“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I'll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.”
On the southern coast of Oregon there is a small town named Ampersand. The coastal mountains, shaggy with spruce and hemlock, slope like a neanderthal's brow down to a broad grassy bench above the rolling combers of the Pacific Ocean. Upon this meadowy bench our town is built. Below the town short bluffs drop to a wide beach: the sands of Ampersand are golden in the sunrise, white on a hot afternoon, and blue under moonlight. Warbling sandpipers run along the tideline. Iridescent jellies twitch, dying between pink quartzite pebbles and bits of green sea-glass.
The town proper comprises an area of 5.2 square kilometers, or 7.7 triangular ones. An insignificant river, the Slippery Squidge, flows along the southern side of the town. Where it meets the sea a shallow bay accommodates small boats, pelicans, starry flounder, and skinnydipping hippies. Offshore lurks Bonebottom Reef, a basalt ledge where many a Malaysian freighter has come to grief and spilled its cargo of life-sized rubber Leonard Nimoy dolls into the sea. Such shipwrecks are common. Many of us in Ampersand have closets full of these floppy Spock-shaped effigies.
A dozen kilometers inland the Coast Range rises to a peak of 1034 meters, known locally as Hamster Mountain. This minor peak was named by early settlers for the reddish-brown mammals which roamed its grassy summit. These, however, were not hamsters but elk. It was an easy mistake to make.
An early name for the town was "Hamster Sande's" -- although this name had nothing to do with either Hamster Mountain or with the sands of the beach. Instead, the name honored Captain Hubert "Hamster" Sande, a smuggler of counterfeit rump-flanges whose ship struck on Bonebottom Reef in 1832. But we will speak more of Captain Sande in our "History" section.
And here we are in the History section! What luck. So, anyway: in March of 1832 Captain "Hamster" Sande sailed north from San Francisco in a three-masted schooner, the Wet Dongle, carrying a cargo of fake Brazilwood brass-hinged rump-flanges. Off the coast of southern Oregon he sighted a pod of minke whales and, having an irrational fear of bottom-feeders, he steered his ship inshore to avoid them.
That was his undoing. The neap tide had exposed Bonebottom Reef, and the Wet Dongle struck the rocks like a cabbage truck hitting Fatty Arbuckle. Captain Sande ran forward from the wheelhouse, shouting for his crew to lower the lifeboats. As it turned out the ship was unharmed -- the next wave lifted it off the rocks and into deep water -- but the excitement inflamed Captain Sande's sinuses and they exploded with the force of hand grenades. His head was blown clean off. The injury was irreversible; it was clear to his crew that he would remain headless for the rest of his life. They rowed their decapitated, wildly gesticulating captain ashore and poured a pint of grog down the stump of his esophagus to calm him down.
This was the first time white men trod the grasses of Ampersand.
Captain Hubert Sande refused to return to the ship, apparently feeling his ability to navigate the Wet Dongle diminished by the loss of his head. A band of friendly Cooscoos Indians agreed to let him stay, and rented him a bark-roofed condominium on a grassy bank overlooking the Slippery Squidge. There he became happy. In the fullness of time Hubert fell in love with half of an Indian woman named Notopaf, or "Liver-Hangs-Out". In her youth this maiden had been torn in two by a marmot, and only her lower half -- from the rib cage down -- survived. When Hubert declared his love by means of eloquent arm gestures Notopaf responded by chastely wriggling her toes.
The couple was married by Chief Hasnohat in an alder-shaded meadow above the bay, and they had a long and apparently happy life together. At least, if they were unhappy they never said anything about it. They had many children. This is what we remember: our forbears were damaged. We expect no-one to be whole and complete. But, like Hubert and Notopaf, we do not talk about it.
The tallest building in Ampersand is the lodge of the Benevolent And Puissant Order Of Bonobos, a three-story neo-classical structure made of rose-colored sandstone. Embedded in the stone are tiny fossils of Mesozoic snails and clams; identical species can be found still living in the sands of the harbor. A cupola on the roof of the BAPOOB lodge once served as a belltower but has since become the headquarters of a squadron of chimney swifts.
Ampersand's main street runs east to west, starting at a sandy path to the beach and ending at the city cemetery on Hydrangea Hill. During most of the year a fresh breeze blows up Main Street. Dogs raise snuffling muzzles into the wind, drying laundry flaps, and seagulls coast along dropping their limy loads on parked cars. In Ampersand we can always smell the ocean. The scent of whales, driftwood, and jellyfish comforts us each night as we fall upward into the dark galaxies of sleep.
Early in the history of Ampersand a moment of whimsy resulted in all streets running east-west (with the exception of Main Street) being named with the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, and all north-south streets with the values of mathematical constants. Our library is on the corner of ж and 1.61803399. This confuses tourists.
The region has no remaining industrial potential. Trunks of the ancient spruce trees once provided specialty timbers for wood-framed aircraft -- Sopwith Camels, Caudrons, Martinsydes, Fairey Foxes and Fairey Fulmars. But after about 1933 the British Columbian lumber port of Monksbuttock undercut Oregon prices, and the industry in Ampersand lumbered into oblivion. Reports of flour gold among the pebbles of the Slippery Squidge turned out to be the work of a dishonest real-estate developer. A scheme to harvest kelp and make it into macaroni noodles failed due to bad taste.
In a converted Unitarian church on ю Street woodworkers turn out novelty carvings made of water-worn gorse roots engraved with the legend "When this you see, remember me". These they attempt to sell to the few tourists who find their way to Ampersand, an idea inspired by Mavis Gallant's account of a similar industry in the island country of Saltnatek. It is not so much an industry as it is wishful thinking.
But somehow the town thrives. We are not sure why.
Festivals and Events
Our summers are balmy and mild, our winters wild and picturesque, and thus Ampersand has much opportunity to celebrate. The town hosts many seasonal festivals and fêtes, from the Grouseflower Dance in March to the Chantrelle and Muscatel Bacchanal in November.
The Grouseflower Dance occurs on a date determined by the discovery of the first grouseflower blooming in the woods behind Hydrangea Hill. The school gymnasium is turned out, swept and scrubbed and disinfected. Starting in the early afternoon mothers arrive with cupcakes and tunafish sandwiches; fathers bring ice-chests full of cream soda and Nehi orange and lemonade. A schoolchild carries the first grouseflower to the gym in a ceremonial styrofoam cup. Everyone leaves their shoes in the entry to avoid marring the varnished wood floor. Then the children dance; the adults sit on folding chairs. The cold air of early spring invigorates. Flirting is rampant. Many extramarital affairs begin at the Grouseflower Dance. Some marriages are rejuvenated while others are destroyed.
Mrs. Gloria Goldwynd, 1892-1987, was a natural-health advocate who greatly admired the human form. She sympathized with the classical Greeks, and in fact thought she herself housed the reincarnated soul of the poetess Sappho; a garden folly in the style of a Greek temple stood on her lawn surrounded by day-lilies, Turks-heads, and crocosmia. She formed a club called the Ladies of Sunshine and in 1921 they put on the first Tanning and Meadow-Dancing Fête. There were few bluestockings in Ampersand then -- there are still fewer today -- so the Fête was well-attended although not well-clothed. It is now held each year on June 23, rain or shine.
After the return of the GIs from WWII the town threw a beach banquet which in later years became the Annual Quahog Hog-Out. The epinonymous quahogs, giant placid philosophical clams which live buried deep in the gravel between tidal boulders, are rousted out and roasted along with potatoes, sweet corn, yellow onions, sea-salt, peppercorns, and laurel and sage leaves. The Hog-Out is held on the second Saturday of July. No one has exploded from overeating yet, but many have come perilously close to giving that last great measure of gastronomic sacrifice.
Most of Ampersand's celebrations have to do with food or sex, or both. We are a plain, earthy people. Simple people of the Earth.
In mid-September, when the vine maple and alder and water-lemon leaves fall like colorful European banknotes through the crispening air, the townspeople gather in Hasnohat County Park for the Bonfire of the Vanities. At sunset we set a great pile of drift logs ablaze. Into the fire the townspeople hurl old calendars, melancholy diaries, knick-knacks, notebooks filled with bad poetry, effigies of politicians, and the corpses of deceased pets. We drink raw liquor and smash the empty bottles down and sing dirty songs. Sometimes there is unexpected fornication. Outsiders are not welcome.
The Chantrelle and Muscatel Bacchanal is scheduled for the first weekend in November. In the forests around the foot of Hamster Mountain mushrooms burst out under the spruce and hemlock -- not only chantrelles but royal boletes, orange hedgehogs, oyster and chicken and lobster mushrooms, black morels, and woodland agaricus. We gather them and bring them in great burlap bags to the Bacchanal. From the inland valleys we buy cases of sweet autumnal wine. The Bacchanal climaxes with a community feast of mushroom soups and stews on Saturday night and an equally festive community breakfast of mushroom omelets on Sunday morning.
So turns the cycle of seasons in Ampersand.
Death and Birth
We bury our dead at Hydrangea Hill. Into the grave go their old socks, their dogeared and spine-cracked favorite books, and a harmonica or mandolin or guitar. Beside their heads we place the skull of a sea-creature: a porpoise, a seal, a giant grouper, an otter, or a shark. There is a headstone, plain granite, and at the foot of the grave we plant a tree of some unique variety not normally found in this region. Growing in our cemetery are Siberian birch, Amur maple, Hungarian oak, Mount Etna broom, Antarctic beech, Swedish whitebeam, and many others. Someday the forests of the world will be conjoined.
Our babies are born in a clinic of white-painted cinderblock. We hang no pictures on the walls, the sheets are plain, the blankets and quilts are pale blue or green with no pattern. The roof is largely glass so that the sky can see the infant properly, but adjustable cedar louvers provide ventilation on warm days and silent electric heaters warm the air on cold ones. The windows look out on vistas of blank beauty: the sea-horizon, a distant hilltop, an empty field. There is nothing to cajol or coerce the child. We realize that the new soul balances like a needle on its point. It must fall and topple into its new life, but we let it choose the direction.
The child's first outing is down the beach path at the west end of Main Street to the sea. At the other end of the street is Hydrangea Hill. That is how it ends in Ampersand, and how it begins.