The best man I ever knew
James M. Skibo
(Story inspired by Michael Loukinen’s film, Good Man in the Woods)
Part 2 of 2
Sheri and Tom walked slowly over to the old man. Tom was a bit more cautious but Sheri was unafraid as she knelt down beside the old man and put a hand on his shoulder. Tom kept on eye on his ax.
Sheri asked, “You OK?” It was not until then that he even acknowledged their presence. He raised his head and gave them a little smile.
“Just an old man lost in his memories,” he said.
“Can you stand?” asked Sheri.
“Oh sure,” he replied as he put weight on his ax to push himself up. His knees cracked audibly as he straightened up. Sheri grabbed his arm as he stood. She had worked in a nursing home as an aide as a summer job during college so she had helped up lots of people, some three times her size. During these lifts, it felt like she was going to break someone’s thin and withered arm to get them upright. Not true for this man, as his arm was thick and muscled. Chuck was about 6 ft. tall and the old man was taller when he finally stood up.
Chuck reached out his hand and said, “Hi, my name is Chuck and this is Sheri. Back at the fire is Meghan and Tom.”
The man deftly switched has ax into his left hand and took Tom’s hand with his right. Tom was surprised by the man’s firm grip. His thick fingers and rough skin were sure signs of years of hard work.
“My name is Jake. Pleasure to meet you,” he said with a subtle smile. When Jake looked up, they noticed an old scar through his eyebrow where his hair did not grow back. His prominent nose was bent a little to one side, no doubt from an unset break.
Sheri chimed in, “Why don’t you come over by the fire and sit for a bit.” Chuck gave an unapproving look that only Sheri could see but still ignored.
“I wouldn’t want to bother you,” Jake said.
“No trouble at all,” said Sheri as she took him by the arm. “Chuck will go ahead and get you a glass of water.”
Chuck gave Sheri his ‘What the fuck” look. Sheri could be trusting as a child while Chuck was thinking that they were inviting a guy to their fire with an ax and a scarred up face.
When they got back to the fire and Tom and Meghan were introduced, Sheri invited him to take Chuck’s chair. After looking at him more closely, both Tom and Chuck both concluded that he was probably harmless. Nonetheless, they were annoyed for the intrusion into their idyllic evening.
He rested his ax between his legs and took a few sips of his water, and said, “Thank you for the water. You picked a beautiful campsite.” Tom gave a smile because he was in charge of picking the campsite each year. There were many variables, flatness of the ground, not too close or too far from the rustic toilet, access to firewood, view of the lake, etc.
“Want something a little stronger,” Tom asked much to everyone’s surprise.
“Sure,” said the old man. “Doctor tells me that a little nip is good for the arthritis.” Tom poured him two fingers of his $50 a bottle bourbon. Jake threw it back in one practiced motion, much to Tom’s dismay. Uncouth Packer fan, Tom thought to himself, drinking his expensive bourbon like common swill.
“Any trouble with bears?” Jake asked.
Black bears were a constant concern of the campers in this part of the woods. Not human killers like the brown bears of the West but nonetheless still dangerous as they have been known to cause bodily harm on their way to the smell of sizzling bacon or other sweet treats left unprotected.
“Couple years ago we had a bear go through our cooler that we left out. He bit into every can of soda. Since then we have been better about making sure everything is in the bear bin,” a metal container provided at each campsite.
“I know of a sure-fire way to keep bears out of the camp,” Jake offered. Everyone leaned forward, eager for some local wisdom about these camp pests. “I paint a white line around the entire camp,” he said as he waved his hand to gesture the location. He paused as they waited for the reasoning for the local wisdom. “Everyone around here knows that bears have a hard time crossing a white goal line,” Jake concluded with a wink at Tom who was wearing his Chicago Bears’ cap.
Chuck roared with delight, “He got you good!” Everyone else joined the laughter and Chuck grabbed Tom’s $50 bottle of bourbon and poured Jake another drink.
“You live nearby, Jake?” inquired Meghan.
“I have a little place just 20 minutes away, near Iron Town,” which was the county seat. Lived here all my life, mostly working in the woods.”
“You were a logger?” Tom asked.
“Yup, I have been logging, mostly pulp, since I was a kid.”
“What is pulp?” asked Meghan.
“Pulp is wood that is cut down and sent to the paper mills. I mostly cut aspen, which we call ‘popple’ around here. In the old days, we would cut it down and peel it by hand, which you can do in the Spring only. Today, huge machines do all the cutting, but there was a time when a small time jobber like me could make a living out here with a chain saw and a pickup truck.”
“So you know these woods well?” asked Meghan. Within their group, she had the most interest in the natural environment, constantly referring back to the wildlife and plant books she carried in her backpack.
“Oh you bet, especially around here. I did lots of work around here and I’ve also been hunting and fishing in these hills all my life.”
“We saw a weasel like animal yesterday down by the lake about the size of an otter. It was mostly black but also had some brown fur. From the pictures in my book, I think it could have been a mink or a marten. Do you see them around here?” asked Meghan.
“We do get both around here but it is rare to see them. They are making a comeback but they were trapped heavy for a long time and almost completely disappeared. If it was down by the water it might have been a mink. Did it have a bushy tail?”
“It was bushy, right Sheri?”
“I think so, and I think the tail was all black.”
“Then it was probably a Marten. They have the bushy black tails. Good for you for spotting it, I have only seen a few myself.”
Meghan beamed with pride for witnessing this rare event. “We have a family of ducks on the lake with a brood of small chicks. The mothers are trying to teach the little ones how to dive for fish. We don’t see them in Illinois but according to my bird book I think it might be the common merganser.”
“There are a couple of merganser types around here. Was this one mostly brown or a little more colorful?”
“It was mostly brown and had sporty feathers at the back of their heads like a 1980s punker.”
Jake nodded, “I think you are right, it was common merganser.”
“How did you learn so much about the wildlife?” asked Meghan.
“When you spend most of your days in the woods you pick up things here and there. But I learned the most from old man who I worked with for many years. He was the best man I ever knew in the woods. He knew everything there is about the woods, from the insects in the dirt to the flowers, birds, and trees. Most of what I know about the woods I learned from him. The amazing thing is he had just one arm. The best man I ever knew in the woods was a one-armed guy.” Chuck snorted out a laugh and received a glare from Meghan.
“Oh that’s OK. When you say it aloud, it does sound funny. He was already an old man when I started working with him. He lost his arm when he was just a kid. He sat down and rested his gun next to a tree. The gun fell over, discharged and got him just below the shoulder of his left arm. He would have bled out if it wasn’t for his brother who got him to the doctor. Maybe today they could have fixed it, but back then all Doc Mather could do was cut it off.”
“After he healed up, he started looking for a job, and the best jobs around here at that time were with the mine. Many men were being hired, but he kept getting turned down. Finally, he went into the hiring office and asked Harry, the man in charge of hiring, why he kept getting turned away.”
“If you want the truth,” he said, “it’s because you are one-armed.”
“Harry, you’ve known me all of my life, you know I can do anything any other man can do with two good arms.”
“I know, but the company has a strict policy, because of liability all workers must be of sound body.”
“He walked out of the office that day and vowed that he would out work and out do any man. And he did. He worked for years in the big logging company. He drove equipment, graded timber, and moved up the chain of command. Then the big company moved out when he was in his 50s or 60s.”
“By that time, I was just starting out in the woods, working for myself. I was doing OK as I could bid on small tracts and made enough money to make a go.”
“One morning the old man stopped by my place. I knew him then but just good enough to say hello, so I was a little surprised by the visit.”
“He says, I’ve been hearing good things about you in the woods. I wonder if you would consider a proposition. If you take me on for one month, I know I can increase your profits by at least 50 percent. If not we will part ways, but if I do, then you take me on as a partner—you take 60 percent and I will take 40.”
“I didn’t think I had anything to lose, so I agreed. And so began our 20-year partnership, working in the woods. We worked 5 and many times 6 days a week regardless of the weather. Rain, snow, 20 below zero, we worked through it all.”
“He could limb a tree faster than I could with my saw. He also gave me lots of pointers on how to make trees fall in the right direction. When you are a small-time jobber like me you do select cutting, so you are trying to fell trees amidst a tangle of trees. Getting them hung up wastes a lot of time and can be dangerous. I have the face to prove it,” pointing to his broken nose.
“The old man showed me how to read the trees better and he had lots of tricks for making trees fall where you want them to. After I would take down a tree, he would follow with his ax and he could lop off most limbs with just a single swing. All you would hear is a rhythmical sound, ‘ching, ching, ching,’ as he moved down the tree lopping off the limbs. On a big tree, he would jump right up on the log, keeping his balance as he swung his ax. He sharpened his ax each morning and it was sharp enough to shave hair off your arm. ”
“Most everything I know about the woods I learned from him. One of the most important things he taught me was how to not get lost. These woods can be tricky and it is easy to get turned around. When I was a kid I got lost a few times, especially when I was hunting and not paying attention to where I was walking. One deer season I was hunting all day not too far from here and it was starting to get dark so I thought I would head back to the truck. There was about an inch of snow on the ground. I walked for about a half hour or so and came upon a man’s fresh boot tracks. I wondered who is hunting out here so close to me. When I looked closer at the tracks, I thought, What is the chance that they would be wearing a boot that made exactly the same track print as me? I’m so thick headed that it took me a full five minutes of standing there to figure out that these were my boot tracks and I had walked in a complete circle.”
“The old man taught me the key to find your way in the woods was to always know where north is. He never carried a compass, but he could always navigate in the woods. He taught me to keep track of where the sun is. Even on cloudy days, you can most often tell where the sun is, and if you have a watch you can always figure out where north is. If you can’t see the sun, the moss on the trees grows higher up the trees on the north side. If it gets dark, you can still find north from the moon or the North Star.”
“What if it is dark and cloudy?” Tom asked a bit sarcastically.
“Then you start looking at your partner to see which body part would make the best tenderloin,” the old man replied as he laughed for the first time. The others gave a nervous laugh. “We did get stuck one cloudy night after dark and couldn’t make it out. The old man told me that the worst thing to do is to panic and keep walking. We found a protected spot, made a big fire and slept right there in the woods and waited for morning. Then it was no problem getting out.”
“He was the best man I ever knew in the woods. He was such a tough and serious guy, it was a little funny that the thing he liked best about the woods was birds, especially the little ones. The only thing he stopped working for was if he saw a bird. He knew them all from the osprey who fish down on that lake to the little songbirds. He could imitate most of the birdcalls. He could whistle like most of the birds and they would answer.”
“One day just after deer hunting season we were logging in this very forty. It was my favorite time to cut trees. The temperature would be just around freezing so you could work hard all day and not break a sweat. Frost would have knocked down all the cover vegetation, so you could see real good. It was snowing off and on all morning–those big gentle flakes.”
Jake was now staring down at the fire as he spoke, his voice so quiet that the others had to lean in to hear.
“I just got done knocking down a tree, and I stopped to gas up the saw. The old man was working on the other side of this small hill, not far away but out of sight. I was surprised that I couldn’t hear the sound of his ax limbing the trees. I filled up my saw, added chain oil, but still no sound, which was odd. I gave a yell. Nothing. I put the saw down and headed up a little rise. When I got to the top I could see him sitting against this big maple tree. It was a strange sight because in our twenty years in the woods I never once saw him sit down except for lunch. So I knew something was wrong. I took off running down the small hill. He had been sitting there just long enough for the big fluffy flakes to stack up on the brim of his cap. I yelled out his name, as I got close. Nothing. His eyes were open and staring straight ahead. I put my hand on his shoulder and give him a shake.”
“I lifted him up and put him on my shoulder and started to walk out. He was a big man and not easy to carry but I was young and strong. I had him over my shoulder in a firefighter’s carry and his hand was still gripping his ax. It banged into my leg as I walked.
“I put him in the front seat of my truck, pried the ax out of his hand and gently closed his eyes. He probably would have preferred that I left him leaning against the tree, but instead I took my time driving the final trip out of the woods.”
“He didn’t have any close family, nor did he have much, so he had put me in charge of his estate. He did know a lot of people and there was a line outside the funeral parlor for those wanting to pay their respects. A couple cousins and me stood there and shook everyone’s hand. I really didn’t know my real father, so the old man was the closest thing. I think that I was the closest thing he had to a son. Although we never talked like this when he was alive, I can tell you that I loved him and I know he loved me too.” Jake’s voice cracked a bit. He looked up and saw that Sheri had tears running down her face, and Meghan held a tissue over her mouth. Chuck was staring down at the ground and Tom stood in the shadows back from the fire.
“By God, I didn’t mean to spoil your beautiful evening with my sad memories.”
“It’s a beautiful story, please go on,” said Meghan. Sheri and Chuck nodded their heads in agreement. Jake paused, looked down at the ax, and continued.
“I had the undertaker put his ax in the coffin with him for the service, and it was my intention to bury it with him. But when it was time to close the box I took out his ax. I suppose it was a selfish thing, but I wanted something of his as a remembrance. His ax really was his most prized possession.”
“This is the ax right here,” Jake said as he grabbed it by the handle and held it out for all to see. “Damn thing is still sharp. I never use it. The day after the funeral, I hung it over my fireplace. I take it out for just a couple of occasions. I take it out on the day he died and on his birthday. Today is his birthday. I never knew the date of his birth until it was etched on his headstone, but I celebrate every year since he died.”
“I come to this spot because it was one of his favorite spots in the woods, but also because he took his last breath just over that rise. I think of him every day, but his birthday is now, for me, like a sacred holiday. I never go to his grave as that just contains his lifeless body. I come here to the woods because this is where I feel his spirit.
“Jake, I am feeling like we have intruded on your special time,” said Meghan, sadly.
“Don’t be silly. The old man would have liked you because you appreciate the woods. Tourists come around all the time, but most don’t get off the paved road. You folks are camping in this remote spot and appreciating its beauty. I like that and the old man would have too.”
“I should be on my way, but before I go I would appreciate it if you could do this old man a favor and join me in a toast.”
They all grabbed their neglected drinks.
“To the old man, the best man I ever knew.”