The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)
Part III. The Parts That Really Matter 1935
And the oarsman, too, when he has his mind trained at the university and his body fit, feels something… . I think oarsmen understand what I’m talking about. They get that way. I’ve seen oarsmen—actually I saw one man, who was so rarin’ to go, so fit and bright, I saw him try to run up a wall. Now isn’t that ridiculous? But he felt that good; he wanted to run up that wall.
—George Yeoman Pocock
Joe’s old Franklin labored and coughed and wheezed, crawling up the long, steep ascent to Blewett Pass, high in the Cascade Mountains. Snow still lingered in the shadows of the higher peaks, and the air was cool, but the Franklin was prone to overheating on steep grades. Joe was glad he had remembered to hang a canvas water bag in front of the radiator that morning, when he had thrown his banjo and his clothes in the backseat, said good-bye to Joyce for the summer, and driven out of Seattle, heading east, looking for work.
He made it over the pass and began to drop down through dry ponderosa pine forests to the apple and cherry orchards of Wenatchee, where magpies, black and white, flashed among the cherry trees, seeking ripe, red plunder. He crossed the Columbia River on a narrow steel span and climbed out of the river’s gorge to the gently rolling wheat fields of the Columbia Plateau. He drove eastward for miles on end, the road running relentlessly arrow straight, undulating over rolling jade-green fields of wheat.
Then he turned north and descended into the Washington scablands, a tortured landscape shaped by a series of cataclysms between twelve and fifteen thousand years ago. As the last ice age waned, a two-thousand-foot-high ice dam holding back a vast lake in Montana—later dubbed Lake Missoula by geologists—gave way not once but several times, unleashing a series of floods of unimaginable scope and ferocity. In the greatest of these, during a period of roughly forty-eight hours, 220 cubic kilometers of water rushed over much of what is now northern Idaho, eastern Washington, and the northern edge of Oregon, carrying more than ten times the flow of all the rivers in the world. A massive wall of water, mud, and rock—well over a thousand feet tall in places—exploded over the countryside, rumbling southwest toward the Pacific at speeds up to one hundred miles per hour, leveling whole mountains, sluicing away millions of tons of topsoil, and gouging deep scars called “coulees” in the underlying bedrock.
As Joe descended into the largest of these excavations, the Grand Coulee, he encountered a world that was in many ways alien and yet starkly beautiful—a world of broken rock, silver sagebrush, sparse desert grasses, windblown sand, and stunted pines. Under pale blue skies, he drove along the base of high, sheer basalt cliffs. Jackrabbits the size of small dogs loped awkwardly across the highway. Scrawny coyotes slunk away through the sagebrush. Blank-faced burrowing owls perched unblinking on fence posts, watching him pass. Nervous-looking ground squirrels sat on jagged rocks, one moment watching for rattlesnakes in the sagebrush below, the next moment cocking their heads to watch for hawks circling high above. Dust devils danced across the coulee floor. A stiff, dry, unrelenting wind blew up the fifty-mile length of the coulee, carrying the sweet scent of sage and the harsh, mineral smell of broken rock.
Joe drove up the coulee to the ramshackle boomtown of Grand Coulee, perched just above the Columbia River at the spot where the U.S. government had recently committed to building a dam so massive that by the time it was finished it would be the largest masonry structure built since the Great Pyramid at Giza, more than four thousand years before. He made his way down a steeply descending gravel road to the river, crossed the wide expanse of green water on a steel bridge, and parked in front of the National Reemployment Service building.
Thirty minutes later, he walked out of the office with a job. Most of the jobs remaining at the dam site, he had been told, were for common laborers, paying fifty cents an hour. But studying the application form, Joe had noticed that there were higher pay grades for certain jobs—especially for the men whose job it was to dangle from cliff faces in harnesses and pound away at the reluctant rock with jackhammers. The jackhammer job paid seventy-five cents an hour, so Joe had put a check next to that box and stepped into the examination room for his physical. Working with a jackhammer under those conditions required enough upper body strength to fight the punishing kickback of the machine, enough leg strength to keep the body pushed away from the cliff face all day, enough grace and athleticism to clamber around on the cliffs while dodging rocks falling from above, and enough self-assurance to climb over the edge of the cliff in the first place. By the time Joe had stripped down to his shorts and told the doctor that he rowed crew at the university, the job was his.
Now, in the long, lingering twilight of a late June Northwest evening, Joe sat on the hood of the Franklin, in front of the office, and studied the lay of the land before him. Across the gorge and slightly upstream, perched on a gravel bench on the west side, was the government-built town the clerk had told Joe was Engineer City—home to technical and supervisory personnel. The houses there were modest but neat, with patches of new lawn that seemed oddly green and out of place in the uniformly brown surroundings. Upstream a narrow suspension catwalk stretched fifteen hundred feet across the river, swaying slightly, like a cobweb in the evening breeze. Near it was another, sturdier, bridge built low to the water, carrying an enormous conveyor belt, which appeared to be transporting piles of rock and gravel from one side of the river to the other. A large cofferdam, made of sheets of steel, was being built on the west side of the river to divert the water away from the base of the cliffs there. The area behind the cofferdam swarmed with men and machines, all raising individual clouds of dust.
Steam shovels and electric shovels clawed at piles of loose rock; bulldozers pushed earth and rocks from one place to another; Caterpillar diesel tractors crawled back and forth, gouging out terraces; enormous Mack AP Super-Duty dump trucks labored up rough roads leading out of the canyon, carrying boulders the size of automobiles; front loaders scooped up more boulders and dropped them in side-dump trucks that carried them to conveyors; tall cranes swung steel sheets out over the water, where pile drivers emitting white puffs of steam sat on barges, pounding them into the riverbed. At the base of the cliffs, hundreds of men with sledgehammers and crowbars climbed over piles of fallen rock, loosening them for the front loaders. On the cliffs themselves, men suspended on ropes crawled and swung from one spot to another like so many black spiders. Studying them, Joe saw that they were drilling holes in the rock faces with jackhammers. A long, shrill whistle blew, and the jackhammer men scrambled quickly to the tops of their lines. The men with picks and crowbars scurried away from the base of the cliffs. The deep, hollow, concussive sound of an explosion boomed and blossomed across the canyon, reverberating against its rock walls as plumes of white rock dust shot from the face of the western cliffs, and a shower of rocks and boulders tumbled down onto the piles below.
Joe watched with deep fascination and considerable apprehension. He was not at all sure what he was getting into here. But he was dead set on finding out. On the long, undulating drive across the wheat fields up on the plateau, he had had a lot of time to think about where he was and where he was going.
Where he was, primarily, was flat broke again and more than a little discouraged. Not just about the perpetual problem of finding money but about the whole crew business. The year had taken an emotional toll on him. Demoted and promoted and demoted again, he’d started to think of himself as a kind of yo-yo in the hands of the coaches, or the Fates, he wasn’t sure which—up one minute, down the next. The sense of purpose crew gave him brought with it the constant danger of failing and thereby losing the precious but fragile pride that his early successes had brought him.
And yet the notion of Olympic gold had begun to work its way into his psyche. A medal would be real and solid. Something nobody could deny or take away. It surprised him how much it had begun to mean to him. He figured maybe it had something to do with Thula. Or with his father. Certainly it had something to do with Joyce. At any rate, he felt more and more that he had to get to Berlin. Getting to Berlin, though, hinged on making the varsity crew. Making the varsity crew hinged first of all on paying for another year of school. And paying for school hinged on strapping on a harness and lowering himself over the edge of a cliff in the morning.
✵ ✵ ✵
That same day Al Ulbrickson was licking his wounds again. Before leaving Poughkeepsie, he had agreed to meet Cal, Pennsylvania, Syracuse, Wisconsin, and UCLA in a one-off two-thousand-meter varsity matchup in Long Beach, California.
Two thousand meters was the Olympic distance, and in the wake of Poughkeepsie the national press was again asserting that California’s varsity was now all but certain to represent the United States in Berlin in 1936. Ulbrickson was bent on proving them wrong. He knew full well that a two-thousand-meter race was an entirely different matter from a four-mile slog at Poughkeepsie. It was extraordinarily challenging to put a crew on the water that could prevail at both distances. In theory, a well-coached crew had to do the same basic things at both distances: get off to a good start to build up momentum, back off as much as possible to conserve energy for the finish yet remain within striking distance all the while, then throw everything they had left into a sprint to the finish line. The difference was that in a two-thousand-meter race everything came at you much faster and harder. The amount of momentum acquired at the beginning mattered more, figuring out where to position yourself in the field for the middle was more difficult and more critical, and the final sprint was inevitably much more desperate. Though all distances required enormous amounts of brawn, the two-thousand-meter race required lightning-quick thinking as well. And that’s where Ulbrickson figured he had an edge at the shorter distance—he had Bobby Moch sitting in the coxswain’s seat.
Beating California at that distance would offer Ulbrickson an opportunity for immediate redemption, a chance to change the prevailing assumptions about the upcoming Olympics, and, if the rumors swirling through Seattle were true, a way to save his job.
Somewhat more than six thousand fans packed into the Long Beach Marine Stadium on the day of the race, sitting in bleachers or standing on the sand along both sides of the arrow-straight saltwater course, a forest of oil derricks rising behind them. There was only a light cross-course breeze blowing in off the Pacific. A thin, acrid smell of petroleum hung in the air.
Washington and California bounded out ahead of the field. The two boats settled in, rowing in full-sprint mode, the boats streaking down the course most of the way as if locked together. With two hundred meters to go, California edged ahead of Washington by inches. With a hundred meters left, they widened the lead to a quarter of a length. Bobby Moch suddenly screamed something at his crew. He had added a new chant to his calls recently, “FERA,” noting it in his scrapbook and jotting next to it, “Obscene, refers to Ebright.” Perhaps that is what he called out now. He never said. Whatever it was, it had its effect. In the final fifty meters, the Washington boat surged forward again, quickly closing in on California.
But it wasn’t enough. Ky Ebright’s California Bears crossed the line in a sizzling 6:15.6, half a second ahead of Washington. Instead of finding redemption, Al Ulbrickson headed home with another defeat. Quite possibly his last.
✵ ✵ ✵
The jackhammer work was brutal, but Joe came to enjoy it. For eight hours a day, he dangled on a rope in the furnacelike heat of the canyon, pounding at the wall of rock in front of him. The jackhammer weighed seventy-five pounds and seemed to have a life and a will of its own, endlessly pushing back, trying to wrest itself out of Joe’s grip as he in turn tried to push it into the rock. The continual, rapid-fire chock-chock-chock of his machine and those of the men around him was deafening. Rock dust, gritty and irritating, swirled around him, got in his eyes, his mouth, and his nose. Sharp chips and shards of rock flew up and stung his face. Sweat dripped from his back and fell away into the void below.
Hundreds of feet of loose rock—the “overburden” as the engineers called it—had to be peeled away from the face of the cliffs in order to get down to the older granite bedrock on which the foundation of the dam would be built. Then the granite itself had to be shaped to conform to the contours of the future dam. It was hard stuff. So hard that roughly two thousand feet of steel disappeared every day from the bit ends of all the jackhammers and pneumatic drills at work in the canyon.
But tough as the work was, there was much about it that suited Joe. He learned that summer to work closely with the men dangling on either side of him, each keeping an eye out for rocks falling from above, calling out warnings to those below, searching for better places to find seams in the rock. He liked the easygoing camaraderie of it, the simple, stark maleness of it. Most days he worked without a shirt or hat. His muscles quickly grew bronzed and his hair ever blonder under the ardent desert sun. By the end of each day, he was exhausted, parched with thirst, and ravenously hungry. But—much as he sometimes had after a hard row on Lake Washington back home—he also felt cleansed by the work. He felt lithe and limber, full of youth and grace.
Three times a day, and sometimes four on weekends, he ate in the large, white clapboard company mess hall in Mason City, the hastily erected town run by MWAK, the consortium of companies building the dam. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with men arranged in rows at long tables, packed close together, he ate as he had back in his boyhood at the Gold and Ruby mine—facedown, tucking into mountains of food served on cheap crockery. The food was nothing special, but the servings were prodigious. Each morning the thirty men working in the kitchen prepared three hundred dozen eggs, twenty-five hundred pancakes, five hundred pounds of bacon and sausage, and 180 gallons of coffee. At lunch they went through three hundred two-foot loaves of bread, 150 gallons of milk, and twelve hundred cups of ice cream. At dinner they dished up fifteen hundred pounds of red meat (except on Sunday, when they served twelve hundred pounds of chicken) and 330 pies. Joe never left a scrap on his plate, or anyone else’s within reach.
Every night he hiked up the hill to a place called Shack Town, where he had found a cheap room in a long, rickety shedlike building designed to house single men. Clinging to the rocky hillsides and dusty flats above the work site, Shack Town wasn’t much better than a dry, dusty version of Hooverville down on the waterfront in Seattle. Most of the buildings were constructed from rough-cut lumber, some from little more than tar paper tacked over a wooden framework. Like most of the shacks, Joe’s had no indoor plumbing and his room came with only enough electricity for one lightbulb overhead and a hot plate on a shelf. Each of the half-dozen gravel streets in Shack Town had a communal shower house, but Joe soon found that, eager as he was to get the rock dust off himself, taking a shower was a far from comfortable experience. Hordes of black widow spiders lurked in the rafters above the showers, and they tended to drop onto the naked men below as soon as the water was turned on and steam rose to meet them. After watching a few of his neighbors leaping out of the showers buck naked, yelping and batting at themselves, Joe finally took to carrying a broom into the shower each evening to clear the rafters of eight-legged intruders before he turned the water on.
For the first couple of weeks, Joe kept mostly to himself after work and dinner, sitting in the dark of the shack, playing his banjo, his long, thin fingers dancing up and down the neck of the instrument, and singing softly to himself. Every few nights he sat under his one lightbulb and wrote long letters to Joyce. Sometimes he’d walk out after dark and sit on a rock and look out over the canyon, just for the spectacle of it. Floodlights lit up much of the work site, and in the immense surrounding darkness of the high desert the effect was otherworldly. The scene below seemed to unfold as if it were a vast diorama in a lighted case. Veils of dust drifted under the floodlights like fog under streetlamps. The yellow headlights and red taillights of the trucks and heavy equipment moved in and out of shadows as they crawled around the uneven terrain. The welding torches of men working on the steel cofferdam flickered on and off, glowing orange and electric blue. Strings of glittering white lights defined the contours of the suspension bridges across the river. The river itself was black, invisible below them.
✵ ✵ ✵
Two weeks into his work at Grand Coulee, Joe discovered that among the many college boys who had converged on Grand Coulee seeking work that summer there were two from the Washington shell house. He didn’t know either of them very well, but that was about to change.
Johnny White was the number two man in Tom Bolles’s outstanding freshman boat that year. An inch shorter than Joe, and more slightly built, he was nevertheless a fine physical specimen and striking to look at, with fine, regular features; gracefully proportioned limbs; and an open, eager face. He had warm, inviting eyes and a sunny smile. If you’d wanted a poster model for the all-American boy, Johnny would have fit the bill. He was also a thoroughly nice kid and nearly as poor as Joe Rantz.
He’d grown up in the southern part of Seattle, on the western edge of Lake Washington, south of Seward Park. Things had been fine until 1929. But with the financial crash, his father’s business—exporting scrap steel to Asia—had all but evaporated. John White Sr. gave up his office in the Alaska Building downtown and set up an office upstairs in the house on the lake. For the next several years, he sat there, day after day, looking out over the lake, listening to the clock tick, waiting for the telephone to ring, hoping some business would materialize. It never did.
Finally, he got up from his chair one day, went down to the lakeshore, and began to plant a garden. His kids needed to be fed, and he was out of money, but food could be grown. Before long he had the finest garden in the neighborhood. In the rich black soil along the lakeshore, he grew tall sweet corn and large, luscious tomatoes, both perpetual challenges to Seattle gardeners. He grew loganberries, and picked apples and pears from old trees on the property. He raised chickens. Johnny’s mother, Maimie, bartered the eggs for other goods, canned the tomatoes, made wine from the loganberries. She grew peonies in another garden along the side of the house and sold them to a florist in Seattle. She went to a flour mill for flour sacks, bleached them, and made them into dish towels that she sold around town. Once a week she bought a roast and served it for Sunday dinner. The rest of the week they ate leftovers. Then in 1934 the city decided to open a swimming beach along the shore in front of the house. They condemned the Whites’ waterfront garden.
Johnny’s father had one passion that overrode all his other interests and kept him going through those hard years—rowing. Before moving west to Seattle, he had been a first-rate sculler at the prestigious Pennsylvania Athletic Club in Philadelphia. He had brought his shell out to Seattle, and now he spent long hours rowing alone on Lake Washington, passing methodically back and forth in front of his house and the beach and what had been his garden, working out the frustration.
Johnny was the apple of his eye, and he wanted more than anything for his son to become an oarsman. Johnny, in turn, wanted nothing more than to meet his father’s often very high expectations, whatever they might be. And Johnny hadn’t let him down so far. He was unusually bright, accomplished, and ambitious, and he had graduated from Franklin High School two years early, at the age of sixteen.
That had created a small problem. He was far too young and too underdeveloped to row for the university, the only rowing game in town. So by mutual agreement with his father, Johnny went to work—both to make enough money to attend the university and, just as importantly, to manufacture enough muscle to row with the best of them when he got there. He chose the hardest, most physically challenging work he could find: first wrestling steel beams and heavy equipment around a shipyard on the waterfront in Seattle and then stacking lumber and manhandling massive fir and cedar logs with a peavey in a nearby sawmill. By the time he arrived at the university, two years later, he had enough cash to make it through a couple of years of school and enough brawn to quickly emerge as one of Tom Bolles’s most impressive freshmen. Now, in the summer of 1935, he’d arrived at Grand Coulee looking for more—more money and more muscle.
The other Washington boy who showed up at Grand Coulee that summer was Chuck Day. Like Johnny White, he was a number two man, pure muscle, broad in the shoulders, but a bit lighter than the boys who sat in the middle of the boat. He had brown hair and a square face with a strong, broad jaw. His eyes could be mirthful one moment, flashing with rage the next. The overall effect was slightly pugnacious. He wore spectacles but managed to look tough doing it. And he almost always had a Camel or a Lucky Strike dangling from his lip, except when Al Ulbrickson was around. At any given moment, though, he was as likely to be merry as ornery. He loved to play tricks, delighted in horsing around, always seemed to have a joke at the ready. The previous year he had rowed as one of Joe’s rivals in the junior-varsity-turned-varsity boat. Largely because of that, he and Joe had hardly ever exchanged two words, at least not civil words.
Irish American through and through, Day had grown up just north of the Washington campus, in the area where the fraternities were located. His father was a successful dentist, and so his family had been spared the worst effects of the Depression and lived fairly comfortably, teeth being prone to decay regardless of economic trends. At first blush it didn’t seem to make sense to Joe that a kid like Day would have any reason to work in a place as dirty and dangerous as the coulee.
In point of fact, though—as Joe would soon find out—there was no place that Chuck Day was more likely to be that summer than at Grand Coulee. To understand him, you had to understand his heart. He was a ferocious competitor. If you put a challenge in front of him, he attacked it like a bulldog. And he just plain didn’t know the meaning of surrender. If a river needed to be dammed, then by God just get out of the way and let him at it.
✵ ✵ ✵
Joe and Johnny and Chuck fell into an easy and comfortable confederacy. Without a word about it, they put aside the rivalries of the shell house, forgot about the hurled insults of the past year, and ignored the contest that they all knew lay ahead the following year.
The Grand Coulee was unlike anyplace any of them had ever been. The work was crushingly hard, the sun brutal, the dirt and ceaseless din almost unbearable, but the spaces were vast, the scenery staggering, and the company fast and fascinating. Every type and variety of humanity seemed to have made it to the coulee that summer, and the most colorful of them had settled in Shack Town. Mixed in with all the college students and farm boys and out-of-work loggers, there were grizzled hard-rock miners from all over the West. There were Filipinos, Chinese, Welshmen, South Sea Islanders, African Americans, Mexicans, and Native Americans, most of the last from the adjoining Colville Reservation. Not all of Shack Town’s residents worked on the dam itself. Many were there to provide various services to the men who did—doing their laundry, cooking their meals at the mess hall, selling them various sundries, disposing of their trash. And there were women too, though almost all the women practiced the same profession.
Just uphill from the main street in Grand Coulee lay B Street, a three-block stretch of dirt and gravel lined on either side with hastily contrived buildings housing every sort of distraction a young man could imagine—card rooms and bars and pool halls and brothels and fleabag hotels and dance emporiums. During the daytime, when the men were all at work down at the dam site, B Street dozed. Dogs flopped down in the middle of the street to take naps. Occasionally a car sputtered up the hill from downtown and detoured around the sleeping dogs before parking in front of Peerless Painless Dentist, its driver getting out and walking nervously into the office. Attractive young women emerged from time to time from the Red Rooster or Gracie’s Model Rooms and stepped across the street to buy something at Blanche’s Dress Shop or to stop in at La James Beauty Shop for a perm. Harry Wong, the cook at the Woo Dip Kitchen, usually appeared early in the afternoons, carrying crates of vegetables into the restaurant before closing and locking the door until he was ready to open for business.
But at night—especially on a Friday or Saturday night, after the men had lined up at the MWAK payroll office—B Street blossomed. Jazz and country music poured out of bars and dance halls. Men crowded into restaurants lit by flickering kerosene lamps and sat down to eat cheap steaks and drink stale beer at tables that were not more than pine planks resting on two sawhorses. Working women, “Yoo Hoo Girls” in the local vernacular, hung out the upstairs windows of cheap hotels and dance halls and even the fire department, calling out to the men on the street below. Others waited in the upstairs rooms of established brothels like the Red Rooster and Gracie’s, while out in the street pimps dressed in cheap suits tried to steer customers their way. Card sharks lingered over green-felt tables in back rooms, smoking cigars, waiting for victims. At the Grand Coulee Club and the Silver Dollar, small orchestras played dance tunes for taxi dancers. For ten cents, a lonely fellow could dance one dance with a pretty woman. As the evening wore on and the liquor flowed, the orchestra played faster and faster, the intervals between dances grew shorter and shorter, and the men emptied their pockets at an ever-faster pace, desperate to keep dancing in silky arms, their faces nestled in perfumed hair.
In the wee hours, men eventually began to stagger back toward their bunks in Mason City or Engineer City or Shack Town. Those bound for Mason City faced a challenge waiting for them on the way home. The most direct way across the canyon was on the narrow fifteen-hundred-foot suspension catwalk swaying over the river. Nobody ever seemed to have trouble with it when heading up to B Street early in the evening, but returning home full of liquor at 3:00 a.m. was another matter. With a couple of dozen drunken men at a time lurching across it, the catwalk bucked and heaved and swayed like a tormented snake. Almost every weekend night someone went over the edge. So many, in fact, plunged off the catwalk that MWAK had taken to stationing a man in a boat downstream from it on Friday and Saturday nights to pluck the survivors from the water.
Joe and Johnny and Chuck walked B Street on Saturday nights, taking it all in with wide eyes. None of them had ever seen anything quite like it, and they weren’t quite sure how to behave in this new world. Al Ulbrickson’s “no smoking, no drinking, no chewing, no cussing” dictum always rang like a bell in the backs of their minds. As athletes they prided themselves on their self-discipline. But the temptations were many. So they nervously prowled the bars and card rooms and dance halls, drinking beer and taking occasional shots of whiskey and singing along with ragtag cowboy bands. Occasionally Chuck or Johnny shelled out a dime for a dance, but to Joe the price seemed extravagant. For a dime, you could buy a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs at Carsten’s Grocery just down the street. And he had Joyce back home to think about. They stood staring sheepishly up at the Yoo Hoo Girls who beckoned to them from windows, but they stayed out of their lairs. In the card rooms, they gathered around felt-top tables, but Joe kept his wallet in his pocket. His money came too hard to risk it on a hand of cards, even in the unlikely event that it was honestly dealt. When Chuck Day sat down at the tables, Joe and Johnny both stood by, keeping a close eye on him, ready to extricate him from any trouble. Disputes here, they had noticed, generally led to fistfights that poured out into B Street, and it wasn’t unheard of for knives and guns to come into the mix.
The Grand Coulee Theater showed first-run movies every weekend. Joe and Johnny and Chuck found that it was a good place to pass a Saturday afternoon out of the sun and the dust, eating popcorn, drinking cold root beer, and mingling with the other patrons, many of whom were the taxi dancers and Yoo Hoo Girls dressed in ordinary street clothes. Chatting with them before the show and during intermissions, the boys found many of them to be friendly, simple, honest young women, not terribly different, really, from the kinds of girls they had grown up with back in their hometowns, except that the hard times had driven them to desperate measures.
Food also drew them to B Street: chow mein at the Woo Dip Kitchen; homemade tamales from the Hot Tamale Man’s shack; mountainous sundaes at the soda fountain in Atwater’s Drugstore; fresh-baked cherry pie at the Doghouse Café. And the Best Little Store by a Dam Site was a good place to shop for treats and small luxuries, everything from cheap cigars to Oh Henry! candy bars.
When they wanted to escape the clamor of B Street and Grand Coulee, the boys sometimes drove to Spokane and explored Joe’s old haunts or traveled down the coulee to swim in Soap Lake, a geological oddity where brisk, warm winds piled the mineral suds that gave the lake its name into creamy white drifts two or three feet deep along the beach.
For the most part, though, they stayed in Grand Coulee, where they could toss a football around in the sagebrush, chuck rocks off the edges of the cliffs, bask shirtless on stone ledges in the warm morning sun, sit bleary-eyed in the smoke around a campfire at night telling ghost stories as coyotes yelped in the distance, and generally act like the teenagers they actually were—free and easy boys, cut loose in the wide expanse of the western desert.
George Pocock’s shop