I see that you're a logger

And not just a common bum

'Cause nobody but a logger

Stirs his coffee with his thumb.

Traditional folk song

Norman Wyatt can remember how tough the logger was. "Only two kinds of people you don't mess with," he recollects. "Loggers and iron workers. They're nothing but pure dynamite."

Wyatt moved to the hardwood forests of Prince William County in 1936. Hard times back then, when his daddy bought 212 acres of virgin woods for $800 and almost all of that went to pay back taxes and fines on moonshine liquor stills the revenuers had uncovered.

A man had to make his living from the land, and that's what John (Pop) Wyatt did. He built a sawmill; he kept pigs in the bottom land by the creek. Slowly he and his boys cleared the land, and whatever they cleared they had to cut.

They brought in loggers for some of that. The men would sit around in the evenings, telling stories, and all the while they talked they'd hone.

"Time they were done you could take that ax to your face," said Wyatt, stroking a three-day growth of gray beard. "They always carried a little whet rock and every chance they got they'd be stroking that blade across the rock."

Wyatt and his three strapping sons, John, Joe and Larry, are still talking logs from what's left of the Wyatt spread and from road jobs all around bustling Prince William County. But times change and so do the tools that help define those times.

The first breakthrough came 10 or 12 years ago, when the Wyatts shelled out half a fortune for one of the early chain saws, a Mall monster with a deadman's hookup on the business end. The blade pivoted so you could saw across or straight up and down, with the "dead man" holding onto a contraption that resembled motorcycle handlebars.

That cut out the second-toughest job in logging, humping the five-foot-long, two-man crosscut saws that brought down giant oaks and hickorys, then sawed them down to fireplace size.

But it didn't turn the loggers into softies, because they still had to heft the masive splitting maul and the wedge and sledge to split the wood.

"That's the toughest job in logging," said Wyatt. "A man working all day is doing something if he can split a cord of wood. And he'll feel it tomorrow."

Now even the splitting mauls are gone from the Wyatts' cluttered outbuildings. It took Norman Wyatt 15 minutes to dig up a battered sledge and a rusty wedge to demonstrate how it once was done. Now the rage among woodsmen is the spliter, a costly machine that cuts the work, ups the output and mocks the might of the logger.

The splitter has a gasoline engine mounted on a trailer and hooked to a hydraulic unit. The engine pumps up the hydraulic rams along a steel I-beam toward a huge ax-head. Stick a round log between plunger and ax-head and you have firewood.

"A good splitter like this one can cut seven cord of hardwood in a day, with one man feeding, one splitting and one stacking," said Larry Wyatt, pointing to the machine he bought this year. "No man can keep up with that."

That's the way the Wyatts see it.All, that is, except big John, namesake of the Wyatt who settled this land and the biggest of the massive Wyatt boys.

John Wyatt is in training. He's sworn off dating and drinking and he's sleeping his eight hours a night. And sometime in the next two weeks he's going to pit his massive bulk against the smoking, belching gas-fired plunger that has taken so much of the work out of the Wyatt work.

Win or lose, he'll make his stand. And somewhere along the line he'll pull out the thermos for a belt of steaming java. He'll stir it with his thumb.