Peeping through history’s windows

Pear blossoms throughout the valley flash white in their prime just now, and as I write, a belligerent storm shakes more kindling from my trees and does its level best to send each petal and every roosting bird flying.

I noticed my vultures struggling with the currents at landing time. It’s strange picturing them up there in the fir tops with the wind so fierce and them hanging on with only their feet. But they know what they’re doing, poor things. All in a day’s survival. Meanwhile, spring has landed in our valley with its usual enigmatic zeal.

This weekend of the year, fair weather or deluge, we celebrate our particular brand of spring with a Pear Blossom Parade. Since the Southern Oregon Historical Society was selected to reign as grand marshal this year, I thought I would venture into Medford to check out an offering from its Windows in Time series at the Medford library.

These free peeks through the panes of our regional past happen during the lunch hour the first Wednesdays of the month at the Medford branch and second Wednesdays at the Ashland branch. They’re something to look forward to all year round. An hour is the perfect length. Not only because the old attention span can begin to slip when listening to speakers once your coffee has worn off, but also because one can park on the street in Medford and dash out before finding a paper surprise flapping on the windshield.

There’s no end to the variety of topics offered in order to expand one’s cranial reserves. These could come in handy if you ever find yourself trying to sound intelligent while standing in line at Sherm’s Food for Less. And if that’s not enough motivation, there are the cookies. I mean, what is any red-blooded American gathering without goodies?

April’s talk featured Mr. Paul Fattig, former reporter and columnist for more than 20 years with the dear old Mail Tribune. He has taken to writing books these days and proved that he knows a story or two about the earliest aerial firefighters, known as smokejumpers.

His talk centered on the Siskiyou Smokejumper base in the Illinois Valley, one of four bases established in 1943. The military chose this area for the firefighting effort when Japanese pilot Fujita flew to the West Coast with the idea of dropping incendiary bombs into our forests and causing massive forest fires to distract us from the Pacific theater during WWII. The plan didn’t work, and later in Fujita’s life, when he became a strong advocate for peace, there was a reunion in Brookings, where he presented officials with a Samurai sword — a family heirloom more than 400 years old.

I learned how smokejumpers sometimes found themselves blown into trees, threatened by rattlesnakes and bears, and carried packs and gear weighing more than 100 pounds. Fattig is writing a book on the subject. Photos accompanied the talk, including one of a jumper hung up in the topmost branches of a 100-plus-foot pine, and still able to give the Gobi salute to the aerial photographer. I’ll let you figure out which digit the Gobi salute involved. They referred to the area around the region as resembling the rugged terrain of the Gobi Desert.

After an hour well spent, I wanted to stick around and ask Mr. Fattig how life felt after saying adios to a 20-year column, but maybe it’s just as well I didn’t. Just listening to the heroics of these men rustled up a ferocious appetite, so I stopped off at Buttercloud Bakery and Cafe on the way home for a savory Farmhouse biscuit sandwich. Never let it be said I don’t know how to round out an educational afternoon.

Next month’s history talk, May 3 in Medford and May 12 in Ashland, is titled “The Show Started at the Sidewalk: The History of the Holly and Other Theaters.”

Oh, and spring is a great season to become a member of SOHS.

— Peggy Dover is a freelance writer living in Eagle Point. Email her at

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