Captain McCan and his Forest Grove dream

A century ago, Charles McCan was one of Forest Grove’s most-famous citizens, although few people even knew his real first name; most knew him simply as “Captain” McCan. “Cyclone” McCan might have been a more apt moniker, given the way he took the town by storm.

First came the roar of the crowd, drowning out the pounding hooves of harness racers. Then came an even louder form of horsepower, as Forest Grove became one of the first cities on the West Coast to host motorcycle races. Continue reading

A century in the life of Gaston schools, Part 1

This is a very busy year for centennials in Gaston. The city charter turns 100, as does the Knights of Pythias Hall and the Gaston State Bank. The Cherry Grove Dam broke 100 years ago. And 100 years ago, the people of Gaston began an effort to build a high school.

Nothing remains of that original structure, but the long history of the building is full of stories, starting with the Governor of Oregon arriving by sleigh to dedicate it, and ending with townspeople collecting picks and hammers to tear it down.

The story begins in September 1914, when voters approved the construction of a school, authorizing about $3,000 for the project. Like many such projects, plans changed and projected costs rose. Finally in August 1915, the school district sought bids to build the school, setting the cost at $10,000. When all of the bids came in higher than that, the architect went back to the drawing board to bring costs down. Later that month, Forest Grove contractor J.W. Loynes agreed to do the job for $10,000, and work began immediately. The building was completed in just six months. The cost had risen to $12,000, but the community rejoiced, and planned a joyous dedication for January 14, 1916.

Blizzards are rare in Gaston, but on January 14, 1916, Gaston was hit with a doozy. An account in The Oregonian described the event like this: “In a driving snowstorm the patrons of the district and their friends arrived in homemade sleighs of every description. The jingle of sleighbells announced the arrival of Governor Withycombe.” Continue reading

Thanksgiving, World War I style

walkingcoversmall

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming Walking to Forest Grove, Copyright Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

When Forest Grove soldiers began arriving overseas, their letters contained little substantive news of the war, and when they did they were heavily edited by military censors. When James Benoit wrote to someone the News-Times identified only as “a young lady friend,” he was allowed to tell her only that he was serving in the trenches “somewhere in France.” Most of his letter was spent thanking her for writing to him. “Your big, cheery, newsy letter was just what the doctor had ordered for me,” he told her. Better yet, it arrived on Thanksgiving Day, just as he was sitting down to a mess hall feast of “turkey, dressing, cakes, salads, mince pies, pudding, dates, raisins, figs, bread, butter and punch.” The highlight of the afternoon, he told his young lady friend, was that his team from the Army beat a team from the Marines 12-0, although he neglected to mention what sport was being played. He said most of the time there was not much to amuse the troops except for watching the effects of the local vin rouge being consumed “by fellows who are not yet acclimated. Of course I have been here long enough for that, but you know me.” Then Benoit slipped up and bragged that the company commander had told them that his regiment “had drawn the most important assignment in France (and) we were to …” The censor cut him off at that point, but allowed a few closing thoughts from “Jimmie” to his young female friend in Forest Grove, hoping that “you girls will appreciate us when we come back from war.”

August 1977: Murder, mayhem, misery for small-town volunteer firefighters

This is an excerpt from Fire in a Small Town, Copyright 2013 by Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved. Proceeds from the book were donated, in advance, to the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department.

On August 1, 1977, Ron Hoodenpyl was starting his first full month as the paid Gaston fire chief after 18 years in the role as a volunteer. Friends still were teasing him about how he would earn his pay in such a sleepy little town, yet before the month was over he had presided over many of the worst blazes in Gaston Fire history and had been caught up in a mass-murder mystery that would continue to make headlines for decades to come.

To be fair, August often is the busiest month of the year in Gaston. Wildfire season is at its peak, roads are clogged with cars and motorcycles, Hagg Lake is busy … but August 1977 was different. The summer was hot, so firefighters were wary of the usual trouble spots such as the fields in the Gerrish Valley and the Mount Richmond areas. True to form, those areas erupted, but the real maelstrom was brewing in normally tranquil Laurelwood.

On the morning of August 10, firefighters were called to the fields near Laurelwood Road and Lambert Lane. The hay fields had erupted in flames, and on this hot windy day there was more at stake than hay. With a little bad luck, the blaze soon could be into the forested Chehalem Mountains or even to the residential high school operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This was a fire that required every resource Gaston Fire could bring to bear.

On August 10, 1977, however, Chief Hoodenpyl would find his resources stretched to the breaking point, because a mere four minutes after the alarm was sounded for the Laurelwood fire, another call came in. The strong winds that day had caused a high-power electrical line to snap in an all-too-familiar place: the dry fields off Mount Richmond Road. As bad as the Laurelwood fire might become, the danger at Mount Richmond was even greater. Chip Hoodenpyl was in the first engine to arrive at the Mount Richmond fire that day. “We turned the corner at Patton Valley and Mount Richmond roads,” Chip recalled years later, “And the flames were just rolling right at us, 20 feet high at least. We turned the engine around or they would have burned us up. The flames just rolled right up over the road and kept going. If you’ve never seen (a fire in a standing wheat field), trust me, you don’t want to.”

In 1977, Gaston had not yet been home to an official “conflagration,” or fire of such magnitude that the resources of the entire state are necessary to fight it. Yet either of these blazes had the potential to erupt into something much worse this hot August day.

Back in Laurelwood, the sharp S curves of Laurelwood Road created firebreaks on the north and west sides, so firefighters concentrated their efforts on blocking the spread to the east and south. Alarm after alarm was sounded until by the fourth alarm Gaston had been joined by crews from nearly every fire department in the county. After hours of work, crews knocked down the flames before they could climb the wooded hills to the south. One disaster had been averted, with the fire contained to about 20 acres.

The Mount Richmond fire was more problematical. Only the Tualatin River on the north created a natural firebreak, and the fire wasn’t moving in that direction. Instead it was moving toward the sun-dried hay fields and tinder-dry forests of the Coast Range. The worst case could see this fire spreading into the timberland to the west, which spreads unbroken for 50 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

The good news is that the Pacific Ocean is the world’s ultimate firebreak. The bad news is that this fact was tested and proven in a series of horrific forest fires in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, known collectively as the “Tillamook Burn.” The worst of those fires started just a few miles north of Mount Richmond along Gales Creek, near Forest Grove, and its spread was stopped only by heroic firefighting, eventual rain, and the saltwater of the Pacific.

No one fighting that Mount Richmond fire was thinking that it would spread to the ocean. Then again, as far as we know no one in the 1930s thought the Gales Creek fire would make it that far, either. The brutal summer of 1977 offered as good a chance as any for a repeat. The flames quickly devoured 50 acres, but fire crews called to this second four-alarm fire of the day managed to prevent a repeat of the Tillamook Burn. Honestly, most fires that look like they might develop into the next Tillamook Burn don’t. In fact, most don’t even develop into “conflagrations.” Neither of these fires did, but fighting two such blazes simultaneously is something few departments ever do. They left the volunteers exhausted and in need of rest.

Unfortunately in August 1977, rest was hard to come by, and the next day they were back out at the Mount Richmond fire a couple more times to douse rekindled hot spots. Just when it looked like the last of the hot spots was out, another call came in: A structure fire in Laurelwood. Not just any structure fire, either, but one of the biggest the Gaston area had seen in many years.

Laurelwood had been home to the Seventh-day Adventist Academy since 1904, nine years before Gaston Fire was formally established. The community has enjoyed a peaceful, almost idyllic history since then. The Academy is a sprawling complex of buildings including classrooms, a gymnasium and large boys and girls dormitories. In 1977 the complex also included a furniture factory, and a number of barns, shops and sheds to support the farming operation where students grew much of their own food.

In the smoldering dry summer of 1977, even the smallest spark could touch off an inferno, and that’s what happened one morning in one of the large shops on the Academy grounds. The fire spread quickly through the old wooden building and before Gaston’s crews could stop it, the flames leaped to an adjoining building. Fortunately for the firefighters, the Academy had an excellent water system of its own, plus two large ponds from which to draw if needed (although drawing from the ponds was often difficult because of the frogs and salamanders that clogged the filters of the engines’ pumps).

The ponds were not needed that day, but the school’s water system wasn’t enough to save the buildings. The fire first raged and then smoldered for hours, fueled by chemicals and supplies in the buildings and the searing heat of the August sun. No one was hurt, and firefighters managed to keep it from spreading to any additional buildings. They also prevented it from spreading into the dry fields and brush that surrounds the Academy and creeps up into the wooded Chehalem Mountains. The Academy adjoins the property on which the Lambert Lane fire raged just the day before, so firefighters were aware of the possible consequences. Once again Gaston dodged a bullet and avoided the first formal conflagration in the district’s history. But the month wasn’t over, and on August 12, just two days after crews prevented the Lambert Lane and Mount Richmond fires from becoming infernos and one day after the Laurelwood industrial blaze, Gaston Fire finally had its first official conflagration.

Like the other recent fires, this one started with a small spark. But like all wildland fires in August 1977, it spread quickly. The call came in from the Gerrish Valley area south of Gaston, which straddles the Yamhill Fire District, just on the other side of Mount Richmond from the 50-acre blaze in the Patton Valley two days before. This fire had even more potential for disaster because the Gerrish Valley rises on the west and north into dense forests that stretch nearly unbroken to the sea with even fewer firebreaks than on the Patton Valley side.

Because of the rugged terrain and poorly marked district boundaries, Gaston and Yamhill both had to fight the fire as if it was their own. Not that it mattered which side the fire was on, because in northwest Oregon every fire department relies on every other and boundaries are meaningless when lives and property are at stake. So the two districts worked side by side with crews from the Oregon Department of Forestry and furiously tried to knock down the blaze. Despite their exhaustion, they thought they had succeeded after flames had consumed about 70 acres.

Wildfires are unpredictable, however, so no one was ready to let down their guard. The crews frantically searched for hotspots, and crews from many other agencies continued to race to the scene as backup. Those additional crews were not responding in vain, because a small spark at the edge of the fire suddenly erupted into a fireball. Despite the effort of firefighters from every department in Washington and Yamhill counties, the fire was roaring again, and this time it didn’t want to go quietly. Before the day was over Gov. Bob Straub would make a formal declaration of “conflagration.” Soon the Washington and Yamhill county crews were joined by firefighters from departments throughout the state.

The Gaston volunteers fought the fire deep into the night before they finally were relieved by fresh firefighters from faraway departments. When the fire was out, commanders estimated that 700 acres in the Gaston, Yamhill and state forestry districts had been consumed. Days went by and surveyors on the ground and in the air revised the damage downward to 550 acres and made a startling discovery: the fire had raced right up to and along the Gaston Fire boundary but somehow never crossed into it, missing in spots by only several feet. Gaston’s firefighters were surprised to learn that despite the brutal battering they had taken, they once again had avoided being hosts to a formal conflagration.

Although it turns out the great Gerrish Valley Fire was not officially a Gaston Fire call, it remains the wildfire against which all others are measured to this day. More than 30 years later, the men who were there still talk about August 12, 1977, whenever the hot east winds of summer hit Gaston.

Yet in the immediate aftermath of the Gerrish Valley fire, the Gaston volunteers had little energy left to talk about anything. After working well into the night on the conflagration, all they wanted was a quiet Saturday at home with their families, but such was not to be, not in August 1977.

Just a couple of years earlier, Henry Hagg Lake had been formed in the northwest corner of the Gaston Fire district with the construction of Scoggins Dam. Although its primary purpose was irrigation, the lake quickly had become one of the primary water-recreation sites in the region, pulling in visitors at a rate Gaston had never experienced before, more than doubling the number of people in the district on a hot summer day. Saturday, August 13, 1977, was the coolest day in a week, but with a high of 95 the lake was packed with people fleeing the heat. Some of the Gaston volunteers would have liked to join them, but they were too exhausted.

But beaten and battered as they were, the volunteers found themselves at the lake that afternoon anyway, called out for one more emotional blow to the gut. A young man, about the age of most of the volunteers, had been out water skiing on the lake when he was hit, and killed, by a boat’s propeller. The call was one that still brings a lump to the throats of the men who responded that day with already ragged nerves. Firefighters grow accustomed to bodies, but never to collecting body parts.

Nor would there be any rest on Sunday, when they were called out several times to put out hot spots that re-ignited at some of the fires from the previous few days, all capping off a week that had been unlike any they had seen before. Those days had been what the Washington County News-Times famously headlined “The Week Washington County Burned.” In addition to the Gaston infernos, fires had swept across much of the rest of the area, and Gaston volunteers had pulled shifts on many of them.

Alfred Wells had one advantage that most of his fellow volunteers didn’t share. Because of the extreme fire danger, his logging business had been shut down, so at least he didn’t have to hold down a job in the midst of this literal firestorm. But he faced other stresses that afflict volunteer firefighters, including pressure at home. Wells recalls returning to the station in the midst of the string of infernos. “Big fight when the wife met me,” he recalls. “‘Are you trying to kill yourself? You haven’t been home for three lousy days! You get your butt in the car!’ Never seen her that excited. But I immediately went home and took a shower and went to bed.” He pauses and sighs as though his body still aches 35 years later. “Man, I was exhausted. We all were.”

Like the men, the equipment was taking a terrible beating in this summer of 1977. To make sure he had at least one piece of apparatus ready to roll, Hoodenpyl turned to an old friend: the department’s 1938 Ford pumper.

Over the decades, old Engine 1170 fought many of Gaston’s most notorious fires. In recent years, however, it had been used only for musters and other events. These days it was better known for carrying the department’s band, led by longtime volunteer and Gaston High School music teacher John Harris, in parades around the region. In August 1977, the old Ford once again became a working fire engine.

Hoodenpyl also had to be creative about manpower. With his volunteers pressed past the brink of exhaustion, he hired “two dependable high school boys” to stay at the station during the day to perform routine tasks … and even respond to minor calls in a pinch, giving the beleaguered regulars some small respite.

In August 1977, as now, there was a small core of volunteers who shouldered the bulk of the work, which involves much more than spraying water on fire. For example, between every call, firefighters have to clean and roll the hose they used. They have to clean, maintain and repair the trucks to keep them ready for the next call, which could come at any minute.

With more than 30 years of hindsight, the men who drove themselves to exhaustion in the broiling sun mostly shrug off the hardship. “I don’t really remember, but I was probably on most of those calls,” John Harris says. And Chip Hoodenpyl, who, among other things, pulled the 72-hour shift with Wells? “It’s what we do,” he says.

But the emotions come back to life as they dig deeper into their memories. Those emotions would be raw after such an ordeal under the best of circumstances, and August 1977 was anything but the best of circumstances. In fact, the nerves of the Gaston volunteers already had been shattered before the first blaze ignited, responding to a scene the likes of which even most big-city firefighters will never see. The Gerrish Valley Fire was a big story locally, but it didn’t receive nearly as much publicity as a call five days earlier. This call made blaring headlines nationally and remained a mystery for 18 years. It still is studied in criminal justice classes around the country. It was the first major call of the incredible month, and it was a call that would weigh heavily on the minds of firefighters as they fought the Lambert Lane and Laurelwood Academy fires.

The call came from a small house along Laurelwood Road, within sight of the Lambert Lane fire and directly across the street from the Academy blaze. It came in the early evening of Sunday, August 7, a warm and beautiful day. This was when the Seventh-day Adventist colony of Laurelwood was at its peak, so Saturdays were nearly silent as people observed their Sabbath. Activities picked up a little on Sundays, but excitement still consisted mostly of sitting on porch swings or roasting corn on the barbecue.

The call to emergency dispatchers was frantic and details were few when the pagers of volunteers went off around Gaston. A Metro West ambulance was in the area and responded. Ron Hoodenpyl was relaxing at his home after Sunday dinner and jumped into his department truck to respond. Hearing the sirens of the rapidly approaching ambulance he waited for it to pass his house, then raced to the scene a few miles away with the Metro West crew.

Gaston’s Rescue 11 was hot on their tail heading up Spring Hill and Laurelwood roads, carrying volunteers John Harris, Jim Prince and Ed Yates. Harris served with Gaston Fire for 30 years and was the band teacher at the high school. Ed Yates was just a year into what turned into a 30-year volunteer career. Yates was so new he wasn’t yet an EMT and really shouldn’t have been on the call, but he happened to be at the station when the call came in, so he jumped onboard with the veterans, Prince and Harris, to gain some experience. No one was prepared for what they were about to see that day.

Dispatchers had very few details. All they knew for sure was that a man was down, but the responding EMTs knew that even calls that sound serious often turn out to be minor when they arrive; for some callers the sight of blood – even a little blood – constitutes an emergency.

When Hoodenpyl and the two paramedics on the ambulance arrived together and ran to the door, they saw more than a little blood. The young woman who had called for help was crying. Moments earlier she had found the 24-year-old son of her boyfriend barely alive in a pool of blood. He had been shot by two men who burst into the house. His leg in a cast from a motorcycle accident a few days earlier, he was not the intended target, nor was he any match for the two burly intruders. Hoodenpyl and the paramedics could do nothing to save him and he died on the living room floor. The scene was horrific, and it was about to get much worse. Across the room lay the body of an attractive young woman named Margo Compton. She had been murdered execution style.

The people of Laurelwood didn’t know much about Margo. Unlike most of the residents who had lived in the valley for years, she was new to the area, fresh from the big city of San Francisco. She lived quietly with her twin 6-year-old daughters and the neighbors accepted her and didn’t ask questions about her past. As it turns out, that past included time in a prostitution ring run by a Bay Area motorcycle gang. After being arrested, she agreed to testify against members of the gang, and several ended up with prison sentences as a result. Margo moved to Oregon to build a new life. She wanted distance between herself and the gang, even though the gang’s leaders never intended to seek revenge for her testimony.

She might have lived happily with her daughters in sleepy little Laurelwood, except that two men, acting without orders, decided to track her down and kill her. On this hot, languid Sunday evening, they had succeeded. The gruesome scene made it obvious there was nothing the Gaston volunteers could do for either of the victims in the front room, and Hoodenpyl ordered everyone out of the house to wait for police and to avoid contaminating the crime scene.

There remained, however, the question of what happened to the twin girls. High school teacher and Gaston Fire band leader John Harris was the one to discover the answer to that question. He went back into the house and into the girls’ bedroom, where he lifted the comforter on their bed. He found them both shot to death. Shot to death, we learned later at trial, while their young mother was forced to watch. Volunteer firefighter John Harris didn’t see the girls die; his agony came a few minutes later, after the killers had fled the scene.

Gaston firefighters were helpless to do anything, and their direct involvement in the call ended quickly as detectives swarmed the house looking for clues. Those clues would lead to the killers, but not for 18 years. When the two men finally went on trial in 1995, the Bay Area gang broke with tradition and gave its members permission to testify against the suspects. That surprise move stunned the prosecution and made the trial a media sensation. Gaston and Laurelwood once again were thrust into the national spotlight for a Sunday way back in August 1977 that everyone just wanted to forget.

In the end, August 1977 was not the busiest month in Gaston Fire history, at least not in number of calls. That honor belongs to an August nearly 20 years later. In fact, after the terrible accident on Hagg Lake, things returned to normal quickly, and just three days later Gaston residents could take time with the rest of the nation to mourn the death of Elvis Presley. But within the span of one month – actually in a span of little more than one week – the volunteers of Gaston Fire and their newly salaried chief answered the call for five of the most difficult and memorable incidents in the department’s 100-year history.

I’m an Oregonian. You’re probably an alien …

The Portland Tribune recently asked people what it takes to be considered a real Oregonian.

The answers were intended to be (mostly) tongue-in-cheek, but also revealed a great divide, one that I have found myself in for the past eight years. You see, I have lived in Oregon for 32 years, the first 24 as a citizen of Portland before moving to an unincorporated rural area where the nearest stoplight or fast-food outlet is more than 10 miles away in any direction, and 60 miles if the direction happens to be west.

For those first 24 years, the answers those interviewed by the Tribune would have rung true. Here’s a sampling:

“When your mountain bike costs more than your Subaru Outback.”

When “You hide all your Styrofoam packing pellets from your neighbors.”

When “You find yourself salivating at the thought of kale chips.”

Shoot, 24 years into my Oregon residency, I might have added a few of my own, such as:

When you can identify, in a blind taste test, five local, microbrewed porters and give directions to at least three vegan restaurants.

When you have ridden both your road bike and mountain bike at least 20 miles in the past two weeks (bonus points if you have not driven your car in that time).

When you shop at the neighborhood food co-op several times a week and can honestly say that you have never been inside a Wal-Mart (or at least not since moving to Oregon).

After eight years in the land far, far away from red lights and prohibitions against junked pick-ups in the front yard, all of these examples have a glaring failure: They tend to identify only what makes one a true Oregonian … who happens to live in Portland, Eugene or Ashland.

Out here in Gaston, I’m surrounded by families that have lived in the town since before 1900, and most could say that they never have done any of the things on the Tribune’s list, nor on mine. And keep in mind that even Gaston would not be considered “rural” by many Oregonians, especially on the east side of the Cascades. Gaston is an easy drive from the nearest Trader Joe’s, tapas restaurant and Tae Bo salon; we’re purt near city slickers by the standards of many lifelong Oregonians.

In fact, all of the things that established me as a true Oregonian when I lived in Portland served only to mark me as a newcomer to the oldtimers here. I suspect that if you asked families that have lived in rural Oregon for generations what it takes to establish yourself as a “true Oregonian,” the list might look something like this:

When you complain about heavy traffic in the city, and you are referring to one of the following: Ontario, Lakeview, John Day, LaGrande, Burns, Cottage Grove or McMinnville.

When you can identify what steps you must take to make your AR15 (well, at least one of your AR15s) legal for deer hunting. By the way: You are immediately disqualified if you refer to an AR15 as an “assault rifle.”

When you understand directions when someone tells you to “turn right on the unmarked road just past the old Jones place,” even though no one named Jones has lived there since 1963.

When, in the past year, you have done each of the following at least once: Attended a rodeo; driven a stretch of at least 15 miles on a dirt road (bonus points if the road has only a Forest Service number); shot an elk; and cut down a tree using a Stihl chainsaw that you have rebuilt yourself.

Even these divergent visions of what it means to be an Oregonian fail to include many among us. Many poor white folks in Gresham, poor black folks in Albina, Hispanics in Cornelius or Native Americans tucked away on reservations couldn’t identify with any of the traits on either list. Ditto for many Land Rover owners in Lake Oswego. Start adding all those folks together and there are an awful lot of hardworking, taxpaying Oregonians who still fall through the cracks.

Of course, there are things that bind together all true Oregonians. Here are a few:

We all think the East Coast media and political elites ignore or patronize us.

We all, whether urban or rural, think lawmakers in Salem somehow are against us.

We all think that “Back East” includes such places as Billings, Boise and Denver, and that “East Coast” includes Minneapolis, St. Louis and Little Rock.

We all get along despite the fact that some of us can look at a map and differentiate between Indiana and Illinois, New Hampshire and Vermont, or Mississippi and Alabama, while some of us can’t. We get along because none of us cares.

We all secretly love some part of California, whether it’s the Redwoods or Hollywood, but none of us would ever admit it in public and each of us somehow manages to simultaneously harbor both a superiority and inferiority complex about our neighbors to the south. Weird, isn’t it?

Finally, we all get goosebumps when we see Mount Hood, Crater Lake or Cape Perpetua, whether we have lived here for five weeks or five generations, and whether we live in the Pearl District or on the Warm Springs Reservation. And that’s not weird at all …

It is, in fact, what makes us all true Oregonians.

Utica nightlife, circa 1974

Excerpt from ‘Wheels on the Bus.’ All rights reserved.

Read more at Patch.com

Up until that point I had had only one encounter with a prostitute, an “older” woman of about 35 back in Detroit. She had no interest in me, however.

I was hanging out in a bar near my parents’ home with a group of friends, playing pinball and pool and drinking pitchers of Stroh’s. This woman, who was not unattractive but who was old enough to be a friend’s mother, had latched on to, literally, one of my friends. She was drunk and hung on him, sometimes grabbing his crotch and sometimes whispering in his ear before trying to poke her tongue in it. Eventually my friend pulled me aside and asked if he could borrow my car because the woman had offered him oral sex for $5. Unable to think of anything that could go wrong with such an arrangement, I handed him the keys to my Camaro.

After a while a mutual friend came into the bar from the psychedelic head shop across the street. I loved that head shop, especially the black light room filled with glowing posters and clothing. I always planned to have such a room in my home when I got older. The head shop’s owner was kind of a creepy guy, but he shared his bong with us as long as we weren’t greedy; I had not heard “Bogart” used as a verb until one night when he scolded a friend for bogarting his bong.

Anyway, on this night the friend who had just left the head shop didn’t want to talk about bongs. He wanted to tell me that our mutual friend was in my Camaro in the parking lot and needed my help immediately. This mutual friend was laughing and told me “This is really fucked up!” What I found on this cold winter night was my friend hunched over in the passenger seat of my car, shivering without his pants.

He had no pants because the woman, after fulfilling her promise of a blow job, had grabbed his wallet and run off into the night. His wallet was still in his pants pocket, so now he had no pants, either. His story scared me as we sat in the dark, snowy parking lot, but it made him laugh. This is how he viewed the situation: He had just scored a free blow job. He had no money in his wallet and wasn’t sure how he was going to break that news to her; her theft of his pants had prevented the awkward conversation. We found his pants the next day, slashed to shreds.

His next book, “A Creek With No Name and other True Tales of Gaston, Oregon,” is due out later this summer.

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‘Wheels on the Bus’ honored at New York Book Festival

A Greyhound bus trip nearly 40 years ago was the inspiration for a Gaston author’s first novel, which won honorable mention this week at the New York Book Festival.

“Wheels on the Bus” is based on Ken Bilderback’s tumultuous 1974 solo coming-of-age journey through the era’s rapidly changing culture of sex, gender, drugs and racism.

Although based on a true story, Bilderback says “Many of the names and events have been changed to protect the innocent … and also because creeping senility prevents a precise retelling of these stories. The book really is about what we choose to remember from our youth and how we interpret those memories filtered through time.”

Bilderback and his wife, Kris, live in the Laurelwood area. Retired after 30 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, Bilderback spends his time volunteering for local organizations and raising a small flock of chickens.

His next book, “A Creek With No Name and other True Tales of Gaston, Oregon,” is due out later this summer.

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I’ll show you my Mardi Gras story if you show me yours …

I have been to Mardi Gras only once, as a skinny, scared 18-year-old. Here’s some of what I saw. I bet some of you have better Mardi Gras memories, so please share.

Wheels on the Bus

Wheels on the Bus

One group of scantily clad women with three-foot-high feather headdresses caught my attention, much as they would most 18-year-old boys. They were doing an impromptu snake dance along the street in broad daylight. Crowds on the street and balcony were yelling for them to “Show us your tits!”

I could not imagine anyone would do such a thing, yet I found myself watching, waiting for one of the dancers to oblige. None did, but I was so busy watching them that I failed at first to notice that several women in the gathering crowd were more than happy to. I was most amazed when a heavy-set middle-aged woman who looked like she could be on her way to the Presbyterian Church my mother went to lifted her blouse and shook her torso as her husband cheered her on.

Nothing in my life before me had prepared me for what I was seeing. Life in lower middle class Detroit just wasn’t like this.

– Excerpt from ‘Wheels on the Bus,’ available now digitally or in paperback. Copyright 2010 Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved.

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