Seattle in the late 50’s was much mistier than it is now. As I remember, a cloudy mist punctuated the Summer and a rainy mist dominated Fall and a snowy mist enclouded our Winter. We middle school kids pretty much ran wild when we were not in the classroom. We did everything in the mist: played tennis with warped wooden racquets on public courts slimy with mold, played football and baseball in the constant mud, skied on wet snow slopes into the spring. Our mothers put up with the muck and damp we dragged in, glad I suppose to see us back alive for another day. They would have loved global warming.
In general we ignored the mist, but I know now it affected our eyes, and more. My eyes stayed wide open and I never had to squint, as you must in the Midwest and Oklahoma and Texas. You know, there is something evolutionary about a place with a constant mist. The foliage loved it all year round, and when you breathed the air in during patches of sunlight, it all sort of ignited and was like the pulsating heart of God, everywhere.
Later in life, I spent 10 years in Dallas, Texas. For all the opportunity Dallas gave me, my eyes never forgave the stark sun. I think squinting all the time leads to a narrowing of perception. This can be debated, of course, by those who leave Texas and miss their open skies. I still hold to that though: squinting throughout your life cloisters your outlook and maybe even deadens the soul. There are no studies I know of to back up this opinion, so you’ll just have to take it from me.
Mist and middle school…We were all kids getting more height and more muscle and — we thought — more sense. We didn’t realize in the mist of our young minds that this was social combat training. Those boys who were slighter of build had to learn political skills fast, while the rest of us just pushed each other around. I still wonder if that was not the core of boy’s social evolution: much as the plants needed a lot of mist boys needed to grow muscle. Neanderthal in a lot of ways, as we will observe.
Lucky for me – and I say that now whereas I had no inkling at the time – lucky for me we moved into Seattle on an uncleared lot with towering fir trees to be cut down before my stepdad could build a house. And when we had a house and a yard, we still had those trees, but they were cut into two-foot sections by a kind chainsaw, and ringed the backside of our lot with potential firewood. I say potential firewood because each if these sections of trees were a foot and a half in diameter. Someone had to split them down to fireplace size. One afternoon after school, when I was complaining about having to help my mother weed her garden, my stepfather handed me a massive sledgehammer and two five-pound iron wedges. He pointed to the piles of uncut wood. I had seen him split a few of them up. I looked back at the nagging unweeded garden, and thought how hard could this be?
Splitting large sections of tree into fireplace logs is one of those lost arts I believe everyone used to know. Surely it goes back to the first Ice Age, because caves definitely needed logs for a comfy cave. Maybe they did it using large rocks with sharpened stone wedges, but the idea was the same. You wrestled the big round section of tree out to an open area. If the twentieth-century logger had been proficient, then both ends of the cut section were flat and you could tip the section up onto its round end. Then you took the head of the sledgehammer and one wedge and tapped the sharp edge of the wedge into the very middle of that wooden diameter, looking if you could for a place where there were slight fault lines you could exploit. Up to this point, you had a lot in common with a diamond cutter, who could ruin a perfectly good jewel by not finding the right cleavage.
After this point you can forget the diamond cutter, because it was a large swinging arc of the sledgehammer and dull metal smash on the wedge and a hope to hell you didn’t hit it off center. If you hit it off center on that first smash, the iron wedge would ring pure like a church bell and go flying sideways wherever it chose. Dodging those flying iron wedges, and occasionally catching one in the foot or the leg, was instrumental in focusing the log splitter on his next swing. After I had done the first successful split, my stepdad left me with the sledgehammer and wedges for about five years. It was my job. When you cut down perhaps 20 of those huge 100 foot fir trees, there is a lot of after school work. Do the math. 50 sections per tree, times 20 trees makes 1000 to split. Along with the constant mist, the main vision I have of my youth is rows and rows of cut-up trees still to be split with an accurate sledgehammer.
The “lucky me” part is that about the time I’d split my 500th log swinging like John Henry, boys my age started pushing each other around. Now other boys were stouter and stronger and a good number of them were truly mean, but I was one they avoided pushing around. Not that I was menacing; actually I read a lot and was fairly good-natured. But the bullies looking for prey would nudge my shoulders and move on. Believe me, that does wonders for your outlook during your first social combat training.