Of Time and the Gyppo

The look and feel of the wood got to me. Funny how that works, how a rough-sawn pecky cedar 1×12 in your hands can conjure up memories, put you for a moment right back where you were fifteen years and more years ago. I paused for a moment, holding the board but awash in the ghost smells of sawdust, gasoline, motor oil, rusting iron and damp cotton Lone Star work gloves. My sixteen-year-old son and my nephew, eighteen, stood looking at me.

“This here’s some historical wood,” I told them. The boys looked puzzled. It was just a pile of old wood to them—a mess they’d rather not be cleaning up. The gray boards lay on the ground, my pickup truck backed up to them. Why this pause, this staring at an old board?

“This is Clason lumber,” I tried to explain, “You know Jim Clason. Well, me and his grandpa, ol’ Stewart, used to cut this stuff.” Stewart Clason was the first logger in the South Umpqua valley to hire me when I arrived from Los Angeles without a clue as to what it meant to work in the woods.

We were in Brian’s back yard, over in Tortilla Flats, a Farm Home Administration low-income housing tract that didn’t exist back when Brian and I first went to work for the Old Man. The fence posts had finally rotted and the fence had blown down, lain there all summer and now it was September, time to haul it off before the rains came and the wood got too wet for kindling and the ground too damp to drive across the lawn.

“Damn, that was a long time ago,” I added, hoping they’d maybe understand a little of what it meant to be handling wood that had been logged and hauled and milled by a gyppo operator who’d died in the woods back before these two boys reached puberty. If they understood, it was only a very little and there wasn’t much use in trying to explain it.

“Well, what the hell you guys waiting for? You stand around spacing-out, making me wait. Come on, let’s get this show rolling—dime holding up a dollar boys.” I tossed the board into the back of the truck, “Stack ’em neat now.”

Gyppo isn’t a word you’ll find in most dictionaries, nor one you hear often in cities. Like many colloquialisms, it started out as a bit of derisive slang, meaning a logging or mill boss who was likely to “gyp” his employees and creditors–someone who operates on a shoestring budget, a fly-by-night operator, a gypsy. Over the years though, the connotation has shifted from the instability and unreliability of small-time operators to the virtues a gyppo needs in order to survive—courage, self-reliance, common sense, hard work, the ability to improvise and an almost pathological optimism.

The woods were once filled with these wily independents, each as “various-minded” and “ready at need” as Odysseus in a hard hat. In the years immediately after World War II, gyppos were the rule in Southern Oregon rather than the exception. Demand for wood was high and the equipment wasn’t expensive. Anyone with a ‘dozer and a chainsaw or a portable mill and a little luck could set up and make a living–maybe even a fortune.

It was, by all accounts, a too-brief golden age, cut short by periodic housing slumps and a technological productivity “arms race.” The big outfits drove their undercapitalized competitors out of business by harvesting ever larger amounts of timber increasingly faster and cheaper with increasingly sophisticated (and increasingly expensive) equipment.

The title has grown respectable in direct proportion to the increasing rarity of genuine gyppos. I’ve heard men with scores of employees and millions of dollars invested in yarders, bulldozers and trucks proudly describe themselves as humble gyppos. Most of them have been the sons or grandsons of gyppos, men who’ve inherited some of the traditional mindset though not the precarious existence. Certainly, none of them would trade their sweetheart corporate deals and well-financed shows for the old man’s hardscrabble assets.

Working for Stewart was, I realize now, very like working in a living history museum. Everything he had was obsolete and either built by his own hands out of old scraps and pieces of discarded equipment or modified almost beyond recognition. His bulldozer, a little gasoline engined 1931 McCormick-Deering, had a hand-crank starter that required two men to turn it over on cold mornings and only one if the weather was warm. A 1940 Dodge deuce-and-a-half ton truck with a homemade “A” frame boom served as his yarder, skidder and log loader. A relatively modern 1958 Ford flat-bed truck with bunks cobbled from scrap steel hauled the necessarily short logs to the mill.

The heart of S.R. Clason Lumber Company was his mill, one of those old circular saw and carriage contraptions of the sort that turn-of-the-century melodrama villains were fond of tying hapless maidens to. Driven by a quirky art-deco Case industrial engine and an improbable arrangement of belts, pulleys and chains, it wasted an incredible amount of wood. With its too-wide saw kerf, he lost a one-inch board in sawdust for every three rough-cut boards it produced. The wonder was that we produced any lumber at all.

Breaking down was more than just likely–it was a way of life. An efficiency expert hired to analyze S.R. Clason Lumber Company would have tossed away his time/motion study clipboard by lunch on a typical day. In such a case, the Old Man would have offered him a cup of coffee from his thermos and said with a grin, “You know, I believe you’re right, son. It can’t be done. Why, if a man had any sense, he’d give it all up and get him a real job. But then, I never had much sense.”

Actually, there was a certain method to his madness. In theory, at least, what he lost in efficiency was made up by what’s known in business circles as “low-overhead.” The unreliable relics on which his livelihood depended required constant tinkering but no bank loan payments. The constant down-time cut into his profits, but then, the need for profit was smaller than usual. You can get by on very little as long as you don’t need much and, more importantly, know how to tell the difference between your needs and your wants.

There is also something to be said for being responsible for your own livelihood, hardscrabble as that living may be. What he did every day wasn’t really an economic enterprise but rather, an art form. Any fool with no talent and a hundred million dollars can be efficient. But doing good work on a shoestring budget requires both of Thomas Edison’s basic elements of genius–perspiration and inspiration–in spades. For forty years the Old Man did the impossible every day. It was complex, challenging and thoroughly satisfying work. It was also utterly human and humane.

People, it has been demonstrated, just aren’t efficient. At best, we can maintain about sixty-percent efficiency at work–thirty-six of every sixty minutes per working hour earning our pay. (The other twenty-four minutes we spend maintaining our sanity.) This is why corporations (which are themselves beings as artificial and nonhuman as any robot) are so fond of machinery and so ready to “outplace” workers, replacing them with laser scanners, computers and hydraulic cylinders. Ever increasing productivity looks great on a spreadsheet or tucked into a quarterly report, though it’s hell for people, families, communities and the land.

What people do best is the impossible, creatively balancing a wide range of conflicting concerns, desires and obstacles to achieve a complex set of goals. When a machine encounters a paradox it ceases to function; people just shrug, laugh and carry on. Researchers in artificial intelligence (an obvious oxymoron) strive to teach a machine to play a decent game of chess. Personally, I’d be more impressed if they could teach one to handle something truly difficult like surviving puberty or divorce.

It is a rare thing in the timber industry of the 1990’s for a man and an employee or two to fall, log, haul, mill and sell a particular stick of wood. It would be foolhardy to compete with the specialized links that form an efficient chain in the process. Rare now too are the celebrated virtues of the gyppo, though fifty years ago they were unremarkable, as unnoticed as, say, old growth forest, clean water and healthy salmon runs.

Time, we say, is money, meaning that spending the least time earning the most money is a standard to measure our success. Ultimately, by this logic, the highest success is to spend no time at all doing useful work and to receive more than we could possibly spend for doing so. Only on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

To the productivity expert, pursuing the corporate dream (if “an agreed upon legal fiction” can be said to dream) of one hundred percent efficient workers, there is never enough time. Squeezing one more marketable unit out of a day only leads to efforts to increase that amount, however fractionally. The hallmark of artists is that they always have plenty of time.

Stewart Clason had time, time to fix whatever was broken at the moment, time to sit talking with an old friend who’d dropped by, time to wait for the weather to cooperate, time for a cat nap every day after lunch, and, always, plenty of time to do a job right.

Doing a good job cost him plenty over the years but he stubbornly insisted on it. I’d hate to characterize him as an idealist, but he did everything conscientiously and derived a lot of pride from that. He was, I think, wise enough to understand that pride was about all his show ran on. Taking a few extra minutes to ensure that he did as little damage as possible to the land came as naturally to him as ensuring his own safety. Time, he had to spare, and so losing a few hours in the course of a job was cheaper, in the long run, than losing his self-respect.

What, in the end, made a quaint anachronism out of the Old Man was that he kept doing the same supremely human thing, practicing an art, while all around him logging and milling steadily shifted away from being a unique art form to just another increasingly efficient industrial process.

“It’s a trade-off,” he told me one unexpectedly balmy January day. “Sure, I could make big money. Work as a millwright maybe, or a supervisor for some big outfit somewheres. But then, I wouldn’t have time to sit here drinking coffee and listening to them frogs singing about spring. You’ve either got the time or the money, but you never have both.”

His time is gone now. I guess that’s what made me pause for a moment to consider the history of an old rough-cut cedar board that was now useless except to light a hearth fire in my home.

In his time the Old Man survived the Great Depression, combat in Europe, a half-dozen severe housing slumps, a hard-fought, violent (and futile) timber faller’s strike and the daily risk of death or crippling injury. Using his wits, his muscles and his integrity he supported a wife and four children, taught his two sons the trade he’d learned from his father and grandfather and made himself useful to everyone around him in uncountable, often charitable, ways.

He survived long enough to play with his grandchildren and to become an anachronism. He lived to see his years of struggling against corporate perfidy ignored by a society in which the proud title of logger had become a term of disdain, while those very same corporations used his and his fellow gyppos’ lives as an example of what they hoped to preserve by cutting too much timber much too quickly. With old age, he found himself in a world which didn’t have a place for him and his kind. And yet, this unkind cut too he accepted philosophically, fully aware of the injustice and ornery as ever. He’d never expected much, never wanted much and never had a whole lot to show for his labors. Nevertheless, he kept working anyway.

We talked of death one day, on a landing up on Tater Hill where we were salvaging cull logs left behind on a clearcut. He’d been down in the hole all morning, bucking logs and setting chokers while I ran the jury-rigged old Dodge that served as our yarder and skidder. A half-hour shy of noon, a heavier than usual log hung itself up against a stump, the engine slowed and then stalled. Stewart hand-signaled “slack line” and then “shut-down” drawing a knife-finger across his throat and trudged up to the landing with his chainsaw. “Well, the mule quit, on us” he said, “must be dinner time.”

We sat in the shade on the edge of the cut, ate our lunch and talked “of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings” as we did every day. I told a story about a clumsy roofer I’d worked with in New Mexico, who’d hollered “Shit!” as he fell from the edge of a roof, while I shingled unperturbed on the opposite side of the gable thinking he’d hit his thumb again with his hammer.

The Old Man sat stretched out with his back against a tree trunk preparing for a nap. Years of familiarity with sudden violent death, in combat and at work, had reconciled him to the notion that one could be alive one moment and a lifeless mess the next. He confessed though, a deep fear of dying slowly, lingering on in a living death from cancer as many of his relatives and friends had done.

“When I go,” he allowed, “I want it to be just like this, stretched out in the woods somewhere on a nice day with my eyes closed.”

In the end, six years later, he died of a heart attack while fishing for trout at Crane Prairie reservoir, alive and joking one moment and stretched out on the dock with his eyes closed the next.

History: Oregon Quarterly, Eugene OR, Summer 1996; Intricate Homeland, Collected Writings from the Klamath Siskiyou, Headwaters Press, Ashland OR, 2000; Best Essays Northwest, University of Oregon Press, Eugene OR, 2003


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