I’m not too horribly sorry that I didn’t update you for two months. The only exciting/traveling thing to happen was when, upon leaving Portland for the first time in two months for the fine greenery of Olympia, I was a participant in a bike incident that resulted in a broken and bleeding junk that lasted for going on two weeks now. Beyond that, I have been playing music and reading, all day, every day.
Oh god, books and music. My life is a culmination of dreams.
Here, look. I’m on a local history binge. The black exclusion laws of Oregon! The rampant kidnapping of sailors and loggers from the Portland waterfront! Dear god, an entire city of working class was built and destroyed in a matter of six years in the 1940′s!
This vignette by Steward Holbrook made me laugh out loud a couple of times, in how familiar some of the illuminated characters are. Young, cocky, clueless dudes have not changed so much in the last hundred years. I decided you needed to read it too. I’m a fan of giving/reading excerpts and thusly being encouraged to go acquire the whole thing. Multnomah County Library has the book this is taken out of, Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks , by Stewart Holbrook, and it is one of my new favorite books, on the legends and stories that permeated the Northwestern corner of the United States at the turn of the last century.
Disclaimer: If you’re coming from a PC space, it’s written in the 1927 about men in the 1800′s. Also, if you in some way ‘own’ this piece of writing, and decided that it would be better publicity for your book for me to take this excerpt down, let me know.
And don’t be too intimidated by the vernacular. It should mostly make sense, though I threw in some semi-helpful links for words that confounded me.
When I first went to work in a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest and heard mention of “whistle punks” I thought the term had reference to some mythical animal like the swamp wogglers and side-hill badgers of the East, or to some fabulous character of the Oregon timber. But I soon learned that whistle punks were very real, and very, very hard-boiled.
In the west any boy in known as a “punk,” just why I haven’t learned. Whistle punks are officially known on camp pay tolls as signal boys. They are the youthful loggers who, with jerk wire or electric toots-ee, give the signals for starting and stopping to engineers of donkey engines that yard the big Douglas fir timber, up and down the West Coast. They are automatons, standing throughout the day in one spot and yanking the whistle wire once, twice, or in combinations, in answer to the hook tender’s orders. The hook tender has a log ready. He shouts “Hi!” The punk jerks his whistle line and the whistle on the engine snorts. The engineer “opens her up, ” and the log is brought in to the landing.
Despite his lowly job, which compares in dignity with that of the water boy of construction gangs, the punk is a well-known character in the Northwest. In Tacoma, Washington, the “Lumber Capital of America,” a newspaper used to have a daily column headed “The Whistle Punk.” I hold the punk to be well worth a column.
When placed alongside the average whistle punk, the so-called tough kids of the Bowery and the gamins of Paris are like so many cherubim. Punks are the hardest kids ever; or, at least, they want to be. They are so tough the won’t even read the Police Gazette. To hear one talk you would suspect that he liked for breakfast nothing so much as a keg of iron bolts soaked in gasoline, wood alcohol, and snuff.
The vizor of the punk’s cap is worn smooth where it has rested over an ear. His best Sunday conversation sounds like extracts for Rabelais; and when he is going good can outcurse any cockney that ever mentioned the King of England. When he spits, it is what learned men term a cosmic disturbance…Yes, the punk is hard.
The toughness of the punk is equal only by his bellicose precocity. He is what an Englishman calls “a little bounder.” Although he is but eighteen years of age, the punk often calls the camp foreman “boy” and gets away with it. When the foreman has occasion to bawl out the rigging crew, the punk adds a caustic razzing: “Who tol’ you guys you was loggers?” Of an evening when some of the old-timers are doing a bit of stovelogging around the big heater in the bunkhouse, the punk horns in with some of his experiences. And his talk, when they will let him talk or when they cannot prevent him, is well interspersed with those short but expressive old Anglo-Saxon words of less than five letters. The subject of his logging tales is always the same: how he told the hook tender to “go to hell,” or the timekeeper to “make ‘er out, damn her.” I have heard twenty-odd different punks tell exactly the same story in precisely the same words, and I am forced to the conclusion that the formula has been secretly published and circulated among them.
As a gambler the punk believes himself the genuine, one-hundred-proof Hoyle. He is the kind of wise youth who tells the world he knows when to play ‘em and when to lay ‘em down. But he seldom has enough money to interest the camp tinhorns; otherwise someone would have to write a new song about the punk who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
The punk’s literary tastes are simple. He likes The James Boys in Missouri and The Life and Battles of John L. Sullivan. In his suitcase he has a pamphlet clandestinely purchased from a news agent on a railroad train. It concerns the life and works of a frail yet beautiful lady known as Mayme, no last name given. It was never entered at the post office as second-class or other matter. He also reads the “comic books.” Occasionally he will, in a blatant voice, read aloud the asininities of that popular family of morons answering to the names of “Min” and “Andy.”
It is the camp cook, more often than not, who removes some of the offensive freshness of the punk. This camp chef is the master of all he surveys. The kitchen and dining room are his precincts, and he guards them no less jealously than he does his dignity as cook. He is supreme monarch of the mulligan. Loud, boisterous talk from the crew at mealtime, to the cook’s way of thinking should be punished by no less an operation than speedy decapitation; while derogatory remarks about the fare, or in fact any sort of wisecracks around the cookhouse, call for complete annihilation. Thus it is the cookshack where the forward-looking punk often meets his Waterloo.
Once at a camp on the mighty Fraser River in British Columbia, I witnessed – and cheered on – the freshest punk that ever blew whistle being propelled suddenly, openly, and manifestly from the cookhouse door, and to a distance of some twenty feet beyond, all by the honest right boot on Erickson, a noted camp chef of the time. The punk was not only booted clear of the hallowed precincts, but with him at the moment were at least ten million vitamins, in the form of bread dough, plastered well over his head and by Chef Erickson. Inquiry brought to light that the punk, in his usual carefree way, had wandered into the kitchen where Erickson was making bread, and had asked him, brightly, why it was that Danes were so much smarter than Swedes. Erickson, it appeared, had been born in one of the Faubourgs of Stockholm.
The punk’s private idea of heaven is to have a trick suit of clothes with two-toned coat, a long haircut, a chick, at least $15 in his pocket, and an old car stripped of all but its lungs and rigged up to look as the punk thinks a Mercedes racer looks. Here is paradise enow!
But he can’t have heaven and his $7.00 a day at the same time, and so when in camp the punk does the best he can with cigarets, snuff, chewing tobacco, and loud talk. This snuff is not the kind that our forefather sniffed. It is a powerful concoction of finely ground tobacco known as Scandinavian Dynamite and is carried in the lip. It is the badge of the he-man.
Just plain snuff, however, is not enough for the punk who is really hard. Not at all. He first fills his lower lip with the snuff and then wads in a bite of plug-tobacco. On Sundays he does even better, which, in addition to this monumental chew, he simultaneously smokes a cig’ret. It is here he rises to heights of he. He blows smoke out of his nose and mouth, and it if were possible he would blow it forth from his eyes and both ears. If a punk ever succeeds in accomplishing this latter fear, he will become the greatest punk of all time.
The punk’s boots always have the longest and sharpest calks in the camp. If calks were made six inches long, the punk would have them. How he loves to stagger carelessly into the bunkhouse, stand still a moment until he get his calks well set into the floor, and then turn sharply on his heels in an effort to rip the flooring asunder. No really good punk stops short of a two-foot splinter. Some can split an inch board. Hard?…If they ever build bunkhouses with cement floors whistle punks will quit cold.
When a punk stags (cuts off) his pants legs, he stags them four inches higher than anyone else in camp. When he paints his slicker to keep out the rain, he paints it red! His bunk is the dirtiest on the camp. The cuspidor besides his bunk is a keg, sawed in two.
In all these things the punk is colossally he. but there is another side to the story of this most masculine youth, for, like all red-blooded men, he has a weakness. It is chocolate bars. Yes, sir, a weakness for those bars of candy so popular with children and young ladies. The choc’lit bar is his one vulnerable spot. One minute he may be telling how he would like a good meal of canned heat, or making a cynical reference to the origin and forebears of the camp foreman; but expose him to a soft brown bar of chocolate, and you have taken the wind from his sail. He is half ashamed to take it, but he is helpless.
On an average it requires six choc’lit bars daily to run a punk, with ten on Sundays. It is here that he falls down in the business of being a tough guy. For whoever heard of a tougt guy, a real he-logger, eating choc’lit bars? It is preposterous. And the punk feels it. But what would you?…Youth must be served, and no man can rise above his eighteen years.
So, when in camp I used to tire of the punk’s heavy-duty stories and tough tales and loud blats and cursing and cynical jeers, why, I would just reach out right in front of the whole crowd and offer him a chocolate bar. I called it by name, so that all might see and hear: “Hey, punk, want a chocolate bar?” He would waver a moment between acceptance and scornful refusal…but the choc’lit bar always won. This shamed and tamed him for the evening at least; he would munch his chocolate and remain quiet.
It was worth the ten cents.
The Century Magazine (1927)