Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Adventures in Surreality

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend my 30-year high school reunion. It was held at the historic Scotia Inn in the small community best known for once being the quintessential company town owned by the Pacific Lumber Company. During my youth growing up in the nearby town of Fortuna, Pacific Lumber (or PL, as the locals called it) was a model of “sustained yield” forest management and for excellent treatment of employees. The town of Scotia was entirely occupied by workers from the mill and their families, often following several previous generations of their own families who also worked at the mill.

The town was beautifully quaint and impeccably maintained by the company. Although it was much smaller than Fortuna and several other towns nearby, it was the only town with an indoor swimming pool suitable for competitions (a must in rainy Humboldt County). Consequently, a large chunk of my young childhood consisted of carpooling down to Scotia for swim practice.

Pacific Lumber became famous quite a few years later, when it was involved in a hostile takeover by a Texas firm, Maxxam, whose CEO, Charles Hurwitz, financed the purchase with “junk bonds” issued with the aid of convicted felon, Michael Milken; and then set out to pay off the bonds with a rapid acceleration in the clear cutting of old growth redwoods, which essentially led to a taxpayer funded ransom for the Headwaters Forest.

Today, the mill is still operating, but at greatly reduced level. Most of the employees, including many who were among my high school classmates, have moved on to new careers after being laid off from the mill, or voluntarily getting out earlier after seeing the writing on the wall.

The Scotia Inn is still beautiful, having been carefully restored and furnished with wonderful antiques. It is a regular inn for travelers, but because it is somewhat off the tourist track, is more often used for weddings and banquets such as my reunion. When the manager, a former classmate who was also in charge of planning the reunion, offered rooms at the inn for a bargain rate, I jumped at the chance to stay there.

As I was leaving (I’ll jump back to the actual reunion a little later), I went to the front desk to settle my bill only to find a handwritten note indicating that another of my former classmates was in the process of cooking breakfast. There was no one around, so I wandered until I came across the large industrial kitchen where I found a small group huddled around the stove watching John, the former quarterback of our prep football team, frying eggs and potatoes.

Someone handed me a plate of food, which I wolfed down as I looked around for the manager, Deb, to ask about my bill, as I needed to hit the road soon. When I found her, she said, “Oh, don’t worry about the bill. I’m just going consider the rooms as freebees.” A little shocked, I said I’d send her a check anyway, which she could put in the fund for future reunions if she didn’t want to take it for the room. I thought back to the evening before, and was thankful that the group had most certainly ran up a hefty bar tab that would contribute to the Inn’s cash flow.

The whole situation reminded me of what many people really value about small town life, where the decisions and actions of individual people trump the rules and routines designed to keep the masses in order and the wheels of commerce turning smoothly. A snap decision to let people stay at an inn for free probably wouldn’t, and couldn’t, happen in a more urban area where every type of lodging is owned by a parent corporation with accountants who scour the books looking to boost the bottom line.

Of course, there are also some things about rural life that aren’t so “refreshing,” while at the same time being quite entertaining. I’ll follow up a little later with a couple of examples; but as a teaser, I’ll just say now that they involve a sudden flashback to high school clique behavior that resulted in a mass boycott, and a conversation with someone who claims to know who is really responsible for shooting JFK (and who might actually be right!)

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