Northern Wisconsin is big snow country and in the sixties, seventies and early eighties, temperatures would often drop well below zero and stay there for days. It still happens, but less frequently than it did when I was growing up and into my early twenties. I was not around in earlier years, but I'm told there were decades of warmer weather followed by decades of colder weather. I'd have to look at the records to know and compare to how things are today.
Often, we had to shovel the snow off the cabin roof or it would be too heavy and cause damage. Deep snow means that a lot more has fallen than you can measure with a yard stick because it compacts. If the snow is waist deep, you've probably endured more than 100 inches of the white stuff , and in Iron County, 180 inches of snow in a year was not uncommon.
There's a shack up there. No more than a shack and located well off the usual gravel roads. It's back in the woods about thirty feet off an old logging road. We called it "Tommy's Shack" and to be quite honest, I'm not sure if it is still there because we no longer have access to that land. But back in the seventies and eighties, we were free to hunt, hike, fish or do just about anything else we desired as long as we respected the land.
And we did respect the land and we were welcome there. Tommy was once a lumberjack, but those days were long gone when I knew him. He lived alone in his shack year around without running water or electricity. There was a tiny little spring-house in the back for water, an outhouse on the other side of the logging road near the woodshed, and another shed that looked like it might fall down at any moment.
Tommy was a big man, at least six foot two or three and maybe more than that. He was always taller than me physically, but more importantly, he was larger than life in my mind. He lived his life in one of the more difficult ways of the early twentieth century and left home at the age of twelve to do it. He became a lumberjack.
In 1917, he lied about his age and joined the army to fight in The Great War. After training, he was put on a ship to Europe and when he arrived, he was put on another ship back to the United States because his mother found out, notified the army, and they decided they didn't need a sixteen-year-old soldier dying in the trenches. Later, Tommy's brief stint earned him the status of veteran since he was honorably discharged, even though he only served about four months. Tommy went back to cutting down trees for a living.
Once, there was a tree on our cabin property that needed cutting down and my dad was afraid to cut it. If it fell wrong, it would hit the cabin. Dad had Tommy come out and look at it. Tommy spent all of thirty seconds looking up at it, took an ax and cut a notch in it by hand. He looked at that notch, and then up the tree again.
"Gonna fall right there," Tommy said and pointed. "Ain't gonna touch nuthin but a few branches on thet tree and won't hurt it none neither."
He had Dad start the chainsaw for him, (I never knew why he asked Dad to do that) stepped up to the tree and glanced up again, then started cutting. He stepped away and the tree just stood there. And stood there. It was almost imperceptible at first, but the tree moved just a hair and sort of shivered a little. Then as perfect as you please, it leaned over and fell exactly where Tommy said it would, and not one foot to either side of that.
In 1978, I was probably in the best shape of my life. I ran five miles every day, lifted weights and could do push-ups all afternoon with my girlfriend sitting on my back. Late one morning that summer, I took the family truck down the town road, past the iron gate and drove the logging road to Tommy's Shack. I had two things in mind and the first was to visit Tommy and also to deliver the molasses cookies my mother baked for him.
When I arrived, Tommy came out to meet me and then invited me in for coffee. There was always coffee on the wood burning barrel stove and it was always good. We hadn't been talking long when Tommy announced he needed to go to town. I thought he wanted a ride, so I said okay and we went outside.
I went for the truck, Tommy headed down the road and when I saw him going, I jogged after him to catch up.
"Dontcha wanna ride?" I asked.
What fer?" he answered.
"Come on, stretch your legs."
Foolish me, Tommy no more needed (or wanted) a ride than I needed all my teeth pulled. It was warm, probably in the mid seventies (warm for those days anyway) and we stretched our legs alright. Down the logging road and then instead of heading to the road, we branched off on another logging road, then another.
We were a mile into stretching our legs when I realized I was a little out of breath. Tommy had long legs and used them. We left the logging road, crossed some ridges and before long came to another logging road. Down that road we went for quite a ways, then we left the road in wide loop to travel through hardwood ridges and hemlock groves.
"Gonna stay outa sight of Ted's cabin," Tommy told me. "You ain't got permission to be here."
And that was true and it was also true I did not want to be caught on Ted's land. Ted had a reputation (likely exaggerated to the extreme) of shooting trespassers and then asking who they were afterwards.
"Town" was a fourteen mile ride by county and town roads, but only about four miles through the woods as the crow flies. At the pace Tommy set, I was fairly sure we would have beaten any crows. I was used to running on football fields or small-town streets, or walking leisurely in the woods. I was not used to walking for a destination four miles away, much of it over rough ground, and then turning around to walk back.
In "Town" we went to the small store that was also the gas station, bakery, tourist shop, liquor store, bait shop and post office. Tommy asked for his mail which consisted of one envelope―his social security check, which he promptly cashed at the counter and then bought a six-pack of Hamm's Beer. I think we were inside all of four minutes and then we were back to stretching our legs.
Back in those days, when I was just seventeen and cocky and full of myself for being in good shape and having a starting position on the varsity football team, I would not have told a soul that a 76-year-old man could out walk me, but less than two miles into our return journey, I was struggling. We finally made it back and I felt like I had played four quarters of football. Tommy put the six pack in the spring to cool and I went back to my family's cabin.
I learned something that day. Just because you're young and in good shape, doesn't mean you're in great shape. Tommy lived in the woods as he had for sixty-four years, cut and split his own firewood to stay warm in the winter, and walked eight miles for a six pack of beer. There is no substitute for experience in this world, and Tommy had all of that on me and more.
Tommy's downfall was cancer and by the time he asked for help, it was too late. My family visited him at the Veteran's Hospital in Iron Mountain, Michigan in December of 1981. Trying to be light hearted, my mother commented that at least he was warm with three meals a day.
"Rather be cuttin my own wood," Tommy grouched.
In 1982, at the age of 81 years, Tommy passed on to the Great Forest, the Great Spirit and the Great Beyond. His beliefs were different than others people's beliefs, but he included a God in those beliefs and I'm sure when the time came, he stood as tall as ever and took whatever judgment was passed to him.
A true story by MJ Logan
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