By Jim Thompson
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A bittersweet comedy of a hard-won American life, ROUGHNECK chronicles the many jobs, near-criminal escapades, and downright unlawful grifts of the man who would become one of crime fiction’s most enduring writers, in a larger-than-life literary memoir–or wildly entertaining tall tale–as only Thompson could tell it. Hard times have never sounded so good.
I pulled the old Ford into the curb and cut off the motor. Badly overheated from its flattened crankshaft, it continued to run for a moment or two—pounding so hard from its exertions that the whole car shook. It was a sweltering August day in 1929. It had stopped on upper Grand Avenue in Oklahoma City. Wiping the sweat from my face, I stared glumly out the window.
Along this street I had hustled newspapers as a child, The Oklahoman in the morning and The News at night. Not far from here was the fine residence we had occupied when the Thompson family affairs took a sudden and fantastic turn for the better. And here, across the walk to the right, was the office building from which Pop had directed a multimillion dollar oil business…So long ago, and yet it seemed like yesterday. Now Pop was in Texas and his money was there, too, sunk into one oilless well after another. As for me—me and Mom and my kid sister, Freddie.…
Freddie was a large girl, and she had always enjoyed an excellent appetite. She contended now, whimperingly, that Mom and I were deliberately trying to starve her to death. We had money, didn't we? We had some money, anyway. Well, why the heck didn't we eat, then? Just name her one good reason why we didn't eat!
"Shut up," said Mom. "Ask your big brother. He knows everything."
"Oh, for God's sake," I said.
"Well, I don't care," said Mom. "If you'd ever listen to anyone, you wouldn't get into such awful messes. We wouldn't be in this mess now. But, oh, no, not you. Now, I'm not going to say another word, Jimmie, but.…"
Being very tired and worried, and no longer young, she said quite a bit more. It seemed I was stubborn, wilful, a consistent and deliberate flouter of convention. I seemed never to have used my very good mind for anything but involving myself in trouble.
I spent six years in high school, and I got out then only by falsifying the records. As a youth in my first long pants, I was an associate of chorus girls, grifters, gamblers, and other ne'er-do-wells. By the time I was fifteen, I had been variously employed as a newspaper "man," a burlesque show hawker, a plumber's helper, a comedian in two-reel pictures and in a dozen-odd other occupations. With equal ease, I could quote the Roman lyric poet Catullus, or the odds against making four the hard way.
I was not yet sixteen when I became a night bellboy in a luxury hotel. (This through the intervention of a good natured thug and con man named Allie Ivers.) I earned big money there—and acquired still more by gambling—and spent it all. At eighteen, I broke down with tuberculosis, acute alcoholism and complete nervous exhaustion.
I bummed through west and far west Texas for three years, slowly getting my health back in the high, dry climate. Then I returned to Fort Worth and went back to the hotel. A group of gangsters made me their distributor for bootleg whiskey. The dubious honor was thrust upon me, practically at gunpoint. I plotted to get even, simultaneously recouping my fortunes.
Starting off with a handle of a few cases a week, I gradually enlarged my order until, finally, the few had increased to twenty. In order to do this, I had to wholesale the stuff to other hotel employees at a very short profit and sometimes no profit at all. But that was all right. The total proceeds from the twenty cases were to be my profit. I intended to dump them for a minimum of three thousand dollars, and then skip town. My gangster associates could whistle for the dough I owed them.
Unfortunately, my cache of whiskey was discovered and confiscated by Federal prohibition agents. They took it all, but they only reported five cases. And this bit of official perfidy was an even harder blow than my financial loss. It prevented me from making a new start with the gangsters; it deprived me of any valid excuse for not paying their bill. I had the alternative of paying up or getting my head beaten off…or, of course, leaving town. So, with approximately a thirtieth of my anticipated three thousand—a little less than a hundred dollars—I loaded Mom and Freddie into the car and headed north.
Our destination was Nebraska, and we were not nearly so downhearted as we headed toward it as one might think. Mom's parents lived in a small Nebraska town, and she and Freddie would be welcome with them for a time. As soon as I could arrange it, they would join me in Lincoln where I hoped to enter the state university. I was sorely in need of some higher education, as an editor acquaintance had pointed out. He had also pointed out that I was much more apt to wind up dead, than as the writer I hoped to be, unless I abandoned the course I was following.
We chugged along quite cheerfully for a matter of five or ten miles. Then the car began to reveal its overall worthlessness. The motor steamed and smoked. It clattered, pounded and roared. I pulled off the road and lifted the hood. A brief examination uncovered the terrible truth.
The crankcase was filled with sawdust and tractor oil. It had been doctored thusly to conceal a flat crankshaft—the one incurable ailment of the Model-T Ford. No repair, as the term is usually used, would correct the difficulty for more than a few hours. We needed a new shaft, new bearings, new rods, and other internal accessories. Briefly—and it would have cost us little more—we needed a new motor.
It took us two days to get to Oklahoma City, a distance of two hundred and fifty miles. It also took almost seventy of our one hundred dollars. We had traveled no more than a fourth of the way to our destination, and more than two-thirds of our money was gone.
Here we sat, then, on that sweltering August afternoon in 1929—a tired, middle-aged woman, a tired, hungry young girl, and a tired, somewhat saturnine-looking young man. Here we sat, nominal beggars in a broken-down Ford, at the site of our one-time glory. I closed my eyes against the brilliant sunlight, and I could almost see Pop bustling out of this building—young, smartly dressed, hurrying toward his low-slung Apperson-Jack or the big Cole Aero-Eight. I could see us all riding home together, out to the big high-ceilinged house with its book-lined walls. I could see the friendly face of the cook as she dished up the dinner. I could taste—
I opened my eyes again. Mom gave me a frown.
"Now, that's a nice way to talk," she said. "That's nice language to use in front of your mother and sister."
"What did I say?" I said. "All I said was ship. I was thinking how cool it would be, you know, to be out on a ship and—"
"You did not!" said Freddie. "He did not say ship, Mama! He said s-h-i—"
"Well," I said hastily, opening the door of the car, "I guess I'd better be going. Wish me luck."
The man I went to see had come to Oklahoma from Germany in 1912. Due to some flaw in his immigration papers, he had been detained on Ellis Island for several months, and when World War I broke out he was taken into custody as an enemy alien. The case came to Pop's attention. Through his then powerful political connections, he got the man released and started on the way to becoming a citizen. Moreover, since the man seemed incapable of doing anything for himself, Pop set him up in business. He bought the guy three heavy-duty oil field trucks; he leased the trucks back from the man at a very fancy rental. He gave him a fat "bonus" of oil stock which climbed from its dollar-par to one hundred dollars a share. I don't know why Pop did such things, and I doubt that he knew. It was simply his way—until his money ran out.
Well, I went up to the guy's offices—they occupied a half floor in this building—and I was admitted to the inner sanctum the moment I sent in my name. With tears of pure joy in his eyes, he wrung my hand; and then, seemingly overcome with emotion, he gave me a bear hug.…Why hadn't we kept in touch with him all these years? What oil fields was Pop operating in now? Was he, perhaps, contemplating a return to Oklahoma?…He babbled on, firing questions about the family, telling me about his own. His wife and daughter were in Europe. His son had just returned to Harvard prep. They had a "nice little house"—the mansion of a former governor—out on Classen Boulevard, and he insisted that we come out and—
I finally managed to cut in on him, to make him listen. He heard me out, nodding sympathetically; and while I thought I detected a certain coolness in the atmosphere, I attributed it to my own hypersensitive feelings. He neither did nor said anything out of the way, and I incline to a defensive apprehensiveness when asking for favors.
Of course he would help me, he declared. It was no more than right. He was delighted to have seen me, even under these unhappy circumstances, and he wanted to see Mom and Freddie also. His car was about due to call for him, but there would still be time for a chat.
We rode downstairs together. He greeted Mom and Freddie as warmly as he had me. Then, his car pulled up at the side of ours, a chauffeur-driven, twelve-cylinder Packard, and regretfully he bade us goodbye.
He pressed a bill into my hand. He hopped into his limousine, and it glided away into the traffic. I looked down at the bill. Silently I handed it to Mom. She was still staring at it dazedly as I climbed in, and I winced at the stricken wonder in her eyes.
"It must have been a mistake," she said, slowly. "Don't you suppose it was a mistake, Jimmie?"
"With friends you're not careless," I said. "With people you care about, you make sure."
"Why don't we eat?" Freddie demanded. "That man gave you five dollars."
There was no one else we could appeal to. No one we could or would ask for help. My elderly grandparents could not be expected to provide traveling expenses. It would be burden enough on them to take care of Mom and Freddie for several months. Pop, who had remained in Texas, had no money. My married sister, Maxine, was on tour with a girls' orchestra and doing all right financially. But we had no idea of where she might be, or how we could get in touch with her.
I got the car's rods tightened at a cost of eight dollars. We pulled out of Oklahoma City, munching a dinner of day-old cinnamon rolls. There was nothing to do but go on. We couldn't stay there and we couldn't go back, so we went ahead.
The rods were working loose before we were well out of the city limits. By the time we reached Guthrie, a distance of about thirty miles, the car had reverted to its customary clattering, overheated crawl. Somehow we got through the town and chugged up a long grade on the other side. Just as we passed the crest, a car shot out of a side road and piled into us broadside.
It was a stripped-down Ford, loaded with road workers, and they were loaded with home brew. The vehicle skidded off of ours, piled into a telephone pole, and overturned twice. They were all thrown clear and suffered only minor injuries, but their car was pretty well wrecked. We were unhurt, also, and except for a ripped-off fender and headlight and a blown-out tire, our car was undamaged.
They picked themselves up, and apologized handsomely. It was all their fault, they admitted, and they were more than anxious to make amends. Unfortunately, they had no insurance and no money, having exhausted their meager resources to buy beer, but if there was anything else they might do.…
I could only think of one thing. They gladly agreed to it. Hitching the two cars together, we coasted back down the hill and into a garage. There they left us, after further protestations of good will, and two mechanics took over. The crankshaft and its appurtenances were transferred from the wrecked car to mine. Also the battery, a headlight, a tire and certain other incidentals.
The job took all night, and until noon the next day. The bill came to forty-one dollars. I couldn't pay it, of course, as I proved by turning out my pockets to the manager. But I pointed out that there was more than enough salvageable material in the road workers' car to take care of the deficit. Rather grimly, he took what cash I had, filled our tank with gas and waved us on our way.
We parked by the roadside that night, eating a dinner and breakfast of purloined roasting ears. Shortly after we crossed the Kansas border the following day, we ran out of gas. I "borrowed" some from a passing motorist ("just enough to get to a filling station"). When that ran out, I hailed another car and received a similar "loan." Thus, we limped across Kansas—ten, twelve, fifteen miles at a time.
At a farm near Topeka, I got a half day's work laying drain pipe, and the proceeds took us almost to the Nebraska line. But here, it seemed, with several hundred miles still ahead of us, we could go no further. The car had to have lubrication, and an oil change. We were all exhausted and suffering from painful stomach troubles. We had been on the road for more than a week, with no real rest and almost nothing but raw or half-cooked vegetables. Some way or somehow, we simply had to get some money.
We had stopped in a small village, and Mom suggested that she might earn a dollar or two by doing some family's washing. But she obviously was not physically capable of performing any such chore even if, as was highly unlikely in a place like this, she had a chance to. And while I doubted that there was any work for me either I got out and looked around.
It took me about ten minutes to cover the place, to visit and be turned down by each of the business establishments. Turning onto a side street, I picked a cigarette butt from the gutter and lit up. There was a shade tree here between the walk and the street. I leaned against it, puffing hungrily, staring absently at the side of a feed store across the way. It was almost hidden by a gaily colored poster—an outsize twenty-four sheet—advertising some theatrical attraction in a nearby city. My eyes moved up from the trite legends of ONE NIGHT ONLY and STRAIGHT FROM BROADWAY to the line of smiling, evening-gowned girls.
I looked at the one on the end—up past the violin and into her face.
It was my sister, Maxine!
I let out a whoop of pure joy.
I sent a collect wire from the railroad station, and Maxine responded generously. Two days later, having left Mom and Freddie with my grandparents, I arrived in Lincoln.
I was practically broke again. I hoped to sell the car for enough to carry me until I could land a job. Meanwhile, since it was not yet daylight, I cleaned up in a restaurant men's room and ate a large and leisurely breakfast. An hour or so later, when I thought the auto sales lots might be open, I returned to my car.
A police tow truck was just hitching on to it. Overnight parking, it seemed, was a violation of the law in Lincoln, and no, no exceptions were made for newcomers. I could redeem the car by paying a fine, plus towing and storage charges.
I listened to this ultimatum, choked with a mixture of emotions, and then suddenly I sagged against a telephone pole and began to howl with laughter. The tow crew looked at me warily. They hopped into their truck and drove away, taking my car with them, and I sat down on my suitcase and laughed until my lungs ached.
That car—that damned lousy, heartbreaking, backbreaking Ford! And they thought I'd lay out dough to get it back! They thought I was crazy! They thought I was!
And maybe I was. After ten days and a thousand miles in that car, it wouldn't have been surprising.
I worked that day and the next two as a soda and sandwich man. Relatively flush then, and well nourished with free meals, I quit the job and visited the university. I presented the letter of introduction from my editor friend in Texas. The recipient, a member of the administrative staff, was very cordial but was unable to offer me any assistance. He could not make me a loan himself. The university could not extend aid except to students with outstanding scholastic records. Perhaps if I appealed to another writer…some faculty member who was interested in writing…
At this time, the assistant chancellor of the university was Robert Platt Crawford, a big-name writer for The Saturday Evening Post and other large-circulation magazines. I knew him only by reputation and he, of course, did not know me at all. But I went to see him. I showed him some of my stories from regional periodicals, and requested a loan—one sufficient to pay a semester's tuition and buy textbooks, plus, if he had it to spare, a few dollars extra.
Dr. Crawford looked somewhat startled. After a moment of deep silence, he asked that I repeat my request. I did so. The good doctor looked relieved. The acoustics of his office were very poor, he murmured, and he had feared momentarily that a complete remodeling of it might be necessary.…Would I mind telling him a little about myself? Something about my background? Obviously, I had been out of high school for a number of years. Why was I starting college now and why had I chosen to come to this one?
I told him, rather brusquely at first, out of nervousness, and then, as he beamed and nodded at me, with increasing ease. I talked on and on, so interested and amiable did he seem, and so intertwined were the various events of my life. To describe my hasty exit from the hotel world, it was necessary to describe my entrance. And that led to an account of the burlesque houses and Allie Ivers, the whores' nemesis; and that, in turn, led back to other things.…Newspaper work, and my adventures as a dairyman, and the time I had almost cornered the French postcard market, and my abysmal failure to maintain the high standards of a millionaire's son.…
Dr. Crawford smiled. He chuckled. He leaned back in his chair and roared. Recovering himself, he declared that he had great faith in my talents as a writer, and that, moreover, I was obviously scholastic material of the very highest type. He would consider it a privilege, he said, to finance me. And taking out his wallet, he proceeded to do so.
I took the money, gratefully but a little incredulously, for I had been afraid that in being completely frank with him I might have prejudiced my case. Now, having achieved the seemingly impossible, I realized that it could not have been achieved in any other way. The last man in the world to deceive is the man you hope to get money from. If he has it and you don't, the odds are that he is at least as shrewd as you and probably a hell of a lot shrewder.
Dr. Crawford refused my offer to give him a note for the money. "Now why would I want that?" he said; and thus another simple truth was pointed up to me…why would he want it? When a man's sole collateral is his word, why bother with his signature?
With my tuition taken care of, I applied at the newspapers for part-time work; I applied at the radio stations, the advertising agencies, the publicity firms—at every place which conceivably might be in need of literary talent. I was expensively dressed. The fast-money circles in which I had moved had compelled a fine head-to-foot wardrobe, and my attire represented an original investment of several hundred dollars. I suspect that many of the important executives who received me thought that I was either a majority stockholder in the company or wished to become one. Most of them were brusque and some were pointedly unpleasant when they discovered the true and humble purpose of my call. Just why did I think they would want to hire me? What did I have to offer, an ex-bellboy, ex-oil field worker, et cetera, with a few months' newspaper experience and a few unimportant manuscript sales? They could get better men than me for nothing. There were college graduates here in Lincoln—men with graduate degrees in journalism—who were glad to work without salary, solely for the practical experience it gave them.
I left some of these interviews cringing and more than a little shamed. Hell, I was actually sick, for my twenty-two-year-old hide had worn thin, instead of toughening, from the almost incessant onslaught of an outrageous fortune. I winced at each new blow to my pride, and the blows fell hard and fast.
Being very stubborn—and, no doubt, stupid—I persisted in my patently hopeless quest. And, finally, at the last place I expected to, I met with seeming success.
It was at a farm magazine. The two young editors looked me over fondly, ascertaining that I was entering the university, and, after a significant glance at one another, took me into firmly courteous custody…So I was from Texas, eh? (Here an awed look into the lining of my forty-dollar Borsalino.) And I wanted a job, eh? (A glance at label of imported tweed topcoat.) Well, they could understand that. It gave a man a certain independence, helping his standing on the campus. Now, of course—naturally—I had enrolled in the College of Agriculture?
"My God, no!" I said, and then, seeing the pained looks on their faces, "Why would I want to do that? I'm in Fine Arts."
They shook their heads. I had made a terrible mistake, they said. No one enrolled in Fine Arts, absolutely no one. The degree was worthless, you know; one might as well have a diploma from a barber college. The thing to do—and they would take immediate steps to arrange it—was to switch to the College of Agriculture. I could take journalism there, also as much English as I liked; and with a B.Sc.A., I would be fixed for life. It was practically as good as an M.D.
Now, I was to become very cross with these young men in ensuing months, but I will say—although I say it grudgingly—that I believe they were sincere. A man with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture can invariably get a job, and usually at a very handsome beginning salary. He can and he should, for he's damned well earned it. To begin with, he needs to have been raised on a farm and to have taken an active part in 4-H work. He will also find it helpful if he attends a vocational high school specializing in agriculture. Then he goes to an agricultural college—Nebraska is one of the three or four best in the world—and he enrolls for a heavy science curriculum, plus. He doesn't take just physics, which is plenty tough in itself, but agricultural physics. Not just botany, but agricultural botany. And so on down the line. Practically every subject is a laboratory course. When he isn't peering through a microscope or working a slide rule, he will probably be wielding a surgical knife—dissecting the diseased and malodorous innards of some animal.
Well, I had less than no business in such a college; even less, say, than I would have had in a theological seminary. So, of course, I enrolled in it. Or, rather, the two editors enrolled me. And I suspect that they came to regret it as much as I. They were also on the "rush" committee of an ag college fraternity, and they regarded me as a highly solvent, and hence desirable, prospect. They invited me to their "house" for dinner, and the next thing I knew I was pledged and a student in the College of Agriculture.
Came the dawn—as they used to say in movies—and there were curses and recriminations as bitter as they were mutual. I felt that I had been swindled. They, my fraternity brothers, felt that they had been. And it was too late to correct matters. We had to put up with one another, and make the best of it.
They crammed me at every opportunity to get me though my courses (a failing student could not belong to a fraternity). But naturally they could get me no job. How could they, a guy as dumb, agriculturally, as I was? It was up to me to find work for myself, and I couldn't be choosy about it. For the fraternity dues and assessments had added almost a third to my contemplated living costs.
Eventually, and largely among the faculty members, I made some wonderful friends at the Agricultural College of the University of Nebraska, and I actually learned quite a bit about agriculture. But my first few months there were the most miserable in my life. I detested everyone, or so I convinced myself. Everyone appeared to detest me. I lived in a turmoil of worry, disappointment, disgust and self-doubt. Meanwhile, I had taken the first job I could find—as night attendant in a funeral establishment.
I went to work at six o'clock at night, and remained until seven in the morning. My pay was fifty dollars a month. My duties were mainly confined to answering the telephone, and to receiving the occasional callers who dropped by to look upon their late loved ones.
- On Sale
- Aug 5, 2014
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Mulholland Books