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Ron Geigle: The Woods (amazon)
That was the word, Albert decided. That was the word that described it all. And because he was good with words, Albert knew that he’d found the right one.
Though just ten miles up the valley from his home in Seakomish, the Skybillings Logging Company was a taste of the magic Albert had longed for in all of his eighteen years—or at least all of those that he could remember. Repairing the tracks in a logging railway—which carried ancient firs from the high reaches of the Cascade Mountains to the lumber mills along Puget Sound—gave him blisters that bled and arms that hung like cord wood at the end of the day. But the cold air six thousand feet up in the mountains made him feel warm.
His father had died in the woods. His mother tried to talk him out of taking a job in the woods. But this is exactly where he wanted to be.
Since the day six weeks earlier when he had arrived at Skybillings Logging Company, Albert had worked for Nariff Olben and his crew laying the tracks—they called them “sections”—for the rough-hewn Skybillings railroad line that inched its way up the Cascade Mountains from Seakomish. The Skybillings track climbed the grade along Roosevelt Creek, with its boulders and hard-charging water; wound through the towering Douglas firs that crowded the inclines of the Cascade Range; then—miles later and many thousands of feet higher—finally broke into the sunlight along the edge of a wide ravine.
Nariff Olben let out a grunt, then sucked in another load of damp, mountain air. He let the handle of the sledgehammer ease back against his belt buckle as he adjusted the eye patch that had lost its grip—said he’d lost the eye in a fight on a fishing boat off Malta. Then, in a single motion, he once again wrenched the heavy sledge high above his six-foot frame, drove it hard into the head of the metal spike—with a gunshot crack—and let out another loud grunt.
All afternoon, Nariff recited, in alphabetic order, all the forms of currency that he claimed were in use around the world. As a seaman on a Dutch freighter and earlier as a railway clerk in Marrakesh, he had developed an “appreciation for currency,” as he put it, heightened by the ravishes of the Great Depression, which had stranded him and his freighter in Seattle during the early months of 1931.
The other men on the section crew had long grown tired of Nariff’s stories. Instead of listening, they bent harder into the swings of their own sledgehammers. But Albert was a new audience.
“Peseta. Pound. Rupee. No, that’s outa’ order. Ruble—from Russia, sorry—then Rupee.” He said he had to repeat them in alphabetical order because that was the only way he could remember them all. After six or seven, he would raise the sledgehammer again, slam it into the railroad spike, let out a wheeze, then go on: “Schilling. Sucre. Tugrik.”
Nariff was much older than Albert’s father had been when he was killed in a logging accident. In fact, Nariff could’ve been Albert’s grandfather. Maybe that was what drew Albert to him. Unlike so many other things around Albert and life in Seakomish—a town that was finally giving in under the weight of the Great Depression—Nariff met the ferocity of the world around him with a grouchy, self-assured attitude that, to Albert at least, felt like hope.
Nariff’s crew had worked on this section of track since morning, first dumping gravel under the existing ties, then packing it tight. Then, to give the track additional support, they inserted new ties underneath—six-foot-long twelve-by-twelve’s, rough and heavy.
The broad, open expanse where they worked was called “the landing.” Though it lay thousands of feet up in the Cascade Mountains, this was the working base of the land that Skybillings logged. From here, the fir-covered slopes to the west rose steeply upward, another 6,000 feet or more, as did those to the south.
Skybillings wasn’t the only logging company to lay down railroad lines high in the Cascades, of course. It was one of hundreds that operated in the Cascades during the 1930s.
All of them built and maintained their own lines. Some shared the same tracks in the lower part of the valleys. But then, as you rose higher, the tracks splintered into the lines of individual companies, a spider web that disappeared into the dense forest. With no roads, the logging firms couldn’t get the timber out any other way, and sometimes even had to log right up to the snowfields. They ran powerful steam locomotives to haul out the firs, some 500 or 600 years old—some nearing a thousand years even—and so wide at the base that ten men couldn’t get their arms around them. The engines that pulled them were Shays and Baldwins and Heislers, all of them with their names emblazoned in silver or embossed white on their flat black noses.
Once loaded, the locomotives crept along the rock ledges, then descended slowly along the mountain shoulders, carrying the massive firs to the mills in Everett or Seattle, mills that shaped them into lumber that was rebuilding New Jersey and New York and “the whole East Coast”—it was how they said it—as America began to recover from the ravages of the Great Depression.
In spring, 1937, families still rode the rails. Jobs still couldn’t be found. The labor union tensions in the woods still festered and got bloody at times. But Skybillings—and the railroad logging shows of the Cascade Mountains—felt like they were, inch-by-inch, rebuilding America.
Albert squatted next to Nariff, eyeing the rail ties. He slammed his hammer on an occasional spike for good measure.
“What do you think of ‘em, young man?” asked Nariff, as he stepped onto the closest rail and bounced up and down.
Then he answered his own question. “Christ man, these little babies is perfect. They probably was plenty good even before we started on ’em, never mind dear old fart, Mr. Valentine.” John Valentine was the foreman who ordered the work two days earlier
Buckers and fallers who had been working on the higher elevations of the Skybillings land streamed down the hill, some walking, but most trotting alongside the Shay locomotive that was now rumbling slowly down the steep incline. Its two trailing flatcars looked like toys beneath the mass of the Douglas firs they carried. Ferguson, the engineer, hung his chubby head out the window to check the rails. Albert’s feet tingled from the vibration of the Shay, his nostrils full of the hot aroma of steam and raw wood.
Ferguson added a little more throttle, shouting toward Nariff. “You old shit-ass, Nariff Olben. I didn’t think you had enough brains to make those things hold a toy wagon.”
Nariff smiled and flipped him the finger. The engineer tipped his hat.
The Shay passed slowly over the section of rails that had gotten the new ties, which obligingly shifted, but as intended, gently eased back and then re-settled firmly in place. Albert had heard men talk about Nariff Olben. That he was too old and too full of tall tales to be in charge of the section crew. But Albert wanted to shout as the train passed.
“What are you so fuckin’ happy about, kid?” It was the voice of another member of the section crew, Conrad Bruel. Everything he said was with a sneer. Nariff and the rest of the crew had already started toward the tool sheds that stood at the distant end of the landing.
Albert shrugged. “Nothing. Just happy to see that our hard work paid off.”
“Your buddy Nariff Olben ain’t gonna keep his job long, you know.” Conrad shielded his voice so only Albert could hear.
Conrad smiled, though the heavy ledge of eyebrows turned the smile into a threat. “The boss man is gonna kick his ass if he keeps mouthing off. He’s asking for trouble. Word to the wise.”
Albert could not fully grasp the anger in Conrad. It popped up at odd times. It seemed that everyone on the crew was mad at something or someone. But Conrad’s anger seemed less even and often sharper.
Men were gathering around the tool sheds, wiping off the mud and dirt of the day, getting ready for the ride down the mountain to the bunkhouse. Albert noticed shovels and sledgehammers they had left on the other side of the tracks, so set off to retrieve them.
But when he stepped onto the first rail, the earth turned liquid. He stumbled and tried to regain his footing, but the rocks and ties under his feet moved. Both rails quivered and the spikes bent away.
He searched for Conrad, who was now running toward a mass of smoke and red flame, far away from him—far toward the end of the landing.
“Albert, grab the shovels.” The voice was Bud Cole, Skybillings’ owner, who swept past him at a sprint. Others followed—the fallers, the Swedes, Valentine’s crew, then the rest of the buckers and riggingslingers. They grabbed shovels and sledgehammers as they ran. Several stopped to hoist-up heavy railroad ties that lay along the tracks. Albert fell in.
The heavy black smoke burned his eyes, and the thumming-thumming vibrations in the ground took away all other senses—but then the full scene opened clearly before him: perhaps fifty yards ahead stood the Shay, leaning hard to the right—half off the tracks, the massive iron wheels still churning, spewing mud and rock.
The chaos of metal and steam, the fire spitting from the Shay brought Albert to a dead stop.
“Restart the winch,” screamed Bud Cole. “Get cables around the locomotive!” Several men guided the thick metal cable as it uncoiled from the greasy drum, backpedaling toward the Shay. Within a minute, they had looped it around the smokestack and the cab.
The winch roared and the cables ground into the Shay, pulling hard against the dead weight, as men scrambled to get out of whiplash range. The cable drew tighter and the muddy ooze finally gave way. The fuming, wounded locomotive slowly began to rise, dripping mud and oil.
It hung there. Enveloped by sound and smell, and smoke that stung the eyes. Then a wave of men flowed toward it, to save it, to settle it safely back to earth. Several wound more cables around the engine. Others poured gravel into the muck that lay beneath. Several men from Nariff’s crew—Whitey Storm, Lightning Stevens, and Nariff himself—stood in the middle of it, heaving down wooden ties to form a base.
Bud Cole called out for everyone to stand back, then lowered his arm slowly, a signal for the winch to ease its hold on the engine. This brought low groans from the pulley—then a metallic ripping sound as one of the cables snapped. The Shay jolted downward, but then stopped, as the others cables held tight. Men from both ends of the locomotive rushed in again to set more ties.
Albert grabbed a wheelbarrow and set out for the gravel pile, but before he reached it, the staccato ripping sound again echoed through the clearing. He turned just as the Shay lurched forward, then pitched violently sideways. As it did, its flatbed car unleashed the massive fir logs, which bounced on top of one another, then shot down the steep incline toward him.
Albert lunged for the ground, just as one of the firs slammed against a stump—spraying bullets of bark and broken wood. The taste of the dank, bitter dirt filled his mouth as the log shot overhead and sailed downward with a rumbling roar.
Then all was silent. He lifted his head. The logs had swept down the slope, crushed everything in their path, and then shot free-fall to the bottom of the ravine. Men lay scattered between the stumps below him, a few not moving. Up the slope, several more lay on the ground, and just beyond—through the smoke and steam—he could make out ten or maybe twenty men, digging furiously with shovels at the edges of the fallen Shay. The engine lay on its side, engulfed in mud.
As he stood up, blinking hard to focus, he saw Bud Cole pawing away dirt underneath the smokestack, shouting the name of Nariff Olben.
April is cold high up in the mountains of Washington State. Winter sometimes doesn’t go until, in a bad year, May or June. Blue-to-black rain clouds usually swallow the afternoon light, muffling it into a sullen grayness.
Albert’s mother had laid out his father’s last suit. Gray flannel pin stripe, with vest, frayed at the wrists and thin at the elbows. Beside it, a starched white shirt, red tie. All of them lined up on his bed when he came back from his bath.
“Mother, what are these doing here?” he shouted down the stairs toward the kitchen. Why wouldn’t a sweater and a coat do? He picked up the suit, rubbing the worn wool between his finger and thumb. He knew it would itch, especially if it rained.
No answer from the kitchen. Albert hadn’t seen this suit since he last saw his father—on a Sunday, after they had gone to church, many years before. That morning, his father seemed to blaze in Christian zeal. It was his turn to teach the Sunday School lesson, so he wore his best suit. Though only eight years old, Albert couldn’t have been prouder of his father.
Always a calm, quiet man—a man who laughed easily, a man who was always good for a ride on the shoulders—his father now rocked on his toes in front of the Sunday School, speaking in loud, rolling rhythms, his voice thundering throughout the tiny church. Yet when he was done, the ladies who sat in front of Albert and his mother rushed forward to shake his father’s hand.
“So you don’t want to wear it.” His mother had startled him. She was leaning against the door. “Let me guess: Because you don’t understand why you should wear his suit and besides you’d rather wear your worn-out sweater and jacket.” Lydia smiled, her arms now folded.
Albert continued to study the suit. “I might have been thinking something like that.”
As she walked into the bedroom, she snagged a handful of hair and pushed a pin into it to keep it in place. “Well, that’s a perfectly fine question. But you know, you also left out the part about, ‘Why should I wear the suit of a dead man, especially to a funeral?'”
Albert slumped back on the bed, groaning.
“I hadn’t thought of that. But thanks for mentioning it.”
“You’re welcome. Now think of all the reasons why you should consider wearing it.” She started with her bun again.
“Mother,” said Albert, now with eyes closed. “This is a lecture, isn’t it?”
“Lecture? I just made a simple statement.”
Albert leaned onto one elbow, creasing the arm of the white shirt. Before he could speak, his mother walked back to the door. “I’ve got to get ready, but you decide,” she said, now into the hallway and down the stairs.
He rubbed the worn gray fabric at the elbows, just as he remembered it when his father slung the coat over the back of a chair before sitting down to dinner at the Bratton’s house that Sunday. They had been invited for dinner, along with the pastor and his family and the three elders and their wives. He remembered thinking how dressed up everyone seemed. He was used to seeing loggers wearing striped shirts, black suspenders, thick black pants and logging boots that stunk of oil and dirt. Yet all of them looked like they had just stepped out of a Sears catalogue.
“And I’ll look just as damn stupid as they did,” he said aloud as he picked up the white shirt.
Ronald Lee Geigle is a writer living in Washington, DC. His novel, The Woods, was published in 2014 and is set in the Pacific Northwest during the waning years of the Great Depression. Previously, he worked as a staff member in the U.S. Congress, and as a speechwriter and public relations consultant. Geigle grew up in the West.