This is for my late father, on what would have been his 100th birthday, and for the many folks here in the valley who have childhood memories of somewhere else.
My first memory of dad takes place in the cab of a truck at the grain elevator in Condon on a hot summer day in 1950 or ‘51. Dougy and I sit restlessly on the slippery black passenger seat. The cab is superheated and smells like tar. The windshield is streaked and the sun is so bright that it is hard to even see the building. We wait awhile and then pull into the shade where dad has a jocose conversation with a man named Slim. I can’t see well enough to know whether he really is slim. With a haarooom! we go into the sun again and stop. We pile out and dad boosts us into the back of the truck onto the load of wheat. The wheat is warm on top and cool underneath. We flail on the surface, like swimming. The wheat promptly spills into the holes we dig.
This folkloric kind of memory, related to weather and work life, sticks with me like the spindly roots of winter wheat in the clumped soil. It is what I mean when I hear myself telling someone, Well, I am originally from eastern Oregon.
Don’t eat the wheat, the men would say. If you do, wheat will grow out your ears. We knew they were joking but we were a little worried.
One day, it seems like the same day, I ask, How old are you, grampa?
Grampa thinks about this important question and says, Well how old are you?
Five, I say.
Oh, he says. I am a hundred. And your dad here is ten.
They stand side by side with serious faces.
I have the thoughts, though not the words, to find the truth in that. A hundred, ten, five – different orders of age. And of course if I had gotten a more literally factual answer I would not have this memory of looking up at the two men standing side by side.
I look at the anxious way kids are raised today and wonder how I could have survived today’s kind of childhood. When I went to town with dad I stood on the car seat next to him and he pointed out things along the way. See the hawk there? How many cows do you see? His left elbow was out the window with cigarette smoke blowing this way and that. His right elbow was there to catch me on the curves.
So many early memories are on the Columbia River highway, I feel like I grew up there. We sang our songs in the back seat, and when our songs were done and darkness came, mom and dad continued with their songs in the front seat.
Some memories are overlaid with later knowledge, not to mention later changes in the landscape. For example our visit to the fishing grounds at Celilo Falls. Not surprisingly, it turned on dad’s habit of friendly greetings to whomever he might encounter. I remember a man in a cafe, some talk, a car ride and a turn downhill. Hot sun and a strong stink. Dogs running up to us, sniffing our hands. Kids watching us below a row of tarpaper shacks. Then a roar of water with spray coming over us, men shouting and laughing, and water so bright I can hardly see. See the salmon?! I think I see it. I see rainbows where the rapids are splashing.
Later dad told me that Celilo was flooded over by a new dam, and that this was a broken treaty. A promise that should have been kept.
Years later I was driving the car on the gravel road from Arlington, dad beside me. I looked for the green trees of Condon at the top of every rise. It got dark before we got there. Dad was talking to me about my last years of high school in Salem and life afterwards and what to expect. He said, These will be some of the best years of your life.
A valley guy now, Vere McCarty drove combine in the wheat harvest in Condon and Olex, Oregon. Please feel free to comment on-line if you saw Celilo Falls, at salemweeklynews.com.