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FarmerBrownjim brown

The Oregon Trail

In late October 1978, I drove our 5-year-old Ford station wagon, nick named the blue banana, north on Interstate 5. It was packed with the last of my life’s accumulated clutter, even an old bed headboard with mattress roped onto the roof. Other indispensable junk that survived the moving cleanup had already made the trip north, to our new home, Salem, Oregon.

Leaving California, I passed the new Oregon welcome sign. The governor had recently changed it from “Welcome To Oregon”, to “Welcome To Oregon Enjoy Your Visit”.

As my car traversed the turns in Oregon’s timbered hills in the Cascade Range, I looked up and saw a passenger jet high above, also heading north. My ant sized car to them probably included others like me, part of another periodic wave of lemmings taking their California home equity to Oregon. Like most of my fellow lemmings, we were scurrying to an economic cliff.

I’d just resigned from the best job I’d ever had, previously or subsequently, Senior Appraiser at Santa Clara County Assessor’s office. Not only did it pay well, have expansive health care benefits, an overly generous retirement plan, 4 weeks of annually vacation, so many holidays it was difficult to keep track of them, sign out privileges, mileage reimbursement checks, job security, a designated parking space, Id’ just been promoted to "Senior Appraiser", a position 28 others had vied for but only I had gotten.

Why leave an employment pinnacle? Like most life’s major change decisions, it was complicated. Proposition 13, recently passed by irate California taxpayers, fundamentally changed my job, our 5-year prior home purchase had drastically increased in home equity, the local grade school had recently closed, the agricultural Santa Clara Valley I grew up had morphed into Silicone Valley, but those were excuses.

The truth, at age 34, I was old, 4 years past the age Jerry Rubin said one could be trusted. I wanted to stay young, to seek adventure, move to the mythical Oregon, a place the governor advertised as, “Please visit, but don’t stay”.

In Oregon, I did experience new adventures including facing the edge of an economic cliff. Unlike most of my fellow lemmings, however, I didn’t fall into the abyss, but the view was an adventure I'd rather have missed.

The wife and kids were already in the brand-new house we purchased with 50% down using only half of our cashed-out California equity. It was in a subdivision called Dorchester on a Salem hill, nick named California Hill by locals due to the number of fellow California lemmings who relocated there. It housed ex-Californians but also up and coming locals, especially nouveau riche construction contractors who developed nests for the lemmings.

The only cautionary sign was our purchase price. The original subdivision developer had gone bankrupt. The new developer built cheap and flipped houses for a quick profit.

Unlike many fellow lemmings who came to start the business they’d dreamed to do; I had a job. I'd been hired as a commercial appraiser by the Marion County Assessor’s Office after exaggerating my appraisal background, limited to appraising residential properties.

Salem’s economy was heavily influenced by state government employees, a staid group socially awaiting government retirement. They were conservative socially, leftist politically, economically thrifty due to modest salaries and provincial.

Unlike California where few were state natives, most were not only born in Oregon but so were their parents and grandparents. They appeared reserved enough to be perceived as unfriendly by outsiders but were probably simply awkward when confronted with strange foreigners, especially Californians.

California Hill was different. It was hip. The neighbors congregated at backyard barbecues, drank beer and wine while the steaks cooked, even in the rain and had football and basketball TV viewing parties. It was a hearty party, almost like California suburbia. Within 2 months we were “established”. The kids were in school, the house was filled with new furniture, I had a job, friends were made, we were settled. The new Oregon adventure was a cake walk.

Unknowingly, we were at the edge of an economic cliff, an abyss.

Although hired by the chief appraiser of Marion County I didn’t understand some “little things” about my new job. The major adjustment was my paycheck, 40% less than Santa Clara County’s. It was the little unanticipated adjustments that shocked.

The assessor's office was not computerized because it didn’t have a computer. Mathematical calculations were done on mechanical devices.

Long-distance phone calls were forbidden. The punishment for making one was dismissal. Unfortunately, some areas of the county required a long-distance phone call to contact. The result was, to meet a property owner outside the local calling area, required the long walk to one’s car, a drive out to the distant area and a cold call with no way of knowing if the property owner would be there.

There was no need for the Assessor to worry about improper use of the office copy machine. It was in the county clerk’s office. You got the Assessor’s written permission and then had the county clerk make a copy for you.

I was required to drive a car to work to inspect property but had no assigned parking space. The city, to encourage downtown shopping, forbid on street parking for those employed downtown with a legion of parking police to hunt down violators. I had to park my car almost a mile away from the office, an office that was an abandoned service station.

There was one last irritant arriving at work, a major one, a big old maid card, Bruce. Bruce was a fellow commercial appraiser who took the governor’s saying, "Visit, don’t stay", personally. He hated Californians who relocated to “his” Oregon. He was not alone. “Natives” like Bruce, born in Oregon, whose ancestors came by covered wagon, killed the Indians, and stole their land, considered outsiders a direct threat to “their” Oregon, especially if they were from California, like me. It did no good to protest I was born in Wisconsin, I had California stamped on me because I grew up there.

The natives were correct. Oregon was changing, changing rapidly with immigrant lemmings like me upsetting the established culture. My questioning why I didn’t have an assigned parking space and bringing up other observed office inanities, Bruce took as personal insults against “his” Oregon. If I made a perceived condescending question about the office or Oregon, he would start a conversation about the demise of the "real" Oregon because of foreigners.

Bruce got emotional over little things like politics, had personal enemies, and people on his enemies list who he punished with high assessed values and resulting property taxes for property they owned.

I had mixed feelings toward Bruce. On my Christian cheek, I felt sorry for him. He obviously was upset about what was happening, was correct his world was disappearing, and I did like Oregon the way it was despite not having an assigned parking space, a flaw I could overlook. His rants s and raving were obvious character weaknesses of an unstable mind facing collapse of “his” world. It caused him stomach indigestion.

My pagan cheek, however, spared back against his anti-Californian innuendos. No, in hindsight, I tormented Bruce.

When he could overhear, I’d point out little stupidities of provincial Oregon as exhibited in the assessor’s office. Unlike California’s assessor mapping book system, Oregon had a hodgepodge of assessor maps to identify parcels, originally keyed off survey Townships that had been subdivided incomprehensibly. Someone in the mapping department had tried to reorganize this with new parcel numbers but only came up with a system that was even more complex.

I needled Bruce, the assessor’s mapping had enough potential parcel numbers it could subdivide all of Oregon, all of USA, and even the solar system into 6,000 square foot lots.

My best torment was when he made a comment about Oregon’s pioneers and California’s 49ers gold. He proclaimed, “Oregon was settled by people who wanted to work hard for the good life. Those who wanted to get rich quick skedaddled off to California for the gold.”

I replied, “Bruce, that’s an interesting point. It explains why Oregon’s population is a little slow mentally. It has experienced a brain drain, those smart, skedaddled to California and the dim witted stayed behind.”

Oregon Assessors, like in California, are elected by the voters. Due to civil service protection laws, the Assessor has difficulty firing an employee after they got past their 3-month probation period. In California this included the chief appraiser but not in Oregon.

In Oregon, the chief appraiser was a political, unprotected position. Shortly after I arrived, the November election resulted in a new assessor and, therefore, a new chief appraiser, in January.

The new assessor was a retired military officer. I figured he couldn’t be worse than the old one who required his signature to use the copy machine but worried about who he would pick as chief appraiser, a replacement from the one who hired me.

Until January, I adjusted to the office inanity, awaited for my new boss, and contemplated the possibility of getting a designated parking space.

In January the new Assessor was installed. I attempted to cotton up to him, but he was aloof. It was evident he was more interested in double dipping his military retirement pension than running the assessor’s office except for a particular secretary who was promoted to his personal assistant.

He didn’t make any other changes except selecting a new chief appraiser, one who worked on his campaign to get elected and who was the commercial appraiser supervisor. He was a county employee lifer, interested primarily in topping off his retirement status with a couple more years of county employment.

In turn, he promoted Bruce as the commercial appraisal supervisor. Suddenly Bruce was my boss.

My first thought was, In one more week I’ll have civil service status and he can’t fire me without cause which I’ll not give him.

My first response was to congratulate him, a complement that fell on deaf ears.

With kids and house payment, I sweated out a week of uncertainty. My hope was even if he tried to fire me the paperwork would take a week.

I don’t know if he was unaware of the week of my vulnerability, but it passed. I had civil service protection status. Perhaps he thought firing me would be too quick a punishment and it would be better to do a longer-term torture. I didn't care. I was still able to make house payments.

My work experience became more unpleasant Lack of a designated parking space a forgotten irritant. Bruce’s revenge was his personal close observation of everything I did. He sent me out to inspect and value every odd commercial property in the county and then follow up with his second review, looking for an error. He was trying to build up a case for my dismissal.

Interstate-5 had recently bypassed US Highway 99 West that traversed through Salem, north to south. The northern section, known as Portland Road, was strewn with bypassed motels and restaurants. With new competition developed at Salem’ I-5 interchanges, this strip commercial development devolved into Salem’s location for tawdriness. As often happens, government law enforcement has difficulty keeping up with social mores change. In the 1960’s there was a sexual revolution. By the 1970’s sex had won, and Portland Road exhibited adult book stores/video arcades and street walkers.

Bruce sent me out to reappraise all the bypassed motels and restaurants. This was an iffy assignment that required calculating value loss due to being bypassed from north/south throughfare traffic versus inflation appreciation by decline of US dollar because of the USA losing the Vietnam War. There were even those who openly attempted to cash in on lax law enforcement. One enterprising couple converted an abandoned store into what they euphemistically named, The Oar House. When I showed up with my tape measure and clip board to inspect changes, the men in the waiting room got up and left.

I attempted t be polite, the “madam” was a pleasant, married, middle aged woman who also owned a magic shop in downtown Salem. She suspected my appraisal inspection was a ruse for an odd perversion but with my appraisal card and her calling her husband I was allowed to do my inspection. I just did exterior measurements and told her I didn’t need to inspect the cubicles although I worried Brue would follow up and say I was derelict for not doing so.

On Portland Road I even did a little favor for a young mom who was attempting to start an old restaurant in one that had closed. After I’d left my card, she’d called her father who called me. He explained his daughter always dreamed of having a restaurant, had managed to get a low rent lease due to the state of Portland Road but had no experience in managing people or accounting and to be” kind to her”. Again at risk of Bruce’s follow-up I bent the value down which turned out to be accurate as within a a couple of years her father’s hunch turned out to be accurate, the restaurant closed and was torn down despite low assessed taxes.

There was also a nearby amusement park, Enchanted Fores, a theme park for children with little houses, rides, and mythical things to match the imagination of children as well as their parents, an Oregon type Disneyland.

As expected, the assessor’s existing improvement card was a scramble of rough improvement descriptions. Bruce sent me out to, “clear it all up”. I knew if I missed a plaster and cement mushroom or ride measurement, it was grounds for Bruce to seek action for my firing. I suspect, 45 years later, my improvement descriptions are still on that appraisal card, a testament to Marion County Assessor’s detailed and accurate improvement descriptions.

I don’t know if Bruce checked on the interior measurement of the Oar House or question my valuation of the mom restaurant but slowly his birddogging me eased.

The hardest part of working under my new supervisor was not his bird dogging me. It was biting my tongue to keep my conversations at least neutral and not give what I considered one of my insightful and insulting repartee’s.

The conversations in the California hill barbecues, however, had changed significantly. The number one industry in Oregon supposedly timber or agriculture was something else, California equity. The lemmings who pulled out their home equity and relocated to Oregon dropped more money into Oregon’s economy than anything else.

In 1979 the California lemming rush ceased. The new subdivision homes and business park buildings built for their arrival sat vacant. Neighborhood contractors, who had made piles of money in the 70s at first didn’t panic. The opined, “Gee, 79 was a disaster, but 80 is going to be a gang buster.” Unfortunately, it was a gang buster, for their gang, as they went broke. Oregon spiraled downward into a California equity depression. It devolved to the point the contractor across the street from our house sold first his 1978 continental kit, Seville Cadillac, then his 1938 restored Chevy coop with rear trunk rumble seat, then his 1956 T-Bird convertible with detachable had top porthole windows, and finally his house at a takeover mortgage price, Salem’s population declined until 1985.

Our house, we thought we stole at $65,000 dropped in value. How much we couldn’t tell because houses simply didn’t sell. One contractor sold out his new subdivision of homes by street auction for $25,000 to $30,000 per home. He was one who got out before things got even worse.

Me, we still had half our California equity while other lemmings who started businesses were flushed back to California, broke.

I calculated scurrying back to the Santa Clara County Assessor’s office with my tail between my legs. Fortunately, I hadn’t burned any bridges there. The numbers, however, didn’t look good. Home values in California had continued to increase and what I sold for $90,000 would cost over $100,00. Property taxes would be triple what I was paying before due to Proposition 13. I would start as a bottom level appraiser at low pay grad versus what I was paid as a senior appraiser, all bitter pills.

It wasn’t the cost, however, that made me cling to my precarious Oregon perch. It was pride. How could I return as the fool who abandoned the perfect job, just after his promotion, to fall off an Oregon economic cliff and scurry back to paradise lost? I couldn’t do it as long as I still had a job and some California equity left.

By the summer Bruce and my relationship had solidified into a standoff. I kept my mouth shut, avoided him and he avoided me after he tired of bird dogging me and not finding grounds for my firing.

I did look for another job away from the assessor’s office, but the economy was so bad, a position advertised in the newspaper for janitor at a nursing home resulted in a 2-block long line of job seekers early the next morning.

Meanwhile, Bruce’s stomach acted up. He decided he was going to “retire”, not a government funded retirement, he was too young, and not due to disability, his ailments were psychological not physical. Instead, his wife had started a secretarial business that despite the local economy was doing very well. He could retire comfortably as her office manager.

With Bruce no longer bird dogging me, even forgetting about my existence in the office, I turned the Christian cheek and tried to help him in his “retirement”.

Bruce had everything set up for his “retirement” with the last workday calculated. His biggest concern was health care. The county provided health care insurance, but his wife’s business health care insurance was expensive and inferior. Adding him as manager significantly increased the health care cost due to their being a middle-aged couple.

After Bruce announced what would be his last day at the assessor’s office, I asked how he was taking his accrued vacation days. He looked at me as the office dunce and replied, “They are writing me a big check!”

Slowly I explained to him he would be better off “retiring” after using his accrued vacation days instead of getting a lump sum because he would extend his health insurance coverage while on vacation and best of all he would earn a more vacation days while on vacation.

He perked up and had me repeat it. By the third time he was smiling. It was the first time he took me seriously. I was glad to help him.

He jumped up from his swivel chair and hurried over to the personnel office to work things out and adjust his official retirement date. When he came back, all smiles, he proclaimed it was even better. He could use a few sick days while on vacation and if he stayed working before vacation for two more days, he could extend his medical coverage another 3 months and earn another 3 days of vacation time. I thought he was pigging out but bit my tongue. I was pleased for him, well, pleased he was leaving.

So it was, he had to stay 2 more days at work than expected to pig out on vacation and medical coverage benefits. Those 2 days turned out to be Monday and Tuesday at the start of September. That Monday was also when we got our mileage reimbursement check for July.

I didn’t see Bruce Monday morning. He was gallivanting around the courthouse doing his goodbyes. It wasn’t until about 11 AM he rushed into the appraiser’s office; his face twisted into a rage of indignation. He strode to my desk, slammed down my July mileage reimbursement check of $18.25, and screamed, “Your mileage reported for this check is a God Damn lie!”

He then stomped to the chief appraiser’s office and exclaimed I needed to be fired for fraud by turning in a false millage reimbursement claim, a bold attempt to steal money from the county.

The chief appraiser, politically astute, was calm. He was not going to let anything interfere with his soon-to-be golden years. He was just going to follow procedure, whatever that was.

Procedure came down to the mileage I reported for inspecting commercial properties on Portland Road in Salem, a distance, at most, of 5 miles from the courthouse. I’d reported 18 miles, about 8 miles more than expected for a round trip. At 35 cents per mile, the milage reimbursement amount in question was $2.80.

Then I realized he was only there because I’d helped him come up with a way to finagle money out of the county with my suggestion by taking his vacation time as vacation instead of as a lump sum and to pig out, he’d needed to work 2 additional days! How could I be so stupid?

I couldn’t, however, think of why I’d claimed 18 miles instead of 10. I did know, I was careful to record exactly what miles I’d driven, at least while Bruce was still around.

Bruce stared down at me, his smile a smug, "At last, I got you!" The chief appraiser waffled and waited for me to come up with an excuse. I racked my brain and then it hit me. The Portland Road interchange with Interstate-5 only went north, not south. I assumed the shortest return to the courthouse after leaving the north end of Portland Road was to take the Interstate and return south toward the courthouse using I-5. Instead, once on I-5 I had to drive 4 miles north to the next freeway interchange and return to the courthouse. That was the missing 8 miles.

I looked up and smirked back at Bruce, turned away, and looked sincerely at the chief appraiser. I detailed and embellished my driving error assumption about the I-5 interchange, apologized for my being a recent California refugee who still had to learn the nuances of local traffic patterns, and offered to forego the $2.80. My last words were, “My mileage report is accurate, not a fraud but perhaps there is an honest error.”

The chief appraiser smiled. I don't know if he thought it was a clever lie or true, I suspect the former, but I also suspect he was relieved not to have to do the paperwork to fire s me. He replied, “Let me think about it. Don’t change the mileage reported. It’d cost the county more to adjust the amount than $2.80.” His way of saying, FORGET IT.

Bruce’s smirk turned into a snarl as he sulked off. He was only a ghost haunting the office the next day, his last day.

At lunch I went to the courthouse telephone booth and called a headhunter in Portland. I had searched for other employment in Salem. There was nothing. I told the headhunter I’d take any job, even sales representative, my bottom rung of acceptable employment.

After listening to my qualifications she said, “Well, how about real estate appraiser”.

I replied, “Sure, like that's something you got, real estate appraiser. Please, I’m serious.”

She said,” I got a request for a real estate appraiser. It's the only time I've seen this type of job search requested. It pays almost double what you’re making now. Are you interested or not?”

I exclaimed, "I'm interested, I’m interested!"

She scheduled an employment interview. It was with a national appraisal company, Marshall and Stevens. They appraised major real estate nationally. I exaggerated my work experience, they hired me, I gave my 2 weeks’ notice to Marion County Assessor's office, and started on another adventure, one that covered the USA with assignments from Purdue Bay Alaska to Miami, Florida.

It's starting salary was much as I was making at Santa Clara County and included a designated parking space. I’d drawn a lucky wild card.

Author Notes: Author discovers luck is more important than brains.

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jim brown
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24 Feb, 2024
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19 mins
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