Alley and his shoelaces
By Minnie (Smith) Stombaugh
Canyon Road was only a two-lane road when Dad and his friend built our house in 1937. Years before, in about 1918, large wood planks were laid for the bed of the road to connect Portlanders with the valley west of the city. At least three ferry roads had long since been cut: Boones, Scholls and Taylors. Canyon Road not only gave more direct access to the valley but also to the developing town of Beaverton. The four-lane road was paved with concrete shortly before the Second World War, but it narrowed to two lanes at Sunset Road, which today is 91st Avenue. This new road replaced the narrow, windy, blacktopped road that is called Canyon Drive today and starts just west of Sylvan and ends at West Slope.
ODOT calls Canyon Road Highway 8, and it became the main road into Portland to deliver many troops during the Second World War. Some troops were going to the Army Air Force Base that was at the Portland Airport, while others were going to a ship docked on the Willamette near downtown. Four of my siblings and I liked to sit out on our front lawn and wave at the soldiers as they drove by. Some were large groups in a truck, others might be in a convoy of various jeeps and other military vehicles. The soldiers always returned our waved greetings and sometimes even gave a loud whistle. They made our day! They were on their way to war to protect us from the enemy! Maybe they would meet my oldest brother, Ralph Smith, who was already there.
But this thoroughfare was also attractive to homeless people traveling on foot. We called them bums in those days, and they sometimes stopped at our house to ask for food or money. I only remember one such man as he returned various times. His name was Alley and in my youthful, limited experience I thought he was so named because I was told that was where he slept sometimes. So I knew how to spell his name.
To earn a little money he sold shoelaces from a cloth bag with a shoulder strap for easy carrying. He would sit at our dining table and count his inventory of various sizes and colored laces. He was kind of whiskery and generally unkempt, as you might expect, and he was a bit gruff and scary to this little girl. But not so much so that I didn’t think up a bit of mischief.
Dad had built us a little playhouse out back that doubled as a doghouse for Ginger, our reddish haired chow mix. The hut, as we called it, was probably about four feet wide by seven feet long and the ceiling was at about five feet. Some of us never got any taller than that, so it was okay. Dad even built an upstairs that was maybe four feet high in the peak of the gable. What’s more, we even had electric lights! Just pull the string. Dad was an electrical engineer so it wouldn’t be a surprise that we had a master switch in the house so we could turn off the light in the playhouse.
If Alley asked to stay the night, we would let him sleep in the little playhouse, cramped though it was for a man nearly six feet tall. It had to be better than sleeping in an alley. Ginger must have slept in a box in our dirt-floor basement on such occasions.
Had Alley done anything to bring out the worst in me? I was probably supposed to be in bed asleep, but I went to the back window where I could see that Alley had the light on in the playhouse. The master switch was right by that window, and I turned it off! Alley rather crawled out of the small doorway bent over and looking around. He pulled the string a couple of times. I turned the light back on. He went back in. That was so much fun I did it a few more times before I decided to avoid trouble. Sometimes my Dad would say I was looking for a scab on my nose.
I don’t remember how many times Alley came to our house. Maybe it was only a few times that one summer. But he got to being too bossy with my Mom, demanding coffee which we didn’t normally have, and so on. Dad finally told him not to come back.
Nonetheless, my parents continued helping people as they came by until about 1970, giving food or a change of clothing, or a bath, a place to sleep for a night. They had little to give, but didn’t let that keep them from doing something to help those who had nothing.