Thursday, September 22, 2016


            As a farm boy from Vermont I can – on honest grounds -- lay claim to my right of membership in that fraternity known as bridge-watchers; not just everyday bridges you understand, but certainly when it comes to truss-built covered bridges. Early settlers in the new world learned quickly that bridges made of wood exposed to rain, snow, sun, wind and the vagaries of changing seasons had a short life, but when roofed over like a sturdy barn could outlive their builders. If you thought that snow was the enemy, you would be wrong. The folks actually had to shovel snow onto the roofed bridges to accommodate horse-drawn sled traffic for half the year.
            Since I was a teen-ager I have loved our country’s honest covered bridges and the notes of history which play like a serenade within the dark shadows of every one. It seems that these architectural wonders are infused from the hammering of the first peg and the crafting of the first joint with the very spiritual molecules from which stories, mysteries and tall tales are given birth.
            I know of many within whose secret silences marriage vows have been spoken, first kisses exchanged and important promises sworn. I have felt a shiver or two on a tall point of buttressed timber from which famous suicides were launched and I am no stranger to the midnight hauntings which are still said to make themselves felt on hand-fitted spans more than one-hundred years old. More than one highwayman favored a particular bridge as an easy ambush point for his night-time criminal enterprise, and I have personal knowledge of a notch several feet above the roadway where an illicit pack of camels would be safe from bad weather and prying eyes on one.
            My favorite Vermont covered bridge – The Bridge on the Green – has looked down on colorful flies cast by Sir Winston Churchill, President Dwight Eisenhower and a host of world-famous leaders testing their casting skills on The Battenkill, whose waters I trust were kinder to them than to me.
            The typical proud Vermonter might be surprised to learn that the State of Oregon was home to more than 450 covered bridges in their heyday, with an impressive number still surviving today. While I have hunted down and photographed most of Vermont’s still-intact 100, I am still working on their northwest cousins where I finally tracked down Number 50 on my Oregon list a week ago at a heavily-wooded, almost “hidden” location just a dozen twisting back-road miles from the Pacific Ocean. (Most of the Beaver State’s survivors are located further east, in the Willamette River valley.)
            The coastal village of Yachats (pronounced YA – hotz) in honor of a Native American tribe of hunter/gatherer/farmer people who prospered there long before the arrival of Europeans. The word actually means people who live at the foot of the mountains. Settlers who were attracted by the rich soil, green and semi-tropical countryside adjacent to ocean riches, and a friendly year-round climate moderated by warm ocean currents found themselves with the north fork of the Yachats river hindering community growth. In 1938, Otis Hamar, a noted bridge-builder contracted to solve the problem with a 42-foot covered bridge featuring a classic queen post truss. Over the years time and mishaps left things a bit ragged, so in 1989 the bridge was rehabilitated and re-dedicated in keeping with Oregon’s commitment to making the state’s covered bridges honored historic landmarks.
        The drive to the North Fork bridge site snakes beside the Yachats river beneath a canopy of    hundred-year old          
hemlocks covered with deep layers of forest-like moss.

For its sheer charm and magnificent setting, the Yachats North Fork bridge becomes one of my two favorite Oregon survivors, right alongside the Currin bridge in Oregon’s Lane County, home to 20 of the finest.

         The last covered bridge built by the legendary “Uncle Ote” Hamar shows off the craftsmanship of a “lost breed” of master-builders who never entered an Engineering classroom.                  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


            Hidden within the many folds of one of the medieval world’s biggest stories, are so many little stories that it is troubling to a serious columnist to have to leave so much “unspoken” in the interest of space, time and the ever-challenging economy of words on the mind of a story-teller part-timing as a writer. (Guilty!)
            For instance, how many of us might have known that within that layer of sad history, the first use of biological warfare lay buried! Sometime around 1346, the plague arrived from Russia on the Crimean peninsula where Muslim armies were laying siege to the ancient city of Kaffa, a trading outpost for Genoese Christians joining east and west in very active trading ventures. For some time the Mongolian Golden Horde benefited from and so allowed this tenancy to exist. In 1345, relations broke down and fighting erupted, with the Mongols surrounding the city, at the same time their soldiers were being decimated by the great plague. The order came from the Tartar leaders to get rid of the dead by using their catapults to launch the accumulating bodies into the city. In fact t it was probably from vessels plying from Kaffa to Genoa that the Great Mortality spring-boarded into Europe proper.
            Then, I was surprised to find just how many educated people of that day subscribed to the belief that plague outbreaks did not necessarily originate on earth but came from elsewhere. Modern scientists noting that the plague visited this world during the reign of Justinian in the 6th century asked the question where was Yersinia  pestis “hiding” for all those years?  Some noted present-day astrophysicists have proposed the theory of vertical transmission based on the possibility that meteoric “travelers” circulating between the inner planets of our solar system could indeed bring living forms of bacillus to our sphere.
            Without doubt, the biggest “side story” worth exploring in this final column on The Great Pandemic involves the effort to blame an entire people for the death storm that took the lives of nearly half the population. It is hard to say whether it started with Christian church clergy, or among the local government leaders, but soon the “rumors” began to spread that the Jews were behind it; that they were poisoning the wells and water supplies of cities and villages across the land. In France, and Italy and Spain and – especially- in Germany, enraged citizens set about clearing their area of the Jews who were unloved to begin with.  Pogroms aimed at Jewish minorities were nothing new in many parts of Europe and in Russia. Now open hostilities took place even in such cultural centers as Cologne where more than 25,000 Jews were slain in fighting. In other cities, rough wooden ghettoes were constructed, and after the region’s Jews were gathered inside, they were burned to the ground. Even in small villages, Jewish men, women and children would be burned in the public square
            It is ironic that even back in those years it was “common knowledge” that Jews controlled banking, the money supply, and much of the business world. It was the same cry one heard in Nazi Germany following the end of WW I, and even in the New York City area in the dark economic days of the 1930s. I refer to it as an “irony” because Jews were forced into that field of endeavor by the very same people who later condemned them for being so good at it. In Medieval and even earlier times, money-lending was considered the lowest level of human endeavor, so in the Christian-dominated corridors of business Jews were assigned to occupy that rung of the societal ladder so that “righteous” citizens need not lower themselves to such duties.
            As terrible as was The Great Plague itself, it is even more disturbing to be reminded that there have been pockets of senseless human behavior at the very moment when what humanity needed was a core of people committed to doing good even in the worst of times.