Late spring, 1956
Dad drove the four of us from the apartment, a mile or two up Barnes Road, then down Leahy Road to our new digs. He was bursting with constrained excitement to show us all around, inside and out. This acre and a quarter was the first property he ever owned, made affordable due to his job at Remington Rand in Portland, selling office equipment. The neighborhood was rural; you passed a big strawberry field on a hill, then negotiated a sharp curve, passed a little old unpainted house where I later got to see a new owner crawling under, lifting it up inch by inch with screw jacks. That was after he had come over for a get-to-know-you visit with a bottle of wine that my folks did not even take a sip of. (I was embarrassed at the formality of their hospitality, and I don’t remember him ever coming over again.) On the other side of the road and uphill from us was a giant cherry tree behind which was Danny Mosser’s house, Tom’s best friend in those years, a friendship that persists to this day.
But our place was all downhill from the road, sloping through the front lawn to the unpretentious ranch style house with garage in front and daylight basement behind, then continuing level through the upper back lawn, dropping with an abrupt terrace to the lower back lawn, and then sloping into the woods, which were thick and tall and wide and thrilling. I was eight; Tom was four. It was a typical Portland late-spring day, mostly overcast, a bit chilly, sweater or jacket weather. After getting a tour of the 3-bedroom house, with its 12-by-24-foot living room, complete with fireplace, Dad took me outside to explore while Mom showed Tom how the bedrooms would be divvied up among us. He would get the little room on the north side, facing the road, with a short drop outside the window to the front lawn. That room would double as her sewing room. I would get the room on the south side, facing the woods, with a full-story drop outside the window. (That height would feature in the car battery incident a few years later.) Mom and Dad would get the master bedroom on the west end, built as an extension to the original house. Under their room was the “tractor shed,” with its huge white mushrooms growing in the gloom, which is another part of this story.
Dad led the way into the woods, following a rarely-used little trail between dogwood trees, small pines and towering ones, scotch broom and some robust bushes that we later valued for their thimble berries. Grass and ferns carpeted ground, hiding most of the rich dirt that I would spend so many hours in during the ensuing five years. We soon came to a “high embrace” [quote from a William Everson poem] of two fir trees growing only about eight feet apart. One was larger in girth and height, but they looked like siblings, maybe 90 and 70 feet tall respectively. Dad was drawn to the spot; I liked it too. He said, “One of these bright days we’ll build a tree house here. But for now, I need you to cut us some firewood so we can have a fire in the house tonight.” And with that, he handed me the hatchet he had been carrying, said, “Be careful with this thing,” turned and walked back up to the house.
I stood there, listened and stared in a trance. Dad’s walking sounds diminished and were gone. Water dripped from leaves that still held some of the recent rain. The wind blew way up in the tall trees and even in the nearby bushes. Birds were vocalizing, a woodpecker was tapping in the distance. For a moment I could have been in the wilderness up on Mount Hood, surviving for a while on tiny wild strawberries and bitter roots, then withering and dying, happy to return to the dust from whence I came, free from obligation and guilt, free to daydream for eternity, released from my nagging self-conscious super-ego, free to be and then not to be.
The moment was over with the sound of a car going too fast up on the road. I looked around. There was a log over yonder; I went to check it out: too rotten. I kept walking away from the house. There were lots of wet bushes, but even their thicker parts wouldn’t burn for long, if they burned at all. There were lots of big tree branches too high for me to reach. I certainly wasn’t going to fell a whole tree with the little hatchet in my hand, even though I could see that it was newly sharpened. Eventually I came to a barb wire fence that marked the boundary of our property and the beginning of a meadow on the Catlin Gable School property. Later I would see horses or cows grazing over there, especially when Tom and I would walk to Gramma Gertrude’s place by taking a shortcut through the meadow, or when we climbed to the tippy top of 100-foot fir trees, swaying gently in the wind, giving us a bird’s-eye view of the whole area. But I don’t remember seeing any livestock on this first encounter.
I turned and walked back up the faint path toward the house until I came to the two firs. The larger tree had a thick branch within easy reach that would burn for quite a while if I cut it off and dragged it to the house. I considered the pros and cons, the main con being the injury I would be causing to the tree, the visible and permanent damage. But when I looked around for a reference, I noticed that none of the other tall trees had branches as low as this one. Maybe I would be bringing this one into conformity. And as shady as it was down where I stood under the forest canopy, the tree would be losing little of its total energy input from the sun.
I began to chop and soon found that my over-head swing lacked precision and power. I missed the branch and hit the bark of the tree, which I really did not want to do. I moved my target point out from the trunk and whacked away on the branch for a few minutes until my right arm was aching. Knowing about ambidexterity and always admiring it, I switched hands and found that my aim with the left was far worse than the right, such that I was splintering wood as much as four inches from the cut. A pause to rest gave me time to reflect, and I began to wish I had not begun cutting the branch. But it was too late. The branch was nearly halfway severed and it was beginning to sag. Nothing to do but finish.
It required a few more chopping and resting cycles, but eventually the branch came down. It lay at my feet like a dead thing that had been alive a short while before; I was not sure which it really was right now, maybe in between, slowly dying. I felt even worse about it, but I manned up and dragged the 10-foot-long tree-arm with all its sub-branches and short deep-green needles up to the house and left it on the long covered concrete porch onto which the basement door opened. I went into the house and up the stairs under which I would later make a fun-house with Tom and Greg Weed for neighborhood kids to negotiate. Mom, Dad and Tom were busy figuring out where our furniture, appliances and kitchen wares would go. I joined in and avoided talking about my woodcutting adventure.
But as evening approached, Dad asked if I had found any wood for the fireplace. I told him that I had, and we went down to see. He nodded with approval but said it looked too green (wet) to burn until a good sized flame was already going. Luckily, he had found a few old split logs in the shed under the house that we later dubbed, the “lawn mower shed,” so we would be in good shape for this first night there. We would cut up the branch I had harvested and let it dry for a while before burning it. My effort would not go to waste; extracting the heat would simply be postponed.