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From pulpwood to publishing

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2010

On Labor Day weekend, the media usually publish end-of-summer stories and various what-do-you-do-for-a-living pieces.

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This year we had an idea for what could have been a nifty, circular, man-on-the-street piece where we would ask people what they wanted to do for a living when they were a kid, and what they actually do for a living now.

That was the easy part: The portion that proved too cumbersome was matching those people up. In other words, an insurance agent who says he wanted to be a firefighter would be paired with a firefighter who wanted to be a cop, who would be paired with a police officer who wanted to be a ballerina, who would be paired with a dancer who wanted to be an insurance agent. Nifty idea, but too complicated.

Still, it's fun to see how people turned out. But it also made me think about what I wanted to do for a living when I was a kid, and how I've sort of come full circle.

Other than teen dreams of becoming a rock star, I didn't spend much time thinking about what I'd do for a living. My dad owned an auto-repair shop in Thomson, and I sort of assumed I'd grow up and work there.

Then, for some reason, he bought a small sawmill. He set it up behind the shop, and soon we started logging.

We didn't have real logging equipment at first, though. I recall helping harvest a small site in Winfield. We dragged the logs out of the woods with a farm tractor, and parked Dad's race-car hauling Ford truck down in a ditch. We laid down heavy boards as ramps, cut the logs in lumber length and rolled them on the truck by hand.

Gradually Dad added loaders and skidders and real log trucks to the inventory, and we used the flatbed to haul rough lumber to sell at the planer mill in Dearing.

We've always joked that my Dad doesn't believe in hauling a "piece of a load." As a result, we piled so much lumber on that old Ford that it felt like the front tires were barely touching the ground.

Still, I always made it safely to the lumber plant. That wasn't the case one day with the pulpwod truck, though.

For those who aren't familiar, pulpwood - trees that are ground up to make paper - usually is hauled tree length directly to the paper mills. Years ago, though, many small operators hauled "short wood" - 5-foot logs stacked sideways on heavy trucks.

I was driving one of those from Thomson to Warrenton one afternoon when a rear tire blew. The truck had dual rear wheels on a single axle, and it was loaded (we later found) with more than 19,000 pounds of pine pulpwood.

At more than 9 tons, the stack of 5-foot logs is pretty tall. Blowing one tire pitched the top-heavy truck to the left, which blew the other tire.

Luckily no other vehicles got in the way as the truck rumbled off the side of the highway and rolled over in the ditch. When it stopped, I opened my eyes, stepped out through the hole where the windshield used to be and thought, "Dad is gonna kill me." The truck was destroyed, but I came away with barely a scratch.

A few summers of hauling pulpwood made me certain I didn't want to do that for a living, though at that stage of life I had only generalized blue-collar visions of future employment until my future wife talked me into college.

In addition to summer jobs at the sawmill and one Christmas at the old Regency Mall Radio Shack, I also worked my way through school as a bouncer at the Longbranch Saloon in Valdosta and as a resident assistant in the dorms at the University of Georgia.

Somewhere along the way I wound up in journalism school, followed by an internship at the former Augusta Herald and eventually my first "real" job as a general assignment reporter.

The rest, as we say, is history. And while we couldn't make those man-on-the-street photos come full circle, I'm often reminded that my career did: From cutting down trees and hauling them to the paper mill, to working on a publication printed on that paper.

At age 73, my Dad is still in the logging business. On high-stress days in the cubicles, I often wish I was, too.

Then I think about those 5-foot sticks of pulpwood, and remember why I got an education in the first place.

(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail barry.paschal@newstimesonline.com. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)



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