The Umpqua River Valley
by Garry DeLong
It was paradise, the verdant jewel of the Umpqua River valley, set in Western Oregon. Our new stepfather and our mother brought my twin sister and I to live here in our fourth year.
We arrived in the valley with very little money. Dad found work logging and rented a fishing cabin at Sawyer Rapids, one of several tiny shacks in a ramshackle riverside court. Our accommodations were basic, served by a privy just over the bank, almost to the river. The roadway that served the cabins was also our playground. I remember dancing around in a circle with my twin sister singing, "We're five, we're five!"
In the unit next door lived kindly old Stacy. Stacy, with a big nose and a perennial smile, was quick with a penny or a piece of candy. One night Stacy had a heart attack and mom and dad went next door to help. Mom was a Registered Nurse and she knew that it was a massive coronary. It was 1949 and little could have been done. Mom knew he didn't have a chance.
"I know I'm goin'," Stacy whispered. "Don't let them take me to one of them hospitals. I want to stay at home."
About an hour later, dad came back and retrieved a blanket from our bedroom closet.
"Is Stacy dead yet?" we ask in a hushed voice.
"Nope, " dad quietly replied, "He's still alive."
A couple of hours later dad returned a second time.
We ask again. "Is Stacy dead yet?"
"Yup," dad nodded. "Stacy's dead."
Despite this lesson about the finite nature of life, most times were happy. A few months later, dad was doing well enough for us to move us down the road to a tiny, brown-shingled house. Compared to the fishing shack this was luxurious.
The little house was about ½ mile from the little Sawyer Rapids store. Dad and I walked to the store once. I don't remember what we needed or why the family car was unavailable, but the ½ mile seemed an immense distance and a great adventure. I remember the store's soda machine. Red with sloped shoulders. Tall, like dad. Coca-cola 5¢.
Sometimes my dad and I would walk down to the river at night. We would build a fire at the water's edge and fish for catfish. Attracted by the fire, the spiny prey readily accepted our bait. Several happy hours later, with most of a gunnysack full of our prizes, we would trudge up the trail and across the highway to our tiny house.
Much of our diet, including the catfish, consisted of food that we grew, fished for, or hunted ourselves. We had a large garden just across the highway. The fertile river soil produced a bounty of vegetables. That which was excess to our immediate needs was canned and some was even sold; an occasional passing car responding to a makeshift sign stuck in our front lawn. When we needed meat, dad would get his rifle and walk up the forest-covered hill back of the house to a beautiful glen. There was no thought of a hunting license, for the taking of game to feed a hungry family was not considered wrong by either the inhabitants or the law enforcement in the valley. Deer abounded, but sometimes it was hours before he would return. Dad usually did not shoot the first deer that stopped to graze in the small natural meadow. He would usually pass up does, fawns, and the most magnificent specimens, preferring that we ate the mundane. So often I remember him saying, "God, that was a pretty little forked horn. I just couldn't shoot him."
One year, tired of venison, dad raised a steer. Blackie could be mean, and often would chase us if we dare violate his fenced territory. When the time was right, dad butchered Blackie.
"Is this Blackie?" we would ask in small voices, while seated around the dinner table.
"Yup," dad would nod. "This is Blackie." Dad always tried to set an example of truthfulness. Still, I remember having a very hard time swallowing the meat.
The climate in our valley helped make it an ideal place to raise livestock. It rarely snowed, instead raining enough to nourish the lush forest that surrounded us. During the warm summer months, the river beckoned. Many of the best Umpqua River swimming holes were lined with a smooth basalt shelf just above the water line, a natural sundeck.
Another popular summer pastime involved my twin sister and myself lying on our backs on the grass in the front yard and staring at the clouds, playing association games. One cloud would look like a sheep. Another like a car. A third like a tree. And so we exercised our developing imaginations.
One day we had just come in from naming clouds, when an old man knocked on our faded wooden door. His face was wrinkled and bearded, his clothes tattered and faded. My mother opened the door.
"Please, mamn, I'm very hungry. Could you spare me somethin' to eat?"
"Of course," replied my mother quickly, as if the answer were only a formality. "A sandwich? Peanut Butter?"
The old man nodded agreeably. My twin sister and I watched him from inside the house as he waited, sitting on our small wooden porch and staring unfocused across the highway and into the trees on the other side. Mother brought the sandwich. As he ate, our eyes were still on him. We continued to stare, our six-year old minds trying to understand his place in our rapidly unfolding world. He looked so old, his face sad and resigned. We wondered. Could people really get food just by asking strangers for it?
He finished eating. He licked his fingers, slowly, deliberately, seeking a few persistent smears of peanut butter and remaining crumbs of mom's homemade bread.
"Thank you, Mamn," he murmured back through the open door as he stood up. My mother nodded casually and he plodded down the porch steps and unhurriedly down the road. My sister and I stood on the porch, still staring at the old man as he walked away.
There came a year when our lush forest burned. It was the fall and mom was pregnant with my sister Margaret. We could not see the blue of the sky for the haze of smoke. When the angry flames crested the hill behind the house. Mom started praying. Dad was busy wetting down the roof with a garden hose in an effort to protect the house from the burning cinders falling all around us. I think he was probably praying too. When the fire was halfway down the hill the wind changed, forcing the fire back upon itself, on ground already burned. Starved for fuel, the portion of the fire that threatened us died out and providing a protective buffer of burned terrain for the rest of the fire season.
Although mom and dad prayed that day, the family did not go to church. I suspect that dad's independent nature did not mesh well with established religion. Instead, on Sunday morning, he would gather us together and tell us bible stories, stories light on dogma but full of love, kindness, and tolerance. Because of these mornings of parables, our knowledge of the Bible was destined to impress Sunday School teachers throughout much of our childhood.
The April following the fire, Margaret was born. Even before she was able to walk, she was talking in full sentences.
"Where are you going, daddy?" Every morning she insisted on knowing as dad donned his logging clothes.
"I'm goin' to the Scoogum,"
"Take me to the Scoogum daddy!"
"Nope, you're too little to go to the Scoogum."
I don't know where the term Scoogum came from. Perhaps it was Swedish for woods, Swedish being the nationality of many of dad's fellow loggers.
Mom hated logging. It was dangerous in the extreme and every day she feared for my father's safety. There came the day that dad and one other logger were "gypo" (gypo: small and independent) logging a small parcel of timberland just a quarter mile up the road from our house. Dad showed up, ashened faced, back at the house about noon.
"Barney?" Even as she said his name, mom could tell by his face that something was wrong.
"I guess you'd better call an ambulance. Won't do much good though. Howard's dead. A tree fell on him."
Howard had been falling a tree when he realized the there was a log lying in the spot where the newly-cut tree needed to fall.
"I gotta go buck that log," he shouted to dad.
"Don't leave that tree standing on that cut!" dad warned.
"Ah, hell," snorted Howard, "There's plenty of wood holding that tree."
Howard went on down the hill. The wind came up and dad heard a groan and then a crack. He howled at Howard, but Howard could hear nothing over the growl of his chain saw. The large Douglas Fir landed on him precisely. He never knew what hit him.
Mom stared at dad, her mouth agape, as he told her. She crossed the room to the cranked wooden telephone that hung on the wall.
"Operator?" She vigorously cranked the requisite number of times.
"Operator," a bored voice responded.
"Lucy, we need an ambulance at our house."
Suddenly, Lucy wasn't bored anymore
"Oh! What's happened? What's happened?"
"Lucy! Just get me the damned Ambulance!"
Several voices came over the party line at once.
"Who's hurt? Is anybody dead? What's goin' on?" All the eavesdroppers who made a hobby of knowing the goings-on up and down the highway were very excited.
"Just get the ambulance!" mom retorted angrily and hung up the phone.
Dad never logged again. Not a single day. He rented a house for us in Reedsport, the next town down the road of any size, and found a job cutting meat in a small grocery at $90 per week, a fraction of his previous income. Our stay in Paradise was at an end.
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