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Finding a way through it all

Weeks ago, I had scheduled a column for today about the early days in the town of Phoenix, a settlement then known affectionately by valley residents as Gasburg.

Because of the recent devastating fire, except for a brief introduction to Kate Clayton, the original column will wait for another day.

Kate was a “talkative gal.” You might call her the original Chatty Kathy.

In the 1850s, just across from Wait’s Mill in Phoenix, Kate would ramble on so much while serving meals to the hardworking mill hands that the boys soon were calling her “Gassy Kate.”

In the slang of the day, gassy was a nonstop chatterbox, and thanks to Kate’s natural “gassiness,” Phoenix spent decades unofficially known throughout the entire state as Gasburg.

It was Sylvester Wait, Kate’s boss, who officially named the town Phoenix. Ironically, he named it after a fire insurance company.

That Phoenix residents now face such unfathomable tragedy rips at the heart of anyone who received the Level 3, “Go!” order and left their home, knowing they might never see home again.

Many of us were lucky, including my wife and me. After a week of wandering through three different locations, we finally came home.

A few of the Phoenix stories I covered as a reporter, or wrote about in columns over the years, still bring back vivid memories of Phoenix people and places.

There were trips to locate or just view historical sites, such as Camp Baker, where, during the Civil War, David Hobart Taylor and the valley’s Union soldiers mustered into service and trained.

We located Camp Stuart in the area of Colver Road Park, where Army Captain James Stuart died in 1851 after a chance encounter with local Indians. He was buried under an oak tree at the side of the trail that Phoenix residents call Main Street.

Nothing nails Phoenix in my memory more than the people I met and their lives they shared with me.

There was pain in the voice of Jerry Greer, owner of the historic Colver House, while he described waking up in 2008 to a raging midnight fire that forced him and his wife to leap from a second-story window. At the time, before the fire destroyed it, the 153-year-old Colver House was the second-oldest building in Jackson County, and perhaps in Southern Oregon.

I remember the big laugh of Dorothy Claflin and the twinkle in her eyes as she joked about moving the Phoenix Historical Society building next to the Phoenix Cemetery. “We’ve got our own plot in the cemetery, now,” she said.

Dorothy introduced me to her husband, Cecil, an Army sergeant and a WWII German prisoner of war who was also blessed with an unpretentious sense of humor. “I didn’t spend a long time in the camp,” Cecil said, “but it sure wasn’t at all like ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’”

As we spoke, Cecil’s eyes seemed to travel back over 60 years to remember things he had hardly ever talked about and perhaps had hidden from his memory.

He told me how he volunteered to take the place of a B-25 crew member who had a dental emergency. They flew over Italy on their way to a bombing target in Germany. Ground fire hit one of the plane’s engines, and Cecil remembered the propeller flying away.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I sure hope it hits a German.’”

He made the first and last parachute jump of his life and was captured. He was taken through the barbed-wire gates of Stalag XIII-D, near Nuremberg, home to nearly 20,000 Allied prisoners.

When he returned to Phoenix, he learned his Marine brother, Lynn, had been killed on Iwo Jima.

I asked Cecil how he was able to endure it.

“Well, there’s nothing much you could do,” he said. “You just have to find a way to get through it all.”

Dorothy and Cecil now rest together in the Phoenix Cemetery.

While many may talk of Phoenix rising from the ashes like the bird of legend, I still remember Cecil’s words and know that Phoenix and the rest of us will somehow “find a way to get through it all.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.