Monday, July 18, 2011

A Short Story: The Emperor of the Monkey Western

THE EMPEROR OF THE MONKEY WESTERN

Her name was Gertrude Stoneman. We never knew from where she came – maybe she had been born in our little farming community – but none of the three of us knew for sure. Everyone called her Ger and it would be a few years before we discovered that Ger was not a man – but this story is the product of the minds of three eleven year old boys who managed to find adventure in the mundane existence of a little farming community in north central Montana in those wonderful and innocent days in the summer of 1958.


It all started when the three of us, Jerry, James and I decided that we were going to raise pigeons. At the state fair in Great Falls in August of 1957 we had been going through the exhibit buildings and were all three taken by the pigeon exhibit. The blue ribbon was on the cage of a pure white pigeon with feathers covering its feet. None of us had ever seen such a beautiful bird. We decided then and there that we would raise pigeons and win first prize with our entry at the state fair.
We set our minds to the task of acquiring a pair of birds to start our flock. We were certainly in no position to purchase them. There were plenty of them – it was just a matter of catching them. A friend who was a year behind us in school already raised pigeons as a 4H project. He was not willing to part with any of his birds but he provided us invaluable information on how to catch a few starter birds, and what we needed to provide as food and shelter for the birds before we caught them.

There was an abandoned community named Manson about eight miles to the northwest of our little town. All of the buildings had fallen to the ground years before with the exception of one two story wooden structure. The cedar shingle roof had holes and the paint had disappeared with time years before we were born. No one could recall the purpose of the building but it stood empty with the exception of the hundreds of pigeons that occupied the second floor. There was four by four foot opening on the south gable end of the second floor. The door that covered it had fallen to the ground below years ago.

Riding our bikes the eight miles to the ghost town of Manson was a feat beyond our capabilities. Jerry’s father agreed to take us in the car to catch the birds.

The three of us had determined that we needed to build a flight pen and a pigeon house of some sorts. Around 10:00 AM one morning the three of us climbed on our bikes and headed for the dump. There were wonderful things at the dump.

Having forgotten our original mission of finding adequate housing for our future pigeon flock we burned an hour and a half of our morning scrounging through the discarded artifacts representing the lives of the members of our little community. Portions of the dump were constantly smoldering – a perpetual fire burned there consuming those items of day-to-day life that were combustible.

An old man lived at the dump. He told us his name was Joe. He was happy to engage us in conversation. He was eager to mention that all of the treasures at the dump were his and that we would need his permission to take anything we found. He had erected a make-shift shelter from pieces of corrugated, discarded roofing. He had a campfire burning with a tripod holding a boiling pot of – of something that did not look all that palatable. Fortunately, he did not invite us to lunch. He had a quart bottle of whiskey and he took a long pull on it every five minutes during our conversation (he did not offer any of his whiskey either). His language was deplorable; he used words that we had never heard – we knew in our minds however that they were words we should not repeat in normal intercourse without risking the loss of our summer as punishment. He told us he was a farm laborer and that he worked periodically for the price of a bottle. He told us that he had been married years ago. He said his wife left him because he ‘messed his pants after he passed-out after a day of drinking’ – It made perfect sense to us that his wife had tossed him out. We were young boys at the age of innocence where our interests were in baseball and adventures but not girls. His conversation always hovered around women and drink – neither of which we had any interest. He told us about a recent rendezvous with a lady who lived in a room on the floor above Ed’s Tavern. As he rolled a cigarette he told us that for a drink of his whiskey she allowed him to lift up her dress and put his hand between her legs. As we listened each of us had that image in our minds and wondered why anyone would want to do such a thing. The more Joe talked and drank the more his attitude changed to an abusive nature and now he was yelling animated profanities at us. We moved to a more gentle part of the dump. As Joe shook his fist and yelled – he soon quieted and went back to his bottle.

We found several rolls of discarded chicken wire and enough bailing twine to tie the bundles. Each of us bundled a manageable amount of chicken wire and drug it from the dump to Jerry’s house where we would construct a flight pen for our pigeons.

A few days passed while we constructed a pigeon house and flight pen. Jerry’s dad drove us to Manson where we blocked the door of the upper story of the old abandoned building. Each of us caught four pigeons. We had no idea of how to tell males from females – the selection we made of the birds was based on appearance only.

Having compiled the necessary components of a pigeon raising enterprise (including pigeons); we had to find food for the birds.
In farming communites grain elevators were constructed near the railroad depot and tracks for the convenience of loading railroad cars with the harvested grain. Each time the grain was transferred from the elevators to the rail cars a certain amount of grain was spilled on the ground in the process. Pigeons roosted high in the eaves of the twenty story elevators and fed on the spilled grain.

One morning we each borrowed a fairly large cooking pot from our mothers; got on our bikes and rode to the elevators across from the depot to gather food for our flock. There was a nice big pile of good hard winter wheat. We chewed handfuls of the wheat and made gum in our mouths while we filled our pots. It took surprisingly little time to gather the grain and put the pots in our bike baskets.

As we walked our bikes across the tracks we saw a big black motor cycle parked at the train depot. We stopped at the depot to investigate. The machine was black and white with a full leather black saddle and leather saddle bags with silver Conchos as decoration. The suicide shifter was chrome and shined brightly in the sun. It was the only vehicle parked at the depot. We went inside the depot for a drink of water and maybe some motorcycle conversation.

The inside of the depot contained three waiting benches and a long front counter that spanned the whole width of the building. On the wall above the windows on the south end of the depot was a huge clock with a long pendulum with a brass weight. Standing behind the counter was Ger Stoneman.
Ger was the station master for the Montana Western Railroad. The Montana Western Railway was constructed in 1909 by the Valier Land and Water Company to promote agricultural land development in the Valier area. The railway was connected to the Great Northern Railroad. The Montana Western ran between the towns of Valier and Conrad, in Pondera County, Montana. It ran a distance of twenty miles. The rail car was a gas-electric car built by the Electro-Motive Company, a division of General Motors. The car was constructed in 1925, named car #31, and now resides in the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, located in North Freedom, Wisconsin. Because of its size and purpose, locals fondly called it the “Monkey Western”. It was the delight of the local kindergarten classes – not only because of several field trips to see it arrive and leave, but because once a year the class took a field trip and traveled the forty miles to and from the small town of Valier.

Ger wore his strawberry blond hair in a ducktail. He wore a long sleeve khaki work shirt and khaki trousers. On his feet were a large heavy pair of black engineer’s boots; those typically worn by motorcycle riders. In his left breast pocket was a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Ger looked to be somewhere in his middle thirty’s, with a light beard or no beard at all – we couldn’t tell for sure. Ger had the complexion of a woman – no tan, and no farmer’s tan. Ger was a chain smoker who always had a lighted Lucky Strike in his mouth. He had a unique way of smoking – never holding the cigarette in his hand; it was always in his mouth and got rid of the ash by blowing it off while holding the cigarette in the left side of his mouth and blowing the ash off from the right side. If was a fascinating orchestration of the art of smoking and all three of us were captivated by the process. Ger had a strange shape not fat but overweight. He wore his trousers high on his body almost like he had a waist. Although the three of us never discussed it, we all thought that there was a definite narrowing of his body between his ribs and hips – he looked paunchy and definitely had hips.

We looked around the inside of the depot; none of the three of us had been in there since kindergarten. Ger, genuinely proud of his calling and position offered a tour – we declined. Ger insisted on the show and tell session and we succumbed. When he had finished we knew that Ger was whole of the Montana (Monkey) Western and the sole reason for its success. Ger was the station master, loaded and unloaded baggage, sold tickets, and dispatched for the little freight that the car carried.

We were interested in the motor cycle. Ger told us it was his means of transportation. A 1949 Harley Davidson with a suicide shift. We walked outside to admire it while Ger explained its operation. Ger swore like a sailor but his vocabularies of swear words certainly did not attain the status of vulgarities that Joe at the dump managed to disperse.

On our bike ride home, all three of us thought but none of us could put into words the curiosity we had for Ger. There was a strange curiosity we had but could not understand – we put it out of our minds and talked about our pigeon enterprise – wasn’t squab a delicacy and wouldn’t restaurants from all over be putting in orders for our product?

We went to Jerry’s house to drop off our pans of pigeon food and to admire our flock in the newly constructed flight pen. We told Jerry’s dad of our adventures and the motor cycle and Ger. He smiled and said “You boys met the Emperor of the Monkey Western”.

A couple of summers had come and gone since the pigeon raising enterprise. It was fall and I was walking home from school. The local hospital was across the street from our grade school. As I walked down the sidewalk by the hospital I heard a voice from a third floor window above me. I looked up and saw Ger at the open window cigarette in his mouth yelling a greeting to a lady sitting in a car on the street. Ger had on a flowered night gown. Ger was telling the lady about the hysterectomy he had just had. I did not know what a hysterectomy was, but I knew men did not wear pretty flowered night gowns.  An acute understanding - an epiphany - over came me and now I understood the feeling I had a couple years before at the train depot.

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