Requiem for Whatcom Falls

Twenty years ago today, there was a huge pipeline explosion in Bellingham’s Whatcom Falls Park. How can I explain to you who weren’t there?

The park is a brilliant green ravine of old cedars, ferns, salal and moss, with a sparkling salmon stream winding through it. The creek runs down through the hills into the city, from the Lake Whatcom Reservoir. Deeply cherished and actively used.

 When the pipeline blew, a gigantic cloud of smoke rose over our city. Scorched leaves, cedar fronds, and chunks of roofing from a nearby house were blown over a mile. A friend who was a Vietnam War veteran was sure our city had been bombed and napalmed. Zeke and I drove through the vicinity just minutes before the pipeline blew, and noticed the number of emergency vehicles headed the other way.

The pipeline had been damaged years earlier during nearby construction, and it ruptured at the weakened point, pouring thousands of gallons of fuel into Whatcom Creek. The fuel floated on the surface of the water and formed a cloud of fumes above. A young man fishing was overwhelmed by the fumes and died. Two 10 year old boys were playing with fireworks down by the creek and set off the inevitable explosion. They walked out with burns everywhere but the soles of their feet and died later that night. But they were conscious enough to worry that the explosion was their fault. I think that’s the part that grieves me most, all these years later.

Trees turned into torches. Even the soil was on fire, soaked in gasoline. The gas flow was stopped just short of I-5 by a beaver dam. Old Man Haskell had fought for years trying to get rid of those beavers!

Just on the other side of the interstate, Whatcom Creeks flows past a senior high-rise, then dives into downtown, running past the courthouse, the library, the post office and the jail. Catastrophe was so near at hand.

There are pipeline explosions constantly all across the USA. Pipeline companies are accustomed to “settling” with the families of those who die. But their money comes with a price tag: silence. A gag order. The Bellingham families were unusual. They refused to shut up and spent years reliving their trauma, testifying, lobbying, leading the fight for safer pipelines. Because of them, we are all a bit safer these days.

Our city contracts with the local radio station with the highest powered transmitter as it’s emergency information station. In Bellingham, that’s a right-wing station. Before the fires were even out, I listened to the announcer telling us “There are those who care about the families of those poor boys, and then (dripping contempt) there are those who just care about the trees!”

I was so furious at this attempt to divide us as a community in such a moment that I wrote a song. I walked through the park in my mind, looking at what was lost. The song came out better than I expected. Music can help me move through the most powerful emotions. The song, not the words or melody but my feelings and intention, have evolved since this recording was made. I’m more peaceful now when I sing it. It feels like a true requiem. A friend from Colorado created a choral arrangement last year for her Threshold Choir. I feel differently about the song most of the time these days. But June 9th brings me back to my starting point.

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Road Trip Report

We’re home and glad to be here. We learned lots, including that even 3 hours a day of driving is too much for real pleasure. But it was fun to visit with people and see them in their spaces and get to know them better. And see new vistas. Visit museums. Many of them had workers who were really happy to have us play a few songs. We took our instruments in to put behind the counter for safekeeping, which led to songs. Relevant songs. Fun to find the right song for each group.

And we ate at interesting places all along the way. On the way home I got into searching the internet for Mexican bakeries along the way, seeking a particular kind of cookie I like. It was interesting that the bakeries were clustered – none in Umatilla but three in nearby Hermiston. None in Kennewick but lots in Pasco. I was looking at the demographics of racism, and clustering of cultures as well. Good cookies too…

I brought a bottle of wine from Paul & Mardi Portteus’ winery in Zillah for a friend who has a restaurant. Dickensons (?) in town distributes their wine. Paul would love to see some more people be interested in Bellingham. We had an interesting story from him when we sang the Walla Walla Waltz. In the early years, 3 of the first four Walla Walla wineries bought their grapes from Paul. He is proud of that, but annoyed he didn’t get the credit. They built their reputation on his grapes. Anyway, we don’t drink but thought our friends might be interested so Paul sent along a couple of bottles.

I took some of Mom’s ashes to her family’s graves. And visited the ranch house where she grew up. The current renter had gathered her sweetheart, her best friend, and her young landlord, who has worked hard to restore the place. I brought old photos and stories, including one of the big vinegar factory that was right across the irrigation canal from the back door. And I took away new photos, and friendships, and pebbles & flowers from the locust tree the yard to take with Mom’s ashes to the graveyards. And had tears at the graveyards. Tuesday I will mail hollyhock seeds from our back garden and California poppies from the front to be planted at the ranch house. I have a sweet photo of Mom and her Mom (Alma) with Alma’s hollyhocks blooming along the side of the ranch house. There’s nothing there now but weeds and rocks, but Crystal has been working to restore the garden. They found some of the roots of Mom’s birth tree buried deep beside the road out front.

Zeke and I came out of it all closer to each other. A week of no internet didn’t hurt. And prepping for concerts.

And with an amazing gift! An offer from some retired videographers to record me and Zeke for free, to put on this website or do anything else we want with the tapes. They are coming here from Kennewick on June 8 & 9. Zeke and I are practicing up a storm till then.

I think our next tour will be MUCH closer to home. Seattle, Olympia, maybe Bellevue or Woodinville or such. Whatever we can figure. Once again to visit folks we know and do house concerts. And another tour to the Olympic Peninsula and maybe Victoria on the way. We think we’d like to take a train with an overnight berth to the Bay Area. Maybe not till next year. It’s nice to be home.

Tri-Cities, Boise, And Mom

We’re crossing the mountains next week, headed inland. It’s a big road trip for me and Zeke, and a bit of a pilgrimage as well. We get to play house concerts in Tri-Cities and in Boise on May 17 & 19. We’ll play tourist of course, and take a spoonful of Mom’s ashes to several places she loved along the way. Maryann Wood Breskin was an Idaho girl who grew up in Ustick and Boise. And since we get to play house concerts (thank you Micki Perry & Susan Elliot!) I’ve been thinking about songs I wrote for Mom. I’ll bring a few of those along to share. Here’s the chorus from the first song I ever wrote, for Mom’s 60th birthday. If you want to hear me sing it, click here:

I watched in your youth from a child’s point of view
Till I noticed that as I grew, you grew too.
Lately I’ve wondered if you really know
What a pleasure it’s been, Mother, watching you grow.

Zeke has written several new songs in this last period. There are politics to comment on of course, but now and again some new and unexpected viewpoint gives rise to a quirky, hilarious Zeke Song that could never come from any other mind.

Trip To Boise, Idaho

We’re headed to Boise next month, to take some of Fl!p’s mom’s ashes (Maryann Wood Breskin) back to the farm where she was raised. We’re playing in Tri-Cities and then in Boise. We’re working on setting up more house concerts and workshops along the way. We’d even be delighted to come to YOUR house if it’s not too crazy far out of the way.

Her dad planted two Sycamore Maples to celebrate Mom’s birth in 1923. The photo below is of mom with her tree over 60 years later.


Some of you have wondered about this very weird guitar that shows up from time to time in photos of me. Meet the Twangoleum

 I found the Twangoleum hanging in the window of an antique shop in Seattle, on Aurora Avenue in 1969. I nearly drove off the road! Unfortunately the window faced west and got hot in the afternoon. The only case was a green felt bag, and the instrument was pretty warped. Strung up with steel strings heavy enough to support the Brooklyn Bridge. The family who had sold it to the dealer said their father brought it home from Europe at the end of WWI!

It’s had a few periods of being played a LOT. The “alligator tail” prevents it from being barred up the neck, and the intonation was off from the warp in the face. The saddle has been relocated to try to deal with the intonation. In 1973 I handed it, on permanent loan, to Andy Cohen, who was playing a lot on the street. We were both living in Syracuse at the time. He had fallen madly in love with it and eventually gave it its name. Thereafter, I got occasional missives describing their adventures, plus a huge poster touting “A. Morris Meltzer-Cohen, the Twangoleum King” complete with a great photo. He said, “There’s only one of it, so I might as well be king of it.” He played it on the street for years, and it did its job. Lots of people stopped to listen! I had told Andy that if he were ever done with it, he should give it back. I had moved home to Bellingham, Washington state, right after I handed it to Andy. One night around 3 AM I got a phone call that began, “I’m done with it, and I’ve got it a ride.”

“Huh? What? Who?” Well, once we sorted out what “it” was, I learned that the Twangoleum was headed for Port Townsend, Washington. My benefactor stopped in Bellingham on the way to bring my baby back home. 

It’s history with me has a lot of connections with Port Townsend. I think Rick Ruskin had it for a while next. He’s a great player from Seattle. I have a vague recollection of Elizabeth Cotten playing it during one of her visits, during the late 1970s. It’s gotten around!” Kerry Char of Portland did a restoration that included removing the whole fingerboard and sliding it up towards the headstock until it played in tune again. 

John Jackson whittled it a new bridge pin out of a holly twig one morning at the first CENTRUM Blues Workshop in Port Townsend. The old pin had mysteriously disappeared and John wanted to play my baby! John leaned off the porch, broke a twig off a holly bush, and pulled out his pocket knife. The Twangoleum was passed hand-to-hand among a circle of old blues players, who were delighted to feel the alligator tail vibrate against their chests. It takes care to keep from banging the back of your fretting hand against that tail though. Backs of hands have no padding, and it hurts!

We just took the Twango back to Port Townsend for my brother Joe Breskin’s 72nd birthday concert. It never made it as far as the stage, but was passed hand to hand around the audience (lots of players) while we waited for the concert to get underway. (Music actually starts at about 27 minutes in on that concert link.)