The story of Cookee

by John Dunn

Frank was still around at the end of the war, not much older in appearance from what he was at the outset of hostilities, for I found him sitting in the summer sun on the doorstep of the only remaining blacksmith shop still working on the few working horses on the farms in this district. He was dressed in the same Carhartt’s blue denim overalls, and had the old straw hat with the sweat-stained brim pulled down to shade his eyes from the glare of the sun.

The standard smells of warm horse, hot forge and strong manure were there around Frank, their familiarity beckoning strongly to me. I sat down near Frank and waited for the irregular smells to waft me completely back in time. Those were the pipe-smoker’s Quebec shag, the sharp acrid smoke from burnt hoof parings when the blacksmith set the red-hot iron shoe against the upturned hoof to test the fit, and the musty odour of damp board, too long left lying in the earth.

Frank thought I’d put on a little weight since I’d been away on His Majesty’s Service, and I allowed as how it seemed the army rations had been good to me ‘twas only because we’d had some good cooks in the regiment, really good ones. The only thing missing, I felt, was the occasional flair, the something entirely different and unexpected, something say like a Chinese dinner.

As soon as I mentioned Chinese dinner I could see that something had untied the strings of Frank’s bag of recollections, for he smiled, and opened up his storybook of the shanty days at the turn of the century, when white pine was king in the Ottawa Valley.

“You know how it is with men,” he said. “Particularly with a really hard-working gang. When the day’s work is done and they’re well fed there’s nothing they like better than to relax with violent sports, or rough and tumble horseplay. But (and here his voice took on a deeper tone, with a kind of earnest assurance rumbling from it) put them into a confined space where they can’t do the rough and tumble, and in no time at all you find practical jokers sprouting like mushrooms against the stable wall after a warm September rain. It’s a fact.”

“I mind one year we went up the Opeongo. Came to Barry’s Bay, and went on past Lake Kaminiskeg along the Combermere trail on the way to camp on the McLaren limits. Great country then. Had some white and red pine sticks running seventy feet long. Green hills ringing all those crystal lakes. Prime pine country!”

Frank paused to recharge his recollection battery. I sat silent as an owl, not wanting to disturb any guide post on this tale. From the left pocket of his overalls he took out a scarred and battered pipe with all the marks of a veteran campaigner, and from the other pocket a pouch of dried, rolled Quebec shag. Three pinches of shag went into the bowl, and Frank tamped it down well, leaving on a few bits of dry tinder showing on top.

From the same pocket where he kept the pouch he brought out a wooden match, scratched it on the door frame of the blacksmith shop, and held its fire away from him until the flame throttled back to prove that the smelly sulphurous tip had burned off and Frank was left with the essence of pure pipe-lighting fire in one of Eddy’s matches.

This flame he applied to the tinder, drawing the flame down through the shag with three quick puffs, and followed with a fourth, and a fifth, ensuring the pipe was going to carry on on its own before he wrung the flickering ember of match in the air and flung it down just before it would have scorched and burnt the quick under his thumb nail.

Through the rising cloud of smoke his eyes looked straight down the street to the bridge, but instead of seeing the traffic on the bridge over the river, Frank seemed to be gazing into the far distant view from the lookout above Combermere, overlooking Kaminiskeg, for Frank squinted, finding himself enveloped again in the smell of spruce and pine needles, with the wind soft in the uplands, and his eyes fixed on the fir-fringed shore.

I waited more.

A quick shift of scene, and the curling wisps of smoke wafted Frank back to the big stable smells of hay, horse and manure, but these were not back at the blacksmith shop door, but rather in the McLaren shanty for mixed with them were the bunkhouse odours of men’s heavy woollen combinations drying on the wire alongside the bunks, the warm barm of bread dough rising, and the breakfast smells of pork sides frying, and hash-brown potatoes, and pancakes, with maple syrup and tea. Scalding hot, of course.

Ah, that tea. Frank once reckoned a man could stand a cant hook in that tea kettle and half an hour later he’d have nothing put a pole with a rivet in it. That tea braced a man for a day’s cutting.

Shrugging a little Frank turned again to me and went on as if the interruption to recharge had been nothing more than trailing the paddle in the stern of the canoe while he examined the path of a beaver in the shallows.

“You see,” he went on, “We were seventeen men all told. And ten teams of horses. We went up in late October, knowin’ we’d be there in the shanty ‘til spring before gettin’ out with the drive, and even then only God willin’ and the ice still holdin’.”

“The first week the men went all kinda slow and squinty, takin’ time, gettin’ to know who the others in the gang were, what they were like, tryin’ to see what each one could take and how much they might not take, and such likes.”

“Right from the start there was one thing everyone agreed on, and that was that we had a real crackerjack cook. ‘Cookee’ – that’s the only name any shanty cook ever had in my time. It’s a name shantymen made up of equal parts respect and admiration.”

A pause followed. Frank stirred the embers in the pipe with another of Eddy’s Sesqui that he found in the bottom of the Carhartt’s bib pocket, and he went on.

“’God Bless the Cook’. There should be a sing with that message nailed on every shanty up and down the Valley. I do be thinkin’ that it’d come as no surprise to anyone who’s spent time with men, fellows like yourself who’ve done army time, that cookee is often more important than the boss hisself. The whole outlook of the men, their enjoyment of the work, and respect for their mates – all that comes fine as flour when there’s joy in the kitchen, and cookee’s on the job.”

“’Charlie’, that was our cookee’s name. I suppose he’d have had another name too, but we only knew him as Charlie. He was a small-boned, short, tin, wiry Chinese of undetermined age with short, bristly hair, and practically no beard. But the thing which set him apart was his enormous grin. He’d a marvellous set of great strong white teeth, and, well, with the power of that grin he could face the devil himself, day or night.”

“But look, Chinese Charlie was just born natural to be the butt of all the efforts of the practical jokers in the camp. He’d listen to you, every word you said, but you’d have the notion at the end that he didn’t understand more than one word in twenty. In the evening he’d sit in the bunk with some Chinese newspapers, reading that queer writing, running his index finger top to bottom and then right to left. Any man could read that kind of writin’ you’d think would have little trouble with the likes of English. But with Charlie, you couldn’t be sure at all.”

“So, it started.”

“First it was Gorman. ‘Tiny Tim’ we called him. He was a young colt then, still growin’ even though he was already 225 pounds and had to stoop three inches to get inside the bunkhouse door. Gorman used to fix cookee’s bunk. ‘Frenching’ the blankets he called it. He’d wait ‘til Charlie tried to get to sleep and then burst out laughing to see would utter one word only, ‘So!’, and remake the bed and go to sleep.”

“The next week it would be ‘French’ Champagne’s turn. He’d tie Charlie’s boot laces together, or tie his socks together, small things like that. And the only comment from cookee was the one word, ‘So!’ We came to figure it was the only word of English he knew.”

“Andy McCarthy would take over from Frenchy. His specialty was hiding things. He’d hide Charlie’s glasses, or his newspapers, or his alarm clock, and watch bemused as Charlie went out searching for the missing articles, his grin lighting up the dark corners to help find the lost things.”

“So it went, alternating from week to week. Nothing to give serious offence, mind, and Charlie took it all in apparent good humour, never getting upset, never showing a sorry side, or being out of sorts. Even when the hard cold of December rolled in Charlie’s meals in the morning set a man up and the tea tightened his braces, and the grin that served it warmed the frostiest of days. But by Christmas time the season of peace and good will, the men began to tire of their little practical jokes, ‘cause, you see, Charlie didn’t make any effort to fight back. If he had fought back, the men would have enjoyed the scrimmage, and the game would have come to an end. But without the fighting back, the game lost its zest.”

“Well, the day before Christmas cookee had worked harder than usual getting ready the turkey and trimmins’ and he must have been more tired than usual when he finished.”

“Anyway, the men decided to call it quits, to confess their wickedness to heathen Charlie and scrub their consciences clean. McCarthy was appointed as the spokesman. That evening in front of Charlie’s bunk he began. “Charlie,” he said, “We’ve got something to tell you. You know for many weeks we’ve been playing practical jokes on you, hiding your socks and glasses, tying your boot laces, and suchlike goings-on. And you know it was all done in fun. But, confound it, Charlie, you never once did get mad. And so there’s no fun in it for use. We’ve decided to call it quits. No more practical jokes. We just wanted to let you know, ‘cause this is Christmas Eve, and we just had to tell you to get our consciences cleaned off as any Christian would want to do. You may not be a Christian, but we want you to understand what it’s all about, and no hard feelings. No, cookee, what do you say to that?”

“Well, look, the grin just broke across that Oriental face. It took in the incisors, the biscuspids, and even went back to the ring of the molars. It lit up the bunkhouse for a full minute, and then Charlie broke into the longest and most surprising speech he ever made in his life in camp.”

“So! ok! Hokey! NevernomoreInopeeintea. So!”

“What did he say?” asked Gorman.

“’Twas all Chinese,” said McCarthy.

“All Greek to me,” said Frenchy.

“What does it matter? God bless our cookee!” said Tiny Tim.