Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wild kids and animals?

There was a lot of important animal news in the weekly paper. Raccoon raids, puppies and kittens born, turtle burials, even the killing of a chicken hawk by a broom-wielding angry woman. Working mothers seemed to have caused the most widespread consternation, though. Both employed moms and inattentive schools were blamed in the press for juvenile delinquency. The Superintendent of Schools lectured in the state's schools, big and small, that the cure for problematic kids would be to get those darn working moms back home. The Superintendent's name began with a Mrs.!

To put things in perspective, however, it must be noted that the Island's delinquents seemed to be boys who badly aimed their BB guns (which all boys and even some girls, had - a rite of passage). Although there was one loudly reported incident of some kids doing damage to a vacant house. Not that such behavior should be chalked up to "just being kids." It's just that in comparison with the level of difficulties now, BB guns seem pretty tame.

It's a good thing the Island was pretty much crime-free. There was not an Island-based county sheriff until 1947. Because the county seat was(is) in Port Orchard and peace officers were headquartered in Bremerton, it was quite a long trip from or to the Island. Two ferry routes and a long highway stretch meant travelling either way would take a good three hours or more.

When I read and talk to people about those years, it seems that social events often ended in brawls. The Saturday dances at Stanley Park on the Island's north end, the Wing Point Country Club bashes, and the waterfront tavern referred to as "the bloody bucket" were all infamous for their apparently popular fisticuff events. Even Winslow council meetings could end in arguments. One time a well-known councilman and an attendee got into it after a meeting. I don't think the councilman resigned his post. He was just spirited.

Have we become more civilized? A state to ponder.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Roads - Some Travelled and Some Not

The "main road" was of course the routes of the ferry boats. The Island itself had lots of roads, many more like driveways winding through stands of evergreens. The ditches outlining them served as both erosion protection and as playgrounds. I could not find in my research, the reason for the depth of the ditches. I suppose it simply must have been to provide runoff for the constant rain and resulting groundwater. A paradox since living on the Island is dependent on the availability of water. "Water communities" such as the one where I spent my high school years, Madrona Community Water, depended on capturing rain water in a tower. Residents of the community worked constantly to keep the tower free of fallen leaves. This was some years after the war ended and one of the residents was a Japanese man and his family. The tower stood next to his property. By default, he was the one everyone turned to for information and scheduling of maintenance. Looking back, it must have been odd for the local people to depend on someone who had so recently been a so-called "enemy." In my family, I remember him as one we both respected and stood in awe of. His wife was from Japan, did not speak English. There were whispers of her strange ways such as her gathering of sea weed and drying it on the clothes line. Few could imagine eating it. Now sushi, some wrapped with seaweed, is common in many local supermarkets.

In Port Madison, the house my grandfather bought served as family headquarters throughout the war years. There were no new cars available on the Island during those years. The rationing of cars allowed only three new cars for the Island. Dr. Shepard got one according to a news article. The one car in my family was the 1936 Ford Model T my grandfather drove from Minnesota. Those were sturdy vehicles with their flat-head and four cylinder engines any sixteen year old boy could fix. Grandpa used his for chores and occasional entertainment. He rode the Navy bus to the shipyard to work each day. Bus fare was ten cents. That left the flivver and its ration of fuel for other things.

It was early in the morning and still dark. I heard wood being shoved into the kitchen stove. My grandfather was up, making coffee. Usually I even beat him out of bed. My mother complained I never slept. There was just too much to do and see. Sleep still is an annoying necessity.

"Grandpa - what are you doing?"

"Taking Betsy to Winslow," was his reply; only as many words as he considered necessary.

"Can I go too?"

He didn't answer. Just took a huge bite of bread and some foul-smelling, brown cheese; slurped his coffee through it; nodded his head. I put on corduroy trousers over my pajamas, socks, boots, and jacket; I was ready in a flash. Grandpa did not wait for slow pokes. He plunked his fedora on as he opened the back door. His stride was long and I skipped rapidly to keep up. In the barn, he lit a swinging light bulb. Mr. Murdoch was already there, looping a rope around the cow's neck. The two men nodded at one another. The barn's fragrance and warmth was thick. Grandpa opened the big doors, backed the Ford in, left the motor running as he stepped out, opened the back doors, removed the back seat and threw in some hay. He and Mr. Murdoch, one at each of the car's back doors, pushed and pulled brown-eyed Betsy in.

"You sit there and hold the rope," he gestured to me as I climbed eagerly in, sat by Betsy's head and importantly held the rope. It wasn't raining or snowing for once so the road was relatively easy to traverse though the trip was slow. (It was 1944 and long before the highway that now slices in a nearly straight line from the south to the north across the Island.) The road wound along the beach's edge and through tunnels of tall trees.

A model-T carrying a cow and three passengers was not unusual than. Whatever vehicle was available was used for whatever had to be done. When we arrived at Beach's Butcher Locker, it was still dark. The building stood near the drive leading to the Winslow ferry dock. "Old Man Beach" (the man was still young but I never heard him called anything except "Old Man Beach" - and respectfully at that - he was an Island icon.) came out and directed the delivery of Betsy. He was a tall, skinny silhouette backlit by dim lighting. That's the last I saw of the cow, alive that is. I rode home in the back which still richly smelled of cow and hay. I think I grew an inch that day; I felt very grown up.

Not only guys were drafted. So were trucks because at the beginning of the war, military vehicles were in drastically short supply. Even Big Bertha, the one and only truck of the Bainbridge Island Auto Freight company, had been conscripted into military service. That huge, bull-nosed vehicle returned from the war, un-scathed, to serve the needs of Islanders for many years after the war.

Model-T's were versatile motor cars. The low-gear-ratio transmission and the simple engine made the cars like tractors. Months of winter's freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, and then spring's warmth and more rain turned the Island's many dirt roads, into quaqmires of mod. The model-T plowed right through, no problem. When it snowed on the Island, there were plenty of hills for sledding. My grandpa's little car chugged up the steep hill (where Frog Rock sits at the bottom) pulling sleds, over and over. Lots of activities seem dark in my memory. Maybe because the Northwest's winter days are particularly short.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

On Ferry Boats and Other Stuff

At the beginning of the war,the population of Bainbridge Island was somewhere between 3 and 4 thousand residents. Now there is reportedly 26,000! Almost nine times more people on roughly 30 square miles of water-surrounded land. The Winslow Marine Highway and Ship Repair Yard that had once been a world class builder of many-masted sailing vessels, had shrunk over the decades and employed about one hundred fifty workers. But it was quick to join in war production. Contracts to build Navy mine sweepers were awarded to the tiny ship repair yard. The number of shipyard workers grew exponentially to around fifteen hundred. (The numbers were kept secret so actual numbers are difficult to pinpoint.) Islanders had long prized their privacy and invisibility; their rural environment; what they considered their unique-ness. "Newcomers" quickly exhausted all available housing. Woodsheds, garages, berry pickers' shacks, anything with a roof, though not necessarily a floor, were rented. Tar paper shacks, primitive trailers, and even tents housed families. Once they were sent off to camp, the Island's Japanese families' houses became fair game for rental. Their permission was not sought - afterall, they were now "the enemy."

Lots of Island roads, locations, and communities are named for local residents and old business locations. Other names are more obscure; such as, Toejam Hill, an interesting variation of its original name after a man who lived there, Torjam Hill. An early battle, before the settling of hardy pioneers, a couple of Indian tribes had a beach battle. It was a half-hearted affair with no fatalities but left its mark as Battle Point. During the war it was a military station with an airplane spotting tower. It is now a park and visitors' center. There were roads aptly referred to as "Suicide Lane", "Devil's Dip", and the like. Many of the roads were dirt or gravel. The few street lights in Winslow installed in much earlier years were left unused after a few short months of operation because there reportedly was no interest in maintaining them. And certainly there were no traffic lights - no need because there was little if any "traffic."

In the first frenzied and uncertain days of the war, all lighting at night had to be "blacked out." Blankets hung over windows as families inside anxiously listened to their radios for the latest news. There was a fear that lights seen from the air would help enemy bombing raids. Radio and newspapers were the common communication channels. Cell telephones, television, computers, were the stuff of science fiction. Each day Seattle newspapers were ferried to the Island. Lots of the papers were delivered by hardy boys on bicycles . They stuffed the papers into long tin cylinders nailed to mail box posts or tossed to a porch. One time, a popular boy on his dark, early morning route was seriously injured by a hit and run driver. Islanders were stunned by the heartlessness of "one of their own." The boy was rushed to a Seattle hospital. His condition was carefully followed in the local newspaper. The heavy, woolen watch hat he was wearing may have actually saved his life. But his injury left him unable to follow his dream of being a pro-baseball player. Another of the newspaper carriers took over his route during his two-month recovery, saving his job for him. The other boy only had to get up two hours earlier - 4 a.m. - to complete both routes - BEFORE heading off to school. Islanders stuck by their own.

Ferry commuters could purchase their daily news dose from a stack of papers on one of the docks. There were several landings; the ferries were small; not like the huge vessels of today. On the Island to/from Bremerton route, a tiny boat carried foot traffic only. Winslow's modern, state-owned terminal with its warm waiting room and covered walkway perched above and away from vehicles was years away. Not much thought was given in those times of the possible dangers to the foot passengers. It was the way it was. They gathered as a group either at the loading end of the dock or the lip of the ferry and were hurried on and off before the cars and trucks. In the land of rain the ferry decks and docks were often slippery. The stairs from the bottom decks to the upper decks were steep. It was part of the adventure of living on an island.

That ferryboat commuters consider certain seats to be their very own, is legendary and very true. It was said that ferry coffee, brewed in giant pots that held hours and hours worth of the hot stuff, could curl your hair, was almost true. The tarry liquid was served in thick white mugs and was ambrosia to the early morning crowd and cleared many fogged heads. Women in white uniforms and starched green caps and aprons, knew everyone and usually their orders. In the cafe, the counter curved around stanchions. In stormy weather, it was a balancing act to sit on one of the stools, hanging on with feet and legs wrapped around the pedestal, elbows tensed to the counter, fingers lacing the blistering mugs. Today it is a "Grande Latte" individually brewed and sipped while watching the rich scenery gliding by, no matter what the weather. Commuters still possessively guard their particular seats.

The ferries were little compared to today's giants. Those boats came from California. Part of their initiation was to be re-named to more suit Puget Sound culture - like Klahawnee, Quinault, Illahee, Kehloken, Quilliyote - chunky names for the equally chunky boats.

The ferries, their crews, and captains were almost family members; after all, islanders relied on them as more than just transportation. They were lifelines. The captains took on legendary status. Each vessel had a distinct personality - at least it seemed that way from news articles. They were talked about as if they were people. Nearly every Islander had a favorite boat or considered one their own bad or good luck charm. Sometimes it seemed the boats themselves were alive and kicking as headlines heralded feats and injuries. Headlines like, "Ferry Rosario Rescues Lost 16' Boat - Puts It High and Dry on Point White Dock," "Little Ferry San Mateo Suffers Severe Burns From Burst Steam Pipe," are examples of how personal the boats seemed.

Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters immortalized the ferries in song in 1943. They crooned "The Black Ball Ferry Line" over the radio waves. I believe Bing wrote the lyrics, "On the Black Ball Ferry Line up in Seattle . . . where the whistles blow and the bells toll and the ferry boats go chugging right along. . . . . "

Homesick service men and women were treated to many ballads with geographic and sentimental roots - "Chatanooga Choo Choo", "Moon Over Miami", - The list of hundreds of titles tell the emotional stories of that era - love, friendships, good times and bad, passion, heartaches, fear, joy and more, wrought by the unpredictableness of war. The music was dance-able and sing-able. The Armed Services uniforms opened all the doors at home and the guys and gals could do no wrong. Even though the pall of war darkened the air, it was still exciting and the country bounced with energy.