Trees of Life – Sandy Callaway Logging

“That’s a ninety-two model. Still works fine. You have to keep the cylinders packed on it, you know–it gets to leaking every now and then.”

Sandy Callaway stands in the middle of a logging site and points to a behemoth piece of machinery known as the “knuckleboom.” It is white and orange and rust colored; it dons gashes and dents and a layer of hardened dust; it’s long brawny neck looms over a pile of logs.

Surrounding Callaway are acres of felled timber strewn in every direction, sure evidence of a productive week on a tract where the owner is converting the property into a lush grass field for livestock.

“The general nature of what we do is very aggressive,” he continues, his finger still held out, pointing to various specific features of the knuckleboom. “That tin [base] has gotten logs dropped on it and now it’s bent. It wasn’t designed for the weight of these logs falling on it. It serves its purpose, but it’s not anything you’re trying to impress anybody with in a beauty contest.”

Sandy Callaway

For over thirty years, Callaway has owned and operated the Sandy Callaway Logging Company (SC Logging, for short) in the area surrounding Athens, Georgia, and he’s learned how to get a job done right in the face of daunting obstacles–even while collecting a few dings along the way. He keeps his four-to-five man operation just nimble enough to handle many jobs larger logging companies are forced to pass over, yet well equipped enough to tackle a few hundred acres if necessary.

“In this business, the stuff doesn’t just jump on the truck. You’ve got to get it on the truck,” Callaway puts his hands in the pockets of his bluejeans and nods toward a stack of logs standing twenty feet high. “If you were to show up at nine and leave at five and take an hour for lunch, you’d find that you wouldn’t be in this business very long.”

Callaway works everyday alongside his crew, often coming in early and staying late to tighten up the site. Knowing well the demands and hazards associated with his work environment, he is careful to hire the right folks. Sometimes finding guys at church, and other times by word of mouth, he takes his responsibility seriously, “I don’t just go out and hire anybody. You have to have a good common sense. You have to be careful. This is very dangerous work that we’re doing.”

Callaway looks down the road where three of his men are changing the oil of a large work truck. On the backside of his blue SC Logging t-shirt is a verse from the Bible: “Matthew 6:33.” Whereas some people–especially in the South–place verses such as this on work gear out of rote devotion or a sense of religious duty, this particular verse seems to hold special import for Callaway. “Work is like a ministry for me, because I’m usually working with people who come in for a little above minimum wage–of course it goes up from there if they’ve got talent. In working with these guys, I’m teaching and coaching and giving them life experiences; I’m modeling all this stuff.”

“Sometimes I have to get on ‘em,” he admits as he flashes a smile and chuckles at a thought. “They’ll eat their lunch and throw cans down. I have to point out to them that that stuff wasn’t on this property when we got here, so we’re not going to do that. A lot of them come from poverty areas, and when they go back to where they live there is trash everywhere. So, you have to teach that.”

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Callaway steps into his old pick-up in order to tour the rest of the property. The engine fires strong and he begins down a bumpy path marked vaguely by tire tracks in tall grass. But before the truck enters into the thick part of the woods, he parks in front of his crew.

Two of the men approach the truck and begin bantering playfully with Callaway, who steps out to talk with them–it has something to do with old oil, and it’s obvious that everyone finds the subject amusing. Callaway points to one of them, a middle-aged white man whose arms are covered in a concoction of dirt, grease, and oil, and says something to the other, a strong black man, and the three of them share a moment of laughter. After a few more instructions, Callaway steps back into his pickup and pulls away.

A minute down the road, Callaway returns to the subject of the way his faith informs his business like he had never left it, “Like with a father and son who both work for me. They’re with each other all the time, and [the father] doesn’t have good patience with [the son] who is still trying to learn. So I go and put my arm around [the father] and say, ‘You’re probably putting too much pressure on him.’ I talk to him that way, about that and other stuff,” his eyebrows lift and he lets out a sigh. “It’s hard when you’re raised by somebody who taught you by getting on you hard and teaching with negative motivation. So [my job] is totally a ministry. They know where I stand on issues, and then I have to walk it out.”

“But they’ve seen examples where landowners will come down and get irate and jump on me about something, and I’ll just let ‘em spout. Let ‘em get it all out–you know? I’m not going to let them swing at me or anything like that. But I realize that they probably don’t understand [the situation], so I’ll absorb until I get a chance to speak. That’s just me,” says Callaway, before adding, “I’ve got a real laid back personality.”

The path ahead of the truck takes a steep incline, so Callaway stops for a second to engage the four-wheel drive before pressing on the accelerator. “I model God’s love, but they know I’m very aggressive,” he shouts above the roar of the V8. “They see the two sides: They see a calm person who keeps his mouth closed, but they see that when I need to I’ll get right in their grill. When logs are fixin’ to be unleashed from the grapple and they’re right in harm’s way–boy I get on ‘em.”

Thinking about the more assertive “side” of his personality, Callaway recalls a situation that illustrates how, in addition to keeping his crew safe within the work site, his tenacity has been used to protect his company from outside threats, too.

Several years ago, he found himself in the middle of a professional disagreement with a state forestry agency over whether a particular tree should be removed from a client’s lot. The situation somehow started gaining local notoriety, and, during Callaway’s several-week discourse with the state agency, a now-former writer from the local newspaper got wind of the dispute and asked Callaway for an interview. Believing he stood above reproach, Callaway agreed to share his perspective for the article, hoping it would clear up any public confusion; however, he was shocked several days later when the front page of the city’s paper of record bore a highly editorialized story amounting to a searing rebuke of SC Logging.

“If they got an idea of what they want to say, they can slant the information,” he says while shaking his head. A man accustomed to taking much care in conducting his affairs rightly, Callaway’s displeasure at being maligned by the article lingers even today.

“We didn’t have any recourse but to write a ‘Letter to the Editor.’ So Becky [his wife] and I got together and wrote a scathing letter. Of course, it took them six weeks to put it in. But when it finally showed up, we told people who knew us to read our response. And wow, Becky has a writing gift. I keep telling her, ’Baby, you need to write a book.’ She can really put her thoughts down. We put our minds together and we sent our letter in and boy, I tell you, that [situation] didn’t do anything but propel my business–SC Logging Company. From then on, people would see me out and say, ‘You’re the guy that was in the paper! You’re not a bad guy! I knew that article was slanted against you!’ Well, they [the local paper] fired that guy [the writer]. We got our say on that one.  ”

Callaway drapes his hand over the top of his pickup’s steering wheel and grins, reliving the satisfaction of his victory.

Having survived and succeeded in the highly competitive timber industry for over thirty years, one would assume that Callaway learned how to navigate its various challenges from a seasoned expert, but that’s not the case. He was never formally trained in the woods. In fact, he was the first in his family to work with timber at all.

“My dad had a selling company. He was a manufacturer mill rep. That means that when a company has a product, they need somebody to go out and sell for them, so he would just represent the company. If they made a bedspread, he’d go out and sell a bedspread,” Callaway says.

The youngest of six children, Callaway graduated college and set to work for his dad, learning the ropes of selling goods and running a small business. For ten years, he wore a suit and traveled Monday through Friday to retail stores across the south, serving his father by building and maintaining the customer base.

But helping to run just any successful business wasn’t enough for Callaway: he longed for the outdoors. “I found myself frustrated, to the point that when I would get off the road after being in a suit and tie all week, I’d come running to the woods. My therapy would be to get out and chop some firewood, get out there and see about the deer plots. And by nature I’ve always been aggressive: I like working with my hands; I like work the physicalness of being able to work; I like getting to the end of the day and being tired,” he pauses before adding, with notable pride, “I sleep real well.”

Looking for a professional outlet to satisfy his love of the outdoors, Callaway became fascinated by the timber companies that would visit his family’s five-hundred acre farm. “The loggers would come in and I would just watch them. I also had some friends [who were loggers], and I grew up in Greensboro where there was a lot of logging. I even learned how to run a saw.”

To fuel to his growing interest in logging and strong distaste for manufacturing sales, Callaway’s business relationship with his father became complicated by his father’s struggle with a mental disorder. “My father wasn’t the best person to be in business with. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a good Christian or loving guy: he suffered from depression. Manic depression. He’d taken medicine for about thirty years to control and keep his mood balance so he could function. Well, in about 1981, the FDA banned the drug that he had taken for about thirty years. And he went into a tail spin. They would send him to a place in Atlanta called Ridgeview to detox him, and then they would start him on something else. That would drive him crazy. Well, I was in business with him. So you can imagine how that was a nightmare.”

The turmoil of being in business with someone suffering with a mental disorder, combined with his dream of working outdoors, led Callaway to take a giant risk. He was a young man with a wife and two children at home, and he decided to buy his father out of the manufacturing sales business and utilize some inheritance money to start a logging company.

Change is seldom easy, and Callaway soon found himself climbing a steep learning curve. “I totally went into logging. I dove into it. I went out and bought some equipment, and it got tore up. Of course, I didn’t do it right. I had to learn the hard way. It was trial and error. It took a long time. It was really, really hard.”

Callaway, building upon the small amount of relevant experience he had gained selling manufactured goods and running a small business with his dad, had to fill tremendous gaps of knowledge about the timber industry on his own. “There were no CD’s, no brothers or uncles or Youtube videos or anything. I didn’t have anybody helping me. I taught myself how to work with myself, by myself, and I sold a lot of firewood, doing anything I could, tree service work or whatever, anything I could do to survive. I didn’t say no.”

Spurred by the unique perseverance found in a man struggling for something he loves, Callaway’s ambition to work outdoors by operating a logging company finally started paying off about five years after he began. In 1992, his logging operation hit a stride that carried him for the next decade and a half.

“Things were good until toward the end of Bush’s administration. Until then, we were doing about as good as we could do. In 2004 and 2005, there were a lot streets being cut in and a lot of houses being built, and the mills were wanting about all the wood you could bring them.”

But like most companies, Callaway’s company was majorly affected by the Great Recession of late 2008. “We got hit hard because everything just basically stopped. They dropped the prices on us, but fuel didn’t drop. Fuel remained high, and that just kills us.”

To push through the tough economic decline, Callaway had to double down on his efforts to generate business, and he had to make tough decisions about the maintenance and storage of his equipment that he would have otherwise not considered. And again, he proved resilient: “Now, we’re reaping the benefit of staying in business, fighting through the fuel issues to where fuel is now at $2 per gallon instead of $4. Now, we’re making money every day we operate; now, it’s putting money back into the company, whereas before we were still operating but it was just in the wind.”

Pulling his truck back to where he began the property tour, he clarifies his last point. “Well,” he says with a tone that means just-wait-a-second, “you wouldn’t believe what I had to go through this week to get the wood shipped off this property. It was like, ‘Can I please bring you a load of wood? Can I have two?’ [They reply,] ‘No! You can’t have two!’ And I’m not being facetious either,” he concedes this struggle with a laugh, implying perhaps that though the market may be slow, he’s confident he’ll make it through.

Callaway parks his pickup and walks back over to his crew to catch up with their progress. Out here in the Georgia woods, in a humble, leather-handed manner, Callaway’s habit of overcoming challenges to pursue a dream appears to speak to much broader questions that have faced hard-working American Christians: Is it okay to take a risk? Can a Christian man be both loving and strong? And, when necessary, is it alright to fight back?

Callaway and the middle-aged white crewmember with oily forearms stand with their hands on their hips as they chat next to the open hood of the large work truck. Suddenly, from behind the other side of the truck walks a younger man, recognizably the crewmember’s son, and the elder places his hand gently on the young man’s shoulder, leaving an oil smudge on an already greasy shirt. The three of them stand there, laughing some and talking some, pointing from time to time toward the felled trees and the uncut woods and the powerful engine lying open beside them.

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