The Series Pay Dirt consists of 54 drawings, each plus minus 14 by 11 cm, Worcestersauce on sand paper, Philadelphia 1986. Published: Pay Dirt, The Becker Building Philadelphia, Edition 54, 1986
JET LAG (1987), by Waldo Bien
Names on signposts can have gravitation stronger then the direction one planned to go.
We chose to take a dirt road near Yellowstone National Park that went up the hills of Emigrant Creek. At the end we parked; walked a path on the left slope of the stream.
On the right below us, like a winding silver ribbon, was the Creek. Autumn hat set the forest in flames, just like someone in Frisco had promised. A friend there had asked for our next destination. Hearing we had no plans he said, “Go to Montana, I just phoned with a friend there, they have Indian summer.” So we did some winged kangaroo jumps, then tried to hire a car in Billings. Cash was worthless, but a membership card from an Amsterdam swimming pool unexpectedly supplied us with the needed civil credit. Minutes later a car was at hand.
Below in the creek a white flying saucer grabbed our attention. It turned to be a cowboy hat, a tall fellow hiding underneath. In slow motion doing something down the creek. Some boards were lying around there, a shovel, a bucket. A small dyke built with river stones spitted the flowing water in several channels. Over one of the boards we walked up to the man. The running water meant he didn’t hear us. He was shocked a little when we suddenly stood in front of him. We introduced ourselves:” from Holland” The cowboy’s name was George. We asked what he was doing. “Gold, kids” he said with the voice of a bear, “I’m running a gold street here. Actually I’m a radio broadcaster, but in the weekends I’m searching for gold in the river. I have a trawler up the road there, you must have passed it. During the next half hour he explained his gold street. Seeing the endless piles of gravel it became clear that gold is not an easy pick up here. “It’s been a bad day,” said the bear, and that’s why he couldn’t show us some gold “But… did you meet Clayton?” We said no’.. “Clayton”, muttered the bear,” is an old gold digger who lives here all his life and he is a ‘real’ gold digger. Follow me; I’ll introduce you”. Than, back up the path. We had to wait for George who was crawling uphill on hands and feet.
“So, from Holland heh?” he said breathlessly. “Clayton has been in Holland, fighting the Germans you know.” Somewhere between the trees was an old cabin. “Clayton! Clayton! Muttered the bear as loud as he could, “visitors for you”
We stood a while, heard thumping inside. In the small reflecting window of the cabin door a meagre unshaved face of and old man became visible. The ramshackle door opened with a dry noise, automatically falling back into lock when Clayton stood outside, adjusting his cap. “ Clayton. These are friends of mine from Holland. You were in Holland, weren’t you?” Clayton nodded; ”Yeah yeah, during the war In the Ardennes. You folks speak Polish don’t you?” To cut short George took over telling Clayton’s life story; that he came from a small farm out there in Idaho. One morning, again the harvest had failed; dad had called him and his brother William onto the porch. They were fifteen, old enough to leave and try their luck somewhere else. Too many mouth to feed. They got an old rifle and walked to Montana. Disappeared into the forest, built this cabin. Made their living with hunting and trapping animals and working this ‘poor river.’ Sold their fur to a national trading company, sent by mail through the post office from a village nearby. Every time they’d posted the fur they received a letter saying the price had fallen. The money had just been enough to buy flower, sugar, coffee, and ammunition. In 1943 a sergeant popped up in the forest to draft soldiers. One of the brothers had to come. The throw of a coin sealed Clayton’s destiny. Three months in a military training camp upstate New York.
Then dropped onto the battlefield and straight up to enemy line. “Bullets whizzed around our heads and that was new to me. The animals we shot at never shot back. Dead bodies lying in layers of three one on top of the other. The poor boys, some of’m not more than seventeen with dirt in their pants. But they didn’t have to teach me to shoot. I showed those Germans, gave them a hell of a time. After the skirmish was over I went straight back into the forest where my brother was waiting and the traps, back to the little gold street down the creek.
“So it was you and your brother who piled up all those rocks along the creek? “, I asked.
No, that had been done many years before, right after the great east-west railroad had been finished. Thousands of Chinese workers were not needed anymore and fired. Antlike they had spread over America, turned over riverbeds in search for gold. Emigrant Creek and all nearby rivers. “So you are one of those American hero boys who released us from Nazi terror, risked their lives four our freedom? We weren’t even born then. Nevertheless we would like to express our greatest gratitude. The carefree way we could grow up was based on your actions.” Clayton and George were deeply moved. ”Where are you spending the night kids ” George wanted to know. “We don’t know yet” “You got to stay here, stay in my caravan. I have to go back for some days for my radio program but you are my guests, O.K?” O.K. “And now you have to show the kids some gold Clayton. They have never seen real gold” It took Clayton more than 15 minutes to return with a coke bottle, three quarter filled with nuggets. He carefully poured them into our hands like it was nitroglycerine. Spoke several times “ don’t get excited kids, don’t get excited. If it gets you, you’re lost” George gave us the cabin key, filled the fridge with steaks and beer. “You don’t have to lock the door if you go out, No one steals here. And if they do we just hang’ em”. We waved, followed the red lights of his pickup disappearing between trees and immediately went to sleep.
The next day we where booked for a gold digging course by the old master himself.
From sunrise on he was busy working the creek. ‘Running a Gold street’ that’s called.
We build dykes, channels and washing streets. Shuffled loads of pay dirt in wheelbarrows, panned for gold all day. If the dirt contains gold it paid off. That’s why it’s called Pay Dirt. At sundown some tiny gold nuggets remained at the bottom of the pan and careful deposited into a small sleeve. The day after Clayton was down and left the creek for what it was. We rummaged around in the forested hills. On the way back we noticed a second shed, hidden in the bush nearby. Clayton explained that this was his garage, searched in vain for the key in his cabin. George told later that a brand new Chevy had retired there. Bought twenty years ago, five months before William had died, in the village were they posted fur and bought supplies.
They had always felt deeply embarrassed by the way people had treated them there, like outcasts, a wild bunch living the forest, suspected of stealing what ever they could get. One day, on the way back from the post office, he had walked into the automobile showroom, just to look at those nice cars he had seen trough the window. The man behind the counter had yelled at him to step back, not to touch the cars with his dirty fingers. “How much is this blue one”, Clayton asked. “Far too much for someone like you” the man had batted down.
“How much?” Clayton insisted. The man scoffed the price in reluctance. From underneath his dirty jacket he had pulled a coke bottle full of nuggets. The salesman had been knocked out in amazement and turned friendly. They could prepare and register the car and he could then pick it up tomorrow. Clayton did not want it tomorrow. He wanted it right now. Then he drove the car straight home into the bush. Parked it between the trees and built the shed around it, locked the door.
The car hadn’t been out since. “Maybe I should have a look how ‘he’s doing”. He went inside to search for the key. Returned with an old album instead. Most photo’s had disappeared in the course of time, leaving not more than pale brown stains. Clayton pointed at one of those; “Look, this is my brother William with his new Winchester. Here, sitting at his feet, Chuck. A very nice dog that was.” On one surviving photo both brothers sat in front of their cabin. Against the wooden fence some pinned up animal skins. “Poor animals. We never liked what we were doing. Felt sorry for the animals we trapped. But we had no choice. Had to make a living. Was hard enough. The creek is poor on gold. Now I don’t have a dog no more. I have a cute little cotton tale rabbit, my pet, living with me in the cabin.”
George came back on Friday, accompanied by his wife Joyce, born Müller. “That must be German or Polish. My grandfather fought with Napoleon in Russia”
On the way down here George had stopped at the sheriffs, bought some tags to shoot some animals. It was hunting season. You buy a tag and then start looking for the animal to go with it. Joyce was 58 and a darling. Spoke like Marlene Dietrich having a cold. She enlarged her lips with cherry red lipstick. Her left legwas completely covered in a flesh coloured bandage. Chain smoking. Lying on the sofa, watching T V.
George had bought some tags to invite us to some “Real American life style”. Hunting season. Animals were waiting for us all over to be shot down: Moose, dear, wild boars, all of it, right here around the trailer. This summer he’d seen, while still in bed, how “a dammed brown bear had eaten berry’s from his tree” and now, now the time had come to “go and get’m. Make a carpet of ‘m”. The bear’s head he’d promised to Harry, the bartender in Billings. So he could look at it every time he would go and have a drink.
“ Two hundred dollars I ‘ve spent on the bear tag. Let the girls make something to eat; We go out, start looking for the damned bear”.
That I didn’t have the lightest clue of the hunting business was not a problem. I only had to carry his rifle. He pushed a heavy iron into my hands. “Just follow me and do as I say” We slow walked several circles around the caravan. George burning down one cigarette after the other, talking loud to him self; “it must be here somewhere, can’t be to far away. After half a package of cigarettes the hunt was over. “Maybe we find him tomorrow and if not we get a moose. Before we went back to the trailer to eat, he invited me to a drink on the front seat of his car.
Like exhausted hunters we sat down at the table. George with the bear killer on his knee that caused Joyce to scream he should put ‘that damned thing’ outside of the door. “Take it easy baby. George is big enough to know what he is doing.” “Look, look”, she screamed, looking at my wife Eliane, “look what the fucker did last week”.
With a pained face she pushed herself up from the couch, stumbled to the bathroom door. “Look, the Goddamned bear hunter”; she pointed towards a half inch hole in the door, then, in the bathroom right above the mirror, a second one.” The fucker almost blew my head of last week when I was brushing my teeth. Now he’s sitting there with this gun again”. “It’s not loaded darling” he moaned. “That’s what you said then.” Then she turned to us: “Sorry kids, he’s getting on my nerves” then towards George: ”ass hole, you’re not going to do it a second time” Then stumbled back to her couch. “ See what you do? Now my leg hurts again.” The screaming sounded upholstered in the small cabin. My wife and I felt like we had sailed into a hurricane. The hurricane turned out to be not more than just some flashing and thunder and drifted over to where it came from, into the blue. Now it started to rain steaks and cans of beer. George advised to put lots of mustard on. ” Yeeeaahh” Joyce remarked ” the favourite recepie of our hero John Wayne. The movie Star. Like our President. One of America’s heroes who wants to make America strong again”
You’re not a Goddamned communist, are you? George asked, chewing and looking at us. “No, we’re okay “I answered.
“Are there communists in your country?”
“Very few left, they’re dying out”
“Good. Look what they are doing in Nicaragua”, dashed George.“Have another steak”
“How would it be if we had been born at the other side of the border, in a socialist country with other ideals?” I asked. ” It would all be very different, sure. But we aren’t. We are born in America and America must be strong”.
After dinner George wanted to give me a souvenir. “It’s a pity that we didn’t manage the bear. I wanted to give you one of its claws. One can make a beautiful lamp from it. But here I have something even better. You know what Little Big Horn is?” I knew. Out of a box he picked some bullets from general Custer’s private battlefield. “ During the summer I’m a ranger at the battlefields. Go around with my metal detector.” “Tell them what the value is George”, she yelled from the kitchen,” otherwise they think they’re peanuts.” “This one would go for 250 dollars kids,” explained George,” so take good care. One day I’ll come to Europe, hunting souvenirs in the Ardennes with my detector.”
The rest of the evening he spent writing a ballistic expertise that I absolutely needed. Without it, the bullet would be worthless. With an envelope full of papers and the bullet in my hand we said goodbye early next day. Clayton came over, handed us a nugget as a present. My wife Eliane kissed him goodbye causing a tear to run over his cheek. The first kiss he ever received. “
That night I had dinner with the director of a museum in Chicago. My mind must have been absent. Several times she enquired if I felt okay: “I think you have a jet lag”