Ruins of South Jersey: The Art of Cleaving

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By: Dean P. Johnson

Ruins of South Jersey is an occasional column featuring places that are now remnants of their former selves along with their stories, both historical and personal. If you know of a place that you would like to see featured here, and you have a good yarn to tell about it, email your idea to Dean P. Johnson at dean.p.johnson@comcast.net.

The other morning while I was out taking a run, I caught a strong scent of smoke – oaky sweet with hints of hickory.  The smell of the smoke from a nearby chimney along with the aroma of wet fallen autumn leaves took me back to when our backyard was a palace of wood – cut, split, and stacked.  Now open dirt with tufts of grass here and there.

I thought about when my father and I would go out into the woods to cut wood to burn to heat the house the next winter.  We always cut for the following year because the wood had to season – green wood does not burn well.

It wasn’t only the wood that was green.

***

Becky chased a chipmunk like hope – darting, digging, sniffing, snorting – near the pile of wood where my father was standing.  I knew it was a chipmunk because I had seen two earlier that morning, shortly after the wood had arrived, clickering over the pile as though it were real estate.

Dad in his John Deer cap and red plaid flannel coat that he always wore for cutting wood watched the dog, too. 

Becky, well-seasoned and losing hair back near her tail, snarled and growled and clawed and then froze, staring into a gap in the pile.  Dad lifted a small stray log and lobbed it up near the dog.  When the log landed inches from her nose, Becky sprang straight up as though she were being hoisted from above.

Dad howled with deep laughter then began coughing.  Flushed in the face and struggling to catch his breath, he folded over supporting himself with his hands on his knees, coughing and hacking.

Like a good son I looked away as if I hadn’t noticed there was anything wrong.  I met my mother’s eyes.  She was in the window, standing at the kitchen sink, washing the coffee cups that would have sat if Dad and I had not been in the backyard.  “Don’t let him over-do it,” she had said to me.  “He’s just getting his strength back.”

Wanting to be lost in the restorative chipmunk, I gazed back at Becky who was cautioning her way around the fringe of the woodpile, stalking what she could not see but knew was there.

Dad let out a “whew,” pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, wiped his mouth, smiled and said, “What are we waiting for?  This wood ain’t going to split itself.”

I pulled a big piece of black oak from the top of the pile and placed it upright on a big, wide, stumpy log used as a chopping block.  Cutting wood from the age of eight, I learned to identify wood not by its leaves, which were always left in the woods, but by its bark.  The bark of the black oak is larger, longer and thicker than the white oak.  Dad would sit on the side of the bed of the 1968 Ford F100 sun-faded red pickup truck and lecture:  “See this here?  This is chestnut.  It burns faster.  Good to use when you first start the fire.  Oak will burn slower.  Never burn buttonwood.  Stinks to all hell.  Hickory gives off a nice smell.  But it’s got to be seasoned.  You never want to burn green wood.  Too much moisture.  And never, never burn pine.  Too much creosote; start a chimney fire.”

I picked up the splitting wedge, an ax-like tool with a long handle and a head that is blunt and sledge-like on one end, sharp and chisel-like on the other.  I held it high up over my head and swung it down, splitting the log in two.

“Let the splitter do the work,” Dad said.  “You don’t have to swing so hard.”

I thumped the splitter on the ground and leaned on the handle, looking at Dad.  He was lost in the coat that less than a year before was snug, and his face, drawn and gaunt, was tiny under the cap, which he wore high up on his head.  He had recently completed a round of chemotherapy for the tumor in his groin and the metastases that were now throughout his body.  The chemotherapy would disable him for weeks.  Today was a good day.  Good days usually occurred days before the next round of chemotherapy.

“Here, let me show you,” was what I thought he was about to say because I was conditioned.  It’s what he had always said.  When I was younger, he would have snatched the splitter from me, explained with meticulous detail the proper body mechanics.  Then, just to make me feel completely inadequate, he’d not only split the demonstration log, but several more as I stood there watching and grumbling under my breath.

I picked up one of the halves and, with one swoop of the splitter, cleaved it again.  “That’s it,” Dad said.

“You know,” I said, pointing the splitter at him, “ten years ago that kind of stuff really pissed me off.” 

I could get away with talking to him like that now.  I was twenty-six, a college graduate with a solid teaching job and recently married.  We had just reached that point where our relationship went from antagonistic adolescent mire to deferent adult higher ground.  

“I used to get so mad,” I said, smiling, remembering.

He smiled, his dentures too large for his sunken face.  “I know.”  Then he laughed and coughed and hacked, pulled out his handkerchief, wiped his mouth and let out a “whew.”

I picked up another piece of wood and split it, and then another, and another, and as I got into the rhythm of the job, I began to think about what Dad was thinking.  Whenever we were wood cutting, it was I who watched and waited for Dad to do the cutting, the splitting.  Now he stood aside looking far older, far feebler than his 57 years ought to look.  Watching me, was he envious of my youth?  Was he angry that he hadn’t the strength to take the splitter from me?  Was he proud of me?  Was he missing me like I was already missing him?  Like I was already missing what he had just started to be to me?

I did not realize it at that moment, but those thoughts were less concern about his feelings than they were my way of coping, my way of working through something that I would much rather have avoided altogether.  A mechanism I had relied upon even back when I thought I hated him.

***

I lay in bed knowing full well that I was oversleeping.  I really wasn’t sleeping, but he didn’t know that.  I peered out the closed window shade and was temporarily blinded by the morning sun.  As the brightness faded into colors, shapes and objects, I saw my father preparing for the outing. 

Dad had been up since just after dawn.  He had been looking forward to the outing during the long work week and he was happy for the opportunity to share time with his son.  I could tell Dad had done all he could alone in preparation and was anxiously waiting for me.  He glanced over to the window of my bedroom as the shade gently swayed.

He saw me, I thought.  I slowly stood and dressed and thought:

Why does he have to ruin a perfectly good Saturday with this stuff?  Look at that, it’s still only, well, it’s not even nine o’clock yet, and look at this weather.  I could be doing a hundred things for myself, with my friends.  I really don’t get that much time to myself, that’s all I really want is some time to myself.  I need rest on the weekends, just because he doesn’t, does not mean I don’t.  I’m not him, but he forgets that and that’s another thing, he doesn’t ask me to go, he never asks me to go, no, never asking, telling, always telling, telling me to go, but not even that, no, not only telling, no, it’s worse than that, it’s not the telling, it’s the expecting.  He fully expects me to go, forget if I’ve made other plans, my plans don’t count for anything, my plans aren’t important.  No, my plans are stupid, just a waste of time.  Just get up and go, then you’ll be a good little boy and all will be fine, just do as he says, do as he pleases, don’t question, don’t worry about what you want.  It’s only important what he wants. 

I looked in the mirror at myself.  I was dressed in old, faded, paint-stained, sap-stained jeans, flannel shirt and boots laced up to the mid-point of my shin.

And this shirt, I was thinking again, this shirt, it’s a thousand degrees outside, but if I wear a short sleeve shirt, a t-shirt maybe, no, this would be the wrong shirt to wear, this flannel shirt is the correct shirt to wear, of course it is because it will protect my arms from scratches, and these boots, I hate these boots, I can’t wear sneakers because you don’t wear sneakers in the woods, what if you dropped a log or something, no, you must be as uncomfortable as you can and then he’ll take you to Johnnies Restaurant and, of course, I’ll see someone I know and I’ll be embarrassed because I look like a stupid, backwoods hick just like he always really wanted to be, he’ll buy me breakfast, he’ll talk, I’ll sit there with that idiotic smile on my face and cringe when someone I know comes in for breakfast on their way to the mall or somewhere real, somewhere fun, not out in the woods cutting trees.

I had stalled long enough.  I rounded the corner into the kitchen where I saw my father sitting at the table.

He was clad in flannel shirt, old, faded, paint-stained, sap-stained jeans, boots laced up to the mid-point of his shin and he was wearing a hat that sported the logo, JOHN DEER.  He sat with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.  He watched me round the corner and he looked pleased.  It showed in his eyes, but I couldn’t see it then; I can only remember it now.  Only if I could have read those eyes.

“Ready, bud?” my father said.

I felt my stomach come up through my throat and could not stop what was about to come out of my mouth.

“You never ask me to do this, you always tell me and that’s not fair,” I said.  “Then when I do it, you tell me I do it all wrong and then you show me how to do it, but you just don’t show me once, you show me over and over and over again.”

Dad looked at me bewildered.  “What are you talking about?”

“You never asked me if I had any plans for today, you just expected me to go with you,” I said trying to keep my voice unemotional.

“Did you have other plans for today?” he asked.

“No, but that’s not the point,” I said.  “It’s not that I don’t want to help you, but every Saturday morning?  I need time to relax too, you know.”

“You don’t want to go out?” Dad asked. 

“No, not today, maybe next week, but…”

My dad then stood and, without looking at me, walked to the door saying, “Then don’t go.  I’ll go by myself from now on.”

“No, I didn’t mean that, I…”

Slam.

I remained motionless in the middle of the kitchen staring at the back door.  I heard the engine of the Ford three-speed pick-up truck start and immediately put into gear and the racing of the engine as it quickly faded away.  I sauntered to my room and plopped down on the bed where I lay gazing up at the ceiling.  I was thinking about my father.

I imagined him having coffee at Johnnies Restaurant, sitting where we usually sat, at the very end of the counter so he can talk to the cook.  I thought, someone will probably ask him where I was and he’ll say something, probably a lie because he’ll be too embarrassed to admit that his son didn’t want to be with him today, or maybe too hurt.  Then he’ll leave and he’ll drive into the woods and he’ll cut down a few trees and he’ll carry the wood himself and he’ll load the truck himself and it won’t be as big of a load as he had wanted because he’ll get tired faster being by himself, then he’ll come home and he won’t let me help him unload even if I asked and I’ll be here and he’ll look at me and he won’t talk about it, but he’ll know — we’ll both know.

***

I lifted the splitter again and swung hard.  The splitter hit the log and bounced back up, nearly flying out of my grip.

“Damn green wood,” Dad said.  “That’s why I would always cut the dead standing trees first.  It’s already started to dry out.  I’ll never be able to burn this stuff until next year.”  He cleared his throat and spit.  I wondered if we were both thinking the same thing. 

I held the splitter up and focused on one spot on top the log.  I swung down as hard as I could, but the log repelled the assault with equal force tossing the splitter out of my stinging hands.

Dad walked over and examined the stubborn log.  “Son of a bitch,” he said.  “You’re hitting a knot.  Hit it right here.”  He made a slashing motion with his hand. 

I picked up the splitter and again held it high and focused on the spot Dad had suggested.  I swung down hard again, splitting the log in two.

I lay the splitter down and sat on the chopping block and began to stack the pieces of wood that I had split so far.  Dad was picking them up, too.  He was breathing heavy.  He commented on all the work we had done.  I looked around.  It was far less than all the work we used to do, back when I detested these crisp autumn mornings, smelling exhaust and gas from the chainsaw, dead leaves, sawdust, back when I feigned illness just to sleep in, back when I’d say things not knowing what harm a son can do to a father by saying such things, when the forest between us was dark and thick and impenetrable.

“Don’t overdo it,” Dad said and sat down on the chopping block.  Not to make him feel any worse, I tossed the wood in my hand on the stack and knelt down beside him and uttered a forced “whew.”

We both watched Becky on the trail of the chipmunk again, digging, shooting dirt far behind her.  Although her efforts had been so far futile, her determination was unwavering.  I watched Dad watch the dog.  He was unshaven, emaciated, unlike when we were so far apart, when he would get up 5:30 in the morning and shave before anyone saw him, even on Saturdays, when he was a man in the fullness of his life.  Now that gap has closed and his own body is consuming him, betrayed.  Betrayed.  His betrayal is my betrayal.  Am I selfish?  Maybe, but now that I’m ready to listen, he won’t be there.  And I know I’ll need him.  Where do I go when I need to learn how to be a parent?  How to be a husband?  How to be a neighbor?  A commuter?  A worker?  A boss?  An adult?  A man?  Who will I call in the middle of the night when I am terrified because my baby is sick, but I cannot show fear because my wife is already frightened enough?

I asked him about that day when I told him that I didn’t want to go out cutting wood.  I told him how bad I had felt about it, and still did, nearly twelve years later.  He smiled at me with those eyes I had only recently learned how to read, and he said that he didn’t know what I was talking about, that he had no recollection of any such day.  He then pulled himself up with the momentum of a second try.  He said he was getting tired.  I watched him walk in the house. 

The dog followed him in.

***

A month after my father died, I sat on the tailgate of his pick-up, sweating from the late June sun, looking at the stack of wood that remained.  Once there had been a bunker of wood in the far corner of the yard, but my older brother and my uncle had already taken it.  All that was left was the woodpile my father and I split and stacked that past November, in that brief window when he was himself again.

Mom was no longer burning wood.  It was too much for her, she said. 

I slid off the tailgate and picked up a piece of wood.  Black oak.  I ran my fingers over the coarse bark and pulled at the wood fibers that stuck out where the log had been split. 

The wood was seasoned.