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WOSTER: Sometimes better to let the machine do the work

Terry Woster

Many years ago, when I was a much younger man and thought a Saturday spent deep in the Missouri River bluffs cutting up dead trees and hauling them home for firewood was a grand adventure, an old friend gave me some great advice.

I enjoyed collecting firewood in spite of the fact that chain saws don't always get along with me. They just don't start easily in my hands. Even a saw fresh from the store and still warm from the hand of the sales person who fired it up to show me how quiet it was would turn stubborn in my hands. I always felt like Paul Newman in "Sometimes a Great Notion'' when he's trying to start the chain saw and cut a massive log apart before the tide comes up so far it drowns Joe Ben.

Newman couldn't get the thing started, and he's a superstar.

My prowess with the saw is kind of important to the story. Out on the river bluffs, my friends and I would cut the logs in big chunks and trim them to fireplace size at home.

My saw usually started at the river. At home, if I shut it down, it developed an attitude when I picked it up again.

Many times, instead of fighting it, I used an ax, a nine-pound hammer like the one John Henry swung, and the biggest, meanest, heaviest wedge in seven counties.

As I pounded away one morning on some particularly tough chunks of wood, my friend Mal stopped. He watched, waited until I quit swinging to catch my breath and said, "I was always told, 'Son, let the machine do the work.' You have a chain saw over there. What are you doing swinging a hammer?''

Good advice. I didn't take it with the saw, but I didn't forget it, either.

Even before Mal shared his dad's wisdom, I vaguely understood the concept. No water skier alive hasn't been told the first time or two, "Let the boat pull you out of the water.'' The slow learners try to help. The quick ones sit back and let the machine do the work.

Kayaking on the river, we use a version of the advice. The river is just a big machine. It flows where it will. When we kayak, we point our bows in the direction the current is flowing. We can paddle if we wish, but why not let the machine do the work?

If you live in a Missouri River town, you'll eventually bump into someone who is canoeing or kayaking the river. They do it to raise awareness of a cause or to trace the route of Lewis and Clark, or for plain adventure, but they do it. And they stop to talk to reporters every chance they get.

I recall years ago an earnest young man with a nice canoe and a playful dog was tracing the route of Lewis and Clark.

He overnighted in the Pierre-Fort Pierre area, a popular stop for Lewis and Clark fans. He told me earnestly that he'd started in St. Louis and was going all the way to the West Coast, or for sure, Three Forks, Mont.

I asked, "Why don't you travel from Montana to St. Louis and let the current carry you?''

He stammered around and eventually said that's how Lewis and Clark did it. I was going to say, "Sure, but they didn't know what they were doing,'' but as I said, he was an earnest young man, and a guest in my community. I nodded.

I think sometimes about Mal's advice when I reflect on my farm background. Everyone knows that when I grew up, my dad and uncle had a farm partnership. They worked hard at it, every day. My big brother and my older cousin worked hard, too, cultivating, combining, running a hay stacker, stuff like that.

When I grew old enough to join the work force, I worked hard. But I mostly use a scoop shovel or a pitchfork or a manual post-hole digger. Not once in my entire farm-labor life did my dad ever say to me, "Son, let the machine do the work.''