At the tree line, where vine maple and scrub alder retake a skid road’s assault on the forest, I try to see him. I remember how he moved, as a dark silhouette, hulking and slow with age, working his way down the ridge into position. From across the canyon I sit and watch on a massive stump, while the morning breaks the cold sweat between shadow and light. Thin veils of fog rise slowly off the canyon, like spirits of the timber harvested from this clear cut. The old logger continues down, fading in and out of the mist. All around me I hear the sound of the wind as it presses through the remaining tall timber in the canyon. He walks slowly out to the point of an old log landing and stands. A rain begins softly tapping on leaves around me… or is it my tears? I think I can see grandpa. As his plaid coat and the black felt hat drift from my memory’s eye, I whisper his name.
Enar was his name. It is also my middle name. All through my school years I kept that middle name as secret as I could. I had no idea it was a traditional old Swedish name and I don’t think it would have mattered if I did. I just knew it was different and my school mates would make fun of it. I was right. Even in my first year of college my roommates got hold of my driver’s license and discovered that name. That first year I became EEEENaar; obviously not from respect.
Enar was the oldest boy of 10 children, born to a Swedish immigrant who brought his young wife and family to the Oregon coast from Detroit Michigan. Eventually they made their way to the Toledo area treading southward down the coast by horse and wagon around 1910. They built a homestead. The family story has it, that some year’s later, great grandpa Carl just up and left his family for reasons that were not fully explained beyond name calling and expletives as only my grandpa could utter. It probably had a great deal to do with drinking and may explain why Enar never touched a drop. And thus the patriarch that was my grandpa was forged as he quit school, got a job, and became head of household at the tender age of 12. Being second generation immigrants and taking into account the relative isolation of rural families in those days, Enar’s family never shook off the thick Swedish accent. This made for a salty mix of short sentences, entwined in profanity. Yes, they could cuss up a storm but their accent made it hard to tell cuss words from the rest. It was if they broke each word over their knee, in the middle, and then handed them over to you for reassembly.
During my childhood, my grandpa and grandma lived just down the road from us along the Yaquina river. It was pretty much next door. By the time I was born Enar was no longer “falling trees”. A tree snag (falling limb) chased him into a hole he dove into for cover and proceeded to rip his insides out. After hours on the surgery table in Newport, he never went back to logging. My mom, dad, aunts and uncles all stayed in Toledo as adults so hunting, fishing, brush picking, cone picking, camping and everything else, was an extended family excursion that seemed to orbit around my grandpa. We were the clan and Enar was the laird. There were lots of good times. Like spending Saturdays on the Alsea, arriving early at low tide, while small commercial boats pumped the steaming tide flats for ghost shrimp in the middle of the bay. We would dig several large pits far out, into the tideland, looking for shrimp, grubs, clams and anything else that would serve as bait. Once we had filled our buckets, the crab pots would go into the holes we dug. We would wait for the tide to come in as we fished for flounder. At the end of the day we would haul in our crab pots, pack up our fish and head home. A bonfire outside my grandpa’s place would boil a big tub of water. We stood around that fire and cracked crab all evening long. Those were good times when everyone looked to grandpa. But nothing lasts forever.
Suzanne and I had been going together for nearly a year when I brought her to meet my grandpa. As I guided my Mustang around the wet, snake venom curves of old highway 20 through the coast range, I tried to prepare her for the visit. “Now Suzanne, I may not have told you everything you should know about my grandpa. He’s a feisty old fart and I’m pretty sure the definition of stubborn has his picture next to it.” Suzanne laughed… “No”, I snap, “I’m serious …and he cusses …a lot. Way more than you can imagine”. Suzanne appeared to acknowledge this but despite my best efforts, nobody, outside the old clan could have understood the verbal bog I was trying to describe. It was 1977, and by then, it had been a rough few years for my grandpa. Our extended family was consumed with ugly, spiteful divorces and grandma suffered with cancer. In a matter of just a few years, Enar’s clan, his world, was falling apart. And grandpa’s authoritarian tactics to keep his family together only seemed to make it worse. But it was the only way he knew. My relationship with my grandpa was strained. He resented my mom’s decision to move us out to the valley, away from his domain. I resented him for making things so hard on my mom. But I still loved him. I looked up to him. My memories were fresh with the smells of sawdust in his cloths, the growl of his voice, and the wonderful taste of his pancakes (which I have yet to successfully reproduce). But as I drove that car down the old Yaquina Bay Road, I was more concerned about how the sweetest person I had ever known would hold up to the saltiest old man I would ever know. I could hear the Ben Colder record as Suzanne and I walked up the muddy, uneven stairway to my grandpa’s front door. Perfect!
It had not been long since my grandma had passed. My grandpa sat in his big chair which had been in the same spot for all of the 17 years I had been around. It was like a worn out throne to a tired kingdom. But some of his power was still there. Directly to his left was the old wood stove. I remember many nights in that room watching Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw, sometimes sitting right on the stove when the temperature was right. The greeting was pleasant enough. I fidgeted on the couch while grandpa asked Suzanne a few short questions. But after chatting with her for a while I could tell he liked her, even though he didn’t make the slightest attempt to tone down his language. But then he looked over at me. “So I hear you’re going to college” he says. Suzanne looked at me and then at him and pretended not to understand what he just asked. “Yes, I am grandpa”, I answered. “And what are you goin’ to f*%kn learn there?” he scowled. “I want to be an architect”… I said it with too little conviction. But it was true. Ever since the 7th grade I had focused on drafting. By the time I had graduated from high school I had drawn up plans for a couple of houses. Grandpa looked sternly and pointed his thick finger at me as he said “I quit school in the 6th grade, supported my ol’ man’s family and my own, and I did fine.” He balled his hand and thumped the old skinned arms of his chair, “What are they going to teach you there that you don’t f#%kn already know?” Enar didn’t trust the outside world; not one little bit; he had no use for it. I stammered “Well the world is changing grandpa and…”. He interjected “so you think they have all the f#@kn answers do ya?”… For the first time with my grandpa I felt my back stiffen against him. With my girl as witness I wanted, no needed, to stand my ground. I felt my pride, and I responded with conviction. “Well I suppose I’m just going to find out grandpa! I’m not going to let any man tell me I can’t!” With that my grandpa smiled. “I suppose you will find out” he said. “You’re a man now”. I was highly suspicious. What was he up to? I had never seen anyone win an argument with grandpa. With that, the visit turned pleasant enough, with grandpa telling stories while Suzanne nodded her head as if she understood what was being said. I came away from that visit wondering who had changed. Was it grandpa or was it me?
Years later, after Suzanne and I were married with our newborn second daughter, my aunt and uncle brought my grandpa to visit at our small apartment in Vancouver Washington. By this time he had been suffering from the effects of a stroke for several years and was confined to a wheel chair. The stroke had made this strong, titan of a man, with a nearly undecipherable accent, almost impossible to have any dialog with. But I do remember this. After a nice visit with his great granddaughters, he looked up at me with tears in his eyes. He smiled and said “you’ve got your own family now”. He squeezed my hand and he looked me right in the eye. I’ll never forget that moment. This time it felt like I finally had his complete blessing. We both had changed.
Life does not stop even though we long to be comfortable. When you have something really good, it’s hard to let go and see what happens next. My grandpa came from a time when working families stayed together to face an uncaring outside world, including the government and the law. Of course grandpa would have loved to have kept us all together. Since he was 12 years old that was all he knew how to do. It was everything to him. It took him a lifetime to realize the family members who defied him were the very people who made use of his greatest gift. That final look, the tears in his eyes and the squeeze of his hand told me that he now knew, and he was proud. He never once ever told me he was sorry for the things he said or did. I guess he didn’t have to.
If you stop and listen, in the hills, where the tall timber grows you’ll hear the constant sound of the wind in the trees. If you really listen, you’ll come to understand the symphony of friction and forgiveness that is all around you. It matters not whether my memories of my grandfather are completely accurate. For me they have become a symbol of strength as well as the root of my own stubborn pride. Anytime I feel a bit down because things aren’t going my way, I can sit and listen, to the wind in the trees. I’ll remember those big hands showing me how to tie a fishing hook. I’ll remember the way his foot tapped to music, just slightly off time. I remember the man who gave me a bit of his own stubborn courage. As I listen through my tears, the wind sends down a voice… “Quit your belly aching boy”.
I say his name. I say my middle name… “Enar”.
For my Grandpa, Enar Lee Roy Dexter Johnson 1908-1998