Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'Owed' to an Old Chain Saw: We're both wore out

When I bought the thing, I was 41 years old, still young enough to saw down entire forests, cut it into fireplace lengths, split it and stack it. Or so I thought, anyway. I'd had a couple of used chainsaws -- an old Poulan I bought from a hardware store in Zebulon after its first owner had brought it back, and then a fouled up McGregor that someone had thrown out on the street in frustration, as I was soon to learn why: It ran poorly, cut badly and served mostly to foul the air and tick off the operator.

So one day I walked into Wilson's Outdoor Equipment in Raleigh and listened to someone who knew what he was doing when it came to chain saws.  Walked out an hour later with the Stihl 028 Wood Boss with a 20 inch bar and a bag full of chains.   It sounded like an old British Small Arms motorcycle I had had when we lived in Washington, but ran faster and cut quicker than anything I ever saw -- when I had a sharp chain on it, anyway.

I cut trees all over Wake County with that saw, took down some monsters in our yard and pitched in on those occasions when Raleigh got a freak ice storm or wet snowfall that brought down trees in our neighborhood. Hardwoods, softwoods, junk wood, good stuff -- it ran through wood like a hot knife through warm butter.

It was particularly good at laying down about 10 tons of old locust and two-foot oaks and 10-inch maples that occupy much of the old 66-acre farm that we have been trying to keep tidy for the past 25 years or so.  We burn a lot of firewood, and once we built a house up in the Blue Ridge, the Wood Boss was what kept us warm twice a year -- all summer when I was cutting and splitting and stacking that wood, and all winter when the winds howled outside as we burned wood in the soapstone stove.

There was a rising price. As I got older, I noticed that when I was cutting with the thing, my arms and upper chest would ache for days.  Didn't feel that back in the late 1980s, but after the turn of the 21st century I realized a couple of hours with the Wood Boss would flat wear me out.  I'd still be feeling it on Tuesday after a long Saturday afternoon getting up firewood.

Reckon I went through 50 or more chains on that thing.  Found a man who sharpened them up cheap, and mourned when he died too early of cancer.  Took the saw to the shop twice a year to have it tuned and tweaked and cleaned, and once had the thing rebuilt for more than the cost of my  first car, an old '56 Chevy Bel Air with the small block V8.  Both ran like tops when they were running on new plugs. Both coughed and sputtered and bucked and shuddered when the plugs were fouled.

The last three years or so, the Wood Boss has spent more time in the shop than in the kerf of a big tree.  It was slow to start, started throwing chains, gobbled up bar oil and sometimes just quit when it got too hot to work.  I took it in last week and showed it to the fellow who has kept it going for the last few of its 28-year life, and he shook his head.  "Can't hardly get parts for these things anymore," he said with a regretful look on his face. "I'll call you when I get a look inside."

That call came yesterday. He might be able to fix it up for a short time, but chances are its best cutting days were long ago.  Might be best, he thought, to just consider it worn out and put it out to pasture.  Made sense to me.  That old saw with its long bar and full tank could weigh something like 14 pounds.  But the new line of high- efficiency saws would go considerably lighter -- not to mention how light I'd be in the wallet once I bought one of those things.  They're real proud of 'em, the Stihl folks are.

I haven't shelled out for one yet, but that day is coming. I've gotten up seven or eight cords for the coming winter and marked standing dead trees that will come down this winter when the weather allows -- and when my knees and hands and elbows recover from splitting a huge oak across the road this past month.  Like that old saw, I've had my fill for a little while.   Rode hard and put up wet, as my Dad used to say.   When my arms and knees quit hurting, I'll go shopping for a new one.  Doesn't look like that will be any time soon. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Curious Case of the Cast Iron Compass Rose

Back in our sailing days we used to collect the odd item of nautical descent -- a brass signal cannon that fired 10-gauge blanks and put out a satisfactory BANG!, a gimballed brass salon lamp that swung more or less level when the weather got heavy, a big oil painting depicting topsail schooners racing into the dawn.  One of our prize finds was a decorative, cast-iron compass rose.  Now, a compass rose usually is a handy device printed on nautical charts and showing not just the four key directions but also all the other points of the compass, so you can quickly plot a compass course using a pair of parallel rulers and the rose as a reference.  Wikipedia puts it this way: "A compass rose, sometimes called a windrose, is a figure on a compass, map, nautical chart or monument used to display the orientation of the cardinal directions—North, East, South and West—and their intermediate points."

Our cast-iron compass, found while poking through an antiques store on Maryland's Eastern Shore with my college roommate, was entirely for show, the sort of thing you'd hang on your wall.  It did not bear the finer points of a compass rose printed on a chart, but if you only wanted to know which way North was, or South, East or West, it was a very helpful thing.  We cleaned it up and mounted it on a brick wall on one side of our patio in Raleigh, then later when we built our dream house in the Blue Ridge, we mounted it on a massive beam in the great room, with the rosette angled slightly so that N pointed, more or less, North.  In the going-on three years it hung there, only one person noticed why it was oriented the way it was.  Maybe everyone else realized it pointed north and thought it not even worth mentioning; only the late Jim "Squirrel" Garrison commented on it.

Then one day in June of 2010, lightning struck the house and burned it to the ground while we were in Greensboro fixing to go to the beach.  We found very few things from that fire -- the carcass of a .357 magnum pistol, a lump of silver that had once been a set of family silverware and a round rock that I'd picked up somewhere in the yard when the foundation was dug.   Never found any trace of many things, including the cast iron compass rose.   Well, it was just old stuff, and nobody got hurt.  Not at all in the tragedy category, just a pain in the neck for a while until we rebuilt.

A few months ago my old roomie, a lawyer who lives on the Eastern Shore and has spent much of his career putting bad people in jail and serving up Chesapeake Bay crabs to visitors from down South, idly inquired, offhand, whether I'd ever found another compass rose.  I had figured I'd never find another like the other, but I think I expressed some interest. But I didn't think any more of it. So the other day, while celebrating a birthday with an extremely advanced age that pretty much puts me solidly in the ranks of geezerdom, Our Man Terry of UPS drove up with an interesting package -- flat, and a couple of feet square.  Inside lay what I believe to be the exact same model of a compass rose as the one that melted down in the 2010 fire. It now hangs on our kitchen wall, along with something else: A note written in marker on a rectangle of cardboard, prefaced by an old college-era nickname that he and I have applied to each other since, oh, 1966 or so.  It read:  "Buckflap: Try to not melt down this one. S--."

Buckflap, I will do my best to see this one stays on the wall, unmelted, and pointing north. J--.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A little help for Graveyard Fields

About six months ago I was idling my way through the evening, listening to the Steep Canyon Rangers' newest album, Tell The Ones I Love.  It had been a gift from my daughter, who for the past 20 years or so made it her mission to make sure I got new music worth listening to.  I was reading through the info on the CD sleeve when I realized I was hearing their song "Graveyard Fields" -- and I sat bolt upright. What a coincidence.  These guys were playing an instrumental with the title of a stunning place on the Blue Ridge Parkway, right at the same time the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation was undertaking a new project to provide improvements at that site.

What I didn't know was the members of the Steep Canyon Rangers, a bluegrass band that has toured with famed banjoist/comedian Steve Martin and singer Edie Brickell, didn't just pick the name of that song out of a hat.  They had grown up near Graveyard Fields, a mountaintop valley at 5,100 feet elevation on the Parkway that was so named because the wind-torn tree stumps, covered in moss and vines, looked from a distance like a great, ancient graveyard -- or so the story goes, anyway. They visited there as youngsters, hiked across the valley, picnicked there with their families and as grownup performers found themselves still drawn to the place.

This is a familiar story for many Blue Ridge Parkway visitors -- they first visited as children, kept on coming back for years, brought their children with them when they became adults and remain attracted to the utterly immense beauty of those dramatic views, the sometimes challenging trails and the sense of wonder the Parkway offers. 

That's the way it is with Carolyn Ward, the CEO of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, a private foundation that serves as the official fundraising partner of the National Park Service's Blue Ridge Parkway. Ward heard about the song and quickly contacted the Steep Canyon Rangers to see if they could help publicize the campaign to make improvements at the Graveyard Fields site. The Parkway's list of improvements includes:

  • Expansion of the overlook parking area from 17 spaces to 40 spaces.
  • Placement of a new three-unit, ADA compliant vault toilet restroom facility constructed adjacent to the parking area.
  • Improvements to US Forest Service trails that include installing boardwalk, constructing check dams, improving drainage, closing non-system trails, and modifying boardwalk sections to fit new design features.
  • Installation of a new trail map at trailhead and four additional interpretive signs on the Graveyard Fields Loop Trail. 
  • Reducing the speed limit in the area and eliminating parking along the road shoulder.
Paul Bonesteel, left, filming the Steep Canyon Rangers at Graveyard Fields

The Steep Canyon Rangers were glad to help. Soon they were before the cameras of filmmaker Paul Bonesteel, a member of the Foundation's advisory panel and a highly accomplished documentary maker. The result is a first-rate, seven-minute video that can be found here.

So if you're looking for a way to help the Steep Canyon Rangers and thousands of other fans of the Blue Ridge Parkway to keep the 469-mile Parkway in good shape, here's your chance. Contact the Blue Ridge Parkway  and make a contribution to the Graveyard Fields project, or to the Foundation generally.  They'll put the money to good use. 

There's something else: if you like what the Steep Canyon Rangers are doing and would like to hear them live in a beautiful Blue Ridge amphitheater, make plans now to attend their concert at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Galax on October 11.  You can contact the Blue Ridge Music Center -- also operated by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation -- here or you can go straight to the Ranger's concert page here. You'll be glad you did.

Friday, July 4, 2014

July 4, 1906 was a big day in the Betts family

On this day in 1906, my father was born in a white house across Jones Street from the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh. It would have been a big day in that house, which belonged to my grandmother's family.  He was the first child of Mary Atkinson Monie Betts and Joseph Shawen Betts, a Greensboro dentist and horseman, and grandson of Alexander Davis Betts, a Civil War chaplain of the 30th N.C. who had ridden with Jackson and Lee.

Family legend is that John Monie Betts -- his friends called him "Windy" -- got his gentle streak from his grandfather, who ministered to little Methodist churches all across the state of North Carolina and in parts of Southside Virginia. Old A.D. lived with my father's family in Greensboro when he was growing up, and Dad heard tales of that awful war most every day of his youth. My father always said the old parson had taught him many things about life, including the obligations of duty, the power of a kind word and the value of patience.
John "Windy" Betts, future sailor, about 1911

They were lessons that stuck with my father and served him well during the lean years of the Great Depression and the difficult years with a sometimes rebellious son who thought his parents were too old to be raising children. But he was wise enough to make me stay up until the end of that game in 1957 when Carolina won the national championship, and he drove me all over three or four states to go hiking and camping, a feat I appreciated more when I got the same arthritis of the knees that he endured on those outings.  Through it all he had a thoughtful smile and a steady hand. To this day I can't remember hearing him raise his voice, except in delight when Phil Ford threw one in from downtown for the Tar Heels, or spun by some feckless defender to lay it in the bucket.

Somehow we managed to patch things up pretty well when I grew up a little, and the bond between us grew over the years. In the final years of his life, before cancer put him down fast, we went in on an old sailboat together and often cruised the waters of Bugg's Island Lake, one of the largest in our region.  He died at nearly 88 in 1994; had he lived, he would have been 108 today -- and, I expect, he would have a smile on his face and a kind word on his lips.  Happy Birthday, Dad.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The snake in the barn

It felt a little like one of those irritating cobwebs as it brushed my noggin while I was looking for a wire stretcher I keep in the barn. I was adding a couple strands of barbed wire to discourage deer and other critters from jumping the fence in the garden, and I wasn't paying attention to whatever it was wafting in the breeze. And then I was -- plus levitating about four feet while I was still figuring out whether that was a snake hanging from a rafter, or just a fully intact skin.
The snakeskin in the barn, swaying gently in the breeze

Of course it was just a skin, so I didn't have to go ahead and have the heart attack and expire right there on the spot. But ever since a worker found and killed a 4 1/2 foot diamond back rattler with 11 buttons rattling across the road at a friend's house a few weeks ago, I've been keeping my eyes open for snakes.  So after my heart rate settled back down, I took a few pictures of this feller's old skin.  It appears to be a good five, maybe six feet long.  It was in the rafter trusses of the barn, wrapped around and wedged into the tight angle where the long stringers met, and evidently used that to slip out of his old duds. Here's a closeup.  I could swear I see where the eyes were.
The business end of that hanging snakeskin

This is the first evidence of snakery I've seen in a while, but I have noticed the field mouse population of the barn seems to be down dramatically in the last couple years.  I thought it might be due to that seven-foot blacksnake I saw east of the house summer before last, when I watched it climb a locust tree. I think it was after a nest of birds, whose squawks ended a couple of hours later. I expect the snake found his quarry.
Took this picture July 20, 2012 as a tree-climber went vertical

I'm respectful of snakes, quite happy to leave them alone and even happier for them to leave me alone.  A neighbor, the late Boyd Allred, who survived WW II and the Korean War, once told me there were only four kinds of snakes he was afraid of: "Big snakes, little snakes, live snakes and dead snakes."  I understood what he meant, but I'm mesmerized when I see a sizable one going about his or her business.

More than 20 years ago, my father-in-law Hal Strickland found a dead rattler in the middle of Belcher Mountain Road.  He recognized it as a rattler, but double-checked his memory with a field guide. Sure enough, that rattler was well out of the bounds of his known habitat.  A second rattler found at our neighbor's house about 200 yards away this summer suggests that the range of rattlesnakes may have changed while no one was looking, up here at 3,200 feet elevation.  One more thing to think about while walking through the tall grass in these hot hazy days of July.