What my father taught me: Mike Rowe
The Eagle Scout and Dirty Jobs star on learning how to fell trees and prepare firewood.
“People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” Albert Einstein said that. But I didn’t know the quote when I was 14 and woke up one Saturday morning to see my father standing at the foot of the bed, sharpening a double-sided axe. “You’re up,” he said. “Let’s go.” My father tends towards abruptness in speech. He’s also suspicious of anything too modern, like nouns.
“Is it cold out?” I asked.
“Invigorating,” he replied.
The Massey Ferguson idled impatiently as we loaded up the wood cart with the axe, ropes and pulleys, jacks and wedges, two chain saws and various other weapons of war. My mother added a lunch box to the arsenal, along with a large thermos of coffee. It started to snow. “Try not to kill yourselves,” she said, standing in the doorway. “Dinner’s at six.”
Dad walked behind as I drove the old tractor down the gravel road, through the lower pasture, and deep into the woods where we would do battle with the Pine, the Maple, the Oak, and the mighty Locust – the last, his personal favourite. “The hardwood puts up a tough fight, but it burns the best,” he’d say. Heating most of the farmhouse with a wood stove was a source of great pride for my father – and, not to mention, endless witticisms. “Chop your own wood; it’ll warm you twice!”
Dad relished finding the right tree and taking it down with precision. He imagined himself as the contestant on some sort of lumberjack game show, challenged perhaps to drop the tree in a narrow gap between a Mercedes and a school bus full of children. With the ropes and pulleys and delicate chainsaw work, he would land the tree exactly where he wanted to land it. (“Measure twice, cut once! That’s the ticket, my boy!”) And he did it again on that particular day, just as he did on so many other days. Following our ritual, we stripped off the limbs, cut them to stove length, and then turned our attention to the trunk, methodically severing it into chunks from top to bottom.
Hauling the wood back to the house was a full day’s work. But splitting the big cuts into smaller pieces for our insatiable wood stove? That was a chore without end. Every day after school meant an hour in the woodpile with dad. “Aim for the chopping block, Mike, not the wood. Aim for the wood and you’ll hit nothing.”
Einstein, being Einstein, was right. Chopping wood yields immediate results, and it’s gratifying to see progress unfold. But up there in the wood pile, the real gratification would be delayed. Because my dad was not just teaching me how to swing an axe; he was teaching me that work and play are two sides of the same coin. He was showing me how to enjoy the challenge of doing a hard thing. He was preparing me to become a perpetual apprentice, a role that would eventually define my unlikely career in television.