H. Allen Smith with Totem Pole
Alpine, Texas 1972
Back Cover of "The Best of H. Allen Smith"
A Traipsin' Totem Pole*
H. Allen Smith
|Not long ago a letter came from Ken McCormick saying:
"On the jacket of your latest book is a photo of you standing beside a handsome totem pole. Could this possibly be the same totem pole that was carved for you in Alaska all those years ago? If so, it appears to be in a remarkable state of preservation. And so do you."
For answer, let me say that my totem pole has been a traipsin' totem pole and is indeed the same one mentioned by Mr. McCormick, who is a boss editor at Doubleday & Company. It stands today above a stone wall a few steps from the main entrance to my house in the mountains of West Texas. It is a little over seven feet tall, set in concrete, painted in gleaming colors, and it faces westward toward the Pacific Ocean.
The story goes back to 1940. In that year I composed a book which was published the following year by Doubleday under the title Low Man on a Totem Pole. The book became a fat best seller and set me on the road to some easy living, and it tied my name to the totem pole forever and a day. Up to the publication of that book I doubt if I had ever seen a totem pole in the flesh, or in the grain. To this day when I am introduced to strangers the chances are strong that they will say, "Oh, the totem pole man." I am identified with the totem pole as immutably as Albert Payson Terhune was identified with dogs, Jimmy Durante with a nose, Herman Melville with a whale, and Howard Johnson with ice cream.
After Low Man had become a hit in the marketplace my agent, Harold Matson, hit upon the notion of having a totem pole carved surreptitiously and presented to me for the decoration of my newly acquired premises near Mount Kisco, New York. Mr. Matson consulted with executives at Doubleday and a treaty of procedure was drawn up and ratified. The conspirators wanted to have real people depicted on the pole and for the sake of authenticity, they agreed that it should be carved by a professional in Alaska. Summit conferences were held to determine whose likenesses should be carved on the pole and in the end these men were chosen (beginning at the top): Fred Allen, James Street, Don Elder, Cedric Crowell, Harold Matson, and the bottom man, me. Fred Allen was accorded the peak position because he had written the introduction to my book, and a line from that introduction had provided the totem pole title. Jim Street, the Confederate novelist, was one of my closest friends; Don Elder, biographer of Ring Lardner, was my editor at Doubleday; Cedric Crowell was boss of sales for the publisher; Matson, as stated, was my literary agent and still is, and I . . . well, I wrote the book.
Photographs of these six were collected and handed to an artisan in New York and he constructed a model totem pole about a foot high. It was sent to a grizzled old guy, non-Indian and un-Eskimo, in Alaska. I once had a photograph of this Yukon Praxiteles with a toad-stabber in his hand. In former times the most celebrated carvers of totem poles were indians with such names as Oyai, Hasemhliyam, and Hlamee. Mine was Eli Tate.
In early research I established that the totem pole was invented in Russia, along with the telephone conference call, the electric backscratcher, the litter barrel, crewelwork, and enchiladas con queso. The anthropologists say that when the Russians were running Alaska they brought in their own tools and techniques and revolutionized the native craftsmanship. They showed the people around Sitka how to put grizzly bears and witchetty grubs and killer whales and dominecker hens at the top of cedar poles, and they told them to carve eagles and more eagles and still more until they were able to reproduce the Russian Imperial Eagle. That's why you see so many eagles on totem poles. All these birds and animals and witchetty grubs came to represent the ancestors of the owner, and the owner was never to eat his totem-creature. It would be much the same as eating his grandmaw.
H. Allen Smith with Totem Pole
Garden City, New York 1945
Partial Back Cover "3 Smiths In The Wind"
Old Man Tate, up there in Alaska, carved well and the likenesses of the people on the pole were very good, but he missed the main point completely. He carved me at the bottom and then further down the pole, underneath my portrait, he put an Indian chief, high feathered war bonnet and all.
His second mistake, I thought, was my nose.
The nose figured prominently in the travels of my totem pole which were almost as extensive as the journeyings of Lowell Thomas. When it was finished and painted, the pole proper was shipped by freighter from Alaska to New York by way of the Panama Canal. My nose, a five-inch beak painted a boozy red (that old man didn't even know me!) was shipped separately, later to be doweled and glued to the middle of my face.
Within a couple of months the pole and the nose had reached Garden City, Long Island, where Doubleday had offices and a big bindery. I was still ignorant of the whole plot and remained so until the day Harold Matson drove me to Garden City and led me up to my tribal monument, which stood in a wooden base beside the main entrance to the book factory. Someone took a picture of Mr. Matson and me in squatty positions beside the pole, while other people stood around making big brags about how it had been carved clean the hell and gone up yonder in Alaska and how it had actually been through the Panama Canal.
There the pole stood, unshakable, for twenty-three years. Fred Allen was photographed several times standing beside it. So was Jim Street, up from Chapel Hill for his annual visits. Also Harold Matson and all his considerable kin, over from nearby Greenwich. Visitors from near and far always wanted their pictures taken by the pole, usually making with the comical faces. One I remember whose photo showed him looking solemn and perplexed was Peters, my agent in London. He understood about the sarsen trilithons at Stonehenge but he was a trifle bewildered concerning my bloodline affiliations with this tall stump. So was I. Yet he posed beside it as sedately and as reverently as was possible under the circumstances. As it stands today, that totem pole has been photographed ten times more often than its owner, often by cameramen from the newspapers and magazines.
The dowel at the rear of my nose had been smeared with glue before it was set into the pole, but within a few years it had worked loose. It was always working loose. From time to time the pole had to be repainted and this involved the feathery application of five colors, delicate work usually executed by my daughter or by me. Picasso could not have done better.
The ancient wood carver who flubbed the nose (I've resisted saying he blew the nose) could never have anticipated my great raging hordes of grandchildren. The red nose fascinated these kids and, since it was loose in its socket most of the time, they were inclined to remove it and use it for a plaything. My god, they had playthings more intricate than a lunar module, yet whenever they arrived on the premises they headed straight for my nose. If it was not loose at the moment, they simply wrenched it off my face.
We lived on the edge of a deep forest where the children loved to explore and usually they carried my nose off into the timber. And lost it. By good fortune I had respected the integrity of the original artist and I kept the nose painted a bright red. The color made it easier to locate out there amongst the briers and the ferns and the poison ivy.
The years marched, and the time came for us to move to a more salubrious climate and we ended up choosing West Texas. The totem pole would, of course, go with us. Sir Galahad would never have left his armorial bearings behind if he departed Camelot to go a-grailing in Brewster County, Texas.
I took a sledge hammer and shattered the concrete base and lifted out the pole. On the instant the population of my hilltop home increased by ninety-six thousand. That was my personal estimate of the number if termites inside the base of my pole.
I slaughtered most of them with insecticides. I got a ten-gallon bucket and soaked the mildewed Indian up to his eyebrows in triple-strength bug-killer and after that I let him marinate for a week in creosote. At last it was time to amputate the infested wood and I approached this task with apprehension. Happily, the termites had not penetrated past the Indian's forehead and my own noble sculpture was undamaged. I wrapped the pole in a tarpaulin again and it traveled west by moving van. The nose I managed to fit into my travel kit.
The cedarwood obelisk has been repainted twice in Texas, but time and the sun and the wind have taken their toll. Deep cracks have developed and grow deeper with each passing season. The end is not too far away. Here today gone tomorrow. I confess without qualm that I have an abiding affection for my totem pole, and I have undertaken the customary arrangements. I have talked to the people who conduct such matters in our town.
"How big is he?" asked the man, not understanding the question. I explained that the patient, or client, was not a person, but a totem pole.
"He," I said, "is a trifle over seven feet."
"Nine and a half inches at the bottom. Narrower at the top."
"The casket would have to be custom-made. We haven't yet run into anybody quite that narrow. Some pretty close to it though. Look, Mr. Smith, since he is a totem pole maybe we could keep the cost down. A plain pine box might do. We could get a local carpenter to run it up for you."
"No. Cedar. Nothing's too good for him. Could I get a cedar casket?"
"If you insist on a casket, how about bronze?"
"No. Cedar. His body is cedar and cedar would be appropriate."
"Okay. No sweat. It'll run eight feet in length and a little over a foot wide. Want me to order it?"
"Oh, he isn't . . . he hasn't . . . he's not ready yet."
We then went into the matter of a cemetery lot and I thought this would be troublesome, but it wasn't, except that the man said he didn't think they would sell me a parcel eight feet long and one foot wide. A grave of those dimensions would impair cemetery symmetry.
I got up to leave, well satisfied with the way things had worked out. As I reached the door the man called out to me.
"You want the lining in satin?"
"Velvet," I answered. "I told you nothing's too good."
While I was on this funeral kick I thought of composing my totem pole's obituary for the New York Times. My first newspaper job, fifty years ago, was the writing of obituaries and funeral notice and I make bold to suggest that I do a bang-up job in that area of journalism. I went to the library for some more research, and I stumbled upon a startling theory advanced by a writer named Ruth Brindze. She asserted: "It is possible that a decorated pole actually was carried by winds and ocean currents to the American coast from one of the Pacific islands, where the people were also expert wood carvers."
Shortly after I read those lines an inspiration struck me. I got to thinking of all those rafting expeditions that have been cluttering the oceans since the voyage of the Kon-Tiki. I realized that here, in the realm of pure science, lay a far better fate for my totem pole than a grave in Elm Grove Cemetery.
I would dig the pole out of the concrete again and transport it to Hawaii or Tahiti or Bora Bora and set it adrift in the Pacific. Keep in mind the voyage of the Kon-Tiki, which was intended to prove something about sweet potatoes, and the journey of the Lehi VI to prove that the book of Mormon is true. And somewhere I've read of a rafting expedition in the Pacific, organized to show that California peanut butter originated in the mountains of Peru.
My totem pole might well serve as the instrumentality for proving the Ruth Brindze hypothesis and putting the Russians to shame. It could wash ashore in Alaska or Vancouver or Oregon and American anthropologists would be so delighted they would leap about like exultant goats.
Think of the fun in it for me, going again to Hawaii or Tahiti or Bora Bora. And on top of that, perhaps an award of the National Medal of Science, given by the President of the United States to me and my totem pole jointly.
Hell, why wait! I think I'll go out and dig it up and get out the tarp
and start for Bora Bora next Tuesday.
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