I was 10 years old when my father bought a chain saw. He chose one of the best, a beefy, 20-inch Stihl (pronounced “steel”). In the woods behind the house he taught me and my brothers how to use it. One brother saw it as something useful. One was bored by it. Another was afraid of it. I took to it instantly and with a passion.
There was no finer adventure in those days than the evenings when we worked together in those woods behind the house, felling and cutting trees, and splitting the logs. The ring of hammers against wedges, the throaty roar of the saw, the chugging of the tractor, the smell of exhaust and the spray of sawdust against my legs was all heaven to me. We cleared big oaks and tulips around a stand of spruce my mother wished encouraged, so on top of everything else all this high romance was in service to the queen, so to speak.
I was big and strong for my age and I exulted in the physical work. My father loved it, too, but I was not oblivious to his open mouth and heaving lungs as he struggled to keep pace with his vigorous sons. It was in those days that I learned to love hard labor, and it was a lasting love. I grew, and through the trying years of adolescence I continued cutting and splitting wood. The faithful Stihl went with me, on through the college years when I made money with it through some long summers. It was a kind of interim link with my father, to use the saw he bought, with the skills he taught me, while we were apart.
College graduation brought rapprochement, and now I was cutting trees in New Hampshire at the house my parents retired to. The old Stihl still ran, but not as well as it once did. When dad died, one of the last things I did with it was cut an old stump out of his yard while preparing the place for sale. The saw was never the same after that. In my garage I opened it up and like a doctor sadly declared the disease too far advanced for surgery. I put the pieces of my dear old Stihl into a bucket, and then one day in unsentimental haste added it to a load headed for the dump.
I have a new saw now, a bright orange Husqvarna I bought at Myette’s, and I still keep a woodpile in my yard. I still love the work, but these days the logs are heavier and the wood is harder. When I swing my sledge hammer my mouth is open and my lungs heave like the old man’s used to. The house and forest where I grew up are long gone. My mother’s beloved spruce are displaced by a gaudy mansion. The Stihl is gone and, of course, also gone is the strong young man. They hardly seem real anymore, those heady days of romance and labor.
The only things left are the old tractor sleeping in my garage and an old splitting wedge we used back then. I keep it by my fireplace now, and sometimes in the morning when making the fire I take it in my hand just to feel its weight. I touch the sharp, mushroomed edges where as a young man I pounded away at it with my sledge hammer. When I feel its steely nature, in a strange and wonderful way the past seems a little less distant. I am taken back. I can make out the silhouettes of four boys and their father in the forest. I can smell the exhaust of the tractor, I can feel the thud of a felled oak hitting the ground, and I can hear the joyful roar of that wonderful old Stihl.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.