Sledge and Wedge
by James Gould
Early in life I learned that keeping busy with work fended off my feelings in the empty alone hours after my mother disappeared from my life. Having money also made me feel better as I could be like my older brothers and stop asking for an allowance. I rode my bicycle along River Road, peering into the roadside weeds to fill the bike’s front basket with bottles thrown out of cars, and redeemed them at the A&P for the two cents deposit, 5 cents for a large one. A middle aged woman neighbor paid me to weed her brick sidewalks by hand until my fingers could no longer bend. Then a Geezer hired me to weed and harvest his large garden. That done, he gave me my first really hard job. Splitting wood. A lot of wood.
On this crisp, sunny autumn day, the pile of cut logs looked like a mountain to my 11 year old eyes. I squeezed and released the smooth, wooden handle of the 10 pound sledgehammer, imagining, wishing myself stronger than the skinny boy I was. I looked back at my overweight, bald employer, sitting in his rocking chair, slowly moving forward and back with thumbs hooked in his suspenders. I looked back with dismay at the pile, then again at Geezer, catching a little smile of anticipation on his face. I was to be his entertainment, his amusement. His smile made me angry. I would show him.
Let’s see, pick a likely log. They were all big, two to three feet diameter, cut from a tall oak a storm had felled. I looked for the largest aging crack and tapped in the metal wedge. I rested the sledge on the log and backed up to get the proper distance. Then I awkwardly swung the sledge back, overhead and back down, straining my every muscle, such as they were. The sledge hit the wedge off center, flinging it to the right as the sledge swung me to the left. I heard a chuckle in the still air.
I tried again and again, but the log stayed intact. Panting, I stopped to think. Should I just give up? How could I admit defeat to the smiling Geezer? As my breathing slowed, I began to wonder if there was a better way. I started experimenting with the swing, pounding the log with no wedge. Slowly, slowly the rhythm came. Easy on the backswing, transition smoothly to overhead while inhaling. Then continue the downswing with a forced exhale, letting gravity do most of the work, adding muscle to accelerate the sledge before the strike. Trying too hard ruins the accuracy. After an hour or so the victim log had a deep depression from the beating.
OK. Now add the wedge. I tapped it in further to hold it. Focus. Concentrate. Imagine Geezer’s face on the center of the wedge and don’t take my eyes off it. Things go where you look. I swung easy at first, trying for square hits more than force. Slowly, slowly, as I added more speed, the wedge burrowed into the log. I was surprised when the log split, the two halves even. Splitting the halves into quarters and the quarters into eighths with a splitting ax and sledgehammer proved easier, as the ax bit securely into the log for the sledge, or sometimes split it directly. But after a few more logs tiredness ruined my aim. So I added pacing to the list. Three full days of work converted the log pile into a neat row of split wood. I could feel my muscles growing harder, a feeling I have prized ever since.
I walked to Geezer and looked him in the eye, man to man, as he paid me.
The simple lessons of those days followed me through my life. I learned to sell door to door, seeds in grade school, light bulbs in high school and encyclopedias in college. As a teenager I learned to fit in as the only white guy in the caddy shack in the local golf course we could not afford to join, and not to gamble knock rummy with the other caddies. Finally old enough for a license, I rebuilt old motorcycles bought for a hundred dollars to get to my jobs. To make money for college, I learned in high school how to change oil, grease steering joint nipples, replace tires, and adjust valves on a running engine as an assistant mechanic at an local garage that had decades of grease and grime worked into the floors and walls. I worked as a projectionist in the local theater, pumped gas at a station located on US Highway 130.
During college summer breaks I worked in chemical factories, driving a fork lift, filling bags with vinyl powder resin and manhandling 50 gallon drums of liquid chemicals used to make Plexiglas. For the drum job, I had to hide rolls of quarters in my pockets to meet the minimum 138 pounds required for the job. When I slipped using a crowbar to open a plastic clogged drain and split open a finger along a childhood scar caused by the blades of a push mower, the foreman was annoyed about the papers he had to fill out.
I learned to imitate the vocal patterns and body language of my fellow workers, as adolescents do in trying to learn what patterns to follow in becoming an adult. Later, mimicry extended to drinking, talking politics, smoking, marriage and more. All of my jobs reinforced that college was my key to a better way of making a living. Even then, my first mental job, doing research as a soldier in the Army after college, felt strange, though it had the physicality of building a lab from scratch using leftover equipment I scrounged from around the base. I approached research and later law as work that exercised my brain rather than muscles. Both kinds of exercise felt good, still do.
The wood split lessons have always applied. Define and analyze the problem. Gather the necessary tools. Break a huge task into small digestible ones. Look for the easiest opening to a solution. Focus on the task. If need be, make an opponent the target. Pace and conserve energy. When the pieces are solved, organize them into a neat, organized, logical package.
So now I am a Geezer, working life done. I can afford to buy split wood, but every autumn I walk to my log pile with sledge, wedges and splitter in. I love the feel of tools in my hands, the feedback of a smooth swing, the satisfied feeling when a log splits just where I wanted. Being warmed by the fire is a bonus. When I take a break, I sit on an outside bench and listen to the wind rustling the dried leaves and the geese honking overhead, urging each other southward. And I remember my first hard job with a smile.
In the past, I was a patent litigator. In the present I am a motorcyclist, a world traveler, a learning-to-be-writer and a devourer of books and New York City culture.