Monday, June 2, 2014

One of the Last

This is about a time when I was much younger, and it was printed in the May issue of Northern Logger magazine…         

It was late September of 1974, up on a ridge south of Clear Stream and west of Errol, New Hampshire, that I first saw Joe Chasse (pronounced chassey).  The foremen, a man from Rangeley named Eddy Chivers, had driven me up the mountain in an old green school bus owned by the Brown Company to transport loggers.  Other than Eddy, I was the only one in that cold dreary bus.
Outside the windows, cuttings stretched off in every direction, and an inch of new snow frosted the ground up there high in those hills.  Most of the trees had been cut and only clusters of small unmarketable ones remained.  Skinny birch trees and young poplars glowed with still clinging leaves of gold. 
Parked in front of the bus sat an old pale-green Chevy pickup with a plywood camper on its back that had been painted to match.  Eddy babbled on in an accent grown between Maine and French Canada about this guy called Batman that I was about to meet.  All of it overwhelmed a young pup like myself who had grown up the suburbs of Boston, but I did my best to take it in.  I do remember Eddy saying that this guy was called Batman because he drove his skidder like the Batmobile.
The door of that faded Chevy opened and a stout man climbed out to stretch.  He didn’t stand very tall, but I remember him as being about as wide as he was high, with broad shoulders and enormous hands.  A prominent chin with thick lips protruded from his large head, and big bulging insect-like eyes looked back at us.  A tattered beige knit hat was pulled down over his ears.
With a stride that rocked him side to side and those round eyes darting about, he sauntered to the back of his truck and opened the camper’s door.  After pulling out a pair of heavy gray wool pants, he tugged them on over the thick wool pants that he already wore.  It made him look even wider.
I don’t recall much about the actual face-to-face meeting or who explained what I was supposed to do.  It was the last day to work that cutting though, and all that remained to be done there was cut down some small softwood trees and turn them into four-foot pulp.  As I made the back-cut on a lone fir and tried to push it over, Joe dropped down off of his big yellow skidder and came over to help.  Together we pushed and made the tree to fall in the right direction.  I’ll always remember what he said, “Aye, sometimes two mens are more den twice as better than one.” 
Our next yard was on the side of Cambridge Black Mountain, many miles up in the woods, in the unincorporated township of Cambridge.  The “chance”, as Joe called it, was a piece that had only been cut once before and then for only the spruce.  On the steep slope above our yard grew monstrous old rock maples, yellow and white birches, beech trees, hemlocks, white pines, spruces and firs.  With eyes swelling from excitement, Joe told me that in all the years that he worked for the company that was the best “chance” he ever had. Some of the hardwoods were so large two big men together could not wrap their arms around them.
My job was to cut up the wood after Joe twitched the limbed trees into our yard.  The company scalers wrote out for me a list of what the mills wanted for logs.  A French Canadian named Proteau was our chopper, who would cut down the trees up on the mountain, limb them, and have them ready for Joe to skid down.  Every morning when we started he would walk up into the woods without saying a word to me, or sometimes ride up on the blade of Joe’s skidder, which was dangerous and definitely against Company rules.
Because we were paid piece rate and logs were worth more than pulp, Joe was quite excited that I had this list of what the mills wanted.  He took the three sheets of white-lined paper and drove his skidder around the yard waving the instructions in his hand, yelling that now we would make some “real money”.  And because I could read and write, something that many of his co-workers could not do, Joe had me keep a log of where our wood went and mark when we were paid for it, so “the company can not steal from us”.  Company was pronounced “compan-yee”, with an accent on the end.
Almost everyday we ate lunch in that camper on the back of Joe’s truck.  He had a small propane heater and cook stove in there, and he would make himself meat, potatoes, and vegetables daily, usually accompanied with bread and something for dessert.  On cold or rainy days Proteau would come down the mountain to eat with us, seldom saying much and then only in French to Joe.
After the meal and before we went back to work, we often had a smoke.  On cold damp days, when the camper was closed up tight, it was difficult to a light match.  It would flare and then die.  Apparently the stove and heater had used up most of the oxygen.
At the end of the day, when the shadows grew long, Proteau would wander out of the woods and, with a scowl on his face, look at the woodpile to judge what I had done.  What he wanted to see was if I had caught up on the bucking of the trees that he had cut, so could I drop and limb additional trees around the yard.  As I fell into the routine, that became easier and easier to do.  But still without speaking to me, he would climb into his truck and leave.
Joe told me that Proteau had a farm up in Canada and would cut wood with us Monday through Friday, and then work the farm back home on the weekends.  He had a pile of kids there and the youngest one had a disability that brought huge medical bills, which is why money was always a serious issue.  And that worry was why Proteau drank so much.  In an attempt to apologize for Proteau’s not speaking to me, Joe told me that the man spoke no English.
Every week our pile of wood grew to enormous and the paychecks reflected it.  The company’s checks had printed on them “Not Valid over $400”, and most weeks we earned more than that, sometimes way more, so we usually received two checks.  Some of the men bragged of only giving one check to their wives and hiding the other.  One crew working near us even had three paychecks one week, something that was unheard of.
After a month or so of working together, and before he left at the end of one day, Proteau looked over the woodpile, stared me in the eye, and nodded approval.  I felt like I had made it.
On one spectacular warm fall day, we ate lunch sitting on our woodpile.  The crackle of ravens overhead echoed off the hills and a pileated woodpecker rapped on a dead yellow birch near our yard.  The few remaining leaves glowed in the warm autumn sun and overhead a lone jet left a contrail on the empty blue sky.  Joe wondered out loud where it might be going.
And then Joe said something I will never forget, “You know, some people for the city dere would pay seventy-five dollar to eat lunch like dis.”
That was so true.
One Monday, at the end of the day, Joe told me that on the previous Friday he picked up a hitchhiker on his way home after work.  While they were driving along he noticed in the right hand rear view mirror that the door of his camper swung open.  He stopped and walked back to close it, and then he noticed in the truck’s mirror the hitchhiker looking through his glove compartment.
Joe assumed the rider was looking for things to steal, so he took an axe, which he pronounced hax, from the back of the truck and walked up along the passenger side of the truck.  He said he swung the door open and held the axe over his head and shouted, “Get out of my truck or I will kill you!”
Imagining the whole event and the look on the hitchhiker’s face had me laughing hysterically.
Over time I learned that Joe grew up on a farm in Fort Kent, Maine and went to work in the woods when he was thirteen years old.  He was the seventh son of a seventh son, and supposedly had all the mystical powers that went with that, like healing people and being psychic.  There were eighteen kids in his family and when his oldest brother got married Joe said twenty-one sat down for dinner at night.
Joe had never been hurt working in the woods.  Nobody else that I knew could say that.  I’d only been there a couple of months and already had the chainsaw cut that almost seemed obligatory.  When we were working on our tools and a screw couldn’t be loosened, we’d get Joe and he would turn the screw.  If something heavy needed to me moved, we’d get Joe.  Nobody was stronger.  Once, on a dare, he picked up an empty fifty-five gallon drum with his teeth. 
           Joe confided in me that he was sixty-five years old, but that the company thought he was sixty-four, which was good because they had a forced retirement age of sixty-five.  He had no plans to stop work.  One time he told me he wanted to work for ten more years and then drive around the world.  I wondered at the time if he knew that was impossible.
          He had all his teeth, which was rare up there for someone his age, and thick silvery hair.  During the week he alone lived in a trailer next to a trucking company’s garage in town, rather than in camp where most stayed.  Story had it he fought a bit when he got to drinking, which is why he wasn’t welcome in camp.  On Fridays after work he left for home in Auburn, Maine.
Sometimes at the end of the week Joe would produce a case of beer from his camper at quitting time.  I don’t remember the brand, but it was always cans and tasted heavenly.  Proteau would take a six-pack and sit on a log and polish it off while I had one or two.  During the early weeks there was usually two conversations going on, one between Joe and Proteau and one between Joe and I, but as the weeks went by the conversations melted into one with Joe translating.
 For reasons I don’t remember I had to drive Proteau to town one day after he’d consumed a fair amount of beer.  With alcohol drowning any self-conscious inhibitions, he started to speak English.  It was the only time I ever heard him speak it and he did very well.
  Autumn slipped closer to the edge of winter and snow blanketed the ground.  Thanksgiving Day we all planned to work and then take the following three days for a long weekend, the holiday being nothing special for the Canadians.  On the way to the job as I came around the corner on the snow-covered logging road I saw five ruffed grouse in the road.  Hitting the brakes I put my Ford Bronco into a spin and slid into a snow bank, causing the vehicle to flop over on its side.
  The two chainsaws, a five-gallon gas can, two toolboxes, an axe, a pulp hook, a length of chain, and other assorted clutter made a horrible racket falling to the low side.  I stayed in the driver’s seat, even though it was on the high side and I wore no seatbelt, and looked around, holding onto the wheel tightly.  Miraculously none of the windows had broken.  Thinking that it would really be stupid to break a window at that point, I managed to carefully open the driver’s window and climb out.
   On the way in that morning I had passed a bunch of guys working on a stubborn skidder that refused to start.  I walked back down the road to where I’d seen them and they all came back to help me roll my rig onto its feet, using only muscle power.  With it sitting upright, I waited until we thought the engine oil settled back to where it belonged, and then I went off to work.
  When I arrived at the yard I told Joe why I was late.  He told me that he knew something must have happened because I had always been there.  And then we went to work like any other day.
  That yard in Cambridge was on a good gravel road, so for the winter the Company moved us to a winter road, one that is made of shaped mud and then frozen. Of course, it can only be worked in cold weather then.  It wasn’t far away, but just over the state line in the town of Upton, Maine.  Before we started cutting at that yard though we had to spend a few weeks cutting a right-of-way where another road would be shaped and frozen for the winter. 
  The spruce and fir trees in that right-of-way were tiny, not as big around as my thigh and only two or three sticks of pulpwood long.  Working long days we cut and skidded as fast as we could, but our meager pile of wood grew slowly.  The paychecks arrived on Thursdays, and first one from there was well under a hundred dollars.  Joe went on a bender and showed up at work the next day hung-over and mad. 
   Driving the skidder like a Batmobile, he drove up and down the right-of-way, breaking all the little trees up into tiny pieces.  Shouting that he didn’t care if the “Compan-yee” fired him, he wanted to be done with that chance.  I had no idea what would happen.  Proteau just shook his head and left, going back to Canada for the weekend.
  The next week the company moved us to our winter yard.
  We settled into a routine, cutting fairly sizeable amounts of wood and making decent money.  During a weekend trip back to Massachusetts to visit family, I bought a Brittany spaniel, my first bird dog. On Monday I went back to work and there wasn’t one single person that I could tell about that dog. How can you share with someone who isn’t a bird hunter the excitement of a new bird dog, particularly with the language barrier?
And then the Company offered me a better job, a chance to move into a mechanized logging operation.  It would be the way of the future they said.  Part of me wanted to stay with Joe, I knew he was the last of an era and almost every day seemed to be another story to tell.
But Joe would be forced to retire from the company, so I moved on.  A year or two after that I recognized Joe’s truck on the side of the road in Berlin, New Hampshire, across from the Northland Dairy Bar.  I pulled up behind him as he climbed out of the cab.  Recognizing me, he yelled out my name and placed a hand on each of my shoulders to toss me up in the air like a child.  We exchanged pleasantries and then parted.  That was the last time I ever saw him.
             Eventually I went on to run that mechanized tree harvesting operation for Brown Company. Someone told me once that Joe had gone to work for a jobber somewhere.  I also heard he had his first accident, a chainsaw kickback to the face.  Maybe that wasn’t true, I like to think not. 
He would be well over a hundred years old now, and I imagine he climbs on and off that skidder just a little bit slower now. In my mind, he’s just too tough to die.