I remember… a boy named Larry Shelton. I must have been twelve or thirteen years old at the time, and we were visiting my Aunt and Uncle’s farm for the summer. The ‘farm’ was a small acreage with a cow, some sheep, a few geese and chickens, a black lab named Pooch, a creek and a hill in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. My father towed our small travel trailer to the farm, so that my Mom and brother and I could spend the summer. My Dad returned home to Seattle to work, leaving us to pick strawberries, red and black raspberries, marion berries and boysenberries, and finally green beans in the fields close by with my aunt and cousins.
Each morning in June, July and August, my cousins Bill & Beckie along with my brother and I ate a hurried breakfast of cold cereal with fresh cow’s milk poured on, around the kitchen table in the wee dark hours. Then we would file outside and climb sleepily into the back of the old blue pick-up. My Aunt drove, with my Mom sitting beside her, and the four of us kids sat on the side rails in the back. We would follow the highway for 10-12 miles to the Shelton farm, where their two boys Larry and his older brother Butch would climb in and join us. Then the truck would head for the fields around Salem, where we would work that day. Mostly we rode in silence as the sky began to lighten to a pre-dawn gray, and then finally to a chill dawn that would begin to break above the treetops. We all wore old jeans and sweatshirts to ward off that early chill blowing past us in the back of the truck.
Larry Shelton was a couple of months older than I was, and secretly I thought he was a cute boy. He was pretty quiet and never said much. During the days, it became a goal of mine to tease him just to coax a smile out of him. I would tell stories and jokes to try to get a grin, or throw berries and/or beans through the bushes at him, which of course was strictly forbidden by my aunt and mom. I would sometimes sit by him at lunch and offer him my choicest morsels, all to no effect and certainly with no smiles.
When my aunt would call a halt to our picking day around 2pm, due to the heat and humidity, we would gather our buckets and cartons of produce to take to the man who weighed out our hard work at the edge of the field. It never amounted to as much as it felt like it should, but it was good to feel the cash in our hands at the end of each day. Then we collected our stuff, trudged to the parked truck and climbed back in. This time we were hot, sticky, dirty and sweaty…our sweatshirts and jeans long cast aside for the coolness of shorts and t-shirts. The sun beat down on us mercilessly in the back of the truck, but this time we chattered happily because we knew we were headed for Thomas ‘Crick’ (as pronounced by the locals in the know!)
My aunt knew of a secret swimming hole on a friend’s property, and she would turn off the highway on our way home and follow a dirt road through the fields to a gate. One of us kids would hop out and open the gate, then carefully close and latch it after the truck drove through, hop back in and we would bump on down the road a bit further to the swimming hole in Thomas Crick. When we got there the girls headed into the trees on the left to change into swim suits and the boys into the trees on the right. Thomas Creek was naturally dammed up at that spot, forming a really large pond, deep in the middle. It was ringed around with big flat boulders, half in the water and half out, perfect for running and jumping into the cool, clear water. The whole pond was surrounded by trees and it seemed there wasn’t anyone around for miles and we could whoop it up and holler and yell all we wanted, and blow off steam from working hard all day. The water was deliciously cold and cooled our hot bodies gloriously. One tree leaned out over the pond, and a sturdy rope hung from one of its branches. We took turns swinging out over the water and then letting go with a splash. The boys loved to hunt crawdads under the rocks at the shallow edges, and then chase us girls with the crawdads and their pincher's. It was shady and cool, and a great way to end the hot afternoons before heading back to the house for supper.
One hot afternoon on the way to the swimming hole turn off, I got an idea. My cousin Bill had a special soft picking’ hat that he wore jammed down on his head, from the time he got up until he went to back to bed. As we were rolling down the highway that day, towards Thomas Crick, I got my brilliant idea. Without stopping to think it through, I reached over and snatched Bill’s hat off his head, and threw it off the truck onto the road rolling away behind us. Bill stood up, his face beet red, screaming furiously at me and at his mom to stop the truck. I was not only rewarded with finally a smile from Larry Shelton, but with loud laughter as well, as all us kids roared with laughter at Bill’s antics. My aunt never heard him and kept on driving down the road. As soon as we reached the turn off, Bill hopped off the back and ran up to her window, pounding on it until she stopped. He yelled out his problem, but she told him it was too far to go back. He refused to climb in with us again, so she finally drove off leaving him running along the dirt track, after the truck, in the dust. He was the one who got to open and then latch the gate that day. I was sorry about it later, as I saw how much the hat meant to him and he was mad at me for a long time, but now it’s a funny family memory we all laugh at.
Looking back on that summer, I think about the people and the good times we shared as we worked and played. We learned to work for pay and had so much innocent fun. I also remember the day, forty+ years ago now, when I heard the news that Larry Shelton had been killed in Vietnam, fighting as a soldier for his country. I think about the years that I’ve lived since then, the minutes, days, weeks and months that he has missed. That his life was predestined to be so short is a mystery. It brings me warmth and pleasure now, to have made him laugh on that sunny day in the back of the pickup, and to know he had fun on those hot afternoons at Thomas ‘Crick’, before the too-soon approaching darkness and stillness of death.
Larry Dean Shelton Oct 28 1950- Oct 11 1970