Well. Here it comes again, a summer with no water. You could almost say that the history of the West was “Where is the water?” Remember the song “Cool Water” or the required high school poem, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” with his words “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink?” Here goes. We’re gonna talk about water and the lack thereof. Guess why, once upon a time, John Steinbeck and his novel “Grapes of Wrath” were my favorite author and book. Easy answer: I’ve lived it.
When I was a small boy growing up in southern Oregon, my family moved a lot. My dad was a lumber mill worker, chased out of Kansas by the Great Depression and, you guessed it, the Dust Bowl.
In those days, Oregonians were busy cutting down as many trees as they could, all to be sawn into lumber. Grants Pass had several mills and a box factory in town and was surrounded by small communities with lumber mills. And, so, that’s where my dad found work, by the hour. It took a lot of hours to make $40 a week. If the winter was too cold or too wet, or the summer too dry, the logging and mills shut down.
What my parents did when Dad got a job was to buy three or four acres on a brushy hill that wasn’t fit for farming. Out came a pick and shovel, a driveway and a flat spot for a foundation was notched into the hillside, a pile of lumber scraps which normally would have been burned at the mill showed up next to the flat spot, out came a hammer, level, hand saw, tape measure, roofing square and a coffee can full of assorted nails and pretty soon a tar paper shack replete with string-laced glass cloth windows and a hole in the roof for the stove pipe attached to the wood stove smiled down the driveway to greet any visitors. There wasn’t any running water or electricity yet, but those weren’t absolute necessities. There was room for Pedro, the mongrel family dog, to get under the house. Pedro was the burglar alarm whose barking woke us up if somebody or something was approaching.
As soon as we settled into the house — one room was enough for the parents and seven kids — our ‘34 Dodge pulled into the nearest family grocery store and a box full of vittles was charged (bought on credit). In those days, it was easy to charge or sign a counter check. And so, a few months passed and then the mill shut down. Because the grocery bill was more than the family income could handle, title to the property was signed over to the grocer to pay the bill with the idea that we could live there until Dad went to work again. When that happened, they bought another piece of land — a couple of hundred dollars an acre — and the cycle started over.
The only change was, I’d reached the eighth grade and the parents decided I needed room of my own. And so, they bought a 12x12 Army surplus tent and that was Pedro’s and my home until I graduated from high school and joined the Air Force in 1953. From then on, at age 18, where and how I lived was up to me.
More next week about “Where is the Water?”