The truck backed into our yard from
the scrubby alley and dumped a load of
slabs: bark cull from the saw mill.
Mainly eight feet long, rough sawn
on one side, scabby jackpine bark
on the other, waiting to be cross cut
sawn into foot-long firewood.
It wasn’t long that both the helter-
skelter pile and Mother’s concern waited —
at most a week before the jim-jim
arrived: a hinged steel trough
intersected by a two-foot circular
saw blade driven by a belt off a
transverse-mounted gas engine
in the truck bed.
Harley, the cussin’, tobaccy jawin’
primitive hopped out of the truck
spat in the general direction of
the clutter of jackpine junk,
and got to work, climbing onto
the truckbed where he cranked
the old ford engine to life
hopped down, with his remaining hand
pulled the lever that engaged
the drive belt, and started his task
of the next hour: piling variously
two or three lengths parallel
onto the v-trough and cutting
them into manageable firewood.
My task would be to pile it
in neatly ordered rows inside
our tired old garage/shed,
as instructed by my father.
The pile towered twice as tall as
I, who at age ten was barely
up to my father’s shoulder.
I was eager both to begin
and to finish, with little idea of
the blisters, slivers and frustration
to come; I quickly discovered that
the task included carrying the entire pile
one clumsy armload at a time
forty paces around to the shed door
and ten paces therein to the back wall.
Of course I would be paid:
twenty-five cents per row
each the width of the shed’s
sixteen feet. This was 1947.
Whether I finished piling that
endless wood in 1947 or not
and was able presently to retire
to warm comfort in Miami
I do not recall.
I do remember that our security for the winter was dependent
on whether Junior would be able to store enough firewood
to keep the four of us warm against the minus forty cold
and the winds that blew down off James Bay to the north
from December to March, and could freeze hot water from
my mother’s dishpan before it hit the ground.
If I could keep the wood box full
the fire could start and heat the place
and melt the frosty glaze that
crept onto the windows overnight
and keep the stove hot enough
to ignite the large soft chunks of
bituminous coal that made our cellar
such a dirty place and dark
where carrot, turnip and potato
lay in baskets full of sawdust
hauled down from the pile
old Harley thoughtfully had spared
his spitting wrath we hoped.
And so I’d tread the mile to school then back
with the sun that rose winter late set winter early
I walked enwrapped in the armour of the north:
knitted scarf and socks and woven winter pants
and ice-knobbed woollen mittens
and rigid parka and frost enshrouded face
and listened to the crisp harsh squeak
of deep cold snow against my leather bootsoles
and wondered if the coal would last til spring
and if that damned wood pile would ever end.