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———–


Baby Boomers?

The concept of Generations has always struck me as sort of a fuzzy construction.  It serves a purpose, of course, and people usually know what you’re talking about if you mention “Baby Boomers” or “The Greatest Generation”.   But take a look at the list below and tell me, if you didn’t see the birthdays, which generation would you identify the following people with?

      Timothy Leary                      October 22, 1920   

  Jack Kerouac                        March 12, 1922

     Chuck  Berry                         October 18, 1926

     James Dean                          February 8, 1931

    Elvis Presley                         January 8, 1935

    John Lennon                        October 9, 1940

 Bob Dylan                             May 24, 1941

   Jerry Garcia                          August 1, 1942

      Annette Funicello                October 22, 1942

          Jimi Hendrix                        November 27, 1942

          Michael Nesmith                 December 30, 1942

 Pete Townshend                  May 19, 1945

       Henry Winkler                     October 30, 1945

Jack Kerouac and Timothy Leary are members of the “Greatest Generation”, sometimes called the  WWII Generation, and the rest of them aren’t technically baby boomers at all, but members of what is sometime called the “Silent Generation” of in some cases, the “Beat Generation”.     Even Pete Townshend, author of “My Generation” missed the “Official” baby boomer first year cutoff of 1946.

When the 50’s “beatniks” evolved into “hippies” in the late 60’s, only the very youngest of them would have been baby boomers.   I’d wager the people who were truly hippies were pretty much split down the middle between boomers and beat generation members.

I’ve often said that the 70’s were really the 60’s for most people.   The whole “freak” thing almost became the norm.   Seemingly everyone listened to FM radio, the Dead were almost mainstream and pot use was open and notorious.    Ears almost completely disappeared as visible appendages.  Guys who were straight as arrows in high school in the 60’s were now ending most sentences with “man”, owned at least one Indian print bedspread (usually used as a ceiling decoration) and several black light posters.



The Measure of a Man

My step dad was a lot of things, but a good business man was not one of them.  He was a partner in a forest seed business, Century Forest Seed, in Lebanon, Oregon, my home town.   He hadn’t bothered to be adequately insured and the business was severely damaged by a flood in 1965.   I wasn’t privy to all the financial details, but our family finances were a bit spotty over the next couple years, and he eventually lost the business.

At one point, things got so bad that we had our cars (among other things) repossessed.   This was around 1967 or so.   None of this fazed my step dad one bit.   He’d lost his business, a house, our cars, a boat and a camper and we were watching a black and white TV from the 50’s instead of the year old color set that had been the focal point of our living room.  We were lucky to have a phone.   My step dad  had a friend take him to a junkyard where he found a 1952 Ford 2 door sedan that he towed home and managed to make run.

It looked like the one in the photo, (even the visor over the windshield) except it was two tone green oxidized beyond all hope of displaying anything remotely like a shine.  It almost looked like it was flocked.   I think he only paid $25 bucks for it.   Now, I’d love to have it, but, then I was ashamed of it.  Except for the paint, it was in good shape, Flathead V-8 backed up by a 3 speed with overdrive, but I hated to be seen in it.

He found a job in a few days.   He’d owned a sheet metal business in the 50’s, and went to work for a non-union shop in a nearby town.

Soon, he managed to get another car (loan from my uncle) for my mom to drive, a 59 Rambler Station Wagon in Appliance white.

This had an automatic transmission and steering so slow it was probably six turns, lock to lock.  It was the car I learned to drive in.   Quite a drop in prestige from a 1965 Impala and a 66 Chevy Fleetside with a Chinook camper.  Our current rolling stock had a value of less than $300.

I didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation at the time, but it must have been fairly dire as I remember one time he came home with a bunch of USDA surplus food (pre-food stamp program) in cans.    They all had labels painted right on the cans with USDA stamped all over the place, and I distinctly remember a can labeled “One Whole Chicken”.

Years later, it all dawned on me that the way he handled this situation with calm and resolve was very special.  He never seemed to miss a beat, never showed any signs of self pity, or seemed to be the least bit embarrassed having to work for someone else or bringing home surplus food.

How a man acts after he gets knocked on his butt tells you a lot more than watching him when everything is going  smooth.   It only took a year or so for us to get back on our feet, more or less.  We got a new color TV (big deal in the 60’s, you know) The Rambler turned into a 63 Dodge and my step dad bought a 61 GMC pickup.  For some reason, the old Ford stayed around for another year so so.  I can’t actually remember what happened to it, but he did tell me he kept it around, as a reminder.

He eventualy  started up his own sheet metal business in the early 70’s that he operated until he passed on in 1979 at the age of 56.  He was the sort of man who taught me things by example rather than lecture me on some subject.  Once I came home when I was around 16 after drinking a few beers with my buddies.  I was a little shocked to find my parents still awake when I got home and I was certain that I was going to get busted.    But they said nothing, and so I went upstairs and went to bed.  I was awakened at about 7:30 by my old man who announced that I needed to help him unclog the drain in the basement.   I was experiencing my first hangover and now I’m in the basement pulling on the end of a plumber’s snake that’s stuck in an old cast iron pipe.  I’ll spare you the details of how it all worked out, but when I was crawling out of the dirt floor basement he said to me “I hope if was worth it.” “What?” I said, wondering what “it” was.   “I know what you were up to last night, think I wasn’t young once?”  He didn’t need to explain at that point that sometimes actions have consequences: I heard him loud and clear.


Full Circle

This is a photo of my father, Verne Stevens, taken in  Lebanon, Oregon 1947 or 1948.   He worked part time here for a short while (The Town Tavern, but I don’t think that is what it was called in 1948) as a bartender a couple nights a week, while also working his regular job at the US Plywood plant where he’d worked since 1936.  (Minus 3 years off to work in Germany as a Machine Gunner in the US Army)  He was trying to save up money to buy a house (GI Bill) so as to entice my mother to move to Lebanon so he could start a family.   (They’d met in Cleveland when he was on his way to the east coast to catch a boat to Europe)

He had his heart set on this brand new, little (949 sq ft) 2 bedroom house.  There were 7 of them in town, all identical:  this one was a little less money ($12,000) as it was located on a truck route at 365 Williams St.. prefab5He managed to buy the little house and my father continued to work in the mill until he passed on in 1960. (The house is listed on Zillow as being worth a tick over $70,000, and last sold in June of last year for $92K, ouch!)e

50 years after that photo was taken, I found myself working behind that exact same bar for 9 months.  (By then called Terri’s Town Tavern , run by Ms. Terri Wiser) I opened up the bar early in the morning a couple days a week.    An interesting fact is that most of the clients at this time of day were men in their 70’s and 80’s who came in to drink coffee and play pool.   Some of them had worked with my dad at the mill, and when they found out who my father was, they started calling me “Verne”.

One of them, Lloyd Randall, the local shoe repairman, (he just came in to drink coffee, no pool for him) was actually a good friend of my father’s and I managed to have a number of conversations with Lloyd; and much of what I do know about my dad, (other than what my mother used to tell me) I know from talking to Lloyd.   Evidently, among other things, my dad was a much better bartender than I was: Lloyd reminded me of this whenever I failed to warm his coffee in a timely fashion.

During that time, I also served as “house guitarist” hosting a Sunday night jam session (actually, the guitar  part went on for five years), and more often than not playing in a revolving collection of players (almost always featuring Terri’s brother, the amazingly talented Larry Wiser, on keys) every weekend.

A bar is sort of a stage for a play with an ever changing cast that gets to make up the script as it goes along.   People tell stories when they drink and it all mixes up together.  They’ll yap away about stuff they’d never say if their tongues weren’t loosened by the alcohol.    Getting a call from a baby sitter who’s employers have all the bars in town on speed dial, would be a unique experience for most people. (“I think they headed over to Wood Chippers to drink some hard liquor.”) Being the only sober person in a room full of drunks is enough to drive you to drink.

Sometimes, after closing, I’d sit down at the bar and marvel that a half-century before me my dad had sat in that very spot and had someone take his picture.   It’s a postcard from another era, a two dimensional time machine.   We were in the same play, even the same theater, but with a slightly different cast.