Waltzing with Bears - 1. Part 1. The Old Hanson Place and Pete's Saloon
"Waltzing with Bears" is a whimsical song about Uncle Walter sneaking out at night to go waltzing with bears. The tone of this romance is more serious and dramatic. But it has a reasonably happy ending. This is the first of four parts.
I spent a lot of 2011 hunting. The Pacific Northwest used to be a wild place, but don’t worry, I only did the kind of cutthroat hunting that everyone does here now -- house-hunting. The prices were ridiculous even in the recession and they have exploded since then. But I’m one of the people that everyone hates, one of the people driving up prices, one of the lucky ones who can pay cash for any house I want.
Fortunes were once made in lumber and mining in the West. The new robber barons were not named Rockefeller or Carnegie or Weyerhaeuser; they were Gates and Jobs and Bezos and Allen. I lucked into a job in a tech start-up that did what they all do: develop a product, bring it to success, and sell out to Microsoft, that great gobbler of all ideas. I cashed out at thirty with enough money never to have to work again. I didn’t trust stocks to preserve my new fortune, so the recession didn’t touch me. Was I so smart or hard-working as to justify such wealth? Of course not. Maybe it was guilt that drove me on to my next project: to acquire a fine old house in need of restoration, a house that might otherwise be torn down.
So I ended up at the old Hanson place in a town north of Seattle, more famous now for tulips than for timber. It’s the biggest private house for miles, a fine old mansion once, now deteriorating and almost deserted. The real estate agent gave me old Eddie Hanson’s phone number. Eddie still lives there alone, in a few rooms he keeps patched together, though he’s got to be pushing ninety. He refuses to let the agent show it, insisting instead on showing it himself. The agent also mentioned that Eddie had refused several perfectly reasonable offers on the house because he was afraid it would be torn down or badly modernized, or just because he didn’t like the potential buyer.
But Eddie seemed welcoming enough when I called and then came over the next afternoon.
“Hello, Mr. Hanson. I’m Jim Paxton,” I said, offering my hand. “Thanks for agreeing to show me the house on such short notice.”
He shook my hand. “No problem,” he said. “Come on in. And call me Eddie.”
He didn’t say much as he showed me around. He led me through each room, saying “This is the parlor,” or “Here’s the kitchen,” and then stood back and watched me as I looked. I liked what I was seeing, all the original moulding intact and no bad remodels from the 50’s or 70’s. I had noticed tarps on the roof when I arrived, so I knew he was at least trying to stop the water leaks, and now I casually pointed out the water stains on the ceiling. They’re easy enough to fix, but you have to check everywhere for brown rot. Mostly I made appreciative comments and gradually he began to relax.
When I said, “This is a great house, just beautiful,” he offered, “Yeah, my grandfather had grand ideas. It was different with a lot of people in it.”
“Did you grow up here?”
“Oh yes, I had a happy childhood with aunts and uncles I could hide behind when I was in trouble, always in someone’s good graces at the worst of times. Aunt Leila always looked out for me.” A grin twitched on his lips as he said, “And I could always count on Uncle Walter.”
When Eddie failed to elaborate, I tried to prompt. “I have a favorite uncle. Always glad to see me, always in a good mood, always happy.”
Eddie’s grin faded. “Oh, Uncle Walter was very kind to me, and he had a wild imagination and a wicked sense of humor, in a very quiet way, but he wasn’t a happy man. I’d have to say his life was very sad. And he drank a lot. Right down there in town at Pete’s Saloon.” He looked up at the ceiling, then out the window. “Have you been there?”
“No, I didn’t look around town much, I’m afraid. I was a little behind schedule getting here and--”
“Want to go have a drink?”
“Sure.” Why not? It’s not as if I had to get back to the office.
Pete’s Saloon has been updated to a modern generic bar and grill. It’s clean and well-lit and efficiently run and completely devoid of character except for a few photographs from the old days. Eddie found it more comfortable to sit at a booth than at the bar.
Once we settled in with a gin and tonic for Eddie and a beer for me, I asked, “So was there really a Pete?”
“Yeah. But Pete was actually Pierre, Pierre Bouchard. His father was French-Canadian and his mother was Cree or something. I think he moved to this area and started the saloon in 1914. He didn’t approve of the war and maybe he was avoiding it. And then America got involved anyway. But Washington State started its own Prohibition beginning in 1916. Pete had to pay smuggler’s prices for booze, which they called ‘Roy’s tea' for Roy Olmstead, the biggest smuggler. Former Seattle police lieutenant. Of course, Pete couldn’t charge for alcohol during Prohibition; he charged for water or soda and threw in alcohol as a bonus. Not really legal, but that’s what bribes are for. That’s Pete in that photograph over the bar.”
“The guy with the black bear?”
“Yep. That’s Blackie. Blackie was an orphan. Some jackass shot the mother and the other cub. Pete bottle-fed Blackie for quite a while. Kept him as a pet in a big cage behind the saloon. Of course, it wouldn’t be allowed now. Blackie loved Pete and never laid a claw on him, but a wild animal will always be a wild animal. Pete took that photo down, at a certain point, and then the people who bought the saloon recently found it in an old box and put it back up.”
“Why did Pete take it down?”
“Well, that --” Eddie stopped and took a swallow of his drink. “That’s complicated. And it has to do with Uncle Walter.”
“I’ll get to that. I’m getting ahead of myself. All I meant was that Pete had a big heart. He took in a lot of strays in his day. Had a soft spot for the timber beasts.”
“Timber beasts? Like wolves?”
“No, timber beasts were the lumber guys whose pay was so low that they couldn’t afford even the cheapest boarding houses, so they lived in the woods. Pete would let them sleep on the top floor here, sometimes, especially in winter. It’s just an attic, not high enough to stand up, no furniture, but he’d give them blankets. It was better than being outside. That picture there, over by the window, that’s Earl and Jack. Pete had a traveling photographer take their photograph. They were timber beasts. Hardly ever had a dollar between them, but they looked out for each other.” Eddie pointed to a photo of two thin, shabby men.
“And Pete wasn’t prejudiced. He had no problem with Indians, being half-Indian himself, or Mexicans, or blacks, or Chinese or Japanese, and he wouldn’t put up with anyone giving them a hard time in the saloon.”
“You don’t hear much about blacks in this area back then.”
“No, you don’t. There weren’t all that many before World War Two, and labor unions were whites only, and down in Oregon there was the Klan and that Vanport business. My personal experience was limited to Joseph Gautier.”
“Oh? Who was he?”
“He was -- oh, I’d better tell you the whole thing from the beginning. And it’s getting late. I need to get home and eat.”
“How about if I buy you dinner here and we keep talking?”
This seemed to amuse Eddie. “It’s been a long time since a young man offered to buy me dinner.” He smoothed his hair.
I thought, is Eddie gay? His smile gave a fleeting glimpse of what he must have looked like when he was young. “I promise, Eddie, no strings. Your virtue is in no danger from me.”
I leaned forward confidentially. “I’m not usually into white guys anyway.”
We both laughed. Then, with a quizzical look, he said, “Seriously?” And then we laughed again.
Next: Walter and Joseph
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