Oregon Tale
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Oregon Tale


It’s bad form to laugh in front of a casket, so I dutifully suppressed the chuckle. The body of my grandfather Raymond Sylvester Lott was in pretty good shape, considering, but his eyebrows were almost completely gone. As with almost every aspect of Gramps’s life, there was a story there.

His weekend cabin on the North Fork of the Lewis River was heated by a wood-burning stove. He had tried to get some logs to light, but they were too wet to catch. So of course he added gasoline. The flames exploded everywhere. Gramps was lucky the fire didn’t burn the place to the ground. He escaped to tell the tale, but those patches of hair above his eyes that he had used to punctuate so many jokes and yarns over the years were scorched right off.

I have just read dozens of stories from Gramps’s own hand. When he turned 80, my family gave him a notebook decorated in a fishing fly pattern and told him to fill it up with his recollections and cast it back at us. He wrote them up and titled the composition, “The Tales & Yarns of a Life Well Lived.” It traveled with us as we moved from place to place. Finally, this year, I dusted it off and had it transcribed. Now I’m trying to figure out what to do with it all.

Maybe you can help me out, dear reader. The memoir does have some historical value, even in its current, highly subjective form. My Great-Grandparents Charles and Anna Lott came from Illinois on a wagon train headed for the California gold rush, but they didn’t make it all the way. Charles got in an argument (“perhaps shaped by alcohol,” Gramps suggests) with the wagon master and he let them off along the way. Their daughter Ida was abducted by Crow Indians in Montana, but they gave her back in trade for some horses. The family eventually settled down in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in Lowell.

His mother’s family, the Russells, hailed from Texas. They came to Oregon along with the cattle they drove there, though Grandpa Russell caught tuberculosis and returned to Texas where he was “gathered to his ancestors.” Our author puts it like that because Grandpa Russell was one-quarter Indian. “I have always been proud of my 1/16th,” he explains, “but it does me no good whatsoever. It just makes me want to hunt and fish!”

His other passion was electricity. As a child he would tinker with electrical equipment in the basement. When I was young, I asked him for a Transformer toy for my birthday. He misunderstood and gave me an electrical transformer instead. For more than 20 years, he worked for Otis Elevator Company. He believes the company pulled strings to keep him out of World War II. He serviced elevators, but his real job was to find a way to keep problem customers happy. At one point, he bribed a customer with some of Otis’s extra gasoline ration cards to stop bellyaching.

An able storyteller, Gramps includes a few family mysteries here. Great-Grandma and Grandpa Lott were “running from something,” but no one knows what. Charles wanted to tell his kids on his deathbed, but Anna said, “No, Pa, don’t tell ’em; I’ll tell them later.” She then suffered a stroke “and never awakened!” For my part, I’ve always figured Lott was an assumed name. When he was looking to buy his cabin, Gramps had to scrape $2,500 together in a week. “I can’t tell you where I got the money but I borrowed some of it somewhere,” he teases. I’m guessing, loan shark.

The manuscript is short — a little more than 20,000 words — and it’s not up to professional standards, because it was never meant to be a professional memoir. In the foreword, Gramps warns, “This book will be full of grammatical errors, lousy spelling, and dangling participles!” I wouldn’t release it to the world in its current form, of course. But I keep wondering: What if I cleaned it up a bit? What if I wrote an intro and notes and released it as an e-book? Would anybody be interested?

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