Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Short Loins: Chain Reaction

Chicks dig scars.  That's what we used to say while gushing blood back when we were young and dumb enough to bring about that condition fairly regularly -- and young and dumb enough to call women chicks.  I said it the time my left ear was half torn off my head in a particularly nasty scrum and the time I was wobbling around like a sot, concussed and bleeding with a ruptured ear drum on the other side.  That ear remains numb to this day, but the one that got yanked off around the top shows no ill effects other than a cool white scar around the crest when I pull my ear out taut.

Men love to talk about their scars.  Spend some time around a campfire with pleasantly tired fly fishermen or upland hunters for a while.  You'll see.  My hide sports the average number of scars for a man my age who, in the course of his life has played the roughest sports with relish, grew up with a pocketknife at the ready, splattered molten roux on his forearms, and occasionally consumed sufficient quantities of alcohol to be rendered incapable of dealing with the force of gravity.

On my left pointer finger, right at the first knuckle, there's a minor crescent-shaped scar that transects about a third the circumference of the digit.  It was earned through devious trickery and a jaw-dropping surprise that nobody saw coming.  Allow me to elaborate.

Roadkill at Lake Wisconsin, near Okee. Circa 1995.
There was a time long ago when Easter weekend meant that Roadkill and I would make a day's ride on our mountain bikes from Madison to either Governor Dodge State Park or Devil's Lake Sate Park campgrounds for some quality time around the fire.  Frisbee and Brian joined us a couple times too.  For the maiden voyage Road and I auspiciously carried all our camping gear on our backs, much to the chagrin of our tender backsides.  In subsequent years we wised up, and had my dad meet us at the campground fully provisioned.

On one such occasion Dad arrived, and I dug the hatchet out of his truck to split up some kindling and get dinner going.  In doing so I was met with the standard half-mocking admonishments from the crew about taking care with a sharp and dangerous implement.

They need not have worried, we all knew the truth.  My father had a great many wonderful qualities as a parent, friend, and outdoorsman.  Found nowhere among his burgeoning skill set, however, was the ability to sharpen tools.  The man simply could not do it.  He'd never owned a sharp tool after its second use in his life.  He was an outstanding mechanic, or so I'm told by people who understand such things better than I (one of my shortcomings being the steadfast, if unmanly, conviction that the internal combustion engine functions solely through some blend of gingersnaps and the prayers of virgins).  But given a dull axe, grinding wheel, and enough time, he could fashion you only a perfectly adequate sand wedge.  And that's alright.  We all have our weak points, and if the inability to properly hone edged tools is our most glaring, we should count ourselves very lucky.

So I took to making kindling for the cooking fire, and with my first mighty hack using the very hatchet I'd known to be dull as a mud fence my entire life, sliced neatly through the slab of firewood and a good portion of my finger.  I stood dumbfounded, reeling not at the sight of my filleted finger, but the fact that Pop had somehow managed to sharpen a tool to a razor's edge.  I honestly could not believe it, and still think he'd taken it to a person more skilled in sharpening, though he steadfastly refused to admit that in all the grinning retellings over the years.

Last week it was time to sharpen chainsaws.  One had grown dull from use in spring brush clearing, the other  larger saw was (and is still) staring a big upcoming job in the face.  I pulled down Dad's battered blue toolbox that houses the sundry little wrenches, files, and accouterments one acquires in the use and upkeep of chainsaws.  I inherited this toolbox from him, and it functions just as much as a touchstone to something we used to do well together -- putting up firewood -- as it does a place to store tools.

All was going swimmingly in the sharpening of the saw until I needed the depth gauge to hit the tooth guides square and level.  It wasn't in the upper tray of the toolbox where it should have resided, so I lifted that up, only to discover a dirty little secret that, when the realization of what I was beholding hit me, made me guffaw aloud.

When I used to come home from Madison, I would often sharpen things for Dad.  Not out of some weak demonstration of  feigned superiority -- it simply needed to get done.  I knew he wasn't the best at it, he knew I was fairly proficient, and so it just sort of became a tacit tradition.  Kitchen knives, axes, scissors, chainsaws... whatever needed undulling.  I failed to consider it at the time, but in hindsight the chainsaws never needed much more than a light touch up, which is odd considering how often they were used in the procurement of winter heat and brush clearing -- chainsaws do go dull fairly quickly.  And now I know why they always seemed to be in good shape.

In the bottom of that toolbox, hidden under the insert tray on top, was a stash of barely used chains.  Apparently Dad had been using them for one season (or less), then retiring them instead of trying to sharpen them.  This was a  man I once witnessed calmly use a metal nail file to get his car restarted while double parked in Chicago Loop rush hour traffic, something I could not pull off with every Chilton guide ever made and divine intervention. (he tore up the console when he smelled that acrid electrical burning/melting smell, and jumped the neutral safety switch, I'd be taught later. Insert serious childhood veneration)  But he'd given up on sharpening chainsaws, and decided to simply purchase a new chain when the one in current use got dull.

Now that may be seen by some as sidestepping a problem, but I (perhaps through the rose tinted glasses of sonhood) see it as a perfectly viable work-around.   It's important to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and use whatever you can to get around those shortcomings.

I took a moment to smile and thank him, shaking my head, and got back to the business of sharpening.  Thanks to his inability to do it well, I'm set for chainsaw chains for the next 20 years.

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