Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Lost System of Jigger Johnson...

JIGGER JOHNSON has been called the last of a colorful breed of loggers - - that race of men who cut a swath of timber from Maine to Oregon and yelled like crazed devils every spring when the drive was in and they were released from the savage woods for a few days to pound the bars. His life, and especially his death at age 65 in 1935, symbolized the end of an era. As writer Stewart Holbrook noted in his book on loggers, "Holy Old Mackinaw," "The professors would term Jigger’s brief story an epitome, and so it was. "In tribute to one of the 20th century's most colorful characters, the U.S. Forest Service’s Saco Ranger District on the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) in Conway is featuring an exhibit on the late former USFS employee beginning in mid-January.The late Bob Monahan, who died in 1994 at age 86, was a former Dartmouth College forester and longtime friend of the Jigger. Monahan claimed that the nickname, "Jigger," could be attributed to Johnson’s small stature, as he was only five-foot-six, and never weighed more than 160 pounds. "All of him was steel-spring muscle, except his head, which contained brains aplenty”; said Monahan, a founding member of the 1932 Mount Washington Observatory and a member of the summit crew that year. "Those who witnessed him in battle still recall his courage and ferocious attack — no matter the odds against him”. There, by the grace of God and assorted genes, walked a man among men. "I can run faster, jump higher, squat lower, move sideways quicker, and spit further than any son-of-a-bitch in camp," is the way Johnson used to put it upon his arrival at a new logging operation. Others might add that he was the greatest drinking man’s he-man, blessed with a stomach lined with boilerplate. Jigger was tough even at the usually tender age of 12, a fact, which he quickly proved during a mealtime scuffle with a grown man twice his size upon his arrival at a logging camp. Conversation at dinner was forbidden, a custom, which was challenged by a new group of loggers who arrived in camp with heavy hangovers, just in time for supper.When one of them insisted on talking loudly at the table, Jigger dutifully told him to shut up, prompting the elder man to jump the boy and push him to the floor where he pounded him. Jigger hugged the big drunk close, set his keen young teeth into an ear, and hung on. When some of the crew pried the pair apart, a good hunk of the ear remained in Jigger’s mouth. According to the accounts of old loggers, he had few equals as a woodsman at a time when a man was judged by the smoothness of the scarf of his axe’s undercut. He could fell a tree uphill, downhill, with or against the wind, even so that upon falling it would drive a stake previously set in the ground. It was told that he would walk a felled spruce, barefoot, and kick off every knot from butt to top. Despite his considerable fighting skills, Jigger’s taut body bore the marks left by the stellcalks of opponent’s logging boots, injuries which he referred to as his "logger’s smallpox." That his face was free from such marks was attributed to the fear in which men held Jigger’s teeth.
Sometime in the fall of 1932 Jigger was trying to hitch a ride down to his favorite tavern in Portsmouth. Few cars passed him by in the great woods, but after two days of hitching, and sleeping overnight in a frozen ditch, a car driving Harold S. Vanderbilt to Bretton Woods kindly stopped. Jigger immediately struck Harold as a man with a keen mind, and Harold imparted in Jigger all he knew about the game of Contract Bridge, a game then in its infancy. Within a few months Jigger became adept enough at the game to win consistently, dazzling all with his card skills, his savage mountain brain tricking the clueless minds of seasoned players. But this was not enough for Jigger: he took the best parts of Vanderbilts’ pet system, the forcing club, and married it with super-light opening bids and dazzling psyches. “Presumed Fit” opening bids and even a “Forcing Pass” were part of his system, both uses of these bids pre-dating the “invention” of them decades later by others. He was unbeatable that summer of ’33. Sadly, Jigger’s lifestyle and alcohol consumption severely limited his tournament appearances for what was to be the rest of his life.
Jigger’s life came to a tragic and churlish end on a cold winter day in March 1935. Having sold a big lynx only a day or two before and consequently in funds, he’d headed into Conway to celebrate with his drinking cronies while his bounty receipts lasted. Remembering that state law required daily visits to traps, and realizing that he was a day or two overdue, Jigger hired what he still called a horse-less carriage and a driver to take him to a point off the West Side in Passaconaway where he could take off on snowshoes for his trap line. Moving along all too fast, the car slithered off the icy road and sideswiped a telephone pole just as Jigger had opened the door to jump out. All of the old-time loggers attending his funeral remarked that it was a hell of a way for the Jigger to get sluiced, Stewart Holbrook noted. He was buried in a pauper’s grave at North Conway Cemetery, according to David Emerson of the Conway Historical Society. Largely through the urging of Monahan and other friends, the U.S. Forest Service honored the great woodsman by naming a campground located on the Kancamaugus (sic) Highway after Jigger. It’s one way of remembering a man and a way of life whose time has long passed.
During October of 1993, two friends, Neill Currie and Tony Melucci, were exploring the Lost River on the Cancamagus highway in New Hampshire. They were friends through their love of Bridge, and were out leaf-peeping. Scrabbling around the many rocky “man holes” in the Lost River, Tony chanced upon a small silver locket wedged into a crack in the rock. It looked like it had been there for many, many years. Back in the light of day, they opened the locket, and carefully unfolded the delicate parchment within. Their hands trembled when they realized what was before them: the fabled “Lost System of Jigger Johnson”, which had been lost for sixty years, was detailed for the young pair of fledgling players. It took them many months to grasp the full intricacies of “The System for the ages”, as Edgar Kaplan once called it reverently, but their addled brains finally worked out some of the arcane knowledge contained within that silver locket. Months later, when the two had finally eked out enough of Jiggers brilliance to play a dull version of it themselves, hacking in local Bridge Clubs, Neill would invariably make some bone-headed bid, costing the pair many matchpoints. Tony would sigh, and gently ask his friend “Now, what would Jigger have done?”
And thus, “The Lost System” lived on to fight another day. For System details, please read here. My BBO User Name is jota981 if you have questions, or, I may have enabled comments on this blog.