READING, Vt. — The red oak had fallen clean, and it was perfect. With a trunk straight and wide, not a single woodpecker’s dent marring its ridges or rings, there was money to be made on it.
But time is money, too, and Dave Goodhouse was losing both as the woody tonnage slipped once, then twice, through the aged iron claw of his log-hauling machine, a beast he’d already thrown plenty of good money after. Thousands for a new steering system, many more to replace the hydraulic pump. And still the pines and ash and oaks kept slipping away.
Since he was 19, he’d made his living in the woods, felling trees that produced paper, built houses, made baseball bats. Maybe one that had sent a ball out of Fenway on some starlit night. There was pride in producing America’s raw materials, contributing to the nation’s prosperity. With a chain saw, he could be his own man.
And then the world went and changed around him. Wood from Brazil, Canada, and Russia now competed with his. To keep up, he needed expensive, ornery machines, like the one he was trying and failing to maneuver. They called it a forwarder, but it seemed more and more to go nowhere but backward. On this day, the machine heaved and then, gallingly, shuddered as it dropped the wood again from its claws.
Technology and global trade had remade his industry, and he’d adapted, but only by sinking deeper and deeper into the burden of debt. He was already on the hook for $1.2 million for his trucks and heavy equipment. Bank loan payments claimed some $15,000 every month — 40 percent of what he brought in. The forwarder needed replacing. Chances were that it would break down soon, and then sit idle, losing him thousands while his competitors scooped up his work. But at $400,000, a new one would deepen his debt. He’d have to cut more wood to make the bank payments. There were days he couldn’t get his workers off Facebook, younger guys who went out to lunch at Downers Corner. He ate a Greek yogurt in the cab. That was a lunch.
Out there, the news blared of people demanding a stop to forces displacing what once had been. Immigrants. China. Muslims. People who wanted to use bathrooms intended for a gender they hadn’t been born to.
Here in central Vermont, displacement looked like this: A 53-year-old sweating it out in an ailing forwarder, trying to make a red oak hold fast.
His wife said he needed to be harder on his workers. Lay down the law of the forest. But he hadn’t gone into logging to browbeat a crew. He didn’t have the makeup to furrow his brow for long enough, besides. He smiled widely, openly, and without guile, like a Labrador.
He thought about bailing on logging, forgetting its headaches. He had an offer to manage a sprawling farm owned by an out-of-towner. Haying, mowing. Making a farm look like a farm while the owner was busy making money on State Street or Wall Street. And then who would Dave Goodhouse be? A yes man.
No, he’d try once more to heave the red oak, his heart racing under the stress of trying to figure out where he fit into a landscape he no longer recognized.
. . .
Here was what he knew. The woods on a morning like this one were drenched in green. From its hollows, deer ventured strangely close to the racket he made. Perhaps they thought they were safer near him. He’d once seen a coyote feasting on a doe carcass. It was bloody and grim, but also remarkable. He was privy to a wild theater. Were the woods an addiction? Possibly. There were worse.
“Hiya,” he called to a long-haired guy.
The man had hired him to clear a patch of pines, beech, and maple from 250 acres he’d inherited from a long-ailing aunt. The man drove a beater, seemed to be home more than not, and apparently needed the money from the trees to pay the property taxes. Everyone had challenges. Goodhouse had his. He’d always assumed he could overcome them with hard work. His father had a saying, and he’d written it on poster board and tacked it to the back wall in his shop: “The secret to success is to do common things uncommonly well.”
He’d had been 9 when he cut his first tree. School hadn’t been for him, trying and failing to concentrate. But the notch he made in the pine had been just right, and then he’d axed another and another and the tree fell the right way. It was like a game, seeing how many trees he could land. He piled the logs atop one another and soon a cabin stood as proof of something he did well.
He’d rushed headlong into the industry a decade later, buying a chain saw and skidder with money earned from milking cows and pumping gas at the Woodstock Sunoco. But he was young and his partner was too, and they failed. He retreated, working days for an old-line logger and checking IDs by night at a club down in Proctorsville owned by an engineer from Long Island who’d settled his family in the old grist mill property.
The man’s daughter, Susan, a brunette Colby-Sawyer College graduate, bartended. She took a liking to the tall, lean bouncer who invited her to go with him to see logging sites. The work was different from what she knew, all brawn and grit. She liked it, and Dave Goodhouse was kind and decent. They married in 1987.
To be young and devoted to logging meant driving by a saw shop, turning around, parking, and dipping inside to handle this chain saw and that one, pulling their starter ropes, getting a feel for their muscle and power. It meant getting the Husqvarna catalog and enjoying a buzz when there was a new model. The 281, the 288, the 272, the 372, then motoring down to Springfield, Mass., to see the latest and greatest for yourself at the Northeastern Loggers’ Expo. It meant sucking in your breath in 1989, signing bank documents, and trying once again to make a go of it on your own.
A good day cut 100 trees. The crash of each was spectacular, loud and calamitous, and then the quiet as a wash of sunlight rushed into the breached space, like the roof lifted. Branches snagged him, roots tripped him. The chain saw managed the rest of the damage. “Gravity never sleeps,” he warned the guys he hired as the business grew. Actuarial tables for logging were terrifying. He backed them up. He’d crushed his shoulder blade, cracked six ribs, lost teeth, broken his neck and pelvis. He convalesced and made his way back to the woods to take his chances and once more chase the dream with a chain saw.
The big machines he had now were safer. They were faster. But they were also places of stillness, sealed off from the woods, traps for his mind. In the cab, he worried over bank payments, the next job, the next breakdown, the fallen price of pulp, the rising cost of insurance, the week he’d had last week when he took in just $3,459.75 and had written “ouch?!!” in blue ball-point ink in the wire-bound notebook he used to track his finances.
“Too much time to think,” he said as he shifted the forwarder into gear to rumble into the woods to where his guys had begun cutting. He thought about flicking the radio to 105.3’s Cat Country. The DJ was always on a tear about something. Drug testing welfare recipients. Immigrants. Heroin addicts. Anger wasn’t Goodhouse’s style, this whipping fury. He held tight to frustration, waiting for the left side of his head to stop throbbing. There were times, though. A few days earlier, the third axle on the log truck broke, gumming up the whole operation, and he’d thrown a wrench and sworn and gotten so upset he couldn’t think.
At the end of this day, another moment. He was at his desk behind the workshop, listening to voicemails on a cellphone that got no reception in the woods, when Matt, one of his young workers, popped his head in the office. “Chain saw bar broke,” he said, holding up mangled metal.
He’d fixed the thing earlier that day. He couldn’t stop the bleeding. Every day, more money gone. Every day harder to earn back. He kept a magazine clipping in his desk. It laid out the industry’s woes: Fuel costs had risen 400 percent in the last two decades, labor 67 percent, equipment 112 percent, trucking 41 percent. Meanwhile, money earned from cut wood had risen just 37.5 percent. The clipping, not a year old, was frayed and worn, like he kept it close, a charm to remind him bad luck wasn’t his alone.
Now, he laughed, as if in momentary defiance. “There’s another fifty bucks gone.”
As Matt shrugged and walked off, unburdened, Goodhouse’s smile faded to a blank stare and a thought beat around his head: I’m the dummy who can’t give it up.
. . .
At 6:59 p.m., a few weeks later, Goodhouse walked into the kitchen of his antique Cape in the grassy hills outside Reading looking stunned. It had been a warm day — not off the charts, in the 80s – but in the forwarder, sitting over the engine, its diesel pulsing, it might as well have been a furnace. He lifted the newspaper and fanned his mottled face, iced a glass of wine, then slumped into a chair so that his John Deere suspenders went slack over his stomach.
It was just him and Susan. His daughter was somewhere in Boston, doing Pilates or meeting up with friends or doing whatever a 27-year-old office manager of a start-up did on a Tuesday night. His 25-year-old son, David, would be home later. He was out riding dirtbikes with friends.
He hadn’t had lunch, and he wasn’t really hungry, but Susan had fried sausages and onions and so he ate, and afterward, while she washed dishes, he sat thumbing through the full-page spreads in Timber Harvesting magazine. Big, yellow machines. Machines that would make you money. Revolutionize your operation. He flipped and flipped. Near the back of the magazine, he stopped on a logging company profile. He tapped at a photo of the owners, Frank Sr. and Frank Jr.
“All the successful companies are father-son,” he murmured.
He and Susan had brought their newborn son home on Valentine’s Day 1991. Dave had named the boy after himself, and a nickname attached: D2. His son had been a snuggler as a child, always sneaking into bed with him and Susan, wanting to be close. In high school, he’d written an essay called “Future.” Goodhouse kept a printed copy of it in his desk in the workshop office. “I mostly want to be a logger so I can run the machinery,” his son had written. “Although the future may not be very clear, I am pretty sure I want to do what my dad does.”
D2 worked with him in the woods for three years after high school. At the father’s instigation, the pair started days at 2 a.m., as if not a moment should be wasted now that they had a partnership. And then, one day, his son quit. “I’ve watched you suffer and I don’t want to suffer like that,” Goodhouse recalls his son telling him.
His son bought four riding mowers and hired some guys to cut grass with him. He saved enough money to buy two trucks, a Jetta sedan, and two boats, and after a few years it was clear he wasn’t coming back.
Goodhouse still ached over it. He couldn’t shake the sadness. It was a sadness that went back to his own beginnings.
“I got no history,” was the way he thought of it. When he was days old, he’d been left in the rear pew of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bennington, his cries heard shortly after 7 p.m. by a praying parishioner. Dirt and twigs clung to the blanket of the blue-eyed 7½-pound baby, and speculation, according to an account in the Bennington Banner, was that he had been delivered in the nearby woods.
Nuns raised him for six months, and then a nice couple from Woodstock adopted him. His father was college-educated, an extension agent for the University of Vermont. Goodhouse loved the man, but there was a gap between the bookish father and the restless son.
In his own son, Goodhouse thought he had found alignment, someone who shared his values and rooted him in the world. And then, it fell away. He tried to understand. Susan explained their son was happy. Making money. A success. He nodded at the obvious truth. And he was proud of his son. But at moments, his own disappointment erupted in irritable asides: What did lawn-mowing produce?
Susan wiped the counters with a rag, rubbing in circular motions.
She kept books for her husband and son and managed a business herself, renting a small house they owned up the hill. She had no problem evicting people who didn’t pay, gently but firmly.
“You know Matt left at 2?” she asked her husband.
He shook his head. Matt, one of his guys, had begged off logging for the day, saying it would be too hot to work in the trucks. Dave had sent him to cut firewood in the lot next to their house.
“He clocked out at 3,” he said.
“He left at 2,” Susan said firmly.
“Oh well,” he said.
She said no more. She would never say so, but she knew what he was thinking. His son could have plugged the hole. He would’ve fired a guy who showed up late to work.
Susan’s phone chirped. It was their son. He’d sent a Snapchat. Dirtbike riding had given way to other activities. An image showed fireworks exploding in the night sky.
. . .
The Caterpillar salesman wore a madras shirt and khakis and carried an iPad. His face was pleasant and fixed with a dim smile as he clicked photos of Goodhouse’s ailing machinery.
The forwarder had 11,000 hours on it. It was still dropping logs, its grapple nearly done for. Goodhouse folded his arms, getting nervous.
“When I think I have it bad, I just think of you, having to sell me stuff,” he said, filling the quiet.
The salesman wasn’t a hard-sell guy. “It could be worse,” he answered.
The plan was for the salesman to take the photos back to the office. He’d have numbers soon, maybe next week. The assessed value of the forwarder would be good or bad, a way up or maybe out.
Goodhouse hiked up his suspenders and looked to the salesman, suddenly expectant, as though the salesman might have answers for him, something more than just a trade-in quote.
“I lie awake at night thinking about what to do,” he pressed. “The markets are scary.”
“Well, the log market is really strong,” the salesman offered.
It was true. Board wood for houses and furniture was on the up. But pulp prices were down. A glut of cheap, domestic natural gas was killing the market. Pellet plants in Maine had closed. And it was all going to flip-flop again, these crazy markets dictated by countless invisible hands, upsetting the status quo.
He had only to look down his own road to be reminded of outside disruptive forces. A retired Boston-area ophthalmologist had moved into a red Cape around the corner from the depot where he kept his logging equipment. A few years back, she complained about the noise he made in the depot. He balked. She sued. He spent thousands on legal fees and, in the end, agreed to her terms: No noise until 7 a.m. in the spring, 8 a.m. the rest of the year.
The agreement meant forfeiting valuable working hours and, perhaps, some part of himself. “Big fancy eye doctor from Boston came up and told us what she was going to do and she was shocked her position in life didn’t impress us,” he says in one breath, and then, “If you don’t forgive and forget, it’ll kill you.”
The salesman pivoted to walk to his truck.
“You’ll get me the quote?” Goodhouse called after him.
“I try to work with people best I can.” The salesman seemed to wince. He’d been a logger, too. He’d gotten out.
. . .
On a Saturday afternoon, Goodhouse dressed in a short sleeved button-down and Carhartt jeans, and he and his wife drove over to St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic church in Windsor.
He felt funny saying so — loggers were supposed to be tough guys — but he liked going to church: “Even if you don’t believe in God, it makes you responsible for your actions. Going to church makes you think.”
A breeze circulated in the chapel, and the priest’s green robes billowed behind him as he stepped to the pulpit. “Oh God from whom all good things come.”
Goodhouse leaned back in the pew. He shut his eyes to listen to the priest’s homily. He brought the priest firewood. The priest was a do-it-yourself sort. He liked to cut and split it himself. Goodhouse respected the priest for it.
“Our God is the God of mercy.”
One of the readings had been from First Kings, in which Elijah called out to God three times asking for mercy for a widow’s dying son. God heard him and breathed life back into the boy.
“We need to follow that example of being merciful,” the priest said.
Goodhouse’s eyes snapped open. This was leading somewhere.
“All these refugees around the world and in our own country,” the priest said. Mercy meant not building walls but welcoming them. “At the very least, praying for them.”
Goodhouse leaned forward. Pain radiated from his old pelvic fracture, which ached after a week of riding in the forwarder. He was all for compassion, and the priest was well-intentioned. But he lived in a bubble, a safe space. Goodhouse lived in the real world.
In the real world, a new hire didn’t show for his first day of work and didn’t call. The next day, he showed up and said he didn’t call because he didn’t have Goodhouse’s phone number. But he’d called to ask for the job, hadn’t he? He had stacks of these stories.
Church was where he was reminded to respect people, to be the sort of person who didn’t make other people miserable. He didn’t want to deny refugees or anyone else. But enough people were getting something for nothing and he was working twice as hard.
He shut his eyes again. It was like he was back in the forwarder, stuck in the cab, thinking too much.
. . .
For their 29th anniversary, Susan and Goodhouse went away to Maine.
They shopped at L.L. Bean, wandered rocky coves, ate out. Goodhouse skipped the lobster. His stomach had been hurting lately. He’d cut out coffee and shellfish.
They were headed home when the salesman called. His figures were respectable, but not good enough. With the trade-in, a new forwarder would bump Goodhouse’s monthly bank payments another $5,000.
He thought about going for it. He could work harder. Spend more time in the forwarder. Rely less on his guys.
But the markets had tightened up. Pine was cold, on quota at the mills. Just thinking about the long shifts ahead stole his breath.
He’d always said he’d work until they threw dirt on him. He hadn’t expected to be searching for a path at 53.
In Maine, a notion had crept into his thinking.
Perhaps there was no clear path. Not anymore.
If he bought the new forwarder, he’d be beholden to the bank. If he took the job at the gentleman farm, he’d be beholden to a rich guy. If he did nothing, he’d be beholden to a machine that would go under and perhaps take him with it.
. . .
On a Monday morning, his crew started a new logging job in Woodstock. The week was sunny and clear, and the lot had peaks with views as far as New Hampshire. Turkeys scooted out of the trucks’ way; mourning doves cooed. The patch was a good one. Plenty of hard wood.
The old forwarder would have to do the work.
For the time being, Dave Goodhouse had decided it would hold his fate, tentative as its grasp might be.
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweitzer.