It’s winter in North Carolina, which may not mean much to people in the northeastern or western states. But, a quarter inch of sleet can shut down all of eastern North Carolina. It’s silent after any ice storm here, save for the sound of one car sliding into a ditch. There’s usually only one person per city dumb enough to go out driving, and it’s usually a Yankee, like me.
Fortunately, I’ve graduated from N.C. driving school and have moved on to advanced cold weather combat. I would argue that after one takes into account the blood-thinning effect of living in the southeast, winters here are actually harsher than anywhere else in the world. The sultry summers here turn everyone into cold weather weenies. Hence, the immediate need to warm up this farm house.
This 5,000-square-foot farm house has 12-foot high ceilings downstairs and 10-foot high ceilings upstairs. I have deduced that either people were much, much taller when this house was built in the mid-19th century, or that the house was built for a family of basketball players with overactive pituitary glands. Regardless of the rationale behind the lofty architecture, it is simply too expensive for us to maintain any temperature over 47 degrees.
I’m sure it’s amusing for the horses to see me shivering with chattering teeth, but I decided my “blue period” needed to end. I had visited briefly with one of our neighbors, Nate, about a week ago. He and his wife have a moderately sized house, but each room was a virtual sauna thanks to his winter friend, Big Jim. The origins of Big Jim–a 400-pound wood-burning fireplace insert–are mysterious at best. Hours of Internet digging turned up little, but Nate assured me that many were made and that he could find us one.
Nate is a man who gets things done, and he called me less than a day later. He’s better connected than many of Wilson County’s judges or commissioners. Through a network of several associated individuals Nate had located another Big Jim. This Big Jim had been replaced by gas logs 12 years ago and was banished to a cluttered outbuilding. We paid $75 dollars for it, loaded it into the bucket of Nate’s tractor and eased it into the back of our truck. Once home, and after much wrangling and wrestling, we had Big Jim in place. We plugged him in, and the blowers fired right up. Mere minutes after we got a fire going, Big Jim had our huge house warmed up by about 10 degrees. So, we were at 57 degrees inside. Look out! Heat wave!
We had bummed the seasoned oak from Nate and needed more. I set my city-boy sights on the 30-foot-tall, branchless trunk of sweet gum tree beside one of the pastures. I found an old axe in the tool shed and even dug out my red plaid shirt. Hey, who hasn’t had lumberjack fantasies at one time or another? Okay, with respect to anyone with lumberjack fantasies, I meant only that I wanted to be a lumberjack.
So, clad in plaid, jeans, knit cap and carrying an axe, I headed out to chop down some food for Big Jim. I could have completed my look by waiting a few days and growing in some lumberjack face stubble, but Kimberly and I would have frozen to death before I looked sexy enough to cut our firewood.
I stood at the base of the sweet gum and turned to sight my targeted path for the falling tree. It took me 45 sweaty minutes to chop through 98 percent of the trunk. The sweet gum just stood there. “How is this tree still standing?” I wondered as I walked around it. I stood directly behind the tree and gave it a push in the direction of the large notch. Let me just add here that, luckily, all the horses were inside. The tree went sideways and took out about 20 feet of fencing around the adjacent pasture. To add insult to injury, the tree was entirely rotted, as evidenced by much of it disintegrating as it hit the ground.
Nate must have heard all the crashing, crunching and some of my not-so-lumberjack vocabulary, because he was over within minutes with a truck full of tools. We retrieved a stack of spare fence boards and posts. An hour later we had the fence repaired. Nate disappeared briefly, only to return with his tractor and a chainsaw.
“You drive the truck,” he said tossing me the keys. He drove the tractor towards his house. I followed him on the dirt access road that connected our properties.
“This one looks much better,” Nate said, looking up at a large oak tree, split down its center by a recent storm. “We’ll get this chopped up for you in no time. Why didn’t you just tell me you needed more wood?”
This was one of those moments that are typically awkward between most guys. You know, when one guy does something entirely selfless and kind for no other reason than because someone else needs help–and because the world is a little better of a place for the pure kindness of it all. I was speechless. I felt awkward because my lumberjack outfit was clashing with my sudden sentimentality.
I’m not sure what most women do when they’re chopping down trees together and one woman offers to share her firewood with the other woman. It could be a really touching moment–maybe one we might see at the dramatic peak of a big, Hollywood movie. If you substitute two men for the two women in that scene, however, you get this:
Jeremy: Oh, I just figured we had all those trees, you know.
Nate: We’ve got a couple years worth of firewood–this thing’ll rot before we get to it…so…you know…
Jeremy: Yeah, man, if that’s cool with you. Hey, I can pay you for it.
Nate: Naw, just help me get rid of it and we’re square…er…is somethin’ the matter?
Jeremy: (coughing in a manly way) Um… (sniff) I… I…uh..must’ve gotten a little sawdust in my eye…(more manly coughing) BUT IT’S NOTHING CHOPPING DOWN ANOTHER TREE WON’T FIX! AM I RIGHT OR AM I RIGHT?!
Nate: HOOOWEEEE! (fires up chainsaw)
Fortunately for us, a good portion of the resulting firewood, about six weeks’ worth, was dry enough to burn. The rest of the wood would certainly be ready for–and likely get us through–next winter. We fired up Big Jim that night and got very cozy on the couch in front of the fireplace. It was the first time in weeks that I wasn’t frozen before I went outside to the barn. I think eliminating some of the stress over our energy bill put both Kimberly and I in an improved mood, too.
The horses didn’t seem to miss the blue man much, and the time in the barn was truly pleasant again. I think I may have even dillied or dallied just to spend a little more time with the horses. When I got back inside, Kimberly and I settled down on the couch in front of Big Jim, surrounded by sleeping cats and dogs. The warmth and quiet whir of Big Jim lulled us all to sleep. Just before I fell headlong into slumber, I thanked goodness for kind neighbors with power tools, and for really, really well made wood-burning stoves.
Jeremy Law and his wife, Kimberly, live on a small farm in North Carolina with their two cats, two dogs and two horses.