There was but one certainty in the world of my childhood: that all existence was controlled by two powers. The first was a terrible, vengeful Creator with direct authority over an unspeakable horror called hell, a creator who delighted in consigning even an innocent child to the flames of eternal damnation for the tiniest infraction. The second was a mother who wielded a seven-foot piece of broken driving rein with such relish that risking God's displeasure was preferable to even a baleful glance from His most prominent challenger.
In fairness, my mother's determined forcefulness may have bubbled so near the surface because of a perceived need to compete in a world peopled with males. If so, she succeeded remarkably well, tolerating little dissent from her husband and less from her three sons; especially the youngest, who failed from the outset by arriving via Caesarean section in the midst of the Great Depression, and with the wrong orifices.
* * *
My brother Hillburn, the oldest of the three boys, was six months into his nineteenth year when the attack came on Pearl Harbor. He wanted to enlist before the oil slicks cleared and he would have done so, but mother ordered him to wait for the draft. Not even her favorite in the full flush of young manhood dared test that outthrust jaw and piercing eye.
There was little doubt the eldest was the apple of my mother's eye. Such favoritism wasn't misplaced, however, as few individuals I've known in the decades since could match Hillburn's natural synthesis of hand and tool. An accomplished wood craftsman, the lad used our father's prized power tools to turn out fine furniture and bowls and lamp bases from the many types of hardwoods growing near our home. He handled mystifying electrical repairs with ease, and he became an excellent mechanic, tackling difficult repairs on compression engines, outshining our father who was engaged in the trade (a point mentioned repetitiously by mother to any who would listen).
But the skills of mother's eldest son that appealed most to her youngest were his deftness with a flyrod and his ability to outthink deer. He was uncanny.
In a sense, my brother was unique during those pre-war Depression-era days when fish, fowl, and game provided rural folks not sport, but food. For some families, fresh-caught fish or wild game was their only basic tablefare; therefore little regard was given to how it was acquired: jacklighting deer in an apple orchard at midnight, pitchforking sea-run salmon and steelhead trout from spawning streams, ground-sluicing mallards in a grain field. With survival on the line, observing luxuries such as legal seasons for hunting, fishing, or trapping was not considered a realistic option. Yet my brother developed a sense of outdoors ethics that seemed out of place and time.
Hillburn took up fly fishing, using a split-bamboo rod he crafted himself, searching among his own hand-tied fly patterns for the one to match whatever hatch might be kissing the dark pools near our home. He was the first deliberate trophy hunter I knew. True, Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway and Grancel Fitz preceded him, but their kind was as alien among our Oregon hill-country people as Sadducees to Hunkpapa Sioux. He was as woodswise as a bushman, with the stamina of an Apache. And the guy could drive barn nails with a rimfire 22.
Best of all, he shared his survival skills, animal instincts, love for the outdoors, and moral convictions with his baby brother. Then he received his greetings from Uncle Sam.
The day my brother left for induction, Mother cried and clung to him, while Father, stern-faced and a little proud, clasped his hand and patted him on the shoulder. Hillburn shook our middle brother, Duane's hand, just as though he was twenty instead of twelve, then tousled my cotton hair and stuck a tiny Australian shepherd pup in my arms. "Take care of Skippy for me, will you, squirt?" he said. He'd brought the pup home only the week before.
The pup promptly peed on my arm and I glanced quickly up at Mother. I knew and Duane knew and Hillburn knew and Dad knew she didn't want the dog around, but she only stared a moment at the black and white fur ball, then glanced away, and finally clasped her eldest to her and cried some more. From a half-century vantage, I now understand that Hillburn brought the pup home for me, then presented it as a fait accompli in a way mother could not refuse. I cried, too, and Hillburn gave me a little shove and I ran around the house to dry my tears and rough-house with Skippy.
I don't remember where Hillburn took basic training, but we weren't surprised when he scored "Expert" with the rifle. Neither were we dismayed that he proved equally proficient with a machine gun.
His skill with the .50-caliber weapon got him into the Army Air Corps--the branch in which he would have enlisted the week after Pearl. Further training took him to Sheppherd and Lacklin Fields in Texas, then to Mountain Home, Idaho, for parachute training.
By today's standards, Mountain Home wasn't so far from our southwestern Oregon farm, and mother desperately wanted to visit her eldest son there. But in those wartime days, travel restrictions and our family's precarious financial position meant a few hundred miles might as well have been the moon.
Just before he was posted overseas, Hillburn returned home on furlough. The county road past our place served three other families and dead-ended just a couple of miles farther. Traffic was infrequent enough that rural dwellers ran to their windows to gawk at any vehicle traveling the isolated road. I paused from my marbles game as a gray Dodge pickup braked to a stop at the end of our lane. A man in uniform, obscured by a cloud of dust, stepped out. Skippy broke away from our game to charge for the road, barking. I stood up to see better. The man jerked a suitcase from the pickup box, and the Dodge rolled away in another cloud of dust. Then the man squatted, arms wide, to catch the dog and the screen door banged behind and my mother ran past, crying.
Hillburn spent most of his leave building an addition to our tiny two-room home-- Mother wanted the added space and Dad was fifteen hundred miles away, working for several months to earn a portion of the four hundred dollars he'd agreed to pay for our small farm.
Duane and I tried to help with the construction. But it was obvious we were poor substitutes for a father with whom the young man yearned to visit before marching off to war. Finally the addition was roughed in and its shake roof in place. I worked the pump handle while Hillburn scrubbed his rich black hair and splashed water across his bare chest. "Tomorrow, squirt, we go fishing," he said as he toweled dry.
"Mother says I got to weed the strawberry patch."
"You don't hear too good, do you? I said tomorrow we go fishing."
We left home in midmorning, he wearing a pair of worn jeans and a sleeveless U.S. Army-issue undershirt, I in the hated hand-me-down knee pants and a flour-sack-pullover mother had sewn. We hiked the tiny creek that flowed through our property, following it downstream through neighboring farms until it was joined by other branches to form a stream with pools a seven-year-old could skip flat rocks across.
Hillburn grinned and poked me with his rod tip when I picked up a skipping stone, then began working the rod, feeding out double-tapered fly line, developing the sensuous casting magic I'd seen him use once or twice before. Neither leader nor line had a chance to follow his fly onto the water as the surface exploded and a twelve-inch rainbow did a rhumba to the shallows at my brother's feet.
He released the fish, winked at me, and again worked out line. This time, the fly kissed the surface at the vee above the pool's exit riffle, and he had another rainbow. "Okay," he said after releasing the second fish, "go ahead. Let's see how many times you can make that rock skip."
I looked down at the flat stone still clutched in my hand and dropped it. "Uh-uh. I want to fish."
He chuckled. "All right, short stuff. We'll move down to the next pool and you can catch our supper."
At the next pool, he handed me his rod. First I was into the brush behind, then tangled around a piece of driftwood at my feet, finally coiling the bucktail amid several loops and knots and flinging the mess to plop near the middle of the still pool.
"Here, squirt, let me see the rod." After retrieving the line and shaking out the knots, he said, "Look, it's like this--you've got to keep the rod tip up. Think of a clock. Your rod should work someplace between ten and ..."
I learned a lot about fly casting at that pool and the next, though my ungainly efforts must have left any lurking trout gasping with glee. But I snagged an eight-incher in the next pool and a six-incher in the next, losing both through excitement and bungled rod handling.
We came to a long narrow pond, studded with boulders and shrouded by stately Douglas firs. A slow current moved through the rocks, leaving tiny eddies behind each one. Hillburn took the rod, gently dropped the Coachman behind the first two rocks, one after the other, and pulled a fat trout from each. Then he handed the rod back. "Here you go, Roland. You'd ought to catch supper here."
I tried to imitate his wizardry, and indeed there was at least one fish behind every rock in that pool. But it took a half-hour before I landed my first fish. When I dropped the rod and ran back to show my brother my coveted first fish, squeezing the squirming rainbow in both fists, Hillburn was asleep, his head resting on a tree root.
Much later, with the sun stumbling toward the western horizon, I found him leaning against a rock outcrop, a daisy with half-plucked petals in his hand. "Whatcha doing?" I asked.
"Don't you want to fish?"
He looked up at me, then at the mess of trout I carried threaded onto a forked willow stick--just as he sometimes did. "Naw, short stuff. Looks like you got plenty." He looked down at the flower and another petal fell from his fingers.
"What're you doing?" I asked again.
"Seeing if she loves me."
I didn't have to ask who, so I said, "Why?"
"Because I want to know."
This mystery was explained on Hillburn's last day home, when that girl --the cute blonde who ribbed me one minute, then treated me as an adult the next; the one with whom I was secretly in love--came to dinner. She wore what mother said was an engagement ring.
* * *
Hillburn Cheek was posted to England in 1943, as one of the men and women making up the Eighth Air Force, entering combat as a gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber. He wrote regularly, but his letters were heavily inked out, with entire passages lost at the censor's table. Newspapers and radio accounts fleshed out the scanty information in his letters enough so we knew he was in the thick of an air war raging at its worst over Germany. Then a letter arrived that had somehow escaped censorship. It told of his flak- and bullet-riddled airplane crashlanding in Belgium, and how its crew hid out for a week to escape enemy patrols before discovering they were, in fact, in territory held by the Allies.
Promotions came regularly for my brother, and soon he was flight engineer and Technical Sergeant. I thought they should have made him a general.
Meanwhile, on the home front, all America mobilized for the war effort.
Gasoline and tires were rationed. Most automobiles carried a sticker posted prominently on the windshield, asking its driver and passengers, Is This Trip Necessary? Meat was also rationed. And blackstrap molasses became a despised substitute for the sugar we once used to sweeten oatmeal.
School openings were often delayed to permit the children to help gather harvests. It was child labor pure and simple, but it's not likely that many children of my generation wound up developmentally stunted because we had to work. And I took considerable pride in knowing I, too, was helping smash Hitler, Tojo, and that fat guy from Italy.
Our family was lucky. Mother was a good cook. But even her culinary talents might have been challenged had she not raised a mammoth garden and canned its surplus. Roadsides weren't sprayed with chemicals in the Oregon of my youth, so blackberries and wild hazel nuts were abundant and easily accessible--if we could beat the birds and squirrels to them. In addition, Dad milked a cow and raised a fatted calf. And each fall, when the weather turned cold, we butchered a hog.
Then Dad got the job caretaking the Kofferberg place.
What a fabulous home: two stories, hardwood floors, antique furniture. We weren't allowed in except when Mother opened the padlocks and entered to dust. The house sported metal-framed windows that cranked open with a handle, and not one but two bathrooms--the first I'd ever seen. (Ours was a two-hole outhouse, cobwebbed in the summer, frigid in the winter, complete with a "Monkey Ward" catalog missing the softer, tissue-like yellow pages.) The Kofferberg toilets each had water closets fastened to the wall above, and they'd empty with an easy tug on a chain hanging within reach of even a child. I spent a lot of time cranking windows or sitting on one or the other of those toilets pulling chains--until Mother caught up to paddle my hinder and send me stumbling outside.
The place belonged to a wealthy auto-industry executive from Detroit who'd planned to retire to the remote Oregon countryside, only to be frozen on his job for the war's duration. He needed someone to watch over his far-off retirement home and somehow heard that Dad was an honest and reliable workman. The deal they struck was that my parents were to take care of the place in return for fruit produced in its orchards. It proved to be a lucrative arrangement. For me, too.
There were perhaps ten acres in orchards on the Kofferberg place: Bing, Royal Anne, and Black Republican cherries; Jonathon, Winesap, and Red Delicious apples; two types of peaches--one I think a Hale; two types of pears I can't remember; prunes I came to detest; and English walnuts I loved for the way the husks stained my hands to a rich, dark brown. All trees were mature. There were more prune trees than all others combined--a good thing, too, for prunes were easily dried, kept well, and were in demand for America's armed forces.
Cherries ripened first, followed in swift succession by peaches, pears, p;runes, apples, and walnuts.
"Rolie," Dad said when it came time to pick prunes, "your mother and I have decided you've done so well picking cherries and peaches that we'll let you have everything you make picking prunes. We'll open a savings account in your name and you can deposit your money in it. That will begin your college fund."
So I picked prunes. I picked prunes until I was sick of prunes. Dad would shake the trees, and Mother and my second brother Duane and I picked and sorted prunes from daylight to dark, day after day, until we finished. I wound up with over a hundred dollars in my bank account--unheard of for a stripling boy back in a time when grown men did well to earn three dollars for a day's work. But I've not been able to look at a prune since.
* * *
At last it was March, 1945, and Hillburn's crew had served their full duty tour. They volunteered en masse, however, to continue until the end of hostilities. More missions and it was May; Germany surrendered. Both Mother and Dad cried with relief. Then a letter came from Hillburn. He said they were to return to the States in early June. "With luck," he wrote, "I'll be home for my birthday"--June 22nd.
We couldn't have been more excited. One or another of us walked the half-mile to our mailbox every day, hoping always for additional word that never came. My parents said it would be like their eldest son to walk in one day unannounced.
Then a day came when our family traveled to town in order to lay in a few last-minute birthday gifts for the returning hero. On our way home, my parents stopped to visit friends. It was upon taking their leave, while sharing parting words before we clambered into Father's '36 Chevrolet, that the taxi turned into our friend's lane.
To a ten year-old kid from rural southwestern Oregon, taxicabs represented the ultimate in sophisticated city life. I'd only seen them a few times--always from a distance--and was in awe of the people they carried. "Hillburn?" Mother whispered.
I glanced at Mother, who for some reason seemed less forbidding, then at Dad, who still shook the hand of his friend in goodbye. He stopped chattering abruptly and I saw his eyes narrow to slits against the noonday sun. The neighbor lady slipped an arm around Mother's shoulder. Time stood still.
The taxi pulled up in a cloud of dust. It carried only the driver. He stepped out. "The Chevy," he said. "I saw it from the road. Is the Cheek family here?"
Father seemed to shrink. Mother's lower lip trembled. Their farmer friend said, "Yes, these are the Cheeks. Can I help you?"
The cabdriver nodded. "I was told to look for a brown Chevrolet sedan. I have a telegram for them."
Father turned away, so the driver handed the telegram to Mother. She took it hesitantly, her eyes wider than I'd ever seen. The driver backed away, clambered into his cab and roared off, his haste unseemly even to a ten-year-old puzzled by his parent's actions.
Dust from the departed taxi had settled before Mother turned and thrust the unopened telegram to her friend. "Please!" she whispered.
Mother's friend opened it as if in slow-motion. She glanced at the telegram, then again put her arm around Mother and said, "Come inside." She began weeping.
The date was June 22, 1945.
* * *
Hillburn Leon Cheek died nine days earlier, along with his fellow flight and ground crew -- fifteen men, all told. Their B-24 crashed for reasons unknown, into mountain country in northwestern Scotland. After scores of missions over hostile Germany; after -- as we later learned -- crashlanding their crippled airplane once behind advancing Russian lines, as well as once in Belgium; after returning to England numerous times with holed wings and fuselage; after their war had ended, they died on their way home.
My brother was dead -- that's all I knew. After God knows how many medals and campaign ribbons, including two Purple Hearts, he wasn't coming home! There'd be no more casts at twilight with him standing at my elbow, smiling and frowning and talking about techniques or how to outthink fish. Never again would he whisper about the enchantment of frost on a spiderweb or dewdrops on salal leaves or the excitement of discovering bear tracks near our home. There'd be no more monster buck antlers for me to trail fingers along and ogle with wonder; no more daisies to pluck, rods to build, flies to tie.
When we arrived home, I took my brother's dog into a dense fir thicket hiding-place and wept unashamedly while Skippy whined and licked away the tears, pawing at me as if he understood.
And a few days later, I received a spirited beating with the broken driving rein for playing Marines on Okinawa in the dust of our front yard.