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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns

March, the homeliest month, finally nears its end


March, in my view, is the least attractive month.

“Ugly” is a more direct description, of course, and nicely pithy, but I don’t believe it to be a fair description of March or, indeed, of any month.

Each of the 12 has its charms, its moments of beauty.

March just doesn’t have a surfeit of these, most years.

And often as not these interludes are so brief that they leave no lasting impression.

At the moment you glimpse the fetching buttercup, winking from beneath the sagebrush, you are forced to squint and turn away as a squall pelts your cheeks with icy rain and desert grit.

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Listening to history, 40 years after it was made


Most of us who regularly read history books, I’d wager, have wished mightily at some point that we could actually witness the scenes we’re reading about.

I was able recently to listen to history being made — before I was born.

Which isn’t quite as compelling, I suppose, as seeing an epochal event happen.

But this experience, though purely auditory, was awfully interesting just the same.

The subject, I’ll concede, is unpleasant. But then much of what gets into the history books is like that.

I would argue that the Manson murders of 1969 constitute the second most notorious criminal case in America in the 20th century.

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‘Lying speedometers’ and the lure of the gauge


If you ran across a news story headlined “Lying Speedometers” you’d likely assume, as I did, that the instruments in question give false readings.

That when the gauge shows your speed as 65 mph you’re actually doing 62, or 68, or anyway not 65.

It turns out, though, that speedometers are prone to another kind of prevarication, according to The Associated Press.

The article begins by noting that the speedometer in the Toyota Yaris, a subcompact that looks like nothing so much as a mutated mollusk, tops out at 140 mph.

Yet the Yaris in fact can muster only a meager 109, the AP reports.

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The teacher who brought music to life for me


One of life’s great mysteries, it seems to me, is how each of us, as a child, came to acquire those interests which persist into adulthood, as stubborn as barnacles.

Sometimes there is no mystery, of course.

Take for instance the woman who became fascinated with the ocean the very instant, as a little girl, that she peered into a tidepool and felt the queer sensation of a sea anemone’s tentacles grasping her finger.

Or the boy whose first-grade field trip to Gettysburg spawned his insatiable curiosity about the Civil War.

Both of those examples involve rather specific hobbies.

But what about more general subjects — an abiding appreciation for music, to name an especially common example?

This affinity, I think, is one which most of us absorb over an extended period of immersion, as it were. This is quite different from the immediate experience of the girl on the beach or the boy on the battlefield, either of which, to belabor the analogy, is more akin to an inoculation straight into a vein.

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Driving can be frightening — even at a mere 2 mph


The biggest scare I’ve had while driving happened at 2 mph.

Which is a speed even a generally slothful person can easily manage while walking from the sofa to the kitchen to get a soda from the refrigerator.

But it felt to me like terminal velocity.

This exaggerated sense of my momentum had much to do with the nearly vertical slope that was separated from my left front tire by a sliver of snow-covered dirt road about the width of a skateboard.

Actually it had everything to do with that cliff.

 

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Online database a treasure trove of Baker’s history

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

I learned recently that a meteorite landed in Baker County during the Great Depression.

Or maybe it didn’t.

The surviving records on the matter fall somewhat short of conclusive.

Nonetheless, the lack of certainty about this possible extraterrestrial incident in no way detracts from the value of the digital treasure trove of which the meteorite story is but one glittering fragment.

I credit a couple of recent articles with leading me to this historical cornucopia.

Although to be honest, given that I have more than a passing interest in both history and geology I ought to have stumbled long ago across the online archives of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI).

I was looking for background first for a story about the new exhibit for the gold display at U.S. Bank’s Baker City branch, and later for an article about “Ghost Mine,” the Syfy channel series filmed last summer near Sumpter.

I didn’t dig up much that aided either story.

But I didn’t mind, because DOGAMI’s database is so rich in compelling detail that I could easily have dawdled half a day away poking around in photocopies of decades-old documents, some rendered in the rough scrawl of a long-dead geologist.

The website, by the way, is www.oregongeology.org/sub/milo/index-miningrecords.htm.

There’s a separate index for each county.

(Well, almost. Two of Oregon’s 36 counties — Benton and Clatsop — aren’t represented.)

Baker County boasts one of longer lists of documents, as you’d expect given the area’s extensive mining legacy.

One item caught my eye right off, in part because its title seemed to have little if anything to do with mining: “Baker Meteor Impact Crater Report.”

The one-page, typewritten report, dated April 23, 1968, bears the name of N.S. Wagner. That’s Norman Wagner, a DOGAMI geologist who was for many years in charge of the agency’s office in Baker City.

According to Wagner’s report, a meteorite supposedly landed during the winter of either 1933 or 1934 on a placer mining claim along Wilson Creek, about 10 miles southwest of Baker City.

The owners of the claim found the alleged impact crater when they arrived in the spring to start mining for the season.  Wagner, going off the miners’ story, describes the crater as a “trough some 10 feet wide by 15 feet long,” 

The miners also noticed that a large branch had been snapped off a tree beside the trough, and “chunks of frozen ground were reportedly nested in the branches of some small trees located adjacent to the end of the trough.” 

Wagner mentions a photograph of the scene that a friend of the miners supposedly had, but if the geologist obtained the photo, or learned anything more about the incident, it seems that no record of his findings survives.

Beyond the obvious lure of this tale — meteorites are pretty rare, after all — I was fascinated by a brief passage from Wagner’s report that seems to me a poignant, if unconventional, anecdote about why the Great Depression of the 1930s acquired its capital letter designation.

The miners, Wagner writes, were initially intrigued by the possibility that a chunk of interstellar stone had crashed into their placer claim.

But rather than devote their summer to digging around for strange-looking rocks, the miners apparently got back to business. Wagner wrote: “they didn’t do very much digging because of the need of offsetting the prevailing Depression conditions by getting hard cash from the mine.”

In other words, times are tough, bud, so get the stars out of your eyes and find some gold.

Gold, of course, is the metal that lured miners in their thousands to plumb Baker County’s placers and lodes. And DOGAMI’s records for the county are dominated by reports and newspaper clippings dealing with the search for, and extraction of, gold.

But the voluminous written history also includes a few unusual nuggets.

“John Hunter Coal Mine,” for instance.

I was no more aware of the presence of coal in Baker County than I was of a purported meteorite impact crater.

And as it turns out, the county never came close to becoming the Pennsylvania of the West.

But there is some coal out there.

The Hunter mine was discovered in 1937, according to a report written the following year by John Eliot Allen, another eminent Oregon geologist.

Allen, who died in 1996, joined DOGAMI in 1937 and later started the geology department at Portland State University. He wrote a geology column for The Oregonian in the 1980s and later co-authored “Hiking Oregon’s Geology” with Ellen Morris Bishop. Allen’s autobiography, “Bin Rock and Dump Rock: Recollections of a Geologist,” was published posthumously in 1997.

The Hunter coal deposit, according to Allen’s report, is about 500 feet south of the Powder River near Boulder Gorge, about midway between Baker City and Sumpter.

After confirming by map that the site is on public land, I figured I’d strap on snowshoes and try to find the place and see if any remnants remained. Allen mentioned in his report a “blacksmith shop, mine car, and track, small hoist, a good cabin on property.”

It is purely coincidental that the date of my hike, Jan. 19, was just three days short of 74 years from the day Allen collected ore samples from the 200-foot-long tunnel that had been dug (presumably by Hunter and his associates) into the surrounding basalt.

Allen makes no mention of how he got to the prospect.

But at least he made it, which is more than I can say for myself.

The biggest problem is the river.

Or, rather, the lack of a bridge.

I distrust the solidity of river ice, even in the midst of a long cold snap, so I drove to the nearest public bridge, which is about two miles upriver at the Powder River Recreation Area.

My topographic map implied a straightforward route, but I’m forever falling for its promises, like a oft-jilted lover, or a man who can’t resist the siren call of the roulette wheel.

Anyway, once I had slogged through the sugary, thigh-deep snow — even with my Sasquatch-like appendages I was plunging clear through to the ground — to a point I thought was pretty close to the old prospect, there was a 100-foot gorge in the way and it was getting near to lunch time so I turned back.

I suspect Allen was more determined than I am. Besides which he had a coal sample to hack out of the tunnel.

Of course miners, often as not, didn’t find what they were looking for either.

The haphazard nature of their enterprise is captured quite nicely in a report for the Tom Paine Mine, an operation in the Elkhorns west of Baker City.

In a letter dated April 30, 1938, Albert V. Quine, a mining geologist at DOGAMI’s Baker City office, describes the digging going on at the Tom Paine as being “in the same manner as one would consult a ouija board — it wanders all over the country here and there....”

In a separate report, dated three days earlier, Quine wrote that work at the Tom Paine “seems to start nowhere and evidently heading for the same place.”

Quine’s analysis of the miners’ methods is a trifle harsh, I suppose.

But it’s also refreshingly straightforward, a quality that has not distinguished government documents in the ensuing decades.

 

The advantages of growing up close to an ash tree


Every kid ought to grow up in a neighborhood graced by at least one ash tree.

There was a fine specimen of the species just two houses down from mine and I thought it was the best thing in the world.

Well, maybe not better than a set of foam pads for my BMX bike, or watching a corpulent man in a singlet pretend to puke on “Portland Wrestling,” or that game where you slammed a plastic football player’s helmet as hard as you could to kick a plastic football through plastic uprights or possibly into the side of your younger sister’s head.

But the ash tree was pretty awesome just the same.

Its greatest attribute — actually its only attribute, as the tree wasn’t tall enough to make climbing it worthwhile, nor stout enough to build a fort in — was that it produced each year a veritable bonanza of berries.

I believe this to be a common trait of ash trees, although I’m no botanist.

These fruits were about the size of blueberries, this being the only thing they had in common with blueberries, except for the word “berries.”

The ash berries grew in clumps as big around as a tennis ball, and they were an alarming shade of yellowish orange that on a sunny day could sear your retinas.

Which is nothing compared to the damage, ocular and otherwise, that the berries could cause when you hucked a handful at somebody riding by on a bicycle at a rate that only a 10-year-old kid pedaling a one-speed can muster.

A velocity best measured in parsecs per hour, in other words.

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Remembering a classmate who also was different


I went to school with a boy who was different.

He was my classmate for 12 years — 13, actually, if you count kindergarten — and he was, for the whole of that time, different.

Even when I was a 5-year-old who could barely tie his shoes I recognized this.

He didn’t talk like the other kids.

He didn’t act like the other kids.

I was going to write that indeed he didn’t even look like the other kids, because my memory insists this is so.

Except my mom was a faithful keeper of memorabilia and so I have, wedged into a corner of a closet, a stack of my birthday cards and elementary school artwork (all of it wretchedly executed, even accounting for my age) and school class photographs.

I looked at a few of the latter and I realized that this boy, who was different in many ways, in fact smiled pretty much like his classmates smiled, which is to say with the unique innocence of the pre-pubescent.

If you hadn’t spent a couple thousand days in school with the boy, as I did, your eyes would pass over his face in these photographs and detect nothing abnormal there, nothing to prompt a question.

He was, like me, one of a couple dozen kids who spent their entire childhood in our bucolic little town. We were kindergartners together and we got our driver’s licenses around the same time and finally, the last time as a group, we walked across our high school gym and stepped onto a podium and collected our diplomas.

This long period — to a kid, life seems without end, and a weekend almost as immense — was for me a time of tranquility, even banality.

There were no great dramatic episodes, no scandals, nothing that can fairly be described as traumatic.

Of course things happened which seemed to me then of great consequence; but these only emphasize the essential quiescence of the period. When some minor gaffe on the baseball diamond, or a painfully clumsy letter to a pretty girl that fails to provoke the desired response, stand out as memorable disappointments, then life is progressing more or less as it’s supposed to.

But for the boy who was different, childhood was nothing like the pleasant and uneventful period I breezed through.

I don’t presume to speak for him, of course.

But I saw what happened to him — sharing classrooms and hallways and cafeterias with him for many years, it could hardly have been otherwise — and the ordeals he endured far exceeded, in sheer nastiness, anything in my experience.

I don’t know, medically speaking, what made this boy different.

It wasn’t Down syndrome.

I doubt he even would be described, today, as developmentally disabled.

He was smart, particularly in math and science.

A story went around that he was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and perhaps that’s true.

Whatever the cause, he struggled to speak clearly — he stuttered, for one thing, and when finally he yanked the words loose they were garbled by a severe, saliva-slurred lisp.

But what made the boy especially vulnerable was his temper.

He seemed to have had no more control over it than he had over his obstinate tongue.

A single taunt sometimes spurred him into a tantrum that only a teacher could quell — and even the teacher often failed at first to calm the boy.

A few of my particularly boorish male classmates — every school, I suspect, is infected with such characters — recognized the boy’s weakness and they pounced on it with a sort of mindless, predatory cunning.

Which is to say they provoked the boy because they knew they could, and that he would respond in a way guaranteed to attract a crowd.

These episodes — most of them, as I recall, happened during junior high — ended, inevitably, with the boy crying and red-faced and, rarely, screaming in a way that was almost feral. It was frightening, really.

A teacher would lead him to the office. Maybe sometimes he even went home for the rest of the day. I don’t remember.

I never instigated any of these assaults — for that is what they were, even when there was little or no physical contact between the boy and his tormenters.

But neither did I ever try to stop one.

I’d like to be able to explain this away by saying I wasn’t physically capable of intervening in any effective way; and this is, in a sense, the truth.

The bullies, as bullies often are, were bigger and stronger than I was.

But the excuse doesn’t hold.

I could have waded into any of these frays. I might have ended up with a black eye, to be sure, but in doing so I would have broken the spell that seems to come over any group that’s watching a spectacle.

I don’t mean to imply that I think often about the boy who was different.

He’s married now, and successful so far as I can tell.

Maybe you could even say he’s fortunate. He made it. He didn’t hurt anyone. Or himself.

What caused me to think recently about this boy was reading about another boy who was also different.

But the story of Jadin Bell, a 15-year-old sophomore at La Grande High School, hasn’t the happy (or anyway not tragic) ending that my classmate’s does.

Jadin died Sunday in a Portland hospital, the result of his suicide attempt earlier this month at Central Elementary School in La Grande.

Jadin, who was gay, told friends he had been bullied at school.

I didn’t know Jadin.

I have no idea what he might have endured.

But I have watched a boy suffer for no reason other than he was different.

Which is no reason at all.

That I still feel a nagging sense of shame, 30 years and more later, attests I think to the pervasive power of malicious acts.

Yet even now I could do something. I could contact the boy, could apologize for my cowardice. This would be a meager gesture, of course, a token more likely to assuage my guilt than to help my former classmate. 

But it is a luxury I have, and one that is forever lost to those who knew, and loved, Jadin Bell.

 

Cheap watch’s user’s manual rich in ridiculousness


I recently received, as an extra special gift for subscribing to Motor Trend magazine, a digital watch of spectacularly shoddy construction.

I mean this timepiece could cause widespread suicides if you brandished it in the fine shops of Bern and Zurich.

But it’s not the watch itself, which I expect will stop working properly along about St. Patrick’s Day, that intrigues me.

It’s the one-page owner’s manual that came with it.

At least I think it’s supposed to be an owner’s manual.

This publication, which is printed on the kind of flimsy paper that lines tins of Altoids mints, combines illiteracy and bad translation in a way that is both frightening and hilarious.

Its mistakes are so frequent and so outlandish that I wonder whether the whole endeavor is intended as a joke.

If so it’s a devilishly clever one.

The watch, I should mention, was made in China. Probably you figured that out.

The lunacy starts with the very name of the thing: “Waterproof Cold-Light Sportwatch.”

The waterproof part I understand — although I doubt the watch could survive even a heavy dewfall.

But I’m clueless as to the significance of “cold-light.”

The watch’s LCD digits do indeed illuminate at the push of a button. But I can’t detect any change in the temperature of the watch, or of its immediate surroundings.

Apparently the makers of the watch consider the cold nature of the light a valuable attribute, though, because the manual uses the adjective consistently.

In one instance it’s the “cold night” button but I suspect that’s just a typo.

And it’s not the only one.

A sampling:

• “moreng” for “morning”

• “lighr” for “light”

• “agarn” for “again”

These misspellings are as nothing, though, compared with the tangled syntax and at times incomprehensible diction that permeates the manual.

I am, for instance, cautioned against wearing the watch “in broiling or freezing environment.”

I try to steer clear of broiling environments as it is, whether I’m wearing a watch or not, so no problem there.

But even in the more temperate environments to which I am typically exposed, I sometimes sweat. Including my left wrist, which is where I normally attach a watch.

Unfortunately, “the resin-made watchband may ageing crack or break when bear sweat or damp.”

I take this to mean that my sweat could foul up the watchband, or at least its constituent resins, whatever those might be.

Except what if the watchmaker means, literally, “bear sweat,” as in ursine perspiration?

I don’t know if bears actually sweat. But I imagine that if they do they’d have to get pretty riled up first, and I don’t want to be anywhere near a bear that’s so agitated it’s sweating. I’ll bet the sweat’s erosive effect on the watchband would be the least of my worries in that case.

In fact the manual says “any rough use or hard shock may cause damage” to the watch.

I’m afraid a sweaty bear could get pretty rough, and administer quite a lot more than a hard shock.

It turns out, though, that even if I’m scrupulous in avoiding sweat and bears and the like, that watchband, and specifically those mysterious resins, could give me trouble.

“If you find any white powder in the watchband,” the manual tells me, “wipe them off with cloth, the powder would not cause any burt to your skin and clothes.”

I’m not comforted by this, and not just because the watchmaker writes “burt” when it must have intended “hurt.”

Frankly I’m suspicious of any watch that, in the ordinary course of usage, produces white powder, no matter how benign the white powder is supposed to be.

The possible presence of powder also complicates the task of disposing of this watch. And I might need to do this even before it expires, because the thing sounds a chime at the top of every hour, a sound that annoys my wife and which I can’t figure out how to turn off, if indeed that’s even possible.

The manual, needless to say, is no guide, offering as it does such crystalline statements as: “Different types have different patterns, but have same functions and operation ways.”

For the time being I’ve stuffed the watch beneath a stack of summer shirts in my dresser. The layers of cotton and polyester effectively block the hourly beeps, although I confess that I worry about the fabrics’ resistance to resinous white powders.

Whatever happens with the watch I intend to hold on to this manual. It tells me to do so, for one thing:

“Keep well the operation instruction and other attached files for necessary use in the future.”

The manual was not accompanied by other files, attached or otherwise, but keep it well I will.

I might want to tell someone about this slip of paper years from now.

And I’d much rather be able to refer to the genuine article than to try to dredge its amusing incomprehensibility from my memory, which lately is about as reliable as, well, a Chinese-made Waterproof Cold-Light Sportwatch.

 

Toyota pays up to bail out a bunch of bad drivers


So it turns out you can get paid for being a bad driver in America.

If teenage boys ever find out about this, the auto industry might be in financial trouble beyond even the rescue of the federal government.

I probably could have graduated from college debt-free.

You can also get a check if you sold your car because you were afraid it was infected with the electronic version of the poltergeist that made the TV go fuzzy in that movie from the 1980s when Craig T. Nelson’s hair was brown.

Maybe it’s not only the lawyers who benefit from our litigious society after all.

This financial windfall is limited, however, to owners (or former owners) of certain Toyota models.

The Japanese company recently settled a class-action lawsuit related to a phenomenon that bears an egregiously misleading name: unintended acceleration.

This implies that your Toyota, right when you’re pulling into a parking spot, might decide it’s actually in the left lane on the Munich-Stuttgart autobahn and there’s a Porsche 911 Turbo looming behind, its headlights flashing frantically.

Indeed, I suspect quite a lot of people, were they asked about the controversy that embroiled Toyota a few years back, would today give an answer along the lines of: “Right, all those Toyotas that would accelerate out of control, even after the driver jammed on the brake pedal. Right?”

Wrong.

Sadly, the facts in this instance were rendered, if not meaningless then a lot less important, by an onslaught of photos of crumpled Toyotas and breathless descriptions of bewildered drivers.

And so we come to a situation in which the world’s largest automaker has to shell out an estimated $1.4 billion merely because some people claim that they think their Toyota was dangerous.

Even though experts — including some of those rocket scientists from NASA — say that’s not so.

This annoys me.

Not because I happen to own a Toyota. It’s an FJ Cruiser, by the way, a four-wheel drive that wasn’t involved in any of the recalls or lawsuits that have plagued the company since 2009.

Nor do I have any financial interest in Toyota (the FJ, fortunately, is mine free and clear).

What galls me, rather, is that people are going to get money because they, or some of their fellow citizens, occasionally push down on the go pedal when they meant to push, well, the other one.

(With most cars being automatics these days, there are only two pedals to choose from; it’s not as if driving a modern automobile is equivalent to playing a pipe organ in a Gothic cathedral.)

Among the allegations that fueled the anti-Toyota crusade was that the company’s electronic throttle system was affected by some mysterious gremlin among its tens of thousands of lines of computer code.

(This is “drive-by-wire” technology, with no physical connection between the accelerator and the engine.)

A 10-month investigation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) put paid to that myth.

Which leaves two other potential avenues leading to Toyota’s liability.

Only one of those, though, seems to me legitimate.

On certain of the models implicated in this scandal, the accelerator pedal could “stick,” investigators found. Yet even in those cases, the vehicle’s brakes were more than capable of stopping even an accelerating car. Of course the brakes won’t work if you don’t push down on that left pedal.

The other culprit was beyond Toyota’s control — some thick aftermarket floormats could “trap” the accelerator pedal.

But again, as with “sticky” gas pedals, a driver can avoid a crash by simply putting on the brakes.

If Toyota is responsible for drivers who install floormats that look like shag carpet from the ’70s, then the company that makes those naked lady silhouette decals better beware the next time some guy with a couple of the things stuck to his back window reverses his truck and crunches a Prius.

“The sticker got in the way and I couldn’t even see the car,” the truck’s driver says.

Ultimately, though, this Toyota mess has little to do with sticky pedals and fluffy floormats.

The NHTSA investigators concluded that in the “vast majority” of the cases they studied, the driver of the rogue Toyota either stepped on the gas instead of the brake, or stepped on both pedals at the same time.

And in most of the latter cases, the brakes, as they were designed to be, proved more powerful than the engine, and the car stopped.

The bottom line, then, is that the term “unintended acceleration” is accurate only in the sense that the drivers who fouled up didn’t mean to push the wrong pedal.

But their mistake isn’t Toyota’s fault, any more than Specialized, the company that built my mountain bike, should be liable because I went over the handlebars and got dirt in my teeth after I thought I could swerve around the sagebrush.

I mean I didn’t intend to clip the thing with my foot, so my accelerated tumble into the puckerbrush could fairly be described as “unintended.”

Toyota is not altogether blameless, to be sure.

The NHTSA — the same agency that exonerated the company from the “ghost in the machine” lunacy regarding the electronic throttle — has fined Toyota about $83 million for failing to notify the agency soon enough about possible issues with floor mats and sticky gas pedals.

That’s seems fair to me.

As for the rest of this fiasco — and by far the more expensive part — I have nothing but contempt.

It’s bad enough that Toyota’s products are branded as dangerous based on a fictitious flaw.

Even worse that people are fattening their bank accounts on the fantasy.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

 
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