Frank’s Key to Retirement: a story


“I cut my own firewood,” said Frank. “Helen likes a fire in the winter. Of course it’s messy, what with the dirt on the wood and then the ashes, but she likes a fire. And truth be told, I like to cut and split the wood.”

It was a bright cold day, and I had stopped by Frank’s place to plan some deer hunting. We were out back of his house at his log pile, in the middle of his 4-acre woodlot.

Frank retired from banking about 8 years ago. He’s a forester by education, and after college he worked for a consulting forester. But he grew weary of the small salary, long days and hard, outside work. After a couple of years he took an entry-level job at a local bank. It offered advancement and air conditioning. His only forestry work now is on his 4 acres, where he cuts and plants trees, clears brush, and generally works to encourage a forest with tall, straight hardwoods and pines. Squirrels, deer, opossums, chipmunks, snakes and various birds live in his woods, and Frank cuts all of his firewood there. He cuts trees with his eye trained on the residual forest; the trees left to grow become the elements of Frank’s vision for his forest.

_DSC0018Frank picked up the splitting maul and approached an 18-inch firewood log. He studied it to see just where the best angle of attack might be, then turned it just a little. He backed away about 4 feet, lifted the maul behind his back, gathered strength, tightened his grip and started the swing. The maul gained speed as it swung over his head. He moved into a squat on the downswing, pulling the maul through the air as hard as he could. When it hit the log, the maul handle was nearly perpendicular to the axis of the log so the full force of the blow went directly down the axis of the log. There was a loud, sharp crack that shot out through the woods like a clap of thunder, and the log fell open into two nearly equal halves.

“Splitting wood is like golf,” Frank said. “In golf, each lie is different, yet you need to keep the basics of your swing consistent. You have your stance and your grip, and you keep your eye on the ball. In splitting wood, each log is different, but you still need a consistent stance and grip. And you need to keep you eye on the wood.”

He picked up the split halves and positioned each for another blow. “The difference,” and he looked toward me, “is that splitting wood is useful, not only for me and Helen, but for anyone who visits our home. Everyone is a little more peaceful in front of a fire.”

Frank moved slowly, deliberately, repositioning each piece of wood, perfecting his stance, grip and swing. Each log gave way to the force of the maul, each offered its sharp crack, and within maybe ten minutes he had a scattered collection of split firewood logs. We talked about hunting intermittently. Then we gathered up the wood, put it into his wheelbarrow, toted it over to the pile, and stacked it on top.

_DSC0016_2“You know,” he said, “I’ve split some wood about every year since my middle twenties. Most young men will buy their firewood. But I learned how to cut and split wood from my dad; it’s second nature now.”

He paused, looked around his woods a little, as if he was telling me a secret. “The first year after retirement I cut and split firewood like there was no tomorrow. We had four or five piles, each higher than this one. When you retire and the phone stops ringing, you need something to do. You need to do at least one useful thing, and do it well. That’s the key. Retirement can take any direction and include lots of fun stuff, but you got to be useful.”

We walked up to the house and met Helen, talked a little about the weather and kids. We set Tuesday and Wednesday next for deer hunting, then I headed home.