Origins in Oregon by Laura Harris

Everyone was born somewhere and everyone lives somewhere. For me, it’s the same place- the city of Eugene, in the state of Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. When I was born, Eugene had about 30,000 residents. Today it’s closer to 130,000. It took 60 years and a whole lot of farm-land given over to suburbs to add that additional 100,000 people.

Like many of my age living here, I was born into a deeply blue-collar family, sprung from parents who came here from the Midwest. My mom came from North Dakota and my dad from Michigan. For mom’s family the motivation was simple: they were poor and hungry and the dirt in North Dakota had little to offer them for income or food. The motivation for my dad’s family was much less simple.

My dad’s family came here because they were running away; running away from the mob and somewhat paradoxically, also running away from the Feds. It was a crazy thing, having to run from both the bad guys and the good guys, but my grandfather had managed to upset both factions and place himself —and by proxy, his family— in serious jeopardy. The mob wanted my grandfather dead and the Feds wanted him behind bars. As far as he was concerned, he had no choice but to run as fast and as far as he could, and take his family of seven kids and a wife with him.

They arrived in Oregon in a black-market Cadillac decorated with stolen license plates, having taken off in the middle of a cold night from Detroit where, during the preceding day, my grandfather had killed a mobster and thrown his body into the Detroit River.

Granddad was employed by the U.S. Customs department that was in charge of enforcing the import-export regulations  at the U.S.- Canadian border. Specifically, he was stationed on the American side of  the Ambassador Bridge which spans the Detroit River and the American-Canadian border. He was there to inspect the cars and trucks moving back and forth between the two countries, mostly to look for illegal booze entering the United States from Canada. Until one fateful day in 1928, only a few people knew granddad was on the take from a gang of state-side rum-runners.

 Art by Laura Harris

Art by Laura Harris

A rookie customs agent, assigned just that day and unaware of granddad’s complicity in the booze-running operation, mistakenly (as far as granddad was concerned) fingered a mob car with a trunk full of spirits bound for the thirsty masses on the U.S. side of the border. The goon riding shotgun hopped out of the car to rectify the situation by ventilating the rookie. When granddad realized what was happening, he made the fateful decision to avert one disaster by initiating another. Not a small man, granddad grabbed the goon from behind and slammed his head into a nearby concrete bridge abutment, splitting it like a ripe watermelon.

To make sure there was no mistake regarding the amount of life remaining in the gangster, granddad levered the man over the guardrail and let him drop into the cold swirling waters of the Detroit River many feet below. The goon driving the car quickly drove away, ostensibly (again, as far as granddad was concerned) to report the situation to his boss. Granddad quickly realized he had only one option and that was to very quickly get the hell out of Dodge- or Detroit, as it were. That’s where the stolen Cadillac with its stolen license plates comes in and also where granddad and grandma take on aliases.

After several days travelling west, my dad and his family ended up in the woods near Vernonia, Oregon, a small logging town located up in the northwest corner of the state. One of the first things they did after finding a place to live was set up a still and start making moonshine. You might think that after the events preceding their arrival, that diving right back into the booze business would be far from their minds, but money was scarce and the thirsty were everywhere. It wasn’t long before fermented mash was distilled into fungible liquids and granddad was hauling the white lightning along twisted back-roads. The funds from that commercial anarchy was used to firmly establish my paternal predecessors in the lovely state of Oregon.

By the time he was 16, my dad had learned how to hot-rod Model T Fords and was creating headaches for the lone police officer in Vernonia, racing down Main Street with all the rancor and fury he and his metal beasts could muster. It would be another 10 years before he laid eyes on Eugene and the woman who would become my mother.

My dad and his brother married sisters born of a German father and an English mother who had come out west under much less egregious circumstances. They’d been living in North Dakota, out in the middle of nowhere, on a small ranch that barely raised what the family needed for food and trade. My maternal granddad worked as a rural postman to help make ends meet but the ends kept moving farther apart until he could no longer bring them together. Having heard stories of the bounties out west, he gathered up my mom, her sister, and his wife and brought them to Eugene, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and took a job at the city post office. It was a few years later that my dad met my mom at a boarding house built at the foot of Skinner’s Butte (not far from the original home of Eugene Skinner, the town’s founder). It was about this time too, that the United States was forced to take a role in defending the world against the Axis powers. My folks had just enough time to conceive their first child before dad was shipped off to Johnston Island, way out in the Pacific, west of Hawaii.

Mom hung around Eugene until my brother was born in ’43. Meanwhile dad was off building airstrips and boxing rings as a Navy Sea Bee. As soon as my brother was big enough to leave with my mom’s mother, she headed up to the Boeing Aircraft plant in Renton, Washington and helped build bombers and fighters for the Allied war effort. She was one of the many women who became known as a Rosy- as in, Rosy the Riveter.

The second world war came and went as did a conflict in Korea before I arrived as the fourth and final child of this rough and tumble family. It was 1953 and the world was in the midst of massive changes that would go on to influence my life in a thousand ways.

 Photo courtesy Travel Lane County

Photo courtesy Travel Lane County