Watching the world end from my Davenport

The following is an excerpt from Wheels on the Bus: Sex, Drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and life in 1974, Copyright 2011 Ken Bilderback.

As I looked at my map for the long ride to Michigan, I decided I wanted to stop in Davenport. Not in the same way I had wanted to see San Antonio or Santa Fe or San Francisco, but nonetheless I wanted to see Davenport.

'Wheels on the Bus' by Ken Bilderback

‘Wheels on the Bus’ by Ken Bilderback

Back in Michigan my friends all had sofas or couches in their living rooms. We had a davenport. That was, as far as I knew, the correct term for such a piece of furniture and it would make me mad as a child when people called it something else or didn’t know what I meant by the term. One day I was behind the davenport playing hide and seek or something and saw a tag on the back that said our davenport had been manufactured in Davenport, Iowa. When I informed my mother of this most-amazing fact she explained that it was called a davenport precisely because so many were made in Davenport.

The davenport in my parents’ house was a musty old beast, a relic of the past. It was overstuffed with thread-bare fabric upholstery. The davenport was in front of the picture window in the living room. When it snowed I would sit on my knees facing outward, petting Bandit and watching the icicles slowly drip from the eaves. On holidays I would assume the same pose, eagerly awaiting my grandparents’ arrival.

From my perch on the davenport I watched the old vacuum-tube black and white TV as images of Tigers games flickered and as Walter Cronkite delivered the news of JFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King’s assassination, then Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. I watched the grainy footage of soldiers jumping into rice paddies from helicopters, and of helicopters airlifting bloody comrades out of those same rice paddies, cringing in pain. I watched as police beat people in the streets of the South, apparently for being black and wanting equality, and of police beating people in the streets of Chicago or killing college students in Ohio, apparently for having long hair and wanting a better society.

Sometimes Walter Cronkite’s reports hit closer to home, as during the riots on the streets of Detroit, just a few miles away. There were times when frightened neighbors would call to say that rioting blacks were near our neighborhood, and I would take my position on the musty davenport to watch for the hordes to descend upon us. The hordes never made it to within many miles of our street, but I watched anyway. The occasional column of black smoke from torched buildings miles away made the threat seem imminent enough. Sitting on the davenport watching Walter Cronkite, the world looked like a very scary place, but still I wanted desperately to explore it. After all, he also showed film of hippies dancing joyously in the fields of Woodstock and in the streets of San Francisco.

It’s snowing in Michigan. Again.

The Michigan of my memory was a dingy place. I remember the black, crusty snow along the curbs in late winter. I remember walking home from junior high school in dank weather, terrified of the beatings I might face from the neighborhood bullies. The beatings in reality didn’t happen all that often, but 40 years later I still have physical and emotional scars from those that did.

'Wheels on the Bus' by Ken Bilderback

‘Wheels on the Bus’ by Ken Bilderback

I remember finding safety in the cold, musty basement of my parents’ house, huddled with my cat, Bandit, and surrounded by piles of books, magazines and newspapers “collected” over the years by my hoarder mother. I remember huddling down there painfully aware that my paranoid schizophrenic father might erupt again at any moment. When he did erupt he would lock himself in his bedroom and curse and stomp his feet and his tirade would resonate through the heating vents suspended from the ceiling of the basement as I buried myself in a National Geographic, dreaming of far off cities.

My first memory of my father, in fact my first memory of anything, happened when I was a toddler. When I was young, my father would leave on long, unexplained trips. I know now he was looking for jobs and someplace to start over, but back then I didn’t know what he was searching for. I just knew he was gone, and that was good enough for me. So my life’s first memory is my mother telling me he was coming home that night from one of those trips. I screamed in terror. That’s my first memory of my life.

My safe little corner of the basement was dominated by my electric train set, mounted on a table with an ever-changing cityscape, often modeled on a picture from those National Geographics. I built the towns with discarded 2×4 blocks I scrounged from construction sites in our area of suburban Detroit, which was growing like wildfire in the 1960s, fueled by lower-middle-class whites fleeing the city. One 2×4 block was good enough for a gas station, but it might take two for the fire station, three for city hall and four or five for the hospital and school. One little wooden block was special and was a centerpiece of any scene. I had carefully drawn windows and doors on this block, along with a crude drawing of a man smiling and waving by the front door, standing under the sign identifying the business as “Kenny’s Builders.” Kenny was the general contractor for all the buildings in town, which, I remember now, included only commercial buildings and never any homes. Despite all his imagination, apparently Kenny didn’t know how to build a home. When my father would hurl coffee mugs at my beloved Bandit or sit in his bedroom cursing at the misery of knowing in his heart that I was not his son, I would imagine the train pulling out of my safe little imaginary town, headed to an even safer imaginary city that existed only in my mind.

But the Michigan of my memory also was the launching pad for what has been a happy life. Without the hours spent huddled in the safety of that unhealthy basement building imaginary towns and reading books and magazines about faraway places, I might never have overcome my fears. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t overcome my fears; I just decided my fear of the known was greater than my fear of the unknown.

I am part of the damned liberal media, always asking questions

I’ve spent nearly 40 years listening to people talk about the liberal media. That’s what journalists do; we listen and observe, then we ask questions and listen and observe some more.

I remember many years ago, the paper I worked for ran a homophobic rant by an editor.

Book cover

The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

A few days later, I was taking phone calls from readers during Call the Editor night. I answered one call and immediately recognized the voice of a man who complained constantly about the paper’s liberal bias, nearly always without examples (once he said something along the lines of “if you’re too dumb to see it, then that’s the problem”).

But in this particular call, he mentioned the homophobic column, so I thought that maybe he was about to thank us for not being liberal 100 percent of the time. Boy, was I wrong.

He lit into me about how this was an all-time low. “How so?” I asked. “Why do you glorify those people?” he demanded. I read back to him some of the column, which said that while the writer was willing to “tolerate” homosexuals, he would not accept them, and basically that they should all shut up and go away. I asked him how that “glorified” gay people.

“Why do we even have to know that those people exist?” he demanded, hanging up the phone before I had a chance to respond. My response would have been in the form of another question, but I never got the chance to ask it.

Damned liberal media. Always asking questions.

A child’s view of the world, now forever buried under Hagg Lake

In 1973, Forest Dale School was about to close.

That’s putting it politely. A more accurate summary would be that it was about to be inundated by change, buried beneath the water of a reservoir, which today we know as Henry Hagg Lake.

A few intrepid journalists, including Clyde Keller, captured the loss of the Forest Dale community and the pioneer families who farmed the land. One of my favorite photos from Clyde’s collection is this one of Felix McCullough, on his trusty old tractor, making the most of his final seasons of farming.

But with all due respect to Clyde, my favorite memoir of the time is this little book, compiled by the teachers and students of Forest Dale School in 1973.

Click this link, 1973 In Remembrance of Forest Dale School, to be transported back to a more innocent time.

A tale of three asses

I woke up Sunday morning with a case of shingles. Shingles sucks, so I went to urgent care and got a prescription for acyclovir. I filled the prescription and was unlocking my car door at the pharmacy when I noticed a little, scruffy, three-legged dog looking up at me, with what appeared to be a smile on his face, with his head tilted, and with his stubby tail wagging.

Miniature donkeys making my day.

Miniature donkeys making my day.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” the woman with the little, scruffy, three-legged dog, said.

Of course there’s no reason ever to apologize for a happy, scruffy, three-legged dog; there is no more perfect organism in the universe. There is less reason still when the scruffy little mutt is bringing joy to someone’s day.

Anyway, I don’t have a picture of that scruffy little mutt, but I do have this picture of two miniature donkeys from three years ago.

I took this picture on a hot, windy day. I was volunteering as a fire department Public Information Officer that day, at a time by which I had become disillusioned with the department I was representing. Continue reading

The color of justice: When free enterprise becomes a crime

The following is an excerpt from Law and Order at the end of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 by Ken and Kris Bilderback:

Book cover

The story of race and crime unfolds in our new book.

Under ordinary circumstances, there were not enough local pickers to harvest the area’s strawberry crop, so farmers routinely hired immigrant labor to fill the shortage. In the case of Oregon berry growers, that meant that Japanese farmers often had to rely on Filipino pickers to gather their crop.

After the Filipino workers arrived in the Spring of 1932, the weather turned cold and it appeared that there could be a small crop and a labor surplus. White farmers and laborers demanded that the Filipinos be sent home, and threatened violence. Washington County Sheriff John Connell visited the farms in Banks and Hillside and urged calm. “As a consequence,” a Page 1 story in the April 22, 1932, Oregonian said, “the white element promised to go home and sleep on it.” Continue reading

Remembering some forgotten WWII heroes

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name by Ken and Kris Bilderback. All rights reserved.

By the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, many of Gaston’s Japanese-Americans were Sansei, or second-generation American-born citizens, and some of them were among the first to enlist in the American war effort. The eldest son of the Hashimoto family was one of the first in line, Marge recalls, and went off to fight against the Japanese Army in the Far East. Unfortunately, this all-American young man had the constitution of someone raised in the moderate climate of Oregon, not in the jungles of the Far East, and he died in service to his country, succumbing to one of the tropical diseases that proved to be as deadly as the bullets of Japanese army rifles. Gaston’s Peter and Jim Furukawa also were among the first patriots to enlist, and they were lucky enough to survive fighting for the country they loved.

Creek With No NameBut Gaston was more than just a center of Japanese culture. It also happened to be the center of “the Pacific Coast forest belt” that internment was meant to protect. While each of Gaston’s Japanese-Americans had a distinct personality to those who knew them here, whether it was for being an expert farmer, prolific athlete, troublemaker or just good friend, to most Americans they all just looked the same. They looked like potential terrorists embedded near the cherished Stimson Mill and the forests that fed the war effort.

The Oregonian editor,” Ellen Eisenberg wrote in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, “argued that it was impossible to separate the loyal from the disloyal and therefore all Japanese-Americans had to be ‘moved in the interest of national security.’” Soon Congress agreed and ordered the “evacuation” of anyone of Japanese descent, including almost a quarter of Gaston’s population. Eisenberg notes the Oregonian’s editorial board explored the treatment of Japanese-Americans and “compared it favorably to the treatment of ‘civilian enemy nationals’ by Nazi Germany.” Continue reading

Gaston Schools history, Part III: The little district that could

The Gaston Public School District doesn’t seem to have an official birthday, although the elementary and high school districts merged officially on May 31, 1968, offering a potential date.

The district’s obituary has been written several times (click here for earlier history), always prematurely. About all that is certain is that Gaston always has been, and continues to be, the little district that finds a way to survive.

In our last installment, Gaston had survived several votes that could have merged the district into Forest Grove; in fact some of the votes actually enlarged the Gaston district. But as the 1970s began, the Gaston school budget crisis persisted. Continue reading

That time a President died in Oregon … the tale of a psychic ghost

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West Was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon, Copyright 2011, Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved:

Creek With No NameLouis Rader was the subject of many stories in The Oregonian after his arrest, but the basis of his story is revealed in the cascading headlines on the very first article, which appeared on the doorsteps of Portlanders on the morning of June 27, 1923. The story involved a planned visit to Portland by President Warren G. Harding, and the main headline blared: “Farmer Threatens Life of President.” The first subhead elaborated on the evidence against him: “Rancher of Gaston Arrested for Writing Letter.”

On the surface, a letter threatening the life of a President about to visit the area sounds pretty damning. Upon closer inspection, however, the letter seems more a statement of confusion than confession. The letter was written to the Portland Chamber of Commerce and contains this threat, or possible threat: “Now friends this nice morning I have a hunch here it is President Harding will be called this month on a Fryday to a high court where he will give account to the above mention.” Continue reading