25. Back to school

David Morrison Blaikie
A Nova Scotia lumberman
1909-1976

25. Back to school

This idea brings us back again to the grading of lumber. Ever since Charlie Rath had become our grader, our problems with the lumber bureau were a thing of the past. But Charlie was no longer a young man, and occasionally he had spells of illness that kept him away from work.

This could be awkward. If we got orders for graded lumber when we had no licensed grader on hand, we were stuck. In a business the size of ours, we couldn’t hire two graders. So the solution that came to me was this: why not take the lumber grader’s course myself?

I still held the whole grading system in contempt, but as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” I didn’t need any grader’s course to teach me the type of lumber that would satisfy our customers. But we had to give grade-marked lumber to customers who had government loans, or lose their business.

Off to Fredericton

The graders courses were held at the Forest Rangers School, in Fredericton, a school connected with the University of New Brunswick. This was about 270 miles from Upper Stewiacke, and arrangements had to be made at the M.L.B. Headquarters in Amherst.

I was fifty-four at that time, and I knew I’ll likely be the oldest candidate in the class, if I went at all. Still, I felt there would be no great difficulty connected with the course. I had already seen the book containing the grading rules, and while there was a lot of idiotic garbage that would have to be memorized, I saw nothing that looked like a serious problem.

Rather than send them a letter, which would take time, I telephoned and the person on the other end of the line turned out to be our old friend Eric Chapman. Eric told me the course in Fredericton would take eight days. The courses were held every two weeks, and they preferred to have no more than a dozen attending each one. There was a course beginning Monday, March 30, which was still open.

Joking about age

This was about the right time for me to go. I facetiously remarked to Eric that perhaps I was too old to take the course. And I’ll never forget his reply: “Oh no, I don’t think so,” he said. “We do occasionally have older men take the course. They do find it more difficult than the younger men. But we are patient with them, and in most cases are able to give them a diploma.”

I thought to myself, “So that’s what the ‘critter’ really thinks.” I felt that if I couldn’t learn that stupid bunch of grading rules in eight days, I’d go back home and look for an opening in instruction for the feeble-minded! Anyway, I enrolled for the course, and on Sunday, March 29th I left home and drove to the home of Fred Woodworth, a cousin who lived in Dorchester, N.B.

This was about half the distance from our home to Fredericton. I stayed overnight at Dorchester, and arrived at the Forest Ranger’s School around 11 o’clock on the next forenoon. Only a few of the prospective graders had arrived, as the course wasn’t due to begin until afternoon. Actually, there was very little done that day.

Dormitory life

I never did become really attached to the Forest Rangers School. The fee for the course included meals – a purely courtesy title – and overnight accommodation. The overnight accommodation wasn’t too bad. They fired you a bunch of moth-eaten blankets, which may have been washed before the school opened in the previous autumn, but not since, and you made up your own bed, in a sort of dormitory that was provided.

There was no luxury involved, but, being a good sleeper I managed reasonably well. The meals, though, were beyond description. Not only was the food far from tasty, even at the first meal you got the feeling that it wasn’t even clean. When you first entered the dining room – another courtesy title – you got in a line-up with the other students – convicts? – and when your turn came you made your own
selection of utensils in preparation for the meal.

This consisted of a practically indestructible plate and mug, plus a knife, fork and spoon which resembled garden implements. Furthermore, they looked as if they’d only recently been brought in from the garden. Let’s say that it wasn’t too difficult to look at this collection of implements and make a pretty shrewd guess as to what had been on the bill of fare at the previous meal. After the first experience, you learned to look critically, especially at the forks, and to select one bearing the smallest quantity of congealed gravy from the previous meal.

Spartan menu

In restaurants, it’s often hard to decide which course to order. This was not a problem at the Forest Ranger School. There was one main course. And if you didn’t like it, too bad. You could wait for the next meal.

After the meal, you were expected to take your dishes back to be washed. I never watched that operation, but the results spoke for themselves. On the way to the kitchen, you passed a large garbage container, and into this you scooped off your leavings. And there were lots of leavings.

I never did find out what became of them, but they would have provided food for a large number of pigs. Pigs are not usually very particular, and even they might not have considered this garbage acceptable. I wondered if I was unduly hard to please. But about a month after I left there, I found out that a real shake-up had taken place, resulting in a new staff in the kitchen. This was too late for me
but I was glad for those who followed me. They had all to gain and nothing to lose from the change. It had to be an improvement.

Eleven in class

We were taken to the classroom for an hour or two on that first afternoon. The class numbered 11, and the man conducting the course was Claude Greene. He was a youngish man, probably thirty-five, with a pleasant, out-going manner.

The first get-together was spent in a discussion of the different grades that were to be taught in this course. These grades were: Band better, C select, selected merchantable, Construction – No. 1; Standard – No. 2; Utility – No. 3; Economy – No. 4 and industrial. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there were only three of these that we would ever use – Numbers 1, 2 and 3.

Nevertheless we had to learn the other grades. Why? God only knows. They were about as useful as postage stamps to someone marooned on a desert island. Worse, the poor guy on the island could always hope to be rescued, and eventually use the stamps.

But it’s safe to say that half of these grades would never be used by any of the graders who took the course. The first two grades, Band better, and C select, were practically non-existent. They did have half a dozen boards high enough in quality to qualify. You tended to view these rare specimens respectfully from a distance – rather like the crown jewels that I was privileged some years later to view during a visit to London.

Useless rules

Since an annual mill cut of lumber would probably contain less than half of 1% of such lumber, these rules were useless. Selected merchantable wasn’t much better. It permitted a few very small knots, no wane, no bark pockets, almost no cross-grain, and defects such as checks and warp were allowed to such a limited extent that you could easily go over a hundred pieces of lumber and not find one to meet this grade.

Going to the other end of the scale, the Economy grade, Number four, was practically useless. A truly destitute person might have used it to build a kennel for a retired dog who had only a few weeks to live. But that’s about all. The industrial grade, used principally for crating, was never stamped, and had little attention paid to it, even at the grading school.

We were expected to learn the different defects permissible in each grade. For instance, some of the defects accepted in construction grade included: the number of allowable knots, which was one per square foot of surface, and the diameter of these knots must not be over one and one half inches. This was in wider lumber, such as 2×10.

No rot allowed

In narrower lumber, the accepted size of knot had to be smaller. The wane – bark on the corners of the lumber – was also specified as to depth and length. No rot was permitted. There were specified amounts of crook, twist and cup, and a limited amount of cross-grain – one inch in twenty inches of length. Also, there was a specified number of bark-pockets, checks and splits, with limitations as to length and width. And there were other rules, which we won’t go into now.

Since there were eight of these grades, obviously a fair amount a memory work was required. This first afternoon’s work ended, and we went in to our unpalatable supper.

In the evening there was no established routine. Some of our crowd played cards. A few went over town. And a few began memorizing the grading rules, in preparation for the next day’s work.

Getting acquainted

It was amazing how quickly that group of 11 people got acquainted. Both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were well represented. I had never met any of the others, but at the end of the first afternoon we were all on free and easy terms.

As I had foreseen, I was the oldest member of the class. And I was the only self-sponsored one of the group. The others all represented the firms they worked for, and of course had their expenses and wages paid. I liked this group. Most of them took the course seriously, but there were two, both from Newcastle, who didn’t seem to fit in.

One of these was a young chap, not too many years out of school. The other was older, perhaps around 40. They had both been sent there by the same lumber firm. The older man did try, but he didn’t seem to adapt. He knew lumber pretty well, and he couldn’t be bothered counting knots and measuring wane.

The younger chap probably could have done better, but he didn’t care. He was an excellent bowler, and would much rather spend his evenings bowling than in studying the grading rules. However, having been sent there by their employers, they should have considered a reasonable amount of study an obligation.

Down to business

The next day we got down to business. The instructor questioned the class regarding permissible defects in each grade. Naturally those who had studied on the previous evening showed up better than those who had gone over town. The classroom work went on all the morning, and extended into the afternoon. But around three o’clock we went to the grading shed and were given a try at actual grading.

A few pieces of lumber – usually twenty-five – were laid out on benches, each stick was numbered, and we were required to mark down what we considered to be the grade of each piece. After this had been done, the instructor went over the lumber, giving us the correct grade – according to his Gospel – and explaining his reasons for these decisions.

Several of the candidates had a fair practical knowledge of lumber. Others had very little. The ones who abandoned common sense and went strictly by the grading book, did the best in this first trial grading course. I found out that day where most of Parker Reid’s ideas originated. And I knew full well that neither I, nor any other of these taking part in this course, would ever grade in actual practise
with the rigid, almost fanatical, foolishness which we saw exhibited that day.

Enjoyable experience

Still, all in all, I found the grading course an enjoyable experience. For one thing, you could express your feelings regarding the grade of any particular piece of lumber, provided you didn’t do this in too antagonistic a manner. This was frequently done. But of course the instructor’s decision was final.

Succeeding days were a repetition of the first one, except that each day we became a little more familiar with the rules, and a little more able to apply them to the satisfaction of the instructor.

I hadn’t realised that this course included instruction on tallying lumber. One would have expected that all those taking the course would already be experienced tallyman. But not more than half our group were so qualified. Others were already good tallyman, better qualified, as it turned out, than was our instructor, who was far from being a mathematician.

He was a good grader, in the sense that he could apply what was written in the grading manual. In tallying, with the whole blackboard in front of him, he could usually come up with the right answer – in the course of time. But it was evident that he knew very few of the short-cuts used by experienced tallyman.

Good tallymen

Two of those taking the course, Fred Ells of Parrsboro, and Donald Byers of New Annan, were really good tallyman. And I had tallied lumber off and on from the time that I was twelve years old.

As mentioned earlier, when the instructor tells you a piece of lumber should go in a certain grade, you may disagree with him, but his word goes. Tallying, though, is altogether different. There is only one right answer, and a wrong answer can easily be shown to be wrong. Before the course was many days old, this fact was impressed on Mr. Greene.

Good-natured disagreement with the grading rules was frequent. I’ll mention the one incident that impressed me the most. On this occasion the instructor had to make a decision regarding two pieces of 2×8, a size often used for floor-joists in house construction, making strength the most important qualification.

One of these pieces had a super-abundance of large knots. Now, the standard grade, Number 2, will accept such knots, up to 2 1/4 inches in diameter, providing – and I quote from the grading rules – “they are not there in large enough numbers as to seriously impair the strength of the particular piece.”

Opposite views

It would have taken very little to have broken it, so I consigned it to the utility, or number three grade. The other piece was a beautiful stick, its only defect being a little more wane, or bark, on one corner, beyond what the rules permitted. But there’s also a clause in the rules which states that one such defect may be over-looked, providing the piece is a grade higher in all other respects. Well, in
all other respects, this piece would easily have been accepted in Number one, or construction grade.

So I labelled it Standard, or Number two.

The instructor completely reversed these decisions. The knotty piece he put in Standard Grade, in spite of the fact that, had it been laid down across a stream, one would have hesitated to permit a cat to walk across on it. The other piece, strong as iron, he put in utility grade. I don’t think any one there agreed with him, but, being the instructor, his decision had to be accepted, no matter how foolish it seemed to us.

There was no question but that this was an error. There were plenty of debatable decisions in the grading rules, but in this case it was a matter of judgment. I hoped that before we finished the course, a situation would develop whereby we could show our instructor to be in error. Later on, this did happen, but in a different way from what we expected.

Board feet games

That afternoon we had a session of instruction in tallying. Mr. Greene began with the most ridiculously easy examples. For instance, he marked down on the board, “1000 lineal feet of 1 1/2 x 8” and asked the class to work this out and tell him how many board feet it would be. In this case, board feet and lineal feet are the same, and the question was no sooner asked, than it was immediately answered – one thousand.

His comment was, “Well, you didn’t need to tell the whole class”. Then he added, “Now I’ll give you one you won’t find quite so easy: How many board feet in 357 lineal feet of 1 1/2 x 5”? Well, the answer to this can be obtained simply by multiplying the 357 by five, and dividing the result by eight. This does not take long, and by the time he had the question marked down on the blackboard, I had the answer.

When he turned around I was staring aimlessly into space, and as he could see, making no effort to find the answer. I don’t know what was in his mind. Perhaps he thought I couldn’t do his little problem – there were several there who couldn’t. I know it never occurred to him that anyone would have the answer so soon.

Ready answer

With barely concealed derision he turned to me and said: “Well, Mr. Blaikie, have you an answer?” I told him the answer was 223 1/8 board feet. With a bewildered expression on his face he turned back to the board and continued his own calculations. In due course he came up with the anser, but he took the most roundabout way imaginable to do so.

It reminded me of someone, planning a trip to Europe, travelling via the North Pole. When he finished, the blackboard was practically covered with figures. But eventually he came up with the same answer I had given him – 223 1/8 board feet.

Then, his derision now gone, he asked me how I got the answer. I explained that I had merely multiplied his 357 by five and divided by eight. The bewildered look returned. “Why did you multiply by five and divide by eight”? I told him I didn’t exactly know, I guessed because it would bring the right answer.

Fives and eights

Of course I did know the reason for using five and eight, and so did he, if he’d only taken the trouble to simplify his figures a little. In order to get board feet from lineal feet you multiply length by width, by thickness, and divide by twelve. In this case you had 357 x 5 x 1 1/2 divided by 12. But 5 x 1 1/2 is 7 1/2, and nobody but an imbecile would multiply 357 by 7 1/2 and divide the result by 12 when
the use of 5 and 8 would bring the same answer. Anyway, the subject was dropped, and I don’t believe he ever did realize where the five and the eight originated.

A day or two later he came up with a more complicated problem. I wish I could remember it in detail, but I can’t. In any case, a considerable quantity of five-inch boards was involved in this problem. We were given the total board footage, and the percentages of the various lengths included and were expected to find out the total number of boards in the consignment.

It was really quite easy, and I do remember that the answer was 566, plus a very small fraction. Mr. Greene, as usual, made good use of the blackboard. Using his method, it was necessary to divide a fairly large figure by 10 1/3. The figure was around 5850.

Weak on fractions

Fractions weren’t Mr. Greene’s strong point. If he knew how to multiply or divide by them, he never demonstrated this knowledge. In this case, he decided to divide by 10.3. There is, of course, a slight difference between 10 1/3 and 10.3, enough that it led to an answer slightly larger than the correct one.

I believe he made it 568 plus a fraction. I had done the question in a different way – much simpler, it seemed to me – but when I saw what he was doing, I knew we’d be having some fun. Both Fred Ells and Donald Byers had answers the same as mine, so we felt pretty sure they were right.

When Mr. Greene finally finished he pointed to his answer – 568 – and asked me if that was what I got. When I told him that my answer was 566, the poor soul went back to work and did it all over again – exactly the same way, and came up with exactly the same answer. “Well” he said, “I get the same answer again. I guess it must be right.”

566 at last

But it wasn’t right, and I knew the class was enjoying this little dialogue. “I don’t think it is right, Mr. Greene.” I said. He then began asking the rest of the class about their answers. But it appeared that only Fred Ells and Donald Byers had been able to do it, and their answers were the same as mine. So he gave it up. “What’s the matter?” he said, “What am I doing that’s wrong?” So I explained that
the slight difference in answers arose in the division, in one case by 10 1/3 and in the other by 10.3. His error then dawned on him, but he still didn’t go to fractions.

He did it all over again, this time dividing by 10.33, since he now realized that 10 1/3 makes a recurring decimal. But this brought him an answer of 566, and he was happy to drop the subject.

On Monday, a week from the day I had arrived there, we had a visit from our old friend, Eric Chapman. Mr. Greene sat back in the class, while Eric took charge of a teaching session. Having gone through all the different grades, he came around to the subject of tallying lumber. As he started putting his first question on the board, Mr. Greene spoke for the first time during the session: “Be careful, Eric, there are mathematical geniuses in this class!”

Examination day

The next day – Tuesday – was the last day of the course. There were two examinations. The class was divided, half were sent to the grading shed for the practical test, the rest stayed in the classroom for the written examination. I was in this latter group. The written exam didn’t amount to much: 65 was considered a pass mark, and this wasn’t hard to achieve.

It was simply a test that spot-checked what we were supposed to have learned during the previous week, including all the garbage about the number of knots permitted in each grade, the maximum amount of wane, cross-grain, warp, twist, cup, worm-holes, rot stain, wind-check, to name a few. Besides this a few questions on tallying were thrown in for good measure. I liked this examination. If your
answer was right, there was no way they could mark it wrong – unlike the practical grading which, as has been shown, was largely a matter of personal judgment by superiors.

I hoped to get through these exams early, and get started for home, as the weather wasn’t looking too good. Half an hour was all I needed for this exam. But it was an hour before we got to the grading shed for the practical exam. I think this came about because of the questions on tallying.

Pointless exercise

I’ll mention right here that the ones who could already tally didn’t need the instruction they received, and the ones who couldn’t tally were no wiser when they left than they were on the day of their arrival. In this exam, a great deal of their time was spent in a vain effort to accomplish something too difficult for them. They had learned nothing worth mentioning from Mr. Greene. It was hard enough for someone who already understood tallying, to make any sense of the maze of figures he put on the blackboard.

We did finally get to the grading shed. One hundred pieces of lumber, in various sizes had been laid out and pre-graded by the field men. These pieces were numbered – 1 to 100. We were given papers having similar numbers. If you used reasonable care, there was no need of any confusion regarding the numbers. But this could happen.

One fellow managed to miss one piece soon after he began grading, and from then on, all his numbers were wrong. Seventy-five correctly graded pieces gave you a pass mark. He didn’t make this mark, and realizing what had happened, they gave him a new trial, which resulted in a pass.

Top of the class

By noon the examinations were over. We went to the dining room and ate our last unsatisfying meal at the Forest Rangers School. At one o’clock we again gathered in the classroom. In a short time the instructors were finished marking the papers. Of the eleven members of the class, only one failed the course. This was the young chap from Newcastle. In a way I felt sorry for him, but he had put no effort into his work from the beginning, and I don’t believe he really cared whether he passed or not.

The other man from Newcastle also failed on his first attempt. However, he had done better than his friend, and the instructors decided to give him a second chance. They didn’t want to fail two men from the same mill, if it could be avoided. This time he did get through.

I had marks of 99 in the written exam, and 93 in the practical grading. I was told that this was the highest mark in the class. This meant little to me, but was gratifying after the condescension that had been accorded me due to my age.

Heading home

I left the Forest Ranger’s School with few regrets. I had made some friends there, and I was now a licensed grader. This was satisfying, but beyond being able to stamp lumber, I felt I hadn’t really learned anything. Our buyer’s would still want the same quality of lumber that we had been giving them anyway. Still it gave me a feeling of contentment as I drove home.

Donald Byers came down with me. By the time we arrived in Amherst it was five o’clock, so we went to a restaurant for supper. I don’t remember what we ordered, but I do recall that it was a welcome change from the unappetizing fare we had been served during the past week. Donald accompanied me as far as Tatamagouche. His home at New Annan was on another road, and he had a chance there with another driver.

I was anxious to get home. It was nearly dark now, and a dense fog had reduced the visibility. I still had sixty miles to go, and it was a strain driving through the fog. But this cleared away by the time I came to Truro, and the rest of the way easy. I arrived home around nine o’clock, in time for another lunch.