Sunday, August 22, 2010

Small Town Musings III

Mr. Jenny has been wanting to write creative stories for some time. He says he is "taking over" the Sunday spot on my blog and so we shall begin a new weekly feature here - Sundays with Steve. There will be a button and a tab eventually but for now just visit each Sunday to enjoy his words.

“Why do you suppose they call this town, Tucannon?” Mr. Streiff asked.

A tiny town in Southeast Washington State, no, not even a tiny town, it was a wide spot in the road.

John Streiff, aged early-50s, bald as a billiard ball, a bit grumpy to many, was warm and humorous to me, and was the father of one of my best friends, Fritz. He was the husband of the best maker and baker of lemon meringue pies, ever, until I met, fell in love with, and married Mrs. Steve 40 years later.

We had stopped at the general store in Tucannon that spring morning -- the only store in Tucannon -- for a soda break just 50 miles or so after leaving home at Lewiston.

The three of us – John, Fritz, and I spent time in those years exploring our region. Mr. Streiff was as curious and fascinated by the world around him as any adult in my life, and with that bald head framed by wire-rimmed glasses (wire-rimmed glasses were only worn by very old people then, they were not popular as they are today), I thought that Mr. Streiff was hugely intelligent.

Fritz Streiff was my age, and lived a few blocks away on 16th Avenue, a 10-minute walk or a 3 minute bike ride. We became friends in kindergarten, and closest friends in grade school and junior high years. Our interests went different ways in high school and college. He went on to graduate from Harvard, then to a Paris cooking school and back for an internship with Julia Child in Boston in the 1970s. The last I heard, Fritz was cooing at a French restaurant in the Bay Area and I see on Google that he’s co-authored a couple of cookbooks (Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook, and Chez Panisse Fruit.)

I kept close to his parents and his father until Mr. Streiff’s death in the late 1970's.

“Why this is called Tucannon?” Mr. Streiff asked again. “Well,” when neither Fritz nor I could come up with the correct answer, “It is because of the two cannons kept here during the Indian wars.” Groan. It was a totally made up story that kept us laughing for several minutes, and one I remember 50 years later.

We stopped at the next burg, a big bigger burg named Starbuck, population 50 maybe, and picked up the weekly newspaper. The lead headline was “Dog sits on porch, eats licorice.” We all groaned, and then laughed for the rest of the day (and I’ve been using that headline as an example of bad headline writing and as a bad story selection, ever since, and I still chuckle over it). Starbuck, Washington was the name of the town, some 25 years before the famous Starbucks Coffee was founded 150 miles away in Seattle -- I wonder if there was a connection.

Did I mention that a neighboring town to the north is named Dusty? That kind of described this whole arid region of eastern Washington State.

We were on our way to Palouse Falls that day, a basalt catch basin that the Palouse river drops into, as it flows to the Snake River, 6-more miles downstream.


“Don’t be afraid of this,” said John, “it’s a pull ferry to cross the river.”


It scared the hell out of me. It looked and felt like the ferry in the photo above.

We had to cross the Snake River in order to reach Palouse Falls, and the place to cross was appropriately named Lyon’s Ferry. There were no bridges for miles in any direction. There was nothing for miles in any direction. There was a broken-down raft large enough for two cars that was connected to a steel cable the spanned the ½ mile wide river. There was no motor on this raft. I couldn’t figure out how the raft propelled itself to the other side. But more, the raft looked half-sunk, and I was quite worried it would become fully sunk on our crossing.


“I’m not riding in the car when it drives onto that raft,” I thought, “And I am not going down with this ship!” I got out of the car, and watched with held breath.

John Streiff and his wife Eleanor lived in the Seattle, Washington area during the WWII years. He was an aircraft engineer for Boeing, she a stay-at-home mom giving birth to three daughters and son Fritz through that decade. Eleanor was born in our home town of Lewiston, and her father owned and operated the local Allis-Chalmers farm implement store. Her parents lived in a stone house ½ block from my grandmother. The store sold big tractors and grain combines, cultivators, seeders, and farm clothing. It was never a particularly prosperous business, and year after year its fortunes depended on the price of wheat – the higher the price, the more the farmers had to spend.

When Eleanor’s father died in the late 1940s, she and John decided to come home to continue the business. Reluctantly, they relocated from Seattle to Lewiston, and John, even more reluctantly, started life as a small businessman, an occupation he mostly hated the rest of his career.

John’s passions were his children, and Fritz, his only son, and Fritz’s best friend Steve, were the recipients of that passion for years. The other passions included his huge collection of classical music that always filled his home on Sundays, his large stinky cigars, and his occasional glass of imported red wine.

Which brings back us to Lyon’s Ferry and its sinking ferry.

John slowly inched the car, a 1960 Ford Falcon Ranchero (a classic car now, a piece of junk then) over wooden planks and onto the ferry. The ferry groaned. It dipped down a bit as the front wheels touched the wooden deck. I held my breath, sure the boat was going to sink right, there tied to the shore.


The ferry held, I don’t know how, but it did. John pulled the car to the edge of the ferry and parked it. Another car followed onto the ferry, and the big raft groaned, dipped, and then accepted its load. I was amazed; it was still floating.

Then I gently walked on to the ferry, it didn’t groan or dip, thank God.

We sat on the hood of the car as the ferry “master” pushed the raft into the current, using a long pole to nudge the craft just a few feet into the stream. The raft was latched with pulleys to a steel cable that spanned the river. As soon as the raft hit the current near the shore, the river pulled the raft across, following the cable. It was a scary and fun crossing, a slight breeze in the face, water lapping over the front boards just a bit; although I continued to wait for the ferry to suddenly sink. It did not.

Today there is a large bridge crossing the river there, plus a railroad bridge, a park, a marina, a store, it seems a very busy place. The fast moving current of the river is gone, backed-up by one of the Snake River dams downstream, that turned the river into a large lake. The ferry is still there, to my surprise, as a museum piece in the Lyon’s Ferry State Park. I was amazed by that, I was sure that it had sunk a long, long time ago.


Eleanor Streiff welcomed us home later that day, as she always did when her explorers returned safely. Eleanor, by the way, all five foot, two inches of her, was one of the most delightful people alive. With short black hair, half-glasses on her nose, often a cigarette in her hand (the last time I saw her, in the late 1980s, she said “I’ve been smoking all my life, and it hasn’t hurt me yet”), a miniature dachshund always close by, she was the model mom that always took care of her daughters, her Fritz, and Steve. She was kind, caring, intelligent, and like her husband, hugely curious about the world around her, and the people in it. And she made the 2nd best lemon meringue pie in the world!

(c) 2010 Jennifer R. Matlock
This publication is the exclusive property of Jennifer R. Matlock and is protected
under the US Copyright Act of 1976 and all other applicable international, federal, state and local laws. The contents of this post/story may not be reproduced as a whole or in part, by any means whatsoever, without consent of the author, Jennifer R. Matlock. All rights reserved.

7 comments:

My name is PJ. said...

There would have been no way I'd gone across with my car on that ferry! The thought actually makes me nervous!


And Eleanor made the 2nd best lemon meringue pie in the world because my sister makes the best...


...that's what you meant, right?

Crafty Housewife said...

I love this! One of my favorite things in the world is to here about small town life before things became over-industrialized!

BRAVO!!! (clapping at the computer)

Tina said...

Love your stories. MIssed a couple while on vacation so I need to get caught up. Loved your tale of that ferry. You wouldn't have gotten me on board unless I was completely schnockered. My nightmares are always drowning dreams, or boats sinking...

Jeanie said...

This was a great story. I remember those Ford Rancheros.
Now you have made me hungry for lemon meringue pie. (I've been known to make a pretty good one myself).

Jennifer said...

Aw, I love these stories.

When I first moved to my hometown there was nothing here, but we're in the Atlanta metro, so things grew up super fast in ten years... I wish I had been there before so I could savor it's smallness for just a bit longer.

I mean, it still works like a small town, there are just less fields and more people... But people still tease my town when they pass through. :P

Deb said...

I love your stories...wasn't it nice to have extended families when you were growing up...

Lourie said...

My Grandma made the best... seriously though, your river crossing brought me to my honeymoon, where my husband and I went on a horseback ride through the countryside in Mexico. We crossed a river of doom! I don't remember how wide it was, but it was at least 5 feet deep with a kicka-- current that literally knocked my horse over. Oh I knew I was going to die that day.