August 4th, 2013 is a day that changed my life. It could have been the day that ended it. It was a fairly typical Sunday evening. My family and I had spent the evening playing in the yard and pulling some weeds from the garden. The kiddos, 4 and 2 at that point, had been a handful and I needed to clear my head for a couple of minutes. I find splitting wood to be immensely cathartic, and asked for 15 minutes before coming in to help with baths. I had about 3 pickup loads of oak in a long pile out by the shop, and I got to work.
I split about 6 or 8 logs, and stopped to move the resulting firewood to the pile. After several trips, I though to myself, “Why am I carrying this the extra 20 feet to the pile, when I could start at the other end and only need to move 5 feet or so”. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that seemingly capricious decision would have disastrous consequences.
I propped up another log to use as an anvil. I placed a log upon it, reared back, and began to swing my splitting axe down. I recall a brief “this is not right” feeling before I was almost knocked from my feet by an unbelievable impact to my right cheek. Clapping my hand to my cheek, I could feel blood pouring from a large gash.
As it turned out, I had made a mistake by disregarding a rule I had learned way back in Scouts when it comes to setting up an axe yard. I hadn’t taken the time to check my surroundings for clearance…in this case behind me in the path of my swing.
Earlier in the summer I had strung a piece of suspension cord between the porch and the shop, with a tennis ball dangling from it for my daughter to practice batting. My axe handle had caught the cord like an aircraft tailhook, stretched, and rebounded like a slingshot. The heel of the axe smashed into my face a fraction of a second later.
I hurriedly walked to the door and knocked and called for my wife. Blood was pouring from between my fingers and splashing on the concrete step. She asked if she needed to call 911 but I told her to grab a tea towel and ice bag and gather the kids into the car. In the minute it took me to reach the door I had been able to determine that my vision was intact (albiet blurred with blood) and the pressure of my hand on my cheek told me that I probably hadn’t broken my skull.
I just kept saying “I’m sorry” and “Oh Shit” over and over as she loaded the kids in the car. We only live a mile or so from the University of Tennessee Medical Center, and we headed to the ER. She dropped me off at the ambulance bay while she went to park the car. I walked into the triage desk with the bloody towel over my face.
As luck would have it, the ER was not busy, and I was brought to an exam bed before Niki had even made it inside. In a further stroke of luck, the Doctor on duty was actually a maxilo-facial surgeon, and thus was the perfect person to begin to repair my face. It was less than 20 minutes from the time I had hit myself to when I had an IV (with a wonderful painkiller) and the first stitches were started.
The laceration was completely to the bone. In fact, the Dr. told me he could actually see a scuff mark on my cheekbone. Mind you, this was the not very sharp edge of the heel of the axe. If I had been using a double-bladed axe or if somehow the axe had spun and I had been struck by the bit, my skull would likely have been cleaved in two. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be here to write about this experience 8 months later.
When all was said and done, the wound required more than 60 stitches and had to be sewn up in 3 layers. It got a whole lot more gruesome looking (and hurt a lot once the shock and dilauded wore off) over the coming days. It took a couple of weeks before the swelling subsided, and a few more after that for the bruising to dissipate. Today the scar has shrunk to about 2.5 inches but remains fairly visible. The only lingering effect is a bit of numbness on the lateral portion of my cheek, and I can feel the scar tissue (if I am trying to) when I smile or move my cheek.
I consider my injury to be the best bit of bad luck I have ever had. By that I mean that not only did the injury not kill me (if my head had turned I could have hit my temple with the heel, and that could have been a fatal strike as well), I did not lose my eye, I did not smash my mouth or jaw, and there is no significant nerve damage. If one is going to hit oneself in the head with an axe, I picked a pretty good place to do it.
I have probably split 100 cords of wood in my life. I enjoy it. Like shooting, it provides me with a seemingly paradoxical sense of relaxation and catharsis. But it was exceptionally hard to get back up on the horse and finish splitting the pile.
It took me a couple of months before I was ready. I approached the pile with a sense of dread. I went back to my typical splitting spot, checked my surroundings this time, and prepared to split my first log in months. I literally became nauseous as I raised the axe into the air. In the brief pause that occurs when the axe reaches its peak before slamming down, my stomach tightened into a knot. The axe fell, the wood parted, and the bit buried itself in the anvil log. I had done it. I kept working, and while the nausea became bearable, it never completely subsided. To this day it is still there, though it manifests itself more as a “check, re-check, and check again” compulsion, rather than outright fear.
I did invest in a hydraulic splitter to speed up the process going forward. I go through 3 cords or so of wood in a winter, there are always knotty, crotchy pieces that are physically impossible to split by hand, and frankly I am not that far from 40 years old and my back is not quite as stout as it used to be. However, I have hand-split a couple of ricks since then, and I still grab the axe rather than drag out the slitter for times when I want to relax or only have a small pile of wood to split.
I don’t want to get all sappy or philosophical about the whole ordeal. My wife says I have changed as a result of my accident. I did rearrange my financial affairs a bit, I try to avoid parental frustration (to mixed success), and I try to sneak in an extra hug for the kids in particular- just in case. Mostly I just notice that I have a harder time concentrating than I used to. I was really scrambled for a couple of months. I am quite certain I had a concussion, though it was never formally diagnosed. Basically today, I have leveled off at a level of scatter-brainedness that is slightly higher than it was beforehand.
I still love axes. My Hultafors Bushcraft axe is as finely crafted of a tool as I own. I just bought the axe sharpening jig for my Tormek system which I can’t wait to try out and write about. I will shortly be starting to build up next year’s woodpile, and while much of the wood will be done with the hydraulic splitter, much will also be done by hand.
I can’t swing that axe in particular without remembering the accident. But I understand that the axe did not hurt me. The axe is a tool with which I hurt myself. Big difference, but an important point that the hoplophobes ignore. To assign intent to an inanimate object is the ultimate in logical fallacy. It is important not to be complacent – whether you are shooting a gun, swinging an axe, or even simply driving. I got complacent, and I paid the price.
Stay safe everyone.