Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Assassination attempt foiled by telephone operator

Felicia Harris, a long distance telephone operator in Oakland, Calif., kept a disgruntled ex-Marine talking for more than an hour until police could trace his call and arrest him at his home for threatening the life of President Richard Nixon in 1969.

Harris, 24, a former Pendleton resident and 1963 graduate of McEwen High School in Athena, was working for Pacific Telephone Co. while saving money to attend California State College at Hayward. She had spent several summers working for Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Co. in Pendleton before moving to the Bay Area in 1968.

She received a phone call at 4:30 p.m. on July 23, 1969, from a man who asked a lot of questions about where President Nixon would appear in San Francisco before departing on a world tour. When she asked him why he wanted to hear the president, the man replied, “I don’t want to hear him. I want to see him. I’m very seriously considering taking a shot at him. I intend to kill the President.”

Harris kept him talking while signaling her supervisor, who called police. They plugged in to the line and Harris kept the man on the phone for an hour and 15 minutes while police and the Secret Service traced the call to an Oakland home. The man, George R. Donohue, 28, was still on the line with Harris when he was arrested. Officers also found a .22 caliber rifle loaded with 17 rounds of ammunition at Donohue’s home.

Donohue told Harris he was a former Marine facing a dishonorable discharge, that his marriage had failed and that he felt he would never be accepted by society. “That’s when he started talking about the ‘little guys like Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan’ doing something in life to gain recognition. He said he wanted to make himself famous and I guess that could have done it all right,” said Harris.

During his arraignment Donohue denied threatening President Nixon, saying he had discussed shooting the president with Harris but that was different than making threats. He was ordered held for psychiatric evaluation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Unique phone lines connected early Helix residents

The tiny town of Helix in Eastern Oregon has always gone its own way. Isolated among wheat fields 17 miles northeast of Pendleton, Helix boasted just 189 residents at the 2010 census. Besides farming, the largest employer in town is Helix School. And the town has maintained its own privately owned telephone company since the 1930s, which currently offers local, long distance and Internet service to its customers. But even before Helix Telephone Company was incorporated, the farming community had its own telephone system using lines that connected every family in the area: barbed wire fencing.

In March of 1903, the East Oregonian reported that Helix was planning to expand its phone service to residents in the area. Owners of phones along the eight lines centering in Helix, with a switchboard in the office of Dr. Lyman Griswold, planned to form an unincorporated company to secure better service and establish rules for the expansion of the phone system.

Dr. Griswold was happy to serve as switchboard operator whenever he was in the office, which apparently wasn’t that often. The patrons of each line met to propose a charge of 50 cents per month for every phone user, the funds to be used to pay a permanent switchboard operator. A second switchboard also was to be installed in order to expand the system from eight lines to 16, increasing the system from 46 to 150 phones by the fall of 1903.

In early 1903 the Helix phone system connected with just Athena and Adams, and though the transmissions ran through barbed wire, it was said that “a whisper can be heard 17 miles away when the weather is favorable.” Plans were already afoot for expansion to Canyon Station to the south and Wallula to the north even before the new lines were installed.

The smallest telephone company in Oregon with less than 300 access lines, Helix Telephone Company has been owned by the Gene and Betty Smith family since 1972. The current owners are sons James and Timothy Smith, who took over the business when their parents retired in 1998.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Local tribes revive Fourth of July tradition

For many years, Bill Burke wondered why, up until about 1952, the local tribes threw a big Fourth of July celebration every year. “Certainly, we didn’t have any independence,” he said. He recalled how agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs prohibited the Indians on the Umatilla Indian Reservation from speaking their native languages or practicing their native culture. Burke, son of famed chief Clarence Burke, remembered those celebrations from his youth, which included horse and foot races, spear-throwing and other contests, and dancing and drumming that lasted well into the night.

The older Burke got, the more he realized that the Fourth of July celebrations on the reservation weren’t really commemorating America’s independence at all, but were a form of subterfuge — pretending to join in the national holiday while actually celebrating their tribal heritage. “Unbeknownst to the BIA, we were able to continue traditional ways of life — story telling, speech making, the games. The BIA thought, ‘Well, look at these Indians, they are becoming civilized and they’re even willing to celebrate our nation’s birth.’”

The first of these celebrations took place at Cayuse, but eventually the activities moved closer to the BIA campus in what is now Mission when some of the non-Indian residents of the reservation started getting nervous about the dancing, whooping, drumming and rifle fire. A ring of trees circled the “July grounds,” where a big tent was set up for traditional activities: children receiving their Indian names, dancing, drumming, singing, giveaways, memorials and the rejoining of family members who had mourned the loss of a loved one for the previous year.

The annual event began to dwindle in the 1940s and early ’50s, when the men went to war and the women to work. The sacred circle of trees gradually began to disappear, overtaken by encroaching building projects and brush.

In 1992, after Burke’s annual Thanksgiving feast, he brought out a large pad of paper and invited elders to talk about the old July grounds, the activities and where families camped inside the circle of trees. They also discussed a memorial for all tribal members who had served in the armed forces.

On July 1, 1993, tent poles started going up on the old July grounds near the Mission Longhouse for the first Fourth of July celebration on the reservation in 40 years, including a horse parade and giveaway to rededicate the circle of trees, a communal feast and naming ceremony and, of course, customary dancing and drumming into the night. Tribal elder Ron Pond said reviving the celebration would show respect for their tribal heritage in a world influenced by the commercialism of the “modern-day pow-wow.”

After the construction of Wildhorse Resort and Casino in 1994, portions of the annual event were moved to the resort’s grass arena and the three-day event expanded to include dancing and drumming contests open to Indians from across the U.S., while still retaining traditional observances on the July grounds for local tribes — a blending of the old and the new.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Pendleton native turned actor dies in fiery crash

Archie Twitchell was a local boy who made it to the big time. Born in Pendleton in 1906, Twitchell graduated from Pendleton High School and then made his way to Hollywood, with a goal to act in Western movies as a rider.

In his first attempt to break into the business, a casting director laughed him off the set, but called him back when he saw Twitchell’s Pendleton High School belt and asked if he had ridden in the Pendleton Round-Up. His pride bruised, Twitchell said “Yes” and then walked off the premises.

For the next 10 years Twitchell worked at odd jobs, everything from working a boiler on a steam freighter to butlering for director William Wyler, before landing a job in the film laboratory at Paramount. His fast-talking style earned him bit parts in several pictures, but it took being knocked almost unconscious to set his career on the upswing. In “Souls of the Sea” Twitchell allowed himself to be knocked from a lifeboat and into the water by Gary Cooper, and director Henry Hathaway was impressed with his natural acting ability.

Twitchell worked as an actor in Hollywood from 1937 through the mid-1950s, most notably in “Young Bill Hickock,” “Black Angel” and “The Vanishing Outpost.” He retired from acting in 1955 and put his pilot’s license to work for Douglas Aircraft.

On a clear day over Pacoima, California, on Jan. 31, 1957, a Douglas DC-7B transport plane on a test flight collided with an Air Force fighter and crashed into the Pacoima Congregational Church. As pilot William Carr struggled to control the plane, Twitchell, the copilot, transmitted the last radio message:

“Uncontrollable, uncontrollable ... midair collision. ... We are going in. ... We’ve had it, boys. I told you we should have had chutes.” A brief silence, then: “Say goodbye to everybody.”

The fighter pilot parachuted to safety. All four crewmembers of the transport plane died in the wreckage. Part of one of the DC-7B’s engines crashed through the roof of the church auditorium, destroying the building. Next door to the church, debris from the crash fell into the schoolyard of Pacoima Junior High School, killing three boys.

One of the school’s pupils that avoided the Pacoima crash was ninth-grader Richard Steven Valenzuela, who was attending his grandfather’s funeral that day. Because of the incident at his school, he developed an intense fear of flying. Ironically, Valenzuela (AKA Richie Valens) died just three days after the second anniversary of the Pacoima crash — along with fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and pilot Roger Peterson — in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.