Alaska Gold Rush Tales: “Deep Six” Harrison
Deep Six Harrison
For the denizens of Hootlani there were only two types of water. These two types,
it should be quickly added, were not the usual “fresh” and “salt” as was known to most Americans in the Year of the Big Snow but were, rather, potable and black. Potable water was that which could be consumed and was found upstream from the community. Black water went downstream to the Bering Sea. That the so-called potable water had been black water from a community upriver was not a matter for consideration as no one had gotten sick from the upstream Caribou River water. However, considering the limited amount of potable water that was mixed with the greatest amount of alcohol along with a periodic table of associated chemicals it was never known whether anyone had become ill because of the river water, alcohol or the associated ingredients therein.
Hootlani was not the only community on the Caribou River. The nearest upstream hamlet, Jabbertown, was a good 30 miles as the raven flew. The only visible water-borne refuse from that community came during spring break-up. Like Hootlani, all winter long every manner of debris was tossed onto the river ice so that it could be carried off to sea in the spring. Every June the residents of Hootlani would stand on the riverbank and watch as the Jabbertown ice, complete with its piles of civilization’s offal, swept by on its way to the Bering Sea. It was followed 30 miles later by Fiddlehead ice and another 30 miles thereafter by Holy Mission ice, the other two other upstream communities. It was laughingly said that winter began when Fiddlehead, a hell on earth because it had more churches than taverns, froze over in October. The first day of spring officially came when Holy Mission ice was too far south of Hootlani to be seen, both literally and figuratively.
If there was any one resident of Hootlani who know water it was Deep Six Harrison. But he was most familiar with water of the salt kind. Deep Six looked exactly like he what was, a grizzled mariner who had spent the sea lion’s share of his life on the waters of the world. He had drifted inland when he became so tired of ocean spray he swore he would never even have salt on his food. His last ocean of choice or, rather, the last ocean on which he had had no choice but to venture across, had been the Arctic Ocean and his occupation had been whaler. He had spent four decades in every job aboard ship save that of Captain and was a master of gristle and bone, the reason he was a butcher when he left the sea.
He was not particular as to what he slaughtered. Chickens, sheep and goats were a specialty and a few old horses was converted to moose and sold at discount to the churches of Jabbertown and Holy Mission. Just before the snow of every winter he would become the peripatetic butcher who visited every community along the Noonan Trail to slaughter the chicken and sheep as the folks of these communities were squeamish when it came to the blood-and-guts of their repast. He did not mind for these same folks paid in gold which, in any community, was, well, as good as gold. The residents of Jabbertown in particular raised no animals and thus bought what meat they needed from Deep Six. They were not picky and dropped whatever else edible they had into their stew pots be it wheat, corn or dried carrots. Fish sustained them during the spring. Then it was a thick bean stew followed by a progressively thinning bean soup until the spring. By the early months of the year the residents were so sick of any and every grain, germ and seed concoction that they would accept any meat that Deep Six could provide. Only the price mattered and when it came to cheap, Deep Six was the master. He provided rabbit, lynx, seal, horse, moose and an occasional dog. Cat he never provided as they were too valuable as vole catchers and if there was any one thing which every cabin, lean-to and shack had in copious supply it was voles.
He was a giant of a man even by Alaskan standards. Standing well over six feet, almost as tall as a harpoon was long, his shoulders were a good axe handle wide and he had the waist of man one-quarter his age. He drank modestly so he had none of the alcoholic blotches which so frequently adorned the faces of those who worshipped the demon rum by bottle, barrel and cask. He had a full head of silver hair with mutton chops to match. If there was an ounce of fat on his frame it was from the grease he applied to lubricate his skin during the long winter months.
He was called Deep Six because whenever he talked of eliminating anything — be it garbage, broken cutlery or refuse both human and non-carbon-based — he referred to the process as ‘giving it the deep six.’ The deep six, of course, was the nautical expression for tossing trash over the side of the vessel to be ‘buried’ in the deep. The six was a reference to the landlubber’s belief that the dead should be buried six feet down. Thus, when a cadaver was buried at sea, the deep six was the most correct expression of burial. “Over the side with the bugger,” might have been what was actually said as the deceased went over the rail but “deceased and buried at sea” was what was registered in the ship’s log.
If the ship had a log.
This last line was important in the lives of Deep Six — with an emphasis on the word “lives.” He had started, as he liked to brag, as a cabin boy having run away from a comfortable home in Baltimore to join the brethren of the coast. It was only after he was well at sea did he learn that the brethren of the coast had died with Blackbeard a century and a half earlier and he was going to be confined on a whaling vessel for the next two years. He left Baltimore a boy but returned a man. In addition to growing half a foot in height and two feet in girth, he discovered he could withstand cold better than any man onboard. He advanced rapidly from cabin boy to whaler and then officer when a second mate position came open. But the only title that really meant anything was captain. If one were not the captain then all chores were shared equally, from swabbing the deck to the flensing of whales.
While it was not unusual for a man like Deep Six to make his living as a butcher; it was unusual for him to make such a good living. A butcher, after all, was simply a hacker of flesh and anyone with a sharp axe and a knife could do it on their own. What made his enterprise so profitable was that his clients included both Natives and whites, unusual since the Natives could and did butcher their own game.
There was very good reason for him to be so beloved among the Natives of the Bering Sea coast. That very good reason was alcohol but the story is quite Alaskan in that something as simple as a cash-and-carry product would require such an intricate chain of custody. But it was because of this chain of custody that Deep Six was able to make his living which, oddly, was courtesy of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, the scourge of the whalers but, this case, a bounty to Deep Six.
Throughout his career as a whaler on the waters of the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, the Revenue Cutter Service had been an impediment. But it had been a necessary nuisance. Alaska was a land with very little law but a lot of order. The law in Alaska, that is, the duly appointed representatives of the statutes of the United States of America, was administered by three men called judges who held courts a thousand miles north of Seattle and 500 miles south of Hootlani. These men only heard cases brought to their attention by the Revenue Cutter Service and these cases were those which involved crimes so heinous that the miscreant had to be prosecuted. Cases less severe were handled by local commissioners, if there was one, or a miner’s council. There was a lot of order in Alaska because no community wanted dangerous men in their midst. If you did not meet community standards of behavior, you were asked to leave or told to leave. If you chose neither option you simply disappeared. That may not have been the law but it was certainly order.
The secondary mission of the Revenue Cutter Service was to protect the Natives of Hawaii and Alaska from the depredations of the whalers. Having spent decades on a whaling ship, Deep Six was well aware of what happened when a young Native woman, Hawaiian or Alaskan, agreed to marry a whaler. She ended up on a ship with two dozen women-starved men. Things could go terribly wrong and often did. He had seen it happen and it was hard for a captain to maintain discipline when five or six men were fighting over one woman, often a girl, in the tight confines of a whaling vessel. In this effort, Deep Six applauded the enterprise of the Revenue Cutter Service.
He also applauded the enterprise of the Revenue Cutter Service when it came to keeping alcohol out of the reach of the Natives. Alcohol has been a beverage for mankind since the days of the cave so trying to stamp out the elixir 40,000 years later was, at best, a vain effort. The Natives distilled their own brew that defied description even if one had a thesaurus. Words to describe it ranged from putrid to rancid with not many terms in-between. It was an acquired taste which even the Natives had not acquired over the previous 10,000 years.
They preferred the white man’s elixir.
Except that it was very expensive.
Since the Natives had no money, they were left to enjoy their locally produced, fetid inebriant which was made a shade better by adding fermented molasses. Then along came the Revenue Cutter Service which viewed the malodorous brew as the demon rum which, in reality, it was. To keep the Natives from distilling their own, the Revenue Cutter Service mixed a little seal oil in every cask and barrel of molasses that was given to the Natives. Deep Six Harrison did not know what it did chemically but he did know that molasses so infected could not be used to produce an alcoholic beverage.
As he had spent a good deal of time on the coast of the Bering Sea, Deep Six was well aware of the process of the adulteration of the molasses. It pained him because, considering the lifestyle of the aboriginal peoples of the coastline, their lives were hardly what one would call robust. They, like the whites, were entitled to a little bit of joy. So, when Deep Six left his last whaling vessel, he went into the molasses business because he knew an opportunity when he saw it. He was correct. There was money in molasses and he could get the liquid wholesale. But there was no money in the villages along the coast to purchase the unadulterated molasses.
Deep Six understood that problems are simply profit in disguise. The Natives would buy unadulterated molasses if they had the money. Was there a way to get money to the Natives so they could buy molasses? He tried ivory carvings which flopped. He tried furs which did little better because he had to compete with white trappers. That did not leave him a lot of options.
Then he tried meat.
Everyone had to eat every day and the only thing that could be said to be in abundant supply in all white communities was beans. Beans were the dietary mainstay because they were cheap.
But they were boring.
They were also loathsome and unexciting with the first bite and unappetizing thereafter. Six months later the dull, stall, vapid repast was the same. Most meals in Alaska were, as the Alaskan poet Warren Sitka noted, “beans and beans with all the variety in-between.”
So it was that Deep Six began exchanging white man’s unadulterated molasses for Native-procured meat. Be it bear or moose, grouse or squirrel, he took it all in tow and sold it by the ounce in Hootlani, Jabbertown, Fiddlehead and Holy Mission. But it did not take the Natives long to figure out that there were not at the profit-making end of this food chain. Molasses was all fine and good but why settle for the loathsome when you could have the real elixir? So the Natives jumped their prices, stopped buying molasses and started buying alcohol by the bottle. This was a bit dicey because selling liquor to Indians was illegal.
But it was only illegal if you got caught.
That being said, those doing the catching were the United States Marshals one of whom was in Juneau 600 miles south of Hootlani and the other in Nome 400 miles north of Hootlani. The Revenue Cutter Service was confined to the waters of the Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean. Thus there was no minion of the American law enforcement system within several hundred miles of his enterprise and silence was golden.
That the Natives raised their prices which was fine with Deep Six. He simply passed the bad news on to his customers. No one was thrilled with beans and more beans so they paid the higher price for the meat without a squirm. Besides, the price of meat was not going up anywhere near as fast as the price for liquor so no one complained.
Thus did Deep Six Harrison find his calling. He sold meat of any variety, in any combination, to any customer who had gold. He converted the gold to liquor from Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third less a cut, which he traded to the Natives for meat.
The Natives were happy because they were basically getting an alcoholic beverage for free and trading meat some of which, to them, was inedible: lynx, wolverine and fox. That Deep Six was selling them liquor at an exorbitant mark-up did not bother the Natives because no cash was changing hands and they would make up the skinning by raising the prices of their meat.
Deep Six also had a side business of selling raw molasses at an exorbitant price to the Revenue Cutter Service. The Service then adulterated the liquid and gave it to the Natives who used it for non-alcoholic purposes. Everyone seemed to be quite happy with the arrangement. The proof was that it continued well into territoryhood.
For no apparent reason, Deep Six did not drink hard liquor, wisely did not consume his own meat, did not associate with women in Nellie the Pig’s brothel and, quite surprisingly, was a fervent reader of the Bible. This last item is not to say that he was a religious man. He was not. He did not drink of his own liquor or partake of his own meat because he considered that as sinful as dipping into the till — even though he was the owner of that till. He did not associate with any women in the brothel because he did not believe in poisoning the well water from which he drank. He knew that he was a fortunate man to have found a vocation that paid well and did not want a rivalry over a local harlot to upset his apple cart. He took occasional trips to Fiddlehead where he was rumored to partake of female pleasures there — and possibly to tipple a few — but in Hootlani he was sober, chaste and survived on beans, smoked fish, native vegetation in the spring and berries in the fall.
He was an avid reader of the Bible for the sole reason that it was the only book available. He read every newspaper that came through town. Whenever a man with a book other than the Bible would pass through Hootlani he would try to buy the object.
This effort was usually for naught. A novel was simply a one-time read and he traded them away as fast as he read them, often in one sitting. A work of nonfiction was only of value if he had an interest in the subject and he had no interest in most of the nonfiction books available, most of them being mining and engineering treaties. Pornographic books were far too expensive and dog-eared for his interest and travel books on Alaska were so replete with errors so gross that even what might have been true was suspect.
But the Bible was a never-ending source of literary enrichment as well as intellectual excitement. It was a not a one-sitting read. It was intricate and convoluted yet, as the same time, prescient and instructive. Deep Six was a man of the real world. He had seen man — and women — at their worst and understood that hamlets such as Hootlani were simply collections of the worst of the human species. Hootlani lacked even a fragment of a moral pillar. This did not mean that there were not good people in Hootlani. There were. But one often had to do many uncomfortable things to make a living. This was particularly true of family men. It took a lot of money to raise a child and a father’s first obligation was to his family. God and country followed but, in Hootlani, both God and country were far away.
It was for this reason that Deep Six placed the New Testament into the category of fairy tales. There was no moral lessons there, simply the self-serving of men beating the drum for dollars and cents. It made no difference to Deep Six whether Jesus had risen from the dead or not. And he had no problem with Peter denying he knew Jesus three times. Deep Six had saved his own skin quite a few times by not seeing events that had transpired before his eyes. He didn’t call that a sin; he called it survival. There is no shame in living to fight another day.
But the greatest problem he had with the New Testament was that it was not allegorical. There was a lot of looseness in the Old Testament. It didn’t matter if Solomon would actually have cut a baby in half to give a portion to each woman. The point was clear. Solomon solved the problem by eating a bear with its own teeth, a unique Alaskan expression for allowing a problem to solve itself. It came from a man in Eagle who had lost his teeth because of scurvy. He shot a bear and made a set of dentures from the bear’s teeth. Then he ate the bear with its own teeth.
Deep Six looked at all stories in the Old Testament as allegories, like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The stories were entertaining and carried a moral lesson. It didn’t make any difference if there ever was a princess who wanted shoes that were “big on the inside and small on the outside.” The moral lesson was clear. So was the fact that the princess was an idiot and idiots got what they deserved. What goes around comes around. You reap what you sow.
But the New Testament was not allegorical. It was simply the veiling of a single, unending, imprisoning message: be like Jesus. Yes, the moral lesson of Jesus was very clear but it was an edited compendium of the moral lessons in the Old Testament. There was no room for latitude. It was a straight and narrow path to a salvation to a forgiving God who understood that not everyone could walk a straight and narrow path in life — and particularly family men.
All of the moralizing was both educational and thought-provoking for Deep Six and would have remained so had not Father Albert come to Hootlani and appropriated a vacant cabin at the southern end of town and established the First Christian Church of Hootlani. That Father Albert had simply moved into a vacant cabin did not bother Deep Six in the least. God provides and the six men who had lived there the previous winter hadn’t paid for it nor had the family who had lived there the winter before. No one in Hootlani remembered who had built the structure in the first place. No one cared either. If it was abandoned and you wanted it you just moved in.
But Father Albert had something that Deep Six Harrison needed badly: a library. It was not much of a library by the standards of the lower states but it was a good dozen books. And it grew. Books in the backpacks of men headed north to the gold fields were considered an essential part of their northern experience. Books in the backpacks of men headed south to Seward were called weight. Buyers of books were few and far between and there was always the chance that a book given to a man of God would earn them consideration in the next world — if there was a next world — and many of these men would need a lot of consideration considering how they had spent what gold they had found. They would arrive in the lower states broke but with a lifetime of stories, many of which they could not tell.
As the library of Father Albert grew, Deep Six was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Thus did the two men arrive in orbit around the Bible, each at his own chosen speed and distance. For Father Albert the nucleus was the Bible and the other books were simply clutter which could be used to attract converts. For Deep Six the clutter was solid gold, an intellectual pool into which he could plunge at only the cost of debate with Father Albert. Father Albert did not see a convert in Deep Six; neither did he see an enemy of the ways of the Lord. In his own way Deep Six was an honorable man. His business ethics were not Hootlanian. He did not cheat his clients and did not force them to buy meat or liquor. He was an ethical man in his own way and, quite important to Father Albert for Deep Six could go where Father Albert could not. Deep Six knew everyone and one at a time he would come in contact with the righteous and they, in turn, would learn of the First Christian Church of Hootlani. Souls were saved one at a time and whether he knew it or not, Deep Six was in the soul saving business.
For his part, Deep Six looked upon Father Albert more as a librarian than a minister and Deep Six spread the word of the library along his peripatetic meat, liquor and molasses routes. Slowly men with an intellectual hunger arrived at the First Christian Church of Hootlani. While there were more than a few churches in the Bering Sea and Caribou River environs, there were few libraries. Gradually the word spread and men from as far away as Holy Mission and Lotsaluck began to filter in. Then came the women with children in tow. Father Albert offered Sunday school classes on the Day of the Lord and a one-room schoolhouse during the remaining six days of the week. Several wives had nursing training and all of them had midwifery experience and gradually the once-vacant cabin became a combined, makeshift educational and medical facility as well.
While there had been resentment by the denizens of Hootlani when Father Albert first secured the vacant cabin, by the end of the first winter there was begrudging acceptance of the house of God. The wicked of the community did not attend services but they did contribute to the coffers of the church. It was a good idea to have a medical facility of some kind in the community. Better to have some place to send a gut-shot hustler from the Noonan Trail then to let him bleed to death on the plank sidewalk outside of the place of his execution. That was bad for business.
So, quietly, the businesses of Hootlani paid for the church. The money was funneled through a kind-of tax established and administered by Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third. It was not much but it was enough to refurbish the cabin which, in turn, attracted more parishioners. With each new handful of converts to the make-shift medical facility, one-room schoolhouse, midwifery and library, one more individual would become an active church member. One-by-one Father Albert was building his house of God.
The second winter after Father Albert came to town Deep Six was stabbed to death in a Yupik village whose name no one could pronounce. He had died in a brawl as he was trying to quell a conversation-turned-argument between two meat suppliers. A hunter believed he had provided five pounds of moose meat to a distributor and the distributor had stated that the so-called five pounds were half-a-pound short according to his make-shift scale. The hunter stated that this seemed to be part of a pattern of deception. The distributor denied the charge and implied that the hunter might be holding back the best part of the moose for a certain family in the village who had a certain daughter who was sure to become pregnant. The pregnancy was not the problem. The problem was that the family had found Christ and was shifting from the Native way of life.
Deep Six Harrison tried to quell the confrontation by offering to buy the meat as a five-pound delivery and get a collection of standard weights for the distributor. Neither Native felt this was a good idea as both were certainly shaving the truth a bit on their own side. One man, no one knew whom, pulled a knife which caused the other to become armed and Deep Six was stabbed when he stepped between the two men. He made it as far as the First Christian Church of Hootlani where he died on the floor of his beloved library.
There was a wake for Deep Six and he was cremated in a bonfire. He had always said he wanted to be burned not buried. He hated the cold ground. There was a strong wind blowing due west the day of the cremation. This was odd because most winds blew into Hootlani from the Bering Sea but on this day the wind was blowing in the opposite direction. With it went the ashes of Deep Six Harrison. Though his corpse would not be confined to the deep, his ashes were carried across the waves, possibly as far as Siberia. When the wind died, his ashes covered the sea like a shroud and thus he was returned from whence he had come to Hootlani.
[This story is from Steven Levi’s Alaska Gold Rush book “Best Boots I Every Ate.” available on ACX and Kindle.]