There wasn’t anything particularly special about the Western Oregon towns of Monmouth and Independence for us kids growing up there in the 1970s.
Mostly, they were just two small towns of mostly working-class folks trying put food on the table and keep the lights on.
Independence was the smaller of the two towns, its population of 2,500 mostly a mix of the Latinos who worked the fields on the outskirts of town and the hard-working, sometimes harder-drinking men who grinded away a living pulling green chain at the local mill or keeping fully-loaded log trucks on muddy roads carved into forests or harvesting alfalfa on family farms.
Mostly, to this kid, at least, Independence’s claim to fame was the clatter of pins falling at the dim, smoky Pioneer Lanes bowling alley; the 10-cent cherry Cokes at Taylor’s drug store on Main Street; my stepfather’s barber shop downtown; and the root beer floats at the A&W restaurant.
There was a musty old public library and a Little League, but not much else was going on from a 9-year-old’s view of the world. The gray, rainy winters of the Willamette Valley could drag on for months, drowning your spirit along the way, leaving you clutching to little more than the life buoy of anticipation of the smell of fresh-cut grass and blackberry bushes of summer.
That’s when the last of those 10-cent cherry Cokes could be vacuumed from a straw working its away across the bottom of your fountain glass – but not too loudly, because slurping one’s drink is bad manners in 1974, and you don’t want to catch a disapproving glance from any adults sitting next to you at the counter. Then you could dash out the door and back onto your 10-speed, pedaling about two miles west – past the A&W, past the bowling alley, and past the Little League field that ran along the north end of what was known as “The S-Curve,” where the road suddenly took a hard left – and find yourself in Monmouth.
Monmouth was considered the fancier of the two, a small-college town of around 5,000 – still very much a working class existence, but with the added benefit of college professors and working professionals who commuted Route 99 into the big cities of Corvallis or Salem. The town was founded in deeply religious tenets, so for decades, Monmouth was a dry town that banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in supermarkets, restaurants, and bars. Mostly, that status was the butt of jokes as my mother poured another glass of vodka at the weekly card games of our household and a minor annoyance to the college kids forced to drive a half-mile to Independence for their cheap beer. Eventually, Monmouth’s honor as the last dry town on the West Coast was ended by popular vote in 2002.
From what I could pick up around the dinner table and while sitting in school lunch cafeterias, a lot of folks in Monmouth simply looked down their noses at the hardscrabble ways of the rough-and-tumble in Independence. I lived in both towns during my childhood – first, in Independence, where I spent grades 2-5 living on two different small farms and in a small house on “C” street; then, in the sixth grade, we moved to Monmouth, into one of the many tidy 3-bedroom, 2-bath ranches that ran along Jackson Street, putting me only a short – and eventually well-traveled – bike ride to the campus of Oregon College of Education (OCE), where me and my buddies could run the bases on the fancy baseball field or sneak into the second levels of old gymnasiums to bounce on the trampoline before getting chased out by janitors.
For the most part, however, life in Monmouth was no different than life in Independence for your standard sixth-grader. There did seem to be more of keeping up with the Joneses. And the occasional adult rant about “the Mexicans” or “rednecks” of Independence. But the kids from the two towns mostly just got along. I don’t remember caring a whole lot about where your parents worked or how fancy your house was. I also didn’t care about the color of your skin or what your family did on Sundays. Sure, the kid with the new Nikes every couple of months was annoying; shiny white kicks were a status symbol among junior high males, and most of the rest of us were busy applying white scuff remover to our sneakers in a muddy March, desperately trying to recover their glory New School Shoe days of their previous Septembers.
We all bowled in the same youth bowling leagues, played baseball in the Monmouth Independence Kids Incorporated (MIKI) league, and fed into the same junior high. There was a different burger stand down the street in Monmouth, but you still hoped your stepfather turned left and headed to the A&W just a few blocks away in Independence.
We played the same Whiffle ball in the streets. We rode the same bikes to go kick over rocks in creek beds. And it was the same games of pickup football in the field beyond the end zone during the OCE football games on Saturday afternoon.
Maybe that MIKI Little League team of yours had made it to the championship game at the S-Curve field. Maybe you got a shiny new yellow motocross-style bike that you were dressing up and riding in the Fourth of July parade. Star Wars came to the theater up the road in the summer of 1977; we saved our berry-picking money and sat, eyes wide and mouths agape, as the theater lights dropped and that opening theme thundered from the big screen.
But otherwise, life in either town was widely hailed as uneventful.
And then there was the day I saw Stevie Reed.
Stevie Reed was a developmentally challenged dwarf who lived in Monmouth but was known to every resident of both towns.
As kids, we knew it wasn’t polite to stare – but it was a small town, with an even smaller appetite for “different,” so it was always a bit fascinating to me to see Stevie out and about town. Mostly, you’d spot him pedaling his small bike – known for its banana seat – up and down the streets. Sometimes you’d find him at the grocery or at the big game at the high school. If you were lucky, as far as I was concerned, you’d be in a lane next to him at the bowling alley, watching him knock down strikes and pump his fist just like the pros that my stepfather always watched on TV on Saturday afternoons.
Once, Stevie came out of the grocery, head down, muttering to himself, and nearly ran into my mother. He pardoned himself, but my mother – too often a bit hungover and almost always in a hurry, and certainly never shy about her discomfort around those she deemed “retards” – pressed on. I watched, still holding the door, as Stevie stopped and said, “Ma’am.”
My mother turned toward him, but only partially – forced to acknowledge his presence, but not offering him the complete courtesy of facing him directly. Her arms were crossed, poised for more conflict.
Stevie pointed at her new white sneakers. “Those are nice shoes!”
Whatever soul there was to these working-class towns was rooted deep in the waddle and smile of Stevie Reed. He inspired a natural curiosity, sure, to those who grew up with him, but he also brought a smile to our faces. He was quirky, he was friendly, and he was always on the move.
Most of all, however, he was Stevie.
Yes, we had our bullies and our thugs growing up, but most everybody understood Stevie was off limits. Once, in class, a kid joked about Stevie. Nobody said anything – mostly because we didn’t have to. Our silence and glares spoke volumes.
For years, when I visited home, I’d drive through town, seeing new awnings on old buildings, trendy pubs, and Corporate America slowly setting up shop. The college was now a university, complete with its $25,000 annual price tag and fancy athletic facilities named after coaches whose teams I grew up watching. Mostly, however, I’d hope to catch a glimpse of Stevie.
At times, back here living all the way across the country in North Carolina, my Stevie sightings were limited to random texts from childhood friends. The last one, about five years ago now, was a blurry picture from Alejandro, snapped as he’d driven through town and spotted Stevie. There was Stevie, head pressed forward, still pedaling away on that bike with the banana seat. Alejandro added a simple heart icon. I replied, “Stevie!”
Somebody started the “STEVIE REED OFFICIAL FAN PAGE” on Facebook in 2010 and, as word spread, so did the followers, numbering 1,134 as of this morning. There are photos of Stevie being Stevie: shopping at the grocery, standing in the street – just doing the simple, everyday tasks he’s always been known for. Yet Stevie’s routine, no matter how benign on the surface, carried in it a power to move souls. For a lot of us, growing up working-class was a struggle: Money was always tight; parents drank and fought; cops knocked on front doors; and friends turned to drugs. But somehow, in all of the simplicity of his day to day, in the sight of Stevie’s little legs pumping the pedals of his bike in the rain, he churned his way into our hearts.
Maybe, just maybe, if Stevie could smile, and if Stevie could be so happy just riding his bike – and bowling, and shopping, and sitting in the wooden bleachers rooting for the Central High School Panthers – maybe we didn’t have it so bad?
A few years ago, I reached out to the followers of that Facebook page, explaining I was looking into doing something on Stevie. I wanted to write, but I also knew a documentary film crew in Portland. A woman I’d never met sent me a direct message almost immediately.
“I don’t know you, and I really don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I just wanted to tell you that I didn’t have a great childhood. The details aren’t important. But I just wanted to tell you that seeing Stevie, that always made me smile.”
This past Thursday, the ping hit my phone at 7:23 a.m., from Nick, another childhood bestie.
“I just heard Stevie Reed passed.”
I knew I wanted to write about this. I knew I needed to write about this.
But I also knew I needed some time to process this one.
I wanted to make sure I thought this one through, because you don’t just drag yourself back into a 1970s childhood and start putting a finger in the chest of its feelings. How can a developmentally challenged dwarf riding through town on that bike with a banana seat, I thought, how can he have such a hold on the hearts of those of us just goofing around playing Whiffle ball in the streets?
So there I was at the traffic light Thursday afternoon, lost in thought about Stevie, stirred back into 2021 by a honk of the car behind me.
Then Friday, sitting at the kitchen table, thinking of how we can all Go Fund Me a bronze statue of Stevie smiling and riding his bike and put it next to that gazebo at the park in downtown Monmouth.
Then yesterday, lost in the outdoor section at Lowe’s, I’m asking for help with an item the employee isn’t sure where to find – but my voice is almost instantly drowned out by a second employee who barges into our aisle, loudly yelling toward the employee I’m trying to talk to. I’m instantly annoyed by this.
As the second employee continues to bark orders at the first employee, I quickly realize the second employee is developmentally challenged. He is simply hyper-focused on his task, doing the job as he’s been trained to do. He’s directing the first employee to pull something off the shelf behind him, and the first employee doesn’t bat an eye – he just obliges. As he does this, the second employee asks me what it is I’m looking for, then, without missing a beat, as he turns to walk away, he points somewhat randomly into the air and says, loudly, “Chicken wire! That’s in Aisle 3!”
I’m smiling as I push my cart away, thinking of the 20 years Stevie worked at the Bi-Mart in Monmouth.
And then this morning, now Sunday, I awoke to my own simple everyday: dogs that wake me with licks and wagging tails, water that needs to be boiled for French Press, and stretches for the ailing back and sore hamstrings of yesterday’s chicken wire installation.
I pour the coffee and open Facebook, greeted with a message from another childhood friend, this one a product of the family dynamics that might be considered somewhat common among working-class towns on the river: Technically, we are related. But we often laugh about the fact that neither of us is exactly sure what sort of relation we are. My mother married the Independence town barber in 1973. With that came his three children (my step siblings), and we’re related because she’s the daughter of the brother of one of my stepsister’s husbands. When we catch up, we jokingly do so in ways like, “Hey, Half-Cousin Thrice Removed and Cue the Banjos, how are things?”
Her message this morning, however, says only one thing: “RIP Stevie.”
And her message includes the following link to his obituary.
If this obituary isn’t one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever read, I’d sure like to know what you’re reading:
Make sure you scroll down and click on the photo album. Your soul deserves an opportunity to meet Stevie Reed.