Wheeling and Dealing

Tales of Vashon


One of the roustabouts yelled at me from the other side of the ring where we were busy breaking down the merry-go-round, part of the Peach Festival.  “Betcha twenty-five cents that you can’t pick up the spindle,” Shorty shouted.  The spindle was the 12 foot long steel shaft that the merry-go-round spun on.  The gear at the bottom of the shaft was three feet across and four inches thick, much too heavy to pick up, so I headed for the other end to prove or disprove the bet.  They told me that the shaft weighed 800 pounds which I doubted since I was able to squat and pick one end up about two inches off the ground.  “OK, OK, here’s your quarter,” said Shorty who ran the hammer game to find the strongest man who could ring the bell and win a stuffed bear.  It took six men to load the merry-go-round spindle onto a waiting truck.

The Blue Ribbon Shows always came to Vashon and set up where the bus garage is now, just west of the high school.  All that was there in the 1950’s was a gas shack.  The Strawberry Festival was over and Kit Bradley, Gary Larson and I were making a little money helping to tear the show down and pack it on the trailers and trucks to head for the next town.  I think we were paid seventy-five cents or a dollar an hour.  We worked most of the night and at 4:00 AM they told us we would have to hang around till 8:00 o’clock for Mr. Girling, the owner, to pay us.  One of the roustabouts had loaned me a pair of blue coveralls and when I complained about having to wait around for our pay, he pointed to the gas shack and told me I could take a nap in there.  When I woke at 7:30, the show was gone along with my wages, nothing left but the sawdust on the ground that was there to hold the dust down.  It was the first time I had ever been cheated out of my wages and it has happened only twice since.  I was so mad, that I took the dirty blue coveralls off and threw them in the blackberries, much like the kids who tie their old tennis shoes together and throw them over the power lines.  I had a pair of pants on underneath the overalls, the only thing that kept me from freezing in the gas shack.

It wasn’t until I was a freshman in high school and commuting to Seattle Prep that I saw Mr. Girling coming down the street at 5th and Pine, in front of Frederick’s.  I stepped in front of him and told him he owed me $8.00.  He didn’t give me time to explain, but just shrugged his shoulders and walked on.

In 1952, I got a job working for Harry Larsen making Skipper Craft boats down at the Cove marina.  For a 12 year old, 75 cents an hour was great and I could walk to work and not have to bother Mom for transportation.  I learned how to chew snuff from the boat builders and loved helping to stain the mahogany veneer that covered the bow of the 14 and 16 foot kicker boats.  Harry taught me how to not let the stain get too dry before rubbing the surplus away with a burlap sack, lest the stained wood look muddy.  The finished bow piece was beautiful, with swirling patterns in the different shades in the grain of the Mahogany.

The carpenters took their lunch sitting on the edge of the Cove dock which we often used to fish  perch and pogies from.  Winking to the other carpenters, old Sven Anderson offered his open can of snuz to me.  “Take a dip,” he said and the other men smiled as if they had a secret.  It was really strong and made the inside of my mouth burn but I kept it under my lip and went up to the second floor to sweep up and lost my lunch, due to the strong tobacco.  I couldn’t face the guys downstairs to tell them.  They were probably still laughing at me. I just didn’t take much the next time someone offered me Copenhagen.  After work, I walked up from the dock to Mackie’s store and bought a package of Brown’s Mule because it wasn’t as strong.

Many years later, I was a night watchman at a small mine in Republic, North of Spokane and still chewing  snoose.  The Valley mine was started by Mr. Hougland and only employed a handful of miners and didn’t produce a great deal of gold, because the ore at that time ran two ounces per ton.

John Sweetman was the Ferry county assessor and old friend who offered to help me erect a mast for my short- wave radio antenna.  I was a ham and did volunteer work for the defense department, patching navy personnel home thru the radio and commercial phone circuits.  John had been an air force captain and weatherman and  very gracious to lend me a hand for a project that was headed for disaster.  It was an ambitious endeavor as the mast was 60 feet long and weighed 400 pounds.    I was going to chain the fir pole to the back of the cabin, and I put a 4×4 inside the attic to act as an anchor for a snatch block, which hung out the window.  The mast was only half-way up when the back of the old cabin began to bulge from the strain and the front of the truck was lifted off the ground.   I had to cut 10 feet off the top to make it easier to lift.  John was holding on to the guy wire when the pole decided to swing like a pendulum from one side to another, lifting John off the ground , not once but twice.  I gunned the engine of the old green Dodge to try to winch the pole to a higher angle and it crashed against the back of the cabin where it was chained to both sides.

My illegal moonshine ran 130 proof and John and I both imbibed to get rid of the shakes from the near catastrophe.  My moonshine was never for sale which didn’t stop the miners from coming by for a drink or two.  It was my habit to leave my ax buried in the chopping block when on a certain winter night three or four miners stopped by for a drink, one being an Indian cop who fell on my ax on the way out the door and cut his head severely.  They crashed into a couple trees on the way down the driveway and the state patrol found their car parked in the middle of the highway in front of the Blue Cougar tavern in Curlew, a small town on the way to the Canadian border.  The engine was running and both doors were open.

When I worked there, the mine was leased out to a high roller from Salt Lake City who was hardly ever seen.  The mine closed down and I remained as the watchman and was paid for about a year when the checks stopped coming.  Even when the mine was operating, the miners would drop their shovels on payday and race to town because there was never enough money in the high-rollers account to cover all the checks.  The mine manager told me then that the high roller had declared bankruptcy and shot himself with a 45 shortly thereafter.  Mysteriously, two years later, he pulled up the driveway and stepped out of his rig.  I was aghast and asked him for the back wages he owed me.  “I don’t have the money,” the high roller said.  I helped myself to some of their hand tools (it’s called compensatory wages) and then I quit the mine to move back to Vashon.