I used to love going to Uncle Charlie’s house. He and my aunt Mildred lived about 5 hours and three mountain passes away from our trailer (eh hm… I mean, mobile home) in Tumwater. We made the trip a couple times a year to visit, relax and enjoy their way of life for a few days. The trip itself was part of the adventure. I remember the first time we made the trip, riding in the back of John’s boxy yellow Volkswagen Rabbit. That time it was close to Christmas 1980 and the passes were almost impassable, which made for a scary ride. My mom must not have wanted to drive the passes in the snow so we left her AMC Pacer she named Punkin’ (because it was a burnt orange color) at home. Oh how she loved that car! I was always a little embarrassed to drive it, but it least it had an 8 track player.
The John I’m referring to isn’t my brother John, my father John or even my nephew John. Nope, this John is my mother’s cousin John – Uncle Charlie’s oldest son which would make him my second cousin but because he was about the same age as my mother, I usually thought of him as an uncle. And while we’re on the subject of family lineage, Uncle Charlie was actually my grandmother’s brother, which made him my mother’s Uncle so he was more like a grandfather to me. You following all this? I know… confusing.
Most trips we drove, but once we flew. John had a plane he named Sport. Sport was a little Beechcraft Bonanza with just four seats and enough room for a some luggage. I was always a little apprehensive about flying in Sport. Not for obvious reasons like flying in a small plane is dangerous, or the runway is frozen or we might run out of gas, which are things I never thought of when I was 14. No, I was afraid to fly in Sport because Sport liked trains.
We’d be flying along just fine and then all of a sudden, down we’d go, swooping toward the ground! John would shout over the noise of the engine, “Hold on guys… Sport must have spotting something! Sport, what are you doing?” Struggling to get a view out of the tiny back window, all I could see was pine trees. Miles and miles of tall thick pines. And then John shouts, “Oh no, Sport spotted a train! There it is!”, he would point. “See it?”
John would blame the detour on Sport and we’d follow the train along its curvy path through the mountains for a while and then back up to cruising altitude for the rest of the trip. I liked John, he was always goofy like that.
The drive to Lake Chelan was just as beautiful as the flight. I didn’t appreciate it back then like I would now, but what we find worthy of our attention changes over the years. The green, wet and overgrown landscape changes to a freeway lined with sky-reaching pines to barren and rocked mountains to green rolling hills covered in orchards. And once the orchards are in sight it’s just a few more miles around the lake, through Chelan and on to Manson.
Uncle Charlie’s house was in Manson situated on a large lot that overlooked Lake Chelan in what I now know is called a ranch with a walk out basement. The top end of the lot was flat where the driveway was but where the house sat sloped so that the basement door out was at ground level. Just above that, a huge deck the length of the house faced the lake. It wasn’t a very big house but I suppose it was modern for the time. They had an open floor plan before open floor plans were a thing!
I remember their house always smelled like something cooking. They told me Aunt Mildred was as a nurse when she was younger but the Aunt Mildred I knew baked breads, roasted hams and mixed meatloaf. She was a dynamo! Always in the middle of something. She canned everything their home garden and orchards produced. They grew apples for Tree Top for years but had downsized by the time my mom and I moved to Washington. My cousin Lanny (John’s son) practically lived on her canned peaches the year he worked as a lumberjack. Thinking back now I wonder how how a tall muscular lumberjack could survive on peaches…? Hm…I bet he supplemented with boxed mac & cheese – I believe that was the pre-ramen era.
As soon as our car pulled into the driveway, Uncle Charlie and Aunt Mildred would came out to greet us. Hugs and “How was the trip” and things like that. Aunt Mildred would list off everything she had made for us. “Oh I got a little ham for sandwiches and I’ve got some macaroni salad I did up last night. We don’t do nothin’ fancy, its just regular food.” Then uncle Charlie would add, “And we’ve got some pie left over from Wednesday night.” Then Aunt Mildred, “But tonight we’re havin’ meatloaf and I’ve got the bread baking this afternoon. Now get on in there and we’ll make some sandwiches.”
They both had sort of a Missouri slow twang about their speech. Not twang like southern twang but the kind where you say “warsh” instead of wash and pause a lot between words like “Welp…I suppose…those apples aren’t gonna pick themselves.” And they would always tease each other. Uncle Charlie would say Mildred never knew what she was talking about and she would say he was too grumpy and then they’d laugh about it.
As soon as we’d get inside Uncle Charlie would ask me, “Hope Ann”, he always used my middle name, “Are you hungry?” and I would answer with conjured gusto, “No Uncle Charlie, but I could eat!”. Apparently the first time I was there he asked me that and he just laughed and laughed at my reply. From that point on every time he asked me that I had to give the same response and he’d laugh all over again. Of course as a teenager I was usually hungry. I could eat, eat, and eat, and then eat again and never gain a pound. You think I’m hyper now, you should have seen me then!
Hyper paid off while we were there as it seemed there was always something to do. Good thing too because we didn’t have the internet or cell phones and a call to my friends in Tumwater would have been a long distance call, remember those?
To fill the time, we’d take trips to the orchards to pick apples, cherries or peaches or walk down to the lake. I remember when we were there for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival and parade. That might have been the same year John got the old boat out and we meandered around on the lake for a few hours. The lake is said to be bottomless and is fed from mountain glaciers. John dared me to jump in. When I refused he offered me a quarter to do it. All the while laughing because he knew how cold it was. But guess what? I didn’t. So like a fool I took him up on his offer and I found out! Never did that again!
When I was 16 I picked cherries there for week. Uncle Charlie was always up before sunrise and we’d head out to the orchard to get a good start while it was cool out. I say we, but he didn’t actually do any cherry picking. He’d walk around inspecting trees and talk to men in trucks. All day long, alongside the migrant families and local teens, up in the cherry trees on a three legged ladder, I picked cherries. I remember how wonderful it was. Not only could I eat all the cherries I wanted, they were paying me to do it. $2.75 a lug! I was so excited.
Back home I got paid $2.75 an hour to press a button when old men shouted “Pull!”. Then I’d record their score on a pad with one of those short putt-putt pencils. I had to sit in a wooden shack thing with open sides that let the cold wind and drizzling rain in. The guys down in the bunkers who put the clay pigeons on the slinger arms got paid more, but girls weren’t allowed to work that job because a few summers back, a girl lost her arm. Sometimes we got free baby styrofoam cups of hot chocolate on our breaks and sometimes during the shooting competitions we’d get tips, but only when the men scored well. At the time $2.75 was .60¢ under minimum wage, but at 14 it was the only job I could find. I quit that job when I turned 16 to work for Arby’s.
What I soon found out, was that cherries are very small and it took a while to fill a lug with cherries. If you don’t know what a lug is, it’s like those wide, short plastic bins that you see grocery store employees unloading in the produce department. Every time my bucket was full I’d have to descend the ladder, dump the bucket into the lug and then climb back up. I don’t remember how many lugs I filled up or how much I got actually made, but I do remember finding out what happens when you eat too many cherries!
Uncle Charlie and Aunt Mildred have long since passed on. Aunt Mildred was the first to go just six months before her ninetieth birthday and Uncle Charlie lived to be one hundred years old. If they were still alive today, I would thank them for “adopting” me as their granddaughter, for letting me experience the beauty and stillness of a cherry orchard at dawn and for feeding me their home cooked meals when I wasn’t hungry but could still eat.