The Baggage of Youth

For most people, a knock on the door from a Western Union messenger, bearing one of those instantly recognizable yellow message forms, brought on a tingling moment of anticipation, drama, or sometimes dread.

Was it 1936? ‘37? I worked one entire Christmas vacation as a Western Union bike messenger in the city’s downtown business district. There were about eight of us operating out of the Western Union office on Salmon Street. It was a seedy, oddball assortment of guys. Five were on the job year-round as full-time messengers. The rest of us were temps, working through the holidays.

We parked our bikes in a rack outside the front window. Inside, we sat on a long wooden bench jammed against one wall, across from the message counter. When a wire came crackling through and the tape was stripped in place and the telegram was stuffed in an envelope, ready to go, the manager would bellow for the next messenger up, by number.

The job was exhilarating. Perilous fun—as I learned how to wheel madly through heavy, downtown traffic, darting between cars and streetcars, swerving around pedestrians, hell-bent on my mission of delivery.


My dad had worked on the construction of Bonneville Dam, which crossed the spectacular Columbia River gorge between Oregon and Washington. Famed industrialist Henry J. Kaiser’s company handled the planning and construction. Started in 1933 as a mighty hydro-electric project, the job reached its 1937 completion date on time and within budget. President Franklin D. Roosevelt came out for the dedication ceremonies.

During one of those infrequent days when I was able to spend some time with my dad, he took me with him to view FDR’s arrival in Portland. We were a part of the enthusiastic mob in front of Union Station.

In an open limousine, FDR and his son Elliot were slowly driven from the station. My dad and I were standing in the crush, about fifty feet away. Smiling, always smiling, with his trademark cigarette holder in hand, FDR waved at the cheering crowd in front of the historic station. It was a skillful performance.

Like most Americans, I did not learn until after his death, some eight years later, that the man had been stricken with polio in 1921 and had never walked again without the aid of braces and a cane.


Do you remember Kay Francis? She was a stylish and worldly actress of the 1930s. A glamorous brunette.

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