In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chapter Seventeen

- 17 - 

 THE FIRE crew is offered some trailing work between fires. Before you can light off a unit, you've got to cut a line down to mineral soil all the way round it. Nice work if you can make it pay.
     The Greenwooders do it this way: first, there's the cutter, with an old saw chain with the rakers taken off flat and teeth sharpened with a triangle or flat file. Next, the "swamper" spots trail for the cutter, throws fresh slash to left and right of the trail, brings gas and oil and water and tools on demand. Then, depending on terrain difficulty, come six to ten men and women with shovels, Pulaskis, and big heavy "hazel" hoes.
     Steffi has become One With Her Saw and often works point, waving the spinning steel at brush, logs, and the occasional snag.
     Ron, a guy she hasn't really met before, half Yankee and half devil, with a sardonic beard and a grin to match, is her swamper. What he lacks in height he more than makes up in smarts and a wiry physicality she admires. When the Stihl is thirsty or feeling dull, he's always right there; leading quietly from behind, he makes sure the crew does moderately well. Even at the going rate, which is not big money.
     It's a tough unit, part rock face, above a precipice that's all rock face, with a tiny highway and a smidgen of red roof -- Rosie's restaurant -- far below.
     Steffi leans into her work. After about an hour of hazel brush and sword ferns, punctuated by tree roots that have to be dug out and cut, she comes to a sizeable log. She only has her eighteen inch bar; it will take four cuts to get through it, and her chain's already dull.
     "Break!" She yells to Ron. He passes it back along the line, and the crew sits down in the shade, puffing and blowing.
     Ron passes the triangle file to Steffi and she parks the saw on the log and hews steel.
     "Where'd you learn to do that?" he asks.
     "Hoedags. Thinning on the Face crew."
     "How long have you been there?"
     "Three years. Same as here."
     "I know; you live up in the quarry." He smiles.
     What does that smile mean? The guy's mysterious, always a step ahead, never shows all his cards. She's irritated but doesn't want to show it. "Where .. umm ... so where do you live?"
    "Stone Creek; you know where that is, half of the original Face crew lives there. I built a little house and I run a string of horses."
     "Pack horses? No kidding!"
     "Sure; this isn't Alaska, but it's still kind of wild around here. Now and then somebody needs my services."
     "Wow." Steffi is not fond of horses; in fact, she afraid of them. In a recurring dream she's this guy, an Indiana volunteer that gets shot in the Cornfield, then moves to the Illinois plains, builds a sod hut for a wife and two kids, and then gets killed by the panicked plow team when a lightning storm passes over. Being cut in half by an iron moldboard plow will wake you up, sweating, every time.
    She knows it wasn't their fault, but she breaks out in hives around horses anyway. She realizes she's struggling to forgive Ron for liking the damned things.
     The saw is ready. Steffi hands back the file and cranks up.
     The first cuts are made from below, angled outward at the bottom. Then the second pair of cuts will be made from above, narrowed at the top, so that the section of log, four feet long, can drop out, which it won't do with parallel cuts.
     She's almost done with the cuts from below, when half of the section, which had split beneath the bark without telling anybody, falls off on her.
     It's about a hundred and fifty pounds of wood, and it pins her arm against the Stihl's muffler.
    Steffi screams.
    Antietam looms behind her eyes. She's just fired her first and last shot of the war and knelt behind the rail fence to ram in another Minié ball; from nowhere a Texan in brown wool pops up, scowls, and aims his musket in her general direction. His shot goes high and shatters her arm forever.
     Ron springs into action, heaving up the chunk by one end and sending it flying over Steffi's head and down the mountain.
     Steffi shuts off the saw and sits there, stunned.
     "Let's have a look at that," says Ron. He unbuttons her steaming flannel sleeve, rolls it up, and there on her forearm is a perfect mirror impression of a chainsaw muffler, cooked into place.
     Carlo, who has come down with the others, hops up on the log and surveys the damage. "Cheeses, Steffi."
     "We should get you down to the clinic," says Ron.
     "I'm all right," says Steffi.
     "You think so now, but that's gonna be at least second degree and maybe some third."
     But she insists. She greases the burn with some Bag Balm she carries in a little film can -- her entire medical kit -- and ties a bandanna around her arm. She stands up on shaking legs, tentatively picks up the saw, then yanks the crank rope, her streaming face turned away from the others.
     Ron's body language shows he does not approve, but he returns to swamping for her.
     The next time Steffi runs out of gas, she's been furiously sawing well ahead of Ron's efforts, and it takes him a couple of minutes to catch up at her call.
     "I hate to tell you this," he says, handing her the bleach bottle of sawgas, "But you've just cut your way through half an acre of poison oak." He sits down on a handy stump.
     Steffi looks down at the saw chips clinging to her chaps, clothing, and bandage. Takes off a glove and shakes out some.
     "Oh, well, huh." 
    "You know this is by the hour, right?"
    "Uh."
     "What's with you, anyway? Always on, you never let up on yourself."
     Steffi thinks this over. One Life To Live? Go For The Gusto? Many other Hoedags are the same way. The Greenwooders, like Ron, are no slouches, they do savor adventure, but they kick back more. Lots more; it's a talent. Must be the landowner thing.
     "My dad, I think."
     "Ooh, psych one-oh-one. Love that stuff."
     "Knock it off. He, I think, I mean I know, he, he, wanted a boy. And they got just me, and I was 'just' a girl. File, please."
     He hands it over and puts his bearded chin in his hands. "I'm all ears."
     "Well -- they were always on my case. And any little thing, crit, crit, crit. Pain, especially."
     Steffi pushes the chain four links forward with the file and rasps down the teeth and rakers. "Y'know, one time I ran away -- kinda -- into a swamp less than half a mile from home. Middle of winter. Left a note saying I was fine, not far away, would be back on Saturday. And I built myself a wigwam and covered it with leaves, and sat by a fire for five days. Had to melt ice from the creek to get water. Loved it."
     "And you came home on Saturday."
     "Mm-hmm. And, y'know, for once they didn't have a single bad thing to say to me. Just, like, 'good morning, want some pancakes?'"
     "You'd outstripped their standards somehow."
     "Yeah. Like, if I out-guyed that guy in their heads, they'd quit bugging the girl in front of 'em."
     "But now you're here, three thousand miles away. You could maybe give that script a rest."
     "Oh."
     "Oh, she says." 
    There's that sardonic smile again. But she's sure now it's not disapproval -- not of the deep things.
     Her arm is really throbbing now. "Umm, this -- " she points at the bandanna -- "I think I'd better go sit in the crummy."
     "Ah-h-h, you're learning. I like this idea a lot. How about you give Carlito your saw and chaps and we'll finish up here for you?"
     "Yeah -- umm, yeah."

::: 

Arm in a sling, Steffi goes to a lunar eclipse party at Stone Creek. She's not up to steering Little Bird, so she catches a ride with the Omega farmers. Stone Creek is up a tiny canyon, with rock faces on either side, sheer. It's a wild-looking sort of place, and access across Greenwood Creek is via a sort of homemade cable car.
    People are milling around on a landing in the twilight, and a bearded gent is instructing them, in groups of four, how to get into and sit in the galvanized steel tub; they'll be shoved down the wire rope about sixty feet, or halfway across the rapids, then haul themselves the rest of the way by hand on the overhead cable.
    "Everybody grab the cable and pull twelve inches over and over; that's all. The brake will keep you from rolling back. You go trying to shove yourselves two feet at a time, the last person in the car will lose a finger; got it?"
     Heads nod in semi-comprehension.
    Steffi, being walking wounded, is handed into the car, with a guy in front of her and another, a red-bearded fellow in a hand-knit wool cap, behind her. The host shoves them out over the river, pulley wheels squealing. At the low point in the cable, they're stopped by gravity and swing sickeningly side-to-side. Suddenly the water seems a long way down, and there's a chill on the river air. The guys start doing that hand-over-hand thing, and of course there's a ping behind Steffi and the guy in the back starts cursing. Eventually another Stony Creek resident appears from the gloom on the opposite landing with a long stick like a shepherd's crook, who hooks the car into its cradle and latches it in place, smiling.
    "Welcome to Stony Creek. You in the back, how are ya?"
    "Hurt," says Red Beard.
    "Takes practice. Everybody hop out; go on up to the house in the first clearing; they'll take care of you. Stick to the trail; it gets dark between here and there."
    He's not kidding. Fortunately, the trail, a narrow one that has never known a car or truck, has been worn deep by boots and horseshoes for a number of years. Steffi finds her way by feel; if there's a slope under either foot she's too far left or right. Doesn't anybody around here have a flashlight?
    The house, a cedar-shake affair that reminds Steffi of White Star, is lit, but with a dim orange glow that says "kerosene" to her. So this side of the river, there's no power, no cars, no phones either, most likely. Night is falling, but Steffi can see that there are several "roads" leading away from the clearing. The thresholds of these are like hobbit-holes; a circle of green leads to a tunnel through the alders, with a single brown track for a roadbed. The thought strikes her that this must be what it was like in the Middle Ages.
    Inside the house, there's a lamp on every table, and by the light of the lamp, people are having their hands bandaged. It's like a war zone, and the worst case, the guy that had sat behind Steffi, is getting the web of his left hand stitched by a striking, slim woman in long black hair. He's got a handkerchief, rolled up, clamped between his jaws. Raven Hair smiles at him; he relaxes a little, and she deftly puts in a last loop, pulls it tight, and snips with a tiny pair of nail scissors. Wounded Hand flexes his fingers a bit, winces, and smiles wanly at his hostess.
    The man who'd addressed the crowd across Greenwood Creek steps in, surveys the scene, and shakes his head. "You all told me you got it, and look at you."
    Heads hang in shame around the room.
    "Oh, well ... party time!" He hefts a six-pack of Rainier. "Eclipse at eleven-thirty. Bonfire's being lit now."
    A mild cheer rises from the crowd. Booted feet shuffle across the rough-hewn floor.
    Steffi is offered a brownie. "Uhh, thanks but no thanks."
    The woman making the offer turns out to be She Who Fixed Mr. Red Beard. "Oh, Hi, I'm Jana. I used to plant with Face Crew, up to '74, so we haven't met. I think I heard something about brownies ... "
    "I'll never live that down."
    "You shouldn't worry; people who don't have good stories about them are the ones who should worry."
    "You have stories?"
    "Yeah ... lots." Jana smiles, pats Steffi on the shoulder and moves off, working the room.
    Steffi's next offered a small aluminum tumbler poured from a bottle with a bearded gent in a heavy fur coat on the label. "Uhh, thanks but no thanks." She's learned where her minefields are.
    Someone opens a Rainier and hands it to her. "Thanks." Steffi wanders outside, sipping at the weak beer, to see that flames are rising from a heap of brushwood in the near distance. She joins the crowd.
    There are a lot of Star crew members here, though she doesn't see Dan or Carlo. Ron pops up by her side. "How's the arm?"
    "Oh ... hi. Umm, it's better than it looks. Doctor said give it a rest though. So I, I didn't have to pinch a finger coming across."
    "Smart move."
    "Uh?"
    "Funning you." He sips at his own beer, an Olympia, then looks at the can and purses his lips. "Cheapskates. So, how's the poison oak?"
    "Some around my neck, some around my wrists. Not much; this stuff is wimpy compared to what we had back East."
    "I remember it. Did you know, the wounded lay in hot sun for days after Gettysburg, in the lushest poison ivy anyone had ever seen?"
    Steffi hides behind her beer can. "Ack, please! No Civil War just now."
    "Oh ... sure." He creases his forehead.
    An impromptu band has formed, four guitars and a tambourine. Voices are roaring out "Midnight Special." Steffi taps her foot on the gravel. She'd join in, but she doesn't know if this man sings, and doesn't want him to feel excluded.
    One of the Stars is circulating through the crowd, a tall guy with a Van Dyke beard and recessed eyes. "It's starting, folks -- look at the moon!"
    The song tapers off. Sure enough, the silver is fading from the long, trampled grass round the fire, and most illumination that remains is from the bonfire's embers and glow of half a dozen cigarettes and joints.
    "The Red Dragon is eating the moon!" cries Jana.
    "Nahh, it's the Sacred Dog," says Red Beard, waving a glowing roach with his bandaged hand.
    "Huh," says the tall Star crewmember. He crouches, puts his long hands on his knees, tips back his head, and ululates. His shadow is haloed in deep red.
    Forty-seven voices lift in a long, exuberant howl of greeting to the wounded moon.