Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Hooch Squad

While on home leave this summer I stayed up late a few nights just writing about various life experiences. Sometimes I forward these articles on to magazines that might be interested. Back in December of ’97, one of my articles appeared in Adirondac Magazine. This most recent December (2000), The Adirondack Explorer published one of the articles I wrote this summer about my life and times at Paul Smith’s College which is in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. I studied forestry at Paul Smith’s in the late seventies -and loved it.

When The Adirondack Explorer received my article, they requested that I might dig up some photos of my early days at Smitty’s. I found a few and sent them on. Meanwhile, the folks at the ‘Explorer’ had gone to Paul Smith’s and collected a few photos of their own. When my folks sent me the magazine, I was surprised to see one particular photo I had never seen before. It had four students at a ‘Woodsmen’s Meet’, standing against a truck with a sign that said, “Hooch Squad”. I knew two of the students quite well. One was my roommate (center with a beard) for the summer of ‘78 and the other, the one farthest to the left, was the guy whose testimony urged me seriously to consider becoming a follower of Jesus back in early ’79. His name was Mark Coffin.

When I first arrived at PSC, Mark Coffin had a long thick beard and was captain of the Woodsman team. He kind of reminded me of Aqualung but larger and more buffed. He was from somewhere around Boston and grew up as an adopted child. Mark was a serious drinker and a brawler, a pretty rough character all around. I managed to avoid him, not really knowing what he was all about. At the time, I was thinking, ‘safety first’ is the best policy.

As I went into my second year as a forestry student (PSC was only a two-year college at the time) Mark graduated and went to work with a local logging outfit. Meanwhile, through a real revival type situation on the Paul Smith’s campus, some of Mark’s friends had decided to become followers of Jesus. They shared that good news with Mark who didn’t think that it was such great news at the time. For Mark, it meant having a few less drinking buddies.

One a late winter afternoon, somewhere not too far from the Saranac Lake area, Mark was helping the skidder operator slap some chokers around the butts of some remaining felled trees that had been limbed out and ready to go. This was the last hitch of logs for the day to be dragged out to the landing. They were pretty far back in off the main road. It was getting quite cold and their warm breath clouded in the chilly late afternoon air. It was the weekend so everyone wanted to get home early. Mark told the skidder operator, “go ahead and take this hitch out and I’ll walk back. I want to take care of this one hanger.” Earlier while Mark was felling a tree, it’s crown got hung up in another tree, never hitting the ground. He wanted to make sure it was on ground before leaving the area as hunters or hikers might chance by only to have the tree come down on top of them. Mark watched the diesel skidder roar to life, belch out plumes of dense black smoke and disappear around the bend with a thousand feet of timber dragging behind it. Mark fired up his Stihl 0.51. He began to cut a small section out of the butt of tree hoping it would cause the crown to roll off the other tree and come down. The tree did twist, and quite fast but in the wrong direction so that it came down right on Mark’s leg, breaking his femur and pinning him to the ground. He lay there trapped to the ground in a bed of hard packed snow while a flurry of swirling snowflakes landed on his face intermittently. From the angle where he lay, all he could see was the tops of hardwoods, swaying in the Adirondack’s bone chilling winter breeze. In excruciating pain, the only thing other thing his senses were picking up was the sound of the skidder, now about half way out to the log landing. He knew he was dead. He would die within a half-hour from shock or from hypothermia. Both weren’t the worst ways to die, and what better place than in an Adirondack forest, but on the other hand, he was only twenty-one and he wanted to live. For some reason he thought of all his friends and those he would miss the most. He thought of his Christian friends whom he had alienated. At this point, he was ready to deal with the God; the God of whom his friends had said was good news. He talked to God in the pain, in the cold quiet grayness of the waning day and in the isolation. He told God, “If YOU, like my friends say, are great enough to deliver me from death and save me, I will follow your son Jesus for the rest of my life.” How this would work out, he knew not. All of a sudden Mark noticed that there was complete silence in deepening grayness. The sun had set and dark was rapidly encroaching on what traces of light that were left. The dark made the silence deafening but it seemed to carry a message with it. In his delirium, he was trying to think. What is it about this quietness? Then he knew immediately. The skidder had reached the log landing, was parked and shut off. The only thing that occurred to Mark was to shout for help, which was ridiculous because the landing was almost a mile away – but he did anyway. He shouted and shouted until he became hoarse and could shout no more. He lay back to let shock and exposure do its work. What else could he do?

The next thing he knew, the familiar sound of a diesel engine was idling in the background of his senses. It was dark now and his leg was hurting to the point where he’d rather slip back into unconsciousness. Someone had a peavey and was lifting the tree off his leg, shouting at him to try and move. He vaguely recalls the ride back on the skidder which was probably a good thing - a mile over logging trails (not logging roads) in the dark with a broken femur could not be that comfortable.

I heard about the accident and that Mark was in the hospital. Then I saw him hobbling around campus with crutches, after that a cane. The next time I saw him, he was knocking on my door at Gabriel’s campus in late December of 1978. The cane was gone but there was a new addition. There was a large Bible under his arm. For Mark Coffin, this was something new! Mark was making the rounds. He went to every single dorm room on Paul Smith’s College Campus and Gabriel’s Campus (where we second foresters were sent in exile). He even looked up students living off campus. He wanted to tell everyone that Jesus Christ, is indeed good news. It was because of his testimony and his love for God that made me consider my own situation. Not long after that, I committed my life to following Christ as well. How many others were influenced by his life, I am unsure but I would not be surprised if it were more than I thought.

The first I heard from Mark after he left the St. Regis area was in 1984 while I was studying at Word of Life in Schroon Lake. He was working with Youth for Christ in San Jose. I tried to look him up again but lost track of him. I did reach him from Cambodia by email in ’96. I forget how I got hold of his email address. He had left Youth for Christ and was a Youth Minister in a large church Evangelical Free Church in San Jose, CA. I have once again lost track of him for a few years but found out that he is in Montana pastoring a church and hates email.

Brian M. Maher

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