I was smart enough to have her write some things on those old pix because, Lord knows, today I wouldn't have a clue who some of the photographed are--including this one. What's on the back is her grandma-like chicken-scratching, a name and a description: "Walt Sprengers" and then "clondykers." I remember her explanation--a foursome of local tough guys who'd decided to pack their weapons--look how prodigiously they wear them--and head up the Yukon in search of gold.
I love it. It's a wonderful photo, even though I don't know who the men are or whatever on earth happened to them. But it reeks with yahoo dreams, doesn't it?--a bunch of locals trying to be desperadoes, heading north and west to get themselves their very own share of all that bright and shiny gold. Look at 'em. It was 1896 or so, and they likely saw themselves as about to step into a real dime novel about the Old West.
It's a powerfully male picture, too--you can't miss that. They weren't taking their women, after all, if they had 'em. More'n likely they had 'em too, maybe even two or three--"heh, heh, heh." These guys are seekin' fortune, blowing the Oostburg pop stand for real son-of-gun adventure. No more drug-store sarsaperella, just good, hard rotgut.
It's easy to turn them into cartoons.
But it's a bigger story than just these four hooligans. It's an American story--for better or for worse--in this picture. By golly, we're going to do it, we're going to get us some gold from them thar hills. We been dreamin', and we're just tough enough to make it all come true in them mountains up there. We got each other, and we got our guns, and we're going to get some of whatever can be got and maybe even come back rich. Shoot, yes.
It's both dumb and wonderful. It's the siren call of the unsettled West, the open spaces where a man--a white man--can still be a man or die trying. It's a dream of a better life out there somewhere, the possibility of something really good we can make with our own hands if we just dig hard and long enough where there ain't anybody else quite yet. It's a dream, a purely American dream, a white man's dream.
We can start all over again, and we can make it. You wait and see. We're going to come back rich, if we come back at all. Maybe we'll stay.
I just wonder what happened.
There's a story there all right, an American story--boom or bust, a story much bigger than they are. Maybe that's why they wanted the picture taken--this one, the one I found last week in an old White Owl cigar box buried in the bottom of a trunk I hadn't opened for years.