Tuesday, June 12, 2012

skunk cabbage blues


The Skunk Cabbage Blues

By Fred Owens

I got them lonesome dying skunk cabbage blues -- Robert Sund

Dunlap Bay, July, 1982. Swallows danced over the water. “They eat mosquitoes,” Jimmy said. “They make a burst of wing-dash, rise up, then go down, grab a bug in their mouth, then make another wing-dash. Nobody can fly like a swallow.”

“But you can’t see the mosquitoes,” Hitch said, “so how do you know?”

“Just figure it out,” Jimmy said. “There’s bugs up there and swalows have to eat. That’s dinner. They’re not putting on a show for fun.”

“They’re having fun,” Hitch said with determination.

“We need to get some supplies,” Jimmy stated, as if he was in charge. It was time to walk into town, already dressed, bring an empty rucksack, no wristwatch to check, but it was day time and the store was open – making a run to the Frog Hospital.

That’s what Clyde called it – the grocery store in a Quonset hut owned by Mr. Grobschmidt. Clyde thought Mr. Grobschmidt looked like a frog, and since that’s where they kept all the beer, he called it the Frog Hospital, which made sense in the river rat school because you could get what you needed at the Frog Hospital – 12-packs of Schmidt’s beer, Fritos, and Sophie’s fried chicken.

“Sophie’s chicken is the chef de cuisine, which is how you say it if you were educated.”

“I’m not,” Hitch said.

“Not what?” Jimmy asked.

“I dropped out of high school,” Hitch said. “I didn’t like it.”

“I got an idea. What if we can find Robert Sund and maybe he will give us one of those Floating Fivers,” Jimmy said.

“Old Robert Sund,” Hitch said. “He talks a lot.”

Robert was the poet of the city. He invented the Floating Fiver one evening shooting pool at the LaConner Tavern. The concept was simple – if someone could float a five dollar beer in his direction, then he could have more beer. Many people came to believe in the floating concept. “You see, money is like currency, it flows like the river,” Robert explained, although it never seemed to float past him.

The odds were against Nearly Normal Jimmy and Hitch getting a five-dollar bill from Robert, but these Sand Spit warriors didn’t know Quit – they were making a beer run to the Frog Hospital and that’s all there was to it.

“You see, this is America,” Jimmy explained. “It’s the land of opportunity. You just gotta keep your eyes peeled and the natural abundance will come to us.”

With Clyde out of town, Jimmy and Hitch considered the parking lot franchise. For a few dollars Mr. Grobschmidt would let Clyde sweep the parking lot.

“But that’s Clyde’s thing. I can’t take his job. Besides, it doesn’t suit me,” Jimmy said.

“You don’t have a suit,” Hitch said.

They got up and started moving toward town, less than a mile down a gravel road which ran alongside the breakwater and Swinomish channel, past blackberry brambles and sparsely grown sand hillocks, past Harriet’s cabin.

“Did you ever talk to her?” Jimmy asked Hitch. Harriet was an old woman. She made a friendly wave from her cabin door. Her underwear was neatly pinned to the clothes line like it always was.

“Harriet washes her underwear every day. Maybe she wants a boyfriend.” Hitch said.

“Not me,” Jimmy said.

Coming into LaConner, past a field of cabbage plants, past the almost shut-down hulk of the New England Fish Company cannery and they came to the grandest edifice of all LaConner – the beautiful Rainbow Bridge.

There was Robert Sund, the poet of the city, under the bridge, leaning against the trunk of an old madrone tree, smoking a cigareet in his straw hat and faded blue chambray shirt, wearing those cheap black cotton slippers from Chinatown. Past 53 years of age, his beard was long and white, and Robert was singing to the clouds,

“I got them lonesome dying skunk cabbage blues,

Yellow dreams of heart-ache,

Lonesome lovers want to drown,

From them old dying skunk cabbage blues."

“Hey Robert,” Jimmy and Hitch sang out like in a chorus.

“Hail the Sand Spit Warriors,” Robert exclaimed.

“Jimmy, mighty oarsman, Hitch, swallow friend.”

Jimmy and Hitch approached and Robert declaimed, swelling to a height of almost ten feet.

“I am the heir of Walt Whitman and a first cousin to Gandalf.

I row the marsh and the sweet yellow iris calls my name.

I sing the tide and work the wind up the river,

To Disappearing Lake, around Bald Island,

Returning on the ebb of tide and through Hole-in-the-Wall.

Aflame with thirst, I drive my oared skiff to the LaConner Tavern,

To shoot pool and quaff pitchers of Olympic beer.”

“Robert, you talk like a poet,” Hitch said.

“I am the poet of the city”

“LaConner only has 600 people.”

“Yet I am the poet of the city, the bard of the river,

Singer of the Salish Sea, I hear the music

Of Samish, Snohomish, Skykomish, Stillaguamish,

And all rivers with salmon – of these I sing.”

“Robert, we’re on our way to the Frog Hospital to get some supplies, and we were wondering….”

“Poverty is a blessing, we are anointed as brothers,

Beer comes to those with imagination,

Only believe and a half-rack will be ours.”

“Ours?” Jimmy said. “I don’t know about that, but hey, Robert, if we get what we need we can always share it with you.”

Nearly Normal Jimmy and Hitch continued walking into LaConner. Robert remained at ease by the madrone tree and he began blowing smoke rings as he exhaled his cigareet.

“I got them lonesome dying skunk cabbage blues…..”

The Rainbow Bridge, joining LaConner with the Swinomish Reservation, is painted a bright industrial orange. Its many-riveted steel beams arch gracefully over the saltwater channel.

Underneath the Rainbow Bridge grows an ancient madrone, paler orange of peeling bark and leather leaves. The madrone always grows near the saltwater.

(to be continued)

Notes. What’s going to happen next on Jimmy and Hitch’s long journey into town? They will be going past Clayton James’ studio. He’s been building a bread oven out of recovered bricks. And Charlie Berg’s chicken coop is right next door. Charlie is out in the yard composting a 1957 DeSoto.

Will Nearly Normal Jimmy and Hitch ever get to the Frog Hospital? And how will they get the money for their “supplies”?

The Rainbow Bridge. The Rainbow Bridge was built in 1957. Harry R. Powell, the bridge designer, should be celebrated as an artist equal to any other in LaConner’s history. It is no wonder that Robert Sund perched himself under the bridge for his cigareet. Read Harry Powell’s on words on the bridge at the bottom of this message.

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Fred Owens

· From the Puget Sound Mail July 17, 1957.

In his own words, Powell describes how he got the idea for the design of the bridge.

“The obvious way to replace the existing LaConner Bridge, which was built about 1916, would be with a swing span similar to the existing bridge, except that its construction would be more modern without the load limitations that the present bridge has, with quicker operating motors and electrical controls, so that the bridge could be opened and closed with a shorter interruption of vehicular traffic. My firm was commissioned to design such a structure for the county. As there were Federal Funds involved in the construction of this bridge it had to meet the approval of the Bureau of Public Roads and the State Department of Highways. Both of these agencies were very cooperative and contributed many valuable ideas to the design of the final structure.

“We did all the preliminary work for a swing bridge on the site of the existing bridge and anticipated that we would have to detour traffic during construction of the new bridge. The detour was not too happy a situation but was one that would have to be lived with if a new swing bridge was to be built in the location of the existing bridge….

“After the preliminary studies were made on the swing span and approaches, I was at the site with Hjalmar Walberg who was then County Engineer. Standing on the existing bridge looking towards the Park and thinking of the problems that a low level bridge occasioned, I mentioned to Mr. Walberg that we should have a study on a high level bridge between the rock out-crops on the City Park and the Indian Reservation. I told him it was a beautiful opportunity to get an arch bridge in there and that it would have the following advantages over the construction we were discussing. First, there would be no equipment maintenance and no need for a bridge tender; second, we would have no piers in the stream to bother navigation; third, I believed that we could get a much better looking bridge on the site. I asked him how that would affect his road alignment and his statement was that this was a much better location for the bridge and that eventually the City of LaConner would come to that conclusion.

“We made some studies on an arch bridge and found out that a flexible fixed arch was the type that suited this location the best. This type of arch is not particularly common. There are presently two bridges of this type with long spans in this country and one or two in Europe. There is one being designed over the Fraser River, which design was probably the result of the construction of the LaConner Bridge.

“After we worked up our preliminary estimates and designs for the arch span we submitted it to Mr. Walberg and the County Commissioners who agreed with us on the analysis of this problem and who gave us every consideration and cooperation during the design and construction of this bridge. We had the pleasure of meeting with the Commissioners, the Mayor and the Council, and interested citizens of LaConner at a public hearing of the new bridge. The proposal to change the location of the bridge was a new and radical idea to both the Council and the people of LaConner, and it was gratifying that they went along with us on this new location. I made the remark at this meeting that when the bridge was completed on this location they would be happy with the new structure…..”

Powell concluded that an engineer gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build something so good and so true, and the Rainbow Bridge was his dream.

Fred Owens
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