The Blog

Dakota Thanksgiving

A holiday memoir.

11:00 PM, Nov 27, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
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But that feeling of being fourteen was something more than just appetite. The lintels of the door frames all through the house were marked with hand prints as I reached up to touch them every time I passed beneath, amazed at my new height. I had spent the summer hauling hay--the hardest job I've ever had--and I was proud of my new strength. My parents believed in work for their children, and by the time I left home for good I'd delivered papers early in the morning, and scooped ice cream after school, and followed a harvest team through the wheat fields, and spent a summer with a finish crew, tacking the wooden trim on kitchens through an endless subdivision of identical split-level houses in Ogden, Utah.

Whenever one job ended, there was always some new client of my father's law practice, anxious--my father insisted--for me to come along and help. I stood behind the taco grill, hour after hour, waiting for customers at a failing Mexican fast-food restaurant, and I hung pictures at an art gallery, briefly and badly. At a placer-wash gold mine outside Nevada City, the summer I was fifteen, I learned how to run a diesel pumping engine and mix the orange and purple glues that held together the huge sections of plastic pipe that carried water up to the mine. I learned to play pinochle at night by kerosene lantern and to sit silently all afternoon, watching for leaks in the 150-foot wooden sluice we'd built, lined with serrated steel frames on hairy mats to catch the washed-down gold that, sadly, wasn't there.

For my parents, the point wasn't the money--which was good, because I managed to save none of it. I never did get paid for the summer at the gold mine. The leasing companies came in August to repossess the bulldozer and the backhoe, the sheriffs followed the next day with an eviction notice, and the mining company that was going to make us all rich dissolved in the usual muddle of liens and bankruptcies, lawsuits and countersuits, that seemed to await all the would-be wheeler-dealers and Micawberish romantics of business who passed through our lives.

We had a phrase we used to describe it. The bookshelves in the living room were lined with lawyers' stories: lives of Clarence Darrow, Learned Hand, and Charles Evans Hughes; memoirs by Bellamy Partridge, Louis Nizer, and William O. Douglas. And somewhere in a biography of one of the great lawyer opponents of Tammany Hall--Samuel Seabury, maybe, or William Travers Jerome--my father came across a line he loved and quoted the rest of his life. When one of New York's periodic reform-minded grand juries subpoenaed a Tammany official and demanded to know where all the bribes and kickbacks had disappeared to, he simply shrugged his shoulders and answered with the sigh of a man who understands the way money slips away, "It is gone where the woodbine twineth."

That might have been the motto of all my father's clients: the oil-shale developers, the penny-stock promoters, the phone solicitors who were going to put little packets of pick-me-up vitamins on the checkout counters of convenience stores across America, the inventor of a static-electric space heater, the man who thought a Brazilian soft drink called Guarana was going to sweep the country--and somehow convinced Canada Dry to bottle the stuff and give him the doomed distributorship for the entire Midwest.

Unfortunately, that might have been my motto, as well. Even the jobs for which I actually got paid never added up to anything, and the money always seemed to go where the woodbine twineth. Some of it slipped away in buying books--and more books, a few phonograph albums, and yet more books. Why would anyone use the Carnegie Library down by the courthouse when it was possible to own the book: hold it, feel the possession of it while you were reading, then set it as a marker of permanent knowledge on the shelves beside all the other books?

But more of the money seemed to disappear simply in living. I had friends who looked up from a summer's work with thousands of dollars in the bank, but I could never learn the knack--or understand, really, why the money wasn't in their pockets to be frittered away.