Dark Cloud Over the Ochocos
Dark Cloud Over the Ochocos

Dark Cloud Over the Ochocos

A few years back, a dark cloud settled over Wilbur County, and it just hung there as though it were permanently anchored to the Ochocos. The storm had been gathering for years, and some said it originated on the trail out west from Missouri and was well established even before little Germaine Van Bibber was buried a century and a half ago on the bank of Tamarack Creek.

Photo: Painted Hills of Oregon

Why did this particular group of families decide to stay on here, rather than follow Mr. Meek over the Cascades to the Willamette Valley? No one can say, except that lives get entangled. Sometimes they get entangled through love and desire, sometimes through jealousy or hatred or common interest. Sometimes the vines go so deep in the thicket that no one remembers the ground from which they spring.

And then there are those who become so tired of the journey, that they simply can’t take another step. That was my great-great-great-grandfather, William Henry Applegate. The young man of twenty-two decided that it was time to put down some roots. To take that little family printing press he had brought all the way out from Independence, Missouri on the back of a covered wagon and become the conscience of this band of stubborn pioneers. So was born The Germaine Truth.

 In those early years, young Applegate staked out a small piece of land near Tamarack Creek where he began to build a home and a newspaper office. He could not know what his dream, or the tangle of dreams known as Germaine, would eventually become. Nor could he foresee that the strongest dream of all would be that of a dying child, or that his own family name would one day fade out of existence like a dying juniper on the arid desert.

 I do not know the name of this malady that has overtaken us, but it is something we Germainers discuss at any given opportunity. And like everything else in Germaine, opinion comes in more varieties than soap at the Bend K-Mart store.

Some believe that it all began in 1966 with the horrible death of Rochelle LaFontaine, who, while driving down Highway 20 toward Burns, swerved her Ford Fairlane into an oncoming semi at 110 miles per hour. Just 17 years old and, as it turned out, pregnant, Rochelle was the 1965 Rodeo Queen and a favorite among the town’s elite. So favored, in fact, that, at the tender age of seven, she was named Miss Germaine by those venerable defenders of the status quo, the Daughters of Germaine, an event which happens only once a generation. 

Many of the younger folk in town saw this as a sign of the changing times. You see, Rochelle was born out of wedlock, the daughter of Faith Chastity Applegate and Charles Sevigny LaFontaine, a traveling musician from New Orleans. It was a scandal that many believed the town would never live down. Mr. LaFontaine was a black man. He was tolerated only because he was a decorated war veteran, and he played a mean saxophone. But a few of the young women in town fluttered around him like the proverbial moths, which of course, became a license to some for bigotry of the worst sort. The summer Faith turned up pregnant, Charles vanished without leaving a footprint behind to show that he ever existed at all.

Except for Rochelle, that is, which I guess is a pretty big footprint.

Did Charles LaFontaine run for his life? Or were the back room whispers about a “Negro” buried in a desert ravine, more than mere rumors.

The very next summer after the death of Rochelle, when some local cowboys beat up Andy Childers for speaking out against the Vietnam War, and Andy left for San Francisco – the week he was released from the Redmond hospital – these same folks saw that things had changed in their world. Not that drunks hadn’t wailed on innocent folk in the past, or that violent disagreements hadn’t erupted among the townspeople, but for the first time in decades, the real outside world had invaded the inner lives of Germainers. The last time something like this had happened, they said, was in 1913, when the Wobblies closed down the sawmill, and local vigilantes shot and killed Ansel Johannsen. 

Of course, there are others who believe that the outside world is always with us, no matter how much we want to deny it, and that the sickness of Germaine is a symptom of the malaise of the modern world. I guess I would count myself among these folk. I am not an end-of-the-worlder or anything like that, but anyone with eyes and ears ought to be able to see the deep hurt we are in.