Tales from 6-toe country - Part 2

Image of stacked firewood The rural and urban landscapes differ significantly in a number of respects. Whereas you'll see cows on a regular basis in the country, if you see cows in the city, they're probably standing outside a bingo hall having a smoke. While I'm on the topic of smoke, it was referenced as one of the defining characteristics of country life in Tales from 6-toe Country - Part 1, the prequel to this missive.

A large number of people living in the country rely on firewood as their primary heat source. And while heating with wood is substantially more cost effective than heating with an electricity, fuel oil or gas/propane alternative, it is also far more labour intensive. "Firewood warms you up many times," my guitar-picking Atomic Hillbilly buddy always says. But country folk don't heat with wood because it's more cost effective; they heat with wood because it's pragmatic. Electricity is far more unreliable in rural areas and outages are commonplace, particularly in the winter during heavy snow storms or freezing rain. Tree branches, overloaded with snow or ice, snap like toothpicks burdened under the extra weight and when gravity goes to work the falling branches frequently take lines down with them. Anyone equipped with a woodstove maintains a heat source and a cooking source even when the power is out. Moreover, if you heat with oil/propane, the refilling truck must be able to get to your locale. Another impediment with the uncertainty of a Canadian winter.

The primary source of heat at my country property is wood. And while I don't go into the bush toting a chainsaw, or buck logs into sixteen inch blocks ready to be split, over the years I have split and stacked more than my fair share of firewood. In my early years in this area, I bought split firewood from a man named Sherwood Mayes, a local fellow who eked out a living from the bush. Part 2 of this series introduces this colorful, unique character:

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Sherwood Mayes, or Shirley as he was known locally, was a wood man. He made a modest living through, among other things, the cutting, splitting and sale of firewood. He was a fair chunk of a man, stocky and solid, whose diet one could imagine consisting largely of meat and potatoes. Shirley had two distinct physical characteristics which easily set him apart from others. The less noticeable feature, one which would have made banjo playing a near impossibility, was the lack of two fingers on his left hand. The other, a far more prominent aberration, was an incredibly large lower lip. It was so large, in fact, that I suspect he might have been able to pull it right up over his face. I'd always considered that if his lip were a direct result of genetics, then his parents might have resembled Mick Jagger and/or Joni Mitchell. Of course his obscurity might have been the result of some horrid childhood accident. That being said, I can't imagine anything short of getting one's entire face caught in a combine that could produce such an enormity. Regardless of cause, genetics or misfortune, Shirley had a monstrously large lower lip, the consequence of which manifest itself in a highly discernible speech impediment. By all accounts, Shirley was a quintessential webfooter.

For a number of years I purchased firewood from Shirley. He would stop by twice a year, usually on Victoria Day weekend, to determine how much wood I'd need the following season, and then again on Labour Day weekend to deliver the order. I had purchased a used 12' aluminum boat from a fellow in Norway Bay back in '94 and, on the Victoria Day weekend, I had it up on work horses cleaning it and getting it ready for the upcoming fishing season. It was a pleasant sunny day and the aluminum hull I was polishing was starting to take on the gleam of a vintage DC-3. Shirley's well-used Ford half-ton dieseled to a stop when it pulled into the yard and I stopped working on my project when he got out and approached.

"Nighsh boot," Shirley said, giving a nodding approval to my new used boat. "Yeah," I agreed, "she's an old girl. Late '60's I think. But she's solid, she doesn't seem to leak and the price was right."

Visitors always provide a welcome reprieve from work. It also affords one the opportunity to pause, enjoy a cold beverage, and engage in scintillating conversation. In the case of Shirley, however, one needed a finely tuned ear to decipher his unique lisped lip-babble. "Would you like a cold beer Sherwood?" I asked. I always called him by his proper name, Sherwood, not really knowing if Shirley met with his unreserved approval. "Thur," he muttered, "hard to thay no to a coal one."

When I returned with the cold beers, Shirley told me that he used to own a boat. It was an old wooden row boat that he and his brother used to go duck hunting with every autumn. It seems they were out one late October evening when it started to rain. "A mixth of rain and thnow," said Shirley, "an' coaler than a witthis' teat". They disembarked, gathered some birch bark, twigs and small branches and put it all in the boat. Then, in an exercise of incredible stupidity, they "tharted the fire" between them in the bottom of the boat so "day could boat thay warm". Of course they did warm up, albeit short-lived, and then the inevitable happened: the fire burned a hole right through the bottom of the boat. According to Shirley, "it thunk" to the bottom of the river, leaving them no alternative but to walk home soaking wet. "We was tho coal we damn near froath to deaf" he recounted. Shirley opined that it wouldn't have happened if they had a nice "loomnin boat" like the one I had just bought. Now I'm no metallurgist, but I'd bet half my stuffed armadillo collection and two bottles of Wild Turkey that while it might take slightly longer in an aluminum boat than in a wooden one, a fire would burn right through an aluminum boat nonetheless.

Not wishing to challenge Shirley's intellect on the matter, I thought I'd ask him about the two missing digits on his left hand. "I've often meant to ask you Sherwood," I inquired, pointing to his left hand, "what happened to your fingers? A Stihl bite?" It was a subtle reference, one that only a sawyer might understand, though I did learn some time later than Shirley wielded a Husqvarna and not, as I suggested, a Stihl.

"My bwuvver shot me wiff the twelf guage," Shirley replied, "bwoo the two finkers queen off." He held up his left hand which lacked a first and index finger and went on to explain how his brother had shot the two fingers off it. It all happened back in the '40's when Shirley and his brother were teenagers. They were too young to join the army but had they been a bit older, or had the war lasted a bit longer, they well might have enlisted. Gawds help the allied forces had that have actually happened. It seems that Shirley's brother carried a torch for the farmer's daughter who lived a few miles up the road. Unfortunately, Shirley was keen for the young lass as well and when Shirley's brother found out that Shirley had the farmer's daughter in the barn and they were making more than just hay, he was some pissed. According to Shirley, he "gwabbed the twelf guage schlotgun" and chased him all over hell's acres, finally cornering Shirley behind the hen house. Looking down both barrels of the double-barrelled shotgun, Shirley managed to place two fingers insider the weapon to direct it away from his head. In so doing, it caused his brother's fingers to inadvertently squeeze the triggers and the rest, as well as Shirley's fingers, was history.

Shirley died about a decade ago doing what he did best: cutting firewood. According to a person working with him at the time, he had just finished bucking up a log, shut his saw off and said he wasn't feeling very good. Seconds later, he collapsed and was dead, according to the doctors, before his body even hit the ground. I spoke with a distant cousin of his a few years after his death and reiterated the stories Shirley had shared with me. "Shirley could spin some pretty tall tales," Paul said. "But then again," he continued, "some of the stuff he told us that we thought was bullshit turned out to be true." To this day, I still don't know if Shirley was the quintessential slack-jawed haw picker or a master storyteller. Some things are just better left unknown.

Submitted by Norm de Plume, 08 September 2013