The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume II, Number 1, Pages 24-28
By R.B. Smith
R. B. Smith is a Professor of English at Eastern Washington State College.
Here it is, 1977. The older I get the less I understand time. Occasionally when I'm staring into a campfire or just off into the wind somewhere, the past will jump on me unbidden, like some sort of big friendly dog of a breed I can't make out. Other times it's like reading about Egypt in the encyclopedia, as if it had happened to someone else. Sometimes, though, it seems I could almost walk over the hill or around the corner and be there in that shingle mill town in Washington State where I grew up. And it's the sometimes that bothers me. Why should it be so easy on those occasions, so difficult most of the time? Getting back there can turn out to be quite a problem. Most of the time I just strain away, trying to remember, and I give birth to all sorts of woolly mammoths, but nothing real, nothing I can use. Still, it would have to be 1936 when Toughy was hanged. I remember because the high school principal had a new 1936 Plymouth. Everybody thought he was too sissified to deserve it.
There was one commercial street, two grocery stores, a cafe, a gas station and three taverns. Everybody knew everybody else. Ash from the incinerator at the mill blew over everything, and there was the smell of cedar in the air. Even now it will take me back if I get a whiff of it on a rainy night. The shingle weavers, as they were called, were all instantly recognizable anywhere. Their job involved being very close to a circular saw with a notched springboard just over it for trimming shingles. They all drank, even though a lack of alertness during Monday's hangover could meal one or more missing fingers.
It was a tough place, that town. At recess we kids used to fight regularly to adjust the pecking order that changed all the time because of spurts of growth, and once in a while from some temporary courage. The grownups were just as direct, or so I thought, and there's a puzzle. I remember it as a morally simple world with unequivocal friends and enemies. Now, of course, my changing spots have blended together in shades of black or gray so many times that I scarcely know what sort of leopard I am. Then it was different. Or was it?
Maybe I was just a dumb kid, but I do remember one occasion during a labor strike in the woods. The boss believed in his innocence that local folks would be terrified if goons were imported from Chicago. There you have one morally clear party to the dispute - the boss and his hired bravoes. (He was always called the boss even when he was liked or respected. Moving from labor to management in those days was like changing your nationality.) There were also people in town who crossed picket lines and went to work during the strike. They were another morally clear faction. They were called scabs and were permanently scorned thereafter. The strikers themselves completed the arrangement. This particular holy war came to a head one day when the strikers met the truck returning from the woods loaded with scabs and goons and all hell broke loose. The goons were driven back to Chicago, most of them severely injured, and the strike settled down to a few more weeks of struggle by local rules.
Toughy Sooter worked in the woods and had been among the noisiest and most effective of the strikers. He was a log bucker. That is, he spent his days cutting logs into commercially suitable lengths with a hand powered cross-cut saw or "misery-whip," a job that requires the strength and stamina of several bulls. He was quite a guy, even in a neighborhood of people who might well catch the eye of your average tourist. Just next door to us, for instance, there was Roy Sievert, a boy my age. He was an only child and was alternately spoiled rotten and cuffed around by his folks. Once, I swear it, I saw his mother kick him over a three strand barbed wire fence on the fly without even tearing his clothes. I mention the Sieverts because they had something to do with what happened to Toughy and also, of course, because no one ever forgets a sight like that.
The truth is that Toughy and his wife were the talk of the town. Part of that was because of their appearance, especially when they were together. Toughy was short but wide and naturally muscular, a quality further enhanced by his work. He had coal black hair all over him, including his back. The things I remember best are the hair spilling over the top of his undershirt, and the booming, delighted way he would trump somebody's ace in a pinochle game. "There, by Criminy," he would roar.
I can't be sure at this distance, but I think his wife just missed being beautiful for some reason that didn't matter at all. She was taller than he was and she had a good disposition most of the time. Had I known the word then, I suppose I would have said that she was voluptuous. My friends and I all admired her a lot. You know how you test the shock absorbers on your car by stepping sharply down on the bumper, and the car bounces once or twice if your shocks are in good shape? Well, in the privacy of my own bed ticking I used to have this fantasy where she would be taking off her slip and things would bounce once, twice - but never mind; I'm not going to share everything I hold reverent with you.
Toughy and his wife were crazy about one another. And he was very frank about it. He used to say, "That woman has a honey ass," and he wasn't trying to be artfully crude either. He said it in the same tone of voice reserved elsewhere for one of Rafael's madonnas. She was just as enthusiastic. At pinochle parties she would point out to the other ladies that she loved "every hair on that man's back; he's so delicate." But don't jump to conclusions. She wasn't any more sophisticated than he was.
They also fought, but not all the time. On Saturday nights, when they were getting along well, they drank beer and cut up a lot. About midnight, both of them feeling frisky, he would go out into the yard and caper around while she stood in the kitchen doorway and plinked at his legs with a .22 rifle. "Higher, higher," she would shriek, and snap off another shot at he milled around. And then he would yell at her in ecstasy, "You couldn't hit a bull in the ass with a banjo," proving that his wit was not original although some of his behavior bordered on it. One night she winged him slightly in the thigh and, since her compassion apparently had an erotic streak to it, my guess would be that Toughy enjoyed himself that night in ways that few of us have ever known. I don't even want to think about it. Somehow it might spoil things retroactively for Toughy. Anyway, he went to work as usual on the following Monday, limping a little, whistling "I'm just a vagabond lover." That evening he went straight home from work without stopping at the tavern. And for a couple of weeks they scandalized everybody with a near sickening display of mutual affection.
But as I said, they also fought. In fact that is what they were mainly known for. They had the noisiest fights I have ever overheard. They were the only people I ever knew who actually threw crockery at each other. I may be telescoping remembered events, but I think the fight I have in mind started because she wouldn't iron his shorts. Toughy was not an absolutely predictable guy; I hope I haven't given the impression that he was some sort of animal. Make what you will of it, Toughy liked to have his shorts ironed and his wife resisted. "Who the hell do you think you are, Leslie Howard?" was her response.
Leslie Howard was her favorite movie star and Toughy knew that, so it wasn't a tactful thing for her to say.
One thing led to another as you might expect. "Don't you dare lay a hand on me, you hairy bastard," she'd yell, and a soup tureen would smash against the wall. Toughy wasn't very articulate, but he did have the sense to point out that Leslie Howard was an Englishman and therefore suspect as a lover, which only made his wife all the madder. Mostly, though, what he had to contribute during those fights was, "Jumped up Judas," or "Criminy Moses" and similar witticisms. And give him credit, he never attacked her directly; he would be content with smashing some of the furniture. Eventually, things would quiet down at their house. But the rest of the neighborhood would buzz for a long time with whispered comment.
I'm reasonably sure it was that fight that caused all the trouble. Toughy and his wife had many such fights and they stimulated the kind of talk you might expect. We also had quiet, respectable people in that town who didn't altogether approve of the Sooters and their noisy ways. That didn't include my father. He was quiet but also the sort of man who enjoyed the spectacle of the Sooters maybe too much for his own good. We kids were not supposed to know as much as we did, and my father tried to keep up appearances. It didn't do any good. His vast amusement was plain just from the way he cocked an ear at our kitchen window screen to listen in on the Sooters. When he did that he would wear this frozen expression on his face which didn't fool anybody, least of all my mother who was mildly scandalized by both the Sooters and my father.
Mrs. Sievert noticed that the garage door was standing ajar.
But the person who most yearned after respectability was Mrs. Sievert. I'm afraid she looked a good deal more like Wallace Beery than is good for a lady who lusts after refinement. Much talk about how the Sooters were going to kill one another some day had been handed around and she was responsible for a good bit of it. The day after one big fight she happened to be passing the Sooter place, and she noticed that the garage door was standing ajar and that there was something inside she couldn't classify. So she peeked in. I didn't want to spring it on you until now for reasons you will understand, but the fact is that Toughy had shot a large bear out of season, skinned it, and the carcass was hanging in his garage. Between ourselves, the bear didn't look that much like Toughy. There wasn't enough hair for one thing. But Mrs. Sievert was no state game department biologist. She was just an average, depression years housewife with a hyperactive imagination and mouth. Naturally she thought Aggie Sooter and murdered Toughy. Mrs. Sievert was on her way to a lady's card party anyway. So she just dashed over there with the toothiest news she had ever been dealt. By the time Mrs. Sooter arrived at the same party, all the other ladies had a full report. My mother said it was the most embarrassing afternoon she ever spent. Mrs. Sooter was unusually chirpy and vivacious, even for her. But the other ladies were too polite or maybe too scared to charge her with murder. Instead they acted as if they had never seen her before in their lives, and she went home feeling hurt. In the meantime the ladies were seeing to the police and broadcasting the news all over town. That was one time we didn't fight during recess at school.
So when Toughy stopped off at the tavern on his way home from work, he created quite a stir. In a way, as my father explained, Toughy's friends were a little disappointed to see him alive. Those were depression days, recall, when the general experience was more of the same year after year; or, "Just one damn thing after another," as most of them would have said. So they were a little grim with Toughy at first for spoiling the touch of glamour that had fallen across their toilsome lives. But they quickly melted.
In the meantime the law was at work. Our police force consisted of one town marshall who actually wore bib overalls. He was a no-nonsense guy, but he was finally persuaded that murder had been committed, and he went to the Sooter place to arrest Mrs. Sooter and to secure Toughy's remains. But he took one look at the victim, and bib overalls or not, the town marshall knew a skinned bear when he saw one. So he forgot Mrs. Sooter and went down to the tavern and arrested Toughy for shooting a bear out of season, he also cited my father and several others for being drunk and disorderly.
Evidently the whole thing did everybody a world of good. The ladies had something really sensational to talk about that day and for a long time afterward. The men had a rare excuse for one of the most festive gatherings in the tavern ever seen in those parts. Their celebration had the quality of wake drinking and reunion drinking at the same time. They were not fools and didn't pass up a chance like that.
Toughy probably got the most out of it in spite of the large fine he paid. His wife came instantly and loudly to his defense because in those days loyalty meant something. In the neighboring town, where Toughy faced the law for his deed, she questioned the manhood of the judge for appearing in a gown and got herself cited for contempt. And remembering the form her compassion took, I think Toughy had days, no, weeks of bliss that warm me even now.
Now it's 1977 and I know I can't walk around the corner and shake hands with Toughy Sooter in his prime.
That's all right. Time passes, and because it does, I'm sure I got some of. the events all jumbled up among memory's tricks. But I got most of it right. The one thing I can remember with perfect clarity and I suppose the item that stimulated all this reminiscence, is the way that bear looked hanging there - quietly relaxed spinning slightly now and then, with the blue veins gleaming dully just beneath the skin. If our world were suspended from some great chain it would spin like that, except that it would be mostly blue with the white cloud cover winking away in the blackness of space. That may be a fan way to remember a skinned bear, or Toughy Sooter for that matter, but memory does what it does.