Richard Lee Dick Harris

Dad's Paradise

Dad’s Paradise

Dad leaned his old lawn chair, the one he rescued from the city dump, against the shady side of the house.  Relaxed, he tilted his tattered straw hat back on his head exposing a thin band of peppery white hair rimming his bald head.  With each stroke of his leathery hand, his fidgety Chihuahua mongrel “Chico” nestled further into his lap.

Shifting his after-dinner toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, Dad scanned his “little plot of land” at the edge of Oroville, a mile south of the Canadian border. His gaze moved down a gently sloping lawn past a half-dozen stone-fruit trees and vegetable patch to the marshy shallows edging Lake Osoyoos.

The lengthening shadows of this typical summer evening were changing the reflections among the sedges and tules at lake’s edge.  The open water was turning into ever-darkening blues and greens, as the muted hues of dusk settled over dry, barren ridges and ravines ascending from the far shore.  Dramatically accented by twilight, the landscape’s silhouette mirrored a miniature Grand Canyon in the invading night.

Sprinklers watering an otherwise sagebrush and tumbleweed desert pulsated in the gardens and orchards along the lakeshores.

The sun rose that morning into the clear blue sky of an August day in the Okanogan Valley.  A few clouds floated over the western hills during the afternoon, breaking the monotony of an unending firmament.  The temperature had climbed out of the seventies at sunrise into the high nineties.  As evening approached, it had cooled into the eighties.

This day had been like all the others since that Labor Day weekend in 1970, when Mom and Dad retired to this spot four miles south of the Canadian border.  From the first frostless spring morning until the fall chill ended his gardening season, Dad’s routine seldom varied.  He rose early and set sprinklers before breakfast.  He cultivated his vegetable garden until noon.  After lunch and a twenty-minute “snooze,” he worked on his gardening tools in the shade of the garage.  When everything was functioning to his satisfaction, he would spend the remainder of the afternoon “makin’ somethin’” at his workbench in the cool basement.  After supper, he reset the sprinklers and cultivated his vegetables some more.

Now it was time to sit back in his old lawn chair in the shadow of his home, gather Chico in his arms, collect his thoughts and watch the evening fall over his garden and the lake beyond.

Dad always appeared serene and content as he surveyed his little gardenscape.  In his private conversations with Chico, he would enthusiastically talk about tomorrow.  The little dog always perked up and listened intently as Dad explained how he was going to fix a tool or design an implement from a couple pieces of junk in the pile at the back of the garage.  Always, he had more to do than hours in his day.

When he didn’t think anyone was watching, Dad’s musing would slip into daydreaming.  A surreptitious glance and we knew that he had returned to his childhood on the homestead in Saskatchewan and was reliving his parents’ unfulfilled dream.

Dad’s parents sold their three-year-old homestead at the edge of the South Dakota Badlands when he was nineteen months old.  They loaded their stock and belongings in a boxcar and shipped them to an abandoned homestead forty miles east of North Battleford, Saskatchewan.  For the next eight years, they broke sod, cleared stones from the fields, hauled water from a spring a mile away, and continually borrowed against each new year’s crop.

In the late spring of 1914, after the birth of his fifth child, Grandpa fell ill with bladder stones.  This left all the field work to Grandma and Dad, now six years old.  Although he traveled to the Mayo Brothers Clinic in Minnesota for medical attention that winter, Grandpa’s condition continued to worsen.

In 1918, Grandpa moved a two-story board-and-batten house onto the high ground above an all-weather spring on a nearby quarter-section he had purchased, replacing the sod and tarpapered clapboard shack they had lived in since taking the claim.  In spite of Grandpa’s progressive illness, he and Grandma were ecstatic. They now had a real home in which to raise their family.  And, they were beginning to realize their dream of creating a grain farm out of this windswept prairie.

By the winter of 1918-19, Grandpa could no longer do any farm work.  In March 1919, my grandparents auctioned off the farm, livestock, and all except a few household effects, and moved to Minnesota so Grandpa could be closer to the Mayo Brothers Clinic.

For nine years, his parents’ claim was the center of Dad’s world.  For six of these, the spring from which he helped his mother haul water was its outer boundary. When he was eight years old, his horizon moved four miles further across the prairie to the newly located one-room schoolhouse that also became the social and recreational center of his life and his Sunday school.

Dad was a few months short of eleven years old when his parents sold the homestead, but it appears that he spent the next sixty years dreaming his parents’ dream—a dream that, as with them, was always just beyond his grasp.

In 1942, Dad rented the Tom Porter homestead across the Skagit River at Rockport for $17.00 a month.  World War II had been over less than a week when Mom and Dad purchased the property from the Porter children for $3000.

“The ranch,” as Dad called it publically, was a timber claim filed by Tom Porter in the early 1880s.  It consisted of 117 acres between the county road and the north side of Porter Mountain.  The upper forty was gravelly, loggedover brushland and a steep hillside of old growth Douglas fir.  The middle forty was a twice-logged woodland of saleable maple, hemlock and western red cedar.  The remaining acreage, of which twenty or so were tillable, was along the original bed of the Sauk River.  It fell off into a dry, sandy river bottom bordered by cottonwoods.

The ranch deteriorated under a succession of renters after Tom’s death in 1927 until Dad rented it.  The only buildings standing were the original log cabin with an attached lean-to, a barn built in 1912 that leaked like a used jelly bag and a small deserted milkhouse.  The fences were either fallen-down split rails or rusted and broken barbed wire.  Water was pumped by hand from a dug well near the cabin.  The toilet was a ramshackle two-holer at the edge of the sandbed about 100 feet from the cabin’s front door.  Electricity and telephone service that crossed the river before World War II, ended a mile away.

Dad devoted every waking hour that he was not on an outside job “workin’ in Paradise,” what he personally gave the ranch.  Whether it be working all evening at the end of his wage-earning day, or rising at dawn on Saturday morning, Dad radiated an enthusiastic confidence that this was the day he was going to move one step closer to making the ranch into the farm of his dreams.

Except for infrequent conversations with his closest friends or relatives, Dad only talked about the ranch with Mom, and that was mostly to sketch out his plans or describe something that went wrong.  His body language told the whole story.  We knew all was going well when we would hear him whistling while he was milking, or by the lilt of his step as he walked towards the house at the end of his day.

Nothing deterred Dad’s unmatched resilience.  Endless rain, broken machinery, aging draft horses, no electricity, continuing indebtedness, and two sons—one a playful child and the other a dreamer—as “hired hands,” did not stop him.  The death of my sister, the loss of three sons at birth, and the continuing struggle to meet Mom’s medical expenses did not break his spirit.  For almost 30 years, he pursued his dream of creating his paradise.

Dad worked long, physically exhausting days in the woods or in the mills.  He would rise at 5:00 a.m. to milk as many as twelve cows by hand, push a wheelbarrow of full milkcans a quartermile lane to the flat stump that was the pickup for the truck that hauled them, unrefrigerated, 30 miles to the Darigold plant in Burlington.  Then he would feed the stock, eat breakfast, and catch the crew truck in time to be at his job-site by eight o’clock.  He’d get home by six, eat supper, milk the cows, feed and bed down the stock, and be in bed by nine. 

Dad was born a horse farmer.  His mother grew up driving teams in Iowa cornfields.  His parents survived as young homesteaders in western South Dakota because his father hired himself and his team out to a railroad company laying track near their claim.  They were among the first to introduce draft horses into an oxen-farming culture in northern Saskatchewan.

Dad was so young when he began riding horses that he could not remember the first time he rode.  One of the few stories he told about his childood was about his father building a box for him to stand on so he could harness Ol’ Dolly when he was eight years old, so he could take his younger sisters and the neighbor children in a two-wheel cart, four miles to school.

Dad bought Queenie and Jerry, two aging chestnut draft horses soon after renting the Porter Place.  He farmed and logged with this team for almost a decade.  In his quest for more horsepower, he added “Nigger,” a rambunctious black bronco, creating an unorthodox, unmanagable span of three.

When Queenie broke her leg and had to be put down, a horse-trading friend sold him Bell, a big, old rhone-grey mare of questionable ancestry.

Sometime during World War II, Dad bought Bud, a silver-grey saddle horse, whom only he could ride.  Bud’s name was Silver when he was purchased, but Dad didn’t see himself as The Lone Ranger.  He only wanted to round up our milk cows more efficiently when they wandered, frequently two or three miles,  through the brush and cottonwoods of the open-range along the Sauk River.

Reluctantly, about 1950, Dad gave up his horses for a 1925 John Deere tractor and eventually for a D-7 Caterpillar bulldozer.  By the time he retired, he had rebuilt a cast-off rototiller and found an old Gibson tractor to work his garden.

Dad was a tinkerer and inventor, characteristics traceable through generations of Harrises.  In the tradition of self-sufficient frontier craftsmen, he invented out of necessity and pride.  Also, he was a perfectionist and a dreamer, attributes he passed on to his sons.  Whatever he did, he did right—according to his notion of what was right.

Dad threw discarded equipment or machinery parts that came his way into an abandoned milkhouse.  Whenever he made repairs or constructed something, he would, almost religiously, rummage through this ever-growing pile until he found what he needed.  The hours he spent digging through “that old junk” was a continual frustration to Mom. As she saw it, the time lost was far greater than the cost of replacing the part or having it made at Grant Nelles’ blacksmith shop in Grassmere, west of Concrete.

Typical of Dad’s inventions was a set of slings he constructed to lift half a wagonload of hay up the face of the barn and into the mow with one hoist.  He created this time-saving contraption from a hank of rope, some vine maple and hazelnut branches, rings off a worn-out horse harness, steel pins fashioned from a broken hay rake tooth and a few inches of link chain.  All the parts, except the wood, he found in the old milkhouse.

We frequently laughed about this old milkhouse—when Dad wasn’t listening, of course.  Each time a piece of equipment broke, we wondered aloud if he could possibly repair it without first rummaging through “the old milkhouse.”  After he retired, he created a new pile of junk in the back of his garage.

I’m sure Dad is having the last laugh.  Each of his sons has their own “milkhouse.” The only difference is that one calls his “the resource pile,” and the other, “the shed.” I notice that his grandsons are now building their own “piles of junk,” to which they turn as a first resort.

By the 1940’s, horse drawn farm equipment was almost impossible to find.  Anything left was usually broken and lay rusting and rotting, entangled in generations of blackberry vines, nettles and thistles in the back of some out-of-the-way field.  That is where Dad found a plow, a mower and a hay rake, all of which had been ferried from tidewater in a dugout canoe, up the Skagit River, up the Sauk River, and on a backwash to within fifty yards of the cabin when the homestead was new.

If Dad found two derelicts with different usable parts, he would cannibalize one to repair the other.  Seldom, though, did he find two of the same brand or vintage, which usually meant hours of cutting, drilling, filing and hammering, all by hand, to get a part from one to fit the other.  He replaced wooden parts, such as the Pitman Arm that drove the mower sickle bar, by cutting a branch from vine maples growing behind the barn.

When all else failed, Dad reluctantly made a trip to Nelles’ blacksmith shop.  This meant fixing the ‘27 Chevy flatbed truck so it would run, crossing the river on the ferry, and driving eleven miles over Rockport Hill and down the winding valley road past Concrete.  Once there, he would have to wait until the other ranchers and gypo loggers who had arrived ahead of him with their “busted-down junk” to repair.

Mom took advantage of these trips by going along or sending a list of groceries to buy at Sauk Store, just west of Rockport Hill. My parents liked to shop there because the proprietor Garnett Thompson carried us through the winter each year without charging interest.  Rockport Mercantile also extended credit on the same terms but with prices that made up for the lost interest.

My brother, sister, and I usually stayed home with a younger cousin Sally Ann who lived with us, did chores, weeded garden or, if hay had been cut, walked windrows shaking loose heavy bunches so they would dry before molding.

As a “do-it-yourselfer,” Dad was not much of a teacher.  Once in awhile he would ask my brother Jim or me to get something or hold something steady as he worked on it. During haying season, we took turns at the grindstone, turning the  crank until we knew our arms would fall off as Dad sharpened the mower sickle blades.

My jobs were shoveling manure from the gutters behind the stanchions, cleaning the horse stalls, spreading fresh bedding and pumping water by hand for the stock.

Dad worked from payday to payday trusting that his employer would be able to pay him, or that the raw uncooled milk didn’t test sour at the Burlington creamery.  When the hay was ready to cut, he would take a week off, hoping that the weather would cooperate.  Paid vacations were unheard of.

Many nights during haying season, after milking and getting a bite to eat, we would return to the field and bring in another load or two of hay.  Frequently, our last load went into the mow after dark. Sometimes, when we worked in the lower fields, Mom brought us a hot supper, stretching our day a little longer.

To Dad, toiling with one’s hands gave meaning and fulfillment to life, an attitude he developed very young.  From the time he was big enough to help Grandma roll rocks onto a stone-boat or harness a horse, he worked beside his parents.  They, too, had  worked from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, first as homesteaders on the edge of the Badlands in South Dakota and then in northern Saskatchewan.

While in high school, Dad worked in a butcher shop before and after school and all day Saturdays to help support his family.  During the six years following high school graduation, he worked as a laborer in a cannery, on road construction, or for farmers around Burlington.  He even walked door-to-door in Tacoma attempting to sell Maytag washing machines to depression-distressed housewives.  By the time he and Mom married, the depression had deepened and he returned to working as a farm laborer.

Dad’s idea of recreation was weeding the garden on Sunday afternoon or taking a nap if it was raining. Four or five times a year during the late forties when he could get the car running, had enough gas to go to payday, and could afford $1.75, cost of admission for the family, he would take us to the Saturday night movie in Concrete.

So few were the times we went for a picnic, took an afternoon drive, drove down river to visit relatives, go to the beach or to a community celebration, I’m confident my brother and I, fifty years later, could have recalled each of them.  I can still remember in detail the time Dad played horseshoes with my uncles at an family picnic.

Dad was happiest and closest to realizing his dream when he was haying.  During these times, no matter how tired or frustrated he was, he was the most enthusiastic and his energy inexhaustible.  Even his commands to the horses conveyed this feeling.

My most vivid recollections of Dad are from my perch on the wagon as he pitched hay from his mammoth shocks onto the rack for Jim and me to square and balance.  Lifting his fork over either shoulder with equal strength, he always stood upwind from the ever-present cloud of field dust and chaff that boiled up with each new heave—a cloud that always seemed to find me.

On the hottest days, if the sun was behind a cloud, Dad would take off his long-sleeved chambray shirt.  As he lifted each forkful of hay, rivulets of sweat would roll down his back and chest, soaking his “BVDs,”[1] and lubricating his glistening muscles.  I often wondered, as I watched him, if I would have the same physique and hairy chest when I was an old man of thirty-six.

Once in awhile, Dad stopped long enough to doff his cap and wipe his brow and the top of his bald head with his big red bandanna handkerchief.  He would reach between the rack and the wagon-bed for a two-quart Mason jar of water he stowed there before we left the barn in the morning.  After a couple of hearty swallows, he would exclaim the purity and freshness of our well water.  He would offer Jim and me a drink.  I usually declined.  What began as fresh, cool water was always tepid by midmorning.  Besides, I didn’t like the taste of rock salt or ginger, two ingredients that were alternately added to quench our thirst on the hottest days.  When I was real thirsty, the water tasted okay if Mom had mixed a little soda and vinegar with the ginger.

During these respites, Jim and I leaned on our pitchforks—or played tag on the load—and argued over who was working the hardest.  Dad would get our attention with, “Quit foolin’ around and square that load!” With this exclamation, which seems mild now, we knew we had less than thirty seconds to balance the load and get a hand-hold before he untied the reins and moved the wagon to the next shock.

Dad looked with disdain upon the haying techniques of our Tarheel neighbors, most of whom were Depression migrants from North Carolina who worked in the woods and kept a couple cows and a few chickens.  Each June, they cut a field or two of overgrown grass.  After it dried a couple days, they would bunch it into the equivalent of two or three small forkfuls.  With each rainstorm, these little piles sank further into the new grass.  There to lay moldering until they were unusable.

Jim and I remember the size of Dad’s shocks differently.  We do agree that, even after settling, they stood, artfully sculpted miniature mountains, taller than Dad.  They were always strategically located so the team could easily maneuver between them, alternating left and right for ease of loading.

Dad first learned to shock hay as a child working with his father.  He refined his skills on the farms in the lower Skagit valley during his teen and early adult years.  He expected his sons to learn the craft in the same way, an expectation we did not share.

Dad didn’t use cock or cocking, the more precise vocabulary for stacking piles of hay in the field.  To him, it was “shock” and “shocking,” the terminology his parents learned in Iowa, where stacking sheaves of corn in the field to dry was their reference.

Dad never articulated the sophistication he applied to haying.  Determining when the hay was dry enough to shock, stacking it in a circumference and at a height so it would “go through the sweat,” and capping and raking the sides of the shocks so they would shed the inevitable rain were critical hydromechanic principles he learned during years of informal apprenticeship, association with other farmers and trial-and-error.  When the hay was in the mow, he always spread it out so that any remaining moisture would evaporate and so it could be easily forked into the mangers in winter.

When it rained, Dad repaired machinery and harnesses, always keeping an eye out for the slightest sunbreak that would allow us back into the fields.  Jim and I would rush through our jobs, trying not to attract his attention, which always meant more work for us.  Jim wanted to play in the mow and I wanted to slip off to our cabin loft and read.  I’m sure there were times we prayed for rain to continue.

In 1951, Dad’s dream of grain farming, Saskatchewan homestead style, almost became a reality.  He sowed all the tillable land on the ranch into a new hybrid wheat that was supposed to thrive on the western slopes of the Cascades.  He borrowed a reaper from a neighbor and spent weeks patching together an antique separator he had rescued from years of decaying behind a downriver trading post.  Dad taught my brother, who was in high school by then, how to shock the bundles precisely as he had learned from his father on the prairie.

Dad invited the neighbor men, most of whom were shut out of the woods for fire season, to join his threshing crew.  Although he traded them work for wages, the younger ones were primarily attracted by the novelty of the event and the older ones by the nostalgic experience.

For a week, without benefit of electricity and pumping water by hand, Mom cooked and baked using our woodstove with its rusted-out oven, attempting to recreate a meal for Dad’s crew in the manner he remembered from his homestead childhood.

One-by-one, the crew straggled in on threshing day.  Curious and inattentive, they frustrated Dad as he demonstrated the different operations that had to be performed simultaneously.  But his enthusiasm and excitement never wavered as the wet straw jammed the separator and one part of the machinery after another broke.  Even at the end of this exhausting day during which most of the work had fallen on his and Jim’s shoulders, he was exhilarated by the event.

Mom spread her noon meal on some tables in the yard that Dad had cobbled together the night before.  When Dad shut off the machinery, most of the men, unaccustomed to harvest-time culture, either took their lunch pails out of their vehicles and sat in the shade to eat or drove home.

As was the prescribed tradition, Mom took freshly baked donuts and lemonade to the crew for their mid-afternoon break.

Although the grain was low quality, Dad sold most of it to the farmers’ cooperative in Mount Vernon.

The next year, Dad struck a deal with three farmers on our side of the river and one on the other whose land had flooded two years earlier.  He agreed to clear the debris deposited during the flood and the brambles that had subsequently grown over their land for two years’ rent.  After he and Jim spent most of the spring clearing and plowing, Dad sowed wheat on the ranch and oats on the other farms.

Jim recalls shocking most of the harvest by himself after school and on weekends.  Dad’s job in Concrete only allowed him a couple hours each evening to help.  One farmer helped on his own place.

Dad scaled down his threshing operation to more realistic dimensions.  Once again, the quality of the grain was mediocre and he sold it to the cooperative to mix with other grain as utility feed.

Dad planted the same farms the following year.  Jim remembers shocking as many thistles as grain.  By this time, Dad had cannibalized the only other vintage separator he could find. Neither new nor used parts were available.  According to my mother, even with all of his trading work for labor and rent, Dad barely cleared expenses for the three years.  Unable to find any productive land for a fourth attempt, he returned to growing hay on the ranch for his own animals.

My parents sold the ranch in 1969 to a downriver developer who impressed Dad with plans to develop a colt nursing ranch.

The last time Dad visited the ranch was in June 1979 when they stopped at my brother’s for a couple days on their way back to Oroville after attending our daughter’s high school graduation in Aberdeen.

His emotions got the best of him as he walked around Paradise.  The developer turned out to be a speculator buying for someone else whose plans failed. The ranch had changed hands a couple times since.  Its general state had almost reverted to the condition it was in when Dad rented it nearly forty years earlier.  The only bright notes were that he had the forethought to give the log cabin to the county for their new park in Rockport before selling, and he dug up the rose that had grown by the cabin since it was built.

 

Dad lingered extra long that August evening in 1979 in his “little plot of land” beside the lake in Oroville, before taking a last turn to shut off the sprinklers.  When he did go in, he gave Mom his typical big hug and said, “Well, Mother, it’s lookin’ good.”

Shortly after sunrise the next morning, Dad had a heart attack. By the time Jim and I could drive with our families to his bedside in Omak, Dad’s spirit was passing to the Saskatchewan prairies where the weather was favorable, the machinery new, the horses healthy and the bills paid.  I’m sure he whistled all the way as he joined his parents in Paradise.

 

[The original version of “Dad’s Paradise” was published as “A Decent Crop of Hay” in The Storytellers (Bellingham, WA: SunPorch Productions, 1994).]

[1] “BVD” is a brand of men's underwear. “BVD” stands for Bradley, Voorhees & Day, founded in1876 in New York City and manufactured men’s and women’s underwear.