Chainsaws And Critters

Bob Gray

© Copyright 2003 by Bob Gray


Photo of a chain saw.

In 1978 my wife Marie and I, in our thirties, moved to the Texas Hill Country.  We bought twenty acres at the end of a gravel road and several miles away from the nearest convenience store, built a house, and started trying to figure out how to make a living.  What we discovered was that, unless you were very lucky - or prescient - in your choice of career, making a living meant becoming proficient at a variety of things, like raising a small garden, cutting your own firewood, caring for animals, and being able and willing to take a variety of jobs in town.  Which is all fine, if you don’t have any relatives.

Nearly every city-raised guy who saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can’t wait to get his hands on one when he first arrives in the country.  I can’t count the number of times a visiting male relative or friend has expressed the belief that he would be a chainsaw champ if he ever got the chance.  It comes out almost word-for-word the same every time:  “I think I can do some real damage with this thing.  Come on, come on, let’s go find some trees.”  You fear they’re about to start a high-pitched giggling.

Invariably, they are both wrong and right.  They stink at using a chainsaw, but they are able to do some real damage.  Usually to themselves, their clothing, shoes, hands, eyes, and automobile.

I have three chainsaws.  Two I use to cut firewood, kept sharp and always ready.  The third I keep for visiting maniacs.  It’s as dull as Barbara Streisand’s personality.

I discovered the value of this early on, after a visiting friend ruined a pair of boots and nearly took off some toes.  A truly dull chainsaw is frustrating, but much safer (especially for bystanders) than a sharp one in the hands of a novice.  The first time I took my dad out to cut firewood, I loaned him a good sharp saw.  He’d grown up on a farm, cut firewood as a young man with a buck saw, and told me he was experienced.  My biggest mistake was turning my back on him.

I walked into the woods, chose a dead tree and cut it down.  While I was doing this, my dad leveled a live tree, and dropped it right on my truck.  Broke the back window into pebbles, and put a dozen dents in the side and back gate.  (A couple of weeks later he did it again - I finally just gave him the truck.)  We cut wood together many times after that, and I never turned my back again. On a couple of occasions he would have dropped a tree on me if I hadn’t been paying attention.  I also never let him use any of my saws again.  He bought a top of the line saw and several extra chains.  He needed them.  I never saw the guy, not once, miss a rock.  Until I showed him how to sharpen his own, he spent as much on having his chains sharpened as the wood would have cost if bought from the shrink-wrapped stack outside the convenience store.  He would have to change chains every ten minutes, and at the end of the day would have cut maybe a washtub full of wood.

One of the fun things about cutting firewood is snakes.  A peculiarity of the oaks growing in this area is that many of them are hollow, with snakes living inside.  Having felled a dead tree, the next step is to remove the limbs.  Cutting into a main branch, I was amazed at how fast the saw was getting through.  Until I was suddenly awash in blood.  First thought is, of course, I’ve cut myself badly; pain is on its’ way.  About that time the branch gave way, and there I saw a black snake, big around as Emmit Smith’s thigh, cleanly cut in half.  Scared the crap out me then, and remembering it keeps me regular still.

A friend of mine once calculated (early 1980’s) the cost of cutting his own firewood, as opposed to buying it already cut and stacked.  It went like this:


Chainsaw (ruined when tree trapped saw and fell on it) 
Replace chain after hitting rock 
Gas for truck and saw 
Torn shirt 
Cast and crutches for broken leg when tree rolled wrong way 
Stitches where limb tore skin on scalp when tree rolled wrong way 
Splinters removed from back, when tree rolled wrong way 
Boots ruined when saw slipped and cut through toe and sole 
Doctors visit necessitated when attacked by fire ant mound 
Gauze, bandages, antibiotics 

(Plus assorted bruises and blisters, punctures and sprains)

  Total $600


There are many odds-against wierdnesses in the country.  Snakes living inside tree limbs is a minor one.  For many months, the batteries on all three vehicles ran down - everyday.  Never found out why.  Buying new batteries was not the solution, we replaced them all at least once.  It didn’t stop until we sold those vehicles (two cars and a pick-up - all Fords).

Another was bats living in the house.  We counted six, for sure.  How they got in, we never learned.  We did learn how to get them out.  If it ever happens to you - here’s how:

1. After sundown, turn off all the lights in the house.
2. Turn on a light in the room where they are roosting.  If they’ve found a dark place the normal room
    lighting doesn’t reach (such as the attic or a closet), you will need a strong floodlight to get them
3. Once you get them flying, don’t try whacking them with a broom.
    You’ll never hit one - and even if you do, what are you going to do
    with it once you’ve knocked it down?  Pick it up?  Please.  Use a clear
    plastic dry-cleaning bag over your head so you can move around freely
    while the bats are swooping about.  This is only for the psychology of
    it - they won’t run into you.
4. They will leave the lighted area, and fly to and around the darkest
    room they can find, looking for another place to roost.  Don’t give them
    time to land.
5. As you move them to rooms closer to the exterior door, close doors of
    vacated rooms behind you.
6. When you get them in a new room, closer to the exterior door, turn on
    the lights in that room, forcing them to the next dark room.
7. Open the outside door, making sure no exterior lights are on.  By now
    your entire house should be ablaze with light - and their only choice is
    to go outside. Keep the lights blazing in your house overnight, so they
    aren’t tempted to come back in at daybreak.  Once they’ve found
    another roost, they won’t be back.

Even normally likeable birds seem to purposely wish to thwart basic human existence.  Bluebirds are a particular problem.  Who originated the notion of the Bluebird of Happiness, I refuse to cogitate.  An idiot, surely.
If you have more than a mated pair of bluebirds within a hundred yards of your house, you won’t be happy.  You also will never sleep late again.

The aggressive little peckerwoods are noisy, hungry, and territorially possessive to an annoying - sometimes frightening - extreme.  They will run your cat off in order to eat her food, and dive bomb you if they take the notion.  If a third (or more) bluebird(s) comes into the area - they are all possessive.  They’ll fight and scream at each other so indefatigably, you’ll hate Noah.  If he’d taken three on the ark instead of a mated pair, he’d have drowned them all with his own hands.

If you leave the lid off your water storage tank for a second, you can count on a string of birds of all descriptions lined up to land on the lip of the opening - and foul your water.  And, as far as I know, there are few things more painfully fatal than drinking anything containing bird shit.

Birds are also among the more surprisingly deadly things on the road.  Out here, any day you drive down a country road you are likely to find some to several dead animals - possum, skunk, armadillo, deer, snakes, and much more.  Many of these animals wind up in the middle of the road, being mashed repeatedly.  The vultures are not put off by either the mashing, or the passing cars.  They come in clumps, land in the road, and begin to gorge.  When a vehicle approaches, they wait until the last second to lift off, circle around, and land on the carcass once again.

That is, when they time it properly.  If they’re a little off, you get a vulture, maybe twenty pounds, through the front windshield.  And who could ask for more fun than a face full of broken glass and a large wounded bird with a beak like a chisel tearing off your hide while your car heads for the ditch?

Coolest of the country birds are the road-runners.  They race in, able to fly or glide short distances, gobble up bugs by the pound, and never make a sound.  Well, I have heard them make a small peep, about like a new-born chick.  Nothing like the cleft-pallet, hare-lipped NEEEP we grew up with on RoadRunner cartoons.  They’ll keep a fairly constant hundred feet of distance from you until you make a move they consider threatening.  Then they simply disappear - exactly like in the cartoons.  There are a half dozen or so of them living close by.  Quick and smart, their little feet throwing up small clouds of dust as they haul ass down the road, at top speed they almost turn into arrows with legs. The temptation to look around for Wile E. Coyote is powerful.

You don’t have to look around for those voracious insects, however.  They are thick and everywhere.  Every square inch of ground has termites, for instance.  Any piece of lumber left lying about for a season is Swiss cheese in weeks.  My dad’s first real injury (to him, not one he caused someone else) was from termites.  Too lazy to fill an armadillo hole in his front yard, he placed a piece of plywood over it.  The following summer, he stepped on it, through it, and fell onto his fat ass hard enough to make me blow Pepsi out my nose.

While termites are the greatest threat to homes and barns, scorpions are the physical threat most dreaded by my family.  We had been living out here for just days when I was stung in the temple one night in bed.  I’d rolled over on my pillow, and scorpions don’t really like to share.  I was in a thorough panic.  If a scorpion sting could be fatal, then a sting on the temple meant I had maybe minutes or seconds to live.  My wife called the hospital and talked to a nurse.  The nurse could evidently hear me swearing and preparing to die in the background.  When she was able to stop laughing, she told Marie that Texas scorpion stings weren’t fatal, only felt that way.  Go back to bed, you’ll be fine.

Still laughing at me, Marie went back to bed.  I walked a few miles around the living room before I decided that, indeed, I wasn’t going to die.  Still burned, still hurt, but no death.  I went back to bed.  My head had barely hit the pillow when Marie started screaming.  She’d run her hand under her pillow, and been stung on the end of her middle finger.  For, while a Texas scorpion sting won’t kill you, the temporary damage it does to all those nerve endings in a finger are enough to make you opt for death - if you could only pull a trigger - for a few minutes anyway. Stopped her laughing at me, though.

On country roads in Texas, ranch animals have the right-of-way.  Goats, pigs, horses and cattle are the real kings of the road.  When a fence is down, the herd takes over.  In winter, they immediately migrate to the black-top to lie down and soak up the stored heat.  In summer, they want the seldom-mowed roadside grass.  Either way, you’re screwed.  It is against the law to hit these beasts - even accidentally.  Even to give them a little push with your bumper.  You can chase a cuddle-bunny rabbit in your car and run him down in front of a Girl Scout Troop at the sheriff’s office - no one will care.  But if a goat jumps off a cliff in front of your car - and you hit it - you’re going to pay for that animal.

It’s strange, but surely only coincidental, how it works out.  A failing ranch often shows up first in deteriorating fence lines.  Poles get snapped and not replaced.  Cows and horses will use barbed wire to scratch themselves.  Eventually the wire snaps.  The animals, usually by now gaunt and near death, wander into the roadway and get hit.  The animal dies twenty minutes sooner than it would have done otherwise, and the resulting pay-out staves off starvation for the family and remaining livestock for another month.  When it happens again.

Wild animals are suicidal, often, apparently, waiting in roadside brush to ambush the monster that got gramps and sis the week before.  Ranch animals, on the other hand, are immovable.  Into the road and stop.  Since their feed is often brought to them in a truck - they may even walk leisurely towards you.  But not with the same rank-thinning exuberance demonstrated by feral animals.  I’ve had many critters - from squirrels to deer - chase my truck or car from one side of a four-lane highway to the other in their obvious determination to jump in front of it.  Ranch animals may even surround your truck - in effect, telling you to drop off some food or else.  Too bad they won’t eat the road-kill while they’re in the way.

Livestock in the roadway is likely the worst aspect of Texas paved roads.  For some reason, the blacktop roads in rural counties are kept in good shape.  Well, not “some reason”.  The local Road Commissioner, the fellow responsible for keeping the roads repaired, is nearly always elected from among the ranching community.  And if he fails, everyone knows who he is and where he lives.  As the world suspects (to its’ chagrin, I’m sure), Texans are not bashful.  Texas Railroad Commissioners know it for an absolute certainty.

Dirt roads, however, are another matter.  Most are “privately” owned - which means your property line runs to the middle of the road.  Your neighbor’s property line runs to the same place.  Which means you and your neighbor are responsible for keeping it drivable.  Not the county or the state.  The road can be ten miles long, with dozens of owners responsible for their piece of it.  If you have a nut for a neighbor, you can be in trouble.

For the first six months that we owned our piece of land, at least once a week we had a flat tire.  The cause was always a nail, though try as we might, we couldn’t see any nails on the road.  As we got to know the neighbors, we finally discovered what was happening.  One of the stranger families on the road was in the cut-rate roofing business.  At a time when most roofers charged twenty dollars a square for composition shingle, these folks, a rheumatic, asthmatic father, two sons, and a horde of women and kids, charged twelve.

Everyone but the father would get on the roof.  He stood in the yard, leaning on his cane, and directed operations.  These folks could tear off the old shingle and replace it in one day - didn’t matter how big the place was.  The bigger the building, the more of the family was on the roof.  The material torn off the roof was supposed to be taken to the dump.  Avoiding the charge for dumping was just one of the ways this family kept the price down.  For twenty years this family had dumped the stuff on the road, using it to fill seep springs and ruts.

Of course, they dumped it on the road beyond their own plywood puddle of a house.  Then, they would borrow a neighbors tractor and spread a little dirt over the top of the mess.  Just enough to camouflage the roofing material.  Driving over it would then cause roofing nails to slowly work their way up, and snag a tire.  We finally had to have the mess bull-dozed away, and dump truck after dump truck of dirt and rock brought in to fill the scar.

Living in a world populated by people like this roofer can be discouraging.

To avoid becoming a miserable stupid brute, a man needs some grace in his life.  For ninety percent of the male population that means a woman.  What follows are the basic non-negotiables a rational man should incorporate for any relationship to have a hope of success.  Without the gentleness, mature emotional courage, and moral brake a good woman can provide, the majority of men are hopelessly lost in an increasingly crippling turpitude.  The world is, like it or not, mostly indifferent to your existence.  Without a trusted partner - one who’s first concern is you - you will die early, broke, and ignorant.  But in order to get that loyalty, you must give it.  In order to give it, you need to completely internalize and regularly exercise the following:

First, never marry an intellectual inferior.  If she’s not smarter than you, where and what you are when you marry her is likely the best you’re ever going to be.  And believing you can outsmart your wife is probably the dumbest thing you’ll ever do - get a smart wife and remove the temptation to try.

Second, remember her face forever the way it is on the day you fall in love with her.  What happens to it as she ages makes her unhappy, and most of what happens to it is your fault.  But if you can imprint her face forever on your mind the day she squeezes your heart, both of you will benefit everyday thereafter.

Third, have thoroughly discussed and explicit agreements about those things that concern you the most, i.e., frequency and types of sex, money, weight gain, “bad” habits, and etc., whatever each of you needs as minimums to be comfortable.  You can always renegotiate those agreements later, but failure to do it before marriage will be the source of almost all of the major problems you have.  And not discussing them early makes them more difficult to broach as time passes.  Each person becomes more set in starch, determined to have it all their way.  Discussion while the hormones still rage results in acceptable compromises that two years later will be impossible to achieve - or even discuss.

Fourth, never look outside each other for absolution or consolation about situations that only concern the two of you.  Nothing wrong in asking advice of a neutral party.  But accepting support from family and well-meaning friends to the exclusion of your spouse is the surest recipe for self-pity, hardening of attitude, and chucking all chance of meaningful forgiveness.

Fifth, if you have a lick of sense, you will learn to write poetry.  If you absolutely can’t do it, at least learn to copy good ones (always give credit - getting caught plagiarizing can destroy years of trust and respect - and you will get caught!).  Women are soft for poetry, especially if they can feel certain you mean it.  It’s not as difficult as you imagine, doesn’t have to rhyme, needs merely to express an emotion or something you recognize about her that you seldom (or never) say aloud.  If you can tell her something - nearly anything - about her, her day, her life, something that you notice, she will appreciate it out of all proportion to the actual observation.  I left a note on the kitchen table one morning, a dozen years ago, where my wife always ate breakfast.  All it said was, “I think of you often during the day, and it makes me happy.”  The dividends of such a note work both ways.  She loves it, will go out of her way to show she loves it, will, in fact, save it for the rest of her life.  And for you - well, for me, I did think of her many times that day, thought of her reading that note.  And it made me smile every time.

Sixth, (do this one, even if you do none of the others!) tell her you love her at least once every day.  Even if you’re having the argument that scared you when you were little and overheard your parents.  You must mean it - even if you are so pissed you’d like to knock her on her ass.  She needs to know you still love her.  Listen, now, I mean she needs to know it.  For her it is a visceral thing, both physical and psychological, almost a dementia.  You know the vision you have in your head everyday when you get off work, of that first bottle of beer, or first toke, that you’re not really off work until you reach that spot?  Don’t deny it.  From the time you get to your car after leaving your job, that vision stays before you until that drink or whatever is in your hand.  Right?  Now multiply that need by the feeling of youth and beauty draining slowly into the uncaring swamp of time, an irretrievable and insufferable loss that seems to go mostly unappreciated - this is how much your wife needs to hear that you love her.  Even when you’re arguing.  And touch her when you tell her.  A hand on her arm if that’s all the contact you can manage.  Don’t grab; lay your hand gently and say it sincerely.  Mean it to yourself.  And be ready to take her into your arms if she will come.  Physical contact is more important to her than you can imagine.  She needs to feel your strength is on her side.  She’s fighting the same battles you are - never allow her to feel she’s in the fight alone.

(A suggestion for married women:  Marie touches me almost every time she passes by.  Even if she has to take a step out of her direct line of travel, she runs her fingers over my arm, smoothes by forehead, pats my back, something.  It is enormously encouraging and invigorating.  Try it.)

I wish I could say with truth and conviction that I had accomplished all, or all of any, of these rules.  Regrettably, much of the above took me a lifetime to figure out.  That I finally figured it out ironically made me sad that I hadn’t done so while Marie was in her youth.  However, as I figured them out, I did then set out to implement them as a constant part of our lives.  Given the “skin-of-the-teeth” existence that I provided, I evidently discovered them in time.  I am forever grateful that I did.

Follow those rules and you can have a great life anywhere, even in the Texas hills and usually broke.  By the time we had lived here twenty-five years, most of the problems had either moved away or been overcome by technology and hard work.  But, of course, by then we were old.

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