Steve's Place

Long Road to Firdale

Remember those crushed pink roses, and picking rose hips to be dried for tea? Those were long drives out of town on weekends — sometimes twice a month, and if a whole month went by, Dad would feel remiss. We never knew why Mom didn’t come along, though it was always clear that the Cook side of the family didn’t have much use for self-sustaining less sophisticated country folks. Ray had gotten off the farm when he came to Seattle to go to high school — truth be known, that was more about playing baseball than getting an education. He was elected captain for most of the sports teams through high school. Everything about him spoke of the confidence of knowing how to build anything he wanted. Want a garage? Ok, roll out the cement mixer and start banging together some lumber. He’d taken a short course in electricity after high school and set himself up in motor repair. His life was full of problems walking in off the street, and he was always undaunted and creative at fixing whatever needed repair. 

Visiting the world Dad had come from started early for his kids. Jay and I, together almost always, were less than two years apart, rotating growth spurts all along the way — so that whoever was taken as the oldest oscillated. How each of us hated being the “little one”. Jay took after Dad more than I did — he was good at sports thought sometimes stumbled scrambling across logs — while I prided myself in being smart and peppering people with questions about anything all of the time. We made a great pair when people weren’t comparing us one to the other. We learned later about the time the cops pulled Dad over for speeding in the beat-up Ford pick-up and took him into the station to straighten out the situation — why did he have infants in a picnic basket in the back seat?

We left town Friday nights after long days for Dad at his shop. Sometimes uncle Jerry was there to close the shop if he wasn’t off to war, or Joe Ryan who died of leukemia after coming  back from service in Korea. At times the truck headed straight to Raymond and from there out the gravel roads past the sawmill at Willapa. This was especially likely if there was a big project to be done on the weekend — maybe stringing a huge aluminum wire diamond shape over the acres to capture weak TV signals, or if the local hunters were getting together to hunt deer —  forming ‘illegal’ V’s to smoke out bucks. Jay and I crouched behind gargantuan logs over which fleeing deer would get shot out the air and quickly bled. Grandpa never took time from his chores to tag along on local outings, or side trips sometimes taken by the guys to Stevenson for dropping ducks, geese, or moose. 

We never knew why it was called Firdale — it was long miles from any store or any kind of community. Isolated. There was a train track on the north side of the road and whistles at night — nothing but a creek for miles and deep forest through the open field behind the house — all the way up to Camp Seven Pond. It seemed that nobody ever drove up the road past the house. You never had a feeling of being between places. The only evidence of neighbors was all the chatter on a ten party phone line. This was not a farm life full of exchange with neighbors building bars together, and these weren’t pious people from communities of faith, but descendants of settlers to Stevenson — a more lawless and faithless hard drinking river town of the wild west. Sunday was about rest, not getting gussied up to go off to church. I remember once a wedding down the road, walking with Grandpa out the gate in his suspenders and not quite matching his Verena in perhaps the one ‘fine dress’ she had — sadly a black thing with a large open weave black straw hat with it’s brown band and yellow silk rose. There was never any drinking in this house, though I don’t know why, for there surely wasn’t any hot temperance attitude. I suspect they’d just seen enough of the hazard in their lives, and being first borns both, figured that sticking with their responsibilities would be enough. There was a seance at the house one night where adults sat around the kitchen table in the dark as Jay and I were told to get to sleep on the open couch at the end of the room — candles flickers cast shadows on the ceiling, hands were held, and messages received. It only happened once though Jean was said to be in the ethers. Somehow a character from long ago in a white beard forecast my career as a psychologist. I don’t think there was a lot of faith in the method.

More often than not, Dad found some wonderland to visit along the drive from Seattle to Raymond. Maybe we’d head to a state campground at Graylands with it’s long open beaches if there was a low morning tide for digging razor clams. If fishing was good, we’d aim for Westport and head out over the bar in the morning in a rented outboard motor boat for King salmon, or head down the coast to tuck into Willapa Bay for smaller vegetarian humpback salmon. In any case, it was always good at Firdale to drive through that front gate next to the milk post with something fresh to offer. And Granny was always there in her flower printed housecoat — in the kitchen next to the hand pump by the galvanized sink ready to do some magic on her eight burner Monarch wood stove. Wired to the back of the stove were old coffee cans — one of bacon grease, and the other an endless sourdough starter always ready for use.  On the floor was an old cardboard box where spent egg shells went until there were enough to bake and smash for the henhouse.

“Hear that, Grandpa, the guys have brought their dinner”, she’d say, though it was like him to say nothing, but smile, and get his lanky frame back out to the barn were there were always things to be seen to. Probably he was hard of hearing. It’d be fish for the big meal of the day if we were hanging around the place Hand cut noodles were sometimes drying on the clothesline on the porch for Sunday dinner once one of the hens had been whirled by the feet, broomed, and plucked. Jay and I never quite understood the division of labor, but it was Granny who did the swinging and Grandpa who got the plucking done. “Grandpa can make it a pretty lonely place around here”, she said, “but for all his stubbornness he’s always as good as his word and a good provider”. 

Neither of them were attractive people by any means though they may have been decades ago. Ancient photos of Jeremiah and his father Theodore show rather handsome gangly men with large noses and unruly hair.  But on the whole, this wasn’t a family to go in for faddish box cameras. At the Gorge, and among Columbia River Imans, “Iman ears” are a noted feature. Grandpa was a big man always in his bib overalls — tall and lanky, with a face that had wrinkled early and with yellowing teeth. One might have though alcohol or smoking played a role in those outcomes, but neither were the case. 

Grandma was short and dangerously heavy on the front side with grey eyes, lids pointing out a bit at the corners — with bobbed hair and a smile that spoke more of contentment than frivolity. She was an accepting and open soul who bore no harm and few judgements, though it never took long to be reminded of her never-ending sense of loss that her favorite child had been taken from her with TB. Jean died at a sanatorium in Raymond a few years before we were born. 

Looks didn’t mean much in their world of farming. Jerry and Verena’s life had been a different buggy ride where with skills at practical things they had stood an excellent chance of making it. Farming wasn’t easy, but they had lived in various parts of the state, homesteaded more than a couple of times, raised a family, and could take care of themselves. A different life — pretty much of their own making. There was endless work in that world, but in many ways things were easier. When ready to move on, there were places to sign up so that you could take over land and ‘prove it up’ — which meant blasting stumps and clearing enough to raise a garden, chop enough timber to build a house — sometimes with the help of neighbors. Other times you could show the bank or seller of land that you were healthy and sober, that you knew how to farm and you’d pretty much have a loan at low prices and simple interest. So, time and again Jerry and Verena settled on land that they owned and proved that they could work it. They worked hard to own land, and someday intended to sell it off to timbering interests. There was a great deal of excitement up and down Mill Creek Road when when oil companies were said to be coming. 

Soon, it was said, they’d be knocking at the door to negotiate rights for drilling. Those stories embellished a stable life where there was rarely much news. The ‘coming oil men’ echoed other fantasies that had run down the family chain for who knows how long as well. Since probably the late 1700s there’d been a story that the Imans from Virginia and Illinois and right on through to the Gorge were waiting for a ship that long ago left Germany full of gold as an inheritance for sticking with the ‘true’ family name, rather than spelling it ‘Eyman’. The Card side of the family liked to rib the Imans – especially those of the Gorge for continuing to have faith in this ‘manna from heaven’. For the most part though, Imans lived less on dreams than they did on hard work. Those stories often retold with great excitement never held them back from doing what was necessary in a world of ceaseless tasks. But then work was welcome so long as it was a matter of working for oneself and their family and building out everything in that world.

Grandpa was he quiet one. It was Verena who would be on the phone if there was to be contact with the family down in Stevenson — which was rare. But she was the one who had any news to be had of the community or family. She may have stayed in touch with her own family who nearly outlived her down in Portland, though we never knew anything about that side. Though they were quiet hugs, Grandma’s embraces were hearty, and joyful, for there was never rancor. Her Jerry did a good job, not only clearing ground for all of the crops, but with little flower gardens around the front and back porch that hardly anyone in the world would ever see but his wife and the mother of his children. 

By 1945 it wasn’t clear any longer that the kind of life Granny and Grandpa had staked out for themselves could work in the 20th Century. A self-sustaining life takes a full dinner table and plenty of kids and relatives to pitch in on chores. By then, all of the kids had escaped to town, though Dad showed signs of a guilt which was never talked about. He was the older son and had responsibilities. Though he lived at a distance, he tried to live up to those responsibilities and felt compromised. He did not abandon his parents; he was there and cared in ways that never robbed them of a sense of dignity. Grandpa had made it — he’d produced a whole world for over seventy years — until all the daily chores became utterly painful. Finally it was necessary for the son to buy a small house tucked away in a suburb south of Seattle that he could visit even on week day evenings. He located the new home closer to his sisters than to his own home, and visited it more often. Though it likely crushed their spirits, the Imans moved to town. Jerry lasted only a short while in this new life. He’d never been interested in television. Verena lived on, helping Rosalie with the kids, and moving to California to be with Jerry until it was soon time to go. 

Grannie and Grandpa were married in 1906 in Clark County of Washington – she an eighteen year old born in North Dakota of farmers who moved to Portland, and he a twenty-six year old timber worker whose father was one of the first offspring of a settler to be born in Washington Territory. That was the year that the Kellogg Company was founded in order to promote the corn scrapings off the back of a frying pan that they had invented. Kellogg was to become a huge agribusiness. The Imans were never in the ‘agribusiness’ – for them, farming was a way of life — not a business. For them, a successful farm had always been the measure of a good man. The farm or homestead were close and personal. They were home — always worked, and sometimes worked out of, though working for a company or even another man was dreaded — a sign of defeat.  There would be road work, or taking stints at steel mills or in the lumber camps, but ‘businesses ‘ – including those in town weren’t trusted. There was a huge divide in their way of thinking — between ‘city living’ and the right way to do things. 

Some years, cans of milk would go out on the post every morning, and sometimes not. I don’t remember there ever being a horse, though there was a torn up old Ford engine sometimes used to grind stumps or haul wood. Some years there were up to four or five cows in the barn since milking any more than that is bloody work when there aren’t enough hands around. There was always a couple of acres in vegetables surrounded by nets strung many feet in the air to keep the deer out. There was corn and beets, tomatoes and beans, and plenty of peas to snap. Broccoli seemed a little too exotic for cooking in the copper canning pot and packing in one quart mason jars with rubber rings and wire snap lids. There were cantaloupe, melons and potatoes, and fruit trees — apples mostly. Whenever we were out on hikes, Dad knew the old abandoned homesteads for cherries, or huckleberries, and he knew where to find hazelnuts. With a keen sense of direction he was never lost; raised in tune with the earth, he knew without thinking the season for almost anything. He could wake up whenever he wanted without an alarm if there was something to go out and do.

Jerry’s ancestors had always been self-sustainers. For his great grandfather, that had amounted to farming muddy shoreline along the Mississippi river. His grandfather had scoured the Chicago area of 1850 for work as a mechanic and never liked the terms of employment. He headed out with an ox to Portland, and backtracked to the Gorge when entrepreneurs put him in the business of sawing timber  and building steam boats on the Columbia. Families were huge in those days, so early Imans to the Northwest left their name spread through the woods along the mighty Columbia River. Later, when I was in Idaho at a student leadership camp, I met the Principal of the Stevenson High School and asked after my relatives in the area. The learned educator could only acknowledge having heard of the name — since kids of the families rarely made it to high school. The facts were embarrassing at the time to a city kid since it made the family sound like “poor-white trash” though the point of view misses a lot of the virtues of a self-sustaining way of life that worked pretty well for quite a long time. 

Grandpa and Dad knew how to do just about anything. They knew how to put up a house and barn, how to clear acres and plow fields, keep machines in order, repair jalopies, take care of sick animals, breed cattle and pigs. They could scythe a field, kill and hang anything from rabbits and deer through pigs and cows. They knew soils and terrain, bugs and fish, and anything that grew or lived in the woods. They knew how to plant by moon signs, could witch water and dig wells. God knows how many miles of timber Grandpa reduced to cord wood for kitchen stoves in his lifetime. In Spring he’d hand plow the truck garden without a horse, set seeds and soon be scratching weeds and picking off bugs by hand and dropping them into a coffee can. I swear that Grandpa used coffee cans for everything, and I suspect that an empty one never got away from his collection in the barn.

It was always up at dawn and out doing something until the biggest meal of the day — a time to come in and make family noise around the round oak table larded down with great mounds of food. Venison, beef, or fish, or maybe all three. Mounds of potatoes usually mashed and laden with fresh cream and butter fresh out of the 3-foot churn in the pantry. There were biscuits and home made white bread, rich fresh whole milk, gravy even if the meat didn’t call for it, apple butter and black berry jam, tomatoes fresh and pickled, and wilted salads of spinach reduced by scalding bacon grease. Then puddings and cakes — usually with thick lemon-sugar icings and never level on top. When I grew up I wondered at how my grandparents could ever have made it without weighing a ton, and though neither was slight, they made it to eighty as most of their people always had. 

And in the years when cows weren’t coming home from pasture to the barn, instead of fresh milk, there’d be a can of evaporated at the center of the table with two knife punched holes on the top. Dannie, the part collie was only allowed in the house to sit under the table when the kids were around, for his domain was usually under the front porch or marching next to Grandpa out working around the place. 

Jerry and Verena had their separate domains. He left the chickens and ducks, butter churning and canning, quilt making, telephone, newspapers, and talking to Verena. Together they produced a Rosalie and Raymond who went off to Seattle – both settling down in new fangled city lives. Jerry, their youngest boy, must have been a disappointment. He was our Dad’s brother and worked for him winding motors much of his life, though he’d abandoned the farm in moving to town as a young man, and we never saw him visiting Raymond. When it was his time, he marched off to war and saw too much of Northern Africa. Their youngest daughter, Jean Juanita was another story. Raised on a farm, she got away through music. There must have been an upright in the living room that got a lot of pounding since Jean managed recitals not only in Raymond but elsewhere — her playing once with Margaret Truman (daughter of the President) providing a pinnacle moment of family memory. By far her mother’s favorite, Jean’s loss of  tuberculosis was to be forever a source of grief. 

Sometimes weekends involved long hikes through the woods on uncleared trails that threaded themselves though underbrush and marshy fields, and through darkened old stands of fir and spruce with the soft dark sponge of fallen needles and rotted stumps laden of moss. Dad would root around the base of those trees and clip off the biggest conks for scratch painting at home — of scenes you’d expect of a scrimshaw artist on the teeth of whales. Jay and I would pack the conks carefully and try not to fall off the logs we clambered over to get across creeks.  It was great — moving through the dark of shrouded forest, to come across a meadow of trillium, a sudden deep pond where ducks or Canadian geese paused on journeys, or to run across huge old rotted stumps draped with wild blackberries for the picking. We were blessed to have a childhood full of blackberry pies.

Firdale really was out in the sticks. There was no home or spread that one ever thought of as adjoining it. Walking into the property back from the road, one went through cleared fields into dense woods. In the other direction, one went up a steeper hill past chicken coups,  pig pen, wood sheds, and the outhouse with it’s Montgomery Wards catalog. It you went further, up past the rhubarb patch, you could unlatch the gate at the edge of the woods and hike up a trail through a stand of cascara bush whose bark was too often stripped by poachers since bags of it dried could be sold to the pharmacy in Raymond for laxative. 

Raymond was about ten miles down a gravel road. You turned left outside the gate and after a hundred yards or so crossed Mill Creek, which was a great place to find fingerlings in the Spring, or unbelievably valiant blood-bruised old red and black salmon making their way up to spawn in fall. You passed post boxes and dirt roads off to farmers you knew from hunting, or from the 10-party phone lines that still serviced the area. There were a couple of abrupt turns in that winding road to Raymond — spots where jagged lot lines had been accommodated, producing sharp turns at orchard corners or cow pastures. Fifty years later I drove out of that old timbering town and following intuition alone at each corner made all the right choices to an empty field on my right, a trampled old gravel drive, and the pansies, tiger lilies and hollyhocks right were they used to  be next to a porch and the house long torn down after the spread was sold to those timbering interests. 

Raymond was where you had to go when you needed to buy things, and living a largely cashless existence, there weren’t a lot of things that needed to be bought. There was flour and cloth; hardly anybody made their own soap anymore. It was rare, but every year or so a record to play on the Victrola would be bought. The round trip to town was an infrequent Saturday morning jaunt. In bad winters, the trip couldn’t be taken since being snowed in for a month at a time wasn’t unusual. Then the musty old mid-1930’s Pontiac stayed under the shake roof at the end of the driveway. The Seattle threesome did’t often head for Firdale during the dead of winter, though there were times out that gravel road when chains were required, 

as can be testified by memory of the sound of chain banging against tire wells. 

I don’t remember visitors dropping by that old Iman homestead. Evenings were quiet with us all sitting around the kitchen side of the house and it’s squeaky floors on the spring-loose overstuffed couches perched against wainscotted walls. The cold damp bedrooms were off this side of the house, and so it made sense to keep the stove going rather than feed the smudgy fireplace in the living room — it never drew air well enough to avoid smoking things up anyway. The couch in the living room, backed with a machine-made velvet tapestry stood next to a side table with the Victrola that was sometimes played if we were in a festive mood. Over the Victrola was a large print — a white stallion seeming to jump towards you out of a dark background in a bubbled oval frame.

Late into the evening following supper the humpback radio would be playing some drama — people reading parts and jiggling noisemakers to trigger the imagination. Perched high on the wall on a shelf next to the pantry, the radio could barely be spotted in the dark with the dancing flickers of light through the grate of that old wooden stove. 

My Dad was like his own father – quiet to a fault and rarely the one to communicate. He was at home with his parents and bore a deep sense of obligation to his family. He never doted on them or rebelled, and always treated them with incredible respect. His commitment to them was not appreciated by the other half of the family, and at times it seemed to Jay and I that Dad’s efforts were taken for granted — not appreciated as much as they could have been by his own parents. Painful as it must have been to lose a daughter, the clarity of her status as the favorite child always seemed  a bit awkward. The Cooks — the maternal side of the family didn’t seem to understand or like the focus on Firdale.  

As with so much in our family, the conflicts and compromises made were not made public and were well enough maintained in their secrecy to have produced sons with hardly a clue as to what was happening. But the question of how he got stuck with the kids on these long weekends, if there was more point than the obvious joy this loving guy always took in being around his kids, we’re left to wonder. 

Ray went to Firdale so often probably for a bunch of reasons. For him, being with his old friends and buddies was always a great romp. He was proud of his kids and enjoyed dragging them along. He’d drive us over to the Jimmy Wells place and head into the house as a surprise guest who was always joyfully welcome. He’d stop off at the ranch of a deer hunting partner — a lonely old coot who had just gotten himself a new housekeeper on bond from Sweden. I remember Jay and I left outside while the adults went in to socialize over the kitchen table. We thought it’d be fun to crawl around under the house on stilts — until a wasp took a bite out of the back of Jay’s hands and his arm swelled up like a balloon! There were thoughts of having to haul off to town for a doctor, though we managed to get through it all with less drama than that. 

But there were even more important reasons for Ray to go to Firdale. Though he’d succeeded by some measures at a career in town, he really was a ‘country boy’ and though we were city boys, I think that he wanted us to know this way of life too. This self-sustaining, Jeffersonian way of life was part of him, and though it was dying fast, there was much to know and appreciate about it. There was testimony enough of failure in Rosalie, Ray, and even Jerry having been drawn to the labor pool of cities. A kitchen table built for a bustling crowd, except on those rare weekends was nearly empty any more. And with this loss was a threat to the kind of independence and self-sufficiency that long sustained Americans of the soil. Dad had migrated to the city, but would work for no other man. He could build his own business but fought and suffered violence from those who wanted to unionize his shop. He understood a brother who was ambivalent about working for him by the hour, even when a big-spending wife precluded Jerry from investing in some kind of financial partnership. He wasn’t sure that he could help us much along the paths that Jay and I would take in life, but he was pleased with where he was from and wanted us to know that we came from there too. 

We slacked off heading to Raymond as Jay and I got older, though Dad did many of those trips on his own, or with the friends he loved to go hunting or fishing with. We moved on in our city lives and succeeded in professional careers — both noted for their sufficiency, humility, and commitment to the people around them. Jay’s got a son and even a grandson now. I don’t see him as going hunting with them, or even playing horse shoes. But I do sort of wish that he’d take those guys back to Firdale  and talk about it all in loving ways. 

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