PHOTO: OUR FATHER AT AGE 50
CATEGORY: THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE
My father, Alexander Martin Zevely came from a different kind of frontier life. By this I mean different than my mother’s, whose life was secure, and who had a loving family even though her father was stern–as men were expected to be in those days. My father’s father was a gambler, the black sheep of a family sired by an Old World, steel hard, bible thumping Calvinist whose wife had eleven children before she gave up trying to have a human child. That was an attempt at black humor. I shudder at my callousness. In actuality, I never met any of my father’s aunts or uncles, or indeed any other members of his family except for his youngest brother Bob, who was the post master of Prineville for forty years and was wonderfully good natured. That puts the lie to my Zevely family lump evaluation. I made this unkind remark only because of things I heard from my mother, mostly in later life, or as a child listening through closed doors.
One of the stories of my father’s family is that one day, when my father’s father and his brothers were young, their father found a playing card in the house. All the children were refused food until someone confessed to the heinous crime of playing cards. I do not know the outcome of the story, but the guilty party was probably my grandfather who spent most of his adult life as a professional card player. It was expedient for him to own, or be the proprietor of saloons. He was a very handsome man. He looked like a gambler in any western movie. But unlike the gamblers in western movies, he did not drink or tote a gun. However, just to keep up his reputation and balance the scales, he deserted his wife and children.
Another story about my father’s father’s family is that, after the youngest of those eleven children had reached the adult age of twelve, the old tyrant’s wife left him and all the rest of the family and set out walking from their ranch near Prineville. Somehow she made her way to Lakeview. She never came back. Instead, she met a man who treated her well. She lived with him for the rest of her life.
The young Alex grew up in the back rooms of saloons in and around the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon. He spent much of his childhood literally alone in the wilderness and had an unerring sense of direction. Anyone who has spent time in the mountains of that part of Oregon will testify that the wilderness there is the real thing. People still get lost in those mountains every year.
Alex never got lost. When he was only ten years old he was sent alone to find a man whose wife was dying and bring him back from his isolated mine. Alex was told that the mine was at the base of a mountain that could faintly be seen in the hazy distance amid the complexity of other mountains. They pointed it out to him. It was a three days journey one way. At night he climbed trees and tied himself there so he would not fall in his sleep. If he slept in a tree, he thought he could defend himself from cougars. He found the man and brought him back to town.
Probably Alex preferred cougars and sleeping in trees to being around some of the older boys, his uncles and the drunken men of the western towns where his family lived, whose custom it was to be mean to small boys. Their excuse was that “it made men of them.” At one time, he was branded with a red hot branding iron by some rowdy early teenagers in their small town up in the mountains from Jacksonville. When he was six, he was thrown into a river by his uncles so that he could learn to swim. Unbeknownst to them, he had already taught himself how to swim and so was able to get out alive.
Self Portrait of Alex as a Boy
My father’s story is one of triumph over adversity–that is, until he was in his mid-forties and got hit by the Depression. He managed to survive both the wilderness and the child-devouring people of his childhood. He even got through college, excelling in art and math, an unusual combination of abilities. Two of his paintings are still hanging in the library in Lakeview. Our mother often told us what a high IQ he had. He was brilliant, she said. She said this at a time when his brilliance was dimming and she needed light in her life.
My sister Gracie, five years older than I, said, “The Depression ruined my dad.” She must have known him when he was still a whole person, or as whole as anyone might be who had survived such a childhood. All I ever knew was a resentful, hateful, sullen and withdrawn man whom I can never remember speaking to me or even wanting to be in the same room with me.
I was born in 1929, the summer before the crash: that disaster possibly having been caused by my birth. I was an accident after two other children, the second of which, Mary, was also an accident but hesitantly accepted when mother promised Alec that, if it were a girl, they would name her after his favorite sister. So a third child–another girl!–fourteen months later and with no hope of its becoming a name-sake—or a boy— was almost too cruel a blow. My mother told me he never really forgave her, or me. Sometimes it helps to have someone to blame when everything in ones world is toppling.
My father shared this daughter-rejecting trait with another brilliant man: Theodore Roosevelt did the same thing, and one likes to think Teddy was more sane than my father. Roosevelt’s wife died when his daughter, Alice, was born and he never forgave his daughter. He had her kept out of his sight as much as possible and hardly ever spoke to her. Go figure.
For my first five years my father taught school in tiny towns. We lived in Tygh Valley, Dayville, Silvies. When I was five the Depression was really getting into its stride with no sign of let-up. As were other teachers, my father was being paid in “script,” a kind of check which no one would cash because, along with everyone else, the schools had no money. The school in Dayville had to close. In Silvies, where we lived before moving to Grass Valley, people in the community brought us food and other kinds of goods to try to keep a teacher who wasn’t being paid. It wasn’t enough.
My mother’s parents came to our rescue. Her father gave my mother a house and four acres that was part of his Grass Valley ranch property. It was at the south end of the ranch, so our house was actually in the town of Grass Valley, and the ranch house where my mother’s family lived was only a half mile away. This was the beginning of a beaten down man with three, mostly unwanted children, being dependent on his wife’s morally upright family and the beginning of the end of any pride he may still have had. His in-laws were Methodists; he was agnostic. He had been divorced; his in-laws thought divorce a sin. These in-laws, my grandfather, my grandmother and my Uncle Wallace, were three of the most dear and loving people in my life. But none of my mother’s family was without their often rigid beliefs.
At first, our father was able to substitute at the Grass Valley School, but he soon got a permanent job with a reliable pay check: fifty five dollars a month. He became a government trapper. One thing in his favor was that he knew how to get around in the outback. Sherman County was not the same kind of wilderness as that in the Siskiyou Mountains , but it had its rugged country: canyons deep enough to fall into and never be found, both actually and figuratively. That is what he wanted: not to be found. He left early in the morning and got home in time for a late dinner after we children had eaten. Then, muttering to himself, he went out and worked in the garden, or, after electricity was installed in our house, listened to the radio. What I knew about him came, not from actual experience, but from listening from my bedroom or looking out the window, because I was put to bed before he got home and not gotten up in the morning until after he left for work so I would never have to see him except on Sundays.
In 1939 the government closed its trapping program; Alex had no job. Our family was without any income at all. We ran up bills at the grocery store and other businesses. My mother applied for teaching jobs and got one in Camp Sherman, a summer community on the Metolious River near Sisters–a magical place in the Cascade Mountains on the most beautiful of rivers. It was named Camp Sherman because Sherman County ranchers, made wealthy by the price of wheat during the First World War, had started it by building vacation homes along the river. That was why mother got the job so easily. She had a good teaching reputation in Sherman County.
There were also some full time residents in Camp Sherman–enough to have a grade school with six students. Mother took Mary and me with her, so that made eight students. Gracie, however, was in high school, and there was no high school in Camp Sherman so she had to stay at home in Grass Valley with our father. She is now 89 and still gets panic attacks over issues of desertion. Mother was able to pay off all our debts in Grass Valley. She saved us financially but it was the end of her marriage, such as it was.
After Camp Sherman, we spent two years at Shaniko. Sometime during our three years away from Grass Valley, Alex moved to Lakeview, seemingly a refuge for Zevely’s. By some unknown means, probably a loan from his brother Bob, he acquired a service station, grocery store and a motel there. He re-married a woman who was beyond the age of child bearing and lived until he was 90 in some semblance of peace.