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You'll Eat a Peck of Dirt

Richard Willis

Hotel Doose: It certainly wasn't the Plaza, but for weary travelers it came close.

I was a senior in Marengo High School, sixteen years old, in 1943 — '44, living at my grandparents' house in town Sunday night through Friday, and suffering out the weekends on the farm. Everything about high school was easy for me, and I loved it, except for the fact I was always broke. My "allowance" was tiny, about fifty cents a week. Even in that long ago time when the picture show cost ten cents, soft drinks at soda fountains a nickel, and admission to the weekly dances upstairs at the old opera house a quarter, half a dollar didn't go all that far. I had heard through my grandpa that the Gilchrists, proprietors of the Doose Hotel, were looking for a student to work as a night clerk, and I went over, not feeling any too keen about it, to apply for the job.

The Doose Hotel - nobody ever referred to it in my hearing as the Hotel Doose, though that's what it said on the front window - was a two-story building across the street east from the southeast corner of the town square. Just over the way, at a spot in the park directly opposite the hotel, there was a merry-go-round that Mr. and Mrs. Gilchrist had donated to the kids of the town. In summer, the Gilchrists put heavy wooden lawn furniture on the sidewalk in front of their hotel where they and their guests could enjoy the cool evenings outside, and where they could see what was going on in the park - the Saturday night band concerts, kids playing on the merry-go-round, that sort of thing.

The hotel entrance was just north of the corner of Washington Street and "Velva's Beauty Parlor" occupied the corner space that she rented from Mr. and Mrs. Gilchrist. Next to the hotel lobby was the dining room. North of that was Emma Graber's millinery shop.

Mrs. Gilchrist had only recently stopped regular meal service in the dining room, probably because of the war, food shortages, and difficulties in getting help, but she kept the room set up - tables complete with place settings, table cloths, silver, glassware and all, and she continued to serve meals on rare occasions for the Chamber of Commerce or for weddings. The place was kept sparkling clean, and was decorated in the manner of old-fashioned country hotels with potted palms and the like. As the war dragged on, however, it was clear that Mrs. Gil, and the one or two women she was able to hire, could no longer handle the load of the hotel dining room. The dining room area was then converted into a tavern that remained there until after the war when Gilchrist sold the hotel, and he and his wife retired from business altogether.

Although Gil was a great friend of my grandpa, I knew the Gilchrists only on sight. Everyone spoke of Gil as a real gentleman, but his wife was harder to get to know. I'd heard that she was a bit of an ogre. My information about Mrs. Gilchrist came mainly from the three youngest kids in the Thomas family, my cousins, all of whom had worked for her at one time or another. To hear them tell it, she was crabby, mean, tyrannical, stingy and a bad cook. The Thomas family was as poor as Job's turkey, which made me wonder how they came to be judging Mrs. G.'s food. Later, after I had worked for her for a while, I found she was almost exactly the opposite on all counts. I was never able to understand my cousins' bad feelings toward her, although it is true she was hard to get acquainted with at first.

Mrs. Gilchrist was a little woman, quite formal in manner, who spoke rather slowly in a soft voice. Even though she was heavily wrinkled, her dark auburn hair was always neatly done up, not a strand out of place. She persisted in using a pince-nez, on a little retractable chain she wore pinned to her dress, even though it made deep grooves in the sides of her nose. Some years earlier, before she and Gil were married, she had been in an automobile accident that threw her out of an open car. Her hip was broken, and for some unknown reason the break never healed properly. As a result, Mrs. G. used a crutch when she walked, and anyone who worked at the hotel was sternly warned about leaving anything spilled on the floor where she might put her crutch in it and take a fall. Although I never heard her complain, I suspect she still suffered from her injury, and that it was pain from her hip that gave her face its pinched expression.

Mrs. Gilchrist explained the duties of the night clerk to me. I was required to attend to the front desk, to help guests in with their luggage, get them registered, sell them stamps, and generally make everyone welcome. About once a week, I was to wash the big front lobby windows on the street, and, in winter, I was to keep the sidewalk in front of the hotel cleared of snow. While it was light work, my wages were accordingly light- a dollar a night, plus my evening meal and any tips I might get. The going tip was ten cents, occasionally a quarter, and very rarely fifty cents from some big spender. Gil showed me the bell-hop's trick of carrying four bags at one time — a big one in each hand, and a smaller one tucked under each arm. He winked, and said it was a way to increase the tip, and he was right.

While it was clear that my job as the night clerk was going to be easy enough, it also did away with all my leisure time after school, tying me up from four in the afternoon until midnight. The thought of leaving my pals and going off to work every day immediately after classes didn't appeal to me much. I was caught in a silly dilemma. I would now have all the spending money I needed, but I'd have no free time in which to spend it.

I felt pretty sorry for myself at first, but then my friends began to drop around to visit, and things didn't seem so bad. Mrs. Gilchrist clearly didn't approve of most of my buddies. She had it in worst for the girls who stopped by, always referring to them as chippies. I didn't know what that meant until I looked it up, and then I never bothered explaining it to the girls. My social life was now restricted to Saturday night, but the change jingling in my pocket took most of the sting out of my lack of free time.

Guests at the Doose Hotel were almost all traveling salesmen. Most of them had had the same territories for years, and they were completely at home at the Doose. That was just as well, because the old place had some odd things about it. There were about fifteen rooms altogether, all but two of them on the second floor. Only one room, the bridal suite, if you please, had a lock and a key. Doors on all the other rooms could be fastened from the inside, but they could not be locked when the occupant went out. Try explaining that to some traveler from Chicago or points east uneasily making his way through the wilds of the Midwest for the first time. Especially when you, the explainer, are a spindly, callow-looking sixteen-year-old.

The lack of fire escapes was another feature of our hotel that tended to worry greenhorns. To be sure, the building was only two stories high, but no ladders or stairs of any kind led down the outside of the hotel to the street. Instead, under the windowsill in each second-floor room, there was a coil of manila rope knotted at eighteen-inch intervals. The rope was tied into a metal ring in the floor. I know now that only a person in excellent physical condition could have used a thing like that to escape from a fire, but at the time I accepted it as I accepted everything else that adults presented to me. It was the way things were, and that was all there was to that.

Three of the rooms at the Doose had baths. They rented for two dollars and fifty cents a night. The bridal suite with no bath (I guess the married couple was expected to wash up before the wedding ceremony) went for three dollars. It was almost never used. Mrs. Gil liked to save the bridal suite for the people who ran the Old Style Tavern. They closed late, around midnight, and they had a long drive to their home outside of town. In winter especially, when the weather was bad and they preferred not to risk the roads, Mrs. G. had me put them in the bridal suite. The wife hated it, complaining to me about it behind her hand, "It's so big! And all that dark furniture!" I tried to convey the lady's misgivings to my boss without hurting her feelings, but never had any luck at it.

Rooms without bath rented for a dollar and a half a night. There was a clean bathroom down the hall. The Doose Hotel wasn't dirty, it was Spartan. We also had three "inside rooms," rooms with no windows that cost only fifty cents a night. Mary Howlett, the chubby neighbor who saw me safely to school my first year on the farm, lived in one of the inside rooms. Mary did scullery work at the hotel, and it is just possible she did a little something more on her own in the way of entertaining, but I can't say that for certain. The known facts were simple and grim: Mary later had an illegitimate baby, and she died young. While she was alive, it was clear to everyone who knew her that Mary had no future. The worst thing about it was Mary seemed to know it, too.

We had some characters around town for whom Mrs. G. felt an inside room was plenty good enough. She gave me thorough instructions on how to spot a drunk all the way across the park. "You don't want the ones who stagger, but you don't want the ones who walk too straight, either." They were to be kept out because of the likelihood they'd vomit and make a mess. I became fairly adept at identifying anyone carrying a heavy load of booze, and I can proudly say not one of them ever got by me. The Doose remained unsullied by drunks during my tenure as night clerk.

There were many nights when we had only one or two guests at the hotel. At those times, boredom was my worst enemy. After I had read the evening paper, I was free to use the big table in the lobby to do any homework I might have, waiting until the salesmen were finished with their paper work. There was a small radio at the desk that was turned off when Mr. and Mrs. Gilchrist went to bed. I read, or I listened to a wall clock in the lobby. It had a second hand that clicked at every jump. I never quite got used to it.

Doose, I learned, turned out to be the name of the old German who had originally owned the place. It was nothing more unusual than that. One of the relics of Doose's time was an oak card table with shelves built into each corner to hold beer steins. That table survives today, although how it has been kept out of the hands of antique hunters I wouldn't venture to say. It is still part of the hotel furniture, and it is all that remains of the Doose lobby as I remember it.

I ate my evening meal in the unused dining room. One table was set near a connecting door so that I could keep my eye on the front desk while I was eating. Mrs. Gilchrist prepared my suppers in the hotel's cavernous old kitchen. Using a crutch as she did, Mrs. Gilchrist could not carry anything heavy, and I was called from the lobby to pick up my meal on a tray.

Her food was tasty even though it was mainly the meat and potatoes diet one finds in the Midwest. She almost always served soup as a starter, something I was not accustomed to, and she often provided blue cheese and crackers by way of desert. That was about as different as it got, but it was still out of the ordinary for me, and I must say I enjoyed it. I have a feeling that it may have been the slight unfamiliarity of Mrs. G's meals that was behind my cousins' complaints about her cooking. I knew, from having been in their home, that they sometimes literally had nothing to eat but bread, but conservatism bred in poverty is hard to combat. Faced with her soup and blue cheese, they were prepared to go down swinging for their bread. In the same way, I knew farmers who had their farms sold out from under them, but remained steadfast Republicans until they died.

Mr. Gilchrist was an aristocratic-looking gentleman with straight white hair and a Roman nose. His first name was Roland, although I never heard him called anything but Gil. He was a life-long Democrat. A big picture of an extremely youthful Franklin D. Roosevelt hung in the hotel lobby. For his faithful services to the Party, Gil held an appointment as Marengo's Post Master — a kind of general manager at the post office - all through the Roosevelt Administration.

He wasn't in any way puffed up or arrogant, but Gil had a proper sense of himself, and he dressed accordingly. Turned out in a dark suit and a snow-white shirt, never a colored shirt, he looked as if he were about to step off on parade. He habitually wore a black bow tie, and he never went out on the street without a hat. In summer, that meant a Panama or a sailor straw, and, in winter, a pearl-gray Homburg. When the weather was cold, he wore spats, but I don't think I ever saw him with a topcoat. Mrs. G. used to fuss at him a lot about that, just as my wife does with me when she thinks I'm going out in the cold improperly dressed.

Gil had an evening ritual with me that never varied. He came back to the hotel from the post office a little after five. Mrs. Gilchrist was not one to stay up late. She liked to get all her day's work done up as early as possible. I would be eating my supper in the dining room. Gil came through the door from the lobby every night with the same question. "Well sir, have you been a pretty good boy today?" Please notice, it was not just "good," but "pretty good." Gil was a realist. I would assure him I had been just that. "All right then," and he laid a quarter on the corner of the table. He never failed. Then he was on his way to eat his supper with Mrs. G. in the dark old hotel kitchen. I was so accustomed to seeing him in a suit, it was always a surprise to see him eating in his vest and shirtsleeves.

Mrs. Gilchrist had been a widow with two daughters when she met and married Gil some years before. I think she may have been a few years older than her new husband. She seemed ancient to me, but my mother used to say she remembered Mrs. G. as quite an elegant-looking lady. Perhaps it was to preserve that opinion in the world that she wore a wig.

I had heard about the wig from my cousins, but the report was confirmed for me one night when I had to ask for the cash box after Mr. and Mrs. Gil had gone to bed. They kept a room for themselves across the hall just off the lobby, because Mrs. G. with her crutch could manage steps only with great difficulty. We had no safe at the hotel, so they took the cash box and stamps into their room when they turned in for the night.

Some guest had insisted on buying stamps, and when I knocked and was admitted to their room, there was the wig on a form on the dresser, and Mrs. Gilchrist in bed wearing a mob-cap over her white fringe. I liked Mrs. G. in spite of my cousins' complaints about her. She was strict about what she wanted, and how she wanted it done, but she was fair and reasonable, too, and I was horrified that I might have done anything to embarrass her. Evidently my fears were for nothing; not a word was ever said about the incident. From then on, however, I did check the placement of the wig on the sly, to see if there was any day-to-day variation in the way she wore it, but, if there was, I never spotted it.

After supper, Gil generally read his paper in the lobby, and talked with his guests, most of them old friends. He had had a fairly adventurous life when it was all added up.

Not far under that gentlemanly exterior I think there may have been a confidence man concealed. He had the voice and manner of a slimmed-down Sidney Greenstreet, the fat villain in "The Maltese Falcon."

Gil told me about how he had trained to be a dentist, but had given it up because he disliked the work so much. I think it must have been because of the pain he would have had to inflict on his patients. At the time he was fixing teeth, dentists used slow-turning drills powered by foot treadles. "Painless" dentistry was a bad joke. You needed the moral fiber of a Plains Indian to go to the dentist in those days.

As a very young man in search of adventure, Gil had tried to enlist in the Army for what would then have been the last gasp of the Indian wars out west. News of the massacre at Wounded Knee (when I was a boy, it was called "the Battle of Wounded Knee") had balked his career as a soldier, I'm happy to say. He had gone to Fort Riley in Kansas to join up, and he was there long enough to get acquainted with a veteran sergeant. Gil liked to tell how he teased the leathery NCO, asking him what he would do if they were to get into a fight with the Indians. The old soldier seemed taken aback for a moment, but then replied, imperturbably, "Why, I'd do just what the Captain told me."

The great adventure of Gil's life, the story he told over and over to his guests, was shipping on as a stoker in a freighter bound for Bremerhaven. Fuel for the coal-burning furnaces had to be laid in precisely according to a pre-set pattern, each shovel full exactly in its required spot in order to produce maximum heat. Furnace doors could not be left standing open while the fire was being fed, but were closed after every shovel full was tossed in, and then reopened with a full shovel before the next toss. Men working in the stokehold flipped their shovels up in front of their faces in an effort to protect themselves from the fierce heat. Even so, Gil said his face was scorched bright red on all the high points: chin, nose, cheeks and forehead.

When the officers on the ship found that Gil was better educated than the rest of the black gang, capable of lively, intelligent conversation, he was occasionally invited to eat at the officers' mess. That got him into a lot of trouble with his shipmates who were sure he was a spy for the brass. The result, he told me, was that he was in a fight every day of the voyage.

At Bremerhaven, the crew found Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in town performing on a European tour. The ticket-seller wanted to know where the boys were from when they showed up at his booth. When they told him the United States was home, he waved them in to see the show free of charge.

Gil often talked about the Red Scare that hit the States just after the First War. He thought it was nonsense, and he made no secret of his scorn for people who spread fear of the "Bolshevikis." He said he had never seen a Bolsheviki, and that he wouldn't have known what to do with one of them if the creature had presented itself.

One night when, as usual, I was alone in the lobby, our town marshal, Carl Sickles, brought in an old man so drunk he could barely walk. Barney Baughman was a dwarfish little fellow who made his living taking care of yards and doing odd jobs around town. Conscious of Mrs. Gilchrist's warnings, I didn't want to put him up at all, but Carl insisted on it, and he was the authority. We got Barney into an inside room, and, although he was all but passed out on his feet, we managed to get him out of his clothes and into bed. I had never seen a man naked before, outside of my own family, and I was struck with how pathetic the old fellow looked with his clothes off.

We had just got him covered up in bed, when I noticed Carl shaking his head, and making clucking noises of disapproval. "My God, look at this." Barney was carrying $2,200 in cash. It was the winter of 1943. I suppose the money would have been worth roughly ten times that now. Earlier that day, Barney, acting on some weird impulse that was never explained, had drawn all his life's savings out of the bank, and had gone on a spree in a tavern across the park buying drinks for everyone in sight. We had deadbeats enough around town who were more than willing to drink up the old man's money, but somebody at the tavern had the good sense to call the marshal, and had poor Barney picked up. Carl insisted that I count the bills, I suppose in order to have a witness in case questions were asked later, but nothing more came of it. Barney's money went safely back into the bank, and the old fellow himself went back to his work mowing lawns.

Chronic bronchitis bothered me more than usual that winter. There were some nights I must have kept all the guests in the hotel awake with my barking until the stroke of midnight when my tour finished, and I could make my way across our dead-quiet town to my grandparents' home. The cough got to be so bad that in desperation I sometimes resorted to an old wife's remedy (and a risky one) of a few drops of kerosene on a little sugar. You held it in your mouth until the sugar melted. God knows what the result might have been if I had choked and sucked some of that petroleum-based mixture down my windpipe.

It was also during the winter I worked at the Doose Hotel that I came down with scarlet fever, my last go-round with childhood diseases, all of which I got while I was in high school. A year or two earlier, I had been quarantined in town for mumps, later for chicken pox, and (on the farm) for measles. Fortunately for my poor grandma, for whom one trip a day up and down the steep stairs in her house was quite enough, I got the unmistakable symptoms of scarlet — vomiting along with a high fever — on a Friday night after I had returned to the farm for the week end. That was one time when we did call the doctor.

In those days, everyone was deathly afraid of scarlet fever because of the lasting effects it might have on its victims. People often came out of it with damage to major organs — heart, liver, kidneys — sometimes weakened eyesight. Campbell Watts, Doctor Watts' son, also a physician, came out to the farm, and put me in quarantine for three weeks. It was like being sentenced to solitary confinement. There was no television, of course; I wasn't allowed to read in order to protect my eyes; and daytime radio programs didn't have much appeal for me. I put in three excruciatingly dull weeks in my upstairs room at the farm.

The Gilchrists bore with me during my illness, holding my job open for me, substituting one of my cousins from the Thomas family. I continued as night clerk at the Doose Hotel right up until I graduated from high school. The slight scholastic demands I had encountered up to then had given me a taste for what I thought would be the frivolities of student life, and I was determined to go on to college.

Aubrey had made it clear to me that when I graduated from high school his responsibility for my education was over. His plan was for me to work for him on the farm. There was no talk of wages. I was rescued by the Army's having a school program for seventeen-year-olds who were willing to enlist. I grabbed it.

The Rock Island Railroad and its Rockets are now gone, with only the long-unused tracks still there as a reminder. Like the trains, I went away too, except that I managed my exit a little before the Rock Island disappeared altogether. Only a few days after I graduated from high school in 1944, I rode one of the then-new Rockets out of Marengo to Des Moines reporting at Camp Dodge on my way to the Army, a new life, and good-by to the farm forever.

After I had enlisted as a reservist, I found myself on my way to a college engineering program, although I knew absolutely nothing about engineering. It was May 1944, and I had just turned seventeen.

It wasn't until I returned home on my first furlough the following autumn that I began to realize I had stepped over some mysterious dividing line, and that my life in Marengo and on the farm had, in effect, come to an end. It was Thanksgiving 1944, and I was going home on leave.

A first homecoming is like no other. At four in the morning, I stepped off the train at the coal chutes east of town, where the Rock Island from Chicago made its regular, unscheduled, stop. I had been away for six months, and I was astonished to see that nothing had changed during my absence. The town was dead still, empty as a stage setting, as I trudged along the snowy streets to my grandparents' house.

The front door was locked. To get in, I had to crawl through the dining room window next to Mom's sewing machine. The un-oiled wheels squealed when I pushed it aside. I knew that Mom wasn't going to hear anything this side of the Last Trump, but Pop was a light sleeper. The racket I made woke him, and he was downstairs in his nightshirt to greet me before I could get out of my overcoat. The lights in the hall woke Mom. My uniform was saturated with cigar smoke after the long train ride, and the first thing Mom said to me was, "You've been smoking!" It wasn't true; I hadn't yet started to smoke, but I was seventeen, and the accusation alone made me feel like a man.