I like to chop wood. Maybe it was my early training as a Boy Scout. Or those tales of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack in the big woods, got to me.
Could it be I was moved beyond prudence by the poetry of Robert Frost?
Good blocks of beech it was I split, As large around as the chopping block; And every piece I squarely hit Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
—“Two Tramps in Mud Time”
At any rate, I’ve always enjoyed swinging an axe.
This year, however, the task threatened to overwhelm. From wood-gathering efforts chronicled here and here, I had more than enough fresh honey locust in my backyard, needing to be split.
We don’t use those big, round logs mentioned in Christmas carols (“See the blazing Yule before us, falala-lala, lala-lala!”). Logs must be halved, quartered, or even eighthed, to fit our small cast iron stove. Apart from mere size, wood ignites quicker when it has a cleft inner surface to feed the flame.
I started to split the honey locust, and some river birch from the same source, with my trusty axe.
My neighbor Dick rented a hydraulic splitter. I helped him use the splitter on his part of the take. I had never used one before, and it’s impressive, the ease with which it shivers great logs into small ones. It’s a good job for two people—one to horse the logs onto the splitting bed and one to push the lever that makes the machine go.
Need I spell it out? Dick did the heavy lifting and I provided the wrist action. A fair distribution of labor, agreed. But I was beginning to think I’m an old man, needing to be spared exertion.
When we had reduced his logs to splinters, he offered the use of the machine for mine.
“I actually enjoy splitting them with my axe,” I said. “Good exercise.”
I grinned. “However, some of my logs are too big and heavy to split easily by axe. So I gratefully accept your offer.”
We wheeled the machine to the back end of my garage. In a half-hour’s time we split the biggest and baddest of my logs down to halves or quarters. Plenty of logs remained to be split the old way, gratifying the woodsman inside me.
We hitched the splitter to the back of Dick’s car, and he towed it back to Home Depot.
Since then I have used my axe to make three face cords of split wood. That’s probably enough for now, as we head into winter. Tons of prime honey locust still await the axe. It will keep me busy all winter, whenever the snow is low enough.
Why Is This Important?
Ordinarily, the way people keep warm is their own concern. It’s hard to excite others about it.
There may be curiosity value in historical heating methods. Someday perhaps I’ll tell you what it was like to live in a house heated with a coal furnace, what one had to do—and it was the child’s lot to do it—to keep the flames alight.
But this year’s saga of my firewood husbandry is of possible interest only because it shows our dependence on one another. Some of our wood was a gift from my friend Jack. Some was a gift from our neighbors Nick and Shelly, who no longer needed their honey locust tree.
In processing the huge logs down to burnable firewood, I had help from my neighbor Ben on one side, and my neighbor Dick on the other side.
They say firewood warms you twice—once when you split it and once when you burn it. But the warmth of working with friends and neighbors is not to be discounted.
We burn wood in our living room fireplace, in our backyard fire pit, and in a small woodstove that warms our sunroom. We fire up the first two venues only occasionally, mostly when the kids are over. But we burn a lot of wood in that little stove in the sunroom.
The sunroom, with its large windows showing our backyard and part of our wooded neighborhood, is a pleasant place to sit and write, chat, dine, or just sit and ponder. It is not served, however, by the gas furnace and ductwork that heats the rest of the house. Even to call it a “three-season room” is a stretch, because here in south central Wisconsin, spring does not get going until May, and winter has been known to start in late October. Burning wood makes the sunroom a year-round site.
Last year we went through about three face cords of wood. A face cord is one third of a cord. A cord of firewood is a stack four feet wide by four feet high and eight feet long. But nobody burns four-foot logs. You cut them into “fireplace length,” about sixteen inches.
You can’t be exact with logs. Some may be cut eighteen or twenty inches long, others less than a foot. But on average, they’re sixteen inches. We split the logs and dry them on eight-foot racks. Each rack holds a face cord.
We may burn more than three face cords this year. How much time we spend in the sunroom depends on how much wood we have.
This spring we had almost a face cord of miscellaneous logs left over. But spring is not too soon to start scrounging for more. You want your wood to dry a few months before burning; a year or two would be better. Dry wood burns hotter than fresh wood. And did I mention, I hate to pay money for firewood? I like to get it for free, but the opportunity has to be right.
The Hunt Begins
“The guy down the street has that big tree in his backyard that blew over a while back,” said my wife, Jo. “You could take your chainsaw and offer to give him a hand with it.”
“Mmph. Rotten old thing. Mumble-mumble.” I preferred, so early in the spring, to dilly-dally. Even, if need be, to shilly-shally.
“But where are we going to get firewood for next winter?”
Jack to the Rescue
Did I mention my friend Jack? A splendid gentleman of the old school, he happens to be a Renaissance man: classically educated, a Vietnam vet, a horseman, an expert witness on matters involving masonry construction. Jack is also a writer with a great book, not yet published—just as I am a writer with a great book, not yet published.
By the way, Jack owns and operates a large farm near Madison. He’s perpetually cutting down old trees, and he invites me to share the wealth. This year my daughter, Katie, and I went out to his farm and scored a couple of van loads of white oak and walnut. Already cut, split, and seasoned. Some of that wood warms me as I write these words—in my sunroom, surrounded by a snowy landscape.
Jack gives me wood, and I usually bring him a bottle of something nice. Katie brings him honey. This is not payment for the wood. We’re just doing something nice for a friend, who happens to have done something nice for us.
So, thanks to Jack’s generosity and a bit of left-over mulberry from our own yard, we now have more than a face cord of dry, burnable wood. But we neded quite a bit more. Even if Jack invites us out again, it will not completely fill our need. It seems to me churlish, not to mention unwise, to rely solely on one generous friend.
Today is January 21. In twelve days The Groundhog will emerge and see, or not see, his shadow. Either way, we in Madison, Wisconsin, may not reasonably expect warmth until May.
The question inevitably arises: Where would I rather be?
That’s easy: The 1950s! Where else?
Care to join me?
It was no more than ordinarily cold in those days. Snow did gleam white—except on city streets, where it sank into a purple-pink paste after workers laid down coal cinders for traction. Snow tires being, at that time, hidden somewhere in the future.
The house we lived in sat on high ground. Behind it, a wooded hill tumbled down to the river bottoms. From the corner of our backyard, a narrow trail twisted between scrub maple and willow trees. We called it “The Snake Path.”
Flopping down on your wood-and-steel sled at the top of The Snake Path, you hurtled downward through a patchy meadow, picking up speed. Then you entered the trees, where dodging left and right became a survival skill. Sleds had wooden bars for steering, but steel runners could warp sideways only so far. Kids with short sleds and pointy-toed engineer boots had an advantage. My sled was long, and I wore round-toed, five-buckle galoshes.
If one made it through the trees—and all of us got very good at doing so—then one shot forth from the woods like a bottle rocket and zoomed up a mound of earth near the bottom of the hill. Just short of supersonic, we flew off the top of that mogul and sailed as much as ten feet through the air. If you were still connected to the sled when it slammed down on Mother Earth, you wrenched the steering bar violently and shot off to starboard like those little cash carriers that skimmed the ceiling at J.C. Penney’s, and with full momentum intact, coasted a quarter mile down an old dirt road to the little bridge that spanned the perfectly-named Stink Creek.
This place, I tell you, does exist in the 1950s.
But not now. The coordinates can be plotted. There is still a hill, a road, and a meandering river; but the woods are gone, The Snake Path is no more. The mound of dirt that flung us skyward was leveled long ago. If you knew the place in the Fifties, and if you stood today at the bottom of that hill, you might note the routes traced by all those steel runners, etched invisibly in the air about you. But to see that vision, you must bring the software inside your head.
Disappointingly, the historical society has not even posted a plaque.
Other events in life have occasionally yielded more excitement—a commodity of dubious worth—but few have ever matched the plain satisfaction of navigating The Snake Path on a Flexible Flyer.
“But wait, wait—what’s this about cash carriers at J.C. Penney’s?”
Oh, did I mention cash carriers?
Perhaps you have heard—or have you?—that in bygone days, we operated on a cash economy. People paid for things, if not with gold eagles like in the Old West, at least with metal coins, or with paper money that was, in theory, redeemable for precious metals. We carried dollar bills that looked much like those of today. But ours were Silver Certificates.
Each bill was emblazoned:
“This certifies that there is on deposit in the Treasury of the United States of America One Dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand.”
If I happened to be in Washington, D.C., I could walk into the Treasury Building (which is still there, by the way), present my paper dollar, and get a silver dollar for it. Good deal, eh?
Still, not many of us actually did that. We simply believed, as we do today, that the piece of paper itself was worth a dollar. We just spent them. Or we put them in a bank and wrote paper checks against them for large purchases or for monthly bills.
We did not use credit cards. There were a few credit cards or “charge plates,” issued by stores or gasoline companies for favored customers. But the general purpose credit card did not make its way into our lives until the launch of BankAmericard (later called Visa) in 1958. For most purchases, we used cash—crumpled up dollar bills or fives (but seldom a ten or a twenty, because then you would be talking about Real Money); and silver dollars, half dollars, quarters; dimes, nickels, and copper or steel pennies.
This worked well at your Mom and Pop grocery store down the block. You bought a quart of milk for twenty-four cents and handed Pop a dollar. He punched a key on his cash register and the lap drawer flew open with a bang. He placed the dollar in the drawer, fished out a half dollar, a quarter, and a penny, and added them back up as he handed it to you: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”
Flying Gizmos Like Skates
But big stores, like J.C. Penney, preferred not to have cash registers on the sales floors. They needed to record their transactions. So, say you bought a little flimsy scarf at Penney’s—something that cost twenty-four cents—and you gave the saleslady a dollar, then the routine went like this: She wrote down the transaction on a sales slip. She put the sales slip and your dollar inside a little skate-like gizmo; and she stuck the little gizmo to a circulating-cable rail system inside an elongated cage strung across the store’s ceiling; and it zoomed upstairs to the bookkeeping office on the mezzanine. There, Unseen Hands opened the little gizmo—a cash carrier—took your dollar out, and put back in a half-dollar, a quarter, and a penny, along with the sales slip marked “PAID.” The Unseen Hands then sent the cash carrier shooting back through its cage. The sales lady opened it, handed you the receipt, and counted back the change: “… And one is twenty-five, fifty, one dollar. Thank you, call again.”
The best thing about this process, to a small boy, was simply watching the cash carriers ricochet along the ceiling. And the stellar thing about that was how they turned right angles with no loss in velocity, just a tantalizing thunk!
If you’ve never had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and watch this little video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w75jOy-r5rg. Be patient, Gentle Reader; the demonstration starts at 00:54. This demonstration video was shot at Joyner’s, a general store in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 1994, when the store closed its doors. They ran the cash carrier system just once more, for old times’ sake. But in the heyday of our all-cash economy, this same system was used, hundreds of times a day, in many stores all over the country. It became obsolete when credit cards and electronic registers were invented.
The careening little cash pods, with their abrupt changes from one plane to another, defied all normal laws of physics, in precisely the same way extraterrestrial spacecraft are thought to do.
Or, as in our first example, kids on sleds at the bottom of the snake path.
My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans.
Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.
Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary.
Buy the Little Ones a Dolly
Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery.
In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.
The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.
It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.
’Tis the Season
And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.
’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time.
If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.
If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.
Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.