Some days start innocently, their inherent meanness revealed only as they unroll. Other days we escape tragedy by sheer luck. November 13th, 2009 was a Friday the 13th with such awful luck that it spilled over to its preceding neighbor, Thursday the 12th, and unremorselessly struck down the Rambler.
The day dawned suspiciously calm, one of a triplet of warm November days. Coming after the dreary cold and wet October, nice weather created a spark of ambition to do a few late fall chores. Fall chores that ended fall with a fall.
The Hanson sawmill shed was literally falling down. Forty years after it had been built, a tin roof on stilts over the 100 year old Howell lumber mill, the tamarack posts brother Byron had set deep into the ground were rotting off, giving the building waves in the roof like those seen in abandoned barns. “I’ll bring some treated 4x6x10 posts, nails and braces, and we will jack it up and straighten it and fasten the old posts to new ones,” I told brother Everett and nephew Bryce that Sunday. Tuesday we completed half of it and were looking to finish on Thursday.
Younger brother Byron and Dad bought the mill from Dan McKenzie back in about 1970, rebuilt it and put it under the tin roof. Byron, Dad, Everett, Marvin and I had sawed thousands of board feet of local timber on the mill since, both for our personal use and for a time, as a business. Since the death of Byron and Dad, only Everett, Bryce and I occasionally ran the mill; the last time almost 3 years ago. It needed a lot of tender loving care to get back in good running condition.
Spring and fall weeks, when the weather changes, are dangerous to do-it-your-selfers. The rains quit or the temperatures rise and sure enough, in spite of your best intentions, there rises in you the urge to build, to repair, to prepare for the next season. It is highly infectious. I started updating my maple sap cooking building. Bryce began putting in a new fence and gate. Everett rebuilt his sap cooker to add grates. Soon we met and planned that fateful expedition to “Fix the Sawmill Shed.”
We were at the site at 10:00 am. I had the extra poles and bracing lumber and nails, Everett the tools, and Bryce the tractor and loader. With back-blade and front-loader tractors we cleaned out the old sawdust pile to fix the sawdust conveyor belt. Bryce moved the rotting slab pile to give us clearance to the posts holding up the shed. When Byron built it, he used tamarack poles from our tamarack swamp on the 60 along Wolf Creek south of Roger Lake. Tamaracks are somewhat naturally resistant to rot and so would make a good shed post for 30 years. However, it was 40 years later, and for the most part, the big posts had rotted out at ground level.
We used the shovel and post-hole digger to dig a deep hole adjacent to the old posts and then put in the treated 10 foot 4x6s and using threaded rods bolted the old to the new. We pulled, jacked and straightened until the shed gradually started to look proper again. Only two posts in the ground left, but the wind during the summer had taken several sheets of tin and folded them and their roof boards over. We needed to fold them back, put in new roof boards and nail it all down again.
I had my 10-foot stepladder and a 16-foot extension ladder. With some maneuvering, we flipped the roof section back in place and began to nail it in. “Need some more roof boards,” said Bryce. “I have some 2x6 pine at the cabin left from the sap shed,” I replied, “I’ll buzz over there with the truck and bring some back.”
I drove the quarter mile up Hwy 87 to the corner, then stopped in at the field across from the School and Greenhouse where Chuck Sflarsky had stopped digging the corn field and was talking to Jeff Carlson. “Did you get much yield?” I asked Chuck, about the 40 acres of cornfield he had rented from me. “Averaged just under 120 bushels per acre. Lot better than I expected considering it was so dry from April until August. Better than last year. Corn was about 21% moisture and nice kernels, “ replied Chuck.
”Need some lumber,” I told Margo as I stopped in the cabin and picked up another hammer. “It is going good, should have the posts and roof done by noon.” “Be careful,” she replied automatically. I loaded up the boards and headed back to the shed.
When I got back, Bryce was standing in the bucket of the loader, raised above the peak in the roof, nailing down tin. I tossed out two boards and placed the step ladder and carried one up and slid it along side the old rotten one. “I’ll put one more up higher,” I told Bryce. Everett was digging along a post getting ready to set another replacement.
The sky had darkened with the threat of rain coming that afternoon. Chuck’s tractor roared over the red clay loam fields a few hundred yards north of us. The Mortenson’s donkey let out a bray that floated down from the hills to the north while a flock of Canadian Geese vee’d above the lake causing the swans to trumpet their “go away” call. One of Ohnen’s beef cows bellowed, still distraught from being separated from her calf a week earlier. Bill and Barbara Hoffman had just sat down at the table for a late cup of coffee on the old Borup place kiddy-corner over 87 from the “Armstrong place” as we called this farm. Down the hill, Jean Judd was busy hand stitching on a new quilt and a few tomatoes were being picked for market at the greenhouses across the road.
I moved the step ladder and set it down quickly and rushed up it with the last board. I stuck it into the roof and gave it a shove; meanwhile the ladder and I began a slow swirling waltz downward. My right leg slipped between the ladder rungs and as we completed our twirl to the ground, my leg and knee took an extra turn and then was wrenched sharply as I slowly made a soft landing on the freshly scraped sawdust laced black earth. For a brief moment on the way down, I realized I was turning clockwise, just as Rodger Meyer had taught in HS Physics. The coriolis effect predicted my twirl direction just as it does with water swirling down the drain differently in the north and south hemispheres.
I was down and in great pain. “Oh sh_t! Oh sh_t!” I moaned but then remembering that Bryce attends church regularly and Everett certainly needed a good example as he was prone to pick up harsh words already when he was only 3 years old. “Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot…” I continued to moan as Bryce came down from the bucket and Ev came over. I was on my right side, lying on the ground, having gotten the ladder off of me, and waiting for the waves of pain to ease up.
“My knee. I think I really messed it up,” I told them, “feels like when I tore out the ligaments back in 89 on the ski hill.” I stayed perfectly still, not wanting to see what would happen if I moved my leg at all.
I laid there for 10 minutes, occasionally wiggling a little and getting another wave of pain. Ev and Bryce hovered around me waiting to see what I would do next. “It hurts too much to get myself up. Can you each grab me under an arm and lift me up and let me sit on the front tractor tire?” a comfortable looking seat of the right height next to where I was lying in the soft dirt.
They lifted me up and sat me down on the tire gently, but the pain took over. Then I was dreaming. My old friend Melvin Davidsavor was calling to me from behind a bright light. “Russ, Russ” he called from the light. I moved to him, awakening to find myself sitting on the tractor tire with Rick Davidsavor from the Cushing 1st Responders shining a light in my eyes and trying to bring me to consciousness.
“You passed out and I called 911,” said Bryce, who was still sitting next to me on the tire and holding me up with strong arms. Rick asked some questions and then more 1st responders were there (Kay Jacobson and ?) strapping me to the carrying board and delivering me to an ambulance that had also come into the farmyard, now cluttered with our own three trucks and three from the 911 call.
“It was just a short fall, and I didn’t come down fast, but it sure hurts like I wrecked my knee. I wrecked it up 20 years ago and it feels like that now. I sure feel stupid, such a dumb thing to do being in too much of a rush to set the ladder down good. It wasn’t even a long fall,” I moaned in self pity as I was gently carried out, “Margo’s over at the cabin—would you let her know to meet me at St Croix Falls.”
I fell about 10:30 in the morning and after x-rays at the emergency room in St Croix Falls, where the Doc said, “Your knee is quite damaged and will need surgery from an orthopedic specialist. We will get one to look at you.” I learned that both fibula and tibia were broken crushed, mangled, and fractured, a “fib and tib” according to the young nurse nearby. By then Margo had caught up with me. “Russ’ insurance is from Mayo Clinic and pays better if we do things at Mayo. Can we get the ambulance to take him down there?” she asked the doctor.
“Sure, I’ll call Mayo and make the arrangements and send along the x-rays. Should be down there about 6 or 7 pm,” replied the friendly auburn haired doctor.
The ambulance trips are mixed up with morphine drips and bumps and the discomfort of being strapped flat down. By 9:30 I was in surgery at Mayo were I had a temporary set of rods to stabilize all of the bones in proper alignment. After letting the swelling come down I had the knee surgery on Monday, left the hospital Thursday and am in the beginning of six months of rehab. The tibia and fibula were broken multiples places so screws, plates and cadaver pieces were used to rebuild it. If you think of the knee bone below the knee as a chunk of brittle bamboo tree that you took a hammer to it so that it was shattered, cracked, split and then screwed and splinted back together lots of metal you get some idea of the damage.
“You’ve got enough metal there they’ll make you do cavity searches at the airports from now on,” grinned Dr. Sems as he reviewed my x-rays and tried to cheer me up at my checkup last Friday. “Another week in a full leg cast and then we should be able to take out the stitches and give you a brace and start some flexing exercises.”