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Childhood in the Redwoods by Robert W. Norris

It’s an early morning in the redwoods. I’m fishing with Dad in the creek that flows near our property line. The sun is not yet over the ridge of high trees. The sound of the creek is enchanting. The chirping of robins and sparrows filters through the air and is swallowed by the forest. I feel a tug on my line and jerk my pole carefully. Dad is by my side, coaching me patiently and lauding my performance with a gentle word.

This singular image elicits the consummate joy that is my childhood. In this childhood, there is nothing more mysterious, wonderful, and ominous than the forest. Our entire family life is surrounded, infused, and dominated by the existence of the forest. The food, warmth, clothing, and shelter provided by Dad’s toil originates from the forest. The redwoods are almost spiritual in their timelessness, their immense size and beauty.

I believe myself the luckiest boy alive. Dad is a man of the earth, a logger who cleared the timber of our land, built our house, and planted our garden with strawberries, carrots, beets, lettuce, and tomatoes. He is the man who built the treehouse that rests gloriously like a castle on a burned-out stump on the far side of the garden. Mom is a woman of country charm who lovingly cares for the garden, picks wild berries and makes thick, sweet pies, prepares the food Dad works hard to provide us with, keeps our home spotlessly clean, tells us stories that have us rolling with laughter, and gives us the endless warmth of her love.

There I am, now a ten-year-old boy on an April day sprawled out among the dandelions sprouting through the unmowed grass of our backyard, which stretches for two acres before succumbing to the brooding forest. I scan the length of the yard. To my far left near the house is our baseball diamond, complete with makeshift backstop, pitcher’s mound, and bases. It’s a short distance to the left field fence. Beyond the fence stands our neighbor’s dappled Appaloosa. The remote center field fence is marked by the beginning of the forest and a thicket of wild brambles. Right field is an open area, with Dad’s toolshed marking the foul line. Behind the toolshed is a prominent landmark: a towering redwood tree.

At the entrance to the forest is a small, burned arch at the base of a dead tree that points to the sky like a charred finger. If you crawl through this burned section of timber, you enter another dimension: the dark forest with its soft, fern-covered floor. The forest is always dripping with moisture. It is somber, silent, old as time. Occasionally, you see wide-eyed deer that bound away to a safe distance upon hearing your approach and then stare at you from afar. Squirrels scamper up trees then stand upright on hind legs, sniffing the air, munching on some morsel of forest food. Sparrows and robins flit to and fro and chirp their warnings and admonitions in voices that are sharp and clear and echo throughout the forest. Whenever I enter the forest, I’m transported in time. I’m a dreamer, at various times The Great Explorer, The Great Pioneer, The Great Hunter, Davey Crockett, or Kit Carson. My brother, boyhood friends, and I wage spectacular battles in the forest, encounter fierce enemies. Always we emerge victorious.

There is the joy of country baseball, playing games of catch or flies-up with Dad, brother Dick, and my friends, of bouncing a rubber ball against the back steps of our house and imagining World Series games—bottom of the ninth, two out, me on the mound. There is the summer Little League, where four teams compete on the roughshod elementary school diamond, my team coached by Dad, who spends his evenings after work coaching us boys in infield practice, outfield practice, and game situations.

Baseball is an obsession and epitomizes the perfect joy of my childhood. This joy is in the oiling of a new baseball glove and breaking it in. It’s in the sharp crack of bat meeting ball, the good-natured chattering and horseplay of my teammates, and the Saturday games where sometimes I play shortstop (my specialty is ranging to my right into the hole to snag a liner one-handed and fire a strike to first base, a step ahead of a slow-footed runner) and sometimes take the mound (the one game in particular when I pitch a no-hitter with my no-speed fastball and excellent control and Dad takes the team out for hamburgers and milk shakes to celebrate). It’s in the feel of the earth, the dirt on my hands, my bat, and my game T-shirt with “Mavericks,” the team name, written in bold letters on it. It’s in the camaraderie with the other players, all of whom have solid baseball names like Eric Isaacson, Tim Flynn, Charles Gamble, Burt Nordstrom, and Tom Buck. It’s in the shape of the field, the clumps in the outfield, the wooden backstop, the chalked foul lines that are never quite straight, the rickety wooden benches used for the stands, and the fields beyond the left field fence that seem like green oceans with scattered groups of sheep and cattle sailing on them.

There are the characters who live in Jacoby Creek: Old John, the hermit who lives in his one-room shack with its pot-bellied stove and grows the biggest and best vegetables around; the Okies who live in clapboard shacks at the end of Jacoby Creek Road, their yards covered with rusty frames of old cars with weeds sprouting out through the windows, their whiskey stills hidden somewhere in the forest, and their kids forever covered with fleabites; the Cook family, who run the largest sheep ranch in the county; and the McClean family, who live on the hill overlooking our house, that same hill, shaped like a large helmet, down which Dick, the three McClean girls, and I slide on cardboard boxes, hitting incredible speeds and sometimes crashing at the bottom.

There are all the places of mystery and discovery. Near the elementary school, there is the old Grange Hall, where Cub Scout and Boy Scout meetings are held, where the rear window is jarred loose and a friend and I can slip into the open space and explore the large kitchen, the storage closets, and the attic in which stacked scores of yellowing copies of Boy’s Life are kept. We spend hours reading about the adventures of boy scouts who’ve saved lives and performed heroic deeds. We dream of duplicating those deeds to the delight and wonder of friends and relatives who’ll spread the story to all corners of the world.

There is the treehouse on the six-foot deep, burned-out stump near the garden. The treehouse has a trap door on the floor. On summer nights, Dick and I often sleep in there and listen to the sounds of deer feeding on shrubbery at the base of the stump, the wind swaying the surrounding trees, and the ripple of the creek.

There is the rock quarry and cave—where bears are said to live—beyond the Okies’ shacks. There are the forbidden, stagnant, insect-infested pools of green water near the quarry. Monsters are rumored to dwell beneath the surface of the pools, lying in wait to snatch an unsuspecting boy and drag him to the depths of the netherworld.

There is Dad’s sawmill out in the Arcata lowlands. I love to climb the huge log decks, explore the workers’ lunchroom with its pinup pictures of naked women, play among the piles of sawdust, smell the pungency of freshly hewn timber, and listen to the roaring machinery that lifts, saws, carries, and stacks the logs and boards of Dad’s world of toil and sweat. I love this world and its alliance of community. Nearly all the fathers of my friends work in the woods and sawmills as choker setters, fallers, sawyers, truck drivers hauling massive logs on dirt roads, planers, green chain pullers, all of them stained by the rich, masculine smell of the woods: sawdust, oil, and sweat.

This joyful world of mine is also in the November smoke that emanates from the fireplaces of Jacoby Creek, in the smell of freshly mown lawns, and in the April bees buzzing from flower to flower to gather their pollen. It’s in the wild and terrifying winter rain that unleashes storms of unyielding power, in the winter flooding of the creek that changes the creek’s course every year, in the clear and fresh green of the countryside after a spring storm, in the crackling of a winter fire, in the raw, damp smell of new firewood stacked in the woodshed, in the breakfast smell of bacon and fried trout, and in the sound of popcorn popping in the kitchen on Sunday nights. It’s there in the salty mist of the Humboldt Bay fog that steals across the fields and forest on autumn mornings, in the spring smell of eucalyptus, in the summer clouds that hang in the sky like puffs of sea foam, and in the ochre-colored sunsets. It’s in the darkness that prowls softly through the silence of the forest at night. It’s in the earthy fragrance of the trees, the grass, and the flowers that surround me on this April day as I lie stretched out, head cupped in my hands, chewing on a blade of grass, and surveying the stretch and sweep of this very special world.

That world is also embodied in my grandparents. On Dad’s side, there’s Granddad Hi, who’s a small man—five-foot, five inches—but seems much larger because of the way people always show their respect by tipping their caps in his presence and calling him Mister Norris. There are the monthly Sunday dinners at Granddad Hi, Nana, and Uncle Dick’s home in Eureka’s wealthy section, where there’s a plethora of Victorian homes with large, well-kept gardens.

An air of formality hovers over those gatherings. We always have to wear our Sunday best and be on our best behavior. Often as many as ten to fifteen family members and guests are in attendance. Nana greets the guests at the front door, which has a doorbell with a deep, sonorous chime. Everyone shakes hands, takes off their coats, and Nana carries the coats off to her bedroom. The visitors enter the front room and sit on luxurious leather sofas and big armchairs before a blazing fire. Uncle Dick takes orders for “highballs” and the grownups settle into an hour or so of spirited conversations, while we kids roam the house to explore, play card games, read books, or sit stiffly with the adults and try to act grown up.

Granddad Hi’s house is like a museum with a musty, formal smell. The bedrooms at the end of the hall seem made for royalty with their brass beds, family photographs from another era, and chests of drawers with a smooth, lacquered finish and wooden smell. In every room, there are artifacts from all parts of the world to which Nana has traveled—music boxes from Switzerland, wooden carvings from Africa, chess sets from Spain, gems from Mexico, silk from Japan, and dolls dressed in native attire from many countries. There is the library filled with hundreds of worn titles, the ancient grandfather clock that strikes the hour with a haunting melody, the set of polished brass pokers and shovels placed before the fireplace, and the tapestries that depict hunting scenes and beasts of the forest and cover the walls of the front room.

After the highballs are finished, everyone gathers in the dining room around the long table set with the finest china. They feast on a rich banquet Nana has spent two full days preparing: succulent hams, turkeys, and roasts; mounds of mashed potatoes with rivers of butter running down the sides; steaming platters of corn, string beans, squash, carrots, and scalloped potatoes; and neatly covered plates of homemade rolls that never fail to elicit the praise of those present. Nana smiles humbly and urges everyone to “help yourself to as many as you want.” For dessert, there’s a variety of bulging, aromatic pies served with large globes of ice cream. When all have filled their bellies to bursting, out come cups of strong, hot coffee and, for the adults, another highball.

I see Granddad Hi seated at the end of the table in the position of honor, immaculately dressed, hair neatly trimmed, carving the meat, asking politely what each person wants to eat, joking and keeping up a running commentary on the events of the world, serving the vegetables in neat portions starting with the youngest child first, the plates rotating around the table until all but him have been served; then, after dinner, relaxing in his special chair before the television, smoking a cigarette from a cigarette holder, and telling us children stories. His stories always expound on family history and the resiliency, fortitude, and spirit of ancestors who overcame adversity and thrived.

On Mom’s side of the family, there’s Grandpa Pat. We sometimes spend Christmas with him and Grandma Murph in Willard, a small company town in Washington a few miles from White Salmon and built by the Broughton Lumber Company. This is where Grandpa Pat works.

The Broughton Lumber Company has two facilities. One is a mill up in the hills in Willard where logs are sawed into rough cut lumber and loaded into a flume that runs nine miles to a lower resaw-and-planing mill at a place called Hood on the Columbia River. There is a story about Granddad Frederick working there for a while and one time seeing a dead body come down the flume with some of the lumber and land in the pond where the flume ends. The Willard site also has small company houses for the workers, a cookhouse, and a general store. Grandpa Pat and Grandma Murph live in one of the company houses.

After Grandpa Pat dies, Grandma Murph comes to live with us in Jacoby Creek. I often sleep with her. She is a patient and enthusiastic audience for my inquisitiveness. At night as I lie next to her with my arm wrapped around her warm body, I pester her with questions about her body, her clothes, her smell, her life, her way of doing things. She answers each question with bubbles of laughter rising from her breast.

One night while watching her take a bath, I ask, “Grandma, what do you call those things on your chest?”

“Why those are my breasts, Bobby.” “What do you use them for?”

“Well, they’re used for feeding babies milk and sometimes for loving. But child, you’re too young to hear about that,” she says, her breasts swaying with soft laughter.

“Can I still love someone even if I don’t have any breasts?”

“Why of course you can.”

“How come Mom’s breasts are bigger than yours, Grandma Murph?”

“Well, she’s much younger than I am. And besides mine haven’t been used for many years!” Grandma Murph throws her head back and rocks with mirth. Bath water splashes against the sides of the tub.

“Grandma Murph?”

“Yes, dear. What is it now?”

“I think you better go to the gas station and get those things filled up with air.”

Grandma Murph falls back in the tub, grabs her sides again, and lets loose with a piercing scream that pours forth from the depths of her belly.

Of all the things I love about Grandma Murph—her fruity smell, her laughter, her bright blue eyes, her soft grey hair, her water bottle she sleeps with, her cakes and pies and cookies that are way better than anyone else’s—it’s her stories I love the most, those stories that poke fun at the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of the members of her own family. She tells those stories with such color and generosity of spirit that it seems she’s never suffered a moment in her life, that truly a life of poverty is the path to happiness, that warmth and laughter are to be found in the rags one is forced to wear day after day, in a diet of potatoes and cabbage, in freezing nights huddled four together in a bed in a midwestern farm winter, in their pilgrimage across the mountains, valleys, and plains of Montana, Idaho, and Oregon during the Great Depression.

I’m 72 now. When I reflect on those distant days and the many paths that led me away from all that was once familiar and blessed, I’m stirred by the power of stories and memory, by the darkness and light they carry. I remember how Granddad Hi’s stories put the fear of life in me, the fear of not being able to survive in a dangerous world, of not being able to live up to his standards of what it was to be a man, to be respected and admired by the community in which he lived. I also remember how Grandma Murph’s stories made me feel warm and secure. They gave me hope. They gave me the confidence to confront the mysteries of existence and the foreboding of what was to come. More than anything else, her stories cling close to my heart. They evoke a time and place now golden in memory. That makes me smile.
Author Robert W. Norris

Robert W. Norris was born and raised in Humboldt County, California. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and served time in a military prison for refusing his order to fight. In his twenties, he roamed across the United States, went to Europe twice, and made one journey around the world. In 1983, he landed in Japan, where he became a professor at a private university and retired as a professor emeritus. He is the author of three novels, a novella, a memoir, and over 20 research papers on teaching. He and his wife live near Fukuoka, Japan. This excerpt is from his memoir: The Good Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise: Pentimento Memories of Mom and Me.


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