In the wondrous
'20s a pair of small, sleek steamers, the S.S.
, plied the
waters of the Pacific from Los Angeles Harbor to Victoria, B.C., Canada. The
left a strong impression on the people of the West Coast.
There are some so filled with nostalgia for the old coastwise passenger ships,
their college-boy orchestras and leisurely runs, that they would chuck all the
jets for one last week-long sea journey off the brown hills of California and
the greening coast of the Northwest.
Jeanne and I—were different. We left strong impressions on the
. In fact,
we kept the dining salon emptied and our fellow passengers in a continual state
of mat de mer in the calmest sea on our annual return journey from Jervis
Island in the late summer. We brought with us our collections of sea shells,
gathered from the beaches of Jervis in rusting coffee cans and spread lovingly
out on the dining table while we waited for service. There was nothing really
wrong with our collections, except that we failed to remove the temporal
inhabitants from within their shells.
Thus, when we
wrenched off the lids of our coffee tins, the odor of putrefied mollusks so
permeated the salon that adult diners turned pale and reeled brokenly for the
doors. Our parents, completely ignorant of the havoc we were wreaking, awaited
the second sitting and a peaceful meal without us.
This artless joy
in things of nature, in combination with a mild sadism directed against
constituted authority, was the keynote of our childhood. Now, practically
everybody has hilarious memories of his prepubescent years, but few have
enjoyed the peculiar childhood circumstances of John, Frank, Jeanne and me. In
the first place, we were brought up in what was then so wild and free an
expanse of southern California that we thought the whole world was ours,—a
healthy attitude. Also, as the second and final foursome of our parents' brood
of eight children, we came along at a time when they were so mellowed by
experience that nothing—absolutely nothing—could take them by surprise. They
had learned something that most parents never learn: you can't win when four
lean, lithe, imaginative children join forces against you.
John, is gone, struck down with the shine of youth still on him. The last time
I saw him, John stood in the middle of Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and called
out to me, as I passed in a car, a sad cry for all the long-lost joys.
"Mule-y!" he bellowed. "Maud the Mule!"—a family name I won
through a marked resemblance to the companion of Happy Hooligan, the little man
in the comic strip who wore a soup can for a hat. It is typical of the family's
blithe individuality that, actually, I have no official name. By the time I
came along—the seventh child—our parents had run out of people to honor. The
fine glow of choosing the euphonious combination had grown dim. I was called—to
indicate my temporary newness—Dolly, and as our country births went
unregistered, nobody ever got around to doing anything further about it. I came
when called, didn't I? So our rank was formed of John, Frank, Muley and
When we were all
in the magic age—say on the downside of 13—our untrammeled lives suddenly
expanded all the way from the baked mustard fields and watermelon patches of
San Gabriel in California to the cool beauty of an island off the mainland of
British Columbia. Father—an easy mark for anybody who smelled of
campfires—purchased an island in the Sabine Channel of the Strait of Georgia
from a French-Canadian cozener named Paul Lambert, who wandered into his office
one day with a lot of fuzzy snapshots of salmon and a persuasive way of
incarnating a kind of life for which Father's very soul yearned. Paul Lambert
could not have picked a better victim. Father always saw himself not as a
member of the gray-flannel-suit clan but as a kind of natural superranger in
tune with the wilds, an innate fisherman, hunter, mountaineer, woodsman, who
would have been right at home at Walden Pond except for the slight handicap of
a wife and eight children. Lambert was thought transference in the flesh.
Paul Lambert went
through life with a lush, moist-lipped leer for the ladies, his shirt
unbuttoned over his curly-haired, convex chest down to the navel, long
eyelashes and a strong mon Dieu accent. Black, curly hair grew in little
tendrils on his neck, too. He wore round knit caps on the back of his head,
with shiny curls fanned up against the red wool all around, and high boots that
laced practically to the crotch—altogether a fine figure of a man.
Father spoke of
him enthusiastically as "one of Nature's Noblemen," a title that set my
mother against Lambert, sight unseen. Being a Nature's Nobleman in our family
meant that you needed a bath and ate with a knife but Father appreciated the
real you anyway. Father was tremendously impressed with le voyageur el ses
fables and bought Jervis Island from him for approximately twenty times what it
was worth. He then hired Lambert, the self-styled pioneer, to build a family
lodge, a dock and assorted buildings on the island.
thereafter most of the family traveled en masse on the
to Victoria, and
thence by various means—island railway, fish boat—to Jervis Island. We little
ones took one look at Lambert, waiting on the dock all gussied up like William
S. Hart, and knew him for a phony. We called him "P. Lambo," ridiculing
his pronunciation of his name (Pool Lombare) even to his face—a circumstance
that sent him into towering Gallic rages. Mother shared our general opinion,
reached not so much by instinct as from listening to Father laud the virtues of
P. Lambo. Mother had long since learned that when Father was really nuts about
somebody, he was being had.
I remember Jervis
as an island approximately the size and shape of Australia. Actually, it is
only a very nice little channel island measuring maybe two miles by one, neatly
wooded, with small sandy coves and big gray rocks and a permanent population of
huffy crows. There is an Indian burial ground, too, in which we were not
allowed to dig.