Nineteen-Fifty- Nine; or, A Letter to the State of Oregon
By: Finn J.D. John
I remember you when you were young and innocent. Well, youngish, let’s say, and innocentish. The truth was just starting to dawn on you then, the awful truth, and in a few places I could already see the early catalytic stirrings of the great disillusioning.
It was midway through the 1970s. I remember how you were then, Oregon. I remember it in the warm, golden light of a happy, privileged childhood.
I mean, I didn’t know I was privileged. But then, neither did you.
You were still a little tipsy with the spirit of 1959 back then, weren’t you? Nineteen-fifty-nine, the year of the Oregon Centennial celebration – it had been 100 years since the state was admitted to the union, and boy, did you ever throw a party to mark the occasion and to celebrate that 100 Years of Progress!
Nineteen-fifty-nine, when it seemed there would always be trees to cut and fresh water to swim in and toothsome salmon to feast on. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when a man could get work in the mill or in the woods straight out of tenth grade and make a wage that would buy him a house, put a muscle car in the driveway with a fishing boat to tow with it, put a ring on his sweetheart’s finger and a roast turkey on the Thanksgiving dinner table, with three-four kids around it smacking their lips and waiting for Mom to say grace.
Nineteen-fifty-nine, when culture was a thing one didn’t worry about, when dressing up meant removing one’s “CAT Diesel Power” hat and combing one’s hair. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when the realization had not yet dawned that you were living on stolen land, when you hadn’t yet figured out that your greatest heroes were vandals and thugs and murderers before fortune made them elder statesmen. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when you couldn’t stop progress and neither could the folks at Celilo, the 15,000-year-old Indian village flooded out two years before to make way for The Dalles Dam. Nineteen-fifty-nine, when you still had not yet realized what an awful mistake that had been.
I remember that spirit, Oregon. It was in its twilight years by the time I came along, but I could still feel it, all around me, in the little timber town I grew up in. Four sawmills that town had. One at each corner, running all the time. It was a noisy place, full of four-wheel-drive pickups and big-block Javelins and Mustangs practicing bootlegger reverses in the intersections.
Then the dark years came.
First the trees ran out. In 1959 everyone thought they’d last forever. They didn’t.
The mills in my town closed, one by one. Everyone blamed the spotted owl, but it wasn’t the owls. The mills that were still open were being run mostly by machinery, and you couldn’t cut trees that weren’t there.
This was my time. These were my years. Watching you change, Oregon, watching you lose your 1959 innocence. I had a front-row seat for most of those years. First working my way through college as a firewatch guard in your rusty, dying sawmills. H.R. Jones Veneer, Goshen Veneer, Lane Plywood – they’re all gone now – only one of the mills I worked in is still around today.
Then I was out of college and working at a timber-town newspaper. Every day I saw it on the editorial pages, the people clinging to 1959, and other people pointing backward through time to the oppressed minorities and the dropout rates and the missing fingers on so many work-scarred hands and saying, “It wasn’t really as great as you’re saying it was, and it’s gone now. Let’s stop trying to recapture it. Let’s leave the last few old-growth trees alone. Let’s make something better instead.”
You know, Oregon? It turns out they were right. Weren’t they?
Would you turn the clock back to 1959 if you could, Oregon? I bet you’d say no. I bet you’d pull your hand away from that flux-capacitor power feed and say, “I can’t do this. I can’t go back.”
“I was so happy then,” you’d say. “But the price of my happiness was ignorance. I didn’t know the trees would run out. I didn’t know dumping that bucket of chemicals in the creek would kill all those fish. I didn’t know the Native Americans were miserable and oppressed, I thought they just lived like that because they were Indians; I didn’t know my black neighbors didn’t “like to camp” because they knew camping wasn’t safe for them; I didn’t know those perfect-hostess housewives were eating their hearts out and wishing they could choose a different life. I can’t go back to that world. I’m all grown up now.”
And I’d say, “Well, no, you’re not, and neither am I. But we’re both awake, and we’re growing, and no one can ask for more than that.”