Of home and hearth, and the hard-won path to a man’s respect

[cleeng_content id="705672350" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]“But mother frets if the wood gets low.”

– O Pioneers, Willa Cather

There is a certain point in a boy’s life when he finally becomes less a child who needs extra care and tending and more a valued contributor to home and hearth. It is a blurry line, but when he crosses it, he knows.

For me, there is the memory of our Montrose neighbor Mr. Hartman waving from some distance at me one early fall afternoon from inside his Ford Bronco II. His house was at the end of our road. So he drove by daily and always at a slow and respectful pace, to keep down the dust. A retired schoolteacher, he sometimes served as a substitute in our seventh-grade classes in town at Elkins Junior High.0305DAN-wood-chop-art_72dpi

The few face-to-face interactions we had shared were at school and the time he found me squirrel hunting (without permission) on his property. After a polite but firm reinforcement of my understanding of where the property lines ran, we parted ways. I felt a little embarrassed because I actually had known all along I was “on his side,” but there was a taunting band of barking grays in a stand of white oak just over the fence, and I had not worried too much about slipping toward them; his house was not in view, so I must not have been, either.

It did not occur to me that the report of a 20-gauge might attract attention; this was hunt country. People fired guns all the time, and nobody ever gave it a second thought. (Besides, I was in competition with some of the boys in homeroom to see who could get the most tails before Christmas break.) But after that tense interaction, I remained well within my boundaries, and figured I’d pegged myself a trespasser in the eyes of Mr. Hartman.

But the hearty, full-arm salute he gave me on this particular afternoon canceled out that annoying memory of my attempt at a clandestine squirrel hunt. Redemption.

This everyday salutation so common in rural settings would not be worthy of mention these nearly 30 years later were it not a wave of affirmation, a non-verbal “attaboy” from a respected elder.

There he was, just driving along the half-mile two-track. And there I was, taking a break between swings of a somewhat unwieldy (for a smallish middle-schooler) wood maul, a half-cord pile of white and red oak growing at my side on our four-acre plot.

Getting wood in for the stove was one of my regular chores. It took about two or three 30-yard wheelbarrow runs from the shed Dad built. We had a wood box and a wood ring. When the box dropped to below half full, it was time to reload it. And Mom reminded my brother and me, just in case building model cars or playing Super Mario Brothers caused our minds to wander. This regular chore was no big deal, but Dad had begun allowing me to help split the wood.

And on this day, as Mr. Hartman drove by, I was set on splitting enough to fill the 1952 stake bed Jeep truck we used for hunting and wood hauling and teaching boys to drive a standard. (Put her in 4-wheel low, first gear, and you could pass the truck at a slow walk. We also had an early-1950s Farmall Cub Dad used for keeping the brush down and plowing the driveway.)

There will come a time when my own son will step up to that line. Now I have to remind him at least three times (morning and evening) just to feed a few flakes to his fish and a meal worm a day to a pet turtle he has. I wonder whose wave, what first sign of respect, will come to him when it is time to start obeying the rules of men, helping with the more important chores of the fire and the hearth.

These cold days, these snowy and ice-bound evenings, what I wouldn’t give for just one armful of the wood from that pile from Randolph County back in the 1980s, the warmest wood that ever burned or will.

 

– Daniel Friend spent years as a reporter and editor at newspapers in the Panhandle. Now we works as a high school English teacher in Virginia

 

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