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Tillamook 1952

Tillamook 1952

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A novel by George Byron Wright

Book DescriptionBehind the StoryExcerpt

When the forest explodes . . .

On August 24, 1933, Verlin Victory Lundigun, 32, catches a piece of pitch-fired flaming tree trunk with his face. He is one warrior among thousands fighting the fiercest forest fire in U.S. history—the infamous Tillamook Burn. Verlin lives that day but is horribly scarred. He shields himself from the world with a black mask that cannot hide his rage. Nine months later he is dead from a gunshot.

Verlin’s death is accepted as accidental until his sister Iris dies in 1952. It is then that Iris’ youngest son makes a discovery that compels him to search for how and why his uncle died. Lou Kallander’s quest rekindles old suspicions, guilt and his own long-dormant sense of self.

When Lou confronts the people he thinks have insights into his uncle’s death, they are not willing partners in his quest. His siblings, likewise, are opposed to Lou mucking around in the sour backwaters of the family’s past. He also meets a woman who is housesitting the family home. They become attracted to each other — but not without complications.

TILLAMOOK 1952 is about sibling introspection, the pain of friendship, and a search for absolution.

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Behind the Story

Tillamook Burn Photo

The Tillamook County, Oregon, forest fire of 1933 is remembered as one of the fiercest timber fires in U.S. history. It was the first of four forest fires which, together, came to be known as the “Tillamook Burn”. Every six years after that first fire — in 1939, 1945 and 1951— another huge fire would break out in what is now the Tillamook Forest. The fire of 1933 was the largest, consuming nearly 12 billion board feet of prime timber. That fire as integral to my novel, TILLAMOOK 1952.

I lived in Tillamook in 1949-50. My younger brother Paul and I had gotten used to moving every couple of years as our father pursued his career as a mortician. Our mother, Eleanor, ended up as the church pianist wherever we went and we nestled in while my father embalmed and directed funerals.

The thing I remember most vividly about Tillamook was our drive out the Sunset Highway from Portland, onto the Wilson River Highway into the dark landscape of the Tillamook Burn. Hillsides denuded of vegetation, white snags, and black shards of ruined trees. In those days, many called that drive the “Valley of Death” as they motored through. None of us could have imagined the return to the lush Tillamook Forest of today back then.

Tillamook was, and is, known as the “Land of trees, cheese and ocean breeze”—a promotional slogan coined by the local newspaper in the late 1800’s. But when we moved there in the early ‘50’s, the scars of years of forest fires were still fresh and the “trees” part of the motto had taken a horrendous hit.

As with the other towns of my youth, Tillamook left a lasting impression on me. That is why I went back and felt compelled to tell a story set in that memorable place. TILLAMOOK 1952 is influenced by the fire of 1933 and by certain tangible memories that stuck in a young boy’s head. Memories like the old man that lived in an abandoned church—look for him in the novel; of course I’ve taken certain liberties with his character, as I never really knew him, just saw him. I hope you enjoy reading TILLAMOOK 1952, I loved writing it.

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Excerpt: Prologue

1933, August

The truth may never be known and the fault never lain. But one thing is certain — the infamous Tillamook Burn of 1933 owed its birth to twenty-two-percent humidity, temperatures in the nineties, and a spark from a logging maneuver somewhere up Gales Creek Canyon in Tillamook County, Oregon, on the 14th of August. The winds rose, feasted on the dry tinder, and soon the fire had shoulders and grew beyond all puny human effort to stop it. All the same, the battle was engaged, and Verlin Lundigun was in it.

On the tenth day of the fight, the air around him thick and warm and acrid, thirty-two-year-old Verlin drove a flatbed Model A truck into the dim and smoky innards of the conflagration. He carried shovels, axes, picks, buckets, and nine boys from FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps: young men from Chicago, from New York, from New Jersey. It was August 24, 5:14 a.m., when Verlin pounded the gears out a rutted Wilson River Road on the way to a beachhead near a place called Kansas Creek. This was war, and the fire was winning. That morning he longed for sweet Lorene, the love of his life, the one he would soon marry. If only he could smell her hair and taste her lips…She seemed so far away, from such a different life during those dreadful smoke-filled days.

When word came to get out of the woods, Verlin and his band of CCC boys had driven too far to hear the warning. Humidity dropped even lower, and winds from the east rose again. The hydra-headed monster was going to explode. And it did — forty thousand feet straight up, eighteen miles across the edge of the fire. Every one of the many separate fires had crowned and merged into one mammoth firestorm. Superheated air blew with hurricane force. Down in it, Kansas Creek at his back, Verlin Lundigun — blonde, handsome, fun-loving Verlin — never heard or saw it. The blazing tree was to his right when he was looking to his left. The boys heard the roar. They watched as the piece of pitch-fired flaming tree trunk exploded out over the road and into the cab where Verlin fought the steering wheel.

The young men from New York, New Jersey, and Chicago pulled him from behind the wheel and from beneath the sizzling, foaming piece of tree wedged in the frame of the windshield. The fire raged around the nine youths as they moved toward water, stumbling over smoking ground, rushing headlong to evade the oncoming tongues of fire. They carried their fallen driver with them into the depleted river. The firestorm wailed about them. Several of the boys sat in the water sobbing, some nursing burns of their own, most just shaking. All of them looked in horror at the semi-conscious body of their driver. They didn’t even know his name. One boy from Chicago sat in the water with Verlin Lundigun’s head in his lap and tears in his eyes.

A young man from New Jersey kneeled down. “My God,” he said, crossing himself. “His face, sweet Jesus.”

Without a word, one boy dipped his red handkerchief into the water and spread it gently over the burned and distorted face. They hunkered down in the water along with three deer and a cougar and waited and prayed. When the fire had passed over, the animals left as quickly as they had come, and the young men did their duty.

They weren’t responsible for Verlin’s future.

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