New Hampshire 'Brush Cats' See Traditional Way Of Life Changing

A pine tree in Bradford, N.H. (AP)
A pine tree in Bradford, N.H. (AP)

The life of an independent logger in New Hampshire is pretty tough these days.  They’re called "brush cats" and it’s getting more and more difficult for them to make a living because of foreign competition and falling prices.

Journalist Jack McEnany tells their story in "Brush Cat: On Trees, The Wood Economy And The Most Dangerous Job In America.” In March 2009, Here and Now’s Alex Ashlock traveled to Franconia, New Hampshire to meet the author and a logger named Bob Benson. We revisit that conversation today.

Book Excerpt: "Brush Cat: On Trees, The Wood Economy And The Most Dangerous Job In America."

By: Jack McEnany

Warning: Language Advisory

The brush cat of the Great Northern Forest

The green strip of l and along the northern edge of most maps of the United States is dense green forest, like a horizontal Chile with no beachfront, or a soft-serve Arctic National Park. The eastern corner is the Great Northern Forest—twenty-six million acres of dense woodlands that spread from Maine's Mount Katahdin through New Hampshire's White Mountains, over to Vermont's Green Mountains, up into New York's Adirondacks, and finally ending in the Tug Hill region of upstate New York, close to Canada.

There are lakes and fields, rivers and swamps throughout the Great Northern Forest, but mostly it's a jungle of thickets and canopies, pine groves, and hardwoods, the dead ones sprawled on the living, their towering mass clouding everything near and above. It's natural to feel small or lost in such a battered old cathedral, especially at midday, when you can lose sight of the sky. All around you on the ground, downer trees lie like giant Pick Up Sticks, each resting precariously on the one that fell before it, creating a nearly impenetrable coppice.

A Brush Cat is a logger who works woods like these the way a farmer plows his fields. His job is to see beyond the natural state and its wanton carnage—the blow-downs and ice-storm detritus, whole stands of ant-infested hulks still standing, pretending to be alive—and pluck the keepers from the wilding crop. If he's good at it, it's like picking flowers in a meadow, except heavier and with a lot more noise and mud.

It's a surreal scene this far off the well-trodden trail, seeing up close the off-the-trail stuff forbidden to hikers—spots so green and wet and humanly impassable that even the moose go around. In this part of the Great Northern Forest, sharp, mossy granite outcroppings are common. They're lichen-covered monsters, like variegated tall ships jutting up through the earth's crust, anchored in the deep woods with birch trees muckled onto them like giant squids growing off their sides at impossible angles, gripping them with roots like tentacles, their trunks twisted heliotropically up through the canopy, toward the sun.

During the last ice age, glaciers scraped along, plowing up the earth and making mountains. They dragged outcroppings as big as dirigibles for thousands of miles until they finally broke off or rolled away. Other granite leavings are in evidence, too, some small and grabby enough to trap your ankle forever in a tiny, hidden valley from which no sound ever escapes.

The logger cuts his way into these woods on a narrow road called a skid row, and it's not a coincidence that Skid Row denotes a seedy neighborhood in any American city. Historically and etymologically, skid rows gained that reputation because, a long time ago, they were the parts of town favored by loggers on leave from the camp. The Brush Cats, by most accounts, were a load of reprobates, and, deserved or not, that's a tough reputation to shake.

But to actually cut a skid row into the woods as long and wide as it needs to be, and no more, the logger maneuvers in and around boulders, over cliffs, up steep embankments, always plotting, strategizing his way in and out. Nothing here in the deep dark woods is straightforward or predictable. The single fact that a logger can count on is that no matter how much it looks like it might, a tree will never fall uphill. And that's it. Nevertheless, the vast majority of logging deaths are caused by people dropping trees on their own heads, or someone else's.

And that's nearly what we were doing, Bob Benson and I. Or at least I thought so. It was our first week in the woods together, and we were laying down a skid row in order to harvest the lot. Or he was, anyway. I was probably just in the way. It was January in northern New Hampshire and we'd been seven hours out in the wind and cold, locked halfway into the annual six-week-long aeon of thirty-below-zero weather. Climactic conditions were openly hostile to human life—the cold could freeze exposed skin in less than thirty minutes. It hurt just to breathe—the smallest inhalation instantly crystallizing into a throbbing ice-cream headache.

Behind me, Bob's squalling, tricked-out chainsaw abruptly choked off and I heard that solitary and unmistakable crack, its echo bouncing off Mount Kinsman, all the way over on the other side of the valley. Bob had cut a giant maple somewhere in the woods not far behind me, and as it collapsed, its wide-reaching canopy swept through the trees above us. Like the T. rex in Jurassic Park, I felt the danger long before it arrived. The toppling began as a light rumble, as if a flock of birds was taking wing, but quickly grew into a gushing-whooshing-chasing haunt, coming up faster behind me as I skedaddled into the bush beneath the pine boughs, my chainsaw stalled in my right hand, my eyes and legs going dodgy in opposite directions, seeking out any cover.

When the woods were quiet and still again, I wiped the snow off the lenses of my safety glasses and saw that the tree had dropped to my left, and perhaps wasn't on a collision course with the top of my head after all. Logger Bob knew what he was doing. He's a pro; I'm a neophyte, and any mistakes made were entirely my fault.

Bob came bounding out of the brush, a big grin on his face. "You see her come down? Slicker than shit, huh, really nice!" he said. He pronounced "nice" noice.

"Beauty," I said.

"Fuckin'-A roight it was a beauty," Bob replied. "Perfect landing." He smiled at me again, and Bob's got a big smile by anyone's standards. His ungloved hand gripped the trunk as if he were taking its pulse. "Got to be done right," he said. "This old girl's been in the world a long time."

Nobody bothers to yell "Timber!" anymore. Loggers wear hearing protection, or risk getting fined by the labor inspector if he rolls onto the job site—so yelling is pointless. And that's if they ever did yell "Timber!" because Bob told me he's never heard it anywhere but in Looney Tunes.

The problem is that Bob is accustomed to working alone, and forgets I'm with him sometimes. When he's most aware of my presence, it's because he wants to show somebody something interesting, such as the dense and ancient dendrochronology on a big fat stump, or a gouge in the lithosphere that exposes the china-brittle shale stone that the mountain under our feet sat on.

Mostly, however, he's focused on the task at hand, like an artist or an athlete performing at his highest level. And that's why I nearly ended up pounded into the forest floor like a tent stake. His kind of logging isn't a team sport. Brush Cats are careful, and as a point of pride look out for one another, but they all know that the best set of eyes looking out for you is your own. When Bob remembers I'm around, he keeps me behind him with the same hand signals he uses on his dog. I'm usually more obedient than Kodi, but not today. Kodi's a big Siberian husky with big blue eyes. He's not a puppy anymore, but he still pants that same endlessly reckless energy, and bolts for the woods, like the wolf that people mistake him for, at every opportunity.

Bob is up for it. He sees a lot of himself in that dog. He's lean and muscular, late forties, with a quick smile and an unmistakable basso voice. He skis religiously, bikes interminably, and studies yoga. If fifty is the new thirty, Bob is the proof.

I defer to Bob out here in the Great Northern Forest the way I would to the ship's captain if we were fishing the North Atlantic. He's a highly skilled technician who can not only run all the gear, and fix it, too, but can identify trees by the texture of their bark and the smell of their leaves. He says he can see rot in the heartwood before it's cut, and can drop a tree as tall as an apartment building within an inch of where he said it would fall. He's outwardly unaffected by sawdust in his eyes, and doesn't care about the heat, the cold, or swarming, biting bugs. Not even bad business deals keep Bob down; he just keeps coming, sanguine in every way. They all do.

I was on the job to cut and split firewood, because Bob's regular firewood guy—we'll call him Mark—was up at the Coos County Farm doing an eight-month bit for being a "habitual offender." I knew a few things about Mark—mostly that his relationship with law enforcement was not good because he suffers from an insatiable thirst for beer. I've also heard that he has more ex-wives than fingers, but that might be an exaggeration. Bob doesn't care about any of that because with a chainsaw in his stubby mitts, Mark is one hellacious Brush Cat who works like a small army and complains only when the money is slow.

According to Logger Bob, Mark hadn't had a license in eight years because of what he thought was a seventeen-hundred-dollar fine hanging over his head from his penultimate pinch, which was his second conviction for DUI. Turned out that it was only a seventy-dollar fine that he owed, but he'd never hired a lawyer, and so he didn't get that good news until his third arrest for impaired driving.

"Stupid all around," said Bob. "If being habitually offensive will get you busted, the jails around here are going to fill up pretty damn quick."

Mark's incarceration meant that Bob lost an integral part of his operation in a hardwood lot such as this. But what frustrated him most was that the county put its prisoners out in the woods logging—using what Bob called "slave labor" to compete directly against guys like him. "Talk about the double whammy," he said. "Not only is Mark gone, but he's gone over to the enemy."

It's for this reason, and this reason alone, that Bob agreed to have a yutz like me with him in the woods, "for as long as we can stand each other." He had little choice. He needed what modicum of help I could offer. And I work cheap, which is to say free, and that's certainly a factor. I did virtually no logging; I did what any fool would do in the presence of a master at work—Iwatched. And also about what I'm worth. This arrangement is actually a step up in our business relationship: a few years ago I had Bob do some logging on my property. When I pulled out my saw and put on my Kevlar chaps to work with him, he said that if I was going to help, he'd have to charge me double.

But here we were, finally, working in the woods together, standing over this wooden hulk. Even lying on its side, it was three stories high. When a big tree is felled, it's divided up into three parts. First is the slash, the useless brush, which is usually left behind. Studies show that it impedes forest regeneration and increases the risk and intensity of forest fires. Loggers say it replenishes the soil that the trees left behind are growing in. And they're both right.

This was a maple, a hardwood, so its limbs would be cut and split for firewood, the denuded trunk then dragged to the landing, sliced into prescribed lengths, trucked to the mill, and shaved down to veneer for furniture and cabinets. If it had been white pine, it would have been cut up into lumber for the construction industry. The quicker all this unfolds, the more profitable Bob's month is. And that also depends on the value of the wood on the lot. That maple makes the week worthwhile, but other trees that grow in weedy abundance—perfectly good trees for lumber—don't bring the same dollar. Tamarack, also known as the American larch, for instance, is not a sought-after wood, but, as construction material goes, one logger told me, "When it dries, it's as hard as Chinese arithmetic." I happen to think all arithmetic is hard, but I take his point.

But none of this postfelling cleanup had happened yet. We were still in the moment of the kill, and the tree lay there still and huge, like a belly-up dragon slain when he wasn't looking. When you get up that close to a horizontal tree, you see that a fully grown maple is quite a substantial thing—if you could get your arms around it, it would take a hundred more just like you to muscle it out of the woods, a single step at a time. There are enough board feet of lumber in it to build a cabin, with enough left over to heat it for a winter.

This was a big tree, four or five tons, more than seventy feet tall. Bob climbed all over it, limbing it down to the trunk, then drawing out his tape mea sure to notch it for lengths. Some of the branches he carved off were as big around and long as a freestanding tree. He jumped over gnarly limbs, balancing on one as he zipped the next as meticulously as picking lint from a sweater. When he was done, the trunk was long and lean, like a ragged telephone pole.

Bob used his saw with the authority of a Benihana chef and the careful mien of a man who'd been laid low by a bad move somewhere along the line. He's actually lucky that his knee bothers him only when it's wet, because he can't work then anyway. It's ACL damage, chunks of cartilage all bound up in the works. But his knees hurt mostly from skiing, not logging. Bob has survived twenty-five years in the woods by being a safe logger. That's the only way to do it. But even hyper-vigilance is no guarantee of survival.

If chainsaws were coffeemakers, then mine would be a single-cup drip and Bob's would be a giant samovar, or one of those Cadillac espresso machines at Starbucks. Meaning that his is a real logger's saw, the industrial grade, not some dainty electric job meant for trimming the Japanese maple in the garden, or a consumer model available at your big-box store, designed to look like the real deal but with a chain that, for safety's sake, can't cut beans. Like mine. A genuine lumberman's rig is your father's chainsaw on juice—a 120-decimal, rabid, vibrating wolverine that any sane man holds as far from his person as he can. Loggers, in my mind, are like snake handlers, or lion tamers—dauntless, scrappy, and afraid of nothing but a mad mother bear.

A saw kicks when the tip catches the wood at an oblique angle, which is rarely a hazard to someone who knows what he's doing, but we all make mistakes. It's an occupational hazard, and only one of the many. Logging is by far the most dangerous job in America, and not all from chainsaws. The last injury Bob suffered was from a log rolling off the top of a pile and hitting his right leg, bending it in ways it shouldn't. Locally, those aren't the injuries people remember. Where people work in the woods, chainsaw misadventures are like Prussian dueling scars, and everybody's got one.

Unfortunately, all the OSHA rules and certification classes in the world can't mitigate the inherent dangers in logging. It's perilous work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it's the most dangerous job in America, with 118 deaths per one hundred thousand workers, handily beating out the number-two killer profession, commercial fishing, at 71 deaths per one hundred thousand. Pi lots and navigators come in at number three with 70 deaths per, and iron workers fourth with 58 deaths.

So, on a perfect summer day, with a clear blue sky, logging is still more dangerous than anything else you can do to draw a paycheck, including high-wire circus performer, SWAT commando, and swordswallower. Add to the risk the fact that January in the Northeast is inhumanly cold. If you're injured in the woods, immobilized in any way—ravaged by a rabid fox, pinned by a fallen tree, or cut deeply and viscerally—there's every chance that you'll freeze to death before anything else kills you.

It's so cold at this time of year that snow is as dry as dust. Normally it's 75 percent or more water, but when temperatures drop into negative numbers for an extended period, the ice in a lake, a river, or even in the frozen ground below is warmer than the air above. Ice actually sublimates moisture from the snow, wringing the water from it, and leaving the flakes so crispy that they squeal underfoot like crumpled Styrofoam. The advantage is that the logs slide easily on it, and, as always, Brush Cats take the good with the bad.

The long periods of life-threatening cold might encourage some to take a vacation. And they do, when there's time and money. Every logger has a piece of property on his to-do list that sits on the other side of a wetland, accessible only in the deepest freeze, so that's when they do it. The colder, the better. There are five advantages to working at this time of year, as enumerated by Bob:

No bugs.

With all the leaves off the deciduous trees , it's easier to see what, if anything, is worth bushwhacking.

The days are short, and you can't cut trees at night (at least you ' re not supposed to).

In case of an accident, blood flows significantly slower.

No bugs .

This particular woodlot—the earth is divided between water, woodlots, and the rest of the world—was a disaster. After years of what purists would call the natural state and loggers would call neglect, we were there to fix it without doing any further harm. Most of it was commercially useless because of the ice storm of 1997, which felled millions of board feet of softwood and left layers of busted and snapped trees on the ground. It was a Paul Bunyanesque bonfire waiting for a spark. Bob offered it up as a prime example of the unmanaged forest. For him, the forest is the monster lurking over the garden wall that must be faced, and conquered. He's a conservationist and an outdoorsman; but a woodlot is a field to be prudently harvested, while the wilderness is something else altogether. And Bob knows the difference,

An untended and overgrown forest is chaos, an impossible-to-penetrate jungle, and incomprehensible if you get turned around inside it. Without a compass, it's the easiest place on earth to get lost. There are thousands of natural markers, and they all look exactly alike. Trees in this forest are like shampoo at the supermarket—more varieties than you can count. It's a thicket of towering woody weeds, the living, growing evidence of a rampant and indiscreet ecesis—the elms, and gnarly maples, the pin cherries, a copse of high-grade hardwoods, birch, red maples, black cherries. This is a boreal forest, named for Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. So there's a slew of conifers with their waxy needles and antifreeze sap that makes them hardier and better-suited than their broad-leafed cospecies. In a spruce-moose forest, there are moose who, like the spruce, prefer it wet, and then there's the spruce, of course, and the cedar, fir, juniper, hemlock, balsam, tamarack, and lots of white pine. The whole forest grows in and around itself, every species competing for space, light, and moisture. And when they finally succeed, when they reach for the light and make it their own, down they come.

A smart logger, one with an eye to the future, looks to glean the good wood and cull the bad. He also wants to manage the harvest in such a way that the immature money trees aren't barked or snapped or just plain run over. The woods are a renewable resource only if you leave behind a healthy crop. Like everyone else, he has obligations to meet, and wants to handle business as few times as possible. It's also nice to make a few bucks at the end of the month. That, after all, is the point.

Winter in the forest is so quiet even the small noises seem to echo. The big trees—the widow-makers—crackle and snap when the wind sways them just the slightest. But there are no birds, no squirrels or chipmunks. The inhabitants of the woods are either dead, asleep, or moving very slowly. Other than moose and deer, rodents and raptors, coyotes, ermines, sparrows, fishers, and the odd, errant bobcat, there's not much happening. When it's this cold, for this long, hunting becomes secondary to staying warm, leaving little traffic in the woods.

But even when they are out and about, both predators and prey are deathly quiet—until they meet up. When a coyote snares a snowshoe hare, or a fisher's on a barn cat, the logger—who's already alone in the dark and cold forest—often hears the introduction clearly, and it always sounds like somebody strangling a baby. From my mercifully limited experience, that pained and twisted squeal off in the woods feels like the bathwater going cold around me. Other than that—and the clatter of chainsaws and heavy equipment, of course—the woods are a nice quiet place in winter.

At a granular level, under these conditions, the physical world decelerates into molasses mode. Thirty-weight motor oil gets as thick as tar; diesel fuel gels up like hair mousse. Nothing mechanical operates properly, if it runs at all. It's metal-on-metal out there—a hard, unlubricated grind that scores the valves and pistons, shortening the motor's life, as it does everyone's. Still, in the logging trade, the weather is never the worst of it. No matter how raw, cold, hot, wet, or snowy, there's plenty to keep a logger's mind off the weather.

Late in the day we waited down at the landing for the logging truck to arrive. Bob sharpened his saw on the tailgate of his truck, while Kodi gnawed a three-foot length of birch, and I ate an energy bar.

"You always have to keep your saw sharp," he said, not for nothing. "A dull saw is more dangerous than a sharp one."

"Like when Dale Earnhardt said slower is faster?" I asked. Because I don't know what the hell that meant, either.

I finished my energy bar, got my saw out of the back of the truck, and went to work at it with my round file. Bob looked closely at my angle of attack, let me sharpen a few teeth, and then said, "Not like that." He reached for the saw and smiled. "We need all your appendages attached." It's attention to detail that's kept Bob healthy and in business all these years. One small distraction can end a logger's career, or life.

Finally, mercifully , the end of the day came, at four thirty in the afternoon, and it was already dark. The light on the snow quickly faded from dappled to subfusc, and the Presidential Range of the White Mountains stood in the darkening distance, an immovable barrier that separates us from the flats, the big cities and their sprawl, from all the good jobs and most of the bad crimes. We drove past colorless swayback houses, sometimes one with a collapsing barn leaning into it, the mechanic, with his bay door open and a green bottle of beer to his lips, waving as we passed, his yellow-eyed, chained-up mutt peering from the dog house at us. We passed the used-baby-clothes store, the pizza place, the old folks' home, the church, the big square and featureless town hall, and the tiny police station with its one small blue light out front.

By the time I trudged into the bar, the sky had begun to fill with stars. "Beer thirty" often bookends the day for those who bump into one another at breakfast. These days, Nip's Breakfast is the place—it's a friendly spot, and Nip's a pistol. I first met Nip early one morning before the sun came up. Logger Bob introduced me, and Nip looked me up and down. I smiled, held out my hand, and when she didn't shake it, I took it back and put it in my pocket. She weighed all of eighty pounds and had an easy confidence—the queen in her throne room.

"You a logger?" she asked, perhaps not seriously. Probably not. I couldn't tell.

"Interested in logging," I said.

"Well," she said, stabbing her thumb and rolling her eyes at Bob, "what the hell are you doing with him?" And then she hooted and the rest of the place erupted into an egg-spraying laughter that left Logger Bob a little sullen for the rest of breakfast.

This is a good place to find a logger if you need one, although some loggers have Web sites now, and there's a registry of certified loggers kept by the Timberland Owners Association and the County Extension Ser vice. Many loggers have small ads in the yellow pages, but get most of their work by word of mouth. Others lose work by word of mouth; depends on the logger.

The timber companies employed the vast majority of loggers until the Great Depression. After that, the business model shifted to primarily private contractors and it's not likely ever to go back. The timber industry doesn't own any land in New Hampshire anymore, and doesn't care to—there's no real profit in operating a closed industrial loop anymore; everything is outsourced, and if they could somehow contract loggers from Bangalore, they probably would. They barely operate any mills here these days.

Loggers work for themselves and, for reasons that will become obvious, they prefer it that way. Most loggers work in crews of two—a feller who cuts and trims the trees and a skidder operator who hitches the logs and drags them out of the woods and down to the landing. If it's a firewood operation, as opposed to a saw log or pulp wood job, then there's usually a third cutter turning big logs into short logs, and then splitting them so that they fit into the stove.

Un like the home-cooked coziness of Nip's, the bar was plain, warm, and dark, more like a club house in somebody's basement. I was alone that day—the older loggers get, the less you see of them in the bar rooms. Bob goes straight home to catch the last run of the day up at Cannon Mountain in the winter, he goes to yoga twice a week, and when the snow is gone he rides his bike up and down the mountain roads we live on. Bob's a physical specimen in better shape than most men half his age.

I remembered one of my first visits to this place, almost twenty-five years ago. I usually went to the other bar in town, the hippie bar, which is now an office condominium. This was the redneck bar; lots of people went back and forth between the two, there were no hard rules about it, and everybody was friendly. It was winter, the air was steamy, almost tasty, and my eyeglasses immediately fogged over. I felt greasy, my hair was painted flat on my head, and my ears burned hot and, if they looked like everyone else's, were bright red. As was my nose. Sliding into a chair up against the wall across from the bar was the perfect, quiet little spot for me, like slipping beneath the ground into a cozy fallout shelter just as the bombs began to fall.

The bar was half full, and after nodding and saluting our hellos to people we didn't really know, we sat to drink flattish draft beer. I could have ordered a bottled beer, and created yet another distinction between my colleagues and myself, but I was already walking that delicate line between nuisance and fool with two out of three of these guys. I didn't want to make things worse.

They fumbled with cigarette packs and lighters as they smoked and took long pulls on their beers. We were so tired that nothing seemed interesting enough to actually discuss. No one spoke; I was quiet because my throat hurt from breathing exhaust fumes and screaming at the top of my lungs all day. They were more communicative: they grunted, shrugged, and laughed conspiratorially now and then, probably at me.

Car racing was on the TV; a guy in the corner with a ponytail and jail house tats up and down his arms played video poker. This wasn't Cheers, nobody yelled our names as we came through the door. But that isn't to say we were unknown. Six of the seven guys at the bar were loggers or sometimes-loggers. They all knew one another's finances, romances, and eccentricities, down to the ugly details. Everybody knew who was a good guy and who would steal you blind. Most guys fell somewhere in the middle.

Three of the loggers at the bar were members of a well-known, if not well-regarded, multigenerational clan of Brush Cats—all sipping beers in the shadows, and ruminating over the next day's job. Logging is usually a family business, but fewer young people than ever are entering the life in the woods. Their folks advise them against it. They say there's no future in it. And while that may not necessarily be true for everyone, it was for these guys.

The seventh drinker at the bar was a used-to-be logger who still told plenty of war stories, suffered excruciating, chronic lower-back pain, and now made his living as a real estate broker. He drank Heineken and played dice. That dude might steal you blind.

I reached into my wallet and extracted the four lottery tickets I'd bought at the gas station that morning when I met them. I happened upon the three of them gassing up a pickup with Vermont plates. One of them hoisted a couple of full jerry cans into the bed of the truck and I could see chainsaws back there. I asked him if they were going logging—he gave me a well-deserved dumb look. I asked if I could tag along. He glanced at the others, their eyebrows rose with their shoulders, and then they nodded okay.

Their eyebrows rose in the same way when they spied the tickets. I passed them around the table with proper solemnity, as if they were secret orders from the High Command. Top prize was ten thousand dollars—not a fortune by any means, but the small jackpot improved the odds. Still, we all knew we had a better chance of spontaneously combusting or marrying into the British royal family than we had of winning a nickel off one of these bad boys. But scratching a ticket is a moment of possibility that triggers the production of pleasurable neurochemicals for some people. These are the same people who buy Megabucks tickets and carry them around in their pockets as talismans that might, on either Wednesday or Saturday every week, deliver them from their current circumstances and into a dream of unearned comfort.

The loggers I sat with were realists; they harbored no illusions about breaking the bank. What they wanted was a buffer against the next economic slump, injury, or unexpected equipment repair. Still, this was a huge chunk of change for these guys, enough for a down payment on a house, or a new pickup, or maybe finally build that in-law apartment so the wife's mother can move in. Think about that: enough money to make your wife love you again.

This was a long time ago, and I was just trying to learn to fell a tree properly in the event that I ever owned any property. Which didn't seem likely at the time, but I also knew I wasn't going to be a logger, partly because I didn't want to, but mostly because I didn't have it in me. Mark finished scratching his first; he stripped it quickly with a gray and greasy right thumbnail. The curl of his lip and the shake of his head said it was a loser.

"Zip," he said, throwing the spent ticket on the table next to the nearly empty pitcher. Jim, too, was a loser, and smiled resignedly. Mike, the third guy at the table, made a big show of using a "lucky" 1969 penny—cherished because it was minted the year his father came home from the war. Mike came up empty, too. I was last and scratched mine with my buck knife, scraped it really—I think that might have been the first time I actually used it for something other than just opening and closing it, or sharpening it for no good reason.

It was a ten-dollar winner, and Mark looked at me as if I were running an ass-backward shell game on them. He grabbed the ticket from my hand and said, "Found money buys." And off he went to the bar.

"Good thing somebody's buying," Mike said. "I'm a joke until the mill settles up." Wood mills are generally known for paying bills in a timely fashion. It's the prices they pay that loggers gripe about. Mike said they'd skated past the magic thirty-day mark with him; they swore it was a mix-up, and it probably was.

Mark ordered shots, and the bartender knew what that meant. It wasn't served as you'd expect—in a shot glass, a single swig. Instead, the Jack Daniels came neat in Manhattan glasses; he knew from experience on both sides of the bar that running a 70 cc chainsaw all day, every day, gave most men a palsy powerful enough to spill good sipping whiskey from a shot glass.

Excerpted from BRUSH CAT and JACK McENANY. Copyright © 2009 by Jack McEnany. Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

This segment aired on March 31, 2011. The audio for this segment is not available.


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