Race to the River

Historic tale of community rescue to Zoom from La Center museum 

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer 

Published: December 24, 2020, 6:00am 

On the day after Christmas, Steve Becker will use today’s cutting-edge communication technology to tell a century-old tale about just plain folks pulling together to save one fragile life during a time of emergency in north Clark County and all around the world. 

It’s a hair-raising rescue tale set in the terribly cold, wet spring of 1918 during a flu pandemic. Becker said he finds it positively inspiring. The former radio and TV reporter — and former executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association — said he was floored to rediscover a tape of himself interviewing his grandfather about the episode many decades later in the 1980s. 

Becker used that tape as the basis for an article that was published in the most recent Clark County Historical Society annual journal, but you don’t have to go that far to preserve your own elders’ family history for posterity. Just get out a phone or video camera and start asking open-ended questions, he said. 

Text Box“Our family members have lived through such amazing things,” he said. “I want to empower people to share those stories while they still can.”  

Escape from View 

Becker’s grandfather, Floyd Pittard, was just 11 years old when his mother died and his stepfather abandoned him in View, a hamlet north of Battle Ground. Pittard labored for room and board with various local families in the area. Becker colorfully describes the rough-and-rowdy culture of lumbermen at the time: 

“Community attitudes about alcohol did not extend to the lumber jacks and mill workers who would gather Friday night and frequently celebrate in excess. It was enough of an event that young boys would gather to watch fights spill out into the street. ‘He bit my ear off!’ Floyd once heard a man exclaim while tromping through the muddy street searching for his missing lobe.” 

Brawling may have been common, but community spirit was also plentiful. One spring morning the View school bell started ringing urgently, and people came running to learn what the emergency was: A new mother named Lora South was hemorrhaging and needed to get to a Portland hospital immediately. 

But that seemed next to impossible. “Bumpy, irregular … and bone-jarring at best” is how Becker describes the rutted, muddy rural lanes in north Clark County at that time. “Even if an ambulance could make its way from La Center or Vancouver, Mrs. South would never survive the jolting, rattling ride down one mountainous hillside and up another,” Becker writes. 

It was a serious problem, but her neighbors never even considered just leaving Mrs. South to her fate. Instead they devised an extraordinary plan. 

“They improvised a bed,” Becker said during an interview. “They built a special bed with two rails, and two men on the left and two men on the right of each rail to carry it.” 

Night was falling as eight men — including muscular young laborer Floyd Pittard, age 14 — started carrying Lora South’s bed across the nearly impassible landscape, accompanied by others and by a covered wagon carrying South’s baby and provisions for the whole rescue party, about two dozen people in all, Becker said. The group stopped occasionally for South to nurse her child. One man dropped to the ground in a grand mal seizure and had to start riding in the wagon. 

Progress was so slow that a rider was sent ahead to stop the ferry at La Center from leaving on time. Walking all night, the rescue party eventually made it all 10 miles from View to the dock at La Center and delivered the precious cargo onto the waiting ferry. 

“When she was gently lowered to the deck of the idling steamboat, each of the mud-streaked men who had walked her through the night removed their sweat streaked hats and bid her farewell,” Becker writes. 

We won’t give away more of the story than that. Tune into Becker’s talk at 4 p.m. Saturday to hear the ending and ask questions. 

La Center gateway 

As Becker researched the details for the article he eventually wrote, he said, staff at the La Center Historical Museum became equally fascinated with this tale of remote life in north county and the steamboats that used to provide a vital connection with the outside world. Together they cooked up the plan to have Becker read his article, live via Zoom, on the day after Christmas. 

“As I was putting the story together, it really stood out to me that everything went through on,” he said. “La Center was the gateway to northern Clark County.” 

What also stood out, he said, is how people pulled together to rescue a neighbor without a second thought. That seems in stark contrast to today’s world, he said. 

“Here’s a community and here’s a crisis and they had a system,” he said. “They rang the bell. They came together. They said, ‘We have to do everything we can to save this woman.’ They came up with a plan and carried her through the night — all night long. They knew it was a dire situation, but nobody said, ‘She’s doomed, to hell with it.’ 

“That’s remarkable to me, at this time of backbiting and accusations and judgment,” he said. “It’s a great example of how communities are created. We don’t focus on our differences. We focus on what brings us together.” 

Open ended 

Becker said he nearly forgot that he interviewed his grandfather about this favorite tale decades ago with a tape recorder running. He rediscovered the tape two years ago and found some YouTube instructions on preserving taped sound in digital files.  Listening to his grandfather’s voice retelling the dramatic story “made the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” Becker said. 

The upcoming holidays are a perfect time to interview your relatives and elders about their early memories and life stories, Becker added. Use a phone, an audio or video recorder, or even just take notes and type them up afterwards. The former radio and TV reporter offered this tip on how to begin: ask open-ended questions. 

“What’s the very first thing you remember?” he prompted. “What happened next? What happened after that? 

“Just let them talk,” he said. “It’s all about them. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.” 

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