Oct 04., 2016 / Winter
The Most Satisfying Day of Work, Ever
Within our memories, we all record special moments, events, and times. Our individual memories are broad sweeping, everything from a particular gift, recognition, a kiss, a birth, a death, and countless other possibilities. Such moments are common to all of us. They are outside the mundane and so important individually that they become landmarks in our lives. The rest of the world may walk by these as they are occurring and never know that they are taking place. I remember a day, not just part of a day but a complete day. It was the kind of day that brought teaching and insight in a variety of ways. It is branded in my mind and even now, many years later I recall it in vivid detail and relive the fulfillment I experienced.
Our family was in a transition time as plans were being made for me to begin seminary in Wake Forest in the Autumn of 1980. Frugality was high on our list and we were taking steps to reduce our monthly disbursements as much as possible. Included was a decision to use a wood heater to warm our small house and eliminate the bill for natural gas. Of course, we needed a supply of firewood but in our area, it was relatively easy to find land that had been logged out where you could go and cut up the remnants. Usually, this was some very nice wood since the logging companies only wanted the main straight trunks and discarded the tree tops and limbs. It was free for the taking with the permission of the landowners who were most often agreeable since they wanted the area cleaned up anyway. I owned a chain saw and an old but reliable truck so this would be an inexpensive way to heat our home, virtually free except for a little gasoline and an occasional saw chain. I just had to apply some sweat equity which I did not mind since I enjoyed getting out in the woods anyway.
It was March 1 and my wood supply had dwindled and needed to be replenished. The weather was cold and the forecast indicated we might get a little snow. Eastern North Carolinians never know how it is going to turn out when snow is forecast since often an expected snow event becomes either an ice storm, a cold rain, or fizzles out completely. Conditions have to be perfect for it to materialize into a full blown snowstorm but it does happen occasionally. Regardless of how it turned out, we needed wood for our heater. Spring was on the horizon but had not yet made its presence known.
I got up early on that Saturday morning, drank my coffee, put on my cowboy hat and down filled vest, and headed out the back door. Stopping on the steps, I took a deep breath of the cold, crisp air and then blew it out seeing the vapor. There was a light breeze blowing from the north and for lack of a better term, the air felt icy. There is a definitive “feel” to the weather when snow or ice are on the way.
Normally I would pick up a friend to go with me but on that day I was alone. I drove about 12 miles from Rocky Mount to a spot near Battleboro where I had been given permission to cut. The laps had been down for over a year so the wood was already seasoned to a degree plus it was all oak and hickory, great hardwoods that produce a lot of BTU’s. It was one of those days that in my estimation was just perfect for the task at hand. It was cloudy, cold, and my chainsaw cranked on the first pull. The new chrome tooth chain cut through the large limbs like butter. Some of them were at least a foot thick, a few even larger. The sawdust flew and there was the fragrance of the freshly cut wood in the air. I filled my truck, drove back home, and dropped off my treasure in the back yard. Quickly I headed back to Battleboro and before lunch I had thrown two more loads in back of the house. Now the harder work began…. splitting. I didn’t have a motorized wood splitter so it was just me and my ax.
There was a large round of wood that I had used for some time as a chopping block. Positioning each piece vertically on the block I swung the ax aiming for the center. Since the wood already had some dryness to it there was a distinctive “pop” each time I swung and buried the ax head into it. There is also another smell, more sour, that is different than the odor you get when cutting through limbs with a chainsaw. This comes from that deepest interior moisture and the odor is amplified as the wood is split. There was an intense sense of accomplishment as each piece divided and fell to the side. Some were large enough that they needed to be split again to become a manageable size for the wood stove.
It is pretty amazing how well I remember that day. With the possibility of bad weather, which I was convinced was truly on the way, I was driven to finish my task. Relentlessly I swung the ax, never even stopping for lunch or a snack, just a few sips of my Mountain Dew….the soft drink, not the clear, liquid fire that comes in a Mason jar. Finally, a little before five and with the shadows starting to intrude I saw the last piece cleave open. I had some wooden pallets that had been free for the taking from my work at the newspaper. I quickly splintered them and filled a couple of white plastic five gallon buckets. It made great kindling for starting fires. Of course, once the fire was started it would be maintained for days. I then began stacking the wood onto other pallets I had set up months before during a previous cutting. I was moving swiftly as the wind was picking up and my face which was already chapped started to burn a little. My ears were very cold and my hands were scuffed up from splinters and the rough edges of the wood. I put the last piece of wood into place and an amazing thing happened. The sky began to spit a little snow. It was as if that last piece flipped the switch to start the flurries. I stepped back and then sat down on my chopping block, taking it all in.
The piled up wood was beautiful and all of my senses were at work. It was a satisfying moment. Now years later it’s just as clear as the day it occurred and represents to me the most fulfilling day’s work I’ve ever done. I wish every day could be so meaningful but if that were so I guess these certain days would not stand out above the rest. Why to this day does it mean so much to me? There are many reasons, probably some I’ve yet to discover. As a man, a husband, a father it has always meant a great deal to me to provide for my family in whatever capacity is needed. There is also something kind of “pioneerish” or primal about pulling provision from the land instead of finding someone to sell you what you need. I just know it brought great satisfaction then and now as I still contemplate the day. I relive it often with a smile on my face
I grabbed a handful of kindling, went into the house, and in no time had a roaring fire in my old Franklin stove. I filled it with wood to its full capacity and once it was good and hot I cut back the vents to where I knew it would keep the home consistently toasty. I had a carrier for bringing wood into house so I took it outside and filled it. Before taking it back in I covered my stacked wood with a green canvas tarp to keep the snow off.
The cast iron stove had a flat top so it could be used for cooking. I put a couple of pounds of dried Navy beans in a large pot with some “seasoning meat” and water and set it on the top of the stove to cook….one of the additional advantages of a wood stove. It also guaranteed something hot to eat if the power went out because of the growing storm.
I was tired, hungry, and sore but it had been a great day. This was an old house without a shower so the claw foot bathtub was my next stop. With water as hot as I could stand it I immersed my soreness with a deep sense of satisfaction, once again relishing the fulfillment of the day. By the time I was out of the tub it was snowing hard. In fact, this particular storm ended up being called “The Dixie Blizzard” due to its magnitude. It finally relented Sunday evening, 24 hours and 18 inches from the moment I put the last piece of wood into place.
Looking out the living room window I watched the flakes drop under the street light. There were no cars moving, nothing to disturb the white blanket that was now extending through the whole neighborhood. It was incredibly quiet. I was just as quieted within myself and relished that moment, that day, that event then as I do now. To me, it was the most satisfying day of work I’ve ever experienced.