Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sticks and Stories

I love sticks.  Boys love sticks.  Men love sticks.  Oh, all kinds of sticks, from the formative power of a Blue Tip match to the fearsomeness of storm-snapped telephone poles on a rutted rural road.  We love big solid sticks with the stump of a branch near the top, whittled to a point to take the grommet ring of a blue tarp, a guide rope angled down to another shorter stick punched in to the dirt as a stake.

We love to break sticks against tree trunks and watch the broken pieces fly into the brambles just ahead; we love to worry green sticks back and forth until they fray, twisting and wondering of what stuff is this made - so tenuous and irritating?

Little boys like to pile twigs on dusty earth or make "fairy huts" leaning sticks against a young pine tree hoping for Skittles in the morning.  Grown men stack glorious bonfires from pieces of a dilapidated, fallen shed or a pile of gray driftwood at the edge of the meadow - piece by piece, stick by stick - and purposefully play in the fire.

Some sticks call to be thrown into a blaze or a brook, others call to be a sword, a rapier, an ax; some call to protect, some to attack.

Some just want to walk with you...


Joe B and I always had sticks, he called them "Moses poles," a reference I am not sure of to this day, I cleverly called mine "my stick."  We had dozens a summer.  They broke, or were broken.  I do remember two in particular, though.

Late one fall on a walk towards Mr. Poff's pond we were stopped under a break of trees between two reaped but still golden wheat fields, and Joe spotted it.  Long and ever so straight, it laid parallel to the to the edge of the field, surrounded by acorns and scruffy tufts of grass.  Anyone who knows sticks could easily tell that it had fallen just recently, there was no rot on the underside and it was dry and very hard to the touch.  It was fourteen feet long, as I recall, and peculiarly devoid of other branches or blemishes.

We were maybe eleven at the time and I thought it was the most important thing I'd ever seen, just then at least, in that moment, in that place, in this memory.

"Let's take it home," I remember saying.

"Okay," I remember Joe saying.

We were friends.  He didn't ask why, or how or give me a hard time about it, he simply went to pick it up.  It wasn't heavy - it was only, oh, three, maybe, inches across - and he grabbed it at the exact center point and it practically sprung from the dirt and into his hand, I can see it right now tittering a little, expectant.  I grabbed it in the front, and he took a few steps back.

We started off towards our houses, his I assumed, and after a while the trail went through a small wooded lot and it began to get caught up in the undergrowth and raspberries that grew alongside.  We'd carried logs and the like to and from before, so, without any conversation, we threw it, in unison, up above are heads and carried it that way.  It was a moment of triumph, somehow, we'd won, this perfect stick our spoil.

Joe's dad, Mr. B, had a classic workshop garage, replete with tool chests and cubbies of bolts and screws and a pegboard of neatly lined wrenches, spanners and screwdrivers.  A cabinet with a cord tied in a neat bow between the handles - ostensibly to lock it from curious boys - held insecticides and acids and fertilizer and shellac and dabs and drams of paints and glue and jars of kerosene and gas to soak carburetor parts and creaky door assemblies.  Above this cabinet, hanging between the joists, were a dozen or so long pieces of bamboo - carpets came rolled on them once upon a long ago - and Mr. B kept things that could be of use.  I remember he used one to check the level of the water in his cistern, which I helped paint some years later.

Our stick belonged there.  We both knew it and positioned ourselves under the wire hangers that held the bamboo and slid it in perfectly, it settled in silently, comfortable with its exotic new companions.

It promised to wait.

The next April we were headed  to a creek we thought might be running hard in the Spring rain, to see if we could maybe divert it and make a little island we could stand on.  It was important, of course.  Joe suggested we might need Moses poles and we went through the garage, to where, just leaned up against a rock wall, our sticks had wintered over.  There were none there.  We were surprised, but I said we'd just have to get a couple of new ones.  He turned and looked up.  Immediately, I knew the plan.

We pulled that patient, long stick out, measured it and decided to cut it at the center mark.  We wanted it perfect.  Joe pulled from under a workbench an antique, heirloom miter box and crosscut backsaw which we were explicitly forbidden to use.

"Better ask yer dad," I said.

"Yeah," Joe said.

Mr B came in and quickly assessed the project.  He said he didn't want us to use it on green wood like that but we promised him it was really dry.  He looked at the stick more closely, took it in his hand, it smiled at the boy in him and he smiled back, remembering.  We set up the saw in towards the front of the garage so the stick could sit in the box flat and true.  Under the watchful eyes of Mr. B, Joe B sawed carefully through that piece of wood, easily and skillfully.

Now, truth be told, seven foot poles were absurdly long for our boyish size.  Mr. B suggested that we trim off the other two ends, so we cut them off at about two feet down and, because we were allowed to use the saw, kept trimming little wheels off until the length was just so.  Mr. B was a carpenter, he knew tools and he knew wood.  He held one of those little wheels, turning it over in his big calloused hands like a big wooden nickel.

"That's a fine looking piece of wood there boys, oak and it seems practically kiln-dried.  A fine piece of wood, the grain is tight and it's arrow-straight.  I'd shellac those ends, though, keep 'em from rottin'.  You might want to shellac the whole thing, that bark wants to stay on it.  I'd thin it out though."

He untied the cabinet cord with one pull, set the string on the workbench and walked back into the house carrying that little oaken wheel.  I'd like to think he still has it.

We forgot about the stream and spent the evening carving our initials and spirals and handgrips in to that hard wood with our pocketknives, finally satisfied we coated them with a coat of shellac.  We thinned it out.

They lasted for the rest of the summer.  They helped dig the trench around the rocks to make our island where we stood, sticks held high, champions, heroes, boys.

I guess as we got older the sticks were forgotten as football and girls and school and time sped up our youth.  I don't remember what happened to them, but I can remember the way mine felt in my hand, remember the smell of it, the weight of it, the strength of it... the importance of it.

This is where I conjure up a picture of them, leaning up against that old stone wall, still waiting... but, no, no one thought of that sort of thing.  I doubt any one but Mr. B knew how important those sticks were to us.  Maybe they sit dusty in an old outbuilding somewhere in the rolling hills of Turtlecreek Township.  I hope so... they were very good sticks.


I still make sticks.  Almost every camping trip I've ever taken has involved procuring and carving a stick.  I've got a sweet Swiss Army knife with a great saw and a couple sharp blades and a nice file that smooths down the corners and edges.  I carry it every day in my purse.  It made these two sticks when the boys were three I think as they looked on.

Our backyard is always full of sticks I rescue from the mower, hell, I even provide them.

In this picture from way back they are using sticks and pretending to be the rock band, 2 Place Sluggers.

We utilize sticks around here on a daily, hourly sometimes, basis.  Smaller ones start our fires, both in the backyard firepit in the fall and the one in the living room on a cold winter's eve.  I sometimes temporarily border temporary flowers poked in the ground by the steps to the screened-in porch by temporary boys.

The tired playset in the backyard, there towards the locust tree, is a constant armory of sticks and plans and battles lost or yet to be won.

I always start a fire with newspaper and kindling - usually sticks -  and a match or a lighter.  There are better, faster ways, but that's just how I do it.  It's how the boys do it as well.  A fire needs to be tended, inside we use the cast iron pokers and tongs, potent talismans of fires remembered.  Outside... outside, well, you need a stick, a substantial one.  I usually designate one as the "firestick" and keep an eye on it lest some neophyte heartlessly throw it in the flames.  If I am going to be around a while, I might fashion one, cutting a square top, maybe smoothing it down to avoid the splinters.  I do that in the back yard here, well, I did once.  I made it from a green maple branch fallen from the tree just above maybe eight years ago.

It is the soul brother of that old stick I made so long ago - my stick, Joe's stick, your stick, our stick... you see, it is all the same stick, from the same roots, from the same tree, in the same earth, under the same sky, under the same stars.  It is the very stick of God.  Men love sticks because they love us back.


Sometimes, it is difficult to recall how some lonely old memory meanders in to our minds.  Sometimes, a boy says something that sparks a memory into a fire in just a flash.

We like to go to a park nearby, a mile or so of looped path wanders through some woods, over a couple creeks, down a ravine or two, you've been there, in fact we got some art supplies there once.  Lately, I've begun to let the boys walk across the woods beyond the path, through undergrowth and brambles, fording the two creeks, and coming back upon the path.  They like doing it, I like listening to them as they make their way, laughing and screaming, solving and switching back, hooting and hollering - champions, heroes, boys.

They scramble down the pebble strewn bank that leads to the culvert that starts a stream that winds through the late summer woods.  Zack goes first, he slides down, plants and turns to look up.  He squints up towards us, shading his eyes with his hand.

"Shove me down my stick, Nick, and yours, too," he says.

"Alright.  Thanks, man," Nick says, gently sliding Zack's first and then his own.

"Got 'em!"

"Well, that was cool of you guys, helping each other out like that."  I think only Nick can hear me.

He says, "Yeah, were Stickbrothers."

"Yeah, Dad, Stickbrothers," Zack echoes up, holding high a stick in each fist, triumphantly.

A memory ignites.

Joe and I were Stickbrothers.  I have had many over the years.  I am better for it.


I've taken too much of your time, I'd guess.  Truth is I left a big part out, the part about another great Stickbrother I've known and the part about how I hope the boys and I will be Stickbrothers for life, but those are sticks and stories for another day.  Thanks for stopping by, if you'd like you can leave your stick there by the door with those others... right next to mine.  That'll give you a reason to come back.


  1. I remember the sticks of my youth, too. One in particular, I carried around most of the summer before fourth grade. I filed its tip down smooth on the sidewalk, and used it as a spear to impale leaves and imaginary monsters. There was one spot worn smooth just where the balance was right. I can still imagine what it felt like in my hand. Then one day while catapulting it into the sky, it hit the sidewalk and split. I can imagine what a cowboy feels like when his horse goes lame out in the desert. It's hard to say goodbye to a friend that for so long has supported you on your journeys.

    Since then, even into my adulthood, finding a nice, straight, solid stick still kind of sets my heart racing. I can't help imagining all of the things I could do with it. It's one of the great things about having kids; you get to not just remember, but participate all over again.

  2. As I am walking along the footpath I love to grab little sticks from the trees and try to break them in my fingers into as many pieces as possible.

    I like to twirl them in between each finger like how the rock drummers do.

    My sons love sticks too. From swords to boomerangs (well, failed boomerangs) and a myriads of other uses including long thing guitars to rock out on our back deck to The Wiggles, sticks are cheap and natural toys that build up their imaginations.

    Another fine piece of writing mate.

  3. Every time we go on a hike my boys like to find the perfect walking stick. Over the years, some have ended up in trunk. You could say they grew attached.