Monday, August 16, 2010

Part 1: The Putnams

Meet one of the best storytellers I know. No, not the cute cow chew toy on the right. The rancher in the easychair. That's my grandpa, the reigning patriarch of the Putnam clan. I'll tell you a story he told me this morning. It might explain a little about the Putnam sense of humor:

Decades ago, there was a bit of a uranium craze in the Pacific Northwest. People were looking for places to mine it all over. Including our family's ranch.

One day, a salesman came up to my great-grandfather and said "do you know you've got something up in the hills there?"

My great-grandfather raised an eyebrow and asked "can I get at it with my plough?"

The man paused and said "no."

"Well, then." Said my great-grandpa. "If I can't get at it with my plough then I'm not interested."

After getting rid of the guy, he did a little investigating, realized that they wanted Uranium, and that not all the people like them were dealing on the level. So when they came back to ask again, hoping to buy either the land or mining rights, he told them "Nope. Sorry. I've just got enough uranium up there for my purposes. There's really not enough to go around."

This continued until one day my great grandpa put a couple small piles of rocks on either side of his front gate. The man cam back, asked again, and again my great-grandpa replied, "I'm sorry, but I've only got just enough for me."

The man reportedly wandered back and got in the car with his associate and told him,

"That Putnam's completely crazy."

"Is he?" The friend replied, "Why don't you take your Geiger counter to those piles of rocks over there?"

Sure enough, they were radioactive.

I think this demonstrates (and possibly explains) a lot about the subtle kinds of jokes my mom's side of the family pulls around here.

I came out not just for my grandpa's stories but for a tradition that's happened every year since my parents got married. I've already explained a little about the place last time I was here. Now I'll explain the occasion.

Nearly thirty years ago, my parents got married on this ranch. More than 100 people showed up. They had a fantastic time. Somebody, I think my great aunt who I only ever knew as "Auntie" until she died at age 99, said they should do get together like that every year. And thus the Putnam Ranch Roundup was born.

It's a reunion that hits the second weekend of August each year, not just for family, but everyone in the surrounding community, and anyone anybody already there feels like inviting-- close friends, girl/boyfriends, colleagues, whoever. In my entire life, I've only ever missed one, and that was because I was in South Korea at the time.

The leadup varies with camper vans and tents springing up around the property, but the routine on the Saturday doesn't change. Mid-afternoon, half of us troop down to the Columbia river beach, about a ten minute walk from the main house, because it's too hot to do anything else. Six-thirty we gather at the main house and pile on every dish of food we can haul to an empty hay trailer covered in a table cloth and feast on the family classics (Nancy's tortilla soup, Warren's famous corn, etc). After that we take every chair we can over to the big machine shop where, traditionally led by my grandpa and his fiddle, we play music and sing till long after dark. The kids usually sneak off at this point to play Sardines (hide and seek, except backwards).

This year was no different. Lot of people, lots of laughs. One extremely friendly and somewhat overwhelming Airedale terrier. Lots of cool nights looking up at more shooting stars than you can see just about anywhere. And the same laid-back, sly humor that has always been a part of the ranch, ever since my grandpa first walked up to something or someone standing between him and where he wanted to go and amiably asked "are you in my way?"

It's true some things are a little bit different each time. Like the two cousins who came in playing didgeridoos. Or the massive 1970s Army truck another cousin had completely rebuilt and repainted that could run off of anything from french-fry grease to the cocktail of motor oil and transmission fluid he could get for free from his old base. But things like that aside, it all looked pretty familiar.

There's a lot more history to the place than I'll ever be able to write about here, going back to the Oregon trail pioneers, the Applegates, right up to the current Putnam Ranch llc's business dealings. But this might give you a taste of what we do around there.

Check out this entry's Photos.

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