Cooler weather and a body’s thoughts naturally turn to outdoor things, such as cutting wood, chopping sprouts and burning brush piles.

All were daily after-school activities when I was a boy on the farm. In those early years of carving a farm from 39 acres of sumac, roses and persimmon trees, the routine seldom varied. As soon as we got off the school bus, we began looking for the smoke from Dad’s brush pile fire, and as quickly as possible we beat it down there or answered why not when Dad came to the house.

The fact is, after all day in a classroom, we were as eager to get outside as Dad was to see us. Cutting and burning brush was more like play than work, especially if the ax was sharp. Chopping sprouts is no fun at all with a dull ax, but one that makes chips fly fuels a boy’s dreams of becoming a real-life Paul Bunyan.

As a boy in the late 1950s, I had ample opportunity to make chips fly, but prior to the winter I turned 10, I had not made the acquaintance of a double-bitted ax, bow saw or mill bastard file. 

That winter I came to know all intimately. My brothers and I chopped a lot of sprouts, but nobody but Daddy picked up Daddy’s ax.

Russell and I shared an old ax with rounded corners from repeated filings and chopping rocks, nicks in the handle below the head from poorly aimed blows, and one side sharper than the other, the dull side for chopping in the dirt.

We never could have confused our rusty, old chopper with Daddy’s new, double-bitted, red True Temper ax, the smooth hickory handle with nary a scratch or splinter, even after months of use — but only in Daddy’s hands.

Daddy’s ax was pristine, and he intended to keep it that way for as long as he could keep inexperienced youngsters from picking it up.

It was also sharp — razor sharp, honed by Daddy on one face to an edge that would trim Paul Bunyan’s whiskers, and nearly as keen on the other, about like a skinnin’ knife.

The lethal potential of that woodsman’s tool — not the red paint and unblemished handle — that was the real reason nobody but Daddy picked up Daddy’s ax. Like all good dads, he put a lot of energy and thought into protecting us from ourselves. It was much the same when he finally bought a chain saw a few years later. We didn’t get to use it.

In due time I developed the skill and confidence to pick up Daddy’s ax, but only with his consent, and I never nicked the handle or chopped the dirt. That would’ve sent me back to start. More to the point, I simply learned to use that mill bastard file to put a razor edge on the chopping side of our old grubbin’ ax. Then I was careful to discourage Russell from picking it up. 

It’s been years since I chopped sprouts as when I was a boy, but I still like to keep a sharp ax for the little wood-cutting I do on my 5 acres; I still love to see the big wood chips fly. I just wish I could make ’em take flight as I did when I was 16 — but that was only when I got to pick up Daddy’s ax.

Copyright James E. Hamilton 2018. Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at

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