Notes from a Post-Boom Mill
Publication Year: 2010
At the heart of the book is a coming-of-age story about Goodwin’s relationship with his older brother Randy—a heavy drinker, chain smoker, and expert sawyer. Gruff but kind, Randy tutors Raymond in the ways of the blue-collar world even as he struggles with the demons that mask his own melancholy.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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On a leafy Saturday in October of 1993, in a local hub called Whipple’s, I paid for my burger and fries, sat down at a table with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and began to eat. Back in the corner snack bar, I was the lone customer. As I slurped my Coca-Cola, I marveled at the setting: Moorestown, Michigan, was home to fifty denim and flannel souls, a Methodist church, a township hall, and, immediately, the remarkable Whipple’s.
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Randy hunched his shoulders against the cold and pondered the question. A two-time college dropout, I was twenty years old and more adept at asking questions than developing answers for them. I had recently come home from Lansing, where I’d worked for a railroad demolition company that had gone bankrupt. My homecoming plan was to find work in a grocery store or even a gas station, but Randy had reminded me that working in a store meant wearing a tie (read noose) and that both a store and a station meant working with the public.
A Shot of Whiskey
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If stories from woodstove raconteurs of a hundred years ago are to be believed, the old forests grew zany characters almost as plentiful as trees. Scoundrels, murderers, thieves, and the terminally wayward all beat a path to the logjam. Peer into any of the old photographs and along with the pleas for remembrance you’ll see the wild-eyed stares and sense the insanity, or the hilarity, or maybe both, about to metastasize once the camera was hooded and packed away.
The Blanched One
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Now and then Blanched Duane pops up in my memory like one of those bothersome protein squiggles dancing in your line of sight. A punchy bantamweight of eighteen, Duane emitted such a sour attitude that I have tried to forget him, but there he stands, reminding me that his contribution to my education, while brief, was fairly pointed.
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On my worktable is a panorama of the lumber town of Michelson, Michigan, circa 1910. As with many progressive era photographs, the exposure is overly bright, yet it manages to capture the weariness, the bare-knuckled bleakness, of a small and often snowbound company town. Michelson is now under the backwaters of the Reedsburg Dam near Houghton Lake, but in its day it was a place of neatly framed clapboard structures, a dozen along each side of Main Street, including the boardinghouse, the telegraph office, and the company store.
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One morning Whiskey-Tim snuck off to the dentist, leaving me alone on the chains with a birdish man named Schultzie. Schultzie was twenty-four years old and possessed a throat contoured like a rutted road and a sullen demeanor every dip as bumpy. As the new man, I deferred to his seniority (for all of two weeks, a virtual epoch on the green chains) and stacked the cants, which allowed Schultzie to monitor them for snags.
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The afternoon of the Christmas party is a blur. I remember frozen turkeys handed out from the back of the company pickup to a line of weary men who had worked at the mill three months or longer. I remember mumbled thank-yous, the usual outbreak of navel gazing, smiles indistinguishable from grimaces, and the line growing shorter and shorter until all that remained in that run of the mill yard was the iron chill of a winter dusk.
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He was tall, gangly, and forever grinning one of those grins you give a double take because the first glance hasn’t told you whether the grinner is daft or dangerous. Our friend the Cat was not daft, but, not altogether purposely, he may have been dangerous.
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Sometimes it takes flipping through a frayed book or two or staring at the wall in a small-town museum, but the ocean of photographs from the lumbering era is well stocked and eventually I see someone who might have been me: a weary, stoop-shouldered, troubled-seeming young man standing with his arms at his sides, his head bent in muddled thought. It feels odd, the older stacker (as I think of myself ) looking down at the younger.
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At the sawmill to be a company man was akin to being a fascist, but to be the company spy was akin to being a fascist rat. It may be that there were real vermin and a fascist or two around the sawmill, but I couldn’t bend Lanny into either category. During my first weeks at the mill he would often wander down from the north end where the pallets were built, grab a cant off the chain, and, with what can only be described as grizzly strength, manhandle it onto a stack.
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Whenever I recall Bob the maintenance man— he of the blue coveralls—I am thankful he is blessedly intact and that I didn’t kill him the night of the Christmas party. I’m further grateful that bouncing him off the roof of the Blazer didn’t lobotomize the good nature right out of him.
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The Rookie was a short, potbellied nineteen-year-old whose head was as wide as his shoulders. Because of his build I tried to nickname him “the Worm,” but it never stuck. The Rookie was always the Rookie even after he was no longer the new man.
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Stig hovers in my memory with a scoop shovel beneath his arm. He was sixty-two years old, a tall, lurching figure of iron physical strength but with a face as soft as bread pudding. Stig was the mill’s cleanup man, and decked out in his denim overcoat, overalls, stocking cap, and rubber boots he looked like what I imagined must be the prototype version of an American peasant. It was a look I also assigned to myself, although I lacked the contentment I knew Stig must feel with every breath he took.
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These days it’s not only old photographs that remind me of the sawmill. A pulp truck rattling my side-view mirror with a whoosh out on Old U.S. 27, a heap of discarded pallets at a construction site, or a tree no longer attached to its roots will send up the image of the mill. Anyone wearing a cast, brace, or bandage, or simply walking with a limp, will cause me to wince in recognition.
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He was never mentioned once. Not in the sawmill, not in the parking lot, and not in the break room, where the cigarette smoke formed a blue swirl around the florescent light and the older men of the crew sat with one eye on the clock and sipped coffee and talked a million words about news, weather, and sports but never one about him. My conclusion is that television and radio had obliterated him off a mill worker’s (and everyone else’s) mental map, a sociological observation about as original as a pail of sawdust but probably the truth of the matter.
Outside the Fence
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In those months at the sawmill, the outside world seemed no larger than a wood chip, although that didn’t prevent the crew’s collective commentary on it. In the break room, opinion about current events hung as thick as the cigarette smoke. To wit, the hostages in Iran came home because the Iranians were afraid that President Reagan, more ruthless than President Carter, would bomb the hell out of them. The American hockey team beat the Soviet hockey team because democracy beats the hell out of communism any day.
Belated Author’s Note
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By now, about halfway through these pages, you’ve likely noticed that these sketches contain no serious swearing or cursing. While many blue-flamed screeds of contempt were produced at the sawmill (for almost anything and at the merest incitement), when it came time to scratch the first bad word onto the bark you’re now holding it seemed frivolous to double the length of the manuscript by duplicating that which anyone who hasn’t been living under a pallet for twenty years has heard plenty of times already.
Come and Get It
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In 1880 the stewards of nourishment for lumbermen were the stout, aproned men and women of the cook shanty. In 1980 the grub keepers were the clerks of the local party store and bakery. Neither group, I can say with universal certainty, was interested in your cholesterol level.
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Dave the saw filer stands in my memory with his hands dipped in his jeans pockets, a quip about to escape his lip. Dave was quiet, ironic, good natured, reflective, and high strung all at once. Perched on the tall stool beside his workbench, he seemed a vat set down by a higher academy to be tapped for its flow of worldly knowledge.
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Big Tom the foreman stares calmly out of the past, a friendly, hulking figure of about thirty-five. Tom was built like a railroad tie set on top of an icebox, in other words, like a small warehouse, although neither analogy does justice to the girth of his shoulders. I associate Tom with the day at the sawmill I wanted to do good. Good in the biblical sense, good in the philosophical sense, good in any sense you could think of.
The Tree Lover
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Patrick loved trees. He was a tall, pumpkin-haired kid of eighteen, who, on his first morning at the mill, introduced himself around like the ill-at-ease new kid at school who wants the awkwardness of a first week to be compressed into a few minutes and then be over, a classic case of the primordial ache.
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Gus, Del, and Henry stand along the mill wall of my memory ready to form a column at a moment’s notice. The Good Ole Boys were famous for walking in single file between the mill and the break room several times a day, a perfect example of workingmen marching to the drumbeat of habit. In winter they dodged the small patches of dark ice and threaded their way across the mill yard tundra...
The Tattoo Man
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Until a month before it occurred, the Tattoo Man’s departure from the sawmill would have caused me to pump a fist into the air in relief and triumph. Although he’d passed me free drinks at the Christmas party many moons before, he’d proven gruff, lazy, and intimidating, not the ideal workmate. None of this, however, stopped him from believing he was the most lovable pup on earth.
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Because of the way he ran with his wrists held limply to his chest and his elbows tucked to his sides, the chief nailer was nicknamed the Rat. The round brown eyes, the wispy mustache, and the overlapping front teeth only added to the effect.
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One morning the Transient appeared at the end of the green chains, employing the technique on oak cants as if he’d been doing it his whole life. No one seemed to know his name or where he was from, although Whiskey-Tim heard that he’d worked in sawmills all over the Great Lakes. The Transient was enigmatic, a wanderer. I could never think of him as anything less than the ghost of the future.
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Virgil the Jailbird, the Blue Old Man, and Pouty Marv linger in my memory with the yellow-eyed owner of my first mill, ghostly wisps from the summer after high school. Their gaze lingers heavily too, wounded, maybe, that I’d almost forgotten them.
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There are other wood grunts I think of often. There was No-Doubt Brian, who always said “No doubt” to mean “Yes” and possessed long, elegant fingers that might have belonged to a concert pianist or been famous in a cigarette advertisement. (This fixation on fingers must stem from the always real chance of losing one and from the safety posters on the break room wall, constant reminders that...
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Among the photographs on the museum wall in Whipple’s was a shot of the local baseball team from a century ago. The squad is decked out in dark flannel uniforms, their collective gaze steady and happy, determined to rip into horsehide and base paths alike. Baseball was popular during the lumbering era, and many logging firms outfitted and maintained a camp or a company team.
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At the time I wasn’t sure what to think. I suppose I was too busy pushing life’s general fuss through my own emotional gristle to give it much thought. All I knew was my older brother Randy went between two realms. One realm was the sawmill proper, where one step inside the gate his position in the world changed entirely from what it was outside. Somehow inside that sawmill fence his work as a sawyer, as surely as oak trees drop acorns, transported him to a status almost Olympian.
Once More to the Mill
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A few nights each month I wander down to help out in the tiny sawmill my neighbor has rigged in the north end of his cattle barn. An old hand lending a hand is how I think of it. I’ll stack cants and toss boards, and occasionally I’ll climb aboard his ancient forklift to move a heap of slabwood from one dusty spot to another. It’s there—on the forklift—that I feel it, a tingling, something else I can only describe as a lifting sensation, and a shaking out. I’m not sure what all this is, but it feels a lot like redemption.
Page Count: 170
Publication Year: 2010