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Jeffrey Shaffer Headshot

Strangers on a Page

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I believe in the idea that every person's life is a story. And this belief creates some frustration for me because I want to know what's happening in all of those stories. My interest in the daily accomplishments of everyone else on Earth has no boundaries.

Obviously I don't have the time or stamina required to interview the legions of intriguing people who catch my attention at airports, sporting events, shopping malls and parking lots. It's a limitation I accept, but it never diminishes my curiosity about the lives of strangers.

This attitude doesn't stop when I open a book. My preferences are historical non-fiction and biographies, and it's not unusual for my focus on the main subject to be distracted by a compelling background character that casually slips into a few paragraphs and then disappears.

One of my favorite examples is a cheerful teenager who provided some valuable assistance to author John Toland in 1935. Their partnership begins on page 68 of Toland's memoir, Captured By History.

After completing his junior year at Williams College, Toland headed west to visit a relative in southern California. To save money, he hitchhiked and hopped freight trains. Along with several other riders he was arrested in Odgen, Utah and sentenced to three days in the local jail, where he met a "tall, rangy youngster of eighteen who called himself The Pocatello Kid."

The Kid said he'd been on his own for three years and helped Toland learn the lingo of the road; "yard bull" was a railroad detective, "stemming the drag" meant panhandling on a city street, and "bindle stiff" was the Depression-era alternative to "hobo."

Pokey, as Toland calls him, was an expert at finding comfortable sleeping spots on moving trains and scrounging for supplies during stops. When their train reaches Stockton, on page 70, Pokey leads the way to a shack that sells delicious 10-cent dinners called Thousand-Mile Beans and tells Toland, "Whenever you're hungry, you'll dream of these beans."

Then he's away, north to Portland as Toland continues south to Los Angeles. Toland's career path eventually led to numerous publications and national acclaim. But what, I wonder, ever became of his bindle stiff buddy?

Did Pokey go into uniform after Pearl Harbor, find new opportunities in the postwar boom years, or just keep riding the rails toward his own sunset? In the part of my brain where such scenarios are constructed and analyzed, Pokey makes regular appearances. He has plenty of company, too.

A similarly resourceful mystery man grabbed my attention in Prisoners of the Japanese, Gavan Daws' chronicle of World War II POWs in Asia. The book follows the experiences of several captured Americans and one of them, Forrest Knox, took an interest in the various groups that formed in each camp.

Friends were crucial for survival in the brutal conditions, and only once did Forrest meet a prisoner who seemed to be getting along fine all by himself. Their brief encounter is explained in a single paragraph on page 138. The man turns out to be a Basque sheep herder from northern Idaho, and when Forrest "asked him his secret, this is what he said, and all he ever said: My father taught me how to make a fire. And how to make a fire that doesn't make any smoke."

Might that solitary prisoner still be alive today, maintaining his self-sufficient ways in some remote canyon? His ability to survive the POW years as a loner would be an amazing tale. The title could be A Fire That Doesn't Make Smoke. Sounds to me like one of the best memoirs never written.

But it's possible an equally compelling story could have been spun by a nervy American soldier who barges his way onto page 435 of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Truman.

Attending the Potsdam conference after Germany's surrender, the President is getting into his car one evening after a long day of meetings when a public relations officer leans through an open window and asks to hitch a ride. Truman says yes, and during the drive an amazing conversation takes place.

The officer unabashedly tells Harry Truman that if there's "anything at all he needed, he had only to say the word. 'Anything, you know, like women.'" Truman, incensed, rejects the suggestion instantly and tells the officer "never to mention that kind of stuff to me again."

When you're comfortable offering casual sex to the leader of the free world, where do those kinds of social skills take you later in life? Did that PR officer end up in charge of his own New York Ad Agency, a Hollywood film studio, or a 12 by 12 foot cell at Sing-Sing prison?

These questions can't be answered but I never get tired of asking them. Mysterious strangers who step into the storyline for a few pages or even a single sentence are always welcome in my literary wanderings and I'm looking forward to meeting plenty of new ones. They're waiting for me now, untold numbers of them, waiting to be revealed between the covers of books not yet opened.