Jan Shapin

Novels and Plays

A Snug Life Somewhere | Chapter One

A Snug Life Somewhere

by Jan Shapin

Chapter 1

          My brother died on November 5, 1916. I found out one cold afternoon in Seattle, while waiting for a ferryboat that had steamed away that morning to Everett with a load of college students and union protesters who had gone to demonstrate support for a strike the world has now forgotten. Those of us waiting on the dock knew there had been passengers injured or killed. I remember the newsboys with their late editions, reporting on a massacre, how sheriff's deputies in Everett had fired on the Verona as it docked. Passengers had rushed away from the gunfire, pitching the boat so that those by the rail were pushed into the bay.

          A cheer went up from men crowding against the gate. Far up Puget Sound I could make out the outline of the Verona. I remember clutching my coat tight around me, my favorite coat, a checked brown Harris Tweed, something my father had bought me in an exuberant moment, the only thing I owned that made me feel stylish. I had worn it in a vain attempt to improve my mood, to gain my brother’s attention upon his return. I remember wind-whipped tears, hope caught in my throat as I watched the ferry shudder its painful way into the slip, as the laboring engines cut off. We were herded back to make way for the wounded. Stretchers carried a procession to waiting ambulances, but my brother was not among them. Then the able-bodied poured off, a hundred, maybe two hundred men, not celebrating exactly, more dazed, frightened, but buoyant in their step, I noticed, grateful to be alive. The crowd surged around, bestowing hugs, fingers raised in victory salutes, as if they were soldiers returning from war. I watched this exuberant welcome, all the while repeating under my breath, maybe the newspapers are wrong. Crewmen went into the hold to bring up the last of the passengers, carried them out on stretchers down the gangplank and onto a single makeshift bier, until five bodies rested in a row. My brother Horace was second in line.

          I stood there suspended, no feeling except for the wet wind seeping through the lapels of my coat. The captain arranged himself by their side, glanced at a scrap of paper, then turned to a deckhand, motioning for him to bring up something to cover the bodies. I looked at Horace, second in line, wondering if he were cold. Finally, the captain cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders. His voice seemed clogged, but strengthened as he went on, reciting first the details, the unexpected gunfire, the rush of passengers to the far rail, absolving himself, it seemed to me, of any blame. That done, he moved on to express concern for the families, noting the presence of Seattle's uniformed police, expressing confidence that, “We will get to the bottom of this.”

          Once again he turned his attention to his notes. “Three hundred and eighteen passengers boarded this morning,” he said, but cautioned that was only an estimate, the ship had been chartered, the company had not kept a ticket register or roster of names. But, he added, looking pleased at this scrap of good news, he did have a firm count of the men returning. “Two hundred and sixty-six able-bodied passengers left this ship,” he announced with a galling touch of pride. “Thirty-one wounded, including two crewmen, are going to hospital.” Once again his eyes buried themselves in his paper. “And there are five dead.” This last he dropped inaudibly, as if he didn't want to dwell on a destination. The morgue I thought, Horace is going to the morgue. Just then a crewman appeared with what looked like rough canvas, and he proceeded to drape all five bodies to shield them from view. Once more I wondered if Horace were cold, whether he liked having canvas dropped over his head. The captain consulted his notes one last time and added that an unconfirmed number of passengers had been washed overboard, their whereabouts unknown. Summing up, he looked out at us hopefully, apologizing again for the tragedy, for not knowing the names, especially the names of the five men who lay beside him, as well as the names of those missing in Port Gardiner Bay.

* * *

          My brother Horace was the apple of my mother's eye. On that day, November 5, 1916, I was twenty-four and he had just turned nineteen. Horace was a name chosen by my mother from a book about Egyptian gods. The Egyptian Horace was brother to the goddess Isis, himself a god who had the honor (and burden) of being his sister’s consort and twin. Thus Egypt's Horace was born into triple responsibilities, as was my brother, in a way. By birth, our Horace was my mother's consolation. And mine. And, in a way, my pa's. Our Horace carried a huge weight of family expectation upon his graceful frame. Then destiny took him to places we didn’t expect. I never knew my brother. I thought I did, but I didn't. I doubt Horace ever knew himself. Nineteen when he died.

          My naming was different. I was not the apple of my mother's eye. I was punished at birth for my uncanny resemblance to my pa and my propensity to puke. Fighting Joe Copper had red hair and crowed like a barnyard rooster. He was the one who christened me Penny Joe, a name destined to incite this schoolyard jeer:

          A Penny, a Copper,

          Like father, like daughter,

          A mere cent from start to finish!

          My father thought this a huge compliment, one he like to repeat over and over to his cronies in the many taverns he liked to frequent. My father was a shingle cutter, a good one, with a fierce pride in his craft, and three missing fingers to prove it. He was also a drinker, but they were all drinkers in Everett in those days, when the only sure way to make a living was by sawing fir and weaving it through furious mechanical blades to make shingles. How else but through drink could a man warm himself after a twelve hour day, tormented as he was by salt damp that never left his woolens, by black mold that slimed his drainpipes or bloomed overnight on his wife's cutting board? Everett’s was a climate that required sustenance. Jesus wept, my father assured his fellows. He would slap a hand on the rounded edge of the bar and then go one better. “And, if I read my Bible correctly, he also drank!” A cheer would go up, the crowd toasting to the health of Jesus. Unlike Jesus, though, we who lived in Everett also cursed and fought. And organized into labor unions that did not turn the other cheek. Which, in time, culminated in an event known as the Everett Massacre.

* * *

          I live quietly now, an old lady in Snoqualmie, on a sunny patch of land that stretches from the Cascades toward Lake Washington. Here, no Douglas Fir blots my sunlight or drips on my shingles. My front yard has a picket fence and my back acre is an open meadow where I grow prairie flowers, to harvest and sell their seed. Indian hyacinth, pearly everlasting, bleeding heart, colt's foot, deer's foot, red clintonia. Almost seventy species in all. Plus fruit bearing bushes and flowering shrubs. A small living, but a peaceful life after a tumultuous one. Something, in a way, my pa also achieved. He got himself locked up in jail before he drank himself to death and was known far and wide in his last years as a martyr. An altogether satisfying end for a died-in-the-wool union man. After he left Everett for the hoosegow, in December, 1915, my mother and I took stock and decided to get out of each other's hair.

         I left on the Interurban on February 29, 1916, leap year's day, the day after one of my many uncelebrated birthdays. Seven weeks after my pa had been taken in chains to the Eastern Washington State Penitentiary. He was not, on that day nor on any day that followed, a penitent man. He had been tried for the murder of a night watchman, a poor soul caught in a fire set in a tool shed that spread to the factory floor. On the basis of muddy boots and oil soaked rags in our cellar, my father was charged with murder. Later the charge was reduced to arson and manslaughter. His case was promptly taken up by the local band of progressive lawyers skilled at emptying the coffers of union defense funds. Except as an adjunct to the subsequent Everett Massacre, my pa's cause never would have amounted to much, and, in truth, my father was a far sight better off in prison. There he had the sympathetic ear of guards who had not heard his many stories, fellow inmates who were also, they claimed, unjustly imprisoned, a library full of books, three squares a day, two blankets and a cot. With his prison wages he could buy tobacco and held court to a steady stream of visitors. It was a life absent my mother, which must have seemed to him the greatest blessing of all.

          At any rate, by the beginning of 1916, my father was in the hoosegow and proud of it. Proud of a reputation for rabble rousing that had merited him eighteen-point headlines. Falsely convicted, that's what the union newspapers said of him. “Fighting Joe Copper, the falsely convicted union organizer.” He was always good for a quote and had quite a following among newspaper reporters. He wrote home regularly if not at length. Occasionally he would ask for some article of clothing, a set of long johns, a deck of cards. He was garrulous, made friends easily, with the jailers as well as the jailed. Had he had less of a taste for drink and a smoother disposition, he might have gone far. A pleasanter wife would have helped. Those leadership qualities so garbled in my father found full expression in Horace, in the same way my pa's red hair found expression in me. Horace, as they used to say, was an outstanding young man. A fellow going places. But he lacked my father's gift for hyperbole, a form of humor I've tried to cultivate, though in my case it comes out crossed with my mother's vinegary temperament.

My decision to go to Seattle in early 1916 came, in part, because of my father's departure. Without him to haul back from the saloons, without a need to mediate the ensuing fracas, I was left without vocation. The canning factory didn't occupy my spirit. Also, there was the lure of Horace, who, that previous fall, had escaped Everett through a scholarship to the University of Washington. Even though it was only ninety minutes away by train, Everett was a world away from Seattle. Horace did not return even once during my father's trial. Some might find that curious, but neither my mother nor I thought it remarkable at the time. I suppose we both judged Horace wise not to associate with such events. I am not criticizing the behavior of the union lawyers per se, nor in any way upholding the timber barons or their paid judges. I am simply remarking that the proceedings were tawdry. It was a rigged trial and everyone knew it. And the rigging suited both sides. It was a game, an old one where everyone knew their parts, an endless shoving match that, like everything else in Everett, crushed you in the end and left you no way out.

But Horace was another matter. He had escaped. Five years my junior, dark haired, broad shouldered and full faced, whereas I was lean and tightlipped and freckled. He of the cupid's lip and sable eyes was a valiant, a beautiful boy growing into a beautiful man. My father never understood him, his calm indifference in the face of endless family outrage my father mostly provoked. Horace just set his countenance, even as a child, to the horizon. He was leaving Everett, that much was clear to every teacher and settlement house lady who ever crossed his path. The do-gooder's favorite child, he sailed through youth untouched by scorn and self-doubt. Horace had my mother's bedrock determination and my father's abundant self-confidence. Even in his infancy, as I toted him around on my hip, I used him as a shield. Diaper wet, sticky fingered, he was my protector, the central love and enigma of my life. Why had he been granted this placid disposition, this charmed destiny? Why did I get the other end of the stick?

          As I said, destiny granted him a scholarship to the University of Washington. Once he was gone, I was bereft. Twenty-four years old, a factory worker, single, no future in sight. All though that fall of 1915 I mourned, and on into early winter, through my father's trial and imprisonment, waiting, waiting for word from Horace, waiting until leap year's day, the last date I had set in my mind for leaving. I had hoped he would write, ask me to join him in his new life, but, after watching my father led away in chains, I resolved to join Horace even if uninvited, join him in his destiny, whatever that was, as best I could, however he would let me.

          I knew nothing about his new life in Seattle, his life at the university, nothing about Seattle's own cauldron of political activity that so mirrored Everett's endless skirmishes. Horace had gone away and so had my father. That was all I knew. Of the two paths open to me, to stay and shrivel into a life of no sustenance, or to garner some comfort alongside Horace, I could see no choice. I didn't write, trusting, as a smitten lover does, that my arrival would be welcomed. I had a lot to learn. It was my terrible need more than any hopeful dreams that gave me courage. To get away. To join Horace. That was as far, on that leap year day when I boarded the Interurban train, as my imagining went.