Friday, February 13, 2009

Plain Tales from the West Hills

Had a job of work up on S.W. Montgomery Place the other day. Portlanders would recognize the address as up in one of our our tony West Hills neighborhoods, and indeed it is. It's a lovely old turn-of-the-last-century house in Portland's Vista Heights neighborhood that's having some slope issues - not a terrific shock; many of the developments cut into the slopes in our Southwest do.

(As an aside, here's a nice post from a fun little blog that, along with food, fire stations and Japanese kaiju flicks, talks about the cablecar lines that used to run into - among other places - the West Hills in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The houses in the picture below are along Montgomery Drive, the larger street just east of my client's place. Fun blog, and the old car lines are kind of amazing - the Vista Trestle must have been a hell of a fun ride!)As I went about my business outside the beautiful home my surroundings prompted a couple of thoughts, and prodded up from the varves of my mind a couple of memories.

My main thought, sadly, was a question: "Hmmm...I wonder how long it would take two tweakers to strip all these gorgeous, chi-chi copper gutters and downspouts off this freaking barn to sell at Dirty Eddie's down in Lents for crank?"I have a dangerously low-rent mind. But copper downspouts,'s like tweaker candy. Good luck with that.

The memories were of the early days of my time in Portland. I was in grad school and working on a grant for the Oregon state geological survey, doing seismic refraction field work up in the West Hills.

This involved carting around a portable seismograph and geophones in my old Mazda hatchback and setting them up along the streets in hundred-foot-long arrays. I would - or Barry, the other grad student who was my field assistant would - then strike a steel plate with a sledgehammer to generate the noise source that would travel down and along the soil and rock layers beneath us and back up to the geophones.

We desperately wanted to use the small dynamite charges that are more common and more useful for seismic work - they generate a stronger and far sharper noise source. But the state geologist in charge of the project took one look at the two of us and clearly imagined the effect on the public of turning us loose in the affluent West Hills with a sackful of quarter-sticks of dynamite.

We were told that we would use the hammer, instead.

So we spent all the summer of 1992 doing this, up and down the streets of the Vista and Burlingame and King's Heights neighborhoods. It was hard work but fun, in its way, and I got to know the wealthy heights pretty well for a poor mook from Beaverton.

Barry, who was even more poor and desperate than I, truly loved discomfiting the well-to-do residents of the Hills. He'd throw the steel platen down on the sidewalk to make it ring in the quiet of an August morning and grin; "Time to wake up some rich people..!"

So it shouldn't have surprised me when I got an angry call from the state geologist I was working for.

Seems that I'd been down at one end of a block of S.W. Vista when the homeowner at the other end walked out to see what Barry was doing setting out the "pots" (i.e. geophones) in front of his house.

"What are you doing?" he asks in his polite, well-bred fashion.

Barry looks up and sizes up his questioner. "We're doing some seismic research for the state geological survey." he replies.

"What are you researching?" asks his interrogator

"Oh, you know, the soils here and what's gonna happen in the next big earthquake."

(Mind you, this was before the 1993 "Spring Break Quake" that alerted everyone in Oregon to the hazard of earthquakes. At the time a lot of people believed that one of or big advantages over California was that we never had them.)

"Earthquake?" says the homeowner "What earthquake?"

So Barry explains about subduction zone earthquakes and what happens to homes on hills during eight to ten minutes of strong shaking, fire, landslides, the dead rising from their graves,dogs and cats living together, total disaster. His listener becomes increasingly horrified and agitated as he goes through all this. Finally he can't wait any longer - he has to find out the REALLY important thing.

"Ohmigod that's awful!" he cries to Barry "When do they expect this earthquake?!?"

Barry looks thoughtful. "I dunno...could be any time. Could be today." he says. "In fact...what time is it?"

Barry said that the panicked scramble of the guy for his cell phone and his insurance agent was worth the ass-chewing that Matt at the Survey gave us for being smartasses and scaring the rich people.

Update 2/14: Just because I can't resist showing y'all how smart and literary I am, my Valentine's present to you is the Gutenburg link to the Kipling book that shares the title of this post. Hard to say which is better: the tragedy of "Lispeth"? The magical realism of "The Bisara of Pooree? The domestic farce of "Miss Youghal's Sais"? Regardless - go, read it. Kipling, though he knew almost nothing of Indians other than the racist fantasies of a middle-class Victorian, genuinely loved India and his fellow Anglo-Indians. Outside The Jungle Book, his early tales of Anglo-Indian life may well be his best work. And the best of Kipling is, well, pretty damn good.


sheerahkahn said...

That is classic!

And serves people right for not knowing before hand what they're buying into.
Down here in CA every house purchase comes with the location of nearest fault line, and flood line.
In fact, I think we're all amatuer geologist down here...especially when the earth gets to rocking and rolling.

Rick98C said...

HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! The wonder of it all.

Red Sand said...

Why is it so terribly tempting and satisfying to do those little things?

Ael said...

Actually, I think that Barry did him a favor. It is useful to be jolted out of one's own complacency from time to time. It lets you re-evaluate things.

My dad, who was a natural gas utilityman, loved playing tricks on his new crew members. It would get them thinking about things, which is important if the thing you need to fix is covered by 8 feet of dirt and you need to decide where *exactly* you should start digging.

One of his favorite tricks was to park the wheel of his truck over the curb-box of some house they were going to work on. (Being a 40 year man, he knew where things were).

As they got out of the truck, he would tell his crew-mate to turn off the gas while he got the tools ready in the back of the truck.

He would then wait to see how long it would take for them to figure out where the curb box *had* to be located.

Lisa said...

Very funny story.

Now I am awaiting the next installment of your wonderful fiction about the Holocene and late Pleistocene and the little creatures one imagines existed during those times, and how they dealt with the threats to their own abodes -- if not copper-trimmed, precious all the same.

Blue Gal said...

My attorney's office (in a small house-like building) had all copper gutters until one Saturday (no one in the office, natch) some group of guys with an official-looking repair truck came in broad daylight and hauled them away. They replaced the stolen gutters with old metal.

Lisa said...

Thank you for sharing some wonderful Kipling.