Sunday, August 8, 2010

Small Town Musings

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.

Since I’ve started writing Sundays with Steve I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in Idaho. Mrs. Steve encouraged me to write them down, so I will. I plan to divide these memories into a three or four part series and, perhaps, over time I will develop some of these stories more fully.

I realize the town where I grew up and the life I lived with my family, is really a classic All American story. Perhaps you will recognize some of your childhood in these writings. Perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in or some of the people you went to school with.

I am looking forward to sharing these little time capsules with you, but first I want to tell you about my town. It was bigger than a small town but not quite a small city. I guess you could say it was actually a large town. Since the town had two rivers running through it, I wondered on occasion if Riverdale in the Archie comic books was based on our town. It wasn’t. Our town was Lewiston, Idaho. Right across the Snake River was Clarkson, Washington and although the towns were separate we always thought of them as one.

Our town had about 22,000 people in and around it during my growing-up years, the 1950’s and 1960’s. It was, and still is, a blue-collar town with a major local wood products plant employing around 4,000 (meaning that 50% of the population either worked at the “mill” or were in the family of someone who did). The plant manufactured paperboard, tissue products, paper pulp, lumber, plywood, and other wood products. There were two companies that made gun ammunition in town, a couple of small boat builders, a number of grain elevators, a frozen food processing plant that operated during the spring pea harvest, many farm implement dealers, other equipment and wholesale outlets, a couple of local trucking companies that hauled wood products into and out of the mill, and a well-developed retail base to support it all. Sears and three other department stores all had downtown locations. Kmart, Wal-Mart and McDonalds were decades away.

Lewiston is near the middle of the above map, near Pullman, Moscow and Walla Walla. Click on the picture to make it bigger and look closely, you’ll find it!

Ours was a backwater, although I didn’t recognize that for a long time. It was, and still is, an isolated town in Northern Idaho, 300 miles up-river from Portland, Oregon and 100 miles south of Spokane, Washington. Spokane was always considered to be the nearest “city” in the region, although Spokane didn’t have more than 40,000 OR 50,000 people in those years. Boise, the capital of Idaho, was a torturous 7 hour drive to the south along a highway that even the governor called the “goat trail”. That highway kept Northern Idaho pretty much separated from Southern Idaho and their embarrassingly famous potatoes (none of those tubers grew in the North) until the early 1970’s. It was not until 1960 that a paved highway opened to the east, leading into Montana.

Lewiston was originally founded as a supply center to service the newly discovered gold mines of North Idaho called the Orofino district, some 40 miles to the east. Supplies were brought by stern-paddle steam boat, driving up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the end of navigation, where the Snake and Clearwater rivers merged at the new town of Lewiston.

Over the first 100 years our little town, and its isolated region, became more populated and developed. The gold didn’t last long, and was replaced by logging the vast stands of white pine forests between the town limits and the Montana border to the east. Agriculture also took over from the exhausted gold fields. The rich farm lands just to the north produced large amounts of peas and lentils in the spring and wheat and barley in the fall. That agricultural region is called the Palouse. It has black top- soil up to 100 feet deep that was deposited over the millennium by the Cascade Range volcanoes, 100 miles to the west. Another wheat growing area was located south of Lewiston; a 5,000 square mile plateau surrounded by rugged mountains and deep river gorges called Camas Prairie, a reference to the camas bulbs that grow wild there, a food source that has been harvested for thousands of years by natives of the Northwest and Montana plains.

* * *

I always believed that our town was sort-of a transportation hub. My personal transportation was mostly bicycle into the early 1960’s and then foot for a number of years afer that, finally culminating inevitably with my first car.

While in elementary school, my transportation was a black Schwinn Corvette with three gears, a speedometer and a ringer. Oh, I could fly on that bicycle. I mostly rode with school buddies in those years; Pete Karsted, Eric LaLond, Wally Hamilton, and others. And, of course, my younger brother David tagged along with us to and from school each day. We ranged out a couple of miles. We rode through downtown Lewiston, often dodging both people and cars. We covered our neighborhood, Normal Hill, and went bravely beyond. We rode the 2 miles out to Dad’s place of business, where there was a small swimming pool waiting as the reward along with a refrigerator always filled with Pepsi (never Coca Cola, only Pepsi). On several occasions we would cross the only bridge in town over the Snake River and ride into Clarkston to explore that small town’s downtown area and the large park that was perched above the river. For whatever reason, it seems that every time we ventured into Clarkston one of the bikes would get a flat tire -- every time! -- so we stopped going there after a while.

Once I graduated into junior high school (grades 7, 8 and 9), my bicycle was pretty much retired. It wasn’t cool. Big kids like us did not ride bikes, those were for babies. We walked. We walked everywhere unless we could catch a ride with the high school kid across the street. Dick Clamper, whose dad owned the local Golden Grain dairy, drove a very hot 1956 bright yellow Chevy and often he would let us pile into it with him. We dreamed of cars, salivated over cars, talked cars, watched for hours as neighborhood kids worked on their cars, and protested hard and long about the basic unfairness of a state the prohibited mature young men like us, aged 12 or 13 year olds, from driving. We thought we would never be old enough.

Even though it took forever, that day finally came. At that time in Idaho you could drive at age 14 if you took a drivers’ education class offered by the school system each summer, and then passed the state drivers’ examination. It was a daylight-only license that became unrestricted at age 16.

I turned 14 as school was getting out in May and I was driving in June. My father, brave sole that he was, introduced me to his business car, a blah, ugly beige colored 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne, two days after the drivers’ education class started but before I had a chance to drive the broken down drivers’ ed car that was ruled over by the harsh and stern drivers’ ed instructor, Col. Lynch (who insisted he be called Colonel). Dad didn’t tell me I was going to drive us out to his business that afternoon. The driver’s door standing open and the big grin on my father’s face was the tip off. “Get in there and drive it,” he said. And I did.

It was, of course, a stick shift with a clutch. I knew that. I just didn’t have a clue how these clutch things worked. That first hands-on driving experience wasn’t pretty. There was lots of grinding gears, popped clutches and humiliating stalls trying to get that car to “go”.

Somehow, the car, my father, and I all survived without injury or damage. That was the good news. The bad news, for my father, was that I was hooked. I drove that car every minute I could that summer and for several years thereafter. It gave me a sense of freedom I had never known. The ability to explore far beyond anything I had ever experienced, it was both my escape and the source of my adventure.

The adventures included my first (of several) traffic ticket issued later that summer by a State cop who said I was going 70 in a 55 zone in the dark while using a daylight-only license. Thinking fast, I spotted a State hunting manual in the car that contained a chart with the official time-of-day for each day of the year regulating when you could shoot game. I showed the cop this official chart which clearly indicated it was still twilight right then, within 30-minutes after sunset, and thus not “night”. The cop called me a smart ass, but made no citation for driving after dark. I was upset to discover that there was, however, a $40 fine for speeding, and that was a small fortune for me.

* * *

Earlier I told you that junior high kids retired their bicycles. That wasn’t entirely true. My first job was delivering newspapers each morning on my bicycle to local subscribers. I think I took the job in the 6th grade, and held it three years through the 8th grade. A bundle of papers would be waiting each morning on a corner; I would put them into two canvas saddle bags that straddled the back fender of my black hot-rod Schwinn Corvette that suddenly was converted to a working machine. I’d deliver the newspaper route that was a couple of miles long with typically 150 stops on it. These were the days when virtually every household in the town subscribed to the local newspaper. It was quite easy to learn your route, which houses to deliver to, and which to skip. Seven days a week, the paper had to be delivered each morning no later than 6:30 am. I’d have to go to each house once a month and collect $6 for the four week subscription, of which $1 was mine to keep. I paid a friend to substitute for me most weekends and several weeks each summer. This was a pretty good racket for me; the money was amazingly good and accumulated over time. But after three years of getting out of bed at 5 a.m. almost every day of the year, I finally gave up the route and become involved in other things.

* * *

Through grade school I’d ride my Schwinn almost every day to school which was about ½ mile away. My younger brother David was my riding companion virtually all the time. Webster Elementary was a typical grade school for Lewiston. It contained 12 classrooms and teachers, a principal, an assistant, and a janitor/handyman. It had about 220 students housed in a modern, post-war school building.

To get from home to school, you peddled mostly through the big Normal Hill Cemetery which was slightly up-hill from home. To get from school to home we whizzed back through the cemetary on those long straight roads with virtually no car traffic. That downhill ride home was perfect for bicycles. Bicycles going down a slight slope. That meant we could fly, just fly, on the bikes going home from school. And we did.

* * *

Riding the Schwinn through the town was a lot more fun that doing school work including my personal dread, reading. It just didn’t come to me easily. All that changed in the summer following the 4th grade when 1) my parents determined that I needed glasses, and 2) enrolled me in a humiliating summer school program for slow readers (a euphanism for dumb kids, I was sure). Those two things changed my life and I’ve been a voracious reader ever since. Flying my Schwinn home from school one day and unknown to me, my glasses and their case fell out of my back jeans pocket and hit the road. When I got home, I fumbled in my pocket but they weren’t there. I rode my bicycle slowly back toward school and found the glasses case half way through the cemetery lying to the side of the road. One lense was shattered. I knew I was going to die that day; my father was going to kill me. At the very least, I would lose the Schwinn, I was sure. But to my utter surprise, he didn’t, and in fact I remember some sympathy. I was shocked. I was expecting a whipping. But got I sympathy instead. It felt like it trick of some sort.

Interestingly, learning to enjoy reading was the start of the end of my relationship with the Schwinn. Over time, reading allowed me to go far beyond the boundaries I had stretched on my black hot-rod Schwinn Corvette. It still does.

(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.


Theresa said...

I am enjoying Sundays with Steve:) I am from a small town also and a lot of the scenes are the same! I love the story about the bicycle ride thru the cemetery to and from school. Imagine if we tried that today, can't ride alone these days! The story about the glasses, sorry you lost them, happy you found them and happy you didn't get smacked for them being broken!

Thanks for entertaining me this morning while sipping my coffee:)


Aunt Amelia's Attic said...


My father was in the New York State Police and had used both a horse and a motorcycle, as well as car, in his work.

I learned to drive on a stick shift with clutch and etc. He believed that was the only way to learn.

And I've never been sorry, that I learned "the hard stuff," at the beginning. :-) I was 16 in 1953, btw. :-)

-holding hands with you, as we walk down Memory Lane-

Terri said...

We lived a parallel life... with me in Missouri, with some slight changes... mine was a red Schwinn and a Dodge Coronet 440!

Viki said...

I had only one bike when I was growing up but you had to stop it with peddle brakes, no hand brakes lol.

I enjoyed hearing about your town. While I lived in a major city, most areas were their own little town. Where I grew up they were mostly Polish people. Now the area is much different though.

Enjoyed spending Sunday with you.

Sue said...

Dropping by on Sunday for a bit of nostalgia is becoming a very pleasant habit.

Thanks, Steve.


mrs. c said...

Thanks for all the information about your hometown, I can picture it in my mind's eye. We are about the same age so I relate to much of what you write about. I am the oldest of 5 and have 3 brothers so I saw lots of "bot stuff" growing up. My brothers cut grass for extra money, we couldn't drive until we were 16 but my brothers had their licensees on their birthdays, but being a girl, I had to wait a while, then I could not even drive at night! What I remember most is that my brothers got to do lots of things I did not! Oh well!Enjoyed your story, looking forward to more tales!

Kat said...

What a lovely trip down memory lane. I too learned how to drive on a stick shift - '64 Chevy pick up with a "three on the tree", a HORRID clutch, and non existent suspension from hoards of cousins driving it through cow pastures LOL. This sounds alot like my memories of my grandmother's place. Except we had Coke, NO pepsi - yet another difference between North and South :) Kat

Anonymous said...

I am really enjoying reading the stories. Steve grew up in a beautiful part of our country. I lived in Moscow for awhile in the mid 60's and have been to Lewiston many times. I love that part of the country. I am looking forward to next Sunday's post. Hugs

Pondside said...

It sounds like you grew up in the quintessential American small town - were there picket fences and mums in ruffled aprons? I'll bet there were.
I believe that the relative isolation of towns like yours and the one I call home was a blessing - it allowed a town to develop its own character and the residents to have a real sense of belonging before the homogenization of the big chains came with the highways.
Once again, I enjoyed this Sunday read.

Jennifer said...

Aw, this is great! Can't wait for next Sunday! :D

Tracy said...

Wow I actually knew some of the places you talked about My family live in Spokane so have visited Walla walla etc

Pat Tillett said...

I'm not from a small town, but wish I was...

great stories from your life. Keep it up.

Dee said...

I love hearing about your home town and growing up years. My first car was a 62 Ford Fairlane my dad purchased for me in 1967 only so I could drive him around because of his failing eyesight.Like you it gave me a new found freedom. My dad would have totally croaked had he known where that car went. I drove it for about seven years, even after I met and married a wonderful man in 1970 with a fancy brand new 1970 red Camero. Thanks for stirring up some good memorie's. I will be back next Sunday.

Jeanie said...

You really bring the past to life with your art of storytelling, Steve. It sounds like you brought back a lot of memories for many of us.

Vicki said...

Sunday's with Steve it! My one and only bike was my freedom, and I left at 16...But I grew up in smaller than that USA and love that I did. Great fun reading about your life Mr Jenny. Tell Mrs. Steve hello for me...You two are a hoot!

H said...

To know and relate to your roots is such an important part of self identity. My upbringing was quite different - large town English with a very rural influence. I was fascinated to read your memories and look forward to the next installment :)

Terra said...

Sometimes your memories make me long for a simpler time - then I find myself the truth between the lines in that no time has ever been simple - perhaps a bit slower but not simple. I love that you, as a young ma, found a love for reading. My brother loves to read as well and while I have not found many men that pick up books for pleasure I have found that those that do have another side to them, a better side -