OFFBEAT OREGON HISTORY: A weekly newspaper column that has evolved into a suite of public-history resources, including:

  • ... a daily podcast
  • ... a weekly RSS feed
  • ... a Facebook page
  • ... a Tumblr feed
  • ... a calendar of live history shows in pubs
  • ... a browsable Web archive (352 columns, at last count)

It's accessed through an anchor page, linked here.



WICKED PORTLAND: A book about the late-1800s underworld of Portland, Oregon, including ...

  • ... Rascally politicians
  • ... Saloons and gambling dens
  • ... Naughty ladies of every description
  • ... Shanghai artists and their victims (and would-be victims)
  • ... Corrupt cops and mayors
  • ... The world's dumbest-ever drug smugglers

Published by The History Press in June 2012. Here's a link to the "lost chapter" (cut from the book for lack of space); the main web site for the book is here.



PULP-LIT PRODUCTIONS is a publishing house in which I am principal partner. It specializes in annotated editions of pulp-fiction classics. Titles published to date include The John Carter of Mars Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs and The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard. Upcoming projects include The Tarzan of the Apes Duology (October 2015) and The Lost Continent (December 2015), both by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and The Novels and Novellas of H.P. Lovecraft (March 2016).

The details are here.



MISCELLANEOUS WRITINGS: Some published, some not, accessed through a table of contents, here.

The airplane pictured above, by the way, is the one featured in this story, which is one of the best things I've ever written. Do check it out.



ABOUT ME: Everything you need to know, and a bunch of extra stuff you don't, about Yours Truly.




How I learned to stop worrying and love cruise ships

An account of a family vacation involving in-laws, which seems a lot funnier now that it's over

By Finn J.D. John

“We can’t do the cruise ship,” Natalie told me. “It’s too expensive.”

I feigned a coughing fit to disguise my involuntary whoop of joy.

The fact is, I’ve spent much of my life sneering at cruise ships. I’ve always thought they were big, expensive hotels with scenery outside the windows that occasionally changed – great for lazy slobs who wanted to eat their weight at the breakfast buffet every morning and lie around a tiny swimming pool on padded reclining deck chairs while pretending they were having an adventure, but not for Real Adventure Types like me. The idea of betraying those long-cherished beliefs had not been very appealing to me. Now, it seemed, I could rest easy: I wouldn’t have to.

Fortunately, one has to book cruise ships more than a week or two in advance, or one gets the “special” rate. The “special” rate is roughly equivalent to the bonus I would be getting this month if I had helped sink A.I.G. Financial Services.

So we were on to Plan B: A sun-dappled, relaxing driving vacation on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Gorgeous scenery. Picturesque ferry boats. Two-hour sunsets. What could go wrong?

What, indeed? As it turned out, rather a lot. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The cruise had been intended to be a family thing. In addition to me and Natalie and our 8-year-old boy, Nate, we’d invited my not-yet-aged-but-getting-there dad – and my mother-in-law, who is of a slightly younger vintage.

I had no idea what a bad combination that was going to turn out to be. Although, looking back on it, I should have.

The first thing we did was pile all our camping gear and ourselves into Dad’s van. He’d generously volunteered the van for the trip, saving us all the expense of renting one. We all thought this was great until, seven hours into the journey, we realized that he had no intention of letting anyone else drive it. Finally, exhausted and bleary-eyed, he made a reluctant exception and let me take the wheel.

On our way up the Sunshine Coast, we were having a great time – everyone pleased to be shaking off the routine. We stopped at parks. At a swimming dock, Nate watched a youngster with a piece of salami and a big fish hook use it to bait in salmon fry. We wolfed down bad food at a hot-dog stand in the park and listened to an amazingly effeminate man with a badly amplified electric guitar delivering the worst version of “Tiptoe through the Tulips” I’ve ever heard – which is saying something. (When he started into a watery Elton John standard, we fled.)

Then we hopped a ferry for Vancouver Island and our campsite. This was in a campground called Miracle Bay.

Natalie and I later agreed that Miracle Bay was indeed the scene of a miracle that day -- specifically, the lack of bloodshed. The clouds had already started to gather. My dad and my mother-in-law liked each other at the time, but that was mostly because they didn’t know each other very well.

It was becoming clear that they held radically different philosophies of child care. Dad, who had just bought Nate a copy of “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” was horrified when Pauline ordered the strapping 8-year-old lad not to go near the outside rail of the ferry and then loudly asked him, in front of a big deck full of strangers, if he had to “go potty, honey?” Pauline, in turn, was horrified when Dad loudly (and a little maliciously) opined that he ought to be walking to school by himself, down sidewalks no doubt thick with bushy-haired strangers.

Mercifully, motion sickness and knee pain came to our rescue and drove Pauline below decks. Dad was also afflicted with bad knees, but he gutted it out so he could stand on the foredeck in the wind, where we wondered if he were trying to pretend he wasn’t with us.

But the peace and quiet was not to last. Before the end of the day, something awful happened:

We arrived at our campsite.

Now, you must understand, Dad has always been the quintessential camp Nazi. Here, he was in his element. When my brother and I were small, he always kept our sound volume under strict control and sent us forth to collect garbage from adjoining campsites before we left. The thought that anyone would think he was party to any kind of inconsiderate or inconvenient camp behavior would mortify him. This was never a problem when he was the family patriarch, fully empowered to bark out orders and run a tight ship. Now, however, things were different – but his habits weren’t.

I first realized we were in trouble when, returning from the cooler with two bottles of Molson in his hands, he reacted with horror to the sight of me toasting a marshmallow on a green alder branch.

You know that mortified, strangled whisper that people use when they want to shout, but don’t want the neighbors to know anything’s wrong? The one parents use to order their naked toddlers to come in off the front lawn and put some clothes on? Well, Dad deployed that whisper now.

“Finn!” he croaked. “We don’t cut green wood in a campground!”

“Oh,” I said breezily, “it’s a blowdown from a storm, hasn’t died yet. Right over there. Want me to get you one?”

“But – but – people will see it and THINK we’re the kind of people who would cut green wood in a campground!”

I felt the smile drain away from my face. He handed me a beer, sat down with his and stared intently at me, waiting for compliance. I realized he was serious. I finished my marshmallow and threw my stick into the bushes.

A few minutes later, Natalie chucked an ice-cream wrapper into the fire.

“Natalie!” Dad croaked in the same whisper. “We don’t throw GARBAGE in the campfire!”

“What?” said Natalie, looking surprised. “But it’s all paper; it burns.”

“But it makes the fire ugly!”

Natalie stopped looking surprised and started looking mad.

Not really knowing what else to do or say, we all stared into the fire for a few minutes.

Then Pauline came out from behind the tent and set up the coup de grace for the evening:

“Can somebody drive me to the bathroom?” she asked.

The bathroom, I should add, was a good quarter-mile away, and all four of the knees of our elders were giving them trouble.

I knew how Dad felt about the van. Despite its advanced age and state of decay, it was his pride and joy, and he was obviously uncomfortable when I was driving it. So I waited for him to speak first.

I didn’t have long to wait. “No,” he snarled. “I think it’s ridiculous, starting up a car to drive to the bathroom.”

The silence only lasted about three-quarters of a second, but it hung pretty heavy while it was there.

“Okay then,” I chirped with as much phony cheerfulness as I could cough up. “I’ll do it.”

Three pairs of wrathful eyes swiveled and skewered me like a museum specimen.

Then Dad directed his gaze once again at the campfire, into which he had been moodily glowering. Natalie rolled her eyes and shook her head, collected Nate and left Dad by the fire there. And Pauline tightened her jaw, shook her head and made her way slowly toward the van with the peculiar rolling gait that she develops when her knees get to really bothering her.

We drove to the bathrooms. When we got back ten minutes later, Dad looked like he hadn’t moved, but most of his beer was gone.

Dad, who must have spent the time plotting his revenge, turned to Pauline and got started immediately:

“Do you know what your president said now?” he demanded – meaning then-President George W. Bush.

Dad, I should tell you, is a hard-core evangelical atheist who is convinced that Religion is an Evil Force that has been responsible for every drop of blood spilled in this crazy world since (and including) Noah’s Alleged Flood. It had apparently come to his attention that my mother-in-law is a devout member of the Westside Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, and from this nugget of data he’d vaulted fearlessly to the conclusion that she was one of those wicked Christian Right people who had voted for Bush. As it happened, she had not, but it scarcely mattered.

At that point, Dad thought a couple Christian jokes would be just the ticket to get belly laughs out of the entire company.

A short heated discussion ensued, followed by a long and uncomfortable silence. The debate ended in a clear victory for the forces of chaos and lack of sleep, because by bedtime the hostility in the air was bothering everyone – especially Nate. I, who had forgotten to bring the machine that stops me from snoring, bedded down in the van, which Dad seemed to think was an act of altruism worthy of the bravest martyr, forced upon me by my selfish wife and mother-in-law. In fact, as I tried to point out, it was much more comfortable than the tent, especially  because little Nate, upset by all the rancor between his beloved Grandpa and his equally precious Grandma, couldn’t sleep until 1 a.m. and kept Natalie and Pauline awake with nervous, worried chatter the whole time. When he finally did sleep, nightmares kept waking him up. Throughout the whole time, the sound of my contented snoring rattling the van’s windows kept them constantly reminded that somebody was getting a good night’s sleep – just not them. And throughout the whole time, Dad lay awake stewing about how inconsiderate it was for Nate to be talking after 10 p.m. in a campground, and wondering why those girls didn’t make him shut up.

No, things did not improve on the second day. Nor, yet, the third. I still am not quite sure how we survived. But finally, we were out of the campground and on our way to Victoria.

There, things started off poorly. Pauline, Natalie, Dad and Nate went to the room while I parked the van. As Natalie describes it, the dialogue went something like this:

“Oh, cool!” Nate yelled. “I can see for miles!”

“Yes,” said Dad. “Look down there, Nate, you can see the Empress Hotel.”

“Do – do you – can we get something on the first or second floor?” Pauline quavered, ignoring Nate and Dad and speaking directly to the hotel clerk.

Well, luckily they did not. We ended up on the seventh floor, high enough to scare Pauline but low enough to not be able to see much of anything and well within earshot of a lively nightclub across the street. Once again, our crotchety elders sulked themselves to sleep.

But the next day Natalie and I took action. Natalie took charge of her mother, and I took charge of my dad. Nate elected to go with the girls, and they went to Chinatown and took a tour on one of those double-decker British Daimler buses; Dad and I rented a canoe and paddled around, then sat at a brew-pub nursing pints. Pauline could talk of nothing but what a crotchety old goat my dad was; Dad had trouble getting off the subject of what a smothery old biddy Pauline was.

Neither one of them could walk more than six blocks, so that limited our options pretty sharply.

Nevertheless, by the time our three days in Victoria were over, so were most of the hostilities.

But on the long, sulky  drive home, I had plenty of time to think about what we should have done with our vacation.

My vision involved an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, some padded reclining deck chairs and some scenery slipping by the stateroom window.

That’s why you’ll never hear me talking smack about cruise ships, or the people who sail on them, ever again.

(Note: Most of the dialogue in this story is not exact, because I was not taking notes at the time. However, it closely corresponds to what was actually spoken and the story conveyed here is not fictional.)