When setting up an appointment to talk with 92-year-old Virgil Brunson, he made two things clear: One, our meeting cannot interfere with his firewood gathering, and two, it absolutely cannot be during a Portland Trail Blazers game. If he and his partners are delivering a cord of firewood, they make sure to be done and home in time for tipoff.
Logging season is pretty much over for the year, though there are often some good days in December before the heavy snows arrive, Brunson says. But these days, he admits, "I don't know if I ever really make any money logging."
- Richard Sitts
He says the money is beside the point—which is to get out into the fresh air and remain active. In his 10th decade of life, Brunson still operates a chainsaw and drives his Ford pickup—but has younger co-workers who help with heavy lifting. On a recent delivery, Brunson politely declined the customer's offer to help, climbing into the pickup bed to help his young co-worker throw off the rounds.
Brunson says he works with several Hispanic men who live in his southeast Bend neighborhood. "They're the strongest people I've ever worked with. Not only that, they're darn nice people." His failing hearing and his co-workers' lack of English does not hurt their working relationship. "We know what to do; we just don't talk much." During these times of caravans and proposed border walls, Brunson says he has nothing but respect for his co-workers. "We're all immigrants if you trace your family back very far," he adds.
Brunson was seriously injured in a logging accident at age 36 when he felled a rotten snag on himself, saying it was "one of the dumbest things I've ever done." The accident wrecked his back and gave him a depressed skull fracture and a plastic plate in his head. With his logging career cut short, he worked for the Oregon Department of Transportation for 26 years and pumped gas for 10 years after that. "But I cut wood in the meantime because I love it out there and I love chainsaws," Brunson says.
He says he bought his first chainsaw in 1948, an 80-pound McCulloch. Around 1975, he started buying commercial wood-cutting permits and says he used to cut more than 100 cords a year. But at age 70, "I started slowing down, losing my stamina. But I'm not going to quit because it's keeping me healthy. Even cutting wood for your own wood stove is a lot of exercise. I'll do it as long as I can—at least to fill my own wood stove."
Brunson was born outside of Newberg and grew up near the coast in Lincoln and Tillamook Counties, where he says he was raised on deer meat. In those days, before World War II, "It was kill your own meat or go without. No one had any money." He's lived in Bend since 1963.
Brunson's sister, Marjorie M. Watkins, along with his father, Howard P. Brunson—also a logger by trade—self-published a book, "I Remember Logging."
His take on the current state of logging and wildfires in the West: more selective logging and thinning. "The controlled burns are not working. If you look around here, they're a disaster. It's killing the forests they're trying to save."
Brunson says his other hobby was once metal detecting—one he's had to give up because his back can no longer stand up to the pick and shovel work. "But I'll always be a rock hound," he adds. He hasn't found any gold in the past four years, although in 2014, he sold more than $1,000 in gold to local buyers.
Married for 57 years, Brunson's wife, Betty Jean, died five years ago. He now lives in a modest trailer home with his small standard poodle, Marybell, and has kids who often visit. When not watching the Trail Blazers, he likes to read fiction. He's also been a longtime Oregon State fan, but says, "I even root for the Ducks now," adding that he's particularly excited about the Ducks' newest basketball star, Bol Bol—the Ducks' highest-ranked prospect ever.
Brunson says his key to longevity is "to really enjoy vigorous exercise and being fortunate enough to being born into a Christian family." With a mother who lived into her 90s, Brunson says he is driven to keep on going and catch up with his father, who lived to 105.