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The benevolent voyeurism of the flea market

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor


We drove up to Sumpter on a mild first day of July that could easily have passed for the cusp of October.

Except for the firework stands doing a brisk business back in Baker, anyway.

The sunshine fell with pleasant warmth on bare skin, but the wind, a fresh one from the northwest, carried the tinge of autumn.

We hiked the trails at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Park.

Although we had done this once before, our July 1 trek seemed to me a revelation.

The reason is simple: Our initial foray into the park took place in mid-winter, when the tailing piles — the stacks of rocks the dredge expectorated in its search for gold — were covered with three feet of snow and so looked about as interesting as white humps can look. 

Which is not very.

Olivia learned, in a manner of speaking, to pan for gold. Like many an argonaut before her, she was deceived by the glint of pyrite.

Later we strolled over to the flea market to acquire kettle corn and, potentially, some less perishable, if also less tasty, kitsch.

A few years had passed since I last visited the flea market. But after walking by the first booth that peddled both new sunglasses and ancient crosscut saw blades, I instantly felt the familiar but queer sensation of the place.

Which is that a flea market is like nothing so much as raiding every garage, attic, barn and lean-to in a good-sized county, and then displaying the whole mass of debris in a single venue.

And serving strawberry lemonade and deep-fried cheese on a stick besides.

To describe a flea market’s wares as eclectic is to say Bavaria’s King Ludwig had a thing for castles.

You go to a flea market to find everything — literally, everything — that you absolutely don’t need and absolutely must have.

Because, well, you can dicker for it.

And very few people can resist the lure of believing they drove the hardest bargain of the day.

This is, it seems to me, one of the few universal truths of human personality (another is that we all are convinced we have a great sense of humor): Each of us is sure we are clever enough to negotiate deftly with even the most seasoned seller.

(The entire automotive sales industry. I believe, depends upon this faulty premise.)

We came away from Sumpter with only a couple jars of seasoned green olives, which I don’t much care for but Lisa adores.

I enjoyed myself, even if I didn’t at long last dig up that Hardy Boys lunchbox I’ve coveted since third grade.

There is a sort of benevolent voyeurism that infuses the flea market, a sense that here, arrayed on cheap tables, lies the true story of actual lives.

As I walk between the rows of jumbled goods I am, inevitably, consumed by the deepest sorts of ruminations.

Who is this person, and how did he come to possess so many shot glasses?

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As a casual reader of mainstream military histories, I have a skim of knowledge regarding the similarities between the First World War and the Second.

Indeed, many of the epochal events of the latter war have antecedents, of a sort, in the former.

A compelling connection can be forged, for instance, between the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, in 1944, and the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

The rudimentary Zeppelin raids over London during the First World War foretold, albeit in an almost quaintly anachronistic way, both the London Blitz and the firebombings that nearly obliterated many German cities a generation later.

And before the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust there was the Armenian genocide in Turkey.

The book I recently finished, by contrast, reminded me of the vast difference between the two wars.

The book, by British historian Ian Kershaw, is “The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45.”

Kershaw shows, with an irrefutable avalanche of statistics, that quite a lot of the sheer awfulness of World War II in Europe, and particularly in Germany, was crammed into the conflict’s latter stages.

The author focuses on the period from the failed plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944 (effectively dramatized in the Tom Cruise film, “Valkyrie”), to Germany’s surrender in early May 1945.

It’s a hefty piece of work — 400 pages of prose plus 100 or so more of footnotes.

Yet it was a single, relatively brief paragraph that prompted me to put down the book and reflect on what I had just read.

During the final 10 months of the war in Europe, Kershaw writes, 2.6 million German military men were killed.

That’s almost as many as the 2.7 million who died during the nearly five years between the start of the war, on Sept. 1, 1939, and the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life.

To put those stark figures in strategic terms, soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Third Reich were much less likely to die while conquering the greater part of Europe than they were while defending the comparatively diminutive borders of post-Versailles Germany.

In this strictly military sense, World War II could hardly have been more different from World War I.

In the latter, the army which attacked almost invariably shed more blood than it spilled.

In perhaps the most egregious example of this calculus, the British sacrificed 20,000 men in the attack on German trenches on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, in Picardy.

There is no definitive death toll for the German defenders that day, but by all accounts, both contemporary and post-war, it’s highly probable that fewer than half as many Germans were killed.

Twenty-nine years later, weaponry was so much more lethal — in particular, tanks, aircraft and portable machine guns — that sheltering in the relative safety of trenches and dugouts, and waiting to mow down infantry as they crossed no man’s land, simply wasn’t practical.

This is, in a morbid sense, a good thing, as it allowed the Allies to defeat Hitler’s regime with what was, by First World War standards, amazing speed.

But that end, as Kershaw eloquently describes, must have seemed excruciatingly slow in coming for millions of Germans, whether they wielded weapons or sheltered, helpless, in the rubble that the B-17s and the Lancasters had made of their once great cities.


Roused by rain, and misplacing an old habit

I was awakened, a little before dawn Tuesday, by the gentle patter of rain splashing off the elderberry bush outside my bedroom window.

This shower briefly escalated into a rather more percussive one before subsiding.

On the roster of things likely to rouse me in the night, rain ranks way down there.

It’s above, say, earthquake or avalanche.

But far below the soft thud of two little feet, followed by the tale, told in a whimpering tone, about a bad dream.

A haphazard trip through the ‘Little House’ books

I’ve been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” anthology to my daughter, Olivia, who just turned 5.

We’re going about this in a haphazard way.

(More so than usual, anyway — any reading endeavor which involves 5-year-olds can hardly be described as regimented.)

We started with “Farmer Boy,” the only book in the series in which Laura herself doesn’t even show up.

I can at least justify this decision on chronological grounds. The titular character in “Farmer Boy” — Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder — was a decade older than she, so the events in the book actually predated Laura’s birth.

Which makes it pretty tough for the author to insert herself in what’s purported to be a work of non-fiction.

The rains came, and Ozzy’s bad rep goes away

The June rains barged into Baker County more or less on schedule, though with a bit more verve than is typical.

We were doused with the full month’s worth — almost an inch and a third — in the first five days.

The climate in our valley follows a discordant rhythm — utterly unpredictable but reliably so — that pleases my inner ear.

(Although my outer ear doesn’t think much of sub-zero mornings when I leave my stocking cap in its cozy spot in the closet.)

Where the gulls go, and watching giraffes spar

I saw more seagulls while I was driving through Bowen Valley the other afternoon than I saw in three recent days at the Oregon Coast.

And Bowen Valley hasn’t been within the reach of the tides for something like 200 million years.

This is the sort of avian discrepancy that can happen because the weather at the shore is better suited to filming an episode of “Deadliest Catch” than to letting a toddler get sand in his hair for the first time.

I have no doubt that gulls, which seem unperturbed by the nastiest of gales, were as ubiquitous as ever during our beach trip.

Coming Monday: A new, more attractive, Baker City Herald

The Monday, June 4 issue of the Baker City Herald will be put together by the same team of reporters, photographers, ad designers and editors who assembled the edition you’re reading right now.

But Monday’s paper will look different.

And, we think you’ll agree with us, quite a lot better.

Like father (not) like son: Showed up in chemistry class

My son, Alexander, is completing his high school career by taking chemistry and physics.

Which makes him 50 percent smarter than I am.

Or maybe it’s 100 percent.

I’m equally lost among the precepts of mathematics as I am fumbling around in convoluted formulas of chemistry and the insane concepts of physics.

This is why I labored through only chemistry in high school, achieving, by way of the dogged determination that is the clueless student’s only advantage, a flaccid “C.”

(I was pretty deft with a Bunsen burner, as well. And one time I tried to make nitroglycerine, a failed effort that seemed to amuse the teacher. Probably because I didn’t hurt anyone.)

Irrigating from the sky: The wonders of a rain barrel

I didn’t realize how much water there is in one brief rain shower until I started harvesting it.

Or collecting, or whatever the proper verb is to describe diverting rain into temporary storage.

This all started because our house came without gutters.

Whether this omission was by design, or the result of a construction oversight, I can’t say.

But considering the aridity of our climate — we’ve a lot more in common, precipitation-wise, with Phoenix than with Portland — I’ve never felt any great pressure to put things straight.

(Or more likely crooked; I couldn’t hang anything level if you gave me a plumb bob and one of those cunning tools that projects a laser beam on the wall.)

Besides which, based on the TV commercials that are broadcast relentlessly on Saturday mornings, it seems that gutters are quite the nuisance, frequently getting clogged with leaves and pine needles that are the very devil to pry loose.

The lone pine on our property is a stripling that barely comes up to my sternum, so the only way its needles could get into a gutter (if we had any) is if something (a bird, for instance) carried them up there.

Food, food everywhere, but how to get it onto my plate?

I’m all for eating local food, but the trouble is nobody around here makes Milk Duds or licorice whips.

Not that I know of, anyway.

I do on occasion consume things that contain actual nutrition. And certain of these foods — unlike sugar, cacao beans and high-fructose corn syrup, all of which I relish — are grown in abundance hereabouts.

Beef, of course.

But also potatoes and wheat and peaches and apples and much else besides.

Benign-looking PVC pipes proving deadly to certain birds

I have, it seems, been misled into believing that a 12-gauge shotgun is an especially effective weapon for killing birds.

Turns out I should be lugging around lengths of PVC pipe instead.

Which, besides being comparatively light, aren’t likely to cause grievous wounds should you drop one while trying to climb over a barbed wire fence.

I bring up the slaying of birds not to poke fun at my ineptitude as a hunter, a trait which surely needs no embellishment.

(I am to upland birds what lightning is to the general public; a threat so remote that it can be rationally dismissed.)

In fact the topic is quite a serious one.

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