I’m flying on the “Middle Coast” now. We are helicopter logging on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in a forest that is on the shore of Lake Superior. We are in the Huron mountains, which the locals say is the oldest mountain range in the world. The tallest mountain here is a rounded nub in a series of hills about a thousand feet high. After a billion years you end up a rounded nub.
As we work from the helicopter we have a vacation view of the lake. Lake Superior looks like the ocean. Same kind of rugged coastline. Islands far offshore. You can see the curvature of the Earth on the lake. The weather forecast today calls for twenty-five-foot waves in deep water. There is one different thing about Lake Superior, besides the fact you can drink the water. Fly low over the Great Salt Lake in Utah blindfolded and you know where you are. Wheew! Stinky! Drive to the coast of Oregon and you smell fresh mother ocean twenty miles inland. But Lake Superior, at least here in the U.P., is odorless.
We are logging hardwood here. Oak, maple, and the creme-de-la-crème of hardwoods, bird’s eye maple. Our bull buck, Don, came by the helicopter yesterday carrying two pieces of wood. (The bull buck is the tree-cutting boss). They were of bird’s eye maple, one piece cut to the size of your calf, the other piece cut a foot square and a half-inch thick. Don showed us in these pieces of wood the characteristics of bird’s eye maple, the little dark bird’s eye circles that look like tiny opal gemstones scattered in the light colored fiber, and he showed us what causes the little “eyes” in the wood. Bird’s eye is a defect, meaning it is a flaw in the normal wood. Normally a defect lowers the value of a board. But bird’s eye is so beautiful and so rare (two trees in a hundred) that it increases the value of the maple accordingly. Or more, if the wood is especially defective. The raw, half-inch thick foot-square piece of bird’s eye maple Don held had a calculated value of $14.50. A Mercedes-Benz-sized log of this wood would cost more than the Mercedes-Benz. One log here would later sell for Rolls Royce money. This explains why bird’s eye maple furniture is accepted by bankers as collateral for home mortgages. Check your local branch for details.
The local speaking accent here on the U.P. is straight from the movie Fargo. I love it. This is a friendly accent, good for a stranger like me to hear. So I can’t help feeling a little guilty when I do an impersonation, telling my workmates that we are near Minnesoota. It’s such a kick to hear two local rough-looking guys chatting in the accent of Santa’s elves.
This area is about to get the first few inches of their annual twenty-five-feet of snow. It’s been in the forecast for a few days now. Halloween is next week. The gas station lady greeted me last morning, as she’s been doing, and in her friendly lilt said what a nice day it was. It was dark, 7 a.m., and overcast. Then she said, “And the nice days’r gooing fast. Is this all fur ya?”
I’ve been at this job for a week now. Yesterday I noticed that one of our hookers, Jesus, had been wearing the same blue check shirt the whole week. As I hovered over him I asked on the radio, “Hey, Jesus, do you own more than one shirt?” This was the start of a good ribbing. Jesus is the woods boss. I could just see his men stopping in mid-step during their logging work when they heard this on their chest radios. The radio went crazy with electronic squeals and squeaks, which is what happens when several people talk on it at the same time. Jesus’ men were jumping right in with their own comments. One of his men finally got through on the radio. “Yea, he likes that shirt a lot.”
Jesus came back. “No, Macario” — that’s what he calls me — “I got only one shirt. I’m waiting for you to buy me a good fifty-dollar shirt. You bring me one tomorrow, yea?”
Jesus was going to get ahead of me on this if I wasn’t quick. “O.K., I’ll bring you a shirt tomorrow. I’ll bring you two.”
The next day Jesus had on a different shirt. We claimed we couldn’t find him when he called us over to give us a load of logs. (“But there’s another guy down there we see. Purple shirt. Who’s that? A new guy?”) When Jesus came by the service van that evening I dug in the rag bin to find him his $50 shirt. I’ve got a rag bin shirt of my own I wear. On the front of it is a pair of hands holding up a cardboard sign, “Will Fly For Food.”
One of our mechanics was more than once able to skip doing laundry for his whole two week tour. He wore clothes from the rag bin, picked as needed. He also slept in a Geo Metro while at work. He took out the passenger seat of that teeny car and laid a sheet of plywood front to back in the space. A perfect bed. We called it the Mini-Bago. Yet he owned his own helicopter and flew it from his Oregon coast home to work, be it in Montana or wherever. Priorities.
This logging work attracts characters. Not everybody wants to work his tail off outdoors, twelve months a year, live in motels or a travel trailer (or a Metro), and have to do six States worth of taxes come April 15.
Scotty Scoop was one such character. He was named Scotty Scoop because his first name was Scott and he knew the latest rumor about everything, and if not he’d make a good one up. By the way, I’ve lost track of the number of loggers whose real names I never knew but whom I knew well enough by their nickname to be a good friend. There was Coiler, Roadkill, Digger, Sparky, Worm, Grub, Mouse, and the one and only Kpt. Kaos. It’s even happened to me. The boss was asking around, “Anybody know William Miller? I have his paycheck.” He asked me if I’d ever heard of the guy. I told him, yeah, I knew the butthead. He didn’t have a clue Miller was me.
Anyway, Scotty Scoop was a true goofball. He was a natural ham and was made to carry a radio around on his chest. Instant audience. He worked on the log landing so you talked to him a lot, like every time the helicopter brought a load of logs to the landing, every three minutes or so. One day I asked Scoop if he could catch something dropped from the helicopter. “Hell, yeah!” he answered, so we began the plan.
“Get a grip!”
So the next day we brought a bag of tomatoes on board the helicopter.
In the summer we fly with the side window of the cockpit removed. Air conditioning for a three-million-dollar helicopter. The log landing is actually a busy, rather dangerous place to be so Scoop had to find the right moment. At mid-morning he got on the radio.
“Okay, next time in!” he said.
I was flying. The next time in with a load of logs I placed them off to the side of the landing to clear the playing field. Scoop ran out into the middle of the landing. The copilot dropped a big red tomato out the window. We were 200 feet up.
Immediately we could tell this scheme was possibly a mistake. The tomato rocketed toward the ground lots faster than any of us imagined it would. Scoop took a few circling steps and held out his hardhat, inside up. He actually caught the tomato in the hat but it didn’t matter because he was instantly enveloped in a red explosion. Quick, somebody figure out the kinetic energy of a big tomato at the end of a two-hundred-foot freefall.
Of course we all exploded in laughter. Many squeaks and squeals on the radio. Scotty Scoop made two more attempted catches in the next hour, but he missed these. They soaked his work boots instead of his hair.
Later we talked Scoop into catching eggs. He caught one with his hands but said it hurt. Never mind the mess. We eventually ended up using banana peels as the missile of choice. They are more challenging to catch since they flutter as they fall. And they’re soft.
Grapes. Now, there is a fruit. Grapes make fabulous bombs. They cut through the air with no effect from the rotor wash. You can really be accurate with grapes from 200 feet. They make a neat-looking but harmless, misty splat when they hit. Grapes are also good to use in an interesting experiment with the rotor blades. When the helicopter is sitting on the ground and running you can’t see the individual spinning rotor blades. You see instead a blurred rotor disc. If you stick something up into the rotor disc it feels solid. But you can toss a grape up into the rotor disc, into those spinning blades, expecting to see grape vapor and nothing happens. The grape has passed between the blades. Then after a slow motion pause at the peak of the toss the grape falls back through the rotor disc and to the ground, untouched. How many times in a row will this happen, you ask? It seems five vaporless grape tosses is about the limit for a Sikorsky S-61.
We tried an apple once but it splatted too big. We didn’t do it again. We were afraid the flying applesauce would get sucked into an engine and damage it. Too bad. We also had a cantaloupe with us.
We are grown men at work expanding their minds in the name of science.
Later I’m going to have to tell you about dipping water out of the Great Salt Lake on a fire. They told us it was a first. But I’m hungry right now. Adios.