yukoner magazinestories


©By Sam Holloway


Dyou ever know someone with the Midas touch?. Whose every enterprise turns over a profit and it seems they were born to succeed? Or, a carpenter who whistles while he works? And what about the great military commanders for whom a war just happens to come along?

Robert Service, the Yukon's most famous poet, would have described these men as being in harmony with their Fate - with Destiny.

Destiny doesn't just arrive in a person's life; no, it must be sought after and prepared for. It doesn't come to the "stagnant ones" but only to those who embark on a moving quest. The trick is to step out of the mold, away from security and comfort, and let Fate take a hand. But alas to those who misread Her signs or forget the limits of their given strength: to them comes calamity or merciful death.

Bob Service thought a lot about these things and spent a lifetime expressing the laws of Fate through his stories and ballads and poems. To him, his own life was a fair example of a man being "guided and pushed by the gods."

Robert W. Service was born on January 16, 1874, in Lancashire, England. His family of seven boys, three girls and parents, moved from there to Glasgow, Scotland. Robert was sent to live with his grandfather and three old maid aunts. After several years he again lived with his large family in Glasgow. In his own words he was "exhibitionist, impertinent," and loved reading romantic stories of adventure and travel.

At the age of 15 he apprenticed to the Bank of Scotland. His father was immensely pleased with this and Robert stayed with the bank for six years. He continued to read, especially poetry, and published numerous articles in Glasgow magazines.

In 1896 he departed for Canada with his mind set on becoming a prairie settler or a cowboy. On Vancouver Island he dug potatoes on a farm for a while then hired on as a cowboy on a big ranch. The glory of it soon wore off in spite of his ability to quick draw a gun from a holster; and in low spirits he drifted to San Francisco.

He loafed around there till his money ran out then took a job as a tunneller in the San Gabriel Canyon. "Excruciating, mindless toil" it was; and he quit upon receiving his first cheque. He had to sell it for half its value lest he starve before reaching a bank, and with that money spent he was again "just another bum to be treated like a dog."

He rode a train to Los Angeles where he lived in a mission house with vagrants, alcoholics and down and outers of all description. Lying on his bunk, reading books from the nearby library, he pondered how he would go "forward to whatever destiny awaited him." Half starved now, he went picking oranges for as long as he could stand it and hit upon the idea of advertising his talents in a newspaper.

As a result of the ad he was offered a job as tutor to three girls in a mansion in San Diego. He soon learned he was temporarily replacing a black handyman and that the place was a high class brothel. The black man eventually returned and Robert was sent on his way with a gift from one of the whores: a Spanish guitar in a brown leather case.

To Mexico, then north again to Los Angeles wandered the future poet. In a hut made of railroad ties he met a robber and killer, and to get away from the man he slept in a ground hollow full of dead leaves. About this time he met another young Scotsman with the name of Service; and he felt ashamed even to meet the man's family.

"Then something seemed to twist me right around, and bidding good bye, I went off in the opposite direction...what was directing my steps? Well, a force stronger than myself seemed to be drawing me on to another destiny, and even though it looked a gloomy one, I must fulfil it."

In great despair he hunched on a park bench, wondering just what to do. Although just 23 years old, he had had a belly full of physical labour. He began to think about working in an office again. In the meantime, a man sitting beside him on the bench left behind a newspaper. The paper, which Robert quickly salvaged, described the Great Klondike Gold Rush in glowing terms. One sentence leaped from the page; and it spelled out ever so clearly what Fate had decreed for him, this bum sitting alone in a park: "No doubt another Bret Harte will arise and sing of it (The Gold Rush) in colourful verse."

But still he didn't go north to the Great Alone.

Through Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, all over the West he roamed, losing his beloved guitar along the way. After a short, disastrous stint in a sawmill he boarded a ship for British Columbia, again after reading a newspaper left on a park bench.

On the same ranch where he had worked before, he herded wild cattle. That winter of 1899-1900, a ferocious bull knocked him down, breaking a few of his ribs. As he lay in pain and despair, he "cursed the gods who were laughing at my fate." But perhaps Fate had just nudged him forward, this time more forcefully than Robert would have liked.

The storekeeper on the ranch had quit and Robert took over the job. Once more he was "a white collar man...a bourgeois." With his meals prepared by the boss's wife and with time for reading, fishing and socializing, he eased along this way until 1903. But he knew he was wasting his time, that Fate had something more meaningful in store, and one day it was time to move along.

He would become a schoolteacher. After intense studying, he flunked the entrance exams to the teaching college. Buying some respectable clothes, he applied for clerical jobs with no result. One afternoon he met an old friend, a biscuit salesman, and they stood talking in front of the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria, B.C.

"Why don't you try for a job in this bank?" said the friend. Wearing his good clothes and holding forth his letter of recommendation from the Bank of Scotland, Robert went in to see the manager and was hired.

"On what accidents do our destinies depend!" he wrote later. "How we are at the mercy of the insignificant!"

He worked for the bank at Victoria and at Kamloops, B.C. On November 8, 1904, they transferred him to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. In stark contrast to the Argonauts of 1897-98, Robert rode into the Yukon by steamship and train.

Dawson City was the capital of the Yukon then; but Whitehorse, by virtue of its location at the end of the White Pass & Yukon Railway and the start of navigation on the Yukon River, was truly a place where all Yukoners met. For the next two years Robert socialized--although he was very shy and awkward--and listened to tales of adventure and hardship. He enjoyed walking alone over the trails leading to Miles Canyon and other scenic spots. He "felt poetry all around him" and, with verses ringing in his mind, it was only a matter of time until he set them down on paper.

In 1906 he wrote a poem for a church concert. It was called "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." He wasn't allowed to read it in church; in fact, it was too rough even for the Whitehorse Star so Robert stuck it in a bureau drawer and continued writing other ballads.

Into the drawer went The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Call of the Wild, The Spell of the Yukon, The Parson's Son, and many more. He walked his lonely walks and the words poured into his mind as if the Spirit of the Yukon had selected him to be her personal scribe:

"There's a land where the mountains are nameless,

And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

And deaths that just hang by a hair..."

(From The Spell of the Yukon)

"Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway,

And I wait for the men who will win me--and I will not be won in a day..."

(From The Law of the Yukon)

"I'm one of the Arctic brotherhood, I'm an old-time pioneer.

I came with the first--O God! how I've cursed this Yukon--but I'm still here..."

(From The Parson's Son)

"Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,

And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear..."

(From The Shooting of Dan McGrew)

So, before he ever reached the goldfields of the Klondike (and this is the miracle of it!), Robert Service became the voice of the Yukon prospector. His stories rang with the authenticity of personal experience. If ever an author was spoken to by muses, it was he. Almost entirely self-taught, he described the land and its inhabitants--how they felt--in soul-catching verse. And, even more than Jack London, he created the mystique of the North.

The story of "Dangerous Dan and The lady that's known as Lou" could not have happened in the Yukon; the Mounties didn't allow six-guns in the bars, so Robert drew this plot from the American West. But even so, he tuned in to the Yukon experience and turned his understanding of it into a music of words.

His Destiny was fast closing in. He sent the poems to his father, who had emigrated to Toronto, and asked him to find a printing house so they could make it into a booklet. He enclosed a cheque to cover the costs and intended to give these booklets away to his friends in Whitehorse. Who should the senior Service take these ribald stories to but a publisher of Methodist hymn books. The employees of the print shop, supposedly devout Christians and used to proof-reading pious entreaties to God, saw in Robert's verses all the life and sinning so lacking in their own staid lives. And they loved them, went crazy over them!

The foreman and printers recited the ballads while they worked. A salesman read the proofs out loud as they came off the typesetting machines. Orders for 1700 copies of Songs of A Sourdough came in just by word of mouth.

The publisher, Briggs, sent Robert's cheque back to him and offered a ten percent royalty contract for the book. When that was signed, the book went into seven printings before it even officially came out; and a U.S. publisher quickly arranged for American printing rights.

In 1907, especially in Canada, Robert's ribald verses went against all literary trends. Any other publisher might have turned it down. But Briggs, because his employees had already sold many books, had a best-seller on his hands. He couldn't stop it if he wanted to.

When copies of the book reached Whitehorse, Robert's own minister took him aside to let him know how wicked were his stories,. Service hung his head in shame and regretted his writings ever going into print.

But, that summer, tourists from the south arrived in Whitehorse looking for the famous poet; and he autographed many of his books.

In April, 1908, he was transferred to the great Mecca of the North, Dawson City. Again, he didn't ask; he was sent. At last he made it to where it all had happened. And, on the same winter stage (actually, an open sleigh) on which he had been a passenger, a royalty cheque for one thousand dollars went through the mail. But still he wasn't happy.

Fast slipping into decline, Dawson City had only four thousand people left; many of these were company men and business folk. However, wandering the streets--now lined with empty saloons and boarded-up houses--were grizzled veterans of the Great Stampede.

Out on the creeks lonely men still toiled underground and hiked into town with heavy pokes of gold. These men--and a few women--remembered the glory days with wistful pride. They could look back on their hardships and the whole panorama of the Gold Rush with an accuracy not possible during its happening. Then, it had been every man and woman for themselves and everyone thought the madness would go on forever.

So they talked, these veterans of the Stampede; they loved to reminisce, and Robert listened carefully and remembered. He wrote another book of verses, Ballads of a Cheechako, and, in the fall of 1908, sent it off to the same publisher.

It too was an overwhelming success. Even if he should never write another verse, these first two books would cinch his title as the best-paid poet of all time.

For the next two years he wrote nothing. He worked in the bank and hung around the sourdoughs and roughnecks of the town. He refused so many invitations to the high-class social events that they stopped inviting him. When distinguished visitors to Dawson asked for him he was rounded up and only then, reluctantly, would he attend one of these gatherings of the town's better citizens.

He poked around the boarded-up dance halls and saloons, went for solitary walks along the Yukon River, attended hangings or unusual events, and wooed a young stenographer without success. Her parents couldn't separate the writer from his stories; they believed, as did many, that Robert was telling tales on himself. In general he was known to be an oddball--a misfit who could do as he liked because of his fame and ever-increasing royalty cheques. He toyed with the idea of writing a novel but wasn't sure if he could do it; he had so far only written poetry, and prose might not be his line.

In 1909 the bank told him he was to take up the manager's position at the bank in Whitehorse. Now he was faced with deciding on a career with the bank or to continue writing. The fact that he had ten thousand dollars saved up from wages and royalties greatly influenced his decision to turn down the job! So now he turned his future over to his talents and, if you will, to Destiny.

Having quit the bank, he rented a cosy cabin in Dawson and went to work on his novel. Tacking up rolls of wallpaper, he wrote with a carpenter's pencil and stood back to examine his words. He went for walks that lasted all night, slept till mid-afternoon, and sometimes didn't come out of the cabin for days. In five months the novel, called The Trail of '98, was complete and he took it to a publisher in New York. It immediately became a best-seller.

After a year wandering around the U.S. and down to Cuba he came back to the Yukon--the hard way this time. He retraced the Edmonton Trail from Edmonton to Dawson and it was almost as difficult for him as it had been for the gold seekers of 1897-98. The Dawson Daily News gives a description of him when he finally arrived home:

"Our poet is back, with a face ambushed in an ebony thicket of three weeks growth, nose broiled to lobster red, hands a Mongolian shade, trousers shredded."

After all his writing about the tortuous trails, he had gone over one himself--and found himself equal to the job. This trip helped cancel the guilt he had always felt about his writing: that he was an impostor who lived only through the experience of other men.

Back in his beloved cabin he wrote another best-seller, Rhymes of A Rolling Stone. None of these later works came to him so easily as did his first book of ballads. Now he sweated over each verse, wresting them from his mind. Using rolls of wallpaper again and a large pencil, he would stand in the cabin and look at his lines on the wall, pace back and forth, change a word or two, go for walks or rides on his bicycle, come back to look at the wallpaper, and so forth. Each ballad came out carefully crafted but without the magic of Dan McGrew or Sam McGee or The Parson's Son. However, they were excellent works and he always thought of them as being better than the ones which had made him famous.

In the fall of 1912 he boarded the last steamboat of the season out of Dawson City--and never returned.

He went on to become a war correspondent, a first aid man and ambulance driver during World War One; wrote more best selling poetry; became a husband and the master of a beautiful mansion in France. He travelled to Hollywood for work on a movie--all at his own leisurely pace while the royalties from his books kept him well supplied with money.

Altogether he wrote 14 books of poetry, six novels, a health book, and two autobiographies. He died in 1958 at the age of 84. Always humble about his talents, often embarrassed by his great success, perhaps these few lines from one of his poems might tell us what he thought about Fate and its role in life:

"Since plain within the Book of Destiny

Is written all the journey of mankind

Inexorably to the end; since blind

And mortal puppets playing parts are we:"

On a final note, one other word often replaces "Destiny" and "Fate" throughout the stories and poems of Robert W. Service: that word is...God.

Robert Service

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