UNCLE JAKE CHESTER STORIES
The stories in this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard by Kirk H. Neely.
Old Man Chester worked in the cabinet shop at the lumberyard with his oldest son, Hoss Chester, and Tolbart Taylor, another lumberyard employee. Uncle Jake, as we sometimes called Old Man Chester, had been married three times. He could not wear a wedding ring, at least not on either ring finger because both ring fingers were missing. “By crackies, I don’t need no ring. I can count my wives on one hand.” he would say holding up the three remaining fingers on his left hand.
Old Man Chester’s three wives were much younger than he was. His first and third wives were teenagers when he married them. He had three families. When the youngest of his fourteen children was born, his oldest son was in his sixties. Old Man Chester never divorced. He simply outlived his first two wives.
One day Banjo Stark, a lumber salesman from Winder, Georgia, was perched on the tall stool at the counter in the lumberyard office writing up an order from Pappy, my grandfather. Old Man Chester came in from the shop for his morning Coca-Cola. Banjo spoke to him and gave him a couple of cheap cigars as was his custom. Banjo saved the high-dollar cigars for Pappy.
Pappy, who had nine children of his own, asked, “Banjo, what do you think of a man who has been married three times, outlived his first two wives, is married to a woman forty years younger than he is, has fourteen children, and has a house full of little children by his third wife?”
Banjo took a drag on his cigarette and smiled, “He’s either a better man than I am, or he’s got mighty close neighbors.” Without a word, Uncle Jake grinned, and walked back up to the shop.
Old Man Chester had the hands of a lumberman, rough and calloused palms, one blue thumbnail, the other yellow, broken fingernails, and missing fingers. The fourth finger of his right hand had been lopped off when he was a boy. “Got cut off in the fifth wheel of a wagon, by crackies.” he would explain. The fifth wheel of a wagon is the pivot wheel for the wagon tongue. Many a digit has been lost in that scissor-like mechanism.
Old Man Chester had lost both the third and fourth fingers of his left hand. It was a story he did not tell, but others frequently told it, though rarely in his presence.
One day in the shop at the lumberyard, Old Man Chester was doing some very tedious work on the band saw. A band saw is a shop tool for cutting intricate patterns on small pieces of finished trim. 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 moves the piece 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.
Old Man Chester was doing close work on the band saw. He was not using a guide stick because the pattern was so detailed. In making a curve, the saw blade was put into a bind. The wood and Old Man Chester’s left hand were jerked into the saw, severing his ring finger just above the knuckle.
Blood splattered everywhere. Hoss shut off the whirling saw, grabbed an oily rag, soaked it in turpentine, and handed it to his father. “Daddy, you got blood all over that white pine trim for Jack Hamlet’s cabinet.”
Old man Chester, still puffing his cigar, wrapped the dirty cloth around the stub that was still gushing blood. “By crackies, he’ll just have to prime it and paint over it. Now, take me to the doctor. This dern turpentine’s burning like heck.”
Old Man Chester bit down on his cigar, squeezing the rag tightly around his hand. Tolbart Taylor opened the heavy sliding door at the front of the shop, and hurried to get Pappy. The two Chester men, father and son, got into the old Studebaker station wagon and headed down the hill past the office. Pappy joined them and drove to the emergency room at the hospital.
Dr. Leon Poole met them in the emergency room. Sewing up the wound, Dr. Poole bandaged it carefully. He gave Old Man Chester a tetanus shot. Old Man Chester said the shot hurt more than the injury itself.
About noon, just before dinnertime, Old Man Chester, Hoss, and Pappy returned to the lumberyard. The wounded hand was bandaged with gauze and adhesive tape, leaving the three remaining fingers and thumb exposed. They stopped by the office to file an insurance report. My grandfather filled out the paperwork. With his good hand Uncle Jake made his mark and Hoss witnessed the ink chicken scratch and added his own illegible mark.
“What’d that doctor tell you to do?” Uncle Will asked.
“By crackies, he told me I couldn’t have no cigar in the hospital. Hoss put it out and saved it for me.”
“What’d he say about your hand?”
“Said I cut my dern finger off. He took off the last little bit and sewed a flap of skin over it. Told me to keep it clean and dry. By crackies, how I’m gonna’ keep it clean without I wash it? How I’m gonna’ keep it dry ifin’ I do? Dern sawbones don’t have no sense.”
On the day he lost the fourth finger of his left hand, Old Man Chester and Hoss went back to work. They ate their baloney and cheese sandwich for dinner.
Sometime later, J.T. Lester stopped by. Hoss was finishing the scroll work piece for Hamlet’s cabinet on the noisy band saw. J.T. shouted above the roar, “Uncle Jake how’d you manage to lose that finger.”
“By crackies, it weren’t all that hard, J.T. I was cutting that scroll piece and that dern saw yanked my hand into that blade jest that quick, jest ran it in there jest like that.” Motioning with a swing of the bandaged left hand, Old Man Chester thrust it right back into the saw. He cut off the middle finger of the same hand.”
This required a second trip to the emergency room where Dr. Poole repaired the second stump on Uncle Jake’s left hand.
It is a part of lumberyard legend. It was a story that Old Man Chester never told, but everybody else did.