When I was a boy, the Alderson family took their vacations seriously. For us, air travel was unaffordable, so our typical vacation involved a long drive. Like air travel, hotels and motels were also not de rigueur for the Aldersons, so our vacation destination was often a relative’s house.
The domicile of a relative is rarely compelling. Relatives are not inherently exotic or interesting, so I never felt great anticipation or excitement about the prospects of those mundane and unremarkable trips. However, there is felicitous magic ✨ which often emanates from the ordinary, as we shall soon discover.
The Wild Blue Yonder
My dad grew up in Oregon, in the Portland area. His childhood home was in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Perhaps you are familiar with Lake Oswego and know it to be a very posh area. Today, that may be true, but when my father was a boy, not so much.
Back then the city was simply known as Oswego. It didn’t become Lake Oswego until 1960 when it annexed part of an unincorporated area known as Lake Grove, Oregon. That also seems to be when it picked up its reputation as an exclusive neighborhood, because soon after the annexation, it began to be referred to locally as “Lake Big Ego,” and “Fake Oswego.”
We spent many a vacation in Oswego, and invariably each of our Oregon journeys would begin with Dad singing, “Oswego, into the wild blue yonder!” as we backed out of the driveway.
La Lengua and Salmonella
My grandparents owned and operated a small mom-and-pop restaurant on Portland’s south side known as Alderson’s Café. They commuted from a modest clapboard house on about a half-acre of land in Oswego.
Grandpa Lauren was a fine cook, and my father, who learned from him, fancied himself quite the chef as well. Perhaps in another article I’ll give you Dad’s recipe for Eggs Goldenrod, or for his ever popular du Boeuf sur Pain Grillé (Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast).
It was from my father’s passion for food that I learned to love beef tongue 👅 and pickled pigs’ feet. To this day, beef tongue, with its sublime taste, is my favorite cut of beef. There’s nothing finer than a cold tongue sandwich slathered in horseradish.
My dad’s sister, Ella, also became a fine cook. Alan and I loved to be around when she was making biscuits from scratch. We would coax, cajole, and wheedle for her to let us have some raw dough, which, to our palettes was a luxurious delicacy.
We also believed that it would be a crying shame (bordering on child abuse) if she didn’t save some dough to make cinnamon sticks (strips of dough brushed with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar, then baked until golden brown and crispy).
Aunt Ella’s piece de resistance, though, was her baked salmon amandine. Since Oregon is “salmon country,” Aunt Ella always was able to procure impeccably fresh salmon, and she swore that was the secret to her dish’s success.
Her salmon came out of the oven divinely seasoned and melt-in-your-mouth flaky. It was a family favorite. Unfortunately, my dad (who always liked to tease his sister) christened her baked salmon as Salmon Ella and it lost all of its allure after that.
Beer and Cigarettes
Grandma Rose was a curiosity to me. She smoked cigarettes 🚬 and drank beer 🍺 from the can! Before my first encounter with Grandma Rose, I had never seen a woman do either of those things. Those things are commonplace now, but this was back in the 1950s. “Surely,” I thought, “that behavior in a woman was improper, if not illegal!”
Looking back, it now seems obvious that I led a sheltered childhood.
Flowing through Grandpa’s and Grandma’s backyard was a year-round creek which my brother and I frequented when we were staying with them. The creek was shaded by a riparian grove of bamboo which appreciated the rainy climate of Oregon.
We occasionally would find the “perfect” bamboo shoot and fashion a fishing pole or sword from it. Bamboo sword fights were frowned upon by Mom, but Grandma Rose would say, “Let the boys be boys, Ellen.”
The main fascination of the creek was “lobster-sized” crayfish (we called them crawdads, and they seemed as big as lobsters to us because, well, neither of us had ever seen a lobster). They were there in abundance and could be easily spotted in the clear, slowly running water.
We soon learned how to catch these monsters without getting pinched. Of course, if you come at them from the rear, and are quick about it, you can grab a crawdad (a.k.a. mudbug) by their carapace directly behind their pincers.
Quickness is the key to this technique, especially if the crawdads are in more than a few inches of water. As soon as your hand penetrates the surface of the water, the crawdad senses it is under attack and, with a quick flick of the tail, will vanish before you can touch him. That quick flick also camouflages the crawdad by stirring up the muddy creek bottom and clouding the water.
Fishing for Bugs
We learned that the best way to catch these little buggers was to “fish” for them. 🎣 You tie a string around a small piece of raw bacon (a rare and tempting treat for these critters), lower the bacon slowly into the water near the crawdad, and wait until they grab the bacon with a pincer. When you are confident that they have a good grip, quickly yank the string.
Whereas crayfish are quick to throttle backwards when scared, they are not so quick at releasing their grip on a delicious morsel. By the time they realize that they have been snookered, it’s too late for them to escape their fate as a child’s puppet.
If the yank is done correctly, you will pull the bacon-cum-crawdad out of the water and onto the bank, where, without the benefit of water for their their jet propulsion tail, they are relatively helpless. At that point it is easy to apprehend them using the “behind-the-pincer” grip.
If the string is yanked too slowly, however, you will discover that you only have the bacon on the bank. If done too quickly or too forcefully, you will find that you have retrieved the bacon with a pincer attached, but no crawdad attached to the pincer. It was an art, not a science, and trial-and-error was our guide.
Crawdads of unusual size were not the only assailable wildlife we encountered in the magical wilderness of the Oswego backyard. There were banana slugs galore (“out the wazoo” as we used to say)!
Imagine our mother’s paroxysms of joy when we asked for some jars in which to keep our pet slugs! “What?! You want to do what?!”
She quickly followed that up with, “You are not allowed to bring them into the house, do you understand?!”
“Interestingly,” Mom said, “slugs, like crayfish, also have a carapace. Only on the slug, it is known as a mantle.” We were learning so much from our safari, thanks to Mom’s B.S. degree in biology.
When we weren’t collecting crawdads, we would be harvesting slugs. It was a fine menagerie we developed, and we were eager, but responsible, docents (except for that one time when we just had to test the theory which stated that when you put salt on a slug, it melts).
We tested, and they did.
It Always Rains in Southern California (and in Portland Oregon)
Oregon, and particularly the area around Portland, has gotten a reputation as being rainy all of the time. I can vouch for this being more than just a canard, for in all the time I was there over the years, it rained nearly every day. This type of climate is nearly perfect for growing roses, and in Portland this common pastime gave rise to the city’s moniker, The City of Roses. 🌹
The rain showers were frequent but hardly ever lasted very long. It would typically rain for an hour or two mid-day, but then the sun 🌞 would come out and the weather would be beautiful for the rest of the day.
Such was the norm for a day in Oswego at my grandparent’s house, and our standard routine was to rise early; go catch a crawdad; joust with bamboo swords; have mock battles with our crawdads (we jousted our crawdads, much like one would do with toy soldiers); play catch or whiffle ball until it rained; wait for the rain to stop and then recycle the morning’s activities.
On those days when the rain ☔️ lasted more than a couple hours, we often would remain inside and play cards (Spades or Pitch, but primarily Whist — an old English forerunner of Bridge) with our older brother, Bill, and our cousin, Tommy (Ella’s son).
Tommy lived in Oswego, so he often came over to Grandpa and Grandma Alderson’s place when we were staying there. He was about 5 years older than me, and Bill was about 8 years older.
Naturally, being older and wiser, Tommy and Bill thought it would be great fun to engage as partners against Alan and me in bouts of Whist. Indeed, we all had great fun doing this and we participated in many epic battles.
Tommy and Bill were very good together and probably won more hands than they lost (but if you ask Alan or me about this we will deny it). However, it seemed strange and unsettling, when they completely shut us out one day. As any respectable ten-year-old card player will tell you, that was “freakin’ impossible.”
Know When to Hold ‘Em…
One rainy day, we naturally invited Bill and Tommy to continue our Sisyphean Whist battle. That morning we played until Mom announced that lunch was ready. Alan and I broke for lunch, but neither Bill nor Tommy were hungry, so they bivouacked in the living room where we had been playing cards.
When we got back to the card table, Bill asked us if we were ready “to get trounced,” and dealt the cards straight-away. We replied in equally taunting language (Alan and I were quite good at talking smack), and we inauspiciously continued our match. Bill and Tommy then quickly outbid us and named trump ♠️. Between the two of them, Bill and Tommy proceeded to skunk us by taking every trick! It all seemed so propitious. Everything fell their way!
We forlornly assumed that either we were losing our ability to play Whist, or Bill and Tommy, in the space of time it took us to eat lunch, had become grand masters!
When Alan dejectedly started to deal the next hand, the evil twins (Bill and Tommy) tried to stifle their snickering. It was clear that they were privy to some joke that the good guys (Alan and I) were not.
Hubris Gets ’Em Every Time
It’s a fact that arsonists often return to the scene of their crimes 🔥, and bank 🏦 robbers can’t help but brag to someone about how clever they were to abscond with thousands of dollars from some bank. Arsonists are often caught admiring their handiwork, and bank robbers are often arrested because their ego wants someone to know how clever they are.
The same sort of hubris applies to card cheats. When neither Bill nor Tommy would answer our queries of, “What’s so funny?”, it became apparent that their snickering had something to do with their epic win. The reason behind their Whist wizardry was inscrutable, and being young and naïve, we failed to put two-and-two together. Cheating had never occurred to us.
Finally the evil twins concluded that they had to confess to their brilliant coups or the world would never know how adroit they had been (and also so they wouldn’t bust a gut suppressing their glee). They just had to confess how masterfully they had stacked the deck to guarantee their perfect game while we were eating lunch.
I learned two life-lessons that day: Always insist that the deck of cards 🎴 is shuffled before any hands are dealt, and always insist that your adversaries break for lunch when you do.
It’s not the Destination, But the Journey
As any seasoned traveler will tell you, the interesting sights and side excursions on a vacation pilgrimage are what make the difference between a long slog and a road trip. Dad did not learn this lesson easily. His mindset was fixed on “making time.” Getting to our destination expeditiously was his top priority. He was a pedal-to-the-metal, no nonsense kind of driver.
One year, however, it was different — to a fault. Having grown weary of complaints from us kids, and especially from Mom, he decided that we were going to leisurely enjoy the trip this time.
Oh, the sights you’ll see!
We stopped in western Kansas to see the world’s largest ball of string; took a detour to Rocky Ford, Colorado to see where the world’s sweetest cantaloupes came from (we ended up buying a crate); took another detour to drive across the Royal Gorge bridge (back then this was allowed — today they only permit foot traffic).
Further west in Colorado, we stopped to see dinosaur bones in Dinosaur National Monument. The next must-see attraction we stopped at was The Great Salt Lake. We had lunch in Salt Lake City and drove out to the lake for a swim.
It was quite a sensation. A person literally can’t sink in the lake. The intense concentration of salt in the water increases the buoyancy coefficient by magnitudes.
After bobbing like corks in Salt Lake, we continued our trek to Oswego. But by this time, Dad had started to get antsy about how far behind our schedule we were, and so, settling in to his old habits, he found nothing to stop for until we got to the Columbia River Highway in Oregon, his old stomping grounds.
This scenic highway runs through some beautiful landscapes, especially through an area known as Columbia River Gorge, which is known for having the highest concentration of waterfalls in the United States. The Columbia River Gorge waterfalls are amazing.
Like a fish out of water
At Bonneville Dam in the gorge, we stopped to see the Salmon Ladders. When you consider that the salmon participating in the ladder Olympics had already swum a few hundred miles from Oregon’s Pacific coast, it seems incredible that they would still have enough energy to “climb” the ladders.
But the instinct to spawn and propagate the species is powerful and relentless. Compounding the mystery of this quest is the fact that they all die once they have deposited their eggs. Presumably this prospect is not unknown to the salmon, but they persist anyway. These fish are truly the heroes of their own life story.
We watched the salmon fight their way past the dam by way of the ladders for quite a while. The tremendous effort of these fish was not lost on us. The salmon were heroic, indeed, but little did we know that the true hero of the day would be revealed after driving another hour down the highway.
Dad had seen Multnomah Falls before and chose it as our next stop along the Columbia River Highway. Egress from the highway to a parking lot at the falls was easy, but on this particular day, Multnomah seemed especially popular, and we had to circle the lot a couple of times to find a vacant spot.
The spot we found left us within an easy walk to the base of the falls, where we witnessed the awe-inspiring spectacle. Alan and I noticed that there was a path from this unintentional and unremarkable spot to a place much closer where water met rocks and mud. But to get really close, it was necessary to traverse down the bank about twenty feet to the plunge pool and rocky surrounds.
When we made that descent, we discovered that the roar of the falls was deafening, and the mist was palpable on our skin. We believed that this was the best spot to view the falls, and that we had discovered a primeval vantage point.
Dad had a special talent — two of note, actually. One of his talents was to produce spit bubbles on his tongue at will, and another was to whistle through his forefinger and pinky finger. On that day at the falls, he did not produce any spit bubbles. Rather, he whistled.
When I say “he whistled”, the full impact of that phrase might be lost on you, for Dad’s whistle was not a mere whistle. His whistle was famous in Prairie Village, Kansas, where Alan and I grew up.
We were often summoned to dinner by that whistle, and it didn’t matter if we were on our street, or two streets over, we would hear it. The neighbors dog heard it. The dogs four blocks away heard it. Everyone within a half-mile heard it. Like I said, it was famous.
As a scoutmaster for Troop 91, Dad used his whistle at scout meetings to redirect horseplay and wandering attentions to the proper focus. Whenever he whistled indoors like that it definitely got everyone’s attention, and would leave everyone’s ears ringing.
At Multnomah Falls, Alan and I were so close to the roar of the water, that there would have been no way to communicate to us if it weren’t for Dad’s whistle. When Dad decided that we had spent enough time at the falls and needed to get back on the road, he whistled for Alan and I to return. Of course, in spite of the deafening wail of the water, we heard “the whistle,” and started our climb back up the bank.
Alan quickly scrambled up, but I made an unfortunate choice of route. I started the climb, but had a hard time finding my footing. Due to the spray from the falls, the bank where I chose to ascend to the top was wet , muddy, and slippery.
On my fourth unsuccessful attempt, I started to panic. I felt lost and desperate. The hopelessness of my situation began to sink in and I started crying. I fell to my knees and started looking for Dad. I spotted him on the ridge of the bank all the way over on other side of the falls. Still crying, I called out, “Dad! Dad!”
He heard me!
But… he was not coming!
I kept looking at him until I realized he was pointing to a spot about halfway between us. I looked in that direction, and saw someone running toward me, weaving through the other sightseers who had also pulled off of the highway to view the falls that day.
It was Bill!
Brother Bill ran track and cross-country in high school, but he never looked so fast or so motivated. Before I could fully wrap my head around the situation, Bill was standing above me on the ridge of the bank.
Without stopping to ponder, he tugged at a 4-foot sapling and uprooted it. Laying on his stomach, he extended the sapling toward me from his outstretched hand. I couldn’t quite reach it. We both knew that I was going to have to somehow climb up a few more feet.
“I can’t do it, Bill!”
“Yes, you can,” he assured me.
That was all I needed to hear.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that I was never in any danger. I could have easily slid back down the bank and then used the same rocky route which Alan used to climb up. But with little life experience and unable to think clearly through my panic, that just didn’t occur to me.
Regardless, whether the danger was real or contrived, Bill saved me that day. There was never any doubt in his mind that he needed to rescue me. And there was no trash-talking or recriminations expressed to the naïve ten-year-old who childishly panicked.
He didn’t actually save my life, but at the time, I didn’t know that. He actually did something equally praiseworthy — he saved my dignity by treating me with the same care and respect that would have been extended to someone in a true life-threatening predicament. He was definitely a hero that day, and I was very grateful and proud to have him as my brother.
Our Oregon vacation that year produced many lasting memories. It remains, for me, at the top of all of our family vacations. We saw a lot of interesting and beautiful sights, and we had a lot of fun as a family.
There is another family vacation which rivals this one — the time we went camping in Colorado. Hmmm. I feel another travelogue being born.
Come to think of it, the time we went camping in Yellowstone National Park also cries out for memorialization. And then there was the time…
Brother Bob (professionally, Bill was known as Bob Alderson) went on to become a lawyer in Topeka, Kansas, along with brother Alan. They started their own law firm with several other partners. I was the black sheep of the family, as I didn’t go to law school. Bill was still working at the time of his death in June of this year. He was just 10 days shy of his 80th birthday.
In memoriam, W. R. Alderson Jr., 1940 — 2020, R.I.P.
I think of you every day!
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