My Year as a Lumberjack and a River Rat
Will he become the man he so longs to be?
Will the other men ever accept him?
And will he even survive his first winter in the Northwoods?
BUY THE BOOK
|Pre-Teen / Teen|
~ A Visitor ~
I never planned on working in the pineries. Ma and Pa agreed that the best thing for all of us Andersen kids was to go school, where we could learn to be good Americans. That was real important to Pa, being the son of immigrants.
Pa said that’s why he’d come here to the United States from Norway, to make things better for his family. Like all the other lumberjacks, he worked the pineries in the winter, ‘cause the logs needed to be cut and ready for the snowmelt. In the spring, the rivers ran high and could carry the logs down to the mills in the sawdust cities like Eau Claire, where we lived. In the summer, Pa worked at the mill just down the road from the house we rented. He worked real hard so that one day we could have a farm of our own. Ma and Pa had been talking about it for so long that it didn’t seem like it would ever happen. And then, Pa got hurt.
On the morning that I told my teacher, Mr. Watters, that I was leaving school, I waltzed in there like I was the president of the United States of America. I didn't even sit at my desk. I just went right up to the front of the schoolhouse, to Mr. Watters.
“Today’s my last day, sir.”
He didn’t pay me no mind. He was too busy looking at what the Nelson twins were doing in the front row—pounding each other, as usual.
"Boys," he said. "That's quite enough of that."
They didn't listen. They never did.
I cleared my throat. "Mr. Watters—”
"Take your seat, Sevy,” he cut me off. “Bob and Will, if I have to come over there.”
"Mr. Watters.” This time, I touched his arm to get his attention. That stopped him. "I'm leaving school for good. I'm going to the pineries, taking my Pa’s place.”
He eyeballed me. Mr. Watters was young, blond, skinny, and kind of a nervous type, but he was a decent fella. He'd come from out East and he dressed sort of fancy for out here in Wisconsin, but he wasn't snooty or anything like that.
"You're leaving school?" He said it like I was planning on killin’ somebody.
“I have to. My Pa can’t work. He broke his leg.”
Mr. Watters’ brow knit—like he was thinking hard about this. He pursed his lips. "Now's not the time for this discussion. Please take your seat, Sevy. Bob, Will, that is quite enough.”
I’d told him. He just wasn’t listening real well. So, I walked out. What else could I do? On my way, I winked at Hugh MacLean, my best friend. His eyes were huge, like he couldn’t believe what I was doing. Most of the other kids watched me jealously, no doubt wishing they were the ones doing the walking out.
Mr. Watters came to our house that night. Us Andersens were just setting down for supper. Mrs. Engelstad, one of my ma’s lady friends from church, had made kroppkakor for us. Folks had been bringing us grub all week, since Pa got hurt. Kroppkakor was one of my favorite suppers. I always put the butter thick on the dumplings. And nothing tasted better than when you bit through them to the salt pork.
Ma had already brought Pa his dinner in the bedroom and the rest of us had just sat down at the table when someone knocked at the door. We looked around at each other. No one generally came by at supper time.
"Are you going to make me get up on my broken leg?" Pa growled from the other room.
I glanced at my ma, who just shook her head. She looked tired, worried, too. She sighed, wiped her hands on her apron and went to the door. The rest of us, me, Peter, my brother, and my little sister, Marta, just stayed where we were, sitting on the benches at the table.
When she opened the door, we saw Mr. Watters standing there. He held his hat in his hands. "Mrs. Andersen?"
He glanced in at us. “I apologize for interrupting your supper, but could I get a word? There's a matter I need to discuss with you."
"Sevy," Ma turned a sharp eye on me. "Have you been causing trouble at school?"
"No, he hasn’t,” Mr. Watters agreed. He looked nervous and I didn’t blame him none for that. Ma was a tall woman, a good head and shoulders taller than Mr. Watters, and she had a way about her that didn't brook no nonsense. "But there is a matter of some concern that arose today."
"Come in, Mr. Watters." Ma stepped to the side.
"Who’s out there?" Pa demanded, his voice thick and angry. Maybe he'd been drinking some of the whiskey that Ma had tucked away for special occasions. Don't get me wrong, Pa wasn’t a drunk. But he was hurting in a serious way with his leg all busted up as it was.
"School teacher, Gus. There ain't no trouble. Or there better not be," Ma spoke the last part direct to me.
I just shook my head. What could I say? Ma usually smiled and laughed a lot, but since Pa had broke his leg just a few days before, she'd been troubled. She’d been growling at us kids near as much as Pa.
"Please take a seat, Mr. Watters," she directed him to the wooden bench by nine-year-old Marta. "Have you had your supper yet?"
Us kids listened close at that. We all wanted as much kroppkakor as possible. We didn’t much like the idea of sharing.
"Thank you. I haven't, but—"
"Peter, get another a plate."
Watters waved a hand. "That won't be necessary. I’ll be here for just a few minutes. It’s about Sevy. Today, he informed me that he will not be returning to school."
I saw the muscle clench in the corner of Ma’s jaw. She picked up her fork real careful, put a piece of dumpling in her mouth and chewed it slow. Still, she didn't look up at Mr. Watters.
I knew she didn’t like me leaving school one bit. I’d heard her arguing with Pa over it every night, and he didn’t like it none, either. But there didn’t seem to be any way around it.
“Pa broke his leg at the mill. A big log rolled on him. Now Sevy has to go to the pineries instead.” Peter spit it all out in a rush. He always talked too much without thinking.
“Peter,” I scolded. Mr. Watters had no right knowing our family business.
"Is this true?" Watter questioned with a disapproving frown.
Ma looked him right in the eye. "Mr. Watters, we always tell our children that schooling is real important, so that they can do something with their lives. But then this accident happened." She paused, leaned forward and spoke softly. "We're hopin that Gus, my husband Gustav, will be on his feet by summer."
"But why does the boy have to sit out the vast majority of the school year? Sevy has a fine mind and he’s a talented writer. He could go far with his education.”
I blushed at the praise. Mr. Watters had never said anything nice about me like that before.
Ma answered, "Gus works in the mill in the summer and fall and in the pineries in the winter."
"I still don't understand. How does this impact your son’s education?"
Figured he wouldn’t. We’d all heard that Watters came from a wealthy family somewhere out east.
"Sevy has to work, so we don't have to move to the poor house," Marta piped up.
“Children, that’s enough,” Ma corrected.
"Yeah, hush," I said, giving my little sister the evil eye. "You shouldn’t talk like that in front of folk who ain't family."
Mr. Watters wasn't a fool, and he looked at all of us seated around the table. He nodded slowly. "Hmm, yes." He cleared his throat. “Well then, Sevy, I’ll look forward to seeing you next fall. This has been a pleasant visit, but I must be on my way. Marta and Peter, I'll see you in school tomorrow. Mrs. Andersen, thank you for your hospitality.”
Ma set her napkin on the table and moved to stand up.
“No please, don't get up,” Watters declared as he placed his hat back on his head. “I'll see myself out. My greetings and good wishes to your husband." He stood there for a minute, eyeing me as if he wanted to say something else but couldn't think of how to put it.
I don’t know what took hold of me, but then I smarted off, "You won't see me back in that schoolhouse. I may like workin’ up north."
"Sevy," Ma snapped and I knew that I'd get it later. As for Watters, he just looked like I'd slapped him one.
“Have a good evening.” He sorta bowed his head to Ma, then left.
Funny, I’d always thought that smartin' off to him would feel good. But it didn't. I felt kind of guilty, that school teacher had looked right sad when I told him I wouldn't be back.