Frenchy Marcotte’s Great Cut and Run Tree Chopping Contest

 

 

Just the other day I received a letter from Frenchy Marcotte.  Henry David Marcotte, really, but I was the only one around the camps who ever call him anything but Frenchy.  He wrote to let me know that he had married and that everything was fine.  This was nice, because I had been thinking about him quite often lately and wondering how things worked out for him.

Everything I’m going to tell you about took place quite awhile ago, when I was a junior at SMU trying to earn enough money to pay for my last year’s tuition by working as a lumberjack.

When old Jeff Harris died, the Harris Paper Company owned a sizable chunk of real estate and timber rights just west of Millinocket.  All this and other holdings passed directly to young Jeff Junior, who decided that it was time to diversify.  Within a year, Harris Paper had acquired three travel agencies, a bakery, two useless islands off the coast of Maine, and a factory that made gum ball machines.  The company was also several million dollars in the red.

Junior also decided to diversify on a personal basis.  His wife of many years objected strongly to this and took a good-sized chunk of Junior’s fortune along with one-half of Harris Paper’s paper assets.  Junior, who knew a dead tree when he saw one, took off into the night and disappeared.  So did the company’s pension fund.

Frenchy and I were working as partners at camp seven when we got the word the company was up for sale and would probably be taken over by Atlantic Paper.  Atlantic was a big company, one of the biggest in the country, and the section chief told us that our jobs would be secure with Atlantic, but that there might be some trouble with the pensions.  As far as Harris Paper was concerned, we were all finished at the end of the week.

After this bit of good news, Frenchy disappeared for a couple of days, but on Friday he was there with the rest of us to pick up his check.  I felt bad for him, I could weather out some kind of settlement with Atlantic on the pension, but I knew that Frenchy, who was pushing fifty had planned on retiring at he end of this season.

“Come into town with me,” he said as we picked up our checks.  “I’ve got something I’d like to run by you.  I’ll even buy you a drink.”  So we hit the bank, cashed our last Harris checks, and ended up in this little bar just outside Millinocket where a lot of the men from the logging camps meet on paydays.  Usually we sat at the bar, but this evening Frenchy insisted on a corner table where we could talk.

Frenchy Marcotte was a man of odd contrasts.  He didn’t look his fifty years, and he could still handle any job in camp.  In his last year of high school he had won a hockey scholarship at Dartmouth.  He stayed on after he had earned his bachelor’s and took a master’s in education.  He told me once that he had never had an interest in pro hockey, and after teaching for a few years he had lost interest in that , too.  That’s when he showed up at the logging camps.

The waitress brought our drinks and flirted with Frenchy for a few minutes.  Girls liked Frenchy, “Nice kid,” he said when she left.  Then he asked me, “You got any plans right now?

I shrugged and took a long swallow of my beer.  “No, I’ll ride out the next week or so and see if Atlantic hires us on.  What are you going to do?”

“I had planned to take my retirement money in a lump sum and buy this piece of property up in Nova Scotia, near Moncton.   It’s got a good house, about fifty acres, and some really nice strands of pine.  Now, I’m about ten grand short.”

I felt guilty, don’t ask me why.  It was Junior Harris who should feel guilty, not me.  “Look, Henry, I’ve got a few bucks put away – not ten grand – but it might help.”

“Not to worry.  Thanks for the offer, but I got a way to make that money by this time next week.  I need a couple of things though.”

“Oh?” I said.  My first thought was that Frenchy might be lining up some kind of a heist, a robbery or something.  But knowing Frenchy, I dismissed that idea.   “Like what?” I asked.

“First I need a partner.  I’ve had you in mind right along.  It’s got to be somebody who can risk five hundred or a grand on a bet.”

“Fine,” I said.  “I can do that.  When and where do we start?”

“We start right here just as soon as Jack Mahoney shows up.  Just go along with me on this, and we’re in.”

Two beers later, Jack Mahoney and his friend and drinking partner, Bill Mason, walked into the bar.  Frenchy waved them to our table and ordered a round of drinks.

John Michael Mahoney was a big man, and a good worker.  He was an easy man to work with and in time would have made foreman with Harris Paper.  There was no telling what would happen now with Atlantic.  Jack was usually good-natured, but he was a little on the slow side.

Frenchy picked up his glass, raised it to the rest of us and said, “Well , here’s good-bye to the old Harris Paper Company , and to good friends.  Too bad we never settled just who the champion woodcutter of them all was.  I guess I’ll have to retire unchallenged.”

“Wait a minute, old man, ” Billy Mason said, “Me and Mahoney here can out-cut you and anybody you want to team with whether it’s with an ax, a two-man cross-cut, or a chain saw.”

“Yeah,” Mahoney chimed in, “ten years ago maybe you’d have been a threat; now you’re a has-been.”

“Has-Been!”  Frenchy exploded.  “I’ve got five hundred bucks that says I can out-cut you any day of the week, even if I am old enough to be your father.”

“Well,” said Billy, “I’d like to take you up on that, but it seems none of us are going to be doing any cutting for a while.  And you, Frenchy, you’ve probably cut your last tree.”

“We’ll see about that,” Frenchy said.  “I’ve got an idea, if your interested.”  He made little rings on the table top with the moisture from the bottom of his glass.

Finally, Mahoney broke the silence.  “Let’s hear it, man.  We’ve got nothing to do for a while.  Maybe a little contest would liven things up around here.”

“I don’t know,” Frenchy said.  “Putting my reputation on the line like this when I’m not even sure that you’re the best challenger.”

“What the hell do you mean, I’m not the best challenger,”  Mahoney roared.  Heads turned in our direction.

“Keep it a little quieter, will you John Michael.  What I’ve got in mind is world-class competition, Olympic in magnitude, but maybe not one hundred percent legal.  I think we ought to up the ante to a thousand – if you can afford it – and cut in Smiley Harris.

Jack Mahoney shook his head, smiley Harris was Junior Harris’ cousin.  No one liked him even before Junior’s escapades.  Smiley was a brawler and a braggart, but he was a good worker.  “I can afford the grand,” Mahoney said, “but  I’m telling you, Frenchy, I don’t like Smiley Harris.”

“Then let me ask you, Jack, would you rather take a grand away from somebody you like, or somebody you don’t like?”

Mahoney grinned and stuck his large hand across the table.  “You just convinced me.  You’re on.  Let’s hear the details of this Olympic event.”

Frenchy pulled out a detailed survey map and spread it open on the table.  He pointed to two parallel lines, running north and south.  “This is Nine-Mile Road, and this one here is the Woodville Road, Straight as arrows for twenty miles, two miles apart.”

“Right,” said Mahoney.  He was interested.  “That is one nice section of timber.”

“Agreed,” said Frenchy, then he continued, “We make up three teams, two men each.  We start from Nine-Mile Road and cut our way straight across. No trimming, no topping.  Where the tree falls, you start the next one within ten feet of the tip.  The first team out to the Woodville Road wins.  Each man puts up a grand.”

“That’s Harris Company land,” Mahoney said.

“Used to be” said Mason.  “I like the idea, Frenchy, but what keeps each team honest?  I trust you but I know Smiley; he’ll space those trees about a mile apart.”

“So, we make it a three-man team.  Each team gets to pick an observer to go with another team.” Frenchy had this pretty well thought out.

“Is Smiley around tonight?” I asked.  He was.

Mahoney offered the challenge.  At first Smiley was reluctant to cut timber on Harris land, but Frenchy convinced him that it was really Atlantic’s timber.  In the end, it was Smiley’s greed for that easy money that brought him into the plot.

So there we were, just at daylight on Monday morning, three teams at five-mile intervals along Nine-Mile Road.  Each team had a map, compass, chain saws, extra gas, food, water, sleeping bags, and some light camping gear.  It was a load.  The weather was warm and clear and the local TV weatherman had promised that it would hold like this for the next few days.  We were the first team dropped.  We had drawn the southernmost of the three routes.  Mahoney had drawn the middle, and Smiley Harris was on the northern route.  We had agreed to start at exactly 8:30.

Harris picked Chuck Larsen to observe our team.  We had all agreed that the observers would help with the lugging and the cooking.  They didn’t put up any money, but the observer for the  winning team would take five hundred dollars out of the winner’s share.  Obviously, Larsen wasn’t rooting for us.

I glanced at my watch when I heard the distant sound of a chain saw, 8:30 exactly.  Mahoney was off to a fast start.  “Let’s go, Frenchy,” I said, and I was about to start down the embankment.

“Wait a minute,” Frenchy said, and he pulled a thermos of coffee and three cups out of the camp sack.  “I’m no good without my morning coffee.”  We sat and drank coffee. I fidgeted, Larsen grinned, and Frenchy seemed in no hurry to get started.  I kept waiting to hear Mahoney’s saw stop, which would mean that he had felled his first tree.  It didn’t take long.

When the sound of silence finally came, Frenchy got up, put the thermos and the cups away and said, “I just wanted him to get a tree ahead of us.  Let’s go.”

After the first hour, I lost count of the trees.  It was rough going.  By noon I had worked up a pretty good sweat, but Frenchy was not setting the kind of pace that I felt we had to maintain in order to win this contest.  Instead of one man working  while the other ate, Frenchy insisted that the three of us sit down together for what he called a “civilized” lunch.  Larsen

didn’t object, and I thought he took more time than he needed getting the fire going and the stew warmed up.  Frenchy didn’t seem at all concerned.

“Henry,” I said, “I’ve been doing some mental arithmetic.”

“That’s nice,” he said.

“There’s 5,280 feet in a mile, and these trees are averaging sixty to seventy feet, plus the ten-foot margin.”

“So?’

“So, we’ve got to cut about one hundred fifty trees to get to that Woodville Road.  That’s a lot of trees.  I mean, if we were back at the logging area with grapples and cable skidders, I could cut twice that many in a day, but this – cut a tree, lug the gear; cut a tree, lug the gear….”

“I figure three days.  We should be out of the woods,” he laughed at his pun, “by Wednesday afternoon.”

“It sounds as though Mahoney is ahead of us.”  It was hard to tell.  Sound traveling that far could be deceiving, but I was positive that Mahoney’s saw was further along than our own position.  I wondered about Harris, but the distance was too great.  Mahoney, with the middle track, could probably hear both of us.  “One more thing before we go back to work, Henry,” I said.

“I wish you’d call me ‘Frenchy’ like everyone else.  ‘Henry’ is just too formal.  Doesn’t sound like a lumber jack.”

“Ok, Frenchy, but my arithmetic still bothers me.  Didn’t you say your were ten grand short on the price of that property?’

“Right, Ten grand.”

“Even if we win this contest, you’re still way short.”

“Right. Are you worried about your investment?”

“Well, yes, I am, but I’m more concerned for you.”

“Don’t worry about me, son, and don’t worry about your wager.  That thousand is money in the bank.”

We worked through the afternoon with several breaks that Frenchy insisted we take.  Then with at least an hour of daylight left, Frenchy picked a spot and set up camp.  It was frustrating.  All through those breaks, and right up until dark, Mahoney’s saw kept right on snarling at me.

We didn’t bother to set up a tent.  The night was too nice.  We just laid out our sleeping bags in a clearing.  Larsen built up the fire after we had eaten, and said, “You two wood choppers can stay up and swap stories all night if you want, but I’m going to bed.”  He fussed around for a few minutes, tossing back and forth, then we heard him snoring loudly.

Frenchy laughed, “Boy, I’ll bet his wife loves that!”

“Maybe she tries to get to sleep before him,” I said.

“You ever been married , Frenchy?” I asked.

He was quiet for a moment.  When he began to speak, his voice was low.  “Ever read that poem by Frost, ‘Paul’s Wife’?  Paul’s wife was a spirit he cut loose from the heart of a tree.  She couldn’t survive in the world of men.  My wife was like that, half Indian, half Scott.  She was as pretty as a memory and as fragile as a China cup.  She died in childbirth a year after we were married.  We lost the baby, too.  That’s when I came North again to go logging.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t know.”

“Nobody knows.  As I said, that was a long time ago.”

We sat and talked for an hour or so, and I began to realize that I wouldn’t be seeing Frenchy after this.  These last few days would mark the end of our friendship.  I vowed to myself that we would win this contest, and Frenchy was going to get my share of the winnings no matter how much he protested.

I doubled my effort on the following day: cut a tree, lug the gear; cut a tree, sharpen the saw….  Unfortunately, the more I tried to hurry, the more Frenchy insisted that we slow down the pace.  “Larsen and I don’t want to have to carry you out of here, you know.  One accident, and we’re out of this contest.”

We got a lucky break in the afternoon, when we hit a fifty-yard stretch of swamp.  The rule was that if you came across a clearing or a swamp, you sighted along the last tree cut, and picked up the first tree along that line on the other side of the clearing.  Larsen pointed out the tree he wanted us to take, and we hauled the equipment around the bog.

We spent no time in conversation that evening.  Frenchy broke out a pint of bourbon, and after we had each taken a good-sized belt, I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep instantly.

Wednesday morning started off the same as the mornings before.  Frenchy insisted on scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast.  I could picture every bear within two hundred miles sniffing the wind and zeroing in on us.

After we had eaten, we started to work.  I could hear Mahoney’s saws grinding into my brain like a headache.  They were definitely ahead of us.

A little before noon, I heard a helicopter.  I looked up and saw a small, two-man chopper, circling only a few feet above the treetops.  It had the Atlantic Company’s logo on the side.  “Oh, oh! We’re in trouble now,” I thought to myself.  I thought of trying to hide, but I realized that we were standing at the end of a line of fallen trees that pointed right to me and Frenchy like an Indian’s arrow.  As the copter hovered over us, Frenchy jumped out into a clear space ands began waving.  When they caught sight of him , the pilot dipped the copter in a little bow, while the man in the passenger’s seat made the “a-OK” sign with his thumb and forefinger.  Then they were zipping along, out of sight, in the general direction of Millinocket.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“Oh, just a friend of mine wanting to make sure that I was all right.”

The answer didn’t satisfy me, but I wanted to go back to work.  When the popping sound of the helicopter had vanished, I suddenly realized how quiet it was – no birds, no breeze in the pines, no….chain saw!  Mahoney was out.  He had won.

“Come on, son, let’s finish it up,” Frenchy said.

An hour later the three of us were sitting on the side of the Woodville Road.  Larsen looked concerned.  He knew that Frenchy and I were out of the race, but he must have been wondering how Harris’ team had done.  Frenchy had this funny, little, secret smile on his face that I couldn’t figure out.  I felt miserable.

Charlie Haskell picked us up.  “Who won?” Larsen yelled at him even before the pickup had stopped.

“You didn’t, Frenchy,” Haskell said.  “You’re the last ones out.”

“Harris?  Did Harris win?”  Larsen was begging for the results.

“Nope,” Charlie said.  Larsen’s face sagged.  “Jack Mahoney’s down at the tavern counting his money.  You drop on by, and he’ll buy drinks for the house.”

Instead, Frenchy had Charlie drop us at the camp.  I had left my car there next to his pickup and trailer.  Frenchy put his arm around my shoulder and walked me toward his truck.  “Don’t look so sand, young fellow,” he said.  “Look at it as a very nice camping trip.  Your last days with old Henry David Marcotte.  I wanted Mahoney to win that contest.  Never did much like Smiley Harris myself, and I didn’t feel like working up a sweat for a couple of lousy bucks.”  He reached into his wallet and began counting hundred-dollar bills into my hand.  “Here’s the thousand you put up, and the two thousand you would have won if I were a younger man who could have kept up to your pace.”

“Wait a minute, Frenchy,” I said.  I was astonished.  “Where did you get all this money?”

“This? Oh, well, I took a ride over to Atlantic last week and told them all about that beautiful timber they were getting, and they offered me twenty thousand dollars if I could get three crews and lay out three lines, five miles apart, between those two roads.  They gave me ten up front, and I get ten more now that we’re finished.”

With that, He shook my hand, got into his truck and pulled slowly out onto the road.  He winked at me and said, “See you sometime, maybe.  Right now I’ve got to pick up that second ten grand.”

That was the last any of us saw of Frenchy Marcotte.

 

Free-lance writer Raymond J. Harding lives in Pepperell, MA.

Published in the Sunday Standard Times Magazine  Sept. 28, 1986

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(copyright rdharding/Off the Beaten Path Blog).

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