As an adult, I find it curious what triggers the memories of my inner child. I was reminded of two of these triggers today: cigars and chainsaws.
Uncle George was not my uncle as defined by my family tree. But he was an uncle in every other sense of the word. Growing up, I don’t recall many of my parents friends. Most had very little impact on me, except for one couple, George and Ruth. They were Flatlanders, hailing from the state of New Jersey, and wielding thick Jersey accents. Sparkles recalls Uncle George’s accent and how the number 33 sounded like a gruff “turty tree” George perpetually smoked cigars, which seemed exotic in a world of Marlboro and Camel cigarettes. His voice, husky and thick from the smoke, made him seem scary to small children, but we all knew him as gentle and kind.
But what I remember of Uncle George the most is the sound of chainsaws, waking us up in time for church on Sunday mornings in the summer. I don’t know when it started, and I don’t know when it ended, but for the entirety of my childhood memory, every Sunday, Dad and Uncle George would fill up the chainsaws with gas, grab a case of Budweiser, and head out into the woods with the Jitterbug. For those of you unfamiliar with a Jitterbug, it is a big-ass, old, rundown truck, bigger than a pickup truck, but smaller than an eighteen wheeler. Ours was this green monster with a wooden flat bed in the back. Dad and George would toss in the chainsaws and beer and head out into the three hundred acre woods in search of trees to cut for firewood.
They would start in the spring after the snow melted, and finish up in fall sometime before the frost. The sounds of the chainsaws on Sunday morning through the open windows were hard to sleep through. And by the time we started running the fireplace in the late fall, we had about fifteen cord of wood stacked up under the tree.
I remember helping sometimes. I’m not certain, but if my memory of the story is correct, Uncle George was witness to my first word. Dad would take me with them into the field while they were splitting wood. Whenever Dad missed the log with the ax, he would say, “Shit.” Me, as bright as I was, took in the situation. And when I was ready, and Dad missed with the ax, I said my first word. “Shit.”
I hear it was funny until I was in church, during a very quiet part of the service. I dropped my book over the pew and said, “Shit.”
I didn’t swear again until I was eighteen.
I helped again as I was older. I don’t remember ever being taught how to use an ax or chainsaw, but my job was stacking. I remember hating to stack wood. As a teenager, I would dread hearing the Jitterbug come back out of the woods full of trees because it meant time for us kids to work. We knew it was a necessity, but like any kid, we didn’t want to participate.
I know that Uncle George must have taken a portion of their cut back to his house. He too had a large house and many children. But I don’t recall ever seeing his black truck full of wood. I do remember, however, using his truck with the carpenter boxes on the side, as a horse trailer.
For a while, I borrowed a pony from a family down the street. Their kids had grown up and gone away, and the pony was just hanging out in the field, so Dad made arrangements for me to borrow it for a few years. So yes, when I asked for a pony, I got one. I was as spoiled as my parents could afford to allow.
To transport the pony the three miles to our house, Dad and Uncle George used a couple 2x4s and loaded the pony into the back of Uncle George’s nicely painted black truck. I can still see the image of my pony in a pickup truck.
After their kids had left the house, my parents sold George and Ruth a parcel of land where they built a little cabin in the woods. Just one bedroom, a bathroom and an integrated kitchen/living room. Easy to heat during the harsh Maine winters, and beautifully constructed by George and his sons. And Meine Schwester. At that time, Uncle George referred to her as Punky Brewster. We always complained that she never helped with anything. But Uncle George knew better. He let her help build the cabin by nailing down floorboards.
A picturesque cabin in the woods. Made with love. The summer they were building it, my friends and Brother K and I would sneak out and meet there to play strip Trivial Pursuit. No one knew how to play poker and we never got further than bathing suits. Brother K was Tom Sawyer, sneaking out his bedroom window and climbing down the back tree. I was Huck Finn, going down the stairs, picking up the snacks Mom had left for us as I walked out the front door. I remember one night, walking home from their cabin through the woods and seeing my first meteorite streak down the dark trail. This is where George the Carpenter would retire. This is what made George and Ruth better Mainers than I would ever be.
Uncle George was an integral part of our lives. Through good and bad. Again, I don’t know the details, but I know that he was there the day tragedy struck and I learned the lesson about operating heavy machinery while drinking. Uncle George’s truck flew down the driveway as if it was defying gravity and friction. It was a few hours before we found out that Dad was in the hospital. Meine Schwester recalls seeing Uncle George’s torn up thigh. The only detail I recall is that my father’s hand had been cut by a chainsaw. Dad’s tendons were cut in the last two fingers of his left hand. This wouldn’t have been as tragic if Dad wasn’t left handed.
Dad used to play guitar better than anyone else I knew. Of course, I probably thought that because he was my father, but he was incredible at picking and created pure magic in the air with his twelve string. Dad and George would play and sing, and no matter how bad things seemed, we always had music. It is what kept us all together. Dad’s injury wouldn’t have seemed so tragic, except that he does everything left handed except play guitar.
That was the day the music died.
I don’t blame anyone. I don’t know what happened. I don’t even know what year that was. But I feel like it was a turning point for my parents. Eventually, my senior year, they divorced. I wasn’t upset. They weren’t in love. I was excited that they were moving on with their lives and they could stop being miserable. I went off to college, Dad moved away. My family moved out of the big house and into a smaller house that didn’t require fifteen cord of wood to heat. My pony moved back to his home. I was busy learning about differential equations and stress/strain curves of materials. The sounds of chainsaws and guitars, and the smell of cigars faded into my memories.
Until today, when I learned that Uncle George had passed away. I hadn’t known he was ill. I hadn’t heard much about him for the past few years. I read the obituary and saw that his kids had all grown and married and have families of their own. I don’t know how long he lived in that little cabin in the woods. I don’t know if he still played guitar and smoked cigars and forced trees into works of art. But I do know that he made a difference in my life. And I never took the opportunity to tell him.