By BEN R. WILLIAMS
As I’ve mentioned in this space before, my hobby is collecting, playing, and repairing pinball machines. It is a wonderful hobby that brings me a great deal of joy, even when I’ve burned a hole in my thumb with a soldering iron and dropped a tiny irreplaceable diode into my shag carpet, never to be seen again.
I got a project pinball machine (a Williams “Sorcerer” from 1985, if you’re a pin-head) as part of a trade back in February, and I had hoped to fix it up and get it running again. However, this was about a 100 hour project, and I’m not sure if I’ll have 100 hours of free time between now and the time I retire at the age of 113. I decided to sell it.
I listed the machine on my favorite pinball forum and I started getting messages within minutes. After a couple of days, it became clear that a gentleman named Mike was a serious buyer. Mike said he would drive down from Maryland and pick it up at my house. There was only one day that would work for him: Halloween.
I told Mike I would meet him at 6 p.m. at a gas station near my house. I left work at 5 that day, giving me just enough time to swing by my house and get some parts together for Mike before meeting him.
As you may recall, this past Halloween was a nasty day, with gray skies, hard rains and heavy winds. The rain was pouring and the wind was blowing as I drove down the half-mile gravel driveway to my house. About a quarter mile from my house, I stopped.
A pine tree had blown across the road.
This particular pine tree was about 8-10 inches in diameter; not enormous, but too big for me to push off the road. To make matters worse, the top of the tree had wedged itself tight between two trees on the opposite side of the road, so I couldn’t even push it aside if I wanted to.
If I could cut it in half, I wagered, I could push the two halves off the road. The problem was cutting it in half.
Under normal circumstances, I would have just parked my car, walked to my house, and called up my chainsaw-owning friend and neighbor – who, coincidentally, is also named Mike – to ask if he could help me cut the tree up the next day. However, I didn’t have that kind of time; I had to meet Maryland Mike in just 20 minutes, and he needed to be able to get his truck to my house. I had to find some way to move the pine tree.
I parked my car and walked a quarter mile to my house in the driving rain, trying to figure out what I would do. In my favorite movie – William Friedkin’s 1977 film “Sorcerer” – there’s a scene where the protagonists blow up a fallen tree with a box of dynamite. Alas, I had no dynamite. I also didn’t have tow straps. Or a chain saw. Or even a hand saw.
I did, however, have a splitting maul. If you’re not familiar, a splitting maul has an axe on one side of its head, a sledgehammer on the other side of its head, and is generally used for splitting wood along its grain, not chopping a tree in half. But needs must when the devil drives, so I grabbed my maul and hiked back to the tree in the driving rain.
I’m not a weightlifter or anything, but I consider myself a decently strong guy. I can lift heavy things. I can open at least 95 percent of all jars I encounter. I do all right for myself.
However, I am here to tell you that cutting a pine tree in half with a splitting maul is on par with the 12 Labors of Hercules. It is a miserable experience I do not wish on anyone.
I had managed to hack a four-inch-deep gouge into the tree when it was time to go meet Mike from Maryland, so I got in my car and drove to the gas station. I spotted a white truck with Maryland plates and pulled up beside it.
Mike, as it turned out, was an old Navy guy, the sort of guy who was born tough and just gets tougher with each passing year. He was probably in his late 60s or early 70s, and his left bicep was marked with the kind of tattoos you can only get when you’re stationed in the Polynesias in the 1960s and you agree to let a beautiful woman tap them into your flesh with a little knife and a bottle of squid ink. Mike was a tough customer. I shook his big tough hand and told him about the tree, and he told me he would follow me.
As I was driving back to my house, it occurred to me that I still had to hack through at least half of the pine tree, only now I had to do it while a guy who looked like Charles Bronson’s Vietnam veteran brother watched me.
It only took a couple of swings before I could feel the fatigue settling in. I was beginning to feel lightheaded. I took a break every five or six swings, but only for a few seconds; I didn’t want Mike to think I was a weakling or anything.
After about ten more minutes of beating on it with my maul, the pine tree cracked in half, and Mike helped me push the two halves off the road. He followed me back to my house, loaded up the pinball machine and left.
Once Mike was back on his way to Maryland, I threw a pizza in the oven and took a hot shower. I felt much better after the shower, and I was proud of myself for knocking that tree in half. I had no doubt that Mike was impressed by my raw strength.
When my pizza was ready, I discovered that I couldn’t cut it because I no longer had the ability to close my hand around a knife handle.