My earliest memories begin, I suppose, with a journey down the block to see the circus come to town. My mother carried or led me to watch all the activity. It seemed a bit confusing with so many people and animals milling around. Perhaps that is what made it so memorable.
Toward the end we followed a group of elephants being led by their trainers across a field, up a dike to a stream of water. They enjoyed spraying water on themselves and each other. Some rolled in the mud and then hosed down again.
I remember clinging in fear to my mother’s neck, gaping in wide-eyed amazement unable to wrench my eyes from the terrible sight of those strange animals sucking water up their noses and blowing it out over their backs. All in all, it was a frightful, but fascinating thing to behold.
For years I had told my children about this experience and pointed to the place along Vancouver Ave. in Portland, Oregon’s Van-Port District where we lived when I was about four years old, as the location of this event. When my mother heard me telling them again, as teenagers, she startled me with the correction that that event did not take place in Van-Port, but in Greensborough, NC when I was barely a year old!
Our family arrived in Oregon country sometime after my third birthday where they bought a farm near Lowell, Oregon. I still carry vivid memories of some events from the year or so that we lived there.
Our farm was across a gravel road and a railroad tracks on a hillside, above that of my grandparents, “Pop” & Inez Strawn. Uncle “Toots” & Aunt Thelma Pifer and their family lived with them. Aunt “Dot” and her family lived down the road apiece. Some cousins, Eldon & Dorothy Strawn and their family lived farther up the hill above us.
To reach Pop Strawn and the Pifers we had to cross the road and the railroad tracks and either drive through a small stream named School Creek, or walk over the creek on a long foot bridge. Their house was located out in the valley near Middle Fork Willamette River. During the flood season the creek overflowed its banks making passage by car impossible. This footbridge, about a city-block long, was the only way to reach the farm. Most of the year the footbridge stood unused, for the driveway had a small culvert to let the normal stream flow under, and cars and pedestrians cross over. During this time it served mostly as a hedge for the thicket of blackberries and it doubled as a picking platform when the berries were ripe.
I recall a time, though, after it had been raining quite a lot for several days, that we walked to Pop’s farm. My dad was carrying me across the footbridge over a very flooded School Creek, and my right cowboy boot fell off. It plopped into the raging water and disappeared into the black berry brambles. Of course there were the inconsolable tears of the bravest cowboy in the west.
I DID consider myself a cowboy, and a very good one at that. It was a happy day when my father brought home our first cow. He carried her into the house from the car in a burlap feed sack (a gunny sack to us westerners). She wasn’t much bigger than me. A little later we got a goat and some chickens. I don’t recall how they arrived at our farm, but I remember my mom telling of those days when I would stand at the fence giggling at Billy, the goat, as he played with the half-grown cow, Rhubarb. When the cow would lie down to chew her cud, Billy would jump up on her and parade from head to tail like a King of the Hill.
One evening to demonstrate my Western bravery, I picked up a short piece of firewood that I used for my “gun,” and marched outside in the dark to “shook a der.” That bravery was still intact a few years later when I was about six or seven years old, and we went back to visit old friends and neighbors in Lowell. Mr. Smithson, who lived on the next farm upstream from Pop, had a bearskin rug in his living room. It both awed and frightened me, but I admired his bravery in shooting it. He gave me an old cork-shooting gun to practice my marksmanship. A cork gun resembled a BB gun, except it shot corks like one finds in wine bottles and such. This gift would shortly thereafter be my undoing as I lied to Aunt Ruthie to get a cork, but more about that later.
There was also the enchanting experience of walking up our long driveway, about 1/4 mile, after dark. Just why we were walking I don’t recall, but it may have been because of heavy rains making the dirt road too slick to drive on. Dad often made this walk without the aide of a flashlight, so he was confident of our course. When we were nearly at the house we passed a huge, rotting tree stump that had large areas on it that were glowing. When he shone his light on it nothing was revealed, but when he turned it off the spots glowed even brighter. We stood there taking in the unexplainable mystery for several minutes before continuing on. I have no idea whether that had ever happened before or since, but it strengthened my love for nature and the mysteries that lurked there.
Another mystery that haunted our farm was water dogs in the water supply.
The water came to the house through a one-inch steel pipe from a spring somewhere on the hill. [As a sidebar, I’ve searched for that spring on at least two occasions as an adult but was never able to find it. ] Somehow the little critters would make it into the waterline and end up plugging up the faucet that emptied into a sink on our back porch. Whereupon Dad would have to round up the pipe wrench, take off the faucet, let the little newt out, then try to get the faucet screwed back on with water spraying everywhere and drenching himself, to the delight of all who witnessed it.
One summer Pop and Toots were mowing and gathering the winter’s supply of hay using horses. Since this was a rather new experience for all the southeasterners, most of the cousins “helped” by riding the hay wagon to hold the hay down. When their barns were full they started delivering to Aunt Dot’s barn. The route that was chosen led across the pasture, through the gate in the fence, and angled up across the railroad tracks to the road. This may have been the first trip or it could be that something spooked the horses. At any rate they charged up the incline, overturning the load of kids and hay. I thought at the time that it must be great sport and some kind of new trick. But no, there were a few bruises and strains. Ina had been thrown into the barbed wire fence and sustained several scratches on her face and a badly cut lip leaving scars that can be seen nearly sixty years later.
Occasionally, we would walk up through the woods to Eldon and Dorothy’s farm. To get there we had to cross School Creek on a fallen-log bridge. I nearly always got a ride on Dad’s shoulders as we made the fearsome crossing. I rode while he held Mom’s hand to balance her. We must have gone there on Fridays at least a few times to get our weekly bath, because for years I giggled at seeing their three kids and me naked and sitting around the rim of a fifty-gallon drum that served as the outdoor bathtub.
Up the hill a piece from Eldon’s farmhouse was a cliff with eroded caves in its face. I remember well the only hike that I made to see them. I think that they were called Eagles Cliff. I couldn’t say if it was while we still lived there of on one of our return visits when we were selling the farm. I may have been about 8-10 years old. [A good research topic… When was it sold?] Pop and Toots’ place was sold to make way for the Lookout Point Dam in Lowell. Ours was sold to a professor at the University of Oregon. I think he planned on building a vacation home there, but nothing ever became of it and as of our last visit in 2002 all that remains are five of the original seven apple trees and a row of daffodils overgrown with blackberries.
Dad worked for the railroad as a “Gandy Dancer” and weed controller. A “Gandy Dancer” was a worker who wields a six-foot long steel bar made by the Gandy Tool Co., that was used to loosen gravel from around railroad ties before remoing and replacing them. The workers also cleared the brush from the railroad right-of-way and burn the piles as they dried out. After one of these burns he contracted a rash of poison oak. He had probably gotten it from the smoke and it had permeated his clothing as well, because mom got it pretty bad from doing his laundry. They were swollen up and itchy and covered with Calamine Lotion for several weeks.
I vaguely remember the pump organ that we had in the living room. For those of you that have never seen one, it looks a little like a piano keyboard that makes its sound by blowing air across reeds. The air is supplied by pumping a two-bellows system with the feet. Above the keyboard is several rows of “stops,” knobs that one can pull out or push in for different combinations to play different groups of reeds as the keys are depressed.
I remember visiting the farm with my parents as they were attemping to sell it. It was still in the house and could be played nearly 5 years after we left the farm.
There were a number of relatives that had moved to that area that were Seventh-day Adventists, and lacking a church nearby we would take turns gathering in our different homes for meetings. Several had pianos, we had this pump organ which mom played like an angel. “Jesus Loves Me” was my favorite, while “Hear the Pennies Dropping” was the most terrifying, because I was required to let go of those pennies clutched in my hand and let them fall into the tin can that served as the offering recepticle. The shinier the my pennies were, the harder it was to let go.
From there I think we move to Gammy and Dat Chew’s farm near Mabel and Marcola, OR. Theirs was a house set on a hillside at the end of a 1/2 mile driveway. They had a small garage down by the road where they sometimes had to park their car in the rainy season. They could have had a daylight basement on the downhill side of the house, but instead they stored the winter supply of firewood under the house. A veranda, or covered porch ran across the left end of the house, and across the front to join the veranda of a line of storage rooms, the last of which served as Dat’s woodworking shop.
Between the house and this line of rooms was a path that led a short distance up the hill to the chicken house. At the left end of the house, leading off the porch was the path that went a short way up the hill to the “outhouse.” This was a fine little shed that had a bench with two holes in it and some of the finest reading material available, a Sears or Montgomery-Ward mail-order catalog. These also served a dual purpose when one finished his allotted time in the crapper. To soften each brittle and shinny page it had to be wadded up in a tight ball, then flattened and torn into strips. [As a sidebar; although one could easily tear a page from top to bottom in a straight line, it was almost impossible to tear a straight line from side to side… one of the small mysteries of life that I still ponder from time to time.] You, the reader, will probably never need this knowledge, because now, Montgomery-Wards is no longer in business and you have to pay several dollars for a Sears Catalog that is half as thick as in the old days. Beside toilet paper is readily available in nearly every store. It is softer, cheaper and doesn’t need to be torn into strips.
I don’t remember a lot about Dat Chew, except that he always seemed to have a grin from ear to ear that squinted his eyes. His face was so wrinkly I had to wonder how he shaved. His forte that I like the best was his ability of making the finest griddle cakes anywhere. And he did it right on top of the wood-burning kitchen range.
When we moved to their farm we cleaned out one of the storerooms for a bedroom. Though I don’t know for certain, my sister and I and our parents must have all slept in the same little eight by ten foot room.
I think Dad had started working away from home in the Vancouver shipyards about this time. It was during this period that I remember praying for a little brother. I prayed most earnestly that he wouldn’t get run over by a train in heaven before he got here!
I don’t recall anything about my sister during this time, but I must have had one, for by the time I was in the first grade she was the red-hair bane of my life. I played with her, fought with her, and disliked her occasionally, but woe to the one who mistreated her! When I was in high school she was my friend and the cupid, match-maker for the girls I was too bashful to hit on myself.
The Chews lived there until I was in about the seventh grade and we went to visit about once a month. Some of the highlights of those return visits were:
• Helping to harvest the winter wood supply. The trees were felled by six-foot hand saws that were operated by two men. Then an axe was used to cut off the limbs. A gas powered dragsaw was used to cut the tree into “wheels” that were the diameter of the tree, then they were rolled down the hill to the house where the older cousins would split the wheels into pieces small enough to fit the stove. Dat would stack it under the house to cure while we kids carried it to him. On several occasions a wheel got out of control and charge off across the pasture, hopped the fence and ended up in the canyon. Since these wheels were way too big to roll anywhere but down hill or just barely on level ground, they would have to be split in the creek and carried back up to the house.
• We gathered around the large console radio and we waited for Dat Chew to bring the battery from one of the cars so that it could be attached to the radio to power it up for listening. They had no electricity in those days. Mostly they just listened to news about the progress of the war, then we would all laugh with the Amos and Andy Comedy Hour.
• Then there was the day one of the goats that was tied up in the barn jumped out an open window and hung himself to death.
• There are the memories of helping Dat remodel an old out building into a house for Aunt Marion and her two boys, Jimmy and Richard who had been living in Marcola.
• The evening Jimmy and Richard held me down and took turns screwing me in the butt. It made me feel like I constantly had to take a shit for two days. Why didn’t I tell? I don’t know, I just thought that’s what big ten and twelve year-old boys do.
• Jimmy and Richard had rigged up a steel cable that ran from a platform up in a cedar tree to another one about 30 feet away. With a rope and a wooden seat attached to a pulley it produce heart-stopping thrills.
• A dog named Teddy that was Gammy’s pet . She taught him to wipe his feet on the rug before coming into the house. When she sat with her legs crossed in front of the evening fire to read, he would sit on her raised foot to be bounced like a baby. After living with her for several years, he disappeared and was gone for nearly a year and a half. He showed up at her door one evening with cracked and bleeding footpads and very skinny. I was there the day he returned. There was rejoicing like you wouldn’t believe! The Biblical Prodigal Son couldn’t have been treated much better.
Gammy liked to sing and Teddy often joined her. It was hilarious to watch him sit there, nose lifted toward the ceiling watching her intently and howling at just the right time.
• After we moved to our new house in Meadow Glade we often returned to visit the Chews. I usually got to sleep on the living room floor and would be awakened early by Dat’s morning fire building activity. I would snuggle down under the covers until it got warm or I would join him in the kitchen to watch him make griddlecakes. That’s pancakes to most of you. He knew how to patiently wait for most of the bubbles to stop popping on each pile of batter and the edges to turn a dull color before flipping them over.
He kept the homemade butter, jellies, and Log Cabin Syrup in a special cabinet in the kitchen. This cupboard had a screened opening at the back of the top and bottom shelves that opened to the shady side of the house with the bottom vent going under the house. This drew cool air from under the house and vented it out the top. Each shelf was made of a wire grid like a refrigerator.
• Dat liked to sit on the front veranda and split kindling with a huge butcher knife while he visited. After we moved to the Vancouver area, he kept our cow Rhubarb for several years until we got our barn built at the Meadow Glade place.
* After our cow was returned to us, she was often staked out in the yard to mow our grass. Dad would drive a long steel rod into the ground and attach her lead-chain to it. It would be my job in the evening to unhook the chain and lead her to the barn, where Dad would milk her. One day she terrified me by rearing up on her hind legs to chase me to the barn. For years I swore that she chased me around the house and all the way to the barn running on two legs. In retrospect, she probably reared up and I took off for the barn without dropping the lead and she just followed me!