Millie Jones

 

I originally posted this story several months ago.  But now I need to revise and add to it,  because, on our tour we had several events in Whitehorse, Yukon.  We found Millie again, and she is the same beautiful, smart, engaging lady she was four years ago.

We presented her with a copy of We Fought the Road, of course.  And we told her how pivotal our meeting with her had been in our understanding that the United States Army had brought the racism of the deep south to Canada and Alaska–that the people there really didn’t understand it.

She told us she would never forget the “black white men”.

Pursuing one of our multitude of questions about 1942 in Carcross, we stopped at the Visitor’s Center. The question stumped the friendly young lady behind the counter, but she had an answer—“Millie”. She made a quick phone call and five minutes later she was walking us up the street to point out Millie’s house. Five minutes after that we were talking to Millie.

She not only answered our questions, but also let us know that she would be in Whitehorse for the rest of the week and, should we have more questions, she would be glad to meet with us at her apartment there.  Two evenings later we spent two hours with Millie Jones at her apartment and it was more than a meeting, it was an experience.

Millie was born in Whitehorse but she grew up in Carcross and she was 10 years old in the spring of 1942 when the United States Army ‘invaded’ her small town on the frontier. People in Carcross ordered their groceries in bulk–had staples shipped in to Skagway and then up to them by the railroad. Clothes came from the Sears catalogue. Millie shared the Carcross school with about 13 fellow students.

When the soldiers of the 93rd piled off the train, Millie and the other kids were wonderfully excited. Among other things they’d never seen a black person before.  Her elders may have been concerned that their little town had suddenly become a player in a global war–enough so that they actually installed blackout curtains– but they were equally fascinated by this flood of men from the States.

Millie’s grandfather was the station agent for the WP&YT; and, over the next few weeks and months, he worked himself into a frazzle dealing with the amount of cargo that was coming over the line.  It was during that time that he, in fact, had a stroke and had to retire.

Millie remembers thinking that it was wondrous strange to see the southerners from the States shiver in their coats during weather she thought was pretty warm.

Millie’s mother managed and cooked for the Carcross Hotel. For reasons the local folks didn’t understand, the Army wouldn’t allow the black troops, in the hotel.  But some came to the back door to ask for water and in time Millie’s mother took to serving them baked goods.

Some of the soldiers carried musical instruments—especially guitars. And the hotel had a piano. One day the piano got rolled to the back porch and one of the soldiers sat down to play.  Some of his fellows picked up their instruments and joined him. A small crowd gathered. Millie had never heard anything like the thrilling sound they made.  Telling us about it 73 years later her face lit up with a wide grin and her foot bounced on the floor.

Dennis asked if she remembered the name of the song they played, and she didn’t hesitate. “Pistol Packin’ Mama”.

One evening Millie was carrying a stack of clean plates across the kitchen when she heard the music start.  Not wanting to miss any of it, she whirled to put the plates on a nearby table.  She missed; dropped the stack on the floor!

Mom was NOT happy.

She told us about Johnny Johns who lived in Carcross and made a living guiding visiting hunters and fishermen into the woods. The army hired Johnny to help them plot the course of the road out of Carcross, and local folks noticed with more than a little amusement that a lot of the twists and turns in the road just happened to take it by the best hunting and fishing spots in the area.

2 thoughts on “Millie Jones”

  1. Hi Dennis and Chris

    I just read Millie Jones’ story of Carcross in the Alaska Highway days and I enjoyed it very much. It’s wonderful her remembrances of Carcross at that time and the treatment of black soldiers has been recorded by you and I look forward to your upcoming book.

    I was also very interested in Millie Jones mention of Johnny Johns. It brought a flood of memories because I was a neighbour of his during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and he was a very interesting guy. I hope you won’t mind if I share a story with you.

    I was brought up in Whitehorse but in 1967, when I was a lad of 21, I bought a cabin in Carcross and, as I mentioned, Johnny was a nearby neighbour during the summer months. Over the years we got to know each other pretty well.

    Johnny was always a welcome visitor to my place and if there was a party going he could certainly keep it lively with poetry, songs and many, many hunting and fishing stories. I was well aware he was a famous big-game guide but he was in his 70s when I first met him so his major outfitting days were behind him. But I always told him how much I wished I had been able to camp out with him “back then”. One morning in early August he stuck his head in the door and said he wanted to get out of town for a couple of days and he and a grandson (sorry, I can’t remember his name) were going to “scope out” some areas close to Carcross. I could come if I wanted, he said, but we weren’t hunting, just looking and camping. One thing though, they were leaving in half an hour and I had to supply some of the food. 

    I jumped at the chance and hightailed it over to Matthew Watson’s old false-front building which was, in those days, an actual grocery-mercantile store run by Bobby Watson (I believe it’s a T-shirt shop now). Bobby had a 40-lb round of cheese which sat on an old cheese cutter so I bought a big wedge of that plus tinned beans, tinned butter, jam, coffee, sugar cubes, anything I could think of. Then it was one last stop in the Caribou Hotel bar for a bottle of Black Velvet whisky. Johnny and his grandson  were waiting in an idling pickup, ready to go, when I finally got done and I held my box of groceries out for Johnny to take a look. He gave it a once-over, shook his head a bit then pointed to the Black Velvet. “Better get one more of those,” he said,  “We’re going for two days you know!” His contribution to the food supply was a canvas bag of bannock ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt and a can of Chrisco shortening) and a large gunny-sack of Moose ribs. These ribs were full size, around two and a half feet long.

    We travelled around the Snafu and Tarfu Lake areas during the day, looking for sign, and stopped at Tarfu for the night. We had a large tent they put up with Johnny insisting I not help. I suspect they just didn’t want me fumbling around.

    We lit a fire then sat back with white, chipped- enamel cubs full of Black Velvet whiskey mixed with cold lake water and he began to tell his stories:  past hunts; big moose; caribou; grizzley attacks; fishing stories; hunter’s that froze with buck fever; hunter’s amorous wives and even meeting with Royalty— Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited Whitehorse in 1959 and Johnny was included in a “special guest” line of people introduced to them.  I asked Johnny if she spoke to him. “Yeah,” he said, “she asked me where I was born?” And what did you say? I asked.  “I said: ‘I was born under a spruce tree, ma’am, at the South end of Tagish Lake”. Wow, what did she say to that? “She didn’t say nothing,” laughed Johnny, “”she just smiled and moved on to the next person in line”.

    The twilight evenings are still long in the late summer and during the stories Johnny’s grandson had propped the moose ribs up facing the embers of the fire. In a while they began to steam and Johnny judged it time to prepare the bannock. He mixed together a couple of cups of flour, some baking powder and a touch of salt then slowly added water and stirred until he had a thick paste. A frying pan was laid across the coals and a glop of Chrisco added while at the same time a pot of beans was nestled up to the heat. When the Chrisco began to sizzle he dropped dollops of the bannock mixture into the pan and we sat back and watched them cook.

    Then it was time to eat, and what a meal it was: curved moose ribs it took two hands to hold; fry-pan bannock a la Johnny Johns; dark Heinz beans in molasses and camp coffee with a shot of Black Velvet. Dessert was more bannock slathered in strawberry jam, cheese (and a bit more coffee and BV.) Then it was back to story telling around the fire.

    Eventually his grandson went to the tent to sleep but we stayed up, under the stars, long into the night talking and laughing.

    Johnny used to recite a wonderful poem called There Still Is Time. He claimed he was on a hunt guiding for a man who had travelled the world. They had been sitting in a tent for days waiting for a torrential rain to let up and the hunter complained he was running out of time. Johnny told him to cheer up, they had plenty of time to do whatever they wanted. He said the man then took out a notebook and started working on the rhymes – with Johnny’s help.

    Some might wonder if that was true – but the poem is certainly real and Johnny could recite it perfectly and he did, that night, under the stars:

    I was at Johnny’s Carcross funeral in January 1988. There were hundreds of people from all over the country. Everyone had favourite stories and memories, and laughter was in the air. Many people, me included, tossed a handful of dirt down onto the casket – one last contact with the wonderful man. Some of the young ladies dropped red roses. There were speeches and eulogies then it was over and we all went to our respective homes. In bed that night I thought back over the twenty years I had known Johnny Johns and my mind came to rest on that August evening the two of us had talked on and on into the night. Then I fell asleep – with a smile on my face.

    Well that’s about it Dennis and Chris.
    Thanks again for your dedication in recording the history of the highway builders and thank you Millie Jones for your memories of Carcross and Johnny Johns.

    Cheers!
    Paul Erlam

    There Still Is Time

    Too swift, too swift, each moment’s flight–
    Too soon today is yesterday.
    From sprouting youth, a thirsty fight
    I’ve fought and come a dusty way;
    Few of my fifty years were gay;
    But Life holds many an ample tun
    Of Sherry, Port and rich Tokay–
    It’s time to get some drinking done!

    The wintry world is deathly white;
    Horizons and our souls turn gray;
    But Spring has always set things right
    With flowers, and bluebirds roundelay
    I’ll take her fragrant trail in May,
    Far north, when silver salmon run
    Where little rainbows paint the spray.
    It’s time to get some fishing done!

    The aspen flames; the oaks are bright;
    On mountain meadows Blacktail stray;
    The elk are bugling. Mallards light
    On whispering wings. But still I stay
    And parch desire with long delay,
    While Hunters’ Moon and Autumn Sun
    Lift up the heart–and who’ll gainsay
    It’s time to get some hunting done!

    I am but half asleep by night,
    And less than half awake by day!
    I’ll race the Fall to Kenya’s height,
    Outstrip the Spring near Hudson Bay,
    Hunt dragon eggs in far Cathay,
    And drink the stars to bed, for fun.
    I’ll see no stars through graveyard clay
    II’s time to get some living done!

    I’ll tell the piper what to play
    Until the Fates my thead have spun!
    Death never takes a holiday
    It’s time to get some living done!
    ——————+

    P.S.Years later I learned the poem was written in 1940 by a mysterious man named Walther Buchen. But even now, in these days of Google-everything, I can find no information about him.

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