Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's hunting season

(Editor's note: This is the hunting chapter from Farewell Bend the novel -- hunting and football filled the papers of The Argus Observer. Coming soon -- The Vale Game, 1954 and 1955.)

Pete’s model A plowed through a circle of light ending abruptly fifteen yards in front of the car. A soft blanket of new snow three inches deep lined the country road. A few flakes fell softly on the dark cold countryside, sticking briefly to the windshield and whirling through the cracks where the passenger door on my side bounced loosely against the frame. We had set out before daybreak for our favorite hunting ground where the Malheur River passes just south of Malheur Butte. Pete was silent as he nursed the aging car down the highway to Vale, watching for the gravel road that cut off to the butte. I wondered if he and Faye were having problems. I decided not to ask. Why spoil the hunting?
As we passed the Doran ranch, I was reminded of the hunting outings my father took me on twice each fall. Kate Doran and her husband Keith owned the place, and Dad knew them well because Kate had worked as a reporter for The Argus-Observer before she was married. The Dorans were in their thirties with a young child who had named their hunting dog Jimmy Kavanagh in honor of my father.
On our last outing that fall, as Dad and I walked down a set of pickup tracks to start working a cornfield, shotguns slung over our shoulders, my father actually strutted along, which he’d never do on Oregon Street. I strutted alongside. We talked about hunting, not work or school. And we bagged three roosters, a good result for us. My father was not a great shot, and if I scored a hit, it was mostly accidental. It was important to get five or six good chances during each outing. We usually could, working the cornfields and ditch banks on the Doran ranch. Dad had made it clear, however, that the Dorans’ was not a place I could take Pete. “Two teenagers could easily mess up a good thing,” he said.
Pete and I contented ourselves with a piece of vacant, unmarked land behind Malheur Butte and along the small, slow-moving river. We used it both for pheasant hunting and waiting for ducks to settle in one of the eddies.
As Pete urged his car through the fresh snow, I held out little hope for any success with ducks. The best we would get was a good shot or two. Even then, bringing a duck home was unlikely without a dog to fetch it out of the river.
We had planned to be waiting in a thicket before daylight, at a spot we knew the ducks liked to frequent. But it was later as we closed in on the butte. The sun was beginning to light a streak on the skyline in Pete’s rear view mirror.
He pointed at the reflection and shook his head, smiling and curling his upper lip at the same time.
“If you could get out of the house on time, Jack, we’d already be at the river,” he said.
“Don’t worry. Those ducks aren’t going anywhere. It’s too cold,” I said.
I wrapped my arms around my body. Even with a sweater and heavy coat, the wind blowing into the car worked its way down my neck and through the coat. Pete again drove in silence.
There was no excuse for being slow to get out of the house. It was a habit. I was always ten minutes late for an early morning hunting trip. Pete knew that.
“Is that the reason you’re in a foul mood?” I asked and laughed.
“Foul mood. I made a joke.”
Pete looked at me and grinned. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “You are an odd ball. Somebody in FFA class said you’re an intellectual, whatever that is.”
Without warning, he hit the brakes so hard we went into a skid. I looked forward to see the headlights pick up a line of fence posts. We came up too fast on a T intersection that we both knew was there but was hidden by a sudden flurry of snow. Despite the rough surface of the gravel road, a line of fence posts was coming at us too fast. I reached for the dash to brace myself as Pete fought the steering wheel, still hoping to make the turn.
“Ice,” Pete said.
He’d hit a slick spot. A heavy, icy rain earlier that week had left a large puddle that froze over.
The car slid forward with no bite on the steering wheel and no catch in the tires. There was nothing for Pete to do but let it drift toward the near side of the fence.
As the slow-motion action played out, the car ended up straddling the shallow ditch, with its left front fender leaning against a fence post.
Pete hopped out.
“Goddamn it, it’s dented,” he said, looking at the fender.
“What about the post?” I asked.
“It’s bent over, but the farmer will never know who ran into it.”
“Not if we can back out of here. I don’t know, with the ditch and the snow.”
“Get your ass out here and push. We’re going to need all the power we can get,” Pete said, leaning in through the window.
“I don’t mind steering. You can push harder than I can,” I volunteered, keeping a straight face.
Pete did not bother to stifle a laugh.
“You push first,” he said and jumped back behind the wheel, waving his arm at me to hop on out.
The traction of the tires on the snow and dirt where we had come to a stop worked better than we expected. The car started moving backwards with just a little push, scraped its front bumper on the ditch bank but stayed in motion through the dip. The back tires found some solid road. Within minutes, we were once again headed toward the butte.
“So did you hear the one about the ugly farmer’s daughter who was showing the traveling salesmen her dad’s prize bulls,” Pete asked, turning to me and laughing as if he’d just remembered the joke.
“I’m sure I have. Where do you get these things anyway, in FFA class?”
“You got a better one?”
“Not this morning,” I said. I was too cold from pushing the car out of a snow pile to remember any jokes.
“You never know any jokes.”
“What about your foul mood?”
Pete sneered and was quiet for a moment.
“So you going with Joyce to the Christmas dance?” he asked.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Word gets around,” he said, focusing his full attention on the road as he followed a turn to the right to head directly toward the outline of Malheur Butte beginning to take shape against the gradually lightening sky.
Despite going out with Faye Peterson, Pete still carried around a longing for Joyce Earns. It went back to the time, five years earlier, that they rode horses at the same stable. I also knew Pete wouldn’t do anything about his crush. Joyce was the prettiest girl in my class, really kind of Hollywood pretty, a perfect complexion, flawless features, no strand of her out of place. She struck most boys as unapproachable. But we were getting to be friends, beginning to joke around about our lousy history teacher whose idea of instruction was reading out of the text. And with Joyce’s boyfriend out of town, she had talked to me about looking for a friend to take her to the Christmas dance. I didn’t have much luck with the girls I liked, but I was beginning to think I could make something happen with Joyce.
“I doubt it, but it’s up to her,” I said.
“So you were just bullshitting me about having trouble finding dates?”
“With her boyfriend living in Portland, we’re getting to be friends. At least we talk. She might need somebody to take her to the dance, but she isn’t interested in a real date.”
I watched Pete’s jaw muscles work a bit and then relax. He knew she could go out with any of the top jocks, even the Mormons who usually didn’t date anyone but the girls who went to their church. As pretty as she was, and smart, she did not need a guy to help her get out of town.
Pete said nothing more as he guided the Model A across a bridge over the Malheur River. He turned right onto a narrow dirt road that circled away from the river, behind the northern side of the butte, into our usual parking spot. The road’s end there defined the northern border of a pocket of wild land leading to the river.
We pulled our shotguns out of the back, loaded them, and walked in silence, wandering through sagebrush and weed thickets toward a backwater pond. The field was fertile bottomland that had not been claimed for alfalfa. It wasn’t exactly level ground, and it could be difficult to get equipment into.
With pheasant season over, we were stuck scouting the area for ducks. Those sleek birds were difficult to get close to and hard to knock down, at least for me. Pete always insisted it was not that difficult a shot for him. I never saw much evidence of that. We often went home skunked from one of these duck outings. If he hit a duck, it was usually because the bird’s wings were set gliding into a landing. I could knock one down under those circumstances. And I often did.
Pete’s advantage came in the form of a three-shot semi- automatic twelve gauge, and he was sometimes lucky with his third shot. With my double-barreled twelve gauge, I got off just one effective shot. By the time I got my finger on the back trigger, my second shot was slow, an afterthought.
. This morning as the light began to glint off the red thistles peeking out of the snow, we had to search to find our usual path to the river. Tall clumps of slender willows, blanketed in white, were everywhere and almost indistinguishable.
Without warning, Pete’s shotgun went off immediately behind me. Hot air from the barrel blasted my left ear and neck before I could duck.
“What the hell?”
Pete sidled past me through the weeds, grinning slightly.
“Goddamn it, Pete, don’t pull that kind of shit.”
“Scared you, did I?”
“Not funny. What if I moved sideways? Or turned around?”
“It wasn’t even close. The barrel was over your head.”
“It didn’t sound like it. Didn’t feel like it.”
I watched Pete move on ahead, his gun dangling at his side, chuckling to himself, and I thought about bringing up his dad’s death. It felt strange that he could mess around with guns. Could he be taking out his father’s bad luck on me? I didn’t think he would do that. I decided the thing with Joyce pissed him off.
Now I was the one who was seriously pissed. It was stupid to be best friends with a guy who could pull a stunt like that. I liked hunting, but I didn’t like messing with guns. Pete was too sure of his ability to back off at the right time, too willing to take big risks. I made a promise to myself then and there that I’d get away from him if he ever again even looked like he was going to mess with a loaded gun. I’d watch him. The next time anything like that happened, I’d call it the end of our friendship.
He must have been reading my mind.
“Don’t worry. I won’t do it again. You might shit your pants,” he said, just loud enough for me to hear over the sound of our feet crunching on the snow.
“You bet you won’t. I won’t give you a chance to get behind me where I can’t see you.”
“Shhhh. We’re almost at the pool.”
We cut to the left, down river toward where it backed up behind a bend in the bank and a small island. During pheasant season, we had seen ducks land and take off at this spot. We approached through trees at the water’s edge, moving quietly, picking out the trail that led us most directly to a place to peer over the edge of the bank at the target section of slow water. Even with snow on the trees, we knew this place. Its taller willows were more distinctive than the clumps of brush we had just walked through.
I hung back, and Pete took the lead moving to the riverbank, the sound of the flowing water becoming audible above the crunch of our boots on the frozen ground.
“Look!” Pete mouthed the warning hoarsely. “To your right.”
I heard the birds swoosh as he spoke. They coasted in with their wings set, coming over the river in a flying V from the west, fifty feet above the water. Pete pulled up to take a bead on one as I slid to his left and down the bank a yard to get room for a shot. Pete got his off first. The nearest duck flipped over and fell into the river. I pulled the trigger as the ducks began to beat their wings to pull up, veering away to the south. Pete took a second shot. Nothing. We both let go with another round, hoping our shot patterns could still reach the fleeing tail of the last duck. No luck. Four birds still in the sky, returning to formation, darted behind the tree line on the other side of the river.
“Follow me down river. I may need some help getting that duck out,” Pete said, beginning to run along the bank, his feet slipping a bit in the snow and ice.
“You’ve got the good wading boots,” he shouted.
“I’ll get a long branch,” I said as I leaned my spent double barrel against one of the sturdier willows, making sure the shotgun wouldn’t slip into the snow. I searched for a dead branch long enough to help snake the duck out of the current, sturdy enough not to break, and slim enough I could get a good hold on it. The best stick was only about five feet long. And the search took a couple of minutes.
“Over here,” Pete yelled from twenty-five yards downstream.
I struggled through the underbrush to where he stood at the water’s edge and laughed out loud at what I saw.
Pete was ejecting an unspent shell from his automatic while the duck, which had waddled up onto a bit of mud bank, staggered around in front of him.
“I don’t want to shoot it again at this range. It’ll ruin the meat,” Pete shouted, breathing loudly as he worked the action on his automatic.
“Hit him with this before he gets back in the water and swims away,” I said, getting ready to toss my stick down the embankment to where the wounded, staggering bird was about to stumble back into the river.
“I’m gonna use the shotgun,” Pete said and swung it like a bat so it clipped the duck in the head. It toppled over. He then picked up the bird and swung it around, as my grandmother would do with a chicken to break its neck before she chopped its head off.
“One of us needs to get a retriever if we’re going to keep doing this,” I offered as he stuffed the duck into his hunting vest.
We returned to a spot near the backwater pool and found a place to sit on a log behind some willows, so that we were situated in a natural blind.
“You think they’ll come back after we shot at one group of them,” I asked after we had waited quietly for ten or twelve minutes.
“Who knows? You want to walk upriver?”
“Let’s wait a bit longer. But I’m getting cold. I can’t sit here forever,” I said.
After another five minutes of quiet, Pete shifted his feet and, without looking at me, asked: “So when you take Joyce home after school, do you go park someplace?”
“I’ve only taken her home once. Hey, we talk about you, how you had horses in the same stable and used to go riding every weekend,” I lied.
“What does she say about me?”
“You used to have a lot of fun,” I lied some more. We had never talked about Pete. “I don’t think she knows you have a crush on her.”
“Well, I never said anything. Now I can’t. It would screw things up with Faye.”
“Are things getting serious with Faye?”
He nodded.
“So you doing it?”
“No,” he said, looking away so it was clear he was lying. “Just heavy petting.”
“I don’t believe that. You’ve been heavy petting for a long time.”
“She’d kill me if she knew I told you.”
“You using rubbers?”
“Most of the time.”
“When you don’t, do you worry?”
“Yeah. So does she. Mostly we say we’re not going to do it. Then we just get carried away.”
“Be careful Pete, unless you want to be stuck in Farewell Bend the rest of your life.”
“You don’t think I know that.”
He looked at me and smiled as if he was about ready to tell a joke. This time he stopped himself.
We sat quietly another twenty minutes. Sitting still was getting easier because the sun had finally climbed high enough to be slightly warming.
“Let’s walk upriver some. Maybe cross over. See if we can find a few birds,” Pete suggested.
“What about the no-hunting signs over there?”
The farmers with land along the south bank posted their fences right across the trail along the river’s edge. During pheasant season, we had honored those for the most part — making just one or two treks along that side of the river, hoping to scare any pheasants we encountered across onto our favored triangle of land. Late in the season, one of the farmers caught us on his posted land and chewed us out, shouting from atop his tractor, which we hadn’t noticed as it headed our direction.
“Ah, ain’t none of these farmers will be out on a cold Sunday morning,” Pete said.
“Yeah. What the hell.”
Driving in, we had crossed the river on a bridge a half mile upstream. On foot, there was another alternative. An elevated silver irrigation pipe, six feet in diameter, spanned the water with the help of suspension wires that gave us something to hold onto as we worked our way along.
During pheasant season, it usually stayed dry and the crossing proved easy, even carrying our shotguns. This morning, with four inches of snow beginning to melt off the top of the tube, the footing looked treacherous.
“I don’t know about that thing,” I said as we reached the point where we had to climb the chain link fence that protected the irrigation pipe’s mounts at both ends. Climbing was made easier because of wood posts close to the chain link. The posts formed part of a barbed wire fence stretching off to the west, keeping a dozen cows contained in a pasture.
“You going to let a little snow stop us? Just hold on tight,” Pete said.
“It’s my shotgun I’m worried about. I’m going to need both hands to hold onto the cable,” I said. “Same for you.”
“Just move slow. Carry the shotgun in your left hand and lean against the cable if you have to. I’ll go first.”
Pete heaved himself up and started across, keeping one boot well planted against the tube at all times while pushing the snow aside with the other.
“The water’s only four or five feet deep here. Just be a little cold to fall into,” he shouted back as he started across.
“I think I’ll let you have that side, and I’ll walk the road down to the bridge. Meet up with you there,” I said.
Pete proceeded to cross and clamber over the chain link fence at the other end, making it look easy despite his weight. I reconsidered and pulled myself to the top of the fence post, where I could step onto the end supports for the tube and slide easily onto the top of the tube itself.
“Come on. Don’t be a pussy,” Pete shouted.
As I stepped onto the huge pipe with both feet, I let go of my shotgun, catching it as it bounced back at me. Fortunately, I had unloaded it. I stood for a minute thinking how lucky that had been. I did not want to have to climb down after the gun and then back up again.
Once I got my balance atop the tube, sliding across proved fairly easy. Pete had the right idea.
That was until a flight of ducks came in low overhead, gliding into the backwater pool we had abandoned earlier.
Pete swung his gun across an arc that included where I stood exposed atop the tube.
“No,” I shouted.
He held his fire until the ducks were well down river before he let go with a round.
But the sound startled me. My feet started slipping inexorably down the side of the tube. I dropped my shotgun and tried to grab the cable with both hands, reaching across my body with my left arm. I acted too late. I dangled above the water holding onto the cable with one hand.
I couldn’t pull myself back up. My fingers were too cold. They just wouldn’t grip with any strength. I let go, trying to lurch atop of the tube to balance myself there.
That didn’t work either. Over a few seconds, I slowly slid down the shining silver side of the water conveyor, finally dropping in a rush, splashing into the murky, cold water.
The fall didn’t hurt. I covered the distance of ten feet from the top of the tube to the surface still upright, making only a small splash as I went in. The river proved to be only four feet deep as my boots touched bottom, but the mud gave way for another six inches. The bitter cold shocked me as the water penetrated my clothes. That wasn’t the worst part. The mud sucked at my wadding boots. The current pulled at me with more strength than I expected
I leaned into the water, holding my breath, feeling around in the mud at the bottom. On a second try, I located the gun before I came up for air.
“I can’t wade out,” I shouted to Pete. “The mud is too deep.”
“Hold on. I’ll get a branch to reach you. Try to work your way to this side.”
“God it’s cold!”
“I know,” Pete said.
He disappeared and took forever to find a branch to reach me with. It flashed through my mind that he really was pissed about Joyce. Or he thought I wasn’t working hard enough to get him a job as a photog at the paper.
“C’mon Pete, where the hell are you?” I shouted.
“I’m going to try to swim,” I yelled and flung my shotgun to the shore, falling on my back under the surface a third time.
When I came back up, I still didn’t see Pete.
“I got to get out of here,” I told myself.
Standing again, I bent forward to work my legs out of the boots that had me anchored. After a frighteningly long struggle, I freed myself. Then I lunged toward the shoreline, ineffectively beating my arms and legs inside my waterlogged wool coat and pants. It took another five minutes while I was pushed by the current fifteen yards downstream to finally make it close to shore.
Suddenly, I saw Pete alongside me. He’d waded in to help the last ten feet.
“Where you been, man?” I sputtered, shaking from the cold and exertion.
“Couldn’t find a branch,” he said.
After I climbed dripping over the side of the bank, he stripped off my wet coat and wrapped me in his dry one, which he had thought to shed before wading in. But there was nothing to do for my bootless feet.
We were in trouble. We were both soaked, and I was so tired and cold I felt unable to move. Without his coat, and with his pants wet now, Pete was freezing as well.
“It will take me an hour to walk around by the bridge. I got to try to cross the tube again, then drive around,” Pete said. “That’s quickest.”
I doubted I could hold out that long.
“We’ve got to find a farm house close by,” I said.
Pete agreed and started up the trail along the riverside, toward the road and some houses we remembered there.
I followed but very soon he was out of sight in the riverside thicket.
My feet were numb. They quit aching, but I could not feel them and I wanted to sit down, though I knew I had to keep moving. I could only feel my hands by rubbing them together. They ached. I trudged slowly up the trail.
I was beginning to get confused and stumble when I heard a shout.
“What the hell do you kids think you are doing?”
It was the farmer we’d seen weeks before on his tractor.
“You are both stupid, stupid assholes,” he said and scooped me up. Pete carried my legs and the farmer held me by my armpits as they staggered a hundred yards across a snow-covered pasture to his pickup, left where he’d been throwing hay bales to his heifers. He raced to his house where he called an ambulance and, I was told later, stripped me and wrapped me in a blanket.
Pete went home, crawled into bed for the rest of the day, and returned to school on Monday.
I spent Sunday night being monitored for hypothermia at St. Mary’s Hospital. I thought the aching in my feet would never go away.
Monday was better. Two duty nuns stopped by my bed with soup and woke me for lunch. They clucked away and tried to sympathize. I tried to imagine what they wore underneath those black and white robes. My mother brought in the latest issues of Time and Life and a radio, and I forgot where I was for a few hours, listening to “One Life to Live” and “Queen for a Day.” I was eight again, staying home from school with the flu. I thought for a while I would be happy to be kept there another night, until I asked the nurse what was for dinner.
“Boiled fish,” she answered.
Late that afternoon, my doctor took my pulse, leaned over the bed, listened to my heart, and said he was happy to let me go home.
“Get some exercise. Play some basketball. But keep those feet out of the cold for awhile,” he warned as he hustled from the hospital room.
That settled, I tried to think what to do about Pete. I wasn’t sure he’d been intentionally slow pulling me from the water. But I was going to make him explain.
That lasted a week. He called to offer me a ride to school. I accepted and neither one of us talked about duck hunting. Pete had a few jokes ready, and it was easy to put the whole thing behind us.
After all, I decided, he had waded in. He could have been in trouble himself from the cold water if that farmer hadn’t come along.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Take a virtual trip around town but you won’t find the old one-room jail

Take a virtual trip around town but you won’t find the old one-room jail
Google Maps now makes it easy to tour Ontario by computer, and when you want to write about what’s stood up over 55 years and what has not, this comes in handy.
I realize that over 55 years things change. But it was a little disconcerting on my more recent visits to find that the folks who remade downtown Ontario have paved over much of the block that was most important to me as a youth. Last week I wrote at Farewell Bend the Novel about how they made the old Argus-Observer building into a parking lot. I also knew they’d made a parking lot of the old one-room city jail behind the former city hall, just across the alley from the old Argus also into a parking lot.
Now, given Google’s new “street views” for some cities, including Ontario, I enjoy letting readers actually see the sites they are told about from the files of 1950s issues of the Argus-Observer.
So if you want to see the parking lot that’s gone up in the place of the city jail that county Grand Jurors said was “filthy” in 1953, just go to Google maps and plug in the address 248 S.W.1st Street in Ontario, Zip 97914.
Sorry I don’t have any pictures of the old jail, where I passed inmates a pack of cigarettes on occasion after making a run to the Moore Bus Depot a block south. What I could see of the inside through the bars didn’t exactly look comfortable or appealing, as I remember.
(For some of this blog’s readers, I expect what will be even more exciting is the ability to use the street view option to move around town on many streets and look at a lot of the city. Fiddle with it a bit and you’ll figure out how that works. I don’t know whether and where Google has done or is still offering this option, but I’ll find out and soon put up a note about this.)
For now, here’s what the Ontario City Council had to say about the county Grand Jury’s report that the city jail was filthy. The headline in the Argus-Observer pretty much summed it up:
“City Council visits jail and calls it good enough for its purpose.”
The July 2, 1953 issue reported that the Ontario City Council adjourned a council meeting to make a quick visit to the jail.
Denying that it ever received the report from the county Grand Jury – carried in the Argus-Observer on May 28, 1953 -- the Ontario City Council visited the city jail and pronounced it fit enough.
“This jail looks perfectly satisfactory to me,” Councilman Horace Beal said. “Any man in jail should feel damn fortunate to have a jail this good to be in.”
The council members did note that that walls had been recently white washed.
The Grand Jury had called the jail “filthy and unsanitary” because it had no shower or bathing facilities and no mattresses on the beds.
In recounting the council’s response, the reporter for the Argus that year took it on himself to repeat a suggestion that “wet backs” --- the term of the day for illegal immigrants from Mexico who came to the area to work on the farms --- had been incarcerated there just before the Grand Jury visit.

Becoming The Ontario Argus-Observer

Writer’s note: Here is the non-fiction account of my father’s time as publisher of the The Ontario Argus-Observer. A version of this story appears as background in my fictional memoir, Farewell Bend the Novel.

By Larry L. Lynch
Don Lynch fidgeted in the straight-back chair facing his Royal upright and placed his wire rim glasses on a pile of copy paper to the typewriter’s right. He sat surrounded by stacks of notes, clippings and old newspapers --- saved for story ideas and background.
Lynch leaned forward, closed his eyes and used his long fingers to massage his temples. At thirty-seven, he looked almost handsome despite his slightly asymmetrical cheekbones, a carry-over from the polio he suffered as a youth. He had a full head of wavy hair, a twinkle in his eye and usually displayed a half smile that showed off his dimples.
The other desks crowded into the front office of his twice-weekly newspaper, The Ontario Argus-Observer, were vacant. Lynch had saved this quiet Saturday morning, August 30, 1952, to find the right words to explain to readers why he was starting a personal, front-page column. The simple truth was that he wanted to do it and his news editor, Hugh Gale, was still on best behavior. It would be months before Gale would begin putting the phone down on a particular country cousin correspondent and walking away while she droned on.
The name Lynch chose for the column, “The Argus Observes,” almost selected itself, given the name of his newspaper. The mythological Argus, Lynch would explain to readers, had one hundred eyes, thus its use for newspapers. What’s more, it slept with only two eyes closed. Still, the name had its shortcomings. The Greek Argus failed had failed as a bodyguard, the assignment that made it myth-worthy. Bored by a lengthy bedtime story, the monster fell totally asleep and was slain.
Lynch knew it would be a mistake to come off in his new column as overly impressed with himself, but after five years and nine months as editor and publisher, he’d grown sure of his place in town. He wanted to “write easily” about his experiences and ideas using the “informality of the first person.”
For more than five years, as I passed through high school and on to college, my father did just that, aptly commenting on life in a small western town in the 1950s.
For the previous five years, he had run his newspaper under the close guidance of a veteran partner, Bernard Mainwaring, whose large bald head and vigorous physical presence was matched by a dominating personality and equally impressive intellect. My father once observed that his older partner, who avoided alcohol, had “little understanding of the inclination of others to drink because he was two drinks ahead of the average guy all of the time.”
Mainwaring owned the daily Nampa, Idaho Free Press when my father went to work for him in 1944. The Nampa publisher found something special in the former meter-reader reborn as an ad salesman and sports writer. After two years, Mainwaring decided to stake his salesman to a half interest in a weekly newspaper, one of two then serving Ontario, Oregon, population about 4,200.
Before Mainwaring and my father purchased it, The Argus had settled into a deep slumber that hardly noted the changes going on in town. In one of his last columns, the former editor and publisher made fun of himself in print for driving through a newly installed stop light on which he’d reported the week before. Another sign of the lack of activity occurred one weekday afternoon in the fall of 1946. While my father and Mainwaring sat for two hours in the weekly’s office haggling over the details of the purchase, the phone remained eerily silent. That silence drove Mainwaring to distraction, but it didn’t scare him off.
My mother, my brother Dennis, and I rarely saw my father during the first four months of the new operation. That was the time it took to locate and buy a small, white clapboard house on a tree-lined street of mixed homes with an ample scattering of vacant lots four blocks southwest of downtown Ontario. At first, the three of us were stuck without a car in a massively ugly and cold grey stone rental house in nearby Payette, Idaho. Our wait was only relieved on Thursday afternoon when my father drove us to Ontario to join the madhouse of publication night.
I liked the smell of the mix of old newspapers and ink that pervaded the tiny store-front newspaper plant, but I hated the racket the machinery produced late on the evening of publication day. A printer stood on a platform at the side of a huge roller atop a two-page press feeding sheets of paper into place. To produce a four-page section, the operator turned the paper over, exchanged the forms holding the pages of lead type, and sent the sheets through a second time. On each revolution the press roared as the roller spun on its axis, then groaned when it reversed directions, and roared again. When the press run was far enough along that my father fired up the folder, its sound added exponentially to the cacophony, clanging away, folding and stuffing the printed sheets into something that resembled a newspaper--- when it didn’t shred them.
This was our quality family time. Women enjoyed my father, and he returned the favor. His appeal rested mainly with his ability to flatter them by listening intently. On these evenings, however, he forgot that compulsive diversion of his. And my mother, a short, striking, dark-haired dervish put to good use the work ethic she absorbed growing up on a dairy farm near Caldwell, Idaho. On these nights our parents accomplished something together.
From the outset, The Argus’ new owners planned to convince the publisher of the town’s other weekly newspaper to sell out. Mainwaring provided the operating cash for my father to undercut ad sales for that paper, the Eastern Oregon Observer, by practically giving away ad space in The Argus. They also arranged for The Argus to be delivered to everyone in town, whether paid subscribers or not.
My father’s patience with this approach began to wear thin by spring, however. He’d learned that everyone in town seemed to read the paper even though almost no one would buy ads.
Then, as he tried to keep up the pressure on the Observer, a piece of luck presented itself in the form of an editorial mistake.
Harry Peterson, a town patriarch who ran a furniture store at the other end of Oregon Street from the old Argus plant and also operated a local funeral home. One morning as my father walked through town to make a call on Peterson, he mulled over a new problem. He’d heard that Peterson was steaming because The Argus printed the wrong time for a funeral, and people around town were calling to complain.
“Harry, I’m sorry, that was a mistake,” my father shouted as he entered the store and climbed to the top of the stairs leading to Peterson’s desk, where it overlooked the furniture displayed on the floor below. “But if this mistake is so important to our readers, how is it that we don’t have any value as an advertising medium?”
From that time on, Peterson’s furniture store advertised in The Argus. Other merchants followed his lead and began to buy paid space.
That summer, the competition with the Observer came to a head. Compared with The Argus, which traced its first publication to 1896, the Observer was an upstart. Elmo Smith, an acquaintance of my father’s from Smith’s college days in Caldwell, had started the paper late in 1936 and had made a success of it, becoming a power on the local scene. He served as Ontario’s mayor during part of World War II. But by 1946, he was ready to move on. He sold the Observer that December to Jessica Longston, who also owned the St. Helens (Oregon) Sentinel-Mist as well as a newspaper and radio station in Burley, Idaho. As part of his deal with Longston, Smith had agreed to run the Observer for a limited time. Eight months later, with the competition wearing on both papers, something had to give. Mainwaring offered Longston more money than she could make by continuing to operate The Observer, and she agreed to sell. The Ontario papers were combined into one beginning in September 1947. Elmo Smith soon bought another paper in John Day, Oregon and began a career in state politics.
Through the decade my father operated the Argus-Observer, his biggest business headaches involved how to keep a back shop purring with country printers and unreliable equipment. Press breakdowns were commonplace, even after a refurbished, high-speed eight-page press was installed in a new building. The turnover among printers was even more maddening. They’d walk in the door looking for work, be assigned a stone-slab work table for assembling type, turn out a few weeks of decent ads and printing jobs, then collect their checks and disappear.
And yet the worst problem my father ran into with a printer was quite the opposite.
Before the end of this printer’s first week, the back shop foreman discovered he had to position the new guy at a make-up bench far away from every other employee and especially far away from a particularly cranky linotype operator. The guy smelled so foully of drink and bodily filth that no one could stand to work close to him. This printer required cash for his work on a daily basis. If he was paid weekly, he’d be broke within a day or two. Even so, the foreman wanted to keep him on the job until someone who could replace him walked in the door.
It didn’t work out that way. My father’s patience ran out when the printer missed a day of work but didn’t realize that he hadn’t shown up. He disrupted the entire office with his insistence that he receive the money for two days when he had only worked one.
The odiferous printer came from Yakima, Washington, so my father bought him a ticket for home, packed him a lunch, took him to the bus station, handed the ticket to the driver, and watched the bus pull out with him aboard.
He then called the printer’s wife to tell her that her husband was on his way: “She wailed, ‘Why did you have to send him home?’ She thought she’d gotten rid of him for good.”
At the end of 1952, Mainwaring sold his interest in the Argus-Observer to my parents to help finance his purchase of the Salem, Oregon Capital Journal. My father used “The Argus Observes” column of February 5, 1953 to pay tribute to the man he described as “at least a near genius as a newspaper publisher (and) the nearest thing to a genius of any one I have ever known.”
He noted that Mainwaring impressed people by acquiring a depth of information along specific lines and using it freely in conversation. He never smoked, never drank, and during the war went “careening all over Nampa on a bike, pell mell like a 25-year-old kid....I have seen him take a highball to avoid awkward explanation and then pour it down a sink or set it aside at the first opportunity. However a stranger at a cocktail party might think him the life of the party because his animated voice can be heard above the hubbub of others.”
My father believed in the value of child labor. I began working at The Argus when I was eleven, hauling bundles of freshly inked newspapers to the bus depot, drug stores and coffee shops, and riding my bike to small neighborhood groceries. Downtown I usually covered on foot. I gathered up an order or two and headed out of the back door of the plant, past a one-room cement jail that sat behind city hall. Occasionally, I stopped to jaw with a drunk still stuck inside come late afternoon. By the time I was in junior high, I picked up an extra dollar now and then by making cigarette runs for the guys drying out in the old jail. One day a printer saw me making the exchange, and reported it to my father, who put a stop to the arrangement.
By 1952, my father had fallen in love with the news side and would have been overjoyed to devote himself to it full time. But he knew that the business depended on him to sell the ads that brought in the money that made the newspaper financially viable.
Meanwhile, self-proclaimed news editors frequently walked in the front door without notice to inquire about a job. If one didn’t drop in at the right time, they were easy to procure through a help wanted ad in the industry bible, Editor and Publisher.
The turnover at the editor’s desk came to an end for three years during the summer of 1952. My father hired Hugh Gale, a veteran reporter, as news editor. Gale provided the time my father needed to begin his front-page column. And Gale provided me, at an impressionable age, with an intriguing example of what a newspaperman could be like.
To function well as a country editor, my father reluctantly conceded, it was necessary to have not only a little flair but also to be self assured enough to go your own way, despite what some of the townsfolk might say or think of you. Hugh was maybe the most independent --- certainly the most addicted to hanging out in the local bars --- of those who came along. He also possessed the ability, perhaps too rarely used, to charm most anyone with a gruff compliment. He was a pudgy, gnome-like man with a bushy shock of light, grey-streaked hair hanging over a florid face. When he was going good, he sat hunched over his typewriter at his desk facing a long window looking into the back shop, using the nicotine-stained middle and index fingers of both hands to pound out stories.
Hugh kept his distance from the society editor at one end of his row of desks and from the two women behind him, the bookkeeper and circulation manager who took care of the front counter. But that didn’t stop the women from taking an interest in him. They learned that he was married but had left his wife in Washington, and they began to ask him repeatedly when his wife would arrive.
“My wife is a very, very large woman,” he said. “I doubt that anyone here is going to welcome her.”
When his wife walked into the office for the first time some months later, she proved to be petite and beautiful. Or, as my father used to say, “I’m really not sure how a guy who looks like Hugh and drinks like a fish ever got such an attractive woman to live with him.”
At the time he was hired, Hugh was warned “that sometimes the news was sparse and it took hard digging to get out an interesting paper,” my father wrote in a January 5, 1953 column.
“After a few weeks, he asked what I meant by dullness… The news seemed plenty active enough for him. In his first month… a man burned to death in a trailer house fire, there was a Grade A public row over the failure of the school board to rehire two teachers, the Malheur River flooded and then the Owyhee really flooded --- all on top of an active situation in school district, city and county news and plus the regular flow of the news.
“But in the in the dog days between the Fourth of July and the county fair he found out what I had been talking about. He almost walked a hole in the tile on the office floor trying to dream up stories good enough for the top front page positions.”
As time wore on --- and this was obviously related to why his wife took some time to follow him --- Hugh’s lifestyle began to impinge on his productivity.
“He is always late,” my father complained as summer turned to fall in 1954. Years later, in one of a series of pieces he wrote as part of an effort to syndicate a column about being a country editor, my father recounted the workplace sins of an anonymous “reporter we had once’’ --- who might have been easily identified by readers in Ontario:
“The talented but unstrung reporter came to work so late so often that finally I had to tell him, if he was ever late again I’d expect him to just ask for his check without waiting to be fired.
“After that, when he was out very late at night, he’d park his car in front of the office before he went home. About 9:30 the next morning, he’d come running in the back door with his hands full of notes, as if he’d been on an early morning news assignment at the city hall. He’d rush up to his desk and begin typing furiously, never looking up.
“It was easy to tell that he hadn’t been awake 15 minutes. However, even though he was an hour late, it was earlier than he’d been coming to work. So I let him think he was fooling me.”
Earlier, my father had played a different tune on his typewriter keys when Hugh actually moved on July 21,1955 to run his own newspaper in Kirkland, Washington.
Opening his column with the admission that he hated to see his editor leave “more than I had thought I would,” my father noted that Gale had “worked at the news with the abandon of a volunteer fireman. He was forever getting up at daylight to photograph the blowing of a gas well strike, or flying off to Jordan Valley to a cattlemen’s convention, or taking a rangeland tour to study the problems of range management. He took jaunts of this kind almost every week, generally on his own time.
“And he got around. He lived with the men in the street and the farmers in the fields. He made it his business to know what was going on in the community, what the average citizen was thinking. There is no substitute for this intense interest in society and not many news men have the quality in the degree possessed by Hugh Gale.”
After Hugh’s departure, my father put his column on hold. But he revived it in early 1956, and the timing of its return was less than accidental. A subject presented itself that my father badly wanted to write about --- the rise of his old acquaintance Elmo Smith to the job of governor. On January 31, of that year Oregon Gov. Paul Patterson died of a heart attack. As president of the State Senate, Smith succeeded him.
Less than a month later, my parents visited Eugene for a social event with the Smiths. Returning home, my father published a column describing how “the governor took off his coat and shoes, loosened his tie, flopped on my hotel room bed in Eugene. He looked beat from his first 17 days as governor of Oregon.”
Some of Smith’s friends in the Ontario area were concerned that the man they knew as Elmo would change under the pressures of his new job.
My father suggested they “needn’t worry.” At an evening cocktail party with old friends, Smith had “trotted around the lobby with his hands jammed in his pockets, his shoulders hunched forward, his coattails flying, his hat pushed to the back of his head, and one hand periodically raising in that ‘hi’ salute, a mannerism that is uniquely his. He looked almost exactly like he did peddling ads on Oregon street ten years ago.”
During the following months, my father threw every ounce of editorial support he could justify, and some he couldn’t, into helping his friend win election to the governor’ post that November. But it wasn’t to be. Smith lost to the Democrat, Bob Holmes, a radio station manager from Astoria.
My father never admitted as much to me, but knowing the restlessness that was brewing in his soul, I’m almost certain he hoped that a Smith victory would mean a job for him in the new administration in Salem, a chance to get away from the newspaper --- and from family demands --- a least for a while.
The next May while I was off at college and my brother was in high school, he announced that he had turned the publisher’s job over to our mother so he could take a position helping to manage classified ad sales at The Statesman newspaper in Boise, Idaho, 65 miles to the east.
“This change was only possible,” he wrote in his May 23, 1957, column, “because Mrs. Lynch was willing to assume the rather demanding job of being editor and publisher of The Argus-Observer….
“In this particular case the wife is better qualified to manage the newspaper than she realizes. She has been closest to its problems for a long time, and has worked at all of the tasks required --- reporting, advertising and accounting. This is a broader background than my own because I couldn’t do the accounting.”
Time proved my father correct about my mother’s publishing skills. She whipped the staff into the kind of shape that increased profits year over year until 1963 when she decided to sell because neither one of her sons was interested in returning to Ontario to help her out.
My parents divorced and my father went on to a long career as a newspaper business manager, editor and writer. But he never again found work that was quite as satisfying. Late in life, he tried to develop a book out of his columns for the Ontario newspaper, but he couldn’t make it work. “All that old newspaper stuff and Ontario stuff as I wrote it in the rough draft would never be read today,” he concluded in a letter to me, written May 10, 1995 at the age of eighty. He then willed me his papers in the hope that I could re-direct the material “to the interests of today’s audiences.”
And in a draft introduction to the book he would have liked to write, he summed up his experience quite simply yet eloquently:
“A half century ago we had outlived our time mechanically. We were still using the same method of inking a raised impression and pressing paper against it that Gutenberg had worked out 500 years earlier. We were still printing with stinking-hot melted lead, clanking linotypes, and noisy presses. Even so we still had a sort of built-in community influence that is now as out of date as a horse and buggy. It was 45 years ago when I got in on the final years of that ancient world. I was one of the last of the old-fashioned country editors. What a privileged way to start a lifetime of journalism.”