Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Urban Archeology

When I began reading Your Money or Your Life at the end of last year I dug out the old gray ledger with the dark red corners and decided to put it to use keeping track of my money per the program Dominguez and Robin set forth in their book. My ledger begins on page 75. It is an old one I bought at the Barn Sale on Fox Island. Old things appeal to me, especially if I get them at a bargain. I don’t know what I paid for this because it sat in a stack of books in my bedroom for who knows how long.

I have to wonder about the person who owned the ledger before I did and how it came to be on Fox Island. Where did the first seventy-four pages go and what did they represent to that person? I found hints within the ledger. Whoever ripped out those pages did not discard all of the information. On pages 84 and 85 there’s entries from December 1956 for the purchase of a used stove for $40.00 and sidewalk and driveway repair for $85.oo made at 7123 N.E. Klickitat, presumably in Portland, OR and paid to Frank J. Kortas. In January of 1957 there’s an entry for a used bedroom set for $50.00, furnace repairs for $12.12 and the Oregonian Newspaper for $3.42. In the back of the ledger I found receipts from Fred Meyer for $3.49 paid with $5.00 on May 23rd and forty-nine cents paid with a dollar bill on June 1st. On the back of that one is a Fred Meyer coupon for five cents. I wonder if they’d still take it at our Fred Meyer. It says it is only good for thirty days after receipt, but there’s no year on it.

There’s a shopping list that looks like it might have been for a lumber yard. “One outside corner” followed by a five and a four, but no indication what the numbers referred to. “Two 12 foot strips” and “bead” and “covering.” Apparently more than their furnace needed repair. Lastly I found a receipt from the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon for a payment made by Mildred Compton in the amount of $10 for a patient named Mabel Gorr or Garr.

Oregon State Hospital in Salem I discovered was and is a psychiatric facility. Why was Mabel there and who was she to Mildred; a sister perhaps? It is well known that many people hospitalized in those days, particularly women, may not have been suffering from anything more than what today would be diagnosed as a chemical imbalance. What happened to Mabel? Did she die in the hospital and never have a life?

The discovery of the Oregon State Hospital receipt led me to look up the place and I discovered that it was the scene of a mass poisoning in 1942. On the evening of November 18th nearly 500 patients and staff became ill after having eaten scrambled eggs which were served for dinner. Almost immediately the diners began to suffer cramps, vomiting and respiratory paralysis. Forty-seven would die and 467 were sickened. In the end it would be discovered that one of the cooks had given a “trustee” (trusted patient) the keys to the cellar and asked him to bring powdered milk up for the scrambled eggs. When people began to get sick the cook realized that the patient had mistaken cockroach poison for powered milk, but didn’t come forward until it had been determined that the frozen egg yolks used in the dinner were not spoiled. Although the cooks were arrested it was ruled to be an accidental poisoning. The patient was never charged, but despite two attempts to live outside of the hospital he died there in 1984. I can’t help but wonder if Mabel was living there on that horrific night.

My ledger isn’t the first or the most interesting thrift find. In 1992 my husband and I were shopping at a thrift store in Tacoma when I happened on two high school yearbooks for Ilwaco High School. We have a home in Ilwaco and my children attended Ilwaco High for three years. These yearbooks dated back to the early 1960s and although I did not recognize the name of the original owner of the books I recognized many of the names and faces on the pages. It was a hoot and I had to buy the books. Over the years I’ve enjoyed showing them to my friends on the Long Beach Peninsula, but I’ve dusted them long enough and I plan to take them to the high school and see if they would like to house them. If not, maybe the Heritage Museum would. Unfortunately, my friends and I are becoming museum quality.

The strangest discovery I ever made in my second hand shopping was a baby book. As I said, I like old things and once when I was at the Fox Island Barn Sale I stumbled on to what appeared to be an unused blue baby book dating from the 1950s. Not yet a grandmother I purchased it anyway since finding a book so old and unused was a novelty. One of my son’s shares my passion for old things and when his wife became pregnant in 2003 I decided that this was a good opportunity to give the baby book a home. I hauled it out of my armoire where it had spent several years and flipped through it to make sure there was no writing when I discovered a page had writing on it. Damn, I thought, wouldn’t you know it? Then I did a double take. The information that was filled out for a baby boy born in 1955 was for one of my brother’s in-law!

The name was unmistakable. The entry had been made before my father-in-law had changed the spelling of the family name in 1956 to supposedly make it more pronounceable. I could not believe my eyes. We took the book to my in-laws who had lived in Bellevue at the time and now lived in Bothell and my mother-in-law did not believe I’d bought the book on Fox Island. She did not remember the book and with seven stair-step boys who could blame her for not keeping up with baby books, but I know very well where I found it. Like the ledger which had traveled from Portland to Fox Island and the year books that came from Ilwaco to Tacoma, the baby book had made a journey from my mother-n-laws hands (she finally decided my father-in-law must have taken it to Goodwill) to who knows whom and ultimately to mine.

I consider my curiosity about discarded things to be a kind of urban archeology. Although I’m becoming better about collecting things my natural curiosity will probably keep me wondering about how and why some things like family pictures and baby books get discarded in the first place and about the lives of those to whom they belonged. Not wanting my own things to suffer such a fate I’ve already sent my cousins their baby pictures before my children toss them in the garbage or send them off to Goodwill, too!


Lorraine Hart said...

I love this Stephanie! It's been a while since I made that Barn Sale on Fox Island...but it's a gooder! I got a great set of Coast Guard raingear for $5, the first year we were out here.

I love "urban archeology" too. My best friend and I used to go on the hunt at 5am on the "special garbage" days. That's when people could throw larger items out for pick up...old books, furniture. Annie's best find was a red satin quilt with a huge gold dragon embroidered on it...just needed a bit of fixing and a visit to the dry-cleaner.

I can get lost in the old ledgers and books with inscriptions. It was a treasure hunt to clean out my husband's great-grandmother's house. History is close and touchable.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Yes, I love touching my grandparents books and wondering about the inscriptions in others from strangers. History of the common folk.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Yes, I love touching my grandparents books and wondering about the inscriptions in others from strangers. History of the common folk.

Grandma Blog said...

That was the most interesting story. Imagine taking the 5 cent coupon to Fred Meyers. They would die laughing. That is so sad about the poisoning. It was somewhat of a relief to know it was an accident, but we just never know when something like that can happen. How about the peanut butter scare going on. I threw out some peanut butter cookies that may have been okay.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Better to be safe than sorry when some people have died because of the greed of a few peanut butter manufacturers!