Barney Roberg’s Impossible Choice | Yankee Classic

A true story of survival in the Maine woods by L. Michael McCartney.

By Yankee Magazine

Jun 04 2020

Originally published in Yankee, May 1980. Thinking back on it, Barney said, it’s a good thing he stopped when he did that morning to repair the part of the old logging road that had been swamped out by the changing October weather. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it today,” the former lumberman claims. Bernard B. “Barney” Roberg, who now lives and works at the John Galanek Lumber Company in Southwick, Massachusetts, was telling a story that hasn’t been reported since 1956, but one that made him a folk hero among woodsmen from Bangor to the Canadian border. Ralph “Bud” Leavitt, executive sports editor for the Bangor Daily News, calls it “one of the greatest stories I’ve ever covered” in a career that has spanned more than three decades. Maine sportswriters were so impressed by Barney’s courage 23 years ago that they named him co-recipient of the “Sportsman of the Year” award along with world champion prizefighter Rocky Marciano. When sportscaster Mel Allen arrived to make the presentations, Leavitt recalls telling him,“You’re going to hear a story tonight like you’ve never heard before.” Barney, now approaching age 65, calls himself the “black sheep son” of a Litchfield, Connecticut, educator and judge who wanted his oldest boy to become an engineer. “He sent me to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology],” Barney reports, “but I just couldn’t stay there. I was always a restless sort and I couldn’t take all that sitting around in classrooms and libraries. All I ever really wanted was to be out in the woods. So I quit school at the end of my second year and went out and taught myself the lumber business.” In the early autumn of 1956, he was working the woods outside of Portage Lake, Maine. He stayed with other loggers at Dean’s Motel in that town, but he generally worked off by himself, wandering alone into the deepest reaches of the forest, searching the edges of the woodland frontiers to probe the limits of the New England timber industry. “This particular morning I left the motel in my four-wheel-drive jeep and headed up this deserted old logging road. Partway in, I ran into a quagmire of muck and water and sank down to my axels. I just about got through it. I thought for a minute I was going to have to winch myself out. But when I got clear of it I said to myself, “Well, Barney, you’d best stop right here and now and fix that little marsh because you sure aren’t going to feel like doing it on the way home tonight, after a day’s work.” So Barney cut some poles and saplings and threw them across the swamped-out road until he’d satisfied himself that he’d have enough traction to drive back through without trouble at day’s end. Then he continued on a distance of about five miles until he reached the end of the trail. He parked his jeep, took his ax and chain saw, and walked about another two miles deeper still. Barney scanned nature’s offerings and decided to fell a pine tree that he guessed was better than two feet in diameter. As it began to topple, Barney realized that it was going to lodge itself in the branches of an equally tall tree in the path of its fall. He began to walk around behind the falling timber. Just as he was directly behind it, the tip of the falling tree slammed into the boughs of the other, bending it backward like a huge bowstring. The standing tree recoiled under the weight of the falling pine, but suddenly it thrust itself forward again and shot the trunk of the tree Barney had dropped backward off its stump like a gigantic bow firing a monstrous, blunt arrow. The huge pine popped off its stump and flew directly backward, seizing Barney’s right leg in its flight. The backward thrust smashed the logger’s leg up against another pine, crushing skin, muscle, and bone and pinning Barney, trapped and seemingly helpless, against the dark wall of pine. Barney recalls, “I nearly went into shock. I had to fight, at first, just to stay conscious. The pain was ferocious. It was sweeping over me in waves. I knew I had to stay conscious and I knew I had to get my wits about me. When I’d managed that, I took a look at my circumstances, and I can tell you they didn’t look promising. I tried to pull myself free, but that tree had me pinned in there so good there was no way I could yank myself out. Nobody knew exactly where I was, and I knew nobody’d even begin to miss me until nightfall, so it was pretty clear right from the start that I’d bleed to death if I just waited for help.” His next thought, when it fought its way through the tides of pain and nausea that engulfed him, was to chop himself free. “I’d dropped my ax right next to me, so I reached down and picked it up and began whacking at the tree trunk. But you know, when you’re in an awful fix like that you’ve got more strength than you ever knew you had. On the third or fourth swing I busted that ax right off and the head went flying. I said to myself, ‘Well, you’ve really gone and done it now. You’ve just lost your best friend.’” Barney rested and tried to develop another plan. The force of the blow from the tree had driven his chain saw right into the ground, partially burying the blade. “I knew if I could get hold of that saw I still had a chance,” barney said, “so I took what was left of the ax handle and, little by little, I dug of the chain saw, and inch by inch I nursed it over to where I could get my hand on it. I knew if I lost touch with that saw I was a goner for sure.” Finally, sure of his grasp, Barney hoisted the saw up, rested on the trunk of the tree that had made him its prisoner, yanked the cord, and started the engine. The top of the fallen tree was still lodged in the upper branches of the one that had shot it backward into the logger’s leg. It had arced down at an angle of about 45 degrees from its tip to the butt end that held Barney captive against the other pine. “Well, sir,” Barney remembered, “I thought for a minute that I had it made. I started to cut into the tree, but I’d had no more than started when I was disappointed again. The angle of that tree was such that as soon as I started cutting into it my saw started to bind up on me. I knew that if I went in any farther the pressure of the wood converging on the blade would bind the saw up so bad that I’d never be able to get it out. I couldn’t risk losing the saw. I was in a real pickle and I knew it. I just kept telling myself, ‘Barney, you can’t give up. If you give up you’re a dead man, no two ways about it.’ I had to stop and think a long time about what to do next.” Even now, so many years later, Barney still paused before revealing his next move. He was sitting in the Houndshead Pub in Westfield, Massachusetts, sipping one of the two bottles of beer he permits himself after work each day. He was wearing the heavy woolen, red-and-black-checkered short common in lumber camps, and the shoulders were covered with sawdust, the epaulets of the lumberman. Pale blue eyes looked out of his brown leathery face with a distant expression. “I finally decided there was just one thing for me to do,” he continued, “and I knew I had to do it. Thinking about it wasn’t getting me anywhere, and I was getting weaker all the time. So, I did it. I took the chain saw and cut my own leg off, just below the knee. I won’t go into the gory details. I just took the saw and cut off my own leg.” He fell to the ground, removed the rawhide laces from his work boots and tied a tourniquet around the leg to stem the flow of blood. And there he sat. Having amputated his own leg he was still two miles over rugged terrain from his jeep and another five miles from that to the nearest source of help. “At first I thought of trying to make myself a pair of crutches,” Barney said, “and I fooled around with that project for a while. But there was no way I could do it. I head to head out of there fast because I was starting to fade in and out of consciousness. I decided I just had to crawl.” The overland journey on his stomach, clawing along the pine needle floor of the forest, was continuously interrupted by horrendous pain and lapses into unconsciousness. “At that point I had only one thought,” Barney said. “I figured I was going to die out there, but when they found me I wanted them to know that I’d given it one hell of a fight. Every time I’d come to, I’d keep crawling again until I passed out, just saying to myself, ‘Barney, every yard you make it back toward that jeep you’ll have proved to them you didn’t quit. When they find you they’ll know you gave it all you had.” It took him, as nearly as he can figure, four hours to cover the two miles, but at some point in the afternoon he made it back to the jeep. He was almost too weak and too awkward on the one remaining leg to drag himself up into the driver’s seat. When he finally managed that he faced another problem: He had to teach himself how to drive the jeep with only one leg. After a dozen agonizing attempts to operate accelerator, clutch, and brake with his left leg, he got the jeep turned around and headed back down the old logging road. Only moments before he hit it, Barney remembered the marsh. “Oh, God!” he remembers imploring. “After all this don’t let me get stuck in that quagmire.” He floored the accelerator. “The jeep hit the swamp like a tank,” he remembers. “It splashed and spun and twisted and it was throwing mud and saplings 30 feet in the air. Then it started to skid and bog down. I’d just about lost it. I figured right then and there I’d driven myself right into my own grave. And then, at the last possible second, the front tires grabbed onto firm ground and I got through. For the first time since I’d cut myself loose from that tree I began to think I was going to make it.” When he arrived back at Dean’s Motel he called a woman over to the jeep to ask that she go inside and get him help. When she saw what had happened to his leg she was horrified. “She threw her hands over her face and began to scream,” Barney said with an understanding smile. “That was all I needed. I said, ‘Lady, whatever you do, please don’t do that.’” John Galanek and his son came out of the motel, along with a doctor who was in the area because of an injury suffered by another logger that day. He told the Galaneks to rush Barney to the hospital in Eagle Lake, but first, he said, he would give him something for the pain. “Make it a good one, Doc,” Barney said to him. “I’m giving you enough to knock a horse flat,” the doctor promised. “Just before I went under,” Barney recalls, “I said to myself, ‘It’s a good thing you aren’t a horse, old boy, or they’d be putting you to sleep for keeps.’” When he next regained consciousness we was in an Eagle Lake hospital bed, confronted by an elderly physician who told him, “Fella, it ain’t too good. I’d sooner trust my money to a Democrat than bet on your chances of making it.” “I made it this far,” Barney told him. “Well,” the old doctor said, “the only chance you got, and it’s a slim one at that, is if I amputate the rest of this leg off up above the knee. Otherwise, sure’s cats have kittens, gangrene’s going to set in and that’ll be the end of you.” “Listen here, Doc,” Barney answered. “I done all the cutting on that leg that’s going to be done. I got it trimmed up just the way I want it. You leave it alone.” The old doctor shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said, “but if I was in your place I don’t think I’d be so all-fired stubborn.” Barney kept the knee and six weeks later walked out of the Eagle Lake hospital on crutches. The townspeople took a collection and paid off his medical costs. Two weeks later Barney was back at work driving a bulldozer and in a few months he went to Boston and was fitted with an artificial limb. “Works good, too,” Barney said. “Watch this.” He got off his bar stool and punted it 10 feet across the pub with the wooden leg to demonstrate its effectiveness. Somebody offered to buy him a shot of whiskey. “God, no,” Barney protested. “I’m not ever supposed to be drinking this beer. Doctor’s orders, you know. I’m diabetic. The doctor says beer will kill me.” The leathery face crinkled around the smiling blue eyes. “I guess I told him a thing or two about what can and can’t kill old Barney Roberg.”