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John Tom Reed: A Folktale

Joshua D. Walker

In a logging town up in the Olympics there was this family by the name of Reed.  Old Man Reed had died a number of years ago when his fishing boat capsized.  That left the three boys and their dear old mother to fend for themselves.  Mrs. Reed had to raise those kids on no more than the wages she got as a cleaning lady.  She was proud of those first two boys because they had really become something.  Clarence had a management job up in the head office at the mill, and Jimmy had his own trucking company with five rigs that went as far as Chicago and LA.

But John Tom, he was the youngest, he hadn’t really done much yet.  He was already done with school but was still hanging around the house all day.  Most of the time all he did was sit hunched over in front of the TV, playing his video games.  The summer before, Clarence had gotten him a job at the mill but he didn’t last three days.  It used to be, Jimmy would bug him to come down and at least wash the trucks at the garage for a few dollars just to get him out of the house, but Jimmy didn’t even do that anymore because John Tom would come and go as he pleased and be all full of excuses for leaving a truck half-done. 

So every day Jimmy would get up at 5, put on his overalls and boots, and fly out the door to the garage.  Clarence would get up at 6, put on his suit and tie, and race off to the mill.  John Tom would get up at half-past 11, bundle up in an old bathrobe and ball cap and shuffle into the living room.  There he would settle in for video games, which he wasn’t likely to leave for the rest of the day. 

Once, when he was waiting for his saved game to load, he noticed his dear old mother in the yard cursing in the garden.  John Tom called to her saying, “What’s the matter, Mom?”

She answered him, “These trees have grown in so thick in our yard that no sunlight gets through and my flowers don’t have a chance."

I guess seeing his dear old mother like that stirred John Tom to do something.  He said, “Mom, I know Dad put a little something away for me for me to go to college.  Give it to me now so I can go buy a chainsaw to take down these trees in the yard.”  His dear old mother was wary.  John Tom never was good for much, but her flowers were nearly dead and John Tom didn’t come off like college material.  She gave him the $10,000 and told him to bring him back what he didn’t spend.

As John Tom walked down the road to the store, Five-crows Gregory passed him in his truck.  A log falling the wrong way had taken Five-crow’s hand long ago.  He changed gears in his old truck with an arm that looked like a piece of driftwood.  Out from the stump wriggled his thumb, the only part of Five-crows' severed hand that could be salvaged. 

Five-crows called out from his truck, “Where you off to, boy?” 

John Tom said, “I’m headed into town to buy a chainsaw so I can clear out my dear old mother’s yard.” 

“How much money you got?”asked Five-crows.

“$10,000.” said John Tom

Five-crows said,

“Well, you’re in luck
I can help in this case
Get in the truck
Let’s go to my place.”

Now, folks would say all sorts of stuff about Five-crows, and John Tom knew a kid wasn’t supposed to get a ride with people he didn’t know so well.  But he figured he wasn’t a kid no more and what could old Five-crows do with one wriggly thumb on his right hand anyway?

Off to his cabin they went.  Looming outside the Five-crow’s place was a Sitka spruce as wide as a dinner table and as solid as stone.  Even rapping the giant’s lowest branch stung John Tom’s knuckles.  By the spruce was a shed, in that shed was a shelf and on that shelf was a saw.  The saw wasn’t much to look at; it was small and all scraped up.  The weirdest part was the blade.  Instead of the usual teeth that ran along the chain, there were just some feathers hanging by a fishing line. 

“What’s with the decorative feathers?” asked John Tom.

“No, see, those aren’t feathers, they’re microfiber blades, yes,” said Five-crows.

“They look like feathers, like out of a pillow,” insisted John Tom.

“No way, very high-tech durafilter mincers,” insisted Five-crows.

While John Tom thought about it, Five-crows handed him a Ball jar of dense brown liquid and he said,  

“Have some applejack
‘Fraid there’s no cup
There’s more out back
It’ll fix you right up”

John Tom tried to sip the gritty mixture, but Five-crows tipped the ball jar up and all the muck slid into John Tom’s mouth.  John Tom’s legs crossed and his eyes went weak.   His palms itched and his nose became clammy.  His ears went dry and there was a ringing in his mouth. 

John Tom stumbled out of the shed and grabbed a hold of the lowest branch on that big spruce.  Before he blacked out he heard that hard old branch crack and split off in his hand. 

When he got home he still was wobbling a bit and wasn’t remembering to close his mouth.  From his hand hung that clunky little saw.  Jimmy saw him coming down the drive and had an earful for him about getting drunk.  When Clarence saw him come through the front door he gave him a piece of his mind for bringing junk home.  When he sat on the couch with his dear old mother without a penny in change for her, she burst into tears.    

He told his dear old mother, “But this is a really good saw, Mom; it’s got these demilycra calipers.”

The next morning, Jimmy got up at 5, put on his overalls and boots, and flew out the door to garage.  Clarence got up at 6, put on his suit and tie, and raced off to the mill.  John Tom got up at half-past 11, bundled up in an old bathrobe and ball cap and ambled out to the yard with his clunky little saw.  Next to one of those trees over his dear old mother’s flowers, he steadied himself against the ground and flipped the switch.  The feathers fluttered and the motor hummed and with the slightest touch the saw slid through the tree like marshmallow cream.  Soon the yard was free of trees. 

John Tom looked around to admire his work and noticed that he now had an unobstructed view of his neighbor’s house.  He could see pretty-looking Josie Wright in her kitchen doing the dishes.  Satisfied with his work, John Tom went in and settled down on the couch for a few rounds of a first-person shooter game.  It wasn’t long though before pretty-looking Josie returned to his mind.  John Tom knew that it was no good asking a girl out if he didn’t have a ride.  So he set out for Jimmy’s garage hoping to earn enough money to get a car that would impress pretty-looking Josie.

On the road Five-crows Gregory passed him in his truck.  Five-crows called out, “Where you off to, boy?” 

John Tom said, “I’m headed to my brother’s garage to earn some money for a car.” 

Five-crows asked, “How long will you work?”

John Tom answered, “Until I can get something impressive.”

Five-crows said,

“Well, you’re in luck
I can help in this case
Get in the truck
Let’s go to my place.”

At Five-crows’ cabin John Tom did whatever Five-crows pointed at with his wriggly thumb.   He scoured the stove, patched the roof, dug a pit for a new outhouse and filled in the old one.  He dressed a deer, made a stew from the meat and cleaned the skin.  Close to midnight, Five-crows took him outside where there was a garage.  In that garage was a tarp and under that tarp was a rusty truck. 

When Five-crows started the engine a raccoon scampered from the engine and field mice escaped from the seats.  John Tom couldn’t breathe from the exhaust, and tried to ask Five-crows for a glass of water.  Five-crows handed him a Ball jar of brown stuff and said,  

“Have some applejack
‘Fraid there’s no cup
There’s more out back
It’ll fix you right up”

John Tom’s legs crossed and his eyes went weak.   His palms itched and his nose went clammy.  His ears were dry and there was a ringing in his mouth. 

John Tom stumbled out of the garage and leaned on that great Sitka spruce.  The last thing he remembered was that ancient tree bending over under his hands until its tip touched the ground 80 feet down the road.

When he swerved into the drive in that rusty truck, it was about 2 in the morning.  Jimmy woke up and chewed him out for driving drunk.  When he staggered into the kitchen Clarence snapped at him for leaving the old heap where the neighbors could see.  When the springs of his bed heaved under his weary weight, his mother prayed to God for his salvation. 

The next morning, Jimmy got up at 5, put on his overalls and boots, and flew out the door to the garage.  Clarence got up at 6, put on his suit and tie, and raced off to the mill.  John Tom got up at half-past 11, put on his cleanest T-shirt and jeans and walked over to the Wrights’ house.  He asked if pretty-looking Josie Wright wanted to go to the street fair in town.

She agreed to go with John Tom, but when she saw that rusty truck, her nose wrinkled up.  On the way into town she was giving him a hard time about the thing.  John Tom insisted his truck wasn’t much to look at but could move fast as a deer and cornered like a hare.  By the time they were down on the main drag by the harbor she had goaded him into proving it.  That rusty truck rattled and shook but it was going pretty good and they were taking those corners hard.  Folks at the fair had to dodge left and right to stay out of the streets.

On the corner pulling out onto the harbor access road the passenger door revealed it wasn’t up to the task and popped open and pretty-looking Josie tumbled down the sandbank and out onto the log pen in the harbor. 

Now those log pens aren’t a very good place to be.  As soon as you step on a log it starts rolling one way or the other and you’ve got to start stepping in the opposite direction if you don’t want it to roll you under.  If you’re lucky enough to slip through without getting crushed between two of these logs on the way down, you’re still stuck in the freezing cold ocean with the logs closing in above you.  If you manage to get to the sunny side of the logs you’re set to go back under if you try and move.  

Pretty-looking Josie had the sense knocked out of her by the fall, and even if she didn’t she still probably wouldn’t have fared so well.  As much as she tried to move, it was in the wrong direction and before long she was out of anybody’s reach and tumbling under the logs.  John Tom’s driving had taken everyone’s attention from the fair and now nearly the whole town could see the young lady’s predicament.  Even so, there wasn’t much anybody could do for her. 

As for John Tom, he had his clunky old saw behind the seat of the truck.  He leaped from one log to another like a jay.  This one he spun a little forward, the next one a little back.  By the time he got to the log above Josie, his feather-bladed saw was spinning.  He sliced one log and another, and heaved the boards out of the way.  He got so distracted with cutting the wood he almost forgot about pretty-looking Josie.  He had rough cut about a thousand board feet before he remembered to pull her up and set her on the sand.  She wasn’t much worse for wear by the time they had her dry.  When the owner of the mill saw John Tom turn those logs into boards and heave the girl from the water he waited for him to wade to the shore. 

He said, “Boy, we could use a fellah like you.”

John Tom said sheepishly, “Well, I don’t like hard work very much.”

Said the owner, “If you cut as much as you just did half as fast, I’d pay you to sleep the rest of the day.”

John Tom said, “I do seem to be a mite more in shape than I was a couple days ago.”

Said the owner, “Listen, up in the mountains we’re having an awful problem. There’s a 10,000 acre stand of Doug Fir that has to be cleared this month but we haven’t got a man to spare for the job.  If you clear those woods, I’ll give you half the company.

John Tom had never seen a man dislike working as much as that mill owner so he reckoned he’d make a right good co-owner, and he agreed to the bargain.  What that mill owner hadn’t told him was the reason nobody would clear those Doug Fir.  There were plenty of ax-men on the Peninsula, but none of them wanted to tangle with Setchswoypa. 

John Tom said goodbye to his distressed mother and dismayed brothers, set his saw behind his seat, and drove up into the mountains.  On the narrow muddy roads where trucks had to carefully maneuver around one another he passed Five-crows Gregory coming the other way. 

Five-crows called out, “Where you off to, boy?” 

John Tom answered, “I’m off to clear 10,000 acres of Doug Fir.”

Five-crows asked, “Where will you do it?”

John Tom answered, “Deep in the Olympics.”

Five-crows said,

“Well, you’re in luck
I can help in this case
Get in the truck
Let’s go to my place.”

By Five-crows’ cabin was a shop.  In that shop was a crane and on that crane was a crate and in that crate was a mechanical suit of hydraulics and gears. 

“Where did you get such a thing as that?” asked John Tom.

“I helped NASA build it.  It’s meant to mine iron on the Moon,” answered Five-crows, “Only problem is, nobody ever found iron on the Moon.”

John Tom slipped his legs into the suit’s legs, he slipped his arms into the suit’s arms and the canopy eased closed. 

John Tom said, “I can’t move an inch.”

Five-crows said, “Of course not, it’s meant for 1/6th the gravity. Hardly any man alive could wield such a suit, yes.”

Five-crows handed him a Ball jar and said,  

“Have some applejack
‘Fraid there’s no cup
There’s more out back
It’ll fix you right up”

Before he lifted the Ball jar to his lips, John Tom asked, “Did you get this applejack from NASA too?”

“Naw,” said Five-crows and he scratched his chin with his wriggly thumb, “That’s just my granny’s recipe. 'Cept, I put more raisins in.”

John Tom’s legs crossed and his eyes went weak.   His palms itched and his nose went clammy.  His ears were dry and there was a ringing in his mouth.  By more fit than intention the suit heaved to its feet under John Tom’s power.  The suit staggered from the shop and lurched toward that ancient Sitka.  John Tom caught himself from falling over by throwing the suit's arms around the trunk.  As the suit with John Tom in it swayed backwards, the roots of that old tree sprang one after the other out of the ground.  John Tom managed about 3 steps backwards still holding onto that trunk before he fell on his mechanical tailbone.  As he passed out, John Tom saw nothing but 500 tons of Sitka spruce. 

When John Tom made it to the Doug Fir stand he still was swaying back and forth.  With every swing to the left down would come a tree with every swing to the right he’d make it smooth as a rifle barrel.  He harnessed them 10 to a line on his rusty truck which was better than the latest donkey and cleared an acre every 2 minutes. 

It didn’t take too long before Setchswoypa heard the racket John Tom was making and he stormed out of the tree line in a huff to see who had the nerve to tear up his mountainside.  That mech suit made John Tom look like a horrible monster, but Setchswoypa had dealt with all comers and wasn’t about to let a fool go unpunished.  He swaggered up to that suit and threw a fist square in its chest. 

The works of man can be impressive, but nature has found a way through most of them and it was the same with that mech suit.  First the cockpit cracked in two, then the arms fell to the ground, finally the legs fell over.  There wasn’t much John Tom could do about that, but he still had his own two hands with which to give old Setchswoypa as good as he got. 

Those two went at each other for the rest of the day and all that night too.  Setchswoypa would throw a punch into John Tom’s gut, and John Tom would give one to Setchswoypa’s jaw.  John Tom would put an elbow to Setchswoypa’s neck and Setchswoypa would give John Tom a solid head-butt.  Setchswoypa would bite as hard as he could on John Tom’s left ankle, and John Tom would scratch Setchswoypa across the nose. 

 Finally as the sun came across the ridgeline, Setchswoypa heaved to his feet and gasping for air gave John Tom a square look in the eye.  He spat blood from his mouth and shook the needles from his hair.  With as much vinegar as when he met John Tom, he headed back into the trees towards the south.  Most folks agree Setchswoypa settled down around North Bend where he found the climate and cranberries more to his liking anyway. 

John Tom finished the Doug Fir stand and hauled it down to the mill.  The owner gave him the mill and he married pretty-looking Josie.  It was quite a few days before he managed time to get back to his video games.    

April 15, 2009
Vol. XIII Issue 2

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