Saturday, October 26, 2013

Critters, or How I Came to Be an Oregonian

Oregon Ozone (Recycled)  1

My grandfather, Reuben Blalock was born in 1869 “up a holler” in the great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. He did some “book learning,” and memorizing scripture, and when he was still a youngster he loved to join in the hot debates that raged in the hill country following the War Between the States. The debates he loved the most were of an ecclesiastical nature, dealing with the “signs of the true church.”  Thomas, his older brother, had taught him to look for the “landmarks of faith” that distinguished the “true Baptists,” from the worldly imposters—like those of the Southern Baptist Convention. Thomas then went to China, leaving Reuben to hold fast to the things he had received.

Around 1890 Reuben came west to see if he could work for his uncle Niles, who was a big rancher in Walla Walla.  He also owned an island in the Columbia River, and a ranch, up a canyon in the Gorge, that both bare his name. It seems that Niles (or N.G. as he liked to be called) has slipped off the path of righteousness and had gotten mixed up with some new fangled outfit called “Seven Day” something or the other. This made Reuben (who, by-the-way, liked to be called “R.Y.”) hot as a sprinkled hen, so he headed down to the Oregon coast to cool off, in the misty glades around Tillamook, in search of missing cousins from back home.

Grandpa "R.Y."

As he wandered around the biblically inspired Mount Hebo, and along back roads, leading through little hamlets, not once did he see the ordinarily familiar site of a little white church house. This began to bother him, perplexing his mind. Having come from the boarders of the great Piedmont of the Southeast, where religion was as popular as it was with the Greeks in the heyday of the Byzantines, he could not fathom an American community without at least one church house at its center. These thoughts were heavy on his heart as he walked up a road outside of the town of Beaver. Soon he came upon a farmhouse with an old woman sitting on the porch. Reuben took of his hat and made a polite bow.

“Pardon me, madam,” he said, “Can you tell me if there are any Landmark Baptists in this part of the world?”

"Pardon me, madam"

The old lady fixed her good eye on my grandfather, closed the other eye, and said, “No, I can’t say that there are, and I can’t say that there ain’t.”

“Well, then ,” grandpa Reuben continued, “What about Regular Baptists?”

The old lady smacked her toothless gums and said, “I can’t say that there are, and I can’t say that there ain’t.”

To make certain the place wasn’t completely godless, my grandpa continued: “Are there any Methodists that you know of?”

The old lady rocked back and forth in her chair for a minute, silently considering the question. Then she replied, “No sir! I can’t say that there are, and I can’t say that there ain’t.”

As a last resort grandpa Reuben asked, almost desperately, “What about Presbyterians? Are there any of those?”

The old lady rose up from her rocker and motioned toward the barn behind the house. “I’ll tell ye what,” she said in a reluctant sort of voice. “My Jeb shoots lots of critters, and hangs their skins on the shed. You go back there and see for yerself if any of them critters you was asking about are hanging up there, and my Jeb will tell you where you can find ‘em.”

Following this discourse grandpa went back to North Carolina, and “surrendered to preach” (as the expression goes). When he graduated from the seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, he headed right back out to Oregon where he knew he was needed. He married May, the lovely daughter of Joseph and May Donaldson, who were early pioneers to the Tillamook area.

This is a short vignette explaining, in part, how I came to be one of the happiest of all God’s critters, an Oregonian.

1 “Oregon Ozone” was the name of a delightful little column that ran for a short time in the Oregonian. It was a feature in 1905 (the year of “The Fair”) and only ran from May through November.  I am stealing the name, maybe I should say, “recycling” the name, for blog posts that are not related a maritime theme.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Sailor’s Friend, an Extinct Breed

When I first started working on the waterfront, back in the 1970s, I didn’t realize I was coming into a scene that was rapidly disappearing. With the exception of the automobile docks in Saint Johns and Rivergate, Portland docks did not have much in the way of guards at the gate. I should mention, Terminal 4 had a guard gate, but it was rarely occupied, and when it was, no one stopped to be checked in. This means that one of the regular sights was some vehicle—either a taxi cab, or a Cadillac, or an old beater—filled to the brim with prostitutes headed for the ship. A regular visitor (and one who took the bus) was a pitiful woman, known as “Penny dirty legs.” Her mother had been a prostitute, or so it was told, who brought her daughter with her on the job. It is hard to say how old Penny was, somewhere between 30 and 50, but it was obvious she was mentally undeveloped—probably from being abused her entire life.

By the 1970s the great majority of the vessels were Liberian flag, owned by Americans, or Greeks, and staffed by Greek, Korean, or Japanese officers, and manned by Chinese or Pilipino crews. We still saw an occasional ship from the U.S.S.R. (until Jimmy Carter’s embargo), Norway, Greece, Japan, or even the U.S.A. But these were on the way out.

Besides the prostitutes another common sight was a preacher whose name I do not know, though looking back, I wish I had made his acquaintance. He was the last of a dying breed as well, the sailor’s friend. I first mistook this gentleman for a U.S. Customs official. He was tall, with snowy white hair rolling out from under his peaked officer’s cap. Then I noticed him leading a small group of confused-looking Asian sailors to a van in the parking lot bearing the emblem of an anchor, and the words: “Seamen’s Lighthouse Church,” and in smaller script, “Rescue the perishing.” I can’t say which came first, the old preacher going to collect his “crown of glory,” or the new security rules requiring the docks to be surrounded by razor wire and the gates manned by real guards, requiring everyone entering to show a TSA TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Card) card. If this gentleman were working today he would have to wait patiently outside the gate for sailors looking to catch a bus into town.

The old preacher was carrying the flag for a movement that started in Great Britain as part of the English Evangelical movement. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was started in1701. It was deeply involved with British maritime adventures, as can be seen by the official seal. There is a clergyman standing on the bow of a British man o’ war, holding out a Gospel book towards the heathen masses running to hear him speak. The society also published a book of daily devotions for sailors, and instructed ship captains in the duties of holding morning and evening prayer, as well as a Sunday service.

In 1821 another Evangelical movement arose in Britain, this one, the Seaman’s Friend Society, was directed at the spiritual life of the sailor. Many pious citizens lent a hand in this effort. A Methodist shoemaker developed the “Bethel” flag for use on vessels to announce services. “Bethel” meaning “House of God,” became synonymous with the chapels and religious services on the society. Within the decade the movement came to the United States with the organization of the New York, American Seaman’s Friend Society, which encouraged religious activities among American sailors, and built sailor’s chapels in many seaports.

By the 1870s Portland, Oregon was an emerging seaport, with Astoria taking on the cargoes when the rivers were too low for vessels to load, or load fully in Portland. Seaman’s Friend Chaplains were assigned to both ports: the Rev. R.S. Stubbs in Portland , and the Rev. Johnston McCormac in Astoria. In Portland a group of religious city fathers: Henry Corbett, William S. Ladd, Simeon Reed, John McCracken, Edward Quackenbush, and James Laidlaw formed a chapter of the society, with the aim of building a Bethel, and a facility with boardinghouse, dining hall, and library.  The chief aim was to remove the poor sailors from the clutches of the ruthless boarding masters, Jim Turk being the major problem at the time.

The first structure, a chapel, reading room, kitchen, and chaplain’s quarters was a wood frame building on the corner of 3rd and Davis. In 1882, at the same location, the society built their vision, a building with sleeping rooms, and all the other accommodations. They christened the place the “Mariner’s Home,” and dreamed about putting the evil crimps out of business. The structure remains to this day.

The Mariner's Home NW 3rd and Davis, as it was some years ago, and as it was 2012

Turk and his fellow crimps and runners, men who dealt in the lives of sailors, were organized enough to make it impossible for the boardinghouse part of the facility  to operate. The captains, who received the wages due to deserting sailors, also did not wish to run afoul of the crimps, who could bring them great sorrows. The crimps could tie them up in court on false charges, or even bring them grievous bodily harm, making it highly dangerous to use this alternative method, provided by the Bethel, for obtaining sailors.

(I have discovered some rather shocking details about this period in the history of the Mariner's Home, but I am saving it for my upcoming book, a biographical history of the shanghaiers of Portland and Astoria.)

The founding chapter of the American Seamen’s Friend Society, in New York, closed in 1970. By then the mission to sailors had reappeared in many different forms, with similar names, in ports around the world. In Portland it was the Seamen’s Lighthouse Church, with its poignant byline, “Rescue the perishing.” It’s “Bethel” chapel was a windowless frame building where North Lombard makes a jog at St. Johns Avenue. There is an empty lot there today.

If you have read Portland’s Lost Waterfront, you may have noticed I told the story of how one of the first Bethel services in Portland was held in shanghaier, Jim Turk’s boardinghouse. Recently I discovered, in the writings of Rev. Johnston McCormac, a reference how he held Bethel services, for a time, in the Astoria sailor’s boardinghouse of John Kenny and Paddy Lynch. These were some strange bedfellows (if you will excuse the expression). Shortly after this Paddy was sent to the penitentiary for shanghaiing, but for that you will need to get my next book for details.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mr. Otis Returns to Portland, Oregon. You Must Go Visit!

Where: Portland Museum of Modern Art, 5202 North Albina (located in Mississippi Records)

 When: Now through November 24, 2013

  “The man who made Grandma Moses blush.” (Joseph Rambo) “Van Gogh had one ear, Mr. Otis has two.” (Bennett Cerf)“I am convinced this character uses a brush while painting.” (Therese Pol, L’Art Magazine)

The Portland Museum of Modern Art

I have written about Stuart Holbrook in this blog before, and some may have the idea that I don’t hold him in admiration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because I am opposed to writers of history taking his fictional folk tales as fact does not mean I didn’t enjoy reading them. The man was, above all, a caricaturist, and the hyperbole he poured out on Portland—past and present—was very entertaining, and meant with a sly wink and a nudge (figuratively speaking). It is highly unlikely that anyone would have heard of Joe "Bunko" Kelley had Holbrook not immortalized him in the folk lore that came to him in a literary fit of some sort.

When I first saw some of the oil paintings that Holbrook did under the pseudonym, “Mr. Otis,” I laughed out loud. They were intended to be funny, in the same way as a cartoonist intends his work to be funny (and much of Picasso’s work, in my opinion). They are also very much more than cartoons. Holbrook is a genius of the surreal, creating primitive, richly colored, commentaries on the region, the dying pioneer spirit, the greed and hypocrisy. Many of these paintings are the sort of thing that I could look at for years and not grow weary of them.

It is my great pleasure to announce that a good collection of Mr. Otis paintings is now in town for Portlanders to admire. They are home, for a season, loaned through the generosity of University of Washington, Library of Special Collections. They are on view at the infant Portland Museum of Modern Art, located in the stairwell and basement of Mississippi Records 5202 Albina. Like all good art, they more engaging when viewing the real work, instead of a photograph. 

I suggest purchasing a brochure for $5 (it looks like it cost more than that to make), with largeish prints “suitable for framing.” You could hang them in your guest room for your visitors to ponder. 

Mr. Otis paintings will make a bit more sense if you Google some of the names of the human subjects, such as: Joachim Miller, the Oregon poet laureate with the patriarchal beard, and Zeus-like countenance, or James G. Blaine, reformist Republican politician. These paintings were mostly painted during the 1950s and early 1960s, but mostly refer to earlier periods.

One thing that makes me enjoy his work even more is knowing that he was ostracized by many of the Portland art community. Holbrook, who also wrote for the Oregonian, was viewed as some sort of self-made, bumpkin/Cretan, who traded in his chainsaw for a paint brush. The joke turned on them when the Carlton House Gallery in New York City did a showing of his work. Once again the proverb rings true that a prophet may have great honor, but not in his own village. 

The image of Portland that Holbrook left us in his books is indelible enough to outlast the more complex realities of history. His gift works just as well, or better, in his art. Someday he will be “discovered.” If this world rolls on another thirty or forty years his art will be priceless, or at least this is my prophecy. I do not expect any honor for this—except maybe in Tokyo, or Milan.

As to the name "Mr. Otis," I was browsing the Oregonian archives to find articles on the artist, and I noticed that the artist is preceded and greatly outnumbered by the advertisements of a real estate man who used the name "Mr. Otis." It can never be proven, but if Holbrook liked the name as much as I do, he may have lifted it.