Home for Dinner July 27, 1938

Chapter Four

Flo was thankful for her driver’s license and use of the family car. It gave her the freedom to attend Biz-Pro and YWCA events in other towns in the Northwest, and easier access to meetings and social events at the homes of friends. Having use of a car afforded real power, the kind of power that was mostly reserved for men. She had taken her driver’s test as soon as she turned 16 when she graduated high school in 1929, and she had been the family driver ever since.

She was the driver

Flo had even gotten good at fixing flat tires as they happened with regularity. She and her mechanic had recently solved the mystery of the 52 flat tires the Model A had suffered in recent years. They traced the cause to nails from the old wooden sidewalk on 16th Avenue that stuck up through the asphalt after the road was paved.

After Flo picked up Ruth at the county building, they stopped at the butcher’s shop on the west side of town to pick up Betty, who had taken over the shop’s bookkeeping for her father since his heart attack.

Gerda had dinner nearly ready when the three sisters arrived home. Flo found Ben sitting in the back yard at the foot of Gerda’s vegetable and flower garden in the shade of the big cherry tree reading the evening newspaper. She pulled up an Adirondack chair to sit with him.

Ben’s calligraphy revealed his patriotism

“How are you feeling, Dad?” Flo couldn’t help worrying about her father.

“Oh, I feel like I’m on the mend. Soon I’ll be out working in the hop fields again,” he joked. Ben had not been able to do any physical activity for the past three years because of heart trouble and now since his recent heart attack he was confined to a desk where he could do bookkeeping or a chair where he could sit and read or work on his art.

Flo recalled the family’s frequent trips to the Cascade Mountains to fish and swim in Bumping Lake and the Yakima River. The mountains of Washington reminded Ben of the Norwegian mountains and the landscape of his childhood. He had been born Bernt Evensen on a farm near the little fishing town of Borsa on a fiord about half way up the Norwegian coast. Ben’s favorite excursion in his adopted country had been to Mt. St. Helens to pick huckleberries in late summer. He loved camping at Spirit Lake just at the base of the mountain. Ben often drew the mountain and its lake and he had completed a tourist advertisement titled “See Washington First” with a pen-and-ink drawing of the mountain. There would be no trip to Mt. St. Helens to pick berries this season, thought Flo sadly.

Gerda, Ben, Elizabeth and Flo in the mountains, 1913

She took Ben’s arm and they walked through the bountiful garden filled with flowers. In the far corner was the spot where Ben had dug a little grave and buried the fetus that Gerda had miscarried some years before. The coroner had not reported the stillbirth so as not to charge them for any burial costs, and they were allowed to bury the remains themselves. Gerda had wrapped the fetus in the blanket she’d been knitting along with baby hat and booties. Had it survived, the baby would have been a boy.

The temperature had begun to cool off. Betty and Ruth brought an oilcloth and table settings out to the picnic table near the garden to avoid the heat of the kitchen where Gerda had been canning apricots and cooking much of the day.

Wiping her brow with a handkerchief, Gerda came out of the kitchen to sit with her family for a few moments before dinner. She still wore her long graying hair as she always had, braided in one long braid, wrapped in a bun and pinned on top of her head. She removed her wire-rimmed glasses and wiped them carefully on a hanky pulled from her apron pocket.

“You look a little peak-ed,” she addressed Flo, putting a hand on her daughter’s head and smoothing her hair. “Are you feeling alright, dear?”

“I’m just very happy to be home from that hot office. I feel all wrung out,” sighed Flo.

Ben emulated the artist Mucha

Gerda had made potato salad earlier in the day and put it in the icebox to cool. Ruth set it on the table along with freshly picked corn from the garden, boiled over the wood stove. With the stove already hot for canning, Gerda had also fried chicken in rendered fat. She had sacrificed the old hen that had stopped laying, chopping off her head with an ax, gutting her, then dipping the bird in hot water before plucking her. There was fresh butter, too, cucumbers in brine, and iced tea.

The family sat down to eat and Ben said the prayer. They could be thankful for many things. They had each other. Although the past six years since Ben had been let out of his teaching job had been hard times. Flo could not help but wonder if her father’s Democratic politics had played a part in his being laid off in 1932 at the nadir of the Depression. The superintendent had laid off a man with a wife and four children to support while keeping on a single woman in the commercial department of Yakima High School, very unusual at the time. Protocol required women, single or married, to be let out before any man.

“Remember when we went to high school together, Dad?” said Ruth. “You went to teach and we went to learn.”

Three of Ben’s daughters had attended Yakima High School while he taught business mathematics, bookkeeping and penmanship there. For Flo and Ruth there was no shame at having their father there, in fact for them it was rather comforting. But sister Eva could not contain her embarrassment when she overheard her friends making fun of her father’s foreign accent and calling him a blockhead. His office, such as it was, had been relegated to the basement, an indication of his low status.

“Remember when we met Orville Douglas your first year at the Yakima High School faculty picnic?” said Gerda. “And now he’s William O. Douglas and he’s been appointed to a big job in Washington DC. We met Mildred too, the woman he married.”

William O. Douglas, SEC Chair

“Yes, I was sorry to see them leave Yakima,” said Ben. “Mildred Riddle was the best Latin teacher Yakima High School ever had. She was quite an intellect.”

Ben had overlapped only one school year with William O. Douglas, who had taught English and coached the debate team, but soon enough they were known as the only two Democrats on the faculty. People joked that they were the only two Democrats in Yakima County. And now Douglas had been appointed by FDR to head the Securities and Exchange Commission. Their father’s friend from Yakima had gone to Washington DC and made it big. It gave them all hope.

Flo Goes to Work July 27, 1938

Chapter Three

Flo pulled the Model A into the gravel parking lot at the State Highway Department offices, a single-story brick building on a back street of the little town of Union Gap. Its just-watered closely cropped lawn sparkled in the morning heat, an oasis in dusty brown surroundings that had once been the location of the huge U&I Sugar plant.

northyakimariver
Union Gap and the Yakima River

Union Gap had been the original Yakima before the Northern Pacific Railway bypassed it in 1883. In 1884, in response to that snub, the whole town, over 100 buildings, was moved with rollers and horse teams four miles north along the Yakima River. After that, the new town of North Yakima grew while Union Gap remained a one-horse town just at the gap between Ahtanum Ridge and Rattlesnake Hills where the Yakima River flowed toward the Columbia.

The office building had stayed relatively cool during the night, but was already heating up when Flo arrived just before 8 a.m. Someone had set electric fans around the office to circulate the air. Temperatures above 100 degrees were not uncommon in the summer. People said it was a dry heat and that was supposed to somehow make it feel less hot. The district chief engineer had put in for an office air conditioner but the state chief’s office, located in the relatively cool western part of the state in Seattle, had not yet been convinced of the need.

Flo greeted her coworkers, all men since the other female stenographer had recently been laid off when she had married. Jobs during the Depression were reserved first for men, and married women were not allowed to work at all, unless the job was agricultural—picking fruit or sorting it in a packing warehouse. Plenty of women and children worked in the fields and orchards and lived in the surrounding labor camps.

“Good morning, Theron, how was your engineers’ meeting?” she asked the tall blond young man as she went to her desk.

“Very productive,” he replied. “I was elected president of the Engineers Association. Now I’m out to take over the world, one road at a time.”

Flo had been dating Theron B. Stone on and off. It was nothing serious, if you asked her, although he had clearly been courting her. They would go together to dances and engineering events. He had driven her and a group of friends to Snoqualmie Pass to witness the historic paving and widening of the highway that crossed the Cascade Mountains from western to eastern Washington. They’d all had a fine time picnicking near the summit.

But Theron had made some crucial errors. First he had given Flo a subscription to the Reader’s Digest after learning about her love of books. She had accepted gracefully, thinking all the while that anyone who really knew her would know she disdained the Reader’s Digest and that she would instead want to read the actual books themselves.

“The engineers have hairy ears. They live in caves and ditches. They screw their wives with butcher knives, the dirty sons of bitches.”

His other error was to reveal to her the secret motto of the engineers: “The engineers have hairy ears. They live in caves and ditches. They screw their wives with butcher knives, the dirty sons of bitches.” What did he expect her to do with this information? she wondered. How was she supposed to react to something that appeared to her to be disgusting, vile and, at the very least, inappropriate? She had smiled uncomfortably to conceal her shock and perhaps he had been sorry he’d said it. But the words could not be taken back. It had changed her view of the men she worked with. Could they really want to screw their wives with butcher knives (surely they didn’t really do it) and why would they want to do it in the first place? The whole thing was very puzzling, but she had not asked Theron to explain.

On the whole, Flo had a positive relationship with all who worked at the Highway Department. She had started working there just out of secretarial school at 18 and the men had teased her mercilessly. She was a naive rube in a sea of cynics. The practical jokers chose her, the youngest and smallest, as the butt of their endless pranks. The young stenographer’s face remained in a permanent blush for the first year she worked there. But she was a good sport and saw that the attention grew partly from the mens’ fixation on a pretty young woman in their midst. And now she was an old hand at 25. She knew them all and had learned how to play along.

The constant ribbing was one reason Flo had joined a women’s organization, Business and Professional Women. There she met other young workingwomen and they could commiserate about their jobs and talk about ways to improve them as well as just having fun with each other away from the men. The national organization fought against laws that prohibited married women from working and supported equal pay initiatives. Women’s pay was far less than men’s, even when they worked in the same jobs. Through Biz-Pro under the umbrella of the YWCA, Flo had already traveled to the big cities of Chicago, Columbus and Minneapolis as well as Seattle and towns in the Northwest. Her sojourns away from the small town of Yakima fed dreams of traveling to New York, Paris and London.

FloStenographer copy
Flo (R) at the Highway Dept.

Flo’s desk was a handsome oak government issue with three drawers on the right for typing paper and carbon paper, envelopes and typewriter ribbons. The shallow drawer above the space for her oak rolling chair held pencils and pens. Her best friend and most important tool was the Royal typewriter that sat on its stand next to her desk. It featured typewriter ribbon with both red and black colors. To get red she only had to lift the carriage with a lever. Flo’s mastery of the typewriter had grown during her year at secretarial school. She was a fast typist who made very few mistakes, and that was good as mistakes were not easy to fix. All letters were typed with two carbon copies. Each carbon would have to be pulled apart and erased with a typewriter eraser before being retyped, so it was far better not to make any mistakes at all.

When one of the engineers called her into his office, Flo took a steno notebook and pencil to record his thoughts in shorthand. Then she would recompose his letter using proper English and grammar as she typed it. The bosses, who often did not excel at writing letters, depended on her to make them look good.

The Washington State Highway Department was tasked with engineering, building and maintaining the state’s roads and highways. In 1938, teams of engineers were assigned to survey the state’s entire highway system. There were several high mountain passes and thousands of miles of roads under the department’s purview. Engineers were in demand in Washington in the 1930s as FDR’s New Deal funded infrastructure projects across the state, including the Grand Coulee Dam, bridges, sewers, stadiums and, of course, roads.

The office workers took lunch at noon daily, leaving one person to answer the phone during the half hour while the others ate. The men routinely brought their lunches to work, made daily by their wives or mothers. On nice days the workers could walk over to the Yakima River to eat lunch under a cottonwood tree. On this day Flo remained in the office with the electric fans rather than confront the blazing sun outside. Her mother had packed a butter sandwich, a tomato from the garden and some fresh apricots for her lunch.

Flo looked forward to lunch break when she could be alone with whatever book she was reading. Today it was Man’s Hope by Andre Malraux in a new English translation, about the Battle of Teruel in the Spanish Civil War. The war continued although things were looking bad for the Republicans. The fascists had bombed the town of Guernica the year before, killing hundreds of civilians in the historic first targeting of civilians by a military air force. It was the shape of things to come.

While typing up a chart for the roads survey report, a thing that required lots of underscores to make the horizontal lines, Flo felt a the dreaded hot gush of blood of her period. She was wearing a pad, but she knew from past experience that the pad might not absorb gushing menstrual blood. It could quickly stain her underwear and her skirt when it came out so fast. She grabbed her bag with its supply of Kotex and walked quickly to the bathroom, hoping it was free. There was one toilet room for all the employees in this office and very often it was in use, but she found the door unlocked. She rushed in and locked the door. Sitting on the toilet, she found that the blood had overwhelmed the pad and stained her underpants. The sight of the pad covered with bright red clots repulsed her and made her queasy. It sometimes seemed to her that her period was like birthing a baby every month. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and intense pain from cramping often came with it.

She was relieved that she had chosen a dark skirt to wear. When she examined it she found her skirt was still unbloodied. Luckily she had thought to bring an extra pair of underpants with her. She quickly washed out the bloody underpants, wrapped them in a wax paper bag and stuck them back in her bag. She used a wet paper towel to clean the insides of her thighs where the blood had seeped over the sides of the pad, then put on the clean underpants and a new pad. She wrapped the stained pad in a paper towel and pushed it to the bottom of the wastebasket hoping the used towels might absorb any smell. Then she swallowed two more aspirin from her bag with a glass of water from the sink. Someone was trying the door. She unlocked it and saw Theron there. She exited with as much aplomb as she could muster. The crisis had been averted although she still had four hours to go till the end of this workday and the possibility of another accident loomed.

The stifling afternoon moved along tortise-like. Flo downed more aspirin to dull the radiating pain. She desperately wished to lie down in a cool dark room. By the time the workday ended at 5:30, the office temperature was nearly as hot as it was outside. The thermometer on the wall read 85 degrees. After changing her Kotex pad once more, Flo bid goodnight to her coworkers and left the building to drive home. At least there was a slight breeze outside. She would pick up her sisters at their workplaces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast at 16th Avenue July 27, 1938

Chapter Two

“Breakfast, girls,” called Gerda. She had already been out to open the chicken coop and the hens’ cluckings came through the open upstairs window. The smell of coffee boiling wafted up from the kitchen below where Gerda cooked breakfast on the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Gerda always served coffee in the morning, and also as the Swedish custom, in mid-afternoon. This afternoon the coffee would be cooled with ice delivered weekly by the iceman. Betty and Flo made their way down the steep stairs.

The Wick family home on 16th Avenue So.

The family had taken out a mortgage for $3500 to buy the house on 16th Avenue South in 1921. It had been built by Gerda’s brother, Albin Lunstrum, who had brought his carpentry skills from Sweden. Most of the houses on Johnson’s Corner, the Swedish neighborhood, had been built by hand by Albin and his brother-in-law partner, Axel Jacobson. They were boxy two-story clapboard-clad frame houses with generous front porches, a popular style at the time. The family had come to Yakima after having failed at chicken farming near Roseburg, Oregon during WWI. When Ben was offered a teaching job at Yakima High School, Gerda was happy to join two sisters, two brothers and some cousins who had also immigrated from Sweden.

Ruth smiled good morning from her place at the dining room table which she had set for the family. She had fixed her light brown hair in a neat Marcel wave and she wore a floral cotton dress. Her well-scrubbed rosy cheeks shone with radiant good health.

“Don and I have set the date for our wedding,” she blurted. “I wanted to wait till you were all here to tell you. It will be August 30 at the Presbyterian Church. Of course I want my sisters to be bridesmaids.”

“Congratulations!” chorused her sisters, mother and father.

“Will there be time for Momma to make your dress?” asked Betty.

“Oh, I won’t need a dress. I can wear the suit she made me last year. It’s very stylish,” Ruth said.

“Gee, you’re in an awful hurry,” said Flo. “Where do you and Don plan to live?”

Ruth’s wedding announcement

“We’ll find an apartment in Yakima. Of course you know this is all your fault for introducing us.” Ruth was looking forward to having her own home, away from her bossy older sister.

Flo was happy for her sister, but worried about the family’s welfare. She silently calculated the loss of Ruth’s contribution to the mortgage payment. Ruth brought in $60 a month from her job and she could thank their father for that. He had rung doorbells for the Democrat running for county auditor who had won the seat in 1934 in the wake of FDR’s election two years before. Ruth got a patronage job and now she would lose it when she married. Women were expected to give up their jobs when they married and there were even laws prohibiting married women from working. She and Flo had paid the hospital bill for their father’s care after his coronary. If he ended up in the hospital again it would be all on Flo this time. Ruth would be a married woman starting her own family. At least with the vacated bedroom they would be able to house a boarder, thought Flo.

“Good morning Daddy. How are you feeling?” Flo bent to give her father a kiss on the cheek and a hug. At 58, Ben was looking old. His still abundant head of hair had turned from black to gray and his blue eyes seemed sunken.

“I’m feeling quite well today,” he answered. “Did you see that we got a letter from Eva yesterday? She says she’s doing well in her nursing program. I think my brother Erick’s loan to her was a good investment.” He had retrieved the morning Yakima Herald and was dividing the sections to be shared. Both Flo and Ben usually read a book or newspaper as they ate. For breakfast this day Gerda served homemade toast, boiled eggs she had collected from the little hen house and the first of the fresh apricots she had gleaned from the Pacific Fruit Packing Co. The canning season had begun and Gerda was preparing to get started on stone fruit. As hot as it was, this would still be a canning day. Gerda had procured boxes of culled apricots from her seasonal job as a fruit packer and they would spoil if held for processing. Apples, the primary crop of the Yakima Valley, did not ripen until the late fall.

Eva graduated from the nursing program at Swedish Hospital in Seattle

Flo scanned the front page. It seemed little news was good in this Depression year. Five of the Negroes who had been attacked earlier in the month by a mob of 200 whites in Wapato had filed a lawsuit against the local marshal, deputy marshal and the county sheriff for failure to enforce the law and protect them from the mob. (They would later lose in court.) The Anti-Japanese League, the American Legion and the Grange were still harassing Japanese farmers in the Lower Valley where they leased land on the Yakama Indian reservation.

“The American Legion is still trying to run the Japanese out of town,” said Flo. “No matter that they’ve been here longer than most of the Legionnaires.”

Abroad, Jews in Germany were being ordered to report to police to receive identification cards. The war in Spain continued, but, even with thousands of volunteers from around the world joining the Republicans to fight, Franco’s fascists were winning with Hitler’s help.

“Why won’t our government take a side in this war and send armaments?” asked Flo. “Can’t they see this is the ultimate fight for democracy?”

“I don’t think public opinion supports our intervention,” said Ben. “But that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

In Yakima, agriculture was always front-page news. The cherry crop, harvested in the first week of July, had been ruined by the hot weather.

“The farmers complain every year, no matter what the weather,” said Ben flatly. “It’s either too rainy in June or too hot in July.”

Orchardists and farmers nervously geared up for harvest season, hoping they would have enough migrant workers and that labor agitators demanding higher wages would stay out of the Valley. A strike by the Wobblies had been put down five years earlier and the stockade built to hold the strikers still stood downtown, daring any to stand up for better conditions in the fields and orchards. None had.

Farmers advertised for migrant labor and migrants traveled from Mexico and other states hoping to find work. They were housed in several labor camps called shacktowns. Some had tiny cottages built by the farmer. Others were built by the migrants themselves of scraps of wood and found materials. Growers did not want to let the migrants get too comfortable. They were urged to move on after harvest season.

Sisters Flo and Betty

After breakfast Flo would drive the family Model A to work at the State Highway Department in Old Yakima several miles away, dropping off Ruth at the county offices downtown. Betty would take the streetcar to her part-time bookkeeping job at the butcher’s on the west side of town. Ben had a summer break from part-time teaching jobs. Gerda had arranged for her sister Anna to come over to help her can the apricots.

Flo slid into the driver’s seat and put on the horn-rimmed glasses that corrected her nearsightedness so she could see to drive. Girls with glasses were seen as bookish and unattractive, and she only wore them when absolutely necessary, never when her photograph was being taken.

Flo sometimes imagined that the four sisters were like the sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, although the comparison didn’t altogether work. They had lost a sister to typhoid fever just as the March sisters had lost Beth to scarlet fever, but Elizabeth had died at seven, not 17, and that was 18 years ago now. The Wick sisters hadn’t written and produced plays like the March sisters had and they weren’t genteel poor like the Marchs, just plain poor. But Flo saw herself in Jo, the tomboy reader, writer and intellect of the four. She pushed against the constraints of gender and rejected the idea of romance and marriage just as Jo had in her youth. As the oldest sister after Elizabeth’s death, Flo saw herself as the family caretaker, not in the traditional female role, but as the wage earner who took over the father’s role after he had been laid off from his teaching job six years before. The school superintendent who laid him off seemed to think that Ben’s four daughters could support the family and Flo took up the challenge.

The Wick Family July 27, 1938

Chapter One

Dear Readers,

As I delved into my mom’s scrapbook from her time as a Red Cross “donut girl” in Europe during WWII, I began to wonder what motivated her to sign up for a job so close to the front lines in the war. What were Americans in small towns thinking about the wars in Europe and how were they affected? I was moved to look into my mother’s childhood and young adulthood in Yakima, Washington, and that research resulted in my last essay, Make America White Again, about the roots of racism in my hometown. I just read a fascinating book of creative nonfiction, We Were the Lucky Ones, by a young author, Georgia Hunter. It started as a blog about her Polish Jewish family and how they escaped the Holocaust during the war. That book inspired me to look deeper into my own family history.

So before I jump into WWII, I want to explore what my mother and her family’s lives were like as Europe was gearing up for war and the US was still stuck in the Great Depression. I chose to tell their story in one day, July 27, 1938, in five short chapters. Chapter One follows.

July 27, 1938 started out hot and it just got hotter. Flo and her younger sister Betty had left the window in their upstairs room open all night but when the alarm woke them the room was still hot.

­Flo had come in late the night before after Betty was asleep. When they were both awake she confronted her sister.

“Where were you yesterday? I came by the butcher’s to see if you wanted a ride home after work. Were you with Cecil?”

Betty’s face reddened. “Well….”

“He’s a married older man, Betty. He will destroy your reputation.”

“There is nothing going on between us. He just likes my company and he gives me things. Look what he gave me.” Betty opened a small box to reveal a gold necklace.

“This is terrible,” rasped Flo. “You must never accept these things from him. Return it to him and hope Mama never sees it.”

“But I don’t want to give it back,” complained Betty. “Look, here’s proof I’m a good girl.” She pulled from a large envelope a certificate signed with three names. It was titled The Senior High Society of Christian Endeavor DIPLOMA and it certified that “Betty Wick has for three years been a member of the above mentioned society of the First Presbyterian Church of Yakima, Washington, and that now she is affectionately graduated and earnestly commended to the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor.” It had the gold corporate seal of the church with a red and a white ribbon pasted on.PresbyCert

“I’m sorry,” said Flo, gently putting a hand on Betty’s shoulder. “You must return the necklace. Tell Cecil your family says these gifts are not proper.”

Flo did not know what to do with her younger sister who, at only 16, seemed so very different from herself. But she loved her dearly and put some effort into protecting her from their mother’s wrath. Their Swedish mother, Gerda, had early on been influenced by her own sister Ellen who had joined the Pentecostal church and who believed that movies, dancing, playing cards and makeup were deadly sins. Flo and Ruth, the oldest sisters, had been most affected by their mother’s religious piety, which forced them as teenagers to lie about attending movies and to wipe off makeup before going home. By the time the youngest sister, Betty, came along, Gerda’s strict rules had relaxed but she still expected rigorous moral standards to be met.

The sisters each had their own bed ever since their two other sisters, Ruth and Eve, had taken live-in housekeeper jobs. Ruth had recently returned to the family home when she got a job as a stenographer. She now slept in one of the downstairs bedrooms. Betty, who was still in high school, had shared a bed with Eve as a child and Flo and Ruth had slept together. As kids, the four sisters had all shared the one big attic room accessed by a narrow unlit stairway from the kitchen. Gerda, a master of many skills, had hung cheery yellow flowered wallpaper, painted the fir floor a dark red and made a braided oval rug from scraps of wool left over from old clothes people had given her. One light bulb hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It cast light through the window into the yard at night indicating that Flo was reading instead of sleeping. Their father, Ben, would see it and call up the stairs, “Turn off the light.” Sometimes she did, recalled Ruth.

Neither sister wanted to get up. Betty liked to sleep in whenever possible, but that was rarely allowed in this household where early-to-rise was the rule. Each had her chores, although Flo, now the main breadwinner in the family, was exempt from most household chores. Gerda took care of the cooking and canning, shopping, washing, ironing, sewing and knitting of clothes, gardening and cleaning, with some help from the girls. Ben was still recuperating from a serious heart attack, which had landed him in the hospital a couple of months before.

The sisters took turns using the indoor toilet and sink in the downstairs bathroom where they also dumped their chamber pots. Bath day was Saturday and all family members used the same water from the little tank in the kitchen heated by the wood stove. The youngest went first with poor Dad last. Sponge baths at the sink supplemented bath day during the week. Flo was feeling sticky and grimy on this Wednesday. To make matters worse, she saw blood in the toilet. Her period had started, which meant she’d be in pain with cramps for the next couple of days. She found the bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet above the sink and swallowed two pills, taking the bottle with her. At least she didn’t have to wear rags as she had when her periods had first begun, but Kotex pads were just one more expense to deduct from a tight budget. She found the box of Kotex hidden behind folded towels in the linen cabinet and took several to hide in her bag to take to work, making sure she was not seen. Menstruation was something to be hidden and not talked about, except with her sisters.

Flo was glad for the family’s indoor bathroom and running water. In their last home on the chicken farm in Meadowview, Oregon, they’d had only an outdoor privy with a Sears catalog for toilet paper and a water pump near the back porch. She returned to the bedroom to dress.

Sorority sisters (Flo and Ruth at right)

“How was your gathering last night?” asked Betty.

“It was great fun. We took the potluck out to Mrs. May’s lawn. We’re planning for the summer party next weekend up in Naches.”

Flo had been out the night before with her sorority sisters at their bi-monthly meeting. She had pledged the working girls sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, in 1933 and become the chapter president in 1936, organizing the social outings as well as discussion groups and business meetings. She was now a central person in the sorority and in the Business and Professional Women’s group, representing them at conferences around the state and at national events. She was a busy woman, working 44 hours a week as a stenographer as well as spending many hours doing organizational work and singing in the Presbyterian church choir.

Flo pulled newly bought cotton underwear from their shared dresser. Since she had been working she’d been able to afford her own underwear and some clothing, although Gerda sewed most of her wardrobe. Betty still wore the underwear Gerda had made from bleached flour sacks—crude brassieres, underpants and garter belts.

Flo picked out a white cotton blouse and darker-colored mid-calf cotton skirt to wear to work. It would be hot in the State Highway Department office too. As she rolled on rayon stockings to her knees, she thought about their father, whose health had been poor for the past several years. He had gone back to working as a bookkeeper and part-time teacher after his heart attack because the family needed his income. During her school summer vacation Betty had been helping him with the bookkeeping job at a butcher shop. Flo wished he didn’t have to work at all.ShoeSlogan

Their wardrobes may have been skimpy but the one thing the sisters had plenty of was shoes. Flo loved shoes that showed off her shapely ankles and legs. The year before, she had won a year’s supply of shoes for a slogan she had composed for Fashion Week. Her winning slogan, out of 40,000 entries, read: “I like Paris Fashion shoes because…their smartness and quality make feet fashionably well-shod and comfortable….Their reasonable price keeps them within my budget…yet does not cramp their style.” She had allowed Betty to pick out one pair of the eight she had won and the shoes still graced their shared closet. Flo was always submitting essays, ditties and slogans to contests, and she seemed to win most of them. The year’s supply of shoes was the prize she was most proud of.

As they each combed and shaped their short dark hair into place before their shared mirror, Betty tapped Flo’s arm. “What’s eating you, sis?”

“Oh, I’m just worrying about Dad. I know he says he feels better but he seems so fragile since his heart attack.”

“Well worrying won’t get you anywhere. Let’s put on a happy face for him.”

Make America White Again

Contemplating the Roots of Racism in My Hometown

Mom was no communist. There’s no evidence that she even flirted with the idea like so many did during the volatile period between the world wars. It was hard to find a communist in Yakima, Washington to flirt with. Unless you count William O. Douglas, the US Supreme Court justice, whom John Birchers dubbed “the only known communist in Yakima County.”

No, during my mother’s early life, the county was run by racist xenophobes whose mission was to Make America White Again.

In such a reactionary environment, how did my mother turn into a liberal? Trying to understand her politics, I’ve been investigating the history of her hometown, which is also my hometown. Yakima, on the dry eastern side of the state with a population of about 20,000, was a conservative place when my mother, Florence Wick, was growing up in the 1920s and 30s. Today, with about 91,000 people, it remains a red blot in a blue state whose population is concentrated on the west coast.

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Eastern Washington is desert without irrigation

Catholic missionaries had settled in the valley and white settlers followed in the 1850s as the US Army drove the indigenous population onto a nearby reservation. The Indians had fiercely resisted in what were known as the Indian Wars of the 1850s. The Yakama (the tribe changed to this spelling) Indian reservation is home to several different groups that were forced to settle there in what we call the Lower Valley, a few miles south of the town of Yakima. The sagebrush country with fertile volcanic soil was partly developed and irrigated by Japanese immigrant farmers who began arriving before the turn of the 20th century.

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Florence Wick at school in the 1920s

Researching what life was like in my hometown in this period, I found a book written by Thomas Heuterman, who was my journalism professor at Washington State U. The Burning Horse: The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley 1920-1942, documents discrimination against the Japanese community in Wapato, a town on the Yakama reservation where the farmers leased land. In emails Prof. Heuterman told me he had been surprised to find what his research showed: a long history of racism and exclusion in the Yakima Valley.

He wrote: “I went into the project predicting that the Valley Japanese were an exception among all the prejudice of the era.  That’s what I remembered as a child from my folks’ attitudes.  But, as you know, I found just the opposite.  Most of the Nisei (second generation) who have read the book also didn’t know that racism was going on; their folks had protected them from that too.”

Japanese farmers were persecuted relentlessly. Their houses, barns and crops were bombed and burned. Newspapers stoked the fires of racism. Prof. Heuterman’s research focused on stories in the local and state newspapers. Here is some of what he found. These were headlines in the Seattle Star during hearings to determine the fate of Japanese immigrants in Washington State in 1920.

WILL YOU HELP TO KEEP THIS A WHITE MAN’S COUNTRY?

JAPS PLANS MENACE WHITE CIVILIZATION

Japanese plans for expansion at the expense of the white race are a deeper menace to Caucasian civilization than were ever the dreams of Pan-German imperialists

In the 1920 version of fake news, testifiers at the hearings repeated lies about the Japanese and weird ideas about racial purity that were then amplified by newspapers across the state. A well-organized American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Anti-Japanese League perpetuated the apocryphal threat of the Yellow Peril. Then the Grange took up the cause. Anti-alien laws passed in Washington were modeled on those of California, which in turn had been promoted by influential Southern whites. The goal in Yakima was to drive all Japanese out of the valley.

Anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak in the 1920s and 30s in the Yakima Valley and in the entire West. As a child and young adult, my mother must have been aware of it. I was shocked to learn that the KKK held a rally in 1924, which drew 40,000 people to a field outside the town after the state refused to grant them access to the state fairgrounds in Yakima. A thousand robed KKK members marched in the parade.

Farmers welcomed migrant laborers when labor was scarce. But when the economic cycle moved from boom to bust, these workers were targets of violence, forced removal and alien restriction laws. American workers who saw their jobs being taken by immigrants who would work for less were some of the worst perpetrators of racist violence. Racist organizations gained influence after World War I. In the Red Scare of 1917-20 nativism swept the whole country. During that time Alien and Sedition laws were used to deport hundreds of immigrants deemed by the government to be radicals, the anarchist Emma Goldman among them.

In Yakima, terrorism was directed at other groups as well as the Japanese. In 1933, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) led a strike for higher wages of white migrant farmworkers that was put down by orchardists with pipes, clubs and bats. Then the strikers were marched five miles to a stockade that had been constructed in the middle of downtown Yakima. Some of those arrested were jailed for six months, and the stockade stayed up as a deterrent for a decade. In 1938, 200 men set upon blacks in Wapato, beating them and setting fire to one of their houses. Filipinos also became targets of harassment.

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Congdon Castle

I grew up near the Congdon orchard where the 1933 strike took place. The owner’s summerhouse mansion was called Congdon Castle and as kids we thought it was haunted. No one really lived there except caretakers. The wealthy owners had always lived in another state. I have a vague memory of Flo telling us about the “battle of Congdon Castle.” She surely knew about it. The primary industry in Yakima, then and now, was agriculture and agriculture was always big news.

Congdon Orchards label

Probably my mother already knew which side she was on by the time these events occurred. Her parents, immigrants themselves from Sweden and Norway, can’t have felt completely safe. Family lore has her father enduring taunts for his foreign accent from students at Yakima High School where he taught commercial arts. Her father’s thinking surely influenced young Flo. She told me she remembered his troubled reaction to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants whose incarceration lasted from 1920 to 1927. She was 14 years old when they were executed by the US government. Flo’s Norwegian father took the side of the immigrants, who most agreed had been falsely accused.

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My mother’s family in about 1922. She is the one on the right with glasses.

This was the Yakima of my mother’s youth, a place where, if you read the newspapers, you could not escape the dominant paradigm. But by the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, this history escaped us. Our family often visited Fort Simcoe, the restored Army fort on the Yakama reservation, but I never learned about the Indian Wars as a child. Indians and revolution were scrubbed from our textbooks and xenophobia persisted.

My brother Don remembers as a freshman in high school in 1967 defending the rights of Native Americans in history class. The popular teacher launched into a diatribe against him in front of the whole class. She said Indians had an inferior culture and deserved to be conquered. She said they were dirty, barbaric and uncivilized. She believed it was right of a superior culture to war against them and subjugate them. This was the inevitable march of history, she said. When Don told Flo about it she was outraged. She and the teacher had been friends but that killed their friendship.

The xenophobes in Yakima and elsewhere were able to successfully construct a racial identity, the “white race,” made from hundreds of diverse cultures, people who spoke different languages and dialects, people who had themselves been the victims of oppression, as a way to successfully divide the population. In his book, Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden posits that Irish immigrants had more in common with blacks and slaves than the white rulers who starved and oppressed them. Before epigenetics became a thing, Hayden made the case that we have all been affected by the plight of our ancestors. “That the Irish are white and European cannot erase the experience of our having been invaded, occupied, starved, colonized and forced out of our homeland,” he wrote.

Hayden wanted to break the assimilationist mold among Irish Americans.“If Irish Americans identify with the 10 percent of the world which is white, Anglo American and consumes half the global resources, we have chosen the wrong side of history and justice. We will become the inhabitants of the Big House ourselves, looking down on the natives we used to be. We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”

My grandparents had a strong immigrant identity, but the advantage they had is that they were, in the language of the American Legion, of the “white race.” The Legion, the KKK and others demanded to make America white again. I’ve no clue how the xenophobes felt about Southern Italians, but it seems that if you came from Europe you were ok with them. In Yakima, they reserved deepest hatred for Japanese. But they also scorned anyone not of the “white race.” The irony was that these invading whites had themselves displaced indigenous people and it’s difficult to understand how they failed to see this giant contradiction. The trick, of course, was to make them subhuman.

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Flo with her precious books

That Flo’s parents identified as immigrants rather than white informed her understanding of the world. Flo was also a voracious reader and certainly was influenced by what she read. She spent hours at the Yakima public library, receiving her first library card at a young age and migrating to the adult section before children were allowed. She was one of those kids who took a flashlight to bed and often read under the covers at night.

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Flo’s library card

She was also active in the YWCA, quite a progressive organization during that period just as it is today. Besides championing racial integration, the YW also lent support to Japanese families who were incarcerated during the war. Her involvement in the YW got Flo out of Yakima to meetings across Washington State and in the big cities of Chicago and Columbus, widening her worldview.

Flo’s father, Ben Wick, overlapped with William O. Douglas for a year in 1921-22 when they both taught at Yakima High School. Flo may have known Douglas as a child. She would have been nine years old when he got fed up with teaching school in Yakima and and left to make his fortune in the East. In any case, Flo admired Douglas greatly and I believe she shared his politics, which were shaped by class. He grew up fatherless and poor. When discussing how his personal experiences influenced his view of the law, Douglas said, “I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the IWWs who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”

He was no communist either but he did defend the concept of revolution in a 1969 screed. He is famously quoted in Points of Rebellion: “We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.” He survived two impeachment attempts.

When I asked my lawyer friend Judy about Douglas she said, “Legal standing for trees!” He was famous for defending nature and the environment, often in dissenting opinions. She added, “I wish he was still on the court. God help us now.”

Douglas returned to our hometown later in his life and Flo and I ran into him and his wife Cathy in the 1970s. We had decided to splurge on lunch at the Larson Building, the town’s only high-rise, an elegant Art Deco architectural gem built in 1931. We spotted them as we walked into the lobby. “Justice Douglas, Justice Douglas,” my mother entreated as she ran up to him. He graciously remembered her father.

The wartime internment of Japanese did not happen in a vacuum. Finally, after decades of domestic terrorism, the American Legion and its ilk got their way. In June 1942, 1061 Japanese were evacuated from the valley, sent by rail to a processing center at the Portland livestock grounds, and then incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming for the remainder of the war—800 miles from home. Only a few resettled in the Yakima valley.

One of my heroes, the labor organizer Sister Addie Wyatt said, “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

This is where we come from. I fervently hope it is not where we’re going. I’m so glad people like immigrants and Americans of color, the Wobblies, my mother, my grandfather and William O. Douglas found the will to resist.

Women’s Equality Day: Revolting in Yakima WA

The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.

In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first monthly pay check–$409–radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.

Big Rally
Our NOW group’s poster from 1970

At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.

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Me at the news desk “smoking” a cigar and reading the paper, wearing a sleeveless dress, a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo and black-rimmed glasses

In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.

I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.

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My grandmother, Gerda Wick (R), sorting cherries. Late 1930s?

When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.

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Me and Flo in about 1978

Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.

Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.

In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.

While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.

We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.

Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.

We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? We refused to leave but we did take up a table during the lunch hour while we were refused service. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.

That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).

Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.

In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.

I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!

Epilogue: We went on to change our world.

What Ate My Brain?

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Drawing by Ana Esquivel

As a child I had a spectacular memory. I routinely memorized all the books read to me. At two, I could recite The Night Before Christmas, which my parents urged me to do for adults’ entertainment. I just liked memorizing things, a concept difficult for me to imagine now, as an older adult who Can’t Remember Shit.

Climbing trees was my specialty
Climbing trees was my specialty

When did I lose my memory? In high school plays my parts were small, but my lines would desert me at critical moments. As a college student and a feminist activist who frequently gave speeches, I began to forget words as I stood onstage talking. I was told the name for that condition: nominal aphasia. Where did it come from? No one knew. When I said to my mother, “I used to be so smart. What happened?” she thought for a moment and then replied, “I just don’t know.” That was not the answer I was hoping for, but at least it was an acknowledgment that something had changed.
It wasn’t just words I was forgetting. I forgot nearly my entire childhood and had to rely on my brother for memories. I frequently forgot things I had pledged to do. I forgot the life stories of my closest friends and I routinely forgot people’s names.

I always tried to get to the top of everything
I always tried to get to the top of everything

Speaking publicly became increasingly difficult until I stopped speaking extempore and began reading my speeches. Writing has always been frustrating and slow. Just because a word is in my vocabulary does not mean it will come out of my brain. The feeling is like having a word on the tip of my tongue. I can almost see it, just out of reach. I spend much time looking up synonyms when I can’t think of the word I want.

My brain plays tricks on me. Just because I’ve finally remembered something does not mean I won’t lose the memory again in seconds. Certain words continue to elude me. For example, for years I could never remember the word lupine. Finally, it has come back to me. Still, for some reason I feel compelled to learn the names of things and I must memorize the names of trees, flowers and mushrooms again every season, like Sisyphus continually rolling that boulder up the hill.

At some point, maybe in my 30s, I began to think of my poor memory as a disability that I had to live with. I worked at letting go of feeling bad for forgetting. I accepted that I would never get better and I asked friends to adjust (they know never to tell me secrets as I can’t remember whom to keep the secret from). This helped, although there wasn’t a certified category I fell into—still isn’t.

When I fell off, I got right back on.
When I fell off, I got right back on.

Mine is an invisible disability. Over the years I’ve been able to live with it and live a pretty normal life. I do what people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s do. I fake it. I make lists. I write everything down. I apologize. Now that I’m in my 60s, I don’t feel so alone. Most of my friends are struggling with age-related memory loss, but I think to myself: This is what it’s always been like for me, my entire adult life.

Although I’ve accepted my predicament, I still want to know what happened to me and why. My wife, who worked as a speech pathologist with brain-injured clients, sees the world of human interaction through the lens of cognitive function. It’s a sort of worldview, like socialism or humanism. Her worldview has taught me to look at my own disability as a kind of brain injury. Of my memory loss my wife asks, is it a storage problem or a retrieval problem? This is one of the things she tests for as a speech therapist. She says anomia (or nominal aphasia) is not the same thing as short-term or long-term memory loss. In the case of anomia, I have a retrieval problem. The word is in my vocabulary; I just can’t retrieve it. Long-term or short-term memory loss involves a different part of the brain. So I exhibit two different kinds of memory loss.

When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers' ladders taller.
When I was a kid, the apple trees were bigger, and the pickers’ ladders taller.

How did my brain get injured? Physical injury is a clear possibility. I was a rambunctious child who fell off horses (and was taught always to get right back on). Really, considering how many times I climbed to the tops of things, I was amazingly fall-resistant. But there was one time when the horse I was riding ran me through an orchard and I was swept out of the saddle by a low branch. My riding buddy told me afterward that I was knocked unconscious and had seizures. My lower back was sore from hitting the cantle, but I didn’t notice any effect on my memory at the time. Then there was a minor car accident where I suffered neck lash (not the more serious whiplash, said the doctor).

Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River
Modern apple orchard near the Columbia River

Loss of childhood memories is often associated with childhood trauma, but I don’t exhibit any other signs of trauma. I think I had a pretty ordinary childhood.

Could pesticides have eaten my brain? I was born into an era when pesticides were seen as a revolutionary antidote to bug infestations. DDT was everywhere in the 1950s and home gardeners sprayed it freely without knowledge of its destructive consequences. In my hometown of Yakima, Washington, the apple capital of the world at that time, most of us worked as apple pickers in the fall. Our schools even closed during the harvest so kids could help their families get the crop in. We lived in the middle of orchards where crop dusters routinely dusted everything around us. Farmers pulled big spray tanks behind tractors that shot a fan of pesticides clear to the top of the trees. We often stood close to the tanks and let the mist blow over us. Every spring, right at the time when farmers would start spraying, our family would harvest asparagus along the ditch banks and where it grew in the uncultivated area around the trees. We loved it and we ate pounds of it.

The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960
The Hanford nuclear plant along the Columbia River in 1960

As kids, we went barefoot everywhere, but we were cautioned not to walk barefoot in the orchards or to swim in creeks and ditches, where farmers routinely dumped the dregs of their spraying (killing aquatic life in the process). When my neighbor Carla’s horse got out of his corral and into her family’s apple orchard, he died from ingesting pesticides sprayed on the orchard. The year was about 1965. What was the chemical? Trying to sort out the historical use of pesticides is making my head hurt. Besides, as Rachel Carson explained in Silent Spring, these chemicals can combine to form new poisonous compounds that we can’t even test for or identify. Research into pesticide-related illnesses among farmworkers and crop duster pilots has shown memory loss to be only one symptom of pesticide exposure.

Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground
Disposing of nuclear waste at Hanford dumping ground

Not only did I grow up in a pesticide-rich environment, but also Hanford, the nuclear plant that manufactured the plutonium for the first nuclear bomb and for most of the bombs in our nuclear arsenal, was only 50 miles east of our home. There was that little incident in 1949 when I was six months old. It was like the leak at Three Mile Island except it wasn’t an accident. This leak was deliberate, and it was covered up until the 1980s. The plant has been leaking radioactive isotopes and radionuclides into the environment since 1944. Radioactive materials entered the environment through releases in the air, in Columbia River fish and through food grown nearby and milk from cows pastured nearby. Now decommissioned, the plant is still leaking. There is still a huge amount of radioactive material in the soil and plants around the reservation and we are told it’s only a matter of time before the polluted ground water finds its way to the Columbia River. Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in the U.S. and cleanup is the longest with no end in sight. In Yakima, we were exposed plenty, but the people directly downwind suffered most. Called downwinders, they organized citizens groups to find out more information after the government was shown in 1986 to have covered up releases. Most of those people died from rare cancers. Memory loss was probably just a mild side effect for downwinders exposed to radioactive materials.

I long ago accepted that I will never know what ate my brain. Maybe after I die some scientist will want to dissect it and I’d be happy to contribute to the advancement of science.