The Ballad of Old Bill
by Jim Britton of Umpqua, OR
Old Bill ‘d been a logger near all of his days.
When the century was young he’d started his trade.
From the isles of the Puget to the southern Cascade
He’d swung his axe and sharpened his blade.
The fir and the redwood both knew of his strength
And Bill he was feared wherever he went.
The boys in the camp and the men in the town
All spoke kind of hushed when Bill was around.
Now his stature weren’t mighty, he stood just 5-4
But he was cold tempered steel from his head to the floor.
His sinews stood out like ropes on a deck,
And you could see the blood pumping in the veins of his neck.
His exploits were many and he’d done it all,
From log ponds and rafting to swinging the maul.
He’d fed them great engines that billowed out steam
And reeled in them cables like mules on a team.
Then he took to truck driving, hauling them logs.
He handled them switchbacks like a hare chased by dogs.
His days they were long as he traveled that road
And he wouldn’t pack up till he’d hauled that last load.
For if a stick was still standing on the crest of that hill
He’d be there ready for the trip to the mill.
Then from the cab of that diesel a new perspective he found
Of the land that was changing as he looked all around.
Of the rocks and the stumps where trees once had stood.
Of rivers turned red with the blood of that land.
Like Moses of old with the curse from his hand.
And he got to thinking of his younger days
Of verdant green mountains in the sun’s golden rays.
Of crystal clear waters teemed with fish in the Spring
Of the cougar and marten and the loon on the wing.
And as he reflected it brought a tear to his eye
And he said “no more logging will I do till I die.
Its time I hung these old boots on a nail
And took up whittling and reading the mail.”
So he sat on that bench on his porch there in town
And he watched the sun rising and he saw it go down.
Well time was a passing till one summer day
They began logging the ridge cross the way.
He heard those old sounds how the choker he’d toot
And his toes got to dancing down there in his boot.
So he laced up them corks and donned his tin hat
And he climbed up that mountain where them loggers were at.
There weren’t much left standing in that thin mountain air
And the trucks were all waiting in a line on the road
When Bill hollered out “whoa boys, leave that last load.
A few trees left standing won’t be a great loss
And the birds that could roost there would thank the mill boss.”
Then all them loggers and truckers gathered round him and stared.
Then somebody chuckled and some jackass jeered,
“Go home pops. It’s time to retire.
Go take up knitting and sit by the fire.”
Then taking an axe from a snag that was standing
Bill walked to a tree laid out on the landing.
He buried that axe in the trunk of that giant.
The log gave a shudder its sinews defiant.
Then with the air split apart, its two halves on the ground.
The jaws of that crew were all hanging down
When Bill left that hill and walked back to town.
Then Bill’s hand got to trembling and his mind was unclear
As he sat on his porch on the bench that was there.
And the townsfolk would hear him as they passed down the road
“Whoa boys” he’d holler “leave that last load.”
Bill’s early life reads like a chapter from Studs Terkel. Born in Sacramento, by the time he was a young teenager he was on the road following the migrant farm labor camps. Picking fruit, digging irrigation canals, any work he could find to stay alive in the Depression Era West. Despite the hardships, romance still managed to blossom in the fields of western farms. Bill was picking pears in the Hood River Valley when he met Pauline, the young daughter of a Dust Bowl refugee family from Oklahoma. They married and the teenagers spent the next two years living in a tent and following the harvest in their Model T. Then Bill had the good fortune to get hired on at a logging camp. He eventually worked about every job connected with logging, choke setter, tree falling, donkey engine operator, log truck driver. The couple spent the rest of their life living in the small rural towns of Western Oregon. Occasionally Bill would take a week off work and they would go fruit picking, setting up their tent in a favored orchard.