One hundred years ago, Billy Charley was one of the best known Indians on Grays Harbor.
You could look it up.
That must have been some sort of racial designation. There were Indians, your ordinary, garden-variety Indians, and then there were well-known Indians.
Billy Charley was well-liked, too, a social distinction that would’ve pleased Willy Loman.
Maybe, like Willy Loman, he just wasn’t liked well enough.
Oh but first, but first we must introduce the Quinault Beach Casino Resort.
Billy Charley never threw dice here, never played cards, never gave the slots a whirl.
We came here last summer to take a test foray into the world of concrete camping. Four nights in the parking lot for the affordable price of $0 a night. Obviously, they hope you’ll take a shot at the slots while you stay for free. They just don’t know niggards like us.
Niggardly, there’s an out-of-favor adjective.
They’re doing just fine without our money, thank you very much. Casinos are easy-money businesses, even in the teeth of a recession, depression or whatever the hell it is we’re living through. You build it, and they will damn sure come.
They’ll come in wheelchairs, toting oxygen tanks behind them. They’ll shuffle in with the aid of walkers. They’ll hobble in on canes. But goddammit, they will come.
Somehow, frittering away your disposable cash in a run-of-the-mill, smoke-filled casino has become a perennial topper on the American bucket list.
Maybe it’s just Geronimo’s revenge.
At least the music’s good. Anytime of the day you can hear the Bee Gees, Huey Lewis and the News and the Little River Band.
I mean, have you heard about the lonesome loser?
We utilized the casino mostly for their squeaky clean restrooms, though we also availed ourselves of the complimentary Seattle Times. We tightfisted this vacation, so no buffets, no drinks, no amenities that come with a premium price tag.
To compensate for the behemoth’s insatiable thirst for gas, we enforced a moratorium on food not purchased in a supermarket or at least a convenience store.
Thank goodness they don’t charge for use of the restrooms.
Atmospheric, striking photographs line the walls outside the bathrooms. They document Quinault life as it was a century or more ago. They might’ve been taken by Edward Sheriff Curtis, or his brother, Asahel. Who knows?
Nobody on staff seems to know anything about them.
Thing is, they’re great fucking photographs.
I wasn’t the only one who thought so. I ran into a rangy Texan, an able-bodied fellow who walked under his own power beneath a 10-gallon Stetson hat. The hat was there just so you’d know he’s from Texas.
I saw him admiring the photos. So I asked him what he thought.
“Fantastic,” he said. “I look at them every time I come out, and I’m still in awe.”
Me too, Cowboy. Me too.
Two, in particular, intrigued me. The first caught a moment in time during a logrolling contest in Hoquiam, almost a century ago. Spectators line the surrounding docks and beaches, eyes focused intently on the competitors.
Poles in hand, two men danced on a turning, slippery hunk of western red cedar. To me, they seemed to capture the beguiling, heartbreaking evanescence of youth.
The guy on the right, especially. He was lissome, supple, nimble like Nijinksy.
Beneath the photograph was inscribed: Billy Charley … World Champion Log Roller … Picture taken in Hoquiam.
Cool, I thought. World champion log roller.
Then there was this photo:
Damn. This one’s deep.
Its power transcended the years and held me transfixed. I stood for minutes staring. I came back every day and stopped a while to linger before it and wonder about its mysteries.
A father and son, caught for posterity, together on traditional canoe. Their way of life, even then disappearing.
Who knows what their relationship was like? The only sure thing is time slipped away from them too quickly, as it does to all of us.
I’m a sucker for old photographs. I am beguiled by the way they narrow the scope of the ages and connect us with those who walked before us. They offer a humbling, wordless testimony: It was not as long ago as it seems.
I wanted to know more about Billy Charley. Unfortunately, nobody at the casino had any idea. He might’ve been a fictional character for all anyone seemed to know.
Chuck the hotel director, dark hair pulled neatly behind his back and spiked up front, shook his head sadly when asked if there was anyone around who could say anything meaningful about the photographs.
He suggested a 28-mile ride up the coast to Taholah, where Leilani Chubby presides over a humble tribal museum. It was the museum, Chuck said, that donated the photographs to the resort.
I said my goodbyes to my two-dimensional friends, Gilbert and Sarah Sotomish, William Garfield, Harry Shale Sr., Old Man Bob Pope and, of course, Billy and Benny Charley, then headed out onto Washington 109 north.
Soon enough we found our way to the museum, which is little more than a gallery of tribal art and memorabilia. Leilani knew the photos in question, but she didn’t know much about Billy Charley. She did, however, say I should go to the mercantile in town, because that’s where Sully hangs out. Sully is Benny Charley Jr., grandson of Billy Charley.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
You come down out of the winsome coastal hills and you’re greeted by Depression-era scenery. Beautiful Taholah, perched right on the spot where the Quinault River runs into the Pacific Ocean, is not faring so well in the 21st century.
I’m not an anthropologist nor a historian, but … the dilapidated condition of Taholah is painful to behold. I can only imagine that if you traveled back in time to the 17th century and stumbled onto a Quinault encampment at Taholah, well, it would look like something nicer than an inner-city project gone awry.
We parked outside the Taholah Mercantile, a humble, two-story general store. The floor is covered by red-and-white checkerboard linoleum. I went in and asked after Sully, and the nice woman at the counter got him on the phone. He agreed to meet me in a minute or two.
He arrived soon afterward, his Marine Corps cap pulled tight over his brown eyes. His gray hair and blue jacket advertised his status as a tribal elder.
Sully was 78 when we met and in excellent shape, particularly when measured against his peer group.
I asked him about his grandad, and he said from what he’d heard Billy Charley invented the logrolling block, a cedar stump that competitors rode as it turned from bottom to top and over again. He said legend has it that Billy could flip it over 60 times before before he lost his footing and tumbled into the drink.
Turns out Billy Charley was pretty well-known from Taholah to Hoquiam. At least from the stories Sully’s dad, Benny Charley Sr., passed down.
“He used to tightrope walk,” Sully said. “He could do backward somersaults. He could do just about anything. He’d go out and trap bear, and while they were trapped he would box with them. I think them days they mainly fished. He had a trawler. He’d set his net in the Humptulips, probably in the Grass Creek area.”
Then he said something startling.
“I never did meet my grandfather,” he said. “He was murdered when my father was just a boy. Five guys, they hit him with a chain and killed him.”
You don’t say?
“My dad was born on the Hoquiam River many, many moons ago,” Sully said.
Benny Charley Sr., the boy in the canoe, became a master wood carver. He earned regional notoriety for traditional canoes and totem poles, including one that stands in front of Taholah High School (home of the Chitwins, by the way).
His canoe-carving expertise landed him an invitation to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1971, a gathering that included a laundry list of music legends, including Professor Longhair, Dewey Balfa, Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens and Johnny Shines.
Benny Charley Sr. also excelled as an amateur boxer. A heavyweight, Benny lost a decision to Bernie Yenter in his only professional bout in Aberdeen in 1931.
“He was supposed to have fought Jack Dempsey at one time,” Sully said. “His manager wouldn’t let him.”
The athletic bloodlines run deep in the Charley clan. Sully wanted to play baseball.
“My brother and I got called up to Vancouver (Capilanos of the Class B Western International League). I was the only one who went. I was up there and I could’ve pitched in the doubleheader the next day if my dad had signed for me.”
His nephew, Tandy Charley, was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1981. He rose as high as Double A in the Cubs’ system before a shoulder injury derailed his career.
Sully instead starred in basketball and football at Grays Harbor Community College, where he was inducted into the athletic hall of fame. He did a stint in the Marines before going into forestry and working for the Department of the Interior.
His maternal grandfather, Otto Strom, was a Swedish immigrant who had a farm near Aberdeen.
“My folks sent me down from Seattle to take care of all the chores on farm,” he said. “Haul hay, milk cows, chop trees and fill up the woodshed at my grandfather’s farm. That’s what got me strong. He worked hard every day. He built churches here. He was a blacksmith. He went to Colorado and went gold mining up in Alaska, then he finally moved up to here.”
Otto Strom was a successful man by all indications, but he lacks the intrigue of Billy Charley, the well-known Indian turned mystery man now dancing nimbly atop a cedar log on the wall outside the bathrooms at the Quinault Beach Casino and Resort.
“These are just things my dad told me,” Sully said of Billy. “I think somebody found his bones buried someplace else, somewhere around Ocean Shores.”
Next: The murder of Billy Charley