I sat solemnly in a church pew and listened as the preacher told the mourners about the life that had left that body lying in the bronze coffin up front. Outside of the few family members that sat in the pews with me, I knew no one in the auditorium. But that wasn’t really a concern. My thoughts were away behind the preacher’s stories of Virginia’s years of faithful service to the church and her devotion to the great-granddaughter that rode with her the day a traffic accident took her life. I had to sit up straight and jerk my mind back to the present. It was too easy to sit back and remember those days so long ago when we were young and exploring life together. The ‘40’s had bound us together far from home. With her death, there was no one left to remember with me, leaving me suddenly lonesome to visit the past one last time.
We were teenagers in those days when WW11 engulfed the world, my cousin, Virginia and I. Together we explored the corners of Portland, Oregon by foot, streetcar and bicycle. There were few movies that we missed seeing. We made lots of trips to the zoo and the library where we were thrilled with room after room filled with books and even a sound-proof room where we could check out albums of show tunes on vinyl discs, play them by the hour and nobody cared.
There was a recreation hall where we jitterbugged to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” and at Jantzen Beach we rode our first roller coaster, named the Dig Dipper. Jantzen Beach was an amusement park, at the time it was built, the largest in the world. Constructed on Hayden Island in the middle of the Columbia River, it was known as the “Coney Island of the West”. The park, covering 123 acres, had opened in 1928 and cost 10 cents admission. By the time Virginia and I got to Portland, the park included the C.W. Parker merry-go-round built in 1921 and showed off hand carved horses made by inmates of the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. There was also a Fun House with mirrors that made you fat or tall or appear in various shapes. Fora nickel you could ride through the Fun House in a little car that took passengers down dark tunnels where scary shapes screamed and waved from the semi-darkness. My favorite ride was the Bumper Cars and being rear-ended by a red and yellow car driven by a good-looking boy was always a thrill and the prospect of an imagined romance just around the corner. Another favorite was the tent where you could throw balls at wooden bottles stacked in up triangles. You could win a chalk doll if you were accurate at connecting balls to bottles. There were four swimming pools in the park, a canopy with cement floor for dancing and picnic grounds. We rented horses and rode the nature trails around the park. Virginia and I were country kids from Chillicothe, a little cotton-farming town in west Texas. The wonders to be found in the big city of Portland left us searching for more.
It was summer of 1942 when our families arrived in Portland so until school started in September and we could meet new friends, we hung out together.
We found that if we got to the park and attendance was thin, the men taking money would let us ride free in order to encourage others to ride so we tried to get to the roller coaster early and would scream as loud as possible during a ride just to show prospective customers how much fun we were having.
A favorite spot where we spent some time was called The Rainbow. This was a restaurant on Broadway in downtown Portland and the front doors on the art deco building swung wide when we passed in front of the magic eye. This was pure magic for a pair of country kids. We had just been spirited away by a silver streamliner from our hometown where every baby was counted to reach the population of 2,000. Now we walked in a metropolis choking with a population largely transplanted from other states because of the war. Here smoke belched from smokestacks at the three major shipyards twenty-four-seven. Farmers, store clerks, factory workers, businessmen had all come to Portland to work. They dressed in leather pants and jackets, pulled metal hoods over their faces, picked up welding rods and set about putting together Victory Ships.
Our parents worked in one of those shipyards, welding the ships’ seams together below the decks. It was like being transported to another world for all of us. It was an education in many ways and I am so grateful to have experienced it. With the death of Virginia there is only me to remember how it was for us, but that’s life - and death.