw rendered useless as a means of escaping. In spite of the pressure on his chest he managed to calmly call down, “I’m going to need some help here.”

We all knew what had to be done, but as each member of the group looked one to the other, there was a sense that no one felt capable or equipped to scale the tree and cut him free.

There was no way of shimmying the height, there had to be climbing spikes, safety straps and most importantly the ability to overcome the fear of height and the cutting maneuvers that would free of our friend.

I’d always wanted to climb and most of the men there had seen me strap on the stuff a couple of times, but had been generally and gratefully discouraging about exceeding ten, fifteen or so feet. Ben was at least forty feet up there.

He knew what we needed and croaked out the fact that he had another set of climbers in his tool shed. Dad rushed to his pick-up and headed for Ben’s place which was five or six miles away.

During the wait for his return, it was pretty well decided that I was the one most inclined and equipped to attempt the rescue. Adrenalin was flowing, the butterflies in my stomach were way out of formation and the trembling wouldn’t stop. Everyone had encouragements and suggestions as to what to do and how.

It wasn’t long before Dad had found and returned with the spikes. They were time worn, a bit rusty, obviously dull and were missing some of the regular straps that would have been tightly bound around by lower leg.

Quickly, Lyman brought assorted lengths of hemp rope that he kept available for whatever happenstance might arise. The smaller diameters of line were crudely assigned to the climbing braces and a one-inch thick line that had to suffice as my safety strap was jury rigged around my waist and the trunk of the tree. Sooner than expected I’d been made as ready as I’d ever be to start the adventure.

My previous attempts that had taken me to cautionary heights, though tentative and a bit clumsy, seemed to provide me with just enough confidence to start the ascent. A somewhat confident young lumberjack had become a fearful, overly challenged and unpracticed steeplejack; a bit of step from the general plan.

Grasping the hemp that circled the trunk, I flipped and pulled it firm a couple of feet above my midline, lifted my right spike and drove it through the bark for purchase and pressed up through the first step, then the left for another few inches of progress. Another flip, pull and press, another still, and I was six or eight feet into the effort and already fatigued. The dull spikes had required two or three attempts at getting a good purchase to step up on, and my left leg was comparatively inept at establishing a foothold. Any image of my gliding up the tree by rhythmetically slinging the safety line, swaying and stepping up into its security was rapidly dissipating.

The groundlings’ encouragements and reassurances had already taken on a different tone. “Atta go, kid!”, “You can do it, Mose!”, “You’re gettin’ the hang of   it!”, began to sound hollow, doubtful, even Pollyannaish.

And then I heard Ben’s strained, almost breathless but calm voice. “There’s no hurry, I’m O.K., take your time.” I doubted that he could even see me since I was directly under him and he was jammed up against a very thin round wall of wood. But he knew what I was experiencing, knew what I needed to hear, he’d been there, certainly in his beginnings. “Don’t hug the trunk, lean back away… Keep your arms and legs as straight as possible…Let the safety rope work for you… No need to hurry… If you slip or fall, it won’t be far, only to the cinching point! Find your center and rest. I’m O.K., Take your time… Focus on where you are and what you’re doing.” Then, with a bit of an ironic chuckle, I heard him say the most helpful bit of information of all, “You’re not going to fall and even if you do, there’s not much difference between fifteen feet and forty.”

The climb would have undoubtedly been a bit easier if I’d had the proper equipment. The dull climbers didn’t hold a few times and as I fell or slid down to the cinch, my grasp on the rope painfully scraped the backs of my hands against the rough bark and there was a disconcerting amount of blood.

Ben was blessedly able to repeat his instructions and reassurances throughout the time it took to finally reach him. I’ve never been certain that I would have made it without his calm, patient manner and stifled, non-stressed voice. He was the hero of the day as far as I’ve ever been concerned.

Reaching him was much less than half the job. I had to pull the saw, still dangling from his left hip, up to a position where I could finish the cut that would separate the offending foliage above the split in the tree. Then there was the descent.

There was over three hundred pounds of humanity clinging to this spot, and Ben knew that when the top separated and fell there would be a considerable sway in the opposite direction and then back again.

It only took four or five strokes with the saw for the very top to cut away.

The split in the tree, which extended down eight to ten feet, snapped shut like an alligator bite and Ben was free. The pole swayed a frightening ten feet or so and then back again. My mind slipped to a frightening image of the tree snapping below us because of our combined weight. The ride was over quickly. We were still. Celebratory sounds from below were pleasant but pointless. We still had to get down.

I had to lead the way because of our safety gear and it was every bit as difficult as the way up. There would be no dramatic repelling… It would be slow, sluggish, slipping, step by step. Ben’s continuing coaching was helpful even though it didn’t prevent a couple of slips and painful hand jammings. My palms were severely blistered by the hemp and every muscle was spent and wobbly as my feet finally touched down on God’s good earth.

Ben dropped his last few feet athletically by comparison, laid his hand on my shoulder and said, “Thanks kid. That took a lot”.

My dad said, “It’s time to go the barn. We can take the tree down tomorrow.”

The rest of the group was subdued in its comments and I can’t remember their ever mentioning the events of the day afterward. I always thought that perhaps they didn’t want to fault Ben for not notching deep enough… Three or four more swings of the ax and none of it would have happened.

The pickup ride up the mountain to our home, with Dad driving, was a quiet one. He was never prone to demonstrativeness, compliment or confirmation. That’s just the way it was. There was no mention of what had occurred during dinner that evening. He had to have mentioned it to my mother that night during pillow talk, because at breakfast she asked, “What was this about your getting Ben out of a tree?”

“Yeah”, I replied, “No big deal.” I knew better than to get her started.


Reflections: As of the date of this writing, May 2009, it has been sixty-six years since this event occurred. I’ve often told the story in seminars to make the point that contrary to the conventional wisdom that experience is the best teacher, an experienced teacher is the best teacher. Ben shaved off a lot of learning time with his extraordinary calm, patience and coaching. I’m reasonably certain that he had never previously articulated the instructions he managed to convey to me that day during the climb. Writing this has aided me in understanding that Ben knew that this was not a fatal situation for him. He understood the dynamics of the tree, the safety devices and the likelihood of a favorable outcome. He was not in a survival mode and therefore was able to focus on contributing to me in my fearful state. The circumstance was enough to make him really think about the processes necessary, the mental nuances that would help and determine what I needed to hear. We have no idea what might have occurred otherwise. I’ve come to believe that he was not a ner’do well, but rather someone who was never inspired beyond what opportunities presented themselves on our mountain, in that part of New Hampshire, in that point in time.

Lester Knowles died within a year, at the age of forty-two. It was said that he had overtaxed his heart responding to the physical challenges he loved to take on.

Harry Evans ended up marrying Elizabeth Kimball who had been our teacher in the District’s one room schoolhouse. She was among the best, if not the best teacher I ever had. Eight grade levels of students were in her charge, and to me it remains a model of the way more schools should be___ small and love filled. Once married, she was no longer allowed to teach. That’s the way it was in ’43.

There’s another essay to write about Lyman Boyce’s extraordinary team of horses. It’s a dramatic tale of symphony, synergy and fulfillment of purpose.

If the last sentence of the story seems disrespectful to my mother, it was not spoken that way that day. There was no doubting our love for one another, but her parenting style came from her need to control and a demand for conformity. To accomplish this she often made mountains out of molehills, and had a way of verbally diminishing my Dad and me in order to protect us from what she was sure would be a disappointment. She tended to not let an issue go, until the next one arose. I absorbed a lot of what she said even while entertaining my own positive thoughts. It wasn’t until years later when I realized that I could forgive and re-perceive painful experiences, that I was able to clear my mind of her negative admonitions. Dad, on the other hand seemed to remain objective, and could frequently shift a rant to a chuckle by merely saying, “Oh Rosum”. Her name was Ida May, so I never could figure out why that worked so well. I never dared to try it out.

That was the last time I ever strapped on the spikes and attempted to climb.

I admit to sometimes wondering how things would have gone if I’d had the chance to prepare, to respond to coaching and to practice with the right tools and relaxed physical capacities. It’s a different scenario.

A Loggers’ Nightmare

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