Arco, Idaho

I have written an entire chapter in The Life and Times of Marilyn Taggart Hadd on Arco, and as I read it to write this one, I decided that my original writing on Arco was not only adequate but downright poetic.  Forgive me for pirating my own writing.

Be It Ever So Humble…

My childhood was a succession of moves throughout Oregon and Idaho.  In fact, all of the autobiographical musings of my siblings begin on a similar theme.  We were nomadic, easily uprooted, quick to make friends and equally adept at bidding them farewell!  To us these tumbledown whistle stop places we called home (be it ever so temporary) were full of charm and adventure.  You can imagine my surprise as an adult to learn that we were dirt poor, and this Spartan farm/dairy lifestyle was very very taxing on my city-bred mother.  All of the photographs taken during this time depicted us as children grinning into the camera with arms wrapped around one cow or another or sitting astride rustic fences with acres of brownness in the background.  Joad-like though we may have appeared to extended family members who must have wondered if John Taggart would ever settle, we kids truly count it among our greatest blessings that our early beginnings were so delightfully agrarian.
                  Because I was the youngest child, my experiences reflected some family and economical evolution.  The farming days were petering out and being replaced by a stable job as a soil conservationist for the Department of Agriculture, a position for which my father had thankfully prepared in his university days, encouraged by an education conscious mother. This position nevertheless also required transplantation on our part.  One particular transfer was announced during my third grade year in school.  We were living in Malad, Idaho, at the time.  Once again we pulled out the worn atlas and located the pinprick town of Arco on the map.  Arco was located nearly in the center of Idaho, a long way from just about anything as far as we could tell!  The Big Lost River ran close by and the Little Lost River broke off of that.  We learned that Arco had once been called Root Hog.  It sounded desolate.  My father thought that perhaps Arco was an acronym of sorts—Atomic Reactor Community Organization (or something to that effect), but in fact my recent research revealed that the Postmaster General in Washington DC in 1920 rejected the community’s petition to call the place “Junction” and instead prevailed upon them to name it Arco after a German count who was visiting in the nation’s capital at the time.  I think I like the thoughts of an acronym better. 

                  My first sight of our new home was after dark as we arrived in late May.  I’m sure my mother must have groaned inwardly.  We had driven across a desert for an amazingly long time until we came to a massive complex known as “The Site” which spread out over miles and miles of nothingness glittering with twinkling lights eerily on an otherwise black landscape.  The name has been changed to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab now or INEEL.  At the time we lived there, I think it was the Atomic Energy Reactor Site or something.  Its purpose held some mystery.  Atomic was a new word in my 9 year old vocabulary.  I knew that atoms exploded there and none of that sounded good at all.  In fact, Arco gained notoriety in 1951 as the first community in the free world (those “Russkies” must have been one step ahead!) to be entirely lit by nuclear-powered electricity. This site employed nearly everyone in Arco including my mother.  She would board a bus daily along with all the fathers of my playmates, and then at night we would await their return on the corner—kind of an Idaho-ized  How Green Was My Valley.  The Site was the center of Arco life even though it was geographically isolated to the south.  It was unquestionably the “mother ship”.   We pulled into the driveway of a small non-descript rental home and were once again home.
                  We only spent a short year in Arco.  The dam on which my father had been sent to supervise construction became a lost cause—no wonder as it would have been fed by not one but Two Lost Rivers.  We packed up, took the bed frames apart, and filled out another change of address card.  Arco shouldn’t figure all that prominently in my memories, but it does.  In fact it looms so largely in my childhood that I’ve thought I 

could write a book about that one brief year. Such a book would be vivid with accounts of my first best friend, Gail.  It would contain chapters about my first stirrings of requited love and learning to ice skate and climbing up on Number Hill.  I went to Number Hill last summer on a spontaneous “Forty Five Years Later” tour I indulged in and located the whitewashed ’71 that would have been painted on the rocks of Number Hill by my classmates on graduation night.  I also ate at the Number Hill Grill Drive-Thru down in “metro” Arco.  It was a converted four person camping trailer with a window for drive-thru service.  The young male cook/waiter/cashier scared up a mean basket of onion rings and boasted that it was the “best food in town”.  As far as I could see it was the ONLY food in town. 
My book about Arco would include a chapter entitled “Halloween” detailing the logistics of Trick-or-Treating that began early and ended late and sought (successfully I might add!) to knock on every single door in town, and one chapter devoted to circus productions under the clotheslines performed spontaneously for anyone who could scrounge up a penny.  I would certainly need to include a tribute to magical bicycles which should have been called Freedom Machines, petticoats that whirled unbelievably, school international music spring concerts from which I can still sing songs (“Cielito Lindo”, “The Peanut Vendor”, “Quanta Le Gusta”), little nuns in a hospital who cared for me as their sole patient for an entire week, and a drugstore with a real fountain and stools that twirled.  The sound recording would feature the Chipmunks on an album we received for Christmas along with a phonograph which we played relentlessly, Primary songs sung in original variations which made Gail and me laugh so hard on the way walking home from Primary that we wet ourselves, “Icka Backa Soda Cracka Icka Backa Boo” over and over and over on a portable record player in that same hospital with the nuns, and the southern drawl of my teacher at school, Mrs. Hillier.  Why do I remember that she also had a black fur coat with matching pillbox hat?  She was sick for a few weeks and we were so elated at her return that we had a party!  I brought her some Jergens lotion.  I can barely conjure up the names of other teachers, but I can still smell Mrs. Hillier as she rubbed my gift into her hands. 
                  Arco has not grown since we left there over 40 years ago.  If the population has ever tipped a thousand, I’d question the census techniques.  As I rode up and down the streets last summer, things looked dingey and unkempt.  Weeds grew up in the sidewalks and lawns were in need of water.  The place still sported only one grocery store, although I counted at least three bars. I wonder what happened to the grocery store where my brother John butchered after school and on Saturdays.

 Our LDS chapel had been sold to a Church of God congregation.  My old squeaky hardwood floor two story school had unfortunately been replaced by something square and sterile-looking.  I wondered if the kids still threw snow balls in a designated “No Man’s Land” behind the regular playground.  You took your chances out there, but the rule was that if you crossed into it, you had no right at all to complain about being pelted.  I learned a good life lesson out there on No Man’s Land.  I wonder if they have spring festivals and Valentine box decorating contests in the new sparkly school.
  I stopped frequently and took photos.  I also made notes in a notebook and let the memories come as they would.  I knocked on one door hoping to find Gail’s mother or anyone who could connect me with her.  As I stood at her porch knocking, I glanced over my shoulder expecting to see Tippy, the Anderson’s black skinny generic dog.  He wasn’t there obviously nor was any current occupant of the house.  As I looked through the parted curtain I had a rush of memories—board game (mostly Sorry) marathons on rainy days, cookie baking in the kitchen, dropping the baby Lynette as I slipped in my stocking feet on the hardwood floor and being sent home in shame by Mrs. Anderson, leaping in nightgown dance get-ups around the living room, and making secretive hushed calls to our boyfriends—the Brad’s.  I remember vividly one night standing at that very same window with Peggy, Gail’s one year younger sister, who had been inoculated recently.  In those days an inoculation resulted in a nickel-sized scab forming on the top of your arm.  Peggy’s scab had gotten ripped off prematurely by a tree in a night game fest.  On that particular night, she and I were at the window waiting for the return of her parents.  Peggy was crying—I’m not sure if she was in pain or if she was anticipating her parent’s unfavorable reaction to the grisly scab removal.  At any rate her crying turned into sobbing and then her sobbing into hiccups mixed with crying. In the midst of this I got the giggles.  I still remember being so ashamed of myself.  Here I stood with a friend who was obviously distressed and I’m trying unsuccessfully to hold back the guffaws.  I’m chuckling even as I write this, I’m sorry to say. 
 I drove up the hill to the hospital during my You Can’t Go Home Again odyssey last summer.  A man there who was in charge of computers AND grounds was overjoyed that he’d unearthed some sprinkler heads, “And they work!”  He also told me that the nuns had been gone since ’79, a fact which grieved me.  I’d like to thank them.  Almost they “persuadest me to be a Catholic!”  They were so kind and attentive to me during a week I spent there as the sole patient in the entire hospital.  We had had a mini epidemic of hepatitis in my school during the spring, and despite the best efforts of the county nurse to teach us rigorous hand-washing techniques, a few of us fell prey to the disease.  It hit me hard and I was eventually diagnosed and hospitalized.  I look back on that visit fondly.  I was served Frosted Flakes (unheard of in my mother’s kitchen) for breakfast and encouraged to snack on homemade treats from the kitchen ALL day.  In addition, the nuns sat and played checkers with me and even brought a phonograph and records and games from a mystical closet down the hall.  It was truly high living, even though that was the premature end of my school year.  I went from the hospital to a brief convalescence in my home, and then we moved from Arco.
                  In spite of being ill, I remember that year as the best year of my life.  I was still young enough to totally immerse myself in a Barbie doll (this phenomenon was only a few years into itself) I was given for Christmas, yet old enough to be trusted from sun up until sundown to hike, bike, or traipse as far away as my energy allowed.  I had some responsibilities but nothing that hampered my freedom.  If I didn’t have a nickel in my pocket to jingle one of my friends did, and with a nickel we could buy enough penny candy to satisfy our sweet tooth. School was effortless but so satisfying!  I loved my teacher, I had a best friend for the first time in my life, I had a boyfriend Bradley (whose best friend was MY best friend’s boyfriend Brad!) who passed me amazing notes which I saved clear into my late teens in a box.  Why oh why did I throw them out???  I’m sure I’ve romanticized it over the years, but the love interest and the hours of Barbie play ALL stand out as if I were recalling last year!

 I frequented a cozy little public library which was my private sanctuary.  Gail didn’t share my passion for reading, so my forays there were private.  That was fine by me.  Happy Hollisters, Bobbsey Twins, Tom Sawyer, Little Men, horse books ad nauseum and my new discovery—biographies!  Biographies DO change your life once you discover them!  Library patrons were limited to 4 books a week.  I supplemented that with books around our house of my three older siblings and a ready supply of comic books which we bought for a nickel at the drugstore.  When I was diagnosed with hepatitis my Aunt Dorothy sent a copy of A Wrinkle in Time which had won the Newbery Medal that year.  I love that book.  It will forever be associated with the 7-Up that my mother discovered was the only thing I could stomach during my early hepatitis days. I think I must have sipped my way through that book as the only escape I could find from my misery.
                 My memories are unquestionably dominated by a very intense re-enactment of the entire Lewis and Clark expedition which was the core of our fourth grade Idaho history/social studies.  Gail became Captain William Clark, I was Captain Meriwether Lewis, and my black cocker spaniel, Schwartzie, was cast as Sacagawea—a scout role he took to heart even though he was male.  He just really had a nose for it!  The setting of our explorations was the canal up behind our homes.  The overgrowth was perfect to beat with a stick as we were constantly on the lookout for snakes, wild animals, unfriendly Indians and any one of a myriad of uncharted wilderness dangers.  By day we read out of our social studies books and filled in worksheets about that expedition, but as soon as the school bell freed us, we were THERE!!!!!  When the canal was running water, we knew that we must “Ford the river!” and ford we did with the help of a rustically lashed raft. It didn’t hold us obviously, but we could pretend that it was carrying provisions!  I will never forget those rushes of pure unhindered imaginative play.  For some reason we kept it very private.  Perhaps we were bridging childhood and adolescence and weren’t comfortable with any revelations that might link us too strongly to childhood and its attendant immersion in make-believe.  But this Lewis and Clark play was very satisfying and has stuck with me as a precious chapter. Last summer I pulled my car onto that same canal and walked along the path there.  I was looking for tell-tale signs of other young explorers, but they seemed to have been better at covering their tracks.  At least I hope that’s true.  I was struck with the ordinariness of it---no Narnia.  But I hoped that our essence was still there somewhere on the rocks and tall weeds.

                  Halfway through our year in Arco we moved AGAIN to another home, believe it or not.  The first home had been so small and didn’t even have a basement or garage—only one tiny shed.  My father had immediately gotten permission and begun to dig out a basement under the house!  I don’t know what possessed him!  The sequence of events is fuzzy, but I don’t remember ever seeing that basement completed before we moved to the second home.  This new place was a step up—bigger yard with a fence, newer home, and a much needed garage.  I stopped and took a picture in particular of that garage. I remember one afternoon running out to the garage to get my bicycle after school.  I pulled up the garage door and two huge St. Bernards lunged at me and then bounded off into the neighborhood!  It scared me to death as you can well imagine!  I learned later that our landlord had borrowed the garage as a “honeymoon suite” of sorts for the dogs and was not at all pleased that I had interrupted their mating!
                  Arco also incidentally became one of the favorite places in my mother’s recollections of all the starts and stops in her life. We talked about it recently before her death.  She remembered having so many friends and feeling so welcome there.  I remember that we were invited into multiple homes for welcoming dinners right after our arrival—a wonderful custom that should be revitalized.  One couple, Howard and Mona Low, visited us yearly for years and years after we left. Howard taught music at the school and piano lessons to my sister Norma and brother John.  The Low’s were fun and loud and boisterous and opinionated and loved to play card games with “Jack and Marty”, my parents.  Their daughter Kris was a year older than I and had the irksome “talent” of recreating movies—dialogue repetition and even complete musical renditions.  It annoyed and bored me to death, but I didn’t have the social skills to make my way out of her clutches once she began her recitations.  I wonder what has become of her.
                  That was also the year that my oldest sister Nancy married and left for good—the stuff of which movies are made. I had been the little sister sharing her bed and watching every move she made for ten years, and she in turn had played surrogate mother to me.  She hadn’t moved to Arco with us but had gone to college in Utah instead.   The invasive entrance into my private world of a suitor and husband for my adored sister upset me and certainly displaced me. Nancy had been a central figure in my world, and it was unthinkable that this Doug person had now captured her attention, devotion and TIME.  As it turned out, he has become a central stake in my world and I can scarcely remember time before his “intrusion”.
   I also remember my brother John’s darkroom down in our windowless basement.  I remember going to the dinner table very sad one night about being teased about my height at school.  John said, “What did they call you?  Bean pole?”  I broke down and ran from the room.  Why do I recall that so keenly? I also remember setting up a play school in that same windowless basement.  Norma and I slept there which seems rather Dickensian now, but at the time it was OUR space and we looked past the darkness and even spiders.  Dad ordered some cardboard “wardrobes” from Sears so that we could hang our clothes up.  Actually that room became the setting for a childhood memory that comforted me after my father died and I missed him so badly that I ached.  One night my father had gotten short with me and I had gone to bed crying.  Long after everyone had gone to bed, he came down into that dark space, sat on my bed, and asked my forgiveness.  I remember that basement fondly even though it may have contributed indirectly to my still ever present fear of the space under my bed!
 I also remember getting mail out of the box at the post office, waiting for Gail outside the piano teacher’s home for her endless lesson to end, sleeping out in a tent and sneaking packages of chocolate chips from the Anderson pantry or raiding the garden for peas to smuggle into the tent, making great nests out of the grass clippings and doing great chicken dances around them, being obsessed with the Anderson’s baby Lynette because to my dismay I knew I was most assuredly the last baby in our home, 5 cent soft ice cream cones as often as the economy would allow, witnessing the birth of the Anderson’s horse Penny’s colt as my first experience with birth, playing House in the real abandoned house by the railroad tracks (why wasn’t it locked?), penny candy displayed in play dishes on a tree stump “table”, plummeting recklessly down the hill in our red wagons, learning to walk trained-bear style on the giant empty rolling electric cable spools in the vacant lot, losing my dog Schwartzie for at least a month and then being overjoyed at his triumphant return—my father found him wandering around out in the country!  We threw Schwartz a welcome home party and I remember him barfing up popcorn later that night!  I remember 25 cents in my pocket on Fridays which bought me entrance into the movie (Jerry Lewis, Three Stooges, Elvis) AND a Big Hunk or Look candy bar.  I remember making salt dough renditions of Palestinian topography on a paper map,  a schmaltzy Welcome to Gaynotes in Primary ceremony for girls and moms, and walking to school in subzero winds so common on the desert of central Idaho and needing to thaw upon arrival. I remember a cloak room at school where quick kisses could be stolen if you didn’t get hung up on form, two sets of twins my age at church, reciting a poem about peas and honey (“I eat peas with honey; I’ve done it all my life.  It might not be so tasty, but it keeps them on the knife!”) while waiting in the hot lunch line, my father growing tomatoes all winter in the front window of his office, a brand new 1963 white Pontiac Catalina straight from the factory which we picked up in Blackfoot, and a new dress which my mother brought unsolicited from a trip to Ogden, Utah.  I also remember my first encounter in a professional photography studio for a sitting wearing that dress and the subsequent oil portraits my Uncle Orson painted of my sister Norma and me.  In it my hair appears chestnut brown instead of coal black which it actually was. I remember my mother bringing a new-fangled electric broom home from Boise and announcing its arrival with such fanfare that we fought over who “got” to use it—a classic Tom Sawyer move on my mother’s part. I remember Grandma Foulger arriving on the Teton Stage bus for a visit.  I remember the Smothers Brothers, Gary Moore, Ed Sullivan, Lawrence Welk, and Red Skelton on an old black and white TV.  That was family time and usually accompanied by a bowl of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with Nestle’s Quick. I remember raking the fallen leaves into elaborate four inch high walled houses. Great fun. Norma and I worked in that leaf house all that golden Saturday and then retired to our real house for baths, supper and the Miss America pageant which we loved on TV.  Time with my sister Norma was rare and extra special.  She was then a teenager and our worlds seemed far apart.
I remember joining the entire town in the high school gym for polio sugar cubes.  My father took us over after church.  All of the vaccine cubes were displayed neatly in paper-lined dripper pans which covered several tables, and we all filed past and helped ourselves to one cube.  I remember another all-community event several years after we moved from Arco.  I happened to be there visiting Gail—something I did for about 6 years after we left.  This particular summer day we all made history.  We participated in the FIRST entire evacuation of an entire city!  Everyone packed up snacks and water and drove en masse to Craters of the Moon, a state park about 10 miles out of town.  I remember helping the Andersons bake blonde brownies for the event.  We were government guinea pigs I guess and made the six o’clock news as well as the larger papers!   
                  And so the years have passed.  Reflecting on this particular year out of my life in a nondescript dusty town just north of an atomic energy complex 45 years ago, I realize that it was certainly not glamorous.  The characters were ordinary.  No fortunes were made.  My life was blatantly devoid of art museums and “enrichment activities”.  I probably looked like a waif most of the time.  I realize too that turning back the pages of time is risky business.  Hidden in those pages one can unwittingly pull out pain and events better left unremembered.  But the converse can also be revealingly true.  Rolling the film can also delightfully transport the star back into the castles of childhood and replace the magic wand into her hand. When I allow my inner child to romp through the frames of that year in Arco, Idaho, I AM that favored child living an oh so charmed life… 

(my Lewis and Clark "Terabithia/Narnia" 45 years later)

(From another writing assignment written for the same class)

Our first home in Arco was very small for our family.  My father, in typical pioneer fashion, got permission from the landlord to dig a basement.  I'm thinking it was more a dugout than a basement.  I remember him working on it after work in the evenings a shovel at a time.  I can't imagine where we stored all of our things in the meantime because they certainly didn't fit in the house.  My sister Norma (four years my senior) and I were given one of the larger bedrooms because that room also had to house the piano.  My brother John (seven years my senior) once again was given his own room--one of the perks of being the token male child..  He ALWAYS got private quarters.  We didn't have a kitchen so much as a narrow galley.   The living room housed a couch, a chair and the television.  Midway between the kitchen and living room we stuck our round dining table which had been in the family forever.  I think a boarder from several moves back had built it as rent payment.  I remember it as being unique because the legs were detachable and as such, this table's capacity as a giant rolling disk (should it ever become detached from its legs) stuck in my 9 year old imagination.

Next door to our house was a corner vacant lot which we used for softball, night games, digging holes, and a convenient cut through to the neighbors' house.  But the most endearing aspect of this vacant lot was that a cableman or someone had left a large wooden spool there.  Later in my life, I would use an identical spool as a dining table in a very Bohemian apartment we lived in in Austin, TX.  This Arco spool  was purely for entertainment.  We spent countless hours on it perfecting walking on top as the spool rolled around the vacant lot.  I remember John became very adept.  He would get up some speed, and with arms flailing for balance, it was quite the spectacle!  The drama was further heightened by the random placement of holes and mounds, making the spool extravaganza a perfect blend of skill display, obstacle anticipation, and dismount readiness.


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