I started out as a child

 Family 1947

Yeah, I know it’s the name of a Cosby comedy album. I like the title. I started out living in a tent on Mill Street in Springfield, Oregon. We were living in a tent while building the house I would live in until I left for the Navy 18 years later. Anyway, we were probably very poor but it was a different time and that really didn’t matter as much as it does now. Dad was usually away, up in Alaska since that was where a lot of the jobs were. He never worked in a mill which is what most of the men in Springfield did. He was a painter and an artist and so he went where he could do that. I look back on that time and see the freedom I had and the adventures and I realize it was a great time and place to grow up. I was generally gone from sunup to sundown and I don’t think anyone had any idea where I was. I had chores to do and I had to do them but if I had a free day I was gone.

We had the Willamette River about a mile to the south and the McKenzie River about 3 or 4 miles to the north, both within my range, and I spent a lot of time on both of them. We also had the Beacon Hill to the west with a water tower and a large quarry that was fun to slide down on a sled in winter or on a gunny sack in the summer. We also had two sawmills that were built up about 8’ in the air and so the whole underneath was available for exploring and one mill had a wigwam burner that you could climb in under in the vents and get warm in cold weather or just for a dare. The other mill had a large millpond with logs floating in it that was fun for playing on if you didn’t get caught. The railroad ran north to south and the mills were built next to the tracks. So the railroad had trestles and boxcars to play on too.

The chores generally had to do with firewood. We heated and cooked with wood and heated our water and irons with the cook stove. The water heater set next to the stove and had a pipe going through the firebox and into the tank to heat the water. The irons set on top of the stove above the oven to heat. We had a wood stove in the living room for our main heat source. It was my job to split and stack the firewood. We used between 10 and 12 cord a year and the cheapest firewood came from getting pond-lilies from the mill. When a log is hauled in to be sawed after being in the pond for months or a year, it is pretty water-logged and they cut off the end and drop it back into the pond. This is what we bought and had trucked to our house about 3 blocks away and dumped there for me to split and stack. Hopefully, it would dry enough to burn for the next winter. We also got planer ends from the sawmill which we used to get the fire going before we put the heavy stuff on. I spent the whole summer with a wedge and mall or a single-bitted axe cutting up the wood and stacking it.

When we got Pete back from Korea in ‘52 or ’53 he bought mom an electric range which really screwed up the works! We then had to get an electric iron and an electric hot-water heater and mom, who had used that cook stove to can with and cook about a dozen loaves of bread at a time, had to relearn how to cook with electricity. But one thing it did do was reduce the amount of firewood we needed by almost half.

That was about the time that I got my paper route which included the whole west end of Springfield and both the South ‘A’ hill and the Beacon Hill.  Hills are a big deal if you’re pedaling an old, heavy iron bike with a paperbag full of papers.   I delivered the Oregonian which was a morning paper and I had to get up by 4:30 or 5:AM to pedal downtown to get my papers and roll them. I usually finished up deliveries about 7:AM or 7:30 depending on the weather and then it was time for school. On Sundays the papers were bigger and I had more subscribers so it would take a lot longer and I had to have newspapers dropped in several places so I could get them into my paperbag.

So, I worked hard but I also had a lot of time to do a lot of things. Most of my free time was spent on the Willamette River, which at that time was pretty filthy. A lot of towns upriver dumped raw sewage into it and the mills along the river also contributed wastes of many different forms to the river. I fished a lot but mostly for catfish and since they were bottom-feeders, were unfit to eat. No one ate catfish from the Willamette but I’d haul them home and plant them around the trees for fertilizer. I spent quite a few schooldays skipping school and hanging out on the river; usually with a friend or two. We’d build a shelter from the rain and start a fire and smoke driftwood and be generally miserable all day. By the way, if you’re smoking driftwood, don’t take too big a drag on it or you’ll get flames shooting down your throat.

Once, in the slough behind Long’s Community Market at the end of Mill Street, my buddies and I found a dead body floating in the water. Another time, in about the same place, my friend Dickie Mallam found a stash of guns and ammunition. My godfather, Fred Jenkins, was Chief of Detectives for the Springfield Police Department and he came to tell me he knew that Dickie had those guns and for me to tell Dickie to voluntarily hand them over or he’d get in trouble since they were stolen from a business in Glenwood. I told Dickie what Fred Jenkins had told me and Dickie said, “They’ll have to come and take them from me ‘cause I’m not giving them up”! Dickie’s mom found out about it and made Dickie change his mind about holding off the Springfield Police Department in a gun battle. Dickie was about a year younger than I was.

Another time, my friend Kevan Hardenbrook, who lived directly behind me, went with me to explore the Diamond ‘A’ sawmill which had moved to Canada. They left a lot of stuff behind including an equipment shed filled with treasures. I found signal caps which are cardboard packages filled with gunpowder with metal bands attached. You place them on the railroad tracks to signal the train in an emergency. Or, you can hit them with a sledge-hammer and your ears will ring for months and you’ll have powder burns on your hands and face. I also found a wooden box packed with wood shavings and with about a dozen blasting caps in it. I took that home and put it in my dresser where my sister, Omie, found it and told mom about it. Mom flipped out and I had to take them back.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that our property was about half a city block on Mill Street. My sister Theresa occupied the northwest corner, my sister Ginny had the northeast corner and there was a field and an alley and an outhouse between their houses. Near that alley, between our house and Hardenbrook’s house behind us, was an old, junked model T car. One day I discovered that the gas tank in that car still had gas in it. I got some buckets and a hose and proceeded to siphon the gas out of it. Once I had the gas out I really didn’t have a use for it but I sure didn’t want to waste it. I thought that it would be a good use of the gas to use it to purify Ginny’s outhouse so I poured it down the hole and threw in a match. It exploded and a cloud of black, greasy and foul-smelling smoke poured out and covered the Hardenbrook’s house and eventually the whole neighborhood. It burned for hours and I thought it would never stop. It did clean out that outhouse though. I mentioned it to Mildred Hardenbrook, who is in her late 80’s now, a year or so ago and she says she still remembers it vividly.

People would sometimes cut through our yard as a shortcut to get to Mill Street. My sister Ginny had a dog named Pepper. Pepper was a chow and very territorial and Ginny sometimes chained Pepper in our side yard. One day someone tried cutting through our yard and Pepper chased them and might have nipped them, I don’t remember. Anyway, they called the cops and one of Springfield’s finest came to get Pepper. When he approached her, she started growling and barking at him. He pulled his gun and shot her in the head twice. We kids saw the whole thing! When he took the chain off, Pepper revived and ran off. He then offered free movie passes to any kid who would help him catch Pepper. Pepper headed for the mill and hid under the piers and, though there were a lot of kids looking for her, she remained hidden. She came home later and we took her to the vet. She had a bullet hole in her forehead and another through her jaw. She survived but had trouble with abscesses in her jaw from then on. I don’t remember what happened to the cop but I do remember that mom was hopping mad and complained to the Springfield Police. I think Pepper would have been better off if that bullet had killed her. I’m sure she suffered.

I had an interest in chemistry too. I found a recipe for gunpowder and thought it would make a good propellant for a rocket that I planned to build. I mixed up several batches over a period of time in my bedroom trying to perfect the formula. What was powdered rhombic sulfur and potassium nitrate doing in our medicine cabinet in the first place? Who has that stuff lying around? Anyway, that messed up my lungs pretty bad and I had a cough for awhile. It also turned the paint and curtains in my bedroom black. I wonder now, thinking about that, why mom let me get away with that. She must have smelled it! I never did get the formula right. It always made a lot of smoke and never burned clean enough to give me the confidence to use it in a rocket.

I guess my childhood is why I was always thankful that I had girls.


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One Comment on “I started out as a child”

  1. […] I started out as a child  November 5, […]

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