So there I was, standing next to my hefty truck and my ridiculously out of scale little utility trailer (the pony trailer) amid mountainous piles of used bridge mats. This is what happens when I try to save time by buying firewood. Go figure.
At the end of a row of these gargantuan stacks was a firewood processor and a mountain of firewood. Finally!
I approached the firewood pile(s) and grimaced. I was hoping for chopped up trees. This was chopped up bridge mats. Ugh!
I grabbed a chunk and examined it. It looked exactly like someone had taken a big huge log of oak, milled it into a crude 30′ “beam”, drilled holes through it for a steel cable, tossed in a swamp, and drove an excavator across it thirty times. Yep, a God damned bridge mat!
A guy pulled up with a bobcat. I waved him down. “Care to load my truck?”
He eyed my truck. “What if I dent the truck?”
I smiled, “Then I’ll dent you.”
See… some things are simple. There are two kinds of heavy equipment operators, the true artists with precision control and the bubbas who break stuff. I was talking to the latter though he seemed to know his own limitations. “I’ll go get Frank.” He shouted over the engine and then he was gone.
I examined the mess I’d gotten myself into. The block of wood in my hand was scuffed and dirty, like you’d expect. But it was wood. I checked the rings. It was oak. It was bone dry too! It was cut into “stove length” (about 16″) and crudely split (though still pretty large). It was butt ugly… but would it burn well.
I had to admit, the chunk in my hand, despite being ugly and dirty, would probably put off some serious BTU’s and make great coals. I came seeking a tree and found a chopped up bridge mat. Should I embrace diversity? ‘This shit will heat the house all night’ I though.
A monstrous front end loader roared up. “That shit’ll heat your house all night long!” The guy shouted over the machinery. My truck is a pretty big one but the bucket on the beast he was driving would crush it like a cantelope. “Yeah,” I grimaced, “you got a bobcat to load my truck and trailer?”
The guy (who was Frank) got off his mountain of steel and barked something into a muddy cell phone. A smaller, tracked bobcat zipped up. It had forklift tines, not ideal for moving 16″ chunks of oak. Frank explained this to a nervous bobcat driver. The first bobcat arrived and the guy in it tried to get out of the cab before Frank made him load the shiny truck and get dented. The two of them were arguing while a third bobcat arrived with (I could tell at a glance) a better driver. Frank and guy #1 kept arguing while I motioned to “good driver” to load my trailer. The driver, a man who grokks his machine, made short work of it. When Frank looked up the trailer was already loaded.
Frank smiled and all three bobcats shut down for an informal pow wow at my trailgate. Frank explained that there wasn’t a lick of treatment or chemicals of any kind on any ounce of that wood because if it had so much as a square inch of pressure treatment or creosote, some regulator would crawl up someone’s ass and it would shut down a million dollar job. That was why bridge mats wear out so fast. It’s not like it’s rocket science to make a mat that’ll last forever but the hippies insist it’s made of nothing but wood. Thus Franks’ new career as a bridge mat refurbisher.
I eyed the new buildings under construction. “You gonna’ resaw good beams out of the centers?” I asked.
Frank was shocked… apparently I’d discovered his brilliant plan. The bobcat guys hadn’t thought of this. “Maybe.” Frank played it cool.
“It’s good wood inside right?” I wheedled.
Frank smiled, then went on a ten minute discussion of the merits of the inner 80% core of the wood which was just perfect and had not so much as a speck of discoloration or broken fibers and could be had at the fraction of the unfathomable cost of an actual oak tree. I shared his vision. Recycling isn’t about aluminium beer cans at a nickel a pop, it’s about finding a way to profitably re-use something when it’s original purpose has been fulfilled. This was recycle in a way that made me smile. I’d like to see every table in every kitchen made of a 3″ thick plank hewn from the beams that once groaned under a crane’s weight.
“And that shit?” I hooked a thumb at the ragged, dirty, crushed, chunks of wood that now sagged the pony trailer’s springs. Frank admitted that this was the end of the road for a well used mat. But, he added, with a flourish that would make P.T. Barnum proud, this was also greatest firewood in the world. I admitted that it had it’s merits but I explained that I’d been led to believe I was here to buy cut up trees and not an industrial waste product. Perhaps it wasn’t too much to ask that the Craigslist ad and the people on the phone and Julie and Jake could have used the words “bridge mat”?
Frank, clearly a man who went out of his way to make sure nobody called a chooped up old dirty bridge mat “industrial waste” repeated that the wood was great for burning. His optimism was infectious. Then he turned and barked orders at the three guys to go various places and do various things that had nothing to do with me. Everyone jumped like a cat on fire; obviously Frank ran a tight ship.
“And the rest?” I asked, as everyone scrambled for their machine. Frank stopped. Everyone stopped. Frank turned on me like a guy used to scaring people. The bobcat guys leered on like folks who’d been scared and liked to hear someone stick it to the boss.
“You got a trailer load.” Frank barked.
“I paid for a cord.” I insisted.
“That’s a cord,” Frank waved at the trailer.
“A cone lightly dumped on a 5′ x 8′ trailer. You think that axle can support a cord?” I asked… trying to sound confused. As if I didn’t expect the “pickup load”/”cord” switcheroo.
“Um… well usually we sell just a pickup load for $100.” Frank muttered. He was looking at his feet. The bobcat guys were smiling.
“So when I called Julie and then handed Jake cash… and I specifically asked for a cord of firewood and they specifically said it was a cord of firewood? And the receipt I’ve got… that little piece of paper says a it’s a full cord of firewood? You’re telling me you advertise full cords of firewood on Craigslist… and you call it a cord of firewood when I’m handing over cash and write a cord of firewood on the receipt… but it’s a just measly trailer load of industrial waste product when push comes to shove?”
Frank glanced at me and at the bobcat guys. This was an ugly situation. It never fails to surprise me how a guy who drives up in a $70,000 piece of heavy equipment will bitch about a hundred bucks worth of dirty wood. Frank seemed both infuriated and trapped. If he gave in to me now… what then? How would his massive ego ever survive the day? Of course I’d been waiting for this all day. I’ve seen this movie before and I was ready for it.
Time for the next phase.
“Well I don’t want you to do something that makes you unhappy. If you meant to sell a half cord in a pickup and just ‘accidentally’ instructed your folks on the phone to call it a cord… and if you meant to sell old derelict bridge mats and just ‘accidentally’ instructed your folks to never ever hint that it’s anything other than a pure virgin tree… well shit happens right?” I said it low so the bobcat guys wouldn’t have more to rib Frank about later.
Then I spoke up a little louder so the bobcat guys (who were loving the show) could hear. “…And I sure wouldn’t hold it against you if you just didn’t know what a cord was. That’s hard right?” I continued.
That did it!
“A cord is 4′ x 4′ x 8′ Goddammit!” Frank barked. “Everyone knows that.”
I waved toward the pony trailer. It’s 8′ long and you can see that. It was piled maybe 2′ deep if that.
“Load this guy with as much as he wants.” Frank instructed the good bobcat driver. “Everyone else get to work!” With that he stomped off to his machine, roared it around in an impressive pirouette, and was gone. The good driver loaded my truck gingerly and I helped. When I was satisfied I had a cord I called him off. He couldn’t stop smiling.
“You come back for all the wood you want!” He enthused.
I suspect Frank is something of a tyrant. Also I suspect Frank is the 235th guy I’ve met who scrapes an extra buck or two conflating “full cord” and “dump some shit in your Toyota”. This disappoints me. I’d have been willing to pay $180 a cord for a real cord. I’d have been willing to entertain chopped up bridge mats instead of ‘a tree’. Even so, I was impressed with his recycle/resaw plan and predict a golden future for Frank, miniature Tony Soprano of the bridge mat woodlot. I’ll miss him.