Side Trail Story
Church Choir Willie was a master of the profane. His vocabulary was limited and thus the words that he used were few but they were, nonetheless, expressive. Quite expressive. He could singe the bark off a lodge pole pine and be into the wood grain before he finished the sentence. Only Nellie the Pig could match expletive for expletive but only when she was cursing her Methodist husband in some Lilliputian, Baptist town in Georgia where women, sharecroppers and neighbors’ daughters were only a step away from chains.
In a town where even the soiled doves didn’t use terms like goldangit, dadgumit and Goddammit, Church Choir Willie developed his own vocabulary. It was a unique blend of adjectives, verbs and nouns only he spoke and he spoke it frequently to himself because, most of the year, he was by himself. He had a job that made him as hard as nails. He was a hard man with a hard job in a hard land: he was a dog team freight carrier in winter where a good day was ten below.
Twice a week he would run the 200 miles from Lotsaluck to Holy Mission carrying whatever anyone wanted carried from here to there and yon. His primary customer was the United States Post Office which had no paid postmasters along that 200 miles of the Noonan Trail so, for better or worse and most often worse, Church Choir Willie was the man who picked up the mail, charged for the carriage and delivered the correspondence. He stored the postal revenue with – to his great disgust – the Episcopalian minister in Holy Mission who – to his great delight – was a reformed gambler from Virginia City who had taken an oath to never tell another lie then proceeded to tell stories so tall they blocked the sun. In a decade on the trail, Church Choir Willie could account for every penny of United States Post Office money.
Few were the people who used the Noonan Trail during the winter. There was great danger to being out and about and it was insanity to be off the trail for anything other than a privy stop. Wolves could be a problem but primarily for the dogs because the predators did not have a taste for human flesh. Besides, dogs did not come armed with double-ought buck. Bears were asleep, moose could be chased off the trail and bandits were enlodged for the winter. Only Church Choir Willie was a regular and the only person he met upon occasion was Father Albert. Father Albert was a-trail because he ministered to the faithful from Hootlani south to Lotsaluck – and only south. This was because Jabbertown, the first hamlet to the north of Hootlani was a scabrous community with no hope of redemption. It had two saloons owned by one man who wanted to be Governor of Alaska and kept writing the President of the United States for that appointment. He called himself a man of God, which he was, in the sense that in God he did trust and gathered as many certificates with that slogan as he could scheme, swindle and swipe.
Church Choir Willie had a unique relationship with Father Albert. Father Albert, being a man of the cross, was used to such men and looked for the gold beneath the verbal debauchery. The man of cloth had first met the man with the vocabulary several winters before the Winter of the Big Snow. Alone on the trail, Father Albert met Church Choir Willie coming from the other direction. Neither men knew each other at the time so Father Albert, in friendliness and not being familiar with Church Choir Willie or his unique language skills, asked about the condition of the trail over which Willie had just come.
“Why,” snapped Church Choir Willie, “it’s a $%^%hole of a *&^%9^4 with &*#)* and *&6%4# and a whole lot of &*(2*^%$ and *&^(^%$! How’s the trail what you just come on?”
“Oh,” replied Father Albert. “About the same.”
Another time, this one during the Winter of the Big Snow, Father Albert had been called to comfort a man in his final throes in Nuggetville, the community 30 miles immediately south of Hootlani. Father had made the deathbed just before the man died but had been forced to take his only mule because a dog sled was not available on such short notice. Father Albert was able to return to Hootlani because he could don a parka. The mule was not so lucky and succumbed along the trail. A day later Church Choir Willie found the mule. He built a fire, butchered the animal and then sold the carcass to Father Albert as moose.
Church Choir Willie did not get his name because had had been a singer in a church choir. Neither did the name came from anything that had to do with singing, an activity in which he did not partake when on the trail. Nor, for that matter, did it have to do with him being agreeable to popular ideas in a public setting, as in “preaching to the choir.” Rather, he acquired the nickname because of an off-hand remark he had made during a conversation about death. One of the men at the gaming table had wanted to be cremated because he could not stand the thought of being in the cold ground for eternity. Another said he wanted to be dumped in the ocean because he’d never even seen salt water. A third didn’t care where he was buried as long as he died quickly. Willie surprised the three by stating he wanted to be buried with his dogs. That was odd, said one of the men at the table, why? Because, snapped Willie, “there’s never been a hole they couldn’t get me out of.” Thereafter William Severson was called Church Choir Willie.
No one believed Willie to be stupid, as in so dumb he didn’t know the difference between skunks and alley cats. He wasn’t considered crazy either. Just different – and in Hootlani, a community where everyone was different, that was saying quite a bit. As an example of how different he was, when someone in Hootlani told a story, it was either true but embellished or just an out-and-out tall tale. But when Church Choir Willie told a story, it was never clear if it was either of these. It was usually off-subject, out of context or strange in the sense that it added information not called for. When the first shipment of dry goods came in on the Bella Ann with Harrison Sanderson III, there was nothing but talk about the boots from Portland.
Dry food was, well, just dry food, and beans were beans and flour was flour. But boots were a personal item. They came in different sizes, colors, styles, laced and pull-ones, embroidered or plain, a few for women and some for children. But for men there were boots for the snow, boots for mud, boots to wear when you never went out and boots to wear to church – if the wearer chose to go to church. Some boots had hard leather, some soft, some supple, some smelled new and others were just work boots with laces and thick waffle soled. Prices ranged from pretty cheap to expensive and Harrison Sanderson III had boots for anyone and everyone. The boots sold too, which was proof of the man’s uncanny ability to read his customers like a book.
Dave the Demon had bought a new pair of boots, a pair of walking-around-inside-to-look-successful, while Jakob Lefkowitz had a pair of outdoor mud boots. They were in Dave the Demon’s tavern, a tavern with no name and was just known as Dick’s as opposed to the Black Betty and the Muktuk. Only the Black Betty had a name plate. The Muktuk was so called because it was the only tavern that served the local Natives – secretly because sale of liquor to Indians or Eskimo was illegal but, as there was no representative of the law and order community in Hootlani, there was no one to enforce a law that no one agreed was a good one anyway.
Returning the story of boots, Dave the Demon and Jakob Lefkowitz were talking of their new boots when Church Choir joined them. Dave the Demon and Jakob Lefkowitz introduced Church Choir to their boots and then Dave the Demon suggested that Church Choir get a new pair of boots. After all, his had seen a lot of miles on the trail. Church Choir, known to be tight as a tick with his money, said that he was very happy with his boots as they’d seen him through many of mile on the trail. Why, he said, he’d been in his boots since ’96 and he was afraid to take them off or his feet might come off with the boots.
“’96?” said Lefkowitz. “That’s a bit ago. You bought your last pair of boots in ’96? What kind of boots did you have before these,” he said pointed at Church Choir’s feet in mock jest.
“Beautiful boots,” said Church Choir. “Soft and supple, fur on the inside. Paid for by the expedition that headed inland. They needed a guide and I was available. I got paid and got new boots.”
“How old were your old boots?” asked Dave the Demon.
“’bout five years, give or take,” said Church Choir as he pointed at his feet. “Still got ‘em.”
Dave the Demon and Jakob Lefkowitz looked at each other and then Dave the Demon said to Church Choir, “If those other boots were so good why didn’t you keep wearing them?”
“Best boots I ever ate,” replied Church Choir.