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The Red Hand

July 21, 2013

Old Man Geter had the hands of a lumberman. His rough and calloused palms, one blue thumbnail, the other yellow, broken fingernails, and missing fingers told a story.  The fourth finger of his right hand had been amputated when he was a boy.

“Got cut off in the fifth wheel of a wagon,” he would explain. Many a digit has been lost in the scissor-like mechanism of the fifth wheel.

Geter had also lost both the third and fourth fingers of his left hand.  It was a story he did not share, but others frequently told it.

One day in the shop at the lumberyard, Geter was working on a tedious job with the band saw, a shop tool for cutting intricate patterns on small pieces of wood.  The saw blade is a continuous band that moves rapidly around two wheels, somewhat like a fan belt on an automobile.  As the blade moves at a high rate of speed, the craftsman directs the pieces of wood into the blade, cutting curves and bends according to the pattern penciled on the wood.  This scrollwork is sometimes called close work because the hands of the worker are so close to the whirling blade.  A safety precaution is to use a guide stick to maneuver the wood into the saw.

Geter was not using a guide stick that day because the pattern was so detailed.  In making a curve, the saw blade was put into a bind, jerking the wood and Geter’s hand into the saw.  The blade severed his left ring finger just above the knuckle.

Leroy, working nearby, saw blood splatter everywhere.  He shut off the whirling saw, grabbed an oily rag, soaked it in turpentine, and handed it to Geter, all the while fussing, “You got blood all over that white pine trim for Jack Hamlet’s cabinet.”

Old Man Geter, still puffing his cigar, wrapped the dirty cloth around the stub as it gushed blood. “He’ll just have to prime it and paint over it. Now, take me to the doctor. This turpentine’s burning like the devil!”

Geter bit down on his cigar, squeezing the rag tightly around his hand. Jesse Ledbetter, another employee, opened the heavy sliding door at the front of the shop and hurried to summon my grandfather. Leroy and Geter headed down the hill toward the office and loaded into the old Studebaker station wagon. Pappy drove them to the hospital.

When the three arrived at the emergency room, the doctor sewed the wound closed and bandaged it carefully.  Old Man Geter complained that the tetanus shot he received hurt more than the injury.

About noon, Old Man Geter, Leroy, and Pappy returned to the lumberyard. The wounded hand was bandaged with gauze and adhesive tape, leaving the three remaining fingers and thumb exposed. Before returning to work, the men stopped by the office to file an insurance report. With his good hand, Geter chicken-scratched his mark on the paperwork my grandfather had completed.

“What’d that doctor tell you to do?” Uncle Will asked.

“He told me I couldn’t have no cigar in the hospital. Leroy put it out and saved it for me.”

“No, I mean what’d he say about your hand?”

“Said I cut my finger off. Took off the last little bit and sewed a flap of skin over it. Told me to keep it clean and dry.  How’m I gonna’ keep it clean without washing it?  How’m I gonna’ keep it dry ifin’ I do?  That sawbones don’t have no sense.”

Though the Geter family is not directly related to the Neely clan, we probably have some kinship. Cigars, sawdust, red clay, lumberyard language, and bloody hands somehow connect us.

Years ago I found a book on the subject of heraldry. Curiosity compelled me to scan the index for my family name. I was surprised to find Neely listed just as we spell it. Our name was grouped with other spelling variations:  McNeil, McNeal, O’Neal, O’Neil, Nealy, and Neeley.

I was even more astonished to learn that we actually have a coat of arms, a simple shield emblazoned with a bloody left hand. The story behind the image is fascinating. The Red Hand of Ulster, a symbol used to denote the Irish province, is also known as the Red Hand of Ireland.

The Red Hand is Celtic in origin and rooted in Gaelic folklore. According to legend, Ulster, the northernmost Irish province, had at one time no rightful heir to the crown. The High King of Ireland decreed that a boat race should take place among the clan chieftains and that “whosoever’s hand is the first to touch the shore of Ulster, so shall he be made the king.”

One of the contestants, an O’Neill, loved Ulster and wanted to claim the crown. As the boats came in sight of land, it appeared that another contestant would win the race. Afraid that he might lose, the chieftain of the O’Neill clan cut off his left hand and threw it to the shore, thereby touching land first. Though he lost his hand, he won the kingship.

The bloody left hand adorns the Ulster flag and appears on the shield of County Tyrone, located in Northern Ireland. The Gaelic war cry Lámh Dhearg Abu, meaning Red Hand to Victory, was forever associated with the O’Neills and, so, the Neelys.

The red hand is a symbol of honor.

My immediate family has also had its fair share of red hands.  My dad’s left index finger was clipped by a table saw in the shop at the lumberyard. Whenever Dad pointed that crooked finger, as if it were a weapon, his aim was always a little off.

One Sunday my mother was preparing ham salad for lunch. My sister Jeslyn, then about four years of age, watched the meat grinder with fascination. She stuck her index finger into the business end of the machine.

Plop! The end of her digit fell into the bowl.

While Mama held ice on Jeslyn’s hand, Dad searched through the ingredients in the bowl until he found the tiny fingertip. Dr. Leon Poole sewed it back in place. To this day our family has no appetite for ham salad.

I remember the fall that my brother Lawton and I were cutting kindling with my brand new hatchet. As he pushed sticks onto a pine stump, I brought the hatchet down with the rhythm of a rock-a-billy drummer. Then, we lost our timing, and a misguided whack from my blade nearly severed Lawton’s right index finger. Again, Dr. Poole came to the rescue. Brother Lawton’s finger, though bent, does allow him to thump a stand-up bass and pick a banjo with the best of bluegrass musicians.

When our four sons were children, they enjoyed watching “The Red Hand Gang,” a television adventure series about kids who solved mysteries. Had I known then what I know now, I might have assumed that something in our DNA attracted our children to the red hand.

On the day Old Man Geter lost the fourth finger of his left hand, he and Leroy returned to work. They ate their bologna and cheese sandwiches for lunch.

Sometime later that afternoon, Jack Hamlet stopped by, just as Leroy was finishing the scrollwork piece for Hamlet’s cabinet. Jack shouted above the roar of the noisy band saw, “Geter, how’d you manage to lose that finger?”

“It weren’t all that hard. I was cutting that scrollpiece and the band saw yanked my hand into the blade jest that quick!  Jest ran it in there jest like that!”

Motioning with a swing of his bandaged left hand, Old Man Geter thrust it back into the saw severing the middle finger of the same hand!

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2013

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