Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lumberjacks, Miners and Whores...

Skis affixed to the top of a borrowed station wagon, we rolled into Hurley on a Thursday evening, looking for cheap digs. Pulling into a gas station, a gent in bib overalls greeted us. Dressed in a parka and engineer boots, a pouch of Red Man peaked out of the top pocket of his bibs. A shave and a bath would probably await Saturday night. Casually checking our plates, “I see youse boys is from Minnesota. Pretty happy with them Twins, then, eh?” The Minnesota Twins, newly arrived from DC, had torn up the American League. Yup, we sure are. Any idea where we might find a room for a couple of days? Turning the handle on the side of the pump, he zeroed out the previous purchase, regarding us through his badly repaired glasses. “Ya, well, try Becky’s,” nodding up Silver Street. “On da right, up dere. Past da Post Office and da IGA.”

Silver Street in Hurley, Wisconsin had a notorious history. Known as Sin City back in the day, Hurley was headquarters for the “service industries” supplying the logging camps and copper mines. In the late 1800’s, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern in Chicago with the result that northern Wisconsin was logged clean. Most of that timber was ‘boomed’ down river (the Kickapoo, the Bad Axe, the Mississippi), to sawmills, then sent by rail to Chicago where it was used to rebuild the destroyed city. Fifty years ago my pal, John Shank, and I went skiing in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We were both on Christmas break from college. It was determined that Hurley would be home base. And we hoped that, perhaps, there might be a last gasp of sin left its frozen corpse.

A few blocks up Silver Street’s right side, “past da Post Office and da IGA” a faded sign read, Becky’s Roost. We parked and walked in. There was no front desk, and no elevator. On one side of the room stood a long-unused bar. An old upright piano sat opposite. We stood in the growing darkness calling Hello. After some minutes, a woman appeared. “Help youse”? We’re looking for a room for a couple, maybe three nights. “You boys got sleeping bags?” Yes’m.  “Well, we ain’t got sheets or blankets but if ya want, I got rooms on the third floor. It’s $5.00 a night, each, bathroom down the hall.” How much if we share? “Each room has one bed. Up to you. Still $5.00 each.” OK, we’ll take it, thank you. She handed us each a towel and a washcloth and nodded toward the stairway.

We clambered up three flights of rickety wooden stairs and down a long hallway. Room, room, room, room. Bathroom. And more rooms. Each had a bed, a chair, a small table. A bare bulb hung from the ceiling. The rooms were clean (barely). None of the doors locked. I asked John, ever spend the night in a whorehouse? Nope – but we will tonight. We guffawed. We were twenty one years old, bulletproof and didn’t give a shit where we slept. After unrolling the sleeping bags in our respective rooms, we headed out the door to find what awaited us on Silver Street.

Not yet a ghost town, Hurley survived on pensioners and the stray tourist. Most businesses were shuttered. But a block or so from our ‘hotel’ stood a joint full of prospect. Forslund’s Museum Bar announced itself. We looked at each other, shrugged. Two guys walk into a bar.

On the floor in front of the bar lay a large heating grate where an old mixed breed hound snoozed. It raised its head, regarding us with rummy eyes. Behind the bar, and on every wall, badly carved animals stared at us as well. Ah, the museum, whispered John. Down at the end of the bar sat a lone patron. He wore a red plaid wool jacket. On his head, a woolen liner for a miner’s helmet. Copper mining had replaced logging – now, both were long gone. Scattered amongst the carved animals behind the bar were the usual small town tavern accoutrements. The Hamm’s Beer sign with the bear doing the happy dance. The pulltabs. The sign under the TV, “We don’t take messages – we tell EVERYBODY you left 2 hours ago.” The bartender looked us over. “Evenin’ fellas…whatcha like?”  Beer.

The bartender, we found, was Mr. Forslund himself, and the guy at the end of the bar, his brother. “I’m Jack Forslund – and dat there’s my brother Ole. He don’t talk much. An dat’s Sandy,” nodding toward the sleeping dog. “She’s blind as a goddam mole. And ain’t worth a shit. Kinda like Ole here.” “Ya,” said Ole, staring at the wall. Jack drew our beers. “So, what brings you fellas to Hurley then? Sure ain’t da action.” No, we’re skiing. Jack snorted. So, Jack, how long you been in Hurley? “My whole life, damn near. Born near Siren in 1879. Be 86 in February.” Siren, Wisconsin. I’d been there, just down the road from Luck, “The Yo-Yo Capital of the World”. Duncan Yo-Yo parceled out assembly piecework to women in the area. They could make a few bucks during those cold winter nights, putting yo-yos together.

“Born near Siren in 1879”. I got the sense that we’d hit a winner. This was going to be great. Earnest and wide-eyed; tell us about Hurley in the old days, Jack. Were you a logger?

“Logger? I was a lumberjack. Shit. What’s a logger? A logger’s da guy who owns it. A lumberjack’s da guy who works. And let me tell ya, dat was work. Real goddamit work. Yes sir. Twenty five below, eating off tin plates, drinkin’ outa tin cups. You kids got no idea.”

Boy oh boy, jackpot! So, tell us about the logging camps, Jack! He looked us over cooly. I could see the words ‘snot nose’ forming in his mind.

”Youse college boys?” Yes sir. And we don’t know shit. He snorted. “So what do ya want to know about it? It wasn’t no college, I can tell ya that.”  No, and I bet it was hard work. Real, real hard. And nothing like we’ve ever done, in our whole lives. Ever. Jack looked us over again.  That acknowledgement, and a respectful tone, was enough for us to pass muster. Jack opened up.

“Well sir, dere was lotsa fellas from Wisconsin wantin’ ta get work then. Had to be strong and tough. We’d weed through the sissies pretty damn quick. No motels with TVs. We’d sleep in tents, goddam cold, I tell ya. Potbelly stove in them big tents. Six AM they’d wake us, dark out. Go out and piss on a tree first thing – and you were damn quick about it, I tell ya. Den breakfast with those damn tin plates. Eggs, meat, big pieces of meat, potatoes, bread, hot coffee. Sit at long tables in da mess tent. Den it was on to da sleigh, out to da woods.”

What did you guys wear in the dead of winter? “Wool. Wool undershirt, wool shirt, another wool shirt, wool coat. Canvas mittens with wool inside ‘em. But I gotta tell youse,” Jack’s eyes started gleam, “when it got to twenty below, dat axe would SING, wood would just shatter. Shatter like glass. See, before a log can be skidded outta da woods…” Skidded?  His look said, ‘I’m a patient man but Jesus, you youngsters don’t know shit, do ya?’

“Skidding a log is hauling it out of da woods, pulled by a team, sometimes a single horse. Them white pines was big. Huge. Stood damn near 150 feet. All trunk, branches at da top. And them logs was big around as two, three axe handles end to end. Dat log had to be clean so’s the horse could slide it out. Ya begin at the crown, where da branches start and work yer way to da top. I’d swing dat axe and branches would fall away like ice sickles hit with a broom stick. Rather swing an axe at 25 below than 25 above. Easier work, I tell ya. And work, who knows about work? Ever you fellas pulled a stump? Pry it up, prop it up, pry it up, prop it up. Shit.”

Jack was getting warmed up. “We was out in dem woods usually two, three weeks, at a time. We’d move sometimes, follow da job. And we cut it clean. Nothin’ left, right down to da ground. Lookin’ around, you’d think you was in a desert. And I’ll tell ya, trees we couldn’t cut, we burned. Didn’t want some other crew to get it. We was merciless. Just merciless.” Pride flashed on Jack’s face. John and I exchanged a glance. Clear cut.

And Hurley?

“Hurley? We’d go into Hurley when we got paid. Got paid once a month. Cash money. Shit, every door on Silver St. was either a bar, or a whorehouse or a gambling joint. Every single door. No cops. Well maybe a couple. And there’d be fights and you had to know how to handle yourself. You betcha.” Occasionally Jack would check in with Ole for verification, “Ain’t dat right den Ole?” Ole would stare straight ahead, “Ya.”

We spent a solid two hours with Jack, listening mostly, and during that time he had only one other customer. A woman came in, ordered a shot with a beer back. Jack obliged, no money changed hands. Wearing a parka, she had a woven plastic lanyard around her neck, the kind kids make at summer camp. Three or four keys hung from it.  She looked at us. “Jack slingin’ his bullshit again? If you look like you’re awake, he’ll keep talkin’” Jack regarded his contemporary coolly. “Ain’t you gotta be someplace, Mable?” Mable looked at Jack. Then stared straight ahead. “Ya sure, Jack. Soon enough. Soon enough.”

Jack went on about the wonders of Silver Street. “First it was da lumberjacks. Den da woods played out. Cut every goddamn tree from here to Superior. Den da mines came in. Copper. Ole here worked for Endicott. Put a helmet on his head and a pasty in his pail everyday for 30 years.” Jack pronounced it past-ee. “Damn, dey was good. Call ‘em ‘a hand lunch.’ Meat and potatoes wrapped up in a kinda pie crust. Looked like a hall moon. Sill sell ‘em in Wakefield and Ontonoggen, up on da yewpee.” The UP – Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, that finger of land reaching out into Superior, ending with the giant Soo Locks at Sioux Ste. Marie, where Superior spills down into Michigan. “And den, da copper went too.” Jack looked vacantly at the far wall and the carved animals. Mable stared at her empty beer glass. Ole sat with eyes closed. Silence. It was like they were praying.

Mable cleared her throat. “OK then.” She got up, headed for the door. Jack opened his mouth to speak. Before he could get her entire name out, she cut him off, “Ya. Ya. I ain’t forgot dat number. Jesus Christ.” She walked out the door and into the cold night. Jack looked at us, “More beer fellas? Jack’s buyin’”

What about all these carvings? “Dat shit? Dat’s me. I do it. Some folks like it, said I should put ‘em in a museum. And I sure as shit did!” He smiled. A big, big smile. If you’ve had any congress with old Swedes, you know how unusual that is. But the old Swede was grinning. John was grinning. I was grinning. Three guys, grinning in a bar. Ole stared at the wall. Jack looked down the bar where Mable had sat. The grin vanished. “Godammit! She went and left her purse. Again.”

Jack then began a detailed description of each carved animal, when it was carved, where it was carved, what it was carved from. After a time, John and I looked at each other. Unspoken, it was time to head back to the ‘hotel’.  We finished our beers. Jack offered another. Nope, but thanks. We put on our coats, made ready to leave. And then, for no good reason, I asked Jack what Mable meant when she said “Ya”.

“Oh, dat? Mable calls me when she gets home. Sometimes she gets lost. If I don’t hear from her, I calls da Sheriff. He rounds her up, gets her toward home. Been getting’ worse lately though. She’s ok in the day. Nights is kinda hard. Forgetful, ya know? Keeps her keys around her neck. Leaves dat damn empty purse all over town. What’s left of town, anyways. Mable’s kinda like Hurley, hot and sassy back then, now, just kinda wore out. She was somethin’ though. Worked over to Becky’s; everybody wanted Mable. Everybody. Becky hated her, afraid she’d go freelance. Shit, she coulda took half ‘a Becky’s trade. Easy.”

Staring down at the sleeping Sandy, Jack was quiet. He took a deep breath. Something caught on the inhale. He blinked. He cleared his throat.

“Well - you nice boys,” he said, blinking again. “Thanks for comin’ in.” We thanked Jack as well, shook hands. We said good night to Ole. “Ya…” he said, staring straight ahead.

The bitter cold smacked us as we pushed open the door. The phone rang behind the bar. Standing in the open door, I heard Jack, “Ya, well, dat’s good den. And yuh left yer goddam purse.”