Why Read Screen Saver?

Some fairly serious shit has happened in the last sixty years. As fate would have it, I was fairly close to the central point of a lot of it - albeit in some cases only briefly; shit it seems, has a fairly long half life. As time passed I found it increasingly difficult -impossible really - to turn off the continued remembrance of the events and places and people that inhabited the story boards of the movie-like flow of the events of those sixty years. They just wouldn’t leave me alone. So I have written it, and them, all down.  And all that writing has become a book.


One bookend of the story is my involvement in the "war effort", as we called the Vietnam debacle. The other is my involvement with the near demise of IBM. Between those bookends there lurk a wide variety of people, experiences and events that always seemed, as they appeared and as they occurred, to be coherently additive to the total story.


Ultimately the book serves as the answer to a question: “was anyone among us paying any attention to what it was that happened during all those years so swiftly and recently gone?”

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Sample Content And Reader Comments

  • Paris December 2008
  • Morning Birds
  • The Rungsat
  • Rocketry
  • The Bovil Run
  • Never was in combat
  • Captain Cochon
  • The Duck Hunt
  • GHC
  • Hell's Gate
  • Thunks at Dawn
  • Quilt Residents
  • Death I
  • Death II
  • Paris Je T'Aime I
  • At The Ho Ti
  • Readers' Comments

What follows is constructed as if it were a movie, not a book. It is a series of scenes, but scenes made of words, not of moving images.  Those scenes have been selected to tell a tale.  The only requirement I have attempted to serve is to tell that tale; coherence if there be any is purely unintentional.

Noel McKeehan December 2008

One spring morning when I was young, I awoke very early.  It was barely light.  I wasn’t accustomed to being awake at that time of day, so it took me a moment to realize what I was hearing.  There was an almost deafening sound. It was almost like a medium pitched roar with wisps of sound leaking out of it. It was the sound of myriad birds, all chirping at random, all singing their morning songs.  I had never heard anything like it.  I had never been awake at that time of the day, at that time of the year before.  Closer listening revealed that there was a sort of order to the sound.  Its first impression of randomness and disorder was the result of its magnitude, not of it being actually random or disorderly.  Concentrating intently, I could hear the call of one robin.  It was the call that my grandmother always described as “calling for rain”.  Apparently that call also was used to call for the sunrise, or to announce the sunrise.  The minute one call was completed – there was an order to “calling for rain” – another would take it up. Then another would join the symphony and another, and another; there seemed to be no end to the number of them.  It was a sound that I was to remember every now and then for my entire life.  I could re-create it in my head whenever I remembered it.  And that re-creation always was accompanied by a disbelief that anything that loud could be the result of the gray and black and red-breasted residents of the neighborhood lawns, trees and roof tops; that anything that loud could have ever actually existed; that anything that loud could be anything but the exaggerated memory of a young boy awake before his wont and subject to flights of fancy.  But I could always make it happen again in my head.  I could even hear the different birds.

I made it happen on the morning that I wrote about this memory.  It was one spring morning when I was no longer young.  It was still dark.  I lay motionless hoping to go back to sleep soon, but listening – perhaps unconsciously, but listening.  I realized that I had slipped back to sleep when I was brought abruptly awake by the “pop” of some component of the house.  The house liked to express itself during the early morning hours with intermittent popping noises.  Sometimes they were single; sometimes they were multiple.  But they never seemed to happen except at that time of the dawn when I had come awake briefly and had, just as briefly, dropped back to sleep.  They seemed intended to keep me, once awake, awake for the day.  The house seemed to want me to be up and about, turning on lights, making coffee and doing other house friendly things.  I always resisted, indulging in multiple episodes of dropping back to sleep.  Ultimately the house always tired of the game and I got a few more hours of sleep.  But this morning the house was more tenacious than usual.  We had been playing the dropping and popping game for some time when one of the pops just preceded a different sound.  Light was beginning to come through the closed blinds, casting little shafts through their downward turned slats, slightly illuminating the top of the dresser, which spanned the window.  I knew that dawn was coming.

The sound was the morning song of a single robin.  Or maybe it was calling for rain.   I waited to hear a second.  After a little time I heard it.  I waited for a third, hoping to then hear a fourth, fifth and so on up to the myriad driven roar of childhood memory.  I almost stopped breathing, waiting for the crescendo of the morning song roar to exist in fact, not just in my head.  But I never heard the third.  I listened to the back and forth of the duet and wondered what had happened to me, besides getting older, that had caused me to no longer hear in reality the almost deafening sound that I could create in my head, that I could remember, that I loved and wished to hear again in reality.  And I knew it wasn’t me.  I knew it because as age had caused dawn awakenings to be the norm in my life I had listened in vain for the hallelujah spring chorus on countless other early dawns; I had to be content with a duet or occasionally a trio.  But I could play in my mind’s ear, in tandem with what was left of a once glorious sound, that roar from one spring morning when I was young, and awoke very early.

Memories are fleeting things.  They can be real or they can be imagined; but if they are imagined, they are indistinguishable from real.

I could remember a birthday party. I saw with utter clarity what occurred.  If it happened I couldn’t have been more than four years old. Was it possible to remember so far back? 

I could remember the day Al Jolson died.  I couldn’t remember a year or even, really, a place attached to this memory. What I actually remembered was the effect the event had on my mother.  She was morose and tearful for days.  I was too young to know who Al Jolson was – the event must have occurred not long after the birthday party - but I was intensely aware, from her reaction, how much this person must have meant to her.  And she was very important to me. It followed that Al Jolson was important to me.

I could remember the day Babe Ruth died.  That must have been 1948. I remembered the event as having to do with running boards.  My mother let some of the kids in the neighborhood ride on the running boards of our pre World War Two second hand car when she drove slowly through the neighborhood. That must have been Ballard. We moved from Ballard in 1949, so Babe Ruth must have died previously. On that day my mother didn’t let the neighborhood kids ride on the running boards.  She was too upset. She reacted similarly to her reaction to Al Jolson’s death.  I had no idea who Babe Ruth was, but he was important to my mother, so he was important to me.

I could remember sometime in the summer of 1952 watching my mother start shouting and jumping up and down so actively that the floor lamp in our Portland apartment began to oscillate on a 15 left 15 right degree axis. She was listening to the radio.  Some state delegation had just switched all of its votes to Eisenhower for the Republican presidential nomination at the Republican convention.  I didn’t know who Eisenhower was, but he was important to my mother, so he became important to me. From that day politics became important to me.


Memories are phantoms. They are like a computer with its screensaver set to “my pictures”.  They are an everlasting, random flow of ever-changing images. 

My friend Jack had come to Saigon from Nha Bey, a Navy Huey base 20 miles or so south of Saigon.  It was his “day off”.  Jack flew pretty much anything, but his prime mission at Nha Bey was to fly Huey gunships.  Before he finished his tour he had flown so many missions that  he had more oak leaf clusters than could be fitted on his Air Medal Ribbon.  And he was only shot down three times.  And he never lost a crew member.

Nha Bey was a sand spit protruding into the water somewhere near where the Saigon River became one with the Delta.  The Delta was, from a military viewpoint, an anomaly.  It wasn’t dry land.  It wasn’t sea or even a particularly navigable inland water way.  It wasn’t coastline because it was inland.  It was a place from which an unknown but certainly significant number of “the enemy” conducted hostile activities and launched hostilities into drier parts of the country.  They lived there as amphibious creatures of the Delta.

In the American military nobody really wanted the Delta.  The Marines and the Army had dry land, and the Army additionally got to fly untold numbers of Hueys either configured as gunships or configured as “slicks” as medical evacuation Hueys were called. The Navy had the waters off the coast and they got to fly a wide variety of aircraft off of their aircraft carriers, mostly combat aircraft, but also some reconnaissance and miscellaneous types (like search and rescue).  The Coast Guard got to guard the coast.  And the Air Force got to fly combat aircraft all over the place.

So no one lacked for an opportunity to take the best possible career advantage from “the only war we had”.  No one wanted the Delta, but no one was willing to give it up.  So everybody got it.  To keep that assignment from being more of a goat rodeo than most military operations were, the whole thing was coordinated by the Commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone.  I never knew how to spell “Rungsat” and never knew if it was an acronym or an allusion to some obscure deity.  The commander was a Navy Ensign who was housed at Nha Bey.  Even a fairly uninformed person would probably wonder why the commander of a multi service operations area would be the most junior of officers.  Jack and I wondered that also.  The only answer we could figure out was (and why was it a Navy Officer) that in Navy Personnel the billet had come up, and since no one had ever heard of the Rungsat they had assigned the first name they could get: a junior officer graduating from Air Intelligence School at Lowry AFB in


 Denver. Lowry trained both Air Force and Navy officers to be Air Intelligence officers, even if the navy people got assigned to Seal units.

The Commander of the Rungsat Special Strike Zone was named Jim.  Jim was something of an entrepreneur in the way he approached the job of Commander RSSZ, and that was good.  It was good because, since no one had known what the Zone was when he got the assignment, there were no directives or standard operating procedures.  If there had been directives and standard operating procedures nothing much would ever have happened.  A lesser man confronted with the same set of circumstances might have gone catatonic – I would have, for example.  But Jim just came in and started inventing things as he went along. He appeared to invent things on the basis of their entertainment value.  By the time I got to Nha Bey the RSSZ could be described as a caliphate, albeit a military one. 

On the evening that I had first met Jim he was in a room full of mainly Vietnamese, presumably mostly on our side, and a few American enlisted men from various branches of the military.  They were all treating Jim like something of an overlord.  Except for the modern electronics and lighting it could have been in a castle in 13th century France.

I was introduced and Jim briefed  me (since I was a fellow Air Intelligence Officer and Lowry graduate) on the composition of his command, its mission, as he perceived it and the meaning of the various blinking multi-colored lights on the huge room-dominating map in front of which he stood.

“For example, if we got word of hostile activity here” and he pointed with his pre laser pointer era wooden pointer at one of the blinking lights, “I would call F100s out of Ton Son Nhut”.  And he nodded to one of his Vietnamese vassals.  The vassal had telecom contact of some kind with something because almost immediately after his speaking into a microphone the air above us was split with high speed, low flying jet aircraft.  Moments later the blinking light turned red and stopped blinking.  I was dazzled.

Not long after this encounter Jim was disappeared and replaced with a Navy Commander.

By the time I was a junior in high school Sputnik and some of its children had gone into orbit, as had at least one Explorer.  Before the US had finally gotten Explorer I successfully into orbit there had been a whole series of embarrassing, very public, failed attempts at launching our first earth satellite. This included Vanguard zero, which blew up on the launch pad.  (Since official histories mention only Vanguard One which was finally successfully launched in March 1958, its failed predecessor must have been number zero.)  The whole spectacle of the germinating space race between the Soviet Union and the United States caught my undivided attention.  Rockets fascinated me. All the factors involved in getting something into orbit fascinated me. All the factors involved in getting something into deep space fascinated me.  I started reading everything I could find on the subject. Information such as the fact that the Vanguard rocket was really just a remanufactured German V2, and that the V2 was really only a bigger version of Robert Goddard’s rocket fascinated me.  Robert Goddard was an American and he had had the first documented launch of a liquid fuel rocket.  The Germans adopted his rocket motor and wrapped it in a sleek artillery shell like package and might have won the war if Hitler had really understood the thing, or if the Germans had had enough of them, even without Hitler’s understanding.

All of this interest quickly metamorphosed into a development project.  I wanted to build a rocket.  My friend Jack got interested.  We both wanted to build a rocket.  By the time we had abandoned the project I had learned a great deal about getting a metal tube to shoot into the air.  I had learned what proportional mix of zinc and sulfur could be readily ignited with a heated filament.  I had learned that a heavy duty 1.5 volt dry cell – a lantern battery – didn’t have enough power to travel down a section of electrical wire long enough to allow the human at its terminus to be a prudent distance from the rocket and heat a thin copper coil.  I had learned that the battery did have enough power to heat a piece of filament of steel wool twisted between my thumb and forefinger into a consolidated filament.  I had learned that the most certain way to ignite the zinc and sulfur was to put the steel wool filament into a shallow container of match heads cut from several books of safety matches, and to place this container under the terminal orifice of the rocket.  The filament ignited the match heads and the match heads ignited the zinc and sulphur. I had learned that igniting a zinc and sulfur filled open ended aluminum tube created a spectacular green flash of fire and a lot of smoke.  I learned that to make the spectacular green flash of fire cause any upward thrust it had to be concentrated in some way.  I had learned that no matter how strong a tape you used to attach fins to the rocket it would not keep them attached in the event of a successful liftoff.  I had learned that the level of rocketry I was indulging in didn’t even require fins.  I had learned the same lesson about taping a nose cone onto an aluminum tube.  I had learned that, like fins, the level of rocketry I was indulging in didn’t even require a nose cone.  I had learned that a blunt cap on the tube would suffice as long as it could contain the force of the sulfur and zinc ignition.  I had learned that an empty CO2 cartridge made a beautifully aerodynamic container for rocket fuel.  I had learned that filling one of these cartridges with zinc and sulfur mix and igniting it tore the cylinder to pieces.  I had  learned that filling one of these cartridges with match heads cut from several books of matches and igniting it created a force sufficient to send the cylinder a long way in some direction, but not sufficient to tear it to pieces. I had learned that putting the cylinder in one end of an open-ended aluminum tube could control the direction in which it went. I had learned that I could use my battery/wire/filament/match heads-in-a-shallow-container technology to ignite one of these devices.  In short, by the time I was a junior in high school I had built a working model of a mortar or a bazooka.  Whether a mortar or a bazooka depended upon how you pointed the aluminum tube.

One early spring evening of my junior year in high school I found myself bored.  My friends Joe and Frenchy were also bored.  Frenchy’s real name was Patrick.  He had been a transplant to Portland from The Dalles where his father had worked as an engineer on The Dalles Dam.  He had come to Central Catholic High School in his sophomore year.  He lived in the same neighborhood as Robert and Joe and I, and several other friends from school, so he took the same bus.  In fact most of the Central Catholic bus takers started out at the same bus stop when going home from school.  Several parts of the city were served from that one bus stop.  So Jack was at that stop also.  So Jack and Joe and Robert and I met Pat at the same time at the bus stop.  One of the things Pat had told us about himself was that he was taking French.  To the rest of us who were all taking Latin this seemed like an extreme oddity.  As a result when we were talking about “the new guy” later, and none of us could remember his name, somebody referred to him as “Frenchy”.  It took him several years to get us to call him Pat.  At one point even his mother was calling him Frenchy.

Anyway, during the Frenchy-era the three of us had found ourselves together one evening and mutually at loose ends about what might be fun or interesting to do.  The mortar was a device known to all three of us because all three of us had participated in varying degrees in the rocket development project.  I had been more of the research and development component and they, along with jack had been more the launch observation and recovery component, with me supplying the ignition technology.

We had decided that it would be fun to go shoot some projectiles at Madeleine, the grade school Joe and I had attended.

We had gotten ready at Joe’s house prior to departing.  Preparations had included making several steel wool filaments, making sure that the 150 feet of electrical wire was not tangled too badly and putting the battery and launch tube in an athletic bag.  It had also included cutting the heads off numerous books of safety matches, enough to fill four empty CO2 cartridges with enough left over to use with the ignition pan, and populating several additional empties and ignition pans if we wanted to go beyond four shots. Since there was some noise and a flash of light associated with each launch we thought four might be the upper limit of launches that prudence would allow.  We always shot the device with prudence, or so we told ourselves.

So when we got to the school we were almost set up. The only thing left to do was to walk around the perimeter of the whole wooded launching area to see it there were any late night strollers on the sidewalks below the hill or any other type of activity that would affect the prudence of our intended launches.  The launching area was a sloping vacant lot with a stand of Douglas Firs across Klickitat Street from the school.  Everything was clear.

It was too dark to see where the cartridges were going to land, and they were too small to see in any event if they got as far as the intended target, which was the school building.  But the initial explosion, the flash and the metallic “bing” “bing” ‘bing” of the cartridge hitting something, even if we couldn’t be sure it was the school building, was sufficient entertainment. We launched all four cartridges.  We were standing there discussing the merits of populating a couple more projectiles with fuel when a car rounded the corner on 24th and Klickitat.  We moved forward a little bit from our equipment to shield it from view.  The darkness was already doing a good job of being a shield but we just wanted to be sure.  The car was moving quite slowly.  As it came opposite to us it stopped.  At this point one of my companions said “George”.

George the Cop was a combination urban legend and bane of teenagers.  He was not a real cop because he was on somebody’s private payroll - some neighborhood association probably.  He did wear a cop uniform.  It was blue and he had a badge, and most of all he had a flashlight.  As the car stopped he rolled down the window and pointed his megawatt cop flashlight at us.  We stood our ground taking the deer in the headlights approach to the situation.  My indignation quotient was rising at an alarming rate.  That indignation was fostered by my self-serving view that all George could possibly see was three guys standing in a vacant lot looking out at street and, probably, talking.  It was a nice spring night and kids ought to be able to do that without having cops shine flashlights in their faces.  It helped my indignation that the car had come into view several minutes after the last projectile launch.

He didn’t say anything, turned off the flashlight, rolled up the window and started moving up Klickitat toward 23rd.  Somehow, that was more than I could stand. He had committed a minor traffic infraction, invaded our space without justification, and then hadn’t even said “good evening” when he decided we were OK, or at least not a problem.  Something snapped.

He was about half the distance to 23rd when I started following.  Joe and Frenchy asked me what I was doing.  I just started walking after the car, which was traveling at a cop crawl and started shaking my fist at him and yelling.  Afterwards I never could remember what I was yelling. I may not have known at the time.  That state of affairs lasted a surprisingly long time.  I was in pursuit as the car turned right on 23rd and up until it stopped somewhere adjacent to the middle of the land parcel.  When it stopped I didn’t.  I caught up with the stopped car yelling and shaking my fist.  George shined the mega-beam on me again and I came down the bank to the street and the car.  I had no idea what I thought I was going to do, but I was not going to yield. I was convinced that this pseudo cop had wronged me.

When I got to the car my lack of agenda was pre-empted by George.  He had a companion who jumped out and pushed me up against the car and frisked me.  At this moment Joe and Frenchy appeared and fairly aggressively called their bluff.  “What are you doing?” they said.  “Noel is just a little excitable – his mother was scared by a cop once” they said.  “We have rights,” they said. 

The specifics of their defense of my behavior probably didn’t matter very much, but the fact that there were two witnesses who would obviously not have been pro-cop in the event things went much further downhill probably helped calm the situation.  We agreed to mutually disengage.  When George had been gone for a suitable amount of time we gathered our equipment and went back to Joe’s house.  I had had yet another unpleasant cop experience.

In one of life’s little ironies, Frenchy became a cop later in life.

On the leave that I had visited Tom in Pullman, after the episode with the nearly purloined pitcher, we had taken off on the Bovil Run. To go on the Bovil Run one left Moscow headed easterly. It was required - to be an officially documentable execution of the Run - to stop at every tavern and bar on the southern route to Bovil. At that point the Run looped back through Deary, Harvard, Yale and Potlatch and after a southeast return leg it ended back in Moscow. One of the last taverns on the northern side of the loop was the Viola tavern.  The Viola Tavern was in Viola.  Viola was pretty much the Viola Tavern.  The Viola Tavern looked as if in a previous life it had been a milking parlor.  There was an ante area separate from the bar area and the whole place had a floor of beer hardened Palouse Kaolin Clay covered with sawdust and the cellophane top seals from cigarette packs.

The time Tom and I were there it had become nearly dark and our Bovil Run had been within one stop of being complete.  The bar was well occupied.  We were noted on entry as outsiders, but, since the Viola was a Part of the Run and therefore frequently visited by people such as Tom and I were, we were quickly assimilated into the crowd and the conversation.

For some reason I had decided to make a phone call back to someone at Cannon Air Force Base.  In the years that followed I was never able to establish why I had wanted to make that call.  Nor could I ever conclude what had caused me to believe that it would be possible to make a long distance call to an obscure place from an obscure place.  As it turned out I wasn’t successful and I went back to Tom, the bar and the other denizens of the bar.  I was just beginning to enjoy a conversation with a wheat rancher who had stopped for a beer on his way back to the ranch when someone shouted, “did somebody call Clovis New Mexico?”  One would have assumed that it would take something extraordinary to bring the babble and hubbub of the bar to silence.  “Clovis New Mexico” did it.  I didn’t say anything, hoping that no-one had seen me go to the pay phone.   I hoped that they had thought - if they had thought about it at all - that I had gone to the quaint out back outhouse.  “Did somebody call Clovis New Mexico?” was repeated.  And then it was repeated again and again.  And then they stopped.  “You ever been to Clovis New Mexico?” Tom asked me with a sly gleam in his eye.  “Where’s Clovis New Mexico?” somebody asked.  “Is that in the United States?” somebody else asked.  “Naw, it’s south of Tijuana,” somebody else said.  “Probably some illegal snuck in here and made the call,” somebody else said.  “Probably,” I said.  As years had spread out beyond us from that date, if either Tom or I ever had the need of elegantly and succinctly invoking an aura of the absurd, one of us would say to the other, “Did somebody make a call to Clovis New Mexico?”

Tom and I continued having adventures on into later life.  I t must have been because we both were Irish enough to find life more interesting when events could be interpreted as odd, funny, macabre or hilarious.  We must have always brought the lens of absurdity to our activities, and through that lens we must have been able to see every day events as just a little off center – or a great deal off center.  Imagined or real, the aggregate collection of the myriad things we had experienced and had seen through that lens made for a never-ending inventory of tales we could dredge up at those times when we sat and drank and talked over the years.  That inventory and its iterative use had contributed to a long and deeply satisfying relationship.

 It turned out Tom and I were to experience his ultimate adventure together, albeit shared with some others.

I had never been in combat.  This was an unalterably true statement.  But a different interpretation of some memories always made me wonder.

As I had come to the end of my college career I really had no next step in mind, no responsible, hopefully profitable move into adult life and an adult job.  The only thing I had really wanted to do was to have the RF Trio, a singing group I was a part of, to go off somewhere where we could continue to learn, improve, and, perhaps be discovered. 
Portland was not that place.  A comedian, who - along with a stripper named Tempest Storm - we had shared a two week engagement at the Ho Ti, Portland’s closest thing to a nightclub (it was previously Amato’s Supper Club, home of the Rhythm Room) had taken a liking to us, and thought we were pretty good.  One of the two things he told us that we took as words to live by was that “the two worst weeks in show business are Christmas and Portland”.  The other thing he told us was “don’t ever try to compete for an audience with dog acts or little children.” 

The plan of record for our “grow and be discovered” venue had been to go to Dallas. Dave, one of the other two members of the Trio, had been in Dallas during his brief active duty tour in the National Guard. He had become grade deficient in college and was lucky to avoid the army and the draft by getting into the Air National Guard. Before we had been able to be on our way to Dallas, it became one day, November 22, 1963. We decided to let the Kennedy assassination cancel the Dallas plans.  Those plans had probably never been anything but a pipe dream anyway.

But the Dallas cancellation notwithstanding the three of us should have been able to try to make a try at being in the entertainment business. Since I was about to graduate, as was Joe - the third member of the Trio – and Dave was back in Portland after the Air Guard tour,  it should have followed that the Trio, somewhere, Portland or not could have become a full time endeavor.  That could have been true except for one fact. The thing that had kept Joe and me in college and Dave in the National Guard hadn’t gone away.  It had just changed names.  Originally it had been called Laos.  Then it had become Vietnam.  The typical young American male’s horror of being drafted and told to carry a gun for something other than hunting – although at that time I had never hunted anything except with a BB gun - had kept a lot of colleges full for several years.  When I had entered college I had been sure that by the time I had graduated the crisis in South East Asia would have passed.  I had assumed that I would have been able to get on with my life after college in whatever manner I might have chosen.  But the crisis had only changed names. If anything it had gotten worse. More and more young males were being drafted and told to carry guns for something other than hunting.  It had been obvious as graduation drew nearer and nearer that some sort of evasive action was going to be required.  It was also obvious that whatever that evasive action turned out to be it would preclude a lot of leeway in personal life choices.  So the Trio probably wasn’t going to happen.
The actual form of that evasive action presented itself with surprising swiftness and clarity. It solved both of my problems.  It would keep me out of the draft and supply me with a job for four years.  USAF was at Portland State actively recruiting candidates for OTS - Officer Training School.  The test was imminent.  I took the test.  I was accepted. I got an induction date several months off.  I graduated.  I got married.  I worked my regular summer job until I went to OTS.  I graduated from OTS.  My first assignment was Headquarters Security Service at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo Texas.  Due to its nature, the highest form of security clearance was required, so I was to be in “casual status” for a number of months. I became a part of a large group of other recent ROTC, Academy and OTS graduates at Goodfellow. We didn’t sit idle while we waited for our clearances.  We played a lot of pool.  We had long lunch hours at the Officers’ Club.  We sat around and talked a lot. The sergeants – who actually ran things – treated us with respect as long as we didn’t get in their way.  And then after several months of this the Air Force for some reason decided to send all of us from the Security Service - from Goodfellow - off to Lowry AFB in Colorado.  At Lowry we were to be trained to be Air Intelligence Officers, after which we were to be sent to various places overseas.  It turned out that most of those various places were in Vietnam.

So I spent six months at Lowry AFB.  Then I graduated.  Then I got orders to Cannon AFB in Clovis New Mexico.  Cannon turned out to be a holding tank for officers and enlisted men on their way to Vietnam.  The F100 Tactical Fighter Wing resident at Cannon had been frequently a part of the early Vietnam War philosophy of 90 day temporary assignments.  Under that regimen various stateside units were sent to fight the war for 90 days and then returned home for a period, and then sent back for another 90 day go at the enemy.  Just before I got assigned there somebody decided it would be better to have 12-month permanent assignments to Vietnam-resident units that could be continually repopulated by new 12-month blood from bases in the United States.  Vietnam had changed from a fun drive-in war to a 12-month slog of a war. 

After 10 months at Cannon I got my orders to Vietnam.  The good news was that before going to the war I got 30 days leave at home in Portland.  Then I got to go to Vietnam.

I got on the plane at Travis AFB after spending twelve hours at the bar in the Officers’ Club.  It was pitch-dark.  It was pitch-dark all the way across the Pacific and was pitch-dark as we landed at Clark AFB in the Philippines.  Clark was a fuel stop, and we got out and went into the cafeteria.  I didn’t eat anything.  There were vast steam tables full of an indescribable gray-white lumpy viscous substance which I learned later was called SOS.  If that was what the Air Force ate for breakfast while overseas, I knew I was really going to dislike being overseas.

It was dark when we took off from Clark and it was dark until we reached the coast of the Asian continent. There was a dark orange coral color striping Vietnam as we flew down the coast to Saigon.

And then we were at Ton Son Nhut.  All the passengers on the plane I had been on were gathered in a large room with one ceiling fan slowly turning.  The room was engulfed in an almost otherworldly darkness and gloom.  The darkness and gloom were competing with what light was present for supremacy.  It was kind of smoky.  I looked for Humphrey Bogart or Sidney Greenstreet.

There was a fairly junior enlisted man droning out a series of non-sequiturs and inanities. We all learned quickly that he was senior to all of us because he had an earlier DEROS – date of return from overseas. The specifics underpinning the fact that he not very subtly imparted to us were that he was going to escape before we did and that that earlier escape date trumped rank.

The fact that within a few moments of being officially “in country” I had already learned from someone I didn’t know from Adam’s off ox, and who was substantially my junior in rank, that he actually outranked me because of a date on a calendar, and the fact that I absolutely, and with no questions, accepted the fact of that seniority, sums up in one vignette the Vietnam War.

After establishing his DEROS dominance he told us something about the obvious fact that we were going through South Vietnamese Customs Check. He asked if we had guns. He said he was sure we didn’t because he knew that we had been clearly told in our pre-departure briefings that we weren’t allowed to bring guns into Vietnam. I thought about asking him why there were so many guns in Vietnam if we weren’t allowed to bring them, but I didn’t have the energy.  He said if we did have any, we needed to declare them for impoundment.

The rest was all a blur until I found myself at some sort of Air Force welcome point whose function was to officially welcome me and fellow Air Force Personnel to Vietnam and release us “in country”.  We were told to go downtown and find a temporary place to stay, prior to commencing to official “in-processing” activity the next day. This was, from my point of view, the most surrealistic occurrence in a sureality already beyond any previous experience I had ever known.

“Go downtown and find a place to live.  Just where is downtown, and how does one get there?  For that matter, where am I right now?  And by the way, we still get news reports in the States, and in the last couple of weeks before my departure a number of those news reports were about shootings and bombings in Saigon.  Do I need to worry about any of that?” These and more were thoughts I had.  None of them were turned into spoken words. I had already realized that this was a different game than I had ever been in. I had no idea yet of the rules of the game, however, I was pretty sure that it was a game loser to ask questions about things like safety.

Somehow I must have attached myself to a small group of other officers, because later I was with them “downtown” somewhere. I had no idea how I had gotten there or what else I might have done between being there and getting there.  But I was there.  One of the guys was an Army Caribou pilot who was being transferred to the Air Force.  Someone in the Pentagon had decided that it made no sense for the world’s second largest air force to be part of the US Army, so massive numbers of people and inventory were being transferred to the first biggest air force.  This guy had an unopened bottle of some kind of scotch.  There were about five or six of us.   We were in some common room with these other officers, sitting on the floor.  The Army guy opened the bottle took a drink and offered it around.  We all gratefully accepted in turn.  I had never drunk straight liquor without ice before.  I immediately liked it.

In that manner we passed the evening, emptying the bottle.  We talked for hours.  I was never able to bring forth any memory of that night except that it happened.  For the balance of my life I would never feel closer to a group of guys whose names I probably didn’t know at the time and who later I couldn’t remember, except for their fleeting involvement in my life.

The next morning wherever it was that I was in the building that I was in I woke.  I didn’t know where I was in the building.  I had no idea where it was in Saigon. I never could remember if I slept in my clothes, if I had clean clothes with me, or if I even knew what it was I supposed to wear “in country”.  I never was able to remember if I washed, shaved or brushed my teeth.  I never could remember what time it might have been.  I had absolutely no idea of what day it was.  I looked out the window and looked out over a disastrous jumble of roof and roof-like things.  I must have been in an upper level of whatever it was that I was in.  And I always remembered thinking, “what a god awful parody of a human city”.

I never knew whether the rest of my memories of those first 24 hours in Saigon really happened.  By the time it had occurred to me to question those memories, so much time had passed that there wasn’t any way to answer any questions I might have had about what I thought that I remembered having happened.  Nonetheless, until it had occurred to me to question it much later in life, it had lived with me as a vivid real memory.

The little group of which I had become a part the previous evening had gathered somewhere in the place we had stayed.  We had started walking from wherever we were in what may have been the central part of Saigon toward Tan Son Nhut.  We hadn’t walked long when we came upon a scene of carnage.  An American jeep had been hit with some kind of an incendiary device because it was emitting a vertical wall of flame and its two occupants were engulfed in the flames, going through some kind of post or near death flame induced gymnastic activity.  I was never able to remember anything from that point until a time that must have been a day or two later.

 

 


I had preceded Jack in Vietnam by several months.  I had arrived in November just before Thanksgiving, and he arrived sometime in April.  By the time he arrived I had acquired a deep cynicism about the “war effort” as the endeavor was called by the professional military cadre who were conducting it.  I don’t remember all the events that contributed to my desire to get by with as little involvement as possible, or my deep seated belief that on a scale of 1 to 10 for relevance to the well-being of the United States Vietnam and its namesake war were perhaps below zero, but one did stand out.

It was the day I had showed up to wherever it was that officers went to start processing in, and being assigned duty.  The Sergeant at the reception desk was of a species that I had already in my short time in country discovered to be dominant.  Everything he said or did was designed to reinforce for himself, and to externalize for all newcomers his elite status in the informal, but more important than the formal, hierarchy of DEROS.  The species also had a manner of speech that they all shared.  Among other things it included the incessant sneered Vietnamese phrase “sing loy”.  How it was spelled I was never to know, perhaps because I was never to care.  It supposedly meant “sorry ‘bout that”.  It was an extremely clever, so the phrase-utilizing species thought, allusion to the catchphrase from the then popular TV show “Get Smart”.

After enduring the Sergeant for several minutes I was passed on to his superior, a Captain.  The Captain indulged in a more subtle and malicious version of DEROS superiority.  Everything he said was lightheartedly morose.  You knew things were “bad now and going downhill at alarming speed, but what the hell; I get out of here pretty soon;  that should make you pretty happy, seeing a fellow officer escape this nightmare, right Lieutenant?”

It was becoming grindingly depressing being in his presence when he delivered the coup de grace.  “We’ll see if we can’t find something for you to do” he said.

I hadn’t volunteered for Vietnam.  If one had any aspirations for an Air Force career, one put in one’s personnel records that one volunteered for Vietnam service as soon as possible. In my case that addition to my records would have occurred at Cannon.  I hadn’t thought that I had any career aspirations, although even if I had I wouldn’t have volunteered.  Volunteering looked too much like tempting fate.  Besides, being in the military had meant that going to Vietnam was inevitable.

Having passed through the gate from civilian life to the military life had changed at some levels my pre-military perspectives.  The inevitability of Vietnamese service wasn’t a problem for me; it wasn’t something that I felt burdened with; it wasn’t something that I had any inclination to try to avoid. I just didn’t think tempting fate made any sense.

My father had fought in the final stages of World War Two in Czechoslovakia.  And millions of other Americans had also fought in various parts of the world starting in 1941, or before in the case of those who had joined RAF.  And the world was different than it would have been if they had not fought, and I really believed that the world was a vastly better place as a result of their fighting than it would have been if they hadn’t fought.  I really believed that it was my turn.  I would have preferred to have had a world free of the obligation to go fight somewhere – a world where I could have continued singing and telling jokes with Joe and Dave in a youthful attempt at trying to be something that I had dreamed of for years - but that wasn’t the way the world was.  It was clearly my turn.  And once the wheels had turned in whatever way they were going to turn and I had gotten my orders to go I would go with, fear, yes, but shored by the certainty and the belief that nothing could abrogate the debt I owed to my father and his generation.  The thing I had only begun to have the faintest inkling of, as I looked at this sardonic, grinning, paunchy captain - 250 pounds of man stuffed into a 190 pound pair of khaki 1505s - was that this war might be different.  This war might be an option, or, worse, a mistake.  This war might have no real purpose.  It didn’t seem to have had any real beginning and it might never have any real end.  It just might be, had been, was and always would be.  In Latin that description would have sounded like a prayer we Catholics called an ejaculation.

And the pig who was my official point of entry into the war was going to “see if we can’t find something for you to do”.  I was thousands of miles away from anything I cared about, a wife, two sons, a mother and father and two sisters and numerous old girl friends, fraternity brothers, teachers and friends; and Captain Cochon was going to “see if we can’t find something for you to do”.

Something must just have snapped.  I hadn’t realized at the point of its occurrence, but over time I recognized that something had snapped, and with thought had realized when it must have occurred.

I made a Scarlet O’Hara like vow to myself the moment that the words “see if we can’t find something for you to do” had left his mouth.  No matter what happened from that point on they weren’t going to get me to care.  And, secondly, I was going to take as long to process in as I could make it take.  I already had sized things up such that I figured I could make it take several months.  With any luck I might complete in-processing and just commence out-processing when my DEROS became mature.

I left Captain Cochon and checked into the bar at the Ton Son Nhut Officers’ club.  I figured that I could sit there and drink and take meals during working hours and go home to my off base hovel just like the patriotic, non-malingerers. The bar at the club had the additional advantage that sooner or later you would see everyone you had ever known in the military.  The club butted up to the airfield, and in its mezzanine bar you could watch F4’s take off vertically.  It must have been late November 1966.

I spent the next two or three weeks at the Officers’ Club, drinking, taking meals and eluding any more finality to processing in.  A combination of two things brought my tenure at the club to a close.  I had begun to get bored was the main thing.  The other thing was that Ron, a recent Academy graduate, and Ray, a first Lieutenant ROTC product, had told me on more than one occasion that things like what I was doing just weren’t done.  We had to do our jobs; we were after all, officers.  Anything worth doing was worth was worth doing well (an obviously classic example of begging the question). And on and on they went.  They shamed me into buckling.

Actually Ron turned out to be a really good guy, and over time we became fairly good friends.  Ray on the other hand was one of those people that does the opposite of grow on you.  He was the first person to whom I assigned the descriptor “endeavorous”.  He remained ever after in my memory as the archetype of that species.

In any event my plan to spend my tour of duty at the Ton Son Nhut Officers’ Club lasted about three weeks.  It had surely been my finest hour in the war effort.

“You did very well on the DPAT,” said Vern.  “You’re shitting me,” thought I.  “In fact, if you can’t put something together in Portland, I would like to hire you,” said Vern.  I had the presence of mind not to explain to him that my greatest ambition in life was to escape Omaha as soon as possible.

The next thing I knew Vern’s secretary was making airline reservations for me and requesting a $300 travel advance for me. “Not so fast” was my first internal, unexpressed reaction. “Just because I did all right on the DPAT doesn’t suddenly make me willing to approve of computers.”  But there were other factors affecting my thoughts on the subject of an interview in Portland: the time when this had occurred was an era distinctly different from the one which would emerge early in the next century.  It would be possible to defend that statement with an almost unlimited number of examples such as cell phones, ATM’s, the World Wide Web and the International Space Station.  But the difference that affected my life in any way important was the fact that in 1968 you could take almost anything you wanted on an airplane. As long as you could make it fit under your seat or in the overhead compartment, you could take it.  That fact had a major effect on my attitude toward an interview with IBM in Portland in October of 1968. 

The fact was it was duck hunting season.  Jack’s father, Ed, had moved several years before from a recently overrun suburban Portland location to a new place much farther from City life.  And he had built a duck lake.  This was a private hunting preserve for his exclusive use and that of his friends.  By virtue of the fact that I was one of his son’s friends, I was one of his friends, and could hunt there, with appropriate invitation.  All I needed was my shotgun.  With a free airplane ticket I had a way to get my gun and me to that duck lake early in the 1968 duck-hunting season. Duck hunting was worth an IBM interview.

Later in life it was difficult to believe that it had once been possible to get on a commercial airplane with a gun case, go to your seat and put the gun case in the overhead.  But I did it in October of 1968.

The job interview turned out to be a series of interviews.  At the time, those interviews were like talking to the various denizens of Wonder Land.  I was an unlikely Alice.  The first one was with a guy named Jim.  He seemed like a decent enough sort.  I had the impression, perhaps due to his young face and significant quantity of baby fat that he was somewhat younger than I.  He had dark brown eyes that seemed sincere to the point of being cocker spaniel-like.  He said that he was responsible for marketing to the large accounts.  I knew or had a concept of what each of those words meant, but as a composite statement, I had no idea what he was talking about.  The next interviewer was named Dirk.  He looked rather like what I would have supposed someone named Dirk would have looked like if I had ever heard of anyone being called Dirk, which I hadn’t.  But that was his name. He was an arch-typical well groomed business type, except for his face which seemed more like that of a haggard veteran of some ancient series of wars or semi-successful knife fights.  I never could remember what it might have been that we talked about.  I was too fascinated with trying to figure out what ancient century he might have been from.  Then there was Dave.  He was the one who had responded to my resume and who was therefore my sponsor for this interview trip.  It turned out that he was responsible for dealing with all prospective new employees.  He had bristly red hair and a crew cut.  He had a New Jersey accent.  He looked a little bit like Porky Pig. He told me that if things seemed a little bit disorganized that was because the “branch was having its fall kickoff meeting.”  I nodded knowingly and said, “I understand.  Fall kickoff meetings can be pretty disorienting.”  He told me that the “branch” had a pretty good chance of “making the club”, and that they were “eighty five percent of NSR and seventy two percent of NIR”. With any luck, and some “expected relief” they would probably finish the year at “one hundred two percent of BPQ”.  I nodded appreciatively.  He asked me how much money I would need to go to work for IBM, and I told him what I was making at that time in the Air Force and said something like “in the best of worlds I would need to duplicate that amount.”  He laughed.  He asked me if I had any questions and I said that I couldn’t think of any.  Then he asked me if I needed any help filling out my “green sheet” and I asked him what a “green sheet” was.  At that point I think he realized that I was from a different language tree.  He said “your expense account.  Did you have any expenses related to the trip other than airfare?”  I said that I had bought a drink on the plane.  He said, “you can’t expense that.”  The one thing I took away from the several hours I spent at IBM that morning was that it was obviously a culture unique to itself and one with which I had nothing, including language, in common.  But the whole point to the trip had really been to go duck hunting.

The following morning was Saturday, and long before dawn I was having a cup of coffee with Ed and a friend of his over Ed’s breakfast table.  One of the advantages of possessing a duck lake just down the hill from your house was that the usual rigors of hunting were unnecessary. One could have a leisurely cup of coffee in a warm kitchen and then walk a few hundred feet to the duck blind a few minutes before the appointed start of shooting time.  That was what we did on that Saturday morning. 

Ed’s friend was named Bill.  He seemed like a decent sort, and like Ed was old enough to be my father.  In fact, if my grandfather had been a young grandfather Bill was actually old enough to be my grandfather.

It was a bitterly cold morning.  As the sun began to rise there were no ducks in the air.  There were no sounds of ducks anywhere near enough to be heard.  There were no ducks.  As a result we turned to conversation: the imminent election, the state of the world, the state of the war in Vietnam, what Jack and I were likely to do with our lives once we escaped the military.  Since I had either strong opinions about all of these subjects, or had direct knowledge of them I was able to be a significant contributor to the discussion.  That was good.  Talking in an animated manner always kept me from being aware of the fact that I was freezing to death.  After some time, some conversation and all of the pre-dawn darkness had passed it had become obvious that the ducks were going to continue to be in the land of the missing.  It turned out that Bill was not only a hunter, he was also a gatherer.  We had just discussed for the third or fourth time the likely reasons for the absence of our prey, and what we ought to do in their absence when Bill said, “I’m going to go see about a cabbage.”  Ed leased the land adjacent to his lake to one of the local farmers who grew broccoli and cabbage on it.  That gave the entire area on this late fall morning a kind of vegetable scented stink to it.  Since the ducks seemed to be unlikely to be joining us, I said “I’d like to go with you”.  Ed said he would “stay and guard the fort in case the enemy attacked”.  Bill and I left our guns because carrying cabbages wouldn’t mix with carrying guns.

We had just gotten into cabbage and broccoli country, which was up and over a small hill behind the long axis of the lake; Bill was waxing poetic about the joys of gathering vegetables directly from the farm when the air was filled with a whistling noise.  We both immediately realized that “the enemy was attacking” – a flock of pintails had just swooped in from the west and were checking out the lake as a potential resting place for the day.  We squatted down, spilling cabbage and broccoli liberally around us, hoping that if we got down the ducks might not see us and form an adverse opinion of the lake.  Lacking guns we were out of the fight.

The ducks dropped over the hill, flashed down the length of the lake (Ed told us later – we couldn’t see this activity from our side of the hill) wheeled at its far end and headed back in the direction they had come.  At that point they had obviously abandoned any intention of dropping onto the water, or circling it a second time. Either of those actions by the ducks would have given Ed a classical shot; instead they were heading back to the west.  Bill and I stood back up to watch them depart.  Just at that moment a shot rang out from Ed down in the blind.  One of the pintails shuddered and then kept going and then crumpled and fell to the ground not more than a hundred feet from us.  “You got one,” we shouted.  “Pick it up,” Ed responded.  “We’re on our way,” I yelled.

Downed quarry in bird hunting could be anywhere in condition from flat dead to spry as a spring chicken, with an infinite range of conditions in between.  The exact condition in each case is a result of the skill, or luck of the shooter, the distance of the quarry, the type of shot load and the mood of the god of bird hunting at the moment of the shot.  The bird Ed had just shot was well into the spry category.  It also seemed to have a high level of intelligence since it was able to make two grown humans look like goons for about ten minutes.  The deciding factor turned out to be endurance and numbers.  There were two of us and one of it, and we were designed for running where the duck had been designed for flying.  The one thing the shot had accomplished was to deny the duck the option of using its primary mode of mobility.  Ultimately running around on the ground with two humans after it allowed the humans to corner it.

Bill scooped it up and held it in the crook of his arm.  The duck looked at Bill.  Bill looked at the duck.  The duck made a kind of hopeless sound and tried to flap its wings.  Bill made a kind of consoling sound and tried to smooth its feathers.  I could see that the chances of this duck being anyone’s dinner were fast receding.  By the time we got the duck, our cabbage and the broccoli back to the blind Bill had named the duck “Duke”.  “What took so long?” said Ed.  “We had to catch the duck,” said I.  “Yeah, I was afraid I had just winged it.  It was going away fast and low, and I wasn’t sure I even had a shot,” said Ed.  “Well we got it,” said I.  “And some vegetables,” said Ed with a slight touch of irony.  At this point Bill broke in.  “Do you know any vets that are good with ducks?” said Bill.  “Isn’t it dead?” said Ed.  “No, like you said, you just barely winged him,” said Bill.  “Well let’s ring its neck and get back in the blind and see if any more come by,” said Ed.  “You can’t kill Duke,” said Bill.  “Who’s Duke?” said Ed.  “My duck,” said Bill.  “Your duck?” said Ed.  “My duck,” said Bill.

Jack had more than once regaled me in the course of long evenings in various “Officers’ Clubs” in Vietnam with a variety of Ed and Bill hunting tales.  They had always been amazingly entertaining. The remnants of what I had remembered after the brain cell damaging endeavors during which they were told had always seemed to me to be obviously fiction.  Or if not fiction, I had always deemed them to be facts so entertainingly interpreted that they might as well be fiction.  The spinal cord of the stories was the interplay of the two characters, as presented by Jack.  Ed, his father was a stalwart brave, laconic type – a latter day Nattie Bumpo.  Bill, a long time friend and hunting companion of Ed’s was some sort of cross between Friar Tuck and John Lennon. The hilarity of the stories was based on superimposing the rather one-dimensional nature of hunting on top of these two totally different multi dimensional personalities.  I had always assumed the stories to be little more than entertaining banter. That was the nature of much of Jack’s conversation.  The world as it actually existed bored him, so he spun a more interesting one.

So, when I not only had gotten the opportunity to go duck hunting at Ed’s lake, but also with Bill, I had been interested to see how far from the legend these two would actually deviate.
At the point of the question about the availability of a duck veterinarian I began to realize that Jack might not have been making much up.  My first clue had been that Bill would rather gather cabbages than sit in a duck blind waiting for a shot.  But by the time we got to “you can’t kill Duke,” I was sure that I was dealing with a different sort of hunter.  The question quickly became how would Ed play out this drama?

“Let me wring its neck and put it out of its misery,” said Ed.  “You’re not hurting Duke,” said Bill.  I felt I should say something, but all that came to mind was something about Solomon, which was odd since I didn’t know anything about the bible, and what I knew about the Solomon story wouldn’t have been much to Duke’s liking.  At that point the air became filled with hurtling objects from the west side of the hill where the cabbages and broccoli grew.

It was a flight of about a dozen mallards.  Ed jumped into the blind where our guns were all lying neatly on the bench at the back of the structure.  He shouldered his gun and drew down on one of the ducks.  “You’re gonna scare Duke,” said Bill.  Ed muttered something about doing more than that and pulled the trigger.  Nothing happened in the flock except they flared and turned back west like bats out of hell.  The blast had a greater effect on Duke.  He jumped out of Bill’s grasp and flap waddled to the edge of the lake and then into the water. Bill made a leap toward the lake’s edge and went face down in the water.  Duke squirted out to the middle of the lake.  Ed started laughing, and Bill, righting himself from his sprawl said “to the boat”.  I stood by amazed at having witnessed a tale that was at least as good as any of the Ed and Bill stories Jack had ever told me.  “You rehearsed this, right? I mean this scene must have a script,” said I.  And then Bill started laughing, adding to the jollity already wafting across through the air.  But he kept heading toward the small boat that was used for placing and retrieving decoys. “Come on, Ed.  Help me get Duke,” said Bill through his laughter.

The next hour was like a scene from Abbott and Costello meet Field and Stream.  There were two men in a small boat chasing after a wounded duck which would continually, at the point of almost being captured dive below the surface, and re-appear several feet from the boat.  For reasons I was never able to ascertain, the air was intermittently filled with incoming ducks, many of which actually landed at the end of the lake opposite the boat chasing duck drama.  As more groups joined them and they all swam in unison opposite from the boat the air became filled with various breeds of ducks’ conversations intermingled with human curses and cries of “there he is, get him.”  Ed finally called time out on the endeavor and went up to the garage and got his salmon net.  In short order Duke was back in our company and we were all four in the warm kitchen having had all the fun any of us could handle for one day.  The humans were having coffee with a side of scotch.  Duke was given warm milk.  Bill had heard that sick ducks liked warm milk.  Whether the warm milk helped or not, in the next few weeks Bill nursed Duke back to health, and when he was able to fly around the enclosure where he was kept Bill released him at the duck pond at Laurelhurst Park in Portland.  By that time I was back in Omaha and had accepted a job with IBM in Portland starting after I left the Air Force.

All I ever remembered about the flight back to Omaha was telling the tale of my duck hunting experience to my seat mate, and then having to repeat it to the flight attendant, and then to several other people.  They all thought that I was making it up but were uproariously entertained.

 Many airline flights faded into obscurity, but others stayed with me until the end.

I had continued running until I was a little over sixty three.  I had been nursing a problem toe for two or three years up to that little over sixty three age.  The toe would swell up and hurt and it had a lump of bone at its bottom base where there should have been some sort of living padding.  That condition had been in place and worsening for three years leading up to the little over sixty three time.

I had been a member of Group Health, an HMO, for a number of years.  I had never been sick or had had any needs other than asking for a prescription for amoxicillin for sinus infections so being a member of Group Health had seemed an all right thing to be.  In my yearly encounter with my primary care provider, a doctor named Matt, I had mentioned the toe as it had worsened from year to year.  Matt was nice fellow.   He was a runner also and we always had a pleasant conversation about a variety of common interests, including running.  He always said that the toe was just a product of my getting older.  The padding that was supposed to be beneath it was just wearing thin.  As the third year of this worsening condition had been about to commence, and as the occasion of my annual encounter with Matt was drawing near, I had made a list of things I wasn’t going to let him dodge and weave about that I wanted something done about.  Chief among these had been the toe.  When I had first brought the problem up Matt had had the toe x-rayed. As was his wont (Matt liked to do the various things that would normally be done by specialists) rather than sending the x-rays to a radiologist to be read he had read them himself.  Nothing had come of that at the time.

When I had become adamant about doing something about it during the third year of the deteriorating toe at my annual encounter with Matt he had ordered x-rays again. As in the past nothing had come of it – for about three weeks.  Then one day I answered the phone and was told that I was talking to Group Health’s orthopedic surgeon’s nurse and that I needed to come in right away.  I said “OK, I can make it on Friday.”  It was Wednesday.  “No, I mean right away,” she rejoined.  “I really can’t make it until Friday.  I’ve got some deadlines I have to meet before then,” I responded.  “What’s the hurry?”  I couldn’t see how two days was going to make much difference after three years.  “All I know is he said your toe is dislocated and he needs to pop it back in place,” she said.  That didn’t sound good, but I changed my priorities and went in.

“When did this happen?” the nurse asked when I got there.  I had to think to figure out how to answer the question.  The “this” in “when did this happen” apparently was a thing of blackness or whiteness to the nurse, and perhaps also to her orthopedic principal.  To me the only identity that I could assign to “this” was a worsening condition that I had been enduring for at least three years, which I had asked for help with in my ongoing encounters with Doctor Matt, and which may have gotten markedly worse a year or so before the date of “this” was being requested.  So I had said, “Oh, I don’t know; maybe it was about a year ago.”  That apparently wasn’t the right answer.  She made an incredulous sort of snorting sound and turned me over to the Orthopod.

He asked me the same thing and I gave the same answer.  He made an incredulous snorting sound similar to the nurse.  Apparently they had both attended advanced incredulous snorting training.  “Look, I don’t know when it happened exactly.  I didn’t know I had a dislocated toe.  I have known for three or so years that I had a problem with the toe and have asked Doctor Matt to do something about it and he has consistently told me that I am just getting old.  All I know is it’s a bitch to run on,” I offered.  The snorting was replaced by a more genuine sounding gasp.  “You run on that thing?” he almost shrieked.  “Six to nine miles a day,” I responded.  “Well you’ve got to quit doing that and you need surgery as soon as possible to fix the problem.”  I thought it odd that after three years of asking someone to figure out what was wrong with my toe that we now had a rush to surgery.

So I scheduled an appointment for a consultation with the orthopod to hear what the plan for corrective action might look like.  I asked Mysti to join me.  Her attention to detail was always way better than mine and I wanted someone who could see the flaws in what I was sure would be a flawed recommendation.  I was beginning to take the viewpoint that being a Group Health member was ok if you were healthy, but really dangerous if you had any problems.  In the yet to occur near future I was to be constantly amused by the highly-touted idea of offering a “Group-Health-Co-operative-like” option in lieu of genuine single payer health reform.

The consultation started with the orthopod asserting that the human foot wasn’t intended to last more than forty years.  I was unclear if I was supposed to feel guilty about having tried to beat that system, or if that assertion was being offered as exhibit “A” in the case of why Group Health had not totally mishandled what was, to me, a very serious problem.  With that as a starting point my already at the outset lack of confidence in anything doctor orthopod was going to say was brought to a new level of lack.  And he moved right along enhancing that lack.  He wanted to fix the big toe which had a bunion.  A bunion I was told was just a folk medicine term for a dislocated big toe.  I had, obviously been aware of the “bunion” for years, but it hadn’t ever really bothered me. But I had just learned that I had had a dislocated big toe for several years before the toe I thought we were dealing with and about which I been complaining to Doctor Matt for the last three years. Not only had he been wrong about my “just getting old,” he had either missed or chosen to ignore that I had had a dislocated big toe for several years prior to the next one up which was the one that really bothered me.  But wait; there was more: I was further told that once the big toe goes the odds were that the dominoes would begin to fall.  That had been why the toe I was complaining about had finally at some undocumented time in the not too distant past become dislocated.  And, by the way, the next one is going also he had told me.

So the surgery plan was to fix the big toe with a bunch of cutting and pinning and stitching up afterward and to cut and pin and permanently sew together the next two toes: the one I had been having problems with and the one next to it in the domino stack.

Mysti had always been fairly quiet, pensively thoughtful and analytical and not given to outbursts or untoward shows of emotion or exclamation.  When the required exceptions that proved that rule did occasionally occur, they had always been notable. 

The first time I had observed the phenomenon of one of those exceptions it had been in relation to our preparations for our wedding.  Two of our IBM friends had offered to let us use their house for the wedding.  The house was big enough to handle the twenty or thirty people we were going to invite and it was located in a semi-rural setting that made it kind of a pastoral location for a wedding.  Tom – the male member of those two IBM friends who owned the house, Ellen was the female - was going to be my best man.  He had also recommended the minister who was going to perform the ceremony.  A few days before the appointed day Mysti and I had an evening appointment to meet with the minister at Tom and Ellen’s house to go over the plans and for us to get to know him and for him to get to know us a little bit.  Unlike some ministers this one was a believer in actually knowing something about the people he was going to marry.  He had felt that it was important to say things in his capacity as conductor of the ceremony that actually had something to do with the people he was marrying.  He was extremely supportive of the fact that Mysti and I had composed, privately and separately, our own wedding vows. The meeting had been going on for some time and we were getting acquainted and answering his various questions.  Everything seemed to be fine.  Then the minister asked, “are you going to have flowers?”  Mysti burst into massive, uncontrollable tears.  I briefly toyed with the idea of making a light hearted remark such as, “her mother was frightened by a florist before she was born” but I thought better of it.  The minister and I sat there and waited for it to end, which it ultimately did. And we went on.  But that was the first warning I had that I might expect unexpected reactions occasionally from Mysti.

At the point that the orthopod had started talking about sewing two of my toes together Mysti burst into uncontrollable laughter.  She was laughing so hard that she was crying.  Gasping for air she managed to force out, “so you’re going to turn my husband into a duck.”  The orthopod didn’t see the cause for such merriment or the appropriateness of the remark.  He snorted derisively.  Apparently there was a menu of snorts in the orthopod trade at Group Health. “Why don’t you just cut the toe off?” she managed to gasp out between peals of laughter.  The orthopod snorted with disgust.

I made Doctor Matt’s life miserable enough for a short period of time that he authorized that I get a second opinion.  I never knew if it was because Doctor Orthopod was the only one of his species at Group Health or if behind the scenes they really knew that they had pretty well missed anything that could be called a level of competence in dealing with me and my toe, but the second opinion was from a Doctor not a part of Group Health.  He was “not in the network”.  In fact he was considered one of the best “foot men” around.  His name was Pepper and where his Group Health counterpart had the demeanor and self presentation of one of the Marx Brothers, Pepper exuded a calm professionalism that demanded confidence.

Mysti went with me to that consultation as well.  It wasn’t until a quite different plan of attack had been presented that she had begun to chuckle and tell Pepper that she was glad that he wasn’t going to turn me into a duck.  There were no snorts, but he did ask what she was alluding to.  After Mysti had described the other recommended procedure Pepper acknowledged cognizance of that procedure but further stated that to his knowledge there were no documented examples of it ever having been a very good idea.

So I told Group Health that I wanted to follow the recommendations of the second opinion and that I wanted those recommendations to be executed by Pepper.  Group Health said that that was not possible because he was not “in network”.  The Group Health orthopod grumbled that Pepper’s recommendations weren’t much different from his own.  I waited until IBM’s next health care enrollment period to change providers to one in which Pepper was “in network”.  January 2007 I spent six weeks in bed and, intermittently, lurching around with a walker.  Pepper said he would make things a lot better and he did.  But I never ran again.  Arthritis had become a factor during the debacle of the declining toe.


The ramp at Hells Gate was exceptionally busy for a weekday.  But Fridays in the late spring and summer in Snake River country tended to be declared eternal three-day weekends, so perhaps it was normally busy for a Friday.  I didn’t know because I didn’t live there, although I would have liked to have lived there.  That was why I went to Lewiston so often during that particular period.

Ted and Marsha and their infant son Rob were there with their boat.  Jack was there with his boat.  Brown was there.  Blitz was there.  I was there with Noel and Joe and our boat.  By that time the Loon had been traded for a more acceptable Lake Oswego boat: a nineteen-foot yellow Sea Ray.  It had no name.  It was just a soulless, socially acceptable water ski craft when compared to my first three boats, but that is what I had evolved into: a soulless water skier.  That actually wasn’t true – I wasn’t much of a water skier - but it was the title of a book I was considering writing.  I had a title; I ought to be able to write a book around it; after all, I had been trained by Sister Justitia; but no book had been forthcoming; but I had a title, a rather catchy one at that. I also had another title: The Lake Oswego Cook Book.  I even had an idea for content for that one.  It would be a weird mix of political and social diatribe and recipes – recipes such as hamburger stew, hamburger and mushroom soup with mashed potatoes, Franco American Fortified with Real Meat and Onions and - the pinnacle of culinary creativity - Chile in the Cleft Can.  But I hadn’t been able to get around to writing it, so, in an era before anyone was able to become famous for some odd cut at a cookbook I had drunk martinis and thought great thoughts.  There had been a lot of solace in it.  It had been typical.  I, after all, would turn out to be someday the undocumented inventor of the hybrid motor vehicle.  One could only wonder if the flea-powered version might yet be in the offing.

It was a spectacular day.  Down in the canyon where the marina nestled there was no wind, the temperature was eighty or so and the sky was faultlessly blue.  The dogs were having a great time running around the marina.  They knew this wasn’t a working trip – we never hunted when we had a boat – so they were all excited about the chance to position their noses into a thirty five mile an hour wind as the boats went wherever it was that boats go when dogs are in them.

After the pre-requisite arm waving, shouting, yelling, cursing, backing, unhooking, releasing and floating we got the three craft launched complete with their designated occupants and the associated food, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, beer, wine, and – most important – brandy.  The plan had been to run to Lower Granite dam and spend an overnight at the massive moorage just below the dam, assuming a successful traverse of the locks.  The first two of us, each in turn, had milled around after launch until all of three us had become water borne.  It had been Jack, Ted and me in that order.  When I joined the clutch, which was about fifty yards out in the water from the ramp, I could see that the brandy bottle had been breached.  The dogs were in position with noses pointed expectantly in the apparent direction the boats would take.  Noel and Joe were in some fairly major whiny slappy form of disagreement over something of no apparent consequence.  It had looked as if all the components were in place for a good trip.  I got into orbit with the others and they passed the brandy.  It was Christian Brothers in the big bottle, which was whatever size liquor came in before the conversion to the metric system.  It was more than 750 milliliters.  It tasted exceptionally good.  And so we set out.

It had always interested me in the years following the aborted attempt at converting the United States to the metric system that one vestige had persisted.  When a number of European countries had converted to one common currency – the Euro – their populations had sensed a sinister plot to increase prices of things under the cover of the new currency.  Maybe that had actually occurred, maybe not. Maybe a conversion covered price increase was an urban legend in the case of the Euro. It was not an urban legend in the case of the conversion from a fifth to 750 milliliters.  750mm is a smaller container than a fifth.  After the conversion 750mm cost the same as a fifth had cost. 

We had orbited long enough for the brandy to go around a couple of times while we discussed the plans for the day, the plans for the trip, our plans for world peace and the likelihood of Nixon being impeached.  Marsha wasn’t participating.  She was always appointed the keeper of the entourage.  As she had begun to see the direction of the trip rapidly deteriorating into an orbit until the bottle of brandy had been exhausted and all the world’s problems had been solved but with no progress downstream toward our overnight lodging she intervened.  “No more brandy!”  As if coming out of our individual dreams, Ted, Jack and I nodded our assent, took our respective wheels and the flotilla commenced downstream at a mutually acceptable 35 mph.  The dogs were pleased. 

It was an uneventful trip.  It is surprising how few stops it takes to drain an economy size bottle of Christian Brothers.  I had to open one of my jugs of wine before we had gotten to the locks.

My subsequent memory of the locks was that we had gone through with aplomb and professionalism.  Going through locks to get downstream is a maturing experience.  It starts with entering a slot on the upstream side and securing the boat to a cleat or cleats on the sea wall.  One would think that the very first thing involved with a process couldn’t possibly be, if not done properly, a fatal mistake.  In the case of going through locks that would not be true.  If the rope or ropes used to secure the boat to the sea wall isn’t/aren’t rather long – very long in the case of the locks on the Clearwater-Snake-Columbia system – there will come a point - and a point that occurs too quickly from which to recover - when the drop of the water level exceeds the length of the rope.  If that occurs the boat becomes a hanging decoration some point up the side of the then-exposed sea wall, wreaking unpleasant havoc on the boat’s contents and occupants.

Otto von Bismarck supposedly said, “God has a special Providence for drunks, little children and the United States of America”.  Christian Brothers had allowed to be proven yet again the Iron Chancellor’s prescience.

So as the early afternoon of a beautiful late spring day had begun to turn into a later afternoon of a beautiful late spring day we glided into the Lower Granite Marina.  It was huge.  It looked as if the floating corrugated steel docks covered square miles.  And the number of craft already occupying slips was amazing.  We ended up taking position with our three boats end to end on the outermost tier of the moorings.  There was going to be the need for an encounter with some sort of fee collector or innkeeper since the facility was a fee moorage, but the day being pleasant and the hour not yet too late we had busied ourselves with setting up for the overnight.  I had gotten out the Coleman stove.  I had checked the coolers for the whereabouts of various of their contents and had sipped my wine from my clear plastic glass.  I bought the clear plastic glasses in bulk for just such occasions.  Noel and Joe and Jack had taken Blitz and Brown to shore and Marsha was busying herself in a manner similar to that which had been occupying me.  We were close enough to carry on an unbroken bantering lighthearted conversation.  Ted had taken on a supervisory role.  He also sipped wine from a clear plastic glass.  I had a million of them.  The three of us had continued to solve the problems of the world. Marsha had decided that the world needed her help after all.  Rob was asleep in a safe place in the forward part of Ted and Marsha’s boat.  After a particularly animated and loud exchange between Ted and me, Rob had stirred and begun to whimper.  Marsha asked us to please take our conversation elsewhere and give Rob just a little more time to sleep before the dinner hour.  So we sauntered down the dock.  Ted had his plastic glass; I had my plastic glass; I also had the partially drained jug of wine that I had been supplying us from.

Ted and I, in situations such as we found ourselves that day at Lower Granite – mildly drunk, happy and relaxed – always had an effect on each other.  That effect was mutual, exclusive and unique.  It had always involved some form of apparently serious discourse, but it was always leavened by a demeanor that has subsequently been described by Richard Ford with the phrase “laughing like monkeys”.  We were standing at an important intersection of our dock with another dock and its spinal connector to ever more inner docks and ultimately the shore with its myriad earthly pleasures such as rest rooms and coke machines.  We could see Noel and Joe and Jack and Blitz and Brown in the distance. We were standing there discussing several things simultaneously – totally possible when we lapsed into this form of behavior – among the subjects was: where was the most likely location of the fee troll? 

Suddenly the need to find the troll evaporated.  She had appeared as if bidden.  “You folks staying the night?” she said eyeing us with something resembling either mild horror or extreme caution.  I looked at Ted as he, laughing like a monkey said, “yes ma’am”.  “How many boats?” she rejoined.  “There are three of us,” I said.  “Fifteen dollars, please,” she said.
I had put the jug as far up my left armpit as it had been possible to shove a fairly round gallon of Almaden grenache rosé.  With my right hand, while squeezing as tightly as I could with my left armpit to the jug, I had reached for the wallet that I had stuffed into the waist band of my swimming trunks.  Somewhere the physics of that duality altered in a manner not desired by me.  The jug squirted out and hit the corrugated steel docking with a glassy-metallic thud, rolled a bit and stopped at the troll’s feet. Almaden apparently had done market research that had supported the necessity of a durable container for their products. Time went into slow motion.  It wasn’t serious enough for things to become monochromatic, but moments became hours as silence reigned.  I looked at Ted.  Ted was laughing like a monkey.  I looked at the troll.  The troll was not amused.  Ted told me subsequently that I was laughing like a monkey – not his exact description, Mr. Ford had not yet coined that term at that time - but words that accurately described the demeanor. The silence was broken by the troll.  “You dropped your wine, sir,” she said employing an emphatically derisive curl of her lip on the word “sir”.  It had the same reeking disgust as Larry’s “sir” on the parade ground at Cannon Air Force Base.  She took the fifteen dollars and slowly walked away.

Early in the first spring in the house on Lake Champetra I had realized one morning that I had been hearing something – perhaps had been hearing something – for quite a few days, but what I had been hearing hadn’t, until that morning, registered on my conscious mind.  At the point that it had registered on my conscious enough to have caused me to think that I had – perhaps – been hearing it for some time, a new question had arisen: what is it?  The question had arisen because, if the sound had existed at all, and I had thought that it had – perhaps – existed, it had been almost inaudible.  It was almost more of a feeling than a sound.  If it was a sound it could only have been described as a kind of “thunk” sound; but it was very hard to actually hear. It was somewhat easier to feel.  Each time the “thunk” seemed to have occurred it seemed to have been accompanied by an extremely low level vibration – something that could – almost – be felt.  It had always happened – if indeed it had happened at all - when I was in my bathroom on the second floor shaving. I couldn’t tell where it had come from, if it had actually come from anywhere at all, and if, having existence it had therefore come from somewhere.  It had all been rather odd, but I had just assigned it to that class of things that had seemed to have been gradually ganging up on me over my life: things that I thought that I knew, or thought that I had seen or thought that I had heard or places that I hadn’t been able to quite remember being but that I hadn’t been able to quite forget having been.  The sound having been finally realized to have been heard or almost heard, or perhaps imagined to have been heard, but more surely to have been felt, I just put the whole thing on a back shelf of my mind and forgot all about it. Other than its related vestiges of the almosts, the perhapses, the might have beens and the could-have beens, it had flitted back out of my conscious.  Nonetheless the sensation of its existence had continued to persist daily at the background of my early morning shaves.

One morning I had been in the basement after shaving and before getting dressed.  The basement was really a daylight ground floor.  The back wall and the side walls were embedded in the limestone out of which their nook in the hillside had been blasted.  The front wall, the face of the ground floor looking at the lake, was made up of floor to ceiling, side wall to side wall glass sliding doors.  I had been down there to get some underwear that I had put in the dryer the night before so I could get out of my bathrobe and into my suit.  For some reason Ken had not put in a vent for the dryer so I had a very long vent tube stretching from the dryer, which was near the back wall out nearly to the sliding glass door at the lake side of the room.  My theory had been that if I made the tube long enough, any excess heat from the drying process would have attenuated by the time it had exited its vent tube at the other end of that fairly large room.  That had proved to be probably true because nothing ever caught fire; but I had not accounted for, because I had not known much about how dryers worked, all the lint that came out of that vent tube.  So a trip to the daylight basement for the laundry had become, as time had passed, an exercise of wading through increasing mounds of billowing lint floating about the floor.  It never occurred to me to vacuum them.

I had waded through the lint to the dryer and had just opened its door to reclaim the several pairs of graying underwear (as with many things that I knew for certain, my belief that any form of bleach was a plot foisted off on the American people by the chemical industrial complex, and that that complex was pushing a product of no use but of high expense, had been wrong, at least the no use part; my underwear were, over time, becoming a medium, not very attractive gray color but I had persisted in my belief; in any event gray was better than the time I had washed my underwear with something red and they had turned pink) when it happened.  I had actually and undeniably heard – and had felt – the “thunk”.  And I had been able to tell immediately where it had come from.  It had come from somewhere along the sliding glass doors.  I turned and scanned the expanse of glass from wall to wall stopping with extra scrutiny at the point from which my sound activated directional sense had told me the sound had come from.  It was just getting light outside and the basement, even with the light on, was in a state of just lighter than semi darkness.  In that state of near gloom I looked and looked but I couldn’t see anything.  In any event I hadn’t known what it was that I was looking for so seeing it, I had surmised, might be difficult.  After a few moments I turned back to my underwear.  “Thunk.”  This time I knew that it had come from the left-most set of doors so I turned to look at them and, as I looked I heard a “thunk” again; this time I saw the source just as the source had done what it had been that had made the sound.

It was a male cardinal.  He was standing on the deck outside the window and looking in – looking at me I supposed.  As I watched and he looked in and as a little time had passed he gathered himself up and jumped at the window hitting it with his beak.  “Thunk.”  I was fascinated and stood there with my gray underwear in my hands watching for some time as the cardinal hopped along the deck looking in the window making periodic leaps with their concurrent “thunks”.

For reasons I couldn’t explain at the time and was never able to re-create later I had begun to have a feeling of intense mystery, almost of a sort of mildly spiritual or supernatural threat lurking around me in relation to the cardinal and his activities.  I had had no idea on earth why he was doing what he was doing, and that absence of explanation, coupled with the mysterious feeling in which I had felt wrapped as I had watched, caused me to decide that it wasn’t a real cardinal at all but instead that it was a spirit cardinal.  Perhaps, I thought, it was a shaman representing some long dead Native American who had once lived on the site that I had inopportunely chosen for building my house.  I really thought that.  I just didn’t know.  Ultimately I went upstairs and put on a pair of gray underwear and the rest of my daily business uniform and went out to do battle in the modern world of commerce for yet another day.  I never had occasion to see the cardinal again, but I heard, or thought that I had heard, him every morning for the balance of the spring while I shaved.  Time had passed and summer had been waxing for weeks when I had realized that I hadn’t heard any “thunks” for quite a while.

One day later that year I had been talking to someone who turned out to be interested in birds.  I had always been interested in birds.  As we talked about all the birds that lived there in mid Missouri I had remembered the “thunks”.  I still had not come to any rational explanation of what I had seen and had heard and I was still clinging fairly whimsically to the theory of the shaman.  I decided to just recount what I had seen without editorial comment and let it stand and see what the reaction would be from the person with whom I was talking.

When I had finished the story – without mentioning the gray underwear part – I just stopped talking and waited to see what the other person would say in response.

“He saw himself in the glass” is what he said.  “Pardon me” I said.  “Yeah, at that time of day – you said it was just dawn – with the sun beginning to come up your glass doors were probably giant mirrors from the outside.  Cardinals are really territorial and in the mating season, which is in the spring, they are really, really territorial.  He must have seen himself and must have been trying to scare off what he thought was another male cardinal from his turf.”  Not quite a shaman, but on the issue of turf ownership, I had not been far from the truth.

There was not much difference between them and me, I realized.  Really, the major difference was that I had a roof; they didn’t.  I lived in a third floor apartment at 8 Cité d’Alma; they were my neighbors and lived in an alcove doorway in front of the post office on Avenue Rapp.  They were always there.  There were two of them, although sometimes one or the other would be briefly absent.  They had a quilt spread out on the pavement, taking up a little of the public pedestrian thoroughfare.  It was somewhat similar to the sidewalk tables of Paris’ countless cafes, only they were the only two occupants and they always had the same table reserved.  They had it reserved day and night.  When I passed them on my way to where Rue St Dominique joined with Avenue Rapp to get my morning baguette and croissant from my favorite boulangerie on Rue St Dominique they were always there, having apparently spent the night, no matter how cold it had been.  When I passed them in the waning light of a Paris late afternoon trip to Le Dome – not the famous one, but the one on Avenue Rapp at its juncture with Rue St Dominique - they were there.  Whenever I walked from Le Bonaparte down Boulevard St Germain to its junction with Rue St Dominique and down Rue St Dominique to its junction with Avenue Rapp and took a right down to Cité d’Alma, or from Café du Metro, across Rue de Rennes, down Rue du Vieux Columbier to Rue de Grennelle, past des Invalides to Rue Cler and on to Rue St Dominique and Avenue Rapp to Cité d’Alma, they were there.

And their being there was not just a fact; it was a statement.  Not only did they have their sidewalk café on a quilt, they had a small cardboard box set in front of them toward the outer front edge of their domain.  In the box there was always a significant quantity of coins, many were one and two euro coins.  Next to them closer to the wall of the building edge of their domain were a couple of very large plastic water bottles with what appeared to be a type of wine that I didn’t know where to buy. I had never seen wine of that particular yellow orange color.  It had to be wine because the two were always obviously drunk and I saw them take drinks from the bottles, allaying other ideas about what the bottles might contain.  They were drunk but fully participating in life such as they knew it, or such as they were able to define it. They talked to each other incessantly.  They frequently recognized and greeted people walking by.  Frequently they had good looking Parisian sandwiches laid out beside them.  Frequently I saw people join them on the quilt and lay out elaborate meals for them, and join them in eating them, although these contributors never joined the two in drinking their wine.  Frequently passersby would put some coins in their box.  Often these contributors would stop and talk for awhile.  The two on the quilt


on the sidewalk sheltered by the building alcove were long term residents.  They were known to other local residents and were accepted, and even valued as a normal part of the population of the quartier. They had a life and a routine and a sort of livelihood.  They were professional doorway dwellers.  Over almost four winter months spanning three different years that I lived there, they were there living, drinking, talking, sharing meals with passersby and collecting euro coins and centimes.  They were part of the essence of that part of Paris at that time.  And except for my roof we were similar.

The key to that similarity was that they loved their lives.  Odd as it had seemed to me, that love of life had been obvious to anyone who ever paid any attention to them.  Their conversations, drunken though they might have been, were also joyous.  Their greetings of acquaintances were joyous.  Their discussions with the people who occasionally provided and shared meals with them were animated, and – yes- joyous. All they had lacked was a roof.  But they had companions.  They had many companions.

I had a roof, but I had no companions.  But I had the same joy of just being there.  I had no companions, but I had wine, just like they did, and I had the joy of sipping it and looking out the window at Paris.

What I saw out that window varied, but it was all joyful.  There was the nighttime scene. It was possible to stretch out the open apartment window and see the Eiffel Tower lit up like a Christmas tree.  Sometimes the tower was draped in a fantastic mantle of flashing lights.  Sometimes it had a bright green isosceles triangle near its base; sometimes it had a rapidly rotating search light at its apex; sometimes it had an illuminated figure of someone – I supposed it to be Christ - at that apex.  Then there were the daytime scenes.  Looking out at just the right time in the morning, to the left, it was possible to see a mother and her child walking through the Cité, the child carrying his school books.  To the right at any time of the day it was possible to see the ornate black wrought iron gate to the Cité, its huge lock permanently unlocked; the lock stood as a reminder of a much earlier time.

I had the joy of being at Café du Metro - my quilt on the sidewalk - hearing the sounds of the city enveloping me and the sights of the city entertaining me from the nearby tumult of Rue de Rennes as it hurtled toward its junction with Boulevard St Germain. 

There were the stylish Parisian women who walked arm in arm, or who encountered one another unexpectedly, seeing one another on the street after an absence, exclaiming and kissing one another on, first the left and then the right cheek. There were the tourists, mystified by their whereabouts and stopping to unfold their map from Galeries Lafayette.  Part of their spatial dislocation was frequently the result of having the map upside down – the loop of the Seine where it wrapped around the Eiffel Tower could be seen, even from the distance of my table in the Café to be pointing toward the sidewalk; it needed to be pointing to the sky. There were the young people, endless clouds of them, rushing by laughing and talking like endless flocks of happy birds.  There were old people.  The old men all wore suits and ties, and no matter how slowly they needed to walk, they were walking; they were mobile; they were alive. And the crowds gave them space; the crowds yielded to their slowness; the crowds seemed to accept the obligation of assuring that these ancient vestiges of another time were treated with respect and were accommodated in their slowness.   The old women all looked as if they had been going to the opera, dressed and groomed like movie stars from another era.  They often stopped at Café du Metro for a visit with an old friend or acquaintance and a chocolat chaud. They sat and talked and contributed an air of elegance to the place.

I had the joy of walking along the Seine from Pont d’Alma to Pont Alexandre, crossing Pont Alexandre, walking past the oblisque and the carrousel in Place de la Concorde through the Tuilleries to Pont du Carrousel, across to rue des Saints Peres to rue Jacob and on to Le Bonaparte. 

The Seine was a being.  It had personality.  In the spring it was high and brown; in the summer it was more subdued, still brown.  In the winter it was high and brown and intertwined with an occasional maelstrom of seagulls all whirling and chanting their raspy calls to the waves.  In the autumn it was a shattered mirror of infinite glinting flashes; it was bounded by the brilliant yellow poplars wandering its banks. It was the home for an endlessly interesting parade of barges and boats.  There were the working barges thrusting themselves furiously against the current, laden with gravel for some upstream dumping point.  There were the barges that had become homes for river dwelling Parisians. Although those barges floated, they never left their mooring; they clustered instead at points along the river, where the cobblestone riverside quays widened enough to allow pedestrian access and traffic.  These tiny water-borne sub-arrondissments were bedecked with tomato and pepper plants in the summer, cascading chrysanthemums in the fall and Christmas trees in December.

Pont Alexandre was an endless spectacle.  Its gold-work shone with an intense glow no matter the season, time of day, or state of the weather.  It just was.  It seemed the perfect necklace to adorn the Seine. Immediately across from Alexandre’s golden guardians, slightly to the left on rive droit the gracefully fluid roof of the Grande Palais always made a statement with its bronze colored mass.  On cloudless blue-sky days the ultimate jewel, Sacre Coeur, floated like a fleeting white phantom in the distance. 

Place de la Concorde was a place of alignment.  Standing on the Louvre side of the reflecting pond, just inside the Tuilleries with its central fountain spraying joyfully into the air it was possible to take a position that lined the fountain with the oblisque making the oblisque become the vertical diameter of the circle of the carrousel.  In the distance perfectly aligned with the fountain, wheel and the wheel’s oblisque-diameter, fading almost into the haze was the Arch de Triomphe.  Farther in the distance, usually invisible, but always spiritually present, perfectly aligned with the others was the Grand Arch de la Défense.

The spine of the Tuilleries was a flint gravel path connecting two reflecting ponds with fountains, and leading into the maw of the Louvre. If there had been a rain the flint was mixed with a kind of clay-like mud.  If the weather was dry the mud was sandy dust.  In either case, there was something about the dust, mud and flint that made me feel as if I were at the entrance to a time portal which would let me see Napoleon’s carriage careening by on the night someone had tried to assassinate him. Or that I would get caught up in the crowd of red-hatted rioters on their way to Louis’s and Marie Antoinette’s quarters to make them declare for the Revolution.  I frequently picked up a piece of flint that looked as if it had a story to be told.  The mud, sand, dust and flint of the Tuilleries were always a source of unexplainable magical joy to me.

Walking along the Seine side of the garden I would pass l’Orangerie where one of the world’s great impressionist collections lived. On the side opposite the Seine the Tuilleries skirted Rue de Rivoli, the market street where Thomas Jefferson nearly bankrupted himself.  Between these two edges was the spirit of the place.  That spirit was the people.  Between the first reflecting pond and the forecourt of the Louvre always seemed to be some of every type of person on earth.  Some were tourists; some were Parisians; some were peddlers; some were business people; some were pick pockets.  I had always wondered if any of them ever sensed the magic of the flint.  I wondered if they ever saw Napoleon and Louis and Marie. Or did they see others that I didn’t sense as being in the area to be seen?  Or did they just see the there and then?  The there and then was enough, more than enough, but I felt blessed to feel the possible presence of the others, and to feel the magic of the flint.

It was impossible for me to cross Pont du Carrousel, especially at or near sundown, without stopping to look at Isle de Cité.  There was a feeling at that place, looking in that direction at the island.  It was a feeling that was closer to something tangible than many of the tangible things I had ever known.  It was more a person than many of the persons on the bridge with me.  It was really a being.  But it was a being apart from anything I had known anywhere else.  It didn’t speak but the words “look at the light, the water, the glitter on the water, the prow of the island, the towers and turrets fading away into the falling gloom on the opposite bank, the sounds of the river and of the city; it’s beautiful; it breathes and lives and glows and whispers” always came to me.  And there always was more: “these sights, these feelings, and these sounds: these are you more than you could ever know.  This is where you exist and always have existed. This is a distillation of life. This is what your life should be.”

Those words always followed me as I continued to cross the bridge. They intermingled with real sounds and sights.  There were the sirens of police and emergency vehicles. There was the roar of the motorbikes. There was the babble of people passing on the street. There was the low pitched drone of the people at the tables along the street.  All these sounds had their accompanying sights. There were the people at the tables outside the cafes; they were always there, no matter the weather, with their espressos or coke lites or glasses of wine.  There were the police and emergency vehicles tearing about seemingly endlessly.  There were the motorbikes streaking through traffic, defining their own lanes between the cars and trucks and giving off an ear splitting almost gunfire-like rattle of sound.  And gradually, “look at the light, the water, the glitter on the water, the prow of the island…” would gradually swirl and blend and fade. As it faded I would become a part of the life on the left side of the river.

There was Le Bonaparte.  In the winter - except on warm days - the waiters would deploy the plastic window-walls that enclosed the sidewalk tables.  I had never sat inside.  I had never been inside except on the rare occasions that I had needed to go inside.  On those occasions I had descended the spiral steps into the basement and had used the Turkish toilet. There had been something bizarre but comforting about standing and pissing into a porcelain indentation in the floor.  I eschewed the Turkish posture but I always had pondered the dynamics of that defecal squat since the first morning that I had walked to Ton Son Nhut and had seen what seemed to be most of the population of Saigon in the field-that-became-a-lake-in the-monsoon.  They squatted here and there over the acres of that field. 

I had often wondered if the daily deposits those people made in that field during the dry season contributed to the fierceness of the creatures that emerged from the mud of that inundated field in the wet season.  After several good evening monsoon rains had started to make going to dinner at one of the local officers’ clubs knee-deep wades through the streets, that field became alive with creatures.  I had never actually seen one of them, but I had heard them, and I had seen the water boil as they did whatever it was they did to make the water boil.  I had assumed that living in a shallow soup of monsoon rain and Saigonese shit had made them hyper active and possibly mean.

That was one of many things with which I never came to closure.  But the nature of the creatures in the field-that-became-a-lake-in-the-monsoon was a thing about which I often wondered.

I had the joy of walking along the Seine from Pont d’Alma to Pont Alexandre, crossing Pont Alexandre, walking past the oblisque and the carrousel in Place de la Concorde through the Tuilleries to Pont du Carrousel, across to rue des Saints Peres to rue Jacob and on to Le Bonaparte. I was different from the two on the quilt because I had no companions. But, like them I had joy; and, like them I had wine; and I had a roof.  Perhaps the roof was the compensating offset for companions.  At the time those things had seemed to mean something - to be the elegant solution to an elegant metaphysical equation.  Like most of my life, that had probably been a delusion.

Death had always been an ever-present reality to me.  It had so many forms that its constant presence was not a fearful entity; it was instead a rather interesting companion.  There had been Babe Ruth and Al Jolson, for example.

Then there was the frog.  The frog had been a sort of gift from my grandmother – my father’s mother.  My father had been adopted, but that had been a fact, not a distinction, so she was my father’s mother, my grandmother.  She had given me a tree frog in a fruit jar.  The jar was half filled with water.  The frog was light green, a rare color for a tree frog.  I had been fascinated by the creature, and wouldn’t let it out of my sight all of the day I had received it.  But night had come on, and my mother hadn’t wanted me to take the jar and the frog to bed with me, so she had told me to put the jar on the front porch where I could retrieve it in the morning. 

When morning came the flaw in that plan had become apparent.  The sun had come up, bathing the front porch and the frog in the jar in its warmth.  Unfortunately the jar had amplified the effect of the sunlight to a cooking temperature, and by the time I had gotten up and gone to see how the frog had made it through the night the frog was dead.  It had actually been par-boiled.  I was inconsolable.

For reasons I was never able to reconstruct I poured the frog and its water out on the sidewalk in front of the house.  A little girl whose only known presence in my life related only to that place on the sidewalk had stepped on the frog and smashed it on the sidewalk. That had made me cry. The little girl laughed uproariously. I had scraped up what I could and had given it a decent burial, but a significant residue of frog had remained on the sidewalk for several days leaving a kind of greasy splotch as testimony of the frog’s grim demise.  That little girl stopped at the grease spot on the sidewalk multiple times over its life span, and laughed uproariously every time, pointing at the spot on the sidewalk.  This had been early in the summer.

Tom and I had once spent what had turned out to be for me a turning point of a weekend in Bend at the Portland State Winter Carnival.  It had also turned out to be what would be a treasure trove of Tom and Noel stories yet to be shared over years yet to have passed. It had started when Tom and Doug – another fraternity brother – and I had gone out to the edge of town early on the Saturday evening of the Winter Carnival to retrieve my 1955 Plymouth which had stopped running, had stopped having headlights, had stopped having electrical generating capability and had been allowed by me, with its gradually dying last forward momentum to glide to a motorless stop among the junipers at the edge of the highway.  After pushing the Plymouth back to Bend with Tom’s 1955 Ford Victoria, Tom and I had left Doug in a gas station in Bend fixing my car. And he and I had gone off to search for whatever adventures might have been lurking in the snow covered streets and Carnival event venues of Bend.  There had been several.

To get off on the right foot we had returned to Tom and Doug’s room and had finished their beer.  Drinking beer and discussing Albert Camus with Tom was always a pleasant way to pass time.  When the beer had passed with the time we headed to the local high school.  There was going to be a Brothers Four concert there that evening and we had wanted to see if we could still get tickets.  We could and therefore we did.  At intermission the beer had begun to make its presence felt so we had gone to the men’s room.  So did every other male at the concert and it was a sold out concert, so there were a lot of us in there.  Waiting in line was never to be one of my favorite things.  Waiting in line to urinate went to even lower on the list.  But I had had no apparent alternative.  That was true up to the point at which Tom had gotten a place.  Just as I had seen that he had acquired an open spot I had turned around and had seen something that I hadn’t noticed.  And in noticing it I apparently invented seeing something that I had wanted to be there.  “Huh,” I said to myself.  “I’ve never seen a urinal like that.  But it sure makes sense.  It’s well designed for high traffic situations like this one.  It creates an interesting mix of the traditional and the modern.”  There were three of these devices and their capacity would probably have been five or six attendees each. The capacity estimate was only probably because they were inexplicably unoccupied.  They were round basins about mid-thigh high off the floor and they were serviced by user activated flushing devices.  Those devices consisted of a steel tube ring with holes out of which water could flow when a user had finished his activity.  All he needed to do was to push down on a round ring handle mounted above the water distributing device.  It just made sense.  I couldn’t figure out why nobody was using it as I proceeded to use it.  As I was in the midst of that activity Tom, having finished had turned around and had seen me.  “I can’t believe you’re doing that,” he almost shouted with real horror in his voice.  And it took a lot for Tom to manifest horror.  But horror he manifested.

In one of those it happens faster by orders of magnitude than it can be subsequently described moments I went through a miraculous conceptual complete re-design of the urinal I had only moments before beheld and perceived.  Something in the timbre and intensity of Tom’s statement made me instantly question what had seemed to be my pristine behavior, including my conception of the device I was using.  I had never seen one of the things before, so it could have been very validly argued that, my lack of knowledge of that sort of facility along with a little nudge from mother necessity had caused me to make an understandable error.  I chose to take that viewpoint and finished my activity, and then turned on the water for the hand sink, thus flushing my perceived urinal.  Tom looked at me.  I looked at Tom. We both became hysterically amused and went back for the second half of the concert.  I chose to take the viewpoint that if it hadn’t been for the fact that the place was full of non hand washing boors I wouldn’t have made the mistake.  It was expeditious however.  This occurrence had set the tone for the rest of the night’s activities.

Tom and I had always seemed to have adventures, not just occurrences.

When I had been in Portland on leave prior to going to Vietnam I had taken a few days to go to Pullman Washington.  Tom had been at Washington State University pursuing a Master’s Degree.  It had turned out ultimately that the Master’s Degree eluded his pursuit, but we had some adventures when I had gone to see him that December prior to the degree getting away from him.  Predictably, the adventures had involved drinking beer.

Nobody at WSU drank in Pullman.  That was just too depressing.  Students from WSU went to Moscow, the home of the University of Idaho.  Moscow was just a more welcoming and attractive place.  Tom and I had gone to Moscow and had gone to the place where everyone went when they went somewhere in Moscow.  It was a place that had fairly good pizza and big pitchers of beer.  We had been there for long enough to have consumed a couple of each and had decided to leave.  There was a large crowd already in the place and there was a large group trying like we were to exit and an equally large crowd trying to get in.  Since the average age of the crowd was young, it being a college town and the place being a college place, there was an age checker at the door.  I had decided that I liked the pitcher we had just drained and had decided to take it with me.  I didn’t try to hide it; I just carried it in my hand as I was going out the door. Ruth and I had furnished our bar at Cannon Air Force Base in a similar manner through gifts from our multiple and various bachelor officer house guests who always took a glass or pitcher with them from the Officers’ Club when they were coming to our house for some post officers club function that we always seemed to have been concocting.  My thought had been, aided by the better part of one of the pitchers that I had just consumed, that no-one would believe that they were seeing someone casually carry a pitcher out the door, or that if they did, and challenged me, I could just shrug and relinquish it to the challenger.  The traffic jam at the door seemed to constitute a suitable cover for my operation.  But it didn’t.  I was challenged, but not as I had expected to be.  Instead of saying something like, “you can’t take that out of here; give it to me” the ID checker said, “just what do you think you are doing with that?”  I had never been one to have any patience with what I perceived to be stupid questions, and this one had seemed especially stupid.  “What does it look like you silly son of a bitch? I’m stealing it” I said, and handed it to him.  Tom hadn’t been aware that I was carrying a pitcher out the door.  The minute we got to the street he said, “Christ, Noel, they’ve been arresting people for stealing pitchers; you’re lucky you’re not going to jail.”  Apparently I had forgotten in the face of all that collegiate ambiance that I had become during my recent absence from college life an officer and a gentleman.

On leave from the Air Force at a different time Tom, Joe, Dave and I had decided to get together.  The three of them had become regulars at an upscale tavern in Portland called The Carriage Trade. Joe and Dave had some kind of menial employment and were continuing their quest for musical careers as a duet, and Tom had gone to work in some sort of political capacity for some union or governmental agency.  At that particular point in my life I had been incapable of distinguishing between political campaigns, government agencies and unions; as a result I had never known what it was that Tom had been doing for a living because it had always been one or the other of those three things.  I had never been to The Carriage Trade, having been off defending my country for several years.  But we had arranged to meet at The Carriage Trade.  I got there first, took a place at the bar and had been enjoying a draught for a few minutes when Tom appeared.  We had gone through our various inane – by design – greeting rituals and he had ordered a beer.  We were sitting side by side at the bar talking politics, which was our favorite mutually shared interest. Tom was making some point that had involved aggressive use of gestures with his hand.  In one of the back waves he knocked over the almost full glass of beer.  The barmaid came over and wiped it up with a bar rag and brought Tom another.  He promptly knocked it over before he had even taken a sip.  “I swear I haven’t had anything to drink,” he said to the barmaid who had come back with her rag and a look somewhere between disbelief and distaste.  “And apparently, if I can’t get control here, I may not have anything to drink here either,” he said as she brought him his third.  In almost no time that one went the way of the others.  We agreed that the bar was cursed and went to another place.

During my final year in college, which was Tom’s sophomore year, I had become twenty-one years old.  In the time prior to that momentous event Tom and I had often gone to the fraternity house for lunch.  I had cooked.  We always had the same thing.  On the way to the house we would stop at the Town Talk Market and buy a couple pound slab of top round.  Top round was tougher than top sirloin, but not undesirably so, and, if cooked properly, it tasted at least as good as top sirloin.  And it was noticeably less expensive.  We were, after all, poor college students.  Proper cooking, in Tom’s and my view, was to heat the cast iron fry pan somebody had abandoned at the house just short of red, melt a little butter in it – margarine, actually; we were, after all, poor college students – and drop the steak in, allowing each side contact with the high heat long enough to “create the illusion of cooking it without actually doing it”.  Putting the steak aside briefly after searing it to our desired degree of rareness, a little water was added to the remains in the pan and swirled around to make a dark brown juice, which was poured over the steak.  Then we divided it and, with brown bread to soak up the juice, we ate steak, bread and some cottage cheese – Mellow Whip from Alpenrose Dairy.  The only thing missing had been beer.  For all the apparent wildness of that era, it was not considered good form to have alcohol in a fraternity house on a day to day basis.  Since I was not old enough to buy beer at that time, and didn’t look old enough for years after, we drank milk.

But that had changed after my twenty first birthday.  Thursday afternoons were class schedule down days for both Tom and me, and we took advantage of that fact by moving our weekly lunch from the fraternity house to Tom’s mother’s and step father’s house those afternoons.  Instead of steak, since Amalfi’s was open for lunch in those days we bought a pizza and a couple of six packs of Blitz Bavarian Dark and convened to the living room of his parents’ house.  We sat in the living room.  The fireplace was on our right.  There was a coffee table between us.  Tom sat in a high backed, upholstered chair across from me and toward the front door.  I sat on the couch.  The pizza sat on the coffee table between us.  We sipped our beer – a six pack apiece needed to be nursed – ate our pizza and talked.  We talked about Camus.  We talked about Sartre.  We talked about Faulkner, Joyce, Elliott, Conrad and all the other authors that Doctor Hart had been making fascinating to us.  We talked about Wayne Morse.  We talked about Tom McCall.  We talked about Mark Hatfield.  We talked about LBJ.  We mourned JFK.  We talked and talked and talked and the time flew and our lives had seemed to gel in some mutually profound manner. 

And there usually came a time, in the midst of the profundity and with a beer to his lips, that Tom would rock his chair just a little too critically back toward the front door and over he would go.  Having also usually been talking about Kafka it only seemed appropriate to liken his immediate post tilt pose to that of a cockroach flipped on its back.  Usually he didn’t spill a drop of his beer.

An aircrew game that I had learned about, but had never actually played was called “Dead Bug”.  The rules were simple.  Somebody was designated to be “it”, as in the various games of childhood that it resembled.  The game was never played anywhere but at a bar with bar stools.  That created the proper altitude for the mechanics of the game.  Several people additional to the “it” person were required to play – at least two, preferably three or more.  To any co-residents of the bar not included in the game there would be no indication of what was afoot.  The choice of the “it” person was a subtly quiet transaction, and once made, the activities of the players proceeded according to apparently normal barroom protocols; no one from what turned out to be observers – the non-players - was ever prepared for the second stage of the game.  I was told this; I actually never saw the game played; and I never actually played it.  But of all the games of which I had ever been aware Dead Bug was the one that had appealed to me the most, even without ever experiencing it first-hand.

At some point in the normal barroom conversation the “it” person would decide the time had come.  He would shout, “dead bug”.  This was the cue that the other players had been waiting for.  As soon as possible after the words had been said the other players, in whatever manner that they felt most comfortable, would make their way to the floor from their stools and, on their backs, curl up in either a fetal position or that of a dead bug.  Which of those two poses it was depended upon the species you chose to pretend to be for the purpose of playing the game.  Apparently the creators of the game had been having a Kafkaesque moment when they designed the rules and named it.  It was the duty of the “it” person to judge who had hit the floor last and to designate that person to be the next “it”.  And so it went.

I had introduced Tom, Joe and Dave to the concept of Dead Bug at some point and they had found it to be an interesting concept.  On a subsequent leave from the Air Force I discovered that they had been permanently banished from The Carriage Trade for playing Dead Bug.  Dave had developed a pilonidal Cyst while winning the only round they ever played.

On the leave that I had visited Tom in Pullman, after the episode with the nearly purloined pitcher, we had taken off on the Bovil Run. To go on the Bovil Run one left Moscow headed easterly. It was required - to be an officially documentable execution of the Run - to stop at every tavern and bar on the southern route to Bovil. At that point the Run looped back through Deary, Harvard, Yale and Potlatch and after a southeast return leg it ended back in Moscow. One of the last taverns on the northern side of the loop was the Viola tavern.  The Viola Tavern was in Viola.  Viola was pretty much the Viola Tavern.  The Viola Tavern looked as if in a previous life it had been a milking parlor.  There was an ante area separate from the bar area and the whole place had a floor of beer hardened Palouse Kaolin Clay covered with sawdust and the cellophane top seals from cigarette packs.

The time Tom and I were there it had become nearly dark and our Bovil Run had been within one stop of being complete.  The bar was well occupied.  We were noted on entry as outsiders, but, since the Viola was a Part of the Run and therefore frequently visited by people such as Tom and I were, we were quickly assimilated into the crowd and the conversation.

For some reason I had decided to make a phone call back to someone at Cannon Air Force Base.  In the years that followed I was never able to establish why I had wanted to make that call.  Nor could I ever conclude what had caused me to believe that it would be possible to make a long distance call to an obscure place from an obscure place.  As it turned out I wasn’t successful and I went back to Tom, the bar and the other denizens of the bar.  I was just beginning to enjoy a conversation with a wheat rancher who had stopped for a beer on his way back to the ranch when someone shouted, “did somebody call Clovis New Mexico?”  One would have assumed that it would take something extraordinary to bring the babble and hubbub of the bar to silence.  “Clovis New Mexico” did it.  I didn’t say anything, hoping that no-one had seen me go to the pay phone.   I hoped that they had thought - if they had thought about it at all - that I had gone to the quaint out back outhouse.  “Did somebody call Clovis New Mexico?” was repeated.  And then it was repeated again and again.  And then they stopped.  “You ever been to Clovis New Mexico?” Tom asked me with a sly gleam in his eye.  “Where’s Clovis New Mexico?” somebody asked.  “Is that in the United States?” somebody else asked.  “Naw, it’s south of Tijuana,” somebody else said.  “Probably some illegal snuck in here and made the call,” somebody else said.  “Probably,” I said.  As years had spread out beyond us from that date, if either Tom or I ever had the need of elegantly and succinctly invoking an aura of the absurd, one of us would say to the other, “Did somebody make a call to Clovis New Mexico?”

Tom and I continued having adventures on into later life.  It must have been because we both were Irish enough to find life more interesting when events could be interpreted as odd, funny, macabre or hilarious.  We must have always brought the lens of absurdity to our activities, and through that lens we must have been able to see every day events as just a little off center – or a great deal off center.  Imagined or real, the aggregate collection of the myriad things we had experienced and had seen through that lens made for a never-ending inventory of tales we could dredge up at those times when we sat and drank and talked over the years.  That inventory and its iterative use had contributed to a long and deeply satisfying relationship.

 It turned out Tom and I were to experience his ultimate adventure together, albeit shared with some others.

One time, when I had gone to Portland from Seattle and had been visiting Tom and Betsy, we had been talking about travel and had been telling each other stories about our various travel experiences.  Other than things like the Bovil Run and trips to their beach house I had never traveled with Tom or Betsy.  They had been to England and Ireland and I had been to England and France. And we both had been to a variety of places, and lived in a number of them, in the United States.  And we had liked to talk about those experiences.  In the midst of one of those discussions Tom had said, “I would really like to go somewhere and stay for awhile” (their England and Ireland trips had all been a day here a day there sorts of endeavors).  Betsy and I looked at each other.  Neither of us had never had occasion to think about what might be a response to Tom’s statement because neither of us had ever expected to hear him say something like that.  But she knew immediately what I was going to say, and I knew that she knew and thought it was a good idea.

“You’ve got a built-in travel guide for Paris,” I said.  “We can rent an apartment and stay for a month.  Maybe we could start in London for a few days and take the train under the Channel and spend the rest of the time in Paris.  Maybe take a day trip to Brussels and maybe one to Chartres or Chantilly, but mainly we could just wander around Paris and live like Parisians.  That’s what I do when I’m there.”

Much to Betsy’s and my surprise that was all it took.  Tom thought it was a great idea and we began to plan for the trip.  Almost immediately it became a three-person trip.  Mysti didn’t want to go.  In the next few weeks everything had been arranged: the hotels, the apartment, the trains, the airlines.  It would start in London in the last couple days in July and then cross the Channel to Paris and occupy the entire month of August.  That was March.

Mid one afternoon in June my cell phone rang.  It was Betsy.  She was beyond upset.  Betsy never got upset.  “Tom has had a massive stroke and is in a coma.” 

By the time I got to Portland and got to Tom and Betsy’s house it was early evening.  The key people had either gathered or were on their way. “Tom is on life support and has been given morphine to keep him comfortable,” somebody said.  “Jesus,” somebody else said.  “What happened?” I said.  “Kaiser killed him,” Betsy said.  “Jesus,” I said.  “He can live for years like he is now, but he’ll never come out of the coma,” Betsy said.  “We have all the documents that say he doesn’t want to live like that; so when David gets here, we’re going to have them take him off life support,” Betsy said.  “Jesus,” several of us aid in unison.  “And before that, we are all going to toast his life and his passing,” Betsy said holding up a bottle of Chivas Regal.

That is what we did.  Soon after my arrival we dispersed in various cars and re-convened at Providence Medical Center.  Each of us in turn had time alone with Tom as he lay peacefully comatose.  None of us said anything to each other about what it was that we had done or had said during our time with him.  Each of us had stayed for a fairly long time, so it must have been something of consequence in each instance.

I had just sat there next to the bed with his hand in mine watching the covers slowly rise and fall with his machine aided breathing.  Other than the sound associated with that breathing, it was dead silent.  After an extended period of what had amounted to meditation, I got up, relinquishing the hand, put my hand where his heart probably was and said, “I love you Tom,” and left.

After David –Tom and Betsy’s son -  had arrived from New York, and after each of us, including David, had had our individual time with Tom we all went into his room as a group.  Betsy had brought enough shot glasses for each of us to have one.  She opened the Chivas, cast a glance at Tom as if expecting that to awaken him, and poured some into each of our glasses.  Even Max, Tom and Betsy’s fifteen-year-old grandson got a shot.  Silently we all looked at one another, raised the glasses and drank the contents. 

That ceremonial drink was not what it had appeared to be.  To an outsider looking into that room what we had done as a group would have looked to be a toast.  Since there had been no words uttered, the outsider would have assumed that the words of the toast were somehow known to all and therefore not necessary to vocalize.  The outsider would have been wrong.  What had looked like a toast had really been a surrogate action.  It was a drink for and on behalf of Tom who couldn’t have the drink himself.  If he had been conscious he might have had it, but he wasn’t conscious.  If he had had it as his last activity it would have been the first in over two years.  Two years before he had been advised that his health would be better served if he didn’t drink any more.  For a person to whom scotch was a religious experience that had been a blow.  But he had accepted the advice and had quit drinking.  He just didn’t do it anymore.  But Betsy had thought, and we had all agreed, that as a last act he would have wanted to have a shot of scotch.  So we did it for him.  She had toyed with the idea of pouring some in the apparatus that dripped fluid into him, but she didn’t do it.  So we did it for him.

Then the staff came in and, with care and love that was surprising to behold, removed the various tubes.  Tom quickly and placidly slipped away from us.  And then it was over.

We stood around for a little while making occasional attempts of expression that faded off as partially expressed thoughts.  And then we left.  And then we reconvened at the house. And then we began what became a week-long wake.  Betsy made the keynote address of that ceremony with the observation, “when I die And Tom meets me, I know the first thing he is going to say is, ‘god damn it Bets, if I had known I only had two years to live, I never would have stopped drinking’”.

The climax of the wake occurred the next week when we – with appropriate warning to Bud Clark– took over the Goose Hollow Tavern for a few hours.  The staff had set up a small table where we had put a picture I had taken of Tom not long before his death, just to make sure that everyone present had a visual reference of who it was that we were remembering. The Goose was where Tom and Betsy had met.  The Goose was where Tom had introduced me to Betsy.  The Goose was where the ghosts of Bruce Baer, Max Berg and Bill Johnson were thought to spend time.  That was where, when the wake was over, we left Tom to spend whatever it is that is exists, before whatever it is that is ceases to be or becomes whatever it will be.

Grocery shopping in Paris was always an adventure. 

There was the time when Champion had recently implemented a frequent shopper card.  The checkout clerks always asked if you had a Champion card before they toted up the final tally.  I had been saying "non", because I didn’t have a Champion card. But I did have two frequent shopper cards from groceries in the United States, so I knew that those cards could save significant money.  With every “non” I had thought about asking how to get one because I knew that the card could save a lot of money, if only I had had one.  But that idea died every time it occurred to me because, although I was sure I would be able to frame the request in French, I was equally sure that I would be unable to understand whatever they might say in reply.  I was in that no man’s land where one is able to "say" things but not able to "hear" things.  I knew that if I said “non, mais comment peut on?” they would reply to me and I would stand gaping for understanding like some gigantic toad who had mistakenly forsaken the safety of the underside of some rock. I was also reasonably sure that that there would be subtlety and nuance associated with the request for a card and its related processes that would be beyond my cultural ability to grasp or understand.

So one day I was checking out.  I had several bottles of Corbierre.  I had bought bottles of the same wine several times previously because the wine was really cheap and really good.  I had figured out that there was a discount available off the price at the register if one had a carte Champion. After the ritual “vous avez une carte Champion?” I had said “non, Madame, merci”. She had said something else in response.  I was in the process of formulating something pleasant sounding but indecipherable when I realized that she had asked me if I would like to get “une carte Champion”.  Since something was about to come out of me verbally anyway, the easiest thing to do seemed to be to say “oui, merci”.

Suddenly without thinking I had thrust myself center stage in the checkout line.  I had had illusions of being referred to the service desk, which was right behind me. That thought had loomed as disastrous enough of an option, but much to my horror the checkout clerk started telling me about the application form, which she was handing to me to fill out. Meanwhile the shoppers behind me in line would have to wait while I filled out the form.

The young woman immediately behind me had already bumped me purposefully several times with her leather shopping bag, to what purpose I had been unable to conclude, but she was obviously upset about something, perhaps about me, perhaps about something else, one never knew in a Parisian checkout line. Perhaps she had sensed in that Bush-poisoned era that I was a card carrying American, and felt the Gallic need to comment. Perhaps she had been experiencing a generally bad day, although it was only about 11:00, and the French don’t get out much before 10:00, except all the entrepreneurs who hit the streets before daylight, opening their shops and stalls and stores. Perhaps she was an entrepreneur, and had heard that she had been cast into non-existence by Bush’s remark that the French don’t even have a word for entrepreneur. In that event - if she had thought that I was an American - that might have been the reason for the bumping.  No one likes to be characterized as non-existent, especially by an idiot.   I had taken the more optimistic view that I was an old man and just an obstacle in her way, not an additional contributor to her dissatisfaction with the state of the day.  Suddenly that had changed.  With the need to fill out that form in French in France I had achieved in one fel swoop the capability of contributing massively and directly to her unrest.   I would have had trouble completing that form in English in America.  My form filling out would also probably shatter what had been, up to that point in time, the apparent placidity of the other members of the queue. Or so I feared.

But I got through the process, and the kind hearted clerk said “pas problem” about the fact that I had put my address in the “pronom” slot and both my first and last names in the “nom” slot and then to fix those problems had put my “pronom” in the address slot, had scratched out my “pronom” from the address slot next to my “nom” and solved the whole disarray with arrows pointing hither and yon, indicating what the actual locations of the various form components should be.  I thought that my printing had been quite good given the circumstances.  And I got my Champion card, which included three little key chain attachable versions, and I got 1.5 Euros off at the register.

In addition to the dinners, drinks and floor shows offered by the Ho Ti to its patrons there was also a Key Club.  Somehow in all the time that Joe and Dave and I spent at the Ho Ti during our two week run we never got a better than dimly grasped understanding of what the Key Club might have been and what might have been going on there.  Whether that lack of clarity had been due to lack of interest on our part at the time, total ignorance, total obtuseness or some degree of actual secrecy surrounding the activities of the Key Club I was never after the fact able to divine.

What we did know for sure and certain had been that there were exotic dancers employed in the Key Club.  We knew that because, while we had been assigned a dressing room, it hadn’t been solely ours.  We shared it intermittently with a varying entourage of strippers.  And that had been fun.  It had made for interesting conversation explaining to a nearly unclad not very young woman what it was that we were studying in the dressing room between shows (the two week Ho Ti engagement had conspired to be co-resident with finals week for spring term of our sophomore year in college; I was never able to figure out what magic Dave had worked to get his parents to allow him to perform in such a manner during finals week; they had even attended one of the shows).  Those conversations had been interesting in spite of, or perhaps on account of, the relative lack of clothing of our interlocutors.  They were all people who had had interesting lives to that point, and had been more than interested in talking about those lives, and had seldom had the opportunity to have such conversations with people such as Joe and Dave and I.

One of them was a more frequent visitor than the others.  She was about six feet tall, apparently blond and of an age that had seemed from my vantage point at the time to be rather old.  She was probably twenty five or thirty.  Her stage name was – I had always supposed in later reveries on the subject that she had probably had an actual parentally assigned name also - The Eyeful Tower. She had become something of a regular in the shared dressing room and the fact that she didn’t have very much clothing covering her had long since ceased to be a factor in her relationship with the three of us and with the spontaneity and subject matter of our conversations.  Walter, the comedian was also a fairly frequent visitor to this dressing room that had begun to serve as a common meeting area for all but the star attraction.  Walter’s contributions were usually interesting and insightful and he had seemed to take a slightly special interest in the RF Trio. 

In the interlude between performances one evening I had been alone in the dressing room sitting at the dressing table with one of my books open studying for the impending finals.  Walter had come in, had made a couple pleasantries and, seeing that I was trying to study had set about some other activity, but had stayed in the room.  This dressing room was fairly large so several people could inhabit it without getting in one another’s way.  That was probably why it had been serving as a sort of common area for the mudsill performers.

I had returned to studying when The Eyeful Tower came into the room.  She and Walter and I had exchanged pleasantries and then The Tower had asked me some question about something.  For whatever reason it had seemed appropriate that I should stand up to answer her and to remain in that posture as I pursued any additional conversation that might have developed as a result of my initial reply; so I had stood up. What occurred from that point on was never completely clear to me.  It seemed to have started with some sort of lewdly clever remark by Walter and an equally lewd, extremely snappy and surprisingly clever rejoinder by Eyeful. Walter had responded in some manner that had directed Eyeful’s attention to me.  I had been convinced beyond question at the moment of the occurrence of the next events that it had all been in fun and had had no significance, certainly not the significance that would have been surmised if Eyeful’s words and actions had been taken literally.  I never lost that utter conviction of the good natured, probably humorous intentions of what occurred.  But neither at the moment of occurrence nor in the myriad subsequent reveries on the subject was I ever able to shake the deep seated feeling that good natured and humorous though everything was supposed to have been, and probably really had been, my having made just the wrong (wrong only from the near hysterical reaction I had experienced at the moment of occurrence) move might have put me somewhere that I would have been totally unprepared to be. 

Because what was suddenly happening was that I had a rather tall, rather scantily clothed, quite well built “older woman” pawing at me and making carefully crooned suggestions about positions she might like to assume on the dressing table in relation to me and various aspects of my physical person.  All this was being abetted by a certain degree of hilarity from Walter.

I had actually considered a literal interpretation of those various suggestions in that fleeting flash that always pre-exists the actual making of a decision. The only issues that had flown through my mind prior to deciding had not been the total lack of propriety of the various proposed activities – where sex was concerned I had been becoming at that point in my life extremely concerned about a significant lack of it - but the lack of privacy and the potential exposure to additional spectators – or participants – that indulging in those suggested activities might have entailed. So I chose my best, because it was my most genuine, defense.  I chose to play the infant.

As would be the case in a similar state of near catatonia which would occur in a Super Marché in Paris much later in my life, the person who actually saw things clearly enough to later describe them had not been me. As Joe had entered the room, having just finished his dinner with the clientele in the performance area below, he had noticed that I was standing looking terrified with my back to one of the dressing room’s walls.

“Noel was standing there with his back to the wall looking like he was trying to back out through it.  The Eyeful Tower was all over him and she was saying something about him being a big boy and putting her on the dressing table for a little fun.  Noel was just saying, over and over, as he tried to get away or go through the wall ‘I’m just a kid; I’m just a kid!’”

Bishop J. Ussher: "Theologically sound"

W. Faulkner: "Elegantly Redundant"

M. Shelly: "Macabre"

G. Marx: "Funny on both a slapstick and a cosmic level"

E. Hemingway: "Too much Paris; prolix"

H. Ford: "Bunk"

N. Bonaparte: "Unconventional"

B. Stoker: "Very weak;  totally lacking in vampires"

F.S. Fitzgerald: "Too little Paris; not elegant enough prose"

A. Hitler: "I wish I had written it instead of Mein Kampf."

Pogo:  "Should be dedicated to Walt Kelly"

S. Palin: "What's a Paris?"

J. Heller: "I'm suing for plagiarism."

S. Freud: "Boy's a brick shy of a load."

T. Watson Jr. : "Good grasp of the eighty column card"

T. H. Huxley: "Darwinian"