s.w.g. continued/day two

There are some actions that can often be interpreted as an open invitation for communication. For instance, you can stand on a street corner for hours and nobody will talk to you, but if you stand there reading a map someone will probably approach you within minutes to ask if you are lost. Walking a cute dog has similar effects- people barely even glance at me if I am just walking around by myself, but I used to have a roommate who had a dog that I would take for walks, and on those walks it seemed like people couldn’t help but to talk to me.
Entering the world with a movie camera is also a similar action, but in a different sort of way. Having a camera and filming something makes the statement that you are interested, and many attention starved people see that as an opportunity to tell you why you should be interested in them. Sometimes they are just really lonely, sometimes they’re just really drunk, and sometimes they are totally creepy. But often times they are truly interesting, or at least truly weird in the good sort of way. Like an 80-year-old guy named Easton DeHart I meet in Houma, Louisiana a couple years when I was down there shooting my doc ‘American Nutria’. Easton was a retired marine who now served as the town’s Alligator Nuisance wrangler. He was known as the “Alligator Man” and if you ever woke up one morning and found an alligator in your swimming pool, Easton was the man you would call. I met him while I was filming some trappers trap Nutria, and he invited me to spend a day with him looking for alligators. We checked the sewage treatment plant, the city dump, and all the places he regularly gets called to go to. We never actually found any alligators, but he talked all day about how you catch them and what you do with them after you catch them. He was an 80 year old who seemed more like a 13 year old, and I almost decided to just make a movie about him and forget about the Nutria.
But anyhow, here I am now out in Eastern Oregon, driving around in search of the perfect ghost town. This morning I stopped in a little town called Hardman, which was a bustling farming town in the late 1800s but today has more abandoned buildings than residents. There are four very old store-front type buildings on the main street, three of which have nearly caved in on themselves while the forth has had just enough renovation to keep it standing and serve as an occasional community center. There are probably twenty houses, half of which are abandoned and decayed beyond the point of return, and I’ll guess that there are about 20 residents or so still living in the town.
hardman_1.jpg
hardman.jpg
I parked the Red Baron and got out to look around. It was a little creepy – the town felt completely vacant, but a few of the houses and trailers clearly looked lived in, even though they were in really bad shape. It was hard to tell what was a driveway and what was a public street, and it felt like I just stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
The quiet morning was broken by a couple dogs that started barking at me, so I figured I might as well just reveal myself and set up the tripod and let anyone who cared know that I was just some city slicker with a fancy camera here to take some pictures. I’m sure they’ve seen the likes of me before, as these old weathered buildings attract guys like me the same way bees are attracted to BBQ sauce. I walked around and set up for a couple different shots and started to feel more comfortable when suddenly I heard someone calling out from just behind me. I turned around and saw a little old man in the yard behind me motioning to me to come closer. It was pretty windy and hard to hear what he was saying, but it was apparent he wanted me to come in. I walked through the gate and he started talking about how he’d bet me 100 nickels that he had something that ‘I ain’t ever seen before’ and that I needed to come in his house to check out the wood burning stove in his bathroom. I followed him inside the old, poorly maintained house, and sure enough there was a wood-burning stove in his bathroom. It was true that I had never seen a wood-burning stove in a bathroom before, or if I had I certainly hadn’t thought about it. The old man introduced himself as Mel, and while it was very difficult to understand what he was saying I made out that he was 74 years old and had lived in Hardman for the past thirty some years. He spoke in a loud, almost shouting voice, and then as if he had been reading my blog, he told me that Hardman was a ghost town, and since he lived there that made him a ghost. I told him that in that case I better take his picture.
hardman_mel1.jpg
I wasn’t sure, but he seemed to be speaking in rhyme, or at least have little poetic outbursts that ended like songs. He motioned me to follow him into the living room where he wanted to show me a picture of himself when he was younger, so I followed him into the living room where a Fear Factor re-run was playing on an old television set that was placed in front of an old tattered couch. The TV reception was bad, and on the wall behind the couch were several framed letters and pictures including a painted portrait of Mel wearing an Army helmet and looking about 30 years old. He talked about how he served in Korea, but then started talking about the time he worked at the animal shelter in Boardman (a bigger town probably 40 miles away). He seemed to be still talking in rhyme, almost like he was a 74-year-old version of Eminem, and by now I realized he was pretty drunk. He took his spot on the couch and filled up his glass with the last drops from a jug of Boones he had stashed under the coffee table while he explained how he preferred whiskey. Mel continued to point to things in his house, like a giant pair of bull horns mounted on the wall, and tell me all about them, but I could tell I needed to get out of there quick. Crazy old men who live out in the middle of nowhere are always really interesting, but if you let them talk long enough they’ll often start to reveal a whole lot of information you just don’t want to hear. Once the really bad sexist or racial epitaphs start flying I take that as my cue to get a move on.
I stayed for a few more minutes and then announced that I should hit the road. Mel wished me luck and told me to come back and visit again sometime. I shot a little more film in Hardman, but the high-noon sun was approaching and the light started getting a little too flat, so I fired up the ol’ Red Barron and headed off towards the John Day river to make some lunch and maybe go for a plunge.
hardman_mel2.jpg

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17 Responses to s.w.g. continued/day two

  1. Rob W. says:

    I was writing something about John Day and apparently what drew many Chinese there was gold mining not railroads, so there were probably some pop up mining towns. Run down hot springs too at soak.net.

  2. robin says:

    Once I spent a weekend at a strange little motel on a bluff in Mitchell, Oregon. While not literally a ghost town, it is pretty awesome & strange. There is a live bear who lives in the middle of town in a huge cage. I asked this guy Clem who was at the diner how it came to pass that a bear moved into town. Apparently there was a wealthy man in town who hunted bears for many years. Then, something changed in his heart and he didn’t want to shoot bears anymore and so he built this huge cage out of logs and trapped a bear and put it there. The bear subsists on candy that visitors to the town (if you can even call it that) feed it from the convenience store. Sad AND true. Clem sings old folk songs in the diner nightly, which is the main entertainment in town. Highly recommended.

  3. piu piu says:

    that man is so creepy. i can almost smell that house. he’d make a totally fascinating film, all to himself… if you could bear the proximity to him

    • Connie Hammons says:

      I realize you made this comment many years ago. I hope you have grown up since then. It may seem like a moot point, but I feel compelled to reply. That “creepy” old man is my dad. He was going through the worst time of his life. He was lonely, sick and frail. I hope that when you are going through the worst time of your life and are unable to make a good impression on strangers, that someone does NOT come along and hurt the ones that love you by belittling you. You never know what other people are going through. Remember the golden rule. By-the-way, I think the name you chose for yourself really fits because, “piu piu”, your attitude is what stinks!

  4. dalas v says:

    the best part is his skull chalice.

  5. I don’t know if I’d call him creepy. I mean, he probably is creepy, but I think sad and lonely also has to be fit in there as well. very very strange situation, that’s for sure.

  6. piu piu says:

    i don’t know… he looks like he’s having fun

  7. Chris says:

    I found this site just messing around on the internet and googling things out of boredom and here I come across a picture of my grandpa, yep that crazy old drunk is my mom’s dad. I lived in that house with him for a few months until we moved just up the road. I lived there with my parents (Jeanine and Ernie), sister (Jen), aunt (Glo), 3 cousins (Beth, Sarah, and Mike) and uncle (Nate) from 7 years old until I was about 9. Oh and Mel’s real name was Melvin. Hardman was as boring as you could imagine but we made our own fun, playing in abandoned houses or climbing the gravel pit at the edge of town, staying up late and telling ghost stories about the old cemetery. I miss those days, they were simple and you always had time for family, but I’ll never give up my high speed internet ^_^

  8. Heather says:

    He is also someone’s Grandfather… You shouldn’t be so quick to judge and there is no reason to be so harsh. You never know, that could be you someday :).

  9. Matt McCormick says:

    Hi Chris and Heather,

    Moments like this reassure my amazement in the internet. While writing and posting this story about my adventures in Hardman over 7 years ago, I am happy to see it still draws some bit of attention. If he is still around I hope Mel is doing well, and Heather I am sorry if you felt I was being harsh or judgmental. Regardless, I am glad a connection was made, and any updates on either Mel or Hardman are very much welcome- I haven’t been out there since I wrote this post, back in 2006.

    Take care, and thanks for the comments.
    -Matt

    • Connie Hammons says:

      Matt,
      I admire your work. The pictures in this article are conceptional. You started out on the right track. It would have been a much more compelling story if you would have taken just a little more time to discover that Mel was not going to begin firing those racial or sexist slurs you feared. You might have found out that he not only served in the Air Force during the Korean war in the early 1950s, but that he remained in the reserves and joined the National Guard serving a total of almost 20 years. He was in Germany during Desert Storm.
      Melvin only had a sixth grade education, but he got his GED and went to Barber College. He opened Barber shops in Heppner and Pendelton. He was a member of several civic organizations, including the Elks, American Legion and VFW. And he wasn’t racist or sexist. He hired a woman barber when he was off to serve in the military and paid her the same that he would have paid a man. He had friends of every race.
      He had his faults, but couldn’t you have painted him in a better light? He always told us, “Be good to each other because you never know when it is the last time we will ever be together.” Another thing he always said was,
      “Don’t judge someone until you walk a mile in their moccasins”.
      The kennels he worked at with his wife Margaret was called the Douglas County Humane Society and is located in Roseburg. It is now called Saving Grace. He loved animals and spent hours filming the wildlife around his house along with cattle drives and sunsets. He called it Quite Time and would whisper to the camera as he captured the interesting sights.
      Yes, Mel was talking in rhymes. He still does. He used to play the guitar and make up great songs on the fly. He even played and sang at the Hardman Hall.
      These are just a few facts that come to my mind as I write about my father. Imagine how much more I could tell. Imagine what he could have told you, had you taken a bit more time and asked the right questions. Just like all of us, Melvin Hammons is a fascinating and dynamic human being. Again, your story could have been so much more compelling if you would have taken the time to flesh out his character and then written it in such a way that people would want to look him up and have him make up a song about them.
      You don’t know this, but you made quite an impression on my dad. He talked about your visit for a long time. And he painted you in the best light possible. I always thought that I’d like to have you come and do a story about me. Wasn’t that a kind thing for my father to do?

    • Connie Hammons says:

      I am new to Facebook and shocked at the liberties people take when shielded by the faceless anonymity. I may not be wise to the ways of the internet, but I know human nature. May I suggest you read How To Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age. This is an up-to-date version of the old standard. I don not recommend this in jest or sarcastically, but with a genuine belief that you are a nice person who would welcome a few pointers to help show your better side.
      The following is a post I meant to send to you and sent to another person by mistake….

      I am the daughter of Melvin Hammons. I sit here at my computer crying. I cry from the surprise I felt at finding this article about my dad via Facebook. I cry from outrage at the unkind things people said about him. I cry at the sweet memories people wrote about. And I cry at the sadness of the whole thing. Don’t people realize that every “strange” person they hear about or see in a picture is real and there are people out there that know and love them? Don’t they know that their comments may be read? There is always a story behind that strange picture. We all suffer from heartache and loneliness and, eventually old age and all the suffering that goes with it.

      Yes, Melvin Hammons of the ghost town of Hardman, Oregon did drink too much at times. He was a broken old man who suffered from loneliness and depression. He refused to leave his home until he had to. He was unkept and so was his old house.

      When he finally consented to come to Roseburg and live with me he weighed little more than a hundred pounds. And, yes, he claimed to be 100 years old, just as he has for decades.

      Twenty some years ago, my two sisters, Jeanine and Glorene, and my brother-in-law, Ernie had a tavern in Heppner. Some hunters from Portland were sitting at the bar with Daddy. He bet them a beer that he was a hundred years old. He was only in his sixties at the time so they could tell he was bluffing and took him up on the bet. In order to prove his point Melvin said, “Just ask the bartender.” They asked Jeanine (Melvin’s youngest daughter) who promptly affirmed, “Melvin Hammons, he’s a hundred years old!” The hunters said that he must have put her up to it, so he told them to ask the other bartender. Glorene (Melvin’s middle daughter) confirmed it with, “Who, Mel Hammons? Why he’s a hundred years old!” One of the hunters asked the disc-jockey (Melvin’s son-in-law, Ernie) and was asked, “Are you talking about, Melvin Hammons? He’s a hundred years old!” Just then Melvin saw Nathan (his son) walk in the backdoor and go into the restroom. He turned to the two hunters and loudly proclaimed, “Just ask the next person who comes down that hall. If they don’t say that I am a hundred, I’ll buy you both a beer.” In a moment, Nathan emerged. They asked him and he answered, “Melvin Hammons, he’s a hundred years old!” I don’t think the hunters ever found out who they were dealing with, but my dad had plenty of laughs and fun and, of course, beer.

      Daddy has been with for over two years. I fattened him up and bought him a total of three scooters which he road all over the neighborhood. He loved waiving to people as they walked or drove by. We took lots of rides in the country in the van. He loved watching the big plazma TV, playing cards and singing the old songs.

      Now, our dad is 81. That seems young after he has been a hundred for so long. He has been very ill for months. He has lost all the weight he gained and can’t walk anymore. It won’t be long before he is gone. We will miss him.

  10. Chris says:

    I don’t think you were being harsh, I love Mel to death, and as long as he’s sober I couldn’t ask for a better grandpa. He always had time for us kids, taking us out shooting or teaching me to drive his old beat up pickup, and he swears he’s 100 years old, that mans been 100yo for the last 23 years ^_^. After his wife Margret died life in Hardman became very lonely (hence the bottle of Boones), we would come out to visit whenever possible but in such an isolated town there isn’t much (anything) to do. So when you showed up that’s all grandpa would talk about for days, he was glad he got to tell some stories to a fresh pair of ears (even if he trails off and sometimes doesn’t make much sense or maybe throws in a few extra expletives). As of today Mel now lives in Roseberg with his daughter Connie who has been dutifully taking care of him as his health fades, we thought we lost him about 2 weeks ago due to an infection in his legs but it takes more then that to keep ol’ Mel down. Mel’s son Nathan now lives in his old house, the floors are bare floorboards and the walls are stuffed with news papers, I think grandpa’s strength of will is the only thing keeping that house from collapsing. Hardman hasn’t changed at all since your visit, even less people live there now then back in 2006 but that’s about it.

    • Connie Hammons says:

      My name is Connie Hammons. I am the daughter of Melvin Hammons. I sit here at my computer crying. I cry from the surprise I felt at finding this article about my dad via Facebook. I cry from outrage at the unkind things people said about him. I cry at the sweet memories people wrote about. And I cry at the sadness of the whole thing. Don’t people realize that every “strange” person they hear about or see in a picture is real and there are people out there that know and love them? Don’t they know that their comments may be read? There is always a story behind that strange picture. We all suffer from heartache and loneliness and, eventually old age and all the suffering that goes with it.

      Yes, Melvin Hammons of the ghost town of Hardman, Oregon did drink too much at times. He was a broken old man who suffered from loneliness and depression. He refused to leave his home until he had to. He was unkept and so was his old house.

      When he finally consented to come to Roseburg and live with me he weighed little more than a hundred pounds. And, yes, he claimed to be 100 years old, just as he has for decades.

      Twenty some years ago, my two sisters, Jeanine and Glorene, and my brother-in-law, Ernie had a tavern in Heppner. Some hunters from Portland were sitting at the bar with Daddy. He bet them a beer that he was a hundred years old. He was only in his sixties at the time so they could tell he was bluffing and took him up on the bet. In order to prove his point Melvin said, “Just ask the bartender.” They asked Jeanine (Melvin’s youngest daughter) who promptly affirmed, “Melvin Hammons, he’s a hundred years old!” The hunters said that he must have put her up to it, so he told them to ask the other bartender. Glorene (Melvin’s middle daughter) confirmed it with, “Who, Mel Hammons? Why he’s a hundred years old!” One of the hunters asked the disc-jockey (Melvin’s son-in-law, Ernie) and was asked, “Are you talking about, Melvin Hammons? He’s a hundred years old!” Just then Melvin saw Nathan (his son) walk in the backdoor and go into the restroom. He turned to the two hunters and loudly proclaimed, “Just ask the next person who comes down that hall. If they don’t say that I am a hundred, I’ll buy you both a beer.” In a moment, Nathan emerged. They asked him and he answered, “Melvin Hammons, he’s a hundred years old!” I don’t think the hunters ever found out who they were dealing with, but my dad had plenty of laughs and fun and, of course, beer.

      Daddy has been with for over two years. I fattened him up and bought him a total of three scooters which he road all over the neighborhood. He loved waiving to people as they walked or drove by. We took lots of rides in the country in the van. He loved watching the big plazma TV, playing cards and singing the old songs.

      Now, our dad is 81. That seems young after he has been a hundred for so long. He has been very ill for months. He has lost all the weight he gained and can’t walk anymore. It won’t be long before he is gone. We will miss him.

      • Connie Hammons, I stumbled across this blog by looking up pictures of Hardman. I have wanted to visit for years because I photograph ghost towns. Every time I would look up Hardman online I saw the picture of your father but I didn’t read any further until tonight. I think your father is a beautiful human and I admire his way of life. Living in the middle of nowhere has always been something Ive aspired. Every time I go to a small town or ghost town with still some people living there, every person I meet is amazing unique individual. Your Father and the beautiful stories you have told above have totally touched my heart. I love listening to old men and women who have been living out in the country tell their stories. Im planning on visiting Hardman in the next few weeks, I will think of you and your father while visiting this beautiful little town. Don’t listen to what people say they don’t think before they talk and they don’t even know what they are talking about in the first place. I loved reading the stories you wrote about your father and wish both of you the best!

  11. Chaska Carlile says:

    I love that old man, when I was 8 years old I lived in this creepy ghost town. With a abussive father. And I am so surprised to find this blog, I can remmember sittin with Melvin on that very same couch. Melvin was a great man and he was also very funny. Today june 17th 2014 I find out that a loving man with a great heart. Has passed away B.I.P. Ball In Paradise. Old man I love you. Connie I don’t know if you remmember me or if you will ever see this. But I would like to meet you again.

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