Licton Springs Review

Rust in Peace By Michael Demaeyer

Back in the nineteen eighties, I worked as an Arborist for a tree care company in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I must admit “Arborist” in my case is a bit of a misnomer. I worked in the company’s division that specialized in the removal of trees, not tree care which is what most people think of upon hearing the name.

This machine was the brush chipper. It was a three thousand, eight-hundred-pound device that would convert a medium size tree of say seventy-five feet into shards about the size of potato chips in a matter of seconds. It was powered by a Chrysler V-8 engine, had a large horizontal input chute that was about 5 feet wide, and a smaller cylindrical chute that was about 14 inches in diameter. The smaller chute ran at a 45 degree angle to a height of about 13 feet and served as the conveyance for the wood shards to the back of the dump truck. It definitely would never make the cover of Better Logging and Arboriculture. In fact, it was ugly, dirty, smelly and noisy as hell.

The business part of the machine was its 14-inch-wide by 15-inch diameter solid-steel drum that was equipped with four, 14-inch razor-sharp blades. The drum was driven by the engine as well as a 700-pound, 4-foot-diameter flywheel that provided the machine with its terrifying power. It was permanently mounted on its own trailer that was approximately the size of a large automobile. On this it would be towed to the work sites behind one of the various large dump trucks, the largest being a twenty-ton cab over that was more or less my truck. It was built by FMC and had these letters emblazoned in large red letters on its back, blood red letters (how appropriate I once thought). FMC stood for a manufacturing conglomerate of a diverse array of heavy machinery. One day one of us joked that it stood for Fuckin’ Mean Chipper. It could not have had a better name.

When the chipper was at operating speed, it would emit this loud high pitched whine that could be heard from as far as a couple of miles. Up close it was deafening. It almost sounded like one of the air raid sirens that signaled an impending danger. I can recall having my ears ringing after work as well as hearing the cursed thing in my sleep. This was a song that sung of accidents, a song that sung of past scars, a song that sung “You better watch yourself, or I may be having you!”

The stories of the accidents involving this type of chipper were legendary. There was the one about the guy that accidentally got sucked into the in-feed chute leaving only his head. Other stories were of the usual loss of limbs and mishaps less gruesome. But we all nervously remembered these stories every time that thing was on the job. We had other newer, safer, slower chipping machines, but for large jobs where speed was paramount, this was the weapon of choice. As with most jobs, safety was sacrificed for speed. There was no wonder that this chipper was discontinued years ago and that many companies sold or scrapped theirs.

If inanimate objects could be inhabited by spirits, this definitely was the case with this machine because all sorts of strange, bad things would happen involving it on an almost daily basis. If a day passed and something did not happen, it kinda made us nervous, as if it would try and make up for lost time. On an average day, things were exciting if not down right terrifying when this monster was at work. Operating it, one could expect to be pelted with ground-up leaves, sawdust, gravel, pine cones and a sap mixture, water, and mud. This would occur when feeding the branches. And the cutter drum caught hold and pulled the branch in at speeds exceeding 40-miles-per-hour. The siren song would quickly deepen as the wood slowed the cutter, and then would quickly be drowned out by the fiendish roar of the V-8 as it regained its previous speed. All of this noise mixed with the musty smell of leaves, sawdust, hot lubricating oil, and exhaust fumes painted a portrait of a violent process.

You always made certain that your hands or arms weren’t snagged on any of the branches because if they were, you could be in for a deadly game of tug-o-war. One day, a day that I shall never forget, it almost had me. It was a day like any other, a balmy late spring afternoon, and we were getting toward the end of a job. I was operating and feeding the chipper down on the road while the rest of the crew was dragging the branches down the hillside. The branches were then stacked like the scales of a fish in one long continuous pile. Branches were pulled from the pile and fed into the chute. Then they were gone in a flash. What could have been my fatal mistake was that I had failed to spot some rusty barbed wire that had gotten snagged in some of the branches. Rusty barbed wire looks a lot like many of the common vines that grow in the area and cling to the trees. I remember feeding that branch in. And in a terrifying instant, the barbed wire had whipped out of the branch, wrapped its self half way around my back and spun me around. At the same time, I was being pulled into the in-feed chute bent over backwards with my face inches away from the howling cutter drum. Sparks and fragments of barbed wire angrily shot out at me as if it was ready for the kill, in anticipation of having me. I had hung on so tight to the chute sides that my hands ached for days. Fortunately, the pulling had ceased as quickly as it had begun. When I had gotten back up on my feet, I had realized that I was no longer wearing my shirt! The barbed wire that had gotten hold of me ripped it off of my back, leaving only the sleeves on my arms and my now-shredded tank top undershirt. I got out of that one with only deep gashes across my back, and I count my blessings that it wasn’t worse.

When I think back to those days, I recount all the close calls that I had with that chipper and all the grief it caused me. In talking with other veterans of my old profession, many of them remember the drum cutter chippers with the same respect. Many of our stories are hauntingly familiar. The close calls, the scares, the stories of death and destruction. We may laugh about some of our old experiences, but the laughter is that of the nervous variety, the type that covers over fear. Sure the drum cutters are all but gone now, but they still haunt our memories. From time to time it comes back to me in my sleep, singing its song of accidents, singing of past scars, singing, “You better watch yourself, or I may be having you.” Rust in peace, Fuckin’ Mean Chipper.