[Postcard] | Rebuilding Roseburg, by Tim Sohn | Harper's Magazine

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Rebuilding Roseburg


Life in a town marked by tragedy

Photograph of the North Umpqua River, by Tim Sohn

Roseburg, Oregon, is a place everyone should know about, but not because of an act of mass murder. A city of about 22,000 people and the seat of Douglas County, Roseburg is situated about 70 miles south of Eugene and 120 miles north of the California border. It is defined by a river—two rivers, actually, that become one: the South Umpqua, which flows through downtown, behind the high school, and the North Umpqua, which runs along the campus of Umpqua Community College. The town’s namesake, a homesteader and innkeeper named Aaron Rose, arrived in the region in 1851, drawn by the fertile land surrounding the Umpqua as it makes its way from mountain lakes in the Cascade Range to the Pacific. The town was an agricultural and commercial hub, its population growing with the arrival of the railroad in 1872 and booming along with the logging industry in the decades after the Second World War, as the surrounding hills and valleys became among the most productive timberland in the northwest.

It was timber that brought my grandparents to Roseburg in 1949. They raised my father and his four brothers there and lived most of their lives in the same house. I have spent part of every year since I was born in and around Roseburg and the North Umpqua. It is where I learned to love the outdoors, to run a chainsaw, to ride a horse. It is also where my father taught me to fish.

As Highway 138 heads east from Roseburg toward the mountains, it follows the course of the North Umpqua in reverse. At the small town of Glide, seventeen miles east of town, the Little River, once known as the East Umpqua, collides with the North Umpqua nearly head-on. This summer, I got married near that confluence, close enough to the river that we could hear the water rushing by as we exchanged vows. Upriver from Glide, the channel narrows, and the rapids become more dramatic. The two-lane highway hugs the river as it bends and bows, dotted with turnouts for raft launches and hiking trails and campsites. There are thirty miles of river reserved exclusively for fly-fishing, and though there are fall and spring Chinook runs and rainbow trout, it’s the steelhead that are the main draw.

For most of my life, I have fished the North Umpqua, with varying degrees of success. On a couple of occasions six or seven years ago, I spent my mornings following a longtime fishing guide named Larry Levine down rocky trails to the river’s edge, hoping to glean some of the river’s secrets from him, wading out into the cold water before the sun hit the pools. It’s a difficult river, and when I hooked and landed an amazing fish, Larry’s joy nearly equaled my own.

Larry lived east of Glide, near a tributary of the North Umpqua called Susan Creek. He loved the river and knew it intimately, in all its moods and quirks. Like my grandparents, Levine was an immigrant to the area, one of a long string of outsiders who found something in its rivers, valleys, and mountains that he couldn’t shake. He came north from California for a creative writing MFA in Eugene, and eventually found his way to the Umpqua. The river “whispered” to him, he wrote in the summer 2013 issue of a local fishing newsletter. “It made me an offer to which I put up no resistance, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Levine, at sixty-seven, was also an assistant professor of English and writing at Umpqua Community College. He was killed there in his classroom along with eight of his students. In the rush to name the names and show the faces, the national press pulled a photo off of his Facebook page that was, thankfully, true to the man: it is Larry, in waders, a fishing vest, a ball cap, and sunglasses, standing thigh-deep in the river with a pipe in his mouth and rod in his hand, intently watching his line drift through a riffle. 

This is not the first time that Roseburg has been visited by tragedy. Early in the morning on August 7, 1959, a fire broke out downtown, near where a truck carrying two tons of dynamite and four and a half tons of ammonium nitrate was parked. The resulting explosion, known in local lore simply as “the Blast,” demolished eight square blocks of the city and left a crater twelve feet deep, killing fourteen people and injuring more than a hundred others. Residents drew together, grieved, and then, in a very Roseburg way, put their shoulders to the task of rebuilding.

This recovery will be more complicated. As soon as I heard President Obama’s stirring remarks the day of the shooting, I began to wonder how they would play in a place as conservative and pro-gun as Roseburg, a place where everyone hunts, and where guns, for many residents, are a necessary and non-negotiable part of life. The popularly elected sheriff, who quickly became the face and voice of the law enforcement response, is on the record opposing any additional gun control measures, and for many locals, there is an unwelcome irony in seeing their tragedy become a galvanizing force for a cause that they want no part of.

Before President Obama’s visit on Friday, a few Roseburg residents declared that the president was not welcome in their city and should just stay away, particularly if he planned to use the tragedy to advance what they saw as an anti-gun agenda. The anti-Obama rhetoric came from a vocal minority, but it gained enough traction that city leaders felt compelled to issue a statement reiterating that the president was, in fact, welcome in Roseburg and would be extended “every courtesy” by the mayor and city council.

Last week, the Oregonian published a video on its website of Senator Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in Roseburg in late May 1968, just ten days before he was shot and killed in California. Kennedy had introduced a bill aimed at curtailing the mail-order sale of guns, and as he spoke from the steps of the Douglas County courthouse, some in the crowd of 1,500 booed him, holding signs that read, “Protect your rights to keep and bear arms.” Kennedy tried to explain his position. “All this legislation does is keep guns from criminals and the demented and those too young,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. “With all the violence and murder and killings we’ve had in the United States, I think you will agree that we must keep firearms from people who have no business with guns or rifles.” The crowd did not agree.

President Obama was careful during his Friday visit to not mention gun control. He arrived in Marine One, was greeted by a couple hundred protesters at the airport, spent an hour at the high school meeting with residents, and then left. He seemed determined to respect the town’s right to grieve on its own terms. But as he and so many others have noted, though the pain is local, the Roseburg shooting is now situated in a tragic national narrative.

On October 2, I watched from my home in New York as Lester Holt read the entirety of an NBC Nightly News broadcast from a spot near the college, the North Umpqua glinting in the sun behind him between hills of grass gone golden after the parched summer. It was surreal. Now, as classes resume at Umpqua Community College, the news vans have left, but normal life remains a long way off.

Next summer, though, the steelhead will run again. If I’m lucky, I’ll spend a few days on the North Umpqua, revisiting fishing holes Larry knew better than I ever will. In the note he wrote to the fishing newsletter, he said his education in the ways of the river was “ongoing, never complete,” but he knew the most important lesson already: “If a place makes you feel as if you’re in paradise, you are.”

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