by Rich Mylar
This installment of Jeep Stories From the Northwest takes us back to that Christmas of 1979 Rich told us about in A 3B and a Shack. His Jeep doesn't figure too large in this story, which is more about people and introduces a couple of characters we'll meet again in future stories. -- Derek Redmond
It was getting closer to Christmas, and Rizzo was gone. I had gone to town to get the shack supplied up, during a wind-chilling winter afternoon in 1979. The town looked dead; I could see the force of the wind drive the ice crystals ahead of the Jeep as I drove down the slippery road to Kelly's saloon to get a beer, before heading back to the shack. I constantly had to scrape the ice formed by my breath on the windshield. These early 3B's never had much for defrosters anyway.
The colored neon beer signs in the window at Kelly's joint were on as usual, so I parked the Jeep and shut it down. The short walk to the saloon was on dry compacted ice that was very treacherous footing. I walked up behind an old red and white colored, badly beat-up half-ton firewood truck. Movement of the green canvas in the bed of the truck caught my eye, even with the hood of my parka pulled up. I immediately stopped dead in my tracks.
The dark green canvas slowly rolled back revealing three small children nested tightly together in a pile of hay, under the canvas up close to the cab out of the bone-chilling wind. It had to have been around 10 or 15 degrees, and the blowing wind made it much worse. I was dumbfounded when the little dirty-faced girl said, "Hi, Dad's in the bar with Mom."
"Er... Hi," was my sad reply. This scene has stuck itself in the back of my mind ever since that time. I must have looked back at the lump of green canvas three or four times as the wind cut by the edges of my parka hood. I stumbled along to the saloon. I have seen much sadder things, but that was always overseas. Here in America, this sad situation with the dirty little kids in the back of the truck I had just observed -- it ate on my soul, so to speak.
The tinkling doorbell on the door announced my entry into the bar, and I was given a quick glance by the clientele, who were loggers and firewood cutters, and not that many of them. The bartender was a guy named "Bear-Killer" who got his nickname from killing a black bear with his Harley at 60 miles an hour and surviving this encounter. Mark Twain wrote that there was no such thing as an uninteresting life, and now I have to agree with him.
I cut a trail across the sawdust floor through the thin, low-hanging cloud of sweetly scented tobacco smoke, as I rolled back the hood of my parka and took off my mittens. I pulled up a stool at the bar, and Bear-Killer brought me a draft beer, saying "Two bits," and I paid up and looked the clientele over. A small thin wisp of a man sat to my right, and little did I know at the time I would get to know him much better during the next few months.
I was always short of reading material during the evenings at the shack, and checked out as many books as allowed by the librarian. I had checked out one book by Desmond Morris titled "Man Watching" and now I was ready to practice the science of my newfound knowledge.
My first project was to spot "Mom and Dad" and this was rather easy to do because they had a four-five-six game going on the bar counter with Bear-Killer. Mom had dark blonde hair with wood chips from a chainsaw sticking to her hair, and looked as if she could easily qualify for the Amazonian Special Forces in the ancient days. I immediately nicknamed her "Olga the Hammer" in the back of my mind, when she slammed the dice to the counter and read the numbers out loudly, crying, "Pay up, Bear-Killer."
The two men playing a game of eight ball on the pool table were without doubt timber fallers. The hard wood wedges in their hip pockets and caulked boots were the first clues of my observation. Falling wedges are a must-have tool for the faller, along with a double-jack and a preference for hard dangerous work.
Olga the Viking had an ongoing dice game with Bear-Killer, with her husbandwatching. As he pounded down the beer, Olga barked out, "We gotta feed the kids Frank. I'll buy 'em some pickled eggs and bags of chips." Olga grabbed the jar of pickled eggs along with some chips and headed for the truck with the children's supper. One thing this observation told me was that mother Olga's brood was going to grow up strong in a sea of hardships, or not grow up at all.
As Olga passed through the bar room door, Bear-Killer called out, "Ya can let 'em come inside by the stove for a little bit, but they can't stay long 'cause I don't need the bar cops down here." Maybe Bear-Killer had more of a heart than I realized. The kids clustered around the wood stove eating their pickled egg each, and eagerly munching on chips as they thawed out, shivering, in their tattered dirty coats with straw clinging to them.
The small thin man who sat to my right, who I thought was full sail in the wind with his beer, spoke: "Hi, I'm Jeff." I introduced myself and we talked about the weather and about looking forward to spring. The barroom doors little tinkling bell then announced the arrival of another one of Kelly's upstanding patrons.
Jeff nudged me with elbow lightly, saying, "Watch this guy closely -- ol' Bear-Killer don't stand a chance against him and his buddy. I saw this show once before."
I had no idea what Jeff was talking about at the time, but he was going to educate me on a bunko fraud that was about to unfold on the unsuspecting.
The latest arrival went by the name of "Al" and he asked Bear-Killer to bring him a beer and a cup with dice. Al cleaned the dice slowly and completely with a clean paper napkin and sat them down on the counter one at a time. The barroom door opened about ten minutes later with another tinkling bell, with Jeff whispering, "Here his is buddy." The new arrival went to the end of the bar counter and sat with a clear view of Al and the dice.
Al announced, "I just cleaned off these here dice, and I have such a fine sense of smell I can tell you which one you touched after I've turned my back."
"Ah, bullshit," Bear-Killer loudly said as he advanced toward Al and the dice on the counter top with a keen interest. The first fish had taken the bait; fishing was going to be good for Al tonight, and his statement about his acute sense of smell had even caught Olga and Frank's attention.
Bear-Killer, Olga and Frank stood around Al with the timber fallers watching from the edge as they held their cue sticks, and then Al swiveled around his bar stool with his back to the dice and Bear-Killer made a small wager and lightly touched one of the dice and quickly drew his finger away. Al swiveled around on his bar stool, picked the dice up one at a time, putting each one under his nose, and carefully smelled them and set them back down on the counter top.
"This is the one you touched right here," Al barked out, and Bear-Killer shoved a dollar bill his way over the counter top as he shook his head in disbelief. Olga was next in line, with the kids' egg money, and the timber fallers moved in closer with their money.
I whispered quietly to Jeff with astonishment, "How the hell does he do that?"
"Watch his buddy at the end of the bar. When Al comes to the right one, he tips his glass of beer. I saw these two clowns do the same thing down at the Whitehorse saloon."
Jeff was right; every time Al smelled the dice and came to the right one, the man at the end of the bar would tip his beer glass. It was not long and Olga and the timber fallers had been cleaned out of their hard-earned money. However, what was I to do about the fraudulent bunko game that was being played out on these people. I had to agree with Jeff, we had better leave this sleeping dog alone, or maybe take the chance of being beat up or ending up in a much worse condition.
I bought Jeff a glass of beer and thanked him for the education I received from this fraud that Al and his partner were running. Olga and Frank made it to the barroom door, practically penniless, and facing them was another long hard cold day in the woods with the chainsaw. It was a sad picture in my mind, with Frank on the chainsaw and Olga splitting the firewood, with the kids loading it in the back of the beat up truck. All this snowy, cold weather suffering for 35 or 40 bucks a day, and three pickled eggs.
Al asked Jeff and me if we wanted a go against his "sense of smell." Jeff just glanced up from under his ball cap, shaking his head no. I gazed into Al's iced blue eyes for a moment, thinking, maybe even searching for the devil's advocate. I now knew better than to go up against Al and the dice, thanks to Jeff, the real man-watcher.
Some people came and went from Kelly's, and some took a chance with Al and the dice. I noticed that women were particularly susceptible to Al's charismatic charms. It may have been his salt and pepper beard, or the warm look under his fedora and his trustful blue eyes that they all succumbed to.
It was time to head back to the shack and I was approaching .08 at mach nine. I parted company with Jeff with a thanks and a Merry Christmas, and left the bar.
The 3B's engine rolled over slowly on full choke for a few moments; the engine was ice cold as I was in Kelly's joint a long time. I hit the starter again and the engine coughed and sputtered to life as I watched an empty, racked-up log truck idle in front of Kelly's and the ice cold wind quickly blow away the exhaust gases from the truck's stacks.
I proceeded towards Highway 20 and had a snowplow on the road ahead of me as the Jeep hit the slight grade going for the shack. The carburetor began to ice up as I hit 40 miles per hour, and the snowplow pulled away. I was forced to slow down to about 35 or the Jeep would sputter or stall out. I ambled along with whining gears, nursing the engine and using the choke on the icing carburetor.
I weaved my way into a corner going out of town, and saw a man with a fair-sized cardboard box in the swirling snow of my headlights. I pulled over and backed up a little ways. The man with the beard opened the door to the Jeep. "How far ya goin'?" he asked.
"A few miles down the road," was my reply.
He put his big box of snow-smothered groceries in the back of the Jeep and climbed inside with a firm handshake, saying, "Thanks for stopping, the name is Wild Bill." I eased the 3B into gear and pulled back out on the slick icy roadway. I was about to learn the Wild Bill story, on my way back to the shack in the Jeep.
I scraped the frost off the inside of the windshield and as I handed the plastic scraper to Wild Bill to scrape the frost on his side, he spoke: "I'm fresh outa the can at Walla-Walla -- damn, it's good to be on the outside after doin' a nickel's worth."
Yes, he was fresh out of prison with a wild story to tell. In fact I have a lot of tales about Wild Bill and Jeff, the two friends I met that night, and I guess I'll have to save them for another time.
Nowadays Kelly's is under new ownership, the old crew there is long gone, and log trucks are not allowed in the parking lot. Even old beat up firewood trucks are discouraged from being around the chromed up Harleys and shiny Yuppie Beamers. But at least the kids now have a warm room all of their own, with video games but no pickled eggs or sawdust floors.
Thanks to Rich for another story that Mark Twain would have loved. -- Derek Redmond
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