Redefining north.

Classic Content #2

Classic Content #2


The following is an excerpt from Passages North contributor (and Yooper) Robert Traver's Danny and the Boys: Being Some Legends of Hungry Hollow. Traver was the pen name of Ishpeming-born attorney, judge, fisherman, and Anatomy of a Murder author John D. Voelker.

Danny and the Boys

by Robert Traver

Scotch-Irish Danny had catapulted out of Canada when he was seventeen, reputedly chased by a bailiff who sought to find a husband for a country lass who needed one badly. Eventually landing in Chippewa, he went to work in one of the iron mines. Child labor laws were then wistful dreams of long-haired eccentrics. After a few months underground, Danny quit the mine in disgust. For Danny was a natural-born sun worshiper. “I’d sooner be in hell with my back broke!” he told his boss one day. “But when I git there I don’ aim to dig my way down!” He abruptly threw away his tools, snuffed out his candle, and walked away.  He never mined another pound of ore.  Instead he went to work for old Angus Ferguson and nearly starved to death; and when Angus died he moved into the old camp at Hungry Hollow, got himself a moonshine still, and permanently retired from all forms of gainful employment.

Danny, who constantly maintained a miraculous two-day growth of beard, had lively, darting little gray eyes, the permanently flushed countenance of an erring Santa Claus, and a remarkable set of tobacco-stained teeth which he evidently thought had been given him for the sole purpose of removing beer-bottle caps. “Them bloody newfangled bottle openers is always slippin’”, he complained.  Danny was one of those singular persons who seemed to have been born to be bald, who indeed would have looked ridiculous with a head of hair.

He was never still. Nature had installed a great spring in the man and coiled it tightly for a long run. When animated, his eloquent eyebrows bobbed in synchrony with his mustaches; he blinked his eyes, ground his teeth, whinnied, sighed, shrugged, grimaced, protruded his chin, stroked his wire-haired whiskers, tugged at his mustaches, puffed out his cheeks, pulled them in, licked his lips, scratched himself, protruded his tongue, twisted his bald head, rubbed it, craned it, tilted it, and occasionally fell on it.  Even in repose he was never still, loosely kneading his palms with his gnarled fingers, thumbs up, as though he were milking an invisible cow. And, of course, he talked to himself.

“How come you’re always talkin’ to yourself?” Buller asked him testily one day, coming upon the old man mumbling to himself.  Danny stroked his wire-haired chin reflectively.

“Fer two reasons,” he replied. “In the place, I likes to hear a smart man talk – an’ the second place, I likes to talk to a smart man! Yep, yep.”

In his way, Danny was one of the most articulate men who had lived since Shakespeare.  With a vocabulary limited to a few thousand words, a generous part of which was profanity, he nevertheless managed to communicate the most original ideas and subtlest emotions.  He was a natural master of the rhythm and nuances of speech.  He talked rapidly for the most part, constantly punctuating his words with his staccato and peculiarly expressive “yep-yep-yeps.” In short, Danny was a man of few words but he used them over and over.  He was also the poet laureate of invective.  He could inject more feeling into a single “goddam” than most poets could into an entire sonnet. He was a rustic genius, an illiterate spiritual offspring of Walt Whitman, an aging goat, a disorderly Pan, the last Adam, a one-man band. He was old Danny McGinnis of Hungry Hollow.

Danny never tired of telling the boys about his brief experiences as an iron miner. The miners had then toiled long hours each day. “Eleven hours of savage amusement!” he snorted. That was in the days before laborers grew soft and plaintive and began to think that perhaps eight hours might be long enough for men to remain out of the sun. He invested the few months he had spent “in the goddam bowels of the earth” with the dignity of a saga. He embellished his experiences until one marveled that he had survived. He had lived at a Cornish boardinghouse in Chippewa.

One of his favorite stories about his earthly and rugged Cornish mining mates was the “ ‘Anging of Jan Tregembo.”  Jan was the husband of his boarding-house lady. With Jan, fits of melancholia regularly supplemented fits of drinking. The Sunday pasty dinner – the proverbial Cornish meat and suet pie—was served, but no Jan appeared for dinner. He had spent a bad Saturday night. Long-suffering Mrs. Tregembo wearily dispatched Dicker Matthews, her star boarder, to go out and find her missing husband. After a spell Dicker returned and thoughtfully resumed eating his pasty. He seemed to have lost his appetite.

Mrs. Tregembo emerged from the kitchen and asked Dicker if he had searched for her spouse.

“Yes’m,” Dicker said, “Hi searched in the aout ‘ouse an’ in the bloody woodshed.”

“Did yew find un?” Mrs. Tregembo asked.

Dicker looked up at Mrs. Tregembo. “E’s ‘anging in the woodshed with a rope aroun’ ‘is neck.”

“Did yew cut’n down, Dicker?” Mrs. Tregembo inquired.

“Cut’n daown!” Dicker replied. “ ‘Ow could Hi cut’n daown? The bloody booger weren’t even dead yet!”

“Yep, yep, yep,” Danny usually concluded this account, “the Cousin Jacks is a mighty fine people—the greatest people on the face of the earth.  Yep, yep!”

But ‘Arry Penhale was Danny’s favorite Cornishman. ‘Arry was Danny’s working partner down in the mine. Along about midnight on the nightshift ‘Arry liked to slip secretly up the ladderway and scamper home and pay a brief visit to his young wife. The trick was not to get caught by the mining captian. In this way ‘Arry’s pay was not docked and the interlude made a fine break in the long evening’s toil. He would surely have been discharged had he been discovered.

One night ‘Arry had returned from his nocturnal visit quite thoughtful, if not downright depressed. This was contrary to experience, as he usually regaled Danny with the glowing details of his truancy. Danny pondered the problem. What had happened?

“C’mon, ol’ boy,” curious Danny finally said. “Buck up! What’s ailin’ you, lad? She mad at you?”

“Arry broke down and confessed. “W’en Hi got ‘ome, Hi tiptawed hup the bloody stairs, an’ guess wot?”

“What happened?” Danny brightly inquired, licking his lips in vicarious anticipation.

“Wot ‘appened! Would yew believe un—there was the captain of aour bloody mine in bed with Sarah,” ‘Arry replied in an awed voice.

“What did you do to the bastard!” Danny demanded, his hackle rising.

Do to ‘im!” ‘Arry replied. “Lucky me snuck right back daown the stairs an’ aout the side door – an’ so ‘elp me, Danny, Hi don’t think ‘e heven seen me!”

Buller Beaudin was born in Chippewa, of French-Canadian parentage. Until had had come to live with Danny he had spent most of his life around horses and livery stables. He was a tremendous hulk of a man, spendidly equipped with a set of appetites to match his bulk. There were those hapless persons who had dared to call him fat. Retribution had been violent and swift. For Buller was as strong and hard as a bloody bull. “All over this goddam Peninsula,” Danny said, “there’s men raomin’aroun’ on crutches, mumblin’ to theirselves an’ sleepin’ in depots an’ boxcars, what’s called Buller ‘Fatty’! Yep, yep.” His girth was so great that Danny disciplined the boys at Hungry Hollow by threatening to make them run around Buller ten times.

“Either that or run clear down to the Mulligan Creek an’ back! Take your bloody pick, now!” Danny would warn.

Slender little Timmy was of Cornish ancestry, with dark reddish hair and burning dark brown eyes. There was something indefinably genteel about him. Even dressed in his woods clothes he somehow managed to suggest an aristocratic courtier. In him there was more than a little trace of the Spanish invaders who had long ago overrun Cornwall. Danny used to chide Timmy about his refined and gentle nature – especially when he refused to join their Saturday night excursions to Big Annies’s. “The trouble with you, Timmy—hm—I’m damned if you ain’t afflicted awful with character! It’s horrible an’ torrible.”

Taconite was part German, part Indian, and according to Danny, part Norway pine. The man was gently mad about trees and wood-cutting. He would crouch on all fours to inhale the odor of the stump of a freshly cut tree. “Ain’t that a gran’ smell,” he’d sigh, an inordinate pleasure in small things. After he and Swan had cut acres of hardwood barehanded, raising great callouses, Danny finally relented and bought each of them a pair of buckskin mittens. Taconite proudly wore his all year round.

“Gee whiz, these is swell mitts,” he’d confide to the envious beholder. “they’s warm in winter an’ cool in summer. Gee whiz!”

Taconite had a large, pendulous goiter which gave his gobbling talk a breathless sort of quality. The night Danny presented the new mitts he stood closely watching Taconite as he postured before the little camp mirror, clapping the mittens delightedly before him. “That Taconite’s a mighty fine-lookin’ fella,” Danny mused aloud. “Yep, yep. He coulda been in moom-pitchers if his forehead wasn’t all used up by his hair.”

Swan Kellstrom had turned out to be a golden find for Hungry Hollow. It had developed that he was a marvelous cook. Sometime in his restless drifting about his native Minnesota he had been – among other things – a baker in Duluth. Though he hadn’t been in a bakery shop in years, Swan’s face and hair and general aspect somehow forever bore the dusty, floury look of a journeyman baker. A thin mist of falling flour seemed to surround him perpetually, like a halo. Swan insisted it was simply dandruff.

Swan was the lady-killer of Hungry Hollow. His nostrils flared and twitched if he saw a woman a block away. He had a horror of getting bald, despite his wild thatch of blond hair which, when it was uncurried, might have afforded refuge to a flock of carrier pigeons. He constantly shampooed his hair with all manner of soaps and toilet preparations and then reverently anointed it with various aromatic decoctions. He hung over the little camp radio avidly listening to the extravagant claims made for each new miracle shampoo and lotion. After washing his hair he sometimes resembled a blue-eyed Zulu. After perfuming and plastering it, Danny had a more pungent description for him.

“Swan, me lad,” he would often say, dolefully wagging his head, “I’m damned if you don’t smell exackly like one of Big Annie’s girls on Sat’day night! Yep, yep…”

An unspoken but basic requirement for admission to the Hollow seemed to be that one should not be gainfully employed nor posses any discernible ambition for any form of permanent toil. In theory Danny and the boys were supposed to take turns working in Chippewa when the funds ran low. But like many fine theories of men, its beauty lay in the wonder of its contemplation.

Danny was king, and the king couldn’t work, and besides he had stomach ulcers, which flared dangerously when any form of toil impended. In addition he had his hands full distilling his moonshine and bottling his home-brew and shooting an occasional deer. No, Danny was out. Timmy scornfully shunned the town, and somehow nobody cared or dared to press the point. Timmy just fished and trapped and sold his furs and kept the camp radio and wind charger going. During his leisure he got out a stub pencil and worked crossword puzzles. He knew the names of birds by heart.

Lovelorn Swan was a good and willing worker, but when he worked in town he had a grave tendency to leave all the money he earned at Big Annie’s – that is, the part he didn’t spend on the latest shampoos and lotions.  And besides, the boys needed him at home to bake bread and to cook. No, it was far better to keep Swan tethered at the Hollow and let him out only to cut firewood.

Taconite was childishly willing to work whenever and wherever he was told. But he always came home broke, even when he hadn’t been tossed into the Chippewa jail. The last time he’d been allowed to go to town and work, the Easter before, he had come back dead broke lugging a huge velvet rabbit.

“L-look,” he gobbled excitedly, proudly thursting the stuffed rabbit at Danny. “It on’y took me seven hours to win dis on Charlie’s punchboard. Hully gee, am I lucky!”

Danny stood uncertainly, holding the enormous rabbit as awkwardly as a father holding his first son. He blinked thoughtfully.

“Hm,” he said slowly, sparring for time. “Well. My, my! Jest what we need. Sure. Thinks I we’ll set this here rabbit down in the swamp fer a decoy. Yep, yep!”

“Gee, y-you think it’ll really work?” Taconite said eagerly.

“Hell’s fire,” Danny replied gently over his shoulder, carrying the rabbit out the door, swamp bound. “It’ll make the finest rabbit bait in the hull worl’! The other rabbits’ll come fer miles aroun’ an’ jest set an’ stare, dyin’ with envy. Then all you gotta do is sneak up an’ pick ‘em off while they’s settin’ there moonin’, like shootin’ fish in a rain barrel. Yep, yep, this here present was might fine of you, Tack. Mighty pracktical an’ mighty fine.”

Taconite’s eyes glowed. “Aw, gee whiz—thanks, Danny,” he breathed rapturously. “Dat’s swell. Hully gee!”

Buller was Hungry Hollow’s main economic hope. When he made up his mind to work he could move mountains. He could drive any horse on four legs, or carry it if the going got rough. He could do anything that involved a horse: shoe it, curry it, doctor it, bury it. Aging Wink Vivian, who ran the Chippewa dray, occasionally summoned him into town to relieve him. BUller nearly swooned with perverse pleasure when he could wrap his great arms about a piano.

There was one fly in the ointment. This fly—or rather the ointment—was dispensed under the trade name of Old Cordwood, the Peninsula’s favorite whisky—a fantastic blended firewater which gentler souls insisted was the by0product of an avaricious lye works. Buller could drink Old Cordwood as an elephant gulps water. After an interval, however, he would begin to trumpet and wander about like the same elephant looking for mischief. These Old Cordwood bouts generally landed him in the toils of Judge Williams, which usually meant a hurried financial sos to Hungry Hollow or Big Annie or Charlie Jokinen, the Finnish proprietor of Charlie’s Place. Sometimes it even meant an involuntary rest cure in the county jail at Iron Bay. Buller worked hard and played hard. When he could be coaxed into Chippewa to go to work, Danny and the boys would engage in meditation and silent prayer for days.

At times Danny and the boys grew vaguely uneasy over their freedom from regular toil. From boyhood on they had been taught to work, to regard it as a sort of social and moral obligation. They had been taught that they had been born to work; unfettered leisure was only the lot of drunkards and fools. When this strange feeling of unease, this curious sense of guilt, grew too oppressive, they usually resolved it by piling into the old Model A Ford which Timmy had miraculously contrived out of odds and ends of other Fords, and rattling into Chippewa for a celebration.

When little Matti Hunginen the Finn moved down from Nestoria and bought this new farm on the road between Chippewa and Hungry Hollow, he could not fathom why Danny and the boys were reluctant to help him with the fall harvest.

“W’at’s matter, you great big lazys!” Matti said. “Why you no help dat Matti wit dat hay an’ potato? You fellas not crippled. I pay you vell—Matti’s no seap-skate. Look, lazy-pones, if you come help it me maybe someday I vill give it you one fine milking cow. W’at you poys really need is fine big cow for dis place—not all dat time drink it moon’ine, moons’ine, moons’ine.”

The prospect of a cow for Hungry Hollow was not to be sneered at. Matti’s offer so disarmed the boys that they gladly went to his farm and stayed until all the fall crops were harvested. Even Danny went, flaring ulcers and all.

Reprinted from Danny and the Boys: Being Some Legends of Hungry Hollow by Robert Traver. Copyright © 1987 Wayne State University. Learn more about the book here at WSU Press.

Now accepting spoken-word poetry submissions!

Now accepting spoken-word poetry submissions!

Writers on Writing #1: John McNally

Writers on Writing #1: John McNally