Sunday, March 6, 2011


How do you tell someone about an incident that no-one will believe? Something that seems so ridiculous, you choke even when practicing the story? I have heard it drives men mad. Nuttiness becomes one’s only friend. That’s what a man faces when the truth seems insanity to everyone around him.

I did not want that fate to befall me, so I spent some of my dwindling cash on a small stationery book that would serve as a diary. I will grant it was an odd thing to do, as diaries are typical of vain girls. Full-grown men have no need of them. Still, I do not wish to succumb to nuttiness on account of me bottling up the truth of what happened in Fairbanks. So, if I have to follow in a track worn smooth by legions of girls, so be it. I know of one girl who should have been given one by her darling father instead of a gun. She was the girl that kidnapped and enslaved me.

I can freely concede that going up to the Fairbanks area was not prudent, but it was reflective of the kind of enterprising done in 1932. More and more people were despondent and even despairing; fewer and fewer evinced the optimism that was prevalent four years prior. What a change from 1928!

As the country changed, as more people abided by the new doom sayers, the enterprising changed too. No more was enterprise for the devil-may-care optimist who could find a sack of money in pastures anew. Gone were the days of the smooth talker that could ease his way into instant expertise on anything. Vanished were the free spending and easy money. Ever since 1930, and more so 1931, enterprising in the old way was the yesterday-love of a fool.

The new enterprising was far grittier and often futile. Many enterprisers were doing something for the sake of doing something: anything to avoid the brand of “lazy” seared on their backs. A host of chores and tasks did get done, but the work was scattered and short-term. How unlike the last decade! Job holding folk pitied the small enterpriser if they had hearts. Those without, luxuriated in the chance to say “I’ve got mine, Jack.” Long used to being looked down upon for being unadventurous, they now had the chance to get even with the look-downers albeit indirectly in most cases. Some in government employ were the worst, as they had been the ones most looked down upon. Strangely, the America-hatin’ Communists were the nice guys.

It was common currency to see “enterpriser” as a euphemism for “bum.” I must admit there was sense in doing so, as many a drifter had a scheme and many an enterpriser had to resort to the flophouse. There were even Gentlemen Jim types, some of real quality, who attracted rumors about them mooching off the flop to keep expenses low. In my years as a drifter, I met several of them and all were busted. There was not a single hoarder among them. One older gent – yes, his names was James - was one of the few men of substance to break my heart. He had said that he not put his money into stocks, and he had looked quite clever in late ’29 and ’30. By ’31, he had joined the legion of the broke because his capital had been in bonds. The funds he needed to live, let alone live stylishly, came from the interest on those bonds. By late 1931, those funds stopped.

The pittance he had gotten after selling, he had given to his children because he himself was not good for much anymore. His eldest son got his house, with a warning that it was more of a curse than a blessing nowadays. The local authorities, widely derided as havens for the lazy, were not at all lax in collecting property taxes - and sending the sheriff if said taxes were not forthcoming. That old gent was sharp: he said he had no compunctions about living in the town flop, because it was the only way he could get value for his prior taxes. Remarks like his do explain why those rumors got started.

I said he was sharp, and he was. James had kept an eye on the world, and he had said to me that gold was going up. Not because of Jay Gould’s ghost, but because devaluation was the only way to untangle a lot of mess. He said he had found out from one of his eccentric friends who enjoyed the smiles of the Fates after putting capital into Homestake Mining. Done in 1929, when he would have been called crazy by all the smart blokes chasing Radio, General Motors, General Electric and the utilities, he had doubled his capital while the smarties lost next to all of theirs. From this star-blessed fellow, James inferred that the United States would follow in Europe’s wake by devaluing. Like any red-blooded patriot, I was annoyed at the suggestion that the Republic would take marching orders from Europe. That got James softening it a little, so I lost my red blood and conceded he had made sense.

This was before President Roosevelt’s Executive Order nationalizing the gold in order to euchre out profiteers. James hadn’t seen that part coming, but it hadn’t surprised him.

He offered to put me in touch with his son Ralph. Oddly, Ralph was doing all right in a field that made something of itself during the Depression: advertising. With a stationery note from his father in my hand as a referral, Ralph offered me real, honest-to-Betsy work.

It was temporary, and part of a deal James had rigged. In return for installing a fence, I would get a ticket all the way up to Fairbanks. Once there, I would join the gold rush that was sure to be sparked by the coming devaluation.

I won’t say that I got any special favors, over and above regular work being a favor. The boys at the flop saw me leave early, return late and look tired. Swift as white lightning, they deduced I had found w-o-r-k. That got me pestered a little, even after I gave over the details. A one man job, very temporary, to be followed by yours truly hoofing it out of the State in last-class transportation. They didn’t stop until they checked it over thoroughly, work hoarders not being unknown. At that point, they let me alone and began chasing more prospective prospects. I had the gumption to point that out when several of them lucked into some labor.

Tearing down the rickety old fence was easy; putting up the new one was hard. Yes, Ralph made me work for my ticket; the job took three weeks. Although not a farmer himself, like his father wasn’t, he had gotten his father’s farm land just outside of town. That fit with his line, it being persuading the tight-fisted and often broke farmer to open his locust-infested wallet for mail order goods. Lucky for him, not all farmers were scraped to the bone. Even luckier, he had the knack of making the back-to-the-land city folks open their wallets too. Ralph was clearly going places that I was not.

Still I was going to a place made possible by his wallet. At the end of the job, I got my tickets and a five dollar bill as a bonus. Elated, I thanked him profusely. There was no way any cent of this prize was going to the bathtub gin! Looking at the date, I thanked him again for having the perspicacity to make the departure the same day. Bus to the boat, and off to Alaska, just in time for the spring thaw. That was the ticket.

James brushed aside the thank-yous and told me in his own considerate way to “git outta here.” I did, and wasted no dream time in reminiscing about a town that exemplified the new-fangled claim that the United States was now stagnant. Having left my family out of not wanting to be a burden, I had no-one else to say goodbye to. My elder brother Jake had a job at a plant, which looked after the folks as well as him. When it became clear that his place of work was a closed shop, I took my appetite elsewhere. That was in 1931 too.

1932, I cast my vote for Roosevelt like almost everyone did. I was making my way to the great territory of Alaska at about a month after his inauguration. While the country was getting excited again, I had to face my own “excitement” thanks to an innocent-looking gal named Mattie.

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