I lived on nothin but dreams and train smoke …
—Tom Waits, “Pony”
My father could repeat from memory long sections of “Hiawatha” and “The Courtship of Miles Standish” he'd learned in school. Full texts of narrative poems like “The Village Blacksmith” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” And he invented bedtime stories—serials about Indian boys, eagles, Eskimos, bears, gold fields, the Nez Perce, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There were dogs in most of his stories, as there were in my grandfather's. He—my grandfather—told me about actually mining in Alaska, concocting moonshine in Utah (which he sold to failed Mormons and Utes), humping as a sparring partner for Jack Dempsey when Dempsey was training to fight Jess Willard. In that 1919 title match, “Jack almost murdered Jess,” my grandfather said. He also claimed that Dempsey fought that fight with cracked ribs and that he, James Arthur Anderson, had cracked them in training. “Willard lasted three rounds with Jack, 1 lasted three months,” he said.
In 1962, I intended to quit high school to work full-time in a car wash. My best friend had dropped out to work there and, in what seemed a short time,