A man with an axe and a girl, we only hope he’s actually a forest ranger and that she’s related to him somehow, probably his daughter, she’s looking on in that polite but hanging back in your mind way that kids look on when adults are making you look at something and never telling you why they want you to or why you have to sit there and be still until whatever it is they’re not really explaining to you is over, I just came out here because Mama wants me to ask if he wants coffee in a thermos, those tadpoles down in the creek yesterday hope they’re still there wonder if they’re frogs yet, maybe he’s working his way around to saying something about me scaring the bejesus out of Yaya last night, really shouldn’t have done that, wood feels good on my feet, warm, smooth, why is he all closed up over that thing like it’s trapped him or something?
He’s a little wound up in a kind of acting-ordinary way, trying to figure out how to say what he has to tell her, every way he runs it by in his head it’s just too much, he can’t say it the way he’s thinking it, can’t say hey, Sport, Little Suzy, I’ll be away from home doing forest ranger stuff for a few days, and I want you to keep this axe close by so you can defend the family if need be, I’m not saying that anything is going to happen, it’s just that there are several rogue bears roaming about and tearing things up, reckon I ought to show you how to shoot the rifle before I go, and a homicidal maniac called The Purger or some such nonsense on the loose, thought to be hereabouts, though your uncle Jimmy and I think he’s probably actually still in town somewhere, and you know how your mom gets when anything’s not going exactly smooth and easy, lord knows I love your mother, I really do, but she’s real high strung and if one or all of the bears and or The Purger shows up, she’s liable to get herself hurt trying to defend y’all, not that I’m saying that’s gonna happen or if it did happen that she’d do that but I’d just feel better if you just had some kind of precaution laid by just in case, now if you hear anything rustling outside around the house don’t assume it’s anything, but stay inside, you hear me, just stay inside, don’t go running out trying to chase it away, it’ll probably just be the wind or something, you know how you and your mother have that wild imagination, I do love your mother, and I love you and little Yaya, and I would never just run off and leave y’all even though your mother acts like it every time I’m away for more’n a day, everything is gonna be just fine and I’ll be back in a few days, lord willin’.
He turns and looks at the kid and smiles his crooked kind of smile, we imagine people who know more about vegetation and wildlife than they probably should smile crooked smiles, or just people who always have a little sadness mixed up with the love in them. He says, “Lookahere, Suzy, Sport, how shiny and sharp this thing is. And I oiled the handle too. Yeah, we usually keep this thing out in the woodshed, but it’s lookin’ so good I think you can keep it in the house, maybe even in your room or something if you want to. Never can tell when a girl might need an axe. And put some shoes on.”
photograph from National Archives todaysdocument
“Forest Service Ranger at Stillwater Sharpens an Axe While His Daughter Looks On” 07/1973—Anne LaBastille, Photographer. From the EPA’s DOCUMERICA series