Earlier this year, my parents had some trees cut down in their back yard that had grown out of control.
Two trees were sweet gum. These trees are annoying in the yards across the South, as they drop large quantities of these hard, spiked balls that generally can only be removed by raking … and they absolutely MUST be removed if one wants to enjoy his or her yard. Stepping on one in shoes can make you trip. Stepping on one barefoot can make you wish for death.
Think of stepping on a Lego on hardwood foor. Then multiply that pain by 10.
INITIALLY MY DAD WANTED to get rid of the trees along with the pines and whatever else the tree removal guys were hauling away. However, I asked my dad if I could take them instead, cutting them into 8-foot logs and towing them up to my house on a trailer. Even after they were freshly cut, the grain looked beautiful. I had these visions in my head of making stuff with them in my wood shop once they sat on the corner of my property for a year to dry.
“I’ll slice them up with the chainsaw after they dry,” I told my dad. “It will be a good winter project for me.”
It’s been about six months since this happened. As they’ve dried, they’ve become a mere shadow of what I thought they’d be, splitting apart haphazardly, warping. Chalk this up to another thing I thought would be better than it actually was.
LUCKILY, THOUGH, IT IS still good for firewood. Really, really good firewood. My parents asked for some to take on a camping trip, so I briskly cut up some of the logs using a chainsaw one night. My ax was completely useless versus the stuff that’s hard enough for flooring. Burned hot and lasted a long time, though.
Here’s the thing about me and splitting logs: I absolutely love it. When I was a kid in Western New York State, my unofficial job of the house in the winter was Master of Firewood. It began with simply accompanying my dad to various locations in rural areas to load pickup truck beds of oak in the snow but became helping him load and split once I hit 10 or 11. Eventually, the whole show became my job.
Now when you’re a kid, the tools for your jobs around the house are limited to whatever your parents provide. My dad provided a maul and a wedge. Not good ones, either. Antique splinter-giving things Amish people would reject.
They make mauls and wedges like this, with nice fiberglass handles and in shapes that make it resistant to getting stuck 1/3 to halfway into the log:
These don’t look too bad, do they? Now here’s something close to what Dad gave me:
To make matters worse, my dad’s mauls (yes, plural because for some reason he had about a half dozen) were either broken or about to become broken. This meant with every swing, I ran the risk of shattering my ankle, skull or getting a filthy, 6-pound block of sharpened iron lodged somewhere around my intestines. I flinched every time I did this. It was terrifying.
TODAY AS I TOOK MY nephew to my dad’s to get his equipment for splitting wood, I asked him if he’d done it before.
“Yeah,” he said. “I love splitting wood.
“Are we going to do that at your house?”
I loved the enthusiasm. But something was off.
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “Does he have a maul and a wedge?”
He hesitated, thinking about it, so I described them.
“His isn’t like that,” he said. “His has like a tube on it and it makes a lot of noise.”
This sounded bizarre. I decided to just wait until we got there and discuss this once we had visual aids.
Logan showed me this in my dad’s shop:
When I got back to the house, I took the maul and gave the end of this tube maul a tap. However, a rubber sleeve covered the end tightly.
“This is weird,” I thought. “It doesn’t come off.
“If I hit this hard with the maul, it’s going to wear out really quickly.”
Then I realized, horrified, what my dad had bought for my 13-year-old nephew to use to split wood: some wedge attached to one tube inside another, which one slid up and slammed down over and over to drive the wedge into the log. No REAL wedge or mightily swinging a splinter-giving, OSHA-rejected maul was necessary. You just keep slamming it up and down, summoning Adam Sandler saying “tap-tap-taparoo” in my head.
It made me think of a stripper on a pole.
“Logan, I’m not using that shit,” I said and left it alone.
BY THEN, THANKS TO IT NO longer being daylight savings time and it now gets dark at noon, I had to send him inside to eat dinner while I attacked the wood. Not going to lie … I was angry.
I was mad because this seemed like an extremely wussy way to do things. I was mad because my dad never paid the extra five dollars for a cord of wood that was already split because, as Dad would proudly tell the guy from whom he was buying it, he had “a boy to split all of that wood.”
Over the years, I’d become really good at this, splitting it armful-by-armful each night to keep the basement woodstove and fireplace on the first floor running at a comfortable 1,896 degrees to fight the subzero temperatures of WNY in the winter. My feet would slide in the mud and snow that had been pressed into the Earth by my boots that slid with every swing of the dilapidated maul. I went to bed nightly with burning palms that twinged after being frozen then rapidly thawed by the fireplace. You can’t wear gloves to keep your hands warm why swinging a maul, as this would compromise your grip.
The iron wedges would become lodged deeply into pieces of wood that were knotty. Then you’d have to kick it over and attack the side of the wood with the sharp end of the maul like you were a housewife on the ID channel attacking her husband’s mistress. When the wedge finally popped out, you’d lose it in the snow and have to kick around to find it. You found it when you rammed your frozen toe into a frozen block of iron.
And, of course, Mom would bitch if I tracked snow in the house, so I’d have to strip off all of my outer clothing on the frigid porch when I was done before going inside to enjoy the fireplace. This was particularly awful considering the physical nature of the task caused me to sweat under my thick winter coat. If any wood chips were stuck to my jeans when I came inside, she’d also bitch about that.
BUT APPARENTLY MY FATHER had become soft on my nephew, buying him some fancy stripper exercise machine. I see how it went. His son got a bunch of antique farm equipment to split wood. His grandson, on the other hand, gets this cushy armchair-like gadget.
“I want to use an ax sometime,” Logan told me earlier today.
Logan’s going to use an ax tomorrow. He’s going to feel the sheer joy and sense of accomplishment that can only come from standing a log on its flat side, steadying the ax on the target, raising it high over head and slamming it down as hard as possible while also being mildly accurate. If it gets stuck, he’s going to kick the log over and wiggle the ax side to side until it comes free so he can swing again. If it goes through on the first try, his reward will be getting to position another log and doing it again.
I guess this is what families do. Because my sister values self pity and drugs over her children, my mom and dad have been forced to raise their grandchildren as their own children. I can see why this would be a conflict for them both. After all, they want to spoil them like grandparents are supposed to spoil grandchildren. They want to make life easy, not hard.
But who’s going to work callouses into the boys’ hands? Who’s going to teach them to work through discomfort? How will they learn what can only be taught by experience … that life can be really, really rough?
I am more than happy to help.