“Me Mum said to Cyril Harker: ‘Cyril this is disgraceful. This man has been in New Zealand 20 years and can’t get a pension. He’s 76 and still splittin’ posts.’
“And Cyril says: ‘Laura, that’s against the law of the land.’
“I don’t give a bugger Cyril. You’re in Parliament, attend to it.”
“Next week, damn the law; the law of the land went out the door.”
It was the autumn of 1936, on a Monday, when Woody was sent down to work with Halcrow after gathering a list of gear provided by his mother – hooks and shackles, axes and saws. Woody loaded the farm’s crawler tractor and headed for plantations, planted by his grandfather James to stop the Waipawa River (now known as the Papanui), bringing the metal over its banks on to the farm.
The loggers split battens out of the heads of the silver poplar and the logs all went to the mill.
“I arrived down the back with the tractor, saw, axes, wedges and things. He looked me up and down for about five minutes; just stood there. Course, he had this great bloody walrus beard, moustache, pants curled over at the ends. He always wore bo-yangs, no socks.
“We went over to this tree to come down, a poplar and he pulled out a blunt saw. Unbeknown to me, the bloody head shepherd had told him I was the laziest bastard on the place. Course, I’d never pulled a cross cut in my life. A great big bloody six-foot-six saw … and I’m rubbin’ away and I don’t know how to use the damn thing; and he lets me go wanted to test whether I’d squeal.
“My shoulders were achin’… these teeth wanted sharpenin’ and settin’… it wasn’t cuttin’… it was tearin’ the arms out o’ me… and he knew that and he disappeared for a while. My young shoulders just kept achin’.
“By then, I was sawin’ all to hell. He knew and y’know, he never said a word. Then all of a sudden, he puts in this cut and chopped the scarf out and we went round the back. They used to stick the axe in to hold the saw up, y’see.
“I’d cut three parts through… three quarters of an hour non stop. And the old bastard, the saw stopped in the cut just like the brake went on, and he came round and said: “Oooh Wood, I think we earned a spell.
“From that day on, I was his man.”
Woody says it was an honour to work with Halcrow.
“Halcrow knew all the pulling hitches, tackles; no winch. These buggers never learned physics, they used blocks and tackles, pulleys, snatch blocks. The amazing thing about logging, if the weight is alive, if you’re breaking out a log like that, you always pull a half lift on it so the log lifts and then rolls; it’s alive, away it’ll go. If you try to lift it dead, it’ll break the gear. Pulling a rolling hitch so the log would keep spiralling. I still marvel at physics, I really do. What got me, some enormous logs we pulled out, some up to 25 tonnes. Wouldn’t break that strop, because the log was alive, we got it moving. Then we’d snipe and dee it. Today that [they] do it with a chainsaw.
“There’s a knack in all this. The old man taught me, how to use the axe, how to dress them up.
We’d get one each side of the tree, no good if you’re only right handed. I’d be messing it up with the left hand, and he’d come round and straighten it up. Go on Wood keep going, He’d teach you. If there was a shiner (a loose limb) in the tree, he knew which way they’d come down. If you didn’t watch them, they’d get you.
“One day I pointed up to him and said. ‘Jim there’s a shiner up there,’ and he grinned. I told him I’m young and I can get out of the way quicker than you, you’re old. He grins again and I can see he’s thinking, ‘young bugger’s gonna look after me now.’ But he looks at me hard and he says, with his voice deepening” ‘Get on the other side Wood. I’m old; my time is finished, you’ve got a long trail to the other side.”
“He also had a responsibility to my mother you see.
“Finish, no arguing. If somebody’s to die, better for me, I’m at the end life. These guys are real men, gutsy bastards, what a pleasure to work with.
“I worked for this guy for four and a half months. He chased Frank Smith out of the bush. Called him a Pomeranian bastard. He could throw an axe, lay it in like that (Woody waves his hand in an arc to illustrate its path) and never break the handle.”
One day, the young Woody was sitting playing with his knife quietly when Halcrow leaned over and said: “I’ll show you how to throw.”
“I was fascinated. He could throw a marlon spike (a long tapered punch) over and over for 50 metres and land it where he wanted. All those years in the China sea. He knew how to fight and look after yourself.”
Woody and Halcrow even fought together at times.
On one occasion, one of the farm workers talked ill of Woody, with which Halcrow simply threw him over his shoulder, pounced on him, whipped out his knife and pricked the tip into his neck, drawing blood.
“I won’t hear ill of Wood” he growled.
Woody says they would go straight through the river and work for six weeks and after finishing work Halcrow would have a “drunk up for five days… whisky and beer chasers.”
“He used to say to me, ‘Wood, the undoing of me has been Johnny Walker and Mrs Speights.’
“When he left us, he went down to one of those whares down the river by Waipuk [Waipukurau]; an old man’s shack.
“Then one day, Mum went to the Napier hospital to visit a friend and there’s this old man, wizened up old bugger, skinny and stickin’ out of the sheets. God she was aghast. he’d been such a well-built man, not gigantic. Y’ know, a very well-made man.
‘What’re you doin’ here?, Mum had said.
‘Ooh Madam” (he always caller [called] her madam) I’m dyin.’
“Then he said, ‘don’t put me in a pauper’s grave,’ and Mum didn’t. She took him back home and buried him and put a stone on him.”
Halcrow was just one of the many people and the logging just one of the events that spurred Woody to live life as most could never have.
Photo captions –
Bush work in those days
Woody’s birth-place, Homewood Station near Otane.