To begin with, I was a military brat from the tender age of four days. We rarely lived anywhere for a full year until the year I was ten, when Dad left the military, and we moved to Alaska. Added to that my parents’ preference for rural life and I don’t remember living in a traditional neighborhood. The summer I was eight, we moved into a mobile home on a lot surrounded by grass fields in the Willamette Valley.
The first settlers in Oregon’s great valley wrote home to their relatives scraping a living on rocky New England farms. “If you put a dead stick in the ground, in a week it will sprout leaves. Within a year, it will bear fruit.” Our place near the wildlife refuge was living testament to their words. Once a thriving farm, it was co-opted by the military in World War II for a training base. By the time I was exploring it at age nine, it had been abandoned for forty years. Fruit trees hung over the cracked asphalt roads, and I could stay out all day feasting from them and never need to go home for a meal.
The house wasn’t much to look at. I realized in thinking about it that I have very few recollections of it. It was a blue double-wide with a little addition and a porch. When we first moved in, Dad was working on the boiler when we heard a shout. Running outside, my sister, mother and I found him getting his .22 rifle. He returned to the exterior door of the boiler room and fired the rifle into it repeatedly. We stood and watched in horrified fascination as he reached in and pulled out a dead rat. As large as a small house cat, when he held it up by the tail it broke off. He’d shot it in the tail.
Inside, I remember the bookshelves at the end of the hall. I worked my way through all the children’s books and then on into my parent’s collection of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. I had the top bunk, my middle sister the bottom bunk, and our handicapped baby sister her own tiny room. In the living room a large aquarium stood across from the couch. I kept it stocked with tadpoles and interesting water bugs.
My world was elsewhere. In the mild Oregon weather, I spent my days, and a few nights outside. Sometimes my little sister tagged along, but mostly it was me, my puppy, and a baby goat. Happy Jack lived to please me, a golden retriever and cocker spaniel cross who was soft, blonde, and obedient. The baby goat was a constant of my childhood, as we kept milk goats for my mother. I often bottle fed them, so they all thought I was their mommy and would follow me anywhere.
Late in the summer after the seed was harvested from the grass, they would burn the fields. Usually, my mother kept me in the house when this happened, but when the field between our house and the wildlife refuge was burned, I had gone out early in the morning and didn’t know it was burning. I was headed toward home, smelling smoke and thinking nothing of it at that time of year, when I got to the edge of the field.
I hadn’t seen it until I was right on it, as the path cut through a patch of thick forest before opening into the field. It looked like a scene from Dante’s Inferno (which I had recently read). Orange and red leaping flames, black smoke that almost obscured the house from where I stood.
Jack hid behind me. I could feel his quivering body pressing into my calves. The baby goat pricked her ears forward and would have kept going into the fire had I not picked her up. I was over a quarter of a mile from my house, and could see no safe way of getting home. I knew my mother would be worried, and I needed to get the animals home safe. I didn’t know which was worse, Jack’s terror, or the kid’s fearlessness.
I retreated up the forest path. It opened up into a field, the end of the path dominated by a tall tree capped in a hawk’s nest. Off to the left was a small creek, and that led back toward my house. Carrying the little goat, who objected to walking in water, I waded up it until I came to a break in the massive blackberry hedges that bounded the railroad tracks. We couldn’t get through those safely until we found a thin spot, so I kept working my way along towards north and home.
It seemed to take forever, until I got to a place where Jack could wriggle through the thorns and I could follow him onto the tracks. I stood there, panting and triumphant. There was no vibration in the tracks, so no train coming. I’d gotten us safely around the fire, as the house was just down the tracks a little way.
We arrived home wet, muddy, sooty, and for once Mom didn’t care. Jack and I went in the tub, the kid went in her pen, and we all slept well that night. I was left with an enduring sense of self-confidence, having learned that sometimes the direct way isn’t the best way, and if you keep looking, you will find a way to your goal.