Backwaters are the most interesting places in that all sorts of unlikely things wash up in them. Thus it was with the Valley of the Toenail Ridge. The number of strange characters with muddied pasts who eventually found their way into the Valley has been mentioned in these chronicles on a number of occasions, but one particular fella just about took the cake.
An itinterant builder by the name of David
Flencher had spent a good portion of his adult life starving as he strove
to build the consumate and ultimate chicken coop. He had received formal
training as an architectural draftsman in Melbourne, Florida and had dedicated
his life to the pursuit of the perfect accomodation for fowl of the species
Chookus Domesticus, more commonly identified as the common house chicken.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with many geniuses, David had a fatal
flaw in his abilities to produce this dream of his mind's eye and that
was, he was totally and utterly without any talent whatsoever in his chosen
He had the innate design and structural skills of a dyslexic sloth and had only in fact passed his qualifying examinations at the Melbourne Polytecknic and Tonsillorium by judicious application of the greased palm and bended knee, begging for just one more chance. Finally his lecturers had taken pity on him and granted him the neccessary pieces of parchment on the proviso that he immediately hie himself westward and never darken the continent east of the Mississippi again for the rest of his life.
True to his word, Fletch, as he was commonly called because of his uncanny resemblance to the feathery part of an arrow, following graduation betook himself away from the state of his birth and made his way Northward and Westward, following both the setting sun and the lousy climate. He passed through that former abode of New Jersey Jack Lazyacre, one Davenport, Iowa by name, where he paused long enough to share his considerable lack of architectural ability on the construction of the first bridge over the Mississippi, connecting Davenport with the Rock Island. Rock Island even then was an important outpost of strategic military value, housing as it did the Rock Island Arsenal. Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding Fletch designed into the end supports of the new bridge particular facilties not normally associated with river-crossing paraphanalia, to whit items of a certain plumbing nature catering to the special needs of male humans. When this addition to the bridge structure was questioned by the powers-that-be, Fletch merely suggested that if a bridge could have an Arsenal at one end it should also have a Urinal at the other. The remains of this facility, incidentally, can still to this day be seen on careful inspection of the northward footings.
Following this little setback in his career
Fletch proceeded Westward, occasionally being able to sell himself on small
projects to provided enough sustenance to keep body and soul together,
or at least in close proximity. He had a minor hand in the lockwork at
Cedar Falls on the Missouri river but had long travelled on when the Spring
floods came and the city fathers found that the high water was supposed
to be on the upstream side of the wier wall.
He passed through the Badlands of the Dakotas after having served a short term as a mining engineer at a remote and unheard of place called Mt Rushmore, where one of his dynamite charges managed to reduced this unprepossessing mound into a pile of rubble and scree suitable only for railroad ballast.
In the fullness of time Fletch found himself on the coast of the mighty Pacific Ocean in the magnificent state of Oregon. The capital Portland was at that time undergoing a huge expansion as money flowed into it from the massive gold, silver, copper and timber strikes that were taking place in the East of the state. Here was a place where a man could make his mark! For if a city is booming then its employment is vast and burgeoning, and if many men are working at many jobs then it means that many breakfasts need to be provided every day and that means that chickens have to be provided with the utmost in facilities to provide the wherewithal to supply the tens of thousands of eggs that every griddle in the city craved every morning at 6:30am!
And thus it was that Fletch began his lifelong passion. He had taken lodgings at a small hotel on the outskirts of the thriving metropolis and had noted that in the backyard of the hotel, adjacent to the stables and bank of outhouses, a wire and wooden lean-to structure housed a couple of dozen mangy and scrawny chickens whose purpose in life was to supply the kitchen of the establishment with eggs for baking, cakes and breakfasts. The architect noted quickly that while the lean-to did in fact provide adequate protection from the elements for its inmates, it gave every impression that a good gust of wind blasting in from the ocean would have it lean-fro-ing instead. So Fletch took it upon himself to fortify and improve the living accomodations of the feathery ova-producers.
Rarely in the course of human endeavour has such great effort been applied to such a meager undertaking with such minimal rewards. Following considerable drawing of plans, measuring, plotting, costing, purchasing and finally assembly, the manager of the residence found to his great surprise one morning that in the kitchen no eggs were available for the breakfasts of the workers assembled in the dining room. Upon polite enquiry to his cook, which took the form of much heated discussion and raised voices, he was appraised of the fact that while the chickens were in fact producing their alloted quota as they did every day, access to this produce had in fact been somewhat curtailed by the lack of a means of access or egress to the coop. In other words, Fletch had, in erecting a veritable palace of chicken-coopery fit for the residence of the most mighty of show cocks, omitted the neccessary requirement of a door to gather the harvest. Or to allow access to feed the birds. Or to water them. In fact, he had managed to produce a coop that if it had been located on Alcatraz Island off-shore from San Fransisco the labour of many stone-masons would have been rendered superfluous in keeping inmates in and exmates out.
Well, when a young man is trying to establish a reputation in a particular field it doesn't take too many people mentioning this type of gaffe before he finds himself somewhat on the outer employment-wise. So it was that Fletch, who had thought he had found his Valhalla in Portland, instead found himself having to re-pack his valise and travel further to seek other fresh fields where his talents might be appreciated.
And of course we can guess where he finished up.
The Valley of the Toenail Ridge lies in a hidden
range of mountains in the north-east of the state of Oregon and the only
means of entry to the Valley is via the Toenail Ridge Shortline which connects
the plains town of Rowel with the thriving metropolis of Selbyville at
the railhead of the narrow-gauge line. Many the happy wanderer who has
chanced upon this delightful place, enjoyed its scenery, its benign climate
protected behind its girdling mountains, laughed with its happy people
and been awed at the fruits of its verdant soil.
Occasionally a denizen of the Valley would move out into the big, wide world but life in the valley was so idyllic that most folks could hardly bring themselves to leave even long enough to travel on a day-ticket to Rowel to visit the dentist. Thus it was that when David Flencher alighted from the afternoon combine of the Toenail Ridge Shortline when it hauled into Joe Dempsey's station in Selbyville behind ol' #9 that he stood with mouth agape, slowly pivoting on his heels as he took in the encircling mountains, the pristine waters of Lake Wallace just visible in the distance, the bustle of the local merchants collecting their goods from the storage compartment of the combine and the cheery banter of the populace as they met friends and family alighting from the train. "Here, surely.." he thought "is the place I can make my mark!" and with that thought in mind he set himself towards the centre of the town of Selbyville.
It's been mentioned in these chronicles before that the Selbyville station actually lay a good mile outside the town limits of Selbyville itself but as the town had thrived its businesses had expanded along its only street with the result that before too long Fletch was walking past new stores, stables, houses as he approached the heart of the burg. There, in grand and imposing elegance, stood the Selbyville Hotel, the pride and joy of owner New Jersey Jack Lazyacre. Fletch had a few dollars in his pocketbook which should see him through until he could earn some money so he entered the hotel and stepped up to the recetion desk, there to be greeted by the imposing figure of Florence Golightly. Florence had taken the job in the hotel to supplement her earnings as a seamstress. "Good afternoon, sir" she said. "Can I be of some assistance?"
"Well, ma'am," replied Fletch, "I'm just new here in town and I reckon I need a place to stay until I can get myself established as an architect. I would like a room at reasonable rates and some supper pretty soon too."
New Jersey Jack Lazyacre -as has been reported in these chronicles on numerous occasions- kept his ear pretty close to the ground when it came to knowing what was happening in his town so within a matter of only a few minutes a note had reached him in his office in the Selbyville Brewery (manufacturers of Supremely Healthy, Invigorating,Truly Tasty, Yeasty Beer) that a young man of learning and qualifications had booked himself into the hotel and was in fact in the job market. Now anyone in business knows that an architect is a handy fella to have around, especially in an area that is undergoing a continuous boom. So with little ado, Lazyacre told his manager Ernie Lampard "Gonna step out for the afternoon, Ernie, I'll see ya tomorrow." and with that he strolled down Main St to his hotel, nodding to acquaintances on the way. When he entered the hotel he strode to the reception desk, spun the register around and read the latest entry. " David Flencher, huh? Architect...hmmmm..... Flo, what time you expectin' this fella downstairs for supper?"
At precisely 6pm the gong sounded in the dining
room and the paying inhabitants of the hotel, both short and long term
guests, wended their various ways either downstairs from their rooms or
across the hall from the parlour where they had been playing whist and
poker or gossiping with their fellows. One of the prides of New Jersey
Jack Lazyacre's life was his dining room, or more particularly the cuisine
offered therein. He had over the years developed a fine taste in epicurean
delights and had expanded his wine cellar to be the envy of even some of
the nabobs in far-away Portland. So that when the guests of the hotel -
and in particular Fletch - sat down to peruse the menu, the choice of fine
victuals ran to five pages, printed in the finest Copperplate and headlined
in fancy looking French phrases with English subtitles beneath. Now
having been raised a simple man, Fletch wasn't too sure just what vittles
he was being offered on this fancy menu, and being also a man of no cunning
or deviousness he didn't hesitate in asking the young waitress standing
at his side to explain just what was being offered.
"Well, sir" she said, "the chef today is offering one of his real specials, it's listed there under Coq au Vin. It means chicken in wine sauce, sir. Mr. Lazyacre is pretty proud of both his chickens and his wine, sir, so I reckon it must be a tasty dish."
Well, if there was one thing in the world guarenteed to capture the attention of the young architect it was mention of chickens. "Pretty proud of his chickens, is he?" asked Fletch. "He raise his own right here?"
"Yes, sir! We got dozens of 'em scratchin' round out the back of the stables right now. Best chickens this side of the Rockies, My Lazyacre says. At least the ones that the wolves and wildcats leave alone."
Ah, Dear Reader! What heaven-sent opportunity for our young man! Here is an person who had dedicated his life to the pursuit of the ultimate chicken-coop and he is presented with a situation where the best chickens in the whole West are falling prey to wildlife! "Miss, you reckon I could have a talk to this Mr Lazyacre sometime? Might be able to help him with his chicken problem. Oh, and by the way, reckon I'll try this dish too."
In the fullness of time, New Jersey Jack Lazyacre entered the dining room, greeting his guests as he ambled to his personal table with its white linen cloth and polished silver cutlery. He paused as he passed Fletch and, with a slight bow greeted the young man "Welcome to my humble establishment, Mr Flencher. Hope your stay here is pleasant" and with that he passed on to his table where he sat down to dine.
It was a common feature in the Selbyville Hotel
that, following dinner the guests would sit back over sherry or port and
- the men lighting cigars - the company would be entertained by some piece
of genteel artistry, musical or prose. On this particular evening the entertainment
consisted of a pianoforte and flute recital performed by Mrs Mackellar
(nee Daykey) on the ivories and a young woman by name of Elwyn Crier on
the flute. The company settled in to their post-prandial ease to enjoy
the entertainment, while the waitress asked for final orders of dessert
or liquid imbibances. Fletch pointed to the menu and whispered to the young
waitress "I'll have one of them" pointing to a fancy looking French name
on the menu.
"I'm sorry, sir," she replied, "but that's what the musicians are playing right now. Would you prefer a drink?"
About then New Jersey Jack Lazyacre rose from his chair and approached Fletch. "May I join you ,sir? We can enjoy the music together and then later perhaps have a discussion of mutual benefit" and with that he slid out a chair and seated himself with a sigh of contentment and ease.
As the evening passed and the port decanter did its round the company mellowed and Fletch found himself sinking into a pleasant state of semi-stupefaction, the quiet buzz of conversation overlaying the mellifluous tones of the musical duet. Finally the ladies called it a night and, to warm applause took their leave of the assembled company. "Now, sir, I hear you are an architect" prompted Lazyacre with no other introduction. "Good prospects here in the Valley for a fella who knows how to build stuff. What are your plans?"
"Well, Mr Lazyacre, sir" replied Fletch, "my
dream and goal in life is to erect the ultimate facility to protect and
prosper those wonderful creatures that we all rely on for our sustenance,
that give of themselves without stint, ..."
"Wonderful sentiment, son!" boomed Jack. "Man after my own heart! Reckon you and I might be able to do some business. How about you stop by my office in the brewery tomorrow and we'll have a chat about some projects I've had in mind along that very same vein. Now, dawn comes awful early 'round here so I'll bid you a good night and look forward to seeing you on the morrow" and with that Jack hied himself from the room.
The following morning in the walnut panelled office suite at the brewery (manufacturers of Supremely Healthy, Invigorating,Truly Tasty, Yeasty Beer) Lazyacre called his manager in and said "Ernie, reckon we might have found us a real nugget here in this Flencher fella. He was waxin' lyrical last night about how he wants to build a citadel to protect and nurture folks who go out of their way to help others. I reckon he might be a bit religious by the sound of it, but if he wants to help us with some extensions around here than I reckon I can see my way clear to help him with this dream of his. Sounds like he wants to build a convent or a hostel or sumthin', maybe an orphanage. Now he's coming in here this morning, so go find those plans we sketched up for the new distillery. While you at it, dig out those old plans we did for the Fenster Cheese factory, you know the ones where we was gonna add a production line for instant omelettes, the one with the chicken hatchery attached."
The town of Selbyville lies in a loop of track
that almost completely circles the town, with its Main street stretching
from Joe Dempsey's station to the outskirts to the west where lie the yards
of the Toenail Ridge Shortline. Here are found the engine sheds, the blacksmith
shops, the foundry, the paint stores and Grant Alexander's workshops where
much of the rolling stock and even motive power of the Shortline has been
built. David Flencher left the Selbyville Hotel after a filling breakfast
and stood on the front porch perusing the town which stretched both ways
before him. To a newcomer to the town Selbyville presented a bit of a conundrum
because it comprised only one street which stretched into the distance
in both directions. Which way to go for the Brewery (manufacturers of Supremely
Healthy, Invigorating,Truly Tasty, Yeasty Beer) was the question in Fletch's
mind. Well, one way was as good as another so with a spring in his step
he strode off to the West in search of his appointment with New Jersey
Jack Lazyacre. Fletch took great interest in the various structures of
the town as he passed them, in particular the fine cheese factory that
rose imposingly over the skyline, soaring to the unheard-of lofty height
of four stories. Eventually he found himself approaching sounds of great
industry, blacksmith sounds, heavy metal on metal sounds, hiss of steam
sounds, many men working together sounds, and before him lay the yards
of the Toenail Ridge Shortline.
Now it came as a bit of a shock to Fletch that so much activity could be going on in a fairly confined space and in particular he noticed that a lot of that activity had to do with building things. Building rolling stock. Building small sheds to be placed along the right-of-way. And in particular, building locomotives. Engines. Steam behemoths. Well, to tell the truth, building only one engine. And only a Porter, hardly qualified as a Big Boy. And not really building. More modifying, changing from one type of loco to another to suit the different needs of the Toenail Ridge Shortline. But it didn't matter, Fletch was instantly smitten! He approached the yard manager Grant Alexander and with a gleam in his eye asked "What are you doing to that locomotive?"
Now it has been mentioned in these chronicles previously, Grant was a pretty easy-going character and enjoyed both showing off his yards and his knowledge so he explained to Fletch that the current modifications to the little Porter were to make it more fit for general use on the railway. It was receiving a pony truck to help it cope with the undulations in the track, it was getting a larger and more comodious cab so that big Tony the driver would quit his bitchin' about how a man didn't have room to swing a cat when he was tryin' to earn a decent living (although a lot of his discomfort was self-inflicted, nothing that losing 50 pounds wouldn't have solved....) and the biggest modification of all, the little Porter was in the process of losing its side-tanks and gaining a tender instead, so that its range would be adequate to make the run into Rowel and back without having to stop to pump water from Lake Wallace both coming and going. In other words, it was being converted from a very second-hand switching engine to a small but powerful mainline loco and was destined to supplement the motive power provided by the two 10-wheelers that hauled the varnish and the regular freight consists.
Now to a fella who thought building chicken coops represented some kind of ultimate architectural expression the impact of witnessing what was being done to the steel behemoth (alright....a really small behemoth...) was like a religious conversion to him. What he had dreamt of doing with chicken wire and wood laths Grant Alexander was accomplishing wish steel and iron and steam and sheer unadulterated POWER!
And Fletch suddenly knew that this is what he wanted to do too. "Mr Alexander, sir, you reckon that there might be a place for me here designing these changes you're making to these magnificent machines?"
Well, in the fullness of time David Flencher became pretty much a permanent fixture in the Selbyville Yards of the Toenail Ridge Shortline. The extreme lack of talent he had exhibited all of his life in his other designs was washed away in the fervour of his conversion to real engineering. Within a matter of months he had gained a reputation for exemplary work in converting this locomotive into that, in taking parts of one machine and modifying them to another to improve efficiency, in short, he became a guru in improving the products of Messrs Baldwin, Porter et al. Orders began to arrive for his plans and drawings from far afield as word of his expertise spread but he knew where his heart lay and while he would occasionally make the day trip to Rowel or even further afield to Portland to inspect a mechanical candidate for conversion he chose to do all of his work in his tiny office in the Selbyville yards.
To start with New Jersey Jack Lazyacre was none too pleased that Fletch never did show up for his appointment that first morning but being the consumate anti mouth-inspector of gift horses he pretty soon realised that this young fella was bringing huge benefit to the Valley of the Toenail Ridge in the form of cash, trade, orders and interest and since by now a goodly portion of the Valley of the Toenail Ridge was in fact in the name of New Jersey Jack Lazyacre he just smiled around his cigar and kept his mouth shut and watched his assets acrue.