23. New lumber grader

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
1909-1976

23. New lumber grader

I knew another grader that we would be able to hire if there was no interference from the bureau. His name was Charles (Charlie) Rath. He lived in Harmony, near Truro. Charlie was an elderly man, perhaps in his mid-sixties, and was – we hoped – the opposite of Parker in every way. A tall, rangy man, he was completely bald, and far from handsome, but he had an engaging personality that made him everybody’s friend.

Charlie had graded for us on two or three occasions when Parker was away. His style was completely different, and while his knowledge of grading rules was much less profound, he had a fair knowledge of lumber from a practical viewpoint. From the first day, it was obvious that our customers would have no objection to the manner in which he graded our lumber.

The only place where friction might arise, would be between Charlie and the M.L.B. field men. But Charlie had a way with such people. When they decided they must have a really serious talk with him regarding his grading, he would meet them with an outstretched hand, inquire all about their health and that of their families, and do it in such a disarming way that they didn’t have the heart to say much to him.

Customers happy

Anyway, they knew our customers were happy, we were happy, so why should they do anything to upset the applecart. The first thing was to find out for certain that Charlie would come when we needed him. A telephone call assured us that he would. But there were going to be problems in the transition.

The day before we were to begin grading I happened to be away from the mill most of the day. Some obliging person had told Parker of our agreement with Charlie, and while I was absent, Parker came to the mill and took our stamps home with him.

This was indefensible from any viewpoint. Those stamps belonged to the mill. We had bought and paid for them. Whether Parker would surrender them to me was another question. To make certain of our rights, I telephoned M.L.B. and told them the whole story. Having a high opinion of Parker’s grading ability, they were inclined to be on his side. But they did agree that he had gone too far in taking the stamps. I was instructed to ask him for the stamps, and if he refused, to give the M.L.B. another call.

Surrendering the stamps

Parker was not at home. As he was unmarried, and was living alone, there was no one there to give me any idea of his whereabouts. I finally got in contact with him through the local telephone operator. When I did get him on the line he was none too civil, but he suggested I go to his garage and get the stamps.

We were now ready to begin grading. Charlie had arrived at noon. Before three o’clock Parker arrived. Possibly, he was the maddest individual I’ve ever laid eyes on. And I was the object of his rage.

Mainly, I let him rave. There was little else I could do. I never was built for the fighting ring and, as mentioned, Parker was a rugged 200-pounder, a rough and tumble guy who knew how to use his fists. After the first five minutes or so of obscene anger, during which he was hardly coherent, he began to defend his grading.

Heated discussion

“You think you’ve done something pretty smart now,” he shouted. “Just wait until a field man gets here. When he comes, that fellow will be gone, and I’ll be back there grading again.”

“No, Parker,” I replied “no matter what they do, you’ll never grade another stick of lumber in this yard,” I said. “They’ll take away your mill license,” he replied. “I doubt it,” I replied. “But we got along without it before, and I guess we could do it again if we had to. I’d far sooner lose our mill license, and have the mill burn down too, than have you around here any longer.”

This provoked another tirade. I was getting fed up by this time. So I said, “Parker, you’ve explained pretty fully what you think of me, of my ancestors, of what is likely to happen to us, and how well we’ll deserve it all. My opinion of you isn’t too high, either. Now, unless you’ve got some new subject to bring up, suppose you get to hell out of our millyard, and if you never come back, it will still be too
soon.”

Parker departs

Parker left, muttering about our prospects when the field man showed up. And as predicted, a representative from the bureau soon arrived. His name was Keith Crowell, a young fellow. He was a nice appearing chap, and Charlie was already slightly acquainted with him.

When we got a chance to talk privately, it soon was clear that we had nothing to worry about. As far as our firing of Parker was concerned, Mr. Crowell confirmed what I’d been pretty sure of anyway. If we were dissatisfied with him, we had a right to get rid of him. He did point out, though, that in their opinion Parker had a much better knowledge of the grading rules than Charlie.

I felt like telling him that this was one of our main objections to Parker, but realizing that it would be better to pick my steps cautiously in this interview, I didn’t make any comment on his grading ability. Instead, I told him that we had already seen enough of Charlie’s grading to know that there would be no trouble as far as our customers were concerned.

Coming to terms

I added that since the M.L.B. had given Charlie a license, they must have considered him competent to grade lumber. I think we each knew what was in the other’s mind. We both knew that Charlie handled the grading rules a good deal looser than Parker did. The field man was concerned about technicalities; I wanted a practical grade that would be satisfactory to our customers, without having large
quantities of our stock thrown into a utility grade.

Keith Crowell took a dim view of Parker’s appropriation of our stamps at a time when I was absent from the mill. This fact was a help to me, and I had a feeling that in the next few weeks the bureau was going to learn a number of things about Parker that would give them new insight into his disposition.

This interview was the beginning of a better understanding between us and all the field men. During our talk, I spoke honestly about my views. From our point of view, I said, the bureau was a sovereign body behind Parker Reid, and was inadvertently the cause of all our grief.

Disastrous impact

I was frank with Mr. Crowell. I explained that up to the time the disaster of the grade began, everything had gone smoothly for us. We had good customers, who appreciated the quality of the lumber we produced for them. Now, out of the same quality stock, we had been forced to watch at least 10% of our lumber thrown into a utility grade which sold for little more than half price.

And all this was done because of the pigheaded, mulish stubbornness of one man who had so far been backed to the limit by them. Now we had a new man, one who combined a little common sense with his grading.

Our only worry was that the lumber bureau seemed now to want to downgrade this man – after they had granted him a license. All we asked of them was that they get off his back and leave him and us alone for awhile.

Reality dawns

Slowly it filtered through to Mr. Crowell that there might be some truth in this. He agreed that with occasional supervision, Charlie’s grading would doubtless be acceptable.

It was nearing five o’clock by this time, and I invited Mr. Crowell to come to our home for supper. After a few polite protestations he accepted. An introduction to Eva and our family established a new atmosphere. He stayed until late evening.

The time was pleasantly spent, discussing other subjects rather than grading. From this point on we had no serious difficulty with the field men. Charlie’s grading was a little unorthodox from their viewpoint, and was the occasion of some periodic grumbling. But there was no recurrence of the animosity that had been present under Parker’s regime.

Troubles past

Our trouble regarding graders were past. Things did take some time to settle, as Parker continued to stir things up. One of his habits was to come around to the mill when grading was being done, and to watch for errors in Charlie’s grade. I could have ordered him out of there, and I imagine he’d have gone. But I didn’t think he could hurt us much more anyway.

Charlie wasn’t any too technical, and finding minor errors on his part wasn’t hard. Parker would watch, then telephone the lumber bureau, reporting to them what he had discovered. But this soon back-fired on Parker. It was too transparent. The M.L.B. could see that all he wanted to do was to stir up trouble.

On their periodic visits to our mill, Charlie’s grading was closely scrutinized, and sometimes the field man would shake his head at his discoveries. But Charlie, as stated earlier, was a man who really knew good lumber from bad. Our customers continued to be happy, and I always pointed this out to the field men. They didn’t want any more trouble either, and though bothered by Charlie’s disregard of
technicalities, it was only at rare intervals that the problem was mentioned.

Disarming character

Charlie had a delightful personality, an easy, unembarrassed talker. Eric Chapman was the field man who most often came to our mill. On one occasion he came to me considerably disturbed about Charlie’s grading. According to him, a lot of the pieces of lumber were below grade, and this couldn’t go on, he said. I asked him if he had found any actually bad lumber. “No” he replied slowly, “but while there are a lot of pieces having defects which really don’t do any harm, they still do not pass the grading rules.?”

This admission seemed to me to be enough to condemn the whole system. However, it doesn’t always pay to say all you think. Things had been going pretty good. So I suggested that he might have a talk with Charlie, and explain about these defects. “Well, I did try,” he said, “I had four or five hundred feet picked out, and I went over every piece with him, showing him from the grading book the reasons they were below grade.”

Charlie, his usual benign smile still on his face, received this explanation in silence. When Eric had finished, Charlie replied: “Yeah . . . and are you catching any fish these days?” Then, before Eric had a chance to answer, Charlie was embarked on a discussion of all the fishing trips he’d had that spring. When he finished, it was dinner-time.

Charlie wins again

Poor Eric! I suppose you couldn’t blame the poor soul for feeling that he was working on a lost cause. Such occasions came up at intervals, but nothing ever came of them. The truth was, these people really liked Charlie, and a showdown was always put off until next time.

That fall there was another time when Eric got seriously disturbed. This time, he had decided to go to Charlie’s home in Harmony, and really thrash things out. On his arrival early one evening, he was of course was cordially welcomed by Charlie. The two men chatted away for awhile, with Charlie carrying most of the conversation, and Eric patiently waiting for a chance to broach the unpleasant subject that had brought him there.

Then Charlie invented an excuse to go and see Herb Hudson, a neighbour across the road, about some trifling matter that never did come to light that evening. He suggested Eric come with him, so Eric, biding his time, came dutifully along. This was moose-hunting season, and this subject came up almost immediately. Eric was a hunter himself, and Herb was an interesting man who had a lot of
experience in the woods. So hunting was a congenial topic of conversation for all.

A meal with Herb

Herb Hudson was living alone. He was a famous cook, and as the evening progressed, he began to prepare a lunch, which on this occasion turned out to be a real meal. Little chance arose for Eric to bring up a discussion of grading rules. He was enjoying himself, and the meal was a huge success. All this took time.

When Eric finally looked at his watch, it was twelve o’clock. He had to drive to Fredericton early the next morning, and it would take an hour and a half to drive from Charlie’s home to his own near Amherst.

So when Eric finally hit the trail, it was without ever having had a chance to discuss the topic that had brought him there in the first
place.

Fond memories

During the writing of this account, we received the news of Charlie’s death. The cause was a heart attack, very sudden. He lived only a few minutes after the attack began.

I’ve never been one for eulogizing, but I shall always remember Charlie as a kindly man who was everyone’s friend. He was a good talker, perhaps even a gossip, but never a malicious man. As an employee, he was always on our side. He and his wife spent an evening with us only about a week before his death. His health was good then, in fact I had never seen him look better, and even now it’s hard to believe that we were seeing him for the last time. He was a man who enjoyed life keenly, and one who will be sorely missed. Charlie had many friends.

Meanwhile Parker’s tactics had dismayed the men at the lumber bureau. It was plain to them now why we had the trouble with him, and he stopped his visits to the mill after finding out that his spying tactics were not appreciated at the lumber bureau. As far as I know, he never got a job grading lumber again.