From Ash to Ash

It is the late 1970s and there is something called a vacation on the calendar. I am home from college for the summer but working ’round the clock at The Sawmill. It is not a restaurant serving smoked meats and grilled sides on a riverbank; it is an actual sawmill–gritty, loud, hot, and OMG dangerous in retrospect. I remember once when I was running the head rig (description later), one of the teeth came loose from a saw blade and buzzed past my left ear just over my shoulder, putting a dent into the sheet metal behind me. It could have pierced my skull like a .30 caliber, perhaps a .270 bullet. But it did not.

Mom and Dad have rented a cabin on the lake and Dad, my boss, has also agreed to let me off for the week of vacation. A vacation coming soon means I have work to do. I’ll keep working work, of course, but I have a little project that I want to bring into shape during vacation and it requires an hour or so of preparation so I can take it with me.

“Is it okay to stay late today and keep the saws running after we shut down? I have a little thing that I am working on”, I ask my Dad/boss. “Sure, just make sure you cut off all the power, especially the chipper, and lock the gate when you leave,” he says.

It is quitting time now and do you want to go fishing someone says and I do but I say I can’t cuz I have something I gotta do and they all leave and I stay and I catch Dad’s eye and let him know that I will lock up.

The last pickup truck pulls out of the yard, just ahead of a cloud of red-tinged Oklahoma dust and as it settles, captured first by the weight of the sunlight, I push the gate closed, scraping it across the driveway and lifting it at the last minute to set it into place. It is abruptly peaceful. Quiet. In full contrast with the 12 hours of engines and blades and saws and entire trees being dismanted and cut and torn and smoothed and finished and their remains chewed and chipped and blown into trailers and the billows of dirt-dust and saw-dust and bark and small stones being flung about, it is now serene.

I smile and breathe deeply and then amble over, climbing up into the cab of the “loader” which is like a giant fork lift with a clamp. We bounce across the yard to the corner where behind a stack of cull logs I have hidden the one that I want now. It is a choice piece of timber, straight grained and solid. Ash. I had spotted it a few days earlier and put it aside. Now its time has come.

The saw mill comprises a sequential series of decks and chains and conveyors and rotating mechanisms with teeth for chewing or teeth for cutting, bands with teeth for finer cutting, troughs that vibrate at a slight slope, and at the end a huge solid flywheel with three replaceable knives for chipping whatever remains after all the cutting has been done. Nothing is wasted. All of the useable lumber is harvested and all of the remains are chipped or turned into dust to be used by the paper mill for pulp.

I raise the loader fork and place my one ash log onto the first deck. I park the loader and lower the fork, jamming it into the yard as a brake, and then climb up the far end of the deck to the controls of the “de-barker”. There are three large rotating heads with teeth on them and as the chain on the deck pulls the log toward me, I turn on the heads so that they gradually take away all of the bark from the log. I take time to remove every last trace of bark and with it all of the dirt and rocks and anything else that might dull a sawblade. On a normal day, four or five logs would pass through the process in a minute.

From here the log continues at a right angle onto another chain, so I hurry down and climb up in time to pick it up at the next machine, the “head rig”. It is another deck with chains feeding two large saws, maybe four feet across, set parallel to each other on a single shaft. Their teeth are replaceable and can on rare occasions come loose and whiz by my head causing me 40 years later to reflect that I might have died. The ash log is coming toward me on the deck and I take extra time to position it on the head rig chain, aligning it perfectly so that I can make the first cut. The two saws will cut through the ash like butter and will leave two slabs to the side and that gorgeous center cut, the tight grains exposed on two sides in all their glory. I feed it slowly now, but on a typical day I’d never stop the conveyor, running log after log, butt to butt for hours until the saw blades or teeth could take no more. They would either get too dull or too hot and I would be too hot too, but I’d just chug down a gallon or so of lemonade and keep going. I would not give up until they did. Now, however, I am taking all of the time that I need.

The center cut and the two slabs continue past the saw blades and are kicked at a right angle again, this time onto another deck, sloping down to the “edger”. The edger is normally run by two men, one who takes both slabs and feeds them into two smaller slaw blades that trim the wood, leaving a clean surface on three sides, and the other who takes the large center cut and feeds it between two slightly larger saws which trim away the wood, leaving a “can’t” which is like a rail-road cross tie now, clean on four sides. It is not quite large enough for a tie–it can’t make one–hence its name. These are loaded onto a cart and banded, ready for shipment. The other two slabs require one more cut to be finished. The blades on the edger are adjustable in width apart so that they can accomodate any size log, so the operators look at the pieces as they come down the conveyor and adjust accordingly, trying to get as much wood clean and leaving as little as possible to be chipped. Because of my project, I want a center cut, so I take the large piece and cut it more narrow that normal and leave the rest on the deck for the next day.

I hop down and wind my way around to the back side and pull my cut down the chain to the band saw. Here I can make several cuts to trim the wood to the dimensions that I want. I run the still large, but smaller-than-can’t through the band saw and choose one of the pieces to keep working on. All the rest goes into the chipping trough since I have now cut them into unusable dimensions for what the mill normally needs. After multiple passes through the band saw, I am left with a 2″x2″ piece of solid ash wood with a nice straight grain. It is longer than I need, so I take it from the rollers and go to the supply shed. The shed holds all the smaller, but expensive equipment that might be carried away–things that any man would love to take home–and is made of substantial thick-gauged steel with a welded hasp and a beefy, solid brass lock. I have a key, so I unlock it and pull the heavy door open and step into the smell of oil and gasoline and metal, all heated by the summer sun. During work the shed is a break, a cool spot of shade, a respite from the noise just outside. Now, after hours, it evokes more peace still, quiet against the quiet.

I grab a smaller Stihl chain saw, check the tightness of the chain, and fire it up by pulling the cord. I do it, not by placing the saw on the ground and putting one foot into the handle for stability and pulling the cord as the intruction manual probably says to do, but by holding the saw in the air with one hand and pushing it away, thus pulling the cord with my other hand. That’s how it is done in the woods, cuz who has time to follow the manual anyway when you have trees to cut down? It’s a lot easier too, although not nearly as safe, but again I am still alive. It starts on the first pull and I cut a nice 36″ length of ash before putting the saw away and locking back up.

I put what I worked for in the seat of my pickup and walk around the mill, shutting the power to everything and throwing any waste into the chipping trough where tomorrow it will blend in with all the rest and then eventually become a sheet of paper somewhere, perhaps a newspaper or a cardboard box.

I slide the ash stick to the side of my seat, start my pickup and pull through the gate, hopping out to lock it all behind me. When I climb back in I think about what I have: a solid length of fine ash, cut from the center of a large slab, cut from another slab, cut from a log from a forest in Oklahoma, the place of my birth.

Now, it is vacation. This is a nice cabin set onto this slope above the lake. The pine trees above are providing enough shade to keep things less than oppresive. That is nice because it is dang hot here. Even the breeze blowing in from the water is hot. We have breakfast out on the deck in the almost-cool and play games and eat well and walk around the lake and go swimming and skip stones and do all sorts of vacation things, but in the middle of the afternoon it is nap time. The air-conditioner is turned on and everyone else has disappeared, so I find my piece of ash and crawl up under the cabin, settling into the cool earth in view of the lake. I take my knife and begin to whittle the ash stick into shape. I am making a walking stick for my Dad, for his birthday, and I am proud so far of my efforts at getting it this far by my own hand from a large log. Every afternoon in the shade here I whittle it down, cutting fairly large indiscriminate chunks away, and now I am ready to start with some more delicate work. I will use a wood rasp now to do the shaping, getting it down to size and tapering it from the handle end down to its tip.

Vacation is over and I have a month to go before Dad’s birthday, plently of time to work here and there in the evenings or weekends to shape the walking stick. It is looking good, and nearly down to size. I have sand paper to smooth it and have used a hand saw already to cut it to length, estimating the proper size for my 6’3″ dad by using my own 5’8″ height as a guide. I have a brass cap for one end, the tip, and a brass knob from an old horse harness to use as the handle. In my mind, I know just what it will look like, so all I have to do is use my hands to make it happen.

It is all complete now, except for the finish, and there is no stain that matches my vision, so I begin to experiment. I rub linseed oil into the wood and run a flame over its length to open the grain and let the oil completely permeate and seal the wood. It’s looking closer and closer to reaching its destiny, so coat after coat of oil are applied. Oil, heat, oil, days of drying. More oil, more heat, direct flame to burnish the wood a bit, more oil, more rubbing of a soft cloth, more polishing of the brass, and now a final coat of oil followed by the swipe of a clean cloth. It is perfect, I decide.

Here it is, forty years later:





Dad kept it in a dear place and told everyone who saw it how I had made it from an entire ash log, cutting it down to size by hand. He began collecting walking sticks after I gave him this one, and before he died he must have had 50 or more all over the house. He always said that this was his favorite, and I am happy to have it now, along with all the memories.

Here’s to new hip joints, long walks and short ones, journeys of all kinds, with walkers and canes and walking sticks, and hands to hold along the way.