Category Archives: Othello

The Day the Mountain Came to Town

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

The view of Mount Saint Helens from the summit of Mount Adams on July 4, 1976.

On the 200th anniversary of our country’s birth my cousin Dale and I joined one of the last mass climbs of Mount Adams in south-central Washington. I left from work on the Friday afternoon, drove to Yakima to pick him up, and we went to a campground outside Trout Lake to spend the night. Of course the excitement and the noise of all the other campers kept us awake all night. I don’t remember getting any sleep at all.

We were rousted out for the climb around 3:00 in the morning. We received some orientation and instructions and lined up to begin the climb. One of the instructions was to stay in line and not to pass those ahead of us. We were young and strong. Many of those ahead of us were neither, so the temptation  to violate that rule was strong.

We reached tree-line just before dawn, and that morning provided one of the most spectacular views I will ever see. We watched the ghostly pale peak of Mount Saint Helens emerge from the night, turning raspberry pink, then dazzling white. Before it erupted, Saint Helens was nearly perfectly symmetrical. As we strapped on our crampons and struggled to keep our places in line, we watched Mount Saint Helens in the distance, a graceful and beautiful mountain that later proved to be powerful and dangerous. Continue reading

Remember This

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle "Remember Us."

Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart left photographs of themselves inside a banjo ukulele, as a gentle “Remember Us.”

My family has long had a close relationship to the making of music. If you go back far enough in my mother’s family, we were probably connected to the German composer of operas and organ music, Johann Georg Kühnhausen, whose Matthäus-Passion (Saint Matthew’s Passion) is still occasionally performed. But for the most part, we played much more informally.

My father and several of his buddies toured around Eastern Washington in the 1930s and 1940s, playing dances in little towns like Othello and White Bluffs as the Five Jives. Two of his brothers were members of a long-lasting semi-professional band that formed under Steve Laughery in Moses Lake and which continued to tour the west after Laughery died in a landslide. The memory of these bands survive in some of the artifacts we still possess, some sheet music inscribed with “Five Jives” and a couple of vinyl albums from the Many Sounds of Nine, my uncles’ band. I have written before about the old violin my father used to play, passed on to him from one of my mother’s uncles. I use it to play dance music in a couple of contra-dance bands in Northwestern Washington now.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name "Elton" is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

There are no markings on the instrument to indicate how old it it. The name “Elton” is stamped on the metal resonator ring.

Last month I found a very interesting instrument, seemingly meant for me. It had a peculiar back story and it fit a special niche in a musician’s repertoire. For there will always be a time when you want to create the most annoying sound you can musically make. In this case, with a banjo ukulele. Continue reading

Home Alone

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

As the youngest of six children, I was rarely offered the opportunity to be by myself when I was growing up. It wasn’t until my older brothers and sisters began college that our little house started to provide nooks or rooms where I could be alone. For time alone, I hiked, but that wasn’t alone time either: the dog always had to come along. That I didn’t mind.

I wasn’t necessarily anti-social, I just liked to curl up in silence with a good book sometimes. Sometimes I wanted to be able to watch whatever I really wanted to watch on the television. Whatever KHQ in Spokane offered, that is. I was 16 years old before I got the chance to really be alone.

In August of 1970 my parents decided to take a brief a vacation. I don’t recall what the occasion was, maybe one of those trips they made to Seattle so they could attend a Seattle Symphony performance. One of the difficulties they faced in doing things like that is that someone still had to change the water, feed the horse and chickens, collect the eggs and water the garden. On this particular occasion I hastened to volunteer to take care of the place. I was 14, and I was the only child left at home. Somehow, my parents agreed that I should mind the farm all by myself.

How can I portray the boundless joy it gave me to be the master of my own farm? As I watched the station wagon leave a trail of drifting dust behind it, as it signaled left and headed west on Highway 26, I was filled with glee. There was nobody here to tell me what to do, to spy on me and to criticize me.

There had been, over the previous weeks, a few mysterious haystack fires that summer. An activist union calling itself the National Farmers Organization had been attempting to raise the price of hay. Some of the more militant activists among them targeted haystacks and hay trucks with sabotage or fire. The one word of advice my father had for me as he left was to keep an eye on our haystack. It was a wall of hay twenty feet high running along the lower edge of our alfalfa field, right next to the highway. My father’s admonition made me feel important, and I climbed into the 1948 Ford pickup to check on the haystack several times that day.

I checked the last time after darkness fell. The headlights of the truck cast a cone of visibility on the ruts of the access road. Tall grass grew right up to the edge of the road and the wheel ruts had a strip of grass between them, shorn to a constant height by the undercarriage of the pickup. As I wheeled onto this road the lights revealed a dark shape filling one of the ruts ahead of me. It moved. As I approached the badger turned to face me, a devilish face full of snarling teeth and white stripes at oblique angles. For a moment it looked like the badger intended to attack my truck, but then it turned to flee. Being a teenager, I did the most humane thing I could think of: I sped up and chased that badger down the ruts. It had no exit for a while, with dense walls of unbroken grass on both sides. The fat beast wobbled back and forth, glancing over its shoulder as I kept my distance from it. Finally it plunged into the ditch on the left side of the road. All was clear at the haystack.

That night was perhaps the spookiest night I ever spent. In the house alone, with total darkness beyond the plate glass windows, I heard every creak and pop of the dead wood as it cooled in the night. A breath of wind found gaps in the window frames, chilling the back of my neck. It was just me, the dog and the television in the dark. And on that television, Psycho. I squirmed in my seat. Suddenly the bathroom, across the dark hallway, seemed far too far away. The only light in the house was in the room I was in. I didn’t even want to raid the freezer for the ice cream I had planned on eating. Our freezer stood in the damp, cob-webbed basement, too much like a Hitchcock set to allow me to be brave. In fact, I didn’t move from the couch through the entire movie. And when it was over, time to go to bed, I developed a strategy for turning on lights in the next room before turning off the ones in the room I was leaving behind.

Well and good. Lights out in the living room and the television was off. I had the lights on in the bathroom. I closed and locked the door, although there was nobody else in the house. I peeled down my pants and sat down on the toilet. Instantly there was a deafening, inhuman shriek outside the window, the only lighted window in the house. I found myself screaming, squirming face down on the tiles of the floor. I scrambled into my parents’ room and snatched up my grandfather’s Winchester. In my haste, I left it unloaded. Trembling with fear I barricaded myself in the bathroom, slowly getting my breath back. I came up with a satisfactory explanation for the scream: my actions must have startled a visiting coyote. Still, I knew what terror there was in darkness. I had just watched Psycho.

I slept soundly in spite of the incident. But when I rose in the morning and looked out the dining room window I was stunned to count at least nine columns of smoke rising from various places to the north in Grant County. I rushed outside to look at our haystack. No smoke, but there was a silver pickup parked on the edge of the highway close to the stack. I waited for it to leave before driving our old green pickup out to the haystack. I searched around the haystack but found nothing alarming.

As I fried up some eggs and bacon I realized I was looking forward to my parents’ return later that day.

In the Wind

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards.

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards. It operated until 1987, the last of the plutonium producing reactors.

This image is a work of a United States Department of Energy (or predecessor organization) employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Growing up near Othello in the 1960s, we developed a macabre pride over being so near an important target for Soviet missiles. We knew that something vast and threatening was happening just over the hill from our home—it was only eleven miles from our house to the nearest of Hanford’s nuclear plants. But we didn’t live with fear. Like Richland High School, whose football team was called The Bombers, and whose helmets sported a mushroom cloud, we took pride in having the world’s largest plutonium factory in our back yard. Truth to be told, we were even a bit jealous of the fact that most of the workers at Hanford lived in places like the Tri Cities and Sunnyside. On the other hand, rumor on the playground at Lutacaga Elementary School was that, if the Russians took out McChord Airforce Base, Othello’s radar station would be in command of the entire west coast. Continue reading

Best Wishes for a Happy Holiday

The author resists a perplexed Earhart Meyer, acting as the local drugstore Santa Claus in Othello in the late 1950s.

The author resists a perplexed Earhart Meyer, acting as the local drugstore Santa Claus in Othello in the late 1950s.

Legends of the Ice Cave

Beneath this towering cliff and rubble fallen from it lie the remains of the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave.

There has been a fair amount of mystery concerning the Saddle Mountain Ice Cave. Even today you’ll find inquiries about it on internet chat sites. Over the years, locals disagreed on lots of points concerning this phenomenon. Some said it was a natural cavern, a huge chamber full of glittering perpetual ice. Others said it wasn’t really anything more than a big root cellar where people kept chunks of ice they would cut out of Crab Creek in the wintertime. Some people even doubt its existence. But it’s there.

Virtually all that’s left of the Ice Cave is a pile of old timbers and the remains of the massive wooden doorframe.

The Ice Cave is about four miles west of the end of the paving on the old Corfu Highway after you leave Smyrna, around eight miles from Beverly. It’s difficult to spot the remains from the roadway, so look for a large alkali clearing in front of it and a huge slope of tumbled rock flanking its other three sides. Continue reading