I BUILT my first house when I was 14 and away at school. It was a 6-foot-by-6-foot log cabin with an overhanging roof, a bunk bed made from saplings up against one wall, a four-paned window for each side, and a new sheet-metal stove. The stove and the roofing were the only things that cost anything, outside of innumerable ax handles. Three of us built it, actually. It started out as a plot to get out of football and became a major project that had a major effect on my life. Not that I became a house builder. Far from it.
Charlie was a whiz-kid Greek scholar who was too fragile for football. Probably it was because of his respectability that David and I were allowed to join him in the cabin-building project and thereby avoid participation in the school game. We were the first boys in the school's history, we were told, to be granted such immunity. David and I would never have gotten it on our own. We were trouble: nonstarters academically and almost entirely devoid of school spirit. Neither one of us was much good at football, either. David was tough enough, but small. I was large, but slow. None of us was really a team player.
Skiing, trout fishing, hiking, tennis - until it got too competitive - those were the sports more to our liking. The odd thing is, though, that one of the things we did best in the cabin-building project was work together. We had to.
We worked afternoons throughout the fall and early winter, chopping down large trees with our double-bitted axes, competing madly to be the one to make them fall. We cut foot-thick trunks into 10-foot logs, toppled them end over end, or dragged them through the snow to where we wanted to build. Six feet by 6 feet was a bit small, but a 10-foot log was about all we could manage. So that was that. We certainly had no intention of using thinner logs. A log cabin was not a house of wattles.
WE broke dozens of ax handles, not in the line of work but play. There was a huge white pine at the edge of the woods where we would pause on our way to work and practice the ax-throw. Underhand: one flip. Back a pace. Overhead: one flip. Back two paces: the overhead, double flip. That's what usually did in the ax handles. We carried spares. Maybe we'd stop at the white pine on our way back, but usually not. We'd be too tired. And most of the time it was too dark.
We knew nothing whatever about building a log cabin, but if you played with Lincoln logs as a child you know the principle. What was trickier than it looked was getting the joint cuts flat and smooth and on the same plane with each other, and not too wide or too narrow for the log that fitted into them; and making the logs straight.
They always looked straight when we cut them, but when we started to fit them on top of each other, we invariably found that there was much shaving and chinking to do. Getting one log in place might take us the whole afternoon. But it was a good month before we got to that state.
First we picked out the trees - the school said they had to be dead ones. Then we felled them and cut off their branches. That was exciting: three boys running along the wobbly trunk, whacking away for dear life, trying for the one perfect blow that would dismember the branch right where it came out of the trunk, slicing it off as cleanly as with a butcher's knife. We chose our trees with care, but even so we had to maneuver some of them over 150 yards or more of rough ground.
We placed our cabin next to the ski trail where we could see and be seen, and many were the times when we wished we'd never started it. But, oh, the day it was done. How proud we were.
We celebrated with bacon sandwiches and cocoa. We stretched out like kings on our bed of sapling boughs, one at a time, and received visitors, glorying in how hot it was with the stove roaring, and generally luxuriating in our accomplishment. The next day we went skiing, receiving visitors afterward in our cabin. And the day after that. But gradually skiing began to pall. We kept up our ax-throwing for a while, but the fun was out of that, too, since nothing followed it. When we stopped going to the cabin on a regular basis, we knew, dimly, that something had gone out of our lives.
`HEY, Charlie!'' It was the next fall. I had had an idea. There were lots of dead trees in the woods, I told him. Why not cut them down and then just stack them up in piles.
``Huge piles,'' said Charlie. ``Big as we can make them.'' We got permission. David was doing something else by then, but almost every afternoon all fall and well into the winter, Charlie and I would jog down the River Road, out to where the dead trees were tallest, axes at the ready, and whack away. ``Timber!'' we would shout as a giant pine hit the forest floor. We jumped on top and sliced off the branches.
One on each side, we cut two-foot- wide notches in the trunk, priding ourselves on the mighty size of our chips, as - casually missing each other's heads - we sliced our way smoothly through the cheese of the trunk. The piles we made were monuments, pyramids 20 feet to 25 feet high. They would take millenia to rot away, and when they finally did, they would leave hills.
I have chopped wood with various other friends since then; with my father and with my sons. I have spent hours in the woods working by myself. The pleasure is always there, to be relied on.
The cabin we built is gone now, and the last time I looked I could find no trace of those enormous piles Charlie and I had heaped so high. No matter. I can still bury the business end of an ax into a tree trunk at 10 paces; and, though some might think me foolish, for I could get the winter's wood cut so much more quickly, I continue to refuse the services of the machine-operated wood splitter.