Our immediate neighbor, the next house to the south, belonged to the Aswald’s. Mr. Aswald’s favorite hobby was watching his lawn grow. He was always fussing with it. It seemed like he watered it daily— sometimes even in the rain—and mowed it on an average of two-point-three times each week during spring, summer, and fall. His wife enjoyed gardening too, and had the prettiest roses on Rowell Creek Road. I never did see her ride around on her husband’s mower.
The Smith’s—a Mormon family engendering five little monsters—lived in the next house down from the Aswald’s. Mr. Smith was the Vice Principle of Willamina High School as well as the varsity football coach. His oldest son Strang Jr. was 9, Samson was a year older than I was, Samuel was two years younger, Sophia was three, and Simon an infant.
In 1974, I entered first grade at Willamina Grade School. Many times while waiting for the bus at Doug Gipson’s residence, one-quarter mile north of our place, Strang and Samson would tease me about the shape of my eyes. They called me Gook, Jap, Chink, and Nigger. I contested by pointing out that I clearly couldn’t be a Nigger, because I was as white as they were. They responded with a look that said you dummy then with renewed glee doubled their name calling efforts.
I don’t like snakes or any creature that doesn’t have legs. One day Samson made this discovery. We were playing kick the can walking down near Phillip McCracken’s residence a third mile away on the corner over looking Roy Zimmer’s driveway. The can tumbled into a patch of knee-high grass for eight year olds. While Samson was searching for it, he instead found a long black snake. I recoiled as he advanced forward to show it off to me. When he noticed the terror on my face he seized this opportunity to see how much he could wind me up. As this drama unfolded, Willamina high school’s vocation education vehicle, called the Lo-Speed Logger bus, whipped around the corner and came within inches of my backside. For a brief moment I saw Samson’s face go dead white and felt a swift breeze. The bus skidded to a halt and the driver jumped out to look me over when satisfied that I was unharmed he went after Samson with the snake still wriggling around his wrist. Samson never pulled a stunt like that again. That was my first brush with death, but not the last with my associations with the Smith’s.
In the summer between first and second grade I broke my left wrist in our front lawn. Mr. Aswald had this six-foot pile of bark dust—used for mulching tomato plants and his wife’s flower beds—in the northeast corner of his property adjacent to our front yard. Also, near that corner was a magnificent 100-foot old-growth fir tree. The cedar bark dust was piled in a box constructed of two sheets of saggy oil stained plywood lodged in the corner of his fence. It was four strands of mesh wire about four feet tall and topped with a single strand of barbed wire. Strang, Samson, and a few other boys from Rowell Creek road were using the heap of bark dust as a launching point to jump over the fence. They would land on our property and run back over to the Aswald’s to do it again. Each time they’d jump they would hoot-n-holler as they flew through the air. Occasionally one would land hard and roll out of it; mostly they’d land running. I was very shy as a child, but I watched on listening to their glee. Samson came over to where I was sitting and urged me to give it a go. If we were older he would have used the “P” word, but I didn’t need any special gender related urging. I wanted to join in on the fun and they had invited me to join them. That was all I needed. I scaled the pile and stood on the now flattened peak, for a few seconds, over looking the fence before launching myself off it. As I flew my left foot snagged the barbed wire causing me to careen headfirst to the ground. Instinctively, I threw my hands forward in protection. I wore a cast for three weeks. Luckily, young bones heal fast, but not fast enough for eight-year-olds. I missed an eternity of swimming that summer. No one ever jumped that fence again.
In rural living fences are integral to everyone’s life. Occasionally, in town one would see a white picket fence, but hardly ever out in the country. Few people, anywhere, live on property without physical boundaries. I learned at an early age, how to scale or worm my way through fences of all styles when playing, hiking or hunting through the timberlands that surrounded our beautiful neighborhood. The most common was barbed wire, followed by the electric fence, and then strand galvanized mesh wire. Ranch style wooden fences or cyclones were not so common. Dick Zimmer had a white washed cedar fence to house two horses. My father used a combination of mesh and electric wire to keep in the goats we raised. It didn’t work for all of them. One goat in particular was more obstinate and less docile than others.
The southern border of the Smith’s property sloped abruptly down twenty feet; the extreme southwestern edge was marked by an electric fence. Growing in that space was a half-acre thicket—between fifty and seventy feet wide—of deciduous trees we coined the woods. A babbling brook threaded its way in and out of the woods before finding its way into Rowell Creek. A few years later, when I was ten, several Rowell Creek boys engaged in another contest to prove who was the toughest. The name of this game was electro-shock therapy. Participants would grasp the wire to see how many two Joule – eight volt shocks they could handle. Sampson grasped the wire and absorbed six or seven jolts before letting go. I hung on for five shocks, but when I let go was called a pussy. Strang dared me to piss on it. I did it because I wanted to show them that I wasn’t the weakling they pegged me to be. Every few seconds I shuddered as a powerful jolt of electric current cruised through my body. Nobody expected that to happen. Strang never did take the electrotherapy test.
On another day that year, I rode my black BMX bike down a steep path into those woods long before the world ever heard of downhill bike racing. At the bottom of the hill the path veered to the right in a near 90 degree turn. I flew down the dusty path much faster than Strang and Samson had. At the bend in the path, my front tire struck a big rock that jutted out of the sun baked earth. The bike slipped out from under me as I tumbled over the handle bars. Luckily, a hidden strand of barbed wire stopped me from entering into a patch of blackberry thorns. It took some doing for Strang and Samson to untangle that rusty old wire from about body. Apparently, I had taken our a few decaying post as well. My mother rushed me to the McMinnville hospital to get stitches and a Tetanus shot. My neck looked like I had been attacked by a rouge vampire.
Mr. Smith and his boys had built a tree fort between a few of the larger alders about fifteen feet off the ground. It was nothing more than a rickety platform eight by five feet wide, but still it was thrilling to sit so high off the ground. In my early teenage years, I hid tattered Playboy’s and Penthouse’s magazines in a box on the fort confiscated from the outhouse at my father’s business S&C Lumber Company. David Rosenberg and I would read the stories and compare the busty women on the glossy pages to the few girls in our neighborhood – there was none.
The Smith’s taught me how to play football; because I couldn’t catch the ball they always played me as center. This was also the position I played for three years in Little Guy Football and for two years at Willamina Junior High. I never played in high school. By that time I was filled with too much attitude. I believed, for years, that I was never played in games because I had the wrong last name. However, when I examine those times from the vantage point of adulthood, I played the bench, because I was too timid and possessed zero athletic skill.
In one particular game at the Smith’s, I believe I was in the third grade, one week after Super bowl Sunday, Mark and Jeff Gipson, Dennis Zimmer, and I gathered for a game of—what was supposed to be touch—football. Mark was my age, Jeff was two years older and Dennis was four years older than me. I was on Mark and Jeff’s team, because we went to the same church and Dennis played on Strang and Samson’s team. I ran over to block Strang but he smashed into me so hard I flipped in the air and flew about ten feet back only to land flat on my back. While struggling to regain my breath, Dennis ran over the top of me to score a touch down. He stepped down hard on my stomach. I can still feel, to this day, his cleats digging into my gut.
One vivid memory I have of the Smith’s is going to Mormon Tabernacle with them. The boy’s always bawled when kneeling and reflecting at the altar railing. I always assumed they felt remorse for being bullies. My mother thought they were Free Methodists. When she found out that they were Mormons she put a stop to me attending their church. That suited me just fine; I always had ill feelings about their place of worship. On the Sabbath before my last visit to the Mormon Church, Strang and Samson tied me up to an overturned stump in the pasture behind their house. Samson offered me cow shit on a stick for my freedom. When I refused, Strang would slap me across my face then slug me in the midsection. Between beatings they managed to force a little cow shit into my mouth. It was dark green still warm and had the consistency of cream of wheat. They stopped their laughter after I sprayed both of them with vomit. I don’t remember how I got into that predicament nor do I recall how I gained my freedom. It is possible we enacting an episode of “Batman and Robin.” I guess I got to play the caped crusader that time. I believe Mrs. Smith saw the commotion out her kitchen window and put a stop to their boy’s torture session.