Ron Karpinski ©2013
The proud Victorian mansion once stood a hundred yards above the railroad tracks in tiny Gold Hill, Oregon. In the late nineteenth century, it had been a bordello, serving the legions of rugged miners who swarmed the nearby mountains, hoping to strike it rich.
Decades later, the ornate building had long since fallen into disrepair and lay vacant. In the late nineteen sixties, my Aunt Virginia, a local real estate broker, took a liking to the old bawdy house and decided to purchase it and have it remodeled into the new family homestead.
Uncle Charley, a staid and steady career Navy man, was aghast at the idea, until he discovered a tiny beer bar on the corner, across the street and a block away. With only two taverns in town, having one within walking distance was a sailor's dream. Charley doth protest no more.
A building contractor gutted the old wooden structure and realigned the interior dimensions into kitchen, dining and living room on the ground floor, with bedrooms and bathrooms on the second and third floors. A wide covered porch extended around three sides. With a sympathetic eye toward the history of the place, Aunt Virginia had the exterior painted hot pink with white trim.
Charley lived out his final years in that house, succumbing to lung cancer in 1973 at age 68. His presence remained much in evidence, however, as several pieces of his Navy memorabilia tastefully graced a number of walls and shelves. In a career spanning thirty years, from 1920 through 1950, Charley had accumulated a sizeable collection of plaques, photos, and other mementos.
* * * * *
Yours truly had been out of the country for several years, serving in Germany with the U.S. Army. Upon returning to the states in August of 1974, I reported for duty at Fort Ord, California, a mere five-hundred miles south of Aunt Virginia and her portentous pink palace. One weekend, I drove up for a visit.
During my youth, I spent two summers with the Plummer's and had been a frequent house guest while studying at nearby Southern Oregon College; so I felt pretty familiar with most of their furniture and other possessions. I climbed the stairs to a third floor guest room and began unpacking.
An antique railroad pocket watch caught my eye. It sat on a round mahogany side table, hanging from a gold-plated hook inside a domed glass case. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be keeping perfect time.
"Where did this come from?" I asked.
"Oh, that belonged to your Uncle Charley," answered Aunt Virginia.
Funny, I had never seen the watch before, but that came as no surprise. In all the years that Uncle Charley had regaled the family with stories from his days at sea, he never seemed to tell the same tale twice. He lived a rugged life of adventure during an exciting era of American history, and he had more recollections in his later years than time allowed. Very likely, there was another story hidden behind this watch, yet untold.
"I've never seen this before," I mentioned.
"It arrived three years ago," said Aunt Virginia, "while you were overseas. Ass Fat sent it."
"Charley's old Navy pal, Ass Fat."
Ah, yes, I had heard that name a number of times. At the beginning of Charley's Naval career, from 1920 through 1928, he served aboard the USS Texas, a battleship. Strong friendships were forged in those days, living in close quarters and working long hours to keep the guns greased and the rust at bay. Charley's best friend aboard the Texas answered to the tune of "Ass Fat."
Well, that's what his friends called him, anyway, and I never heard Charley refer to the man by any other sobriquet; and, if Aunt Virginia knew his real name, she never mentioned it. So, history shall therefore record Charley Plummer's best friend in the Navy as, simply, Ass Fat.
According to Aunt Virginia, Charley and Ass Fat trusted each other implicitly and had developed a long-standing routine of loaning each other money, if the ship reached a new port and one of them wanted to go ashore but found himself a little short of cash.
There were no ATM cards or bank accounts in those days. At the end of each month, sailors formed a line and, one-by-one, reported to the ship's pay officer, saluted, and received their pay in hard currency. If a crewman mismanaged his money and ran out after a couple of weeks, too bad. He had to do without until the next payday rolled around.
On one occasion, Charley needed twenty dollars for some special purchase in town. Twenty dollars was a lot money in the mid-nineteen twenties, so Charley insisted that Ass Fat take his treasured railroad pocket watch, which had belonged to his father, as collateral.
Ass Fat protested, but Charley would not take the money otherwise. Reluctantly, Ass Fat accepted the watch and placed it among his personnel possessions for safekeeping.
Months passed, and Charley failed to return the twenty dollars. Each time Ass Fat asked Charley if he wanted his watch back, Charley demurred, saying that he had not yet accumulated the twenty dollars to repay the loan. Charley was nothing, if not a man of honor.
In 1928, Charley was transferred from the USS Texas and reassigned to the patrol gunboat USS Tulsa, then stationed off the China coast. For six long years, Charley, a Quartermaster First Class, manned the helm as the Tulsa made ports of call at Amoy, Hong Kong, Canton, Chefoo, Nanking, Shanghai and others, in addition to steaming far up the Min, Pei Ho, Pearl and Yangtze Rivers.
Sailors may write to their loved ones back home, but they rarely correspond with one another, and so Charley and Ass Fat drifted apart. Following service in China, Charley retired briefly but was recalled to active duty in 1940 as World War II raged in Europe, and the Japanese Army marched through Asia. While Charley, a Chief Quartermaster now, helped supervise the refitting of the destroyer USS Schley in Honolulu, Ass Fat served in parts unknown.
Eventually, the war consumed everyone's attention. Amid the chaos of battle, the maneuvering of fleets, and the loss of life, where old friends might be serving, or whether, in fact, they were even still alive, went unknown. In the days following the war, long before the advent of electronic Internet locator services, people simply cherished their memories and moved forward with their lives.
* * * * *
In the summer of 1971, retired U.S. Navy Chief Quartermaster Charley Madison Plummer sat in front of his television set, ensconced deep within the folds of his favorite leather chair, watching the Saturday afternoon baseball Game of the Week. Charley was not a rabid fan, but he did like the New York Yankees of that era, and he enjoyed listening to Curt Gowdy call a game.
Someone rang the front door bell, disturbing the tranquility of the moment. It was the postman with a package requiring signature. Charley absentmindedly signed on the dotted line and placed the parcel on the kitchen table, assuming that it had something to do with another one of his wife's real estate dealings. Then he quickly returned to his chair and the ball game.
Later that evening, after Virginia had returned home, she picked up the package and examined it. Turning toward her husband, she said, "Charley, this isn't for me. It's for you."
Confused by the return address in Massachusetts, Charley slowly unwrapped the small box. Then his eyes watered, and he fought back tears. It was his father's railroad pocket watch, cleaned and polished and protected in a fancy new glass display case.
A handwritten note fell from the upturned box and fluttered to the floor. In a strong, deliberate scrawl it read: "Charley, here is your damn watch back. I'm tired of waiting for my twenty dollars. Ass Fat."