Grants Pass, 1943
Across the mountains of Southern Oregon flows a mighty errant river in a great hurry to blend its waters with those of the Pacific Ocean. Early French visitors called it Coquins (rogues) describing the local Indians. It could also have been called that for its wild changes of behavior between hairpin bends and boiling rapids before suddenly flattening out into sleepy pristine waters where native fish shelter beneath overhanging trees.
This was the Rogue River of my father’s youth, where he developed his love of the outdoors, nature and fishing. My grandfather raised cattle outside of town and was the only butcher in Grants Pass. They say he was a master sausage maker.
My Sweetland Grandparents, Walter and Tena, raised six children, my father coming in towards the end. He was a trickster and a tease who wasted a lot of school time trying to prove the teacher wrong. He was smart, and a smart alec. He was excellent at solving math problems but a lousy teacher. He had no patience for stupidity, so I stopped doing math in the 4th grade.
Each of us in our family have our memories of the Rogue. One of my daughters shudders remembering being caught in a rapid between the rocks, so the Rogue was not a happy river for her. Much later I tried my initial foray into water-skiing on the Rogue. Having risen to the occasion on a single ski, I chose never to do it again. Probably none of us felt the magnetizing pull of the River as my father did after the War. The clarion call of home had been ringing in his heart for too many years.
Arriving in Grants Pass, I was a stranger to cousins I had never known, and family history better left between the pages of history. Dad’s sister Ardith had two boys I liked; the youngest, Bud, a wild kid who loved to jump off the bridge at the park in Grants Pass, grew up to be a railroad engineer, and his brother Walter who became a worm farmer.
Aunt Hazel’s brother Uncle Charlie owned the pool hall in town where we went for ice cream, committed suicide one morning before work. I don’t recall with perfect clarity whether that was before or after we found out his daughter Doris was a prostitute.
All of these things were debated with great interest with Aunt Hazel’s dog Bounce, whom she swore could talk. Sitting out in the sheep barn with him we discussed Life’s great imponderables. Bounce was well known for carrying a basket of gladiolus at the head of the annual Caveman Parade.
In Grants Pass I temporarily changed my name to Arvie, sang in the jazz band, was on the debating team, found I was not good at team sports, fell in love again, and began to smoke cigarettes.
Once a week, sitting in a fire lookout on top of the mountain as enemy plane spotters, my girlfriend and I were enveloped in blue smoke as we puffed ill-gotten cigarettes, happily ignorant of health issues, our only fear of future consequences coming from our parents.
I was hired at the local soda fountain at fifteen, after assuring the owner I was sixteen and would bring proof soon. My new boss had at one time been a serious suitor of my Dad’s older sister, Aunt Arline. Though he asked again for my work permit, he did not pressure me and I was allowed keep scooping ice cream and making the skimpy tuna sandwiches he required. On good days I was permitted to help make the ice cream with another High School student, a boy who became another casualty of the War in another year.
The new sensation of being recognized because of my name in this town, gave rise to an unfamiliar sense of belonging. I began to understand the meaning of “home”.