Sawdust and regret: A tribute to my logger grandpa

Ace Salmon, the author’s grandfather, at work in Siskiyou County.
Ace Salmon, the author’s grandfather, at work in Siskiyou County. Courtesy of Ryan Sabalow

My grandfather, Ace Salmon, was a master craftsman.

That’s not a description you’d normally hear to describe someone who logs for a living. But watching Ace, who was 80 when he died July 30 in Siskiyou County, cut down a tree was to witness something exceptional. He was an artist who painted with two-stroke gas, a surgeon whose scalpel howled at 14,000 rpms.

He could look up at a tree, watch it sway in the wind, and know exactly how the tree wanted to go down – and the line on which he’d make it fall. A V-shaped notch here. A flat cut there. A couple of knocks with his faller’s ax, and that massive fir or pine would come crashing down, right where Ace knew it would.

Those skills, learned during decades in the woods, were hard earned. One of my earliest memories of him is of me dabbing salve on the dozens of red welts on his back that he got when he cut down a tree holding a beehive.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been swarmed by bees, nor was it the worst he suffered on the job. He was knocked cold when a cable on a piece of logging equipment snapped. He outraced a raging wildfire by pointing a bulldozer down a hill so steep, he was practically standing on its instrument panel. Grandpa’s pickup was the ambulance the day his son, Keith, fell on a running saw.

These dangers are probably why Grandpa could remember practically every tree he ever cut down. Several years ago, out hunting with me, Ace would periodically point to a stump up some stupidly steep hill we passed.

“I cut that back in ’68,” he’d say. “There was 4 feet of snow on the ground.”

I like to think of Grandpa the way he looked back then. Suspenders and a flannel shirt rolled up to his tanned, muscled biceps. His mustache shading a grin as Ace, a son of dirt-poor Dust Bowl Okies, razzed his fellow loggers about their ancestry.

I miss that laugh. It was such a contagious exclamation point on the end of his soft, slow sentences. The way it so boisterously broke through Ace’s calm, understated demeanor is a metaphor for his life.

As a Jehovah’s Witness, Grandpa lived modestly. But when Ace cut loose, he was a showman. He had the loudest boat on the lake, and the shiniest motorcycle in town. At weddings, he’d swing and dance an Okie jitterbug. He had pecs and six-pack abs at an age when some other men are using walkers.

“Ace” was the perfect name for the man who made me forever wish I could grow chest hair. Grandpa seemed so strong, I never really thought of him as an old man, and it’s probably why I let our relationship drift when I left the north state for a newspaper job in the Midwest. It kept drifting even when I got back to California last year. I never reconnected with him in the way I’d planned. In my mind, Grandpa Ace was never going away. There would be time.

Now my heart is filled with regret.

I take comfort in the fact that a grandfather’s love is everlasting, and that I’ll carry his stories with me. My daughters are going to hear them.

And maybe some day, if I work hard like Ace did, I too can become a master of my craft.

In the meantime, there are good friends to tease, engines to rev and jitterbugs to dance.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow