Breaking Just the Rules

A.V. Walters

It was hot today, hotter in town. Sometimes it might just be better to set hard work aside on so hot a day. But we had committed to prune and thin the oak trees at Rick’s house. (Sounds funny, because I think of this as Rick’s house, but I have to remember that he has a house, a family and a former life.) That house is listed for sale right now, so there’s a flurry of sprucing up going on. Rick is doing his part, too.

That yard is graced with elegant mature oak trees—a lovely canopy against the heat of the summer sun. It hasn’t been pruned in years, so the understory has a lot of dead branches. It makes the yard look a little like a haunted forest, so it really did need some help. We arrived, ladder, chainsaw, Japanese pruning saw and loppers, ready to bring shape, air and light back to these gracious oaks.

I’ve been an avid tree pruner for years and I grew up heating with wood, so chainsaw protocol is in my blood. There isn’t anyone in my family who isn’t comfortable with the working end of a splitting maul or a chainsaw. Rick is newer to the lumberjack world, but he’s a professional handy guy, a bricoleur by trade. So he’s no stranger to tools and safety. I don’t know how things all went so wrong, so quickly. But, we broke all the rules.

First, there’s ladder safety. The area where we were working was sloped. We started out right, I was spotting Rick, holding the ladder when he was working on high. Later, perhaps eager to finish on such a hot day, we split up. I started on the ladder, but climbed up into the tree and was limbing from above, using the pruning saw. Rick took the ladder, and was working, not far from me, using a chainsaw. He was watching me, because I have a reputation for being clumsy. He wasn’t crazy about me climbing around in that tree. But it was going well. In no time, our work area, the driveway beneath the trees, was littered with branches.

Maybe because I’m female, and never as strong as the guys, I’ve always felt pressed to do the same work—but my way. Instead of lobbing off a big branch, I make a series of small cuts. It takes me longer, but it’s safer. I’m always careful to first make scoring cuts so that a severed limb can’t swing uncontrolled on a bark tag. I always work well ‘inboard’ from my cuts. A big branch can swing – and especially if you’re on a ladder—it can be dangerous. Years ago, I did a short stint as a park ranger—the guys all laughed at my ponderous progress.

Though Rick takes bigger ‘bites” (lobs off more at one whack) than me, I’ve always observed him taking all due care. He’s usually better than me—ear-plugs for power equipment—gloves—I could learn from him.

So, maybe it was the heat.

There I was, in my perch in the tree. I looked over to ask Rick if he could spare the loppers. He was at the top of the ladder, just finishing a cut when the long, severed end of the branch twisted as it fell. I called out to warn him, but, with the earplugs and the chainsaw, he couldn’t hear me. The wider, spreading end of the branch swung slowly, towards the base of the ladder. I held my breath, but my worst expectation bore out as the branches swept the feet of the ladder sideways, and my Rick was in the air with the chainsaw. It was in slow motion, and if I close my eyes, I can still see it. He pushed the chainsaw away as he curled for the fall. It would have been a “good” fall, too if the ladder wasn’t on its side on the ground below him. He hit directly across the ladder’s legs, on one end of him, the back of his head cracked against the aluminum frame, bending it. In the next second, the backs of his legs hit, angled across the other side of the frame.

There was Rick, sprawled over the mangled ladder and I was stuck in the tree. I called out to him, but still he couldn’t hear me. I screamed for help. Rick couldn’t hear that, either. In that moment I realized how fundamental he has become to me, to my view of life, as we know it. It’s all about not giving up, and second chances.

Every male in my family has had some kind of accident having to do with chainsaws, or wood splitting or cutting. All have survived—though in a couple of cases, it was close. Mostly we learn from them—thankful that travesty didn’t turn to tragedy. Rick has just joined that “prestigious” club

I was getting ready to jump down, (Rick, now hogging the ladder with his body) when one of the house’s co-owners ran out to the driveway to see about the screaming. Rick was getting up and brushing himself off—looking dazed. He removed the earplugs and ordered her to stop right where she was—his glasses were missing and he didn’t want anyone to step on them. I knew he must be okay.

He’s pretty banged up—but it’s a miracle that he didn’t split his head open (or didn’t break something!) That’ll be the joke in the future—hard-headed. We actually stuck around and finished the job. I think I’m more rattled by the whole thing than him—but then, I saw it. We’ve both learned, and clearly, safety has just become more important. (I think my family needs to find a better initiation than chainsaws.)

And, maybe it was just the heat, but I’m feeling lucky.

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