It was in the grassless plot just outside our back door where we “played little” with our toy tractors and trucks that my brother Marshall first uttered a wondrous new word. We were six and five at the time, totally unschooled in advanced adult vocabulary, so that the context of our discovery of that word was almost as interesting as its sound.
It was clothes washing day, which meant Mom would be extra grumpy as she fussed over doing Dad’s white dress shirts that he wore when he went to town for his car salesman job, separating them from the piles of other garments and placing them in the beat-up washer in the smoke house. Once washed, she would carefully place them in a clothes basket and carry them to the clothesline, gently hanging them there to flap in the wind like festive flags.
Marshall and I were smart enough not to get into any fights or into tearing-up-something projects on laundry days. On this wash day, however, there arrived an interesting distraction.
Grandpa Mills stopped unexpectedly at our house, climbing from his pickup truck and unloading an oily chain saw from the truck’s bed. His forearms looked like Popeye’s as he hoisted it over a muscular shoulder and walked purposefully south into our woods.
He did not say a word to us, but his silence was enough. He was working, and we were not to follow or bother him. In our eyes, Grandpa Mills was a Titan, a farmer who also operated heavy equipment and could fix anything.
When the chain saw started running, its pulsating, tone-changing, ripping sounds gave Marshall and me some clue about our grandpa’s whereabouts. Mom was in the smokehouse, distracted, grumbling over Dad’s shirts. As if one being, Marshall and I slipped off together into the woods. Without conversation, we moved through the brushiest parts like silent deer, undetected.
We found Grandpa Mills working next to an old abandoned cistern well—a ragged hole mostly covered over in tangled brush. We stopped in some thick bushes and got down on hands and knees to watch.
Wielding the chain saw like a vengeful scythe, Grandpa cut at the thick thorny undergrowth with patient precision, magically ridding the vegetation that hid the cistern from sight. The reason for his Herculean efforts had to do with the fear my parents had that Marshall and I, known for our fearlessness when it came to exploring, might, in our carelessness, accidentally fall into the half-hidden well.
It was nerve racking enough, at least for me, knowing that Grandpa might see us and be angry, but then there was also the earsplitting whine of the chainsaw, the horrendous racket juicing up our adrenaline even more.
Woodchips flew in every direction, scores of these fine itchy chips soon covering Grandpa’s sweaty face and forearms like confetti.
It was sultry, more so in the airless space of the underbrush from which Marshall and I spied, but we stayed as still as statues, sweat pouring down our faces too. With the sweat now falling into his eyes, Grandpa moved an arm up to wipe at his face. The motion inadvertently placed the chain-saw blade at an odd angle, stopping it cold, its oily teeth stuck halfway through a once-small volunteer sapling that had grown into a midsize tree.
The sudden silence left our ears ringing.
Grunting loudly, Grandpa pulled the cord of the chain saw, the effort bringing but a single “arump.” He pulled again, but with the same result.
What followed was a frantic pulling at the cord, each tug followed with a mighty grunt, again and again, and each grunt sounding as if Grandpa Mills was throwing his hardest punch.
He grew sopping wet with sweat right before our eyes.
Once the chain-saw engine caught, sputtered-sputtered-sputtered as Grandpa desperately adjusted the throttle, and died.
Then came the word, blasting out like an unexpected explosion. Marshall involuntarily grasped my hand.
The utterance, a verbal hammer blow, was unlike any word we had heard before, its power accelerated by being spoken in a god-thundering yell that stretched the word to the very limit of our grandfather’s breath. It was a scream, a curse, a lament, a verbal shaking of a fist at the gods all rolled up into one. It was the neatest-sounding word I had ever heard uttered.
The word was now repeated each time the chain saw failed to fire and soon took on interesting variations, the meanings of which we had not a clue. It was as if Grandpa Mills spoke in tongues, in a secret and sacred language.
When the chain saw finally started, Marshall and I crept off. It was then that I realized I had held my breath the entire time our grandfather had put on his incredible verbal display.
We rushed back to “play little,” hardly able to contain ourselves, waiting for the right circumstances in our pretend recreation to use our new word. As we maneuvered our toy trucks and tractors along miniature roadways in the dirt, Mother stepped through the smokehouse door, struggling to carry a clothes basket overflowing with wash, headed for the clothesline.
Marshall beat me to it, blurting out the word upon a pretend wrecking of his toy tractor. He did it with a deep-throated passion almost equal to our grandfather’s efforts.
Mom dropped her clothes basket and screamed, the sound making my brother and I jump, a wet thick wad of dad’s dress shirts rolling out of the basket and onto the hard-packed ground.
Mother stepped over the spilled basket, bounding to where we squatted in the dirt, asking Marshall, “Where did you hear that word?” Poor Grandpa Mills. He came dragging out of the woods, lugging the chainsaw over his shoulder, looking completely spent, unaware of the intense lecture which awaited him.