A decade ago I read a sentence by Annie Dillard
that went something like, "Write the book you want to read." At the time I hadn't written anything, but later I took her advice and wrote and published books about Oregon history that I wanted to read but couldn't find.
Over the years, I've compiled a list of Oregon stories I want turned into books. I knew from my research into these stories and experience of publishing popular books on Oregon history that enough material existed for each story to become a book and potentially sell well across the region.
So, what follows is my gift to any nonfiction writer searching for a topic. I don't mind giving away great ideas because I really do want to read these books.
"Wake up! Wake up!" screamed Tom Peterson, the legendary Portland appliance salesman, every Saturday night. It was the 1970s and time for KPTV's broadcast of Portland Wrestling. As a kid I would watch Dutch Savage, Jimmy Snuka, and Playboy Buddy Rose beat the shit out of each other theatrically. (The coal miner's glove!) Monotone announcer Frank Bonnema would often preview upcoming bouts around the state: Salem, Pendleton, La Grande, Klamath Falls, or wherever there was an armory. What went on in those towns? Where are the wrestlers today? Where are their illegitimate children they conceived on the road? YouTube is loaded with videos of all the classic action but the story of Portland Wrestling is untold.
I remember the day when two hippies visited my junior high PE class in Oregon City in 1976 and kicked around a tiny leather bag they called a Hackey Sack. Fifteen years later, I saw kids hacking near the Great Pyramid in Egypt. How this "sport" spread from its humble origins in Oregon City to become the quintessential stoner pastime will require the most dogged and laid back reporter imaginable. He should also have some experience with smoking marijuana.
The current incarnation of the Portland Timbers' soccer franchise is interesting to watch, although they do seem to choke in the clutch. But, if you were around Oregon 35 some-odd years ago, who will ever forget the madness surrounding the Portland Timbers' 1975 debut in the North American Soccer League, when the expatriate madcap Brits took us all the way to the Soccer Bowl? I lived it! As a junior high kid, I took Tri-Met #33 from Oregon City with my friends (and no hovering parents) to Civic Stadium and watched most of the games for three bucks apiece. I even saw the great Pele play. Yes, the games were fascinating and novel (at the time) to watch, but the better story is surely what happened when the shaggy lads weren't playing. Over the years, I've heard rumors of a legendary party scene connected to this British invasion and some writer needs to start digging and talk to the former players and their groupies.
Columbia River Reborn
In his excellent 2007 book The World without Us, Alan Weisman asked readers to envision what would happen to the environment if humans simply disappeared. Some author should tweak Weisman's editorial strategy and ask, then answer this question: what would happen to the Columbia River Watershed if all the dams disappeared? The author could envision how the watershed could be healed, then reborn, and perhaps this book could help inspire the people with the power to bring down the dams to do exactly that.
In 1973 Oregon became the first state in the nation to decriminalize marijuana, making the sentence for possession of less than an ounce akin to receiving a traffic ticket. Although this landmark law didn't begin Oregon's relationship to marijuana, quite possibly the state's most valuable cash crop, it did put Oregon on the map. Some writer needs to investigate Oregon's formidable marijuana legacy and document its history. A book like this might go a long way into helping lawmakers take the obvious next step and end the state's public education funding woes for all time. If by miracle that actually happened, I wouldn't even have to teach 47 students in one creative writing class... or 44 in an Honor's Senior English course... or 42 in photography. You get the idea.
Pacific Northwest Rock Festivals
Sky River, Vortex, Buffalo Party, Bullfrog, Satsop. These were the great Pacific Northwest (PNW) rock festivals of late 1960s and early 1970s. As a whole, no one has ever written about them. They were distinctly PNW in origin and totally different from other rock festivals going on elsewhere around the country during the Woodstock era. If any writer is interested in this project, I can even put you onto a film shot by a naked man who attended all the aforementioned festivals with his 16 mm camera and captured all their naked counterculture glory. He'll be happy to let you use his footage.
During World War II, the U.S. government classified 12,000 American men as official conscientious objectors and established 143 camps across the United States to incarcerate the COs. Camp Angel, near Waldport on the Oregon Coast, earned a unique designation in that it was chartered as the only Fine Arts Program camp in the entire system. During its three years of operation, Camp Angel's Fine Arts Program oversaw the production of original plays and publication of books from the inmates. After the war, the poet William Everson, writer Kermit Sheets and dramatist Martin Ponch, relocated to the Bay Area and there ushered in what's now known as the San Francisco Renaissance, seeding much of the Beat Generation. Although there have been plenty of academic articles of and oral histories collected on this amazing Oregon story, no writer has given it the proper book-length treatment it so richly deserves.
This is a book I may write because I attended close to 100 shows at this legendary Portland rock club in its heyday in the late 80s and early 90s, and I sense its DIY approach to music later had a profound effect on me as a writer and publisher. I also believe Satryicon helped seed the city's vital contemporary creative economy and is the reason Portland became the indie rock capital of America. Why anyone hasn't written a book on Satryicon is completely mystifying. Most of the club's important players are alive and living in Portland, thousands of fans would instantly buy any book connected to its history, thousands of stunning photographs of the scene exist, and someone is just sitting on hundreds of soundboard tapes from the shows!
Southern Oregon Communes
"The Commune Comes to America" was the cover story of the July 18, 1969 edition of Life magazine. The commune went unnamed in the article, but James J. Kopp, in his fine 2009 book, Eden within Eden, Oregon's Utopian Heritage, names the commune as the Family of Mystic Arts and places them around Grants Pass. At the height of their popularity, nearly 90 communes existed in Southern Oregon and Northern California, by far the highest concentration in the country. While Kopp devoted a chapter to this era, he only surveyed its foundation. What remains of this movement? Where are the members now? What impact did they have on modern Oregon?
PNW Beers ? Pre Micro Brew Era
In the beginning, there were Olympia, Heidelberg, Blitz-Weinhard, and Rainier, the great, cheap Pacific Northwest lagers formerly owned and brewed in the Pacific Northwest. They were indigenous and manly icons of the region, ice cold totems, and we drank them in the woods, on the rivers, at the beach, in the desert, searching for Bigfoot. We never once talked about them or how they were made. Will someone please write a cultural history of these beers and what their passing means?
Murder of a French Bicyclist
On Thanksgiving Day 1987, hikers found the bludgeoned body of a male bicyclist camped at the Neskowin Creek Campground on the Oregon Coast. Authorities later identified him as Alain Malessard, and he hailed from small town in France called called Lons-le-Saunier. The crime has never been solved. I lived near Neskowin for 10 years and rumors abound about possible suspects. With the advent of DNA testing, the time seems right for a journalist willing to heat up a cold case with a true crime book.
"In the wet months, blackberries spread so rapidly that dogs and small children were sometimes engulfed and never heard from again," wrote Tom Robbins, about the Himalayan blackberry, in Still Life With Woodpecker. We can thank famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank's (failed) attempt to produce a thornless blackberry in the 1910s for the invasion of this non-native plant. What long-term Pacific Northwest resident living west of the Cascades doesn't have a blackberry tale of bane or bounty? Some writer should investigate the ecological and cultural impact of this invasive species.
"No local selfish interest should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people." Former Oregon Governor Oswald West (1911-1915) wrote this sentence about the state's publicly-owned ocean beaches years after he drafted the ingenious 66-word bill that became law and declared the beaches a public highway and thus in the public trust forever. West initiated all sorts of other progressive measures during his one term and is one of the pivotal figures in Oregon history. His life warrants a biography.
On September 14, 1975, approximately 200 people attended a meeting in Waldport on the Oregon Coast. At the meeting, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles announced the imminent arrival of a spaceship that would transport interested parties to the "next evolutionary level." Shortly afterward, 23 Waldport-area residents left with Applewhite and Nettles. Twenty-two years later, coinciding with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet, 38 members of Applewhite's Heaven's Gate cult, including its founder, put on track suits and Nike footwear and committed suicide by downing a concoction of vodka, Phenobarbital and applesauce at the cult's compound. None of the Waldport people were among the dead. But I've heard that some of the original 23 are back in Waldport. Perhaps they are willing to talk.
In the 1960s to 70s, Republican Governor Tom McCall dominated the state's political landscape. But one of his chief political rivals, former Democratic State Treasurer and one-term Governor (1975-79) Bob Straub played a major, if largely unacknowledged, role in helping create the contemporary Oregon many of us have come to know and love. He deserves a biography documenting all his impressive achievements, including the heroic defeat of the proposed relocation of Highway 101 down Nestucca Spit near Pacific City, quite possibly the greatest environmental victory in Oregon history. A few years ago I met a man named Chuck Johnson who was working on just such a book. Last year he told me he had completed a manuscript and had submitted it to Oregon State University Press. Here's hoping it comes out.