Thursday, October 9, 2014

Portland Nostalgia Served Cold

I spend more time reading old newspapers than anything else. I suppose I should moderate my obsession  at some point, but I keep being rewarded with stories that unfold in my imagination in a way that is better than watching Netflix.

Today I read an account of an sailor with great memories of Portland. He was Commander Fairweather, an old salt who had risen in the ranks of the Royal Navy and was then retired and living in house on a high cliff overlooking the Land's End near the fishing village of  Sennen Cove. Here he was introduced to some visitors from Portland, Oregon, one of them a reporter who jotted down some tales from Fairweather's days as a merchant sailor.

Sennen Cove, Atlantic Cable Crossing

Why, I remember Portland quite well. I was second mate on the Dunbritton in '97 (how many old-timers remember her?) sailing out of Rotterdam to Java, where we took on the first load of kapok that was ever shipped--90 tones of it--for Melbourne and Newcastle. New South Wales. From there we took coal to Astoria. Then to Portland for grain for the United Kingdom.

State Library Of Victoria (Accession No. h99.220/1493)

There the master crimps, Grant and Sullivan, boarded us as soon as we docked.

Maybe they persuaded 'em off, for the Yukon old rush had started. People were sailing any way they could…

It was not joke for us--stranded without a crew. Grant and Sullivan knew their business though, and fitted us out. A pretty penny it cost. They netted about $120 for each man. The sailor man drunkenly signed away his first two month's pay and the skipper had to fork out the balance.

What a bunch of greenhorns we got! Still, they were all one could expect of a shanghaied crew and we got home.

One afternoon at a tea a lady came across the room to speak to me.

"They tell me you're from Portland in Oregon," she said, "for years it's been my dream city. Someday I hope to go there."

She was the wife of a district commissioner in West Africa. In her soft, Scotch voice she talked of all the familiar things about Portland so knowingly that I found it difficult to believe she had never been in the states. Then she explained:

Years ago on her way out to Africa to join her husband, she met a young woman recently married to a man who held some official position out there. They became friendly. The bride, from Portland. Oregon, was full of enthusiasm for the new country, gaily anticipating the adventure of making a home in a strange place, eager to learn the customs and ways of a new world.

They parted on arrival, the Scotch woman staying at the port, the other setting out for the long trip up the Niger River to her new home. For months they kept up a correspondence. Into the younger woman's letters, as time passed, crept a despondent note. The monotony was telling on her nerves. It was the husband who wrote. His wife needed a spell on the coast, away from the fever and loneliness. Could she come down for a while?

The invitation was readily given. One morning the bride arrived. The happy, smiling girl of a few months before was gone, replaced by one with a thin, set, unsmiling face, haggard eyes that look out listlessly.

The commissioner's wife took her home, planned parties for her,   gathered friends around, hoping to break that brooding melancholy. As the days wore on, the guest relaxed a little and talked… of little else but her life in the oppressive heat, in the ghastly bush. She yearned for home… for the gentle rains, the healing sound of dripping water… for the coolness of the nights after days of heat… for the joy of looking up to see a snow-covered mountain, the gleaming white of Mount Hood that meant coolness… for tree-covered hills, always green… for the Willamette, where boats came and went… for the glories of the Columbia Gorge..

The girl from home couldn't stand transplanting. The torrid, horrid, "White Man's Graveyard" claimed another victim.

I could understand why the Scotch woman had been so impressed with Oregon. It must have seemed a paradise to someone who had spent the best years of her life in tropical heat.

Her husband retired some time ago and they have been living in hotels and mansions, but always in her mind was the picture of the city she wants to see, the Rose City… where soft, green lawns stretch before the houses… where there are parks with trees casting cool shadows… where in the summer water is sparkling in the gardens… where the winter comes after the fall.

It is easy for me to relate to this story. Way back in my misspent youth I lived for awhile with some religious kooks on a hippie commune in the valley outside of Phoenix, Arizona. It was nice enough in January, when I arrived. The orange blossoms smelled wonderful at night, and after some heavy rains the desert bloomed--for a season.

By late April the nights were nearly as warm as the days. In the coolest part of the early morning the atomic sun would burst over the horizon, baking everything in sight into a monotonous burnt umber and the yellow ochre of dry sticks and tumbleweeds. At night the dry, hot Santa Ana winds would whip through the woodpecker holes in the Sargasso cactuses, moaning like the hounds of Hell. Then my parents sent me a Greyhound ticket so I could attend my brother's wedding, before he left for a stint in Viet Nam.

When I arrived at the old Greyhound station--then it was downtown near the Buttermilk Corner, Dave's Delicatessen, and all my favorite hangouts--the day had turned to twilight, and rush hour. Rain was falling in a light mist from the low clouds. In those days I was far less inhibited than I am now. I lay aside my backpack, got down on my knees, and kissed the sidewalk before catching the Number 10 Crystal Springs bus to my parents' home near Powell Park. I would never again be loosed from the entanglements of love and beauty that keep me a captive of the Portland Vortex.

Barney Blalock kissing the ground after getting home from Arizona