Installment No. 3 (What is this? Read Installment No. 1 for the answer.)
This was an entry in my book journal and also a newspaper column.
Mile High Mile Deep, by Dick O’Malley, finished July 25, 2005
During Dick O’Malley’s childhood in the 1920s, Butte was more than the most interesting city in Montana. It was almost a world unto itself, a tough, bruised place where Irishmen, Swedes, Montenegrins, Greeks, Chinese, Poles, Italians, Finns, Yugoslavs and Cornishmen fought and worked and drank and died.
It was a world populated by characters like Shoestring Annie, who furiously cursed at those who wouldn’t buy her laces; Reckless Cavan, a “mucker” who could shovel rock faster than any other miner; Puddinhead Van Pelt, a dim-witted cop; and Filthy McNabb, who tended pigs at the Poor Farm.
It was a world where miners died underground in fires, cave-ins and explosions, or wasted away above ground from consumption, referred to as miner’s con. They killed each other with guns and knives, drank moonshine and took rough comfort in the arms of Venus Alley’s painted ladies.
As harsh and violent as Butte might have been, O’Malley’s boyhood memoir, “Mile High Mile Deep,” makes Butte sound like the wildest, grandest place to have been a boy since Huck Finn launched his raft on the Mississippi. Writing decades later, O’Malley gave it all an aura of glory by describing Butte as he saw it as a boy, a boy who knows only the world in front of him.
“It’s deceptively simple,” said Russell Chatham, the Livingston painter. “For him to maintain the tone that he does
letting the innocence of the boy just report — it’s pure genius.”
Chatham discovered “Mile High Mile Deep” in a used-book store in 2002 and was so struck by it — “It just blew my head off” — that he re-released it this spring through his own independent publishing house, Clark City Press. Beautifully made, illustrated with rare photos of early-day Butte, with Chatham’s own painting of the Orphan Girl Mine on the dust jacket, this is an edition that does justice to O’Malley’s neglected masterpiece.
And O’Malley does full justice to his subject. He reminds us again that in Butte, home of the Richest Hill on Earth, the great stories, like the veins of copper, were seemingly inexhaustible.
“Mile High Mile Deep” was first published as a hardback in 1971 by Mountain Press Publishing Co. in Missoula, then issued as a paperback in 1986. It had been out of print for years when Chatham decided to revive it. It’s too bad that O’Malley, who died in 1999, didn’t live to see it.
O’Malley followed his father into the newspaper business, working at papers in Montana before joining the Associated Press. During a distinguished career with the AP, he covered the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Berlin Blockade, war in Algiers and a revolt in the Belgian Congo. He was working as the AP bureau chief in Paris in the early 1960s when he wrote his memoirs, getting to the office an hour early each day to transport himself back to his rugged boyhood.
You can tell what a reporter he must have been from reading this book. Each chapter is a perfectly composed yarn, with a beginning, middle and end, each detail given just the right touch, each of Butte’s many dialects rendered pitch-perfect.
It is also a story of great friendship. O’Malley and his pal, Frank Lardner, are together on almost every page, setting off together for one adventure after another. At first, theirs was a sunlit world, a succession of picnic lunches, streetcar rides, movies, parties and light-hearted explorations of the whole crazy hill. But the darkness was never far away.
There is a fight in nearly every chapter, some of them mere larks and the letting off of steam and some of them dead serious, as when striking miners savagely beat one of the mining company’s gun thugs. O’Malley became a connoisseur of fights.
“Lots of times men swear and yell when they’re fighting,” he wrote of one brawl between Butte miners and circus roustabouts. “But when they don’t say a word and just slug, that’s a fight where somebody usually gets hurt bad.”
This was one of those fights: “There wasn’t much noise. Just the sound of fists and clubs and then people coming out of the circus got mixed up in it whether they wanted to or not.”
O’Malley was almost as matter of fact when he described how Tony, a Montenegrin, avenged his brother’s death as part of a feud that stretched back to the Old Country. In full sight of O’Malley and his friend Frank, Tony coldly gunned down his brother’s killer, then threw his empty revolver at the corpse.
“Frank and I ran down to where the man was lying on the sidewalk and he was deader than a mackerel,” O’Malley wrote. “You could tell. Somebody came out from the Carlisle rooming house and threw a blanket over him and pretty soon an ambulance came and took him away.”
But this is no aimless series of recollections. It builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the boyish innocence and sense of wonder evolve into a mature realization of how ruthlessly the mines chewed up good men and destroyed good families.
The late Montana historian Michael Malone, writing in “The Battle for Butte,” said an Eastern newspaper described early-day Butte as “simply an outpost of hell;
the few women and children there looked with indifference upon crime of every kind.”
The first part of that description might have been true. O’Malley’s memoir makes it clear that the second part did not fit his mother. After O’Malley witnessed the murder described above, his mother said to him, “This terrible town. This terrible mining camp where a man can be shot down in the streets like a dog.”
O’Malley’s simple, straightforward narrative makes you believe that Butte really was a terrible town, an unwholesome, unholy place — even while it makes you wish with all your heart that you could go back and see it for yourself.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the book ends on a note of almost unbearable tragedy, as do those two other Montana classics, “The Big Sky” and “A River Runs Through It.” And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say “Mile High Mile Deep” deserves to stand in the same company as those two books.
I’m already looking forward to reading it again.