The World of Jack London

MY 1916 VISIT TO JACK LONDON

William H. L. Davis

WHEN Dr. Martin Van Buren Turley returned to the states from his sojourn in Tahiti and his visit with Jack and Charmian London in Honolulu, he spent the spring and summer of 1916 scouting for a good location for his practice of medicine, residing in Sacramento while looking around. He had written to me an invitation to come visit him at Sacramento if at all possible for me to get away from my job for a week or ten days.

During the month of September 1916 I was on committee work for the Railroad Telegraphers and in Portland waiting for a date with the General Manager for negotiating a new schedule of working rules.

We, the committee, were unable to obtain this date until the latter part of September which left me with several waiting days making it just right for a trip to Sacramento, arriving there September 11th.

That evening while stretching our legs and looking over the business section of town, Doctor causally remarked "Bill, how would you like to meet Jack London?" Well, this really surprised me like a bolt out of the blue because Jack London was my idol, having read all his books that I could get hold of up to that time, such as The Iron Heel – People of the Abyss – Revolution – Call of the Wild – The Sea Wolf – and knowing that his heart and mind was for the socialist movement, I certainly welcomed any chance to meet him, and the Doctor's question seemed to open up the door to the castle of the great. I said "Well, would I"? "How could that possibly be arranged?" Well, says he, "Jack is in town staying at the Sacramento Hotel, while exhibiting his prize stock at the State Fair. I think I can make an appointment with him."

So, the next day September 12th, we went to the hotel where the desk clerk called Jack's room and announced the presence of the Doctor. Jack and Charmian were surprised and highly elated to hear the Doctor's voice over the desk phone and to be in contact with him again after their visit in Honolulu. We were immediately invited to come right up to their room.

On entering the room, the Doctor was welcomed with open arms as if he were a wandering member of the family returned home. And I was introduced as his best friend.

Jack was laid up in bed, dressed in his pajamas writing a new story with a manuscript all over the bed and bureau but ready to stop and call it a day. He was anxious to discuss the Doctor's Tahiti voyage and to start in where they had left off at Honolulu.

Jack was cheerful with a boyish smile and demeanor even though he was laboring under what appeared to be arthritic pains in his feet and ankles preventing him from walking with comfort, the main reason for his being in bed.

He and Charmian were planning to go home by train the next day provided the pain in his feet subsided enough to permit him to walk with some degree of comfort.

It was then that Doctor suggested that he be honored with the pleasure of driving them home in his car.

This was heartily agreed to if Jack's condition was favorable for traveling the following day.

It was here that the Doctor's professional knowledge came to the rescue. He went to a close by drug store and had his prescription filled for Jack's ailment. What it was, of course, I'll never know, but whatever it was resulted in quick relief to the extent that Jack was up and ambulant the next morning ready to run a foot race.

We had agreed to meet at noon, have lunch together in the hotel dining room, and commence our journey at one o'clock.

We met in the lobby at the appointed time and there began a momentous occasion of my life; to think that I, an ordinary railroad telegrapher should have the rare privilege of companionship with Jack London whose very name was a symbol of greatness in the field of literature.

The first order of business before eating, which was a sort of must with Jack, was to indulge in an appetizer. Charmian and the Doctor politely refrained from indulging in the cup that cheers, but insisted on Jack and I enjoying ourselves. So we headed for the bar and partook of two cocktails a piece. Jack seemed to prefer mixed drinks and, of course, I felt a social urge to order the same.

Quite refreshed and in good spirit we returned to our waiting partners and proceeded to the dining room table. I was prone to be shy and felt a bit awkward sitting in the presence of what I considered to be royal personages. I had the feeling of one not fully familiar with proper table or dining etiquette. As a lad I always was cursed with timidity and a certain amount of inferiority complex.

However, the two cocktails built up in me a courage and decorum worthy of the occasion.

Jack and Charmian seemed to detect my illness of ease and soon had me feeling as comfortable as an old shoe. Jack was a commoner of commoners and had no use for elite formalities. This sterling characteristic constituted his greatness. I should have known then, as I know now, that I needed not to be reserved while with this man of the working class.

The Doctor, with his jovial nature, felt quite at home. With Jack's wit and quick thinking, the two of them kept up a lively discourse, while Charmian and I listened with interest.

Well, with lunch finished and our appetites appeased we made ready for our departure to the open road.

The Doctor's car was parked close by ready to roll. I must say something about this car. If I recall correctly it was an early vintage Maxwell or Dodge. I am pretty sure a Dodge, with semi-body, four doors, open sides with attachable curtains if needed, rubberized cloth top supported by metal posts, and adjustable wind shield.

It was equipped with small tires which when deflated had to be pried off with a tire iron without removing the wheel as can be done today. A very laborious job to remove, patch a leak, and replace. It was a rather crude looking vehicle compared to the powerful and beautiful streamlined cars of today, yet it was a beginning in the field of motor mechanics and a tribute to man's inventive mind.

It was a second hand used car with all the ear marks of potential trouble. We were all in good spirits and not in the mood to trouble trouble until trouble troubled us. The old boat had a good engine and we knew it would get us to our destination if the wheels stayed on.

All seated and ready to roll, when suddenly to our surprise, a Sacramento cop stepped to the side of the car and asked Doctor to speak with him in private. We laughed and jokingly wondered if our host was wanted for some criminal or civil misdemeanor. All it really amounted to was some discrepancy in the license plate which easily explained and taken care of, so we didn't have to bail out our driver.

So, at last, the good Doctor took the wheel, told us to hold our hats, stepped on the accelerator and headed west over the long bridge towards Davis. We were blessed with a lovely day, sunshine and a balmy breeze, seemingly without a care in the world.

Jack was in good spirit and enjoying himself as if he were on another one of his adventurous trips. Our conversation during the journey was confined to subjects of general interest. We did not want to distract ourselves from the beauty of the countryside with its passing scenery by indulging in philosophical lore and speculation.

Leaving Davis, we headed south toward Dixon, Vacaville and Fairfield. Only dirt and gravel roads in those days with little traffic to contend with. Our maximum speed was 30 – 40 miles per hour.

Coming into Dixon, Jack suggested we stop for a breather, and of course, the usual cocktail. We pulled up opposite what I observed as the only and first chance saloon. Dixon being a mere village in those days of long age. Board sidewalks. The Doctor and Charmian remained in the car while Jack and I proceeded to said saloon.

Stepping to the sidewalk we saw, standing in front of the saloon entrance, a tall lanky character roughly dressed and what Jack would call a "Blowed in the glass" vagabond of the Klondike rush for gold in the Yukon. As we approached, the man looked up and caught Jack's eye, ejaculated an oath or two, grabbed Jack by the hand, and with arms about each other appeared as pals long separated and lost and again found. And so it really was, comrades and companions of the Klondike days, together again after many years. This event naturally called for drinks. Entering the bar, where there were already a dozen loungers, Jack ordered drinks for all in a gesture of fellowship befitting hale fellows well met. Then next the bartender set up a round of drinks on the house in token of his esteem and respect for his celebrated guest known as Jack London, inviting all to join in. After which we bade them all adieu with best wishes, and rejoined Charmian and the Doctor who were quite patient and understanding of our diversions. I cannot recall the name of Jack's long lost friend, but their again meeting was, indeed, a tonic and a rejoicing for both. Again we got the old car rolling and headed for Vacaville and Fairfield.

It was a gravel road and a little rough. But we were enjoying ourselves, so why should we worry? Jack's spirits were bolstered from having run into his old Klondike friend and became reminiscent entertaining us with fond recollections of those adventurous and hectic days in the Yukon.

Three miles north of Fairfield it had to happen. The right front tire went flat from a puncture. Well, there was one thing to do, remove the tire to keep it from being chewed up and get to Fairfield for repairs. We had no spare, which reflected somewhat on the good Doctor's afterthought. We did manage to make Fairfield running on the rim of the wheel without damage, where a good hour was spent in patching the leak.

The delay seemed not to bother Jack and Charmian; in fact they were getting quite a kick out of the experience. Jack and the Doctor were gifted with the philosopher's patience and calmness under all circumstances. It was no time at all until the young fry of the town were swarming about us with curiosity. Jack fit in perfectly with these children, making himself one of them, striking up a lively conversation. One of the boys had a top and Jack demonstrated to them his expert ability in spinning it and revealed to them the technique of top spinning to their amazement and boyish wonder.

I believe Jack would have been content to remain there all day with car trouble just to have a good time with the kids. he was by nature still a boy himself. And all the while they knew not it was Jack London. Had they known, it would have spread like wildfire all over town, and no doubt the town brass band would have made its appearance to welcome the great author. It was between 5 and 6 pm. before we were ready to travel on. Turning west from Fairfield, we headed for the rolling hills.

Dusk was approaching and along with it the chill night air of September. This final stretch of our route was the most delightful of all, with the road winding and rewinding over each knoll and straight across each valley. The old engine seemed to have its head up and tail rising from the rarefied night air.

As the twilight deepened, the drapery of darkness was gradually lifted to a cloudless sky filled with a constellation of brilliant stars. And then from over the eastern horizon came the rising moon; a blessed full moon for us, reflecting a rich mellow glow of light that seemed out of this world. Due, no doubt, to atmospheric conditions it seemed to stand out with bigness and proximity; and as we wound around the foothills and while it was slowly ascending, it seemed never twice in the same place, appearing among the different peaks. No wonder they call it "The Valley of the Moon" or what the Indians chose to call "Sonoma".

Finally descending to the low land west of the hills our road became level and straight, lined on each side with tall eucalyptus trees silhouetted against the moonlit sky appearing as valiant sentinels guarding our way. Oh! What an enchanting night it was, indelibly impressed in my memory.

At last we reached Sonoma and headed north a few miles to Glen Ellen, reaching home sweet home on the ranch at 11 pm. A ten hour journey that should have taken less than 5, and what now 49 years later with modern roads and high speed cars should be made in not over one hour and 45 minutes. We were not then concerned with speed but rather with adventure and the pleasure of happily being together. We were as one seeking a good time — like in the words of Tennyson — "And grasps the skirts of happy chance."

The Japanese houseboy and cook was expecting us and had prepared a delicious lunch to welcome us; and our appreciation of it was, indeed, proved by our eating. As Jack said then — "It is good to travel but nice to have a home to come back to." About 12:30 am. we were all ready to retire to the arms of Morpheus, wishing each other pleasant dreams.

I awoke early the next morning and found Jack taking his morning stroll and making notes from his thoughts and observations. He spent the forenoon secluded and at work. His thousand words a day seemed to be a must with him. he had a schedule to which he adhered strictly.

In the afternoon, four trusted and gentle horses were selected on which we rode leisurely around the ranch which was ablaze with autumn splendor. The Doctor and I were entranced by the beauty of the scene which induced him to wax forth with sylvan poetry of which he was well versed and capable of reciting with profound eloquence. Jack and Charmian listened with reverent attention and followed with their appreciative applause.

Returning to the ranch house we decided the next thing in order should be a refreshing swim in the pool to whet our appetite for dinner. However, Jack refrained from taking a dip in the cool water which could have aggravated his rheumatic condition. He sat on the pool wall and enjoyed watching the rest of us, and conversing with two friends who had just driven in from Oakland or San Francisco, a man and his wife whose name I have completely forgotten. About 8pm the dinner bell rang, a summons to come and partake of a delicious repast of squab and all the trimmings.

Jack and his friends and the Doctor enlivened the meal with discussion and debate on various subjects while Charmian and I were content to listen, be seen but not heard. Jack was a quick witted conversationalist and took a great delight in controversy. The more intellectual his opponent the greater the satisfaction he seemed to derive in confounding either the negative or affirmative side of a subject. He could certainly speak with certitude on his belief or disbelief, his likes and dislikes, with an intense and overpowering feeling. Such was the inherent nature of the man. I could have sat and listened to him by the hour discourse with earnest zeal and enthusiastic devotion to what he believed to be right and the truth of a cause even though it appeared to be lost. Truth was his god and he was always ready to defend and stand up and fight for it.

That evening, September 14, 1916, was that will always stand out as a special moment of my life to be remembered to the end of my days.

Oh! that Jack London's light could have burned longer. He was like a "swift – fleeting meteor" streaking across the horizon for one brief period of illimitable time. It was as he wanted his life to be, as he tells us in these words —

"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time."

On the morning of September 15 the Doctor and I reluctantly had to take our departure. It was required that I be back in Portland the 16th, so I could not prolong my stay. Jack tried to persuade Doctor to remain longer suggesting that I could take the train from Glen Ellen which, of course, I could have. I know the Doctor regretted it later that Jack's invitation to stay longer was not accepted because they seemed to have so much in common and so little time to share it. This was deeply felt by the Doctor when a short two months later came the report of Jack's death.

It was a privilege to have met and been with him for only three short days and to have known him in the flesh for that little time in my 26th year. Now, 49 years later as I write these lines, I can say that I know him now far more than I knew him then. I read all his work and biographies that I have been able to find published. My life has been immeasurably enriched by having known and studied him.

As I, in retrospection, ponder those happy hours spent with Jack, Charmian and the Doctor during those three days so long ago, there comes the thought that in spite of Jack's happy and pleasant demeanor, that he was, in fact, a sicker man than his outward appearance revealed. I believe now, that Dr. Turley knew this but the ethics of his profession forbade any discussion of it to outsiders. It is just possible that he discussed it with Charmian while they were alone. I'll never know.

But I will venture to say that whatever physical ailment Jack may have had could have been sapping his strength and spirit and the desire to fight on in a battle he no doubt felt to be a losing one, and not worth the effort. Yet, he not once complained or allowed himself to reveal a single thought or feeling that would or could indicate his possible suffering. An inward feeling of discouragement may have overwhelmingly possessed his very being and that his seeing brought welcome visions of the end. As in his own words "I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them."

Despondency is a merciless adversary.

Source:  Woodbridge, Hensley. Jack London Newsletter 1965
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