American Sabbatical 036: 10/19/96


10/19.. Portland and Salem

The people times are coming faster now. When we got up Saturday morning we had a breakfast date with one of Peggy’s ex-students in Portland.. in the rain. We’re beginning to understand why northwesterners have this thing about hot places.. Hawaii, Mexico, the sauna. On the other hand they have a complete disregard for wet. Nobody seems to wear rubber jackets, rain hats, and such. On backroads the denim jacket is omnipresent, rain or shine, while in town the nylon windbreaker is the prevalent gear (or is it goretex?). When it starts to pour, some umbrellas blossom, but most folks just ignore it. Dampness is a way of life. Made me feel like a wimp in my foulweather jacket.

Wet feathers and all, the Owl flew into Portland City from our outskirts motel for our date. Even on a Saturday morning the freeway was clogged, though fast-flowing. So far the indications are that the Willamette Valley is as overrun with autos as the rest of exurban America. The feeling in this emigrant mecca of the 1840’s (and since) is New Jersey, with rain and mountains (they tell us). Only the natives are better behaved. Orderly lines of traffic, nobody cutting over the bike lanes (!), no jaywalking. In Seattle I caused a near panic by cutting across an avenue before the walksign was lit. The looks of horror and shock in the passing cars, and the brake stomping, made me feel like a violent offender. These folk don’t seem to mind waiting. What a concept.


For breakfast Kathy took us to a pancake house where there was an hour’s wait to get seated. Nobody was muttering or stomping off in a huff. We passed the newsrag around and smiled at each other, nobody jumping cue. It felt like England in the 50’s. Maybe it’s the drizzle. The portions were American, though. Five-egg omelettes with pancakes on the side. They must have figured we’d be hungry after the wait.

Peggy and Kathy traded tales about classmates and students, and the teaching game. Kathy is on the school counseling path, with a side-helping of athleticism to keep her sane. Are today’s 20somethings more fitness-oriented than their predecessors? Seems like.

Portland Market

We needed some exercise after the feed, and we waddled into downtown to stroll the sidewalks. Our ambition was the legendary Saturday Market down by the riverside, and it's a classic. A tent city pitched under and around a bridge overpass and straddling a central trollyline, the market could be any gathering of the tribes since 1965. Portland is a young town, and the market is its generational epicenter. Soot-smeared backpackers in clans, teeny barefoot panhandlers in beads, buskers in competing cacophony, psychics offering palmreadings, acres of tye-dyed, bearded potters, little lame balloonmen, Buddhist mandalas and incense, fried dough and chilidogs, trustifarians wafting reefersmoke, goggleyed tourists, smiling cops in pairs, and the incessant beat of a drumcircle under-running all. Just seedy enough to charm a young heart, and give old carneys nostalgia. Not enough to make me want to go back to a streetcorner, though.

Another Street Person
Two blocks away another tribal rite was being acted out. Pawnshops and flophouses, clumps of idle man with battered faces, surreptitious handtohands, brownbags. The other side of the romance of freedom. The cops seemed to keep the two streams from combining, but the scent of the raw hustle pervaded both domains. You can get any education you want in Portland.

I wasn’t taken by this river city. Great bookstores and liberal ambiance, notwithstanding. But what can you tell from a driveby shoot? I suspect any town which gets tagged as NOW will fill up with youngsters who find the excitement of a peerdom exhilarating. We’re just too far over the hill.


So we put the Owl back on and flew the coop for Salem, and memories of our youth. Oregon had some pranks to pull on the way. A splash of sun, when the piled black cumulus rent open, and the highholyhills shone out for an instant, then a wall of hail, piling 6 inches deep on the roadway, with skid-outs and tow trucks. Then back into the rain. Nobody told the emigrants about this stuff on the Oregon Trail.

Then your favorite dispatch riders galloped off the highway into their personal history:

Terry arrived at the transmitter site in Argentia, Newfoundland, in 1968, just in time to rescue the resident swabbies from incipient boredom, by bringing an elevated level of confusion to the proceedings. Terry was beset by various corner-of-the-eye creatures, which immediately made themselves to home in the radiant atmosphere. You could hold a dead fluorescent light tube up in the radio-frequent air of the site and it would turn on.. and we tended to do a lot of that, too. When ascendant in those higher latitudes, you had the feeling of being very much alone, like the peak of some oceanic mountain rising above a layer of clouds. That’s when Terry would stick his head up and ask if you could maybe come detach a sabertooth demon from his ankle.

Surrounded by megawatts of electromags, we tended to be a little crazed, and our spells in the official Faraday cage only made it stranger. The control room at TT (Transmitters) was a tiny wiremesh room set in the middle of a cavernous cinderblock building full of big emitters. The room was grounded to protect test equipment from radiofrequency splash, and doubled as a laboratory for testing the psychic warp of radiomen. Terry and I began turning the official control room radio log into an ongoing horror novel, each writing a new episode as we rotated watches. We conjured up an attenuated radioman whose brain had been fried by all the RF emissions, and who had become a reclusive phantom living in the catacombs (blower-rooms) below the site. Whenever we’d have a technical breakdown, circuit outage, or other extraordinary event we’d log in another adventure of “RF SURUK vs. THE MIGHTY KW40.” Other watch sections joined the fun and we soon had a memorable novel-in-the-making reeling out of the control room. Until the day we lost comms with SECDEF over the Atlantic and got called on the carpet to explain the outage. We reluctantly produced our log for examination. It was almost worth it for the look of shock on the CO’s face. RF SURUK was confiscated, our wrists slapped, and we went back to the mindless prose of official documentation.

Chasing Chief Running Log, as you can see, has been an old game for us. In addition, our primary means of communication at the transmitter site was via a teletype loop. We’d type around a circle on TTYs, and watch each other thinking in arhythmic prose, so this E-mail stuff feels like another old hat.

Terry was transferred to Norfolk a few months after I was, and became one of the first friends of our new marriage. I’d captured the elusive lady during transfer leave. Terry remembers the exotic meals Peggy would compose nightly. She was determined to produce a different new entree every meal!! (Ain’t young love swell?) And Terry and I taught her how to drive by getting in the back of our VW with a couple of beers and shouting directions at her. (Amazing the marriage lasted.) But TKE (his radio chop) got discharged, went back to Newfie, married one, and disappeared from our lives in 1971.

Now divorced, remarried, with two boys and living in Salem, he had found us through a computerized phone search three years ago, and we zigged and zagged through a hilly suburban maze to lay eyes on him again. Some people don’t seem to change at all, and the 25 years between dissolved like hail on warm pavement.

What you discover in these reunions is how much you’ve forgotten about yourself. Terry had tales to tell about us that we didn’t remember, or had conveniently forgotten, and we did the same for him. The tales we tell ourselves don’t always jibe with public memory. If 25 years can do this between friends, what hope is there for an “accurate” rendering of HISTORY? The journals of record are busy telling the approved story of the now as filtered through the bias of senior editors, but it isn’t your story or mine. Each generation of historians retells yesterday’s tales to remake them ours, and the force of history is in the telling. The act of recapitulation deepens the rut of memory, or cuts it a new channel, and our self knowledge is our passage up and down the retold river.

When I look over my shoulder and reread one of these logs, I see the editorializing already done since the events. Memory has respun the yarn. Well, the kittens are into the knitting basket here in Salem, and we’re getting tangled in nostalgia. It’s all warm and fuzzy, though.

10/20-21.. Willamette.

So this is the promised land. The place of dreams for thousands of emigrants who trudged across the west. The Willamette Valley. Oregon. (That’s Wil-LAMM-et and Ory-GUN, stranger.) Deep, rich, well-watered farmland in a virtually frost-free climate where everything grows like topsy. The Valley of the Jolly Green Giant, in fact.

After three months or more of increasing adversity, capped off with the sterile deserts of Western Oregon and the precipitous Cascades, weary emigrants would stagger out into this lush garden spot. No wonder they raved to those back home. Rain? Yes, lots, and Thank God. Maybe the habit of waiting for breakfast is an historic tradition.

Farming is still the big tradition in the valley. It’s where all those Oregon brand fruits and berries come from, and nuts, and peas, and beans, and and. Anything which can stand cold nights, which corn can’t. That’s why wheat was Oregon’s big cash crop in the early days, and still is. Agribiz is a large presence between the Cascades and the Killimook Mountains along the winding Willamette, with huge truck depots, canneries, railheads, and mounds of produce. The early settlers bragged about the plethora of blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, huckleberries, barberries, thimbleberries, the big fir, spruce, hemlock and pine (Clyman reports measuring a fir 268 feet tall and 6’4” in diameter), laurel big enough to make furniture of, and nut hazels. Hardscrabble farmers from New England must have drooled.

In 1844 the largest settlement in the valley was at the falls (near Portland) and consisted largely of French and “civilized Indians” around a catholic mission. (Willamette = Fr.?) Which reminds us again that the French predated the English almost everywhere in North America, except in New Spain, and often there, too. Voyageurs went to the headwaters of the Saskatchewan and traded for furs into British Columbia a hundred years before MacKenzie. The settlements of Cascaskia and Cahokia (on the Mississippi), and Vincennes (on the Wabash), throve in isolation surrounded by “salvages” for a century before George Rogers Clark captured them in the 1760’s. Everywhere Anglo travelers went they encountered Metis (French/Indian “halfbreeds”). They were the guides, the boatmen, the advance-guard of the European invasion. Sagajawea’s husband was French, but as often the case, he was overlooked in the telling. Roosevelt (TR) suggests that it was the coureur de bois’ joy of life, stoical powers of endurance, and willingness to embrace the native cultures which made them so successful on the frontier.. and beneath contempt for the English.

William Carlos Williams contends (In The American Grain) that three cultural attitudes collided in North America: Protestant, Catholic, and Native. He says the Protestants suffered from uncertainty about the nature of God, each man having to decide for himself, and the church communities they forged were embattled.. "hunched" was his adjective, I think.. surrounded by a hostile savagery.. never able to learn the truths of the North American wilderness. The Catholics didn’t have to worry about religious questions or their place in the scheme of things, they just let the priests tell them. So they could interact with the natives on the Indians’ own terms, but they never could learn the native truth either, because they knew the French Catholic culture was, well, CULTURE. Only the natives, says Williams, knew the American truth, the reality of freedom, and they were overwhelmed. He says that it was the Boones, the Anglos who went native, forsaking Protestant narrowmindedness, who came closest to living the true American life. No comment.

This is no longer the Boonies. Salem is a supersuburb looking for a city. Terry says the difference between Yogurt and Salem is that yogurt has an active culture. What can you expect from a state capitol? There are amenities, of course. A skateboard park in the center, with sunken cement pipes and ramps.. how enlightened. This is the state that invented bottle returns, and we toured the capitol’s recycling center with admiration. (You can see what lengths Salemites go to entertain.) And we got rainpants and ladies trow at Goodwill.. a good’un (with Spanish the prevailing language). But it’s the plantings that make life in the Willamette memorable. Plant it and it will explode. Every house is surrounded with elaborate greenstuff, and in the sunny interludes the natives all seem to be whacking away at the vegetation with implements of destruction. Good luck. It’s obvious the plants are winning. Hundred-foot-tall monkeypuzzles? Sprawling yews that encompass half a block? Lombardy Poplars the size of Maine pines? Portland is called the City of Roses, but every dooryard is a blooming miracle in this valley.

Crowning the center of the promised land is the state capitol building, a truly bizarre bit of bureaucratic imagination. A square 4-story horseshoe with the long center span capped with a squat fluted tower, like a behemoth pillar sawed off, on top of which is a 12-foot statue: the Golden Pioneer. (Terry calls him the Golden Invader.) A square-jawed Aryan hero with an axe in one hand and carrying over his shoulder.. a raincoat. At least it looks like a raincoat.

It wouldn’t be fair not to tell you that the sun DID come out one afternoon, and a cold wind scattered the wet leaves around. We quickstepped around the neighborhood in honor of the reprieve, then drove to various hilltop haciendas to catch the Cascade views. But even if you live on Nob Hill Drive, the mountains only come out for you when they care to. We’re going to have to go find them.

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