The following is the first installment of a series titled The Covered Bridge Chronicles. In this series I will relate stories to you that my brother George and I became acquainted with during our travels together to photograph covered bridges in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. This one is about the perils of a man named Sawyer “Spin Cycle” Chesterton. There is also a tab above for these stories. The tab is titled “Covered Bridge Chronicles” and will contain all the Covered Bridge entries.
Sawyer “Spin Cycle” Chesterton
My brother George and I spent the greater part of three years traveling across our great state in search of covered bridges. The incipient purpose of these expeditions resulted from George’s latest—and as it turned out, for the remainder of his life—hobby, which was photography. He invested much time and a considerable amount of his disposable income perfecting his skills, which, after much practice, turned out to be significant. George photographed still images, such as people, undisturbed nature, architecture, and generally anything immovable, eventually venturing into weddings, along with action shots, particularly sporting events. As I said, his skills became sharply honed, and family and friends developed a sincere appreciation for his work.
Never content to undertake anything alone, George persuaded me to accompany him on some of his photographic safaris. I became his companion in his quest to record first on film and later on digital media, every remaining covered bridge in our state, which at that time approached 100. Most of these 19th-century conveyance marvels were painted red, but a few of them were white-colored. The majority of them were still capable of carrying vehicular traffic, and they consisted of varying lengths, from about 60 feet to over 400 feet.
During our journeys we mostly discovered the better natures of our fellow citizens, along with some unique characters that appeared to have been formed without the benefit of a mold, which obviously could not have been broken.
Nature gives most people their defining traits in physical, mental, and emotional form, and these traits usually last with us throughout our lives. Other characteristics come from artificial sources, however, such as when a person is injured in an automobile accident and walks with limp thereafter, or if an individual suffers a burn in a visible area and redefines features or perhaps someone might lose a finger or a hand through an industrial or agricultural accident. The story that follows portrays how a person is defined by the second method.
George and I had been traveling for nearly three hours, stopping once for breakfast and to fill the car up with gasoline, and along the way stopping and taking photos of two well-preserved covered bridges. Our objective for the day, though, still lay at least half an hour to the northwest, located in most of the more rural areas of the state. Three hours is a long time for men our age to be confined in a vehicle without any restroom stops, so we pulled into a quaint hamlet that housed possibly 200 inhabitants, but probably fewer. Downtown, such as it was, consisted of a service station, a small restaurant, and a couple of small establishments that I presumed were the post office and possibly a barber. In front of the gas station sat a bench containing three adequately-sized men in overalls, two of whom had toothpicks protruding from their mouths. The third man sat unusually upright and was not a participant in any verbal exchanges with the other two, who talked non-stop.
After answering nature’s call and purchasing necessary snacks to tide us over until lunch, which would occur an undetermined time later, we strolled outside the station and stretched, gazed around at the local scenery, and paused before re-entering the vehicle.
“Where you fellers from? Obviously not ’round here,” said the right-most man. “Nobody ’round here’d buy anythin’ from in there.”
“Those candy bars might be four, five years old,” said the center man. “Jimmy Woods ate one a couple months ago and sat on the pot for three days after’ards. Puked out his insides too.”
“We don’t see many cars ’round here neither,” said man number one. “Only people who drive cars ‘round here are outsiders. Everybody I know owns a truck—a Chevy.”
I looked at George and an invisible smile passed between us. George was always better at socializing than I was, likely due to 40 years of postal work where he talked to people daily and fielded their complaints and service needs. He addressed man number one, introducing us and explaining our point of origin and today’s destination.
“Ain’t got no covered bridges in this county,” said number two. Then to number one he inquired, “You ever heard of a covered bridge ‘round here?”
“I think there’s one over near Plumbville, but that’s pert near an hour away. We really ain’t never been out of the county in our lives,” he explained to us, “but we do hear things time to time. Now why’d anybody build a covered bridge?”
Number two laughed heartily, then uncorked a mouthful of tobacco juice off to the left. “Melvin, you talk like we’re dumb hayseeds. What’re these fellers gonna think ’bout us? Bet’cha these guys don’t know nothin’ ‘bout farming, though, do you?”
George and I shook our heads negatively, smiling.
“A covered bridge, Melvin,” he continued, “would’ve been built a long time ago, when they still used horse and wagons. I’ve heard they built ‘em covered so the horses wouldn’t see how far it was down to the water, and they wouldn’t get scared or nothin’.”
Melvin, man number one, removed his decades-old International Harvester cap and scratched his thin hair. “Well, I suppose that makes sense. Nobody ‘round here’s ever talked ‘bout a covered bridge. Don’t need one with tractors. Just drive through cricks if we need to. Guess that’s why they got rid of ‘em.”
Man number two turned to the last man, the man the left end of the bench, and asked, “Spin Cycle, you ever heard of a covered bridge in these parts?”
The one referred to as Spin Cycle shook his head ever so slightly in the negative. Actually I would say he moved his eyes that way without really moving his head. I could not help but stare at him. There was something unsettling about his appearance and his demeanor.
“What’s the matter?” said Melvin. “You afraid of old Spin Cycle? Well, there’s nothin’ to be afraid of. He just had a little accident a few years back. Gentle as a lamb, he is. Can’t talk, can’t move his head much, but he’s alive, that’s all that matters.”
“Spin Cycle?” said George with a chuckle.
“Yes, indeed,” replied number two. “Name’s actually Sawyer, but we’ve called him Spin Cycle for ‘bout fifteen, twenty year. Because of the accident, that’s why we call him Spin Cycle. Spin Cycle Chesterton, from one of the oldest families ‘round here. Owned land since the early 1800s. Best farmers, too. Spin Cycle was ‘til he got hurt.”
George and I were too polite to inquire into the nature of his accident, but we anticipated that either Melvin or number two would provide the details if we let them, which they wasted no time in relating.
“Like Barney says,” began Melvin, revealing number two’s first name, “’bout fifteen or twenty years back, Spin Cycle was the leadin’ farmer in the county. Always took the prizes for hogs and cows at the fair, and between him, his wife, and his kids, they won ‘bout ever’thing worth winnin’ ever’ year. Owned the most acres, produced the best stuff, always had the best equipment.”
“I couldn’t hold a candle to him,” interjected Barney, “and neither could Melvin. Now we’re not bad farmers, mind you, it’s just that Spin Cycle was that much better’n anybody else ‘round these parts.”
He followed that with another ejection that landed in nearly the identical spot of his first one.
I peered at Sawyer Spin Cycle Chesteron, who sat motionless. No emotion showed on his face.
“Well,” continued Melvin, “life was goin’ ‘long well for Spin Cycle ‘til one day when he was doin’ some fix-up work ‘round his place. Patty, his old lady—sweetest gal you ever met—talked him into doin’ some work on the roof and the gutters. He doesn’t like heights—scared of ‘em—and he tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted, so he got to workin’.
“His children weren’t old enough to give him much help with that kind of stuff, so they were runnin’ ‘round the yard, hootin’ and hollerin’ and playin’ with some things scattered ‘bout. Well, one of these things was a washin’ machine.”
“Maytag, wasn’t it?” asked Barney. “Or was it—no, definitely a Maytag.”
Melvin gave Barney a thoughtful look, then took his cap off and scratched his head again.
“Yeah, well, I think you’re right,” he said. “Never really thought of it, but yeah, I believe you’re right.”
Turning back to us he said, “Like I said, Spin Cycle’s afraid of heights. Always has been. I remember back in grade school—was it second or third grade?” he inquired of Spin Cycle, who held up two fingers. “Back in second grade we couldn’t even get him to get on the teeter-totter or even a swing, he was so scared. Ever’body made fun of him, but he never cried when we did. When he got really mad at us for teasin’ him he’d simply hit us real hard. He could hit harder’n any boy in school, so’s you never wanted him mad at you.
“He finally climbed up the ladder, like I said. You were cleanin’ out the gutters, weren’t you?” Melvin inquired of Spin Cycle, who moved his eyes in the affirmative. “Got up there, and the kids was yakkin’ away, and he was as scared as anythin’. Well, he lost his balance, fell off the ladder and fell smack dab on the edge of the washin’ machine, right on his windpipe. One of the kids—Curtis, wasn’t it?” and again Spin Cycle indicated yes with his eyes, “—well, Curtis ran as quick as he could and told Patty, who came runnin’ fast as she could. Spin Cycle, he wasn’t doin’ nothin’—no talkin’, no breathin’, nothin’. You know how people do when they got to think fast, they just do whatever needs to be done, and that’s what Patty done.”
“Don’t see how,” said Barney. “It was pure genius, it was. I wouldn’t a thought of it.”
“Me neither,” replied Melvin. “Me neither. Well, Patty, believin’ her husband was dead, which he undoubtedly was, she didn’t panic or nothin’, she just grabbed somethin’ handy to try to save his life. So she looks aroun’, and there’s the washin’ machine. She pulls out her pocket knife and quickly cuts the drain hose off the machine, then takes it and rams it down Spin Cycle’s throat.”
“It was stickin’ out about two feet,” said Barney.
“’Bout two feet I guess,” echoed Melvin. “She yells for the oldest girl, Mary Beth, to get on the phone and call the ambulance, and in the meantime Patty starts blowin’ down the washer hose to get old Spin Cycle breathin’ again. She kept it up until the ambulance arrived. They didn’t know what to do with him, so they kept on doin’ what she’d been doin’ all the way to the hospital.”
Melvin paused and George and I looked at each other, convinced Melvin and Barney had told us a whopper of a story. I looked at Spin Cycle. A tear or two trickled down his face from each eye.
George asked, “So obviously Spin Cycle had he windpipe crushed, his voice box crushed, and everything in his throat crushed. What’d they do at the hospital? How’d they get him fixed up?”
Melvin held out his hands, palms up. “Weren’t anythin’ they could do,” he said. “Eventually Spin Cycle started breathin’ on his own and appeared to be able to live. The doctors were puzzled. They couldn’t replace his windpipe, and they figured nothin’ would be stronger’n the drain hose he had rammed down his throat anyway, so they just trimmed it to fit and sent him home a couple days later.”
George and I shook our heads and waited for the three men to break out in laughter, but none came. Seeing our unbelief, Barney spoke, “Don’t blame you for not believin’ us,” he said. “I wouldn’t a believed it myself if I didn’t know Spin Cycle personally. Go ahead, tap on his throat. He’ll open his mouth and you can see down in there and see the hose. Now, that ain’t the original hose. Just like on washin’ machines, the hoses need replaced ever’ once in awhile, and ‘bout three years ago he had to have a new one put in.”
We declined to verify the evidence for ourselves, instead electing to return to George’s car and continue on our way to the next covered bridge after wishing them well and thanking them for the story. I suppose we did not want to discover the story’s falsity, like a person who believes something for a long time only to discover it was not factual, and then suffers disappointment thereafter, wanting to believe the lie, like believing in Santa Claus. We chose to believe that Sawyer “Spin Cycle” Chesterton sat on that bench every day with a washing machine drain hose down his throat, not speaking or moving his head, only waiting for the next stranger to come around so that Melvin and Barney could tell his story, and probably make it better with each telling, and share in his grief and his glory.