Sunday, October 30, 2011

Things Dads Do

For a long instant, it felt like Thanksgiving this morning, stepping into a warm living room from the chilly garage where I keep my ready access firewood. With four inches -- nearer six or eight if it was powder -- of firmly packed, heavy, wet snow covering the hayfield, it looks like Thanksgiving. It also looks like a few of the Halloweens of my youth when the end of October mistook itself for the beginning of winter. With a fire softly burning (thanks, JD, for the image) in my the way, we didn't have a fireplace when I was growing up, have I told you?

Our house was small -- three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen/dining and living room, all heated electrically. The closest we came to a fireplace was a small wood-burning stove in our unattached garage that my father used as his saddle shop for several years. Hardly a stove, it was a twenty-five gallon oil drum turned onto its side with a door cut into one end and four welded feet. How he worked out there, winter after winter, is a testimony to a father's love and determination.

I split firewood for him. I remember grousing about it at first, as any kid might, torn from afternoon cartoons to trudge out to the woodpile near the barn. I'm supposed to play, not work, I thought. He overlooked my complaints and taught me how to set up a block of wood, take aim for the middle, and swing without missing. It wasn't long before I began enjoying standing there in the snow with my axe and carrying armloads of split logs into the shop, losing myself in a "living-on-the-ranch" reverie. Writing about all this, I recall a day when I grew up a bit, realizing how my "work" kept him going. I must have been around nine or ten, but I began appreciating my father more than I had before.

Shared tasks, working together, those were his values and he passed them along to me. He was raised in a time and place where everyone had a task and everyone contributed to the family's welfare. He and his siblings had chores, a word one rarely hears anymore and tends to be associated with black and white reruns of old western television shows like The Rifleman on AMC. When used now, it's often in the pejorative sense, life is a chore. And some of his were all of that, especially when he was too young to ride after the cows and had to content himself with milking them, instead. Reality fails to imitate art every now and then.

He wasn't heartless about chores, though, and perhaps that comes from his own experience. One afternoon after school, he'd been too busy to cut wood into sections as he usually did, leaving them for me to split. So I started in with my axe, intent on doing both the man's job and the boy's. He came out a short while later and in a gentle tone he reserved for just such moments, told me I could stop, he had enough wood for now. I was hesitant -- the wood box was nearly empty as anyone could see -- but he assured me he was fine and to go on into the house and get warm, The things dads do.

A person has to wonder where the desires of the heart come from. I still love fireplaces and going out into the forest to cut wood. The axe of my youth has been replaced with a splitting maul, five pounds of steel at the end of forty inches of Ash. There is a sectioned tree trunk, well over a hundred pounds itself, sitting in the garage, the legacy of the doctor who lived here before me, that is our common chopping block. The open rafters are high enough for a full-armed swing.

Sheltered from the weather, it's not the barnyard of my childhood. Nor is my work that of my father. But the appreciation for a warm fire on a cold morning we share, as well as the effort to bring it to life. From whence comes the desires of the heart? I can't always say. What I know with any certainty is, I can't plunge my maul into a block of wood without thinking of all those afternoons, splitting wood in the snow, and my father who taught me how.

(Creative Commons image by Gadget_Guru via Fkickr; "a fire softly burning," Back Home Again, words and music by John Denver, copyright 1974)

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