Yearend letter 2013

Friday the thirteenth of December 2013 lived up to its reputation, because when I bumped into Ralphito, as he is now known, he told me that the Odd Fellows Hall had a little problem, which would not be all that unusual, since it was built in 1920 and had a healthy dose of what some folks call “deferred maintenance” but which in the old days we just called “neglect.” But since we did, with the generous help of several philanthropic foundations and our main tenant, the Soroptimist Thrift Store in the basement, put about $100,000 into the structure, including a new roof and insulation and three new one-ton ceiling beams which took a crane and twenty-five volunteers and a handy window and a bit of fancy maneuvering to get into the building, plus a case of donated beer afterwards, which come to think of it means one volunteer didn’t get a beer, because 25 is bigger than 24 (but let me tell you, that odd man out was not me), we expected that we’d taken care of most of the problems.

Except that it turns out there was this one piece of plumbing that none of us knew about, where in retrospect we think those old Odd Fellows had put in a drinking fountain, because they had fancy ideas back when all the fraternal organizations, which are mostly dying off now, were in their prime. Because those old boys had figured out that this piece of plumbing was problematic when the weather would get cold and freeze things and then warm up and thaw them out, and that is when old cracked galvanized pipes will give you trouble, they had installed a stop and waste valve to shut off the water to this one particular piece of plumbing.

But the one fellow living who knew about that stop and waste valve neglected to tell anyone else about it, and probably forgot all about it himself, life being full of other expectations and obligations, until, when the water was caving in the new insulation over the Soroptimists’ donation sorting room and destroying their new floor and dumping about a foot of water down in the Odd Fellows sub-basement, (the basement below the basement, one step closer to Hell), why then when Ralphito got that one living fellow over to the hall, he remembered that stop and waste valve and they pulled all of the dolls and clothes and knick-knacks that people had donated to the Soroptimists off the lid where that valve was hidden and they turned the water off, and then pumped out most of the thousands of gallons of water that had done all the damage, but even then there was still a bit of a mess, and then I bumped into Ralphito on the street and he said we have a little problem over at the hall.

We’d had a work party planned anyway for Saturday the 14th, to do some more gussifying of our building with its newly beefed up and insulated and painted main dance hall, but instead we put on our heavy work gloves and descended into the sub-basement, where the old boys had installed a pot-bellied wood stove and had decided to store all the scrap wood they ever came across, including acres of ponderosa pine slabs with the bark on but coming off, and strips and chunks and slivers of leftover two by fours, and everything in between, of which the bottom foot or so was as waterlogged as some old Spanish galleon that had sunk to the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle.

But there wasn’t any gold bullion down there, I can tell you that, because I and five other boys, every one of us well over fifty years old, except for one who’s not even close to fifty and who didn’t show up because he was busy drinking mimosas for breakfast with a couple of friends of his, we handled every chunk of that wood and all the little bits of ponderosa pine bark and sawdust that had turned into black waterlogged crud, about two cords worth, or two hundred fifty six cubic feet, which we fished out of that sub-basement like a chain gang slaving away in the hold of that sinking Spanish galleon, and we filled up about a dozen truckloads and trailer loads of crappy old mill ends and slabs and chunks of waterlogged wood, constituting, when they weren’t waterlogged, an unholy fire hazard, so, as Ralphito said by way of consolation, it was something we should have done a long time ago.

Other than the fact that I slipped and fell down twice in that muddy goo, it was all right, because all the wet kept the dust down, and there I was working side by side with one Brother who I’ve known for about 30 years and used to own the OK Theater and would complain just incessantly about what a yoke that place was, it being built about the same time as the very same sinking Spanish galleon we were bailing out, and then he finally sold it after 18 years, and no sooner did he sell it than I caught him lamenting how sad he was ever since he “lost” the theater, but I caught him on that one and he’s never used that language since.

And another Brother who I’ve only known for maybe 10 or 15 years, him and his wife being newcomers to the county, and he used to be some sort of professor over on the west side, and he likes to take the long view in any conversation, which is that in the long run we’re all dead and the earth’s just going to be a lifeless ball floating through space or consumed in the eventual explosion of the sun, so what exactly is all the fuss about the environment and social justice and climate change and Obamacare and just about anything else you can think of? This used to bother me some, but lately I’ve maybe come around to his point of view so we get along all right, which is a good thing when you’re standing in the hold of a sinking Spanish galleon handing load after load of mill ends to each other.

And then there was the Brother who just recently returned to the county after an absence of maybe twenty years and I visited him and his family once or twice over there in Salem, which was an all right place to live but it wasn’t Wallowa County, so when the kids got off to college he got himself back here, and since he got back we’ve played music once like we used to in the old days, when we played old-timey and Irish music and even formed a band called the Celtic Cowboys and made a cassette tape which is now a collector’s item, and some hard-drinkin’ cowboy bar over in the mill town of Elgin heard about us, but heard the Cowboy part more than the Celtic part and wondered if they could pay us to come down and play our music some Saturday night and we just said, “Thank you very much, but we don’t think so.” It felt good to play and sing with my Brother again, and we sang the Milwaukee Blues, which always was one of his favorites and mine now too, and it felt good to be working side by side with him.

And another Brother who isn’t exactly an Odd Fellow yet but there he was, helping out, I think he got hit pretty hard this past year when his good friend, maybe his very best friend, up and died from pneumonia not much beyond 60, and that friend was a friend to all of us too, and every time I saw that friend he had a smile and a laugh on his lips and it was a shame that he went so young. That hit my Brother pretty hard so it felt good to be working side by side with him and ribbing him about not having the good sense to just walk away from this dirty nasty job since he wasn’t even an Odd Fellow, and all the while me remembering how some 20 or 30 years ago when I was younger and more foolish than I am now this Brother and his wife threw a Halloween party and I showed up as a pirate complete with a fifth of Clipper Ship rum, which, in pirate-like fashion, I proceeded to drink, and then drove down to the Fireplace for a bit of dancing, but not before clipping the corner of his little blue impeccable Fiat on the way out his driveway, and I’m not proud of that or of driving while being three sheets to the wind and heeling way over and taking on water, but I’m getting close to 60 myself and who knows when I might go, or when any of us might go, so I might as well up and out with the truth right now so as to give you the real story, ugly as it might be.

One thing I can tell you is that my Brother never would let me pay him for the damage to that little blue impeccable Fiat, which he continued to drive for some number of years, him insisting that it wasn’t worth the money it would take to fix it, and I thought and always have thought that was pretty big of him, and I was probably thinking about that in the back of my mind as we swabbed out that hold. And then there was Ralphito, who I’ve known just about since I moved here back in 1980, and who has gotten me into enough trouble by planting ideas of one kind or another in my head, that I better just stop talking about him right now.

The first time I fell down in the hold I sprained my left thumb, and it hurt bad enough that I took off my glove and inspected it and flexed both it and my right thumb in order to compare the relative degrees of pain and make sure I hadn’t broken it. My right thumb provided a good yard stick because I did break it on July 1 while working for the Forest Service, or Forest Circus as many people around here are happy to call it. I was way out near Lord Flat, which, to get to by vehicle, you have got to plan on a full day of driving and use four wheel drive low and not look too hard over the edge. When a six inch diameter meat pole that was tied up about ten feet off the ground with baling twine and fence wire fell all of a sudden onto my thumb, which was busy working on that fence wire, it shattered the last bone into three pieces, and although I didn’t know for a fact at the time that it was broken I distinctly remember hearing a little voice say, “I think maybe I just busted my thumb,” so I splinted it with an empty plastic mechanical pencil lead container and a few wraps of duct tape, and that worked well enough that for the next day or two I finished up my business cleaning messes out there on Lord Flat before putting that big Forest Circus rig back into four wheel drive low and driving back to town with the truck bed full of garbage, and went to the doctor and got to see the picture of exactly how many pieces my thumb had been shattered into.

So I spent the next few months wearing a splint, only the doctor’s splint wasn’t nearly as good as mine, and in fact when the doc, who happened to be a Brother too, saw my splint he admired it and said he would buy such a splint from me if I were to go into the business of manufacturing them. Whichever splint I happened to be wearing at the moment didn’t keep me from keeping on the job, which consisted of a lot more plain unpleasant heavy manual labor, moving big boulders and logs around in a valiant but I am afraid possibly vain attempt to keep people from destroying the wilderness through ignorance or not caring, which is how, maybe, we cause most of the damage we inflict in all realms of life. But then again, in the end it’s all just going to be a lifeless ball floating through space, so No Worries.

In between bailing out the Good Ship Odd Fellow and misadventures out at Lord Flat, I kept busy with African drumming, and going to dinner at some friends’ cabin where I was treated to a solo trombone performance, and missing my 40th class reunion but making my friend’s 60th birthday party where we mostly played music and drank whiskey but not too much because we are none of us too young anymore, and housing two young Whitman College lady student interns who learned how to sew on my sewing machine and kicked my butt once or twice playing soccer, and having a little unnecessary accident that resulted in an unnecessary trip to the ER in my first-ever ambulance ride during which the EMT rightfully complained to me about the state of education these days and which privilege cost me more money, even with insurance, than I even want to think about, but in the course of which I did learn that I have a heart abnormality called a Right Bundle Branch Block and now I carry a little card in my wallet saying so.

And going to my adoptive niece’s college graduation up in Spokane where not one single student in a graduating class of over 600 bright and promising and hard-working young men and women got a four-point and I admired that and thought that’s the way it ought to be, four-points are way too easily come by these days, and afterwards that niece and her family came out to where I was camped by the Spokane River which was running high in flood stage and we sat around the campfire, and that’s the way it ought to be, too.

And besides that I had to get a new passport, which gave me reason to compare my new photo to my old photo and gawk at the difference, and then I used that passport to go for my third time to El Salvador, this time without my friend Gilligan but with some other folks including Ralphito, and maybe the most electric moment for me was while we were driving out to the little village of El Progreso, which drive rivals that drive to Lord Flat, and recognizing one of the little corrugated tin-roofed shacks by the side of the jungle road and hollering from the back of the van to the driver, “Halto por favor, Don Julio!” and Don Julio stopping on a dime, which was easy since we were climbing up the mountain on that rutted dirt road.

I opened the sliding window and leaned out and yelled, “Ceci!” and Ceci, whose round and angelic face reminds me of my friend Flipper, she looked at me and saw the beard, which has since gone away, but which fortunately I still had at that time, and she recognized me because of that beard, despite the fact that we had not been in any kind of touch for eight years, she and her husband Ademir and their five kids just being campesinos and not having email or even a handy post office. She came up to the van and we hugged with me hanging about halfway out the window, but we didn’t say too much because I can barely speak any Spanish nor her any English, but we said what we had to say with that hug.

And I saw Mama Hilda and Papa Angel and the little village didn’t look too different, which is to say dirt floors and tin roofs and corn and beans and coffee plantations and a woman, someone’s relative no doubt, cooking up pupusas by the dozen in an earthen oven and I wished we could have stayed for some of those pupusas and conversation to go with, but we were in a rush and I had to leave about a week sooner than I wanted to.

After a two-week hiatus during which I tried unsuccessfully to fight off a nasty cold I caught on the airplane, because that is what everybody blames when they get sick on a trip, even if they didn’t fly, my daughter Angela and her boyfriend got me a round-trip Amtrak ticket from Portland to San Francisco and back so I could visit for Thanksgiving, and I had a sleeper car compartment called a “roomette,” which is right because it measured 3.5 feet by 6.5 feet, but I spent most of my time hobnobbing in the dining car with its white linen, or the parlor car with its feeling of a 1950s roadside café, and enjoyed first rate service from the staff, including a couple of wine and cheese tastings and the pleasure of being accosted every time I headed up to my sleeper car. “Are you staying in one of the sleeper cars?” they’d ask, because they were just making sure I wasn’t one of the riff-raff riding in the coach cars, trying to sneak into the Promised Land of the sleeper cars, instead of trying unsuccessfully to get a good night’s sleep in a coach seat on a seventeen-hour train ride, which I have done in the past and it wasn’t too comfortable.

I had a good visit with Angela and for her birthday we went to the horse races because it was Dollar Day and admission and hot dogs and beer were all a dollar, and the minimum bet was two dollars, and they give you a little book explaining how to bet, which was a good thing for me since I had never been to the horse races before, but now I know exactly the difference between win, place, and show, and what a trifecta is, and I bet on two races and won both times and would have walked away three dollars richer than I walked in, except I bought a hot dog and two beers, so it was a wash.

In October I met up with most of my siblings and we all visited my dad at his adult foster home in Washington. He’s now working on 86 years old but he doesn’t know it, just like he doesn’t know that he’s the last one left, all his brothers and sisters gone now, and his wife our mom has been gone six years, but that he remembers because she’s not there by his side, although remembering that doesn’t keep him from sometimes enjoying a little kiss with one of the old ladies who live there. One such kiss we all witnessed, which was wonderful in part because, the two of them maybe thinking they were married to each other, they were, in a way, paying homage to their spouses, even though her spouse is still alive and well.

I played what was probably my last cribbage game with Dad, because when he stops to think about counting his hand he just can’t do it anymore, he who taught us all how to play and who hand-crafted each one of his four kids cribbage boards in the shape of a 29, which is the most points you can score in cribbage but is so rare I’ve never seen it happen. I was ahead but on the last hand he got sixteen, which is a pretty good hand even if I had to help him count it, and he beat me by just one or two points. And I suppose in the end this place is just going to be a lifeless flaming ball, but in the meantime I am enjoying my friends and family, and trying to do a little good work here and there, and casting about for a kiss once in a while, and I hope you all are too.

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