Get a Grip

The Cast: An Ax (old and deadly), Myself (surgeon)

When learning to chop wood, I was taught to firmly grip the lower portion of the ax handle near the knob, with my non-dominate hand. This would keep the ax from flying out of my grip. My dominate hand would hold the haft (near the top) with a firm but loose grip so that as I swung the ax downward, my hand would slide along the haft so that right before impact, my hand grips tight the base of the throat. This keeps the ax head straight and adds energy and power to the swing. My hits are sure and steady. I was taught this at an early age and have continued to improve my ax swinging skills.

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When I was 12 years old, my family moved to Utah. Our first winter was cold and very different than what I was used to in Montana. During December, there was lots of snow and my parents wanted to have some wood cut in preparation for fires in the fireplace. Made sense. Or it is possible that I wanted a fire and my parents told me that if I wanted the fire, then I would have to chop some wood. That was fair. I think it was more the former than the latter.

Anywho, our ax had a fracture in the haft right where the belly and the throat meet. It wasn’t too bad, but you did have to watch how you swung it. I did get a few splinters. After a couple of those ‘gifts’, I came back in from the snowy, cold outdoors and asked my dad if we could get a new ax handle. I was told we didn’t have the money for it. That was the first time I had heard those words, “…we didn’t have money for it.” So, I knew he meant it. Also, that meant that I would have to find a way to deal with the fractured wooden ax handle. My solution, go back outside and chop.

Well, waiting for the snow to stop wasn’t going to work, as a prolonged snowstorm was the forecast, and the snowstorm was only getting worse. Back outside for at least some wood.

I began to swing, split, stack. Swing the ax. Split the rounds. Stack the wedges. I was having fun. I have loved splitting wood for many years. Quick side story: I had a good friend when I was in high school, that I would help split wood with. Every year his dad would get new logs that would need to be split, my friend would call me up, I would grab my ax, and head over to help him split the logs over the course of a few days.

Back to the story: I stepped back outside into the increasing snowstorm, to split more logs. I swung, I split, I stacked. I swung, I split, I stacked. I swung, I split, I stuck. I had hit my target and split the wedge, and the ax head was now embedded in the splitting stump, and a splintered section of the handle was now embedded in the palm of my right hand. Which was now attached at an awkward angle, to the middle of the wooden ax handle. Also, that’s when the storm decided it was a good time to get worse. Fast.

Now that my dominant hand was stuck at a 225° angle, and sitting about waist high, I tried calling out for help but nobody came. Most people were indoors due to the storm, and my family was in the basement. It was going to be up to me to get free.

I first tried to slide my hand off the thick splinter holding my hand to the handle. There were fragments of wood acting as barbs preventing that from happening. I had no choice. I would have to break free.

First I tried to break the handle completely in two (since it was already fractured). It wasn’t broken through enough—and I still needed the handle in working order so that I could chop wood—so I needed to just break the splinter off the handle, or just rip my hand free and tear my flesh apart. I didn’t want to rip the palm of my hand apart—I still thought I might be able to pull the hand length splinter out of my hand. I worked my left fingers in between the handle and my right hand, applied a little pressure, twisted my hand outward, and broke the splinter off the handle. So far, so good. The splinter was still in one piece and ran from the lower-left part of my palm, all the way to the upper-right (about 3 inches). And it was deeper than I thought.

This was about to become my first self-surgery. I needed tools. A set of needle-nosed pliers, an X-acto knife w/clean blade, rubbing alcohol, and some paper towels. Fine, I guess I would need some bandages as well. We didn’t have enough alcohol to clean the whole wound if I cut my hand up, so I would have to work in sections. I needed to break the splinter into smaller, manageable pieces. So, I made a fist and both heard and felt the small stick in my hand snap in multiple locations. Fortunately, that forced the ends to work their way out of my skin enough to grab with the needle-nose. Working left-handed was more challenging than I needed.

After placing my hand in the freezing snow to numb it and slow the blood flow, I sat at my kitchen counter and then dipped the razor blade in the alcohol, I then cut the skin of my palm around the fracture points of the splinter and began to dig into my hand to remove the larger chunks of splintered ax handle. Overall, not a lot of blood, and most of the pieces came out quickly. Once finished, I was able to wrap my hand up enough to complete my chore, but I was not going to get stuck again, I needed duct tape. We had almost none.

This situation helped lay a foundation of critical thinking for me. I had to place the limited amount of duct tape where it was most needed, not where I wanted it. Then, with a little creative work, I was able to bind the broken haft with a decent amount of masking tape and a little electrical tape for extra support. I completed the wood splitting and rechecked my hand. Some of the smaller bits of wood were already working their way out of my hand. Especially, after the workload I had just performed. Eventually (about a week), I was able to cut, dig, and pry all of the wood splinters out of my hand.

From this experience, I learned a few things. The first, I was never going to be caught off guard with regards to self-surgery again. I studied and practiced using my left hand more, to do regular work. As a result, I have become almost completely ambidextrous. I also learned that I do not enjoy cutting myself open. And finally, large splinters hurt. A lot.

Over the years, I have replaced the ax handle three times. The ax head, I still use. It’s still in great shape. It was my grandfathers ax, and it may one day belong to one of my grandchildren. But now, everytime I use it, I remember that day.

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