From a young age, native Oregonians are indoctrinated to the wonders of their pioneer heritage. We are taught to never snigger about buffalo chips (useful for starting fires!) and we understand the difference between prairie schooners and the noble Conestoga wagons. In Oregon, you can rank cities by the number of pioneer statues and monuments they have, or the quality of their Oregon Trail museums. Ask me how many Oregon Trail museums I’ve been to. Go ahead. Ask me. Answer: only like three, but I’ve seen probably a jillion.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on those Oregon Trail games. Those were an integral part of every school’s floppy disk collection. You want to know how to pick an Oregonian out of a crowd? Complain loudly about how you always lose that game because of dysentery, and then make jokes about it. Wait a moment, until somebody inevitably says:
“That isn’t funny, you know. People died.”
There. That’s your Oregonian.
The schools are really the heart of the pioneer obsession. Every year they would, I don’t know, run out of world history to teach us and start going local. In Florida, they talk about Ponce de Leon. In San Francisco, they talk about the gold rush. Here, they spend two months going over how the Oregon fur trade shaped the modern economy, and how much the pioneers paid for rifles in St. Louis.
In the fourth grade, my teacher Mrs. Wetzler decided to declare the traditional pioneer section of our curriculum an Event. She organized us into tables of four or five, and that first afternoon we busily set to making our tables look as much like covered wagons as possible, with the help of staples, butcher paper, and glue sticks. We were instructed to give ourselves authentic pioneer names and back stories.
I was Virginia Barnaby O’Leary, an Irish immigrant who fell on hard times when she sailed to New York. She dreamed of being a great boxer, but she ended up in the slums where she was forced to work as a repairwoman in the crowded tenement buildings, all the while solving mysteries with her five talented crime-fighting cats. Stifled by the dirt and corruption in New York, she sought a new life, a simpler life, out west in the great forests of Oregon. She left her cats behind (they became the subjects of a series of stories all their own) and embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Her only friend was her rifle. Her only comfort was her solitary heartbeat, signaling she would indeed live to see another day, and maybe someday see the sun set over the mighty Pacific.
Suffice it to say that the other students at my table didn’t take these identities as seriously. There was John, the blacksmith, Tom, the blacksmith, and Stacia, who thought this assignment was gay and just wanted to go make out with her fifth-grade boyfriend under the slide.
In truth, I wasn’t all that excited about pioneers. I thought the stories were compelling, sure, and they provided an excellent context for hyper-dramatic make-believe, but pioneers couldn’t compare with my obsession with Indiana Jones, or Pound Kitties. I did the assignments and listened to the discussions with moderate relish, and quickly forgot almost everything I learned.
Right before our segment on pioneers ended, Mrs. Wetzler announced a new assignment. We would be making our own model wagons. It wasn’t a competition, per se, but…
She let the word hang loosely in the room, and all the students regarded each other quietly. Oh, yeah. It was totally a competition.
When my father got home that night, I confronted him in the kitchen. He was (as I remember it) analyzing a spot in the ceiling, just over the stove, which had begun to leak water whenever anyone showered for too long on the second floor. I plunked myself down on one of the stools by the kitchen counter, and led into it tactfully.
“I gotta make a wagon for class,” I said.
“Okay,” Dad said. “You mean like a red wagon? Like the kind in our garage? Or a prairie schooner?”
“Prairie schooner. It’s not really a competition, but…”
I let the word hang loosely in the air. Dad wiped a droplet of shower-water off the stove and impassively opened the fridge.
“Okay,” he said again. “When is it due?”
“Tomorrow,” I said. “There’s a shoebox in my closet, and I thought if we…”
“Nope,” Dad pulled an apple out of the fridge and sliced it quickly and fluidly. He handed me a couple of segments. “No, here, we’re going to do it this way.”
And without waiting for me to follow, he strode into the garage.
Our garage was a wonderland of mismatched whatevers and what-have-yous. We had piles of cables and wires leftover from my father’s shady business dealings, stacks of wood for Project X or Emergency Y, tools upon tools upon tools, and a pair of antlers that I never really got the story on. My father didn’t speak much as he began gathering his supplies. He started by locating our glue gun and shoving it in his back pocket, and then moved on to the wood scraps.
“Prairie Schooner or Conestoga?” he asked.
“Uh,” I munched on an apple segment. “Whichever,” I said.
“Know why they call ’em Prairie Schooners?” Dad asked, sorting through bits of wood. “In places like Kansas, where there was all that high grass on the flat plains, the wagons would look like they were sailing. You couldn’t see the wheels, see, it would just be the white tops, just going across an ocean of grass.” He analyzed a chunk from our old fence, and threw it over is shoulder. “I wonder…” he muttered, and then stalked out of the garage with his usual vigor. I pattered along behind him.
After a quick Internet check for the proper dimensions, the real work began. The next several hours were a flurry of sawing, gluing, fitting, and expeditions through the garage to find just the proper material for each part. By eleven PM, I was lolling against the counter attempting to keep my eyes open while Dad methodically bent wires into the necessary shape to hold up the wagon cover. Around this time, I admitted defeat. The wagon looked pretty good. I was satisfied.
“Are we done?” I asked.
“Ohh. Not quite,” Dad replied, adjusting a wire. “We’ve still gotta – ”
“Can we be done?” I asked. Dad looked down at me.
“Sure,” he said. “Go to bed. I just want to make a couple little tweaks.”
A note: my father is infamous for his ‘little tweaks’. A ‘little tweak’ may be anything from adding paprika to the deviled eggs to crafting a specially-designed indoor trench to grow wine grapes. The ideas for his ‘little tweaks’ usually occur past ten in the evening, and are usually implemented at about 10:01. Being nine years old, I didn’t realize this, and happily tra-la-la’d off to bed.
The next morning when I got up, Dad was prepared to drive me to school. The wagon sat on the counter, a paragon of home-made model glory, framed by the morning sun through the kitchen window. It was beautiful.
Dad had crafted a real working wagon. The wheels turned. You could navigate it by pulling the yoke in one direction or the other. You could tighten the canvas wagon cover by pulling on the strings. There was a little wooden wagon seat, and a barrel attached to the side, made out of a toilet paper roll. The spokes in the wheels were all hand-carved. There was a tiny wooden chest, with a latch made out of a rubber-band. Inside the chest, only inches long, was a wooden rifle. It was the best home-made model I had every seen.
“When’d you do all this stuff?” I asked Dad. He shrugged.
“Oh. Last night. I got kind of interested in it,” he said.
I had never been prouder walking into school, carrying that wooden wagon. When I set it at our table, there were audible gasps from the other students, whose own shoebox attempts lay morosely by their backpacks on the floor. I gathered a crowd, and immediately demonstrated the way the yoke turned, where the oxen would have gone, where the driver would have sat, and reverently let my best friend hold the tiny rifle.
“Do you know why they called them Prairie Schooners?” I asked the other students.
And that’s when Danny walked in.
I don’t even remember his last name anymore. It’s just Danny, a skinny little jerk with black hair and a puckered expression that was drawn into an unnatural little smile. It wasn’t an “I’m Proud” smile.
It was an “I Win” smile.
In his hands was a recently purchased model of a Conestoga wagon, the expensive glue barely dried. My crowd dispersed, flooding towards the door, to examine that immaculate little factory-spawned travesty. I gathered up my pride, and sauntered over.
“Hi,” I said to Danny. He looked over at my desk.
“Is that yours?” he asked. I nodded.
“Yeah. My dad helped me. You should come see the little chest he made. And the wheels move!”
“I guess it’s not like…one hundred percent accurate though, right?” he said dismissively. “Mine is. See, I brought the box, and it says so. Completely to scale. Is yours to scale?”
“Yeah, of course it is.” I didn’t know whether it was to scale. “I didn’t know we were allowed to buy our models though.”
“Mrs. Wetzler just said we had to make them. Not make them from scratch.”
“You didn’t make it.”
“I bought a model and I made it. That counts.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does. And it’s the best one.”
The cluster of students silenced. They had long ceased paying attention to the wagons, and were now actively watching Danny and I, waiting for it to come to blows. I wasn’t a competitive child. I hated tag, and I preferred contests where everybody won something. For some reason, though, the assumption that any wagon in that room could possibly be better than my wagon, the wagon that Dad worked on all night, the wagon with a tiny handmade rifle, was so ludicrous that I felt myself beginning to seethe.
“It’s not a competition,” Mrs. Wetzler said suddenly, from behind us. We all turned, guilty, stepping cautiously away from each other. “All of these wagons are just fantastic,” Mrs. Wetzler continued. She picked up a shoebox with wheels drawn on in Sharpie and admired it. “Very nice. Yes, everyone did really just a fantastic job. Now go ahead and sit down, we’ll show them all in turn.”
We sat, Danny and I casting lingering looks of malice towards each other, and began class. Before long we had forgotten our grudge against each other, and were eagerly discussing which countries were in Asia and which countries were in Europe. When the time for recess came, we all slid out of our seats and ran for the door. Mrs. Wetzler stopped me. She stood by my wagon, analyzing it.
“Jessica,” she said. “Did you buy this model?”
“No,” I said proudly. “We made it from the stuff in our garage. My Dad and me. We did.”
“Well, it really is just excellent,” Mrs. Wetzler said. The classroom had emptied. I watched my teacher run her hands over the wagon, playing with the turning wheels and peering inside the toilet-roll barrel. She loosened the canvas cover and reached inside, discovering the chest. Carefully, she unlatched it and opened it. “My word,” she said, drawing out the little rifle. “This really is one of the best wagons I’ve ever had in my class.”
“Thank you,” I said modestly. “It was mostly my Dad.”
I left for recess swelling with pride, leaving my wagon with the teacher, who quietly ooh’d and ah’d as she discovered each new ‘little tweak’.
That evening I lay in bed thinking about Danny’s model. It still irked me. The wood on that model had been perfectly stained to simulate years of abuse on the open trail. The canvas cover on his had an elegant patch, trophy from an Indian bulletwound, most likely. It occurred to me, suddenly, there in the dark, that my wagon wouldn’t have been nearly as good as Danny’s if my father hadn’t ‘gotten interested’. In fact, I would have been lucky if my shoe box would have had Sharpie wheels. I wondered why Danny’s Dad or Mom didn’t just help him make his wagon from scratch.
And I realized he might not have had a Dad or Mom who could. Or would.
And after that, I thought that pioneers were just about the most interesting thing in the world.