HOMEWORDS: Chain Saw Massacre

By David Claude Bailey • Illustration by Romey Petite

For decades, whenever I needed a tree cut down, my friends have been happy to demonstrate their lumberjack skills, especially if rewarded with ample quantities of craft beer. But I’ll admit I’ve always been jealous of their Swedish Husqvarna and German Stihl chain saws. At the same time, I noticed how high maintenance they were. When I moved out in the country, I thought my cousin Bill, who can wield a chain saw like the character Ash in The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II movies, would be delighted to hear I was going to finally buy myself a chain saw. “Bailey, you’re so clumsy you’ll cut off both your ears,” he said. “If you’ve got one in your sweaty little hands, I want to be in the next county.”

My wife, Anne, standing by, chimed in with similar sentiments, as if she were the Greek prophetess Cassandra predicting a series of tragic dismemberments.

“Maybe I’ll let you try my electric chain saw under close supervision,” Bill said.

And so he did.

Clad in my red-and-black lumberjack shirt — and wearing steel-toed boots and thick leather gloves at Bill’s insistence — I sawed away. No gas or oil to mix. No fumes. No pulling on a cord until you’re blue in the face. Light as a feather.

“I’m going to buy me an electric chain saw,” I announced.

“Great,” Bill replied. “Just let me get across the county line first.”

Cassandra groaned.

Online research is itself a double-edged blade; I was overwhelmed with choices until I found Chainsawjournal.com and saw some familiar and very virile-sounding names: Remington, Worx, Oregon PowerNow, Makita, Sun Joe.

Sun Joe? Could I really tell Bill I’d bought a lime-green Sun Joe chain saw? (Sun Joe is a division of Snow Joe, which got its start selling snow blowers for under $100.)

I love to read reviews online, especially negative ones. And for every brand there were plenty: “Problem right out of the box,” one disgruntled chain saw buyer said. “Piece of junk,” someone said. “This product broke after the first use,” was common. “Tensioner requires more attention than a high school drama queen,” one creative critic penned.

By contrast, Sun Joe got great reviews. One woman did grouse a little about the operator’s manual, but after all, who reads those? Sun Joe showed up on my doorstep two days later. Anne pointed out that I’d actually bought a Saw Joe, assembly required. Ten minutes later, when she heard my grumbling turn into curses, she quietly sidled up and did what she has often done when I tried to assemble toys in the wee hours of Christmas morning: She read the manual.

She leafed through the first seven pages that focused single-mindedly on how to retain one’s 20 digits while avoiding electrocution. “Saw Joe says not to use him in the rain or in wet locations,” she read. “Saw Joe says to keep all body parts away from saw while operating.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know all that. Does Chain Saw Joe say how to put him together?” I asked. He did. First I threaded the chain onto the cutting bar, looping its links over the gear sprocket just as the drawing Anne pointed out to me showed. Following her read-out-loud instructions I then tightened the chain via the chain-tensioner screw. I depressed the safety lock button and pulled the trigger. Chain Saw Joe said, “RRRWowwwrrrrrr.” I said, “Hah!”

“Saw Joe says to add chain oil,” Anne said. I filled the chamber, put on my lumberjack gear, and ambled out to the woodpile. Halfway there, it became apparent that what I needed was an extension cord, a loooong extension cord.

No problem. I had collected no less than five faded orange extension cords over the years — one I inherited from Dad; another I found on the side of the road; a third I saw in a construction skip when a neighbor’s house was being remodeled. It’s even possible I might have broken with my cheapskate tendencies and bought one or two of them, years ago. I plugged one into another while Anne read aloud a note about how Chain Saw Joe recommended polarized Underwriters’ Laboratory 14-gauge extension cords. Yeah, so what?

I pulled the trigger to drown out her droning — and nothing happened. I unplugged the cords and tried them one at a time until I got back to the outlet. Nothing. I grudgingly drove 12 miles to my friendly hardware store, and bought a 50-foot 12-gauge (better than a 14, said the man in the hardware store) for almost as much as I paid for the saw and drove back. Nothing. Cassandra diligently walked me through the troubleshooting chart in the operator’s manual. Still nothing. I called Sun Joe.

“Yep,” said Ronnie. “Yep . . . Yep . . . Yep.” After I’d wound down, he said, “I think I know the problem. Pick up the chain saw by the handle.” With my right hand I grasped the bright green handle, saying, “All right.”

“Do you see another handle?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said, “right in front of the fi rst handle.”

“Well, that’s not a handle,” Ronnie said. “It’s the safety chain brake lever. Pull it back toward you and see if it clicks.”

“Yep,” I said, as it clicked. At Ronnie’s suggestion, I plugged Chain Saw Joe in and pulled his trigger. He said, “RRRWowwwrrrrrr.”

I told Ronnie I felt dumb. He said that other people had called with the same problem and not to beat myself up. “It really ought to be on the troubleshooting chart. At least you read the manual,” he said, and began telling me about all the idiots who tried to operate a tool as dangerous as a chain saw without even opening the manual.

“Right,” I said, “and thanks for the help, but I really gotta go and cut up some firewood before it gets cold.”

O.Henry’s editor at large, David Claude Bailey, counts his blessings — along with his fingers and toes after using Chain Saw Joe — at Thacker Dairy in Whitsett.

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