The Lowdown On the King Log

WITH what appeared to be some perturbation of gnawing need, my other friend, Robert, telephoned just now, and without due deference my established sapience, he blurted, ``What is a king log?'' To reprimand him for such neglect of the amenities, I affected a retaliatory tone and said, ``Any numbhead who got into the second grade of a Maine schoolhouse knows that - it's a jillpoke.''

Robert said, ``Why don't you hang up, and I'll dial again, and we'll begin all over?''

``Perhaps you will elucidate what brought on this sacra fames scientiae,'' said I, ``if I may coin a phrase?''

``You may, you may,'' said Robert. ``I'm reading Holman Day's novel, `The Rider of the King Log.' ''

``They made it into a movie,'' I said.

We were now off to a good start, and I was telling him all I know when he shut me off after an hour to go to the bank. The king log was the rascal that had somehow gotten caught along the shore of the river during the spring drive, and as traffic will back up when some joker tries to push a wheelbarrow across the freeway, so this one log will cause a ``jam.'' The whole drive of long logs will pile up behind it, and the swift movement of timber to mill comes to a screeching halt. This belongs in Maine's lumbering past, as river driving ceased years ago. Now they build roads and use trucks.

Freeing the king log was a dangerous job, and tragedy often struck. Dynamite was used (always called ``powder'' by the drivers - pow-duh), but some jams were freed by the brute strength of enough men with peavies. The first tremble of freed logs sent every spike-booted river-hog for shore, and drivers who weren't nimble enough and had to ``ride'' the drive until they reached quiet water became legends. Holman Day's novel is about a driver so adept that he got the king log afloat, and then rode it down the flood with millions of board feet of timber at, so to speak, his heels. The silent movie was made about 1920, and the important scenes were filmed in North Anson, Maine, on the gorge of the Carrabassett River just before its confluence with the Kennebec.

Chippy St. Peter, Nornie Baxter, and I happened to be passing, on our way to Embden Pond with my uncle's horse and buggy to seek some trout. We were held up while Jack Holt came down on the king log and waved at the camera as he went by. I think it was Jack Holt, but some silent film historian may correct me. Except that whoever it was, it was really a stunt man. Meantime, the real hero of the movie was up at the North Anson church, looking in the window to see his own true love being married to a scalawag. Right after that, there was a sentimental Young Lochinvar scene where the hero rushes into the church to seize the damsel and carry her off to live happily ever after.

Something of an elaborate harness and overhead cable had been prepared for the hero's safe descent, so he couldn't have rolled off his log if he'd tried, but at the time it was said that Somerset Country still had plenty of old-time river ``tigers'' who could have ridden that king log all the way to Skowhegan without any safety harness, and carrying a cup of tea along in one hand.

I remember how Flint Johnson of Strong, who was a top-hand at the old drives, told of riding a log in the artificial pool at the Boston Sportsman's Show. Flint and Buster Smiley had gone down to see the show, and a couple of ``birlers'' from Bimidji were entertaining. Flint spoke slightingly of their talent, and a man standing by said, ``If you can do better, let's see it!'' He was the manager of the show. So Flint and Buster borrowed some spike-boots and got on the log and rolled it for an hour or so, doing a number of fancy antics hitherto unseen south of The Forks. When they quit, the manager said, ``Why didn't-cha fall off?''

``And get wet?'' said Flint. ``What would we want to fall off for?''

``To please the crowd. They don't pay to see you roll. They pay to see you go in the drink. Next time, give 'em 10 minutes and then fall off. No dunk, no dough.''

So when Flint got home to Maine he was telling about this, and Wally Trufant, another old-time log roller, said, disbelieving, ``You fell off! How in the world would you manage to fall off a log?''

Flint cocked his head, as this incredulity hadn't crossed his mind until just now. Then he said, ``Well, Wally - I tell you,'twarn't easy.''

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