"He was resting his chin on the bark, in no apparent pain. "Man oh man, she really came barreling after me, didn't she?' He laughed softly, strangely calm . . ." - Ken Kessey."Sometimes a Greet Notion."
The big hemlock tree that clubbed Maine logger Bruce Kecker - breaking his back and vastly reducing his expectations in lile - didn't barrell after him.
It caught him from behind, and he never heard it coming. He and his partner. David Crane, had been working in timber about 35 miles from Cherryfield when Decker felled the hemlock.
It hung up, leaning against several hardwood trees.Decker moved up a bank and cut a spruce. It was while he was bent over cutting limbs off that tree that the hemlock suddenly finished its fall.
The injured Decker crawled up a path to the logging road. He couldn't stand, so he knelt on all fours, at the edge of consciousness, until a National Guard helicopter arrived more than an hour later.
Decker had a crushed fifth vertebra, two cracked ribs, a gashed forehead and blood in a lung. The accident occurred Aug. 15. Last week he was released from the hospital.
At 27, his future is uncertain. At home in the small trailer he shares with his wife and daughter, he worries about the trailer payment that is three weeks overdue and wonders why the Workmen's Compensation check hasn't arrived. To make ends meet, his wife has gone to work full time shucking clams for her father, who runs a seafood business.
Decker says the doctor has told him he may never be able to pick up a heavy object again, and he can't bend over. Still, he feels lucky in some respects, "because I'm out of the woods."
Cutting timber to feed the nation's mounting need for paper and lumber is amoung the most hazardous occupations. And the labor system that prevails seems to promote some unsafe practices. Maine woodcutters are paid piece-work wages, like vegetable or fruit pickers, so many of them take unsafe shortcuts and work at an exhausting pace to increase their output.
Spokesmen for the giant pulp and paper companies which buy the wood say that the system promotes efficiency and enables skilled workers to earn from $12,000 to $15,000 a year.
Hourly wages wouldn't work in logging, says the Dt. Regis paper Co." public affairs manager, John T. Gould Jr. "What a man can make depends on how he works. When you put a man in remote areas of the Maine woods you can't exercise supervision over him the same way you can when he is working at the plant."
Whatever the merits of piece work, though, the record shows that logging is dangerous. In Maine, there were an estimated 1,127 injuries and illnesses in logging camps for 4,079 workers in 1975. State officials recorded 14 fatalities. Nationwide, the accident and death rate was 26.1 per cent for the 15,700 loggers, only slightly below the 30.59 per cent rate for miners.
Most loggers such is Decker get no formal instruction in their work from the paper companies, so they learn on the job, sometimes the hard way.
One young Aurora, Maine, woodsman said he turned truck driver after suffering a broken foot from a fall off a fallen tree trunk, followed by a 14 stitch cut from a chain saw in the same foot a few days after returning to duty. "I figured the next one would chop it off," he said.
Injuries in logging tend to be serious. The average logging accident results in 144 lost days of work - the longest average period for any industry except underground coal mining.
Even in the days when logging in Maine was carried on by two'man crews with a bucksaw to cut trees and a horse to pull them out of the woods, logging was dangerous, but the introduction of chair saws and heavy machinery into the woods, along with the high pressure of modern timber operations, appears to have increased the risks.
Working in timber a few miles from Aurora, Maine, last week, Elbridge Chick of Great Bond lnd a rubber-tired vehicle called a skidder to loose a giant birch tree wedged against its own stump. Earlier in the day, a log had fallen on Chick's hand, which looked swollen and red.
The mishap did not slow him down, as he hooked choker chains around the fallen birch tree. The skidder cables hissed and the front wheels of the vehicle rose off the ground as Chick used the skidder to maneuver the birch. Finally, the tree gave way with a lurch and a flurry of flying chips, and Chick pulled it to the nearby logging road.
It was all in a day's work, but the snapping cables, the crash of falling trees and the whining whir of chain saws left no doubt about the hazardous nature of the work.
At one point, Chick walked along the trunk of the fallen birch tree with a chain saw, cutting limbs - a practice that is unsafe but universal.
Chick said he earned $9,000 last year.
Logging tends to run in families in Maine, and so do the accidents, injuries and illnesses. Chick's older brother-in-law was at home in Great pond last week. Several years ago he began to suffer from something he called "wood poisoning," a powerful allergy to the oils and gases in wood that is said to afflict many lifelong loggers.
According to Jonathan Falk, an economist and expert on Maine logging conditions, several occupational diseases are caused by logging.
Some suffer from "Reynaud's disease" or "white fingers"--a circulatory ailment in the hands thought to be connected with prolonged use of vibrating chain saws. Newer chain saws have handles insulated against vibration, which may eliminate this problem, according to Falk.
Decker was not the first in his family to be injured logging. He says his father has cut a knee eight times with a chain saw and his brother has lost a finger.
"I saw a man where I was working cut himself up with a chain saw real bad," said Decker. "The saw just flared up on him and cut his throat and neck. It took 65 stitches to sew him up."
Until recently, many Maine loggers were ineligible for Workmen's Compensation. Private contractors who empolyed crews of four men or less were exempt from obtaining coverage for the workers, but a new law spread the coverage requirement down to empliyers with only a single employee.
Traditionally, the independent-spirited maine woodsmen have been willing to risk dangers and low pay for the free life that logging permitted. Woodsmen felt they could work when they pleased, in the fresh air and away from the strict routine and supervision of factories and offices.
But in many cases this former independence is giving way to heavy debts to banks and equipment companies, as woodsmen purchase power saws, hydraulic loaders, trucks and skidders. A skidder costs about $30,000, and payments run as much as $800 a month.With such financial obligations, woodsmen say, the old relaxed pace is disappearing.
Decker's logging companion, David Crane, said he has had equipment repossessed even after a long stint of working as much as 100 hours a week.
That may be one reason why paper companies and independent woodcutting contractors say they have trouble getting Americans to work in the woods, and why nearly half the logging force in Maine this summer is composed of Canadians.
Many younger woodsmen appear to agree with a logger who quit recently to drive trucks:
"A lot of young men go into the woods, but not many stay. You shouldn't have to beat your brains out for money like that."