Thursday, August 18, 2005

Grandad's Honeymoon and Other Yukon Stories

My grandfather moved up to the Yukon in 1918 and never moved back outside until he died last spring. He was an ornery old coot (as he'd be the first to insist), a former miner, longshoresman, mining-engineer, gold-panner, amateur historian, and for nearly a third of his life, a mourning widower. As one of the oldest coherent citizens to remember the old mining camps, his memoirs have some historical interest; he also wrote them to solidify his memories of his wife and to communicate his love for her to a generation of the family that would barely know her.

Grandad preferred ragtime to noctunes, though. Even the most sentimental passages tend to the rollicking. There's a little gooeyness admist the granite-hard frontiersmen in what follows,so if you 're here for hard-edged analysis----what the hell are you doing here?

After the jump, not-exactly sylph-like women, Buzzsaw Jimmy, and what it takes to be called a tough guy in the Yukon.

1. Not-exactly sylph-like women

So Grandad on his honeymoon. He'd been engaged for three years, infatuated with her for twelve. She ended up running away from her rather posher parents aboard a freight plane in the dead of a Yukon winter, and after the newly-weds made a two-day trek to a mining camp, he recalls this:
"I guess when you are truly in love, your partner takes on characteristics in your mind other people might not see. Particularly before our marriage, Dorothy in my mind seemed to be surrounded by a fairy-like aura, sort of unreal and sylph-like. Although she had led a very active outdoor life and was by no means a small woman (she was as tall as I was), I for some reason got the idea she sort of floated along.

In those days, because of my many years working longshoring, I was quite strong for my size. I remember my amazement when I proceeded to sweep her up in my arms to carry my bride over the threshold of our little cabin. She did not sweep so easily. She was very real and more gal than I had expected. She was strong and solid, yet so soft and lovely.
"More gal than I had expected"--I really like that way of understanding what could otherwise be phrased as disillusionment. Then again, they had nearly died in the fifty-below F voyage to Edwardian honeymoon bliss: his longshoreman muscles may not have been all that, at that moment. (They were both about 5'7", for the record.)

2. Buzzsaw Jimmy

Somewhat more typical of Grandad's memoirs is this kind of anecdote:
Buzzsaw Jimmy [Richards] was a real village character, no pretensions. He was reported to have had a fairly good education and to have studied some law, though you would never know it from looking at him. He was a small man of unprepossessing appearance who generally went around in dirty work clothes and with his hands and face splotched with black engine grease. He was mechanically bent with a lot of ingenuity; he had managed to put together the most marvelous saw for cutting into stove wood the 16-foot fuel wood brought into town. His saw was self-propelled, and he would run around from household to household, sawing up their winter's supply. With the help of a crew for handling the wood, he could cut up about 60 cords a day. I worked for him many times.

However the saw took its toll. Over the years he had lost several fingers and a leg, and had had his abdomen cut open. He stumped around with an artificial leg. During his many sojourns in the hospital, he always managed to fall in love with one of the nurses, much to her dismay.

One day he came into the Jap restaurant on crutches and without his artificial leg. He loudly announced, "I fooled the bastard this time."

It developed that the saw had severed a leg again, but this time it was the wooden one.
What has always struck me about these old-timey stories is the degree to which the oral history often--but not always--fizzles into the written equivalent of "well, I guess you had to know ol' Buzzsaw Jimmy." Grandad is paying tribute to a local character and a time, but on paper all these anecdotes turn into "local color" that he can't quite integrate into a cohesive narrative--because it was the texture of his life, repeated at a thousand parties to knowing laughter, and because to give all the necessary information to someone who doesn't already know the story is somehow to spoil the joke.

3. What It Takes to be Called a Tough Guy in the Yukon
And then there are a series of stories Grandad recorded and transcribed from a good friend, one "Clem Emminger," whose native tongue is not recorded but whose accent is transcribed as faithfully as my Grandad's ear was good. Here's one of the shorter ones, Clem Emminger on Bill Geary:
Oh! Bill Geary, yah!

Why, you, you remember da Gearys here. Why Jim, and Lyle was a boy about five or six year old and dere's a cabin right on de knoll. De road comes up right along de hill and right on de knoll dere is a cabin dere. And his (Jim's) broder was up in Loon Lake. He was hunting for de camp. See, in dem days dey didn't hab no fresh meat in from here. So dey got all wild meat and he was hunting. He had a couple pack horses and he hunted around and he bring it wheneber he kill someting. He bring it in and he sold it to de miners around der.

Well, dis particular day, dere was Joe Peters, and, oh, Bob Chestnut and him, ah, Jim Geary's broder. Dey had property on Loon Lake. Dat's a copper property and dey hard rock, and dey had been driving a tunnel. Dey had a nice cabin dere and dey had cached a case of powder under de cabin. And Bill just came along and he see a rabbit dere. He shot de rabbit and into de case of powder and blew it up. And it blinded him. And dis is 15 mile from Livingstone. But he made his way down to Livingstone, he had a dog along, but he couldn't see anyting. He just had to feel his way.

And when you get to Livingstone, de, de trail leads along de flat and den you go along de hillside. De trail leads up dere and, what I say, and de cabin of his broder was right on de brow of dis hill. And Lyle was playing outside de cabin, and he looked down and he seen, and he said, he hollered, "Daddy, dere's a bear coming up de trail!" De old man run out with de gun and pretty nearly shot his broder who was coming on all fours because he couldn't, he had to fell his way, you see. And his lost one eye and neber even came in here. He cut it off with his pocket knife. It was hanging out, and he neber came into town to see a doctor or anyting. De sight came back in de oder eye.

Yah! Really tough! Really tough!
*Shudder* I am made of rather softer stuff, but then so is most of modernity.

There's a lot more where that came from, and it's fun for me to look through, if readers are interested.

Anyone interested in getting the full version of my Grandad's memoirs, available (I think) from the Canadian National Archives should email me for proper names. Conversely, anyone who has, by this excerpt, guessed my Grandad's proper name should keep it under his or her hat to be polite.


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