The Day I Met Richard Nixon
Issue #49, April 2000
Our little farm town was on the juncture of three geologic features. To the west were the Cascade Mountains whose eastern foothills crept down to the western edge of town. The great forests of the northwest dissipated as they reached the outskirts of town. To the east was the thin crust of soil that covered the great basaltic flows of the Great Basin. An ecology of sagebrush and open expanses of blue skies, wheat fields and cattle ranges.
Directly to the north of town were the Klickitats or, as they were more commonly called, Horse Heaven hills. Gently rolling grass covered hills. The Columbia River, the third of these great features, was three quarters of a mile wide, deep and treacherous separated us from the hills. The Columbia started as melting snows at the continental divide in southern Canada and flowed southwest into Northern Washington, it picked up the Spokane, the Okanogan, the Yakima, and, past the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the Snake, the John Day, the Deschutes and the Hood Rivers. Finally, cutting straight through the Cascade Mountains it acquired the Willamette and the Cowlit Rivers before diving into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria. Named by Capt. Robert Grey for his ship, the Columbia, it was the home to countless generations of salmon, a great ocean-going trout that lived and grew in the icy waters off Alaska and then returned to spawn on a four or five year cycle. The Chinook, the Steelhead and the Jack were the local varieties.
The salmon was to the Northwest Indians what the buffalo was to the Plains Indians. More than just food, it was a culture. For somewhere between ten and fourteen thousand years this had been so. A hundred thousand Indians gathering to fish, smoke salmon, trade and barter. Flints from the Rocky Mountains have been found here, trade goods from the Canadian coast and artifacts from California. In my wanderings around the hills I had found a mortar and pestle, a moccasin last and a canoe anchor, each fashioned from basalt. Looking for spear and arrow points was a local hobby.
The Celilo falls were famous. Much like Niagara falls but not as high. The Columbia cut through geologic history with ease but at Celilo had found a particularly hard form of basalt and cascaded over it to continue its journey. I had often stood toe deep in the river at the falls and felt the vibrations as the falling water caused the underlying bedrock to shake. The sound of the water was just tremendous, much like a great steam locomotive at full throttle. It was at these falls that the Indians would fish. Scoop netting the salmon as they jumped. My Dad would take my sister and I to Celilo village to watch them fish and buy a few fresh salmon. It was always an adventure to wander through the village and play with my friends from school. I went to the same rural school as the reservation children but they didn't often invite me to their home. My sister always drank the water because she said it tasted wild and fishy. We would wrap the salmon in burlap, toss them in the back of the pick-up and take them home to Mom. The first time my Dad took me along I was in the third grade and the salmon was the same size as me. Later, into my puberty lankiness, they only came up to my sternum. Mom would stretch them out on the drain board and cut them up into steaks and fillets wrap them in freezer paper and save them for winter.
The white people had come a hundred and twenty five years ago. A trickle of mountain men and adventures had followed Lewis and Clark and then the pioneers, who built this small farm town. It was said that a person could walk across the river on the backs of the salmon. I do know the Indians built an entire culture around them. We were the new-comers, with less than a hundredth of the heritage of the native population. When I was in elementary school they had begun to build a hydroelectric dam just upstream of town and just downstream of the Indian reservation at Celilo. I could watch the construction from the living room window of my parent's farmhouse.
It was 1957 and I was in junior high school. The town had turned out to dedicate the completion of the project. The dam was built to generate electricity. In 1934 when they had built the Bonneville dam the experts had claimed that it would generate so much electricity that they wouldn't know what to do with it, that it would be too cheap to measure. Then came World War II, which was fought with fleets of airplanes, airplanes of aluminum, and the masterminds had decided that the Columbia River could become the aluminum capitol of America. So we built this dam. But wars were not built with fleets of planes any longer. The thousand plane raids of WWII were as archaic as the mounted cavalry. I guess politicians are like old Generals: they too are ready to fight the last war.
To mark the opening of the new dam, Richard Nixon was coming to town, and he was stopping by the high school. I rode my bicycle down to the beautiful art-deco high school we were blessed with, to see if I could see the Vice-President. At age 13, I didn't know who Richard Nixon was other than that he was the Vice-President. Mostly I thought it would be a fun thing to share at the dinner table with my Republican parents and maybe give me some future bragging rights with the other kids. "I met the Vice-President, yah, yah, yah, and you didn't" sort of thing. I stood outside the gymnasium on the little plaza by the front door, in the crowd, leaning against a rope barrier. It was hot and the crowd was fairly animated. This was the most excitement the town had had since a load of cattle escaped on 2nd street. Not long after I arrived at the gym, a string of cars pulled up to the curb. I don't know what I expected but he got out of a pretty ordinary Cadillac. I think it belonged to the fire chief, he always drove black Cadillacs. I remember thinking that if that was the best we could do we were a pretty small town.
There he was, suddenly shaking hands with the very person on my right. Then he stepped right in front of me, not inches away and a terrifying cold chill penetrated my entire body with an electric shiver running from the tip of my tailbone up to the base of my skull. Visually he seemed to change to nothing more than a dark, impenetrable cold black hole. A black shadow seemed to engulf me. I froze. I couldn't have been more surprised or terrified than if the Wicked Witch of the East had landed before me. The effect was just as startling. I know knew how Dorothy felt.
With a "Hi, how are ya," and a handshake to the person on my left he was gone. Riding my old black Schwinn home I knew I wasn't going to tell anyone. Especially not my Republican Baptist family. I felt as if the devil himself had just stepped on my toe. We each make a contract with God when we are born to nurture and care for our soul and each other. When I read world literature later on, it became apparent that some like Dorian Grey and Daniel Martin make different contracts. This put my experience in perspective. For one instant I had seen the true soul of Richard Nixon and it had nothing to do with God. It scared me. Nixon had traded his soul for power. He was evil and he would do evil things.
The next day the family and our neighbors drove up the little dirt road on the hill over looking the Celilo village and watched the new lake behind the dam fill, flooding the village. The water crept up, covering the ancient fishing grounds while the grown ups drank beer and smoked cigarettes. After the picnic was over and the lake was full we got ready to go home and the men put the beer cans in the trash, I asked if we weren't going to take the cans back to the store for the deposit. They said, you don't need to bother with these new aluminum cans. They're too cheap to count. That night the lakeside absorbed its first litter of cans.My Indian friends later told me it was the saddest day of their lives. They lost everything. Their homes, their culture, and the salmon and had to move to the Warm Springs Reservation. I tried to stay friends with them after that day and did occasionally visit them at the Reservation but I felt so humiliated by what my people had done that I could never be friends like before.
Years later, when I was in high school, I would borrow the old family Chevrolet and take my girlfriend to the drive-in theatre. Afterward we would take that little dirt road up on the hill over looking the lake behind the dam. On those warm summer nights we would neck until 3am. Taking a break to catch my breath from my teenage quest, I would sit out on the hillside feeling those cool summer breezes and think about that river and the salmon. I would think of my sister Ruth who died, at eleven, of massive intestinal ulcers and how she liked to drink the fishy water. The town people would say the river would pick up so much radiation from the Hanford nuclear reservation that it would glow at night. I wonder if we don't all have a small black hole in our soul over this. To have sold our heritage, the river, the salmon -- and all for the disposable beer can -- seems like a bargain only the devil could love. I know Richard Nixon did. I used to squint my eyes, but I could never see that river glow. Unless I got lucky.