Saturday, September 28, 2013
This is the last entry of the first section of this book.
The sections are DEATH and LIFE.
The section DEATH has is completed with this entry.
This is an account of the end of her who gave me a beginning.
I was with my father when he died. I was alone with him. No one else was there.
My mother died in a crowd.
She had had a heart attack some time before my father’s death but had recovered to the point of being back to an apparently normal life. Normal included driving a car. The day I was alone with my father it was because my mother had driven her car. That had given her the ability to come and go from the hospital as conditions allowed. She had left just before I arrived. She had not gotten home when the change in my father’s condition occurred. The hospital left a voice mail. My mother was on her way back to the hospital when my father had died.
The hospital staff worked swiftly. They removed the tubes and devices from my father, put a tag on him and wheeled him into and down the hall. I suddenly had visions of my mother coming up the hall and encountering my father being wheeled away in the opposite direction.
I took off down the hall as quickly as propriety would allow with the intent of intercepting my mother. I had no idea what I was going to say. I just felt compelled by the belief that I needed to spare her the shock of encountering her departed husband being wheeled down the hall with a tag on him.
On the way to wherever my mother might have been, if she indeed were even there at all, I was intercepted by a well-intentioned member of the clergy. He wanted to help me in my time of need and grief.
I thought briefly before I telling him the irreligious but absolute truth: I didn’t have any time, any need, or any grief.
Thinking me crazed with grief he persisted.
I didn’t want to explain the fact that I was trying to spare my mother what I perceived to be a potentially life changing unpleasant experience. I couldn’t conceive of making my case lucidly at all, let alone in the small amount of time that I perceived to be at my disposal to intercept my mother.
I just wanted to not talk to him and get on down the hall.
So I took the approach of trying to make the point, as respectfully as possible, but firmly, that I was probably a lost soul and that abandoning me to the dark side would be the most prudent and efficacious course of action for him to take on behalf of all that was yet left of holiness in the world.
He went on his way shaking his head sorrowfully and muttering what I assumed to be scripture.
And I intercepted my mother on her way into the ICU reception area.
That evening my mother and I went to dinner. We went to a local sea food restaurant that we had enjoyed and had our usual pre-dinner martinis. We had a couple of them because we had a lot of talking to do. My mother had early in the re-marriage to my father realized that if she were going to have anything resembling a normal life she was going to have to do it on her own. His being an alcoholic didn’t ever impact his making a living or being reasonably effective and successful at what he did for a living. It did, however, impact all aspects of his off duty life – his family life.
And the impact had increased incrementally over time.
Since I was ten and twelve years older than my two younger sisters, I had escaped into adulthood early in this process. In fact it was early enough in the process that I hadn’t even been aware that I was escaping from anything.
My mother had a great job that paid well and allowed her independence of operation. She used this independence to provide as normal a life as possible for my sisters. In the process, of course, she filled the classic role of enabler for my father. Why she chose this course, given her financial and social independence was something that I never understood.
But she looked at the second time married to my father to be permanent and irrevocable. And she did whatever was necessary to keep that bargain while at the same time providing a life for her two young daughters. There was probably a great deal more to the story. There was probably a great deal more to my mother and father’s relationship. In retrospect, the events of my mother’s and my father’s last few months of life would seem to indicate that there had been a great deal more, but I was never to know.
The conjectured great deal more to the relationship notwithstanding, my mother’s life with my father had been difficult in the best times; it had verged on unbearable in the bad times. But they had continued.
My father almost died due to alcohol and had had a strong enough survival instinct to know that he had to quit. So he did. That was a number of years before he died. He went through a period early in the having quit phase of his life of making and consuming prodigious quantities of fruit pies. Sometimes in the middle of the night he would get up and make one. Apparently the sugar was required in the absence of alcohol. He never gained any weight and had never acquired, even during the pie period, a potbelly. The thing was, the same personality that was there during the alcohol days was still there in the post-alcohol days. He didn’t become any easier to live with. He just became more consistently rational. The alcohol had robbed him of his short-term memory, but he was always willing to start a conversation with “I know I’m supposed to know this, but I don’t. So please fill me in on the details I need so I can talk about such and so.” During that post alcohol period he and I had numerous interesting conversations about a great variety of things with these starter kit tutorials as prologues.
On balance, it had seemed to me that his passing offered possibilities of a great new life for my mother. And I talked to her at length that night at the seafood restaurant over the martinis about my thoughts on that subject. She did not disagree. Perhaps it was the martinis; perhaps there was a portion of truth in what I was saying; she seemed enthusiastic for this new phase in her life. But nothing much ever became of anything we discussed that night because my mother died three months later.
After the fact, after the event of her death, I realized that she had been running down for several years. I realized that the same person I had always, since early high school, engaged as a close friend, a person to whom I could talk about anything and from whom I could depend upon for support for any endeavor, was gradually not there anymore. After the fact of her death I realized that the growing irritation that I felt when we talked, but which I hid from myself in that deepest place where I put things I don’t want to think about, had become a frequent component of my feelings about her and about our relationship. After the fact I realized that I had been witnessing my mother consciously and with full intent ease herself into the world of the gradually dying.
It wasn’t long after the dinner at the seafood restaurant that my mother had some kind of health incident that had put her back in the hospital. She was released fairly quickly, but couldn’t really live home alone. One of her life-long friends from Seattle – Mary – came to Portland to stay with her. My sisters, Patty and Mary also spent some time with her. And, again, she got better and went back to a normal life. In retrospect I have never been able to conclude why I had been oblivious to what was actually going on. But I wasn’t alone in that oblivion. Neither of my sisters were alarmed either. And we all had talked to her doctor at length and always heard the same thing. “We don’t know the exact nature of what is causing her various problems, but we have her taking appropriate and effective medication and there is no reason for alarm.”
And then she worsened again and Patty had found her a facility where she could recuperate and receive necessary medical care. I should have drawn some conclusion about the fact that in the other bed in my mother’s room in that facility there was a woman who was in the process of dying. My mother told me that. My mother seemed strangely ambivalent about that. And I was oblivious. Neither Patty nor Mary drew any alarming conclusions either. Our mutual view was that this was all just a bump in the road of our mother returning to good health.
The similarity of that viewpoint to my childhood certainty of Annie's inevitable recovery should have been an alert. But it wasn't.
And then she had another incident. This one put her back in the hospital. This time the doctor had a diagnosis. There was some problem with her heart that could be repaired with an operation. The combination of the seriousness of the operation and the fragility of her condition at the moment of the diagnosis could result in her dying in the operation, but that outcome was thought to be substantially less than a fifty- percent chance. If she didn’t die the operation would bring about amazing improvement in her condition.
Or so the story went.
I interpreted this news as “you can have this operation which has low odds of killing you and which can give you the life which we discussed over martinis not long ago.” That was the backbone of what I said to her as we sat talking in her hospital room on a Thursday afternoon in April after the incident and its subsequent diagnosis. I said – and I had believed what I said - that I viewed that diagnosis as really good news and that my vote would be that she have the operation. She didn’t really say, but it appeared to me – as we sat there having that conversation - that she agreed.
We talked for an hour or so about many things just as we always had. It was a conversation like we used to have years before. I didn’t feel that irritation. There wasn’t any need for me to hide anything from myself in that deepest place where I put things I didn’t want to think about.
As the afternoon waned and became early evening I said something about having a martini. She looked pensive and started to say something - “when you take that first sip…” - she faltered and stifled what seemed to me to be a deep sob.
I should have figured something out at that moment, but I didn’t.
Then she looked up briefly at the ceiling and said, “I’m tired; I need to sleep for a while; have fun this evening.” I took my leave saying that I would see her on the morrow.
I had business that took me to Salem the following morning. I had gotten back to Portland about noon and I had decided to go to lunch. After the fact, that plan always indicated to me the measure of my continued obliviousness about my mother’s actual condition. I was in the immediate neighborhood of the hospital and I thought that I remembered a Mexican restaurant in the area. After a brief search, not being able to find the restaurant I decided to go to the hospital instead.
The minute I got to the waiting room I had a totally unexpected encounter. Patty and Mary – my younger sisters - were there as was Kevin, Mary’s son. “What is this?” was my immediate reaction. “Where have you been?” they said. “We’ve been trying to reach you. We couldn’t get you on your mobile phone. Don’t you turn it on?” I had a dead battery, but that hadn’t seemed to be worth saying. “Mommy had another incident and she is dying.”
In one fel swoop I was taken from a feeling of good news about my mother’s health prospects and a recent desire for a taco and an enchilada to the fact that she was dying. Even for one at my level of obliviousness that was a stark leap.
My sisters told me that a priest had grudgingly agreed to administer extreme unction – grudging because although a baptized and confirmed Roman Catholic my mother had not been a mass attending Catholic for years – probably since she and I had started going to the Gollywog lounge instead of mass - and at the point of her death she was not truthfully able to tell the priest that she belonged to some parish.
My sisters told me that the hospital staff had discussed with her the events that were going to ensue, as best they could describe a very personal, and, really, unknown, process. The staff had said that part of the process would be an intravenous introduction of morphine to ease the process and minimize pain.
My sisters told me that my mother said, through gritted teeth, “OK, let’s do it.”
My sisters told me that all this had occurred within the hour. They were both relieved beyond measure that I had finally showed up.
I didn’t mention how close that that had come to not happening.
So we all went into my mother’s room. The scene, for me, was appallingly familiar. There was the machine with the beeps and light pulses; there were the slowly labored gasps for each breath; there was the almost diminished to nothing remains of what had once been one of my parents. I took my post sitting on a chair at the side of my mother’s bed. Patty stood directly behind me. Mary and Kevin occupied chairs across from the foot of the bed in the corner of the small room.
I took my mother’s hand. I immediately made the mental note that her life feeling - that feeling that accompanies the transition of a creature from life to non-life - was well on its way to non-life.
“I don’t think this will be long,” I thought to myself.
What should have induced a feeling of profound sorrow just became the emotionless hands of a cosmic clock. As the life feeling gradually receded, the hands of the clock turned.
Maybe they even turned backward.
I sat there suspended in time and place as I felt my mother ever so gradually recede from existence. And I could feel her progress toward that result, ever so slowly, ever more faintly; and then the machine told everyone what I already knew.
That evening the four of us went to Amalfi’s for pizza.
We were sitting at a table in the back room waiting for our pizza to be delivered.
Mary and Patty and I were discussing what would become for the next few years a major topic of our conversations: what had really happened? How could we have been so totally taken by surprise by what - after the event of her death – had become utterly obvious? How could we have missed our mother’s grave and deteriorating health condition? And had the same been true of our father? Why had the doctor, a doctor in whom our mother had had the highest confidence, not ever seemed particularly worried about her condition? Why hadn’t he ever really been able to tell us what it was that was wrong, or, indeed, that anything WAS wrong? How could we suddenly be in the situation of having both parents dead and having had no warning and having had no feeling of alarm? How stupid or, yes, oblivious could the three of us have been?
The table we were sitting at was down a level from a slightly elevated extension to the dining area behind us. Immediately adjacent to our table was a set of steps. There were two or perhaps three steps. The steps gave access to and from that elevated area. There were a number of diners in that back, elevated, area, so there was some server traffic up and down the steps passing by where we were sitting. One of the servers was ascending the stairs with a tray laden with pizza and drinks. Suddenly with a little shriek she landed more or less in the middle of our table, spreading pizza, beer, wine and soft drinks liberally over all of us. When she recovered and had regained some level of professional poise she, of course was profuse in her apologies. Along with the apologies she offered the observation that she couldn’t possibly imagine what had happened, but that it had felt as if someone had tripped her. We couldn’t be sure, but my sisters and I thought that we heard a distant chuckle that sounded like someone we knew.
As my mother faded to non life an Episcopal priest appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Unlike the helpful preacher that I had encountered after my father died, this priest seemed to make sense in the context of our circumstances. Unlike the Catholic priest this one just wanted to minister to the recently dead and her living relatives. A dialogue ensued that culminated in our having a memorial service at his church. After all, the Church of England was “Catholic”. That’s what they affirmed when they muttered the same Apostles Creed that their Roman Papist cousins muttered.
At the memorial Mysti, Mary, Patty and I all sat in the front pew on the right side. This was quite close to the flowers and the pulpit. All four of us saw something. All four of us had the same thought about what we had seen.
In the flowers surrounding my mother’s memorial picture a bee appeared just as the priest’s discussion of her life began. Prior to the memorial he had asked a lot of questions about just who she had been and he did a masterful job of celebrating her. And he performed that masterful recounting of her life with a clear goal: get the rest of the attendees to talk about Roberta.
Throughout the priest’s opening, stage-setting remarks and throughout all the other reminiscences offered by people, ranging all the way from Norm, her long-term friend and employer, to Tom one of my pledge brother fraternity brothers, the bee flew around the flowers and my mother’s picture as if listening to what was being said.
When everything had been said the bee disappeared and everyone went home.
I was sure that bees got into churches all the time. I would, however, have expected one to check the flowers for nectar. This one instead had seemed to be using the flowers as a premise for circling the area immediately around the picture while the life of the person in the picture was being celebrated. And it was still winter. Bees were supposed be hibernating or something. They shouldn’t be anywhere, let alone in a church on a cold winter day.
My sisters and I didn’t see one another often after that. We had however developed a tradition. The two who were not having a birthday took the one who was having a birthday to lunch on a Saturday as close to that birthday as our schedules would allow. Early in that tradition the permanent location had become Schuckers at the Olympic Hotel. A variety of things had driven this choice not the least of which had been the quality of the martinis. These occasions always lasted for several hours as we talked about all the things that interested us that we hadn’t had a chance to talk about in the interim between birthday lunches. For the first couple of years after our mother’s death the dominant compound topic – just as it had been that night at Amalfi’s - always continued to be: what had really happened to our parents? How could we have been so totally taken by surprise by what - after the event of our mother’s death – had become utterly obvious? How could we have missed our mother’s grave and deteriorating health condition? And had the same been true of our father? Why had the doctor, a doctor in whom our mother had had the highest confidence, not ever seemed particularly worried about her condition? Why hadn’t he ever really been able to tell us what it was that was wrong, or, indeed, that anything WAS wrong? How could we suddenly be in the situation of having both our parents dead and having had no warning and having had no feeling of alarm? How stupid or oblivious could the three of us have been?
There always was a morose sameness to those discussions.
No matter how long or how deeply we ever discussed this, and no matter how many theories about what might have been the facts of the matter ever occurred to us, we never came to closure; and the discussions continued.
One day I was getting a pair of socks out of my armoire. For no reason that I was afterwards ever able to proffer, I had drifted off in thought about that never-answered set of questions. I was standing in front of the open armoire, staring into the space between my eyes and the armoire. I had just started to go through everything that I knew about the whole thing yet again. I had been on the verge of getting frustrated to the point of becoming intellectually tired when a heretofore unthought-of thought came to me. “They knew they were both dying. They agreed to the order of their departures and had held out with their last strength to achieve that order of departure. My mother’s doctor had been enlisted to keep this from Mary and Patty and me. The conversation at the seafood restaurant about my mother’s new life had been just one more component in the artifice.”
As if from a great distance, I heard – or sensed, because it was really in my mind, not in the air - a roaring wind sound. It was distant; it was very subdued; but it was a roaring wind. Then I heard or sensed the words “you can believe it.” A tangible feeling of relief unlike anything that I have ever experienced came over me; and then it gradually faded away like the last pulses of life’s fading vibrations.
This thing really happened.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
My father died in January of 1997.
I had never been very close to him, but I hadn’t wanted him to die.
But he did.
He had made it to eighty the previous November.
The cake we had for him had had one of those single candles in the form of some number. In the case of Daddy’s cake the number was 80. He kept the candle in a special place. He spoke of becoming eighty as if it had been the major accomplishment of his lifetime. I have often wondered whether he knew that it would be in fact his last birthday and therefore one of the last accomplishments of his lifetime.
But it was his last, and that was it.
He didn’t really have many accomplishments, at least none that I knew of. Perhaps that lack had been due to the fact that time had moved so swiftly, and had accelerated with every year that he had lived. Perhaps he had had all he could handle to avoid being tossed and to keep riding that accelerating beast of time. Perhaps it had been because he never really came back in complete form from World War Two. Perhaps it had just been fate. But eighty was his last and nearly only big deal.
In early January he had had some sort of medical episode that had put him in the hospital. He was quickly stabilized and was getting better. He was scheduled to go home before long. I was in Portland on business and decided to drop in at the hospital and see him as soon as I got into town rather than waiting until later which had been the plan that he and my mother and I had agreed to. It was an impulse for no reason. Although improving, he was still in the intensive care unit. I went to the desk and said who I was and whom I was there to see. The nurse got a funny look. She said, “Come with me. He is dying. Usually the last thing to go is hearing, so he will probably be able to hear you.” And I followed her into the inner area of the ICU.
“Where is my mother?” I asked. “She went home a little while ago and was going to come back at the dinner hour. This just happened a few minutes ago. We have a call in for her, but haven’t reached her yet. She hasn’t made it home yet.”
My father was on his back in the bed on a ventilator. He struggled for every breath. A different nurse, a very nice and very nice looking young woman came in as the other one went back to the desk. She briefly explained the situation and showed me the status of things graphically displayed on some kind of monitor machine that was attached to my father. The net of what she said was that he was dying.
I had never been with a person when they died.
I dodged that activity with Blitz.
Now I was going to be in the middle of it for the first time.
I was not at all sure that I was up to the occasion. But I took my father’s hand and said “Daddy, it’s Noel.” There wasn’t any change. There wasn’t any recognition. There was just the sound of the monitor and of each labored breath my father struggled to take.
I stood there holding his hand and trying to absorb what it was that was occurring.
I was trying to figure out how I felt; I was trying to figure out how I should feel.
Nothing seemed to reveal itself.
I had the profound feeling of something – the word grief came to mind - that should be but that wasn’t.
That same feeling had engulfed me when Blitz died.
But now it was my father. Wasn’t I human? Couldn’t I feel anything but the mild concern that he feel no pain? The questions hung aimlessly in my mind. They remained answerless.
The labored breathing went on for some amount of time. I have no idea what amount of time that might have been. I was suspended in some almost here, almost there, place wrapped in the feeling that something should be but wasn’t.
I was still holding his hand.
I could feel something in that hand that one doesn’t feel in a normal non-dying hand.
I was surprised to realize that I recognized that feeling. It was the same feeling that I felt as I held a pheasant or quail in my hand as it went from the final transition from life to non-life. In the case of the birds it was a fairly swift change from the feeling of life to the no feeling at all of non-life. In the case of my father it was a steady feeling of life.
It is not a feeling of warmth or a pulse or a twitch or series of twitches. It is a feeling that fully functioning alive things don’t manifest. You can pick up a healthy pheasant or take the hand of a healthy father and you won’t feel it. It only appears as a creature fades to non-life. I believe that is the exiting presence of something getting ready to leave. I know it can be felt. I knew about it from my experiences as a hunter, but until that day that I took my father’s dying hand I hadn’t known that it happened with humans as well.
My grandfather – Bobby – had a device that was supposed to help with breathing by emitting ozone into the air. It consisted of a rectangular base with some kind of electronics in it and on top of the base a rectangular coil of glass tubes filled with some kind of gas, maybe neon. When the thing was plugged in and turned on the tubes lit up and emitted a faint buzzing sound along with a smell that was supposed to be ozone. I never knew whether he had gotten it for himself or for me. It was old and he had had it a long time, I had thought, so maybe it had had some other use in his earlier life. I had been through a stage where I had fairly serious asthma and Bobby would turn it on in my bedroom at night when I visited him and my grandmother. He had told me the ozone was good for my breathing.
If you put your hands on the glass tubes when they were buzzing and smelling you could feel a sensation similar to the life feeling of departing entities. That was what the birds felt like. That is what my father felt like. The only difference was that my father’s feeling was steady. Apparently the departure was on hold. The birds always felt as if a rheostat had been applied to the emanation, rapidly dropping the feeling from intense to nothing. That feeling, once felt, can’t be forgotten.
Suddenly, in the middle of a labored breath my father’s head jerked violently to the right. The monitor went from subdued beeps to a louder steady tone. The pulsing graph on the display went to a horizontal line. And the life feeling, so steady a moment before, vanished.
Apparently, I thought, the white ship had had room for him at last.
The nice young nurse came into the room and said something. She was crying. A doctor appeared and he was visibly upset. I felt overwhelmed by the feeling of love and concern that seemed to well out of these people. It was in total stark contrast to the lack of any emotion I felt. I felt as if I had provided a service, that I had aided in ushering someone from life to non-life and that I may have made the transition easier or more natural or at least not alone.
But there was nothing else.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
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 to be shared over years.
It 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 motor-less 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 left Doug in a gas station in Bend fixing my car.
We went off in search of whatever adventures might be lurking in the snow covered streets and Carnival event venues of Bend.
There were several.
To get off on the right foot we returned to Tom and Doug’s room and finished the beer.
Drinking beer and discussing Albert Camus with Tom was always a pleasant way to pass time.
When the beer was gone we headed to the local high school.
There was going to be a Brothers Four concert at the high school.
By intermission the beer had begun to make its presence felt so we went to the men’s room.
So did every other male at the concert and it was a sold out concert; 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 got a place.
Just as I saw that he had acquired an open spot I turned around and saw 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 chrome 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, turned around and saw 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 complete and miraculous conceptual re-design of the urinal I had only moments before beheld and perceived as a thing of utilitarian and scientific beauty.
Something in the timbre and intensity of Tom’s statement made me instantly question what had seemed to me to be 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 a follow-on viewpoint to that of the “understandable error” : 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 an expeditious mistake and this occurrence 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 was in Portland on leave prior to going to Vietnam I took a few days to go to Pullman Washington. Tom was at Washington State University pursuing a Master’s Degree. It turned out ultimately that the Master’s Degree eluded his pursuit, but we had some adventures when I went to see him that December prior to the degree getting away from him.
Predictably, the adventures 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 a more welcoming and attractive place
Following that custom, Tom and I went to Moscow and went 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 decided to leave.
There was a large crowd already in the place. There was also a large group trying to exit the place. And there was an equally large crowd trying to get in the place.
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 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. I had furnished my bar at Cannon Air Force Base in a similar manner through gifts from multiple and various bachelor officer house guests who always took a glass or pitcher with them from the Officers’ Club when they came to my house for some post officers club function that we always seemed to be 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 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.”
On leave from the Air Force at a different time Tom, Joe, Dave (Joe and Dave being my one time compatriots in a singing group – The RF Trio) and I 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 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 was incapable of distinguishing between political campaigns, government agencies and unions; as a result I never knew what it was that Tom was 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 from a tumble of dominos out of South East Asia for several years.
I got there first, took a place at the bar and had been enjoying a draught for a few minutes when Tom appeared.
We then went through our various inane – by design – greeting rituals and he 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 involved aggressive use of gestures with his hands. 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 came 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 became twenty-one years old. In the time prior to that momentous event Tom and I often went to the fraternity house for lunch.
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, I added a little water to the remains in the pan and swirled it around to make a dark brown juice, which I 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 was 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 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.
Instead of steak 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 there with the coffee table between us.. The fireplace was on our right. 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. 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 made 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 seemed to make sense 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.
A game played by Air Force pilots as an adjunct to bouts of drinking - that I had learned about, but had never actually played - was called “Dead Bug”. I had learned about it at Itazuke Air Base on Kyushu in Japan.
The rules were simple.
Somebody was designated to be “it”.
The game was never played anywhere but at a bar with bar stools.
Those stools created the proper altitude for the mechanics of the game.
Other 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 externally normal barroom protocols; no one from what turned out to be the observers – the non-players - was ever prepared for the second stage of the game.
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 shouted 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, and curl up in a manner thought to resemble a dead bug.
Apparently the creators of the game were 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 introduced Tom, Joe and Dave to the concept of Dead Bug at some point and they 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 visited Tom in Pullman, after the episode with the nearly purloined pitcher, we took off on the Bovil Run.
To go on the Bovil Run one left Moscow headed east.
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.
And to be an official Run every bar and tavern on that northern route had to be visited.
Of course each visit required that a drink be consumed.
One of the last taverns on the northern side of the Run 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 a nearly infinite number of cigarette packs.
The time Tom and I were there it was nearly dark and our Bovil Run was 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 decided to make a phone call back to someone at Cannon Air Force Base.
In the years that have followed I have never able to establish why I wanted to make that call.
Nor have I ever been able to 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.
Nor can I remember who I might have been calling.
It must have been my friend Bruce. But who knows?
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 seen me 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 those 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 contributed to a long and deeply satisfying friendship.
It turned out that 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 visiting Tom and Betsy, we got to talking about travel and were 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 either 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 I had lived in Saigon and Fukuoka and had been to Adelaide in Australia.
And we had liked to talk about those experiences.
In the midst of one of those discussions Tom 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 ever 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 that she 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.
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.
And 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 stayed for a fairly long time, so it must have been something of consequence in each instance.
I 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 - arrived from New York, and after he had had his time with his father, we all went into Tom’s room.
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 the smell of scotch 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 severe 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 that night to the group who had ushered Tom out of this place.
“When I die” she said “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 week long wake occurred when we – with appropriate warning to Bud Clark– took over the Goose Hollow Tavern for a few hours. The staff set up a small table where we 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 met.
The Goose was where Tom introduced me to Betsy.
The Goose is where the ghosts of Bruce Baer, Max Berg and Bill Johnson are 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 is will be.
Monday, September 16, 2013
When Bill died it was a surprise.
He became the first of us to go, and he was quite young. At least so it seemed. He was a year or two younger than I was. And I was young, wasn’t I?
But he died, nonetheless.
The list of missing parts consisting of the fingers and the foot and, no doubt, myriad less obvious components had turned out to include key aspects of a healthy heart.
He died in his doctor’s office on a day he had gone in for a routine checkup.
An advantage of being the first to die – assuming one has liked crowds, and assuming that one has any personal consciousness and personal connection with the living after one’s death, and assuming that one has been well liked – is that there will be a lot of people who will come to one’s funeral.
Bill was extremely well liked.
He had an overflow crowd at his funeral.
There were a great many of us in the crowd who were his fraternity brothers, and we all knew and liked him very well.
He had been, among other things, president of the fraternity.
So there was a large crowd, many of them fraternity brothers who knew him well, at Bill’s memorial service.
The whole concept of a “memorial” instead of a “funeral” had evolved from the desire to “celebrate” the life that had passed, and not to “mourn” its passing.
Somehow, in the case of Bill’s formal departure, that concept had gotten high-jacked right after the word “memorial” had been employed rather than “funeral”.
At a real “memorial” the attendees are asked to recount their thoughts, memories and fond stories of the recently departed. The result of those real memorials is usually fabric woven from myth and woven from fact effortlessly blended by the ebb and flow of the thoughts, memories and emotions of the attendees of the memorial.
That fabric usually long outlasts the memorial gathering itself.
That fabric, that body of myth and fact, then becomes a legacy that keeps the departed alive in the hearts of all those who were present and contributed to its creation.
It becomes part of a larger story – a story that results from the continually added threads of other memorials - to be recounted around dinner tables and campfires until all those who were present, and all those who have told the ever expanding tale, have joined the departed by departing themselves.
That type of memorial was denied to Bill.
For some reason someone in Bill’s family decided to have a minister, who had never met Bill, do the remembering.
It was painful to the point of being appalling.
I felt like Doctor Strangelove grabbing my hand to keep it from going up and demanding to speak about this person with whom I had spent so much time. I wanted to tell everybody about Bill’s shooting ability, about all the other things he could do that he ought not to have been able to do. I wanted to tell them about the story he had told me about the limbless person who had been his first friend. I wanted to just let them know that we had been blessed with the presence for a time of a special form of creature.
But all we got was irrelevant bullshit.
I rode to a small post-memorial event at Tom and Betsy’s with Tom.
I had never cried in front of a friend before. But as the words, “Bill deserved better” exited my mouth they were followed by those awful heaving sobs that I thought I had left behind years before.
Maybe I was making up for my emotional paralysis when Blitz had died.
Friday, September 13, 2013
When I lived in Omaha I got a dog.
That was January of 1968.
Since I was going to get out of the Air Force in December and return to Oregon, and returning to Oregon meant returning to bird hunting, I wanted to have my own hunting dog.
There was a classified ad in the Omaha paper for a litter of German Shorthaired Pointers. I called and made an appointment to see them, and I went to see if my dog was among the litter of puppies.
It was a large litter of Beautiful little dogs, about eight weeks old. They ranged in color from almost solid brown and liver to an almost white one. Then there was my dog. He was the classic tri-color mix of brown, liver and white.
I was sitting on the floor looking at all the little squirming beings when my dog emerged from the litter and came over and sat on my lap.
It turned out his name was Blitz and he lived with me for the next thirteen years.
When Blitz was about four months old my friend Jack got back from Vietnam.
I had escaped a few months before him.
On his way to his new duty assignment he came and stayed in Omaha with me for several weeks.
I had heard of “voco” leave which was leave that one’s superior officer could grant at his discretion and which didn’t count as official leave. I asked and it was granted. I think my boss was relieved to have one less person sitting around without enough to do while waiting for security clearance preparatory to being briefed into the mission.
So Jack and I had two weeks to initiate Blitz into the Noel and Jack show.
We decided to take him out and show him a pheasant.
It was early March so we couldn’t actually go hunting, but we could go look for birds, and perhaps even “salute” them (fire our guns into the air) as they flushed. This seemed like a great way to introduce Blitz to his purpose in life. We decided to cross the border into South Dakota where there were supposed to be more pheasants than people.
When we got into likely looking country, it was a typical north-mid-western spring day. The sky was a sort of blue grey mix of clouds and patches of sunlight. The wind was both a sound and a feel. It was cold but not unpleasant. We had stopped at a large reservoir and were looking over the lake from a rise on the Nebraska side. The terrain was rocky with quantities of scrub and runty cactus. Blitz had seemed to enjoy the two hour ride that preceded our arrival. He seemed to especially like the song “The Mighty Quinn”. There was something about the chorus that had caused him to jump up from the floor where he lay next to my feet every time the chorus of that song came on the radio. And the song was apparently very high on the charts, because it seemed to come on every fifteen minutes.
So we started walking.
Blitz was ready.
He was already manifesting the trait of acting like a tightly coiled spring which is a trademark of a German Shorthaired-Pointer.
But his enthusiasm couldn’t hide the fact that he didn’t have a clue about what we were doing or what he was expected to do.
That’s the most exciting time in one’s relationship with a young hunting dog.
It’s also the most fragile.
If anything goes wrong, such as a gun being fired at the wrong time or in the wrong way the dog can be finished as a hunter early and permanently.
Apparently that same spirit that had been present the first time a flock of chukkars slid down the wind behind and past me making me, in one fel swoop, into a hunter was present on this day also.
Almost immediately Blitz’s tail started wagging frantically.
With an experienced dog that was always a sure sign that they had gotten the scent of a bird.
With a novice, I had no idea for sure what it meant.
I had never hunted with anybody but Blaze, Jack’s father’s dog. And Blaze was experienced. But I had a deep well of hope for Blitz, and he was looking like he was figuring out rapidly what it was that he was supposed to do for a living.
He looked back at us to see if we were behind him and kept casting about in increasingly large circles.
Then he slammed to a halt.
We were right behind him and almost stumbled over him he had stopped so abruptly and stayed so solidly.
We were about to find out, and rather early in the exercise, whether he knew what he was talking about. Because “talk” is exactly the only description that is possible to assign to what a good bird dog does when tracking a bird or a covey. The wagging tail means “hey guys, they’ve been here recently.” The casting circles mean “I’m on them; it won’t be long now.” As the dog gets more experience with a variety of birds and the hunter gets more experienced with the language of the dog some fairly specific statements get added to the vocabulary.
Depending upon the terrain, the dog’s actions can tell the hunter what kind of bird he’s tracking.
If it’s in cheat grass and the dog is doing the wagging and casting in an uncontrolled nearly irrational manner it means he’s tracking Hungarian Partridges.
If it’s along a riverbank with basalt ridges and occasional talus slopes and the dog is running in a fairly straight line across the hillside it means he’s on chukkars.
If it’s in a fairly flat area with a lot of junipers and the dog has his nose in the air as he casts it means that he’s tracking quail. Quail like to sit in junipers.
If it’s near the corner of a wheat field and the dog has been crouching and moving rapidly forward with his nose to the ground for an extended time period it means he’s tracking a rooster pheasant.
If the same terrain and crouching forward progress comes to a quick point it means it’s a hen or immature pheasant.
In all cases a kind of half hearted point usually accompanied by some backward glances at the hunter means, “here’s a snake.”
In all cases a slam stop to a point means, “Here it is.”
And Blitz the rookie had just slam stopped to a point. He crouched lower and lower to the ground. His tail increased to hummingbird wing speed, becoming a near blur. He was progressing slower and slower until he suddenly did a prehensile whip turn to his left, bending his body completely 180 degrees back toward us.
We could see his eyes focused on something in some other dimension looking in the direction of the scent that he and his ancestors had been bred to seek as their life’s work.
The protocol at this point is supposed to be: the dog holds the bird in place by some magic power and the hunter moves slowly up on the indicated location from behind the dog with the intention of breaking the hold and causing the bird to flush; then there is supposed to be a successful shot downing the bird.
We had left the guns in the car because, since it was out of hunting season, we felt it would be difficult to explain to law enforcement that we were only saluting the game. We felt reasonably sure that anyone seeing that activity would suppose merely that we were scofflaws and bad marksmen to boot.
So the protocol needed to go forward to the flush but without an actual gunshot. We had decided previously if we got to that stage of Blitz’s introduction to birds that we would shout “bang” as loudly as possible as a simulation.
I was too nervous to be the flusher-hunter. I had too much emotional capital tied up in Blitz becoming a good hunting dog. I needed Jack to take the hunter role. Since Blitz had whipped around putting the bird between him and us (a highly desirable trait that can’t be taught) the flush would occur, not ahead of the dog, but between the dog and the hunter.
In the military they called it a pincer movement.
All of this was exciting to the point of being electrical.
But it was Blitz’s eyes that were the whole show.
Blitz had yellow eyes that looked like an eagle’s eyes. This was not the normal color of German Shorthair eyes, but it was common enough to have a name: bird of prey eyes.
His eyes were physically about the same size as human eyes. As I watched Jack moving slowly toward him, and as Blitz continued to stare into some other dimension his eyes became so large and so yellow that they looked like two glittering yellow lamps.
He was frozen still except for a slight trembling down the lateral plane of his body.
Jack moved slowly forward.
Blitz was frozen in place.
Time went into that slow motion movie mode that came into my life at moments of extreme stress.
Then time slowed even more, almost to a stop.
Then it reversed.
The whole scene erupted into frantic sound and motion.
From between Jack and Blitz a rooster pheasant exploded into the air with a characteristic cackle as he burst over Blitz’s head. Jack yelled at the top of his voice “Bang, you beautiful son of a bitch, bang.”
Blitz started as if awakened from a trance. His eyes immediately became normal size, although still bright yellow. One lone feather drifted to the ground and Blitz jammed his nose into it with a yelp of joy.
Apparently, we shouted to each other, we had ourselves a hunting dog.
In the years that followed, the permutations and variations of the day Blitz found his purpose in life were always exciting.
There were so many other days.
Frequently those other days were magical.
There was the first pheasant that I ever shot.
Blitz found it, pointed it, held it, and I flushed it.
Then I shot it.
That was later in the year after the South Dakota expedition. It was in Nebraska in a snow-bound field from a snow-bound thicket close to sundown.
The horizon was deep salmon with blue black above as Blitz and I walked back to the car congratulating each other over our first successful hunt.
There were the times that Jack and I had had to watch from midway up the slopes of Hell’s Canyon as Blitz worked his way methodically through massive flocks of chukkars. He never was able understand that humans weren’t able to lope from one side of a canyon to the other in five or six minute time segments. So he hunted and we watched. It was beautiful. Strictly speaking it was also a violation of how dogs and hunters are supposed to work – the dog is not supposed to range so far from the hunter that proper point/hold/flush/shoot etiquette is impossible – but we felt that it would have been wrong to penalize Blitz for the fact that we had chosen terrain that was unhuntable for humans.
There was the early frosty morning in Southeastern Idaho when Jack and his law school friend Ted and I stood on a little lava outcropping above a small field of grass.
We had been hunting for a couple of hours and there hadn’t been a tail wag from Blitz or Brown. (Brown had joined our team one early spring evening on a boat ramp in Portland and had been with Jack ever since. On the boat ramp he was a three or four month old puppy that someone had lost or someone had abandoned. He was all brown and he was all German shorthair. That had meant that he was all hunter.)
The grass had turned from what had probably been a bright green to a blades-down-on- the-ground-dead-looking-blue-black.
The field was flat.
The relief above the flattened blades couldn’t have been even a half-inch.
We could see the entire field. It was obvious that there was nothing there. We could see that there could be nothing bigger than a frozen cricket lurking in that field.
But the dogs started frantically wagging their tails and galloped down off the lava rise to the frozen grass below.
Almost immediately they both were on point both on the same bird.
Or at least that was what they were saying.
We didn’t believe it.
We decided that they had lost all sense of perspective and reality because of the two hours of futility that they had just experienced and that that they had been driven to theatrics.
But we owed it to them to humor them.
The three of us came up behind the dogs just as if we believed that there was a bird that were so small that it was able to hide in the blackened grass.
The dogs were acting as if the bird they had invented was a hen pheasant; they hadn’t had to run after it, and their points were staunch from the outset.
As we got to where there would have been a bird if the possibility of such a thing hadn’t been impossible several hen pheasants rose into the air. We couldn’t shoot because the season was roosters only. But we were amazed. The dogs had somehow caused birds the size of a chicken to appear in cover that wouldn’t have hidden a mouse.
And the dogs immediately started saying that there were more.
And there were more.
And enough of them were roosters that even with the shoddy shooting that the three of us brought to the field we called it a day a couple of hours later with three limits.
That was nine birds.
And that hadn’t counted the numerous roosters who had escaped with merely a salute.
There had been twenty or thirty birds that we actually had brought to point and flushed, and it must have been possible that that many more had slid out ahead of us.
The dogs had had all they could handle with the ones that stayed behind.
And I had begun to learn that Blitz had a lot to tell me if I could only learn how to listen.
There were the charges Blitz and I made through sage and juniper patches tracking small sub coveys of quail that had split off from a large covey that had been flushed from the branches of a juniper. There were the charges up to the corner of a hillside wheat field where the peasants always and inevitably froze under Blitz’s point. It took a long time for me to learn what Blitz was trying to teach me and for me to trust him implicitly: if he took off from the sagebrush at a tail wagging crouching gallop toward a wheat field on a hill he was always going to go on point at the downhill place where the field came to an acute angle with itself.
It took years for me to learn all he had to teach me.
It all ended in Atlanta.
Blitz was thirteen and hadn’t hunted since the fall of his tenth year. His tenth year was the fall before the spring that we moved to Atlanta. I hadn’t thought that it was likely that I would be hunting in Atlanta, so we had worked hard that last fall.
By that year Jack didn’t have time to hunt much anymore. He was actively engaged in the work schedule and politics of becoming a successful lawyer in Lewiston. He and his partner Ted had all kinds of things going, including being the impetus behind getting a new community bank - Seaport Citizens - started. Neither Jack nor Ted had much time for anything else. I myself had not hunted much for several years either.
As Blitz’s tenth year hunting season loomed I hadn’t gotten the promotion to Atlanta yet, but in my mind I was already gone. All I was going to have to do was to get the cogs in the IBM wheel to recognize the fact that I needed to be gone.
So the fall of 1978 became a major hunting fall for Blitz and me.
Bill who was one of my fraternity brothers accompanied me on those last fall hunting trips.
When I pledged the fraternity Bill had been our pledge master. Pledges in our fraternity were assigned de jura the status of semi-person or a nearly non-person. They were told to look up to the initiated members and to aspire to be like them. If some day a pledge had the good fortune to be initiated he would rise to the status of a full person. Until that day a sort of keeper was required for the fraternity's supply of pledges. That keeper was the pledge master. In the case of the group of pledges of which I was a part, Bill had been that person.
Bill was a rather quiet, rather intense sort of person. He was medium height, had curly brown hair and black eyes that seemed to spark when he exercised his authority as pledge master. Although he exercised that authority, and played the role of the whip cracking pledge master, it was obvious almost immediately to us pledges that he was really a good guy.
Bill had a physical characteristic that set him apart from the rest of us. His hands were extremely misshapen with totally irregular and abbreviated fingers. It was not the sort of thing one would notice, certainly not in an initial encounter. But Bill was socially sensitive. When meeting new people he had an extremely firm handshake, made all the more noticeable by the fact that he had irregular and significantly abbreviated fingers.
Bill and I had stayed at some level of social contact after college and continued it when I returned to Portland from the Air Force and had gone to work for IBM. The common factor between us had been another fraternity brother, Tom. Tom had been in my pledge class and we had been initiated together. Bill had been our mutual pledge master.
The nature of that post-college relationship with Bill had been that of occasionally having drinks together. Those drinks had usually occurred at a party at Tom’s house. Tom had lots of parties. He and his wife Betsy loved giving parties. And the vestiges of the fraternity that were still in and around Portland loved going to them. It was from the conversations I had with Bill at these occasions that I had learned that he liked to hunt, and that, in fact, he hunted a lot.
He was so familiar with the area that I usually hunted that in one of our conversations about hunting at one of Tom and Betsy’s parties he mentioned the town of Dufur. Dufur was a little town out in the wheat fields above the Columbia. Bill said that he was around Dufur so much that he had decided to run for mayor of Dufur. He asked my opinion of the tag line he had decided for his campaign. “Ask not what Dufur can do fer you; ask instead what you can do fer Dufur.”
Based on that story, I had found it compellingly necessary to ask him if he wanted to go with Blitz and me on our first trip of the 1978 season. That trip was going to be the opening of pheasant season in eastern Oregon.
That season turned out to be a special one beyond the fact that it was the last one. Blitz was the best he had ever been. I was as well-trained by him as I was ever going to get. And Bill was a deadly shot. Knowing that I had someone with me who could actually hit things made me a calmer, slower, better shot as well. What had started as an opening day experiment to see if Bill would fit in with Blitz and me immediately became a rest of the bird season set of weekends in the field. And we always got birds.
I had known that Bill really didn’t have anything anyone would describe as fingers, so I was constantly amazed how he could draw down on a bird and pull the trigger with the smooth flowing, consistent deadly accuracy that he did. But he did. And he smoked a pipe. Keeping a pipe properly filled and tamped and lit is an everlasting exercise in manual dexterity. And he tied trout flies. Winding thread and feathers around a small hook and adding snippets of duck quill as wings and adding sprigs of tendril from hackles as a tail takes all the manual skill a person with two full fingered hands possesses. Bill did it and did it beautifully with almost no fingers. I came to the realization that he purposely acquired skills requiring significant manual dexterity.
That was his way of not letting what some would bemoan as a handicap not be handicap. Bill turned his fingers into a goad to excellence. And it worked.
Our routine was to be in the field at sunrise and hunt until we might have been pushing our legal obligation to quit at sunset.
That involved a lot of walking.
Some of the walking was at fairly high speed if one wanted to be with the dog when he came to point.
It wasn’t until the first night the three of us spent in a motel in Wasco that I discovered that Bill was missing the better part of one of his feet. The same process that had left him with hands that should have been useless, but weren’t, had left him with one equally vestigial proxy for a foot. I never would have known it from the walking we did.
There was nothing that he wanted to do that he couldn’t do.
And there was no discussion of it.
He just did whatever it was.
And all of this gave him an expanded view of human possibilities.
He had spent the first few years of his life in some kind of hospital-like special environment with other children who had severe physical challenges. He told me one evening as we were eating dinner in a little roadside place in Grass Valley that his first best friend had been a kid who didn’t have any arms or legs. He never thought much about his friend’s lack of limbs.
He was just his friend.
The fall of 1978 was special because Blitz had been at his best and because I had found the most special of things: a friend of the closest sort. He was a friend I had known for a long time but hadn’t ever known until that fall.
Blitz and I never hunted again after that. He lived in semi retirement in a development called Cameron Crest Farms whose mailing address was Alpharetta Georgia. There were some quail around our place, but we never hunted for them. Once in a while he would sense their presence and get his tail going, but the intensity and magic were gone.
In the fall of 1981 I took Blitz to the veterinarian because he was having trouble getting around. He was thirteen. The vet examined him and told me that he had cancer. He said that, although we could go through the exercise of surgery and treatment, the facts were Blitz was an old dog – thirteen was about as old as working dogs were likely to get – and he wasn’t going to recover. The only reasonable thing to do, he said, was to put Blitz to sleep.
I had never been in the presence of death - as it actually occurred - to a person. And to me Blitz was a person; and I was afraid to be with him as he died. So I waited in the outer office while the veterinarian administered the lethal dose.
I was never able to understand the emotional incapacity – the emotional paralysis - that had caused me to stay in that outer office as a friend and companion of thirteen years faded from existence.
But I did it.
And I didn’t even feel any grief.
I felt numbness but not grief.
It was as if the wrenching sobs in the car with my mother when Annie died had taken something from me that I didn’t have any more of.
I departed the veterinarian’s office after he came out and told me it was over. It had been quick.
I left what remained of my friend to be disposed of by the veterinarian as he saw fit.
I could have taken him home and buried him in the woods with a decent ceremony. We had five acres in the midst of a veritable sea of vacant five-acre lots in the Georgia woods.
I could have done at least that right thing.
But I didn’t.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
In the summer of 1985 I took a vacation.
I had worked for IBM for 17 years by that time and had never taken more than a few contiguous days off at a time.
I need to point out something.
By the time I had gotten organized enough to do the job of a Marketing Representative I had changed radically from the person I had always been.
For the first time I was succeeding at something that was hard for me to be good at - or even understand sometimes - but I was savoring every moment of it. Its very foreignness to everything that I had ever thought to be meaningful had caused every little success that I experienced to be an event of consequence.
“Workaholic” had been a term of opprobrium in my usage.
Nonetheless it accurately described how I went about what it was that I had begun to do for a living.
What could be opprobrious about being excited about working the normal work day and then working after that work day thinking about all the interesting things that went into the job and about all the interesting things that needed to be done, or to be avoided, or to be said, or not said, or the letters to be written or the appointments to be made, that would move the pieces on my business chessboard where I wanted them to go?
How could that be bad?
That was exhilarating.
But I wasn’t a unidimensional being.
Off duty, I had become an avid boater and water skier and fisherman and, in the autumn, bird hunter. But I didn’t need vacations to do any of those things. A long weekend was plenty. And long weekends were all that I ever took.
Even during the three years when I was a Marketing Manager in Jefferson City – a job that put my exhilaration into another dimension – I never took anything but long weekends.
But then I had gotten myself promoted to Boca Raton.
Actually, the term “promoted” was a fiction.
It was a fiction that managers who had successfully performed in “the field” utilized to describe the job they took to compete for the job after that job.
“The field” is what we called that place where IBMers actually had daily contact with customers and had revenue generating and revenue protecting responsibility. IBM, believed in constantly stirring the pot, and not allowing anything or anybody to get too comfortable with anything. Therefore, in order to get a job that one might actually consider a promotion – a job one might actually want - the company required those with ambitions to take jobs they really didn’t want in places that they really didn’t want to live. It was thought that the process allowed one to prove oneself, or go down in flames. If one proved oneself it might then be possible to get a job one actually wanted that was in a place one might actually want to live. The job necessary to succeed at to get a job one actually wanted was almost always a staff job, and a non-manager’s job. The promotion fiction had come into use as a sop to the ego of the departing successful manager. It also may have had something to do with the fact that if one succeeded at that next job, rather than going down in flames, one might actually get a job that could be described as a promotion.
I had chosen Boca Raton as the place to exercise that next opportunity to succeed or go down in flames.
That choice had had three reasons.
First, the IBM Personal Computer had been announced in August of 1981 and had become an immediate rocket to the moon success. The engineer –Don Estridge - who had led the team that had developed the PC had become almost overnight a Division President. The unstructured and unbuttoned-down manner in which the product had been brought to market had become legendary. If ever I had heard of an environment in which I ought to succeed – I had always been considered to be “one brick shy of a load” by IBM formal standards – the PC business ought to be it.
Or so I had thought.
Second had been the fact that a number of my friends from my time in Atlanta had already moved there and had all uniformly succeeded. They had all been promoted very quickly back to manager’s jobs, albeit in place in Boca Raton in direct opposition to the normal IBM way of moving people every time they wanted to prove themselves to be promotion worthy.
The third reason for Boca Raton as my next destination was that my wife Mysti had gotten promoted there from her job in the Atlanta Education Center.
We had moved together to Atlanta from Portland in 1979 when I had been overcome by a desire to go and prove myself so I could get the job I really wanted. Of the various options available at the time – San Francisco, Boca Raton (they were developing an amazingly slow and high priced small business computer there at the time) or Atlanta – Atlanta had seemed the least objectionable.
It had even seemed slightly attractive.
With the money we could expect from the sale of our Lake Oswego house we would be able to build a mansion in Atlanta.
So IBM moved us to Atlanta.
We were both Marketing Representatives in Portland.
I was the one who had gone on interviews and had gotten the job I wanted in Atlanta: instructor in Sales and Systems School.
Sales and Systems School was the final class of a multi-class year of training that newly hired sales and systems engineering employees went though.
It was thought that a couple of years of working with those entry level employees would verify that an instructor was qualified to be a manager.
Or that he or she was not so qualified.
It was the opportunity to succeed or go down in flames preparatory to that first real promotion – first line manager.
Mysti was being moved because we were married, but she also needed to find a job in Atlanta.
She found one in education development.
She developed education in support of products which had not yet been announced.
During the two or so years we spent in Atlanta we bought a six acre lot in Cameron Crest Farms; we built a house; we built a stable for Mysti’s horses (we got horses in Atlanta; we hadn’t had any previously) and we went about our respective jobs and got at so cross purposes to one another that divorce had seemed the only logical next step.
The only thing that prevented that taking place was the great unknown of where and when exactly I would be promoted to Marketing Manager.
It seemed tidier to stay together until I had to move.
That way we could most easily and gracefully split our biggest asset, the house, stable and all.
The horses would have been exterior to any property split.
As it turned out this falling out had probably been a good thing. As it turned out when my promotion offer came it was to go to Jefferson City Missouri.
The one thing I had vowed after leaving the Air Force and Omaha was that I would never let myself get sent to the Midwest ever again. Now I was jumping at the chance. That was where the job was so that was where I would be. That was the way all good ambitious IBMers approached things.
That would have been a real problem if Mysti and I had continued to be happily married, because while I had undergone some sort of lobotomy about where I was willing to live, she hadn’t. And Jefferson City would not have been a possibility.
The IBM promotion game had a covenant that said you didn’t have many rights of refusal.
In fact you really had none, but the game was played in a way that obscured that fact.
If I had said no to Jefferson City, time would have gone into slow motion for me and my career’s future.
I would have become shopworn as a candidate and the next offer – if indeed one ever had come - would probably have been the last. And the chances would have been excellent that it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as attractive as the first.
The first offer was always one that had been finely tuned to take a requirement in the field and fulfill it with a person who had been given a great deal of management evaluation, and analysis. That first offer was one that was, as closely as the IBM system of doing such things could provide, a real opportunity, and one which was calculated to accommodate the weaknesses and strengths that the candidate’s manager had perceived in the candidate.
That offer was Jefferson City.
The second offer, if I had pushed it to that would have been the system’s way of getting me pretty officially and permanently off the list.
“If he takes it great; if he doesn’t take it great; at least we don’t have to worry about a third offer.”
Given my personal circumstances I had been able to jump at the chance to move to Jefferson City.
The day I packed up the car, hooked up the boat and left the house for the last time was one of those overwhelmingly sad to the point of tears episodes that are apparently mandatory in modern human life.
After I moved to Jefferson City, Mysti got herself moved to the Education Center and had gotten embroiled in the activities of competing for the next promotion.
In 1983 she achieved that promotion. It was a move to Boca Raton with a manager-level code and every expectation of making manager soon after.
For some reason, she had never actually filed the divorce papers.
The years had passed; I had sent the amount of money we had agreed on that she needed from me every month and Morgan visited me regularly.
Morgan is our daughter.
Mysti even visited me a couple times in Jefferson City as I did her in Atlanta in the house she had bought after the sale of our Cameron Crest Farms home.
So all of a sudden it was 1985 and we weren’t divorced, and while we had a relationship that wouldn’t have been described as the ideal marriage, we had a relationship that had more substance to it than many actual practicing, living-in-the-same-home marriages.
So the ultimate reason for my acceptance of a promotion to Boca Raton was that it had been a way to get IBM to pay for putting my family back together.
It had never occurred to me that there wouldn’t be anything to do in Boca Raton.
How could that have been possible at the epicenter of the Personal Computer universe?
But it was possible.
When I went to Boca Raton to interview I had talked to managers in both sales and marketing. I didn’t realize it at the time but that was the first time in my IBM career that I was dealing with the proper meaning of those two words. In my first job my title had been Marketing Representative, but as often as not I had described myself as a salesman when talking to people about what I did for a living. Salesman was the more accurate term, but Marketing Representative had a much better sound to it. So later I had become a “Marketing Manager” when “Sales Manager” would have been a much more accurate title.
In Boca Raton, which architected everything to do with the Personal Computer there actually was a “sales” function concentrating on the newly created IBM Personal Computer Dealer Channel and “marketing” which concentrated on requirements for existing and future products and which included the actual nature of those current and future products and the new or additional channels that might be needed to “sell” them.
All of this had totally eluded me.
I just knew that the personalities of the people in sales that I was interviewed by and the things they were saying made no sense to me. None of them had backgrounds similar to mine, and what they were in charge of doing were things that I had no experience with. I totally missed the fact that all the action was in the Dealer Channel and in the IBM Sales function responsible for its care and feeding. That fact alone, had I perceived it, would have told me that “Sales” was the place to be for someone like me who was coming to Boca Raton to do the job that would get me the next job, not to retire on active duty in Florida.
However, I didn’t perceive that vital fact.
Heath, a friend of mine from Atlanta who had gotten promoted from Marketing Manager to PC Sales in Boca Raton tried to tell me, but I thought that he must be wrong. Denny, his manager tried to tell me, but I didn’t believe what I understood of what he had said, and I hadn’t understood much.
On the other hand, the guy I talked to in “Marketing” just made more sense, including the fact that he had a background similar to mine so we were able to immediately have common ground to talk about. I totally missed the fact that he was in the process of retiring on active duty in Florida and that a prerequisite for that was that he had to build up a big enough first line organization that he could be promoted to second-line manager.
Having once achieved that promotion, given the abstract nature of “Marketing” – an abstraction that I had not yet perceived – he would never have to really do anything ever again.
He would have been able pursue a life of getting on airplanes every Monday for various IBM headquarters of interest in the Northeast, attending never ending meetings, discussing endless variations of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and coming back every Friday for the weekend in Florida.
Anything that might have actually required attention in the abstract world of marketing in Boca Raton could have been attended to by his first line management apparatus.
His name was Mike and I had fallen into his trap, becoming one more incremental body toward his promotion to second line manager.
That was January, 1984.
The nature of working in Marketing in Boca Raton seemed to appeal to most of the people who were allegedly doing it. At least there were a great number of them already in place taking up office space.
And more were arriving every day.
And they all seemed excited to be there doing whatever it was that they did.
I never figured out what it was that they did and never did much of it myself.
What I did do I tried to execute with the same intensity that I had developed as a Marketing Representative, Instructor and Marketing Manager.
But it was different: those other jobs had been challenging, but they had also been obvious.
A Marketing Representative had a quota and a customer set. Each year he or she was expected to make or exceed quota without pissing off his or her customers and with reasonable administrative cost to the IBM Company. If he or she did that often enough, the company was likely to ask him or her to accept more responsibility and move up in the corporation.
An Instructor was expected to teach and entertain entry level IBM employees while occasionally performing with precision various staff related tasks, all the while getting positive critiques from his or her students and positive evaluations from his or her manager. If he or she did that successfully for a couple of years, the company was likely to ask him or her to accept more responsibility and move up in the corporation.
A Marketing Manager had a quota and a customer set. He or she also had the added dimension of having Marketing Representatives assigned to him or her through whom he or she was expected to achieve quota without pissing off the Reps, his or her customers or the administrative staff. He or she was expected to be a sort of talking spreadsheet whenever his or her manager or his or her manager’s manager asked him or her how he or she was going to finish the hour, day, week, month or year from a quota viewpoint. He or she was also supposed to do everything possible to develop as much of the potential as was possible in his or her assigned employees with the objective of moving them up in the company. Since knowledge is power, one of his or her first lines of developing those personnel was to keep them as up to date on the objectives, plans and inner workings of the IBM Company as was humanly possible. If he or she did all that often enough, the company was likely to ask him or her to accept more responsibility and move up in the corporation.
Boca Raton Marketing was different.
There were no quotas.
There were no people to develop.
There were no customers to think about.
There were no apparent cost constraints or objectives – an outsider would have assumed that the measure of success of a manager, or one of his or her employees was how much they could spend in a year on fruit plates in the never ending meetings, or how much they had personally spent on air fare.
As an insider, I was hard-pressed to find that appearance to be inaccurate.
Since knowledge is power, and since first line managers who were attempting to become second line managers needed all the power for themselves, information was rationed and colored and distorted.
And the things managers did that might have been mistaken to be work were things related to secondary and tertiary turf war driven agendas in the massive competition to be the head of as large an organization as possible.
And the first rule of life was that no one was allowed to admit any of this to anyone, even to themselves.
In the absence of any real mission other than that of managers building huge organizations to advance their careers it was nevertheless necessary for people to do something with their days. These were, after all, people who, previously in their IBM careers, had been successful, high energy salesmen, systems engineers and managers. That energy had not departed. It just had been re-deployed.
So there were meetings.
There were meetings about the size and shape of the box in which a diskette was to be shipped to the Dealers.
There were meetings about the exact hue of the blue bars that would appear on the IBM logo on the letter that went into the box in which the diskette was to be shipped.
There were meetings on the time of day that the delivery of the box and letter with the logo would occur.
There were meetings to coordinate the outcome of all the other meetings.
There were meetings to decide on the upcoming schedule of meetings, and meetings to co-ordinate that schedule with the people who might attend the meetings.
There were meetings to discuss who it would be appropriate to invite to attend the meetings whose schedules were being decided and coordinated.
There were meetings to argue about the results of the sum total of all the other meetings having occurred in any given time slice.
There were meetings to normalize the agreements concerning the outcome of the meetings concerning the results of all the other meetings having occurred in any given time slice.
There were meetings to discuss and or agree to or agree to disagree about what the time slices would be for the normalizing and coordinating meetings.
There were meetings to define the meaning of the term time slice.
There were meetings to define the meaning of the word co-ordinate.
There were meetings to define the meaning of the word meeting.
And these meetings were all hugely attended.
The sign of status of a non-manager was how many meetings he or she attended in a given time slice.
There were whole departments under some third line managers devoted to evaluating meeting attendance of the other members of their organization.
There were even contra departments devoted to keeping secret the whereabouts of the meetings, or of disseminating inaccurate times and places for meetings.
This tactic was especially useful to third line managers who wanted not only to keep their own employees from finding out what was going on – no matter how absurd what was going on might have been – but also to keep their adversary managers as off balance as possible.
That tactic also created a sort of personnel static or entropy that created a self-feeding need for more employees to disseminate bogus information about meetings.
There were, of course, meetings to discuss and evaluate which of the schedules for the upcoming meetings might be valid.
Often meetings would spring up spontaneously from a group of people who had showed up at a wrong time or wrong place. These were often the most useful and well attended because the attendees spent their time deciding what the subject, time and place should have been if they had been at the right place or time. Often they would attempt to ascertain which third line manager was most responsible for the misinformation which had brought them all to that time and place.
Based on that information one could ascertain which third line manager was on the rise.
Based on that information one could know which organizations one should aspire to be moved to in pursuit of one’s career advancement.
It was a well-known fact that just being in the presence of one of the really successful organization building third line deities could advance one’s career. Being asked to speak by one could act as the catalyst one needed to be taken seriously as a person on the rise.
The inward churn to a third line’s department created by the really successful spreading of disinformation had even been known to create that most august form of manager, the Director.
An advantage of being a Director, in addition to higher pay, was that Directors were expected to conduct themselves in a manner similar to the Wizard of Oz.
An astounding fact about these meetings was how well attended they were. Many times meetings moved from an initial, smaller, venue to a larger one. Sometimes even a second move was required to an even larger venue. Sometimes meeting subcommittees were spun off to discuss and evaluate alternate larger venues.
These ad hoc committees were assigned the task of getting back to the meeting of the whole with recommendations for larger places to meet. Being on one of these meeting spin-offs could be a real feather in one’s cap.
Often all the chairs in a meeting, no matter how large its room, no matter how many its chairs, were taken; on those occasions people without chairs were left lining the walls.
When the meetings were over - and it was easy to tell when they were over because that was when no one was still yelling at the top of his or her lungs about the mind of Don Estridge - people wandered off in hope of stumbling upon another meeting.
This was usually no problem since meetings and their subcommittees were everywhere, either in session or wandering to new venues.
The main beneficiaries of these meetings were the local caterers.
No meeting could occur without, at a minimum a huge fruit plate.
Real meetings had, in addition, a cheese selection.
If the meeting occurred anywhere near breakfast, sausage biscuits, vast quantities of them, were added. This was usually in addition to huge platters of bagels and cream cheese and custard Danish.
If the meeting occurred anywhere near lunch, turkey and ham and beef and vegetarian sandwiches on Kaiser rolls were added.
In any event, for all occasions, gallons of coffee, tea and soft drinks were present.
There were no meetings after four o’clock, so the caterers never got the opportunity to provide dinner fare.
By five o’clock the huge buildings that provided daytime shelter from the sun and elements to the IBMers of Boca Raton were all empty.
The daytime inhabitants of those buildings were by then at the various bars believed to be the evening habitat of third line managers and Directors.
One could really advance one’s career if fate happened to post one on the barstool next to a Director.
There were occasionally some meetings held on time, at the appointed and accurately publicized place, and with known subjects.
These were rare however.
And that was good, because no matter how vicious the activities in most of the other meetings might have been, none of them were burdened with any real business oriented purpose.
Those rare meetings with a real purpose, on the other hand, always related to something to do with the business – such as, were we selling anything through the dealer channel or what was the current status of the next - hoped for - blockbuster product.
Due to their serious content these meetings were only attended by managers, Directors, and occasionally a Vice President. If a non-manager had been asked to attend, which happened upon occasion, that person was treated with awe ever after by his or her peers.
In reality, at the point that such a person emerged he or she no longer had peers.
With an invitation to that type of meeting a step had been taken toward divinity that could never be retraced.
Those meetings were amazing to watch.
A clear-cut issue might be the subject, such as how many of a given model of PC might be sold over a given period of time.
In my previous IBM life a subject like this would have received the best thoughts about the answer to that question that the participants in the analysis session could muster.
This was not so in the Boca Raton meetings.
The direction of the discussion in those meetings depended upon the mix of third line managers, Directors and their particular functional responsibilities, and the answer to the question was ultimately the result of the confluence and clashes of their functionally driven political objectives. Since this type of result was at best neutral and more likely detrimental to the business interests of the IBM Corporation it was good that these meetings were relatively few in number.
Then there were the review boards.
Before anything new could be done it needed to be agreed to by all affected areas. In theory, these review boards made sense. They had evolved from the very early days of the PC project when Don Estridge - the engineer that the IBM Executive Committee had put in charge of bringing a personal computer to market as quickly as possible - and a few other engineers got together, when needed, to evaluate their progress and to identify problems before they occurred, and fix any they hadn’t avoided in previous reviews. Since all the reviewers shared the goal of getting a product to market as soon as possible, and in a form as high qualitatively competitive as possible, these review meetings were brief, concise and oriented to the common goal.
The IBM PC went from concept to announcement in 18 months, which was astoundingly short for IBM.
Most other products took years to go from design to announcement.
But what had worked for a few engineers working very closely and communicating daily, all of whom had a shared a vision and goal of their direction had become a goat rodeo for a group of thousands with various conflicting objectives, most of which had nothing to do with any identified IBM product or program.
Initially, in the early days of the IBM PC business, the review process had continued to work pretty much as it had originally, and had allowed some important product additions like the PC XT to get to market quickly and flawlessly.
The success of the XT, piled atop the ongoing success of the initial diskette-only product opened the floodgates of IBMers into Boca Raton.
Where originally there had been only a sales function made up of a few people in charge of figuring out how to sell through the dealer channel, a couple of administrators with a System/34, a heavily modified version of MAPICS and a couple of lawyers and the engineers responsible for creating and building the product, there developed huge hoards of new people, all armed with personal ambition, personal opinions and knowledge of the way IBM did business in the pre-PC world.
Sales got a vice president and a sales force to work with the dealers. Myriad sales-like requirements were perceived and they spawned myriad sales-like functions with myriad sales-like employees and myriad sales-like managers. One could come to Boca Raton as an employee in PC Sales and be a manager in weeks.
An alternate career path for that hoard was to accept an offer to go to work for Compaq, a new born competitor that loved to hire IBMers in those early days of the PC business.
Unfortunately for IBM not nearly enough of the hoard received or accepted such offers.
Marketing had sprung up from nothing overnight into several hundred people and a Director.
Administration blossomed into full glory with all of its myriad functions and features, even if none of them applied to the PC business. (After all, the PC business had just started, so who was to say what applied and what didn’t?) The only vestige of the original PC administration function was the System/34 and FOE MAPICS. Nobody could figure out how to use the traditional IBM AAS system to run the PC business, so the System/34 remained. It was probably the biggest business in the world ever run on a System/34.
The lawyers remained fairly few, probably because there were relatively few lawyers in IBM and they all had jobs that satisfied them, so they were prone to stay where they were – mostly in the New York area, or Chicago or San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Just to name a few of the departments and functions that had blossomed almost overnight, there was Dealer Operations, Sales Operations, Business Analysis, Channel Development, and Software Requirements. There were countless others. The IBM Boca Raton organization chart and telephone directory grew daily and was reprinted weekly. Once the only agenda had been to move the ball forward; soon the agenda became to argue about the existence of the ball. By the time I arrived on the scene moving the ball had been eliminated from consideration. The only real considerations had become protecting the turf upon which the ball had once rested, career advancement and, for many people, how to work as few hours a day as possible.
Then the Review Board grew into a multi-headed monster. A network of review boards, some ad hoc, some on-going, emerged. Some were even fictitious, created to draw energy out of a competing camp. They all accomplished the same function: keep everything in limbo.
A friend and fellow worker, Al, once described the environment best.
He had been at a Review Board meeting and I encountered him immediately after its termination.
“It was amazing,” he said. “They went around the huge table in the room and each one in turn jumped up on the table and urinated on the proposal.”
Al was a wordsmith.
There was even a Review Board in the sky, so to speak. As if to emphasize the futility of the multiple dueling review boards in Boca Raton there was the corporate edition in White Plains. It held weekly meetings. I once met a guy who was sitting next to me on a plane whose only job was to get on an airplane Monday morning to LaGuardia or Newark, go to the meeting on Tuesday and kill time until Friday when he got back on a plane to West Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale.
He had dropped into a crack in the system and he really liked it.
And he was not alone.
The major career alternative to meetings that IBM Boca Raton offered was flying on airplanes. Actually this was a sort of technologically enhanced form of attending meetings. It involved scheduling attendance at business shows, dealer meetings, technical briefings and technical conferences, preferably on the West Coast, or at least as far away as Dallas.
In the early PC era there were huge numbers of these events, and most upwardly aspiring managers created slots on their manning documents for personnel dedicated to attending them. Some of the more successful of those managers were able to grow the function of attending meetings and conferences to departmental size, with follow-on first to second or second to third line management implications.
This was the era when Portia Isaacson was able to create a multi-million dollar business with two or three graphs that showed either forty five degree or ninety degree growth curves. She carried these around to all the meetings and conferences and used them to discuss all aspects of the PC business. It didn’t matter the aspect, one or more of her graphs applied. All she had to do was adjust the words to the needs of the particular audience.
IBM paid her a lot of money to present to IBM on numerous occasions.
Bill Gates was also an ever-popular presenter at various conferences and meetings. This was long before he had become the IBM slayer and the richest man in the world. He was just a well-known young techie with a nasally whiny voice who needed a haircut and who had to keep pushing his sliding glasses back up his nose during presentations.
With all the meetings and the attendant IBM participation, on any given day the air between Dallas or San Francisco, or Los Angeles or Seattle was likely to be full of IBMers. Since a prerequisite to employment with IBM in Boca Raton was to be a Delta Frequent Flier most of those IBMers were likely to be on Delta Airlines flights.
Rather than being in an IBM in which I woke up every morning excited about what I wanted to do that day, looking forward to its known and unknown challenges and happy to work ten or twelve hour days I had transitioned to a place where useless dysfunction was the rule and it was nearly impossible to find enough useful things to do to occupy an eight hour day. I had gone from an environment in which vacations were three-day weekends to where vacations appeared to be the only way to stay sane.
For me IBM had become frighteningly similar to the military.
By December of 1984 I had managed to make enough friends at the office and find enough ancillary things to do that I could pretend to work eight-hour days and forty-hour weeks. And the occasional trip to a meeting broke the monotony. It wasn’t remotely similar to what I had spent the previous fifteen years loving to do, but it had, I had begun to think, one major advantage: my old inability to take a real vacation was gone.
With the amount of accrued vacation that I had I could have taken a year off.
So Mysti and I had decided to take a month in the upcoming summer and go to Oregon.
On the afternoon of 2 August 1985 I had just checked into a motel in Portland. It had been a couple of weeks since we had flown to Portland from Florida.
The Delta flight had been wonderful.
Since Mysti and I were both Delta Frequent Fliers we had been able to upgrade to first class. At that time first class was still fairly special.
Morgan my daughter and I sat next to each other and Mysti sat across from us. Morgan and I asked for a deck of cards and started playing poker using safety matches for chips. The matches had been provided by the friendly flight attendant. She had taken a liking to us – father and daughter having fun on a transcontinental flight – and she kept my champagne glass full. She was the classic Atlanta variety of the Southern woman. She had the hair do, the makeup, the drawl, the “y’all” and all.
I asked her where she was from, expecting to hear “Mayretta” or “Atlanta”. I knew she couldn’t be from any farther away from Atlanta than maybe Birmingham.
“Eugene” she said in unaccented, pure Pacific Northwest American.
“Oregon?” I said.
“Oregon” she said.
When we got to Portland after a stop in Salt Lake City we needed lunch. Since this was the beginning of a first of a kind occurrence – an actual vacation – we decided to go to Portland’s most special daytime restaurant that we knew of, even though we knew that we would have to take a number and wait on the benches outside the dining area for quite a bit of time.
It was worth it.
The brandy sauce on the mushroom omelet was spectacular as always. The Dutch Baby was monstrous and delicious. The bowl of raspberries was huge, delicious, and from a farm a few miles from where we ate them. The small buttermilk pancakes that accompanied the omelet were the kind that poets write about. The toast was made of perfect bread and was perfectly toasted. The coffee was perfect. The service as always was impeccable.
I have always thought that if one conducted a contest for best restaurant in the world, disregarding type of restaurant, but based on perfection of what it was that they did, the Original Pancake House in Portland would win.
After lunch and a trip past our previous home in Lake Oswego and a walk on the river in Iron Works Park we checked into the downtown Marriott on the river. The next several days were filled with visits to see my parents in St Helens, going to the coast, taking Morgan crabbing in Nehalem Bay and trout fishing in my secret spot on the Siletz River, and generally having a good time.
At the end of that time Mysti and Morgan flew to Idaho to see Mysti’s mother. I stayed in Portland and checked into an acceptably low priced motel.
It was the second of August.
I turned on the television to see what was going on in the world as I unpacked.
After a few minutes of the usual news drivel the newscast was interrupted. Delta flight 191 from Fort Lauderdale had crashed in Dallas. The item was accompanied by footage of the remains of the Lockheed 1011 smoldering in a field adjacent to the Airport.
“I know I know some of those dead people,” I said to no one in particular.
It wasn’t until I got back to Boca Raton later in the month that I learned the truth of my comment.
Two of our summer interns had been killed. Six IBM family members had been killed, and three of them were relatives of people I knew, including the daughter of Denny the guy in sales who had interviewed me for a job the previous year, and the wife of one of the guys in the department I worked for.
And Don Estridge and his wife were among the dead.
This was death of a new type to me.
It was sudden, massive and involved people, whom, although I didn’t know well, I knew nonetheless.
They had been only a few members of a fairly large human community, but their size had been expanded by the violence of their departure.
The grinding grief I had felt personally about Annie was being applied to an entire community; it was being applied to a group of people who had just died suddenly and without warning. The result was an almost visible gloom. There seemed to be a dark cast to the brilliant Florida sunshine. It was as if those dead people were in the land of not yet gone and were still in the area trying to do whatever it was that they were supposed to do so that they might be able to leave permanently. And in the process of trying to do whatever it was that they needed to do they were drawing energy and even light out of the place they were trying to depart.
The overall effect was to make a place I had always found to be depressing to become almost unbearable.
My friend Al came into my office early in the day of my return. He welcomed me back. I said something. He looked at me for a moment and did an about face and left my office without another word. A little later he came back and asked me if I was all right. I said something. He said that he sensed that I was suicidal.
That was how bad it was.