My father, Boyd Cochrell, was the author of two published novels, The Barren Beaches of Hell (which appeared also in a British edition, and was translated into Italian and Swedish—as if with the express intent of messing up his income taxes, as he often complained), and Rage in the Wind (the money from which allowed him to marry my mother). They are about World War II, and Yellowstone Park, respectively, and tell part of the story of his life. The manuscripts of several other novels and short stories are stored under my own writing table in Los Altos, California.
He started this little memoir in response to something he’d read in The New Yorker—which he read cover-to-cover every week of his life from the war years on—and found inspirational. He was enthusiastic, keen, and eager to share—which he hadn’t always chosen to do with his unpublished fiction. He started it sometime after I’d finally landed a job in publishing (if only scholarly), long after his bitter tries to find gainful employment in New York, glamorous Manhattan, after the war, the South Pacific. So far from Weippe, Idaho, where he had started out. And far too from where he wound up in the end, exotic Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I was born in Weippe, Idaho, and consequently spent a great deal of my life trying to escape the fact.
Of course it can’t be done. For the rest of your days you carry that natal connection around like a belly button. You cover it up and ignore it more often than not, but still it is there—indelibly indented and collecting lint, if nothing else.
I don’t even know what to call Weippe. Town seems a bit grand, and village is not a word much used in America. Podunk, cow town, or one-horse town just sound flip without explaining anything about central Idaho. Farming community might do, yet that strikes me as too tidy. In my memory Weippe sort of sprawls between grain fields and timber stands. Farming was big, but logging was nothing to sneeze at.
My mother was furious when she learned, late in her life and near the middle of mine, that my official Idaho birth certificate has me born alive at 11 a.m. on September 4, 1920, in the County of Clearwater, City of Fraser.
“That silly doctor!” she said. He was from Orofino, the county seat. “I know where you were born. I was there. You were delivered in Grandpa Billy’s upstairs bedroom right smack in Weippe, not Fraser.”
“It doesn’t really matter, mom.”
“It does matter.” Mother was a stickler for truth and wasn’t going to settle for an inferior location on the Lolo Prairie. To her it was like confusing Reno with Las Vegas. She was always rather a chauvinist when it came to Weippe, and I am sure she never understood my later adolescent antipathy for the place. “Dr. Horswill’s nurse must have goofed when she filled out the form in Orofino, but it has to be corrected.”
“What difference would it make to the passport people?” I said.
“The difference between false and true.”
“She told me in no uncertain terms about the viable heart of the prairie and a semi-defunct outlying area no longer shown on maps, yet my passport lists my birthplace only as Idaho, U.S.A. As far as I am concerned, the damage was done the moment I showed up anywhere in this state.
To most Americans, Idaho evokes an essence of hicks and sticks. Maybe some of its citizens made a splash, like Ezra Pound and Vardis Fisher and Lana Turner, but backwoods and log cabins and potatoes—spuds—are what the majority of outsiders identify with Idaho. Everybody in the U.S. tends to ask where you are from because nobody stays put. As soon as you say Idaho, they look surprised, then slyly amused as if you had suddenly sprouted hayseeds from your ears and admitted genetic affinity to the Jukes and Kallikaks. If you want a sure-fire boff, just tell them you were born in Weippe, Idaho.
The name brings out a kind of Freudian scatological infantilism in generally normal adults, causing them to giggle like kids at wee wee and pee pee—yipe yipe! I thought mature urbanites were more sophisticated than that, but I have unintentionally cracked up whole dinner parties just by saying I was born in Weippe, Idaho. In high school and college I discovered the difficulty and pleasure of getting a good guffaw from a theatre audience, yet I am invariably disconcerted by the guffaw that results from a straightforward recital of this simple vital statistic.
Naturally I avoid like the plague ever mentioning the name of mother’s attending physician. Dr. Horswill would further confound the issue by giving wiseacres fuel for corny jokes and jollities about horse pills and veterinarians. Poor man. At that time he was probably the only M.D. in Clearwater County, aside from the staff of the State Insane Asylum on the outskirts of Orofino.
Weippe is apparently a Nez Perce Indian word for the fertile flat meadow or prairie at the foot of the Bitterroot Range separating Idaho from Montana. When Lewis and Clark crossed the Bitterroots in 1805 and camped the Weippe area, there was no Idaho or Montana, and the Indians were ambivalent about the expedition, although they eventually sped it on its way down the Clearwater River to the Snake and Columbia and Pacific Ocean. Nezz Purse is the universal Idaho pronunciation of what early French trappers dubbed those Indians, just as Ponder Ray is the local pronunciation of Pend Oreille, that big lake further up the Panhandle and once correctly spelled Pend d’Oreille. Idaho names are an odd mixture of Indian, French, Spanish, and assorted strains. The university is at Moscow, and that rhymes with know—never never with cow.
On their way back to civilization in 1806, Lewis and Clark again spent considerable time at Weippe. This was in June, but they had to wait for snow to melt in the Bitterroots. In 1877 the Nez Perce Indians went to war with the United States, and Chief Joseph retreated to Weippe after the battle of Stites and before deciding to seek help in Montana by heading over the Bitterroots on the same Lolo Trail used, with Indian help, by the first white expedition. General Howard followed him to Weippe, then my birthplace pretty well drops out of the historic mainstream into the backwater realm of such other Gem State locales as Burley and Filer and Kooskia and Kamiah and Culdesac and Hope and East Hope and Beyond Hope.
As a child I was endlessly entertained and educated by Weippe. It offered a wealth of relatives, flora, fauna, and strange activities that would fascinate any inquisitive kid.
The center of town was a crossroad, from which Weippe quickly petered out in all directions. At the four corners of this hub stood a general store, a dilapidated garage that must originally have been a blacksmith shop, a community hall for dances and potluck suppers, and a meat market. These four buildings meant Downtown to me, yet I know there were schools, a post office, a barber shop, and by the nature of things a bar or two, since farm hands and lumberjacks are prone to whooping it up on Saturday night. No one at that period ever explained or demonstrated saloons and taverns to me. I discovered them much later on my own initiative.
As you arrived in Weippe from the west, the road straight ahead led to a dark line of trees and a few farms beyond. To the left ran the road to Pierce and Headquarters, where mining and logging were mainstays. The “street” to the right went through the block of residential district, crossing a plank bridge above a muddy creek before coming to Grandpa Billy’s house, then sort of dead-ending in another patch of weeds. While exploring the neighborhood I always stayed clear of the woods, because I had been taught from the first that little boys easily got lost in them.
There was no electricity on the prairie in those days, and my earliest memory of Christmas is lit by real candles carefully set on the decorated boughs of a fir tree that had inexplicably appeared near the glassy-eyed moose head in the living room of the house where I was born. No doubt Santa Claus left presents too, probably more utilitarian than frivolous although I certainly did have a teddy bear and marbles and tin toys, but as a matter of fact I don’t remember any specific Christmas present during my whole childhood. What lingers are the special effects, the mise en scène, the seasonal production of a dramatic homemade spectacle in the weird world of kindly governing grownups who once a year brought a tree inside and hung it with shiny ornaments, tinsel, popcorn chains, and lights. This interested me far more than any physical souvenir of the occasion, and there were never any religious frills. If there was a church in Weippe, I was never taken into it. To my wife’s continuing dismay, I remain unbaptized.
On ordinary Weippe nights, kerosene lamps and lanterns threw fantastic shadows when people moved with them, either indoors or outside going to the barn or privy. Wicks had to be trimmed with scissors so they wouldn’t smoke up the glass chimneys. Brighter light came from gasoline Coleman lamps with flowery painted shades and delicate white mantles that sometimes broke into ash and had to be replaced by funny cloth sacks that were set afire and burned black before they inflated to the proper mantle shape and glowed with a steady hissing white light. Filling lamps was a daily chore, and I couldn’t understand why my cousins, aunts, and uncles weren’t as engrossed by these rural maintenance procedures as I was. At airports today a whiff of kerosene from jets can remind me of Weippe.
Telephones hooked onto one grand party line running from a central switchboard to the end of the line. Each station had an identifying combination of long and short rings. A favorite pastime of my relatives, especially out in the more bucolic Fraser region, was listening in on everybody else’s calls just in case there was an emergency or a juicy kernel of gossip. Many years afterward, when I worked on a fire lookout in Yellowstone National Park, I was guilty of doing the same thing. If too many listeners got on the line, there wasn’t enough power for parties concerned to hear one another. Eavesdroppers had to chicken out and hang up, sometimes after being bluntly told to.
Early on I became familiar with gardens. I knew which low clusters of leaves hid ripe strawberries. I knew what grew in the ground beneath the fuzzy tops of carrots, the short sparse leaves of radishes, the heavier red-veined leaves of beets, and the taller coarser leaves of potatoes. I knew that pickles came from crawling cucumber plants, tomatoes from taller ones, and corn from the tallest of all. Onions were no problem; the smell and spiky tops gave them away. I knew that sweet peas were flowers and green peas vegetables, and the latter required a lot of shelling at canning time; splitting the pods, running your finger down the full side to loosen individual peas, then throwing the pods into the aproned laps of the ladies and the peas into a kettle. I even knew how to walk properly between rows in a very young garden without tromping the sprouts, and how to weed without pulling up something that would become lettuce or cabbage.
Animals were messier than gardens, and you had to be careful not to step in droppings, particularly cow dung, even after it first formed a crust. I don’t remember ever not being able to identify an animal by its dung; the gray and white splats of chickens, the black pellets of sheep and goats and rabbits, the brown road apples of horses—which were even common in the streets of real towns—and of course the great sloppy pies of cows. Each had a distinctive odor, and pigs were the worst, although the smell was tolerable because slopping the pigs created the most exciting commotion in the entire barnyard. Kids could not participate but were allowed to watch from a safe distance as pails of slop were emptied through the fence into troughs. Shoving and squealing and snorting grew violent and scary inside the pigpen before it settled down to contented grunts and liquid snuffling and slurping by those ugly snouts in that awful swill hogs thrive on: potato peels, kitchen garbage, disgusting stuff.
Chicken smells too could be overwhelming in a hot summer henhouse as you gathered eggs from straw-lined boxes where they were mysteriously manufactured by obliging poultry in a bleak shed with besplattered floors and roosts. I preferred feeding the chickens outside, scattering handfuls of hard wheat from a tin can and warily watching the frantic pecking and clucking as the stupid critters surged after each toss of grain. I felt no pity when old hens had their necks wrung or their heads chopped off on the chopping block in the woodshed, their dead bodies twitching on the ground afterwards, then dunked in hot water and plucked for the pot. I didn’t much like the tedious job of pulling off feathers, but I enjoyed watching the naked carcass hung by its feet from somebody’s hand and singed over burning newspaper to remove its remaining fuzz. Best of all was eating them, after hours of boiling, with noodles or dumplings. We seldom ate fryers; a full and useful life came first on the farm.
Milking time was good too, with cows chewing placidly except for tails lashing at flies or a rear hoof stomping in irritation at a heavy hand, while milk rang in steady streams on the bottom of an empty pail. The tune changed as the pail filled, growing softer and mushier as the output accumulated. Another primary memory is of Grandpa Billy seated on a stool at a full udder and asking me to open my mouth. He turned a long tit in my direction and squirted a skilful stream of warm milk into my face. Some of it may have hit my mouth, but mother was not happy about the mess it made of my hair and clothes, even though grandpa and I were quite proud of the demonstration.
My first horseback ride was probably with my father. I remember sitting in front of his saddle and riding along a fence until we met a friend he had not seen in years. Dad got off and held the reins while I sat alone as they shook hands, talked about my appearance in the world, dad’s work with the Forest Service, and whatever the other guy had been doing.
Memories are strangely selective. I have no idea why this quiet scene sticks in my mind as vividly as more dramatic episodes such as candles on a Christmas tree and grandpa with the milk, but there it is. I don’t know where that ride began or ended, yet I remember waiting patiently and motionlessly in the sun high on a brown horse above the two men, because I had been warned not to move and spook the animal. Dad had been coaching me all along about the whims of horses and how they were safely controlled by mere men. I seem to have been lucky in my parents. They coached me to the best of their ability whenever I showed an interest in learning.
My relationship with Grandpa Billy and Grandma Ada, since I was their first grandchild and they occupied a longer period in my life, was closer than that with my other grandparents, who already had five or six grandkids before me. I was no novelty, and they were dead before I reached any shred of maturity. But I do have a single, sharp memory of dad’s mother.
Grandma Cochrell had only one arm. She lost the other after being thrown from a horse years before, maybe in Nebraska where dad was born. At any rate one-armed is the way I knew her, and since the rest of the family took it for granted, so did I. That may be, however, why dad personally supervised my horse training, although I never became a dedicated rider.
Grandpa Cochrell’s farm was a few miles west of Weippe, in the Fraser country. It was surrounded by grain fields and possessed an enormous barn with a hay fork on a pulley and mud nests of swallows under the eaves. We practiced rock throwing at these tempting nests. The barn was the best place on the whole prairie to play, full of fascinating stalls and harness rooms and lofts for jumping into the hay. Between house and barn stood a cellar holding ice cut from winter ponds and stored in sawdust for summer cooling, a granary, a tool shed, and a wonderful outdoor washstand with basins and buckets and communal towels and gritty black lava soap with a great tar smell. There was also, of course, a privy and a large pump.
Pumps intrigued me. I liked moving the handle up and down, listening to water gurgle as it rose in the pipe, and finally bringing forth a sporadic flow of water from its iron spigot. Grandpa Cochrell’s pump had a noisy gas motor for filling horse troughs and barrels, yet it also worked by hand. It came up through the middle of a wooden covering over the well. These boards seemed sturdy enough for my meager weight, and while I understood that wells run dry and you don’t waste water, I liked to hang onto the pump’s upright and stomp around in a circle on the boards, making a hollow sound and bouncing slightly.
Again, I don’t know how the scene began, but I do know how this one ended. I was stomping round and round on the weathered cover, enjoying its bounce, while my mother and Grandma Cochrell talked together nearby.
“Don’t play on the well,” grandma called to me.
“Why?” I asked, pausing long enough to get an answer.
“Because it isn’t safe,” she said. “And I don’t want you to.”
My mother stayed out of it, or I might have obeyed. But I sized up Grandma Cochrell and decided that with only one arm she posed no threat. I deliberately defied her and once more began circling the pump with heavy stomps on the well covering. When she started toward me, I ran. She caught me, clamped me expertly under the stump of her missing arm, and spanked me as smartly as I have ever been spanked.
My very own mother let her punish me and afterwards told me I deserved exactly what I got. It taught me never to underestimate a potential adversary, and that parents are not the only authorities you must bow to in this world. I later heard that grandma still shoed horses alone too.
* * *
My parents were the first of their families to break with farming. That is how I began to be weaned from Weippe.
As dad worked his way up in the Forest Service, we became more or less permanent residents of Orofino. One summer the three of us lived on Cook Mountain as fire guards, and there is a picture of my young mother poised straight and tall in pants on top of the lookout tower like a high diver preparing for a swan dive into a thin layer of alpine grass below. From that same summer there is also a picture of me in a snow suit and stocking cap, grinning at the camera from a blanket of snow at the foot of alpine firs. After my brother and sister were born, the five of us spent another summer at the Bungalow Ranger Station on the North Fork of the Clearwater River, a fast shallow stream full of trout. I was able to catch little fish all by myself and unhook them in a pool dug on the stream bank, until the cranky camp cook came along and spoiled my fun by kicking a hole in my pool and turning the fish loose. Yet gradually Orofino became our real home.
Orofino was not only the county seat and Clearwater Forest headquarters, but also boasted electricity, running water, a train depot, several blocks of genuine downtown, a hotel, restaurant, offices, bank, fire department, as well as the outlying State Insane Asylum. Dr. Horswill delivered my brother and sister one May while I spent a lonely puzzled period as a temporary orphan with helpful yet inadequate neighbors. The twins eventually came home in a big baby-blanketed basket like puppies, which attracted more attention than I thought justified, since they were nothing I could drag around on a string or take apart or rassle with. They seemed to require an inordinate amount of care and feeding.
After that we all became more town than country, and Weippe turned into a place we usually visited with mother while dad was out in the woods. Throughout our childhood, dad spent most of his summers in the woods, as we designated his many field trips afoot and on horseback, especially during fire season, to the camps and ranger stations of his district. We did not yet own a car, but there was a stage from Orofino to Weippe. In those days it was still called a stage rather than a bus, and when mom could no longer tolerate being cooped up with three semi-fatherless kids she would pack us all up and head for Weippe. Perhaps it was to save rent money, since we went back to a different house every fall.
The rivers of central Idaho cut deep through soft plateaus, and to get anywhere you have to go down steep grades on one side of the river, cross over, then go up a steep grade on the other side. Before paved roads became prevalent and gearshifts automated, it was a slow, tedious, dusty, and dangerous process driving up and down those grades. Guard rails and other refinements came later. Getting there was the whole goal, no matter how sharp the curves or how abrupt the inclines.
Orofino sat on the river bottom, so we had only two bridges to cross and one grade to climb on the way to Weippe. The Green Grade started after you crossed the second bridge, crossed the train tracks, and passed two or three buildings that were Greer townsite. The stage shifted into low gear and ground slowly upward, around hairpin bends and in a cloud of dust if another car got ahead. It was too poky to be exciting, and I had no fear of heights on looking down, but during one of those earliest trips I suddenly realized I would wet my pants if we didn’t stop soon.
“Mama, I have to piddle.”
“Can’t you wait?” she asked with surprising exasperation.
“We’ve just started up the hill.”
“Can’t we stop?”
“Are you sure you can’t wait?”
“I’m sure I can’t.”
“Then go ask the driver if he’ll stop for a minute.”
I did, and the driver scowled like the cranky cook at the Bungalow. There was a large difference, I was discovering, between people who thought little boys were cute and people who didn’t. I couldn’t quite grasp the pattern, and I certainly couldn’t avoid being a little boy.
“Can’t you wait?” the driver asked gruffly.
“Then hold on till I find a place.”
The road had no turnoffs. The best he could do was find a fairly straight stretch where anyone would see him in time to avoid a collision. Fortunately traffic was light.
“Well hurry up,” he told me.
I got off, took a leak by the front fender, and climbed back aboard.
The other passengers all stared straight ahead. When I got to my seat, mother too stared straight ahead. The stage ground into gear and inched upward. Finally mother collected herself enough to lean over and whisper an enduring piece of advice.
“Next time you have to do a thing like that, go around in back where everyone won’t have to watch you.”
I never forgot this simple axiom, even though occasions for using it seldom recurred. However, I still tend to judge jetliner design by it; the planes with toilets in the rear seem to me more sensible than the ones with toilets forward.
* * *
Summer activity in Weippe got hectic. Planting, butchering, canning, haying, harvesting, milking, churning left no lulls. Farming then was a family business, not an agribusiness, even if hired hands had to be found at peak season for special tasks. Combines and thrashing machines were rented when needed. Families traded labor as crops came in, or traded crops and produce for labor. They watched the weather and worked around it. Everyone had a constant share of chores.
Mother moved us from place to place to help out at critical times; from Grandpa Billy’s to Grandpa Cochrell’s to Uncle Roy’s, wherever she could lend a hand with cooking or canning. Thrashing and haying crews had to be fed, spoilable produce had to be canned when ready. No doubt I was underfoot much of the time, because I had to stick my nose in everything. If the work was too difficult or too boring, my restless curiosity led me off in search of a better bustle.
It was hot in the kitchen, it was hot in the sun, but heat and flies and mosquitoes were just the price of summer. Carrying in split wood for the endless cooking and canning was a chore I could handle and had to do, yet it was no fun since it went on and on, summer or winter, even at home. I preferred to pump water, though a day’s needs exceeded my willingness or strength. I liked to turn the milk separator and watch cream come out one spout and skim milk out another. I liked to churn and gather eggs and feed the hens, but in the end I never stuck to one chore until it was finished. That way lay tedium.
In those days mechanized horsepower still had not knocked real horses entirely out of commission. Teams and wagons did all the heavy hauling, and I rode along any time anyone would let me. Once Grandpa Billy took me far out in the country to remove a dead horse from a field of his. The long, slow, bumpy drive through woods and open country did not faze me, but the stinking dead horse in a vicious swarm of flies gave me the willies. I stayed in the wagon while grandpa and another man unhitched the team and dragged the gruesome carcass away. I felt scared alone and had little to say on the hot, dusty drive back to town.
During haying and thrashing at Grandpa Cochrell’s, I could sometimes wangle rides with a friendly driver hauling hay to the barn or sheaves of grain to the thrashing machine. The biggest treat of any trip was being allowed to hold the reins for a minute. No one trusted me very often.
New-mown hay lay as it fell on the ground till dry, then was raked into stacks, and finally hauled to the barn where the big fork lifted it inside and dumped it when the trip-rope was yanked. The combine that mowed ripe grain and spit it out in tied sheaves was followed by men with pitchforks who shocked the sheaves for curing. As I grew older, my sweaty farm cousins loved to hand me a pitchfork so I could help, then laugh and wink when my strength gave out and I proved hopelessly inadequate to the job. By the time I made my last visit to the prairie, I did work along with them for short periods, but I never matched their endurance. It was backbreaking and exactly what by then I did not intend to spend my life doing. I understood perfectly why my dad had opted out.
The peak of activity on the prairie was thrashing. The machine that did it was a crazy Rube Goldberg contraption with great flapping belts moved by a rackety gasoline engine. Sheaves went in one end, chaff flew, and wheat or oats poured out of a spout at the other end into gunny sacks that, when filled, were sewn shut with heavy twine on a big needle. I liked to get right up to the spout and stick my hands under the flowing grain, but the men in charge were much too busy changing sacks without losing grain to let me hang around for long. By mealtime thrashers were gray with chaff dust and exhausted. The women fed them in relays, kids ate leftovers, then the afternoon shift worked on until suppertime.
When supper dishes had been washed, the wood supply replenished for any early breakfast, the pigs slopped, the cows milked, lamps filled, and things finally wound down, nobody had much energy left for socializing. The kids were sent off to bed upstairs. At Grandpa Cochrell’s house a stuffed swan stood guard at the head of the stairs, sort of spooky in the shadows. We slept as many to a bed as could be squeezed in, and we slept the sound sleep of the truly bushed.
As a preschooler, I believed this was a dandy life. The more I went to school, the less enchanting it seemed. By the time the 1960’s rolled around and hippies were starting farm communes and suburbanites were longing to return to the soil, I thought they were all out of their gourds.
I started the first grade in Orofino, Idaho, switched to Libby, Montana, and ended that first year of school in Newport, Washington. All this Forest Service transferring delighted me. I got to ride trains, had new houses to explore, and had lived in three separate and distinct states of the Union in a very short lifetime. My horizons expanded perceptibly.
School suited me to a T, wherever we were. They even gave you time off to go outside and play on swings and teeter-totters, a period called recess, which struck me as gilding the lily. They had a limitless supply of chalk and paste and colored papers, whereas at home I had to make my own paste with flour and water and use old wallpaper catalogues for fancy paper. I learned to read and write and count and kept occupied most of the day. I didn’t have to waste time inventing my own games or scouring the neighborhood in search of someone to play with.
Newport sat just across the Pend Oreille River from Idaho, where the river swung north and flowed into Canada before joining the Columbia. It was a more open town than Libby, which forests nearly smothered, or Orofino, which lay between hills that almost squashed it. We were never allowed to go near the deep and dangerous river, but Diamond Lake was close by—a nice, tame, shallow, little lake where we all learned to swim Newport had three or four blocks of business district, a noon siren, several churches, a creamery, an extinct opera house, a part-time movie theatre, and a train depot.
Strangely enough, you could walk across the railroad tracks into Idaho again. I often looked for a line on the ground dividing Idaho from Washington. If maps showed a line, why couldn’t you see it on the ground? I finally decided that the ability to spot a distinct division between states must be another mysterious development that came with age, like losing your baby teeth or growing hair on your chest. I was already losing baby teeth and hadn’t acquired the ability, so I would have to wait for a hairy chest.
The few buildings on the Idaho side of the tracks were called Old Town. The best part of Old Town was a modest hill for sledding in the winter, probably a former logging chute. It was a straight cut through heavy woods, and I didn’t like being there after dark, even with a big bonfire burning in a puddle of melted snow at the foot of the run.
As a matter of fact, aside from those trips across the tracks to go sliding, Newport winters left no impression on me. We lived only two blocks from school, and I have no memories of mushing through snow to get there Newport now seems wholly spring and summer. I remember its green lawns, daffodils and peonies and bleeding hearts in bloom, weeping willows in some yards, maple and cottonwoods along the curbs, and wild flowers everywhere in areas lightly wooded with ponderosa pine at the Washington edge of town.
I suddenly became conscious of flowers, of something more esthetic than dung and vegetables and barnyard animals. It may have started with bleeding hearts. They could be manipulated and taken apart to form a series of tiny different objects more fun to play with than cutouts from catalogues. Then I discovered shooting stars and lambs tongues in the manageable woods at the end of our street, and found that I could pick a fistful without being accused of snitching them from someone’s garden. Mom admired them, named the, and put them in a glass of water on the table, so I widened my search and eventually found scarcer wood lilies and lady-slippers and learned to get them home before they wilted.
Dozens of lilac bushes grew along the front and sides of a big white boardinghouse overlooking the depot. While they bloomed the air had a lilac tang that attracted hundreds of swallowtail butterflies. Each spring the high-school biology class collected butterflies on assignment, and their activity seemed better than roller-skating or pulling the twins around in a wagon. I scrounged a jar and wad of cotton from mother, persuaded the druggist to splash some ether on the cotton, and collected butterflies that I had no idea what to do with afterwards. They were pretty, even if my interest in entomology never really matured. I didn’t like their innards or larvae and caterpillar relatives—nor most of the insect world: spiders, beetles, mosquitoes, flies, stink bugs, and wood ticks.
As well as swings and teeter-totters and slides, the school grounds also offered two tennis courts. By shagging balls knocked over the fence, I wheedled some of the older students into lending me a racket from time to time during the summer and teaching me the rudiments of the game. I borrowed rackets until my parents finally gave me one of my own, and tennis remained my favorite sport outside of swimming. I learned to ride a bicycle by persistently hanging around kids who owned one and nagging for rides until they broke down and grudgingly showed me how it was done, but I never owned a bike until we moved again.
I earned my first real money delivering telegrams for Johnny at the train depot. They came in by clickety-clack of Morse code on a brass ticker in the ticket office, Johnny typed them out on an old upright, and one day on my random rounds of the town I stopped in to use the bathroom or get a drink of water when he badly needed to have an important message delivered. He gave me a nickel, told me exactly where to take it, and I felt like the luckiest kid in Newport. I made my delivery, then raced for the candy store. In front of the glass display case, I agonized for fifteen or twenty minutes trying to decide which 5-cent candy bar I wanted worst—Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, or Idaho Spud. Any of them was a rare treat.
From then on I checked the depot every afternoon for windfall nickels. I liked the smell of soot and stale spittoons in the waiting room anyway, and incoming trains were always an event. Johnny handed up messages to engineers or brakemen on flimsy green paper stuck in a wooden loop that hooked over their arms. If the train stopped, men unloaded milk cans for the creamery in a great clatter at the baggage car, and once in a while a passenger got on or off. If I hung around too long, Johnny sometimes gave me a nickel just to get rid of me.
When a small circus or tent show came to town, all the kids offered to work for a ticket or two. Only the older ones ever succeeded, but once or twice I delivered fliers from house to house, then was disappointed to find that I only had a pass for a revival meeting or medicine show that wasn’t worth the effort. I did see “Liza Crossing the Ice” at some sort of minstrel show combined with scenes from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but mom took me to that on a paid ticket, and it was rather shabby.
Mr. Olson lived across the street from us, and he was good about letting us hitch rides on his dray wagon still pulled by a team of horses. Every day he delivered groceries from the stores and ice from the creamery for the iceboxes used in most homes, and you could get ice chips to suck when he chopped the big hunks into smaller ones. One day I got careless and jumped off while he was backing up to a high porch. I got caught between the porch and the wagon, and those horses were strong Fortunately Mr. Olson looked around to see why he wasn’t moving, or I would have been crushed. As it was, we were all scared, I got thoroughly scolded at home, and I still have a scar on my hip where the skin was torn.
Puberty and adolescence overtook me in Sandpoint, Idaho. It was as good a place as any, perhaps better than most.
In those days we had few sex manuals available and nothing as comprehensive as Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask. Playboy and Hustler hadn’t been invented yet, and the pornography that came our way was pretty tame by today’s standards. Esquire and Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang were the most erotic items on the newsstands, more titillating than enlightening in surreptitious perusal at the shelves when the clerk was busy elsewhere. The Petty girls in Esquire were our ideals, and Captain Billy’s semi-dirty cartoons and jokes gave us a good snicker. Other than that we depended largely on hearsay to help us muddle through.
There were plenty of dogs copulating in the streets, since no one could afford spaying, and of course the basic sperm and egg process had been explained to me. We could see thousands of condoms floating down the river any time we wandered near Sandpoint’s sewage disposal plant, where raw sewage was pumped into the river at the edge of town below the long wagon bridge. We understood the prevalence of sex, but not its personal implications.
The mechanics and biology are fairly straightforward and inevitable. It’s the rules and regulations and booby traps that throw the curves. The joy of sex is apparent to everyone from the first orgasm on, but that doesn’t take care of the emotional social, economic, and medical ramifications. You can talk till hell freezes over, yet all kinds of surprises pop up along the way.
My overriding ambition at that point was to grow up, learn everything, and get the hell out of North Idaho.
I didn’t know how to achieve any of that, but I figured the sheer passage of time would accomplish growing up. I figured there was a magic line you crossed—for me it might be September 4, 1940 or 1941 or soon thereafter—when suddenly all gaps in knowledge were filled in and all patterns of behavior became perfectly clear. Then you were handed a job at which you worked from eight to five, and after five you lived it up without having to go to bed early or miss any of the delights and wonderful experiences enjoyed by all adults, in a fabulous location far from Idaho.
Not that I really hated Idaho; just that it was known, familiar, mundane. The grass was obviously greener elsewhere. Wine, women, and song belonged exclusively to Vienna. Paris seemed the overwhelming choice of brilliant expatriates. Only Manhattan in America claimed ultimate sophistication. Idaho was simply an obscure province to be blissfully abandoned.
I had not the foggiest idea what it meant to prepare for a career. The only careers I knew were farming, forestry, and teaching. Lawyers and doctors and businessmen might be necessary to the world but were beyond my comprehension or competence. I was lousy at sports, being near-sighted and ludicrously uncoordinated. I couldn’t carry a tune and had learned to play the piano merely by muscular rote and mother’s insistence. What possible career was open to me? I got good grades, but where did that lead?
I decided to start with the public library, two small and manageable rooms upstairs at city hall. Encyclopedias and that sort of thing were intimidating, so I started with fiction. There were two stacks full of novels, and I intended to read them straight through. For some reason, probably because there were fewer authors for each letter, I chose to begin with Z and work backward through the alphabet.
The Case of Sergeant Grischa by Arnold Zweig came first. It was heavy sledding. Nothing in my orderly existence prepared me for a Russian prisoner held by Germans during World War I, the intricacy of his escape with the help of a woman named Babka, and the moral questions raised by his finally being shot as a deserter. It was sensational, all right, yet more morbid and gloomy than anything I believed humanly possible. My dad had been in World War I, but he had reported no experiences of this sort.
Then came Emile Zola’s The Downfall. Another war involving Frenchmen and Prussians, something about peasants and people of higher rank, more prison camps and escapes, illegitimate children, and numerous ironic deaths. Hard-core Naturalism, perhaps, but did it have anything to do with the adulthood I longed for?
Next came Children of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill. I honestly did not know what a Jew was, let alone a ghetto. I had probably seen a Negro once on a train, I had heard about our Civil War and freeing the slaves, but other than that matters of race were beyond my comprehension. Zangwill’s preoccupation with Jewish religious customs and problems defeated me, since I barely realized how Catholics and Protestants differed, or why the various Protestant sects existed.
I quietly abandoned my project of taking books in alphabetic order and selected more contemporary stuff with wider margins, shorter paragraphs, and easier dialogue. This led to S.S. VanDine, Earl Derr Biggers, and eventually the best of them all, Thorne Smith. His sexy capers wonderfully illustrated by Herbert Roese exactly fit my idea of the liberated light-hearted world lying beyond Idaho and this side of Russia and Prussia.
The farthest I ever got from Weippe was New Zealand. It was like coming full circle, right back where I started.
We sailed aboard the USS President Polk, and it took us thirty days and thirty nights of tedious zigzagging across the blue Pacific. I was with a replacement battalion of U.S. Marines for a regiment of Guadalcanal veterans. Tolstoy was correct: “War is not a polite recreation, but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war.” I did not fully understand on that converted luxury liner, although I had serious inklings that unpleasantness lay ahead.
We landed at Wellington, after one stop at Noumea in New Caledonia. Noumea was tropical and exotic, yet hardly fulfilling any romantic dream of what young warriors hope to encounter on the way to distant battles. I wandered through the town expecting momentarily to see Mata Hari beckoning from a balcony or Dorothy Lamour step from the jungle in a sarong, but the only memorable sight was a little carousel in a clearing and a brief conversation in French with a very plain girl working at a soda fountain downtown. This was not really big-time foreign adventure.
Wellington looked lovely against green hills as we approached through the bay. Once ashore it proved as provincial as Spokane—old brick buildings, trolleys, nothing at all exotic.
Paekakariki was worse.
. . .
But we’ll never know why.
He never wrote more, never got back to Weippe, though he’d been so excited to begin it. He picked it up again over the years, but crossed things out, lost interest, gave up not just on this project but on writing altogether. All but his wonderful (colorful, witty) weekly letters. He told me when I asked that writing had become too hard. That every word took so much time. When—I’m thinking now, though not sure he said it—there wasn’t time to spend. Maybe he would have finished it when he retired, written again. But he never retired. Never read many of the books he’d collected, put aside for that time.
There are a few further handwritten notes in margins, at the bottom of a crossed-out page. Little glimpses, thoughts. A box of childhood treasures found in some forgotten cubby-hole.
Some peopls must know from the beginning where they are going. Doctors must. Mathematicians and musicians must. Money-makers must. I had no idea where I was headed. I only knew it was away from where I had been.
a dandy creek
culverts – lead slugs
dogtooth violet or glacier lily
Airshow in Spokane
Dinky trip at Christmas
[other sections, apparently]
Cosmopolitan as we were becoming—school, trains, music lessons, trips to Spokane, living in three states—mother remained loyal to Weippe. We went every summer for two or three weeks or a month.
“Why this?” Bill asked.
“It’s better than Chicago,” I replied, and we argued back and forth. “I’m a mountain kid. I was born on the Lewis & Clark Trail.”
And finally, a dramatic postscript. A handwritten note I pick up from beside my bed this morning—startled to see my father’s writing as if he’d casually left it for me to find.
I realized that it must have been tucked between the typewritten pages I had been transcribing, and had somehow fallen free. He would have jotted down the note one summer evening in his den in Santa Fe, the room with typewriter (whose carriage once or twice knocked his Saturday morning mug of coffee all over the floor and wall, amidst much colorful cursing), Samurai sword, framed photos taken at the Mount Washburn fire lookout, and big Random House dictionary left open to consult for double crostics.
Where it fit into the narrative I’ll never know, but it seems to sum the whole up well.
“Sometimes the physical and emotional chronology of maturation got out of synch with mental maturity, and that could lead to frustration and tears.”
Spotted with blood, because he bled so easily at the end. As easy to identify as that distinctive writing. Like mine, but surer. More flamboyant, less self-conscious, a fine, writerly hand. A final note from a fine writer, and a fine father.
I’m pleased to share this bit of family history, sadly never completed. At one time I thought about making a kind of pilgrimage to Weippe, which I’ve never seen, to find his origins (and part of mine), but life got in the way, and other places I was keener to visit, and time got away, and I realize that that was against the intent of this piece. Against its naming, its reason for being. So I probably never will.