On Oregon Born
I have always admired The Cantos of Ezra Pound for its sheer epic obscure historic audacity. Pound paints a picture of a breathing life and time that have since been forgotten. It was his Bible, his tome, his greatest work that only perhaps he himself understood and appreciated. It’s like a nearly indecipherable Leaves of Grass, scholastically bombastic, but so scholastic what scholar will have it? This is why I love the very idea of it. What other tome of poetry has a thicker tome as its compendium?
In Oregon Born, I have endeavored, in my poetic alter ego Woody (Guthrie) (Walt) Whitman (with a dash of Rod McKuen), to write my own personal tome, my Cantos, but instead of obscure forgotten history of those I do not know, I have given you obscure self-reference and family history. Because this is my audacious attempt to explicate my and my family’s history and the region from whence we come, it is to you, I am sure, obscure. Therefore, I have written an annotated version, primarily for myself so that I have a log of what in the hell I am actually talking about as I grow senile, and for my children and their children to know who they are, where they come from. I believe language, storytelling, verse, are living- it is more than just the written word, it is breathing and spoken (just as the breath of the Creator still moves in all of us and even in the Earth itself), and as such, slang, accents, vernaculars, family stories and the like tell stories of regions, families, historical events. Therefore, I have made an effort in my writing as I grow older not only to embrace this, but to scribe them into a giant family lexicon (I've come to call my style of the living word American Slang).
It is a powerful experience to dig into one’s past, to really take out a shovel and dig like a gandy dancer, man, dig, dig one’s past, one's parents past, grandparents and great grandparents and their places and faces and stories, the past of progenitors, the good the bad the ugly. I started this digging up of bones process some 6 or 7 years ago doing research for a novel I was working on. This novel turned in a 360 page epic (I was trying to write my Invisible Man-Ralph Ellison) that will probably never be published, but the knowledge and mythology it gave me allowed me to write Bust It Like A Mule, and several other pieces based on my kin and raising. It has since influenced all of my writing, for what is writing without getting to the base of what one writes about? If I write of a landscape, I can write of a forest, but what is in this forest? What types of trees? Coniferous? Deciduous? Of what family and make? What of the flora and fauna? It is the same with writing about the forest of one’s life and family history. Who was my Great Grandpa Jones, my mom’s grandpa? Why was he a moonshiner, a gambler, a drunkard who died alone and broken on skidrow in Portland?
From there, one is able to travel the paths of forebearers and know where one came from. You can know your kin and in them know yourself, in humility call out their genealogy in the town square to put them to rest, you can cry out their names to give them place, you can cry out your own name and in it see the tumult of the years they before you fought through, the skins they died in – in this is a cosmic humility that causes one to see the grace bestowed upon oneself and bequeath empathy and compassion for those that have gone before you.
So it was with Oregon Born. To sum up this verse, I can say that I come from a very blue collar, humble (yet proud) upbringing. I grew up in my grandparent's house in Portland Oregon with my grandpa’s accent echoing through the newborn fog of my imagination, his cigarette smoke and slang permeating the tiny Crisco kitchen. I grew up with my grandma making sweet tea on rainy Portland days and calling us children our first name followed by ‘Henry’ as an affectionate term.
I grew up with my dad working in mills, cleaning mill stacks, pulling green chain. I grew up in Church, learning the Ten Commandments and words of Jesus, singing hymns with my mom and aunts.
I grew up with WWII and Vietnam vets, with survivors of the Dust Bowl and the Depression, men and women who had seen a life that was a whole lot worse than anything you were seeing now, so in a word, my raising was ‘toughen up’, or at the very least 'you're fine'. This was not some harsh platitude dealt out by insensitive Pharisees, it was a life lesson my ancestors had learned as children and passed on to their children. It was real - they’d seen death and poverty and work enough to break a back, they had lost everything and moved on like the Israelites in the desert, they had feared the actual end of the world and seen their own mortality in typhoons out on the Pacific and in the barrel of a 45 leveled at their head by their own people (these are stories left to be annotated for another day...).
As a child, the raising, the rearing, the learning, the burden of forefathers and foremothers can be great, it can be backbreaking and scarring. It is only as an adult that we are able to go back through these raisings and see them for what they are, good or bad – the teachings and experiences of real people, not demons, the raisings that have forged who you are and what you are, and in this, be not ashamed or cowed, but be emboldened, humbled, strengthened, empowered.
And so it is that I set out Oregon Born, really just a rattling can of a line ‘I was born on the wind of Prefontaine’ that stuck with me after a camping trip with the family on the Oregon Coast.
It was only after several failed attempts, conversations with my wife and my mom, and a drunken spurt of verse writing (as is usually the case in these Woody Whitman epics), that I felt I had what I had come for – an audacious obscure personal history, a calling back to my ancestors, a calling back to my kin carried on the wind just as the shamanic wind howling on the Oregon Coast, a wind that still haunts me as a grown man, as if some cosmic plane I walk while living. Yes! This is living, this is writing, this is breathing and being! I said this to myself when I began this verse, and I did not stop until all the living was wrung out of me.
It took me awhile to get the very last line, a wrestling of who I was if I was all these things laid down. It finally came to me one morning, an aligning with my at times (by me) overlooked grandma Jones, she reticent in my grandpa Jone’s colorful, wild shadow. It came to me, obscure to most, understood by the family, a cry of joy to my longsuffering grandma who had seen death and struggle and perpetrated her own hurts upon her children just as I do mine.
Yes! I said aloud. Yes, I am Caleb Henry! I have been named in love and struggle, I have been called forth to cry out my name given me in American slang in a jampacked home in Portland Oregon smelling of Camels and Crisco, fried chicken and bacon, of raspberry jam and wet boots and people! People! My people! Good and bad, right and wrong, loving and broken, faulty, sinful, kind, worn down, worn out, rougher than hell, neglectful, open, loud, proud, poor, warm, indefatigable, my people all the same! And I love them and my raising, I love my own history becoming History, my children’s history, America's history.
And so I set down my audacious self referential song, my first verse in my Cantos, my Song of Myself, out of love, out of a look back while striding forward. But most importantly, I ramblespokewrote it in an attempt to do that which is the hardest for all us humans to do, which is - just to be.
Love to you all and your people,
Oregon Born (Annotated)
I was born on the wind of Prefontaine,[L1]
a Vietnam Son’s son with a blue collar trade,[L2]
a greenchain puller, a hoedad, an Okie digging graves,[L3]
a gust of spume off of Coos Bay[L4]
in the Columbus Storm that day,[L5]
a midden ghost in Yachats,[L6]
Bandage Man hitchhiking to Portland[L7]
in the pall of the Tillamook Burn[L8] ,
my own greatgranddaddy’s bum drunk specter
(murdered for his WWI pension check)
still wandering Burnside
in Portland on skidrow[L9]
I was born in Oregon
in the western fertile crescent,
the land of milk and honey[L10]
even for the southerner if you can
wash the accent and the poor off of you[L11]
and bust it like a mule[L12] ,
I was born to Sitka spruce Oregon yew
redwood cedar hemlock fir,
sweet wild blackberry brambles
(some an invasive species introduced by migrations
just like my people, well before my people,
all people after the First Peoples),[L13]
my people buried in the loess of the flood[L14]
in Willamette National Cemetery[L15]
on the footstep of the greatest and deepest of oceans
from whence the seas of the deep were unleashed[L16]
I was born to lumber,
to sawmills pulpmills lumbermills,
(From Tillamook to Portland to Eugene
and everything in between)[L17]
to work, to digging and picking and backbreaking,
hacking, shove and lift and push and pull,
cleanliness is next to Godliness but labor is Holy,
I was born to the poor and humble
and the hubris that only poverty can bring,
to veterans, soldiers, sailors,
American sons and daughters,
eating gravy on white bread watching KPTV[L24] ,
communion of sweet tea breaking Tillamook cheese[L25] ,
to moonshine, rotgut wine,
reformed alcoholics and the Church of Christ,
to guitars, Hank Williams, the Bakersfield Sound,[L26]
to a southern song in a northwest rain,
to they of the dust bowl and depression,
they of the damp rumbling lumberyards in Oregon,
vanished Vanport on their tongue[L27] ,
I was born in a tangle of trees
downwind from Mount Saint Helens
in the shadow of Mount Hood,
spitting distance from the graveyard of the Pacific[L28]
under the eye of Terrible Tilly[L29]
Fred Meyer, David Douglas, Heceta Head Ghost,[L31]
Stewart Holbrook, Ken Kesey, Ima Ellen Jones,[L32]
Weyerhaeuser Weinhard Willamette, [L33]
of Mannan Nolen Gossett Jones,[L34]
I am of mills, seaports, old growth forest, farm,
Gresham, Sandy, Portland, Eugene,
Springfield, Tillamook, Netarts, Florence,
Yachats, Newport, Sweet Home, Tigard,
Seaside, McMinnville, Lake Oswego,
Oregon City, Beaverton, Troutdale, Umatilla,
Damascus, Clackamas, Multnomah Falls,
the spirit of my grandma’s little brother
walking over the Deschutes River where he drowned,[L39]
I was born to the Clatsop, the Umatilla, the Tillamook, the Alsean,
the Athabascan, Klamath, Siletz and Siuslaw,[L40]
to volunteer hoedads and Okies and drunks,
to gyppos, bullwhackers, lumberjacks, mackinaws[L41] ,
catskinners, choker setters, fallers and buckers,[L42]
gandy dancers, sawdust eaters, short stakers,[L43]
peach pitters, potato pickers, orchard sack slingers,[L44]
factory workers, master plasterers, spikeknot counters,[L45]
swing shift, graveyard, day shift, any shift,
indigo denim worn white to the bone,
tin pants and rolled up Pendleton sleeves[L46] ,
water off a Filson’s back[L47] ,
fishermen, hunters, sportsmen, outdoorsmen,
medics, mailmen, millers, lumber salesmen,
makers of ends meeting,
naval church deacon Oregon trail hitchhikers,
I was born to the people of the berry brambles
rough and tough and leathered and weathered,
bent and twisted like the shorepine and sitka on the seastacks of the Coast,
they as wild and as sweet as my Texas grandma’s
homemade raspberry jam canned in her Portland kitchen,
I am Caleb Henry! [L48]
[L1]I grew up in Eugene Oregon in the posthumous age of the great runner from the U of O, Steve Prefontaine. He died May 30th, 1975, almost exactly one year before my birth, May 31st, 1976. I was born in his wind: "I am going to work so that it's a pure guts race. In the end, if it is, I'm the only one that can win it". Here he is my cosmic Hermes/Mercury. (Jung sees Hermes as the center for ‘synchronicity’, events being meaningful coincidences.)
[L2]My Dad, Kent Foster Mannan, was a naval corpsman in Vietnam from 66-70. After his release, he eschewed a medical profession for the more blue collar/Oregonian way of living by working in mills.
[L3]Dad pulled greenchain (pulling lumber that matches required dimensions to put in a pile, a lumber sorter) in Oregon at Weyerhaeuser.
Hoedad: a proper term for tree planting counterculturalists in the 70s, and a tool for planting tree seedlings quickly. In this sense, a ‘treeplanter’, and speaks to Oregon’s volunteerism and massive replanting of forests decimated in the Tillamook burn.
Okie digging graves: Grandpa (and dad for a time) worked at Willamette National Cemetery when I was a boy, where ironically, grandpa’s dad was buried, where grandpa is now buried, and my dad’s parents as well.
[L4]Steve Prefontaine was from Coos Bay. Also, a nod to the mythical creation from sea foam.
[L5]My mom talks about the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, or the ‘Big Blow’. As a girl in Portland, Oregon, she and her sister were playing in the yard while the wind picked up and blew two by fours through the air. The storm ranks among the most intense to strike the region since at least 1948, likely since the January 9, 1880 "Great Gale" and snowstorm.
[L6]Yachats is the site of ancient native midden grounds through which the highway 101 was built - hence the ghosts of natives being restless. My dad’s parent lived there for a time.
[L7]Bandage Man is a famous Oregon spook. I remember my grandpa telling me about him as a boy. He’s a figure dressed in smelly bandages that comes after you in your car, or while you’re camping. Local to Cannon Beach area. In one version, the ghost of a doctor who disappeared in a car wreck.
[L8]The Tillamook Burn, which I have written about extensively, is the name for several fires that burned the great old growth forest on the coastal range of Oregon. I grew up with the stories of great devastation being told to me, especially by my grandpa JE Jones, my mom's dad, who was greatly impressed by the burn – maybe partially because he had worked in many mills in that area.
[L9]My grandpa’s Jones’ dad, Jesse Earl Jones, was by all accounts such a mean moonshiner that he was ordered by the authorities to stay away from his family. He was also a drunkard that sadly, ended up dying in the 60s on Portland’s skidrow (from the term skidroad, see Stewart Holbrook's Holy Old Mackinaw). The story is that he was found in a flop house with visible signs of beating, such as a broken arm, and the money from his newly cashed pension check missing. The story I heard through the years is that they figured he was murdered, but it was never proven. The official, accepted, cause of death is drunkenness. Murdered may be poetic license in a strict sense. Here I call out his name as my ancestor, to give him rest.
[L10]The Willamette Valley was advertised as the land of milk in honey in the 1800s to entice settlers. It is known for its rich soil, great for agriculture.
[L11]My Grandma Jones was from Texas, my Grandpa Jones from Oklahoma, they came West during the Depression and settled in Oregon. They struggled with poverty and biased perceptions prevalent at the time.
[L12]From my novel, Bust It Like A Mule.
[L13]Specifically referring to blackberries introduced by Europeans. Some ‘Black raspberries’, as well as salmon berries (and many other berries) are native and abundant in Oregon. I grew up with wild blackberries and raspberries everywhere. I remember my mom pulling the car to the side of a busy road, so we could gather raspberries from a deserted lot. You often see these brambles thick as thieves in burned out or logged areas. The First Peoples, the natives, had a wonderful garden of wild berries.
[L14]The rich silt soil, loess, of the Willamette Valley is said to be the result of glacial floods from Idaho and Washington glaciers/glacial lakes.
[L15]Both sets of my grandparents, and my great grandpa mentioned earlier, are buried here.
[L16]The Pacific Ocean. The seas of the deep, from Noah’s flood.
[L17] My dad’s dad was a lumber yard owner, my grandpa Jones worked in lumber and mills for many years, as did my dad.
[L19]Grandpa JE Jones
[L21]Dad, a Naval corpsman in the Vietnam War.
[L22]Grandpa Mannan was a Gunner’s Mate on the USS Hickox, a destroyer, or ‘can’.
[L23]Grandpa Jones was a former alcoholic who went to the Dammash hospital in Clackamas (since torn down) in the late 60s and came back sober. He was sober the rest of his life.
[L24]My Grandma Jones used to make a common meal of fried chicken with gravy on a piece of white bread (Military - Shit on a shingle).
KPTV was our favorite TV station in Portland, playing cartoons, old movies and old shows like Perry Mason, Dick Van Dyke, The Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy…
[L25]Being from Texas, my grandma made sweet tea. Drinking sweet tea in Portland Oregon is the perfect symbolic scene of my raising.
Tillamook cheese – Tillamook cheese, from Tillamook, on the Coast not far from Portland. Iconic and delicious. You must go to the Oregon Coast, and when you go, you must stop by the Tillamook Cheese Factory.
[L26]Grandpa Jones was a singer songwriter. His family migrated from Oklahoma, and his sound was similar to the Bakersfield Sound. He was a big Hank fan - I liken him to a ‘poorman's Hank Williams’.
[L27]Vanport was a city within a city in Portland, made to house workers for the WWII ship boom. It was the nation’s largest wartime housing development and the scene of one of Oregon’s major disasters. My Grandpa Mannan, out of the Navy, lived there, until the place was flooded and destroyed in 48. The family story is that Grandpa and Grandma Mannan left, and when they came back, their home was destroyed.
[L28] A treacherous stretch of sea where the mouth of the Columbia empties into the Pacific, North to Vancouver island, South to Tillamook bay.
[L29] Terrible Tilly- Tillamook Rock Lighthouse stands on a jutting basalt outcropping over a mile in the sea from Tillamook Head. It is named for erratic weather and dangerous commute, claiming several lives since it was built in 1880. Now decommissioned, it serves as a columbarium.
[L30]Ramblin Rod is a beloved Portland kid’s program character from KPTV. I grew up as a boy watching his cartoon program and smile contest in the mornings. We frequently stayed with my mom’s parents, our Jones’ grandparents, in Portland, and I can still recall waking early on their living room floor and turning on Ramblin Rod to watch Looney Tunes and Popeye and the like.
Tom Peterson was a famous Portland retailer of furniture and appliances. We used to laugh at his unique TV commercials, his famous buzzcut and his wife ‘Gloria, too!’
Les Scwhab built a tire empire that is still running today in the northwest.
[L31]Fred Meyer was a local retailer who grew his business to a great western chain, still going today.
David Douglas was an oldschool Scottish botanist (Douglas fir) that made great discoveries in the NW. My mom and her siblings went to David Douglas Highschool in Portland.
The Heceta Head Ghost would be Rue, of the Heceta Head lighthouse in Newport, Or. She was said to be the ghost of a woman whose child fell off the edge of the cliff into the sea and died. I wrote of this ghost in one of my (many) unpublished novels American Son.
[L32]Stewart Holbrook was a former logger turned writer whose book ‘Holy Old Mackinaw’ made a huge impression on me recently. He wrote for the Oregonian for many many years. Though he was from back East, his tough wild slang and real writing epitomizes the Northwest and my people.
Ken Kesey, Oregon author – one of my favorite novels is One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.
Ima Ellen Jones- My grandma, my mom’s mom.
[L33]Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the Weyehaeuser timber company. Dad worked for them when I was a boy. They're a household Oregon name.
Henry Weinhard, Weinhard’s beer in Oregon.
Willamette – in researching this name, it is a derivation of an ancient Native name, the meaning not completely clear.
[L35]A scrap lumber burner at a mill, named for it’s shape.
[L36]I remember a story about dad being lowered into a mill stack to clean it.
[L38]By no means comprehensive, this is a list of Oregon places familiar or meaningful to me. I was born in Portland Oregon, and was raised in Portland, Sandy, Eugene and Springfield until my family moved to Washington when I was 8.
[L39]My grandma Jones’ younger brother, Odelle Nolen, drowned in the Deschutes River in a rafting accident. He was a police officer and fine young man by all accounts – It was often said that my grandma never recovered from the sorrow of his death. I was raised with his memory very close to the surface – he was spoken about often, and his pictures adorned my grandparent’s walls.
[L40]A holler out to the Native Americans of the area. Not a comprehensive list at all, but names on the tip of my tongue from the area or my own reading.
[L41]Gyppos – Lumber contractors.
Bullwhackers – oxen drivers, especially in logging.
Mackinaws – a slang term from Holbrook’s ‘Holy Old Mackinaw’
[L42]Catskinners – dozer drivers
Choke setters – One who chains a log to be moved. In my grandpa’s song ‘A Song and an Old Guitar’, he sings that he ‘set chokers behind a d-8 cat’.
Fallers and buckers – tree fallers, buckers cut the fell log into lengths.
[L43]Gandy dancers- Shovel and pick men.
Sawdust eaters – (saw)mill workers.
Short stakers – temporary workers.
[L44]Peach pitters – grandpa Jones worked in a cannery when he came West (I think in AZ) as a young man. He told a story of pitting peaches by hand with a paring knife to be canned.
Potato pickers – my mom talks about helping her dad in potato fields, picking potatoes to make a buck.
Orchard sack slingers – grandpa also worked in orchards to make ends meet. My mom has a photo of him in a tree picking apples. In his scrawl on the back of the photo it says "Another day/Another $. Maybe."
[L45]My Great grandpa Mannan, Guy Mannan, is listed on an old census as ‘Master Plasterer’.
Spikeknot counters- spikeknot comes from a limb at an acute angle seen when the log in sawed lengthwise at the mill.
[L46]Tin pants – waterproof pants common to NorthWest loggers, typically paraffin soaked canvas, very durable.
Pendleton – Pendleton is a historical Oregon blanket company, known for their shirts.
[L47]Filson is a WA clothing company known for their waterproof jackets perfect for duckhunting, the Pacific NorthWest, or just good old fashioned hardy work wear in general. My dad still has his dad’s Filson jacket, and damned if it isn’t still in excellent shape.
[L48]My grandma Ima Jones, my mom's mom (mentioned several times in this poem) was from Texas, and settled for life in Oregon with my Oklahoman Grandpa JE Jones, whom she'd met in a migrant camp when he came West. She used to add 'Henry' to the end of us grandkid's names as an affectionate, silly nickname. I can still hear her Texas drawl - 'Caleb Henry, you get on over here and give me a love!"