Since I’ve started writing “Sundays with Steve” I’ve been thinking about vignettes of my life growing up in North Idaho. 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. And perhaps you will recognize the town you grew up in, too, and some of the characters you knew. Mrs. Steve has encouraged me to write these as attempts of “creative writing” as opposed to the more factual journalistic style I was trained in and practiced in my early career, all those years ago. So my apologies if I stumble a bit here and there trying to blend the two styles together
SMALL TOWN MUSINGS
Funerals, Fires and Mister Ed
The first funeral that I participated in was for Mrs. Christy, wife of my Scout Leader Roger Christy. She died when I was in the 6th grade in 1960. Scouting and Erma were Roger’s life, his passions, his soul. When Erma died, I don’t think Roger had anywhere to turn. He was the head of Troop 158, and asked the senior scouts to be funeral pall bearers. I had attended a few family funerals prior to that, but this was different because there was no personal family present for support.
Dressed out in full Scout uniforms, six of us took up our posts at the funeral home. As the emotional ceremony drew to a close (Erma was a Scout mother to us all), we carried the closed casket down the aisle military style, in near-perfect unison and without a wheeled cart to help us along. Walking in careful cadence we marched out the front door of the building and then slid the casket into the black shininess of a waiting hearse. We reversed the process at the cemetery a few minutes later, carrying the casket to the grave. The two impressions of that day have stayed with me: Man, that casket was heavy, and I’m glad we didn’t drop it, although I think we came close once or twice.
Roger Christy moved away within a few months of his beloved wifes death. I think his life was shattered. I never heard from him again. I never heard anything about him again. He disappeared out of my life.
Roger was replaced by the pipe-smoking Ed Edmonson. Mister Ed, as we called him (and couldn’t resist with a new television show of the same name popular at the time) was a long-time fireman in our town who threw himself fully into scouting. He literally devoted all of his time to the development of the 30 young men suddenly in his charge.
One of his department jobs was as fire inspector for our city. He would look over commercial buildings and schools for working fire exits, extinguishers, and unsafe conditions. On occasion I would go along with him for an afternoon of fascinating touring and to witness his well-deserved professional paranoia.
There was a very old wooden grain elevator building down by the Snake River. It was the depository for wheat and barley from neighboring farms each fall prior to the grains being loaded into railroad cars or large trucks for shipment to a flour mill elsewhere.
It was a creaky old building filled with dust and loud machinery standing perhaps 80 feet tall on the elevator portion, 500 or 600 feet long, and constructed of weathered wood. Here is a photo of a smaller but similar building:
On one of my excursions with Mister Ed to this grain elevator, I learned about grain dust, a very fine particulate that is thrown off by grain when you move it around. Grain is moved a lot when it is delivered to the elevator: It is dumped out of the incoming grain trucks, it is lifted in buckets on a continuous beltway to the top of the elevator, and then emptied into large storage bins. What I learned that day with Mister Ed is that the dust gets into everything. I listened carefully when he explained how explosive the dust is. In those years grain elevators blew up in every part of the U.S. all summer long, and always as a result of a spark generated near grain dust.
Years later as a college kid driving grain truck in the summer harvest I really got to know grain dust. It got into your clothes, your hair, your eyes, your ears, between your toes even inside of your socks, and into your lungs. It is not pleasant stuff.
The 40 year old elevator building in Lewiston was ripe to be blown-up, said Mister Ed, because of the dust and lack of controls inside the building. It would be some dummy with a cigarette who would ignite the dust and turn that building to ash, predicted my leader.
As we moved through the town’s commercial structures on fire inspections, Mister Ed was also very concerned by the local teenagers’ dance hall, Casey’s, located above the Majestic Chinese Café on Main Street.
He predicted a catostrophe would occur there on a busy Saturday night when the place was hugely overcrowed with young people. The Kingmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Steppenwolf, Roy Orbison, the Yardbirds, all came through our little town over the years and really packed that place tight. He worried that something would spark a fire igniting the old timbers of the building and causing death and destruction for the people who could not escape through the single narrow exit at the top of a steep flight of stairs.
In future years I would experience that vastly overcrowded Casey’s on Saturday nights, and yes, I felt certain at the time that if a fire were to occur, death and destruction would surely follow.
And ‘Oh my!’ said Mister Ed. The Weisgerber Building, the largest building in town with four floors of offices stacked on top of a retail shops, was a disaster waiting to happen with poor fire exits and few plans to battle a blaze that could occur at any time.
Then there was the Elk’s Lodge, of course, a brick two story building in downtown with a popular lunch crowd and a Friday night fish feed. Mister Ed would point out the kitchen fryers bubbling hard with hot grease, hot black-topped cooking tops, and an open flame grill in the corner. “Careful,” warned Mister Ed, “This is a fire waiting to happen.”
It was all a good case study of professional paranoia.
And with good reason.
It occurs to me that after I left Lewiston for the last time in the late 1970s, that I never encountered destructive fire again. But in that small town, man, it seemed like buildings were burning every year. Those Mister Ed and I inspected are just a few of the potential match boxes in that town. I recall many fires during my youth, such as the Clarkston Country Club, the Potlatch presto-log plant, the rodeo barn, and when I was a very young, my own home was damaged by fire!
For the record, the Weisgerber Building and the Elk’s Lodge both burned to the ground at different times over the years. The grain elevator was torn down in the 1970s, and Casey’s was closed in the 1972.
And for you questioners, no, I had nothing to do with any of those fires other than as an observer of life. But as an observer of life, I wondered if perhaps Mister Ed were the cause of some of the fires he spent his career predicting.
But no, that is an observation I should save for such time that I begin writing fiction.
(c) 2010 Jennifer R. Matlock
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