Dewey Cotton knew the secret to splitting firewood every time.
Dewey Cotton taught me a lot about country life, including the secret to splitting firewood every time.
I’m a city boy through and through, so when I met Dewey Cotton for the first time I was astonished, to say the least. I had just moved to Kentucky to try homesteading, and Dewey was my new neighbor. He was a spry little man with tanned, leathery skin and a halo of white hair. At 76, he walked with a limp caused by an ornery mule half a century before, but he sure got around. Working and living off the back of an old telephone truck, he set up camp, cleared the woods for his yard, and started building his house just about overnight. Every day he greeted me as if I were a long-lost friend and offered me a cup of coffee. I’m so glad that I accepted as often as I did. One time I found a geode, a round rock with sugary quartz crystals inside. I asked Dewey if he knew what it was, and he said it was a “Butler County bullet.” He told me that during the Civil War, when they ran out of ammunition they threw these rocks instead. Dewey had a way of doing things. He dragged his firewood with that old truck, spliced the plywood for his house walls, and could plant 20 fruit trees all in a day. But he always had time for a quick hello and extended a sincere offer of help when I did any service for him. “Thanks, till you’re better paid,” he said, and he meant it. One time Dewey heard me trying to split firewood for the coming winter. I was using an 8-pound maul and getting it stuck just about every time I swung it up, down and into the wood. Dewey said to me in dead earnest, “You’re holding your mouth wrong. You’ll never get anywheres that way. Watch.” He hauled back and just when the ax was at the top of the arc he called out, “Nearer, my God, to thee!”—and the wood split as if struck by lightning. I tried it his way and failed. After a good belly laugh, Dewey said he always turned his ax slightly just at the last moment and the wood split every time. Old Dewey Cotton taught me a lot of life lessons. His church was the forest, his altar was a campfire and his God was all around him. He passed away many years ago, but I still think of him. Once in a while, if you listen carefully, you can hear me call, “Nearer, my God, to thee!” And lightning strikes.
R.J. fondly recalls the life lessons from his neighbor Dewey.