Sharpening The Axe
One of the most renowned quotations attributed to Abraham Lincoln is the one about sharpening the axe. I have no idea if my father, Elvin M Baker, was aware of that quotation or not…but he definitely knew which end of an axe was which. As a rancher for many years near Drummond, Montana, he had to make sure Mom had plenty of firewood for both the Royal cookstove and, during the winter, the Ashley heating stove.
That’s where I came in.
As the eldest child and only boy on a working ranch, it was inevitable: Once I reached a proper age, I was put to work. No one in his or her right mind wants to see children under the whip in some grimy city sweatshop, but country folks are a different breed. If you can contribute, you do it. When Dad put a brand new single bit axe in my hands and told me the firewood was my job from that day forward, I was both thrilled and determined.
Why thrilled? Because I was being entrusted with a man’s job. This was no joke, no game, and no kidding. The cookstove was supplied from three sturdy firewood boxes that had seen prior service as pack saddle panniers. Each night by supper time, which was precisely at six o’clock, they were to be filled heaping full, and one of them more than that.
In colder weather, even more wood needed to be split and piled behind the highly effective Ashley to keep us warm throughout the night as well as the following day. In a way, though, that part was much easier. Cookstove wood needed to be split into small pieces to fit properly into the Royal’s firebox. Heating wood could be left–in fact, had to be left, in much larger blocks.
Yes, I was proud and thrilled to be in charge of our family’s very survival. Even during the coldest winters yet to come, even when it was forty below zero Fahrenheit in the days before anyone ever heard of a silly term like wind chill factor, I never lost that sense of pride in my work.
Oh, my age when Dad put that first axe in my hands? I was four years old.
But To Me It Was Only Half An Axe
This Job Inspired My First Remembered Goal
Does it sound insane to start a four year old child out as a wood chopper? To many reading this Hub, it likely does. In those years just after World War II, however, people worked if they wanted to survive.
On the other hand, even I will admit to looking at my own daughter, Kim, when she was four years old, thinking,
“Could I see myself putting an axe in HER hands this year?”
Nonetheless, from the moment I put my mitts on that single bit axe, I was determined to earn the right to use a DOUBLE bit axe as quickly as humanly possible. Dad was a logger as well as a rancher. To him–and therefore to me–the only real axe was a double bit axe.
Single Bits Are For Kids
I Wanted That Double Bit Badge Of Manhood
Sure, today I fully recognize that the single bit axe has a long and honorable history. But back then, if Dad could use a REAL AXE, a double bit, I just had to make that same grade.
And I did. It took me all of two years, but at the age of six, I had demonstrated enough skill with axe in hand that Dad decided I would be unlikely to chop a toe off accidentally. He bought me a brand new double bit at a hardware store in Missoula. Had I won a World Championship in Bull Riding during my later pro rodeo years, I could not have been more gratified.
Not that I didn’t try to “slide by” on my chores now and then, especially on those cold winter days when anything inside seemed clearly preferable to anything outside. I was a kid, after all. But a single reminder from Mom was usually enough to get my nose out of a book and the wood onto the chopping block.
Because of where we lived, much of our wood was pine, taken from deadfall trees up Rattler Gulch on BLM (Bureau Of Land Management) land. The remainder was cottonwood from down by the river. One late autumn, our entire woodpile–not yet moved from outside to under the woodshed roof–had gotten thoroughly soaked. In order to keep the cookstove going, we had to keep the OVEN filled with wood to dry the pieces out enough to burn at all.
The other super-challenge involved blocks of wood that contained nasty, gnarly knots. A few times when I was still small and the weather bitter cold, Dad did help me out. A little. Only a little. But a big, ugly knot means big, ugly trouble in any weather. I did not have to cut the logs into blocks; Dad and/or a hired man did that with either a chainsaw or a semi-commercial buzzsaw built by my father with help from his father.
But the blocks were trouble enough.
I Might Have Been A Kid, But I Was A Killer Wood Chopper
Spec-4 Boling Gets Incredulous
In the end, I held the title of Chief Woodsplitter for the TV ranch (that being Dad’s brand) from the age of four until I left to go to college at age seventeen. Even today, at age 64, an axe–any axe–becomes part of me the moment it is in my hands. Were we to go to war tomorrow with nothing but edged weapons, clearly the double bit axe would be my weapon of choice.
True, that early experience had a few unexpected effects. One day during my two years of military duty with the U.S. Army, a situation arose where a bit of axe work was in order. I was only a PFC (Private First Class) at the time, 20 years old. A somewhat older communications platoon member, Spec-4 Boling, decided he would handle the axe.
When I offered to do it instead, he was…contemptuous.
“I’ve been using an axe for over ten years,” he stated, obviously figuring that ended the discussion.
I shrugged. “I’ve been using one for over fifteen.”
Bo became quite indignant at that, obviously believing I was lying through my sometimes troublesome teeth. When he argued, and I agreed, that I would have had to have been swinging an axe at the age of four to be telling the truth, he pretty much knew I was nothing but a tale-teller.
We had other Montana ranch raised soldiers on that crew. None of them were nearly as skeptical. But Bo could only believe what Bo could believe, so I backed off and watched him do his thing. He did get it done, after a bit.
When people ask me about my father, they sometimes want to know the one best thing he ever did for me. Elvin M Baker did his best for all his kids, and picking several examples would not be difficult. My answer, though, has always been the same:
“He taught me how to work.”
Philosophers often state that Love Is All, and I would certainly have to rank it in First Place as Most Important Ability In Life–that is, the ability to give and receive love. But right behind that, in my mind firmly ensconced in second place, is knowing how to work.
And I thank Elvin M Baker every day of my life for allowing me to acquire that hugely important knowledge at a very young age.