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American Impressions, Chapter 47: Washington State
Northwest Passage

Washington state recapitulates America. In the relatively brief distance from Spokane to Seattle, the landscape rolls in Jersey meadows and Appalachian folds, it adopts the cubism of the Great Plains and the abstract extremism of the Rockies, it vanishes to sagebrush and desert simmers on one side of its Cascades only to erupt in an empire of sky-scraping firs on the other side and a few honest-to-God volcanoes in between, some of which haven’t been sleeping well lately. Through it all, like the Mississippi’s rowdier little sister, the mighty Columbia cuts a gash of cliffs and valleys and overcaffeinated rapids that needed 11 dams to temper before the river finally reaches its match—before the whole continent reaches its match—in the eternal waters of the Pacific.

With a backdrop like that, nothing, and no one, is placid in Washington. What follows are three brief stories of Northwestern extremes—one from each side of the Cascades, and one from atop them.

Okanogan, an hour’s drive northwest of Grand Coulee Dam and at the edge of the million-acre Colville Indian Reservation, looks like any of a hundred unremarkable towns east of the Cascades. Traffic is light, businesses and business hours are abbreviated, schools and a sawmill in nearby Omak are the largest employers, slicing up minds and lumber with dependable routine. On Main Street, a handsome, quadrangular clock as rare as soda fountains tells the correct time. An aphorism appears on its four faces: “LIVE BETTER ELECTRICALLY.”

I’d stopped in Okanogan by chance, to rest and spend the night in one of those quiet, cozy family motels that are isolation’s specialty. I had no idea M1 that those three words on the clock were a clue to Okanogan’s past, which has been anything but unremarkable. The three words may be as self-evident as the principles of the Bill of Rights. In the Okanogan Valley, I soon found out, rights have never been self-evident.

The words on the clock trace their etymology to the Grand Coulee Dam, which Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration brought to the valley to irrigate its semi-arid lands and bring electricity to the masses, cheaply and fairly. Until mid-century, water and electricity were held by monopolies. They did not give up their power easily, and their resistance had no bounds.

In 1946, John Goldmark, a war hero and a graduate of Harvard Law School, left the East Coast for the promise of the West. He wanted to be a rancher in the Okanogan Valley. His neighbors greeted his arrival with ridicule and for a while he proved them right. Goldmark knew nothing about ranching. But he was such a fast learner that eventually his neighbors began adopting his practices.

In the mid-1950s, he joined the Rural Electrification Board and campaigned for public power, remembering how during the Depression less than half of Washington’s farmers had electricity. Like all supporters of the Grand Coulee Dam, he was branded a “Coulee Communist.” But his fight for the right to cheap electricity won him election to the state Legislature three times—the only Democrat in Republican country. During his fourth run, a newspaper in the valley that had always opposed public electrification wrote that “Goldmark is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization closely affiliated with the Communist movement in the United States.” The paper also noted that Goldmark’s son attended Reed College in Oregon, “the only school in the Northwest where Gus Hall, secretary of the Communist Party, was invited to speak.”

Innuendoes in print approximate the atomic weight of fact. Goldmark lost the election—and sued the paper for libel. The trial that took place in Okanogan in 1963 turned into the Red Scare’s equivalent of the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee 38 years earlier. For two months, experts, U.S. senators, actors and ex-Communists testified in Okanogan in an atmosphere of competing absurdities and hatreds. “Sure it creates hatred,” the defense attorney said of the newspaper’s smear, “and isn’t it about time that we had a little hatred for those people that declare that ‘We will bury you’?” In the hours after John Kennedy was shot, Ashley Holden, the newspaper publisher on trial, told a reporter who was wondering who had fired the shots, “Whoever it was, I hope he was a good shot.”

Goldmark won the trial, seemingly planting a legal tombstone on the Red Scare. But hatred has the properties of a chameleon. In the Okanogan Valley, the Red Scare of yesterday has yielded to today’s black helicopters, Tom Mulgrew and Gary Headlee were telling me in the workshop of their Omak contracting business. The valley is full of people who think the country is on the verge of surrendering to the United Nations. Their homes are arsenals, and outsiders are not welcome. I suggest that it would be interesting to meet some of them, especially since I attended the UN school in New York in my youth and never thought the UN capable of organizing much more than cocktail parties very efficiently. “Don’t tell anybody in North Country about that,” Mulgrew says. “You’ll vanish in the night. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. I’m serious.”

Headlee and Mulgrew used to publish a humorous newsletter, Twisted Knickers, that riffed all over the local establishment. It didn’t last. They laugh when I ask them if the atmosphere has improved since the 1963 trial. Actually, it has in Omak, which was the destination of “urban refugees” like Mulgrew in the 1970s—back-to-the-land hippies who set up communes in the area. “The communes are no longer here,” Mulgrew said, “but most of the people are now part of the mainstream. You’d never know 25 years ago they came down in a VW bus with a bucket of rice. You go to the next two counties over, and it’s business as usual. But over here you get people who get pissed and stand up and say, ‘No, you’re not going to pit mine this,’ or ‘No, you’re not going to timber that.’ “ Headlee leases a storefront attached to his workshop to a New Agey business of beads and incense and hemp, where the town’s free-thinking youths, the kind Socrates in another age and place might have been blamed of corrupting, converge. But outbreaks of open-mindedness are contained by “paranoid patriot extremists,” as Mulgrew describes them. Headlee sees the extremism rooted in the valley’s past going back to the days of the Oregon Trail: “The Native Americans—they killed them off whenever they got in the way. The next big thing was ‘the Communists.’ Then came the environmentalists, hippies, preservationists, ‘welfare-sucking implants.’ It’s the search for an enemy. These people are looking for enemies. If you stand up and talk about the truth, they’d like to hang you like they hung the Indians. I’ve already killed a lot of my contracting business by doing this up-front,” Headlee says, pointing to the hemp-peddling store. The West is famous for breeding resilience, the resilience of hatreds included.

One of Goldmark’s sons continues to ranch in the Okanogan Valley. He had another son, Chuck, who went to Yale Law School, started a practice in Seattle and raised two sons with his wife, Annie. On Christmas Eve 1985, a man called David Lewis Rice knocked on the Goldmarks’ door, was let in when he showed a gun, then proceeded to bludgeon Chuck, Annie, Derek, who was 12, and Colin, 10. He knifed Chuck and Annie in their brains when he found them still breathing. At his trial, Rice explained that he was a member of the Seattle chapter of the Duck Club, a small right-wing group, and that he had heard that Goldmark was a communist. At least that’s what someone in the Duck Club had told him. He had expected Goldmark to be much older because he’d heard that he’d once lived in the Okanogan Valley, where even the paper had linked him to communists. Rice hadn’t realized Chuck Goldmark was the son of John. But anyway.

Freak massacres aside—and what American city hasn’t had its share of those—Seattle announces early on, with its semi-circle of pre-fab suburbs and stock-funded company towns, that it is not interested in the past, especially if the past has nothing to do with its future. The streets of suburbs like Bellevue and Renton are sleek (and slick) with new pavement, new money, new attitudes. They’re lined with farm-grown trees, each a flagpole of environmental sensitivity. They’re bumper-to-bumper with 30-something millionaires who drive SUVs and shop at REI, the temple of outdoor equipment, and spend weekends running up their heartbeats in the Cascades to better look down on the rest of creation, most of which they think they’ve had a hand in remaking. With Microsoft employing so many of them in the nearby suburb of Redmond, where they re-write Genesis every seven days, they have a point.

It was, of course, raining the evening I drove down from the Cascades. I like to imagine that the gray pall falling over the city faster than dusk had something to do with a federal judge’s opinion the day before, in 61,000 words (20,000 more than the Genesis of King James fame), that Microsoft was a monopoly. The gray could have been mistaken for prescient mourning of a city’s coming break-up. The Boeing Corp., with headquarters downtown, was mourning over the loss of yet another one of its jetliners, the crash of EgyptAir’s 990 over the Atlantic with 217 people on board. But I was projecting. Microsoft is the richest company in the world, Boeing is not far behind (the Post Office just unveiled a Boeing commemorative stamp). Neither is likely to stop irrigating Seattle’s Eden, although a little weeding may be necessary. LIVE BETTER TECHNOLOGICALLY.

At any rate, I wasn’t in Seattle to add to the ovations FOR American enterprise. I was in Seattle looking for a clunker, a 1,500-ton mass of rusting, floating steel as useless as the Space Needle—and once as symbolic of Seattle’s self-promotion as a city of the future. I was looking for the Kalakala.

I first saw the Kalakala in Alaska last year, when it was moored to a dock at the foot of a mountain on Kodiak Island. It didn’t look like any ship I’d seen before, let alone a ferry. Lording its 276-foot silver frame alone over Women’s Bay, as its temporary alcove was known, it looked like a submarine risen from a Captain Nemo blueprint—a cross between a Zeppelin and an ocean-liner with a crown of circular observation-deck windows that made the whole thing look fierce and elegant at the same time.

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s the Kalakala (the name is Chinook Indian for “flying bird”) was an art-deco marvel above the water-line and an engineering colossus below it—“the greatest ferry tale since Noah,” blurbed the Saturday Evening Post at the time. Its 3,000-horsepower, single-screw diesel engine could power it to 17.5 knots (20 mph). Beginning in 1935, it ferried 2,000 people a run across Puget Sound, between Seattle and Bremerton, for 45 cents a person ($1.10 per car, of which it could haul 100). It turned into a floating ballroom on weekend nights, broadcasting swing bands live over Seattle’s nascent AM dial. Celebrated in magazines and on post cards, toasted in person, banged around pretty frequently on the water (It rammed other vessels in Puget Sound with the kind of regularity no ship would survive today), the Kalakala was a Seattle signature. In 1963, the year of the Seattle World’s Fair and the Okanogan libel trial, the Kalakala came in second as the city’s favorite attraction, behind the Space Needle (built for the fair).

But in 1967, the Kalakala was bought by American Freezerships, sent to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and turned into a fish-processing vessel, its bowels the site of a billion disembowelments. Five years later she was intentionally beached in a Kodiak cove and turned to shrimp-processing before she was abandoned a few years later and left to decay in place, as many things are in Alaska.

Peter Bevis, a Washington State native, a sculptor and a fisherman, first saw the Kalakala from the deck of his fishing boat as he was going out to sea in the early 1990s. “She was landlocked behind a cannery with dirt all around it,” he remembered. “You could just see the bow and the rounded curves of the porthouse, behind an ice house. I said, ‘What in the world is that?’ And the guy on the boat said, ‘Some dumb old ferry from Seattle.’ “ Looking at it with the eyes—and designs—of a sculptor, he couldn’t understand why the ship had become its own grave. He decided to resurrect it and take it home to Seattle.

”It’s not so much what I see as what I feel,” he said as we walked the silent lengths and depths of the ship last fall. “One hundred million people rode this ferry. At the time that was half the population of the United States. There’s laughter in the steel, there’s music in the metal, there’s dancing on the floor, and to me that’s still there. There’s still people who remember the Kalakala.” As we walked I could see the scrapes left on the wall by cars too big for the decks as America’s cars got much bigger than the Model T’s and Model A’s the ferry was built for. Bevis showed off the expanse of the ballroom upstairs, of the observation deck out front, of the last surviving period bench in one of many half-arcaded alcoves. And I could see him spending the rest of his life (he was 45 at the time) shaping it back to some kind of glory.

I asked him if he thought the ship could make it down to Seattle, Pacific winds and all, and he said: “We don’t say ‘down.’ We say ‘home.’ “ Three weeks after we talked, the Kalakala left Kodiak. It docked in Seattle 17 days later.

When I finally located the ship on Seattle’s Lake Union that mournful evening three weeks ago, my heart sank. In Alaska, it had ruled its cove. Here, it was locked in a vise between Alaskan fishing boats wintering in Seattle, and anchored to a dock of grime and the odd trailer office. The rain, the deserted docks, the night—now complete—were skewing the picture, but not by much. When I returned in daylight the Kalakala still looked like a hostage to the wrong fate.

But Bevis was quickly reassuring: The fishing boats will leave in January, and once it is restored, the Kalakala will be docked on the Seattle waterfront as part of a drive to revive that area. It’ll have a museum. A new ballroom. A restaurant. It’ll even be “the good will ambassador of Puget Sound.” Bevis spoke as if the sail to the Promised Dock was a matter of time, when it is in fact a matter of $6 million or $7 million, which Bevis or the volunteer-driven Kalakala Foundation do not have. He is still in debt to the towing company that brought the ship back to Seattle. He lives on the ship, which saves him rent money. But the whole weight of him—a Pacific squall wouldn’t fling him overboard easily - still beams with optimism, as it did a year ago in Kodiak: “Paris has its Eiffel Tower, New York has its Empire State Building,” he says. “These big things, like the Kalakala, give us this big sense of place.”

I’m not sure Seattle quite knows what to make of Bevis and the Kalakala. Visitors drop by and tour the ship, but it isn’t exactly the second-most popular attraction in town, or the 50 th. Most people don’t know it’s there, or that it exists. Seattle’s sensibilities are put off by rust, which smells of a discardable past. The city wants the new, now. The Kalakala is an extravagance of memory - of real memories. In the land of endless RAM and gigabytes, in the land of the virtual, there’s no room for it.

The rain continued all the way to Mount St. Helens, which was invisible behind its gate of gray. I remember the days leading up to the eruption of May 18, 1980. I was going to that UN school at the time. In April, when St. Helens was clearing its throat with earthquakes and pre-climatic smokes, the New York City subway system went on strike. No black helicopters to the rescue. We walked. The Ayatollah was holding Americans hostage in Teheran. Jimmy Carter was magma. When St. Helens blew its top on May 18, sending 1,500 feet of elevation downhill to remake the valley below in a matter of hours (the mountain’s height went from 9,766 feet to 8,365 feet in a sneeze), Carter—and the rest of the country—riveted on the cataclysm. It couldn’t be blamed on anyone, and it afforded universal ventings of sympathy, although a letter-writer to the New York Times suggested that the mountain could have been pre-emptively bombed and its herniated guts diffused. The mountain’s 57 victims became heroes and martyrs, although to what, no one could say. Almost as many people died from the eruption as were being held hostage in Iran.

The mountain itself barred even to my sights, I walked through the remade valley’s hummocks, which are like those mogul mounds skiers bump all over during the Olympics, only bigger, more random, less earthly. Roiling messily away from the foot of the mountain, they are the aftermath of the great shock and landslide of May 18. They jut and sag along and around the sinuous twists of streams and marooned lakes that haven’t yet settled on permanent locations until the next eruptions. The vegetation was timid, the trunks thin, the plants in colonial rather than invasive postures. Rocks as abrasive as adolescence littered the ground. The Mars Rover would have felt perfectly at home here. As awed as I was, I didn’t. Even two decades later, the place looks too much like the third day of Genesis. The morning of the third day, before the sodding. I was trespassing.

But I understood for the first time what a geologist had told John McPhee, the writer, one day when she was describing to him how she had survived a violent earthquake and a landslide in southwest Montana. “We were taught all wrong. We were taught that changes on the face of the earth come in a slow steady march. But that isn’t what happens,” she told him. “The evolution of the world does not happen a grain at a time. It happens in the hundred-year storm, the hundred-year flood. Those things do it all. That earthquake made a catastrophist of me.”

She did not take the word catastrophe to be pejorative. To the contrary. I could see why. Washington State made a catastrophist of me.


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WASHINGTON STATE IN BRIEF

Total area: 70,637 sq. miles (rank: 19)
Population (1997): 5,610,362 (rank: 15)
State capital: Olympia
Economy: High tech, biotechnology, aerospace, forestry
Nickname & Motto: Evergreen State; By and by.
Entered union: Nov. 11, 1889 (42 nd)

Notable facts: The Northwest Passage—a great river that cut the American continent from coast to coast—is one of those old beliefs that dates almost to the days of Columbus. Lewis and Clark went looking for it. Maps, back in the days when imagining the presence and absence of continents was half the fun and science of cartography, showed the existence of the river for centuries. Ships looked for it, and when they didn’t find it they redoubled their efforts, seeing proof in mystery. “It was a wish made real by the fervor of the wish,” writes Sallie Tiesdale, the Oregon author. When the river’s nonexistence proved irrefutable, explorers switched to imagining the presence of the Great River, which took its source in the Great Lakes and flowed to the Pacific. The river had subsequent incarnation as the River Buenaventura, the River of the West, and the River Oregon. Reality had to settle for the Columbia, a great enough body of water that stretches 1,200 miles and sometimes sprawls a mile wide, and drains an area almost the size of Texas.

Washington in quotes: “Small charcoal-colored clouds were snagged in the firs. We were climbing steadily now, the road wet, the light failing fast. Each bend in the road opened on another wall of Douglas fir, the trees as dense and regularly spaced as the bristles on a broom. This wasn’t a true forest. It was a ‘tree farm’—a second- or third-growth plantation, now ready for ‘harvesting.’ The terms were those of the industry, and after two years of seeing them in use, I still found myself putting quotation marks around them in my head. To me, farm and harvest meant a two-acre wheat field in Essex, with rabbits scarpering from between the cornstalks, and the words refused to stick when I tried to attach them to a mountain range with 150-foot trees, where cougars and bears ran out in place of rabbits and twin-rotor helicopters served as baling machines.”—From “The Next Last Frontier: A newcomer’s journey through the Pacific Northwest,” an essay by ex-British writer Jonathan Raban; Harper’s, Aug. 1993.

RESOURCES

Books:

* Timothy Egan, currently the Northwest bureau chief for The New York Times, has written two books on the West valuable for their combination of reporting and lyricism: “The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest” (Vintage paperback) and the more recent “Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West” (Knopf).

* Bill Dwyer, a federal judge in Seattle who represented John Goldmark in 1963, told the story in “The Goldmark Case: An American Libel Trial” (University of Washington Press).

* Although it is out of print, Sallie Tiesdale’s “Stepping Westward: The Long Search for Home in the Pacific Northwest” is worth an APB to second-hand bookstores.

Web Sites:

* The Kalakala: www.kalakala.org

* Mount St. Helens: vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Volcanoes/MSH/

* Audubon-Washington: www.audubon.org/chapter/wa/wa/

* Washington tourism: www.tourism.wa.gov

 

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