My father joined the Canadian air force in 1942 when he was eighteen. He hoped to be a tail gunner on bombing missions, to sit suspended in a clear bubble beneath the plane shooting at the enemy and chasing them into heaven. When he learned that the average life expectancy for a tail gunner was less than three minutes, when he understood that popping the bubble is done first, before the enemy kills the cockpit, and after he saw a ground crew hosing out the burst remains of a man from a bomber’s bubble, he purposely threw his mind off kilter to disqualify himself from the job. “I was the original Max Klinger”, he’d tell us when we watched M.A.S.H., his favourite sitcom. At the end of his working life he lived in a small logging town in northern British Columbia, where he did yo-yo tricks for young men looking for work in the sawmill and told jokes to the union bosses. He negotiated with the union in locked rooms in hotels in Vancouver, arguing about wages and benefits, and then told them jokes when he visited their picket lines. The company fired him just after his fifty-fifth birthday, deciding that younger men with degrees and serious demeanours could do a better job of slaughtering the diminishing forests and selling the lumber for Japanese houses. He came home after his last day at work, drank a few more Rye-and-Pepsi than usual, conferred with his wife, and decided to sell the house and move to the capital city where he thought the government (“they stole my income for thirty years and now they owe me”, he explained) might hire a man with so much experience. They didn’t. In his last job before finally retiring, he worked at the gatehouse to a naval base. Before each shift he dressed in a Commissionaire’s uniform and drove to the base where the navy conducted torpedo drills and submarine maneuvers. He recorded visitors’ names and license plate numbers in a log book and then pushed a button to raise the mechanical gate. He had few conversations with anyone in the small gatehouse and no one heard his jokes or stories or saw his yo-yo “walk the dog”.
My father had a light spirit, maybe too light and silly, but it floated him up the corporate ladder. He had a high school education, but the post-war economy swept him into managerial privileges, and nepotism got me a job in the mill. I hated my job, but did not complain to him. I made the same wage as grown men with families and even though union took dues from me, I never entered the brotherhood or swore solidarity with them. Those union guys fought for their pay; some spent money-less weeks in a winter strike huddled around forty-five gallon drums burning the very wood that gave them a living. Their jobs sometimes killed them, like the guy who operated the chipping machine. He took off his safety harness to unstick a wedged chunk of bark without stopping the spinning blades, and fell into the conveyor belt that speedily fed him into the chipper. My father went to the scene with the police and doctor and all they found was human hamburger. “There was nothing to give his wife. Nothing to put in a bag, even.” My father said they used a spatula to wipe the blades clean.
If the jobs didn’t maim or kill them, then slowly accreted alcohol or drug problems diminished their chance to leave the mills; they became prisoners to big paycheques, small horizons and weekend partying. The worst job in the mill was piling lumber for eight hours every day, for five days a week. A sawmill is a rendering plant. Loggers go into the forest to find victims by species and size, cut them down with chainsaws, remove their limbs and load the carcasses onto logging trucks or float them down the lake in booms. The bodies arrive outside the sawmill, where a skidder clutches them in its jaws and transfers each one onto a conveyor belt. The belt delivers them to their first rendering, where a giant burr strips their bark, like skinning an animal. The shorn bark drops onto another conveyor belt that moves throughout the entire length of the mill, catching bits and pieces of the trees as the saws slice them into lumber. After the barker finishes, the wet logs move inside the mill, then get cut into different lengths and widths, butchered into hinds and quarters. Two-by-fours and two-by-sixes leave the mill along a belt that drops them into an open bin. The lumber pilers spent all day playing “pick up sticks”, grabbing one piece of lumber, placing it on the side of a skid, taking another piece, laying it alongside the first one, and continuing this until fourteen boards lay side-by-side. Then they’d start the next row, finishing when they’d made a bundle of two-hundred and ninety two sticks. After the forklift took the bundle to the kiln for desiccation, the pilers resumed the Sisyphean work. One guy who graduated high school with me and piled lumber for a year said he measured his effort in dollars per pile, cents for every piece of lumber, and bottles of Canadian Club and dime bags of weed for every hour.
Bark, sawdust, and useless chunks of flesh from the fir and spruce trees fall onto the biggest conveyor. As it leaves the mill the belt travels along a long incline, perhaps three hundred feet long and sixty feet high, suspended by steel girders, and then dumps everything into a bee-hive burner that is lit on Monday morning and burns until Saturday night. The burner is a conical, steel fire pit with a cone at the top to trap embers. The top of the burner is built as a honey comb trap for red cinders that, if released into the wind, would destroy the mill or the lumber stored in the yards. The burner’s cone glows at night, as if the town lit a giant cigarette and took long drags on it until dawn. If the fire inside is really intense and a good wind is blowing, the burner looks like the nose cone of an Apollo moon rocket re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Every Saturday night I’d get home by mom’s curfew to finish packing my lunch, yellow hardhat and black work boots, and even if I was still woozy from the lemon gin I drank at bush parties, I’d manage to assemble the kit needed for the mill. In warm weather I’d ride my motorcycle to the mill and in the winter I’d get a ride from a friend or hitchhike. Twenty teenagers were assigned to the weekend cleanup crews. On one weekend, ten of us would work in the saw mill while the other ten worked at the bottom of the bee hive burner, then we’d switch roles the next weekend. In the mill we shoveled sawdust for eight hours, sometimes in spaces no higher than my bed; we inhaled sawdust and chainsaw fumes, dodged the conveyors’ teeth on the flywheel, and finished the day with oscillating ear drums.
I hated those Sundays when I stood by the burner’s closed doors and waited for our supervisor to pry them open with the forklift’s tine. I expected something like a flame-thrower’s crimson tongue to lash us, or see the burner exhale an enormous plume of blinding smoke. My father used a Hibachi to barbeque steaks that started as supple, red flesh and ended as blackened, stiff meat-tiles. He couldn’t control the heat like a gas barbeque and sprayed water from an old bleach bottle to dampen the fat fires. The smoke hid his face and when I was very young I thought barbequing was a magic show.
A bee-hive burner is a large Hibachi and the only way to control it is to open or close the grates along its base that feed oxygen to the fire. Outside the burner, but far away from its radiant heat, is an enormous blower that draws fresh air into itself and then pushes it down ten pipes that bend up into the burner’s bottom and blow oxygen through grated openings. By slowly closing the grates, the fire is dampened until only smouldering ashes remain on Sunday morning. We stood at the edge of the burner with shovels and picks axes, ten boys paid men’s wages, waiting for the steel doors to smash against the burner’s sides and reveal earthly hell. The sulphur smell exploded from the opening and small flames appeared in the moonscape, resurrected by the clean air entering the burner.
Many Sunday mornings I’d walk out of the brutal winter cold into the burner’s dry sauna heat and stand on the crusted ash in the same way I’d walk on the thick snow outside my house. Sand and soil that mixed with the offal from the trees fused in the heat and as the fires subsided on Saturday night the surface hardened. We’d remove our toques that we’d stuffed under hardhats and take off our parkas and pile everything in a cool spot at the side of the burner walls. Then half the team started swinging picks to break the thick crust over the ash. After a half hour they’d loosened a wide area that allowed the others to shovel the crumble into a twenty cubic yard bin placed inside the open doors. Shoveling was harder than swinging the pick, but the supervisor left us to decide how we’d share the work.
One of the biggest kids on my team, Brent, living proof that a strong and positive correlation existed between physical size and low IQ, decided what I could do in the burner.
“Bray, you’re gonna shovel all day. No way you get to fuckin’ pick. Your dad might have got you the job but he can’t tell us who does what in here.”
I didn’t challenge him. His Neanderthal brain and large forearms made him a formidable force in the burner and I thought that he should swing the pickaxe; his wide swinging arc and bludgeoning blows broke the crust faster than any of us could and that meant we might clean the burner out sooner and have a half hour at the end of the day to relax. Brent bullied people and stuffed smaller guys into the tubes under the grates. Steve was in my chemistry class but looked three grades younger. When we had dug enough to expose one or more of the ten grates, Brent would lift a grate off its cradle and force Steve to get inside, then return the grate and seal him into the labyrinth. Steve had a bat-like ability to find his way in the pitch dark until he could see a sun-beam stalactite underneath the main blower. We started betting how long it would take him to escape and he got so fast that Brent got bored of sending Steve down. “The only reason you don’t go down there Bray is because of your old man.”
None of us wore masks in the burner or ear protection in the saw mill. No one wore bike helmets or seat belts or phoned their parents from a payphone to say we had arrived safely at the mall. Nobody stayed out of the sun between ten and three or wore a hat; we lathered ourselves with Johnson’s Baby Oil and lay on our beach towels and turned our bodies over at regular intervals to bake evenly. We grabbed the rear bumpers on cars and pickup trucks in the winter so we could slide along the snowy roads. We built enormous snow forts without thinking that they could collapse. We played with gunpowder and tied inner tubes to snowmobiles. We didn’t think it was unusual to walk into the burning ash and see our winter boots, the ones that had high rubber outsoles, melt like taffy, or slap the flaming frays on our jeans. We didn’t think that we had unreasonable jobs if they paid us what the union guys made.
Three months after my father was fired, my family moved, but I stayed behind in the logging town to finish my last year of high school. I lived with an uncle until he kicked me out and then with a family friend who made me Spanish coffee every night after dinner. Within a few weeks the news that my father was fired settled down to my cleanup crew and I felt as if I had just been removed from a witness protection program. Brent and a few of his sycophants might decide they could come after me now. I suspected that Brent hated me because his dad worked in the saw mill and mine worked in the three-story office building on the hill that looked out over the mills. Brent disliked me because I took chemistry and physics while he took cooking and drafting. He heard me talk about leaving town and going to university; maybe he thought I felt superior to him; I did feel superior.
In late May, less than a month before I boarded a Greyhound bus for Vancouver and left town forever, Brent and two of the other guys with picks cornered me at the edge of the burner’s circle.
“So, Bray, we think it’s about time you went down the hole. You’ve done nothin’ but piss me off for a year and no one is coming to help you now. What’s your dad doing? Collecting welfare?”
Brent leaned on the shaft of his axe, a resting mountaineer taking a breather before launching an assault on the last few hundred feet to the summit. His Sherpas leaned on their axes, waiting for Brent to lead them.
I was almost the same age as my father was when he decided to be a tail gunner and fly into war. Unlike my father, though, I had never harboured any dreams or delusions about glory in physical battle and I acutely understood that Brent and his accomplices could handily smack me around the burner until I either went underground or begged for mercy.
“You know what Brent? You can stuff me under that grate, you can hold my leg in the hottest ash in this hell and watch my pants burn, you can steal my lunch and eat it or throw it away, but you know what?”
Brent moved the axe staff to his other hand and listened.
“You will be working in this place for the rest of your life. You will never leave here Brent. You will be fifty and still working in the mill and living in a shitty trailer in the trailer park and married to one of the girls from our class who is too stupid to know she can do better. That’s why you hate me Brent. That’s why you need to get this one moment in your life where you are on top, because from here on out, you will never be a bigger man than you are now. So stuff me in the fucking vent.”
I expected my speech to ignite his rage and he’d haul me through the ashes to the hole. Brent lifted his axe into the air and swung in through a whistling semicircle and pounded it into a chunk of melded sand.
“Bray, you’re a faggot. You can’t stay in town because you’ll never be man enough. Just like your loser dad.”
The three of them laughed and one of them crosschecked me with his axe shaft. Then they walked to the centre of the burner and yelled at everyone to get working and hammered their picks into the hard crust. I shoveled the broken mess they left behind and finished the shift.
I made a lot of money in the mill, went to university, failed most courses in first year, listened to a lot of street musicians instead of professors, and discovered that I hated chemistry. A few years ago I gave up my gas barbeque for a charcoal one and now burn most food, just like my dad did. The coals burn for hours after we eat dinner and the next day the gray ash is piled in the metal tray beneath the open grates. I pour the ash into a pail and dump it into a garbage bag. One day as I ran with the ash bucket I got caught in a swift rainstorm; each drop landing in the ash puffed a tiny bit of smoke and Brent came to mind. He’d never left the logging town and died of cancer before middle age. I kept moving and ended up in Toronto. As I watched the ash dust completely fill the circumference of the bucket I understood that part of me is still a small-town kid scared of something bigger. My dad used to tell me “there are no heroes in hard labour, son”. He also believed there were no heroes in useless battles, something that he defined to include arguments with the union or his wife or an enemy plane.
My father died a few years ago. He lived beyond the average life expectancy for a man born before the Great Depression and never expected too much after that, surprised that his life turned out so well. His ashes are buried in a place far away from the mills or the naval base, in an unmarked grave, under the shade of an oak tree. His family poured his ashes into the shallow grave as if it were an hourglass, so that his body didn’t blow into the October wind. “All fires eventually run out of something to burn,” he explained when I ask him why the beehives stopped on Saturday. “Even us.”
About the author:
Kevin Bray is a writer/teacher in Toronto. He worked with Andre Dubus III and Richard McCann at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His essays frequently appear in the Globe and Mail (Canada’s “national newspaper). “New Mexico Sizzle", published in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts was long listed for the Wigleaf 2014 prize. Links to his other published work can be found here.