My earliest recollection of my dad was hearing the sound of a chainsaw outside my bedroom window. He worked as a lineman for our town electric company and helped run the power plant. But his real passion? Cutting down trees. In Northwest Pennsylvania, “tree felling” has always served as a lucrative profession.
Dad started out with one GMC dump truck. He employed his friends and even their relatives. We kids started young. We did the easy things, raking and loading cut branches onto the back of the truck. Dad called us ‘stick pickers.’ At the end of the work day, he let us bounce up and down on the brush to settle it. We had a blast poking each other with spindly limbs and no one ever fell through the thick debris. On the ride to dump it, we sat on the branches to hold them down. Sometimes I laid down and stared at the sky as the truck rolled through several small towns before stopping. I usually wore long sleeves to avoid being scratched. If we had pine branches, my clothes would be covered with sap. Bur I didn’t mind. The sharp, sweet scent refreshed me. Somehow seeing the sky and clouds from atop of the branches lent itself to dreaming. I didn’t mind the bumpy ride at all. When we finally arrived, we climbed down and cheered as Dad pulled the lever and the brush slid over the side of the bank.
As times changed, Dad built a “box” onto the truck bed to contain the debris. Later, he added a chipper to his equipment. I still remember the day we started using it. He pushed the button and it roared to life. I fed the cut branches into it, a little at a time, leafy-end first. Dad reminded me to let go of the branches. It could pull me in, too, if I wasn’t careful! I had the reputation of being accident-prone.
I eventually started gassing up and adding oil to the chainsaws, and also brought pole trimmers and ropes to the tree fellers. But even in high school, I never ran a chainsaw. I tried to start one up once, but luckily, Dad saw the jerky way the blade moved up and said, “Whoa, we’ll leave the chainsaws to the others. If you get hurt, your mom will shoot me.”
By the early ‘70s, Dad left his other jobs and added on a fleet of trucks and more equipment, such as a log splitter we dubbed Big Yellow, and a stump remover. With the log splitter, we could make firewood. I liked it when Dad and I worked together. He split the wood and I stacked it into racks to age. In the fall, Dad sold the firewood.
When I was in fifth grade. Dad and I drove to where we kept the splitter, and started it up. The machine was too loud to talk over so we worked in silence. When we took a break, I mentioned how my Social Studies teacher had smacked my hand with a ruler.
Dad looked up in surprise. “What did you do?”
“Nothing.” I crossed my arms. “Not a thing.”
He looked over at me. “What were you supposed to be doing?”
“Well, my teacher said that was exactly the point. I should have been doing my work.”
Dad chuckled and nodded, then started up Big Yellow again. He never said anything else. His low-key attitude took the sting out of the smack. A quiet rule follower, teachers never scolded me. Mom would have, at the very least, given me a talking to. But that wasn’t Dad’s way. With him, I learned how to ‘look busy’ even when I wasn’t and do my best. My father taught me a lot as we worked together.
The best part of working for Dad was the camaraderie. The breaks. The storytelling. Mid-morning every day, Dad would drive up with a box of doughnuts, and coffee or soda. The chainsaws stopped and everyone gathered together. The stories would begin, how one man fell so many feet over a lake bank when trimming the trees to give the customer a lake view but, still roped in, he was remarkably, only skinned up. Another man would top that story and on it went.
We had daredevil employees that swung like monkeys, sure-footed and deeply-muscled. They had plenty of swagger. The latter is what did them in. But as I listened to their stories, some of which made my dad shake his head, I realized these men cherished my father as much as they did their jobs.
Just like he did with me in fifth grade, Dad gave them space to make mistakes and to grow in their skills. He provided supervision without smothering. He trained the men, then trusted them to do their jobs well. Dad left the job site but circled back in case this crew encountered any problems. He encouraged, joked and smiled, then called it a day.
Whenever I see or hear a chainsaw, it takes me back to those summers shaping my childhood and teenage years. I became stronger, grew tanned, and learned the value of saving money. These summers gave me opportunities to witness Dad’s example in ways I could never have seen otherwise.
It wasn’t just me he inspired. It was everyone who encountered him. With his easygoing ways and innate leadership, he drew people. They all called him by his moniker, ‘The Tree Man.’ But he was their friend, an entrepreneur, and a contagious dreamer. Best of all, he loved his kids. He culled out our strengths but never judged us for our weaknesses.
Even though I was clumsy, during those summers I developed confidence in myself. Years later when I found out I was losing my vision due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, Dad responded just as he always had, with a half-smile and nod. “You’ll be okay. Do your best.”
You know what? I have—and I’ve done fine.
Dad gave me a balance of support and leeway to learn from my own ‘falls’ and grow.
Happy Father’s Day in Heaven, Dad! Miss you!