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How to navigate to "Straying Home," an on-line book about adolescent self-discovery through global travel. Just click on a Chapter tab, 1 to 5, immediately below.
The tall, dark-haired Spanish teacher who led the foreign
languages department in Stadium High School, Tacoma, Washington, 1953-56, sought
to stretch the minds of her students. Señora Hemenway, well, she wasn’t content
with vocabulary and grammar alone and led her students into literature, culture
and geography of Spain and Latin American. I felt lucky to be guided by her
exhortations like, “Darrell, you’d like to read this article I found.” Or,
“Thought you’d like this book.” She studied my interests, then shaped them by guiding
me to literature, maps, and “The National Geographic.” Encouraging curiosity was
my teacher’s forte. I was challenged.
Beyond the teacher, the school building in which she taught lent
itself to dreams of far places. As a high school, the building was living its
second life. Its first life had been as a destination hotel for cross-country
travelers arriving by train from the Midwest and East Coast. It sat high on a
bluff overlooking a stretch of Puget Sound, distant mountains of the Cascade
chain, and finally, Mt. Rainier itself. As a hotel, the building resembled a
very large French chateau. Its many towers, spires, the gentile courtyard took
one’s mind away from newly-established Tacoma to a much older time in Europe.
Among we high schoolers and Tacomans in general, Stadium High School was
referred to simply as “The Castle.”
Photo: Stadium High School,
Photo by Visitor 7 via
Wikipedia.org., Creative Commons license
Engrossed in her class housed in this castle for months in
1954-55, I was bitten by the adventure bug. I also learned some Spanish from
her, but did I know enough of the language to communicate what I wanted to eat,
or where I wanted to go? I didn’t know for sure. I was confident that conversation
with food vendors or bus drivers in Peru or Ecuador would present my real final
exam in Spanish.
Dreaming of adventure, I pored over maps and encyclopedia
articles. At fourteen years of age I became a juvenile sleuth.
dad, was delighted because he was the senior sleuth and provided an example for
me at the family dinner table. If a question came up, whether geographical or
otherwise, he’d excuse himself, scoot quickly to the bookshelf, and come back
with the proper volume of “World Book Encyclopedia.” He’d read the lines that
answered the question.
Following Dad’s example I focused on information about the
size, seasonal water-flows, and surprises along the way of the Amazon from up
near the Andes to the Atlantic. I learned that the Amazon was the world’s
largest river measured by discharge and second only to the Nile River in
length. I wondered, will I ever see that river?
After being bewitched by Señora about the Amazon, I concocted
a plan. I designed a drift down the Amazon from its headwaters in Peru to the Atlantic
Ocean. I aimed to know first-hand the people, forests, fish and animals. I dreamt
of becoming an “Amazon River drifter”. When would I travel? After high school.
But when I informed Mom and Dad, they sidetracked me. They
encouraged my travel dream. But they insisted absolutely that college completion
came first. “Four or five years from now, yes, you go explore. But you've got to
get your education first.” Mom and Dad held the trump card: money. They would
fund part of my college education but not my premature, in their view, proposed
What an interminable delay, it seemed to me! I reacted with great
outward disappointment. Perhaps that was my covert strategy for exacting as
much financial help as possible from my parents toward whopping college tuition
payments, now looming up in the near future. Inwardly, though, I also felt some
relief. I knew I wasn't ready to make my way through unknown barriers, up muddy
riverbanks and back down, and under or around bridges to nowhere, and that living
in a college dorm room was more acceptable than drifting on the Big River for
right now. I passed a life-sized version of the Stanford marshmallow test. Though
sidelined, I held to the vision of the big trip-to-come after four more years
Now you've already met three of the many who changed my life
for the better. Señora Hemenway, who said, “Go.” Clarence and Orleen Reeck, who
said, “Not yet!” There are many others yet to encounter.
In dreaming of adventure travel right
after high school, I knew was pushing it. The standard pattern for a young
person intent on Christian ministry, and I’d already declared myself as such, was
to remain in formal education: four years of college plus three or four years of
graduate theological school. Meantime, according to the template, I’d fall in
love with the love of my life, engage to marry, graduate from seminary, seek
ordination and go into service as a beginning pastor. This pattern was laid
down by church practices and reinforced by economic reality (what young pastor had
money for months of travel?). You get your education, you get married, you start
your life career and you have kids. You work for three or four decades and
retire. Then, maybe, you travel. That was the standard pattern.
So what were my motives for deviating? Why did I want to
waste precious months of my youth on travel? As I’ve explained, I was inspired
by Mrs. Hemenway, my Spanish teacher.
Another reason was that I was an American of the Pacific
Northwest. I’d lived nowhere else except in a settler society that was exceedingly
fluid. Mobility was a way of life. Just take my family as representative
examples. My great-grandparents and grandparents migrated to Washington State
shortly just after the pioneer days. They left their little rural villages in Europe
and debarked at the Statue of Liberty. Instead of settling down in the eastern
U.S. they continued moving on across the vast northern tier of newborn states to
the shores of the North Pacific Ocean. Their long traverse across almost half
of the northern hemisphere made it seem that moving on was more normal than
My mobile family wasn’t unique. A large percentage of the adults
I knew in my home town, Tacoma, had moved there from one distant place or
another: the Midwest, Japan, the Philippines and so forth. It might be
difficult for some Brooklynese to imagine a place as far away as New Jersey. It
wasn’t difficult for me to imagine Chicago, Tokyo, and Manila, and to think of
going there. I just had the normal frontiersman’s legs ending with itchy feet.
My parents, Orleen and Clarence, weren't transcontinental immigrants
but they personally modeled my love of travel by taking full advantage of the
relatively new automobile era. They often said, “We don’t let any grass grow
under our feet!” They enjoyed taking car trips across the great American West to
places like Spokane, the Tetons, Yellowstone Park, and Jasper National Park.
I was eleven years old and my brother only 4 when our when Mom
and Dad took us on a month-long auto journey from Tacoma through Idaho, Utah,
and Arizona, then west to California. From Los Angeles they steered us up the
Pacific coast through Northern California, Oregon, and on home.
During that month we camped in a nine x 12 foot Sears canvas
tent. Like nomads, we unloaded and set up camp in the late afternoon. The next
morning we cleaned, folded and stowed the tent in the Chevy. My brother and I
carried the four cots and sleeping bags to and from the car. Mom was
responsible for setting up the gasoline-burning camp stove and preparing meals.
Dad headed up the tent-maintenance chores. Our frugal family style of traveling
enabled my dad to finance the trip on his school teacher’s budget.
Like Oregon Trail pioneers, we two brothers and our parents spent
long days in our vehicle, crammed in between and even atop the travel
equipment. Though that was a lousy way to spend bright and clear summer days, spectacular
sights and sites amply rewarded us. Bryce National Park and the Grand Canyon
awed us. The bones of ancient animals displayed in the La Brea tar pits area fascinated
my brother and me. Northbound along the Pacific coast, the old Spanish mission in
Santa Barbara, fortress-like with twin towers, intrigued my mother, especially,
and remained a family conversation topic for years.
“Footloose and fancy free” was the slogan of the times for
my family at least, and living out that slogan entailed the risk of atypical
Dad liked that summer southwest swing so much that he found
a way to travel in subsequent summers and get paid for it. As a public school
teacher he had no job responsibilities for several weeks. He was free to take work
as a traveling salesman for the Burpee Seed Company. In June, 1950, I’d guess, he
loaded the car with display stands and boxes of seed packs. To the family he said,
“See you in a few weeks!” I’m pretty certain his goodbye was less casual than
that but I can’t remember it as being formal, either. Mom, my brother Jerry,
and I stayed at home in University Place, Washington and tended the family’s
large backyard organic garden.
Adventurous Dad and
me, his mimic
After cultivating the soil and planting the garden with
Burpee seeds, Dad left. When he returned in July he entertained us with tales
of tiny towns, their independent grocery and hardware stores as far away as
Utah. Though he made a profit, it was love of travel and not the love of money
that motivated him. His summer sales tours lasted a couple of years. Then Mom
put her foot down.
Dad was driven by wanderlust and it rubbed off on me, giving
me a third basis for travel, independent of Señora Hemenway and my
frontier-style social roots. What a powerful role model he bequeathed! But he
deviated from typical summer work for teachers like himself.
Was I a social deviant? The answer depends on the patterns
that mattered most to a society. I’d have been a deviant from the patterns of
people I knew best and honored most had I not planned to wander. To that
multi-generational sub society I was in the main line.
Enfolded in Community
Something even more immediate motivated me, too. Like a child
in an African extended family compound, I was a thread, from birth, in a very
tightly-woven Tacoma congregation of about 150 people. This local cell of Evangelicals,
after 1946 called Evangelical United Brethren, looked back to founders
including John Wesley, the famous eighteenth century religious leader and
traveler. Thus, we were part of a broad stream of Methodism, also known as Wesleyans.
In our case, women volunteer nursery attendants took me in
their arms as an infant, rocked me and burped me. The boys and girls of the
congregation were my playmates. We fielded our own basketball and softball
teams. The congregation was family, knit together by common beliefs, intermarriages
among church families, and life-long friendships.
Even more, most of us shared an ethnic background. My dad often
entered the big double church doors to greet a friend with the words, “Wie
gehts?” The friend would reply, “Gut. Ganz gut.” The exchange elicited smiles. The
members were mainly of German ancestry. The receding German ways left a taste
for dumplings, potato salad, bratwurst and stubbornness.
Every week as a child and, later, a teenager, I interacted
with members of this group at Sunday school, Sunday morning worship, Sunday
evening worship, and Wednesday evening prayer.
Church families entertained other church families in their
homes, often on a drop-in basis. For, on any Sunday, Dad might said, “Let’s get
in the car and go see the Sampsons,” or the Chapmans, or whomever. We were
always welcome, invited or not, just as they were happily received in our home.
Besides face to face encounters, the telephone wires buzzed all week long. We
received a basketful of Christmas cards from members of the church each
December. Those were the social conventions of my church community, which was like family.
Our pastors, one after the other, were loving fathers. I had
my own parents of course, but the pastors and their wives were like the parents
of my parents. The social side of church life was stable, supportive and serene.
Personally, during college I committed my life to the ordained ministry in the EUB
Church and made plans to prepare for the career by attending seminary after
graduation from college.
Perhaps the church family can be better understood by
referring to Mom and Dad. My parents were displaced persons in a sense. They’d
moved 300 miles from the Spokane area, where their birth families centered.
Consequently my cousins lived far away. My parents were close with the Stroeve
family, of Sumner, Washington. Lucile Stroeve, a decade younger than my parents,
was the daughter of one of my father’s sisters. I felt at home with her. My mom
and dad trusted Lucile and allowed her to take me, along with her own kids, on
field trips as far off as the Pacific Ocean.
But what I might have missed by living far from grandparents,
cousins, aunts and uncles was offset primarily by very close relationships with
men, women, and children in the congregation. In my case, it took a
congregation to raise me from infancy through childhood.
Then, in 1958, dark storm clouds blew in and over First EUB
Church in Tacoma. I was 19 years of age and attending college in Seattle. For
decades the bishop had always appointed benevolent, fatherly pastors with motherly
wives to the Tacoma congregation. But in 1958 the bishop, probably as prodded
by his cabinet, rocked the congregation by appointing a new pastor. The young
man began his ministry like a gentle morning breeze but built into a major afternoon
thunder storm. He did this by playing a pastor’s strong suit: rigid enforcement
of correct doctrine.
In truth, the stated beliefs of the new man were no different
than those of the earlier pastors. They all read from the same Bible, chose songs
from the same hymnal, and subscribed to the same statement of faith. But the
new appointee was self-consciously, fervently doctrinaire. He even looked the
part of an enforcement officer. His square jaw jutted from a face mounted on
notably square shoulders.
Through teaching, preaching and appearance he hammered
old doctrines home with new urgency and insistence.
We all suffered from sin, he said, and we all knew that to
be true. He held that there were two separate steps to living as a Christian.
First, be saved and, second, be sanctified. These doctrines were standard for my
congregation and denomination, along with Methodists, Anglicans, Catholics and
some Orthodox Christians. But perhaps we weren’t as confident as he that it
could happen immediately by praying at the altar rail. Perhaps many in the
family church saw it as a lifetime growth process.
The assertive new reverend drew questions and criticism.
They were quiet at first but some of his independent-minded parishioners began
to criticize the pastor openly. He reacted by correcting, and finally denouncing
publicly, one particularly self-confident and non-compliant member. When that
level of conflict occurred, the targeted member left the congregation and his
family went with him.
The Good Shepherd must have been puzzled by the fight in the
sheepfold. Personally, I was more puzzled by the flight from the sheepfold.
a trip home from school, I asked the strong-minded refugee, “Why can’t you just
stay and stand up for your rights?” He said, “It just isn’t worth fighting it
anymore.” He’d bailed out, and his family went with him. That departure was the
beginning of the congregation’s fall in membership and attendance.
For me, the dispute became
personal. Although I was living on campus in Seattle in 1958, I received the stream
of church news blow by blow, and each blow felt like a knock-down. Personally,
during college I committed my life to the ordained ministry in the EUB Church
and made plans to prepare for the career by attending seminary after graduation
from college. The big question for me became, would I want to pastor in a
church organization if this behavior was typical of other future pastoral
Our doctrinaire preacher was the first graduate of Western
Evangelical Seminary ever appointed to serve our congregation. WES, its acronym,
was organized by regional EUB church leaders in the states of Oregon and
Washington who distrusted our own denomination beyond those state boundaries. I
often heard people mutter advice and observations such as, “Don’t trust anyone
east of the Rockies.” The doctrinaire western group was busy building a dike
against rising waves of eastern liberalism. WES was the foundation stone of the
What I saw happening to my church family forced me to
reconsider my seminary plans. I was slated to enter WES after graduation from Seattle
Pacific in 1960. But now I shrank back from enrolling. I wanted to build
congregations, not to wreck them. Yet, I agreed that we Western EUBs should
distrust Midwestern and Eastern liberalism. What options did I have? I had many
questions but only one answer, which was that I must examine other paths into
the ministry of the EUB Church. But I still faced a dilemma. I still believed
that if I chose a Midwestern EUB seminary I’d get brainwashed with liberalism.
I wanted to avoid that as much as I wanted to avoid the doctrinaire, aggressive
holiness program. My sole conclusion was that I wanted to avoid the only two
options that were open to me.
I thought, I prayed for guidance, and I sought advice from a
Religion Department professor at Seattle Pacific. Professor Joseph Davis
suggested that I consider alternative seminaries. He named Biblical Seminary in
New York City as one that would probably work for me. I sent a request for
information but couldn't bring myself to switch from WES to Biblical. No one
suggested Harvard or Yale divinity schools and I never gave such distinguished
schools a thought.
As a college senior and still vacillating, I finally realized
that I needed to delay. I just wanted broader experience before making a
decision. “Take a few months off from school. Look to find some appealing
models of ministry, and perhaps you’ll find a path to an attractive seminary
education,” I told myself. The old idea of the Amazon River drifting trip might
offer such opportunities.
I hated to write to the admissions director at Western
Evangelical Seminary, to inform him that I wouldn't be attending in Fall Term,
1960 as previously agreed. I fudged because I had a close personal relationship
with the director. Instead of simply saying, “I’m not attending WES,” which
would have been a true and complete statement of my intent, I asked to retain
my pre-enrolled status for another year. WES granted my request for an
Re-Planning travel all over Again
Having put off seminary for an uncertain time, suddenly I
had to switch tracks to planning for travel into far-off lands. Just as my
parents had said four years earlier, my travel would come after I won my
Right off, I needed to find a fellow traveler. In the fall of my
senior year, 1959-60, I’d found one and only one candidate: Bill, an Oregonian
studying at Seattle Pacific. We had much in common. As fellow members of the
1960 graduating class, we’d be available at the same time. Bill was exploring
his calling, just as I was discovering mine. He felt that he could make a good
decision about a missionary career after learning first-hand from career
missionaries in the field. And we shared the common church affiliation of
membership in the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
But before cementing our traveling partnership, Bill and I needed
to resolve one major issue. Bill wanted to travel in Europe and not in the
Amazon basin like I did. I wanted to travel with Bill, but in order to do that
I had to give up my long-held dream of seeing the heart of Latin America. After
negotiating over several weeks we finally compromised as our senior year rushed
on. I agreed to travel with Bill in Europe during the fall of 1960. In turn Bill
agreed that he’d travel with me in warmer lands during the winter of 1960-61. We
raised the Middle East as a possibility and Africa as a more probable option. Exactly
how or where we’d travel beyond Europe we could not specify as we cut the ivy
and collected our diplomas in June, 1960.
During the summer of 1960, Bill and I made concrete plans for
European travel in the fall. We obtained maps of England and Europe at the
downtown Portland, Oregon office of the American Automobile Association. Just
entering that well designed and beautifully appointed office was a kind of
travel for me—over social class barriers. I realized the wealth difference
between Bill and me. Bill’s family owned a successful business in Oregon. My dad,
the school teacher, had never set foot in an AAA office, and I considered the
Tacoma office to be off limits for me. Fortunately, Bill was familiar with the
AAA office staff and they helped us immensely.
I secured immunization shots at the Veterans Hospital in
Seattle and visas for a couple of East African countries and territories from
consulates in Seattle and Portland. Over the summer I’d build a cache of travel
funds by working in the pickle plant at Nalley’s Fine Foods in Tacoma. I was
making progress to move out on a long trip.
A Bungled Breakup
developing a relationship with a particular blonde from Salem, Oregon‒Lucy, a girl I’d seen on a hayride there in October,
1957. She was merely one among others on the hay ride, but I was immediately
drawn to her through sight alone, even more than to my then-current girlfriend and
classmate at Seattle Pacific. My then-current girlfriend invited me to the hay
ride party to firm up our relationship, I suppose, and not to introduce her
competitor. But her plan went awry.
After the hayride I spoke about Lucy
with PhLate in 1959, in order to move ahead with the plan, I felt I had to untangle the loving relationship I’d bil, a college friend from Salem who knew us both.
Wonderly,” Phil said. ”Lucy is a great high school musician in keyboard and
voice. She comes from a church family.” He added, “And she’s won awards for
pies and cakes in the Oregon State Fair.”
Each piece of Phil’s information made
me feel strongly attracted to the girl I’d only seen. No word had yet passed
between Lucy and me, but Phil might have passed some information to Lucy about
me, just as he’d informed me about her.
As months went on, Phil continued
feeding information to me as he picked it up during his visits home to Salem. It
was very easy for Phil to keep up with events because his father pastored the
church that Lucy and her family attended regularly.
Late in 1957, Phil brought news
that changed everything. Earlier that fall, the Seattle Pacific choir performed
in the small, clapboarded Salem, Oregon Free Methodist Church. As a young
soprano, Lucy had an interest in the concert and attended it. She was very impressed
by the director of the choir, Professor Robert (“Bob”) Scandrett. Phil ended, “She
applied to Seattle Pacific and they accepted her. She’ll enter in August, 1958.”
“Bingo,” I thought. “What luck
is mine?” This beautiful young woman I remembered with longing would be on the
same campus as me, and soon. Amazing!
Lucy , with her entire class of entering students, traveled by
boat north on Puget Sound to Whidbey Island for their orientation retreat. A
few days later, when they returned by boat to Seattle, which drew up to a wharf
in the Ballard district, I was there with my dark blue Nash Ambassador. I met Lucy
on the dock as she came down the gangplank and offered to drive her back to
campus. Yes, she remembered me and climbed into my car for the one mile drive
on Nickerson Avenue to the campus and her dormitory. From that day forward I
began to focus intently on Lucy.
We loved dating, but finding plenty of times and occasions
to be together required some persistence and ingenuity. Lucy, like all other
women residents, was required to be in her dormitory by 8 p.m. each weeknight
evening. One Thursday evening I ran into a roadblock. I invited her to go to a
snack bar with me, but she couldn't accept because “dorm hours” for women were
to start in just a few minutes. (On weekends, dorm hours were extended to 10
p.m., and that helped somewhat.)
Compounding our scheduling difficulties, I’d transferred to
the University of Washington and was living in the University District. We both
were head over heels in extracurricular activities. Lucy took student work on
campus and spent many hours in musical rehearsals and travelled with a college
quartet to performances around the city and the state. My activities kept me
busy in Seattle but a few miles away.
Despite the strict Seattle Pacific dormitory rules, we found
many times to be together and fun things to do. They included an occasional
highlight such as a trip downtown. She loved a hot chocolate sundae at Horluck’s
soda fountain. Then we might also amble along Pine Street and into the grand Frederick
and Nelson department store at Sixth and Pine. I gathered that Lucy loved to
shop and she proudly told me why. She’d worked a couple of summers at the highly
reputed Meier and Frank department store in Salem. I was learning to know what she
enjoyed beyond baking and music.
In November, 1958 I escorted her to a Friday evening TOLO
event at Seattle Pacific. I have no memory of the event itself. But my journal states
that I gave Lucy a corsage of yellow rose buds. Giving her a corsage was a step
up to a new plateau of courtship for me. I took it in stride easily, especially
when she expressed surprise and effusive thanks.
Why don’t I remember the TOLO event itself? I was excited to
be with her in the company of many others, each couple chatting and busily
comparing who was wearing what. But as to further details, my memory
malfunctioned. I couldn't have memorized the hops of a frog, if there’d been
one, across the floor. I do recall that I drove Lucy around the streets of
Queen Anne Hill after the event. We both felt relaxed with each other. Relating
to Lucy was easy.
Our friendship built into more of a genuine love
relationship as the fall weeks passed. We dated, we communicated, and in our
separate beds and rooms we dreamt pleasant dreams. Lucy’s letters home,
lovingly saved by her parents and later returned to her, told her family about
every move she and I made together. One letter reads, “. . . and we finally
made contact!” In code language she meant that we finally kissed.
But a nightmare arrived. As I became clearer about my post-graduation
travel plans in fall, 1959 I grew alarmed about what Lucy’s and my relationship
would require. Now I realized that if I persisted in traveling out of the
country for months, our goodbye kiss at the airport might be our final
kiss, ever. I might lose Lucy by traveling half of the world away, basically out
of contact for months on end. “Out of sight, out of mind” was a common
expression used by my mother to describe the situation.
Ultimately, I decided that I must take strong and distasteful
action. I planned to tell Lucy that I had to break off our relationship so that
I could travel after graduation. I told this to her late in January, 1960 in a
dreary setting—a concrete and steel ground floor landing under a flight of
stairs in a men’s dormitory. Framed by my large dark-rimmed Woody Allen
glasses, I blurted out something like this: I’m falling in love with you. And I
can’t allow myself to do that now because I will travel out of the country starting
next September. I’m sorry. I feel I’ve got to break off our relationship.
I was clumsy and didn’t even ask whether she saw a mutually
agreeable solution. Just a sudden and final goodbye, dear, right out of the
blue with no warning. The stairwell setting was like a bomb shelter. The message
was the bomb.
My worst nightmare turned into reality. She expressed sadness
and anger and puzzlement, and with good reason. She couldn’t understand and I
couldn’t explain why I had to opt out—not to her satisfaction, anyway. I jolted‒and jilted‒Lucy.
In previous months Lucy had told her family about every move
she and I made together. But she hid the news of the stairway conversation from
her family. Her letters from those months show that she simply quit mentioning me,
without explaining why, in letters home. We saw each other on campus,
especially after I returned to Seattle Pacific for spring term. But we didn’t
say more to each other than “hi,” the standard SPC greeting for everyone.
For the worse, I’d reached a turning point in the most
important relationship I’d developed outside of immediate family. A mutually satisfying
closure might have been possible if I’d just been smart enough to say “break
off temporarily” and given her something to remember me by, like the ring
Siegfried gave to Brunnhilde when he set out on his Rhine journey. Señora
Hemenway, my Spanish teacher, would undoubtedly have been able to name a fool I
seemed to emulate—perhaps Don Quixote. I was like the Don, except that I was
aware, painfully so, of my folly. In the end, Siegfried’s ring that he left for
Brunnhilde became the cause of ultimate disaster for the gods and humankind. It
was better to get off with feeling like a fool. Sometimes fools win.
Beginning in July of 1958 I worked
annually in summer jobs at Nalley’s Fine Foods, a Tacoma-based company. From
the Oakland hilltop we’d climbed as boy explorers of our neighborhood, my childhood
friend Ron and I had looked down on Nalley Valley below us. My Oakland Grade School
playground looked out over Nalley Valley as well. Now as a young man I was in
Nalley Valley working for money, just a mile from my original home. While in
college, I earned tuition money at Nalley's during summer vacation. I also worked over the
summer of 1960 to fund my travel year. Lucy and I remained completely out of
contact. She lived in Salem with her parents, also working to save funds for
the following academic year.
The pickle plant, to which I was
assigned, consisted of four departments. Workers in the receiving department unloaded
freight trucks bringing fresh cucumbers from as far as Skagit Valley, 100 miles
to the north. Belts conveyed the cucumbers into the sorting department to be
separated by size and quality, step 2. Lift trucks carried big boxfuls of cucumbers
from the sorting shed to ferment in large pickle tanks. They went into tanks as
cucumbers but came out as flavored pickles, sweet or sour. Using large nets
with long metal handles, workers deftly dipped pickles out of fermenting tanks into
large boxes. Lift trucks toted the boxes to the packing line. After packaging,
step 4, the bottled product was stored in warehouses pending distribution to
I was assigned to work in step three, the tank shed. Only Mike, the tank shed manager, and I worked
in the tank shed on a daily basis. Thus I was the lowest ranking “tank rat,” and
I felt okay about such a dregs-of-the-earth status. For me, having a
good-paying industrial job was a godsend, far superior to other options
available such as lawn mowing. Although I came home from work smelling like a
pickle, I was very grateful for the checks I could deposit into my new checking
Competition among college
students for such jobs was intense and I knew that my success in getting one
was due in part to a couple of employees who knew me and could vouch for me.
One of them was a professor in a local college who worked at Nalley’s during summer
college vacation periods. I knew him from years of association in my home
congregation. He was the vocal, independent thinker whom the new pastor asked
to leave. Another was the manager of the potato chip plant. Both of them put in
a good word for me.
Consumers who may eat a tablespoon of pickle relish or a pickle
slice or two in a hamburger sandwich would have no way to comprehend the enormous
volume of fresh pickles that Nalley’s processed daily. Imagine a tank, made of
oak staves, about eight feet in diameter and eight feet deep. These are the
dimensions, roughly, of the average tank in the shed. Tanks in the open air yard
were much larger on average, running up to 20 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep.
Altogether I’d guess that Nalley’s used about 250 tanks—about 100 indoors in
the shed alone—each harvest season. We tank rats were responsible for filling these
tanks with cucumbers and brine.
To access the rows of large tanks in the tank shed, men and
machines walked or drove on an elevated surface of heavy plank flooring six feet
wide or more, built to handle the weight of a loaded lift truck. The tanks were
set into rows A and B, separated by the boardwalk from rows C and D, separated
by the board walk from E and F, and so on.
Down below the boardwalk was a cemented floor with troughs
and drains built to handle hundreds of gallons of liquid at any one time. The
boardwalk was sufficiently elevated to allow a person to move from one tank to
another, stooping over to avoid hitting the boardwalk above. One person—me, the
flunky “tank rat”—worked alone in the dark, wet spaces below the boardwalk. I
romanticized my working environment by thinking it resembled the City of Paris
sewer system I’d read about in “Les Miserables.”
At the base of a tank, I’d routinely knock out the bung, three
inches in diameter, then rush to climb up the ladder to avoid my boots being swamped
in the river of brine. Just as frequently I’d hammer bungs back into drain
holes so that the tanks could be refilled. I’d also pick up stray pickles and
unplug the gutter drains when brine backups occurred. Whenever I knocked a bung
and sent a few thousand gallons of brine down the drain into the city sewer
system the employees at the sanitary sewer treatment plant would say, “There
goes Nalley’s again,” or so it was said.
I, the master of my underworld kingdom, made certain to
never drop my industrial grade flashlight. To lose my light would put me at
risk of running into beams or stepping off into a deep spot.
Every day my boss also assigned me tasks on the boardwalk
that separated rows of tanks. At this level I pumped water into the tanks, emptied
bags of salt into the water to make brine, tested pickles for firmness and their
stage of fermentation, raised or lowered the brine level using drain hoses, and
set up pumps to circulate brine throughout a tank.
Above boards on the deck, I was frequently told to drain a
few inches of brine from an overfull tank. This meant using a siphon hose. The
hard part was to start the flow. By watching other workers I learned to stuff
the tank end of the two-inch hose down into the brine, then form a tight
closure by placing the palm of my left hand over the draining end. I’d pull the
hose up quickly with my right hand while also lowering the draining end to the
floor. Then gravity took over and up to thirty inches of brine could be
Once in a while the preferred siphon starting method failed
and a different technique was necessary. On such an occasion I learned to place
the tank end of the hose in the brine, then kneel to the floor and suck on the
hose to get the brine flow started. I tried the first method with no luck, so I
turned to the second method. I didn’t remove my lips from the hose soon enough.
Suddenly I found myself with a mouth full of ninety degree brine.
I didn’t even have time to call for help. In just a split second my
throat closed up so tightly that I couldn’t breathe, neither in nor out. My
emergency throat closure system was working in a way I’d never experienced. I
tried to gesture for help, but shortly I realized I could do nothing but lay myself
down on the plank floor. A passing worker saw me lying there and called for
help on my behalf. Almost immediately my boss arrived on the run. I pointed at
my throat. He knew what to do. He straddle me and picked me up by the waist. I
recovered. I could breathe! From then on I used the hands-only method of
starting the brine and called for help if I couldn’t start the flow. The entire
emergency might have lasted 2 minutes. It felt like an eternity.
A Culprit among the Cucumbers
Through it all I came to know my fellow workers quite well
and they knew me. They not only knew me, but they judged me. In fact, I learned
that they knew me for working hard and enthusiastically, running from job to
job and eager to please my boss. After watching this behavior for a while, a
permanent worker or two complained I was working too hard.
Mike, by boss, called me to his office in the tank shed and brought
their complaint to me. Leaning over the standup shelf that served him as a desk
he said, “Darrell, the permanent crew says you’re working too hard. Scale your
energy back a ways.”
I found that complaint to be unbelievable. “That amazes me,”
I replied. “Who complained? Frankie?” He was a rotund jitney driver with a
ready smile, a year-round employee. I had a good joking relationship with him and
thought of him as mischievous. “Don’t we want the most work possible done every
Mike explained, “Well, the problem is that you’re young and
they’re older. You work only a few weeks in a row. They’re in these jobs year
round. They don’t want you to make them look bad. Work at a slower pace. Put on
your brakes and take your breaks, for God’s sake.”
Mike gave me some wise advice. I slowed down, took all my
breaks and heard no more complaints, neither from my fellow workers nor
management. The best part was that I enjoyed work more.
Teaming with the Teamsters
The Teamsters Union organizer, the amiable Charlie Curran,
befriended me. He was experienced and tended to the business of the union at
Nalley’s. Charlie and I had a natural affinity because he and his family, like
my family, lived on Grandview Avenue in University Place. We talked some about
University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, where Charlie’s wife was director of
Charlie informed me of the rate I owed as a seasonal
employee for union dues but he never billed me. Probably, I thought, he knows
how badly a college kid needs money. Nevertheless, I felt I was a member of the
Teamsters informally and realized that my good wages were due in part to the
I could never fathom why some of my non-union friends were so
anti-Teamsters. Perhaps some hated only the controversial Teamsters president, Jimmy
Hoffa. Many seemed to hate all Teamsters because they hated Hoffa. It was an
example of an unfortunate side of human life. My Teamsters friends were
hardworking people, scrambling for a decent wage to support their families.
Particularly Charlie, who was a good conversationalist and treated me in a
fatherly manner, like those amiable pastors of the old school at my church.
When Mike, my amiable boss, went on summer vacation he left
me in charge of work in the tank shed. Just like Mike, I, too, reported
directly to the superintendent of the pickle plant. One of Mike’s many responsibilities
was to maintain sufficient vinegar level in huge wooden tanks set atop the canning
plant. One tank held white vinegar, another brown, and a third contained a mix
of white and brown in correct proportion to reach a certain level of acidity. Each
of these tanks contained thousands of gallons of vinegar. The vinegar was used
by workers who packed pickles into jars in the canning department. I tended the
vinegar tanks daily.
One day, although I was yards away in the plant shed, I
heard cries and screams floating my way over the rumble of machinery. Right
off, I knew the screams were those of women in the canning line, but why were
they screaming? I rushed over to their stations to help them.
They looked at me
and yelled, “Vinegar! Vinegar!” They kept stuffing pickles in jars while pointing
to liquid dripping, like a major water leak, from the ceiling above.
When the superintendent of the pickle plant arrived the
vinegar flow had increased from drips into a continuous cascade. He determined
the problem immediately: a rooftop vinegar tank was overflowing.
Though I rushed to the roof to turn off the pump damage had
been done. The huge third tank on the roof was overflowing and the pump was
Back downstairs, supervisors huddled. They decided to close the
packing line and sent the vinegar-flavored employees home. They were very generous
to me and let me keep my job. I, for my part was relieved to give back to Mike
his vinegar-mixing responsibility the minute he walked in the door from
vacation. I felt I’d given myself a huge black eye but Mike just said, “It’s
okay. It’s okay.”
“Okay,” I thought, “but I deserve to be fired.”
Once I needed a certain tool, an iron rod about five feet
long with a three inch hook on the end. We used this tool in the tank shed to
retrieve anything miscellaneous from a pickle tank. I found it hanging from a
beam over a tank of gherkins (the smallest and most valuable of pickles.) I couldn’t
reach the hook from the floor, so I climbed up and onto the rim of the tank. As
I stretched out across the tank to reach the hook, I felt myself losing my
balance. My feet remained on the rim but I belly-flopped into the tank with my
arms outstretched. When I hit the surface I sent waves of brine and gherkins,
resembling surfers now, over the edge of the tank. Fortunately, I was able just
to reach the opposite side of the tank.
I broke my fall just below the surface
with boot heels hooked over the rim on one side and hands over the far side. My
coveralls were completely soaked in brine. Management sent me home early that
day, with gherkins in my pockets, my boots and, well, you get the idea.
I’d worked for money from an early age. I started as a child
laborer, picking strawberries and raspberries in Puyallup Valley, near Tacoma.
I graduated into cherry picking in the Valley and also took a newspaper route
in Tacoma. As a seventeen-year-old I’d been a state employee on a summer-time
fire-fighting crew, stationed near Mount Rainier. Nalley’s was continuous with
my working background and the most lucrative job I’d had. By working there for
eight weeks I was bankrolled for the trip I’d been committed to for years.
Though the stint at Nalley’s wasn’t life-transforming for me, the education it
afforded and the trip it was about to underwrite were life-transforming events.
Dealing with the Draft Board
Besides surmounting other barriers, another important facet
of my travel preparations concerned the draft board. The United States required
men at age eighteen to register with a local military draft board. When I
registered, I was automatically classified in the IV-D category, designating me
as a divinity student.
The rules for IV-D required that the registrant be enrolled
in divinity school. I was still pre-enrolled as a student in Western
Evangelical Seminary of Jennings Lodge, Oregon, but, as I told the Board, I intended
to travel for a year rather than to begin classes immediately after graduation
from college. I wrote that I’d be learning enormously about church and
religious matters through contacts I’d make in travel.
In light of my situation
I requested an exception to the requirement to be matriculated, or actually taking
courses and attending classes. The Board informed me by letter that they’d
waive the requirement to matriculate for a 6 month period.
By August my accomplishments in the summer of 1960 were great.
My draft board allowed me to make a journey. I’d made it through the entire summer’s
fresh packing season alive. I recovered from my accidental dip in the gherkin
tank. I had money in my bank account. Bill and I had plans for travel in Europe
and somewhere else, still to be determined, during the cold months. I’d
graduated from college, just as my parents had advised, and I was ready for