In the last episode in the House of Morgan saga I reported luck more than skill had elevated me on The Greenchain to position #4, right next to and facing “The Boss,” Ken “Highload” Hurst. As I described earlier, Ken was the largest and strongest puller on the team, and positions 3 and 4 were the center of activity on The Chain, where those two positions were responsible for the heaviest and most valuable lumber, 16, 18 and 20 foot two-by-fours, or 2 X 6’s, whichever the mill was running. His size, strength and stamina were such that he never fell behind the pace of production of these lengths, even as he also, in my presence anyway, ran a continuous broadcast of stories about life in Anderson Valley, past and present.
As I mentioned last week, I was reluctant to share in this particular puller assignment for fear I didn’t have the strength and stamina to fulfill my part of its burden and would then be putting pressure on Ken and the puller behind me at #5 supporting me getting mu job done. Ken was adamant, though, that I shouldn’t worry about it, I would do fine, though I suspected there was another motive behind his choice, that I was one of the few employees at Philo Lumber who appreciated and enjoyed his tales of The Valley.
And tales they were. One instant he would be regaling me with his high school basketball star stories under the hoops with him as the big defender knocking some Mendocino High School star around the head during a layup attempt, while Sam Prather would be working him around the knees and hips. Real teamwork and the ref didn’t blow the whistle. Or about his trip back to Mt. Ida in the Ozarks to visit Buster Hollifield, retired Arkie mill owner. When Buster closed his mill across from Jack’s Valley Store at the end of the fifties housing boom, he cut up its operating parts, wrapped them in plastic and wood framing, loaded them on a truck, hauled them back down Route 66 to Arkansas, and stored them at his farm there. He wanted to be prepared, he told Ken, for the return of the biblical forty days and nights Noah endured, and to have a viable business after this next Biblical Flood subsided. Or stories about his family’s early days in Anderson Valley in the late forties and, along with other Arkies like Willis Tucker, building out of millyard scraps livable family cottage homes they needed to complete in time for winter.
Actually I also participated in the tale-telling whenever I remembered a good one and had the breath to cut into Ken’s monologue and tell him about the latest interesting event at Floodgate Bar or about doing some hunting and storytelling with my friend and mentor, Bill Witherell. I remember one time, though I don’t remember the story, that Ken got so wrapped up with the drama he was weaving that he actually began losing ground to the flow of boards we together were supposed to be pulling. And as he lost ground I began backing up toward position #5 to try to keep up with the lumber torrent without interrupting his broadcast. But the flow didn’t diminish as I hoped it would, and I was six feet down the chain bumping into the back of the next puller, disrupting his concentration. Suddenly Ken looked startled as he realized his passionate reporting was disrupting the whole rhythm of the Greenchain. Right next to his leg and under the chain’s legs was a large brass button with a wire that went back into the mill right to the headrig where the sawing transaction began. At the headrig was a buzzer that loudly proclaimed when you pushed the button that there was a major breakdown in equipment or accident to employee somewhere in the mill. Startled or not, it was with serenity he stopped his monologue, stepped back three or four paces, pushed the brass button shutting the mill down, and went back to finishing up his tale while people poured out of the mill to find out what had happened. Well, first things first, and to Ken it was more important to bring as dramatic a story as he was engaged in to a proper close than to keep the mill running. I like that kind of reasoning on boring iterative kinds of labor like millwork or pruning grapes.
After a couple of weeks working side by side and reviewing anecdotally a lot of Anderson Valley current affairs and history, we decided to embark on a more challenging though collaborative project. I had recently read Ken Kesey’s novel about a timber industry town and family in Oregon very reminiscent of the life and times here over the past half century. A movie from the novel was, I believe, in production about then too. I had told Kenny several anecdotes about the novel’s heroes the Stamper family, the patriarch to be played by Paul Newman. So I proposed he and I write a script, then find a sponsor to finance an independent film we tentatively named SOMETIMES A REALLY GREAT NOTION…
Both Ken and I had a sense of Anderson Valley history, as brief as it was in 1973, that supposed an awful lot had happened here in six generations. A remarkable flow of immigrants from the Illinois River German community had arrived and settled here during the Gold Rush, the Civil War survivors from the Border states too, then the Italians and Finns to do the logging and milling, later the Arkies and Oakies, and now The Hippies. What a cast of characters and array of stories. And so, as the lumber rolled down the chain, and we sweated building the units, we also took turns verbally constructing scenes in the movie saga we were going to write and produce. Who exactly were the Guntlys, Gschwends, Gossmans and Schneiders, what motivated them to leave their Illinois River farms, and how did they find Anderson Valley? How did the Fratis and the Pinole’s find the money and time to buy land, plant grapes and make wine even while working for little pay in the woods? What were those Saturday nights at Hagemann’s dance hall up Greenwood Road really like back ibn the twenties? Was Buster Hollifield really the first Arkie in the Valley? Or who really was Lance B. Fent, the Hollywood central casting character hippie surfer living on the mountain south of Boonville bare-naked most of the day with his giant blond girlfriend Laurel.
Well, I don’t think Kenny and I really believed we could weave all these characters and stories, and so many more, into a coherent linear script, or that some independent film maker of the day would pay us thousands of dollars for the rights to and maybe even to help co-write the script. In our dream we’d be making a lot more than the, say, $7.50 an hour we got pulling on The Greenchain and, who knows, maybe we ‘d end up permanently a part of the film industry, even while still living here in Anderson Valley. More realistic though we knew the ambitious filmic endeavors we pursued off and on during the summer simply made our days on The Chain flow by quite a bit faster.
And working next to and watching Kenny helped improve my skills pulling whatever lumber came down The Chain. When I first took on the job, I could pull one, sometimes two 18’ two by fours and drop them in place on the units below us without having to take the time to shake them into their proper place, tight against the stacked row of boards and even with the unit end. And by the time my career peaked after a month or two on the job, I had no fear of grabbing two green redwood two-by-sixes, probably about twenty five pounds in weight, and dropping them perfectly into their place on top of the unit and with no wasted effort. I actually enjoyed the balletic rhythm of anticipating a heavy flow of boards out of the mill, and dancing together with Kenny to make perfect units, four side by side simultaneously, without breathing hard, while still developing a scene in our REALLY GREAT NOTION movie. Sometimes I could even keep up with the flow of boards while Highload was away driving the straddle buggy delivering a finished unit over to the other side of the mill yard.
Of course, like all mill work there could also be unforeseen screw-ups and surprises, such as the time, after I had achieved, in my own mind anyway, the status of Green Chain superman, when The Chain kept running, but for half a minute or so not delivering any lumber. Then out of the mill came a bunch of two-by-fours of a different texture, not red-brown like redwood or yellow-white like Doug fir, but rather a kind of oily grey-tan color I’d not seen before. When the first 20’ two-by-fours reached my position, I reached over absented-mindedly to grab a pair while listening to Highload developing a scene for our movie script. Instead of graciously submitting to my exertion by sliding onto the roller and down my thigh, the two boards stuck tenaciously to the moving chain and began pulling me onto it as they went by.
Holy cow, what are these boards? It turned out that Morgan had made a purchasing error, had bought truckloads of something called Grand Fir, in the local vernacular, “piss-fir.” These were the straight, tall evergreens that grow along the Mendocino Coast and inland a mile or two, and stand and look like Doug Fir. Mills generally don’t purchase these logs because they have little commercial value, and more interesting, they have a resiny sap like Doug fir, but even heavier, almost tar-like to the point of being quite destructive of sawmill blades. The sap just wears out the steel quickly. Well, those first “piss fir” boards I met were quite the surprise when they tried jerking me onto the chain that day, but once I understood their weight and behavior, it became another form of job boredom distraction spending the rest of the week learning how best to manage this heavy lumber with efficient minimum energy pulling. Not as entertaining as Ken’s stories.
Later on I found out more about Grand Fir and the characteristics of its finished lumber from my local friend and mentor, Bill Witherell. When I went into the sheep business a couple of years after my millwork career ended, he offered to make me the racks my pick-up truck needed to haul sheep around the Valley and to market. He selected from his garage shop wood salvage collection a few pieces of aged “piss fir” two-by-fours to make the posts carrying the rack side boards, three tiers high. These so-called two-by-fours, actually 3 ½ X 1 ½ “, air dried for years, were half as heavy as Doug fir, incredibly tight-grained and almost twice as strong as the latter, I am guessing. We sealed and painted those racks in 1975, I used them for twenty years, sun and rain, and they are still hanging on the wall of my barn waiting for reuse without a scratch, ding, or mildew on them. I love “piss fir“ for small construction projects. And by the way, they are well named; the sap does smell like very strong cat piss.
(NEXT EPISODE: More Greenchain Follies and the end of the “Contract.”)