Of Marriage, Money, Dogs, and the Nahanni Valley

I did something back in 1989 that I am so grateful for now.  I took the time to sit down with my ailing mother and interview her on tape about her life and our family history.

On two occasions separated by four months I plunked down a simple tape recorder and asked her questions while she lay on her bed/couch, suffering the long march of the form of multiple sclerosis she had, which would take her life in a few short years.

I don’t remember what exactly motivated me at the time, but I’ve always been curious about certain aspects of our family history.  I figured it would be good to get Ma’s memories recorded.

Maybe it was later in the day the second time and she was more tired, but even over the interval from August to December, I hear now how her voice became more quavering.

Those two sessions, originally faint patterns in iron oxide on fragile ribbon, are the only records of her voice, thoughts and feelings that exist.

The reason this arises is that I’ve got a USB cassette deck that can take my old tape recordings like Ma’s interviews and all those years of mix tapes of great tunes and turn them into mp3 files.  So I’ve moved Ma’s voice from tape to digital, although the quality of the recording, not that great to start with, is slightly worse than the original, although one can still make out what she says.

Besides the photos, and the memories I share with my brothers, this somewhat random oral memoir is really all I have of her that means something.

How to get born in Seattle

I started off by asking her how she and my dad got from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where they met and never finished their studies, to Seattle where I was born in 1951.  On the hissing tape my questions sometimes are audible and sometimes not, while Ma’s voice comes through next to the recorder.

She married my dad in 1947.  This was only a couple of years after the Second World War.  Dad fought as a Marine against the Japanese up until the war ended, including on Iwo Jima and other hellholes in the Pacific.  (I’ve written a little about this before.)  Her major was political science and his was art, oddly enough, but I think they just ran out of money to go to school and wanted to try their hand at raising a family.

Money, or rather the lack of it, is a recurring theme in my parents’ lives together.  They never had very much and constantly had to scratch about to find jobs.  Dad had training as a machinist, so they took off from New Mexico with a car and motorcycle in search of work for him.

Their Indian motorcycle with a sidecar broke down almost immediately in Tempe, Arizona.  Without money for repairs, they abandoned it and piled all their belongings into the remaining vehicle and drove very carefully to San Francisco, worried about blowing a tire without the money to replace one.

Finally they made it across the country, and stayed with family at a Junior Five on the coast near the Cliff House (one of San Francisco’s oldest restaurants).  They soon found a place to live in the Mission District.  Ma took a job in Santa Rosa north of Frisco, where she would stay during the week and return on the weekends.  Her job was to develop photographs for a photofinishing business. Her boss was busy running a chicken farm at the same location, and my mother did all the photofinishing.  “It was nice, cool work, since I slopped around in water all day.”

Most of the photo work was mail order, from Guam, from service people. “I can’t tell you how many acres of beach in Guam I developed.”

Dad was off in Alaska on a high-rigging job putting up a big radio tower, although there’s much more to that story, it turns out.

Ma said about the tower, laughing a little, “…which blew down after he got home.”  Quick to defend my Dad, she went on, “Well, he did what they told him to, so…. it wasn’t his fault it blew down!” Still laughing.  It’s always good to be able to hear her laugh again.

My father died of a stroke in 1963, a couple of years after we moved to northern British Columbia.  Ma never married again, although she certainly had relationships.  But in her voice on this recording talking about my father, from time to time I hear a wistfulness, a loyalty to him, hints sometimes of disappointment in their life together, and considerable caring — all the dimensions of a marriage recalled with a bittersweet ruefulness.

After Dad came back from what had been an ill-fated four months trip to the Canadian north and Alaska, and again having difficulty finding work, the couple decided to flip a coin.  Heads to Seattle, tails to Los Angeles.  It came up Seattle.  They bundled up their belongings in their ’40 Ford convertible, including “your Dad’s typewriter and his guns” and took off for the city where I would be born in 1951.

Poor in the Pacific Northwest

They found the cheapest housing they could find in the southern part of Seattle, an old motel for a buck and a half a night. “The sheets, they were clean, but boy, were they worn…..”  The latter was said as if Ma rubbed again the thin material between her fingers.

For enough money to survive at first, Dad was forced to pawn the typewriter and his guns.  The aeronautical giant Boeing was the big employer in Seattle, but they kept having strikes.  Dad, desperate for work, scabbed, crossing the picket lines, and earned enough with his first paycheck to get his belongings out of the pawn shop.   He would go on to work for Boeing after the labor troubles were over.

They had a housekeeping room in South Seattle. They ate “a lot of lettuce,” Ma recalled.  She went to work briefly in a store at the Pike’s Place Public Market. She was offended by the way the down-and-out and the elderly, who came in for the cheaper day-old bread and other stale goods at a rear counter were always ignored in favor of  the more well-heeled who bought new product at the front of the store.  She didn’t stay working there long.

For entertainment she and my dad would walk up and down nearby streets, and window shop all the hock shops.  They occasionally bought horse meat for their dinners.  It was cheap: 21 cents a pound, she recalled.  “It was lovely meat.”

My father had ambitions as a writer, too.  After he got his first check from Boeing, and he had retrieved his typewriter and his guns from the pawn shop, he tried to settle down to work on some stories.  But he was too tired from driving and working all day to do any more than write letters.  Ma said, “Steve [my father] wrote a lot of letters.”   That’s a little like writing a blog, I’m thinking now.

In the early 50s housing prices were not out-of-sight like they are now.  After a year or so, they were able to save enough money for a down-payment on an old and little house in a working class suburb of Seattle. But even so it was little more than a shell that they had to finish building themselves.

Dog stories

In that early household was a squalling baby (me), my grandmother who moved in next door for awhile, and lots of dogs.  Both my parents really liked dogs, to excess.

Most prominent in my mother’s memory from that time was a fluffy black and tan mutt named Feo.  She explained, “Feo — it means ugly in Spanish. And he was stupid too. …. Actually he was kind of a pretty dog.  But he was just so damn stupid. He was so cute when he was little.  You can’t take home dogs because of that.”  She laughed about Feo. “I’d forgotten about him. …He was sweet but he couldn’t keep things straight in his head.  When you have smart dogs you know dumb ones.”

In that little place in north Seattle, apparently there came to be something of a population explosion of canines.

“I finally said, ‘We can’t handle all these dogs.’ Then I came home one night off the bus, and I heard this wailing and keening. It was Steve crying over the dogs because he had to kill some of ’em and he was just heartbroken and he was drinking and he was just crying and wailing.  And you could hear him …all …over!”  After that, they both were determined to hold the numbers of dogs down, because they didn’t want to go through that again.

There were other notables in the pantheon of family dogs as I grew up.

For instance, “….somebody who had been mistreating their dog gave us this huge German Shepherd.”  At the same time, my Dad’s dog Mister, a ferocious beast with a stub tail of Chow descent  was also on the scene.  The two of them had to be kept tied up separately most of the time.

Burma, the German Shepherd, I recall well.  I might have been seven or eight, and I remember this animal always regarding me with a strange air.  Abused as she had been, she didn’t take kindly to children at all.  Even adults couldn’t raise their arms in the air around her.  One day, on the farm we eventually moved to in Snohomish County, she and I were outside alone.  The rest of the family were away.  Burma was off her rope, for some reason I don’t remember.

Burma always made me uneasy.  In her previous home, it had been kids who tormented her by smacking her with boards. She began to stalk me, or so it seemed to me on some inarticulate level.  She never growled or showed her teeth, but I spent the rest of that day in a treehouse out of her reach waiting for my parents to re-appear while she paced below.

Finally my parents tried to give her away to a good home.  The first couple who took her, this beautiful enormous white and grey dog, returned her within a day or so.  Burma refused to let the husband into the house.  But finally a savvy older couple did finally take this problem creature on successfully.

Mister, my dad’s dog, an intelligent animal of uncompromising character who loved my father and sort of tolerated the rest of the family, and who had to be kept tied up due to the threat he posed to the general populace, outlived my father.  Ma regretfully had him put down the summer after Dad died.  He was 13 or 14, mythic in his way to my brothers and me.  His departure was an additional numbing echo of change.

My mother sighed deeply after the recitation of all the dog stories.  “More damned dogs than we knew what to do with.”

Their little home in Seattle which I can barely remember as a young child, and where my two brothers were also born, was finally finished inside in eight years, and then traded for a 20-acre farm in Snohomish, a still rural part of Washington State. My parents kept a couple cows, a beat-up old horse, and most memorably, goats.  “Goats are pretty picky.”

They still didn’t have much money, and we had well problems, among other things, that they couldn’t afford to get fixed.

Leaving my father

There would be a couple more moves in Washington before we finally ended up in northern British Columbia.

But while we lived in Snohomish, my mother informed me during our second session, “I left your father.”  Now this was something I hadn’t known.

“He went off shooting guns with a bunch of guys and they were drinking.  And I thought, what if he gets shot in some quarry.  He couldn’t understand that. He’d say, ‘I know how to handle guns,’ and I’d say ‘How about the rest of those idiots….’

“His buddies thought this was just the thing to do on a Saturday night.  …. I came back [in a couple of weeks] after he promised to be good. But we didn’t have any more of those… situations. I like to think he missed me, but he probably missed you kids more.”

Dad’s Nahanni Valley scientific expedition

In 1948, three years before I was born, my father bought shares in and planned, with some buddies from Albuquerque (perhaps associated with the university), an ill-fated expedition to the famed Nahanni Valley in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Also known as the Headless Valley, this place of spectacular waterfalls, sulphur hotsprings and ice caves was first explored just after 1900 by fortune hunters in an era of gold prospecting fever.

But early prospectors and others who ventured into the area either vanished or were found with their heads removed.  Even a fierce mountain tribe of natives had disappeared years earlier.  The valley took on a dark reputation.

By the late 1940s, there was extensive public interest in the Nahanni Valley.  There were rumours of it being some kind of lush Shangri-La.  The Vancouver Sun newspaper in 1947 sent two reporters to fly over the place.  They reported that it was not some mythical oasis but a rugged and cold wilderness, albeit with a few extensive hotsprings.

Two years earlier, in 1945, the body of yet another prospector in the valley had been found in his sleeping bag without his head.  There were rumours about the local natives, or even Sasquatch, deciding that white interlopers needed to be warned away.

So it was in this context that these guys from New Mexico formed the plan for their “scientific” expedition.  I can imagine that this endeavour was hatched in a bar somewhere over a few beers after reading in the newspapers about the tropical wonderland in the far north.

One of the fellows had a plane, so the group figured that this expedition could get underway in fine style from Edmonton, already well north in Alberta, where they all travelled to begin their adventure.  Unfortunately, the plane didn’t meet Canadian standards and wasn’t allowed to fly in.  Due to the problem with their planned transportation, they ran out of money to supply themselves and to charter a flight to the Nahanni.  And some of the expedition members were too young  and immature, and became less than serious about the expedition after encountering a few of these difficulties.

But they did manage to receive certification as an official “scientific” expedition from, I gather, the Canadian government, before the whole thing fell apart.  By this time Dad became disgusted and hitchhiked across the north, with almost no money now, where he ended up in Anchorage, Alaska.

He continually wired Ma for money, which she had very little of, until finally she sent him a telegram with the message, “Not here.”

He wired back “What did you say that for?”  (That was just before he resorted to high-rigging that radio tower so he had enough money to return to the lower 48.)  Ma said she told him when he came back.

On the recording, the way she described this episode made me laugh, and her too.



Notes on images, from top down.

1) My favorite painting of my father’s — painted in 1938.

2) From May, 1958, my mother with her three sons and my half-sister.

3) The Nahanni Valley, from an adventure website where you can raft for a week on the Nahanni River for only about $5000.  The site doesn’t mention the headless phenomenon.

4) Another painting from 1949, a self-portrait by my father, hitchhiking along the Alaska Highway.

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6 Comments on “Of Marriage, Money, Dogs, and the Nahanni Valley”

  1. Rick Matz Says:

    Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for taking the time to read!


  3. I try and get what stories I can from my parents and from their parents before they died. No recordings. Kind of spooky that is. You never get the whole story. You get what you get. I wish everybody I know wrote. They don’t.

    Brilliant story. Spooky, but brilliant.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    When I stop to think of it, I realize I know my forebears only for maybe two generations.

    It’s got to be a worthwhile family project for anybody to get the stories of their older folks, especially with the ease of modern technology.

    I did these recordings in a casual, tentative way. Ma wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and there was some resistance. But once she got going, there was so much there.

    Thanks for coming by!


  5. MDW Says:

    Great post, fencer. It really is amazing how quickly the experiences and even the faces of our ancestors disappear – a couple of measly generations and poof. My wife works on the family tree whenever she has the time, but it’s not the same as having direct accounts like these.

    I love the paintings. There are so many people in the world with talents that never get realized because of the twists and turns of just living.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve often felt what you mention about our family trees. The stream of humanity, the struggle and love, despair and persistence that has resulted in our presence in this place. All the stories untold!


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