Sunday, September 28, 2014

An Actual Ax Accident

Pardon the assonance, but how could I resist?

One of the verities of Scouting is that you will have injuries. While most are minor, there have been incidents of serious injuries and even deaths. Luckily, I have never been a witness to either of these two tragedies.

But when you take a group of boys to the outdoors and add fire, knives, axes, saws, bows, arrows, guns, canoes, swimming, and hiking all together you have a perfect recipe for injuries. I have learned when a scout or scout leader starts an activity with the words: “Watch me do this…” it is better to call 911 first, and then watch the crazy stunt that is sure to follow.

As seemingly dangerous scouts and scout camp can be, the most risky outing is the infamous Fathers and Sons campout sponsored by LDS wards and branches each year. If mothers only knew the benign neglect that results when a group of fathers get together (free from wifely supervision) and start talking while their children, some as young as two, are playing in and around the fire and mishandling a variety of sharp objects mom’s work hard to keep from their reach, well, there would be an end to such overnighters. Lucky moms are unaware. Let’s keep it that way.

Well, I did not get through my scouting experience injury free. While I was able to avoid any of the poisonous plants, insects, and reptiles that are a part of many outdoor experiences, I was not immune from the ax.

To be fair, the BSA does its best to keep boys from injuries. Before one is able to “officially” use and ax, they have to pass their Totin' Chip certification. Totin' Chip teaches proper usage of axes, saws, and other cutting instruments that can cause serious injury.

In the process of obtaining this certification you learn:
  1. How do give someone an ax or knife.
  2. How to create an ax pit to avoid hurting others will chopping wood.
  3. How to store an ax so no one falls on it.
  4. How to split wood for kindling.
  5. How to chop wood for fires.
  6. How not to chop down trees.
Each of these is a vital skill for proper usage of axes and saws. So I do credit the BSA for thinking that one through.

I passed my Totin‘Chip early on in my scouting career and was able to be assigned to fire duty which required me to make kindling. As you should know, you can’t just light a match and start a fire with a big log. Rather, you need smaller pieces of wood called kindling placed under the big log. The fire is started by lighting the kindling and the kindling provides the constant heat to light the log.

Cutting kindling is an easy task but it is also dangerous. You start by using small and thinner pieces of wood. Rather than chopping it with an ax, which safely remove fingers and hands from the blade, you place the blade of the ax on the top of the wood, lift up the ax and wood at the same time, and finally drive the wood and the ax together on the ground.

Well, you can see this takes a bit of practice as one hand is on the ax and the other is on the wood holding it near the blade. You have to carefully synchronize striking the ax and wood to the ground and removing the hand that is holding this to items together. Failure to synchronize properly dramatically increases the chance for injury.

When you are assigned to fire duty, the first thing you do is create the ax pit. You do this by holding the head of the ax, which is still in its sheath, in one hand. You fully extend arm and  rotate in complete circle. Your ax pit partner marks the circle that results from the end of the ax on the ground.

This boundary is not to be traversed by anyone expect that one cutting the wood. If possible you drive in stakes and use twine to create an actual boundary. If you failed to bring stakes and twine, you mark the boundary of the pit by scraping away the ground cover so it is easy to tell its location.

After creating the ax pit, I gathered wood for the fire. We could only use wood that was on the ground and could not chop any branches from standing trees. Well, that was more of a guideline than a rule…

I had to gather wood that was dry. I also had to get large logs that would sustain the fire and small twigs that would help start the fire. But the kindling wood did not come from the fallen branches. Rather, the scout leaders would bring it. It is easier to cut store-bought wood into kindling because it has a flat edge on the top.

So, once I gathered all the wood and created piles to keep the different wood segregated, I was ready to cut the kindling. I had done this as part of my Totin' Chip certification, so I knew what to do. But the key to real ax safety is having a sharp ax. The sharper the ax the better it cuts the wood. The duller the blade, the more dangerous for a bouncing ax head can go places you never intended.

My ax was dull. That sealed my fate.

I dutifully grabbed my first piece of kindling wood that I was a to split. I placed the blade of the ax in the center of the wood. I raised the ax and the wood to that height of my head and brought them both down towards the earth why all my strength. I wanted to prove to my spectators and to myself that I had the strength to be a real ax wielding man.

As the wood and ax struck the ground, two unintended things happened. First, my timing was off. I did not remove the hand that was holding the wood. Second, the ax blade was so dull that instead of driving the head of the ax through the wood, the blade bounced off the wood and the only sharp part the ax, the corner of the blade, landed with all the force I exerted on the first knuckle of my left hand.

Well, needless to say, skin is a lot less resistant to an ax blade than wood. I really don’t recall the pain when the ax split open my knuckle. I do remember looking down at my hand seeing blood pouring out and thinking:  “This is really going to hurt soon.” It did.

But as bad as it bled and as much as it hurt, there was no need for stitches or ever a doctor’s visit. We just used good old BSA first-aid and within a few days I was fine. I still have a visible scar and a story to go with it. 

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