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———–


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.

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.

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.

Haunted House?

When I was a child in Lebanon, Oregon, this house was known as the “haunted house” in the neighborhood.   It was surrounded by hugely overgrown hedges and the front porch was wrapped in dark, discolored plastic.   It really did have a spooky aspect to it.

In the fall of 1964 my parents bought the old house, (The photo was taken around 1900, the house was built in 1890) and we moved into the ground floor.   At the time, the house was being used as a rooming house: (as it had been since the end of WW2, and it was more than a little worse for wear) there were three tenants upstairs, and one who lived out back in the former carriage house that was now attached to the rear of the house.

My parents bought the house with the understanding that the tenants would be allowed to continue to live there for six months, but all of them were gone within about 90 days.   The entire infrastructure of the house was overburdened.  The main source of heat in the main part of the house was an oil stove in the living room.  The stove pipe passed through the center of  a circular cast iron register set in the ceiling up to the second floor.  In the second floor apartment there was an additional radiator like device with a small built in fan to extract  the remaining heat from the stove pipe before it took a 90 degree turn into the brick chimney leading to the roof.

The wiring was all in the old knob and post fashion with the lighting fixtures having cloth insulated wires running from the switches (which were either rotary devices or two push button types) up the wall and across the ceiling:  the house was built in the 1890’s prior to electrification.   The plumbing fixtures were all from the 20’s, with two claw footed cast iron bathtubs.   The two bathrooms were added at some point after the initial construction where the two halves of the house came together, (the house being shaped like a “T”) off to the side of the kitchen, so as to minimize the additional plumbing needed to add indoor plumbing.

The house lacked a perimeter foundation with beams supported by posts sitting on large rocks set in to the earth.   It was sagging in places and the east end was a couple inches lower than the west.   During the next 15 years my stepdad  (a sheet metal guy: he also grew up on a farm) upgraded virtually all the systems in the house, installing central heating, rewiring most of it, adding insulation where possible, re roofing it, remodeling the bathrooms and kitchen, and leveling the house by pouring some concrete pads and adding supports.  We had to raise the entire house with jacks to do this.

I received a real education in construction during all of this.   My step dad explained everything he was doing to me, and took the time to show me interesting details.  How the house originally was put together with square nails and how and where the additions had been added.   I wanted a more “modern” room and so we remodeled it and it was the only room with sheet rock,  wall to wall carpet, and a modern closet in the whole house.  We converted the upstairs apartment that had a kitchen into her art studio, and she worked in the garden to convert a virtual jungle (blackberry thickets, etc) into something that that was nice to look at out of the 16 panel window that faced the morning sun.

My step dad passed on in 1979 and never had the chance to “finish” the house the way they’d planned.   I moved to California in 1980.  My mom was going to sell the house and move to California to move in with her sister who was also recently widowed.   She never could get herself to sellthe place, however.  She’d lived in Lebanon for over 30 years at that point and she just loved that house.    She lived there by herself for the next 20 years.   I spent my summer vacations for the next decade visiting her and trying to do whatever repairs were needed.  Many of my friends also helped her when she needed things done or they’d show up with a cord of wood or fix her garage door.

In 1990 she fell down the stairs and I ended up returning to Oregon.   I spent a lot of the next decade getting reaquainted with virtually every aspect of that house.  I replaced all the toilets, much of the rest of the plumbing, painted the entire house twice and replaced the floor in her bathroom, it always seemed to be something.  I got to know the guy at the hardware store real well.   I tried to get her to sell the place and get something smaller, cheaper and a lot newer, but she wasn’t buying into it.  Those of you who knew my mother understand fully that getting her to change her mind was out of the question.

My mom passed away in November of 1999 at the age of 89.   She’d lived the last 34 years of her life (she was only hospitalized for 2 weeks) in that house, and her ashes are scattered in her garden in the back yard.   I think she probably lived in the house longer than any other occupant.

It’s changed hands twice since then, and If you wish to read a little more about it, here’s a link to a historical house website: http://www.ci.lebanon.or.us/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=2145

Many people told me I should have kept it.   It was my mother’s dream, not mine, and I was tired of worrying about it.  I didn’t love it and after my mom the house was used to having someone who loved it take care of it and preserve it.    People often send me photos of it, and here’s the latest one:

I think my mom would be happy with this.      I should probably send the current owners a copy of this post, after all, I know the address.  They might find this interesting.

My mom also collected antiques: she was also an oil painter and the house was full of her paintings.   It was a little like growing up in a museum.  That probably explains a lot.