A Beauty for Bravo Company

jo collins

I write a little column called “Looking Back” for my hometown Chamber of Commerce in Lebanon, Oregon.  I’m always looking for an angle to write a few words and show a photo or two about the history of my hometown. I was looking under “Famous People who were born in Lebanon” and she came up. It was a little long for my purposes but I found this little story to be one of the most moving things I’ve read in years.

When I was in the 7th grade, Jo Collins (real name Janet Canoy) was named “Playmate of the Year” by Playboy Magazine. Word quickly spread about this through the teenage boy world, and one of my friends showed me his older brother’s copy of the issue she was featured in. The fact that she was a local both made her seem both more familiar and exotic. Rumors had it that she’d come back to visit the local high school, and it seemed like a big deal to a 7th grade boy. I remember watching “How to stuff a Wild Bikini” just to spot her bit part in the movie.

I sort of hazily remember that she did a tour of Vietnam to visit troops in Hospitals, and this seemed like a cool thing to do. Years later I remember someone telling me she was in the inspiration for the “Playmate of the Year” in the Movie Apocalypse now.  Then I came upon this story: A Beauty for Bravo Company.    Beautifully written by Rex Bowman, I found it moved me to tears at the end.

So reading the story of her actual visit to an Army Hospital to visit with injured soldiers revealed a side I’d never suspected. She not only visited with the troops, she read to them, helped them write letters home and talked with them at length. But, I don’t want to spoil the story. It IS long, and in two parts, and goes into some detail about military life in the war, and one man’s efforts to make life a little better for his fellow soldiers. But, It’s well worth reading to the end. For me, finding out, after 50 years, that the subject of so many adolescent fantasies was much more than just a pretty face—— made the world seem like a brighter, more hopeful place. Please click on the link below and enjoy………


jo colins

Storms on the Sea of of Tranquility—A Book Review.

storms otsot

Every once in a while, one reads a book that leads you to re-evaluate something you never thought all that much about.   Earlier this year, I read Patti Hawn’s Good Girls Don’t; which is the autobiographical story of a teenage girl in the 1950’s who becomes pregnant, ends up giving her son up for adoption and much later in life is reunited with him.    I had never given that much thought to what the experience of a number of people I had known as a teenager must have actually been like. They were shuttled off to either relatives or “Homes for Unwed Mothers” to have their babies far from the prying eyes that usually share head space with wagging tongues. They were then expected to behave as if nothing of the sort had actually happened.

Storms on the Sea of Tranquility involves a different kind of 1950’s stigma, the shame of mental illness that prevented Mae Bailey from obtaining any treatment of her undiagnosed disease by a family who tired to cover up the strange behavior she displayed during cyclical manic/depressive periods.   She ends up bearing three children by two men who ultimately abandon her, leaving her at the mercy of the welfare system while she gets pulled down into a spiral of alcoholism, mental illness and prostitution that ultimately leads to the loss of her children to the foster system.

The first half of the book covers Mae’s sad tale and the second half of the book is focused on Mae’s first born: Michael.  Michael, who is seven years old when he and his little sisters are removed from Mae’s care to become wards of the State of Oregon.

Steven L. Fay, the book’s author, was a foster child himself, spending nearly 13 years in the foster system during the 1950’s and 60’s.  While not autobiographical, the novel is set in the area when Fay grew up, and much of it in the town where Fay graduated from High School, Lebanon.  Which happens to be where I grew up.   Steve, which is what he was known by in high school, was a couple of years ahead of me in school.  We were in a speech class together when I was a sophomore and he was a senior.  We probably only said a dozen words or so to each other over the semester: we were in different orbits.  I had no idea he was a foster child, and he was one of the more popular people in his class.  He had a way with a tale and spent much of his time in class thrilling a couple of juniors with stories of his exploits.  He called the teacher “coach” and somehow got away with it.   I thought he was a cool guy.  He graduated in 1968.

He still has a way with a story, and the book is filled with detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s life in Idaho and Oregon.  His eye for detail enabled me to keep a little cinematic version of the book going in my head, picturing the interiors of homes, 1950’s automobiles and Northwest scenery along with the books characters.     He has a gift for natural sounding dialog that is rare and also manages to insert commentary and observations from a narators point of view (and sometimes his own) without interrupting the flow of the story, which is actually quite a feat.

The first foster home the kids are placed in sets a hopeful tone: the Hoffman family seem like decent, loving people who care for the children and quickly bond with them.  Maybe this isn’t going to be quite so bad.  When the authorities notice the degree of affection the children and the Hoffman family have for each other, the children are removed from the Hoffman’s home, as that was the official policy for children tho may someday be returned to their biological parents.   Since a little over half of the children in foster care eventually return to their families, one can understand the reasons for this.

But the sense of how gut wrenching the experience must be for both sides brushes aside such rationalizations.  You find your self thinking: “How can this be?”   The sense of loss is even stronger when Michael, who is barely 11, discovers that the court has stripped his mother of her parental rights and that his sisters are going to be separated from him and adopted by a family.

You follow Michael through a series of homes as he grows up, some of which are shockingly abusive.  Through his own strength of character, and a few souls along the way who offer him encouragement and moral support, he manages to cope as if navigating a mine field.  Smart enough to see those who are taking advantage and mistreating him and other foster kids, but somehow controlling his anger and maintaining his sense of self worth.

Although fictionalized, this story rings true. Fay is a shrewd observer of human character and he paints no two dimensional villains without any redeeming virtues, but people who’s behavior is all the more monstrous because they could be your neighbors, friends or relatives: people that you might gossip over a fence with. Enough of this stuff had to actually happen that you can’t help but see Mr. Fay as a survivor.

And that he is.  The odds are stacked against the 20,000 children who “age out” of the Foster system at age 18 annually, and are basically just set adrift without an adult support system.  Nationally, barely half of them manage to graduate high school and fewer than 3% of them manage to get a bachelors degree.  At some point between foster care and adulthood, somewhere between one fourth and one third of them will find themselves homeless and half of them experience unemployment.

Somehow, Steven Fay managed to beat the odds, obtained a college degree and became a successful executive in the Food Industry; he has nearly 20 grandchildren.

This book is far from a grim parade of abuses, one after the other.   It does make you look at your own childhood and marvel at how many things you took for granted, but you also see how the everyday heroics of your parents, teachers, ministers and other role models helped to shape your life.  Little everyday acts of kindness and encouragement do matter.   When you get to the end, you discover this is a book about forgiveness and letting go of things that will only hold you back in life.

I quoted some numbers a couple of paragraphs above, and if you’re interested in where those came from; take a look here.  There’s also a little information about an organization dediced to helpint foster shildren transition into productive, happy adults.

60 is Not old, if You’re a Tree

December 3, 2011

I turn 60 years old in a couple of weeks.  That’s not really a big deal, I’ve got some company.   The tree in the photo here (365 Williams St. in Lebanon, Oregon) is also going to turn 60.  How do you I know that, you might ask?  My father transplanted it and one just like it into the ground on the day I was born.   This didn’t really register with me prior to one late summer night back in 1970 when I was walking by the tree with my friend Jerry Gazeley.  I was in the midst of telling him about the trees when it dawned on me just how cool a thing to do that was.

Calendars are sort of arbitrary, and a year is a measure of how long it takes our particular rock to orbit the sun.  In a flash I understood what my father had done: a real gauge of how far I’d come in life.  The tree really put this particular abstraction in to focus for me.   It was quite an emotional experience for me, but a comforting one.

Back in the 90’s one of the trees was cut down for reasons unknown to me.   That was sort of a blow, but the other one was still there when Google took this photo a couple years ago, as you can see.  I haven’t been able to commune with my buddy the tree since 2005.   But those of you who live in the area are free to stop by on the 15th and say happy birthday.   Just don’t get carried away.  “Hey mom, there’s somebody out here pouring a Guinness on our tree!”

UPDATE February 17th, 2013

Today, while looking around on Google Earth, I discovered that it appears the tree is no longer there or cut back to a stump.  It would have been where the pink X in the photo below is located.    I’m assuming it was removed for similar reasons to the other one; they’re not hard to guess.  Williams Street is a truck route, so you’d need to keep it trimmed and eventually it would have grown to the point where the roots would damage the sidewalk or curb.  It also looked to be a threat to wires passing through it.
missing tree

Whatever the reasons, it does sadden me to think neither one of them are there.   Looking at the aerial photograph, I also see that the two mature Walnut trees (They were 20 or 30 years older than the house itself, they were already big enough to climb in when I was a kid. I had a tree house in one of them.) in the backyard are also no longer there at all.  They had been trimmed back to being shadows of their former selves for a long time; bushes with big trunks.

Thinking through this a little bit, my trees were in the ground long enough to do the job my father intended; which was to give me some real perspective on the passage of time.  Being astonished at how large those trees were at the age of 18 made me stop and think about my own mortality: likely the first time.   I could remember when they were only a couple of inches around; by the time I moved away in 1964 the trunks were six or seven inches in diameter, and by 1970 they were around a foot.  .

Like a lot of things that are no longer there, I will miss being able to see the trees the next time I visit Lebanon.  If you move away and leave your childhood home, you tend to think of it as a place like Brigadoon, that never changes.   But it’s not really different than if you still live there.  We all have the world of our childhood alive in our heads, where the schools, playgrounds, sidewalks vacant lots and other enchanted childhood places still exist if we’re lucky enough to have sweet dreams. 

In my case, I can still hear the rustling sounds the leaves made in the gentle late summer breeze while the whirling sprinkler hissed away as it watered the lawn. (While I cooled off  running through the sprinkler’s soft spray.)  I remember they always reminded me that I was almost home where I returned from trips in the car with my parents and could see them appear through the windshield.  They taught me the cycle of life as they miraculously grew a new set of leaves every year and made the front porch a nice place to sit on a warm summer afternoon.    I learned to ride a two wheeler in their shade. 

But, after all, they really weren’t “my” trees to begin with.  We were just fellow passengers on a long journey, who happened get on board at the same time. We shared a number of experiences and it was a pleasure to know them; I learned a lot from them.

I’d like to think my Dad knows just how much———–


Blinded by the Light——Windows, Feng Shui, and Classroom Design over the years

Last night I attended a community meeting in a local grade school (Benjamin Franklin, In Kensington, a San Diego neighborhood) and was struck how much had changed while some things remained the same.  It took me a while to understand why it felt so familiar to me when I finally grasped that it was a virtual copy of the room where I spent part of the second grade: Queen Anne Park School in my hometown of Lebanon, Oregon.  The school buildings were constructed within 2 years of each other (1929 and 1931, respectively), so that probably explains a lot.

My hometown had a population explosion during the 40’s, going from a population of 2,729 and more than doubling between 1940 to 1950, reaching a population of 5,873 in 1950.   This was mainly due to increase in demand for forest products during WWII. Lumber mills were springing up everywhere.   There was even a housing project to provide shelter for all the new workers.   This eventually lead to the construction of three (prior to that there was just one) additional elementary schools between 1945 and 1953.  By the time I entered the first grade in the fall of 1958, I ended up at Santiam School, (which I attended, except for a brief period at Queen Anne, for all six years of elementary school) which was a slightly more modern building (1945) with certain similarities in design. (Sadly, neither of these schools are still standing.)

The main thing in common between all three schools are the large, tall and northern facing windows.    Thinking this might be a common principle in classroom design, I did some research on the Internet, lacking a decent set of encyclopedias.    Class room design in the US was still following principles laid down in 18th century Britain, at least it was in the 40’s and 50’s.    The concept of tall, large windows was important in an era before electric lights as room brightness was determined by the size of the windows, and classrooms were also laid out so the windows faced North as much as possible so as to avoid glare in the classroom.  If the windows couldn’t face North, the other favored direction was East, so as to avoid glare from the afternoon sun.   And sure enough, both elementary schools I attended had windows that faced the North.

It turns out that those large windows were important for reasons other than being able to see or to avoid being blinded or cooked by the sun streaming in from severe angles in the winter.   Students learn more readily (up to 26%, as evidenced by standard tests) when there is significant natural light in a room, and students learn faster in rooms with larger windows (as opposed to those with smaller windows), at least according to some studies.   The view counter to this (opposing views on views), is that students learn better while not being distracted by what’s going on outside the classroom, although this would, presumably, be affected by the actual view: as when kids are looking to see if the snow is “sticking”.  Some current studies suggest that the best of both worlds might be to provide natural light via skylights, although there is a reactionary contingent that feels there are actually some benefits to students taking “study breaks” by daydreaming and gazing out the window.  I’m inclined to embrace that view, having taken one of those between 1966 and 1970 or so.

When I was a senior in high school, the school district purchased some “portable” temporary classrooms.   Not only were they from the early 50’s Soviet School of Architecture, but they featured two small, heavily tinted windows that didn’t open.   It was a considerable challenge for me to stay awake in a room that would have made a nice pharmaceutical warehouse, and was forced to switch from window gazing to pee-chee decorating to pass the time.   At least they had a clock, for habitual clock watchers.  (I have heard reports that a teacher who taught in one of these classrooms in the 1980’s had a sign near the clock that read “Time Passes—–Will You?”   I rest my case.)

  clock 3

As for the rest of the classroom, a lot of the stuff was the same, although they did not blackout curtains as they no longer show 16 millimeter films, or even film strips, as there were a large CRT TV and VCR affixed to the wall over the teacher’s desk, although I imagine some schools now use video projectors.  The A/V club must be somewhat different now.  The blackboard was replaced by whiteboards and the chalk was replaced by erasable magic markers.  There was a large pull down Mercator map of the world on the wall and I was happy to see that students were still being convinced that Greenland is larger than China, Alaska much larger than Mexico and South America is the same size as Europe, instead of twice the size.   The individual desks I remember have largely been replaced by tables, (at least in the rooms I peeked into) which seemed to be grouped many different ways in each of the rooms, so ‘flexibility” seems to be paramount.   I also missed the classic alphabet penmanship chart that was almost always above the blackboard, like in the photo below:

I was happy to see that it hasn’t been replaced by a chart identifying where all the buttons in an I-phone are.   The kids probably could teach the teacher about the phones, anyway.  This brings us back to the classroom in San Diego and 2012.    I was having a great time checking out the nice, bright red sunset when I heard a voice:   “Sir, the meeting is over every one else has left.”   Some things never change.

(For a more animated look at how schools used to be, check out this silent film from {John Brownlee’s YouTube page} 1951:  Lebanon Schools)

If you enjoyed this post, there are other Lebanon Related stories here:


A Sense of Direction

From my point of view the map below leads to the center of the universe: 365 Williams Street in the town of Lebanon, Oregon.   This is the address of the first house I lived in when my parents took me home from the hospital on December 15, 1951.  My main focal point would have the be the view off the small front porch.   On a nice warm summer evening, this was a great vantage point from which to watch the world go by.


The house was a little two bedroom, one bath (949 sq.ft) that had been built in 1947.   It was situated on the Truck route through town which ensured a steady supply of log, sawdust and dump trucks passing by, mostly during daylight hours.    We were 4 blocks from the nearest stop sign so we were mostly spared the noise of the trucks building up to speed.   Since the aforementioned stop sign  was the only one along the entire 4,250 ft of Williams street, we also had fairly high vehicular traffic of all types.   I think this probably accounts for my lifelong fascination with most anything with wheels attached.
365Williams#4But it wasn’t just vehicular traffic.   We lived a short distance from Field’s Grocery, which was on the SE corner of Williams and E Rose St., a half block to the South.   This ensured a fairly steady stream of foot traffic as well.  This being the 1950’s, people actually left their houses and went for walks through the neighborhood.   Being a small town, people actually would stop and chat with people who happened to be on the front porch, and would sometimes chat for quite a while, or maybe even “come in for a drink”.    Kids riding pedal cars, trikes, apple crate scooters and clamp-on roller skates with steel wheels, the occasional pair of wooden stilts or even a pogo stick.

I remember lots of neighborhood kids on the way to the store to get candy and/or soda pop.    The earliest memory that I can put an exact date to is from the summer of 1955.   A group of kids (Mostly the Roosa Family) were walking by and I was playing with my matchbox cars on a “road” I constructed in the front lawn.  Somehow, the conversation involved identifying everyone’s ages, and I remember that I was three.   The group was on the way to get some candy and I also remember them walking by on the return trip, chomping on red whips and drinking soda, and looking like they had won the lottery.

I can remember playing with sparklers on the fourth of July, “swimming” in my little inflatable pool and “Hula Hoops” in the summer of 1958, just before I entered the first grade.   In the evening in the summer, most kids would be out of the house and playing.    “I’m going out to play.”, I’d say.  This would give me the freedom to roam the neighborhood, which initially was the block I lived on, and by the time I was around ten, consisted of pretty much anywhere I could ride my bike to and get back home before dark.  This could be as late as 9:30 in the middle of the summer in Oregon.

There seemed to be an almost endless supply of playmates.  It would be almost impossible to walk more than 100 feet in any direction and not find another kid, if not a group of kids, within a couple of years of your age doing something outdoors.    We had softball or workup games in the vacant lot across the street.   Or sometimes a kid would yell in through the screen door: “Hey we’re playing hide and seek, can you come out?” On a truck route, playing in the actual street wasn’t much fun, but it was a short distance to a side street.

Being the place I called “home” for the first 12 years of my life, I pretty much reference my sense of place back to that spot.  My concept of direction, like most kids from any town that was laid out in “blocks” and 90 degree corners is pretty much connected to the streets that ran either North/South or East/West.   Since most houses followed the same rigid paradigm I automatically  assume any structure does the same. When I first moved to San Diego, which is covered with mesas and canyons, it took a while to realize that few roads run directly North/South or East/West.  Right now as I sit here and type this it feels like I’m facing dead East, when I’m actually facing Southwest.  I intellectually know that the street I live on does not run East/West and is actually on a 45 degree angle, but my internal GPS tells me different.

I also tend to think this same directionality extends to the interstate system, where I assume that I-5 runs directly North/South.   Since I currently live nearly the same distance from I-5 as I did when I was growing up (about 8 miles) it came as a little bit of a shock to find that San Diego is some 250+ miles to the east of the place of my birth.

Another navigational habit I acquired in my home town and further  developed over the years has been to orient myself by looking for mountains or hills.    Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve been able to do this and when I spent some time in Minneapolis I was lost the entire time.   It was overcast the entire time I was there, so I received no clues by the position of the sun.

My memories usually have a directional component to them, as do my dreams.  When conjuring up an image from the past, I’m usually aware of  where North is.

On a trip to London, England a few years ago, the area around the hotel we stayed in seemed turned around 180 degrees from what I thought it should be.  The direction I was sure was North was actually South.   Since I’d checked out the neighborhood via Google street view, this was disturbing.  We’d taken the tube from Heathrow, and just popped out of the ground at Gloucester Road Station, and despite knowing the direction we needed to go it just felt wrong.  

Everywhere else we went in London,  I had no problem figuring out the direction I was facing , but get back to the Hotel and I’d be all turned around again.  It still confuses me if I go to Google now and look at the neighborhood.  I can get lost on Google street view in a one block area.  The window from our hotel room faced North, but in my memory, it faces South, and try as I might, I cannot reconcile that fact.   I can look at a map and think:  “Now, I get it.”   But, I don’t.

And this all goes back to the place I grew up in.   Somewere in the ride from the Airport, that connection, either through actual observation, or from looking at a map, with the internal feelings associated with facing a particular direction was lost. My internal compass wasn’t working here.  For whatever reason, when I came out into the daylight I had to rely on a whole new directional paradigm completely separate from the one that had been serving me for the last 55 odd years.

A sense of direction might very well be the sixth sense, but it’s as much knowing where you’ve been as where you are.

Rooftop Shenanigans

Take a look at the two photos below and you’ll notice some yellow, blue and pink blobs on both photos.  They correspond (at least the blue and yellow ones) to the same places on the house in both photos.   I lived in that house back when I was in Jr. High and High school.    If I wanted to say out past my normal bedtime I would sneak out window just behind the blue blob, which opened like a door, on to the roof over the living room’s bay window and from there to the roof over the house’s porch (the yellow blob).   This wasn’t as tricky as it looks in the photo: trust me, I was a big chicken back then.  From there, I would use an eyelet that a guy wire for the TV antenna attached to, and pull myself up onto the roof and head for the pink blob.  You can’t see through the tree, but I could drop down on the the trash can my dad kept back there and on to the ground.   Returning was just the opposite, but the trip back was a little tricky, going from the roof to the porch and then on to the bay window roof required a little more agility than getting out.

One summer night right after my freshman year in high school, my neighbor Bill Duke and I wanted to stay out a little later than normal and play our favorite game of going downtown (we both lived on Grove Street, so it was not a long way.  We liked to hide just out of sight by Woodchippers at closing to watch the fist fights, plus it was fun to watch out for and hide from the police, since it was after curfew.    (Once, Bill got caught when we were playing this game as he ran through a hedge smack dab into the back of Tonoles Auto Supply when it was on W. Ash street just west of the alley than ran behind the Kuhn Theater)  There was also just something about the pleasure you get from doing something you weren’t supposed to do, although it wasn’t really that bad.

That night was rather uneventful, no fights, just a couple of very drunk and loud women in he Elks Parking lot that Bill tried (unsuccessfully) to convince he was 18 (he was walking his “little brother” home).  So, I made the journey over the top of the house but right before I got to the guy wire, I stumbled, got tangled in the wire and fell forward onto my face, and then slid like a cartoon cat off onto the porch roof, and from there into the flower bed. I landed right on top of one of my mom’s rhododendrons, which I mostly crushed, and stopped about two feet off the ground.   It must have sounded like a bomb going off inside the house.  I sat there, frozen, waiting for the lights to come on, but that never happened.  The only damage, other than to the plant, were scuffs from the shingles on my nose and forehead.   It took me a while to get up the energy to go over the roof again, and in the process, I jumped up a little harder than normal off the trash can and turned it from convex to concave.  I made a mental note to pop that back in the morning.    I made it over the roof and back into my room without further incident.

That morning, at  breakfast, there was some discussion about the marks on my face, which I can’t quite remember exactly how I accounted for.   But it seems that they hadn’t heard a thing that night.  Cool.   Later that week, my mom asked me if I knew what had happened to the rhododendron, and I gave her the “how should I know” look.

That Friday, after my parents has went to sleep, I crawled out the window, went over the roof and discovered the trash can was missing.   But I noticed a ladder leaning against the garage, so I went over there and climbed down.  I heard: “I figured that’s how you did it when I discovered the caved in trash can lid.“, coming from the back porch in the dark and I almost jumped out of my skin.  He just said “Back to bed.” and that was the end of it.   Not another word.  But I never tried that again.

Were You a Pinball Wizard? (A sign of a Misspent Youth) Zen and the ART of Pinball.

Along with the ability to play pool, being skilled at pinball when I was a youth was viewed by some people with a certain level of suspicion.   In the 50’s and 60’s it was associated with some of the unsavory aspects of teenage culture along with 49 Mercurys, leather jackets with lots of zippers, greasy duck-tails (the 50’s idea of a mullet) and bad attitudes.  Certainly not the clean cut youth pictured on the Rack-A-Ball table in the  photos below.  Part of this aura was also do to the association of Pre-Flipper pinball machines with gambling.  (Pinball machines, even the ones with flippers, were illegal in New York City until 1976)  When I was a kid, these were called “payoff machines”.  They didn’t have flippers, and they were also illegal.  But there was one in the local ice-cream store/telegraph office in my hometown that had a sign on it that said “For Amusement Only“, but everyone knew it was a payoff machine, and us kids weren’t allowed to play it.   The local authorities looked the other way.

Needless to say, I was one of the “‘victims”.    Somewhere around the age of 11,  I ended up playing one of these machines at the local ice cream parlor and teenage hangout, and from that point on, no loose change was safe around my house,  nor stayed “loose” for long.   The table pictured in the 3 photos below, is my favorite table of all time:  RACK-A-BALL

Rack-A-Ball Backglass

Rack-A-Ball Upper Playfield

Rack-A-Ball Lower Playfield

This model of table was introduced in 1962 and happens to be the first pinball machine that I was to become familiar with.   It was located in an ice cream shop and teenage hangout in Lebanon, Oregon known as the 24 Flavors.  It is just beyond the “golden age” of pinball machines, which connoisseurs feel was from 1948, with the invention of the flipper, until 1958.  What’s significant about 1958 is beyond me but I do know RACK-A-BALL was one of the last single player machines made during the electro-mechanical heyday before the machines became solid state electronic devices with electronic digital scoreboards (instead of the rotating mechanical numerals) electronic sounds and other elaborate features.  The next paragraph is an explanation of how the machines work, if that stuff bores you, you might wish to skip that paragraph and just watch this video:  RACK-A-BALL

The Golden era was defined by five devices: Flippers, Bumpers,  Kickers, Targets, and Rollovers.  Flippers had buttons in the sides of the table that worked little 2 1/2 “paddles”  operated by electrical solenoids (sort of like a motor)   Kickers were 1/4 rubber bands augmented by a relay actuated solenoid that was triggered when the ball hit the rubber band, shooting the ball off in the opposite direction.  The Bumpers acted in a similar fashion.  Points were also “scored” whenever the ball hit either a kicker or bumper.   Rollovers were little switches in a pathway the ball was channelled through. that both racked up points, or caused something to happen.   In the above machine, they also caused a ball to roll into the little rack on the “scoreboard”   The “Targets”  in RACK-A-BALL  both scored points and increased the point values of the kickers and bumpers.   The flippers were the element of skill in the game as better players developed the ability to “aim” the little ball into targets and back up to the top of the game surface as the object of the game was to keep the ball going as long as possible.

I thought of explaining the rules of this particular game, then realized that people who’ve played it would already know how, and those that haven’t probably would find it a little esoteric (IE: BORING).   In addition to the flippers, skilled players also know how to give little bumps to the machine at the right moments to influence the movements of the little ball.   The trick was knowing how hard to hit the machine without triggering  the “tilt” mechanism.   There was a little pendulum inside the machine that ended the game if someone either rocked the table a little too vigorously or tilted it up enough to slow the ball down.   The owners would have this set so you could “rock the table”  (Which players often called “beaters”, and playing them was referred to as “beating the beaters”)  a little bit, as doing so was part of the fun.   Having a “hair trigger”  mechanism made the machine a lot less fun to play, and people weren’t as likely to put money in a “dead” machine.

The whole point of playing pinball was to win “free” games.   RACK-A BALL had several ways to win.   Scoring “points” by hitting targets, bumpers and rollovers.  Hitting the “Special”, which meant running a ball over a rollover that was “lit up” by hitting all three targets. You could also win by running over nine different rollovers that send balls down the little ramp on the back-glass scoreboard.   The last was to win was by “matching”.   At the end of the game (When the last of five balls went “down the drain”) the machine would generate a random number, if that matched the last number in your score, you won a game.

In Pavlovian fashion, the machine made a loud, distinct mechanical “pop” whenever a free game was awarded.  Much like the sound of coins coins going into a metal tray on a slot machine, this sound becomes part of the payoff as much as the free game.    I’ve had friends that had pinball machine in their houses, and they just aren’t anywhere as much fun when there isn’t the element of needing to “win” to keep playing to keep your interest up.   It just isn’t the same.   I think my peak years for pinball were probably 11 through 15.  I usually could find other ways to pass my time after that.  Girls, cars, and playing guitar come to mind.

The interesting thing, though, about pinball machines is that they are one of those “in the moment” sort of activities that completely engages you.  You aren’t worrying about your grades or absent mindlessly drifting away.  You’re paying attention to that little ball and plotting strategy and trying to decide your next move.   The only difference between it and modern video games is that there’s a physical aspect to it and it’s a real physical object bouncing around in there.  It’s like comparing a hot rod 57 Chevy to a modern Camaro.  The Camaro is faster, but the experience is a lot more remote: less noise, vibration and drama.

More machines came out that were multi player, up to four people could play at a time, which increased the social and competitive aspects of the game, but they were also less intense than the single player machines, especially when you were on a roll, as you could “cool off” while waiting for the other players to finish their turn.   But after about 1965 or so, you usually found multi player machines, and it became more of a group activity.

In the late 60’s, pinball became a fad in London:  the queen of the pinball scene was a 15 year old girl who went by the name of “Arfur“, who supposedly had an almost supernatural ability to keep the little silver ball in play.  Rock  critic and writer Nic Cohn wrote a novel with Arfur as a main character.  He also introduced her to Pete Townshend, who was an enthusiastic pinball player, and there is speculation that this is where “Pinball Wizard” came from.

There was a brief pinball boom in the 70’s, with Celebrity tie ins like Elton John, Kiss, Charlies Angels, Playboy, The Addams Family, etc.    The machines had all sort of clever features, trap doors, multiple balls and other crazy stuff.   The last table I actually remember by name and actually playing any number of times was called Fireball, and it was in another ice cream store in Lebanon called the Freezer.  It was made in 1972, one of the last gasps of the electro-mechanical era of machines. It’s most unique feature was a spinning disc in the center of the playing field that added a somewhat random element to the game.    BALLYS_FIREBALL_PINBALL_MACHINE_WORKING_JUST_FINE_03_uq

At any rate, for me, at least, the newer machines had too many gimmicks that detracted from the fun, compared to a simple machine like RACK-A-BALL.   As the 70’s progressed the machines acquired microprocessors, which added all kinds of new features and I suppose they needed them to compete with Pong, Asteroids, and a whole host of new video games.   By this time the flippers were longer and, I think, less responsive.  The were easier to learn, but lacking the ultimate ability to be accurate that the shorter ones had.  More a question of “feel” than anything else.   I can’t remember the last time I played a pinball machine.  Maybe at Dave and Busters?  I don’t know.   I’d like to track down one of the old school machines and see how close it comes to my memories.    (It’s probably just as well that I won’t ever get around to it.)


A Reminder of my Father

One of my most prized possessions is a little black leather folder with HONORABLE DISCHARGE written on the front of it in gold print. It folds into thirds and contains the document you see below. With a few additional details, a summary of my father’s life emerges.   (If you click on the document, you might get a larger view of it) 

Born on the 27th of August in 1914 he graduated from high school right after the start of the depression and worked in a gas station until 1937, when what was at one time the largest plywood processing plant in the world, operated by Evans Products opened in Lebanon, Ore.    He worked there as a spreader man right up to January of 1942 when he joined the Army, shortly after Pearl Harbor.

He ended up with the 103rd (Cactus) division of the 7th army as a machine gunner and  landed at Marseilles France in October of 1944.    He participated in the Ardennes campaign during the Battle of the Bulge and participated in the invasion of Germany in early 1945.  He was part of the detail that liberated the Kaufering concentration camp in April of 1945.  They took Innsbrook Austria in early May and even went on into Northern Italy right as the war ended.      The division then spent five months doing “occupational activities” and came back to the US in September and he was out of the service in November.

He returned to his job at the mill in Lebanon and managed to convince my mother (whom he’d met in Cleveland on his way to head for France) that she’d “just love Oregon”.  They were married in Portland and moved into what they called “the housing unit”, temporary government housing in what is now a park.   In 1949 they moved in to a little 2 bedroom house on Williams St. and I was born in December of 1951.

For the next 9 years he worked in the mill, which was now Cascade Plywood.  He passed away on Groundhog day of 1960 from a heart attack at the age of 45.

I’ve read the section in his discharge describing the things he had to be able to do to to be a machine gunner in the military and can’t imagine my father doing any of them nor how someone must have decided that was something he’d be good at.  He really wasn’t one to talk about his war experiences and I remember it being a point of contention between him and my mom concerning letting me have toy guns.

He had next to no interest in guns, sports, (save for watching the Gillette “Fight of the Week” on TV, he was a big Sugar Ray Robinson fan) hunting or other outdoor pursuits and loved to read, listen to music and go to movies.   He watched TV programs like “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx and “Playhouse 90”.

He was typically tired when he came home from work and he used to pour a glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon and sit down in his chair.  He’d sometimes pour beer into a little (about the size of a spool of thread) glass mug so I could “have a drink” with him.

My memories of my father are in little bits and peices: staying in a Motel in the summer at Ocean Lake on the Oregon coast, driving to Portland on HWY 99 and seeing the gas station that was built around a surplus B-17, swimming at Cascadia.  Most of what I know about my father came from my mother.  He hated the war, he likely suffered from what they now call post traumatic stress.  He wanted to write, but he’s sit at his typewriter and nothing would come.   He’d tense up and wasn’t able to relax .  He’d  had health problems since the war: a slipped disc in his back and standing all day at the mill was painful.

I was able to go to college because I received money from the VA and benefits from social security.  I think I borrowed maybe $1200 in student loans.

I got the college education my father never had a chance to get.  I’ve already lived fifteen years longer that he did.  My health has been great and I’ve never had to fight and kill people in a war.

I keep that little folder close to me, it’s usually on whatever desk I’ve set up for myself at home.  I do so for two reasons:  it reminds me of my father and it reminds me of the sacrifices he made that allow me to live the life that I do.   I’m not just speaking of  the military service, although that must have been horrific, but the years of mind-numbing work at the mill must have been as difficult in many ways.    My mom told me that my dad hated working in the mill.   He told her to make sure I didn’t have to work in a place like that.

I did work at that same mill for a very brief period in 1973: eight hours to be exact.     I think it was the longest 8 hour period in my entire life.   I was assigned to pull green chain, which involved pulling thin,  flat pieces of green Douglas Fir that will be the “plies” that will glued together in a sheet after they’ve been through a dryer.  You classified them as either heartwood or sapwood, pulling them off of a belt as they pass by and loading them on one of three carts, with the third one being for irregular shaped pieces that weren’t quite usable in plywood.   When each cart got full, someone came by in a forklift and carted it away.   It was like being a part of the machine.

A lot of people gave me shit for quitting after one day, particularly the ones that had been doing it for a living. “What,  you think you’re too good to work in a mill?”  It wasn’t that at all, It just wasn’t for me.   I think what bothered me the most was that I kept thinking: “My dad spent 19 years of his life inside this place.”.   He worked there so I don’t have to.

My Mother’s Story

My mother was born March 23, 1910 in Jackson Michigan,  the second daughter of Frank and Marie Erich.  My grandfather was a German immigrant and my grandmother was a Michigan native.   Frank worked as a tool and die maker and managed a decent living.   But, anti German Hysteria turned my mother’s family upside down as the US entered WW1 right around the time my mother started grade school.

My Great grandparents on my grandfather’s side spoke German at home, and my mother and my aunts were bi-lingual as children.   My grandfather took his family to  worship at a Methodist Church that had services in German so his family could worship with their grandparents.

Anti German hysteria when we entered the war in 1917 rode high.  Germans were lynched, tarred and feathered and some 6,000 of them were interred in relocation camps, much as the Japanese were in WW2.   The local breweries (most of them owned by German immigrants) were shut down.  (Most people don’t know that prohibition was most likely hastened by anti-German sentiment. ) Church services in German were banned. My mother was moved to a different school with mostly German American and black students.

My grandfather never spoke of any of this, but my mother had stories that shocked me. She had a root-for-the-underdog spirit and feisty-ness that never left her.  You also never used the N-Word in her presence more than once.   I’ve seen her end friendships over it.

My mom was the black sheep and tomboy (she had three sisters and no brothers) of the family.  My grandfather used to take her on trips to Detroit to see his beloved Tigers play.  On one hand she was in many ways her father’s favorite, but rebelled at being smothered by his strict overprotective rules, and ended up leaving home at the age of 16. (after I was born my mom and grandfather reconciled)

She spent some time at the University of Michigan studying painting but got caught up in the jazz age and lived a rather “bohemian” lifestyle, as the photo of her here at the age of 22 might suggest.   She gave the photo to her parents, but they never hung it on the walls.  It wasn’t till I was in my 40’s that she would talk to me about her youth.  She had a short lived marriage in the mid 30’s to a man named Tom, but aside from that she seemed to avoid long term relationships.  She managed to travel a lot with periods spent in such diverse places as Los Angeles, Spokane, Portland, Wilmington Delaware, Detroit, New York, and supported herself by doing commercial art with the occasional water color or oil painting.

She was travelling through Cleveland in 1942 when she saw a man setting on a bench reading a volume of poems by Shelly.   She sat down on the same bench, pulled a volume of the same book out of her purse and they struck up a conversation.  I’m not sure what followed , but when I was in infant, my chief rival for attention was a wired hair terrier named “Statler”  after the Statler Hotel in Cleveland.   They also named me for F Scott Fitzgerald.

He was headed East on his way to the war and I’m hazy on just where she was headed, but the main thing is they kept in contact and he managed to get her to move to Lebanon, Ore and become his wife.

I’m sure she had her fair share of “My God, what have I Done?” moments, as she had to be somewhat of a fish out of water.

When my father passed away in February of 1960, I remember being concerned that at that point it was just me and her.   My father’s family had never approved of her and it only took a couple years before contact dwindled to nothing.

It was years before I had any appreciation of what it must have been for her to be one month shy of your 50th birthday and find yourself in the position of being a single mom with a headstrong eight year old boy.  It had to be tough.   She went through a failed marriage with a younger man who drank too much which ended in divorce.   She had lovers.    Some of her behavior was indiscreet and in a small town, people are prone to talk.    During this period, though, she worked at a number of jobs, and worked for at Cent-Wise drug (a local drug/ variety store) for a couple of years.   She later operated a succession of “Art Studios” where she taught people of all ages to paint and draw.    She also sold a number of paintings. She managed.

We had a somewhat frosty relationship during this time.     I blamed her for some of the flack I was getting because of her lifestyle,  and I also think, unconsciously, for my father’s death.    Fortunately for me (and her) she found a man who became a good stepfather to me and supported her dreams and for the next 15 years lived what she called the best years of he life.   But we never became close.   She had much better relationships with a number of my friends, some of whom became very close with her.

After my step father passed away in 1979, the plan was that I was moving to California and that she was going to sell her house at some point and move to California, to be near her younger sister (and me).    I did move to California in 1980, but she could never get herself to sell her house.  It was always: “Maybe in a year or so.”.

I moved back to Lebanon during the 90’s as I realized she was never going to leave.  She had friends in the town she’d lived in for 40 years and she loved her house and garden.  We tried living together, but fought like cats and dogs, and things went much better if we lived under different roofs.

Eventually, I actually got to know her as a person and learned a little about the 2o years of her adult life that were largely a mystery to me.  She had a lot of friends of all walks of life and she seemed to have an affinity for those who couldn’t find anyone else to talk to.   During the 80’s she had a number of friend/students who were young gay men.   She was someone who wouldn’t sit in judgement of them and I remember coming home to visit her and noticing that these guys just LOVED my mom.    They were very kind to her and cut wood for her and helped her with yard work.     The AIDS epidemic hit her hard.  I remember a former student of hers who  died shortly after coming to visit my mom and say goodbye.  He was blind at this time and dropped by with his mother. My mom kept up a brave front while he was there, but right after his departure dashed off into her bedroom.

I went in to comfort her, and at that point we had a breakthrough.  Some of the distance between us was gone.   It wasn’t like a dam bursting or anything, but it was like a physical barrier was no longer there.   We slowly became friends as opposed to just relatives.

We still had our points of contention, but at least now we had some closeness to get us through.   I expected a battle when I finally took her car keys as it was clear to me that she should no longer be driving, but she understood and trusted me.

Three of four years after she passed on in 1999, I was in the middle of taking a shower when it all finally hit me.  It was the realization that no one would ever love me like she did.      That was both painful and comforting at the same time but the main idea was that I’d always known that no matter what else I was feeling, I never doubted that I was loved.

The day my mom passed, her friend Edna called me at work and told me I needed to go see her, that something was up.  (She had been in a care facility for a couple weeks after suffering congestive heart failure) I went to see her and she was quite lucid.  She had emphysema (Lifelong smoker, since age 16) and dementia had set in as she wasn’t getting enough oxygen–her lucidity was a welcome sign.    She knew her time had come and she said good-bye to me and told me she appreciated that I had been a good son to her.  She told me not to feel sorry for her: she’d had a long and interesting life and that she was ready to go.  With that, she rolled over and went to sleep, inadvertently uncovering her left hip, revealing the tattoo of a rose.   I knew nothing of this, and to this day have no idea how long it had been there, but it didn’t look contemporary.   I pulled the covers over her and discovered a little pencil sketch beside her bed: it was entitled, “Scott hiking in the hills of Oregon”.  She was creative right up to the end.

When I was leaving the nursing home, there was a room where some of the patients were watching a children’s program on TV where someone was singing “You Are my Sunshine”.   My mother used to sing me to sleep with that, when I was a little boy.

That night, when I got back from playing guitar at the tavern, there was a message on my phone from the nursing home:  “Scott, your mother passed on in her sleep a couple hours after your visit.”    Something I already knew.