Thanks to Valley Landscape Company, I got a contract from the state to remove a large dead White Oak from at the shoulder of Route 40 east, near Perryville this side of the Susquehanna Bridge. I used to work for them when I managed Valley Mart, their upscale garden shop in Mt. Washington. We remained on good terms and they threw me a referral from time to time. They were then landscaping a good stretch of Pulaski Highway and didn’t do tree work.
I had met Gus Creaghan and one of the state inspectors on the job site and we were in agreement about how the tree should be taken down. It was long dead and very brittle, i.e. dangerous because it could snap and throw pieces in the process of topping it. In fact there was some question as to whether it should be topped at all because its limbs could break the fall thereby lessening potential damage to the concrete road way. There was no question about which direction it must be dropped: across the highway, which meant the state police had to be alerted and coordinated. Although there was a large vacant lot behind it with an abandoned ice cream store well back from the road, major power lines were also behind and close to it; primary wires that could not be dropped by the power company to get them out of the way. I decided that we would remove or shorten limbs on that side so that there would be no interference with the wires. That would also get some weight off the back of the tree. Not that that would be a problem; it was nearly vertical, straight up and down, no lean to it. The Oak was huge, with a diameter at near ground level of three feet or more. And the wood was very heavy. We’d have our hands full to get the highway fully clear and clean in a day. I didn’t care if we ran into the second day with the final cleanup, but the roadway couldn’t be blocked more than an hour, two at the absolute most. With everything essentially in agreement and the date and rain date scheduled, we left the site. The inspector would set it up with the state police.
There was another problem that would have to be discussed with my men. Although the tree had been dead for nearly decades, long enough for bark to be flaking from it, it looked alive. There was an enormous poison ivy vine growing up into it in full greenery; its trunk near ground level was thicker than my arm which wasn’t puny. Climbing that tree would require a volunteer and a bonus, and guilt. Although I wasn’t as susceptible to it as I had been as a kid I knew that it could mean a month or more of misery to someone who is highly allergic; I’ve had my eyes swollen shut. If I couldn’t readily get a volunteer, either I would have to do the climbing, or it wouldn’t get done. It wasn’t essential, but that would leave risk, which I don’t like. On this job particularly, I wanted no risk at all.
I described the job to my men, sight unseen and offered a fifty dollar bonus to the climber, a princely sum back then. There were several lukewarm offers, but over the next days they were retracted. If I had made the offer in the bar after hours I would have had takers, but our discussions took place in the morning. Horace Carter said he’d do it; if Horace took it on he wouldn’t back down. I took the opposite side and tried to talk him out of it, but he said he didn’t get it too bad when he got it at all. I gradually realized that we would all be exposed to poison ivy, handling the wood after the tree was down. I mentioned that to everyone, telling them to wear heavy long sleeved shirts no matter how hot it was and gloves. I would pay for the gloves. I would also bring bottles of lotion, whatever a druggist would recommend. And soap. Maybe we could find running water nearby so we could wash down. I was beginning to be sorry that I had taken on that tree.
Come TD (Take-Down) Day we went to the tree in my big winch truck and a pick up. There were five of us: John, Carl, Matt, Horace and me. We had five chain saws of various sizes and more of an assortment of rope than we needed. We had more of everything than we could possibly need. We were supposed to wait for the right-of-way inspector before starting any work so we waited at first. The state police arrived, four troopers in two cars. They were going to stop all eastbound traffic until the tree was on the ground, then divert it across the median controlling a traffic flow in both directions in the westbound lanes. We chatted while waiting for the inspector. This went on for half an hour or so and I could see they were becoming impatient.
I told them I was going to send a climber up and get a bull line in the tree to pull with, and start getting some limbs off the back side. That would save us time later. They could see the sense to that and agreed. Horace climbed the Oak to a high crotch and tied in his climbing line. Then he pulled up the one inch nylon bull rope and tied it well up to the main trunk. Coming downward somewhat he pulled up another rope with which to lower limbs he would cut off with the chain saw hanging from his climbing saddle. Horace is as graceful a tree climber as I have ever seen. He is a full blooded Mohawk Indian from North Carolina; I have never seen him show fear, though I have seen him in some fearful situations. He moved in such a way as to minimize contact with the poison ivy vines, for up there the vine had spread throughout the tree to nearly every one of the larger limbs. He could not avoid contact, but he could not have minimized it more. Finally he had the back limbs cleared and on the ground, and we had made a pile of them on the lot. We did not use a crane back then; this is the way we worked. He came down.
I talked with the now exasperated state cops. When in the hell is the inspector coming? I wondered the same thing. They asked me how long I would have to block the east lane only, giving no thought to diverting traffic to the westbound lanes. I said it would take me no more than 15 minutes to notch the tree and drop it, which would block the road. Then working from one side, the shoulder, and then the other, the median, I could have a single lane clear in half an hour, with another half an hour to get them both clear. They asked me if I was sure of that. Reasonably so, I said, enough that there wouldn’t be a hazard.
OK, they said. Drop the tree.
”What about the inspector?’ I asked.
“What about him?” was the reply.
What we coordinated was that I cut the notch as they waved cars past speedily, then when I signaled that I was ready to make the back cut they blocked the eastbound and westbound traffic entirely. I kept Horace with me to drive in wedges. The other three dragged the bull rope out as far as the other side of the median and pulled it taut. I cut steadily and the tree began to creak. Before long I could hear and feel splintering, and the mighty oak began its topple. At first it seemed to change its angle to the earth in slow motion, then it picked up momentum and by the time the mighty oak crashed across the pavement and into the ground it was a locomotive. No matter how sure you are of the height, then length of a tree that is crashing toward you and how certain that you are farther away than that, you instinctively run like hell to be absolutely positive you are out of its way. So did my men, and wisely so, for the crash can splinter limbs and send them flying. A safe drop. We didn’t even crack the roadbed; the tree spanned it, its upper limbs taking the impact.
The state troopers gave us a round of applause, as did some motorists who had gotten out of their cars to watch.
No sooner did the tree hit the ground than a car hurriedly pulled out of westbound traffic and skidded to a halt on the median strip. A man got out and rushed over. “Who’s Scott,” he asked.
“I am, “I said.
“You’ve cut down the wrong tree!” he said.
“Says who?” I asked
“I’m the inspector. That tree is alive.”
“What kind of inspector are you?”
“A bridge inspector. The regular man didn’t come in today.”
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.