The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Splitting More Than Wood

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1990-2012

Issue: January, 1990

Every January evening every year, for as long as anyone could remember, Caleb had split wood for his stove. He had a whole winter's supply stacked between trees on the north side of his house to break the harshness of the north wind when it blew.

Splitting wood was one chore Caleb could have eliminated by going to another type of heat or by having the wood cut into smaller pieces, but splitting wood was symbolic to Caleb. Caleb hung on to the old ways as though if he quit them, the whole way of life he grew up with would disappear forever and be forgotten by everyone. Splitting wood was also a reminder that he was still physically fit enough to do it. Caleb was getting older and feared the day he became helpless and useless.

This January day was no exception. Promptly at 4:30 pm (because it would be getting dark around 5:00 pm), Caleb reached for the old heavy jacket and fuzzy lined hat with ear flaps that hung on a peg just inside his kitchen door. With the buttons all buttoned and the ear flaps adjusted against the cold, Caleb went outside. His ax was leaning against the wall on the back porch and Caleb grabbed it up by the handle as he went out the door.

It had snowed last night and Caleb's Red Wing work boots crunched a new path to the old chopping block. Caleb blew his breath into his hands and rubbed them together, trying to warm them up for the job. The dog had chewed a couple of fingers worth of material out of his only work gloves and Caleb just couldn't see getting out the fancy new ones his son had given him last Christmas to do rough outdoor work. Those thin leather things wouldn't last no time!

Caleb picked up his ax with both hands and set about doing the evening's chore. All was going well and as usual, when one particularly stubborn piece of wood refused to split. Caleb applied as much force as he could and it still just vibrated his arms every time he brought it down on the block. The ax was stuck about three inches down in the piece of wood and refused to come out. "I know what it is. It's the height of the block. If I brace it on another piece of wood on the ground, it will split for sure."

Caleb rolled a fairly large piece of wood against his foot for a block and brought the ax with the stubborn, stuck piece of wood (which by now seemed to be permanently attached to the ax) with it. The blow must have hit the log in front of his foot off center, because it flew out of the way. The piece of wood that only minutes before seemed to be permanently attached to the ax flew in another direction, and before Caleb knew what had happened, he was looking down at the ax firmly stuck in the toe of his left boot!

Cold panic seized Caleb as he looked down at the ax imbedded in his boot. "Lord, I just know I've gone and chopped all my toes off! Maybe I've split my foot half into! It's not bleeding yet. It's so cold I couldn't feel my feet before this. It's probably a good thing. Maybe the shock and cold will hold the bleeding down! I've got to get help!"

Caleb was scared to pull the ax out of his boot, thinking that it might not bleed if it stayed in. He drug himself, ax and all to the kitchen door. He made it all the way to the telephone, fearing he would faint any minute. He dialed his old friend Henry, who lived nearby. As soon as Henry answered, Caleb started yelling as loud and as fast as he could, "Help, Henry! Help, Henry! Call an ambulance. Come right over. I've done gone and chopped my whole foot off! I'm going back outside. Might not bleed as bad outside in the cold," and with that, Caleb hung up, confident his old friend Henry would handle everything.

It probably wasn't over 10 minutes before Henry and the Volunteer Rescue squad showed up. There were red lights all over the place and a dozen volunteers who had just got their Emergency Medical Technician license last week over at County General Hospital were swarming like bees in a hive.

Henry was trying his best to comfort his old friend who was looking mighty weak and pale. The volunteers decided that, green and new as they were to situations like this, it would probably be best to take Caleb into the emergency room and let the doctors remove the ax. By this time someone had called Caleb's son and now the majority of Caleb's family were there also. As they were loading Caleb into the ambulance, the Sheriff showed up because he heard the call come in on the radio and had known Caleb for years. He volunteered to escort the ambulance and what was now shaping up to be a rather large parade to the hospital. With sirens blaring and red lights whirling, it made quite an attraction, one which folks around here said later was bigger and better than last year's Forth of July Parade.

Once in the emergency room, everyone seemed more confident. Henry was still right there beside his old friend and Caleb was consoling himself that he could probably live without a few toes and that he just hoped that gangrene wouldn't set in.

The doctor on duty came into the room and threw everyone out except for Henry, because Caleb was so insistent that he stay. As the ax was removed, Caleb and Henry both braced themselves for the worse. The ax was removed and still there was no blood and no pain. Caleb was thinking that the blow probably severed all the nerves.

With the ax removed, the doctor started cutting through the shoe strings. The boot was removed and the sock had a big ragged split on the end. The sock was removed and lo and behold, there was not even so much as one little scratch.

"I'd say you were a mighty lucky fellow," the doctor told Caleb who still couldn't bear to look at his foot. "What do you mean, Doc?" said Caleb. Henry started laughing, just a little at first and then more and more until a real belly laugh set in. The rescue squad members out in the hall could hear the laughing and wondered what was going on. One of them peeked in the room and quickly told everyone else what had happened.

"Put your shoe on, Caleb. We don't need to be taking up any more of this doctor's time!" Henry managed to say between giggles.

After paying the bill, Caleb and Henry rode home the way they had came to the hospital, in the ambulance. "I feel like a fool, a danged fool. When everyone hears about this, I'll be the laughing stock of the entire county!" moaned Caleb.

"You sound like you would have enjoyed it better if you had of chopped off some toes," Henry answered, "You'd better count your blessings and be glad you've still got toes to count. That's one drastic way to cut your toenails, Caleb," and Henry was off in another uncontrollable laughing fit.

All's well that ends well and any situation that you can laugh at can't be all bad and the folks 'round here, once they knew the true situation, really enjoyed the parade. Some said it ought to be made into an annual event.