Sunday, 5:40 AM. 40 degrees F, wind calm. The sky is overcast and it is damp. The barometer is still down.
When I took Buddy out for his walk last evening he went on point at the end of the driveway. That was odd, I thought. As I came up behind him I saw he was pointing a rather large black blob about thirty feet away. Which moved almost imperceptibly further away as I approached. As my eyes and my brain adjusted to the darkness and the blob, it dawned on me that a black blob that moves in the night is likely a black bear. Buddy stayed steady on point until I retreated behind him and he followed my command to go back into the house. Good dog, Buddy!
JACK’S TRADING POST
Yesterday was a mild and very quiet day In the woods, except for the wind, which blew incessantly and at times at gale force. Deer were evidently sitting tight, as I saw nothing and heard few shots all morning, and only two in the afternoon, right into evening. The day did give me the opportunity to think about deer seasons past, specifically those when I was in my twenties, a half century and more ago, when my buddies and I would head north to the national forest and Langlade, on the Wolf River. The following is substantially true, given some dramatif license.
Whether deer hunting, grouse hunting or fishing, we always spent time at Jack’s Trading Post, a stones’ throw from the rapids on the Wolf. The North Woods has always been full of characters, and Jack Kolb was certainly one of the most colorful. Jack, AKA Johnny Red Shirt, or Johnny Red Hat (because he always wore a red flannel shirt and a red felt hat, winter and summer) was the proprietor of a backwoods gas station and sort of general store, where one could buy a few canned goods and maybe some rancid bacon, or a six pack of beer. But, more importantly, it was where all the locals and the visiting hunters and fishermen hung out after a day in the woods or on the river. The Trading Post was a place to tell tall tales, a few true stories and a lot of lies, and Jack was the ringleader in all events. In Jack’s eyes, a stringer of a few six inch brook trout became “the nicest mess of trout I’ve ever seen,” and a nubbin buck “a trophy for the wall.”
The trading post was filled with deer heads, mounted fish, and jokes…like the stuffed Jack rabbit with spike deer horns attached, which was named a “Jackalope,” and which neophytes were told the woods were full of. Also photos, “real ones, folks” of the horrible man-eating Hodag which waited on forest trails to pounce on the tenderfoot hiker. It was a great place to have a few beers, and Jack offered a choice of two; “Chief,” and “Oshkosh,” and whichever was ordered, onto the table was put, with a resounding thud, a Chief Oshkosh, “Pride of the North Woods.”
Jack sold gasoline out of an old fashioned pump which he cranked by hand. When a city slicker drove up to the pump (there was only one) he would ask him, “How many octanes do you want?”
Jack was a man of some mystery, as nobody seemed to know where he came from or what he did before he opened the trading post back during the war years. There were rumors that the old scamp was a bank robber who had hidden his stash in the caves along the Wolf, or that he was a moon shiner during prohibition, and that he had a still that he yet operated back in the woods.
Well, after a while I got married and some time after that we moved to New York, so I never saw Jack again. About ten years after my last visit to the trading post, one of my friends wrote to me, I think it was in a Christmas note, that Jack had been murdered that last deer season. And, over some subsequent years, Jack’s story was put together, in pieces, like a puzzle.
Jonathan Kolb was a poor Jewish boy who grew up in a tough neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He was smart, and a smooth talker, so he drifted into being a small time grifter and was eventually enlisted in the local mob. He ran numbers, operated a speakeasy, that sort of thing. But he never got into the violence of the vocation, never even carried a gun. And being the only Jew in the gang outside of the consigliore, he was nicknamed Johnny The Jew. The boss liked him so he never had to do any of the mob’s dirty work. Until there was a war between two rival gangs and he was told to go to the mattresses, like everyone else.
Johnny panicked, gathered up his belongings and a few hundred bucks, got in his old Model A and headed north. But he was painfully aware of what happened to gangsters who knew a few secrets and left the brotherhood. So he followed the North Star and Route 32 until his money ran out, which was on the Menomonee Indian Reservation. Being a generally likeable guy and down on his luck, he got along with the Indians and the locals, worked at odd jobs and finally met a local schoolteacher, got married and started the Trading Post. He built a successful little business, based on shrewdness and bullshit. He forgot all about the mob, figuring they would never find him.
And then, one day, they did.
Jack went out to gas up the Cadillac, not thinking much of it because there were a lot of Chicago Cadillacs up North during the heat of summer. But when the driver’s window rolled down, a gusher of cigar smoke erupted, and enshrouded therein was the, puffy, scarred face and beady black eyes of his old capo, who said, “Fill ‘er up, kid.” The car had three other beefy, ominous occupants.
Jack mumbled something, pulled his red hat further down over his visage, and hastily filled the tank. He didn’t ask “How many octanes” the driver wanted, either. A thick hand reached out the window, with a Benjamin in its’ fat fingers. “Keep the change, Johnny. We just wanted to stop and say ‘hello’ to an old friend.” Jack Kolb stood for once speechless, his heart racing like the river across the road, as the Caddy sped off, spiting granite gravel.
So, did the mob finally rub out old Johnny the Jew? No, it turned out it was two local high school kids, who beat the old man’s brains out for the couple of bucks in the Trading Post till…
And a six pack of Chief Oshkosh.