0-60 On the Emotometer
Or How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Last week, I visited Jimmy—now Jim—a grade school friend. Grade school! Man, that was so long ago, I don’t think they even call it that anymore.
Jim lives in rural Oregon—just inland from Newport—where we grew up. We’ve followed each other on the socials for a while, but hadn’t seen each other since I fled town at the end of ninth grade.
It was an intense walk down memory lane for both of us: monsters jumped out from the shadows with sharp claws and loud roars, warning us not to get too close to the old emotional crap they guard.
We were both a little shell-shocked at the end of the visit.
Driving to my old classmate’s place—a retired Grange hall in one of Oregon’s many near-dead towns—I hit the brakes when I saw this rickety footbridge across the Yaquina River.
This questionable looking construction has lived in my consciousness for fifty years, though I had no idea where it was, or if it really existed.
Whenever I see one of those viral videos of terrifying bridges or glass walkways with clickbait headings like “Would you dare to cross this bridge???,” my brain dredges up this one. As I recall, it bounced with each step, especially if more than more person was on it. Terrifying.
The property it takes you to is the definition of the wrong side of the tracks: a Union-Pacific train still runs right past it—along that tree line, near those power poles—on the far side of the river. That distant stop sign (on the right) is actually a rail crossing sign.
I don’t know what this compound is like today, or if anyone still lives there. But when I went there as a teenager, it was the stuff of nightmares.
I once had an older brother, Rickie. I wrote a bit about him in the piece Things Jack Said. The juvenile diabetes his imaginary friend, Jack, diagnosed became a lifelong problem for Rickie. It eventually led to diabetic retinopathy and blindness in his late 20s.
In a weird way, going blind was one of the best things to ever happen to Rickie: it gave his life purpose, at least for a while.
After he lost his sight, Rickie discovered that blind people were getting screwed: the government safety net had a huge hole in it which the unsighted fell through, unnoticed. Disability checks took months to arrive, if they showed up at all. Social services were limited or nonexistent. My brother made it his mission to change all that. He set out to organize the visually impaired of Lincoln County, whether they wanted to be organized or not.
At first, he held meetings at his house in Newport. He qualified for one of the “welfare” quonset huts near the baseball field, where he lived with his wife and two little kids. Ironically, the quonset hut design became a hip architectural style in Joshua Tree—where I currently live—but at that time, on the Oregon coast, living in one of those houses was something to be pitied.
I sat in on a few of the local blind group meetings, unnoticed. It was actually a relief to be in a room full of mostly men who didn’t stare at me in that creepy, lusty way most men did then. (Side bar: I think my old pal Jim was disappointed that I am no longer a super hot 15-year-old. Oh well. Time + shit happens.)
The members of Rickie’s group came from the far reaches of Lincoln county, which soon became a problem. Legally blind people really should not drive, though some did. One guy used his 10-year-old grandson as navigator: “Stop sign, Grandpa. 20 feet… 10 feet… STOP!”
After a few months of meetings, the group thanked Rickie for bringing them together, but said they were really more interested in having square dances and potlucks. After that, Rickie went to them to get his petitions signed—my dad driving—often with me in tow.
That is how I found myself at this Yaquina River compound one spring day in 1973.
As far as I know, the only way to access this place is to park on the dirt road and walk across the scary bridge, which my father, my brother, and I, did. Though we were poor—as were the families of many of the kids in that class photo—this was the first time I’d encountered real poverty: squalor, even. There were piles of trash everywhere, a filthy outhouse—which I needed to use but couldn’t bring myself to—and sketchy-looking chickens running around screaming. The entire property was strung with heavy nautical rope, a knot tied maybe every three feet so the cranky old blind man who lived there could find his way around, which he did deftly.
As the two blind men conducted their business—with the help of Bob, my dad—I stood paralyzed in a state that’s hard to describe: a deep feeling of not belonging—to the point of wanting to instantly vaporize. It wasn’t awkwardness, or fear; it was a panicky feeling of get-me-the-fuck-out-of-here—NOW. The panic increased exponentially realizing that the only way out was to cross that godforsaken bridge again.
It was with these memories flooding through me that I pulled up to meet my old friend.
No wonder the visit went from 0-60 on the Emotometer within the first hour.
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