Helen Gadanski Nicolai stopped by the Chitina railroad depot to pick up the telegram for her son. Charles was
working the fishwheel just downriver from the railroad trestle. Helen had no schooling and could not read the telegram.
She worried that it might be carry bad news from Kennecott.
“George, you said this is for my son, but I need to know if it’s bad news. Can you read it and tell
George Brown smiled at her and responded.
“Helen, I took the telegram, so I know what it says. Guess I should have just told you.
Somehow your boy Johnny must have convinced the company to offer your other son
Charlie a job working under him. He’s become painter foreman at Kennecott.
Someone named Frank is requesting Charles immediately. Frank wants him on
tomorrow’s train. You better deliver the message right to him.”
“My son Johnny’s a foreman?”
Helen sat down on the long bench next to the ticket counter and smiled.
“What is it, Helen?”
“My son has my husband’s old job. I can’t believe it. I’m so pleased. Now he’s got a job for my
other son, Charlie. George, I’m going to kiss you.”
The slightly built and very energetic woman grabbed George Brown, hugged him hard, and then
kissed him on his cheek. George was amazed at the small woman’s strength.
“We should all pleased, Helen. This is not at all like the old Syndicate days. They had a
well-known policy against hiring Indians, you know. This despite the fact that
we use your people on our railroad here, especially on the spring maintenance
crews. But I’ve heard it rumored all that is due to Nicolai’s influence.”
Helen sat back down on the bench. She had to digest this for a moment. She was about to lose
the use of her only other son for the summer. But she long had wanted something
better for Charlie than what could be had at Chitina. Now she was holding the
piece of paper granted her wish. The small woman with the graying hair gently
folded the paper, then looked up toward George, who was standing above her.
“I don’t know how father could have done had anything to do with this. He’s long gone. But he
would have approved. I couldn’t hope for more than this for my sons. I’m going
right down to the fishwheel to find Charlie.”
She rushed out the door, heading for the railroad cut as fast as she could walk, following the rails
right down to the river.
Charles was alone at his makeshift table filleting salmon when he heard his mother come
through the bushes behind him. At first he thought the noise might be one of
those pesky but deadly black bears after his load of fish. He reached for his
Winchester when he recognized the shape of his mother working her way down the
“Mom, is something wrong?”
“No son, I have a telegram for you. I want you to read it back to me.”
She handed the dull, thin, yellow piece of paper to Charles. He set down his knife and
reached for a nearby cloth to clean the fish scales off his hands. In the
barrel next to him were dozens of fish still waiting to be processed. On the
table and hanging up were many more dozens of fresh fish cleaned, cut and ready
for smoking or cooking. The telegram read:
Charles looked up at his mother and jumped for her, hugging the small woman.
“I know, son. Let’s clean up this table. I’ll get Violet and Abbey to finish up here. Abbey
wants the scraps for her dogs, anyway. We need to get you ready for the train
Up in camp Johnny and Cap were at the paint shop finishing up the cleanup work.
“Sla’cheen, there’s some gray floor paint that’s still good. We might as well use it. This
spilled red paint just doesn’t look good on the floor. I counted the good
cans. There are four cans of red, eight cans of white and five of the dark
green plus a full dozen of the gray paint. That’s all the five gallon cans
still sealed. I opened one of each color, and they were all good.”
“You’ve been busy, Cap. Where was I when all this was going on? Oh yes, I was up there
chatting with Henry. I still haven’t told him about what’s really in that
boxcar. I have a feeling we better not say anything until the bosses decide
what they want to do about it. You’re right, Cap. Since there’s that much gray,
we might as well use it to cover up the mess on the floor.”
The top of the narrow stairwell darkened as Chris Jensen made his way down the steep wooden
“We have the word from Douglass himself. He put it like this: ‘We don’t make mistakes like
that here. Go ahead and paint the mill gray as if we planned it that way.’
“Like there was any other choice. Henry is already up there with his crew unloading all that
gray paint into the wagon so they can haul it up the road to the top of the
“I had a feeling this would happen. I couldn’t see them sending back all that paint.
It would probably take weeks to get the red lead, and you guys are in too much
of a hurry to wait. Shall we go ahead and help Henry’s crew?”
“No, Johnny. They can handle it. I see you’ve improved this old shop substantially. Are
you getting ready to repaint the floor in gray?”
He hesitated and then chuckled.
“Actually, yes we are. It seems we’re not exactly lacking in gray paint. Cap has already
organized the five gallon cans so you can see our remaining inventory for
yourself. I don’t know what you want to do about the hospital addition, but we
may have enough paint for it. We even have plenty of dark green if you want it
for the trim against the gray. I wouldn’t know what else to use.”
Chris looked at the can labels and counted the cans for himself.
“Are you sure this is it? Was the rest bad?”
“Most of the rest was either bad or questionable. It’s all out on the deck ready to be
picked up, ” Johnny responded.
“I’ll order more paint, especially red, if I can get it. It’s possible red’s not available
right now. You guys go ahead and repaint the floor. You’ll need to leave every
window and door open, but I’m closing the lid on the top of the stairwell. We
don’t want those fumes in our shop.”
Chris headed up the stairs, and the lid shut, just like an attic cover, closing off the
A few hours later, the two painters headed up the rails toward the old boxcar with the paint
load. It sat with both sliding doors wide open. The car was empty.