Part 2 out of 4
And, of all times, Soup Kennedy selected this time to come and
retrieve an old shirt of his, left aboard the Reindeer from the
trip he sailed with Clam. He had espoused Clam's side of the
quarrel with Nelson. Also, he had been drinking in the St. Louis
House, so that it was John Barleycorn who led him to the sandspit
in quest of his old shirt. Few words started the fray. He locked
with Nelson in the cockpit of the Reindeer, and in the mix-up
barely escaped being brained by an iron bar wielded by irate
French Frank--irate because a two-handed man had attacked a one-
handed man. (If the Reindeer still floats, the dent of the iron
bar remains in the hard-wood rail of her cockpit.)
But Nelson pulled his bandaged hand, bullet-perforated, out of its
sling, and, held by us, wept and roared his Berserker belief that
he could lick Soup Kennedy one-handed. And we let them loose on
the sand. Once, when it looked as if Nelson were getting the
worst of it, French Frank and John Barleycorn sprang unfairly into
the fight. Scotty protested and reached for French Frank, who
whirled upon him and fell on top of him in a pummelling clinch
after a sprawl of twenty feet across the sand. In the course of
separating these two, half a dozen fights started amongst the rest
of us. These fights were finished, one way or the other, or we
separated them with drinks, while all the time Nelson and Soup
Kennedy fought on. Occasionally we returned to them and gave
advice, such as, when they lay exhausted in the sand, unable to
strike a blow, "Throw sand in his eyes." And they threw sand in
each other's eyes, recuperated, and fought on to successive
And now, of all this that is squalid, and ridiculous, and bestial,
try to think what it meant to me, a youth not yet sixteen, burning
with the spirit of adventure, fancy-filled with tales of
buccaneers and sea-rovers, sacks of cities and conflicts of armed
men, and imagination-maddened by the stuff I had drunk. It was
life raw and naked, wild and free--the only life of that sort
which my birth in time and space permitted me to attain. And more
than that. It carried a promise. It was the beginning. From the
sandspit the way led out through the Golden Gate to the vastness
of adventure of all the world, where battles would be fought, not
for old shirts and over stolen salmon boats, but for high purposes
and romantic ends.
And because I told Scotty what I thought of his letting an old man
like French Frank get away with him, we, too, brawled and added to
the festivity of the sandspit. And Scotty threw up his job as
crew, and departed in the night with a pair of blankets belonging
to me. During the night, while the oyster pirates lay stupefied
in their bunks, the schooner and the Reindeer floated on the high
water and swung about to their anchors. The salmon boat, still
filled with rocks and water, rested on the bottom.
In the morning, early, I heard wild cries from the Reindeer, and
tumbled out in the chill grey to see a spectacle that made the
water-front laugh for days. The beautiful salmon boat lay on the
hard sand, squashed flat as a pancake, while on it were perched
French Frank's schooner and the Reindeer. Unfortunately two of
the Reindeer's planks had been crushed in by the stout oak stem of
the salmon boat. The rising tide had flowed through the hole, and
just awakened Nelson by getting into his bunk with him. I lent a
hand, and we pumped the Reindeer out and repaired the damage.
Then Nelson cooked breakfast, and while we ate we considered the
situation. He was broke. So was I. The fifty dollars reward
would never be paid for that pitiful mess of splinters on the sand
beneath us. He had a wounded hand and no crew. I had a burned
main sail and no crew.
"What d'ye say, you and me?" Nelson queried. "I'll go you," was
my answer. And thus I became partners with "Young Scratch"
Nelson, the wildest, maddest of them all. We borrowed the money
for an outfit of grub from Johnny Heinhold, filled our water-
barrels, and sailed away that day for the oyster-beds.
Nor have I ever regretted those months of mad devilry I put in
with Nelson. He COULD sail, even if he did frighten every man
that sailed with him. To steer to miss destruction by an inch or
an instant was his joy. To do what everybody else did not dare
attempt to do, was his pride. Never to reef down was his mania,
and in all the time I spent with him, blow high or low, the
Reindeer was never reefed. Nor was she ever dry. We strained her
open and sailed her open and sailed her open continually. And we
abandoned the Oakland water-front and went wider afield for our
And all this glorious passage in my life was made possible for me
by John Barleycorn. And this is my complaint against John
Barleycorn. Here I was, thirsting for the wild life of adventure,
and the only way for me to win to it was through John Barleycorn's
mediation. It was the way of the men who lived the life. Did I
wish to live the life, I must live it the way they did. It was by
virtue of drinking that I gained that partnership and comradeship
with Nelson. Had I drunk only the beer he paid for, or had I
declined to drink at all, I should never have been selected by him
as a partner. He wanted a partner who would meet him on the
social side, as well as the work side of life.
I abandoned myself to the life, and developed the misconception
that the secret of John Barleycorn lay in going on mad drunks,
rising through the successive stages that only an iron
constitution could endure to final stupefaction and swinish
unconsciousness. I did not like the taste, so I drank for the
sole purpose of getting drunk, of getting hopelessly, helplessly
drunk. And I, who had saved and scraped, traded like a Shylock
and made junkmen weep; I, who had stood aghast when French Frank,
at a single stroke, spent eighty cents for whisky for eight men, I
turned myself loose with a more lavish disregard for money than
any of them.
I remember going ashore one night with Nelson. In my pocket were
one hundred and eighty dollars. It was my intention, first, to
buy me some clothes, after that, some drinks. I needed the
clothes. All I possessed were on me, and they were as follows: a
pair of sea-boots that providentially leaked the water out as fast
as it ran in, a pair of fifty-cent overalls, a forty-cent cotton
shirt, and a sou'wester. I had no hat, so I had to wear the
sou'wester, and it will be noted that I have listed neither
underclothes nor socks. I didn't own any.
To reach the stores where clothes could be bought, we had to pass
a dozen saloons. So I bought me the drinks first. I never got to
the clothing stores. In the morning, broke, poisoned, but
contented, I came back on board, and we set sail. I possessed
only the clothes I had gone ashore in, and not a cent remained of
the one hundred and eighty dollars. It might well be deemed
impossible, by those who have never tried it, that in twelve hours
a lad can spend all of one hundred and eighty dollars for drinks.
I know otherwise.
And I had no regrets. I was proud. I had shown them I could
spend with the best of them. Amongst strong men I had proved
myself strong. I had clinched again, as I had often clinched, my
right to the title of "Prince." Also, my attitude may be
considered, in part, as a reaction from my childhood's meagreness
and my childhood's excessive toil. Possibly my inchoate thought
was: Better to reign among booze-fighters a prince than to toil
twelve hours a day at a machine for ten cents an hour. There are
no purple passages in machine toil. But if the spending of one
hundred and eighty dollars in twelve hours isn't a purple passage,
then I'd like to know what is.
Oh, I skip much of the details of my trafficking with John
Barleycorn during this period, and shall only mention events that
will throw light on John Barleycorn's ways. There were three
things that enabled me to pursue this heavy drinking: first, a
magnificent constitution far better than the average; second, the
healthy open-air life on the water; and third, the fact that I
drank irregularly. While out on the water, we never carried any
The world was opening up to me. Already I knew several hundred
miles of the water-ways of it, and of the towns and cities and
fishing hamlets on the shores. Came the whisper to range farther.
I had not found it yet. There was more behind. But even this
much of the world was too wide for Nelson. He wearied for his
beloved Oakland water-front, and when he elected to return to it
we separated in all friendliness.
I now made the old town of Benicia, on the Carquinez Straits, my
headquarters. In a cluster of fishermen's arks, moored in the
tules on the water-front, dwelt a congenial crowd of drinkers and
vagabonds, and I joined them. I had longer spells ashore, between
fooling with salmon fishing and making raids up and down bay and
rivers as a deputy fish patrolman, and I drank more and learned
more about drinking. I held my own with any one, drink for drink;
and often drank more than my share to show the strength of my
manhood. When, on a morning, my unconscious carcass was
disentangled from the nets on the drying-frames, whither I had
stupidly, blindly crawled the night before; and when the water-
front talked it over with many a giggle and laugh and another
drink, I was proud indeed. It was an exploit.
And when I never drew a sober breath, on one stretch, for three
solid weeks, I was certain I had reached the top. Surely, in that
direction, one could go no farther. It was time for me to move
on. For always, drunk or sober, at the back of my consciousness
something whispered that this carousing and bay-adventuring was
not all of life. This whisper was my good fortune. I happened to
be so made that I could hear it calling, always calling, out and
away over the world. It was not canniness on my part. It was
curiosity, desire to know, an unrest and a seeking for things
wonderful that I seemed somehow to have glimpsed or guessed. What
was this life for, I demanded, if this were all? No; there was
something more, away and beyond. (And, in relation to my much
later development as a drinker, this whisper, this promise of the
things at the back of life, must be noted, for it was destined to
play a dire part in my more recent wrestlings with John
But what gave immediacy to my decision to move on was a trick John
Barleycorn played me--a monstrous, incredible trick that showed
abysses of intoxication hitherto undreamed. At one o'clock in the
morning, after a prodigious drunk, I was tottering aboard a sloop
at the end of the wharf, intending to go to sleep. The tides
sweep through Carquinez Straits as in a mill-race, and the full
ebb was on when I stumbled overboard. There was nobody on the
wharf, nobody on the sloop. I was borne away by the current. I
was not startled. I thought the misadventure delightful. I was a
good swimmer, and in my inflamed condition the contact of the
water with my skin soothed me like cool linen.
And then John Barleycorn played me his maniacal trick. Some
maundering fancy of going out with the tide suddenly obsessed me.
I had never been morbid. Thoughts of suicide had never entered my
head. And now that they entered, I thought it fine, a splendid
culminating, a perfect rounding off of my short but exciting
career. I, who had never known girl's love, nor woman's love, nor
the love of children; who had never played in the wide joy-fields
of art, nor climbed the star-cool heights of philosophy, nor seen
with my eyes more than a pin-point's surface of the gorgeous
world; I decided that this was all, that I had seen all, lived
all, been all, that was worth while, and that now was the time to
cease. This was the trick of John Barleycorn, laying me by the
heels of my imagination and in a drug-dream dragging me to death.
Oh, he was convincing. I had really experienced all of life, and
it didn't amount to much. The swinish drunkenness in which I had
lived for months (this was accompanied by the sense of degradation
and the old feeling of conviction of sin) was the last and best,
and I could see for myself what it was worth. There were all the
broken-down old bums and loafers I had bought drinks for. That
was what remained of life. Did I want to become like them? A
thousand times no; and I wept tears of sweet sadness over my
glorious youth going out with the tide. (And who has not seen the
weeping drunk, the melancholic drunk? They are to be found in all
the bar-rooms, if they can find no other listener telling their
sorrows to the barkeeper, who is paid to listen.)
The water was delicious. It was a man's way to die. John
Barleycorn changed the tune he played in my drink-maddened brain.
Away with tears and regret. It was a hero's death, and by the
hero's own hand and will. So I struck up my death-chant and was
singing it lustily, when the gurgle and splash of the current-
riffles in my ears reminded me of my more immediate situation.
Below the town of Benicia, where the Solano wharf projects, the
Straits widen out into what bay-farers call the "Bight of Turner's
Shipyard." I was in the shore-tide that swept under the Solano
wharf and on into the bight. I knew of old the power of the suck
which developed when the tide swung around the end of Dead Man's
Island and drove straight for the wharf. I didn't want to go
through those piles. It wouldn't be nice, and I might lose an
hour in the bight on my way out with the tide.
I undressed in the water and struck out with a strong, single-
overhand stroke, crossing the current at right-angles. Nor did I
cease until, by the wharf lights, I knew I was safe to sweep by
the end. Then I turned over and rested. The stroke had been a
telling one, and I was a little time in recovering my breath.
I was elated, for I had succeeded in avoiding the suck. I started
to raise my death-chant again--a purely extemporised farrago of a
drug-crazed youth. "Don't sing--yet," whispered John Barleycorn.
"The Solano runs all night. There are railroad men on the wharf.
They will hear you, and come out in a boat and rescue you, and you
don't want to be rescued." I certainly didn't. What? Be robbed of
my hero's death? Never. And I lay on my back in the starlight,
watching the familiar wharf-lights go by, red and green and white,
and bidding sad sentimental farewell to them, each and all.
When I was well clear, in mid-channel, I sang again. Sometimes I
swam a few strokes, but in the main I contented myself with
floating and dreaming long drunken dreams. Before daylight, the
chill of the water and the passage of the hours had sobered me
sufficiently to make me wonder what portion of the Straits I was
in, and also to wonder if the turn of the tide wouldn't catch me
and take me back ere I had drifted out into San Pablo Bay.
Next I discovered that I was very weary and very cold, and quite
sober, and that I didn't in the least want to be drowned. I could
make out the Selby Smelter on the Contra Costa shore and the Mare
Island lighthouse. I started to swim for the Solano shore, but
was too weak and chilled, and made so little headway, and at the
cost of such painful effort, that I gave it up and contented
myself with floating, now and then giving a stroke to keep my
balance in the tide-rips which were increasing their commotion on
the surface of the water. And I knew fear. I was sober now, and
I didn't want to die. I discovered scores of reasons for living.
And the more reasons I discovered, the more liable it seemed that
I was going to drown anyway.
Daylight, after I had been four hours in the water, found me in a
parlous condition in the tide-rips off Mare Island light, where
the swift ebbs from Vallejo Straits and Carquinez Straits were
fighting with each other, and where, at that particular moment,
they were fighting the flood tide setting up against them from San
Pablo Bay. A stiff breeze had sprung up, and the crisp little
waves were persistently lapping into my mouth, and I was beginning
to swallow salt water. With my swimmer's knowledge, I knew the
end was near. And then the boat came--a Greek fisherman running
in for Vallejo; and again I had been saved from John Barleycorn by
my constitution and physical vigour.
And, in passing, let me note that this maniacal trick John
Barleycorn played me is nothing uncommon. An absolute statistic
of the per centage of suicides due to John Barleycorn would be
appalling. In my case, healthy, normal, young, full of the joy of
life, the suggestion to kill myself was unusual; but it must be
taken into account that it came on the heels of a long carouse,
when my nerves and brain were fearfully poisoned, and that the
dramatic, romantic side of my imagination, drink-maddened to
lunacy, was delighted with the suggestion. And yet, the older,
more morbid drinkers, more jaded with life and more disillusioned,
who kill themselves, do so usually after a long debauch, when
their nerves and brains are thoroughly poison-soaked.
So I left Benicia, where John Barleycorn had nearly got me, and
ranged wider afield in pursuit of the whisper from the back of
life to come and find. And wherever I ranged, the way lay along
alcohol-drenched roads. Men still congregated in saloons. They
were the poor-man's clubs, and they were the only clubs to which I
had access. I could get acquainted in saloons. I could go into a
saloon and talk with any man. In the strange towns and cities I
wandered through, the only place for me to go was the saloon. I
was no longer a stranger in any town the moment I had entered a
And right here let me break in with experiences no later than last
year. I harnessed four horses to a light trap, took Charmian
along, and drove for three months and a half over the wildest
mountain parts of California and Oregon. Each morning I did my
regular day's work of writing fiction. That completed, I drove on
through the middle of the day and the afternoon to the next stop.
But the irregularity of occurrence of stopping-places, coupled
with widely varying road conditions, made it necessary to plan,
the day before, each day's drive and my work. I must know when I
was to start driving in order to start writing in time to finish
my day's output. Thus, on occasion, when the drive was to be
long, I would be up and at my writing by five in the morning. On
easier driving days I might not start writing till nine o'clock.
But how to plan? As soon as I arrived in a town, and put the
horses up, on the way from the stable to the hotel I dropped into
the saloons. First thing, a drink--oh, I wanted the drink, but
also it must not be forgotten that, because of wanting to know
things, it was in this very way I had learned to want a drink.
Well, the first thing, a drink. "Have something yourself," to the
barkeeper. And then, as we drink, my opening query about roads
and stopping-places on ahead.
"Let me see," the barkeeper will say, "there's the road across
Tarwater Divide. That used to be good. I was over it three years
ago. But it was blocked this spring. Say, I'll tell you what.
I'll ask Jerry----" And the barkeeper turns and addresses some man
sitting at a table or leaning against the bar farther along, and
who may be Jerry, or Tom, or Bill. "Say, Jerry, how about the
Tarwater road? You was down to Wilkins last week."
And while Bill or Jerry or Tom is beginning to unlimber his
thinking and speaking apparatus, I suggest that he join us in the
drink. Then discussions arise about the advisability of this road
or that, what the best stopping-places may be, what running time I
may expect to make, where the best trout streams are, and so
forth, in which other men join, and which are punctuated with more
Two or three more saloons, and I accumulate a warm jingle and come
pretty close to knowing everybody in town, all about the town, and
a fair deal about the surrounding country. I know the lawyers,
editors, business men, local politicians, and the visiting
ranchers, hunters, and miners, so that by evening, when Charmian
and I stroll down the main street and back, she is astounded by
the number of my acquaintances in that totally strange town.
And thus is demonstrated a service John Barleycorn renders, a
service by which he increases his power over men. And over the
world, wherever I have gone, during all the years, it has been the
same. It may be a cabaret in the Latin Quarter, a cafe in some
obscure Italian village, a boozing ken in sailor-town, and it may
be up at the club over Scotch and soda; but always it will be
where John Barleycorn makes fellowship that I get immediately in
touch, and meet, and know. And in the good days coming, when John
Barleycorn will have been banished out of existence along with the
other barbarisms, some other institution than the saloon will have
to obtain, some other congregating place of men where strange men
and stranger men may get in touch, and meet, and know.
But to return to my narrative. When I turned my back on Benicia,
my way led through saloons. I had developed no moral theories
against drinking, and I disliked as much as ever the taste of the
stuff. But I had grown respectfully suspicious of John
Barleycorn. I could not forget that trick he had played on me--on
me who did not want to die. So I continued to drink, and to keep
a sharp eye on John Barleycorn, resolved to resist all future
suggestions of self-destruction.
In strange towns I made immediate acquaintances in the saloons.
When I hoboed, and hadn't the price of a bed, a saloon was the
only place that would receive me and give me a chair by the fire.
I could go into a saloon and wash up, brush my clothes, and comb
my hair. And saloons were always so damnably convenient. They
were everywhere in my western country.
I couldn't go into the dwellings of strangers that way. Their
doors were not open to me; no seats were there for me by their
fires. Also, churches and preachers I had never known. And from
what I didn't know I was not attracted toward them. Besides,
there was no glamour about them, no haze of romance, no promise of
adventure. They were the sort with whom things never happened.
They lived and remained always in the one place, creatures of
order and system, narrow, limited, restrained. They were without
greatness, without imagination, without camaraderie. It was the
good fellows, easy and genial, daring, and, on occasion, mad, that
I wanted to know--the fellows, generous-hearted and -handed, and
And here is another complaint I bring against John Barleycorn. It
is these good fellows that he gets--the fellows with the fire and
the go in them, who have bigness, and warmness, and the best of
the human weaknesses. And John Barleycorn puts out the fire, and
soddens the agility, and, when he does not more immediately kill
them or make maniacs of them, he coarsens and grossens them,
twists and malforms them out of the original goodness and fineness
of their natures.
Oh!--and I speak out of later knowledge--Heaven forefend me from
the most of the average run of male humans who are not good
fellows, the ones cold of heart and cold of head who don't smoke,
drink, or swear, or do much of anything else that is brase, and
resentful, and stinging, because in their feeble fibres there has
never been the stir and prod of life to well over its boundaries
and be devilish and daring. One doesn't meet these in saloons,
nor rallying to lost causes, nor flaming on the adventure-paths,
nor loving as God's own mad lovers. They are too busy keeping
their feet dry, conserving their heart-beats, and making unlovely
life-successes of their spirit-mediocrity.
And so I draw the indictment home to John Barleycorn. It is just
those, the good fellows, the worth while, the fellows with the
weakness of too much strength, too much spirit, too much fire and
flame of fine devilishness, that he solicits and ruins. Of
course, he ruins weaklings; but with them, the worst we breed, I
am not here concerned. My concern is that it is so much of the
best we breed whom John Barleycorn destroys. And the reason why
these best are destroyed is because John Barleycorn stands on
every highway and byway, accessible, law-protected, saluted by the
policeman on the beat, speaking to them, leading them by the hand
to the places where the good fellows and daring ones forgather and
drink deep. With John Barleycorn out of the way, these daring
ones would still be born, and they would do things instead of
Always I encountered the camaraderie of drink. I might be walking
down the track to the water-tank to lie in wait for a passing
freight-train, when I would chance upon a bunch of "alki-stiffs."
An alki-stiff is a tramp who drinks druggist's alcohol.
Immediately, with greeting and salutation, I am taken into the
fellowship. The alcohol, shrewdly blended with water, is handed
to me, and soon I am caught up in the revelry, with maggots
crawling in my brain and John Barleycorn whispering to me that
life is big, and that we are all brave and fine--free spirits
sprawling like careless gods upon the turf and telling the two-by-
four, cut-and-dried, conventional world to go hang.
Back in Oakland from my wanderings, I returned to the water-front
and renewed my comradeship with Nelson, who was now on shore all
the time and living more madly than before. I, too, spent my time
on shore with him, only occasionally going for cruises of several
days on the bay to help out on short-handed scow-schooners.
The result was that I was no longer reinvigorated by periods of
open-air abstinence and healthy toil. I drank every day, and
whenever opportunity offered I drank to excess; for I still
laboured under the misconception that the secret of John
Barleycorn lay in drinking to bestiality and unconsciousness. I
became pretty thoroughly alcohol-soaked during this period. I
practically lived in saloons; became a bar-room loafer, and worse.
And right here was John Barleycorn getting me in a more insidious
though no less deadly way than when he nearly sent me out with the
tide. I had a few months still to run before I was seventeen; I
scorned the thought of a steady job at anything; I felt myself a
pretty tough individual in a group of pretty tough men; and I
drank because these men drank and because I had to make good with
them. I had never had a real boyhood, and in this, my precocious
manhood, I was very hard and woefully wise. Though I had never
known girl's love even, I had crawled through such depths that I
was convinced absolutely that I knew the last word about love and
life. And it wasn't a pretty knowledge. Without being
pessimistic, I was quite satisfied that life was a rather cheap
and ordinary affair.
You see, John Barleycorn was blunting me. The old stings and
prods of the spirit were no longer sharp. Curiosity was leaving
me. What did it matter what lay on the other side of the world?
Men and women, without doubt, very much like the men and women I
knew; marrying and giving in marriage and all the petty run of
petty human concerns; and drinks, too. But the other side of the
world was a long way to go for a drink. I had but to step to the
corner and get all I wanted at Joe Vigy's. Johnny Heinhold still
ran the Last Chance. And there were saloons on all the corners
and between the corners.
The whispers from the back of life were growing dim as my mind and
body soddened. The old unrest was drowsy. I might as well rot
and die here in Oakland as anywhere else. And I should have so
rotted and died, and not in very long order either, at the pace
John Barleycorn was leading me, had the matter depended wholly on
him. I was learning what it was to have no appetite. I was
learning what it was to get up shaky in the morning, with a
stomach that quivered, with fingers touched with palsy, and to
know the drinker's need for a stiff glass of whisky neat in order
to brace up. (Oh! John Barleycorn is a wizard dopester. Brain
and body, scorched and jangled and poisoned, return to be tuned up
by the very poison that caused the damage.)
There is no end to John Barleycorn's tricks. He had tried to
inveigle me into killing myself. At this period he was doing his
best to kill me at a fairly rapid pace. But, not satisfied with
that, he tried another dodge. He very nearly got me, too, and
right there I learned a lesson about him--became a wiser, a more
skilful drinker. I learned there were limits to my gorgeous
constitution, and that there were no limits to John Barleycorn. I
learned that in a short hour or two he could master my strong
head, my broad shoulders and deep chest, put me on my back, and
with a devil's grip on my throat proceed to choke the life out of
Nelson and I were sitting in the Overland House. It was early in
the evening, and the only reason we were there was because we were
broke and it was election time. You see, in election time local
politicians, aspirants for office, have a way of making the rounds
of the saloons to get votes. One is sitting at a table, in a dry
condition, wondering who is going to turn up and buy him a drink,
or if his credit is good at some other saloon and if it's worth
while to walk that far to find out, when suddenly the saloon doors
swing wide, and enters a bevy of well-dressed men, themselves
usually wide and exhaling an atmosphere of prosperity and
They have smiles and greetings for everybody--for you, without the
price of a glass of beer in your pocket, for the timid hobo who
lurks in the corner and who certainly hasn't a vote, but who may
establish a lodging-house registration. And do you know, when
these politicians swing wide the doors and come in, with their
broad shoulders, their deep chests, and their generous stomachs
which cannot help making them optimists and masters of life, why,
you perk right up. It's going to be a warm evening after all, and
you know you'll get a souse started at the very least.
And--who knows?--the gods may be kind, other drinks may come, and
the night culminate in glorious greatness. And the next thing you
know, you are lined up at the bar, pouring drinks down your throat
and learning the gentlemen's names and the offices which they hope
It was during this period, when the politicians went their saloon
rounds, that I was getting bitter bits of education and having
illusions punctured--I, who had pored and thrilled over "The Rail-
Splitter," and "From Canal Boy to President." Yes, I was learning
how noble politics and politicians are.
Well, on this night, broke, thirsty, but with the drinker's faith
in the unexpected drink, Nelson and I sat in the Overland House
waiting for something to turn up, especially politicians. And
there entered Joe Goose--he of the unquenchable thirst, the wicked
eyes, the crooked nose, the flowered vest.
"Come on, fellows--free booze--all you want of it. I didn't want
you to miss it."
"Where?" we wanted to know.
"Come on. I'll tell you as we go along. We haven't a minute to
lose." And as we hurried up town, Joe Goose explained: "It's the
Hancock Fire Brigade. All you have to do is wear a red shirt and
a helmet, and carry a torch.
They're going down on a special train to Haywards to parade."
(I think the place was Haywards. It may have been San Leandro or
Niles. And, to save me, I can't remember whether the Hancock Fire
Brigade was a republican or a democratic organisation. But
anyway, the politicians who ran it were short of torch-bearers,
and anybody who would parade could get drunk if he wanted to.)
"The town'll be wide open," Joe Goose went on. "Booze? It'll run
like water. The politicians have bought the stocks of the
saloons. There'll be no charge. All you got to do is walk right
up and call for it. We'll raise hell."
At the hall, on Eighth Street near Broadway, we got into the
firemen's shirts and helmets, were equipped with torches, and,
growling because we weren't given at least one drink before we
started, were herded aboard the train. Oh, those politicians had
handled our kind before. At Haywards there were no drinks either.
Parade first, and earn your booze, was the order of the night.
We paraded. Then the saloons were opened. Extra barkeepers had
been engaged, and the drinkers jammed six deep before every drink-
drenched and unwiped bar. There was no time to wipe the bar, nor
wash glasses, nor do anything save fill glasses. The Oakland
water-front can be real thirsty on occasion.
This method of jamming and struggling in front of the bar was too
slow for us. The drink was ours. The politicians had bought it
for us. We'd paraded and earned it, hadn't we? So we made a flank
attack around the end of the bar, shoved the protesting barkeepers
aside, and helped ourselves to bottles.
Outside, we knocked the necks of the bottles off against the
concrete curbs, and drank. Now Joe Goose and Nelson had learned
discretion with straight whisky, drunk in quantity. I hadn't. I
still laboured under the misconception that one was to drink all
he could get--especially when it didn't cost anything. We shared
our bottles with others, and drank a good portion ourselves, while
I drank most of all. And I didn't like the stuff. I drank it as
I had drunk beer at five, and wine at seven. I mastered my qualms
and downed it like so much medicine. And when we wanted more
bottles, we went into other saloons where the free drink was
flowing, and helped ourselves.
I haven't the slightest idea of how much I drank--whether it was
two quarts or five. I do know that I began the orgy with half-
pint draughts and with no water afterward to wash the taste away
or to dilute the whisky.
Now the politicians were too wise to leave the town filled with
drunks from the water-front of Oakland. When train time came,
there was a round-up of the saloons. Already I was feeling the
impact of the whisky. Nelson and I were hustled out of a saloon,
and found ourselves in the very last rank of a disorderly parade.
I struggled along heroically, my correlations breaking down, my
legs tottering under me, my head swimming, my heart pounding, my
lungs panting for air.
My helplessness was coming on so rapidly that my reeling brain
told me I would go down and out and never reach the train if I
remained at the rear of the procession. I left the ranks and ran
down a pathway beside the road under broad-spreading trees.
Nelson pursued me, laughing. Certain things stand out, as in
memories of nightmare. I remember those trees especially, and my
desperate running along under them, and how, every time I fell,
roars of laughter went up from the other drunks. They thought I
was merely antic drunk. They did not dream that John Barleycorn
had me by the throat in a death-clutch. But I knew it. And I
remember the fleeting bitterness that was mine as I realised that
I was in a struggle with death, and that these others did not
know. It was as if I were drowning before a crowd of spectators
who thought I was cutting up tricks for their entertainment.
And running there under the trees, I fell and lost consciousness.
What happened afterward, with one glimmering exception, I had to
be told. Nelson, with his enormous strength, picked me up and
dragged me on and aboard the train. When he had got me into a
seat, I fought and panted so terribly for air that even with his
obtuseness he knew I was in a bad way. And right there, at any
moment, I know now, I might have died. I often think it is the
nearest to death I have ever been. I have only Nelson's
description of my behaviour to go by.
I was scorching up, burning alive internally, in an agony of fire
and suffocation, and I wanted air. I madly wanted air. My
efforts to raise a window were vain, for all the windows in the
car were screwed down. Nelson had seen drink-crazed men, and
thought I wanted to throw myself out. He tried to restrain me,
but I fought on. I seized some man's torch and smashed the glass.
Now there were pro-Nelson and anti-Nelson factions on the Oakland
water-front, and men of both factions, with more drink in them
than was good, filled the car. My smashing of the window was the
signal for the antis. One of them reached for me, and dropped me,
and started the fight, of all of which I have no knowledge save
what was told me afterward, and a sore jaw next day from the blow
that put me out. The man who struck me went down across my body,
Nelson followed him, and they say there were few unbroken windows
in the wreckage of the car that followed as the free-for-all fight
had its course.
This being knocked cold and motionless was perhaps the best thing
that could have happened to me. My violent struggles had only
accelerated my already dangerously accelerated heart, and
increased the need for oxygen in my suffocating lungs.
After the fight was over and I came to, I did not come to myself.
I was no more myself than a drowning man is who continues to
struggle after he has lost consciousness. I have no memory of my
actions, but I cried " Air! Air!" so insistently, that it dawned
on Nelson that I did not contemplate self-destruction. So he
cleared the jagged glass from the window-ledge and let me stick my
head and shoulders out. He realised, partially, the seriousness
of my condition. and held me by the waist to prevent me from
crawling farther out. And for the rest of the run in to Oakland I
kept my head and shoulders out, fighting like a maniac whenever he
tried to draw me inside.
And here my one glimmering streak of true consciousness came. My
sole recollection, from the time I fell under the trees until I
awoke the following evening, is of my head out of the window,
facing the wind caused by the train, cinders striking and burning
and blinding me, while I breathed with will. All my will was
concentrated on breathing--on breathing the air in the hugest
lung-full gulps I could, pumping the greatest amount of air into
my lungs in the shortest possible time. It was that or death, and
I was a swimmer and diver, and I knew it; and in the most
intolerable agony of prolonged suffocation, during those moments I
was conscious, I faced the wind and the cinders and breathed for
All the rest is a blank. I came to the following evening, in a
water-front lodging-house. I was alone. No doctor had been
called in. And I might well have died there, for Nelson and the
others, deeming me merely "sleeping off my drunk," had let me lie
there in a comatose condition for seventeen hours. Many a man, as
every doctor knows, has died of the sudden impact of a quart or
more of whisky. Usually one reads of them so dying, strong
drinkers, on account of a wager. But I didn't know--then. And so
I learned; and by no virtue nor prowess, but simply through good
fortune and constitution. Again my constitution had triumphed
over John Barleycorn. I had escaped from another death-pit,
dragged myself through another morass, and perilously acquired the
discretion that would enable me to drink wisely for many another
year to come.
Heavens! That was twenty years ago, and I am still very much and
wisely alive; and I have seen much, done much, lived much, in that
intervening score of years; and I shudder when I think how close a
shave I ran, how near I was to missing that splendid fifth of a
century that has been mine. And, oh, it wasn't John Barleycorn's
fault that he didn't get me that night of the Hancock Fire
It was during the early winter of 1892 that I resolved to go to
sea. My Hancock Fire Brigade experience was very little
responsible for this. I still drank and frequented saloons--
practically lived in saloons. Whisky was dangerous, in my
opinion, but not wrong. Whisky was dangerous like other dangerous
things in the natural world. Men died of whisky; but then, too,
fishermen were capsized and drowned, hoboes fell under trains and
were cut to pieces. To cope with winds and waves, railroad
trains, and bar-rooms, one must use judgment. To get drunk after
the manner of men was all right, but one must do it with
discretion. No more quarts of whisky for me.
What really decided me to go to sea was that I had caught my first
vision of the death-road which John Barleycorn maintains for his
devotees. It was not a clear vision, however, and there were two
phases of it, somewhat jumbled at the time. It struck me, from
watching those with whom I associated, that the life we were
living was more destructive than that lived by the average man.
John Barleycorn, by inhibiting morality, incited to crime.
Everywhere I saw men doing, drunk, what they would never dream of
doing sober. And this wasn't the worst of it. It was the penalty
that must be paid. Crime was destructive. Saloon-mates I drank
with, who were good fellows and harmless, sober, did most violent
and lunatic things when they were drunk. And then the police
gathered them in and they vanished from our ken. Sometimes I
visited them behind the bars and said good-bye ere they journeyed
across the bay to put on the felon's stripes. And time and again
I heard the one explanation "IF I HADN'T BEEN DRUNK I WOULDN'T A-
DONE IT." And sometimes, under the spell of John Barleycorn, the
most frightful things were done--things that shocked even my case-
The other phase of the death-road was that of the habitual
drunkards, who had a way of turning up their toes without apparent
provocation. When they took sick, even with trifling afflictions
that any ordinary man could pull through, they just pegged out.
Sometimes they were found unattended and dead in their beds; on
occasion their bodies were dragged out of the water; and sometimes
it was just plain accident, as when Bill Kelley, unloading cargo
while drunk, had a finger jerked off, which, under the
circumstances, might just as easily have been his head.
So I considered my situation and knew that I was getting into a
bad way of living. It made toward death too quickly to suit my
youth and vitality. And there was only one way out of this
hazardous manner of living, and that was to get out. The sealing
fleet was wintering in San Francisco Bay, and in the saloons I met
skippers, mates, hunters, boat-steerers, and boat-pullers. I met
the seal-hunter, Pete Holt, and agreed to be his boat-puller and
to sign on any schooner he signed on. And I had to have half a
dozen drinks with Pete Holt there and then to seal our agreement.
And at once awoke all my old unrest that John Barleycorn had put
to sleep. I found myself actually bored with the saloon life of
the Oakland water-front, and wondered what I had ever found
fascinating in it. Also, with this death-road concept in my
brain, I began to grow afraid that something would happen to me
before sailing day, which was set for some time in January. I
lived more circumspectly, drank less deeply, and went home more
frequently. When drinking grew too wild, I got out. When Nelson
was in his maniacal cups, I managed to get separated from him.
On the 12th of January, 1893, I was seventeen, and the 20th of
January I signed before the shipping commissioner the articles of
the Sophie Sutherland, a three topmast sealing schooner bound on a
voyage to the coast of Japan. And of course we had to drink on
it. Joe Vigy cashed my advance note, and Pete Holt treated, and I
treated, and Joe Vigy treated, and other hunters treated. Well,
it was the way of men, and who was I, just turned seventeen, that
I should decline the way of life of these fine, chesty, man-grown
There was nothing to drink on the Sophie Sutherland, and we had
fifty-one days of glorious sailing, taking the southern passage in
the north-east trades to Bonin Islands. This isolated group,
belonging to Japan, had been selected as the rendezvous of the
Canadian and American sealing fleets. Here they filled their
water-barrels and made repairs before starting on the hundred
days' harrying of the seal-herd along the northern coasts of Japan
to Behring Sea.
Those fifty-one days of fine sailing and intense sobriety had put
me in splendid fettle. The alcohol had been worked out of my
system, and from the moment the voyage began I had not known the
desire for a drink. I doubt if I even thought once about a drink.
Often, of course, the talk in the forecastle turned on drink, and
the men told of their more exciting or humorous drunks,
remembering such passages more keenly, with greater delight, than
all the other passages of their adventurous lives.
In the forecastle, the oldest man, fat and fifty, was Louis. He
was a broken skipper. John Barleycorn had thrown him, and he was
winding up his career where he had begun it, in the forecastle.
His case made quite an impression on me. John Barleycorn did
other things beside kill a man. He hadn't killed Louis. He had
done much worse. He had robbed him of power and place and
comfort, crucified his pride, and condemned him to the hardship of
the common sailor that would last as long as his healthy breath
lasted, which promised to be for a long time.
We completed our run across the Pacific, lifted the volcanic
peaks, jungle-clad, of the Bonin Islands, sailed in among the
reefs to the land-locked harbour, and let our anchor rumble down
where lay a score or more of sea-gypsies like ourselves. The
scents of strange vegetation blew off the tropic land.
Aborigines, in queer outrigger canoes, and Japanese, in queerer
sampans, paddled about the bay and came aboard. It was my first
foreign land; I had won to the other side of the world, and I
would see all I had read in the books come true. I was wild to
Victor and Axel, a Swede and a Norwegian, and I planned to keep
together. (And so well did we, that for the rest of the cruise we
were known as the "Three Sports.") Victor pointed out a pathway
that disappeared up a wild canyon, emerged on a steep bare lava
slope, and thereafter appeared and disappeared, ever climbing,
among the palms and flowers. We would go over that path, he said,
and we agreed, and we would see beautiful scenery, and strange
native villages, and find, Heaven alone knew, what adventure at
the end. And Axel was keen to go fishing. The three of us agreed
to that, too. We would get a sampan, and a couple of Japanese
fishermen who knew the fishing grounds, and we would have great
sport. As for me, I was keen for anything.
And then, our plans made, we rowed ashore over the banks of living
coral and pulled our boat up the white beach of coral sand. We
walked across the fringe of beach under the cocoanut-palms and
into the little town, and found several hundred riotous seamen
from all the world, drinking prodigiously, singing prodigiously,
dancing prodigiously--and all on the main street to the scandal of
a helpless handful of Japanese police.
Victor and Axel said that we'd have a drink before we started on
our long walk. Could I decline to drink with these two chesty
shipmates? Drinking together, glass in hand, put the seal on
comradeship. It was the way of life. Our teetotaler owner-
captain was laughed at, and sneered at, by all of us because of
his teetotalism. I didn't in the least want a drink, but I did
want to be a good fellow and a good comrade. Nor did Louis' case
deter me, as I poured the biting, scorching stuff down my throat.
John Barleycorn had thrown Louis to a nasty fall, but I was young.
My blood ran full and red; I had a constitution of iron; and--
well, youth ever grins scornfully at the wreckage of age.
Queer, fierce, alcoholic stuff it was that we drank. There was no
telling where or how it had been manufactured--some native
concoction most likely. But it was hot as fire, pale as water,
and quick as death with its kick. It had been filled into empty
"square-face" bottles which had once contained Holland gin, and
which still bore the fitting legend "Anchor Brand." It certainly
anchored us. We never got out of the town. We never went fishing
in the sampan. And though we were there ten days, we never trod
that wild path along the lava cliffs and among the flowers.
We met old acquaintances from other schooners, fellows we had met
in the saloons of San Francisco before we sailed. And each
meeting meant a drink; and there was much to talk about; and more
drinks; and songs to be sung; and pranks and antics to be
performed, until the maggots of imagination began to crawl, and it
all seemed great and wonderful to me, these lusty hard-bitten sea-
rovers, of whom I made one, gathered in wassail on a coral strand.
Old lines about knights at table in the great banquet halls, and
of those above the salt and below the salt, and of Vikings
feasting fresh from sea and ripe for battle, came to me; and I
knew that the old times were not dead and that we belonged to that
selfsame ancient breed.
By mid-afternoon Victor went mad with drink, and wanted to fight
everybody and everything. I have since seen lunatics in the
violent wards of asylums that seemed to behave in no wise
different from Victor's way, save that perhaps he was more
violent. Axel and I interfered as peacemakers, were roughed and
jostled in the mix-ups, and finally, with infinite precaution and
intoxicated cunning, succeeded in inveigling our chum down to the
boat and in rowing him aboard our schooner.
But no sooner did Victor's feet touch the deck than he began to
clean up the ship. He had the strength of several men, and he ran
amuck with it. I remember especially one man whom he got into the
chain-boxes but failed to damage through inability to hit him.
The man dodged and ducked, and Victor broke all the knuckles of
both his fists against the huge links of the anchor chain. By the
time we dragged him out of that, his madness had shifted to the
belief that he was a great swimmer, and the next moment he was
overboard and demonstrating his ability by floundering like a sick
porpoise and swallowing much salt water.
We rescued him, and by the time we got him below, undressed, and
into his bunk, we were wrecks ourselves. But Axel and I wanted to
see more of shore, and away we went, leaving Victor snoring. It
was curious, the judgment passed on Victor by his shipmates,
drinkers themselves. They shook their heads disapprovingly and
muttered: "A man like that oughtn't to drink." Now Victor was the
smartest sailor and best-tempered shipmate in the forecastle. He
was an all-round splendid type of seaman; his mates recognised his
worth, and respected him and liked him. Yet John Barleycorn
metamorphosed him into a violent lunatic. And that was the very
point these drinkers made. They knew that drink--and drink with a
sailor is always excessive--made them mad, but only mildly mad.
Violent madness was objectionable because it spoiled the fun of
others and often culminated in tragedy. From their standpoint,
mild madness was all right. But from the standpoint of the whole
human race, is not all madness objectionable? And is there a
greater maker of madness of all sorts than John Barleycorn?
But to return. Ashore, snugly ensconced in a Japanese house of
entertainment, Axel and I compared bruises, and over a comfortable
drink talked of the afternoon's happenings. We liked the
quietness of that drink and took another. A shipmate dropped in,
several shipmates dropped in, and we had more quiet drinks.
Finally, just as we had engaged a Japanese orchestra, and as the
first strains of the samisens and taikos were rising, through the
paper-walls came a wild howl from the street. We recognised it.
Still howling, disdaining doorways, with blood-shot eyes and
wildly waving muscular arms, Victor burst upon us through the
fragile walls. The old amuck rage was on him, and he wanted
blood, anybody's blood. The orchestra fled; so did we. We went
through doorways, and we went through paper-walls--anything to get
And after the place was half wrecked, and we had agreed to pay the
damage, leaving Victor partly subdued and showing symptoms of
lapsing into a comatose state, Axel and I wandered away in quest
of a quieter drinking-place. The main street was a madness.
Hundreds of sailors rollicked up and down. Because the chief of
police with his small force was helpless, the governor of the
colony had issued orders to the captains to have all their men on
board by sunset.
What! To be treated in such fashion! As the news spread among the
schooners, they were emptied. Everybody came ashore. Men who had
had no intention of coming ashore climbed into the boats. The
unfortunate governor's ukase had precipitated a general debauch
for all hands. It was hours after sunset, and the men wanted to
see anybody try to put them on board. They went around inviting
the authorities to try to put them on board. In front of the
governor's house they were gathered thickest, bawling sea-songs,
circulating square faces, and dancing uproarious Virginia reels
and old-country dances. The police, including the reserves, stood
in little forlorn groups, waiting for the command the governor was
too wise to issue. And I thought this saturnalia was great. It
was like the old days of the Spanish Main come back. It was
license; it was adventure. And I was part of it, a chesty sea-
rover along with all these other chesty sea-rovers among the paper
houses of Japan.
The governor never issued the order to clear the streets, and Axel
and I wandered on from drink to drink. After a time, in some of
the antics, getting hazy myself, I lost him. I drifted along,
making new acquaintances, downing more drinks, getting hazier and
hazier. I remember, somewhere, sitting in a circle with Japanese
fishermen, Kanaka boat-steerers from our own vessels, and a young
Danish sailor fresh from cowboying in the Argentine and with a
penchant for native customs and ceremonials. And with due and
proper and most intricate Japanese ceremonial we of the circle
drank saki, pale, mild, and lukewarm, from tiny porcelain bowls.
And, later, I remember the runaway apprentices--boys of eighteen
and twenty, of middle class English families, who had jumped their
ships and apprenticeships in various ports of the world and
drifted into the forecastles of the sealing schooners. They were
healthy, smooth-skinned, clear-eyed, and they were young--youths
like me, learning the way of their feet in the world of men. And
they WERE men. No mild saki for them, but square faces illicitly
refilled with corrosive fire that flamed through their veins and
burst into conflagrations in their heads. I remember a melting
song they sang, the refrain of which was:
"'Tis but a little golden ring,
I give it to thee with pride,
Wear it for your mother's sake
When you are on the tide."
They wept over it as they sang it, the graceless young scamps who
had all broken their mothers' prides, and I sang with them, and
wept with them, and luxuriated in the pathos and the tragedy of
it, and struggled to make glimmering inebriated generalisations on
life and romance. And one last picture I have, standing out very
clear and bright in the midst of vagueness before and blackness
afterward. We--the apprentices and I--are swaying and clinging to
one another under the stars. We are singing a rollicking sea
song, all save one who sits on the ground and weeps; and we are
marking the rhythm with waving square faces. From up and down the
street come far choruses of sea-voices similarly singing, and life
is great, and beautiful and romantic, and magnificently mad.
And next, after the blackness, I open my eyes in the early dawn to
see a Japanese woman, solicitously anxious, bending over me. She
is the port pilot's wife and I am lying in her doorway. I am
chilled and shivering, sick with the after-sickness of debauch.
And I feel lightly clad. Those rascals of runaway apprentices!
They have acquired the habit of running away. They have run away
with my possessions. My watch is gone. My few dollars are gone.
My coat is gone. So is my belt. And yes, my shoes.
And the foregoing is a sample of the ten days I spent in the Bonin
Islands. Victor got over his lunacy, rejoined Axel and me, and
after that we caroused somewhat more discreetly. And we never
climbed that lava path among the flowers. The town and the square
faces were all we saw.
One who has been burned by fire must preach about the fire. I
might have seen and healthily enjoyed a whole lot more of the
Bonin Islands, if I had done what I ought to have done. But, as I
see it, it is not a matter of what one ought to do, or ought not
to do. It is what one DOES do. That is the everlasting,
irrefragable fact. I did just what I did. I did what all those
men did in the Bonin Islands. I did what millions of men over the
world were doing at that particular point in time. I did it
because the way led to it, because I was only a human boy, a
creature of my environment, and neither an anaemic nor a god. I
was just human, and I was taking the path in the world that men
took--men whom I admired, if you please; full-blooded men, lusty,
breedy, chesty men, free spirits and anything but niggards in the
way they foamed life away.
And the way was open. It was like an uncovered well in a yard
where children play. It is small use to tell the brave little
boys toddling their way along into knowledge of life that they
mustn't play near the uncovered well. They'll play near it. Any
parent knows that. And we know that a certain percentage of them,
the livest and most daring, will fall into the well. The thing to
do--we all know it--is to cover up the well. The case is the same
with John Barleycorn. All the no-saying and no-preaching in the
world will fail to keep men, and youths growing into manhood, away
from John Barleycorn when John Barleycorn is everywhere
accessible, and where John Barleycorn is everywhere the
connotation of manliness, and daring, and great-spiritedness.
The only rational thing for the twentieth-century folk to do is to
cover up the well; to make the twentieth century in truth the
twentieth century, and to relegate to the nineteenth century and
all the preceding centuries the things of those centuries, the
witch-burnings, the intolerances, the fetiches, and, not least
among such barbarisms. John Barleycorn.
North we raced from the Bonin Islands to pick up the seal-herd,
and north we hunted it for a hundred days into frosty, mitten
weather and into and through vast fogs which hid the sun from us
for a week at a time. It was wild and heavy work, without a drink
or thought of drink. Then we sailed south to Yokohama, with a big
catch of skins in our salt and a heavy pay-day coming.
I was eager to be ashore and see Japan, but the first day was
devoted to ship's work, and not until evening did we sailors land.
And here, by the very system of things, by the way life was
organised and men transacted affairs, John Barleycorn reached out
and tucked my arm in his. The captain had given money for us to
the hunters, and the hunters were waiting in a certain Japanese
public house for us to come and get it. We rode to the place in
rickshaws. Our own crowd had taken possession of it. Drink was
flowing. Everybody had money, and everybody was treating. After
the hundred days of hard toil and absolute abstinence, in the pink
of physical condition, bulging with health, over-spilling with
spirits that had long been pent by discipline and circumstance, of
course we would have a drink or two. And after that we would see
It was the old story. There were so many drinks to be drunk, and
as the warm magic poured through our veins and mellowed our voices
and affections we knew it was no time to make invidious
distinctions--to drink with this shipmate and to decline to drink
with that shipmate. We were all shipmates who had been through
stress and storm together, who had pulled and hauled on the same
sheets and tackles, relieved one another's wheels, laid out side
by side on the same jib-boom when she was plunging into it and
looked to see who was missing when she cleared and lifted. So we
drank with all, and all treated, and our voices rose, and we
remembered a myriad kindly acts of comradeship, and forgot our
fights and wordy squabbles, and knew one another for the best
fellows in the world.
Well, the night was young when we arrived in that public house,
and for all of that first night that public house was what I saw
of Japan--a drinking-place which was very like a drinking-place at
home or anywhere else over the world.
We lay in Yokohama harbour for two weeks, and about all we saw of
Japan was its drinking-places where sailors congregated.
Occasionally, some one of us varied the monotony with a more
exciting drunk. In such fashion I managed a real exploit by
swimming off to the schooner one dark midnight and going soundly
to sleep while the water-police searched the harbour for my body
and brought my clothes out for identification.
Perhaps it was for things like that, I imagined, that men got
drunk. In our little round of living what I had done was a
noteworthy event. All the harbour talked about it. I enjoyed
several days of fame among the Japanese boatmen and ashore in the
pubs. It was a red-letter event. It was an event to be
remembered and narrated with pride. I remember it to-day, twenty
years afterward, with a secret glow of pride. It was a purple
passage, just as Victor's wrecking of the tea-house in the Bonin
Islands and my being looted by the runaway apprentices were purple
The point is that the charm of John Barleycorn was still a mystery
to me. I was so organically a non-alcoholic that alcohol itself
made no appeal; the chemical reactions it produced in me were not
satisfying because I possessed no need for such chemical
satisfaction. I drank because the men I was with drank, and
because my nature was such that I could not permit myself to be
less of a man than other men at their favourite pastime. And I
still had a sweet tooth, and on privy occasions when there was no
man to see, bought candy and blissfully devoured it.
We hove up anchor to a jolly chanty, and sailed out of Yokohama
harbour for San Francisco. We took the northern passage, and with
the stout west wind at our back made the run across the Pacific in
thirty-seven days of brave sailing. We still had a big pay-day
coming to us, and for thirty-seven days, without a drink to addle
our mental processes, we incessantly planned the spending of our
The first statement of each man--ever an ancient one in homeward-
bound forecastles--was: "No boarding-house sharks in mine." Next,
in parentheses, was regret at having spent so much money in
Yokohama. And after that, each man proceeded to paint his
favourite phantom. Victor, for instance, said that immediately he
landed in San Francisco he would pass right through the water-
front and the Barbary Coast, and put an advertisement in the
papers. His advertisement would be for board and room in some
simple working-class family. "Then," said Victor, "I shall go to
some dancing-school for a week or two, just to meet and get
acquainted with the girls and fellows. Then I'll get the run of
the different dancing crowds, and be invited to their homes, and
to parties, and all that, and with the money I've got I can last
out till next January, when I'll go sealing again."
No; he wasn't going to drink. He knew the way of it, particularly
his way of it, wine in, wit out, and his money would be gone in no
time. He had his choice, based on bitter experience, between
three days' debauch among the sharks and harpies of the Barbary
Coast and a whole winter of wholesome enjoyment and sociability,
and there wasn't any doubt of the way he was going to choose.
Said Axel Gunderson, who didn't care for dancing and social
functions: "I've got a good pay-day. Now I can go home. It is
fifteen years since I've seen my mother and all the family. When
I pay off, I shall send my money home to wait for me. Then I'll
pick a good ship bound for Europe, and arrive there with another
pay-day. Put them together, and I'll have more money than ever in
my life before. I'll be a prince at home. You haven't any idea
how cheap everything is in Norway. I can make presents to
everybody, and spend my money like what would seem to them a
millionaire, and live a whole year there before I'd have to go
back to sea."
"The very thing I'm going to do," declared Red John. "It's three
years since I've received a line from home and ten years since I
was there. Things are just as cheap in Sweden, Axel, as in
Norway, and my folks are real country folk and farmers. I'll send
my pay-day home and ship on the same ship with you for around the
Horn. We'll pick a good one."
And as Axel Gunderson and Red John painted the pastoral delights
and festive customs of their respective countries, each fell in
love with the other's home place, and they solemnly pledged to
make the journey together, and to spend, together, six months in
the one's Swedish home and six months in the other's Norwegian
home. And for the rest of the voyage they could hardly be pried
apart, so infatuated did they become with discussing their plans.
Long John was not a home-body. But he was tired of the
forecastle. No boarding-house sharks in his. He, too, would get
a room in a quiet family, and he would go to a navigation school
and study to be a captain. And so it went. Each man swore that
for once he would be sensible and not squander his money. No
boarding-house sharks, no sailor-town, no drink, was the slogan of
The men became stingy. Never was there such economy. They
refused to buy anything more from the slopchest. Old rags had to
last, and they sewed patch upon patch, turning out what are called
"homeward-bound patches " of the most amazing proportions. They
saved on matches, even, waiting till two or three were ready to
light their pipes from the same match.
As we sailed up the San Francisco water-front, the moment the port
doctors passed us, the boarding-house runners were alongside in
whitehall boats. They swarmed on board, each drumming for his own
boarding-house, and each with a bottle of free whisky inside his
shirt. But we waved them grandly and blasphemously away. We
wanted none of their boarding-houses and none of their whisky. We
were sober, thrifty sailormen, with better use for our money.
Came the paying off before the shipping commissioner. We emerged
upon the sidewalk, each with a pocketful of money. About us, like
buzzards, clustered the sharks and harpies. And we looked at each
other. We had been seven months together, and our paths were
separating. One last farewell rite of comradeship remained. (Oh,
it was the way, the custom.) "Come on, boys," said our sailing
master. There stood the inevitable adjacent saloon. There were a
dozen saloons all around. And when we had followed the sailing
master into the one of his choice, the sharks were thick on the
sidewalk outside. Some of them even ventured inside, but we would
have nothing to do with them.
There we stood at the long bar--the sailing master, the mate, the
six hunters, the six boat-steerers, and the five boat-pullers.
There were only five of the last, for one of our number had been
dropped overboard, with a sack of coal at his feet, between two
snow squalls in a driving gale off Cape Jerimo. There were
nineteen of us, and it was to be our last drink together. With
seven months of men's work in the world, blow high, blow low,
behind us, we were looking on each other for the last time. We
knew it, for sailors' ways go wide. And the nineteen of us, drank
the sailing master's treat. Then the mate looked at us with
eloquent eyes and called another round. We liked the mate just as
well as the sailing master, and we liked them both. Could we
drink with one, and not the other?
And Pete Holt, my own hunter (lost next year in the Mary Thomas,
with all hands), called a round. The time passed, the drinks
continued to come on the bar, our voices rose, and the maggots
began to crawl. There were six hunters, and each insisted, in the
sacred name of comradeship, that all hands drink with him just
once. There were six boat-steerers and five boat-pullers and the
same logic held with them. There was money in all our pockets,
and our money was as good as any man's, and our hearts were as
free and generous.
Nineteen rounds of drinks. What more would John Barleycorn ask in
order to have his will with men? They were ripe to forget their
dearly cherished plans. They rolled out of the saloon and into
the arms of the sharks and harpies. They didn't last long. From
two days to a week saw the end of their money and saw them being
carted by the boarding-house masters on board outward-bound ships.
Victor was a fine body of a man, and through a lucky friendship
managed to get into the life-saving service. He never saw the
dancing-school nor placed his advertisement for a room in a
working-class family. Nor did Long John win to navigation school.
By the end of the week he was a transient lumper on a river
steamboat. Red John and Axel did not send their pay-days home to
the old country. Instead, and along with the rest, they were
scattered on board sailing ships bound for the four quarters of
the globe, where they had been placed by the boarding-house
masters, and where they were working out advance money which they
had neither seen nor spent.
What saved me was that I had a home and people to go to. I
crossed the bay to Oakland, and, among other things, took a look
at the death-road. Nelson was gone--shot to death while drunk and
resisting the officers. His partner in that affair was lying in
prison. Whisky Bob was gone. Old Cole, Old Smoudge, and Bob
Smith were gone. Another Smith, he of the belted guns and the
Annie, was drowned. French Frank, they said, was lurking up
river, afraid to come down because of something he had done.
Others were wearing the stripes in San Quentin or Folsom. Big
Alec, the King of the Greeks, whom I had known well in the old
Benicia days, and with whom I had drunk whole nights through, had
killed two men and fled to foreign parts. Fitzsimmons, with whom
I had sailed on the Fish Patrol, had been stabbed in the lung
through the back and had died a lingering death complicated with
tuberculosis. And so it went, a very lively and well-patronised
road, and, from what I knew of all of them, John Barleycorn was
responsible, with the sole exception of Smith of the Annie.
My infatuation for the Oakland water-front was quite dead. I
didn't like the looks of it, nor the life. I didn't care for the
drinking, nor the vagrancy of it, and I wandered back to the
Oakland Free Library and read the books with greater
understanding. Then, too, my mother said I had sown my wild oats
and it was time I settled down to a regular job. Also, the family
needed the money. So I got a job at the jute mills--a ten-hour
day at ten cents an hour. Despite my increase in strength and
general efficiency, I was receiving no more than when I worked in
the cannery several years before. But, then, there was a promise
of a rise to a dollar and a quarter a day after a few months. And
here, so far as John Barleycorn is concerned, began a period of
innocence. I did not know what it was to take a drink from month
end to month end. Not yet eighteen years old, healthy and with
labour-hardened but unhurt muscles, like any young animal I needed
diversion, excitement, something beyond the books and the
I strayed into Young Men's Christian Associations. The life there
was healthful and athletic, but too juvenile. For me it was too
late. I was not boy, nor youth, despite my paucity of years. I
had bucked big with men. I knew mysterious and violent things. I
was from the other side of life so far as concerned the young men
I encountered in the Y.M.C.A. I spoke another language, possessed
a sadder and more terrible wisdom. (When I come to think it over,
I realise now that I have never had a boyhood.) At any rate, the
Y.M.C.A. young men were too juvenile for me, too unsophisticated.
This I would not have minded, could they have met me and helped me
mentally. But I had got more out of the books than they. Their
meagre physical experiences, plus their meagre intellectual
experiences, made a negative sum so vast that it overbalanced
their wholesome morality and healthful sports.
In short, I couldn't play with the pupils of a lower grade. All
the clean splendid young life that was theirs was denied me--
thanks to my earlier tutelage under John Barleycorn. I knew too
much too young. And yet, in the good time coming when alcohol is
eliminated from the needs and the institutions of men, it will be
the Y.M.C.A., and similar unthinkably better and wiser and more
virile congregating-places, that will receive the men who now go
to saloons to find themselves and one another. In the meantime,
we live to-day, here and now, and we discuss to-day, here and now.
I was working ten hours a day in the jute mills. It was hum-drum
machine toil. I wanted life. I wanted to realise myself in other
ways than at a machine for ten cents an hour. And yet I had had
my fill of saloons. I wanted something new. I was growing up. I
was developing unguessed and troubling potencies and proclivities.
And at this very stage, fortunately, I met Louis Shattuck and we
Louis Shattuck, without one vicious trait, was a real innocently
devilish young fellow, who was quite convinced that he was a
sophisticated town boy. And I wasn't a town boy at all. Louis
was handsome, and graceful, and filled with love for the girls.
With him it was an exciting and all-absorbing pursuit. I didn't
know anything about girls. I had been too busy being a man. This
was an entirely new phase of existence which had escaped me. And
when I saw Louis say good-bye to me, raise his hat to a girl of
his acquaintance, and walk on with her side by side down the
sidewalk, I was made excited and envious. I, too, wanted to play
"Well, there's only one thing to do," said Louis, "and that is,
you must get a girl."
Which is more difficult than it sounds. Let me show you, at the
expense of a slight going aside. Louis did not know girls in
their home life. He had the entree to no girl's home. And of
course, I, a stranger in this new world, was similarly
circumstanced. But, further, Louis and I were unable to go to
dancing-schools, or to public dances, which were very good places
for getting acquainted. We didn't have the money. He was a
blacksmith's apprentice, and was earning but slightly more than I.
We both lived at home and paid our way. When we had done this,
and bought our cigarettes, and the inevitable clothes and shoes,
there remained to each of us, for personal spending, a sum that
varied between seventy cents and a dollar for the week. We
whacked this up, shared it, and sometimes loaned all of what was
left of it when one of us needed it for some more gorgeous girl-
adventure, such as car-fare out to Blair's Park and back--twenty
cents, bang, just like that; and ice-cream for two--thirty cents;
or tamales in a tamale-parlour, which came cheaper and which for
two cost only twenty cents.
I did not mind this money meagreness. The disdain I had learned
for money from the oyster pirates had never left me. I didn't
care over-weeningly for it for personal gratification; and in my
philosophy I completed the circle, finding myself as equable with
the lack of a ten-cent piece as I was with the squandering of
scores of dollars in calling all men and hangers-on up to the bar
to drink with me.
But how to get a girl? There was no girl's home to which Louis
could take me and where I might be introduced to girls. I knew
none. And Louis' several girls he wanted for himself; and anyway,
in the very human nature of boys' and girls' ways, he couldn't
turn any of them over to me. He did persuade them to bring girl-
friends for me; but I found them weak sisters, pale and
ineffectual alongside the choice specimens he had.
"You'll have to do like I did," he said finally. "I got these by
getting them. You'll have to get one the same way."
And he initiated me. It must be remembered that Louis and I were
hard situated. We really had to struggle to pay our board and
maintain a decent appearance. We met each other in the evening,
after the day's work, on the street corner, or in a little candy
store on a side street, our sole frequenting-place. Here we
bought our cigarettes, and, occasionally, a nickel's worth of
"red-hots." (Oh, yes; Louis and I unblushingly ate candy--all we
could get. Neither of us drank. Neither of us ever went into a
But the girl. In quite primitive fashion, as Louis advised me, I
was to select her and make myself acquainted with her. We
strolled the streets in the early evenings. The girls, like us,
strolled in pairs. And strolling girls will look at strolling
boys who look. (And to this day, in any town, city, or village,
in which I, in my middle age, find myself, I look on with the eye
trained of old experience, and watch the sweet innocent game
played by the strolling boys and girls who just must stroll when
the spring and summer evenings call.)
The trouble was that in this Arcadian phase of my history, I, who
had come through, case-hardened, from the other side of life, was
timid and bashful. Again and again Louis nerved me up. But I
didn't know girls. They were strange and wonderful to me after my
precocious man's life. I failed of the bold front and the
necessary forwardness when the crucial moment came.
Then Louis would show me how--a certain, eloquent glance of eye, a
smile, a daring, a lifted hat, a spoken word, hesitancies,
giggles, coy nervousnesses--and, behold, Louis acquainted and
nodding me up to be introduced. But when we paired off to stroll
along boy and girl together, I noted that Louis had invariably
picked the good-looker and left to me the little lame sister.
I improved, of course, after experiences too numerous to enter
upon, so that there were divers girls to whom I could lift my hat
and who would walk beside me in the early evenings. But girl's
love did not immediately come to me. I was excited, interested,
and I pursued the quest. And the thought of drink never entered
my mind. Some of Louis' and my adventures have since given me
serious pause when casting sociological generalisations. But it
was all good and innocently youthful, and I learned one
generalisation, biological rather than sociological, namely, that
the "Colonel's lady and Judy O'Grady are sisters under their
And before long I learned girl's love, all the dear fond
deliciousness of it, all the glory and the wonder. I shall call
her Haydee. She was between fifteen and sixteen. Her little
skirt reached her shoe-tops. We sat side by side in a Salvation
Army meeting. She was not a convert, nor was her aunt who sat on
the other side of her, and who, visiting from the country where at
that time the Salvation Army was not, had dropped in to the
meeting for half an hour out of curiosity. And Louis sat beside
me and observed--I do believe he did no more than observe, because
Haydee was not his style of girl.
We did not speak, but in that great half-hour we glanced shyly at
each other, and shyly avoided or as shyly returned and met each
other's glances more than several times. She had a slender oval
face. Her brown eyes were beautiful. Her nose was a dream, as
was her sweet-lipped, petulant-hinting mouth. She wore a tam-o'-
shanter, and I thought her brown hair the prettiest shade of brown
I had ever seen. And from that single experience of half an hour
I have ever since been convinced of the reality of love at first
All too soon the aunt and Haydee departed. (This is permissible
at any stage of a Salvation Army meeting.) I was no longer
interested in the meeting, and, after an appropriate interval of a
couple of minutes or less, started to leave with Louis. As we
passed out, at the back of the hall a woman recognised me with her
eyes, arose, and followed me. I shall not describe her. She was
of my own kind and friendship of the old time on the water-front.
When Nelson was shot, he had died in her arms, and she knew me as
his one comrade. And she must tell me how Nelson had died, and I
did want to know; so I went with her across the width of life from
dawning boy's love for a brown-haired girl in a tam-o'-shanter
back to the old sad savagery I had known.
And when I had heard the tale, I hurried away to find Louis,
fearing that I had lost my first love with the first glimpse of
her. But Louis was dependable. Her name was--Haydee. He knew
where she lived. Each day she passed the blacksmith's shop where
he worked, going to or from the Lafayette School. Further, he had
seen her on occasion with Ruth, another schoolgirl, and, still
further, Nita, who sold us red-hots at the candy store, was a
friend of Ruth. The thing to do was to go around to the candy
store and see if we could get Nita to give a note to Ruth to give
to Haydee. If this could be arranged, all I had to do was write
And it so happened. And in stolen half-hours of meeting I came to
know all the sweet madness of boy's love and girl's love. So far
as it goes it is not the biggest love in the world, but I do dare
to assert that it is the sweetest. Oh, as I look back on it!
Never did girl have more innocent boy-lover than I who had been so
wicked-wise and violent beyond my years. I didn't know the first
thing about girls. I, who had been hailed Prince of the Oyster
Pirates, who could go anywhere in the world as a man amongst men;
who could sail boats, lay aloft in black and storm, or go into the
toughest hang-outs in sailor town and play my part in any rough-
house that started or call all hands to the bar--I didn't know the
first thing I might say or do with this slender little chit of a
girl-woman whose scant skirt just reached her shoe-tops and who
was as abysmally ignorant of life as I was, or thought I was,
I remember we sat on a bench in the starlight. There was fully a
foot of space between us. We slightly faced each other, our near
elbows on the back of the bench; and once or twice our elbows just
touched. And all the time, deliriously happy, talking in the
gentlest and most delicate terms that might not offend her
sensitive ears, I was cudgelling my brains in an effort to divine
what I was expected to do. What did girls expect of boys, sitting
on a bench and tentatively striving to find out what love was?
What did she expect me to do? Was I expected to kiss her? Did she
expect me to try? And if she did expect me, and I didn't what
would she think of me?
Ah, she was wiser than I--I know it now--the little innocent girl-
woman in her shoe-top skirt. She had known boys all her life.
She encouraged me in the ways a girl may. Her gloves were off and
in one hand, and I remember, lightly and daringly, in mock reproof
for something I had said, how she tapped my lips with a tiny flirt
of those gloves. I was like to swoon with delight. It was the
most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. And I remember
yet the faint scent that clung to those gloves and that I breathed
in the moment they touched my lips.
Then came the agony of apprehension and doubt. Should I imprison
in my hand that little hand with the dangling, scented gloves
which had just tapped my lips? Should I dare to kiss her there and
then, or slip my arm around her waist? Or dared I even sit closer?
Well, I didn't dare. I did nothing. I merely continued to sit
there and love with all my soul. And when we parted that evening
I had not kissed her. I do remember the first time I kissed her,
on another evening, at parting--a mighty moment, when I took all
my heart of courage and dared. We never succeeded in managing
more than a dozen stolen meetings, and we kissed perhaps a dozen
times--as boys and girls kiss, briefly and innocently, and
wonderingly. We never went anywhere--not even to a matinee. We
once shared together five cents worth of red-hots. But I have
always fondly believed that she loved me. I know I loved her; and
I dreamed day-dreams of her for a year and more, and the memory of
her is very dear.
When I was with people who did not drink, I never thought of
drinking. Louis did not drink. Neither he nor I could afford it;
but, more significant than that, we had no desire to drink. We
were healthy, normal, non-alcoholic. Had we been alcoholic, we
would have drunk whether or not we could have afforded it.
Each night, after the day's work, washed up, clothes changed, and
supper eaten, we met on the street corner or in the little candy
store. But the warm fall weather passed, and on bitter nights of
frost or damp nights of drizzle, the street corner was not a
comfortable meeting-place. And the candy store was unheated.
Nita, or whoever waited on the counter, between waitings lurked in
a back living-room that was heated. We were not admitted to this
room, and in the store it was as cold as out-of-doors.
Louis and I debated the situation. There was only one solution:
the saloon, the congregating-place of men, the place where men
hobnobbed with John Barleycorn. Well do I remember the damp and
draughty evening, shivering without overcoats because we could not
afford them, that Louis and I started out to select our saloon.
Saloons are always warm and comfortable. Now Louis and I did not
go into this saloon because we wanted a drink. Yet we knew that
saloons were not charitable institutions. A man could not make a
lounging-place of a saloon without occasionally buying something
over the bar.
Our dimes and nickels were few. We could ill spare any of them
when they were so potent in paying car-fare for oneself and a
girl. (We never paid car-fare when by ourselves, being content to
walk.) So, in this saloon, we desired to make the most of our
expenditure. We called for a deck of cards and sat down at a
table and played euchre for an hour, in which time Louis treated
once, and I treated once, to beer--the cheapest drink, ten cents
for two. Prodigal! How we grudged it!
We studied the men who came into the place. They seemed all
middle-aged and elderly work-men, most of them Germans, who
flocked by themselves in old-acquaintance groups, and with whom we
could have only the slightest contacts. We voted against that
saloon, and went out cast down with the knowledge that we had lost
an evening and wasted twenty cents for beer that we didn't want.
We made several more tries on succeeding nights, and at last found
our way into the National, a saloon on Tenth and Franklin. Here
was a more congenial crowd. Here Louis met a fellow or two he
knew, and here I met fellows I had gone to school with when a
little lad in knee pants. We talked of old days, and of what had
become of this fellow, and what that fellow was doing now, and of
course we talked it over drinks. They treated, and we drank.
Then, according to the code of drinking, we had to treat. It
hurt, for it meant forty to fifty cents a clatter.
We felt quite enlivened when the short evening was over; but at
the same time we were bankrupt. Our week's spending money was
gone. We decided that that was the saloon for us, and we agreed
to be more circumspect thereafter in our drink-buying. Also, we
had to economise for the rest of the week. We didn't even have
car-fare. We were compelled to break an engagement with two girls
from West Oakland with whom we were attempting to be in love.
They were to meet us up town the next evening, and we hadn't the
car-fare necessary to take them home. Like many others
financially embarrassed, we had to disappear for a time from the
gay whirl--at least until Saturday night pay-day. So Louis and I
rendezvoused in a livery stable, and with coats buttoned and
chattering teeth played euchre and casino until the time of our
exile was over.
Then we returned to the National Saloon and spent no more than we
could decently avoid spending for the comfort and warmth.
Sometimes we had mishaps, as when one got stuck twice in
succession in a five-handed game of Sancho Pedro for the drinks.
Such a disaster meant anywhere between twenty-five to eighty
cents, just according to how many of the players ordered ten-cent
drinks. But we could temporarily escape the evil effects of such
disaster, by virtue of an account we ran behind the bar. Of
course, this only set back the day of reckoning and seduced us
into spending more than we would have spent on a cash basis.
(When I left Oakland suddenly for the adventure-path the following
spring, I well remember I owed that saloon-keeper one dollar and
seventy cents. Long after, when I returned, he was gone. I still
owe him that dollar and seventy cents, and if he should chance to
read these lines I want him to know that I'll pay on demand.)
The foregoing incident of the National Saloon I have given in
order again to show the lure, or draw, or compulsion, toward John
Barleycorn in society as at present organised with saloons on all
the corners. Louis and I were two healthy youths. We didn't want
to drink. We couldn't afford to drink. And yet we were driven by
the circumstance of cold and rainy weather to seek refuge in a
saloon, where we had to spend part of our pitiful dole for drink.
It will be urged by some critics that we might have gone to the
Y.M.C.A., to night school, and to the social circles and homes of
young people. The only reply is that we didn't. That is the
irrefragable fact. We didn't. And to-day, at this moment, there
are hundreds of thousands of boys like Louis and me doing just
what Louis and I did with John Barleycorn, warm and comfortable,
beckoning and welcoming, tucking their arms in his and beginning
to teach them his mellow ways.
The jute mills failed of its agreement to increase my pay to a
dollar and a quarter a day, and I, a free-born American boy whose
direct ancestors had fought in all the wars from the old pre-
Revolutionary Indian wars down, exercised my sovereign right of
free contract by quitting the job.
I was still resolved to settle down, and I looked about me. One
thing was clear. Unskilled labour didn't pay. I must learn a
trade, and I decided on electricity. The need for electricians
was constantly growing. But how to become an electrician? I
hadn't the money to go to a technical school or university;
besides, I didn't think much of schools. I was a practical man in
a practical world. Also, I still believed in the old myths which
were the heritage of the American boy when I was a boy.
A canal boy could become a President. Any boy who took employment
with any firm could, by thrift, energy, and sobriety, learn the
business and rise from position to position until he was taken in
as a junior partner. After that the senior partnership was only a
matter of time. Very often--so ran the myth--the boy, by reason
of his steadiness and application, married his employ's daughter.
By this time I had been encouraged to such faith in myself in the
matter of girls that I was quite certain I would marry my
employer's daughter. There wasn't a doubt of it. All the little
boys in the myths did it as soon as they were old enough.
So I bade farewell for ever to the adventure-path, and went out to
the power plant of one of our Oakland street railways. I saw the
superintendent himself, in a private office so fine that it almost
stunned me. But I talked straight up. I told him I wanted to
become a practical electrician, that I was unafraid of work, that
I was used to hard work, and that all he had to do was look at me
to see I was fit and strong. I told him that I wanted to begin
right at the bottom and work up, that I wanted to devote my life
to this one occupation and this one employment.
The superintendent beamed as he listened. He told me that I was
the right stuff for success, and that he believed in encouraging
American youth that wanted to rise. Why, employers were always on
the lookout for young fellows like me, and alas, they found them
all too rarely. My ambition was fine and worthy, and he would see
to it that I got my chance. (And as I listened with swelling
heart, I wondered if it was his daughter I was to marry.)
"Before you can go out on the road and learn the more complicated
and higher details of the profession," he said, "you will, of
course, have to work in the car-house with the men who install and
repair the motors. (By this time I was sure that it was his
daughter, and I was wondering how much stock he might own in the
"But," he said, "as you yourself so plainly see, you couldn't
expect to begin as a helper to the car-house electricians. That
will come when you have worked up to it. You will really begin at
the bottom. In the car-house your first employment will be
sweeping up, washing the windows, keeping things clean. And after
you have shown yourself satisfactory at that, then you may become
a helper to the car-house electricians."
I didn't see how sweeping and scrubbing a building was any
preparation for the trade of electrician; but I did know that in
the books all the boys started with the most menial tasks and by
making good ultimately won to the ownership of the whole concern.
"When shall I come to work?" I asked, eager to launch on this
"But," said the superintendent, "as you and I have already agreed,
you must begin at the bottom. Not immediately can you in any
capacity enter the car-house. Before that you must pass through
the engine-room as an oiler."
My heart went down slightly and for the moment as I saw the road
lengthen between his daughter and me; then it rose again. I would
be a better electrician with knowledge of steam engines. As an
oiler in the great engine-room I was confident that few things
concerning steam would escape me. Heavens! My career shone more
dazzling than ever.
"When shall I come to work?" I asked gratefully.
"But," said the superintendent, "you could not expect to enter
immediately into the engine-room. There must be preparation for
that. And through the fire-room, of course. Come, you see the
matter clearly, I know. And you will see that even the mere
handling of coal is a scientific matter and not to be sneered at.
Do you know that we weigh every pound of coal we burn? Thus, we
learn the value of the coal we buy; we know to a tee the last
penny of cost of every item of production, and we learn which
firemen are the most wasteful, which firemen, out of stupidity or
carelessness, get the least out of the coal they fire." The
superintendent beamed again. "You see how very important the
little matter of coal is, and by as much as you learn of this
little matter you will become that much better a workman--more
valuable to us, more valuable to yourself. Now, are you prepared
"Any time," I said valiantly. "The sooner the better."
"Very well," he answered. "You will come to-morrow morning at
I was taken out and shown my duties. Also, I was told the terms
of my employment--a ten-hour day, every day in the month including
Sundays and holidays, with one day off each month, with a salary
of thirty dollars a month. It wasn't exciting. Years before, at
the cannery, I had earned a dollar a day for a ten-hour day. I
consoled myself with the thought that the reason my earning
capacity had not increased with my years and strength was because
I had remained an unskilled labourer. But it was different now.
I was beginning to work for skill, for a trade, for career and
fortune, and the superintendent's daughter.
And I was beginning in the right way--right at the beginning.
That was the thing. I was passing coal to the firemen, who
shovelled it into the furnaces, where its energy was transformed
into steam, which, in the engine-room, was transformed into the
electricity with which the electricians worked. This passing coal
was surely the very beginning-unless the superintendent should
take it into his head to send me to work in the mines from which
the coal came in order to get a completer understanding of the
genesis of electricity for street railways.
Work! I, who had worked with men, found that I didn't know the
first thing about real work. A ten-hour day! I had to pass coal
for the day and night shifts, and, despite working through the
noon-hour, I never finished my task before eight at night. I was
working a twelve-to thirteen-hour day, and I wasn't being paid
overtime as in the cannery.
I might as well give the secret away right here. I was doing the
work of two men. Before me, one mature able-bodied labourer had
done the day shift and another equally mature able-bodied labourer
had done the night-shift. They had received forty dollars a month
each. The superintendent, bent on an economical administration,
had persuaded me to do the work of both men for thirty dollars a
month. I thought he was making an electrician of me. In truth
and fact, he was saving fifty dollars a month operating expenses
to the company.
But I didn't know I was displacing two men. Nobody told me. On
the contrary, the superintendent warned everybody not to tell me.
How valiantly I went at it that first day. I worked at top speed,
filling the iron wheelbarrow with coal, running it on the scales
and weighing the load, then trundling it into the fire-room and
dumping it on the plates before the fires.
Work! I did more than the two men whom I had displaced. They had
merely wheeled in the coal and dumped it on the plates. But while
I did this for the day coal, the night coal I had to pile against
the wall of the fire-room. Now the fire-room was small. It had
been planned for a night coal-passer. So I had to pile the night
coal higher and higher, buttressing up the heap with stout planks.
Toward the top of the heap I had to handle the coal a second time,
tossing it up with a shovel.
I dripped with sweat, but I never ceased from my stride, though I
could feel exhaustion coming on. By ten o'clock in the morning,
so much of my body's energy had I consumed, I felt hungry and
snatched a thick double-slice of bread and butter from my dinner
pail. This I devoured, standing, grimed with coal-dust, my knees
trembling under me. By eleven o'clock, in this fashion I had
consumed my whole lunch. But what of it? I realised that it would
enable me to continue working through the noon hour. And I worked
all the afternoon. Darkness came on, and I worked under the
electric lights. The day fireman went off and the night fireman
came on. I plugged away.
At half-past eight, famished, tottering, I washed up, changed my
clothes, and dragged my weary body to the car. It was three miles
to where I lived, and I had received a pass with the stipulation
that I could sit down as long as there were no paying passengers
in need of a seat. As I sank into a corner outside seat I prayed
that no passenger might require my seat. But the car filled up,
and, half-way in, a woman came on board, and there was no seat for
her. I started to get up, and to my astonishment found that I
could not. With the chill wind blowing on me, my spent body had
stiffened into the seat. It took me the rest of the run in to
unkink my complaining joints and muscles and get into a standing
position on the lower step. And when the car stopped at my corner
I nearly fell to the ground when I stepped off.
I hobbled two blocks to the house and limped into the kitchen.
While my mother started to cook, I plunged into bread and butter;
but before my appetite was appeased, or the steak fried, I was
sound asleep. In vain my mother strove to shake me awake enough
to eat the meat. Failing in this, with the assistance of my
father she managed to get me to my room, where I collapsed dead
asleep on the bed. They undressed me and covered me up. In the
morning came the agony of being awakened. I was terribly sore,
and, worst of all, my wrists were swelling. But I made up for my
lost supper, eating an enormous breakfast, and when I hobbled to
catch my car I carried a lunch twice as big as the one the day
Work! Let any youth just turned eighteen try to out-shovel two
man-grown coal-shovellers. Work! Long before midday I had eaten
the last scrap of my huge lunch. But I was resolved to show them
what a husky young fellow determined to rise could do. The worst
of it was that my wrists were swelling and going back on me.
There are few who do not know the pain of walking on a sprained
ankle. Then imagine the pain of shovelling coal and trundling a
loaded wheelbarrow with two sprained wrists.
Work! More than once I sank down on the coal where no one could
see me, and cried with rage, and mortification, and exhaustion,
and despair. That second day was my hardest, and all that enabled
me to survive it and get in the last of the night coal at the end
of thirteen hours was the day fireman, who bound both my wrists
with broad leather straps. So tightly were they buckled that they
were like slightly flexible plaster casts. They took the stresses
and pressures which hitherto had been borne by my wrists, and they
were so tight that there was no room for the inflammation to rise
in the sprains.
And in this fashion I continued to learn to be an electrician.
Night after night I limped home, fell asleep before I could eat my
supper, and was helped into bed and undressed. Morning after
morning, always with huger lunches in my dinner pail, I limped out
of the house on my way to work.
I no longer read my library books. I made no dates with the
girls. I was a proper work beast. I worked, and ate, and slept,
while my mind slept all the time. The whole thing was a
nightmare. I worked every day, including Sunday, and I looked far
ahead to my one day off at the end of a month, resolved to lie
abed all that day and just sleep and rest up.
The strangest part of this experience was that I never took a
drink nor thought of taking a drink. Yet I knew that men under
hard pressure almost invariably drank. I had seen them do it, and
in the past had often done it myself. But so sheerly non-
alcoholic was I that it never entered my mind that a drink might
be good for me. I instance this to show how entirely lacking from
my make-up was any predisposition toward alcohol. And the point
of this instance is that later on, after more years had passed,
contact with John Barleycorn at last did induce in me the
I had often noticed the day fireman staring at me in a curious
way. At last, one day, he spoke. He began by swearing me to
secrecy. He had been warned by the superintendent not to tell me,
and in telling me he was risking his job. He told me of the day
coal-passer and the night coal-passer, and of the wages they had
received. I was doing for thirty dollars a month what they had
received eighty dollars for doing. He would have told me sooner,
the fireman said, had he not been so certain that I would break
down under the work and quit. As it was, I was killing myself,
and all to no good purpose. I was merely cheapening the price of
labour, he argued, and keeping two men out of a job.
Being an American boy, and a proud American boy, I did not
immediately quit. This was foolish of me, I know; but I resolved
to continue the work long enough to prove to the superintendent
that I could do it without breaking down. Then I would quit, and
he would realise what a fine young fellow he had lost.
All of which I faithfully and foolishly did. I worked on until
the time came when I got in the last of the night coal by six
o'clock. Then I quit the job of learning electricity by doing
more than two men's work for a boy's wages, went home, and
proceeded to sleep the clock around.
Fortunately, I had not stayed by the job long enough to injure
myself--though I was compelled to wear straps on my wrists for a
year afterward. But the effect of this work orgy in which I had
indulged was to sicken me with work. I just wouldn't work. The
thought of work was repulsive. I didn't care if I never settled
down. Learning a trade could go hang. It was a whole lot better
to royster and frolic over the world in the way I had previously
done. So I headed out on the adventure-path again, starting to
tramp East by beating my way on the railroads.
But behold! As soon as I went out on the adventure-path I met John
Barleycorn again. I moved through a world of strangers, and the
act of drinking together made one acquainted with men and opened
the way to adventures. It might be in a saloon with jingled
townsmen, or with a genial railroad man well lighted up and armed
with pocket flasks, or with a bunch of alki stiffs in a hang-out.
Yes; and it might be in a prohibition state, such as Iowa was in
1894, when I wandered up the main street of Des Moines and was
variously invited by strangers into various blind pigs--I remember
drinking in barber-shops, plumbing establishments, and furniture
Always it was John Barleycorn. Even a tramp, in those halcyon
days, could get most frequently drunk. I remember, inside the
prison at Buffalo, how some of us got magnificently jingled, and
how, on the streets of Buffalo after our release, another jingle
was financed with pennies begged on the main-drag.
I had no call for alcohol, but when I was with those who drank, I
drank with them. I insisted on travelling or loafing with the
livest, keenest men, and it was just these live, keen ones that
did most of the drinking. They were the more comradely men, the
more venturous, the more individual. Perhaps it was too much
temperament that made them turn from the commonplace and humdrum
to find relief in the lying and fantastic sureties of John
Barleycorn. Be that as it may, the men I liked best, desired most
to be with, were invariably to be found in John Barleycorn's
In the course of my tramping over the United States I achieved a
new concept. As a tramp, I was behind the scenes of society--aye,
and down in the cellar. I could watch the machinery work. I saw
the wheels of the social machine go around, and I learned that the
dignity of manual labour wasn't what I had been told it was by the
teachers, preachers, and politicians. The men without trades were
helpless cattle. If one learned a trade, he was compelled to
belong to a union in order to work at his trade. And his union
was compelled to bully and slug the employers' unions in order to
hold up wages or hold down hours. The employers' unions like-wise
bullied and slugged. I couldn't see any dignity at all. And when
a workman got old, or had an accident, he was thrown into the
scrap-heap like any worn-out machine. I saw too many of this sort
who were making anything but dignified ends of life.