The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume III, Number 2-3, Pages 2-6
By R.B. Smith
R. B. Smith is a Professor of English at Eastern Washington University. This is Smith’s second story about Toughy Sooter and friends; the first appeared in the Winter 1977 issue of the Forum.
My father's allusion to the picnic drew an unexpected response from mother.
"I haven't decided whether I'm going this year," she said. "There's all that cooking and baking and we never get home until the wee hours. It's just too tiring."
That may sound harmless enough but the truth is that those remarks were my mother's tactful way of suggesting that she was still scandalized by his behavior at last year's picnic and that he would have to reform if there was to be another one. It was unthinkable that she would refuse to go to the picnic. Everybody went.
"Sorry to hear that," he said. "Maybe you'll change your mind."
That was his equally tactful way of conceding that last year's picnic, what he could remember of it, had been, perhaps, a bit much. He was also promising altered behavior this year although only in degree, not kind. They understood one another rather well.
Actually, his behavior had not been all that bad if you adopt a point of view somewhat less easily scandalized than mother's. It is true that he had shown up for the afternoon supper a little tipsy. So had all the other shingle weavers; he was no different. After that he had taken her to the dance which followed, and he had brought her and the rest of us home respectably enough. But then he went back to the picnic, and spent the rest of the night with his cronies. He and Vincent Scanlon, Toughy Sooter and others roared chorus after chorus of "Down by the Old Mill Stream" or "Coney Island Washboard" and they drank schooner after schooner of beer. He had been brought home on his shield like Beowulf and it was this being brought home, especially by the likes of Vincent Scanlon with his beery suggestions that "Old Rod just forgot the way home" that scandalized mother. She was even more upset by the fact that, prior to coming in, they had a long and noisy contest to see who could pee the farthest up the front porch.
Having reached an agreement about this year's picnic, however, there was no further trouble and preparations began immediately. And I do mean preparations. I doubt if anyone in Mineral knew what a calorie was. It is certain that no one would have cared. Everyone in town was invited, not just shingle weavers. So there were hams to bake, chickens to fry, homemade beans to prepare, potato salad to mix - all fashioned by experts, but why go on? That such food ever existed is known only to the aging residents of a few logging and farming areas. Barring them, who would believe me?
The food was the ladies' department and that, at least, was one thing that never went wrong at a shingle weaver's picnic. The men arranged the sporting events at the picnic grounds, the dance in the evening at Wheeler's hall, the free ice cream and pop for the kids, and as many kegs of beer as deemed needful for themselves. More accurately, they ordered kegs of beer in excess of any imaginable need. They didn't want anything to go wrong. For one day at least, they lived like renaissance princes, and I do not mean to exaggerate. The entertainment and liquid refreshments were just as effective as those enjoyed by aristocrats; the food and company were probably much better. The picnic was usually held in July, a good month in the Mineral area. And so it was - in the middle of July, 1940 - that the last and best of Mineral, Washington, in its prime showed itself to the world.
The picnic got started around noon with the arrival of the ice cream truck, the beer truck, and most of the guests. The kid's games got underway immediately; the make-shift bar was set up, and the picnic was off and running. The most immediate impression was one of noise and motion. Most of the latter was provided by kids zinging in every direction. Some of the noise was from fire crackers left over from the Fourth. It may well have looked like a routine picnic early on. Here and there, however, there would be an arresting sight. Ole Pederson weighed more than three hundred pounds. One of the reasons was that he drank beer, chugalug, from a quart milk bottle. The main thing though was the atmosphere, which was benign. The shingle weavers saw themselves as hosts for several hundred people and they really tried. It was as if the place has been blessed.
One of the better things in the afternoon, apart from dinner, was the nine inning softball game between the shingle weavers and their relatives and a team selected from the rest of the town. Some of the usual rules were suspended. Free substitution was not only allowed, it was essential. My father, for instance, played first base and like all the other men, he was in and out of that ball game a dozen times. He was in there for one, maybe two, putouts per inning, and he only got to bat once in the whole game. The rest of the time he was at the bar with his friends. It was a very exciting game, held up for an hour or so in a dispute over the infield fly rule, if you can believe it. Chill Wilson was the umpire and he had brought the rule book with him. That should have settled it and finally did, but first there was a long analysis of the merit in the rule itself, whatever the application, by Vincent Scanlon and other intellectuals. For a while there I didn't think we would get the game going again, but we finally did. The shingle weavers were behind for nearly the whole game. In the last of the ninth with the bases loaded with shingle weavers or their progeny, Johnny Scanlon came to bat and, incredibly, struck out. He was followed by his father who, even more incredibly, hit a bases-loaded home run. The shingle weavers won it five to four.
Then it was time for dinner and, for once, none of the men were too drunk to enjoy themselves. We ate, thirty or forty in a group, from clusters of tables shoved together. It took us about two hours to eat and settle that food. Some of the really big eaters took naps afterward. Then the men got down to the serious drinking and fooling around. The ladies cleaned up the mess, gossiped, and estimated the staying power of their husbands. Most of the young people went swimming.
Mrs. Sievert had been at it again. She had arranged for a flat bed truck decorated with bunting. There was a piano, a microphone and amplifying system on it and both Mrs. Meeker and Teddy Siler abused it severely. They had lots of competition - games, firecrackers, the general buzz. Some of the men were already in little groups singing "Heart of My Hearts." Mrs. Meeker's favorite concert piece was "My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown," so she shrieked that one and several others. My father was near the bar, as far away as he could get, wearing his frozen expression with a touch of wince in it. Teddy Siler played the piano because his mother would have torn off his arms and legs otherwise. Both performers were forgiven after their efforts died away for a while.
All the girls who had ever tormented me at one time or another were there; Maxine Anderson writhed around in a tight skirt and blouse of the sort in vogue at the time. She had a curious effect. Wherever she went, however deafening the noise, there would be a momentary hush. Then the noise would pick up again after she had passed.
Miss Swenson was getting just as much attention. She was surrounded by young men and I think she was quite tense because all of her students were watching. She was saved from all that by a big distraction. There was a rumor that Danny Upshaw and Evelyn Needles had crawled under the bunting on the flat bed truck and were making love there to the tune of the music. But I don't think anybody actually saw them and I don't know if it was true. True or not, however, there was a big sensation. My mother couldn't stay scandalized about it. She tried but the giggles would come on. Mostly they came on because Dad gave us an imitation of Reverend Swann on the subject.
Maybe the best thing that happened that afternoon was a half serious fight between Aggie and Toughy Sooter. Toughy came to the picnic in his best double breasted suit, sharply creased. His shoes were shined and he looked positively spiffy. In fact they both did. Aggie was wearing a silk dress that enhanced her voluptuous qualities and they both looked great. But Aggie was on her good behavior, trying to live up to the cultural intimidation of Mrs. Sievert and Mrs. Meeker. She remained in good repair almost all afternoon. Meanwhile Toughy was being his usual self. He had taken part in the ball game (one single, a walk, and two strike outs), the sack races, and some horseshoe pitching. He had long since unbuttoned his coat. His tie was in limp disarray and he was in a happy, but highly visible sweat. He had, of course, drunk quantities of beer.
"Toughy, button your coat. Go over to the men's room and clean up a little," Aggie said.
"What if I don't?" He was feeling frisky.
"Toughy, I'm warning you. Don't embarrass me in front of all these people," she yelled; but she was still doing it affectionately.
"Well, I'll think on it," said Toughy. "Now. Right now," she shrieked, getting madder.
"What if I don't?" he repeated. She got up from where she was sitting on the grass and made as if to chase him; so he ran off.
"Toughy, you come back here, goddammit. Right now. You hear?" He would run a few frisky steps and then slow down so she could almost catch him. She was having trouble with her high heels.
"You can't catch me, Aggie," yelled the delighted Toughy, "Not with all that front swinging every which way." That did it. While Toughy was bent over, hysterical from the effects of his own wit, she bent down, took off her shoes and almost caught him on her first serious try. But then he was off like an antelope. They ran all through the picnic grounds, across the parking lot, into Wheeler's dance hall. Toughy thundered across the dance floor, out on to the balcony and then he went right over the rail in a beautiful, arcing swan dive, double breasted suit and all, into the lake below.
"You crazy bastard," Aggie yelled. They had gathered a large crowd by this time. Aggie ran around looking for weapons. She was going to get some folding chairs and throw them on his head, but Toughy was down in the lake pretending to be Johnny Weismuller and she began to laugh. By and by he thrashed his way to the beach and they both went home briefly to change clothes.
About sundown the dancing and mild trouble began. Every now and then Spider Londerman would return to the picnic to make a nuisance of himself and a delegation would run him off. There were a few minor fights, some arguments between husbands and wives, your occasional lost child, but nothing serious. A much better orchestra than usual had been hired for the dance, and when they were resting, Bing Crosby would moan "Blue Hawaii" at us from the Wurlitzer. When a person got tired of dancing or watching Toughy Sooter carry on, he could go out to the balcony and watch the trout dimple the lake. There was the faint red smell of cedar in the air.
It would be a shame to linger over the wee hours winding down of the picnic. It would be criminal to describe in detail the hangovers of Sunday. Also will I spare you talk about how I had grown nearly out of boyhood by then, and how the wider world beyond those hills soon reared up to make an impression on me. So too will I spare you poignant talk about the 1930's fading into oblivion. I will only say that when Toughy dove into the lake he took the vividness and immediacy of the 1930's with him. The only sad part about that is that we can't get it all back, can't grasp the reality of it any more than we can slow the passing now; and it doesn't seem so long ago either, one or two turns of a skinned bear. So any lies I may have told you were told in that good cause. That wasn't the last time I saw Mineral, Washington, either, but that's the way I like to remember it - in Wheeler's dance hall during the shingle weaver's picnic, watching the flushed chin of somebody like Vincent Scanlon go steaming by in the Oklahoma version of the foxtrot, listening to the music lose itself across the lake and into the stump scarred hills.