A lone little sports car negotiates the narrow roads along the cliff side. Switchbacks and intersections carved from the vertical slopes of brown, yellow and gold. The sound of the racing motor is interrupted momentarily by the screeching of tires on the corners. As the car races to the highest road it is obvious the driver does not see the unfinished sections ahead. The car picks up speed sliding sideways on every corner, defying the physics of a lesser world. As it hurdles off the embankment, it’s red metallic finish gleams against the backdrop of sandstone cliffs. Nothing but the sound of wind followed by a scream, decreasing in pitch as the car seems to fall forever. As it glances off the first outcrop there is the sound of metal crashing, bending, breaking and tearing. The car still in one piece continues downward finally hitting the sandy bottom where it now rolls freely end over end. Finally it comes to rest, lurching it’s wheels skyward in one final gasp. Right next to the big plastic yellow shovel.
Making all those special effects sounds can leave a small boy with spit all over himself. And such was the case as I wiped my face. Mom liked the sand bank because it was a lot cleaner than letting us play in the mud. But leave it to kids to find ways of getting sand to stick in the most unlikely places of the body. I tried to wipe with my arm but the spit and the sand combined like concrete layers on my young face. The car crash scene was my specialty. I bent down and picked up my little Hot Wheels TM car to do it again. The sand bank was a magical place.
Our little house was located on the banks of the Yaquina river, 6 miles inland from Newport. The water was still very salty at this point in the river, as currents reversed directions daily with the tides. At full tide the river cuts into the crumbling banks held together loosely by tidal grasses, creating a steep drop down to thick tidal mud that could swallow your foot and half your leg. Just off shore were hundreds of pilings running up and down the river as far as one could see. These were used to tie off large log boom rafts until they could be taken to the saw mill in Toledo or shipped overseas. Top that off with having to cross Yaquina Bay Road to get to the river, it was no wonder that was off limits to us kids. But the sand bank was all the oasis we needed, right in our front yard.
The geography of the river was simple. Gradual slopes rose up from each side, lined predominantly with the homesteads of loggers and mill workers. Our home was little more than a 3 room shack with some indoor plumbing in the tiny kitchen. There was an outhouse complete with a SearsRoebuckTM catalog and an endless armada of flies swirling within. To get to our house from the Yaquina Bay Road you had to drive up a rutted gravel drive to an area carved out of the slope. Excavation was often necessary to make a flat place for homes on the slopes of the river. In this case the excavation for the front yard and home exposed a wonderful golden treasure. The value of which, would be realized by children and those who needed to keep children busy. The sand bank began roughly in front of our house and wrapped around our entire yard, maybe 100 feet or more. It was long and went straight up 4 feet in a fantastic wall of gold, yellows, reds and tans. The bottom was lined with a ribbon of loose sand that gently pushed out from the bank. It was a sandbox with no box at all. It was paradise.
When we were very young the loose sand at the bottom was enough to keep us busy for hours on end. Mom was young too, and very busy trying to get the house in order while dad worked at the plywood mill. As we grew older, maybe 6 or 7, my brother, Bob and I found that we could carve into the bank quite easily. Soon construction of a roadway system started. Switch backs, intersections and even tunnels were carved all across it’s face. Other kids had Hot Wheels but were limited to the plastic track with one end attached to a chair. Our little cars had the sand bank and the ever expanding world we carved for them.
One particular year my brother Bob and I ventured out on a bright spring morning to see something in a hole at the far end of the bank wall. There was movement in there. Of course, two young boys were soon daring each other to look inside that hole and see what it was. Could be a snake. We weren’t particularly afraid of snakes but the sand bank, once again was in control of our imaginations. It could be a big constrictor or maybe a rattler’s nest. The hole was located in a place where the sand was turning to soil so it was a dark swirling combination of gold, brown and black. The colors and the shadowing movements inside presented a foreboding danger inside. The hole was now a cave. Little boys cannot resist a cave. We were going in. I picked up a stick for poking. As we approached the hole we could hear sounds. It was baby birds. A split second later momma bird swooped by and popped into the hole, delivering the next round of meals to her babies. We stood there, stunned by this sudden development. Suddenly our own mom popped out of the house shouting “you boys get away from those babies. Those are bank swallows and their momma’s busy feeding them.” Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, we were back in the real world again. Just as suddenly mom vanished back into the house to continue making our tomato soup.
Mom was the referee in our little worlds, stepping out the door to issue warnings, penalties, advice, soup, baths and snippets of love. Much like the momma sparrow who was also busy providing for the needs of her young. The front yard, lined with the sand bank, was our nest for those early years. We were safely perched above the busy river and road below. Playing in our own worlds as the real one went on about it’s business. For the most part, mom was just trying to keep us occupied as she went about her day, but little did she know, how fertile this place was for my young imagination. We were free, as long as our imaginations refrained from dumping sand on the heads of our little sisters, Joanna or Linda.
As I think back on those days I fully realize all of the things we did not have back then. The house was little more than a shack and we would not have an indoor bathroom until I was nearly 6 years old. The yard was always cluttered with building materials as a result of the bartering and building my dad would do to improve our little home. Sadly, our young family was subject to the, all too familiar, turmoil of a marriage that could not last. As I think about how mom kept us busy, letting us play, I now fully realize all these years later, how valuable this little sliver of gold was to me. Often my propensity to dream would get me in trouble for “not paying attention to what’s important”. But in the long run I think it has served me well. I could escape a confining, limited, world and imagine paths to a better one. The sand bank provided the perfect place to nurture my creativity. It was the place my imagination took root and blossomed into a rich world of colors, sounds and words. As I think about that little red car racing back up those roads for yet another spectacular crash, I now understand, the sand bank is the root of my story telling life.