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Choking the log

March 02, 2020

Choking the log


Mostly we get rejects and retards, they told me. They were astounded when my letter arrived in the mail, complete with typed-out resume, in response to their newspaper ad.


I woke every morning at 5:45 when Peter and Rennie got up in the next room. I slept with a pillow over my head; the walls were thin. By morning it had fallen off, my face was cold, my nose red. I could hear Peter's urine tinkle on the ice in the toilet then break through to water. I waited, hoping that maybe it was too cold to work. There was not a shred of light in the sky.


At 6:00 Rennie put on Johnny Cash at full volume. Though I didn’t know ‘til later that it was Johnny Cash. It was always the same song: I hear that train a-comin', a-comin' down the track. The song put an end to the suspended moments that didn't belong to night or day, marked the transition to morning.


If Peter didn’t hear me moving, he would thump on my door: I'll come in and join you, he would threaten in an undertone that he apparently thought seductive. I’d get out of bed and look out at the stars. Dawn; a thin line of intense orange along the horizon, separating the black of sky and Earth, foretelling morning: nature's Johnny Cash.


It was winter, 1978. I was 18. We used a Tree Farmer to pull logs out of the bush. The Tree Farmer was a big tractor, split into two parts with a joint in the middle that allowed the front and back to move independently. I felt exhilarated, riding alone up in the cab. There was no steering wheel and I swung the tractor sections left or right with a long control stick. The power was a thrill. It was scary-fun to manoeuvre it over rough terrain, pulling logs out to a small landing. I felt an intoxicating mix of curiosity and fear as I intentionally crawled one side of the machine slowly up a big stump, tilting dangerously, then excited relief as I rolled down the other side.


My friends were drawn to challenges like University or travel in Asia; I was pulled to a classified ad in the Vancouver Sun that said labourer needed, n Alberta, small logging and sawmill operation on homestead land, $300 mo + rm/ brd. Even for 1979 it was crummy pay. We worked nine hours a day, six days a week. At a time when minimum wage was $3.25 an hour, I made about $1.40, plus the room and board, such as it was.


The rear section had a big metal arm with a retractable steel cable. I’d back the machine up to the butt end of a log, climb down and unspool the thick cable from the winch; five thinner choker cables dangled off the big cable. I’d wrap one of the small ones around a log and then, like fitting a bone into a socket, tuck the steel nub on the end of the cable into a sliding choker. When I winched in the main cable, the short one tightened, “choking” the log so that I could drag it behind the skidder. I’d collect five trees this way, large ends hanging, skinny ends dragging.


Then we’d load them onto an old three-ton logging truck—much smaller than a real logging truck, much bigger than a pick-up. I’d never driven any truck before, just my parents’ Volkswagen van. One time, Peter thought it was okay for me to drive across a beaver pond, and partway I felt the ice break under me; the rear end dropped. Shit. I waited for black water, but the tires hit hanging ice and in low gear I ground my way across the pond.


Peter would fell the trees. My job was to limb and buck them. Body parts can get crushed, branches can spring free and take out eyes, doing that work with no training. I only had thin rubber boots, the ones with the red strip around the top edge that every kid had back then. My feet were icy cold. When I was tired I couldn’t always control the sawblade and after I made a cut the blade would drop, sometimes grazing the toe of my boot.


I loved the smell of wet trees, of wood chips sinking into snow, of gasoline glugging into the saws. I revelled in driving the truck, the logs piled high and precarious. Sometimes I was bored, or really tired, but I was intent on experiencing the otherness of this place and work. I knew how to do well at school, I was competent at track and field and basketball. But now I knew to squirt engine starter into the old John Deere tractor at -30C so that, on a good day, the extra fuel in the combustion cylinder would make it sputter and start; and I could carry boards off the green chain all day. I was a girl, in 1979, and I grew up in the city; I’d never get to do this anywhere else that I knew of.


We were the only ones in the area with running cold water. I didn’t know that lots of people didn’t have running water in 1979, in Canada. For bathing, there was hot water in two huge copper vats on the wood stove in the crowded living room. One bucket at a time, we’d carry water down the dark narrow hall into the unheated bathroom and dump it into the unaccountably big cast iron tub; finally, there were about three inches of now-cold water, just enough to roll in. Peter and I once had a competition to see who could go the longest without washing, who could stand the stink and sweat and itchy sawdust and the same long-johns; I won, at 13 days.


Every two weeks we’d drive into town. We’d shop for food, pick up tractor parts, animal feed, eat a greasy burger, then in the early evening go to the “Zoo” and have two gin and tonics. One time, Rennie didn’t come. She was sick. I didn’t think anything of going alone with Peter, someone I worked with every day, my employer, someone who was married. Halfway back to town, Peter pulled the big old Cadillac onto the shoulder and turned off the engine. There were no other cars. There was a moment of silence and darkness. We were 10 miles from town and 10 miles from the house. An unease bloomed in me like ink in water. He slipped across the long bench seat toward me.


I thought my biggest challenges were learning to drive the old John Deere while balancing a stack of lumber on the forks—a dumped pile of lumber was a lot of work—or hauling green timber for the oil drilling rigs off the rails and out into the yard. They were 12-inch-wide boards that we cut 3 inches thick and up to 23 feet long—and each board weighed well over 100 pounds. I thought the hard part was persevering through boredom and cold while I helped fix equipment, which mostly meant I stood around at -25C temperatures and handed Peter tools while the steel-cold speared my hands through my mitts, and near-unbearable cold stung my feet.


But the hard part was Peter sidling across the seat and trying to grope me, and expecting that I would acquiesce. It was being forced to listen to him tell me, genially, conversationally, that the girl who worked there before had slept with him—in the bed that was now mine. And how, after a while, he slept with that girl on alternate nights, with Rennie in bed alone on the other side of the wafer-thin wall, how that girl got pregnant by him, and stayed with them while she was growing his baby inside her. In his mind we were linked, since we were both from the coast. The hard part was trying to appear confident, to do nothing that would antagonize him. It seemed to work; after what felt like hours and too many stories I didn’t want to hear, he slid back to the steering wheel and drove us home. I suddenly realized that, when we hadn’t arrived home, Rennie would expect I was in her car having sex with her husband.


The hard part, the price of learning, was listening to him on another occasion tell me how he made his wife go to his neighbour, Walter, to have sex, and then made her recount the details to him—the only way I can get it up with her anymore. It was listening to his adult daughter tell me that he had raped her, and not knowing whether to believe her.


Peter and I worked easily together and he liked my perseverance. I badly wanted to learn about engines, tools, fixing and building things. After a few months, I was thrilled to be trusted to start running logs through the mill, and then to drive the huge Caterpillar, a machine that dwarfed the Tree Farmer and controlling it was a heady experience. Peter and I were high up in the cab one day, looking at the world far below, and my hands were on the gears. I was concentrated on getting the blade to the right height. Peter reached over and put his hand on my breast, smugly, and said, We could have fun in here, you an’ me. His hand was like a disgusting bit of flotsam that washes up onshore and I eased it away and wanted to throw up. But it was hard to unlearn politeness.


I had power: the power to leave. But I was determined to earn enough to cover the cost of my return travel, and I liked feeding Blackie the bull, and going out early to chop the ice in the water hole. I liked turning the logs over with the cant hook and sending them through the blade. I liked working hard.


When I did leave, I stayed a few nights on a remote bit of land with a friend of Peter’s daughter, a woman I had met once. She was only slightly older than me, and already weary. Her husband was tall and big-boned; he is so rough in bed that I’m damaged, I can’t have children, she said. She ironed clothes for hours each day while watching soap operas on the big TV, as if in a bad foreign film.


I got a job as a second cook on an oil drilling rig after an interview in the Manpower office in Grande Prairie. Still wanting to see new country. I would be heading into the northern BC wilderness in a few days. In the old, thirteen dollar-a-night hotel in Dawson Creek, I was fascinated by the skinny, grizzled old man with milky eyes who sat for hours in the lobby in his slippers. He had big holes in the heels of his wool socks, and so he had put them on backwards, with the holes on top.


The first night, two men in the room next to me realized there was a girl alone next door and pounded drunkenly on the adjoining wall, then on my door, shouting, Hey, girl, let us in, let us in! There were no room phones in the hotel. The bathroom was down the hall; when my bladder was bursting, not knowing what else to do, I climbed onto a chair and peed into the little enamel sink on the wall in my room.


It was probably time to call it quits, to go home. Fear was choking back my words, making me mute. But incautious determination, desire, is a strong force. I left for a work camp that was two hours down a forested road near Pink Mountain, sandwiched into the middle seat of the truck.


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