The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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Loggers are notorious hard-asses. Hard labor, danger, long hours, and constant, male-only intimate companionship almost guarantee a hardening of the heart. Work gloves can protect soft hands but psyches protect themselves with calluses. It seems simple enough when seen from a distance, but up close, like everything in life, it gets more complicated.
I remember once working on a stream-cleaning contract, clearing out a log-jam on a creek in the Siskiyou Mountains near the California line. My partner Brian and I sat one morning up on the stream bank among sword fern and viny maple and waited to see what kind of a fool the log would make of the government inspector. The odds were about fifty-fifty that he’d shortly be a dead fool or a maimed one. The odds were even better that he’d end up a cold, wet one. We sat in the fog-wet brush near the yarder’s tailblock, me smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, Brian with a jab of chew in his check, not talking, both of us keeping our thoughts under our hardhats.
Below us and about one hundred feet upstream, the inspector stood where I had stood an hour before, on a wet boulder, looking up at an old rotting log that hung overhead, wedged between the rock walls above a small pool. Behind the log, a waterfall fed the pool. Standing there on the slick rock, with the noise of splashing water and the bulk of the log above and before me, I’d seen the choices and didn’t like any of them. If the chainsaw didn’t get stuck, if the log’s compression didn’t send it buckling my way, if I didn’t slip and break an ankle or rib, I would merely get drenched on a cold mountain fall morning. From above, up on the bank, it looked routine; but down there on that rock, anyone with any sense could see that it was lethal. Brian, too, had walked down there, saw in hand, and had come to the same conclusion.
Now it was the government man’s turn down in that hole. He had looked down from the bank at the rock, log, and pool and declared the log removable. It would have to come out, according to the contract.
We refused. “It’s not safe.”
“Hell I could cut it out of there myself.”
“OK. Go for it.” Brian handed him the saw.
Now eight years later, I am still mulling over the incident. It has a kind of larger-than-life quality in my memory, not because of danger or drama (any woman carrying a child to term and giving birth is caught up in greater fear and courage), but because our hearts stayed as gray and featureless as a fog bank. The man might die, as easy as not. The log might crush him, pin him, or drown him. Within minutes we might have to carry him or his corpse up the debris-choked slope to the landing. Anything might happen — and to us, it was all the same.
Work does something to us all that’s not talked about much. There’s a detachment that comes through the brutality and violence of work, a numbness of the spirit that makes all sorts of horrible situations seem routine. For laborers the detachment is immediate and physical: gut-wrenching work that leaves you free from pain and exhaustion only for a few brief hours each day. There’s also what poet Gary Snyder, observing pipeline workers in an Alaskan bar, called “the pain/ of the work/ of wrecking the world.” Our indifference could be ascribed to machismo, a matter of manful pride, or to class differences (after all, the inspector had challenged both our craftsmanship and our courage); but I think there was more to it than that. Alienation is an occupational disease, like carpet-layers getting bad knees or waitresses varicose veins; all of us who sell our time for money are affected in some way.
What is it that gives work time an unreal quality? Only after hours or on weekends do we really live. At work we go around like ashen-faced zombies, obediently carrying out tasks whose meaning and effects we seldom consider. Is it something in the nature of money itself that poisons all human relations that it enters? Or is it something in human nature that leads us to sell off our lives, to trade the possibility of love for a strictly limited security? We say, “I’m sorry, it’s company policy,” as though the rules of corporations were as substantial and immutable as the laws of nature.
Most people are likeable enough away from the job and even at work. We each contain a wealth of humanity, a complexity and beauty beyond the ability of art to portray. We also contain a bleakness and ugliness of spirit unimaginable. It is in the humdrum, the daily grind, the unreal world of work that we cross over between the two without even noticing the change.
One hundred feet away, down in the creek bed, the government man stood where Brian and I had each stood. If he tried to cut that log, then he was a fool to doubt us, and whatever happened to him was simply his own doing. We watched as he started the saw and held it at arm’s length over his head to make the cut. Woodchips and sawdust cascaded down into the pool. Exhaust smoke mingled with the morning mists. Then he stopped, withdrew the saw, shut it off, and came trudging back downstream and up the bank to where we sat.
“You’re right,” was all he said and we were, of course, pleased to hear him admit it.