October 23, 2012

Signs of Old Times

No vintage photos, no colored fonts, no interactive sidebars. The historical signs along the back roads of Okanogan County are the simple, old fashioned, slab-of-wood kind, the sort that swing on eyehooks from a frame like the gate to a ranch. It’s classic mid-century roadside stuff, history for auto travelers—big markers at gravel pullouts, with hand-carved lettering large enough to read from inside your car.

Keep in mind this is a county roughly the size of Connecticut. Located in north-central Washington, tucked up beneath the U.S. border with Canada, it stretches from the Cascade Range all the way to Grand Coulee Dam. It’s a place of hot summers and freezing winters, of cattle ranches and Indian lands, where orchards and hayfields alternate with sagebrush and rattlesnakes.

By rights the signs in this neck of the woods should have weathered to pieces years ago or been chopped into kindling by vandals. Yet the 23 wooden markers that dot the vast, remote landscape of Okanogan County are just as spiffy and sharp today as they were in the 1960s. They sport no initials, no bullet holes, no spray-painted graffiti—even though most of them stand far from town, where no one is watching but mule deer.

Is it small town good manners that keep them that way? A rural sense of community? A deep respect for the frontier past?

No, it isn’t. It’s Bob. (more…)

October 10, 2012

Great Uncle Joseph Did Not Go Down on the Titanic

My friend Maggie has a problem.

Not a problem so much as a cousin—a distant, well-meaning cousin with a passion for genealogy. Maggie likes him. She wishes him well. But she wishes he’d stop insisting that someone in the family tree was rescued from the Titanic.

“It just isn’t true,” she tells me. Maggie’s pretty old school when it comes to documentation. She likes to see some kind of actual proof. “Two men share a name and that’s all.”

There was, in fact, a ship passenger with the same name as Maggie’s great uncle. This young man—we’ll call them both Joseph Shaw—was an Irish farmhand from Connemara, sailing third class to America to join his brother in New York.

No doubt he was handsome and full of life. We know he was good in a crisis. When the ship hit the iceberg and water gushed in, young Joseph stripped off his thick Aran sweater (the one his mother knitted for him before he left Ireland forever) and gallantly gave it to two shivering women about to be launched in a lifeboat.

The women survived—with the sweater. Young Joseph, alas, did not. (more…)