Friday, June 29, 2012

"He's Out At Fishtown"

By Fred Owens

You have to fight for your life. That's the chief condition on which you hold it.

― Saul Bellow, Herzog

“Have you seen Keith Brown? He’s been looking for Lisa again. He came to the Lighthouse and started giving Ernie Benson a hard time. This is putting me on the spot -- I gotta watch out for him now.” It was Larry Yonally asking.

“He’s out at Fishtown,” Jimmy said, leaning into the window of the police car.

Larry was the LaConner police chief. He had one full-time deputy and a part-time reserve officer on his staff, which was enough to keep the peace in a town of only 650 souls. Larry had slicked-back dirty blonde hair and pretty blue eyes. He was close to thirty in age, but he wore a 12-year-old grin at times. He had a prepubescent pudginess in his torso, like he had been eating large boxes of buttered popcorn at the movies. That was how he looked -- youthful. Thankfully, Larry did not compensate for his physical immaturity by assuming a tough-guy pose.

A tough-guy cop would never do in LaConner -- you had to just go easy on people, let the drunks find their way home after the tavern closed, maybe just walk into the bar around midnight and say a quick hello, but not stick around, not watching people like a cop, but just being officer friendly – Larry did that well. He kept the peace. That was his job.

He lived with his wife in a doublewide on Caledonia Street in South LaConner and kept his police “vehicle” (cops like to say “vehicle” instead of “car”) parked in his driveway face forward, ready to go, being on-call at odd hours.

But this was day time. He drove down Caledonia to South First Street and saw Jimmy and Hitch walking down the middle of the road, which people did because there was no sidewalk and no traffic either. But Larry spotted them and waited at the intersection to ask about Keith Brown.

Keith was certifiable. He lived out in Fishtown and had been out there for ten years already. In the fabled saga of Fishtown, 1982 was part of the “Empty Years.” The poets and artists who had enriched the river cabins had since departed. Charlie Krafft had taken a studio in Chinatown in Seattle. Steve Herold started a graphic arts business, also in Seattle. Beau Diller and his wife, the Turkish Terror, had rented a house in LaConner. Paul Hansen was still on the river, but he was occupying a decent rental, meaning a house with electricity and plumbing, up at Al’s Landing.

That only left Keith and Art Jorgensen and the empty cabins between them. Art was becoming a true hermit, he never came into town, and you never saw him go anywhere. He just stayed in his cabin and worked a little on his boats. He was a master craftsman, woodworker and sculpture. He was just not projecting out into the world.

So that left Keith all by himself at the other end of the boardwalk, with no one to talk to and he began hearing the voices again.

A lot of people wondered where Fishtown was and how to get there, and the poets always said if you look for it you won’t find it, but if you don’t look for it, well there it is.

Anyway, you had to walk across Ken Staffanson’s field, which he rented from the Chamberlain family, to get to the cabins. Or you could drive up to Margaret Lee’s farm at the top of Gages Hill, where Margaret kept a few dairy cows and she had the finest river, bay and skyline view in all of Puget Sound. But you needed her permission to drive up there and park your car, and then traipse down the hill and then get on the boardwalk which was built to go around a gigantic rock and there you were – in Fishtown. Charlie Krafft would come out to Margaret Lee’s farm and when he got to the boardwalk, he would gratefully say hello to the blackberry branches which fell over the path, and he would greet them, each branch, and carefully push them aside, so they might spring back into place – that was the kind of place that Fishtown was. But Charlie and the others were gone and Keith was by himself.

Charlie said, “Keith only made any sense about half the time. You would be talking about something, like fixing a hole in the boat, or going into town for groceries and having a normal conversation, and then in a split second it was like you were on the north pole of Mars -- totally disconnected. But we were all like that back then, so it didn’t matter.”

Keith was no artist but he had his projects – building solar collectors that empowered 5-watt tiny light bulbs and collecting manure for methane-powered generators, which he built from scrap parts and then, by candle light on windy winter nights, he read mail order catalogs fat as phone books for obscure electric diodes. He could turn a lawn mower into a computer or vice versa, a real electronic genius.

But people got busier and had less time for long talks with Keith. They stopped hanging around all day – they had paying work and lived in town, and Keith just got crazier and paranoid in a bad way. He started talking about the anti-Christ and the CIA and how his mail was being intercepted by the FBI and how he would be going on a special mission to restore the True Order of the nation, and how there were bodies buried underneath the Lighthouse Restaurant in LaConner.

He spoke with Jesus as well, and became conversant with the thunderous condemnations of Old Testament prophets and he began writing their instructions and verses in felt-tip pen on his brown field jacket, and then on side of his van -- “Woe unto you,” quote Jeremiah. And, going into town -- a small town where people had a great deal of patience for eccentricity – he began to worry people and then to frighten them. “I hope he gets all right,” someone might have said. “I hope he doesn’t have a gun.” Other people said Keith would never hurt anyone, but they said it with less confidence.

Larry knew Keith Brown and he hoped to monitor the situation, but the reports were disturbing – Keith was looking for Lisa again and that could be very bad.

Jimmy and Hitch didn’t have any fresh insight to offer Larry and he drove off.

“What’s wrong with Keith?” Jimmy asked.

“Nothing,” Hitch said.

“But Larry is worried.”

“Well, he’s a cop.”

Jimmy and Hitch continued down Caledonia Street on their journey to the Frog Hospital.

Two key South LaConner personalities lived on the north side of Caledonia Street. Guy Anderson, the famed artist, lived with his piano and cats in a self-designed hutch with large blank canvases and the luscious ivory-white pigments of man-loving torsos in celestial poses.

The basal granite of LaConner’s hill began even in his backyard and swelled upward steeply to the Sacred Heart Catholic church, built in 1899, but Guy Anderson was of and for the people of the South LaConner lowlands. He would greet Jimmy and Hitch with a broad smile, and Jimmy didn’t feel small or look at his shoes.

“He’s one of us,” Jimmy said.

“Guy is all right” Hitch said.

But Caledonia Street had the dynamic tension of a border region between the lowlands of South LaConner and the hill. The two adventurers, bound for the Frog Hospital, turned the corner on Caledonia going one block westward to the Don Wright estate, he being the flipside of Guy Anderson’s aesthetic, he being called Don Wrong by Sam Cram, he being for many people the defining personage of South LaConner, defined by his yard’s abundance of un-pruned blackberries concealing rusted riding lawnmowers and old tires, surmounted near his front door by the most gorgeous abundant climbing yellow roses which were the envy of every serious gardener in town, and yet all he ever did for those roses was flip filter cigarette butts on them on his way out the door to his job as a fork-lift operator at the Moore-Clark fish food factory right next door to his house.

It was a blue whale of a building, the old Moore-Clark warehouse, with mighty timbers of old-growth fir beams, a cathedral space filled to the rafters with 100-pound sacks of fish pellets -- pellets made from the guts of dead fish, ground up, processed, vitaminized, packaged, shipped around the region, and fed to nursery stocks of new-born fish that would one day die themselves and be fed to the next generation.

Moore-Clark and the 25 men who worked there, including Don Wright on his fork lift, were an essential part of the cycle of fishing life in Puget Sound and the wages were good too. It smelled like dead fish and it smelled like money to the townsfolk.

And the smelt loved it. Schools of tiny smelt flooded Swinomish Channel in winter months, dining on the unfiltered effluvia of Moore-Clark’s fish food factory. So the big fish ate the little fish out in the ocean, but then the little fish came back to eat what remained of the big fish. It went round and round, and a man could stand on the dock with a pole and a jigged hook and catch a mess of smelt for his dinner, being a part of this grand drama. And sail boats slow-motored past rafted gillnetters on the channel, past purse seiners, past dinghies and skiffs, underneath sea gull skies.

Jimmy and Hitch walked by the Moore-Clark warehouse. They saw Don Wright on his fork lift. He said hello, nodding his dark-rimmed glasses and his gimme hat and his pre-grizzled beard. Don was maybe half-redneck. He drank as much beer as anyone on the Sand Spit, but he had a job too.

“What are we going to do about Keith?” Jimmy asked himself, but out loud. “He’s my friend. If he comes into town and he tries to find Lisa, this could get pretty bad.”

“Trouble comes when it comes,” Hitch said. “Just listen to the voices.”

Potato Love

Orville Riggles grew red potatoes on the west side of Mount Vernon. He was stubborn about that, growing three acres of spuds, which you couldn’t do. The real farmers grew 40-acre fields of potatoes and had the equipment for that – plows, drills, and harvesters. And home gardeners planted a few 50-foot rows and put the potatoes in their root cellars


But three-acres didn’t make sense – way too many potatoes to eat yourself, but way short of a commercial profit – Orville Riggles didn’t care about that. He was a good enough welder to build his own harvester complete with hydraulic fittings. By God, he was his own man for all that.

Marc Daniel, being his own man for all that, came by Riggle’s farm that July day in 1982, to pick up a sack of new red potatoes. He made an offer to pull weeds for an hour or two, but Riggle’s just waved him off and handed him a big sack.

Marc was learning to be organic and countrified, but he mainly fueled his interests with cocaine deals. You buy the cocaine, you step on it, you sell it, and you can keep plenty for yourself and buy a quart of Wild Turkey bourbon into the bargain.

He was from New Jersey and he talked very fast and loud, between cigarettes, hoarsely shouting, walking and stomping from car to field, to shack, back to town, running his mouth, three steps ahead of all-out crazy, and going too fast for the law which had not seen his likes in these parts.

Marc Daniel had just enough sense to stay out of jail, and people called him Zappa because that’s what he looked like. “I look more like Frank Zappa than he does,” he said and he grinned and shouted and kept talking.

He drove out to the Sand Spit with his sack of new red potatoes, hoping to see Joy Helen Sykafoos, hoping she would make him some potato latkes like his mother made him back in New Jersey. You make latkes with shredded potatoes and grated onions, bound with flour, salt and eggs, fry them in hot oil until they get crispy brown on the outside and melting warm inside. Just like home.

Joy was home on her float shack. She cooked on a two-burner stove fueled by a 5-gallon propane tank. She had three beautifully seasoned cast iron skillets in different sizes. And she had curtains, not dainty, but feminine, and the red heart tattooed on her forearm to remind her about not being a fool for love.

Guys like Zappa would barge in – or try to. But Joy would slam the door shut and scare them off, mumbling something about witch craft and herbal potions, which wasn’t true, but it worked, because she did not, not, not want that kind of company.

The trouble is that Zappa came all the way from New Jersey with a head of cocaine-fueled steam and made it all the way into her one-room kitchen and cabin. She had to feed him to get rid of him. He was too skinny. He talked all day and he never ate. Someone needed to take care of him.

“This was meant to be,” she said. “I will make you latkes. But you understand, I am part Indian. I am from Oklahoma. I’m not your mother and I don’t know how to cook latkes.”

“But you said it,” Zappa answered. “It was meant to be.”

His eyes were on the bed.

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Plot Summary. Today’s passage is the fifth installment in a story about Jimmy and Hitch, two Sand Spit shack dwellers on the outskirts of LaConner, a small fishing and tourist town at the mouth of the Skagit River in Washington state. In the story, Jimmy and Hitch are making a beer run to the Frog Hospital, which is their nickname for the grocery store in the Quonset hut in downtown LaConner. Along the way they keep running into people they know, which is what happens in a small town, but things are going to get dicey and even dangerous. Today’s installment concludes with the pair coming round the corner from the Moore-Clark warehouse and about to enter downtown LaConner -- it’s gonna get complicated, and it might seem that they never make it to the Frog Hospital. I don’t even know myself, and I’m the guy who’s making this all up. I should re-state that Jimmy and Hitch are fictional characters, although some of the people they meet, like Don Wright, are as real as rain.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog is Fred Owens

send mail to:

Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
Ventura CA 93001

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Wisdom of Charlie Berg

By Fred Owens

This is a continuation of the journey of Jimmy and Hitch to the Frog Hospital. It takes place in LaConner, in July of 1982.

“Only against death does man cry out in vain.”
― from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Jimmy and Hitch left the wedding in Pioneer Park and came down the hill to South First Street, right there by Clayton James’s studio.

Jimmy had a sense of deep well-being as he came upon South Fourth Street. “This very spot,” he said to Hitch, “is the heart and soul of LaConner. There is some kind of magic in this spot, right here on this little street. It’s river magic. There are underground channels of water here. It just seems so mystical and so good and right.”

Jimmy felt so good that he had a troubling thought.

“Hitch, we’re all going to die,” Jimmy said.

“Nope, Swinomish people don’t ever die. We’ve always been here,” Hitch said.

“We’re all gonna die,” Jimmy said. “Just look up.”

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane…” Hitch said.

“No, look at Mount Baker. See? Over there. It’s a volcano and it’s going to explode and send a wall of mud and ice racing down the valley at 60 miles an hour and we’re all going to die,” Jimmy said.

“Not me,” Hitch said, “I have bird friends. The swallows will come and save me. When the mud flows, I will just fly away.””

“Okay, but I gotta think on this,” Jimmy said. “We could ask Clayton James….”

“Not Clay Man, he’s too happy,” Hitch said.

“Okay, we can ask Charlie instead,” Jimmy said. So they walked a little further to Charlie Berg’s house. Charlie was in the front yard dismantling a 1957 DeSoto. The DeSoto had a two-tone paint job. The body was aquamarine blue, and the roof was candy-copper-red.

“Old Man, Owl Man, Charlie Berg,” Hitch cried out by way of greeting. “Are we all gonna die?”

“Yes,” Charlie said. “We live under a volcano and we’re all going to die. That’s why I keep these lawn chairs in the front yard. This is how I figure it – when she blows, the mud and ice come racing down the valley, first Concrete, then Lyman, Hamilton, Sedro-Woolley, one town after another all swallowed up, cows flung about like matchsticks, sirens blasting, people racing around, but not me – when I see that mud flow coming at LaConner I just sets me down in this lawn chair and watch the show. The End. We go out with a bang. It will be like the last surfer riding the biggest wave.”

Charlie had a brain the size of Buckminster Fuller and a milky cow-eyed kind of look on his face – that comes from seeing in all four directions, as he explained it – “I can see things in a vision, so I try never to focus. I let the rainbow dance and I can see all the colors.”

Charlie was dismantling the DeSoto. “I’m going to compost the entire car. I will lay out the fender panels in the sun, and these flocks of crows will come and chip off the paint, and then the metal will slowly rust and melt into the ground. Then blackberries will eventually consume the engine block. It will take a few hundred years to compost a DeSoto, so I better get started right away.”

“That makes sense,” Jimmy said, “but I think we’ll all be dead by then. Except Hitch.”

“After you guys die, I’m coming to take the car,” Hitch said.

Charlie’s house was the hippie capital of South LaConner, not the house itself, but the long chicken coop by the side. When you got to town with a backpack, you flaked out in Charlie’s chicken coop. You could stay there for a while until whatever happened next. Truman and Mary had the house before Charlie took it over. Truman played the violin and Mary was crazy. Mary slept with a lot of guys and Truman got mad about that and he couldn’t play nice songs on the violin anymore, so they split up. That’s when Charlie and his wife moved in. She made infused herbal vinegars on the back porch and Charlie studied recycling from Zell Young in Mount Vernon, who was a legend in that field. Somehow they made living and Charlie’s projects mushroomed all over the lot.

Jimmy and Hitch left – they still wanted to get some beer at the Frog Hospital. A little bit further down South Fourth Street, Dean Flood was coming out of his house, working his way down the wheel chair ramp to his car. His legs were in metal braces and he struggled with crutches.

“Hey Dean, how goes it?” Jimmy said.

“Helloow, whts foe thr ddlls ggd,” Dean said a big smile.

“I can’t understand what you’re saying,” Jimmy said.

“I fesh ths ewotuf, rssdd, is sat so?” Dean said, and he became annoyed because he had to repeat himself over and over again. People couldn’t understand him ever since the car wreck that crippled him. Guys came to hang out with him at his house and watch TV and women were solicitous of his well-being, but Dean was looking at life in a wheel chair. He took a remarkably cheerful attitude anyway.

“Lkosoow, rrtheiosui, g’bye,” he said and climbed into his car drove off, wandering erratically on the wrong side of the road.

“Geez,” Jimmy said when Dean left in his car. “I couldn’t handle it if I was him.”

“You’re not him,” Hitch said. “If you were really luck you might be me, but you’re not."

“We’re all gonna die,” Jimmy said.

Lipstick On Your Collar

Lipstick on your collar told a tale on you.

Lipstick on your collar said you were untrue.

Bet your bottom dollar you and I are through

Cause lipstick on your collar told a tale on you, yeah.

-- Connie Francis

Harriet’s cabin was perched on pilings over the edge of the breakwater on Swinomish Channel. She looked out her window to see sailboats motoring quietly out to Skagit Bay, and she heard the small waves lapping on the sea weed under the pilings. Harriet’s white underwear, neatly pinned on the clothes line, flapped gently in the afternoon breeze. It was high summer in the Skagit Valley. Blackberries were ripe for picking everywhere. The cabbage plants had spent their soft yellow blossoms and were forming seed pods. The tulip fields over by Beaver Marsh Road were falling down brown and ready for digging. Tourists flooded downtown LaConner slurping ice cream cones.

Harriet watched the passing of this season with complete approval, to her as natural as the exhale after the inhale, as natural as the dust on the gravel road next to her cabin. “Someone kicks up the dust, the wind moves it around, then it settles back down again,” she said to her cat. Harriet preferred speaking to her cat. She liked people well enough, but only to look at from a distance.

Joy Helen Sykafoos left the wedding and raced down the Sand Spit gravel road. She wasn’t mad or upset, she always drove that way. She came screeching to a halt in front of Harriet’s cabin.

The problem, as she saw it, was that she was thinking about Jimmy and she was pretty goddam sure that he was not thinking about her. This was intolerable. She only liked him a little bit, but he ought to be pining away for her, at least by her standards.

“Harriet, we need to talk,” she said, and this cry brought Harriet out of her repose and come to the door of the cabin. “Joy, look at the wild roses over there,” she said, but Joy got right to the point.

“Harriet, why do men act that way?” Joy asked.

“Because they fear death,” Harriet explained.


“Men fear death. That is why courage is so important to them, because without courage they are only boys crying for their mamas.”

“So Jimmy is just a boy?”

“And he’s not worth the trouble. He needs to find his courage again. He needs to accept death. When that happens he will be a good lover.”

“What happened to your man?”

“He’s gone. Died really. You end up alone. If you’re lucky like me, then you have this nice place. I’m up early every morning. In the summer I get up at 5 a.m. The sun is bright and it’s so quiet out here. I have children. I have grandchildren. What do I need? I make spaghetti and I cook cauliflower for dinner. I make eggs for breakfast. I feed the cats. I watch the sky and the sailboats.”

“But Jimmy?”

You’re too young to understand,” Harriet said. “Just be kind to him. Have a heart. I see him when he comes walking back from town late at night – he wants to be a man, he has that goodness, let him breathe.”


“I like your skirt, it’s got that frilly edge. It moves like the wind. For a woman – to hell with men – if you have good movement you have beauty and you have strength. Now, can I take a closer look at the turquoise?” Harriet asked. Joy held out her wrist with the turquoise bracelet -- such silver gleaming around the blue stone that held all colors deep and fine, catching the gleam of the sunshine on this summer afternoon.

Notes. Under the Volcano is a classic novel written by Malcolm Lowry and published in 1947. It tells of the despair of a British man with a minor diplomatic assignment in Mexico. He lived in Cuernavaca “under the volcano,” that is, in the shade of mighty Popocatepetl – an active volcano over 17,000 in elevation.

Connie Francis wrote and sang Lipstick On Your Collar in 1959. The tremendous power and sensitivity of her singing voice stems from a childhood in New Jersey. People, even urban people, come from the land where they are born, and New Jersey is as real as it gets.

Talking Points. Will Jimmy and Hitch ever get to the Frog Hospital? Yes, but there’s trouble brewing, in a bizarre plot that involves druggist Fred Martin, police chief Larry Yonnally, and Keith Brown, a long-time Fishtown

resident who has finally gone over the edge. It’s a dangerous situation but it might be that Jimmy saves the day.

Subscriptions. We need your help to continue this story. Please go to the Frog Hospital blog and hit the PayPal button with your $25 donation. Or write a check for $25 made out to Fred Owens and mail it to 35 West Main St., Suite B #391, Ventura CA 93001.


Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog is Fred Owens

send mail to:

Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
Ventura CA 93001

Friday, June 15, 2012

Joy Helen Sykafoos Goes to a Wedding

By Fred Owens

Nearly Normal Jimmy and Hitch were walking into town to buy some beer at the Frog Hospital and this was turning into a very long journey. The time is July, 1982.

Jimmy and Hitch made off from talking with Robert Sund under the Rainbow Bridge. They went around the corner, past the boat launch, past Tom and Esther Clark’s house, going down Sherman Street past the warehouse, walking in the street under the shade of moss-covered maples that grew on the steep north slope of Pioneer Park. There was no traffic except Joy Helen Sykafoos when she pulled up in her VW van. She must have come back from a long trip, being glad to see Jimmy and Hitch and saying hi.

She was coming back to her float shack on the Sand Spit landing and she was glad to be home again and rid of the road dirt.

Joy admitted that she was from Oklahoma, from the town of Ardmore. “It wasn’t much, growing up there,” she said, “nothing but red dirt. I hope I never go back.”

“Well,” Hitch smiled, “you can take the Okie out of the mistletoe but you can’t dress … I forget how that goes.”

“I’m part Indian,” Joy said.

“Which part?” Hitch asked “Everybody in Oklahoma is part something. The red dirt got on the tires of your car – look you can see it.”

The VW van had red dirt stains, and big blue letters running down the side saying “Mexico Me Encanta.”

“Why do you have Spanish?” Jimmy asked.

“I was going to Mexico. I wanted to look the part,” Joy said. “But I didn’t go. I ended up back in Ardmore again – that’s a long story.”

Jimmy was looking at his feet. He was bashful. Joy was good-looking in a way – pretty, but she could have been softer. She had black hair with loose curls, fine skin but not pale, a figure not petite or too big either, it only depended on how she felt that day. And she had a red tattoo of a heart on her forearm. “I got the tattoo when I was back in Ardmore. The heart is for love,” she said. “Someday my prince will come -- only I don’t really believe that. I married Ralph eight years ago and he drained all the love energy out of me, but I guess I’ve been driving all day and no one to talk to. What are you fellas up to?”

“Not much,” one of them said.

“I got back just in time for the wedding. Are you going?” she said in a happy way. “They’re getting married in Pioneer Park in the pavilion. Alan and Karen are getting hitched. Paul Hansen is saying the vows. You can come.”

Jimmy and Hitch worked that one over. Free food and beer were definitely a plus. Alan and Karen lived tucked back in the willows just off Sullivan Slough. You couldn’t find their place unless you knew where it was. Jimmy sometimes paddled over there in his canoe to visit. He knew about the wedding. He knew the wide open nature of the invitation, but he hung back – maybe it was happiness of a wedding.

Hitch felt the same way, he said, ”I’ll just go home,” nodding his head toward the Swinomish reservation across the channel.

But Joy said to get in and they drove around to the park entrance and came into the picnic shelter for the festivities with balloons and children running around.

Karen was the prettiest, tallest red-headed woman in the Skagit Valley, she had red-golden curls and Irish skin. Alan was a redhead too. Marriage was a blessing. Paul Hansen came to officiate. He had a poet’s voice, loud and ranging, he could go from a deep baritone to a high-pitched whine. He wore cordovan shoes and a wool herringbone suit jacket, the only river rat who ever wore a tie, so he said the vows. Hansen was half Tao and half I Ching and he had penetrating eyes. Someone brought deviled eggs, plus entire picnic tables covered with pies, and a huge salmon barbecue, and a jug band playing banjo. Alan and Karen wore white flowing clothes and they danced round and round.

Joy felt wonderful. She began tapping her feet. Jimmy and Hitch could have drunk and ate all day but they hung back like they didn’t belong. Joy looked at Jimmy like he’ll never come and dance with me in a hundred years. But I’ll go over and kick his ass, she thought, “Why are you ashamed, Jimmy? You got shoes, don’t you? You got feet, you can move. Do you hear the music? What’s wrong with you, Jimmy Dee Fish Face?”

“She’s right, you gotta face like a fish, maybe a dog salmon with a hook nose,” Hitch said.

Jimmy mumbled and shrank down. He was a bum and his artist spirit inside was like a beaten boy. He made careful drawings of snow geese and herons, but no one ever saw them. He wanted to make mosaics or carve stone into the forms of heroic Greek women. He studied the shapes and colors of Swinomish totem art -- the strong shapes and primary colors of the bear and the eagle carved in cedar, but he was a bum who lived near a trash pile, and Joy was making him feel small for trying to make him feel big.

She put her arms on her hips and saw right through him. Okay, she said to herself, I don’t do saucy, but I’m going to do saucy right now. She made a smile and gave a toss of her hair and a slide to the side of her hips. Now Jimmy was really scared, but Hitch was not.

“Joy Jolly Go Lightly, do you love me?” Hitch said with a big grin. Jimmy punched him. Joy was disappointed, she put the sauce back in the pot and gave the two of them a long, sad, tender glance and walked to her VW van and drove back out to the Sand Spit.

“I guess we ought to go,” Jimmy said.

“She likes you,” Hitch said.

“No she doesn’t,” Jimmy said. “Let’s go.”

They headed down the hill and got to Fourth Street and saw Charlie Berg working on a car in his front yard.

Meanwhile Joy Helen Sykafoos pulled her VW van up alongside Harriet’s cabin and wanted to have a talk with her.

(to be continued)

Photo. The remains of Harriet’s cabin. The remains of Harriet's cabin on the Sand Spit. I never knew what her name was actually. This little cabin was perched on pilings on the edge of the breakwater, across from the entrance to Shelter Bay. There was an old woman who lived there -- she was friendly, but she never seemed to talk with anybody. And she always had her underwear neatly pinned on the clothes line outside.

Subscriptions. We need your help to continue this story. Please go to the Frog Hospital blog and hit the PayPal button with your $25 donation. Or write a check for $25 made out to Fred Owens and mail it to 35 West Main St., Suite B #391, Ventura CA 93001.

Thank you very much.
Fred Owens

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My blog is Fred Owens

send mail to:

Fred Owens
7922 Santa Ana Rd
Ventura CA 93001

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The remains of Harriet's cabin on the Sand Spit. I never knew what her name was actually. This little cabin was perched on pilings on the edge of the breakwater, across from the entrance to Shelter Bay. There was an old woman who lived there -- she was friendly, but she never seemed to walk to talk with anybody. And she always had her underwear neatly pinned on the clothes line outside.

The story is becoming a tale of Nearly Normal Jimmy's long journey from the Sand Spit to the Frog Hospital to buy some beer. In the last installment, Jimmy and Hitch spoke with Robert Sund underneath the Rainbow Bridge. The story continues when they meet Joy Sykafoos and go to a wedding in Pioneer Park -- that becomes very interesting.

What does this have to do with Harriet and her cabin? I don't know, but I'll figure it out.

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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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The ponderous river, kinda huge and quiet, Molding mud in silence. --Clyde Sanborn

Nearly Normal Jimmy woke up on a mound of Schmidt beer cans. He didn’t remember a thing. That was good. And it didn’t hurt either – that’s why he liked living out on the Sand Spit – no rocks or anything, nothing but soft sand and moss-covered logs to fall down on.

It was a Sunday morning in July in 1982. The tide was up and the old logs cluttering Dunlap Bay rose a foot or two off the mud bottom. The sky was cloud-free and the hot sun came up early . Jimmy got to his feet and stretched. “Kee-rist, I’m going back to bed,” he said and he stumbled back into the cabin and slept until noon.

Jimmy’s cabin was just past the young, tender willows, on the edge of the bay. The mound of beer cans was tidier than it seemed. If he had some fried chicken from town, he gave the scraps to Herk, his big black dog. So there was really no trash and the air was fresh anyway. No one else lived out there except Clyde and Clyde was gone.

This was a time in the life of Clyde Sanborn that most people forgot about. Clyde, a charming man with a velvet baritone voice, was attractive to more than one woman, but Linda was the one who stuck around long enough to reform him. She got him to quit drinking and move off the Sand Spit. They took an apartment in Big Lake, which was far enough from the river to give Clyde a new start in life. And he got a job -- that was amazing – Clyde going to work as a clerk in the Washington Unemployment office in Mount Vernon -- where a lot of his friends who were fairly often unemployed themselves, would come in for the weekly check and see Clyde behind the counter in a clean shirt and regular shoes. “And I tell you,” Nearly Normal Jimmy said. “Clyde must be the unhappiest man on earth since he quit drinking. You should see the look on his face. I’m taking bets he won’t last until Labor Day.”

He said that to Hitch, a friend who sometimes shared soft summer nights on the Sand Spit. Hitch was a Swinomish man and a leader of the Clan of Men Who Walk Slowly into Town. And for being a quiet and gentle man, his words counted when he spoke, “Clyde will be all right.”

“I was just saying that,” Jimmy replied. “Don’t get mystical on me, and don’t Bogart the Fritos.” He reached over and grabbed the bag from Hitch. That was breakfast, and the afternoon stretched out before them.

“You shoulda been there last night,” Jimmy said. “I was at the Lighthouse and Ernie Benson was mixing free-style cocktails for me and Barbara Cram, we just had a good time.” “Yeah, Barb, she’s all right,” Hitch said. “But she was getting on my case – you know how she does that, saying Jimmy, when are you going to make something of your life -- stuff like that. Barb will get right in your face. I told her my life is on the river. All I need from town is beer and cigarettes …. well, food, but otherwise what do I need? I got it all here.”

“It’s all here,” Hitch said, looking around.

“We got blackberries in the summer and salmon in the winter and we can order up a hundred pounds of potatoes from Midnight Produce. If I need firewood, it just comes floating down the river. I explained all that to Barb, which she already knows anyway, and we drank a lot of Ernie’s cocktails. I don’t remember too much after that except walking home pretty late, “Jimmy said.

The Sand Spit didn’t really belong to anyone. One hundred years ago it had been where the Skagit River came around the bend and swept into LaConner. But they built a breakwater from the hill at Pioneer Park out to McGlinn Island and diverted the river around it, and so the sand piled up where the river once flowed, and then after a while the willows and alders began growing. You couldn’t farm it and nobody really had title, so it was rent-free for shack dwellers and river rats and a few old cars that might have worked at one time or another, and a landing where people from Fishtown tied up their skiffs -- plus LaConner’s only communist trash pile. “It’s a communist trash pile,” Jimmy explained to his visitors, ”because anybody can make a contribution and somebody might haul it away to the dump but otherwise it just stays here and it belongs to nobody.”

That was his explanation. But Jimmy sometimes got nervous, thinking maybe some fastidious townsfolk might make inquiries, or there would be too much talk, like maybe those bums ought to work for a living instead of smoking dope all day. Maybe they ought to clean up that mess. Jimmy kept his eyes and ears opened for such vibrations – that was his role in the scheme of things, to warn the river rats.

“I keep my eyes peeled,” he said.

“Like a banana,” Hitch said, “but you don’t look like a banana.”

“Hitch, you don’t make any sense,” Jimmy said.

“White people are crazy,” Hitch said.

“Let me finish. My job is to keep my eyes peeled. I try to see trouble coming before trouble sees me,” Jimmy said.

“You wouldn’t see trouble coming if it fell out of the sky. You couldn’t see Godzilla if he farted in a hurricane,” Hitch said.

“Yeah, but I can make it home when it’s darker than inside of a skunk’s ass,” Jimmy said.

“You might make it half-way home, but you fall down, get up, fall down again, you only don’t get lost because you’re not going anywhere,” Hitch said.

“You’re right. I never get lost, because I’m always home.” Jimmy said, “and this is the best place anyone ever lived.”

“That’s right,” Hitch said, “but you forgot to mention the clams -- lots of clams around here.”

“Hitch, you got to shave off that Fu Manchu mustache, it’s way too ugly,” Jimmy said.

“Ugly? Not half as ugly as your mama’s mustache,” Hitch said.

“Your mama is fatter than a whale, she couldn’t fit through Deception Pass at high tide,” Jimmy said.

“Your mama….”

The Sand Spit wasn’t on the map. It was where the Skagit River used to be, and the River might come and take it back some day. (to be continued)

Note: “Midnight Produce” refers to the practice of helping yourself to the bounty of a farmer’s field. Also, some people are wondering whether this is all true or if I just made it up. My advice is just enjoy the story. Poems by Clyde Sanborn can be found here. If you find a map of LaConner on the Internet, you can see the Sand Spit as an un-marked stretch of land south of Pioneer Park. McGlinn Island now belongs to the Swinomish tribe -- I guess it always did. Ask someone else about these legalities, and a NOAA chart will give a more accurate rendition of the area, although even those charts can be out of date, because the Skagit River keeps moving around.

Subscriptions. What will Nearly Normal Jimmy and Hitch do next? Will the Buddhist ever come back to the bar? And will Ben Munsey jump over any more fences? No, he won’t, but Singin’ Dan still has an oar in the water. ….. We need your help to continue this story. Please go to the Frog Hospital blog and hit the PayPal button with your $25 donation. Or write a check for $25 made out to Fred Owens and mail it to 35 West Main St., Suite B #391, Ventura CA 93001. Thank you very much.