Thursday, April 2, 2015
“Would you like to join me for lunch sometime?” said the white-haired, twinkly-eyed, 4’10” Jean.
It was 2001, and I’d been taking a walk, exploring the area near our new country home on Lakeshore Drive, near Lake Lowell. When taking a turn up Duck Lane, Jean had been walking out to her mailbox, where she greeted me, then asked me to lunch.
I climbed into the eighty-year-old’s sports car the next day, and as I held on for dear life. Jean drove like she thought she was Mario Andretti. We stopped to pick up Thelma Elledge, who lived just down the road, and I thought, “Three for lunch, how fun.”
Twenty minutes later, we approached a restaurant table with nine others seated around it. It was my first introduction to the Friendly Neighbors Club, a ladies’ club that had originated in 1928, comprised of neighbors and farmers’ wives living in the Lake Lowell area. The group needed new blood, and I was it.
I lunched with the Club for the next fourteen years and then some, often riding with Jean and praying all the way there, and all the way back, but these days much has changed, and I do the driving.
Many Club members have, as the organization’s simple “In Memoriam” pamphlets put it, became “as a rose that climbed the garden wall and blossomed on the other side.” Some, in practicality mode, agreed to sell their larger country homes and most of their possessions to downsize into smaller places, or voluntarily go into assisted living facilities. A few went involuntarily. Some are in-between for now, living independently, but heading quite unwillingly towards something else.
I picked up Jean from the new home that she shares with hundreds of other residents. I know she misses her big white house with the fruit trees on Duck Lane, yet she tells me, “You bloom where you’re planted!” in that determined, spunky voice of hers.
We joke that my son’s car, which I borrow on Club days because my Jeep is too hard for Club friends to climb into, is the ‘limo’. It’s even black, so that helps. Jean loops her arm through mine, acting like it’s all about comradery, but I understand she might also want a little help balancing.
“Let’s get out of here,” she tells me, “we’ve made enough trouble in this place. Let’s go cause trouble elsewhere.”
At the all-you-can-eat Chinese Restaurant, the table is more populated than usual. Nine members present is a good turnout these days. During the Club’s height, they had over fifty in attendance, but things have changed. The middle-aged women who used to attend in the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties wound up going to work in the following decades, and Club became hit and miss. I myself took a two-year sabbatical right after my divorce, since I worked during Club times.
This day in April marked the Club’s 87th anniversary.
Ruth sat across from me, and said, “I could use those things, but I’d starve to death.”
The entire club had an issue with my enjoyment of chopsticks.
“There’s always one,” Phyllis had said last year, when we’d all gone to the Mongolian Barbeque together.
“It doesn’t taste as good to me without chopsticks,” I tried to explain. No one replied.
I began to justify my chopstick-ing once more.
“My kids got good at it right away,” I ventured, “I had to practice for months to be able to eat with them like this.”
“I think it’s the sign of a show off,” joked Darlene. I think it was a joke, anyway.
They allowed me to change the subject.
“My son’s getting married this month,” I told them all, but only a few heard, given the long table we were seated at, “we just love the girl he’s marrying.”
Ruth gave her typical reply.
“Well, I’ll be!”
Her eyes softened as she thought about her own wedding. Everyone knew that Don, who’d passed away many years ago, had been the love of her life.
“I can’t recall ever arguing with the man,” Ruth said, “he was just a lovely, lovely person.”
Darlene, the ‘baby’ of the group, other than me, told me she’d been Ruth and Don Walker’s children’s babysitter many a time. She told of how Don would pick out Ruth’s necklaces, earrings, and bracelets for her dates with him. He had adored his wife, and loved to adorn her. Ruth was always decked out in gorgeous accessories, which I liked to think might have been carry-overs from her Don days.
Ruth and I got to talking about Peggy.
“I didn’t even know she’d passed on,” I said.
“Oh, ye-esss,” Ruth said, in her cute Ruth way, “that was a while ago.”
“They told me at the last Club meeting when I asked,” I replied, “Peggy was something else. She said she’d never had a toothache, headache, backache…”
“Nope,” Ruth agreed, “she never did. She ran a corn topping crew in her late forties, while she was several months along in her pregnancy. She didn’t allow whining, and she was like a machine. Boy, those farmers sure loved her.”
All sorts of other conversations were going on around the table, and for the zillionth time, I wished I’d had a subtle yet legal way to record it all. Jean had been the secretary for a long, long time, keeping copious notes that she’d read back to us at the following month’s luncheons. As her hearing decreased, the humor of those notes increased. There was no telling how we might get misquoted from month to month, and the mischievous side of her was unapologetic. She’d eventually put down the torch, but no one caught it. I’d been hesitant to step in all of these years, knowing I was still considered as the ‘newbie’, but on this day, I didn’t care. I took a pen and a tiny lined composition book out of my purse and jotted down bits and pieces as fast as my fingers would fly.
“---remember McCall’s Corner?” someone was saying, “Did you ever know why they called it that? It had nothing to do with McCall. A family used to live there by the name of McCall. That’s why they called it ‘McCall’s Corner.’”
“---has anyone seen the old Lakeview schoolhouse lately?”
There were several nods and moans, and mine was among them. The place looked nothing like it used to in the old days, with its pristine white paint of yesteryear.
“I don’t want to go there,” someone said, and the rest of us nodded again.
“I heard it was really nice inside,” a member commented, adding, “and that they just keep the outside not so nice, so property taxes won’t go up.”
A thoughtful pause followed as we contemplated.
Ruth leaned toward me and said, “We used to hold Club in the basement of that school. They had this big crib down there for the babies, and we’d all stick our toddlers in it and let them play together.”
Laneal, who was member Verda’s daughter, changed the conversation’s course by inquiring, “Ruth, how long have you belonged to Club?”
“Oh, heavens!” Ruth said with a wave of the hand, “I have no idea.”
Margaret, who was Ruth’s official ride to Club these days, got a faraway look in her eye and said, “I don’t remember seeing you way back then.”
Ruth turned, feigned indignance, and said, “Well, I don’t remember seeing you!”
Both ladies chuckled.
History was always a topic at Club. Everyone there, myself included, had been through too much, seen too much not to discuss some of it.
“The Peterson’s place isn’t even there anymore,” said a member at the end of the table. And then, “Ruth? What happened to that land of yours?”
“I inherited it after Don died,” she replied, then admitted that she wasn’t sure who owned it currently, but said she didn’t believe it was anyone within the family.
I tried to bring up the topic of Peggy again. She was a Club member that had fascinated me. Ruth was game.
“She was a very nice lady,” she said, “Very giving. My son said she helped him clean a goose he’d shot once. Or something like that.”
“We never left Peggy’s house empty-handed,” I said, “I used to take the kids Christmas caroling to Club members that still lived out around the lake. And on Halloween, we’d trick or treat out there before we went into town.”
Ruth was attentive as always, one of her many charms.
“Oh, I bet they just loved that,” she said kindly.
“One Halloween, we drove out to Peggy’s, and when my Jeep’s headlights hit the side of her house, we saw about twenty cats, all bundled up on top of each other, trying to stay warm on that really cold night…”
The memory was crystal clear. When the kids had hollered, “Trick or Treat!” to Peggy’s surprised person, it became obvious she hadn’t been prepared for callers. I had quickly whispered to the kids to ‘reverse Trick or Treat her, and they offered up pieces of candy. Peggy went along, but being the giver she was, returned gift for gift.
“Why don’t you take a kitty with you when you go?” she said, “there are a bunch to choose from over there by the garage.”
Three sets of blue eyes turned on me. In our family, we had a rule: If you asked Mom for something with an audience present for added pressure, the answer would automatically be ‘no’. I realized I’d set no such rule in place with the rest of the population.
That’s how we wound up with an orange kitten named “Pumpkin”, who went on to father countless other kittens who nicely kept the mice numbers down on our acreage for years to come.
Ruth loved the story.
“Oh, my, ye-esss,” she grinned, then leaned forward once more.
I knew that stance. A story was on its way.
"Did I ever tell you about our house in Hailey?" she asked.
“We had this house that had this circular floor plan, see. There was this hallway that went round and round. And my mother was deathly afraid of mice. One day, she saw a mouse, and she let out a scream. Daddy came a-runnin’, and he got out his shotgun, and I’ll be darned if he didn’t shoot at the thing. That made Mother scream some more, so Daddy shot again. Then Mother screamed again, so Daddy shot again.”
Ruth’s eyes crinkled with humor, and I knew the punchline was on its way.
“You have to wonder about the neighbors,” she mused, “Who heard three shots fired, and three screams, and still didn’t come over or call the police.”
I laughed, loving the way Ruth told a story.
“Peggy used to tell the story of O.D. Miller,” I began, “She told it every month I attended Club with her.”
“I don’t know that one,” Ruth said.
I felt myself start to grin, “I guess when she had a red-headed baby late in life, O.D. Miller started asking her where that child came from. He’d tease her about the milkman, the mailman, and such.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Ruth responded, “of all things.”
“Supposedly Peggy got so fed up with it, one day she told him, ‘You know why I had a red-headed kid? Because I guess I just got so durned old, my pipes were rusty!’”
“Well, I’ll be,” Ruth laughed, shaking her head.
Peggy had told that story consistently for years. When I asked my friend Julie to sing for the Club at one of their special anniversary luncheons, I gave her the heads up that she might hear a questionable tale or two. Julie assured me she was ready.
Halfway into the luncheon that year, Julie gave me a questioning look, as if to say, “When’s she going to do it?”
When the ladies got up to leave the restaurant, still no story. Julie acted as if she’d been gypped. I shrugged as we followed Peggy and the other ladies out into the parking lot. Peggy had been telling the mildly off-color story for over five years, how could she have failed me?
When Peggy reached for the passenger-side handle of the car she’d be riding home in, I knew it was a lost cause. But, then:
“You know,” she said, turning to face my friend, “I had this redheaded child a little late in life. And there was this old farmer, O.D. Miller, he used to tease me…”
As I recanted the episode to Ruth, she smiled broadly.
“She was quite a woman, that one, “ Ruth said again.
“So are you, Ruth,” I thought to myself, “So are you.”
“Are you taking notes?” Ruth asked now, noticing my pen and tiny notebook on the table, “Take this down,” she said, in a tone that let me know that whatever happened next would most certainly be funny.
“I wish I could drink like a lady,” Ruth recited, “One or two at the most. But one, I’m under the table. And two? I’m under the host.”
I blinked, trying to think of a comeback.
“Wow, Ruth, I wish I’d heard that sooner,” I told her.
“Really?” she said, genuinely concerned.
“Nah,” I laughed back.
More than anything, one of my greatest desires was to convey to the Club how much they meant to me, how amazing I thought they all were. Any attempts to do so had been humbly shushed. I’d written an article all about them for Idaho Magazine, which I proudly gave each lady a copy of at one of our meetings. Thinking they’d be flattered and thrilled, I watched as they thumbed through the story’s pages, and then set their magazines aside.
I bumped it up, turning the article into a chapter in my latest book, then brought the book to a club meeting. Surely this would get to them, I thought. Surely.
“Nice book, but I’m not going to buy it,” said a member with a chuckle. “I don’t read enough to spend $12.99.”
It seemed to be the general consensus.
That was okay. The Club didn’t have to buy my book, or even like it. They’d been there for me during all of the times that counted. The Christmas after my divorce, they’d all decided to give me the special, handmade ornament that they ordinarily drew straws for. Getting to take the yearly ornament home had been a somewhat friendly, competitive feather in one’s cap, and their graciousness touched me.
If there were extras of anything at Club meetings, I was told to bring them back to my children. On this anniversary day I’d been the host, and brought whimsical pinwheels the women delighted in, looking for a moment like the sweet, innocent school girls they once were.
Jean was holding her shiny, spring-toned pinwheel when she got back into my son’s car.
“Wheeee!” she said in her elfin voice, between puffs that lit up the tines when catching the sunshine.
“So, how is your new family-in-law going to be?” she asked, and I loved her for asking. Jean was like an older auntie, always interested, always concerned.
“They’ll be great,” I said, “Except I might be off to a bad start.”
“What do you mean?” Jean said, sounding for all the world like Glinda the Good Witch, with that magical tone of hers.
“Well, the other day we all piled into the car, and since I didn’t want to sit in the back seat, I asked my son to let me drive.”
“I don’t see a problem with that,” Jean said supportively, “but go on.”
“Well, we were in this parking lot. I guess I released the emergency brake before turning on the ignition, and the car began rolling backwards. I noticed there was another car parked behind me, and panicked, trying to find the brake, but it was a stick shift, and I kept hitting the clutch or gas pedals, which did me no good.”
“Did you hit it?” Jean asked, bemused.
“Yep. And guess whose car it was?”
“Your lawyer’s?” she offered.
“Nope. My other son’s. He’d parked right behind us.”
Jean nodded, and looked like she was trying not to laugh.
“…so I hit my one son’s car while driving my other son’s car…” I continued.
“What did your future in-laws do?” Jean asked.
“I’m not sure about the others, but I saw my new future daughter-in-law’s dad slowly but surely reach over and buckle his seat belt.”
Jean’s giggling couldn’t be retained at that point.
At the assisted living facility, Jean took my arm, yet insisted on trying to open the big, heavy entrance doors for me. Those farm women just never quit.
“Well, I hope you’re glad you joined Club,” she said.
“I am, Jean,” I assured her, “I’ll always be thankful to you for that. The Club has made a big difference in my life.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that, dear,” she said.
It’s been hard to see members getting older, moving out, moving on.
“In thirteen years, the Club will celebrate their 100th anniversary,” I said to Jean, then inwardly chastised myself, knowing there was no way most of the women in the Club would be around by then. I carried on nervously, trying to mask the obvious.
“Maybe we could get the city to hold a parade,” I continued, “with fireworks.”
“Maybe we could,” Jean agreed amiably, “if we could get the powers that be to agree to it…”
“Oh, I’m sure they would,” I countered, “We’re the Club. We know people,” I told her with a little wink, so like the ones Jean used to give me when she’d talk about dancing with much, much younger men.
I walked Jean to her room with my arm looped through hers. For Jean, it was for balance. For me, the comradery. I loved my Club ladies.
“Oh, before I forget,” Jean said, holding out the sparkling pinwheel, “You have kids. Here.”
My kids were 24, 21, and 20, but that didn’t matter. I knew Jean and the other Friendly Neighbors had always been all about giving. I took the pinwheel, thanked her, and hugged her.
“Love you, Jean,” I said into the top of her white-haired head.
“Love you, dear,” she said back, and then stepped into her apartment.
“I’ll see you next month,” I told her, praying that would be the case.
As I walked away, I remembered something Phyllis had said during a rare interview for that magazine article I’d written.
“Nothing ever really goes away. It just changes.”
The Friendly Neighbors Club will never really go away. It might change, but farm-girl friendships like the ones we’ve enjoyed have and will stand the test of time.
*Dedicated to Jean Wilkerson, Ruth Walker, Verda Allen, Charlotte Johnson, Margaret Lawrence, Marilyn White, Phyllis Saxton, Laneal Chirin, Barbara Dinius, Jelene Baird, Anita Welchel, and Darlene Fail.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Welcome to Wilder
By Amy Larson
*As seen in IDAHO Magazine
I have to admit, I hadn’t considered Wilder much. Located on US Highway 95 and Idaho Highway 19 at about 14 miles west of Caldwell and 40 miles west of Boise, one could breeze right through Wilder and not think twice. A store and post office, some modest houses, a lonely railroad track cutting across the main street.
Out of curiosity, I read up on the place and found, as with every town in Idaho that’s examined closely, a myriad of stories.
In 1904 a group of settlers decided to put down roots there, and often had to haul water from the Snake River to their homesteads. They were making a go of it, and investors began rubbing their hands together over the area, thinking they’d take the railroad from Butte, Montana through Idaho, and then clear to San Francisco. Expecting a future as somewhat of a boomtown, people were talking big, and the group of financiers unofficially hailed the place as ‘Golden Gate’. Settlers liked the name so much, they named a school, a Baptist church, a store, and their irrigation and canal district after it.
And Golden Gate it would have remained, had it not been for Marshall P. Wilder, the enterprising editor of a widely-read women’s magazine called ‘The Delineator’, who bargained with an official to name the town after him in exchange for a favorable write-up. (For one short month, the town was known as ‘Wilderia’, but that got nixed for what might seem like obvious reasons.) The community didn’t exactly love the new dubbing, thinking Golden Gate sounded much better.
Unfortunately, the idea of a second San Francisco in Idaho was short-lived, and the line was sold off to the Oregon Short Line Railroad, which obligingly extended the tracks from Caldwell out to Wilder, but not to San Francisco.
The building of Deer Flat Reservoir and its subsequent irrigation system in 1911 brought more water to Wilder, and with its ideal growing season it became some of the Treasure Valley’s best farmland for sugar beets, mint, onions, wheat, potatoes, barley, corn, alfalfa, grapes, and what developed into Wilder’s largest and most profitable crop, hops. Above all, Wilder is hops country.
Abundant crops required far more manpower than the tiny town could supply, and migrant workers were attracted, which produced housing dilemmas that needed to be solved quickly. The solution started out as the Wilder Labor Camp and evolved into the current-day Chula Vista Acres, a 120-unit project regulated through the United States Department of Agriculture that provides affordable rental housing for families involved with agricultural work.
Wilder’s population nearly quadrupled during the harvest, with migrant workers pumping welcomed commerce into town, and multiplying its student population in a way that allowed for additional federal funding for its struggling schools.
Old newspaper articles conveyed tales of the town having, instead of a mayor, a Chairman of the Board from 1919-1958, and how a plaque honoring those served was displayed at City Hall. There was print of the overwhelmed city sewer system, and what was to be done, mentions of how farmers didn’t want to sell their prime land for commercial and residential purposes, and how that was driving the land prices up and restricting city growth. Then, the little nugget of how in 1965, the fire station burned down.
To that, I laughed, thinking, “Bet that was tough to live down.”
The pages told of the push by Dale and Vera Kenyon, Wilder’s postmaster and schoolteacher respectively, to open a public library. There was ample mention of the hops-growing Batt family, from which emerged Phil, who served as Governor of Idaho from 1995-99.
The publications told of suggestions made for Wilder schools to give up the fight and combine with Parma or Homedale. The locals balked at the thought, and voted it down. One student was quoted as saying, “We wouldn’t have a town if we didn’t have the high school.”
Curiosity piqued, I felt I was ready for the drive to Wilder. After reading so much about the place, I had some questions. How was the little town doing? Did they still have Wilder schools?
When I told Lee, an older gentleman, that I was going to Wilder, he recommended that I take a photo of a pheasant while there.
“Why a pheasant?” I asked.
“Because there are a lot of them in Wilder,” Lee stated, without any further explanation.
I drove down Simplot Boulevard/ Idaho Highway 19 towards Wilder to find out the rest of the story.
What struck me first were the wide open spaces on the outskirts of town, with straight rows of farmland almost as far as the eye could see, adding to the backdrop of one of the first truly magnificent sunny days of the season and a true blue sky. Fields of deep green shimmered in the breezes, as dust trailed behind a nearby tractor that was making good time, heading towards what was probably a lunchtime meal. Most trees were confined to the vicinity of farm houses, kept out of the way of precious land that was residents’ lifeblood.
Irrigation ditches ran along the country road, filled with water appearing almost a turquoise hue, framed by golden weeds on either side.
Rolling into town brought further testament to the good growing season as many a modest yard was embellished with ample arrays of irises and roses. The railroad track was a presence, with packing yards and pallets situated alongside, evidence of anticipation for the busy harvesting season. I saw Golden Gate Avenue, the Golden Gate Highway District, and the Golden Gate Baptist church, amused over how the name was preserved.
After turning a corner, I happened along the city park, where several people were enjoying lunch in mature trees’ shade. Getting out of my car, out of habit I locked it up, creating an audible clicking noise. Several sets of eyes moved to me, possibly curious at my over-cautiousness. I got the drift that people weren’t too uptight about such things here.
Past the arches of the swing set, I spotted Mercer Hall, a part of the school I’d seen in old photos, and to its left was a newer school building. Just behind was another recently-built school building, and the driveways were dotted with cars and buses.
“They made it!” I thought, happy over the city’s triumph. Driving around the school complex, I saw the proudly displayed “Wilder School District” sign, and “WHS!” formed by plastic cups stuck into the chain link fence at the Doug Edwards field.
“You are now entering Wildcat Territory,” another sign said, “Home of the fighting Wildcats”. Beneath were boards attached, citing years the Wildcats were state basketball and football champions.
Going down street after town street, I realized you could see the water tower with ‘Wilder’ on it from just about everywhere. There weren’t many people around, but when stopping to take a photo of yet another plush flower garden, I discovered two gentlemen across the street, casually sitting on the front cement steps of a home. They were eyeing my camera, so I told them about exploring Wilder for the day.
“We like it here,” one said, “It’s nice.” He introduced himself as Jesse, adding that his real name was really Jesus, pronounced ‘Hay-Soos’. The other man said his name was Thomas, but pronounced it ‘Toh-moss’. They said they’d lived in Wilder for years, and that they were familiar with hops production, with family ties to hops farms and a history of having worked the harvest.
Jesse grinned, lifted what looked to be a 1.5 liter beer bottle, and declared,
“I’m a supporter!”
I wandered further into town, taking more photos. I saw two colorful Mexican restaurants, corner-to-corner, a small events center painted in a vibrant red, and murals gracing a few exterior walls, accented with more irises. I found several churches, and then discovered a smaller city park that honored veterans. While taking photos, a man on a bicycle wearing a ball cap waved, and stopped to chat. We shook hands and he introduced himself as Wilder’s Mayor John Bechtel.
He told me about Wilder’s recent grant, how the city had celebrated with a ribbon cutting and a visit from Governor Otter. It meant improvements for the streets, a safe path for the kids to the schools, and other needed upgrades. He told me a little of his own history, how his parents had been migrant workers themselves, going from town to town with kids in tow during the harvest. Because of his childhood experiences, Mayor Bechtel could better relate to the town’s migrant worker population.
Looking over at the water tower, he mentioned how at one time, someone had come up with the whimsical idea to turn the tower into the face of the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man. I could see how that might have been perfectly executed, but then learned that somehow the folks at Disney had gotten wind of Wilder’s intentions. The movie and animation giant sent the city a letter, forbidding them to infringe on their copyright. So, no Tin Man smiling benevolently down on the townsfolk for Wilder.
With an invitation to tour City Hall later in the afternoon, I said a temporary goodbye to the mayor and continued to explore.
Across the main street near the grocery store was a taco truck with an adjacent awning. Two men sat beneath, eating their lunch. Although I was nearly a block away, the wind carried their comments of, “She must be a Realtor or something, or maybe she works for the city.”
I turned around to go talk to those guys, knowing the greatest stories came from random people. The two told me they were eating at the best taco truck around, and that the food was worth driving down the road a bit further for. They talked about the Fourth of July parade, and how as soon as it’s over, everyone heads for the park.
All the talk about taco trucks and picnics was making me hungry, but I needed to get out of the sun, so thought I’d patronize one of the two Mexican places in town. I walked slowly past both, considering. Suddenly the back door to one of the places swung open, and the Mayor stepped out.
“C’mon in and I’ll buy you lunch,” he told me. Good, I thought, since I had more questions.
Over beef enchiladas, I told Mayor Bechtel about the articles I’d read, and how glad I was to see the Wilder School District alive and well.
“The school is the hub,” I was told. The Mayor added that the kids got an excellent education at the local schools. So excellent that six Wilder students had been the recipients of Gates Scholarships.
“They get a good education,” said the Mayor, “and then they leave.”
I heard about Doug Edwards, the man who the high school field had been named after. He’d been a big part of the community, always helping out, and had a special affinity for the school. When an illness took his life, the Wildcat field was named in his honor.
“We’ve gotten a lot of help over the years,” said the Mayor, “that’s how small towns like these keep going. It’s the givers.”
I nodded in understanding.
“Do they still use the old Mercer Hall?” I wondered.
The Mayor told me it was still used for gym classes, assemblies, and that there was a cafeteria downstairs. Not only that, but the COSSA (Canyon-Owyhee School Services Agency, a Vo-Tech school that’s located on Penny Lane in town), sent students in their culinary program to Mercer Hall to get experience in the cafeteria, preparing school lunches each day.
“I heard about the city sewer system being overworked years ago,” I shared, “Whatever happened with that?”
“We had a big overhaul,” the Mayor replied, “and it cost the taxpayers. They weren’t very happy about that. Their bill went way up. But,” he continued, “We learned something there. Knowing that expense was coming, we should have gradually raised the rates, so it wasn’t such a shock, instead of jumping to what it did. We learned.”
I asked about the fire at the fire station back in 1965. The Mayor laughed and shook his head.
“The fire truck saved itself on that one.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It drove itself out,” said the Mayor, “something went haywire with the battery and it started up. Since it was already in gear, it crashed right through the closed doors and out of the fire.”
I got out the camera and displayed the photos I’d taken so far. Mayor Bechtel nodded as he recognized the buildings and places he knew so well. An old church, a house in town, a mural, the park. When he clicked to a pristine white house with surrounding white sheds, he said, “That’s my sister-in-law’s place. Every blade of grass is in order. Right there where the garden is now, there used to be a house there, but it’s gone now, and it’s a garden spot.”
The Mayor said he’d like to see a few good little businesses come into town, maybe a discount store. He told of how back in the seventies when the mall was built in Nampa, it cleaned out Wilder’s customers. Once the mall was around, almost everyone went there to shop, and it hurt their economy, since traditionally about 60% of what the harvest workers earned went back into purchases made within the county.
He talked about the old Polar Bear, a mom and pop hamburger joint that closed years ago, and how something like that would be nice to have around again, too. A couple of the draws to Wilder were the events, and one was the Fourth of July parade I’d heard about earlier, and the other was the Fabulous 50s festival in late September. Being that the position of Mayor in Wilder is only part-time, Mayor Bechtel fills the rest of his time by driving busses from back East to out West, and gets to see some beautiful countryside. All told, he seems to prefer the ‘Golden Gate’ area.
“Do others see the simple lifestyle and move here to retire in a peaceful setting?”
“Not really,” the Mayor replied with a grin, then added, “But there are about five homes being built down the road.”
Jesse and Thomas had mentioned those, too. The addition of new families was always welcomed. More people meant hope for the future. The slogans on the new town banners even said, “Come Grow with Us.”
I asked about the hops, and the Mayor said, “When people not from around here ask what they are, we tell them they’re giant beanpoles.”
After lunch, I toured City Hall, met its employees, and saw the Chairman of the Board plaque on the wall in the courtroom. Mayor Bechtel sat behind his desk and fished out a paper from a filing cabinet, then handed it to me.
The city had created a resolution, affirming that they ‘welcomed and respected the innate dignity of all people’, and that the residents of Wilder were ‘hospitable and inclusive, living in a bi-cultural community’. The resolution stated an awareness that many new community members traveled thousands of miles to resettle with their families here in the United States, and that the citizens of Wilder would live up to the fundamental American principles of treating newcomers with decency, common courtesy, respect, fairness, compassion, opportunity, and acceptance. It also recognized the many contributions that immigrants make and have made to the community.
Any legal/ illegal alien issues aside, the resolution was saying that people were people, and should be treated as such. Today, many of Wilder’s residents are no longer migratory and lived there year-round.
I asked the Mayor if he’d pose by the huge American flag within the City Hall, and after he did so, we shook hands, and he joked as I exited the building, “I’ll keep the Chief here so you can speed on your way out of town,”
At least, I think he was joking.
More photos of a simpler life beckoned. A farmer on his tractor. A basketball hoop with rows of crops for a background. More glorious flower gardens. By now school was out, and the town was humming with cars and people.
I made my way to the grocery store, walking confidently through its doors, only to be met by confusion and post office boxes. It seemed the post office and grocery store shared the same building, and what I was after was at the next door down.
I talked to Belinda, who was behind the counter. She’d lived in Wilder a while and said she felt it was a good place to be.
She gave me a sidelong glance and said, “Yeah, they told me someone was out there taking pictures.”
In a small town, there are few places to hide.
Even though I’d enjoyed a beef enchilada less than an hour earlier, I reasoned that if I made a stop at the taco truck, I wouldn’t have to cook dinner for the family that night.
At the truck, an older Hispanic gentleman sat beneath the shady awning, possibly visiting a relative working inside the wheeled restaurant. He wore a fantastic cowboy hat, woven in looping holes to allow air to pass through on a hot day. The hat was sprayed black and gray in a rattlesnake pattern.
“Great hat,” I told him. He just smiled and let me know he didn’t speak English. He looked up at the young girl by the window, who kindly said, “Ella dice que es un buen sombrero.” (She likes your hat).
The man smiled again, and took the hat from his head and placed it on mine. I handed him my camera and asked him as best I could if he’d take a photo of me. Once he did, I ordered tacos for the family, and a tall, cool Horchata to consume on the way home. When I walked back towards my car, I saw my new friends Jesse and Thomas in the parking lot, heading for the grocery store, perhaps to further support Wilder’s biggest crop. They both waved.
Gratefully sipping the iced drink, I had one more stop at Chula Vista to make the trip complete. Pulling over in front of the building that said, “Wilder Housing Authority,” and the grassy area surrounding it, I got out of the car, snapped a couple of photos, then noticed a young couple resting in the cool, under a large tree. Obviously far from home, their loaded-down bicycles told part of their story.
I asked if they were having an adventure. They were. “Tim” and “Liz” (natureofmotion.blogspot) had ridden their bikes from Alta, Utah to Sun Valley, to Stanley, to Wilder. That night they were headed for Vale. They knew nothing of Wilder, but by now, I felt I did. I told them of how Wilder had fought to keep its schools. Of Chula Vista that was just to their left, and how the people there provided a vibrant boost to Wilder’s economy. I told them about the Mayor riding along on his bike, of the informative lunch, and about the fire truck saving itself. They smiled and seemed to dig it.
I was now an evangelist for Wilder, Idaho.
Heading out of town, once again sipping the Horchata, I was sorry to leave.
I passed the sign that said, “Wilder Welcomes You” and thought, they sure do.
Monday, January 5, 2015
He jokes that it’s “all about the hair” (dark locks that we’ve seen slung over, spiked, and/ or carefully placed), but for Thomas Duncan, it’s really all about the heart.
If sitting across a table from Thomas at say, Flying M Coffee Garage in Nampa, you’ll get a clear picture from his puzzle piece tattoo that, by design, faces whoever he’s with.
“Everyone has something missing. I want people to know those things can be overcome. See how it’s dark around the heart? We all have things that are dark, but at the core is love. When I look down and see this, and when you see this, we’re reminded we’re loved. No matter who you are, or what those black things are, overcoming is at the center.”
Thomas Duncan wants to help people through teaching, inspiring, and his example of rising above the pain. Toying around with an idea for how to do that for a while now, the opportunity recently presented itself. Without any extensive planning or financial backup, The Canyon West Guitars owner seized the day and rented the basement of the building already housing his primary business, figuring if it was dead wrong, God would tell him.
He got no such sign.
Through his guitar shop, Thomas plans to collaborate with agencies working with autistic kids, helping them via the one thing that transcends most barriers: music.
Welcome to the AIM (Autistic Inclusion through Music) Project.
“You can say anything without verbal communication, just play your heart on your guitar,” Thomas says enthusiastically, “We’ll take the kids into the studios, teach them to play in a rock band setting, and then let ‘em go.”
He smiles slightly over being told not long ago that if he knew a little more about autism and autistic children, the downstairs “might not be ideal”.
As it happens, Thomas Duncan knows an awful lot about autism. He and his wife, Sandra, have an autistic child who was diagnosed at a young age. While in the process of becoming educated, Thomas began to realize he and his young son shared many of the same traits.
“That really made me wonder what was up,” he says, “as a kid, I was the ‘weird’ one, but autism? I never once suspected that, not even a little bit, since everybody’s got their own brand of weird, and that’s okay. But seeing those pieces fit together was uncanny, being an employed adult in my thirties, providing for my family. That’s a huge diagnosis to come along when you have a wife, four kids, and you’re a professional. For a while, it put me in a bad place mentally. You could compare it to looking into a mirror and seeing the self you know one day, then a totally different person the next, with a face you don’t recognize. An autism diagnosis changed everything about how I viewed myself. Every. Single. Thing.”
Overnight he began to understand why he’d awake some mornings with sensory issues, and felt he could relate quite well to what his son had and would go through. He’s grateful for modern advances that currently assist people with autism, unlike how things were three decades ago.
As a child, (and long before there was vast knowledge regarding gluten sensitivity and such), Thomas saw doctors who’d inevitably say, “Sorry. It’s just nerves. There’s nothing we can do, because there’s nothing wrong with you. You’ll be okay.”
What plagued Thomas was not something anyone else could see; he was repeatedly told to just snap out of it, leaving him alone in what he described as a legitimate, unpleasant, horrifying experience that he would have done anything to get out of.
“I was fighting an actual, developmental, real, honest thing.”
He grew up viewing himself as the square peg, but what those around him didn’t know was that due to the ultra-sensitive, unusual stress and hazards of his daily living, depression grew to the point of suicidal thoughts.
“I got tired of being the odd man out, tired of what felt like rejection and abandonment. I didn’t know why I was the way I was.”
Music was the bright spot in this youth’s life; he sang and played instruments at every opportunity. As a teenager, he approached an organization that was performing Handel’s Messiah, and was told he needed to talk to “Buck”.
Buck turned out to be a large, barrel-chested, big-voiced man with an even larger, Type A personality who had the six-foot, 125-pound Thomas sing a bass aria for him. Thomas felt he killed it, and afterwards Buck said, “I want to give you vocal lessons.”
Thomas’s mother resisted, stating that the family didn’t have the money for lessons.
Buck pointedly explained, “I said I want to give him vocal lessons.”
That, Thomas surmises, was probably what saved his life. Buck showed faith and confidence in him, taking him from a mere performer of music to a musician who came to understand the deeper theory behind the music he made. By the time Thomas was sixteen, he visited Buck’s house six days a week, practicing for approximately sixty hours. Meanwhile, Buck had Thomas act as the orchestra librarian, children’s chorus director, and allowed him to direct orchestra rehearsals.
“’Don’t let the brass get away with this, don’t let Joe rush when you get into this section, okay guys, Thomas is taking over,’ he’d say,” Thomas relates.
Buck taught Thomas to be both a leader and a man, providing situations where he absorbed lessons on people management, communication, and organization. Without knowing anything back then about Autism or Aspberger’s Syndrome, Buck simply took care of a boy who seemed to need some direction and guidance.
Thomas Duncan wants to provide that same outlet for youth in our community who feel like he once did, in an effort to prevent what he suffered. He posts the quote on social media, “(Autism) is fighting a war where the enemy’s strategy is to convince you that the war isn’t actually happening”, coming from one who “gets it”.
Since opening Canyon West Guitars, this Nampa business owner has taken three big risks. The first was opening the store with no capital, no “back up” job, and no bank financing. Inventory included sixteen sets of guitar strings, a few straps, and some “random stuff”. Within weeks of opening the store on Canyon Boulevard, the building was robbed.
Draining their checking account to be able to move downtown, (risk number two) proved to be a step in the right direction. Thomas became involved with downtown Nampa’s rejuvenation, submitting his “Psychotography” for the Phantom Gallery’s display windows, getting to know resident business owners, and even offering random downtown tours.
When told he’s “kind of the face of downtown”, he laughs in typical humble fashion, however, Thomas has built himself a family among the Nampa business blocks.
To Thomas, the AIM Project has a similar feel.
“Massive Risk Number Three,” he says, “People have been very supportive, offering ideas and help all over the place.”
The studios he’s rented are viewed as canvases that will soon be filled with kids making music.
He envisions a Friday night of AIM kids playing their hearts, with a Canyon West crew or two taking the tunes into downtown, expressing themselves in universal ways that are understandable to everyone amongst applause, whistling, and feedback that will let performers know they’re valued, important members of the community.
“Rock and roll,” smiles Thomas, “it’s gonna be going on. It’s going to be very busy, and very human.”