Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 9, 2012
Up and down the Roaring Fork Valley, chain saws growl and men feel pride over their swelling stacks of firewood. This rite of fall, this burning issue, is seasoned with the smell of split logs and wood smoke.
When I was in my 20s, I worked for the “Firewood King,” or, in workplace patois, the “Fahrwood Kang.” That’s how the boys from Appalachia drawled it, the hill folk with whom I cut trees as a suburban lumberjack on the North Shore of Chicago.
These were tough guys, rippling with muscle and shaggy of hair. Some were missing teeth, and others had stumps for fingers. They spoke with an infectious twang, the residue of backwoods roots.
I was of different origins, but five years of tree work had given me enough muscle to work with the best of them. Going shirtless all summer, my skin was dark brown and often covered with a fine layer of sawdust. We smelled of wood chips and two-cycle chain-saw fuel.
Our boss, the Fahrwood Kang, operated out of a huge lot near the interstate in Northbrook. Army surplus Quonset huts housed chain saws, stump grinders, brush chippers and trucks. Behind the huts was “The Hill,” a place of notoriety to me even 40 years after.
The Hill was where the logs were dumped from the huge trees we had removed. Oak, maple, linden, cottonwood and ash aged there until it was cutting time in the fall. That’s when we were ordered to haul our asses up to The Hill to cut rounds and feed them to hydraulic log splitters.
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For hours we ran the big McCullochs that growled like grizzlies as they chewed their way through logs. Sweat poured down our bodies, and the saws deadened our senses and numbed our hands. Only occasional cigarette breaks interrupted the laborious monotony.
We who ran the chain saws were higher on the pecking order because there is a learned technique to sharpening and running big chain saws. The big rounds were relegated to the brutes who rolled them onto a splitter, pulled the lever and watched the blade descend like a guillotine, smashing through the knottiest pieces of oak.
By midmorning, a mountain of split wood had grown on The Hill, ready for delivery to suburban fireplaces in upscale neighborhoods where holiday cheer was flavored with crackling fires. Such was the industrial firewood business.
Years later, living in Crested Butte, I partnered with a rancher buddy to meet the firewood needs there, which were insatiable. We called our business Burnwell Firewood and used my friend’s cattle truck to haul spruce rounds from Black Mesa, where we established our “logging camp” in the backwoods.
Drinking and smoking around the campfire prepared us for the wood ordeal in which towering dead spruce were our quarry. I climbed the trees with spikes, a skill learned from my Chicago tree career, set a rope as high as I could go and tied the other end to the truck chassis. With our big Husqvarna, I notched the tree. My friend backed up the truck, tightening the rope, and I made the back cut. “Boom!” the tree shook the ground when it hit. An hour later the truck was loaded.
After delivering to customers in the Butte and pocketing a few hundred dollars each, my friend and I went to Sunshine’s Paradise Bathhouse. My buddy was new to the bathhouse, where I was a regular, so he reluctantly stripped down in the changing room before we headed to the showers.
A young woman I knew was soaping her long, blonde hair. She had nothing on, and my friend turned his back discreetly. “Hi, Paul,” said Tracy as she lathered liberally with Dr. Bonner’s. We chatted as if meeting on the street. Tracy was quite attractive, so my friend averted his eyes and exercised all the control he could muster.
There was another woman friend in the hot tub, Kathy, who was particularly voluptuous. She smiled in greeting while bouncing slowly up and down in the steaming water. My friend never got over it, so firewood became an autumn ritual for years to follow.
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