Ghosts in the Sawmill?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs


A walk through the old sawmill.

Submitted: April 19, 2018

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Submitted: April 19, 2018

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The sawmill closed down a few years ago and already it has a look of dereliction about it. Vandals have smashed most of the windows in the office and tipped over a couple of waste-oil drums in the workshop. One of the clowns showed his intelligence by painting a huge phallus on the wooden floor, using some of the oil! He was no artist either, and if his resembles his depiction, he’d better see a doctor! But most of the damage has been done by the weather, her destructive work has turned a once tidy operation into a time-ravaged monstrosity. As a caretaker of the past, Henry again walked through the building, past the breast bench and breaking down bench. A flick of a switch would crank them up again, because nobody’s turned the power main off! The experience for Henry was much like walking through a cemetery, because he remembered the timbermen, his friends.

It been fifty-odd years since Henry moved into the neighbourhood, where the forest and the sawmill were the only industries outside farming. Relationships build slowly and a lot of history was made on the way and just as quickly forgotten. Neighbours become friends, thrown together through hardship and communal activities that modernity has caused to disappear. Most of the timbermen now reside in cemeteries near and far and the district is worse off without them. Henry always had a fascination with sawmills, not the machinery or techniques, but the opening up of the logs, seeing something nobody has seen before.  As a forest manager, he spent his formative years nurturing crops of trees for the very purpose of turning into quality timber. So watching the milling process was like watching a child mature before his eyes. One of his early mentors, in an effort to explain the benefits of silviculture, suggested he put his ex-ray spectacles on to see what was inside the tree. You don’t need ex-ray specs at a sawmill!

Back in ’65 the sawmill was small, cutting timber from old man pine that was over-grown farm shelter. They were using an ancient breaking down bench where logs were manhandled using a canthook and considerable effort. The sawyer, Keith, lined the log up by eye or the optimum cut. Bert was the owner, he was an auto electrician by trade who always carried a pocket knife and a four inch crescent spanner so he could fix things on the spot. He also carried a hundred bucks in cash on the off-chance there was a bargain to be had. Bert gradually ploughed profits back into the mill and when the forest’s trees came on stream, he was Henry’s first customer. In those early days Bert had his own logging crew. Henry and Bert shared mateship, helping each other from time to time, in one of the most dangerous of occupations. Much to Henry’s regret, he missed Bert’s funeral because he was in Africa at the time.

The mill manager and sawyer was Keith, another close mate of Henry’s. Keith was a tenor, often singing the lead in reparatory shows in town. Henry enjoyed hearing him practice outside on a clear day. Keith knew his timber and had similar out of work interests to Henry, which is why Keith was the one person he wanted to share yarns about his Tanzania adventures with. It never happened because Keith was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died during the second year of Henry’s stint over there. Henry helped Keith install the rails that the timber trollies rode on, now he cast an eye long them and found them to be straight after all those years. He reflected on the heavy work and the mateship they shared.

Artie was Bert’s brother. He had worked on the forest in the early days, before Henry was there. He drove Bert’s WWII GMC logging truck with a Hiab crane, which had no hydraulic grab the early days, just scissor-grabs, but he was proficient at picking up logs and sitting them on the truck. Later, when the new air-operated breaking down bench was installed, Artie was given the job of operating it because Bert thought he was getting to old to be driving the logging truck. Artie took to it like pig to mud and became adept at breaking down sawlogs. Artie retired after the mill closed and Henry met up with him from time to time, but each time his health had worsened and the frail old fellow succumbed a couple of years ago.

Bob was a machine operator. He could drive anything, bulldozer, log skidder, logging truck, you name it. He was also the fix-it man, he had no certificates, but was a top mechanic and expert welder – even with aluminium. Bob played the saxophone and the dance band he was in performed at the district’s shindig when Henry tied the knot. Much later, Henry added Bob’s young son, Aubrey to his workforce, which turned out to be a worthwhile investment.  Bob was proud of his Maori heritage and Henry enjoyed their discussions about edible indigenous plants, his heritage and of course, Bob’s repertoire of jokes. Unfortunately Bob suffered a serious brain tumour, which was his undoing, well ahead of his time.

Wayne man-handled, classed and strip stacked the newly sawn timber. Henry had more to do with Tom, his father, while Wayne was still wet behind his ears! Tom was a local farmer who struggled through the tough times of droughts and low domestic prices, and being neighbours, they worked together cooperatively. Henry used to drive his sheep the couple of miles to Tom’s woolshed, for Tom to shear and because he was getting on a bit, they stopped for many a spell and yarned. A highlight for Henry was the roast dinners Tom’s missus put on each day sharp at twelve noon! Henry watched Wayne grow up, the young bugger became a bit of a petrol head and owned an off-road buggy that he regularly drove down to the river where it always broke down and needed rescuing. Wayne contracted some debilitating disease, and persisted at the mill, supported by an oxygen bottle. He was barely 50 years old when the oxygen didn’t work anymore.

Graeme was Keith’s number two, starting his working life at the mill, continuing there until its closure. His father in law was old Cecil, the County grader driver who Henry so often cajoled into fixing the County roads that passed through the forest. Graeme is one of the survivors of the old team, and Paul is the other. Paul never said much, so was given the obvious nickname, ‘Rowdy’. He was the tailer-out, working on the busy end of the breast bench. Paul was a twin and Henry knew him as a new-born because he’s the son of Albert, his old forestry mate and onetime forest clerk. Paul and Graeme were made redundant when the mill closed, but received no pay-out. There were other workers, mainly transients and as Henry strolled around the mill, he recalled a number of them by name.

If any apparition had appeared, Henry would’ve enjoyed a chat about old times, but he’s not into spooks, he didn’t feel any eerie presence and no goosebumps jumped up on his arms. He did remember them, but not with a heavy heart, he remembered the good times, the dangers, the cricket matches and the fire practices. All once loomed large in his life, all were good men, doing an honest day’s work in a thankless industry.

The mill’s closure was down to bigger, greedy players elbowing out the smaller competition! It’s a familiar story.  However, the only certainty in life is there will always be change, and there’s no going back!

 

 

 

 

 

 


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