I was raised in one of the last of the last company-owned towns in California. The timber company owned all the housing and the stores in the small town of Klamath. Our rent, food, clothing, and most everything else was deducted from my dad’s earnings at the mill. Dad was the mill electrician, and in those days a good worker like dad had job security, and so we lived a comfortable life in the woods of Northern California.
Our house was one of a group of houses the lumber mill had built to provide housing for the workers. Everyone called it the C Circle. There were about fifteen houses, all with front and back yards bordered by picket fences, and all located within a stone’s throw of the burner. In those days all the wood scrap from the lumber mill was burned in a giant teepee shaped burner that was about three stories tall. Sometimes that burner would explode, and my friends and I would race to watch the spectacle of the firefighters battling the flames.
I loved life at the C Circle (or maybe I should say it was the only life I knew). The neighborhood was laid out in a circular pattern, just a gravel road about the size of the track around a high school football field, with houses all around the outside. There was only one way and in one way out. To get to my neighborhood you had to go past my granddad’s house (he was the Sheriff in town), make a right, and then go over the little bridge that spanned Ah Pah Creek, and into the C Circle.
Klamath was no less than a kid’s paradise, and there were plenty of other guys my age with whom I shared it. I was never bored, because every day was a new adventure for me and my friends. In the woods behind our house, we would climb up on top of the stumps of old-growth redwoods that had been chopped down decades earlier (some of them had to be twelve to fifteen feet in diameter), or we would roam through stands of alder, Chittum, Pine, and Oak, or walk through lush forests of huge green ferns as tall as I was. Occasionally I would bring my little brother along on these forays that would often take us quite a ways up into the hills. We always had the option of playing in the ball field, or in the yard, but we spent most of our time in the woods behind the house. We were Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns without ever having read the book. Mom tried to keep track of me but never could.
My older sister and her girlfriends thought that adventuring into the woods was stupid. They said that’s where bears and mountain lions live, and they would eat you. What did they know? They had never been into the woods like I had. So they spent their time having tea parties and things like that, and later began to do stage productions in dad’s shop behind the garage. There were at least four of them most times, doing all kinds of various songs and plays that they performed, but the one I remember most was GLASS HIGH HEELS. I don’t remember the verses but it seemed like they always ended with the girls all singing in unison, “glaaaass hiiigh heeels!” (They carried the last three words out, “GLASS HIGH HEELS!”) It quickly became a favorite of theirs, and they would perform that one at least two or three times whenever they got together. They sang the song and danced around in their imaginary glass high heels, and it was quite a good production-I mean, for girls.
So one day I noticed the group playing and singing, and I stuck my head in. That was not a good idea that day. They quickly recruited me, saying they needed a baby for their next act. Silly me, I went along with it, and soon found myself being coddled and hoisted around by these girls much bigger than me. I went along with it though, and came out of the situation no worse for the wear, but much wiser. I never let that happen again.
One summer day I got into a scuffle with a kid out in the middle of the C Circle, the inside part. I was holding my own in the match and was confident I was going to put him down. We were rolling around in that black dirt; not real dirt like our front yard was. Not loamy at all, but black and fibrous, as if a brush fire had been through the area. The black dust was probably the result of ash from the ever-present burner. The fight attracted kids from all over the neighborhood, until a handful of four to seven-year-olds were watching the fight, and I noticed one little brunette girl in the bunch, a five-year-old girl I’d never seen before. She drew closer and closer to the fight, until she was right upon us. I got distracted looking at her and the next thing I knew I wound up on the ground with my opponent on top of me. I scrambled to get to my feet, but to no avail. What happened next changed everything.
The aforementioned little girl picked up a handful of that black dirt and threw it right into my face, blinding my eyes and choking me. It’s a good thing the dirt was so black because my face burned a bright red underneath it. I was shocked, humiliated, and embarrassed. While that was happening, my opponent must’ve fallen under her spell as well, and turned to look at her. Seizing the opportunity, I threw him off me and sulked straight home without even looking back, embarrassed, not so much at having been taken down once, but more from the girl throwing dirt on my face like that. To make matters worse, when I came in the house, mom took one look at me and shrieked with laughter. I went to the bathroom and saw the reason she was so entertained. I had a perfect Little Black Sambo face and only my eyes were white. True story.
I can’t understand why she threw dirt on my face that day. Maybe she did it without even thinking, spontaneously interrupting our fight without even a thought of its consequence. Now that I think of it I’m thinking maybe my opponent was her brother or cousin or something. That would explain it (and make me feel better about it too). I know I would’ve won the fight.
I look back at it with another perspective; one that I admit is not the Christian way of dealing with it, but it did make me feel better: I envision the girl, and what she must look like today. Once a rosy cheeked six-year-old, she is probably now a shrunken old hag. Maybe with no teeth. Yes, that makes me feel better, and I can smile a sardonic grin (yes! No teeth, and a meth whore!). But wait! I remember my own age, and how the mirror hasn’t been kind to me lately. Yes, I’d better go easy on her, considering I’m no spring chicken myself. Yes, forgiveness is where it’s at.
Bless’t be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love
The Fellowship, the joy divine
Bless’d be the tie that binds
Blah blah blah
It began to rain after Thanksgiving. We never thought too much about it at first because it rained a lot back then, it was normal. The heavy winter rains I remember as a kid was not normal after all. Scientists later concluded that the hundreds of lumber mills burning their debris in those giant burners actually heated the air and caused the clouds to dump rain.
Me and my friends blissfully played in the water as the Ah Pah Creek rose over its banks, and began to flood the C-Circle. When the water got about a foot deep, I joined up with two older boys from across the way who had built a raft out of salvaged lumber. I must’ve waded 25 yards in knee-deep water to get on board, but once there, I was a shipmate, pulling my weight and taking no smack. We poled the raft around the neighborhood that day, but there were no distressed damsels to save and no one signaling for help, so I went home for supper when my dad whistled (I could hear his whistle for quarter-mile, and he never had to use his fingers to do it. I can whistle as loud but I have to use both forefingers to do it). Heavy rains continued throughout the night.
Dad must’ve had an intuition, because he began placing firewood blocks under the furniture. The next day, Dad loaded us into the Rocket Eighty-Eight and drove us over the Ah Pah Creek Bridge through water so high I couldn’t see the roads, driving slow and careful through the deep water seeping in through the car doors.
I recall time spent at someone’s home in the hills, and watching the swollen Klamath River that was a mile across in some places. From my vantage point on the hillside I saw cattle, houses, and barns floating down the river; and Mom and Dad talked of people floating too. They say that God protects fools and children, and I think that God gave me the gift of specific amnesia so I would not be traumatized by what I saw. I’m thankful that I don’t remember too much about the grisly scene that I witnessed while a guest in the safety of someone’s home. The rain continued through Christmas, and it was in the first few weeks of the new year that it finally subsided. The National Guard distributed C- Rations by the truckload, they say, but we never got any of it.
The river finally returned to its banks, and we drove on debris-clogged muddy roads, past the ravaged town that looked like a war zone, and across the Ah Pah Creek Bridge to the C- Circle, not knowing what we’re going to find and we got there. Upon entering our house, we found the water had come up only to the tops of the blocks, and had not even touched the furniture. The house itself was no worse for the wear, and things returned to normal before long. I was glad to see Randy Pinckard and the rest of the guys, and even a couple of guys that I never really liked before the flood.
I started school in the first grade the following September. Kindergarten was added the next year, and mom informed me that my younger brother Gary would be smart because he would get to go to kindergarten. He did turn out to be smart (and highly successful) just as mom had predicted, but he was never any good when it came to the three R’s, so I personally doubt that kindergarten is absolutely necessary for a person to be intelligent.
I think the flood of 1955 gave me an interesting perspective on life, and an appreciation for things that we sometimes take for granted. Humbled by the awesome power of nature, aware that our survival as a species depends mostly on things over which we have no control. Rather than fearing what might come, I choose to enjoy life and not sweat the small stuff.
But I didn’t learn all that from the flood alone; a little brunette with a handful of dirt helped me with that.