In which I post another chapter from my NaNoWriMo novel
Luna is very good at her job.
September 17th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever
Meet William Roberts :the man who is Stinky Jack
By Annabeth Spencer
William Roberts doesn’t look crazy. He looks like a mechanic, which he is, and a farmer, which he also is, and a busy dad with 5 boys, which he also is. But William Roberts told me very seriously, and very happily, that he has at least three guys inside his head. Maybe four guys.
William always loved drama classes in school. He tried out for every school production, every community theatre group, every church pageant. He never got cast in the leading roles, but he was just happy to be on the stage in front of an audience. When he went to college, he took drama classes just for fun. “I knew I was never going to make a living as an actor, but I like to be on the stage,” he says. “Then one day, my mom wrote to me from home, says the Chamber of Commerce back here in Skookum was having a scholarship contest. They would give $1,000 for the best presentation of an aspect of
William went to the college library and looked up books on Pilchuck County History. “But they were really boring, those books. I wrote down a bunch of the most interesting facts I could find, but even that stuff was boring. I thought, ‘no way would anybody pay a thousand bucks for something this dull’. Then the librarian, she found me one more book, a book of oral histories that were accounts of people remembering stuff from the old days. And some of those old people, they were talking about this guy, Stinky Jack O’Malley, and all the tricks and con-jobs he used to play on people here in the old days. And I thought, that’s what I should do!
William went to the thrift store and found a pair of leather work boots, a ratty long-sleeved shirt, an old pair of Levi jeans, a set of red cotton suspenders and a disreputable old-fashioned bowler hat. Stinky Jack O’Malley had earned his nickname by his infrequent bathing habits, and William wanted to look the part. “I had learned stuff in those theater classes about how to make costumes look right, and with these clothes, I put them all in a burlap sack and dragged it behind my truck up and down my parents’ gravel driveway. That made everything all dusty and crumpled-looking: exactly what I wanted. My parents thought I was nuts, of course.”
Then he went to work on his script: a narration of Stinky Jack O’Malley’s life. Not the dry, boring facts derived from census data and records kept at the county courthouse. Instead, he wrote an account of the man’s life as if Stinky Jack himself were telling the story.
“Stinky Jack was this really oddball guy—sometimes a good guy, sometimes a crook. The town elected him mayor three times in a row, mostly because nobody else wanted the job, and they thought that having a job might keep Jack sober for a while. And it worked, at least at first. Then he got really stinking drunk one night when he was playing cards with another guy, and the other guy was winning like crazy. They’re betting everything they’ve got, and Jack won’t bet his hat, but he bets the piano that’s in the saloon. But when the other guy won that hand, won the piano, Jack didn’t want to give it to him, so he pushed the piano—all by himself, and him so drunk he could barely walk—he pushed that piano all the way down to the end of
"Another time he heard about folks back East paying big money for beaver skins. Well, Stinky Jack figures, beavers are just big rats, and it's a helluva lot easier to breed rats than to catch beavers around here. So he decided to start breeding rats for their skins. Yeah, the City Council really had their hands full trying to get that shut down. I guess he really did sell some skins, though. I've always wondered if there are any antique shops back East trying to sell off a "beaver" skin coat that's really made of rat skins?
“I wrote my presentation for the Chamber of Commerce as one half of a conversation, between Stinky Jack and some other fella who is never named or described. Maybe they’re playing cards, or drinking, or maybe they’re even sitting in a jail cell. Jack tells some of the stories about his life,--not just the real stuff, but some of his tall tales, too. Like the time when he first came to Skookum, and started the very first saloon, before he hitched up with Melba Mae, but the saloon wasn’t making very much money because the loggers up in the hills would only come to town once a month to buy supplies and drink and spend their money. And Jack figured that part of the problem was that a lot of those guys were bald , and how they might come to town more often if they had a lot of hair on their heads to impress the ladies. So he bought himself up a big crate of medicine show hair tonic and loaded it up in his canoe to transport it up the river to the logging camp.
“There weren’t a lot of roads in
“Anyhow, Jack loaded up all that hair tonic in his canoe to take up to the lumber camps, and he figured he might as well sell other stuff while he was there, so he put in some whisky bottles too. And that would have been okay, except he started drinking some of the whiskey as he was paddling. And pretty soon he got more interested in drinking than in paddling, and then he got really more interested in drinking and singing…and eventually, he tipped over the canoe with all the contents and the entire thing ended up floating down the creek back into the bay.
“Jack figured all that stuff was lost at the bottom of the bay, all the whiskey he hadn’t been drinking (which wasn’t much, to be honest) and all those bottles of hair tonic. Lost, and gone forever, he thought.
“He found out differently when people started talking about the shellfish they were digging out of the tideflats a few months later—clams so thickly covered with seaweed, they looked like they were wearing wigs and beards! Nobody had ever seen anything like that before, and Stinky Jack, he figured it was a result of all that hair tonic that had gotten dumped in the water.
“Never one to ignore an opportunity to make money—unless it involved actual work, you understand—Stinky Jack took himself down to the tideflats when the tide was out and everyone was out digging clams for dinner. He set up a table with a great big sign:
“Shave and a haircut: TWO CLAMS!”
William roars with laughter at the punchline of his own story, and it’s impossible not to join with him in the merriment.
He won the Chamber of Commerce scholarship, he says, and had a lot of fun with it. But then he got busy with school, and then got busy with being a new husband and then a dad. Years passed before William Roberts thought about Stinky Jack O’Malley again.
Then, one day, he heard that the local museum was looking for people to learn how to give tours of their exhibits of old-time stuff, and he thought it sounded like fun. He went to the trainings, and was disappointed to learn that the standard museum docent narration was just as dry and boring as those old history books he had consulted back in college.
“I went to the museum director, and I told him that what they really needed was Stinky Jack O’Malley giving the tours. The museum board thought it was a great idea, and so I pulled all that old-fashioned costume stuff out of the attic and started dressing up and acting like I was Stinky Jack, back from the dead and ready to talk about my life and how things were in the old days of Skookum. It was a huge hit, and we had a lot of fun.
“My boys got in on the act when they were old enough—they’d dress up in period costume and gather around my knee as I sat in my rocking chair at the museum. Then they’d ask me to tell a story to them and to the museum guests. It was pretty silly, but we had a lot of fun with it, and it gave me a chance to be back on a stage of sorts. I love that. And one of my boys, he’s decided to study local history when he goes to college. That makes me very happy. I think he could just as easily have decided to be a bartender or a con-man, from all those stories I told.”
With the success of his Stinky Jack presentations, William created two other first-person historical narratives to tell different aspects of stories of life in the old days of our county’s pioneers: Henry VanPelt, who was an entrepreneur who came to Skookum in the 1920’s, and the first senator elected from this county, and Harvey Coski, a Polish immigrant who was hired to work on one of the earliest commercial fishing boats in the area. William is currently working with the Pilchuck First Nations Tribe on a presentation centering around one of their historical leaders at the time of European exploration in this area.
William Roberts presents his Stinky Jack stories on the second Saturday of each month at the Skookum Museum of History and Industry, located behind the Skookum Public Library on