Part 1 out of 4
by Jack London (1876-1916)
It all came to me one election day. It was on a warm California
afternoon, and I had ridden down into the Valley of the Moon from
the ranch to the little village to vote Yes and No to a host of
proposed amendments to the Constitution of the State of
California. Because of the warmth of the day I had had several
drinks before casting my ballot, and divers drinks after casting
it. Then I had ridden up through the vine-clad hills and rolling
pastures of the ranch, and arrived at the farm-house in time for
another drink and supper.
"How did you vote on the suffrage amendment?" Charmian asked.
"I voted for it."
She uttered an exclamation of surprise. For, be it known, in my
younger days, despite my ardent democracy, I had been opposed to
woman suffrage. In my later and more tolerant years I had been
unenthusiastic in my acceptance of it as an inevitable social
"Now just why did you vote for it?" Charmian asked.
I answered. I answered at length. I answered indignantly. The
more I answered, the more indignant I became. (No; I was not
drunk. The horse I had ridden was well named "The Outlaw." I'd
like to see any drunken man ride her.)
And yet--how shall I say?--I was lighted up, I was feeling "good,"
I was pleasantly jingled.
"When the women get the ballot, they will vote for prohibition," I
said. "It is the wives, and sisters, and mothers, and they only,
who will drive the nails into the coffin of John Barleycorn----"
"But I thought you were a friend to John Barleycorn," Charmian
"I am. I was. I am not. I never am. I am never less his friend
than when he is with me and when I seem most his friend. He is
the king of liars. He is the frankest truthsayer. He is the
august companion with whom one walks with the gods. He is also in
league with the Noseless One. His way leads to truth naked, and
to death. He gives clear vision, and muddy dreams. He is the
enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life's wisdom. He
is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth."
And Charmian looked at me, and I knew she wondered where I had got
I continued to talk. As I say, I was lighted up. In my brain
every thought was at home. Every thought, in its little cell,
crouched ready-dressed at the door, like prisoners at midnight a
jail-break. And every thought was a vision, bright-imaged, sharp-
cut, unmistakable. My brain was illuminated by the clear, white
light of alcohol. John Barleycorn was on a truth-telling rampage,
giving away the choicest secrets on himself. And I was his
spokesman. There moved the multitudes of memories of my past
life, all orderly arranged like soldiers in some vast review. It
was mine to pick and choose. I was a lord of thought, the master
of my vocabulary and of the totality of my experience, unerringly
capable of selecting my data and building my exposition. For so
John Barleycorn tricks and lures, setting the maggots of
intelligence gnawing, whispering his fatal intuitions of truth,
flinging purple passages into the monotony of one's days.
I outlined my life to Charmian, and expounded the make-up of my
constitution. I was no hereditary alcoholic. I had been born
with no organic, chemical predisposition toward alcohol. In this
matter I was normal in my generation. Alcohol was an acquired
taste. It had been painfully acquired. Alcohol had been a
dreadfully repugnant thing--more nauseous than any physic. Even
now I did not like the taste of it. I drank it only for its
"kick." And from the age of five to that of twenty-five I had not
learned to care for its kick. Twenty years of unwilling
apprenticeship had been required to make my system rebelliously
tolerant of alcohol, to make me, in the heart and the deeps of me,
desirous of alcohol.
I sketched my first contacts with alcohol, told of my first
intoxications and revulsions, and pointed out always the one thing
that in the end had won me over--namely, the accessibility of
alcohol. Not only had it always been accessible, but every
interest of my developing life had drawn me to it. A newsboy on
the streets, a sailor, a miner, a wanderer in far lands, always
where men came together to exchange ideas, to laugh and boast and
dare, to relax, to forget the dull toil of tiresome nights and
days, always they came together over alcohol. The saloon was the
place of congregation. Men gathered to it as primitive men
gathered about the fire of the squatting place or the fire at the
mouth of the cave.
I reminded Charmian of the canoe houses from which she had been
barred in the South Pacific, where the kinky-haired cannibals
escaped from their womenkind and feasted and drank by themselves,
the sacred precincts taboo to women under pain of death. As a
youth, by way of the saloon I had escaped from the narrowness of
woman's influence into the wide free world of men. All ways led
to the saloon. The thousand roads of romance and adventure drew
together in the saloon, and thence led out and on over the world.
"The point is," I concluded my sermon, "that it is the
accessibility of alcohol that has given me my taste for alcohol.
I did not care for it. I used to laugh at it. Yet here I am, at
the last, possessed with the drinker's desire. It took twenty
years to implant that desire; and for ten years more that desire
has grown. And the effect of satisfying that desire is anything
but good. Temperamentally I am wholesome-hearted and merry. Yet
when I walk with John Barleycorn I suffer all the damnation of
"But," I hastened to add (I always hasten to add), "John
Barleycorn must have his due. He does tell the truth. That is
the curse of it. The so-called truths of life are not true. They
are the vital lies by which life lives, and John Barleycorn gives
them the lie."
"Which does not make toward life," Charmian said.
"Very true," I answered. "And that is the perfectest hell of it.
John Barleycorn makes toward death. That is why I voted for the
amendment to-day. I read back in my life and saw how the
accessibility of alcohol had given me the taste for it. You see,
comparatively few alcoholics are born in a generation. And by
alcoholic I mean a man whose chemistry craves alcohol and drives
him resistlessly to it. The great majority of habitual drinkers
are born not only without desire for alcohol, but with actual
repugnance toward it. Not the first, nor the twentieth, nor the
hundredth drink, succeeded in giving them the liking. But they
learned, just as men learn to smoke; though it is far easier to
learn to smoke than to learn to drink. They learned because
alcohol was so accessible. The women know the game. They pay for
it--the wives and sisters and mothers. And when they come to
vote, they will vote for prohibition. And the best of it is that
there will be no hardship worked on the coming generation. Not
having access to alcohol, not being predisposed toward alcohol, it
will never miss alcohol. It will mean life more abundant for the
manhood of the young boys born and growing up--ay, and life more
abundant for the young girls born and growing up to share the
lives of the young men."
"Why not write all this up for the sake of the men and women
coming?" Charmian asked. "Why not write it so as to help the
wives and sisters and mothers to the way they should vote?"
"The 'Memoirs of an Alcoholic,'" I sneered--or, rather, John
Barleycorn sneered; for he sat with me there at table in my
pleasant, philanthropic jingle, and it is a trick of John
Barleycorn to turn the smile to a sneer without an instant's
"No," said Charmian, ignoring John Barleycorn's roughness, as so
many women have learned to do. "You have shown yourself no
alcoholic, no dipsomaniac, but merely an habitual drinker, one who
has made John Barleycorn's acquaintance through long years of
rubbing shoulders with him. Write it up and call it 'Alcoholic
And, ere I begin, I must ask the reader to walk with me in all
sympathy; and, since sympathy is merely understanding, begin by
understanding me and whom and what I write about. In the first
place, I am a seasoned drinker. I have no constitutional
predisposition for alcohol. I am not stupid. I am not a swine.
I know the drinking game from A to Z, and I have used my judgment
in drinking. I never have to be put to bed. Nor do I stagger.
In short, I am a normal, average man; and I drink in the normal,
average way, as drinking goes. And this is the very point: I am
writing of the effects of alcohol on the normal, average man. I
have no word to say for or about the microscopically unimportant
excessivist, the dipsomaniac.
There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the
man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten
numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread,
tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in
the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is
the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.
The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most
pleasantly jingled, he walks straight and naturally, never
staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is
doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken. He may
bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship. Or he may see
intellectual spectres and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and
that take the forms of syllogisms. It is when in this condition
that he strips away the husks of life's healthiest illusions and
gravely considers the iron collar of necessity welded about the
neck of his soul. This is the hour of John Barleycorn's subtlest
power. It is easy for any man to roll in the gutter. But it is a
terrible ordeal for a man to stand upright on his two legs
unswaying, and decide that in all the universe he finds for
himself but one freedom--namely, the anticipating of the day of
his death. With this man this is the hour of the white logic (of
which more anon), when he knows that he may know only the laws of
things--the meaning of things never. This is his danger hour.
His feet are taking hold of the pathway that leads down into the
All is clear to him. All these baffling head-reaches after
immortality are but the panics of souls frightened by the fear of
death, and cursed with the thrice-cursed gift of imagination.
They have not the instinct for death; they lack the will to die
when the time to die is at hand. They trick themselves into
believing they will outwit the game and win to a future, leaving
the other animals to the darkness of the grave or the annihilating
heats of the crematory. But he, this man in the hour of his white
logic, knows that they trick and outwit themselves. The one event
happeneth to all alike. There is no new thing under the sun, not
even that yearned-for bauble of feeble souls--immortality. But he
knows, HE knows, standing upright on his two legs unswaying. He
is compounded of meat and wine and sparkle, of sun-mote and world-
dust, a frail mechanism made to run for a span, to be tinkered at
by doctors of divinity and doctors of physic, and to be flung into
the scrap-heap at the end.
Of course, all this is soul-sickness, life-sickness. It is the
penalty the imaginative man must pay for his friendship with John
Barleycorn. The penalty paid by the stupid man is simpler,
easier. He drinks himself into sottish unconsciousness. He
sleeps a drugged sleep, and, if he dream, his dreams are dim and
inarticulate. But to the imaginative man, John Barleycorn sends
the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic. He looks
upon life and all its affairs with the jaundiced eye of a
pessimistic German philosopher. He sees through all illusions.
He transvalues all values. Good is bad, truth is a cheat, and
life is a joke. From his calm-mad heights, with the certitude of
a god, he beholds all life as evil. Wife, children, friends--in
the clear, white light of his logic they are exposed as frauds and
shams. He sees through them, and all that he sees is their
frailty, their meagreness, their sordidness, their pitifulness.
No longer do they fool him. They are miserable little egotisms,
like all the other little humans, fluttering their May-fly life-
dance of an hour. They are without freedom. They are puppets of
chance. So is he. He realises that. But there is one
difference. He sees; he knows. And he knows his one freedom: he
may anticipate the day of his death. All of which is not good for
a man who is made to live and love and be loved. Yet suicide,
quick or slow, a sudden spill or a gradual oozing away through the
years, is the price John Barleycorn exacts. No friend of his ever
escapes making the just, due payment.
I was five years old the first time I got drunk. It was on a hot
day, and my father was ploughing in the field. I was sent from
the house, half a mile away, to carry to him a pail of beer. "And
be sure you don't spill it," was the parting injunction.
It was, as I remember it, a lard pail, very wide across the top,
and without a cover. As I toddled along, the beer slopped over
the rim upon my legs. And as I toddled, I pondered. Beer was a
very precious thing. Come to think of it, it must be wonderfully
good. Else why was I never permitted to drink of it in the house?
Other things kept from me by the grown-ups I had found good. Then
this, too, was good. Trust the grown-ups. They knew. And,
anyway, the pail was too full. I was slopping it against my legs
and spilling it on the ground. Why waste it? And no one would
know whether I had drunk or spilled it.
I was so small that, in order to negotiate the pail, I sat down
and gathered it into my lap. First I sipped the foam. I was
disappointed. The preciousness evaded me. Evidently it did not
reside in the foam. Besides, the taste was not good. Then I
remembered seeing the grown-ups blow the foam away before they
drank. I buried my face in the foam and lapped the solid liquid
beneath. It wasn't good at all. But still I drank. The grown-
ups knew what they were about. Considering my diminutiveness, the
size of the pail in my lap, and my drinking out of it my breath
held and my face buried to the ears in foam, it was rather
difficult to estimate how much I drank. Also, I was gulping it
down like medicine, in nauseous haste to get the ordeal over.
I shuddered when I started on, and decided that the good taste
would come afterward. I tried several times more in the course of
that long half-mile. Then, astounded by the quantity of beer that
was lacking, and remembering having seen stale beer made to foam
afresh, I took a stick and stirred what was left till it foamed to
And my father never noticed. He emptied the pail with the wide
thirst of the sweating ploughman, returned it to me, and started
up the plough. I endeavoured to walk beside the horses. I
remember tottering and falling against their heels in front of the
shining share, and that my father hauled back on the lines so
violently that the horses nearly sat down on me. He told me
afterward that it was by only a matter of inches that I escaped
disembowelling. Vaguely, too, I remember, my father carried me in
his arms to the trees on the edge of the field, while all the
world reeled and swung about me, and I was aware of deadly nausea
mingled with an appalling conviction of sin.
I slept the afternoon away under the trees, and when my father
roused me at sundown it was a very sick little boy that got up and
dragged wearily homeward. I was exhausted, oppressed by the
weight of my limbs, and in my stomach was a harp-like vibrating
that extended to my throat and brain. My condition was like that
of one who had gone through a battle with poison. In truth, I had
In the weeks and months that followed I had no more interest in
beer than in the kitchen stove after it had burned me. The grown-
ups were right. Beer was not for children. The grown-ups didn't
mind it; but neither did they mind taking pills and castor oil.
As for me, I could manage to get along quite well without beer.
Yes, and to the day of my death I could have managed to get along
quite well without it. But circumstance decreed otherwise. At
every turn in the world in which I lived, John Barleycorn
beckoned. There was no escaping him. All paths led to him. And
it took twenty years of contact, of exchanging greetings and
passing on with my tongue in my cheek, to develop in me a sneaking
liking for the rascal.
My next bout with John Barleycorn occurred when I was seven. This
time my imagination was at fault, and I was frightened into the
encounter. Still farming, my family had moved to a ranch on the
bleak sad coast of San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. It
was a wild, primitive countryside in those days; and often I heard
my mother pride herself that we were old American stock and not
immigrant Irish and Italians like our neighbours. In all our
section there was only one other old American family.
One Sunday morning found me, how or why I cannot now remember, at
the Morrisey ranch. A number of young people had gathered there
from the nearer ranches. Besides, the oldsters had been there,
drinking since early dawn, and, some of them, since the night
before. The Morriseys were a huge breed, and there were many
strapping great sons and uncles, heavy-booted, big-fisted, rough-
Suddenly there were screams from the girls and cries of "Fight!"
There was a rush. Men hurled themselves out of the kitchen. Two
giants, flush-faced, with greying hair, were locked in each
other's arms. One was Black Matt, who, everybody said, had killed
two men in his time. The women screamed softly, crossed
themselves, or prayed brokenly, hiding their eyes and peeping
through their fingers. But not I. It is a fair presumption that
I was the most interested spectator. Maybe I would see that
wonderful thing, a man killed. Anyway, I would see a man-fight.
Great was my disappointment. Black Matt and Tom Morrisey merely
held on to each other and lifted their clumsy-booted feet in what
seemed a grotesque, elephantine dance. They were too drunk to
fight. Then the peacemakers got hold of them and led them back to
cement the new friendship in the kitchen.
Soon they were all talking at once, rumbling and roaring as big-
chested open-air men will, when whisky has whipped their
taciturnity. And I, a little shaver of seven, my heart in my
mouth, my trembling body strung tense as a deer's on the verge of
flight, peered wonderingly in at the open door and learned more of
the strangeness of men. And I marvelled at Black Matt and Tom
Morrisey, sprawled over the table, arms about each other's necks,
The kitchen-drinking continued, and the girls outside grew
timorous. They knew the drink game, and all were certain that
something terrible was going to happen. They protested that they
did not wish to be there when it happened, and some one suggested
going to a big Italian rancho four miles away, where they could
get up a dance. Immediately they paired off, lad and lassie, and
started down the sandy road. And each lad walked with his
sweetheart--trust a child of seven to listen and to know the love-
affairs of his countryside. And behold, I, too, was a lad with a
lassie. A little Irish girl of my own age had been paired off
with me. We were the only children in this spontaneous affair.
Perhaps the oldest couple might have been twenty. There were
chits of girls, quite grown up, of fourteen and sixteen, walking
with their fellows. But we were uniquely young, this little Irish
girl and I, and we walked hand in hand, and, sometimes, under the
tutelage of our elders, with my arm around her waist. Only that
wasn't comfortable. And I was very proud, on that bright Sunday
morning, going down the long bleak road among the sandhills. I,
too, had my girl, and was a little man.
The Italian rancho was a bachelor establishment. Our visit was
hailed with delight. The red wine was poured in tumblers for all,
and the long dining-room was partly cleared for dancing. And the
young fellows drank and danced with the girls to the strains of an
accordion. To me that music was divine. I had never heard
anything so glorious. The young Italian who furnished it would
even get up and dance, his arms around his girl, playing the
accordion behind her back. All of which was very wonderful for
me, who did not dance, but who sat at a table and gazed wide-eyed
at the amazingness of life. I was only a little lad, and there
was so much of life for me to learn. As the time passed, the
Irish lads began helping themselves to the wine, and jollity and
high spirits reigned. I noted that some of them staggered and
fell down in the dances, and that one had gone to sleep in a
corner. Also, some of the girls were complaining, and wanting to
leave, and others of the girls were titteringly complacent,
willing for anything to happen.
When our Italian hosts had offered me wine in a general sort of
way, I had declined. My beer experience had been enough for me,
and I had no inclination to traffic further in the stuff, or in
anything related to it. Unfortunately, one young Italian, Peter,
an impish soul, seeing me sitting solitary, stirred by a whim of
the moment, half-filled a tumbler with wine and passed it to me.
He was sitting across the table from me. I declined. His face
grew stern, and he insistently proffered the wine. And then
terror descended upon me--a terror which I must explain.
My mother had theories. First, she steadfastly maintained that
brunettes and all the tribe of dark-eyed humans were deceitful.
Needless to say, my mother was a blonde. Next, she was convinced
that the dark-eyed Latin races were profoundly sensitive,
profoundly treacherous, and profoundly murderous. Again and
again, drinking in the strangeness and the fearsomeness of the
world from her lips, I had heard her state that if one offended an
Italian, no matter how slightly and unintentionally, he was
certain to retaliate by stabbing one in the back. That was her
particular phrase--"stab you in the back."
Now, although I had been eager to see Black Matt kill Tom Morrisey
that morning, I did not care to furnish to the dancers the
spectacle of a knife sticking in my back. I had not yet learned
to distinguish between facts and theories. My faith was implicit
in my mother's exposition of the Italian character. Besides, I
had some glimmering inkling of the sacredness of hospitality.
Here was a treacherous, sensitive, murderous Italian, offering me
hospitality. I had been taught to believe that if I offended him
he would strike at me with a knife precisely as a horse kicked out
when one got too close to its heels and worried it. Then, too,
this Italian, Peter, had those terrible black eyes I had heard my
mother talk about. They were eyes different from the eyes I knew,
from the blues and greys and hazels of my own family, from the
pale and genial blues of the Irish. Perhaps Peter had had a few
drinks. At any rate, his eyes were brilliantly black and
sparkling with devilry. They were the mysterious, the unknown,
and who was I, a seven-year-old, to analyse them and know their
prankishness? In them I visioned sudden death, and I declined the
wine half-heartedly. The expression in his eyes changed. They
grew stern and imperious as he shoved the tumbler of wine closer.
What could I do? I have faced real death since in my life, but
never have I known the fear of death as I knew it then. I put the
glass to my lips, and Peter's eyes relented. I knew he would not
kill me just then. That was a relief. But the wine was not. It
was cheap, new wine, bitter and sour, made of the leavings and
scrapings of the vineyards and the vats, and it tasted far worse
than beer. There is only one way to take medicine, and that is to
take it. And that is the way I took that wine. I threw my head
back and gulped it down. I had to gulp again and hold the poison
down, for poison it was to my child's tissues and membranes.
Looking back now, I can realise that Peter was astounded. He
half-filled a second tumbler and shoved it across the table.
Frozen with fear, in despair at the fate which had befallen me, I
gulped the second glass down like the first. This was too much
for Peter. He must share the infant prodigy he had discovered.
He called Dominick, a young moustached Italian, to see the sight.
This time it was a full tumbler that was given me. One will do
anything to live. I gripped myself, mastered the qualms that rose
in my throat, and downed the stuff.
Dominick had never seen an infant of such heroic calibre. Twice
again he refilled the tumbler, each time to the brim, and watched
it disappear down my throat. By this time my exploits were
attracting attention. Middle-aged Italian labourers, old-country
peasants who did not talk English, and who could not dance with
the Irish girls, surrounded me. They were swarthy and wild-
looking; they wore belts and red shirts; and I knew they carried
knives; and they ringed me around like a pirate chorus. And Peter
and Dominick made me show off for them.
Had I lacked imagination, had I been stupid, had I been stubbornly
mulish in having my own way, I should never have got in this
pickle. And the lads and lassies were dancing, and there was no
one to save me from my fate. How much I drank I do not know. My
memory of it is of an age-long suffering of fear in the midst of a
murderous crew, and of an infinite number of glasses of red wine
passing across the bare boards of a wine-drenched table and going
down my burning throat. Bad as the wine was, a knife in the back
was worse, and I must survive at any cost.
Looking back with the drinker's knowledge, I know now why I did
not collapse stupefied upon the table. As I have said, I was
frozen, I was paralysed, with fear. The only movement I made was
to convey that never-ending procession of glasses to my lips. I
was a poised and motionless receptacle for all that quantity of
wine. It lay inert in my fear-inert stomach. I was too
frightened, even, for my stomach to turn. So all that Italian
crew looked on and marvelled at the infant phenomenon that downed
wine with the sang-froid of an automaton. It is not in the spirit
of braggadocio that I dare to assert they had never seen anything
The time came to go. The tipsy antics of the lads had led a
majority of the soberer-minded lassies to compel a departure. I
found myself, at the door, beside my little maiden. She had not
had my experience, so she was sober. She was fascinated by the
titubations of the lads who strove to walk beside their girls, and
began to mimic them. I thought this a great game, and I, too,
began to stagger tipsily. But she had no wine to stir up, while
my movements quickly set the fumes rising to my head. Even at the
start, I was more realistic than she. In several minutes I was
astonishing myself. I saw one lad, after reeling half a dozen
steps, pause at the side of the road, gravely peer into the ditch,
and gravely, and after apparent deep thought, fall into it. To me
this was excruciatingly funny. I staggered to the edge of the
ditch, fully intending to stop on the edge. I came to myself, in
the ditch, in process of being hauled out by several anxious-faced
I didn't care to play at being drunk any more. There was no more
fun in me. My eyes were beginning to swim, and with wide-open
mouth I panted for air. A girl led me by the hand on either side,
but my legs were leaden. The alcohol I had drunk was striking my
heart and brain like a club. Had I been a weakling of a child, I
am confident that it would have killed me. As it was, I know I
was nearer death than any of the scared girls dreamed. I could
hear them bickering among themselves as to whose fault it was;
some were weeping--for themselves, for me, and for the disgraceful
way their lads had behaved. But I was not interested. I was
suffocating, and I wanted air. To move was agony. It made me
pant harder. Yet those girls persisted in making me walk, and it
was four miles home. Four miles! I remember my swimming eyes saw
a small bridge across the road an infinite distance away. In
fact, it was not a hundred feet distant. When I reached it, I
sank down and lay on my back panting. The girls tried to lift me,
but I was helpless and suffocating. Their cries of alarm brought
Larry, a drunken youth of seventeen, who proceeded to resuscitate
me by jumping on my chest. Dimly I remember this, and the
squalling of the girls as they struggled with him and dragged him
away. And then I knew nothing, though I learned afterward that
Larry wound up under the bridge and spent the night there.
When I came to, it was dark. I had been carried unconscious for
four miles and been put to bed. I was a sick child, and, despite
the terrible strain on my heart and tissues, I continually
relapsed into the madness of delirium. All the contents of the
terrible and horrible in my child's mind spilled out. The most
frightful visions were realities to me. I saw murders committed,
and I was pursued by murderers. I screamed and raved and fought.
My sufferings were prodigious. Emerging from such delirium, I
would hear my mother's voice: "But the child's brain. He will
lose his reason." And sinking back into delirium, I would take the
idea with me and be immured in madhouses, and be beaten by
keepers, and surrounded by screeching lunatics.
One thing that had strongly impressed my young mind was the talk
of my elders about the dens of iniquity in San Francisco's
Chinatown. In my delirium I wandered deep beneath the ground
through a thousand of these dens, and behind locked doors of iron
I suffered and died a thousand deaths. And when I would come upon
my father, seated at table in these subterranean crypts, gambling
with Chinese for great stakes of gold, all my outrage gave vent in
the vilest cursing. I would rise in bed, struggling against the
detaining hands, and curse my father till the rafters rang. All
the inconceivable filth a child running at large in a primitive
countryside may hear men utter was mine; and though I had never
dared utter such oaths, they now poured from me, at the top of my
lungs, as I cursed my father sitting there underground and
gambling with long-haired, long-nailed Chinamen.
It is a wonder that I did not burst my heart or brain that night.
A seven-year-old child's arteries and nerve-centres are scarcely
fitted to endure the terrific paroxysms that convulsed me. No one
slept in the thin, frame farm-house that night when John
Barleycorn had his will of me. And Larry, under the bridge, had
no delirium like mine. I am confident that his sleep was
stupefied and dreamless, and that he awoke next day merely to
heaviness and moroseness, and that if he lives to-day he does not
remember that night, so passing was it as an incident. But my
brain was seared for ever by that experience. Writing now, thirty
years afterward, every vision is as distinct, as sharp-cut, every
pain as vital and terrible, as on that night.
I was sick for days afterward, and I needed none of my mother's
injunctions to avoid John Barleycorn in the future. My mother had
been dreadfully shocked. She held that I had done wrong, very
wrong, and that I had gone contrary to all her teaching. And how
was I, who was never allowed to talk back, who lacked the very
words with which to express my psychology--how was I to tell my
mother that it was her teaching that was directly responsible for
my drunkenness? Had it not been for her theories about dark eyes
and Italian character, I should never have wet my lips with the
sour, bitter wine. And not until man-grown did I tell her the
true inwardness of that disgraceful affair.
In those after days of sickness, I was confused on some points,
and very clear on others. I felt guilty of sin, yet smarted with
a sense of injustice. It had not been my fault, yet I had done
wrong. But very clear was my resolution never to touch liquor
again. No mad dog was ever more afraid of water than was I of
Yet the point I am making is that this experience, terrible as it
was, could not in the end deter me from forming John Barleycorn's
cheek-by-jowl acquaintance. All about me, even then, were the
forces moving me toward him. In the first place, barring my
mother, ever extreme in her views, it seemed to me all the grown-
ups looked upon the affair with tolerant eyes. It was a joke,
something funny that had happened. There was no shame attached.
Even the lads and lassies giggled and snickered over their part in
the affair, narrating with gusto how Larry had jumped on my chest
and slept under the bridge, how So-and-So had slept out in the
sandhills that night, and what had happened to the other lad who
fell in the ditch. As I say, so far as I could see, there was no
shame anywhere. It had been something ticklishly, devilishly
fine--a bright and gorgeous episode in the monotony of life and
labour on that bleak, fog-girt coast.
The Irish ranchers twitted me good-naturedly on my exploit, and
patted me on the back until I felt that I had done something
heroic. Peter and Dominick and the other Italians were proud of
my drinking prowess. The face of morality was not set against
drinking. Besides, everybody drank. There was not a teetotaler
in the community. Even the teacher of our little country school,
a greying man of fifty, gave us vacations on the occasions when he
wrestled with John Barleycorn and was thrown. Thus there was no
spiritual deterrence. My loathing for alcohol was purely
physiological. I didn't like the damned stuff.
This physical loathing for alcohol I have never got over. But I
have conquered it. To this day I conquer it every time I take a
drink. The palate never ceases to rebel, and the palate can be
trusted to know what is good for the body. But men do not drink
for the effect alcohol produces on the body. What they drink for
is the brain-effect; and if it must come through the body, so much
the worse for the body.
And yet, despite my physical loathing for alcohol, the brightest
spots in my child life were the saloons. Sitting on the heavy
potato wagons, wrapped in fog, feet stinging from inactivity, the
horses plodding slowly along the deep road through the sandhills,
one bright vision made the way never too long. The bright vision
was the saloon at Colma, where my father, or whoever drove, always
got out to get a drink. And I got out to warm by the great stove
and get a soda cracker. Just one soda cracker, but a fabulous
luxury. Saloons were good for something. Back behind the
plodding horses, I would take an hour in consuming that one
cracker. I took the smallest nibbles, never losing a crumb, and
chewed the nibble till it became the thinnest and most delectable
of pastes. I never voluntarily swallowed this paste. I just
tasted it, and went on tasting it, turning it over with my tongue,
spreading it on the inside of this cheek, then on the inside of
the other cheek, until, at the end, it eluded me and in tiny drops
and oozelets, slipped and dribbled down my throat. Horace
Fletcher had nothing on me when it came to soda crackers.
I liked saloons. Especially I liked the San Francisco saloons.
They had the most delicious dainties for the taking--strange
breads and crackers, cheeses, sausages, sardines--wonderful foods
that I never saw on our meagre home-table. And once, I remember,
a barkeeper mixed me a sweet temperance drink of syrup and soda-
water. My father did not pay for it. It was the barkeeper's
treat, and he became my ideal of a good, kind man. I dreamed day-
dreams of him for years. Although I was seven years old at the
time, I can see him now with undiminished clearness, though I
never laid eyes on him but that one time. The saloon was south of
Market Street in San Francisco. It stood on the west side of the
street. As you entered, the bar was on the left. On the right,
against the wall, was the free lunch counter. It was a long,
narrow room, and at the rear, beyond the beer kegs on tap, were
small, round tables and chairs. The barkeeper was blue-eyed, and
had fair, silky hair peeping out from under a black silk skull-
cap. I remember he wore a brown Cardigan jacket, and I know
precisely the spot, in the midst of the array of bottles, from
which he took the bottle of red-coloured syrup. He and my father
talked long, and I sipped my sweet drink and worshipped him. And
for years afterward I worshipped the memory of him.
Despite my two disastrous experiences, here was John Barleycorn,
prevalent and accessible everywhere in the community, luring and
drawing me. Here were connotations of the saloon making deep
indentations in a child's mind. Here was a child, forming its
first judgments of the world, finding the saloon a delightful and
desirable place. Stores, nor public buildings, nor all the
dwellings of men ever opened their doors to me and let me warm by
their fires or permitted me to eat the food of the gods from
narrow shelves against the wall. Their doors were ever closed to
me; the saloon's doors were ever open. And always and everywhere
I found saloons, on highway and byway, up narrow alleys and on
busy thoroughfares, bright-lighted and cheerful, warm in winter,
and in summer dark and cool. Yes, the saloon was a mighty fine
place, and it was more than that.
By the time I was ten years old, my family had abandoned ranching
and gone to live in the city. And here, at ten, I began on the
streets as a newsboy. One of the reasons for this was that we
needed the money. Another reason was that I needed the exercise.
I had found my way to the free public library, and was reading
myself into nervous prostration. On the poor ranches on which I
had lived there had been no books. In ways truly miraculous, I
had been lent four books, marvellous books, and them I had
devoured. One was the life of Garfield; the second, Paul du
Chaillu's African travels; the third, a novel by Ouida with the
last forty pages missing; and the fourth, Irving's "Alhambra."
This last had been lent me by a school-teacher. I was not a
forward child. Unlike Oliver Twist, I was incapable of asking for
more. When I returned the "Alhambra" to the teacher I hoped she
would lend me another book. And because she did not--most likely
she deemed me unappreciative--I cried all the way home on the
three-mile tramp from the school to the ranch. I waited and
yearned for her to lend me another book. Scores of times I nerved
myself almost to the point of asking her, but never quite reached
the necessary pitch of effrontery.
And then came the city of Oakland, and on the shelves of that free
library I discovered all the great world beyond the skyline. Here
were thousands of books as good as my four wonder-books, and some
were even better. Libraries were not concerned with children in
those days, and I had strange adventures. I remember, in the
catalogue, being impressed by the title, "The Adventures of
Peregrine Pickle." I filled an application blank and the librarian
handed me the collected and entirely unexpurgated works of
Smollett in one huge volume. I read everything, but principally
history and adventure, and all the old travels and voyages. I
read mornings, afternoons, and nights. I read in bed, I read at
table, I read as I walked to and from school, and I read at recess
while the other boys were playing. I began to get the "jerks." To
everybody I replied: "Go away. You make me nervous."
And so, at ten, I was out on the streets, a newsboy. I had no
time to read. I was busy getting exercise and learning how to
fight, busy learning forwardness, and brass and bluff. I had an
imagination and a curiosity about all things that made me plastic.
Not least among the things I was curious about was the saloon.
And I was in and out of many a one. I remember, in those days, on
the east side of Broadway, between Sixth and Seventh, from corner
to corner, there was a solid block of saloons.
In the saloons life was different. Men talked with great voices,
laughed great laughs, and there was an atmosphere of greatness.
Here was something more than common every-day where nothing
happened. Here life was always very live, and, sometimes, even
lurid, when blows were struck, and blood was shed, and big
policemen came shouldering in. Great moments, these, for me, my
head filled with all the wild and valiant fighting of the gallant
adventurers on sea and land. There were no big moments when I
trudged along the street throwing my papers in at doors. But in
the saloons, even the sots, stupefied, sprawling across the tables
or in the sawdust, were objects of mystery and wonder.
And more, the saloons were right. The city fathers sanctioned
them and licensed them. They were not the terrible places I heard
boys deem them who lacked my opportunities to know. Terrible they
might be, but then that only meant they were terribly wonderful,
and it is the terribly wonderful that a boy desires to know. In
the same way pirates, and shipwrecks, and battles were terrible;
and what healthy boy wouldn't give his immortal soul to
participate in such affairs?
Besides, in saloons I saw reporters, editors, lawyers, judges,
whose names and faces I knew. They put the seal of social
approval on the saloon. They verified my own feeling of
fascination in the saloon. They, too, must have found there that
something different, that something beyond, which I sensed and
groped after. What it was, I did not know; yet there it must be,
for there men focused like buzzing flies about a honey pot. I had
no sorrows, and the world was very bright, so I could not guess
that what these men sought was forgetfulness of jaded toil and
Not that I drank at that time. From ten to fifteen I rarely
tasted liquor, but I was intimately in contact with drinkers and
drinking places. The only reason I did not drink was because I
didn't like the stuff. As the time passed, I worked as boy-helper
on an ice-wagon, set up pins in a bowling alley with a saloon
attached, and swept out saloons at Sunday picnic grounds.
Big jovial Josie Harper ran a road house at Telegraph Avenue and
Thirty-ninth Street. Here for a year I delivered an evening
paper, until my route was changed to the water-front and
tenderloin of Oakland. The first month, when I collected Josie
Harper's bill, she poured me a glass of wine. I was ashamed to
refuse, so I drank it. But after that I watched the chance when
she wasn't around so as to collect from her barkeeper.
The first day I worked in the bowling alley, the barkeeper,
according to custom, called us boys up to have a drink after we
had been setting up pins for several hours. The others asked for
beer. I said I'd take ginger ale. The boys snickered, and I
noticed the barkeeper favoured me with a strange, searching
scrutiny. Nevertheless, he opened a bottle of ginger ale.
Afterward, back in the alleys, in the pauses between games, the
boys enlightened me. I had offended the barkeeper. A bottle of
ginger ale cost the saloon ever so much more than a glass of steam
beer; and it was up to me, if I wanted to hold my job, to drink
beer. Besides, beer was food. I could work better on it. There
was no food in ginger ale. After that, when I couldn't sneak out
of it, I drank beer and wondered what men found in it that was so
good. I was always aware that I was missing something.
What I really liked in those days was candy. For five cents I
could buy five "cannon-balls"--big lumps of the most delicious
lastingness. I could chew and worry a single one for an hour.
Then there was a Mexican who sold big slabs of brown chewing taffy
for five cents each. It required a quarter of a day properly to
absorb one of them. And many a day I made my entire lunch off one
of those slabs. In truth, I found food there, but not in beer.
But the time was rapidly drawing near when I was to begin my
second series of bouts with John Barleycorn. When I was fourteen,
my head filled with the tales of the old voyagers, my vision with
tropic isles and far sea-rims, I was sailing a small centreboard
skiff around San Francisco Bay and on the Oakland Estuary. I
wanted to go to sea. I wanted to get away from monotony and the
commonplace. I was in the flower of my adolescence, a-thrill with
romance and adventure, dreaming of wild life in the wild man-
world. Little I guessed how all the warp and woof of that man-
world was entangled with alcohol.
So, one day, as I hoisted sail on my skiff, I met Scotty. He was
a husky youngster of seventeen, a runaway apprentice, he told me,
from an English ship in Australia. He had just worked his way on
another ship to San Francisco; and now he wanted to see about
getting a berth on a whaler. Across the estuary, near where the
whalers lay, was lying the sloop-yacht Idler. The caretaker was a
harpooner who intended sailing next voyage on the whale ship
Bonanza. Would I take him, Scotty, over in my skiff to call upon
Would I! Hadn't I heard the stories and rumours about the Idler?--
the big sloop that had come up from the Sandwich Islands where it
had been engaged in smuggling opium. And the harpooner who was
caretaker! How often had I seen him and envied him his freedom.
He never had to leave the water. He slept aboard the Idler each
night, while I had to go home upon the land to go to bed. The
harpooner was only nineteen years old (and I have never had
anything but his own word that he was a harpooner); but he had
been too shining and glorious a personality for me ever to address
as I paddled around the yacht at a wistful distance. Would I take
Scotty, the runaway sailor, to visit the harpooner, on the opium-
smuggler Idler? WOULD I!
The harpooner came on deck to answer our hail, and invited us
aboard. I played the sailor and the man, fending off the skiff so
that it would not mar the yacht's white paint, dropping the skiff
astern on a long painter, and making the painter fast with two
We went below. It was the first sea-interior I had ever seen.
The clothing on the wall smelled musty. But what of that? Was it
not the sea-gear of men?--leather jackets lined with corduroy,
blue coats of pilot cloth, sou'westers, sea-boots, oilskins. And
everywhere was in evidence the economy of space--the narrow bunks,
the swinging tables, the incredible lockers. There were the tell-
tale compass, the sea-lamps in their gimbals, the blue-backed
charts carelessly rolled and tucked away, the signal-flags in
alphabetical order, and a mariner's dividers jammed into the
woodwork to hold a calendar. At last I was living. Here I sat,
inside my first ship, a smuggler, accepted as a comrade by a
harpooner and a runaway English sailor who said his name was
The first thing that the harpooner, aged nineteen, and the sailor,
aged seventeen, did to show that they were men was to behave like
men. The harpooner suggested the eminent desirableness of a
drink, and Scotty searched his pockets for dimes and nickels.
Then the harpooner carried away a pink flask to be filled in some
blind pig, for there were no licensed saloons in that locality.
We drank the cheap rotgut out of tumblers. Was I any the less
strong, any the less valiant, than the harpooner and the sailor?
They were men. They proved it by the way they drank. Drink was
the badge of manhood. So I drank with them, drink by drink, raw
and straight, though the damned stuff couldn't compare with a
stick of chewing taffy or a delectable "cannon-ball." I shuddered
and swallowed my gorge with every drink, though I manfully hid all
Divers times we filled the flask that afternoon. All I had was
twenty cents, but I put it up like a man, though with secret
regret at the enormous store of candy it could have bought. The
liquor mounted in the heads of all of us, and the talk of Scotty
and the harpooner was upon running the Easting down, gales off the
Horn and pamperos off the Plate, lower topsail breezes, southerly
busters, North Pacific gales, and of smashed whaleboats in the
"You can't swim in that ice water," said the harpooner
confidentially to me. "You double up in a minute and go down.
When a whale smashes your boat, the thing to do is to get your
belly across an oar, so that when the cold doubles you you'll
"Sure," I said, with a grateful nod and an air of certitude that
I, too, would hunt whales and be in smashed boats in the Arctic
Ocean. And, truly, I registered his advice as singularly valuable
information, and filed it away in my brain, where it persists to
But I couldn't talk--at first. Heavens! I was only fourteen, and
had never been on the ocean in my life. I could only listen to
the two sea-dogs, and show my manhood by drinking with them,
fairly and squarely, drink and drink.
The liquor worked its will with me; the talk of Scotty and the
harpooner poured through the pent space of the Idler's cabin and
through my brain like great gusts of wide, free wind; and in
imagination I lived my years to come and rocked over the wild,
mad, glorious world on multitudinous adventures.
We unbent. Our inhibitions and taciturnities vanished. We were
as if we had known each other for years and years, and we pledged
ourselves to years of future voyagings together. The harpooner
told of misadventures and secret shames. Scotty wept over his
poor old mother in Edinburgh--a lady, he insisted, gently born--
who was in reduced circumstances, who had pinched herself to pay
the lump sum to the ship-owners for his apprenticeship, whose
sacrificing dream had been to see him a merchantman officer and a
gentleman, and who was heartbroken because he had deserted his
ship in Australia and joined another as a common sailor before the
mast. And Scotty proved it. He drew her last sad letter from his
pocket and wept over it as he read it aloud. The harpooner and I
wept with him, and swore that all three of us would ship on the
whaleship Bonanza, win a big pay-day, and, still together, make a
pilgrimage to Edinburgh and lay our store of money in the dear
And, as John Barleycorn heated his way into my brain, thawing my
reticence, melting my modesty, talking through me and with me and
as me, my adopted twin brother and alter ego, I, too, raised my
voice to show myself a man and an adventurer, and bragged in
detail and at length of how I had crossed San Francisco Bay in my
open skiff in a roaring southwester when even the schooner sailors
doubted my exploit. Further, I--or John Barleycorn, for it was
the same thing--told Scotty that he might be a deep-sea sailor and
know the last rope on the great deep-sea ships, but that when it
came to small-boat sailing I could beat him hands down and sail
circles around him.
The best of it was that my assertion and brag were true. With
reticence and modesty present, I could never have dared tell
Scotty my small-boat estimate of him. But it is ever the way of
John Barleycorn to loosen the tongue and babble the secret
Scotty, or John Barleycorn, or the pair, was very naturally
offended by my remarks. Nor was I loath. I could whip any
runaway sailor seventeen years old. Scotty and I flared and raged
like young cockerels, until the harpooner poured another round of
drinks to enable us to forgive and make up. Which we did, arms
around each other's necks, protesting vows of eternal friendship--
just like Black Matt and Tom Morrisey, I remembered, in the ranch
kitchen in San Mateo. And, remembering, I knew that I was at last
a man--despite my meagre fourteen years--a man as big and manly as
those two strapping giants who had quarrelled and made up on that
memorable Sunday morning of long ago.
By this time the singing stage was reached, and I joined Scotty
and the harpooner in snatches of sea songs and chanties. It was
here, in the cabin of the Idler, that I first heard "Blow the Man
Down," "Flying Cloud," and "Whisky, Johnny, Whisky." Oh, it was
brave. I was beginning to grasp the meaning of life. Here was no
commonplace, no Oakland Estuary, no weary round of throwing
newspapers at front doors, delivering ice, and setting up
ninepins. All the world was mine, all its paths were under my
feet, and John Barleycorn, tricking my fancy, enabled me to
anticipate the life of adventure for which I yearned.
We were not ordinary. We were three tipsy young gods, incredibly
wise, gloriously genial, and without limit to our powers. Ah!--
and I say it now, after the years--could John Barleycorn keep one
at such a height, I should never draw a sober breath again. But
this is not a world of free freights. One pays according to an
iron schedule--for every strength the balanced weakness; for every
high a corresponding low; for every fictitious god-like moment an
equivalent time in reptilian slime. For every feat of telescoping
long days and weeks of life into mad magnificent instants, one
must pay with shortened life, and, oft-times, with savage usury
Intenseness and duration are as ancient enemies as fire and water.
They are mutually destructive. They cannot co-exist. And John
Barleycorn, mighty necromancer though he be, is as much a slave to
organic chemistry as we mortals are. We pay for every nerve
marathon we run, nor can John Barleycorn intercede and fend off
the just payment. He can lead us to the heights, but he cannot
keep us there, else would we all be devotees. And there is no
devotee but pays for the mad dances John Barleycorn pipes.
Yet the foregoing is all in after wisdom spoken. It was no part
of the knowledge of the lad, fourteen years old, who sat in the
Idler's cabin between the harpooner and the sailor, the air rich
in his nostrils with the musty smell of men's sea-gear, roaring in
chorus: "Yankee ship come down de ribber--pull, my bully boys,
We grew maudlin, and all talked and shouted at once. I had a
splendid constitution, a stomach that would digest scrap-iron, and
I was still running my marathon in full vigour when Scotty began
to fail and fade. His talk grew incoherent. He groped for words
and could not find them, while the ones he found his lips were
unable to form. His poisoned consciousness was leaving him. The
brightness went out of his eyes, and he looked as stupid as were
his efforts to talk. His face and body sagged as his
consciousness sagged. (A man cannot sit upright save by an act of
will.) Scotty's reeling brain could not control his muscles. All
his correlations were breaking down. He strove to take another
drink, and feebly dropped the tumbler on the floor. Then, to my
amazement, weeping bitterly, he rolled into a bunk on his back and
immediately snored off to sleep.
The harpooner and I drank on, grinning in a superior way to each
other over Scotty's plight. The last flask was opened, and we
drank it between us, to the accompaniment of Scotty's stertorous
breathing. Then the harpooner faded away into his bunk, and I was
left alone, unthrown, on the field of battle.
I was very proud, and John Barleycorn was proud with me. I could
carry my drink. I was a man. I had drunk two men, drink for
drink, into unconsciousness. And I was still on my two feet,
upright, making my way on deck to get air into my scorching lungs.
It was in this bout on the Idler that I discovered what a good
stomach and a strong head I had for drink--a bit of knowledge that
was to be a source of pride in succeeding years, and that
ultimately I was to come to consider a great affliction. The
fortunate man is the one who cannot take more than a couple of
drinks without becoming intoxicated. The unfortunate wight is the
one who can take many glasses without betraying a sign, who must
take numerous glasses in order to get the "kick."
The sun was setting when I came on the Idler's deck. There were
plenty of bunks below. I did not need to go home. But I wanted
to demonstrate to myself how much I was a man. There lay my skiff
astern. The last of a strong ebb was running out in channel in
the teeth of an ocean breeze of forty miles an hour. I could see
the stiff whitecaps, and the suck and run of the current was
plainly visible in the face and trough of each one.
I set sail, cast off, took my place at the tiller, the sheet in my
hand, and headed across channel. The skiff heeled over and
plunged into it madly. The spray began to fly. I was at the
pinnacle of exaltation. I sang "Blow the Man Down" as I sailed.
I was no boy of fourteen, living the mediocre ways of the sleepy
town called Oakland. I was a man, a god, and the very elements
rendered me allegiance as I bitted them to my will.
The tide was out. A full hundred yards of soft mud intervened
between the boat-wharf and the water. I pulled up my centreboard,
ran full tilt into the mud, took in sail, and, standing in the
stern, as I had often done at low tide, I began to shove the skiff
with an oar. It was then that my correlations began to break
down. I lost my balance and pitched head-foremost into the ooze.
Then, and for the first time, as I floundered to my feet covered
with slime, the blood running down my arms from a scrape against a
barnacled stake, I knew that I was drunk. But what of it? Across
the channel two strong sailormen lay unconscious in their bunks
where I had drunk them. I WAS a man. I was still on my legs, if
they were knee-deep in mud. I disdained to get back into the
skiff. I waded through the mud, shoving the skiff before me and
yammering the chant of my manhood to the world.
I paid for it. I was sick for a couple of days, meanly sick, and
my arms were painfully poisoned from the barnacle scratches. For
a week I could not use them, and it was a torture to put on and
take off my clothes.
I swore, "Never again!" The game wasn't worth it. The price was
too stiff. I had no moral qualms. My revulsion was purely
physical. No exalted moments were worth such hours of misery and
wretchedness. When I got back to my skiff, I shunned the Idler.
I would cross the opposite side of the channel to go around her.
Scotty had disappeared. The harpooner was still about, but him I
avoided. Once, when he landed on the boat-wharf, I hid in a shed
so as to escape seeing him. I was afraid he would propose some
more drinking, maybe have a flask full of whisky in his pocket.
And yet--and here enters the necromancy of John Barleycorn--that
afternoon's drunk on the Idler had been a purple passage flung
into the monotony of my days. It was memorable. My mind dwelt on
it continually. I went over the details, over and over again.
Among other things, I had got into the cogs and springs of men's
actions. I had seen Scotty weep about his own worthlessness and
the sad case of his Edinburgh mother who was a lady. The
harpooner had told me terribly wonderful things of himself. I had
caught a myriad enticing and inflammatory hints of a world beyond
my world, and for which I was certainly as fitted as the two lads
who had drunk with me. I had got behind men's souls. I had got
behind my own soul and found unguessed potencies and greatnesses.
Yes, that day stood out above all my other days. To this day it
so stands out. The memory of it is branded in my brain. But the
price exacted was too high. I refused to play and pay, and
returned to my cannon-balls and taffy-slabs. The point is that
all the chemistry of my healthy, normal body drove me away from
alcohol. The stuff didn't agree with me. It was abominable.
But, despite this, circumstance was to continue to drive me toward
John Barleycorn, to drive me again and again, until, after long
years, the time should come when I would look up John Barleycorn
in every haunt of men--look him up and hail him gladly as
benefactor and friend. And detest and hate him all the time.
Yes, he is a strange friend, John Barleycorn.
I was barely turned fifteen, and working long hours in a cannery.
Month in and month out, the shortest day I ever worked was ten
hours. When to ten hours of actual work at a machine is added the
noon hour; the walking to work and walking home from work; the
getting up in the morning, dressing, and eating; the eating at
night, undressing, and going to bed, there remains no more than
the nine hours out of the twenty-four required by a healthy
youngster for sleep. Out of those nine hours, after I was in bed
and ere my eyes drowsed shut, I managed to steal a little time for
But many a night I did not knock off work until midnight. On
occasion I worked eighteen and twenty hours on a stretch. Once I
worked at my machine for thirty-six consecutive hours. And there
were weeks on end when I never knocked off work earlier than
eleven o'clock, got home and in bed at half after midnight, and
was called at half-past five to dress, eat, walk to work, and be
at my machine at seven o'clock whistle blow.
No moments here to be stolen for my beloved books. And what had
John Barleycorn to do with such strenuous, Stoic toil of a lad
just turned fifteen? He had everything to do with it. Let me show
you. I asked myself if this were the meaning of life--to be a
work-beast? I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked
the hours I worked. If this were living, I was entirely
unenamoured of it. I remembered my skiff, lying idle and
accumulating barnacles at the boat-wharf; I remembered the wind
that blew every day on the bay, the sunrises and sunsets I never
saw; the bite of the salt air in my nostrils, the bite of the salt
water on my flesh when I plunged overside; I remembered all the
beauty and the wonder and the sense-delights of the world denied
me. There was only one way to escape my deadening toil. I must
get out and away on the water. I must earn my bread on the water.
And the way of the water led inevitably to John Barleycorn. I did
not know this. And when I did learn it, I was courageous enough
not to retreat back to my bestial life at the machine.
I wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew. And the winds
of adventure blew the oyster pirate sloops up and down San
Francisco Bay, from raided oyster-beds and fights at night on
shoal and flat, to markets in the morning against city wharves,
where peddlers and saloon-keepers came down to buy. Every raid on
an oyster-bed was a felony. The penalty was State imprisonment,
the stripes and the lockstep. And what of that? The men in
stripes worked a shorter day than I at my machine. And there was
vastly more romance in being an oyster pirate or a convict than in
being a machine slave. And behind it all, behind all of me with
youth abubble, whispered Romance, Adventure.
So I interviewed my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black
breast I had suckled. She was more prosperous than my folks. She
was nursing sick people at a good weekly wage. Would she lend her
"white child" the money? WOULD SHE? What she had was mine.
Then I sought out French Frank, the oyster pirate, who wanted to
sell, I had heard, his sloop, the Razzle Dazzle. I found him
lying at anchor on the Alameda side of the estuary near the
Webster Street bridge, with visitors aboard, whom he was
entertaining with afternoon wine. He came on deck to talk
business. He was willing to sell. But it was Sunday. Besides,
he had guests. On the morrow he would make out the bill of sale
and I could enter into possession. And in the meantime I must come
below and meet his friends. They were two sisters, Mamie and
Tess; a Mrs. Hadley, who chaperoned them; "Whisky" Bob, a youthful
oyster pirate of sixteen; and "Spider" Healey, a black-whiskered
wharf-rat of twenty. Mamie, who was Spider's niece, was called
the Queen of the Oyster Pirates, and, on occasion, presided at
their revels. French Frank was in love with her, though I did not
know it at the time; and she steadfastly refused to marry him.
French Frank poured a tumbler of red wine from a big demijohn to
drink to our transaction. I remembered the red wine of the
Italian rancho, and shuddered inwardly. Whisky and beer were not
quite so repulsive. But the Queen of the Oyster Pirates was
looking at me, a part-emptied glass in her own hand. I had my
pride. If I was only fifteen, at least I could not show myself
any less a man than she. Besides, there were her sister, and Mrs.
Hadley, and the young oyster pirate, and the whiskered wharf-rat,
all with glasses in their hands. Was I a milk-and-water sop? No;
a thousand times no, and a thousand glasses no. I downed the
tumblerful like a man.
French Frank was elated by the sale, which I had bound with a
twenty-dollar goldpiece. He poured more wine. I had learned my
strong head and stomach, and I was certain I could drink with them
in a temperate way and not poison myself for a week to come. I
could stand as much as they; and besides, they had already been
drinking for some time.
We got to singing. Spider sang "The Boston Burglar" and "Black
Lulu." The Queen sang "Then I Wisht I Were a Little Bird." And her
sister Tess sang "Oh, Treat My Daughter Kindily." The fun grew
fast and furious. I found myself able to miss drinks without
being noticed or called to account. Also, standing in the
companionway, head and shoulders out and glass in hand, I could
fling the wine overboard.
I reasoned something like this: It is a queerness of these people
that they like this vile-tasting wine. Well, let them. I cannot
quarrel with their tastes. My manhood, according to their queer
notions, must compel me to appear to like this wine. Very well.
I shall so appear. But I shall drink no more than is unavoidable.
And the Queen began to make love to me, the latest recruit to the
oyster pirate fleet, and no mere hand, but a master and owner.
She went upon deck to take the air, and took me with her. She
knew, of course, but I never dreamed, how French Frank was raging
down below. Then Tess joined us, sitting on the cabin; and
Spider, and Bob; and at the last, Mrs. Hadley and French Frank.
And we sat there, glasses in hand, and sang, while the big
demijohn went around; and I was the only strictly sober one.
And I enjoyed it as no one of them was able to enjoy it. Here, in
this atmosphere of bohemianism, I could not but contrast the scene
with my scene of the day before, sitting at my machine, in the
stifling, shut-in air, repeating, endlessly repeating, at top
speed, my series of mechanical motions. And here I sat now, glass
in hand, in warm-glowing camaraderie, with the oyster pirates,
adventurers who refused to be slaves to petty routine, who flouted
restrictions and the law, who carried their lives and their
liberty in their hands. And it was through John Barleycorn that I
came to join this glorious company of free souls, unashamed and
And the afternoon seabreeze blew its tang into my lungs, and
curled the waves in mid-channel. Before it came the scow
schooners, wing-and-wing, blowing their horns for the drawbridges
to open. Red-stacked tugs tore by, rocking the Razzle Dazzle in
the waves of their wake. A sugar barque towed from the "boneyard"
to sea. The sun-wash was on the crisping water, and life was big.
And Spider sang:
"Oh, it's Lulu, black Lulu, my darling,
Oh, it's where have you been so long?
Been layin' in jail,
A-waitin' for bail,
Till my bully comes rollin' along."
There it was, the smack and slap of the spirit of revolt, of
adventure, of romance, of the things forbidden and done defiantly
and grandly. And I knew that on the morrow I would not go back to
my machine at the cannery. To-morrow I would be an oyster pirate,
as free a freebooter as the century and the waters of San
Francisco Bay would permit. Spider had already agreed to sail
with me as my crew of one, and, also, as cook while I did the deck
work. We would outfit our grub and water in the morning, hoist
the big mainsail (which was a bigger piece of canvas than any I
had ever sailed under), and beat our way out the estuary on the
first of the seabreeze and the last of the ebb. Then we would
slack sheets, and on the first of the flood run down the bay to
the Asparagus Islands, where we would anchor miles off shore. And
at last my dream would be realised: I would sleep upon the water.
And next morning I would wake upon the water; and thereafter all
my days and nights would be on the water.
And the Queen asked me to row her ashore in my skiff, when at
sunset French Frank prepared to take his guests ashore. Nor did I
catch the significance of his abrupt change of plan when he turned
the task of rowing his skiff over to Whisky Bob, himself remaining
on board the sloop. Nor did I understand Spider's grinning side-
remark to me: "Gee! There's nothin' slow about YOU." How could it
possibly enter my boy's head that a grizzled man of fifty should
be jealous of me?
We met by appointment, early Monday morning, to complete the deal,
in Johnny Heinhold's "Last Chance "--a saloon, of course, for the
transactions of men. I paid the money over, received the bill of
sale, and French Frank treated. This struck me as an evident
custom, and a logical one--the seller, who receives, the money, to
wet a piece of it in the establishment where the trade was
consummated. But, to my surprise, French Frank treated the house.
He and I drank, which seemed just; but why should Johnny Heinhold,
who owned the saloon and waited behind the bar, be invited to
drink? I figured it immediately that he made a profit on the very
drink he drank. I could, in a way, considering that they were
friends and shipmates, understand Spider and Whisky Bob being
asked to drink; but why should the longshoremen, Bill Kelley and
Soup Kennedy, be asked?
Then there was Pat, the Queen's brother, making a total of eight
of us. It was early morning, and all ordered whisky. What could
I do, here in this company of big men, all drinking whisky?
"Whisky," I said, with the careless air of one who had said it a
thousand times. And such whisky! I tossed it down. A-r-r-r-gh! I
can taste it yet.
And I was appalled at the price French Frank had paid--eighty
cents. EIGHTY CENTS! It was an outrage to my thrifty soul.
Eighty cents--the equivalent of eight long hours of my toil at the
machine, gone down our throats, and gone like that, in a
twinkling, leaving only a bad taste in the mouth. There was no
discussion that French Frank was a waster.
I was anxious to be gone, out into the sunshine, out over the
water to my glorious boat. But all hands lingered. Even Spider,
my crew, lingered. No hint broke through my obtuseness of why
they lingered. I have often thought since of how they must have
regarded me, the newcomer being welcomed into their company
standing at bar with them, and not standing for a single round of
French Frank, who, unknown to me, had swallowed his chagrin since
the day before, now that the money for the Razzle Dazzle was in
his pocket, began to behave curiously toward me. I sensed the
change in his attitude, saw the forbidding glitter in his eyes,
and wondered. The more I saw of men, the queerer they became.
Johnny Heinhold leaned across the bar and whispered in my ear s
"He's got it in for you. Watch out."
I nodded comprehension of his statement, and acquiescence in it,
as a man should nod who knows all about men. But secretly I was
perplexed. Heavens! How was I, who had worked hard and read books
of adventure, and who was only fifteen years old, who had not
dreamed of giving the Queen of the Oyster Pirates a second
thought, and who did not know that French Frank was madly and
Latinly in love with her--how was I to guess that I had done him
shame? And how was I to guess that the story of how the Queen had
thrown him down on his own boat, the moment I hove in sight, was
already the gleeful gossip of the water-front? And by the same
token, how was I to guess that her brother Pat's offishness with
me was anything else than temperamental gloominess of spirit?
Whisky Bob got me aside a moment. "Keep your eyes open," he
muttered. "Take my tip. French Frank's ugly. I'm going up river
with him to get a schooner for oystering. When he gets down on
the beds, watch out. He says he'll run you down. After dark, any
time he's around, change your anchorage and douse your riding
Oh, certainly, I savve'd. I nodded my head, and, as one man to
another, thanked him for his tip; and drifted back to the group at
the bar. No; I did not treat. I never dreamed that I was
expected to treat. I left with Spider, and my ears burn now as I
try to surmise the things they must have said about me.
I asked Spider, in an off-hand way, what was eating French Frank.
"He's crazy jealous of you," was the answer. "Do you think so?" I
said, and dismissed the matter as not worth thinking about.
But I leave it to any one--the swell of my fifteen-years-old
manhood at learning that French Frank, the adventurer of fifty,
the sailor of all the seas of all the world, was jealous of me--
and jealous over a girl most romantically named the Queen of the
Oyster Pirates. I had read of such things in books, and regarded
them as personal probabilities of a distant maturity. Oh, I felt
a rare young devil, as we hoisted the big mainsail that morning,
broke out anchor, and filled away close-hauled on the three-mile
beat to windward out into the bay.
Such was my escape from the killing machine-toil, and my
introduction to the oyster pirates. True, the introduction had
begun with drink, and the life promised to continue with drink.
But was I to stay away from it for such reason? Wherever life ran
free and great, there men drank. Romance and Adventure seemed
always to go down the street locked arm in arm with John
Barleycorn. To know the two, I must know the third. Or else I
must go back to my free library books and read of the deeds of
other men and do no deeds of my own save slave for ten cents an
hour at a machine in a cannery.
No; I was not to be deterred from this brave life on the water by
the fact that the water-dwellers had queer and expensive desires
for beer and wine and whisky. What if their notions of happiness
included the strange one of seeing me drink? When they persisted
in buying the stuff and thrusting it upon me, why, I would drink
it. It was the price I would pay for their comradeship. And I
didn't have to get drunk. I had not got drunk the Sunday
afternoon I arranged to buy the Razzle Dazzle, despite the fact
that not one of the rest was sober. Well, I could go on into the
future that way, drinking the stuff when it gave them pleasure
that I should drink it, but carefully avoiding over-drinking.
Gradual as was my development as a heavy drinker among the oyster
pirates, the real heavy drinking came suddenly, and was the
result, not of desire for alcohol, but of an intellectual
The more I saw of the life, the more I was enamoured of it. I can
never forget my thrills the first night I took part in a concerted
raid, when we assembled on board the Annie--rough men, big and
unafraid, and weazened wharf-rats, some of them ex-convicts, all
of them enemies of the law and meriting jail, in sea-boots and
sea-gear, talking in gruff low voices, and "Big" George with
revolvers strapped about his waist to show that he meant business.
Oh, I know, looking back, that the whole thing was sordid and
silly. But I was not looking back in those days when I was
rubbing shoulders with John Barleycorn and beginning to accept
him. The life was brave and wild, and I was living the adventure
I had read so much about.
Nelson, "Young Scratch" they called him, to distinguish him from
"Old Scratch," his father, sailed in the sloop Reindeer, partners
with one "Clam." Clam was a dare-devil, but Nelson was a reckless
maniac. He was twenty years old, with the body of a Hercules.
When he was shot in Benicia, a couple of years later, the coroner
said he was the greatest-shouldered man he had ever seen laid on a
Nelson could not read or write. He had been "dragged" up by his
father on San Francisco Bay, and boats were second nature with
him. His strength was prodigious, and his reputation along the
water-front for violence was anything but savoury. He had
Berserker rages and did mad, terrible things. I made his
acquaintance the first cruise of the Razzle Dazzle, and saw him
sail the Reindeer in a blow and dredge oysters all around the rest
of us as we lay at two anchors, troubled with fear of going
He was some man, this Nelson; and when, passing by the Last Chance
saloon, he spoke to me, I felt very proud. But try to imagine my
pride when he promptly asked me in to have a drink. I stood at
the bar and drank a glass of beer with him, and talked manfully of
oysters, and boats, and of the mystery of who had put the load of
buckshot through the Annie's mainsail.
We talked and lingered at the bar. It seemed to me strange that
we lingered. We had had our beer. But who was I to lead the way
outside when great Nelson chose to lean against the bar? After a
few minutes, to my surprise, he asked me to have another drink,
which I did. And still we talked, and Nelson evinced no intention
of leaving the bar.
Bear with me while I explain the way of my reasoning and of my
innocence. First of all, I was very proud to be in the company of
Nelson, who was the most heroic figure among the oyster pirates
and bay adventurers. Unfortunately for my stomach and mucous
membranes, Nelson had a strange quirk of nature that made him find
happiness in treating me to beer. I had no moral disinclination
for beer, and just because I didn't like the taste of it and the
weight of it was no reason I should forgo the honour of his
company. It was his whim to drink beer, and to have me drink beer
with him. Very well, I would put up with the passing discomfort.
So we continued to talk at the bar, and to drink beer ordered and
paid for by Nelson. I think, now, when I look back upon it, that
Nelson was curious. He wanted to find out just what kind of a
gink I was. He wanted to see how many times I'd let him treat
without offering to treat in return.
After I had drunk half a dozen glasses, my policy of temperateness
in mind, I decided that I had had enough for that time. So I
mentioned that I was going aboard the Razzle Dazzle, then lying at
the city wharf, a hundred yards away.
I said good-bye to Nelson, and went on down the wharf. But, John
Barleycorn, to the extent of six glasses, went with me. My brain
tingled and was very much alive. I was uplifted by my sense of
manhood. I, a truly-true oyster pirate, was going aboard my own
boat after hob-nobbing in the Last Chance with Nelson, the
greatest oyster pirate of us all. Strong in my brain was the
vision of us leaning against the bar and drinking beer. And
curious it was, I decided, this whim of nature that made men happy
in spending good money for beer for a fellow like me who didn't
As I pondered this, I recollected that several times other men, in
couples, had entered the Last Chance, and first one, then the
other, had treated to drinks. I remembered, on the drunk on the
Idler, how Scotty and the harpooner and myself had raked and
scraped dimes and nickels with which to buy the whisky. Then came
my boy code: when on a day a fellow gave another a "cannon-ball"
or a chunk of taffy, on some other day he would expect to receive
back a cannon-ball or a chunk of taffy.
That was why Nelson had lingered at the bar. Having bought a
drink, he had waited for me to buy one. I HAD, LET HIM BUY SIX
DRINKS AND NEVER ONCE OFFERED TO TREAT. And he was the great
Nelson! I could feel myself blushing with shame. I sat down on
the stringer-piece of the wharf and buried my face in my hands.
And the heat of my shame burned up my neck and into my cheeks and
forehead. I have blushed many times in my life, but never have I
experienced so terrible a blush as that one.
And sitting there on the stringer-piece in my shame, I did a great
deal of thinking and transvaluing of values. I had been born
poor. Poor I had lived. I had gone hungry on occasion. I had
never had toys nor playthings like other children. My first
memories of life were pinched by poverty. The pinch of poverty
had been chronic. I was eight years old when I wore my first
little undershirt actually sold in a store across the counter.
And then it had been only one little undershirt. When it was
soiled I had to return to the awful home-made things until it was
washed. I had been so proud of it that I insisted on wearing it
without any outer garment. For the first time I mutinied against
my mother--mutinied myself into hysteria, until she let me wear
the store undershirt so all the world could see.
Only a man who has undergone famine can properly value food; only
sailors and desert-dwellers know the meaning of fresh water. And
only a child, with a child's imagination, can come to know the
meaning of things it has been long denied. I early discovered
that the only things I could have were those I got for myself. My
meagre childhood developed meagreness. The first things I had
been able to get for myself had been cigarette pictures, cigarette
posters, and cigarette albums. I had not had the spending of the
money I earned, so I traded "extra" newspapers for these
treasures. I traded duplicates with the other boys, and
circulating, as I did, all about town, I had greater opportunities
for trading and acquiring.
It was not long before I had complete every series issued by every
cigarette manufacturer--such as the Great Race Horses, Parisian
Beauties, Women of All Nations, Flags of All Nations, Noted
Actors, Champion Prize Fighters, etc. And each series I had three
different ways: in the card from the cigarette package, in the
poster, and in the album.
Then I began to accumulate duplicate sets, duplicate albums. I
traded for other things that boys valued and which they usually
bought with money given them by their parents. Naturally, they
did not have the keen sense of values that I had, who was never
given money to buy anything. I traded for postage-stamps, for
minerals, for curios, for birds' eggs, for marbles (I had a more
magnificent collection of agates than I have ever seen any boy
possess--and the nucleus of the collection was a handful worth at
least three dollars, which I had kept as security for twenty cents
I loaned to a messenger-boy who was sent to reform school before
he could redeem them).
I'd trade anything and everything for anything else, and turn it
over in a dozen more trades until it was transmuted into something
that was worth something. I was famous as a trader. I was
notorious as a miser. I could even make a junkman weep when I had
dealings with him. Other boys called me in to sell for them their
collections of bottles, rags, old iron, grain, and gunny-sacks,
and five-gallon oil-cans--aye, and gave me a commission for doing
And this was the thrifty, close-fisted boy, accustomed to slave at
a machine for ten cents an hour, who sat on the stringer-piece and
considered the matter of beer at five cents a glass and gone in a
moment with nothing to show for it. I was now with men I admired.
I was proud to be with them. Had all my pinching and saving
brought me the equivalent of one of the many thrills which had
been mine since I came among the oyster pirates? Then what was
worth while--money or thrills? These men had no horror of
squandering a nickel, or many nickels. They were magnificently
careless of money, calling up eight men to drink whisky at ten
cents a glass, as French Frank had done. Why, Nelson had just
spent sixty cents on beer for the two of us.
Which was it to be? I was aware that I was making a grave
decision. I was deciding between money and men, between
niggardliness and romance. Either I must throw overboard all my
old values of money and look upon it as something to be flung
about wastefully, or I must throw overboard my comradeship with
these men whose peculiar quirks made them like strong drink.
I retraced my steps up the wharf to the Last Chance, where Nelson
still stood outside. "Come on and have a beer," I invited. Again
we stood at the bar and drank and talked, but this time it was I
who paid ten cents! a whole hour of my labour at a machine for a
drink of something I didn't want and which tasted rotten. But it
wasn't difficult. I had achieved a concept. Money no longer
counted. It was comradeship that counted. "Have another?" I
said. And we had another, and I paid for it. Nelson, with the
wisdom of the skilled drinker, said to the barkeeper, "Make mine a
small one, Johnny." Johnny nodded and gave him a glass that
contained only a third as much as the glasses we had been
drinking. Yet the charge was the same--five cents.
By this time I was getting nicely jingled, so such extravagance
didn't hurt me much. Besides, I was learning. There was more in
this buying of drinks than mere quantity. I got my finger on it.
There was a stage when the beer didn't count at all, but just the
spirit of comradeship of drinking together. And, ha!--another
thing! I, too, could call for small beers and minimise by two-
thirds the detestable freightage with which comradeship burdened
"I had to go aboard to get some money," I remarked casually, as we
drank, in the hope Nelson would take it as an explanation of why I
had let him treat six consecutive times.
"Oh, well, you didn't have to do that," he answered. "Johnny'll
trust a fellow like you--won't you, Johnny!"
"Sure," Johnny agreed, with a smile.
"How much you got down against me?" Nelson queried.
Johnny pulled out the book he kept behind the bar, found Nelson's
page, and added up the account of several dollars. At once I
became possessed with a desire to have a page in that book.
Almost it seemed the final badge of manhood.
After a couple more drinks, for which I insisted on paying, Nelson
decided to go. We parted true comradely, and I wandered down the
wharf to the Razzle Dazzle. Spider was just building the fire for
"Where'd you get it?" he grinned up at me through the open
"Oh, I've been with Nelson," I said carelessly, trying to hide my
Then an idea came to me. Here was another one of them. Now that
I had achieved my concept, I might as well practise it thoroughly.
"Come on," I said, "up to Johnny's and have a drink."
Going up the wharf, we met Clam coming down. Clam was Nelson's
partner, and he was a fine, brave, handsome, moustached man of
thirty--everything, in short, that his nickname did not connote.
"Come on," I said, "and have a drink." He came. As we turned into
the Last Chance, there was Pat, the Queen's brother, coming out.
"What's your hurry?" I greeted him. "We're having a drink. Come
on along." "I've just had one," he demurred. "What of it?--we're
having one now," I retorted. And Pat consented to join us, and I
melted my way into his good graces with a couple of glasses of
beer. Oh! I was learning things that afternoon about John
Barleycorn. There was more in him than the bad taste when you
swallowed him. Here, at the absurd cost of ten cents, a gloomy,
grouchy individual, who threatened to become an enemy, was made
into a good friend. He became even genial, his looks were kindly,
and our voices mellowed together as we talked water-front and
"Small beer for me, Johnny," I said, when the others had ordered
schooners. Yes, and I said it like the accustomed drinker,
carelessly, casually, as a sort of spontaneous thought that had
just occurred to me. Looking back, I am confident that the only
one there who guessed I was a tyro at bar-drinking was Johnny
"Where'd he get it?" I overheard Spider confidentially ask Johnny.
"Oh, he's been sousin' here with Nelson all afternoon," was
I never let on that I'd heard, but PROUD? Aye, even the barkeeper
was giving me a recommendation as a man. "HE'S BEEN SOUSIN' HERE
WITH NELSON ALL AFTERNOON." Magic words! The accolade delivered by
a barkeeper with a beer glass!
I remembered that French Frank had treated Johnny the day I bought
the Razzle Dazzle. The glasses were filled and we were ready to
drink. "Have something yourself, Johnny," I said, with an air of
having intended to say it all the time, but of having been a
trifle remiss because of the interesting conversation I had been
holding with Clam and Pat.
Johnny looked at me with quick sharpness, divining, I am positive,
the strides I was making in my education, and poured himself
whisky from his private bottle. This hit me for a moment on my
thrifty side. He had taken a ten-cent drink when the rest of us
were drinking five-cent drinks! But the hurt was only for a
moment. I dismissed it as ignoble, remembered my concept, and did
not give myself away.
"You'd better put me down in the book for this," I said, when we
had finished the drink. And I had the satisfaction of seeing a
fresh page devoted to my name and a charge pencilled for a round
of drinks amounting to thirty cents. And I glimpsed, as through a
golden haze, a future wherein that page would be much charged, and
crossed off, and charged again.
I treated a second time around, and then, to my amazement, Johnny
redeemed himself in that matter of the ten-cent drink. He treated
us around from behind the bar, and I decided that he had
arithmetically evened things up handsomely.
"Let's go around to the St. Louis House," Spider suggested when we
got outside. Pat, who had been shovelling coal all day, had gone
home, and Clam had gone upon the Reindeer to cook supper.
So around Spider and I went to the St. Louis House--my first
visit--a huge bar-room, where perhaps fifty men, mostly
longshoremen, were congregated. And there I met Soup Kennedy for
the second time, and Bill Kelley. And Smith, of the Annie,
drifted in--he of the belt-buckled revolvers. And Nelson showed
up. And I met others, including the Vigy brothers, who ran the
place, and, chiefest of all, Joe Goose, with the wicked eyes, the
twisted nose, and the flowered vest, who played the harmonica like
a roystering angel and went on the most atrocious tears that even
the Oakland water-front could conceive of and admire.
As I bought drinks--others treated as well--the thought flickered
across my mind that Mammy Jennie wasn't going to be repaid much on
her loan out of that week's earnings of the Razzle Dazzle. "But
what of it?" I thought, or rather, John Barleycorn thought it for
me. "You're a man and you're getting acquainted with men. Mammy
Jennie doesn't need the money as promptly as all that. She isn't
starving. You know that. She's got other money in the bank. Let
her wait, and pay her back gradually."
And thus it was I learned another trait of John Barleycorn. He
inhibits morality. Wrong conduct that it is impossible for one to
do sober, is done quite easily when one is not sober. In fact, it
is the only thing one can do, for John Barleycorn's inhibition
rises like a wall between one's immediate desires and long-learned
I dismissed my thought of debt to Mammy Jennie and proceeded to
get acquainted at the trifling expense of some trifling money and
a jingle that was growing unpleasant. Who took me on board and
put me to bed that night I do not know, but I imagine it must have
And so I won my manhood's spurs. My status on the water-front and
with the oyster pirates became immediately excellent. I was
looked upon as a good fellow, as well as no coward. And somehow,
from the day I achieved that concept sitting on the stringer-piece
of the Oakland City Wharf, I have never cared much for money. No
one has ever considered me a miser since, while my carelessness of
money is a source of anxiety and worry to some that know me.
So completely did I break with my parsimonious past that I sent
word home to my mother to call in the boys of the neighbourhood
and give to them all my collections. I never even cared to learn
what boys got what collections. I was a man now, and I made a
clean sweep of everything that bound me to my boyhood.
My reputation grew. When the story went around the water-front of
how French Frank had tried to run me down with his schooner, and
of how I had stood on the deck of the Razzle Dazzle, a cocked
double-barrelled shotgun in my hands, steering with my feet and
holding her to her course, and compelled him to put up his wheel
and keep away, the water-front decided that there was something in
me despite my youth. And I continued to show what was in me.
There were the times I brought the Razzle Dazzle in with a bigger
load of oysters than any other two-man craft; there was the time
when we raided far down in Lower Bay, and mine was the only craft
back at daylight to the anchorage off Asparagus Island; there was
the Thursday night we raced for market and I brought the Razzle
Dazzle in without a rudder, first of the fleet, and skimmed the
cream of the Friday morning trade; and there was the time I
brought her in from Upper Bay under a jib, when Scotty burned my
mainsail. (Yes; it was Scotty of the Idler adventure. Irish had
followed Spider on board the Razzle Dazzle, and Scotty, turning
up, had taken Irish's place.)
But the things I did on the water only partly counted. What
completed everything, and won for me the title of "Prince of the
Oyster Beds," was that I was a good fellow ashore with my money,
buying drinks like a man. I little dreamed that the time would
come when the Oakland water-front, which had shocked me at first
would be shocked and annoyed by the devilry of the things I did.
But always the life was tied up with drinking. The saloons are
poor men's clubs. Saloons are congregating places. We engaged to
meet one another in saloons. We celebrated our good fortune or
wept our grief in saloons. We got acquainted in saloons.
Can I ever forget the afternoon I met "Old Scratch," Nelson's
father? It was in the Last Chance. Johnny Heinhold introduced us.
That Old Scratch was Nelson's father was noteworthy enough. But
there was more in it than that. He was owner and master of the
scow-schooner Annie Mine, and some day I might ship as a sailor
with him. Still more, he was romance. He was a blue-eyed,
yellow-haired, raw-boned Viking, big-bodied and strong-muscled
despite his age. And he had sailed the seas in ships of all
nations in the old savage sailing days.
I had heard many weird tales about him, and worshipped him from a
distance. It took the saloon to bring us together. Even so, our
acquaintance might have been no more than a hand-grip and a word--
he was a laconic old fellow--had it not been for the drinking.
"Have a drink," I said, with promptitude, after the pause which I
had learned good form in drinking dictates. Of course, while we
drank our beer, which I had paid for, it was incumbent on him to
listen to me and to talk to me. And Johnny, like a true host,
made the tactful remarks that enabled us to find mutual topics of
conversation. And of course, having drunk my beer, Captain Nelson
must now buy beer in turn. This led to more talking, and Johnny
drifted out of the conversation to wait on other customers.
The more beer Captain Nelson and I drank, the better we got
acquainted. In me he found an appreciative listener, who, by
virtue of book-reading, knew much about the sea-life he had lived.
So he drifted back to his wild young days, and spun many a rare
yarn for me, while we downed beer, treat by treat, all through a
blessed summer afternoon. And it was only John Barleycorn that
made possible that long afternoon with the old sea-dog.
It was Johnny Heinhold who secretly warned me across the bar that
I was getting pickled and advised me to take small beers. But as
long as Captain Nelson drank large beers, my pride forbade
anything else than large beers. And not until the skipper ordered
his first small beer did I order one for myself. Oh, when we came
to a lingering fond farewell, I was drunk. But I had the
satisfaction of seeing Old Scratch as drunk as I. My youthful
modesty scarcely let me dare believe that the hardened old
buccaneer was even more drunk.
And afterwards, from Spider, and Pat, and C]am, and Johnny
Heinhold, and others, came the tips that Old Scratch liked me and
had nothing but good words for the fine lad I was. Which was the
more remarkable, because he was known as a savage, cantankerous
old cuss who never liked anybody. (His very nickname, "Scratch,"
arose from a Berserker trick of his, in fighting, of tearing off
his opponent's face.) And that I had won his friendship, all
thanks were due to John Barleycorn. I have given the incident
merely as an example of the multitudinous lures and draws and
services by which John Barleycorn wins his followers.
And still there arose in me no desire for alcohol, no chemical
demand. In years and years of heavy drinking, drinking did not
beget the desire. Drinking was the way of the life I led, the way
of the men with whom I lived. While away on my cruises on the
bay, I took no drink along; and while out on the bay the thought
of the desirableness of a drink never crossed my mind. It was not
until I tied the Razzle Dazzle up to the wharf and got ashore in
the congregating places of men, where drink flowed, that the
buying of drinks for other men, and the accepting of drinks from
other men, devolved upon me as a social duty and a manhood rite.
Then, too, there were the times, lying at the city wharf or across
the estuary on the sand-spit, when the Queen, and her sister, and
her brother Pat, and Mrs. Hadley came aboard. It was my boat, I
was host, and I could only dispense hospitality in the terms of
their understanding of it. So I would rush Spider, or Irish, or
Scotty, or whoever was my crew, with the can for beer and the
demijohn for red wine. And again, lying at the wharf disposing of
my oysters, there were dusky twilights when big policemen and
plain-clothes men stole on board. And because we lived in the
shadow of the police, we opened oysters and fed them to them with
squirts of pepper sauce, and rushed the growler or got stronger
stuff in bottles.
Drink as I would, I couldn't come to like John Barleycorn. I
valued him extremely well for his associations, but not for the
taste of him. All the time I was striving to be a man amongst
men, and all the time I nursed secret and shameful desires for
candy. But I would have died before I'd let anybody guess it. I
used to indulge in lonely debauches, on nights when I knew my crew
was going to sleep ashore. I would go up to the Free Library,
exchange my books, buy a quarter's worth of all sorts of candy
that chewed and lasted, sneak aboard the Razzle Dazzle, lock
myself in the cabin, go to bed, and lie there long hours of bliss,
reading and chewing candy. And those were the only times I felt
that I got my real money's worth. Dollars and dollars, across the
bar, couldn't buy the satisfaction that twenty-five cents did in a
As my drinking grew heavier, I began to note more and more that it
was in the drinking bouts the purple passages occurred. Drunks
were always memorable. At such times things happened. Men like
Joe Goose dated existence from drunk to drunk. The longshoremen
all looked forward to their Saturday night drunk. We of the
oyster boats waited until we had disposed of our cargoes before we
got really started, though a scattering of drinks and a meeting of
a chance friend sometimes precipitated an accidental drunk.
In ways, the accidental drunks were the best. Stranger and more
exciting things happened at such times. As, for instance, the
Sunday when Nelson and French Frank and Captain Spink stole the
stolen salmon boat from Whisky Bob and Nicky the Greek. Changes
had taken place in the personnel of the oyster boats. Nelson had
got into a fight with Bill Kelley on the Annie and was carrying a
bullet-hole through his left hand. Also, having quarrelled with
Clam and broken partnership, Nelson had sailed the Reindeer, his
arm in a sling, with a crew of two deep-water sailors, and he had
sailed so madly as to frighten them ashore. Such was the tale of
his recklessness they spread, that no one on the water-front would
go out with Nelson. So the
Reindeer, crewless, lay across the estuary at the sandspit.
Beside her lay the Razzle Dazzle with a burned mainsail and Scotty
and me on board. Whisky Bob had fallen out with French Frank and
gone on a raid "up river" with Nicky the Greek.
The result of this raid was a brand-new Columbia River salmon
boat, stolen from an Italian fisherman. We oyster pirates were
all visited by the searching Italian, and we were convinced, from
what we knew of their movements, that Whisky Bob and Nicky the
Greek were the guilty parties. But where was the salmon boat?
Hundreds of Greek and Italian fishermen, up river and down bay,
had searched every slough and tule patch for it. When the owner
despairingly offered a reward of fifty dollars, our interest
increased and the mystery deepened.
One Sunday morning old Captain Spink paid me a visit. The
conversation was confidential. He had just been fishing in his
skiff in the old Alameda ferry slip. As the tide went down, he
had noticed a rope tied to a pile under water and leading
downward. In vain he had tried to heave up what was fast on the
other end. Farther along, to another pile, was a similar rope,
leading downward and unheavable. Without doubt, it was the
missing salmon boat. If we restored it to its rightful owner
there was fifty dollars in it for us. But I had queer ethical
notions about honour amongst thieves, and declined to have
anything to do with the affair.
But French Frank had quarrelled with Whisky Bob, and Nelson was
also an enemy. (Poor Whisky Bob!--without viciousness, good-
natured, generous, born weak, raised poorly, with an irresistible
chemical demand for alcohol, still prosecuting his vocation of bay
pirate, his body was picked up, not long afterward, beside a dock
where it had sunk full of gunshot wounds.) Within an hour after I
had rejected Captain Spink's proposal, I saw him sail down the
estuary on board the Reindeer with Nelson. Also, French Frank
went by on his schooner.
It was not long ere they sailed back up the estuary, curiously
side by side. As they headed in for the sandspit, the submerged
salmon boat could be seen, gunwales awash and held up from sinking
by ropes fast to the schooner and the sloop. The tide was half
out, and they sailed squarely in on the sand, grounding in a row,
with the salmon boat in the middle.
Immediately Hans, one of French Frank's sailors, was into a skiff
and pulling rapidly for the north shore. The big demijohn in the
stern-sheets told his errand. They couldn't wait a moment to
celebrate the fifty dollars they had so easily earned. It is the
way of the devotees of John Barleycorn. When good fortune comes,
they drink. When they have no fortune, they drink to the hope of
good fortune. If fortune be ill, they drink to forget it. If
they meet a friend, they drink. If they quarrel with a friend and
lose him, they drink. If their love-making be crowned with
success, they are so happy they needs must drink. If they be
jilted, they drink for the contrary reason. And if they haven't
anything to do at all, why, they take a drink, secure in the
knowledge that when they have taken a sufficient number of drinks
the maggots will start crawling in their brains and they will have
their hands full with things to do. When they are sober they want
to drink; and when they have drunk they want to drink more.
Of course, as fellow comrades, Scotty and I were called in for the
drinking. We helped to make a hole in that fifty dollars not yet
received. The afternoon, from just an ordinary common summer
Sunday afternoon, became a gorgeous, purple afternoon. We all
talked and sang and ranted and bragged, and ever French Frank and
Nelson sent more drinks around. We lay in full sight of the
Oakland water-front, and the noise of our revels attracted
friends. Skiff after skiff crossed the estuary and hauled up on
the sandspit, while Hans' work was cut out for him--ever to row
back and forth for more supplies of booze.
Then Whisky Bob and Nicky the Greek arrived, sober, indignant,
outraged in that their fellow pirates had raised their plant.
French Frank, aided by John Barleycorn, orated hypocritically
about virtue and honesty, and, despite his fifty years, got Whisky
Bob out on the sand and proceeded to lick him. When Nicky the
Greek jumped in with a short-handled shovel to Whisky Bob's
assistance, short work was made of him by Hans. And of course,
when the bleeding remnants of Bob and Nicky were sent packing in
their skiff, the event must needs be celebrated in further
By this time, our visitors being numerous, we were a large crowd
compounded of many nationalities and diverse temperaments, all
aroused by John Barleycorn, all restraints cast off. Old quarrels
revived, ancient hates flared up. Fight was in the air. And
whenever a longshoreman remembered something against a scow-
schooner sailor, or vice versa, or an oyster pirate remembered or
was remembered, a fist shot out and another fight was on. And
every fight was made up in more rounds of drinks, wherein the
combatants, aided and abetted by the rest of us, embraced each
other and pledged undying friendship.