A different view from 1960

The Joseph Gaston House is one of the most spectacular homes in Portland’s West Hills. It’s a beautiful house to look at, but it’s hard to stay focused on the architecture without being distracted by the view from the house. Downtown Portland. A view up the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge. Mount Rainier to the north, Mount Hood to the west, and St. Helens and Adams in between. I love the house for intrinsic beauty and for its breathtaking view.

Joseph Gaston House in Portland

Joseph Gaston’s house at 1960 16th Street, from a 2015 real-estate brochure, offering the property at $4 million.

I love the house also because it was built by Joseph Gaston, founder of the town I call home and about which I have written two history books, with at least two more in the works. I admire Joseph Gaston for his vehement opposition to slavery, for his sometimes courageous career as a journalist, and for his sometimes fierce fight against government corruption.

You might notice that I modified the last two traits, because Joseph Gaston was deeply flawed man as well. His tremendous intellect, empathy, and compassion were balanced by bouts of avarice, bitterness, and pious self-aggrandizement in the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s my view of Joseph Gaston and of his house. Here’s another, this one from Neil Nakadate in his book, Looking After Minidoka: Continue reading

A November to remember, and a childhood lost

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

'Wheels on the Bus' by Ken Bilderback

‘Wheels on the Bus’ by Ken Bilderback

This particular story happened a few days after Halloween, 1968. I had gone to the lunchroom at school and waited for my friend David to join me to exchange leftover Halloween candy. David was my best friend in those days, a quiet but happy kid with a complexion even pastier than mine. In fact I remember his skin as white more than flesh-colored. David came from a dirt-poor family, although he lived in a nicer house than I did. David and I had things in common, like never wanting to go home, and never wanting to talk much about his personal life. Instead we talked about cars and about the little Revell models we were building. I liked muscle cars, while David was partial to things like the Munsters mobile and Batmobile.

David didn’t join me at lunch that day, which surprised me because we had talked about it just an hour or so before. I figured he had gone home sick, which wouldn’t be surprising because he was sick a lot, often throwing up. When I got home a few hours later I plopped myself on the davenport to watch “Where the Action Is” or “It’s Happening” or one of the rock ‘n’ roll shows I could watch only when my father wasn’t home. On this particular Tuesday afternoon, my mother came from the kitchen with a worried look on her face. Someone from the school had called because they knew David and I were friends. David’s mother, it seems, had picked him up at lunch time, along with his little brother and sister. A couple hours later, one of David’s neighbors saw exhaust seeping from the garage of David’s house and investigated. Soon after police found David, his mother and his four siblings in the back of the family’s station wagon in the garage, all dressed in their pajamas, and all dead.

I imagine I cried a little, but mostly I was stunned. None of this made sense to my 12-year-old mind. My main question was not “why?” but rather “why were they in their pajamas?” Looking back, I think that was about as deep as I wanted to get to solving that mystery. I stayed on the davenport all evening that night instead of retreating to the basement because Walter Cronkite was on the old black and white Columbia television, reading the results of Richard Nixon’s victory over Hubert Humphrey in that day’s presidential election. “There’s news besides the election,” Cronkite said at one point, or words to that affect. “We have word from Detroit that a mother and her five children were found dead in the back of their car, all dressed in their pajamas, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.” I sat on the davenport, hands tightly gripping the frayed fabric upholstery. I learned later that David’s parents had both lost their jobs months earlier and were getting a divorce. I never did learn why they were wearing pajamas at noon.

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