Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Closing Time: Tom

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.

I cooked.

We always had the same thing.

On the way to the house we would stop at the Town Talk Market and buy a couple pound slab of top round. Top round was tougher than top sirloin, but not undesirably so, and, if cooked properly, it tasted at least as good as top sirloin. And it was noticeably less expensive.

We were, after all, poor college students.

Proper cooking, in Tom’s and my view, was to heat the cast iron fry pan somebody had abandoned at the house just short of red, melt a little butter in it – margarine, actually; we were, after all, poor college students – and drop the steak in, allowing each side contact with the high heat long enough to “create the illusion of cooking it without actually doing it”.

Putting the steak aside briefly after searing it to our desired degree of rareness, 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment