Saturday, September 26, 2015


This month marks the 104th Pendleton Round-Up, one of Oregon’s most notable events.  And thereby hangs a tale, though apparently there are some things that parents do not even tell their adult children.  I never learned the full story of how my parents hooked up, and since they’re both gone I guess I never will.  But it’s an intriguing story since it involves a rare combination of romance, hosses, airplanes, and stuff.

My hometown is Athena in Umatilla County, near Pendleton up in the northeast corner of the state.  (Athena’s 1940 population: 513.  Pendleton’s: 8,847.)  Before The War my paternal grandfather from Portland had purchased some ranch property near Athena, and Dad worked there during the summer.

In 1941 Dad left Oregon State College to gain experience as a draftsman with Douglas Aircraft in El Segundo, California.  After Pearl Harbor he became a naval aviation cadet and visited his father in Athena.  Mother later said that she saw J. H. Tillman, Jr. leaning against a lamp post and thought, “Hmmm…how did I miss that?”  (He was matinee-idol handsome if I say so myself.)  So she made the aviator’s acquaintance by the clever device of asking him to take her young nephew to the men’s room.  (Sidebar: the lad grew into a mathematics PhD.)

Some background: 

In 1941-42 Pendleton Army Air Field was home to the 17th Bombardment Group (Medium), the first to fly North American’s B-25 Mitchell.  While local lore has been warped to state that Jimmy Doolittle’s Tokyo raiders trained there, nonetheless they were based at PAAF before being selected for The First Special Aviation Project.

Meanwhile, massive violence was applied globally.  Italy capitulated.  Germany surrendered.  Aaaaand…

In August 1945 Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, and on September 2 the papers were signed aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Two weeks later the World-Famous Pendleton Round-Up was held.  And folks, the lid was off.

Like many sporting events, the Round-Up was canceled in 1942 and ’43 but resumed in ’44.  Things returned full-scale in ’45 when future movie actor Ben Johnson set a record in calf roping.

Now, to understand the atmosphere in ’45, remember that it occurred immediately after the Second World War ended.  People were primed to party, and lordy-lordy, did they! 

My mother was on the round-up court that year.  A green-eyed brunette, at age 25 she’d grown up on horseback, and was a natural selection since her father (for whom I’m named) was a longtime supporter of the event.  Additionally, she had a maternal cousin who’d been a princess in ’38.

On the first day, the queen and four princesses had just ridden into the arena and were taking their seats when


A dark-blue airplane dipped into the bowl formed by the north and south grandstands, narrowly missing the flags ringing the arena.

The Navy had arrived, though it hadn’t landed yet.

Forty-five miles north-northwest of Pendleton, across the mighty Columbia, was Naval Air Station Pasco, Washington.  It was less than 20 minutes by tailhook aircraft, and the aviators were recently off an escort aircraft carrier, ready to party.  After beating up Umatilla County and alighting at Pendleton, they attached themselves to the court.  Dad had encountered some of them on Main Street, toting a 20 mm ammunition box full of beer and ice. 

One evening everybody was ready for dinner at the country club when someone noticed that a lieutenant (junior grade) called Mac was missing.  His squadronmates ran a sector search and found him out back on the green, asleep under the sprinkler with a St. Bernard.  Mother said he'd consumed 13 Alexanders, a sweet cocktail laced with gin.  Mac's reputation and his dress blues were ruined but what was the Navy gonna do--send him to a combat zone?  

(For a comparable cinematic version, look for the always suave Cary Grant and the eternally glorious Susie Parker in Kiss them For Me based on the Frederick Wakeman novel & play, Shore Leave.)

Moving on:

South of town was/is McKay Reservoir.  There were reports of a TBM-3 Avenger making a l-o-w torpedo run on a row boat, prompting the fishermen to abandon ship.  My father seemed to know a lot about it...always wondered if that inspired the opening PBY scene in Always.

After the Wildcats and Avengers finished ravaging the area (reportedly running a state police car off the road with a tractor or two severely buzzed), The Authorities called Pasco demanding that blue airplanes be grounded.  Done!  The golden wingers had to stay put until the dust settled.

Puh-leez don' th'ow me in dat briar patch!

Long ago I thought that I identified the Navy squadron--wrote the likely suspects' reunion group seeking confirmation but never got a reply.

That seemed to confirm my suspicion.

After Henry Barrett died in 1962, his family sponsored the Pony Express Race.  It was always one of the most dramatic events—a relay with each team passing a baton from one rider to another.  Bounding starts, pounding hooves, flying dirt, occasional collisions—a terrific spectator sport.  First team around the track took home the silver-plated trophy.  For obscure reasons apparently related to parking, the Round-Up ended the PER in 1991 in favor of team roping, though we never got the courtesy of a notification.

Some local lore:

In the 1940s, when the annual Westward Ho Parade passed some entertainment establishments, one of them (officially the Cozy Rooms) set out a sign: “The Westward Ho House.”  The bordello and Chinese opium dens draw tourists from around the Northwest who enjoy Pendleton’s underground tours.

Under the south grand stand is an emporium called The Let 'Er Buck Room.  For decades a long-standing tradition was ringing the cowbell when a cowgirl removed her shirt. They used to post signs saying Keep Your Clothes On but patrons kept stealing them—especially dudes seeking mementos of The Wild West.  Finally the binary problem was solved by stashing the cowbell and removing the signs.

I knew an east coast magazine editor who visited one year--a short Filipino guy who was All American and one of the biggest rednecks I ever met.  When he walked in, a Cowgirl laid a big juicy one on him and said "I want you."  He couldn't think of anything to say so she wandered off.....

Probably not into the sunset, but definitely into the land of Happy Trails.