Grants Pass 1942
How do I recapture those few months after Pearl Harbor? With Japanese subs patrolling along the west coast it became apparent that we were moving again; this time my mother and I would go to Grants Pass, Oregon, my father’s home town. The only specifics I remember of that time are that I graduated from the 9th grade, turned 14, and my father’s mother, Grandma Tena Grey Sweetland passed quietly from this world to the next. She was laid to rest in the family cemetery alongside a flock of ancient Sweetlands
We stayed temporarily with Aunt Hazel and Uncle Jean who made room for us in their rustic two room house out on the highway where they had lived for many years. Its rusticity included another outdoor privy, which recalled our time living in the Connecticut countryside.
Though they owned a large amount of acreage, plus a few buildings in downtown Grants Pass, they preferred their simple style of life, quietly watching the passing of time with their Australian shepherd dog, Bounce, and a few cats. Formerly there had been a few cows and sheep in the barns, and chickens roamed freely.
Uncle Jean had come to this country from France as a talented race car driver to race against America’s best, which at the time was Barney Oldfield. I can picture him then; a young hot shot driver, probably full of himself and sure of getting any girl he wanted. He chose Hazel, my Grandmother Tena’s sister, recently divorced from a high powered San Francisco lawyer and happy to return to Grants Pass where she was born.
Years before, when I visited them as a young child, I remember offering him a bite of my shiny red Delicious apple. He had pointed out that there were “stars” sprinkled all over the red skin. He declined my largess however, saying “Darlin’ I got no teeth.” Today I understand that limitation.
My mother and I shared a bed in the main room of the house, where we listened each night at 10 p.m. to “The Richfield Reporter” for news of the war, calling out now and then to Aunt Hazel and Uncle Jean in their adjoining room as to which Island was under attack.
I would be starting my sophomore year in the local high school in a few weeks, but we still had no place of our own in town. I would be taking a school bus which was a new and somewhat frightening experience.
The ranch was comprised of many acres, with some areas overrun with delicious ripe blackberries which my mother turned into equally delicious pies. Aunt Hazel was knowledgeable about the things most city people know little, such as cloud formations, where the best fishing holes were, and when it might rain. She was on first name basis with the local squirrel population, and flights of migrating birds knew they could expect a hand out.
On August 12th Aunt Hazel handed us blankets and told us to go out and sleep in the field for a treat; it was the start of the Perseid meteor shower. I remember lying there with my mother enthralled with each shooting star all night long. We wished on each one, and naturally our wishes were for my father’s safe return.
The warm night was filled with the pleasant sound of crickets and an occasional small nocturnal creature disturbed the dry grass. You could still smell the heat of the day bringing the memory of ripeness in fruit and flowers. Uncle Jean thought we were crazy to sleep there in discomfort and told us that August 12 was known as the “Glorious Twelfth” in the UK and marked the traditional start of grouse shooting, which made a lot more sense.
There are fields of hops growing outside Grants Pass, which in wartime did not attract the migrant pickers it usually did, so it was suggested that schools and some businesses be conscripted to bring in the crop. My mother and I signed on, and for a week joined others in town stripping the hops into large bags hung around out necks. I was working alongside the first friends in town whom I would soon see when school began.
When I think of Grants Pass now, I think of that summer, and the closeness of my mother and me, and the kindness of family who took us in and made us welcome. Things were going to be OK.