High-lead logging in the northwest is an extremely hard way to make a living, and most of the men who did it back when I did were young–in the eighteen to twenty-five range. An out-of-shape old man was not expected to survive long at the job.
I was 27 when I moved to Tacoma, Washington to take a job in construction. When I arrived, I found the project I was supposed to work on had run into some snags and wasn’t going to start for a while, so I was left unemployed. After a frantic search, I found myself, employed as a high-lead logger in the foothills of Mount Rainier.
My first day was a nightmare. I didn’t have the proper clothes–they wore triple thick denim jeans called Lee 88s and hickory shirts that were tough as leather–so I just wore old jeans and a regular shirt over a T-shirt. The mountain we were working on was steep and we went up and down and across the darn thing all day. By the time quitting time neared, I was so exhausted I didn’t think I could make it up to the top of the hill where our “crummy” (the short, filthy, bus we rode to and from the logging site in) was parked.
My foreman–his official title was “slinger”– recognized that fact as well, and told me I’d better start up the hill early, or I’d miss the bus. He was 19 and told me this with an amused sneer on his chiseled young face. I wanted to punch the punk, but I was too tired to lift my arms. So, I just went wide of the area we were working in and began a slow crawl up the hill. The rest of the crew passed me about thirty minutes later.
When I finally reached the crummy, trudged past the rest of the crew–all of them in their teens and early twenties–and found a seat in the back of the little, filthy bus, I collapsed into a pile of weariness. My jeans and shirt were ripped and torn so badly, they just hung in pieces around me and I know I must have been a comical site.
As the bus rumbled slowly down the mountain, the foreman–his nickname was “John Boy”—all loggers had nicknames–turned around and grinned at me. He did this for what seemed like a full five minutes, before he said, “Old man, you ain’t gonna make it. Might as well stop by the office and tell ‘em you quit.”
I lay there on my side for a minute, staring up at the boy grinning down at me–the words, “old man” screaming in my head–then I got my second wind. Actually, it was probably my thirtieth or fortieth second wind of that day, because I had been digging deep all day, just trying to survive. I raised up, sat up straight and looked him right in the eye as I said, “John Boy, the day I leave these mountains will be the day they pack me out on a stretcher.”
Well, I got in shape quick and I worked the woods for three years, coming to love the life of a rough and tumble logger. During that time, three of my friends were killed in logging accidents and I survived two close calls, but that was part of what made the job what it was. It was dangerous and hard, and at the end of each day you knew you’d done something.
My last day as a logger was a hot July day–a rarity in the mountains outside of Seattle–and I came within inches of losing my life. A huge log—36″ diameter and thirty feet long—hit a stump as it was being pulled toward the landing. I was the “slinger” by then and when I saw the log heading for the stump, I knew immediately if it hit on our side of the stump, the log would swing like a giant baseball bat, its end coming straight toward us (I had three men on my crew).
I hit my alarm, with one long beep—the signal for the tower operator to stop the cables immediately. He panicked and hit the control that slacked the cables instead of the one that would bring everything to a quick and sudden stop. That action made everything worse, and the log came toward us so rapidly, we hardly had time to move.
I screamed at the boys to run and we began a terrified scramble up the side of the steep mountain, literally running for our lives. The mountain was eerily silent but for the scrabbling of our feet and hands, and the low whooshing sound of the huge log rushing toward us.
After what seemed like minutes, but had actually been less than ten or fifteen seconds, I glanced over my shoulder. Instead of blue sky and green trees, all I saw was brown. I lunged forward, and the log hit the lower part of my left leg. My logging career was over at thirty years of age.
I was lucky. The ground where the log hit my leg was soft and as a result, my leg and foot were pounded into the dirt. If the ground had been harder, my leg would have been severed just above the ankle. It was badly broken though and it would be two years of operations, casts and crutches before I would be back to some semblance of normal. It’s fine now, other than a half moon scar where they put in and took out pins.
The interesting thing was that when they packed me off that mountain on that hot July day, John Boy had one of the four stretcher handles in his hand. We’d become friends–or at least we’d learned to respect one another–over the past three years, and as they carried me down the steep mountainside, he kept glancing down at me, sweat streaming down his face. I smiled up at him–I was surely in shock from the pain–and I was thinking, I told you so. He glanced down at me–he wasn’t smiling–and said, “I know…. I know.”
I can’t swear to it, but I think I saw a tear or two among the beads of sweat on young John Boy’s face. (I like to think so anyway.)