Burying the Hatchet in Maine

"Hee-Yah!" I shout, hurling the tomahawk-shaped hatchet at the upended-log target 20 feet away.

"A hit," Herb Billings remarks. "Looks like you've done this before."

"A long time ago," I say, unable to hide my smile. Herb is the favorite in this event, at the annual "Hatchet Throw and Cross-Cut Saw Contest" in Sedgwick, Maine, where we live. There are about 30 people here on this crisp, clear morning in early fall, and things are about to roll.

Herb supplies us with our firewood and undoubtedly learned how to throw the hatchet at his father's knee. But I was trained up in those ways, too, so we shall see.

It helps, shouting. Bull Bull always roared out "Il Duce!" Bull Bull was the math teacher who taught us how to throw: Charlie, David, and me, ninth-graders away at boarding school during the second world war.

"Pitch it like a baseball," he would say. "Throw it through the target!" At first there were more splintered handles than hits, but after two weeks we were ready to start a team.

Herb retrieves the hatchet and hands it to me. "Three practice throws," he says, his left hand placed, Napoleon-like, between his green-and-black-checked wool shirt and his red suspenders. I pull down on the peak of my brown-tweed cap, discard my down vest, lift the hatchet above my right shoulder, and brace myself. "Eeee-yah!" I shout, as I bring my arm down in the throw. The hatchet ricochets off the log, splitting a piece from its side, before burying itself in the grass 10 feet beyond. I walk over to it, as nonchalantly as possible, my heart beating fast.

"Edith Summers!" announces Betsy Marsters, who holds a clipboard. The ladies will go first. Betsy's father, Duane, is the instigator of all this, and the master of ceremonies. He and his wife, Isabel, have been dispensing cider and homemade doughnuts at the refreshment table. Edith Summers, a stoutish, gray-haired woman with the gait of a bulldog, marches up to the line, eyes blazing. But her throw is feeble. The hatchet doesn't even reach the target.

"Pretend it's a rolling pin, Edith!" someone shouts, to much laughter. Unperturbed, Edith retrieves her weapon. This time she throws it harder and it sticks into the wood, staying there for a few seconds before falling.

"Judgment call!" someone shouts. Amid much neighborly bickering, it is finally decided that Edith's shot counts, and the distance to the rusty bottle cap that marks the center, 4-1/2 inches, is duly measured and recorded. There are two other women, but neither of their throws even comes close.

Now it is the men's turn. There are five of us. The first two have obviously never done this before and none of their throws stick. The third, Bill Marsters, only a boy, buries the hatchet just within the target area on his third throw, to enthusiastic applause. Then Herb steps up to the line. Herb, the Tomahawk Terror, the Killer of Crooked Creek. His eyes are steely, his posture firm.

"Show 'em, Herb!" exclaims a tough-looking, bearded geezer I have seen hanging around the country store.

Herb raises the hatchet over his shoulder, holds it there for a moment, and lets it fly. Bull's-eye! - almost. One inch from the bottle cap. Cheers from the crowd. He can hardly wrench it free of the wood. Shot No. 2 strikes only a glancing blow. He glares at the target, fixes it in a mighty stare. His next throw is good, though near the edge. He hands me the hatchet with a look of superiority that he cannot quite hide.

Thumb braced firmly against the smooth wood, I lift the hatchet above my right shoulder in a slow, deliberate arc, and trace an imaginary line between the sharp edge of the blade and the center of the target.

If I throw it perfectly, it will follow that line, flipping over twice, and divide that bottle cap in two.

As I bring my right arm down, it seems to stretch all the way to where the hatchet has buried itself in the wood.

"A hit!" Duane Marsters barks out. It is 2-1/3 inches from the center. A hair to the right, I tell myself, preparing for my next throw. In the instant of release, however, I feel the hatchet veer off to the side - a clear miss.

Standing there at the mound, I invoke the image of Bull: "Pitch it like a baseball! Throw it through the target!"

"Eeeee-yah!" I shout, bringing my arm down in a perfect curve.

"Looks like a bull's-eye!" says Duane. And a bull's-eye it is. The bottle cap has been nicked. The blue ribbon is mine.

'WHAT'S this?" I exclaim, picking up the gleaming hatchet that son Patrick has given me for Christmas.

"There's a target log in the truck," Patrick says, grinning broadly at my obvious delight. That afternoon, we set it up in the frozen yard. Paul, our older son, who also lives nearby, sinks the hatchet into the log on his second try, and becomes an instant afficionado. Patrick is sinking them, too, but he has clearly been practicing. My first three throws are hits, though only one is near the center. But then I seem to lose it. Only one more in the next 10.

"Don't worry, Dad," Patrick says, clapping me on the shoulder as we walk back inside. "There's plenty of time."

"Exactly so," I say smiling grimly. "Three hundred and six days, to be exact."

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