cardboard box forts and things I’ll never know


The summer before I started first grade was marked by moving to a new house on Woodlawn Avenue that came with a barn and a field that adjoined the property of a new elementary school being built. My school. King School.

My older brother, me and a loosely formed gaggle gang of neighbourhood kids spent August swimming, riding our bikes around and spying on the construction workers finishing up the school.  Our recon missions weren’t un-noticed and as the workers unpacked desks and furniture  they chatted with us and let us drag the large cardboard boxes across the school yard to the field behind my house.

Each of us got own box and working like a team of ants we wrestled them into place in the field.  From there we each decorated our cardboard box forts as our own drawing in crayon and cutting out windows as we set up our little village. KEEP OUT! signs on the forts of the older kids, and colourful scribbles on the rest.

The big kids, those 8 year olds, got the prime fort placements away from the spiders’ nests and dips in the field and soon social networks were established within the fort village.  I had to share my fort with my 4-year-old sister who most times was more of a pest than a compatriot. When one of the big boys invited us into his fort and asked her to lift up her shirt and he would let us stay, she started to pull up her t-shirt and I said “no” and we ran away not sure of what was wrong but feeling like something was.

Steve, the next door neighbour kid who came with the story that he was in an accident when he was little and had to wear a tight belt around his middle or his “guts and gizzards would fall down and he would die”.  Something I’ll never know.

The kid who lived catty corner to us who was from Pakistan and gave me a little brass camel that I still have.  How did he end up in Oregon City with his family from so far away? Something I’ll never know.

The old  man two houses away who never trimmed his hedge giving the yard the ominous look we needed to spin stories about him being scary.  Every Halloween he dressed up in a floppy green rubber Godzilla suit and became over six feet of stumbling lizard terrifying us all. He also gave out the best candy. What did he do when he wasn’t Godzilla?  Something I’ll never know.

I started first grade without first going to kindergarten.  My brother went to kindergarten.  Why didn’t I? My parents never told me and it’s something I’ll never know now.

The answers and explanations to many childhood memories disintegrate into time like the cardboard box forts becoming soggy, folding in on themselves and tearing apart with the fall rains. Who cleaned up our cardboard box forts after we left our village in the field and stepped into the school year? Something I’ll never know.




finding Herman – the rest of the story


Smelling the roses in Portland – I head up the Columbia to Bonneville Fish Hatchery.  Not top 10 travel destination but for me, important.  My dad used to take us there when we were little.  

 He took us when I was ten years old, the day I lost my mom. He took us there for the quiet, to breathe, to watch the fish. I drove in with some anxiety, anticipation, and a bucket full of memories. 

 Wandering the grounds, I recognize some things, some things are obviously new. It’s been decades since I was here.  Afraid for what…..I don’t know what.  And I found a little old building with a narrow stairway down. 

In here I found Herman.  He’s over 70 years old and he’s lived here his whole life. He’s been here the whole time. All these years.  

As I watched him I whispered “hey, do you remember me? Do you remember that sad little blonde girl from so long ago?” He swam by slowly and looked at me.  I found some magic that day in finding Herman.


So that is the script from part of a PechaKucha presentation I did last year.  In the short rapid fire format, I still managed to move the audience with my story. But I feel like I need to come clean about it.

You see, the Herman I talked to wasn’t there when I was a little girl.  He was a new Herman but I didn’t know it when I told this story to a rapt audience in the few minutes  of a PechaKucha.

First of all, my Mom wasn’t lost.   She knew where she was and my Dad knew where she was, but she was gone away from us.  She left to live another life far away, not to be found by me for another eighteen years. So in a way, I guess it was ok to say I lost her.

When I went back to the hatchery last year I can only liken it to what I imagine attending a seance is like. Where the aching for contact with those on the other side is so intense that the swishing of a skirt against a thigh can be interpreted as the breath of a loved one. The day I parked my car and walked into the hatchery grounds, I was reaching  out that intensely for my Dad.  Walking through the trees, breathing in the scent of cedar and damp, inhaling to expand my ribcage trying to capture the whisper of my Dad’s voice. This was our place. I needed to feel him here. The hair on my arms reaching like cilia trying to capture the feeling of his presence lingering in the air there for fifty years.

That long ago day at the fish hatchery I had what I called back then “one of my bad headaches” a snack-sized migraine that grew with me over the years into full-fledged warehouse pack sized migraines. I stumbled around with the aura twinkling around my eyes and  my hearing dulled like the oppressive dark grey sky pushing down on us. After watching the fish swim around,we went home to start our lives without Mom.  I don’t actually remember the trip home, but it had to have happened because we went on to a routine of home and school days.

Then we had a  wonderful stepmother. “She is your mother now, and you will call her Mom”. And we did because our “real Mom” as I called her after that, was lost.  All Christmas gifts, birthday cards and gifts were returned to sender, but I didn’t know that until much later. I just thought she didn’t want me. So she was lost. My step-brother and step-sister called Dad “Dad” as directed although they had regular contact with their “real Dad” with showers of gifts and outings. He showed up at our house to pick them up for afternoons and dinners rendering me invisible as I watched them step into that part of their lives.

I remember  the one and only visit where my sister and I had to wait in the enclosed back porch of a home for an afternoon while the step-siblings visited their paternal family inside.  We sat there on some storage boxes in our good Sunday dresses worn for the occasion. My refusal to ever go back there was surprisingly honoured even though I was told that the child support he paid afforded me flute lessons. Even my pre-adolescent rationale questioned how that was portioned out as guilt for me.

And we go through the years and life happens and I love all kinds of people in my altered and molded family relationships.  With my Dad gone, I long for someone to be proud of me in the way only he was. We never outgrow that, even though we try to be cool about it, and the talks; about our shared reading obsession that opened worlds for me, about how to install a dishwasher or build a brick wall with the Susie, you can do anything mentality he built into me. The feeling of knowing where I belong.

That day I did find some magic in one of the evolutions of Herman. The new Herman wouldn’t have remembered that sad little girl from so long ago even if he had been there because that little girl has been replaced with an evolution of herself too.

Still, the magic in the air the day I drove in to the Bonneville Fish Hatchery, inhaled deeply and stepped back into a place filled with the ghosts of the past fifty years was there. Did it change things when I later found out that the Herman I visited wasn’t the one I saw that long ago day?  The resilience and longevity of sturgeon, of places we can go back to when we are ready and reconcile the years…. that’s magic. So no, it didn’t change anything.


Some of the Herman story:

OCTOBER 4, 2007
Sturgeon Didn’t Just Walk Off on Their Own
by Sam Savage
By Larry Bingham, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Oct. 4–All the Oregon State Police know about the crime, so far, is this: The missing were last seen swimming in knee-deep water Friday afternoon. Sunday morning, the pond was empty.

The thief — or thieves — must have lugged the seven victims, each roughly 2 1/2 to 5 feet long and weighing 40 to 50 pounds, around the gift shop and through the visitor parking lot. Investigator Mike Hanson thinks it had to have happened at night.

That doesn’t explain how the criminals got past the locked gate to the Bonneville Fish Hatchery off Interstate 84. Or how they climbed the fence that surrounds the grounds. No footprints or clues were found at the pond’s edge or along the pavement, Hanson said.

The last known sturgeon theft was in 1985 when Herman I, one of two fish displayed for decades at the Oregon State Fair, was swiped from the Roaring River Trout Hatchery near Scio. Estimated to be between 50 and 100 years old, he was never found and his abductors never brought to justice.

The same fate seems likely for seven younger sturgeons taken from a picturesque pond at the Bonneville hatchery, run by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

The theft comes at a time when the hatchery — visited last year by 447,000 people — opens its doors to scores of school kids who come on field trips to learn about the life cycle of a prehistoric fish. The white sturgeon is the largest freshwater fish species in North America and can reach 20 feet, weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and live to be 100 or more.

The interpretive center and other areas remain open and untouched, including the large landscaped pond that is home to the 9-foot-long fish currently known as Herman.

While investigators scratch their heads, the thief probably pats his wallet or admires a full freezer. Oregon law places a value of $250 on each fish.

But why is it always sturgeons?

Years ago, a sturgeon was stabbed in the Roaring River hatchery where Herman was stolen. Two others were abducted, and one severely wounded, at Bonneville in 1982.

“Why sturgeon? I have absolutely no clue,” says Bonneville Hatchery Manager Greg Davis. “Especially since sturgeon fishing is open.”

Anyone with information is encouraged to call Hanson at 800-452-7888.


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Copyright (c) 2007, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.