“All the years I’ve been working, I’ve been pretty lucky,” said Howard Trammel, 63, of Old Coal City, who everyone knows as “June Bug.”
“My granddaddy gave me that name, and it stuck,” said the 63-year-old logger.
Trammel looked up at the top branches of the tall white oak tree he was about cut down, or as loggers say “fell” with his powerful Husqvarna chainsaw.
Trammel walked around the tree, inspecting it to determine which direction the tree was leaning.
“It’s going to fall over in that direction,” he said, pointing in a small opening in the forest.
Trammel cut a v-shape notch on one side of the hardwood tree. He stepped back behind the tree and made a cut just above the center of the notch.
The crackling sound of the tree breaking momentarily muzzled the sound of the buzzing chainsaw.
And just as Trammel said, the tree fell on the forest floor with a loud thud right where he had predicted.
He quickly walked along side the tree, cutting branches along the way.
Trammel looks natural with a chainsaw in his hand. He moves and cuts limbs with ease, in sort of a matter-of-fact, business like manner. His final handiwork was load of pulpwood ready for the local wood yard.
“A guy is going to build a pasture here,” he said. “We’re clearing it off so he can go to work.”
Trammel is part of a handful of small independent loggers who clear the landscape the old fashioned way – one log at a time.
“There are not too many old guys left,” he said. “Everybody who stayed (in the lumber industry) got big machines.”
Those expensive high-tech machines cut and load logs without the operator ever leaving the comfort of a driver’s seat and with temperature controlled comfort of course, but not Trammel, who sometimes has to warm his hands by an outdoor fire so he can cut one more tree.
Large timber operators have big mechanical tree cutters and loaders which can gather as much timber in a day, than Trammel could cut and load in a month.
Before the day was over, Trammel and friend, Austin Lively, loaded about 10-12 tons of wood, four or five cords of hardwood, on the back of the old 1974 GMC logging truck.
“That’s a lot of work,” he said. “It’s a hard life and you don’t make a lot of money. Big operators are hurting, too.”
The smaller timber operators cut small tracts of timber, tracts the bigger operators will not cut.
Trammel calls it, “the leftovers.”
“It costs too much money for the big operators to move all their equipment here for just this small amount of timber,” he said.
Trammel said there was a time in the 1980s that he earned $200-$300 a day, but those days are long past.
“I was making a lot more money cutting wood back then, more than you could at a regular job,” Trammel said. “Now, I’m lucky to make a $100 a week…We just have to keep pecking.”
He said the price of gas, good help and the cost of maintaining logging equipment gobbles up a lot of what an independent logger earns, and then there is the danger element of the timber industry. Logging is considered one of the most dangerous jobs there is.
Trammel knows first hand of the dangers involved with logging. He’s done it all his life.
“I know a lot of people who have been killed,” he said.
Trammel has never had a fatality involving anyone on his timber crew, although personally has had several close calls and the scars to prove it.
It was only in April a tree he had felled pinned him. His friends freed him, and Trammel was able to finish the work day, actually taking a load of pulpwood to the wood yard.
“The next morning I couldn’t get out of bed,” Trammel said. “I couldn’t move. I had a knot about the size of a basketball on my back. Maybe not as big as a basketball, but it was big.”
Doctors confirmed he broke four vertebrates in his back.
“It put me out of work 5-6 weeks,” he said. “I’m not fully recovered from it yet.”
That was Trammel’s most recent injury.
In 1978, he almost cut his left hand off.
“It put me out of work for a while,” Trammel said. “I was young back then. I could bounce back pretty quickly.”
Then during the 1980s his saw got kicked out of his hand, cutting his right leg.
“Back then they (chainsaws) didn’t have brakes,” he said. “Now, they all do. It helps keep you from getting cut.”
A doctor closed the cut with 16 stitches. It wasn’t the first time, or his last time to be severed by a chainsaw. He has cut his right leg five times and his left leg twice with a chainsaw.
“It’s a dangerous job,” Trammel said.
Broken bones and cuts are common occurrences in the logging industry, especially with the small timber operators, and don’t forget about the snakes.
“I had a copperhead run between my legs one time,” he said.
Trammel said he’s seen some really big rattlesnakes in the forests while cutting timber, but he never came close to being bitten by a poisonous snake.
He said the timber industry is so dangerous it is hard for loggers to get insurance.
But despite the dangers, low pay and hard work, Trammel continues to cut timber for a living.
“I’ve had some close calls,” he said. “I guess someone was watching over me.”
His grandfather, uncle and father were loggers, and he worked side-by-side with them even before he was old enough to attend school, so for Trammel, logging is just something you do, something you were born into.
“I came from a pulpwood family,” he said.
Trammel said he enjoys being his own boss and setting his own hours.
“I was never too good at taking orders,” Trammel said.
He also loves being outdoors, surrounded by the sounds and sights of nature.
Trammel said his wife of 39 years, Gloria, has encouraged him to find a less dangerous job.
When he was younger he left the logging industry, only to return to the job he knows so well.
“My wife has been fussing at me for the last 25 years about going out and getting a real job, but I think I waited too late,” Trammel said. “The problem is if you cut too much timber, it gets into your blood.”
He pointed to another tree on a hill.
“You see that tree over there?” he asked, while pulling the crank cord to his chainsaw. “You see how it’s bending at the top? It’s going to fall right over there.”
He cut a notch into the tree and another tree fell – right where he said it would.
Contact David Atchison at email@example.com.