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Author Archive: "Craig Lesley"

Five Women

The Lesley women who participate in Burning Fence offer insight into the way women's education and roles have evolved in the West. They show progression from little or no choice to many opportunities.

My grandmother, Anna Jackson Lesley, lived in the remote woods near Tillamook, Oregon, and claimed that my grandfather, Jasper Lesley, was about the first man she knew other than family members. To escape her plight with a worthless stepfather and equally unqualified mother, she married my grandfather when she was 15 and he was 40. She never attended school but taught herself to read and write at about a 4th grade level.

Basically, she traded one hardscrabble life for another. They had seven children in the Lost River area of Tillamook County but found working the land was too hard, so they decided to move inland to Monument in Grant County. This was an arduous journey with so many children and she traded the rainy Tillamook area for the cold, dry, harsh interior. For a while, they lived in a place called Hardman, and the country was indeed hard for man and ...


The Lepers Exit Baker

I've always had an overactive imagination. My hunch is that most writers do. Along with obsessions and paranoia. And bizarre thoughts.

E.B. White starts one of his wonderful short stories with a psychiatrist asking his patient, a man named Trexler, "Do you ever have any bizarre thoughts?"

Trexler recoils from the question and begins to go through all the bizarre thoughts in his mind. No, he can't tell the one about the zebra. The underwear and the birthday cake are out, too. He desperately searches for a bizarre thought that doesn't REVEAL too much about himself. Avoidance.

Writers frequently do the same thing, but another way to handle a bizarre thought is with humor. In Burning Fence, I tried to make light of my childhood obsession with leprosy. For those who missed yesterday's entry, my stepfather Vern took me to a creepy movie about leprosy and I was terrified, truly terrified of getting the disease. When a missionary came to our church and showed slides of the horribly deformed lepers, my terror increased because somehow I thought God ...


The Leper

When I was seven and lived in Baker, Oregon (now Baker City), my stepfather took me only to movies he liked. These included all the ones starring Humphrey Bogart — my stepfather fancied that he looked like Bogart and practiced smoking and talking like him. And the sci-fi movies that were popular back then including The Thing and It Came From Outer Space. These frequently gave me nightmares but the worst movie of all was the leper movie.

In the leper movie, Douglas Fairbanks Junior falls in love with a beautiful woman played by Myrna Loy. Her husband, an actor I can't recall, is diagnosed with leprosy and banished to a leper colony on an isolated island off the coast of Louisiana. He has to live with other lepers and has no contact with normal society.

When he finds out about his wife's new love, he becomes enraged, escapes by stowing away on a supply boat, then spends the rest of the movie trying to touch the lovers so they will get leprosy, too. As the disease progresses, parts of his face peel away and his fingers ...


Grandma Lesley’s Two Hearts

Grandma Lesley made the world's best cinnamon rolls. Champion stock. Old-timers in Grant County, who knew her as children, still speak wistfully of those rolls. After my parents were divorced, my mother and I lived with her parents in the Dalles, and once a year, we'd go down to meet the bus and greet Grandma Lesley. She always stayed about a week, but I secretly wished she stayed there all the time.

I'd wake up in the morning and listen eagerly for Grandma Lesley bustling around in the kitchen, the clanking of pans and bowls. She'd let me help a bit by fetching eggs or unwrapping the countless butter wax wrappers. Still. I think no one could copy the recipe or make it quite right, though hundreds have tried.

When I was young, I thought her singing made the magic happen. She sang "Billie Boy," "The Sinking of the Maine," and "The Strawberry Roan," my father's favorite. "Keep singing all your life, Craig," she advised. "If you're singing, you can't be crying."

I had never seen her cry, nor ever expected to, but as I was working on Continue »


Two Brothers

The Lesleys are outlaws. This morning 9/11, my half brother Ormand was scheduled to go on trial for three felony counts in Grant County, Oregon. (If you don't know where that is, find Pendleton — where they make the blankets — and follow the roadmap 110 miles south to John Day.) Of course, 9/11 is infamous and the sheriff's department was trying to make out as though Ormand is Grant County's terrorist. "Them cops are just messin' with my head," he told me.

Ormand getting caught is an exception to the Lesleys' outlaw prowess. My father settled in Grant County after World War Two because the law was so lax. He hunted, fished, trapped, cut government timber on Forest Service land — all with impunity and out of season.

If he caught something in season, it was merely coincidence. And he was never caught — not once. His hunting skills were the stuff of legend. One time, he killed five elk with five shots. I never believed that story until I heard it from several sources. He never paid attention to seasons. "When I'm walking or driving, ...


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