Of chainsaws and pickle jars

This time of year, I usually drive down to Connecticut to visit my dad and help him button up his place before the howling nasties come visiting from Canada. We scrape leaves out of gutters, put up storm windows, string heat-tape along eaves, stuff like that, stuff Dad shouldn’t do anymore because at 84 he’s a bit creaky and not very good at altitude. And that plural pronoun is misleading; when I say “we” I mean he stands on the ground pointing and shouting encouragement while I step up another rung and lean way out, defying gravity with a hammer.

“No more ladders,” his cardiologist told him after his quadruple bypass two years ago. So Dad stays on the ground.

This year, the trip was a bit later than usual and corresponded with Thanksgiving. Breaking with the fowl tradition, my wife and I took Dad to Chuck’s Steakhouse, which (oddly) turned out to be a Mexican place — burritos with cranberry sauce, yum.

The next day dawned cold and our breath hung in the air as we drove Dad’s 1955 Ford tractor into the woods and skidded out some trees the wind had blown down, breaking an old rope three times in the process.

“I’d rather work with chain,” Dad said. “But it’s just so heavy.”

Back at the woodshed, after warming our hands around cups hot coffee, we got ready to buck up the logs. Dad brought along his chainsaw, but was skeptical.

“I don’t know, Pete,” he said. “I think there’s something wrong with it. It hasn’t been starting lately.”

He knelt down, placed the saw on the ground, cocked the choke, took the pull-cord in his hand, and yanked. But, it was an 84 year-old, quadruple-bypass yank, and the motor barely turned over. He tried again. And again. But without so much as an internal combustion cough. “See,” he said. “No good. Probably the needle valves.”

“Let me try,” I said. Dad started to get up, but his knees weren’t working very well and he began to tip over. He reached into the November air for balance and I caught his arm, steadied him, and helped him slowly unbend and stand to his feet.

“Thanks, Pete,” he said.

I grabbed the chainsaw, cocked the choke again, set the throttle to wide open, then, with one hand on the handle and the other on the pull-cord, I lifted the saw nearly to my chin and dropped the whole mess, violently yanking the cord and spinning the motor to life. It was a 50 year-old yank — the motor had no choice.

I revved the engine a few times and a cloud of smoke belched into the air. Through the blue, two-stroke fog, I looked at Dad and he looked at me and we both smiled. We both knew it wasn’t the needle valves. It was something else. Something perfectly communicated in those smiles. Something that didn’t need to be spoken to be understood. We turned to the pile of logs and Dad pointed while I cut.

Driving home, I thought about my dad, and that he might never start that saw again. That the list of things he couldn’t handle was getting longer: first it was ladders, now chainsaws, next it might be that old tractor of his. The world of the man who had taught me how to do virtually everything was getting smaller by the day.

It’s 200 miles from my house to Dad’s, but I don’t mind. I love him. I’d drive that far to help him open a jar of pickles.

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