“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.
I lost my Manhattan banking IT job during the 2009 financial crisis and my future looked hopeless. I was paying child support that nearly equaled my total salary (when I had one), combined with tuition for my son to attend Princeton University, a very expensive proposition. I was emptying my 401k, and at 59 the prospects of finding another banking job were very poor. If I gave up, I knew I would go down the tubes completely.
After six months of futile job-hunting, as a last resort I signed up for life insurance sales for Mass Mutual in Woodbury Long Island, underestimating how difficult the job would be. The practice of calling up people to discuss death and saving money was so difficult that even during a recession it was hard for the company to recruit agents. Still my thinking was that any work would be better than applying for IT jobs in banking and getting rejected over and over. I thought that by calling friends to solicit insurance sales, I eventually would find just one friend who would offer me a salaried job again. But it hadn’t happened so far.
The Mass Mutual sales training meeting did inspire me. I loved the General Agent who led the training class. The way he portrayed it; our activities were all about helping people. But after that inspirational speech, instead of starting right in with selling, I exhausted every possible path of procrastination: checking the world news on the internet to monitor the pulse of Arab rage, going to the men’s room to monitor the status of my hair day, stepping outside for a breath of air — unfortunately I don’t smoke. It was drawing close to noon. If I didn’t start calling right away, my score for the whole morning would be exactly zero. Zero performance is not always a problem in a salaried job, but in this all-commission job the certain outcome is zero pay and getting fired.
“OK, I’ll check my email one last time, and then I’ll start calling.”
I checked my Blackberry. I received an email from brother John from my hometown, Eugene, Oregon. Another welcome excuse to avoid calling and getting rejected.
“I just attended the funeral of your friend Paul Manion. I spoke to his parents and reminded them about the time you rode your bike with him to Crater Lake.”
I said to myself “What? Funeral? I didn’t even know that Paul had died.” I called John and asked, “What’s going on? Last time I saw Paul I didn’t like the look of his Taliban beard, but he looked healthy enough. It’s impossible that he could die; at 58 he’s a year younger than me. How could he possibly die so fast?”
“Well, his heart suddenly failed.”
I said, “What? In high school Paul was a varsity tennis player and was in good shape. He didn’t smoke, use alcohol, or even smoke pot. How could he have a heart attack?”
“I don’t know what happened. But it’s true; he died. He gained weight and his heart couldn’t take it,” John said.
I was grateful to John for informing me about this, but I didn’t think he realized how sad the news would make me. I had been tight with Paul all through high school. By now I’d been separated from him and my other pals in Oregon by over thirty years of absence, but my memories of him were still vivid. Our friendship meant a lot to me.
I put my head down on my desk and let it sink in. My brutally honest opinion about Paul was that he let his dreams go too easily. Long ago I had heard from my Mom that at Reed College, a hotbed of hippiedom at the time, Paul had a nervous breakdown. I heard from my mother that after that he joined the US Navy and broke down again. This perversely yielded a lifetime of veteran’s benefits. I heard that after that he just hung out in Eugene, collecting disability. I knew he was enormously talented, but it all went to waste. An utter shame. I couldn’t understand what went wrong.
I also feel guilty that I didn’t keep in touch after things went so wrong for Paul. I recall that one time when I was visiting Oregon, I took my kids over to Papa’s Pizza, and I saw Paul come in. He drove up in a pickup truck, and after ordering, sat down at a table with a woman I did not know. He was dressed in a flannel shirt and with a heavy black beard and could have been mistaken for a logger.
I asked John if I should visit him, but John and my mother advised me that it would be too stressful for him. I can’t blame my guilty feelings on John; I never really bought this anyway, and the reasons I didn’t visit stemmed from my own fear of awkwardness, and from my preoccupation with other issues of my own, like keeping track of my four kids and keeping my own head above the water.
Driving home from the insurance agency, I stopped at a pharmacy and bought a card for Paul’s parents. Besides scratching my condolences on the card and signing it, I asked to visit next time I returned to Oregon.
In the following weeks, I write down several stories about our adventures together. I sent the stories to Paul’s parents, and received a reply thanking me. His mother Donna invited me to visit the next time I was in Eugene.
First Meeting with Paul
I met Paul in summer 1966. His father, Vince, had just retired from the US Navy and moved his family into a small two-story house on Oakway Terrace. The street was a cul de sac, the Manions lived half-way up, and my parents lived on the circle at the end. My father went up and introduced himself and came home to tell me that one of the boys was close to my age. Curious, I knocked on their door.
Paul came down to greet me. He was 15 years old, average in height, clean-cut, with a dark complexion and brown hair. He didn’t say much. He just invited me upstairs to his room. When I saw it, I thought he was lucky. He had a big room up there by himself, with a peaceful view of a fir tree in the front yard. He gestured for me to sit down, and he told me his life story.
“My Dad was in the navy, and we were constantly moving.”
“Where’d you live?”
“A lot of places, California, Texas. The last one was Virginia. I was a newcomer at this huge high school, and I didn’t have any friends. I sat in their cafeteria alone. I was lost. It was too big.”
“Well, you’ll like it here. The school isn’t impersonal like that. You’ll get to know everyone.”
“So, what are you into? What do you like to do?”
“I read a lot.”
“Me too. I read mysteries. And I like to ride my bicycle and fish. I can show you some good places.”
“Sounds good. I’ll take you up on that.”
Paul also had two younger brothers. The middle brother, Mark, was athletic and competitive, while the youngest, Rick, was easygoing and a little strange in the head. Later Mark moved to Houston and became a top executive with a near zero golf handicap, while Rick stayed in Eugene working as a guard at the Valley River mall. I also got along with Rick, but Paul was the only one of the three who had the strong intellectual bent that I admired.
Paul Manion in his sanctuary
Sound and the Fury
One day I asked Paul about what he was reading, and he recommended The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t follow it easily, and read Cliffs Notes to make sense of Faulkner’s chaotic page-long sentences and stream-of-consciousness style. Over time I checked out and read every one of Faulkner’s books, to the astonishment of our school librarian, who asked me, “Are you really reading those?” One of the things I enjoyed was Faulkner’s depiction of mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. I read that Faulkner himself enjoyed camping in the woods alone, accompanied by his dogs and a bottle or two of whisky. The social milieu he described sounded more authentic than suburban Oregon even though his stories were often grotesque.
Just before Paul arrived authenticity had started to run dry for me. While I was in elementary school my father took us salmon fishing in the ocean and trout fishing in the lakes and streams. The whole family often camped out at the coast. As my parents got older, they tired of sleeping on the ground. They joined a country club and focused entirely on golf, giving up the other activities. I learned to love the sport but hated the country club atmosphere.
Paul and I both appreciated Faulkner’s romantic view of nature. At this time there was even more virgin territory in Oregon than in Mississippi. Oregon was only 100 years old as a state, and one of the last pioneers who came across on a covered wagon as a child was still alive just before my family got there. The junior high school I attended, Cal Young, was named after him.
Right behind the school there was a sandstone cliff where we could dig fossils of shelled animals that lived in the time when the ocean covered the Willamette Valley. Although there was no Native American population in Eugene that I aware of, it was not hard to find arrowheads where villages had been situated. My brother brought some home from a dig just outside town. Even on our street, there was a cow pasture surrounded by barbed wire, with real Guernsey cows just about fifty yards from our house. When we played in the fields, we had to avoid stepping in cow pies. We frequently scared up pheasants, red-winged grasshoppers, and orange and black monarch butterflies in those fields. Fortunately, the diamond-backed rattlesnake that I feared when we moved there was actually shy, and they retreated to the rocky Coburg Hills on the outskirts of town.
Paul didn’t play golf, but otherwise he was my best companion for outdoor adventures. Once I asked my mom to drive us about ten miles up Fall Creek so we could have some fun floating down the rapids on inner tubes. The river was surrounded on both sides by lovely fir trees. The river varied from about 20 to 50 feet wide, with swift cold water that occasionally slowed down into clear pools where you could see down as deep as 10 or 15 feet. We wore canvas tennis shoes to protect our feet, but other than that just wore bathing trunks. We couldn’t be sure when we’d encounter rapids or even small waterfalls, but I didn’t perceive any big danger.
About one mile into the inner tube voyage a grouchy old troll who had “posted” his 200-foot section of the river confronted us from the side of the river. He complained that hooligans were drinking beer and throwing the cans in. I wasn’t aware that anyone could own a riverbed, but it was true. We protested that we weren’t even carrying anything to throw in the water, but the miserable old goat ordered us out anyway. We had to carry our tubes out to the gravel road and walk downstream until we could find another place to break through the foliage and get back into the river.
Going down the stream again, both of us tipped over and fell in several times, but the sun was hot, and it was fun, at least for me. Once Paul fell in and claimed that he hit his head on the rock, and I was surprised to hear him get angry. “I could have drowned,” he said.
I said, “Come on. It’s only like three or four feet deep. How can you drown?”
From there on I was a little less reckless, but other than that it was a blast, and I would return again, without Paul.
I was not popular in high school, but I did have some friends who saved my head. They were all starting to participate in the counter-culture — rock and folk music, pacifism, and eventually Marijuana – and most were alienated from their parents. I introduced Paul to my friends, but he liked to stand apart, staying away from the music, beer, and marijuana parts of the youth culture. My friends respected Paul, but thought he was a little weird, and didn’t ask him to hang out.
I didn’t see Paul much at school since he was a year younger, but I know he was respected by the more serious students and was adored by the faculty. He was so advanced in math that by his junior year he exhausted all the math classes at the high school. By his senior year he was already taking graduate math courses at the University of Oregon. He also excelled in English and other subjects. He even made the varsity tennis team. He wasn’t a real “jock,” but he won his letter. I won my letter too, but in the wimpy sport of golf. I was still mocked by the “jocks.” They called me Palsy, as in Cerebral Palsy.
It may sound like we were living in bubble isolated from national events. Certainly, there was no racial conflict in Eugene because there were no minorities, not even Hispanics. Actually, one national issue did affect us: The War in Vietnam. I remember that in a school debate before the Johnson-Goldwater election, after Johnson won the election no one in the class argued against expanding the war. It was popular, except with our Senator Wayne Morse, who opposed it but seemed like he was senile. President Johnson started bombing in 1965 while we were in junior high. By January 1968 the psychological tide had turned, and most people perceived the conflict as a stalemate, a quagmire.
The country was polarized, including in Oregon. Oregon was divided into four incompatible groups, first conservative loggers, farmers, and mill workers, second conservative or middle of the road white collar professionals, third far left university teachers/students from the U of O, and fourth plenty of hippie immigrants from the Mid-West and East Coast. At Sheldon H.S. most of us were not insulated from this. I expected I would be drafted even if the four-year college exemption continued (it didn’t thanks to Nixon) because I expected the war to drag on indefinitely (it did thanks to Nixon).
A representative of the Air Force Academy came to recruit at Sheldon, and I learned that the military liked to recruit Oregonians. Because of their love of the outdoors and their toughness, the Oregonian’s academy dropout rate was very low. I also heard that if you went to the draft board, staffed by veterans, and asked for conscientious objector status, or tried to get out of serving by some other means, they would not be sympathetic.
I got a belly-full of these tough attitudes in my summer job at the dairy where my father was the office manager. The high point of the day for me there, if you could call it that, was the lunch break. I often took lunch at the same time as a veteran diary worker we called “Big Marv.” Marvin was about 5’ 10” with broad shoulders and a big-boned truck driver build that combined hard muscles with a potbelly. Probably he weighed in at about 260. His job was to get milk bottles from a sterilizing machine, pack them into crates, and then wheel them to the start of the production line.
As soon as I entered the windowless lunchroom, I heard Marv’s deep rasping voice.
“Paulson, when are you going to cut that hair?”
My hair conspicuously stuck out underneath my white dairy hat.
“Paulson, I know what you’re up to.”
“What am I up to Marv?”
“I know about you hippies. I know about that free love. Admit it. But I don’t care. I get whatever I want at home. The old lady does it for me, anything I want…”
I cringe. I think, PLEASE don’t describe it. Marv getting in on with his wife was too horrible to think about it, and I tried to force the picture out of my mind.
“Glad you could share that with me Marv. I wish it were so, that free love thing.”
“You can’t fool me. Don’t lie to me. You’re a hippy.”
Marv started in on one of his big stories, which he repeated week after week.
“My brother and I. We used to hit each other so hard that we would knock each other out. Look here, he knocked my tooth out…”
“You hippies protest the war. I don’t like war either. No way I would go to Vietnam. I was in the Army in WWII but spent the time visiting brothels in San Francisco. I told the Army they weren’t shipping me out of there, and they kept me in San Francisco and sent everyone else to the Pacific.”
I felt incredulous and intimidated, but couldn’t help smiling.
“Do you think I’m kidding? It’s true.”
“OK Marv, I believe you.”
By the end of the lunch break I was both revolted and laughing inside, but if I had to work there all year round, I would have gone crazy. Marv was the only “pacifist” I met at the Creamery; my Dad and the rest of the dairy workers would just a soon bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age.
I think Paul was the only genuine pacifist that I ever met. One day I visited him in his room, and he showed me an essay he had written for his draft board. I wish a copy had been preserved. It was one of the most beautiful essays I’ve ever read. He talked about how he grew up as a navy dependent, moved around all the time, and was always surrounded by cemeteries and death. Emotionally he could not participate in killing.
As for me, I was confused about what was happening in South East Asia. It didn’t feel right to send half a million soldiers there and drop bombs from 25,000 feet on helpless villagers. We misperceived the North Vietnamese as victims. I would have been unable to participate in the Vietnam War with a clear conscience, but on the other hand I’d seen too many Nazi’s on the TV show Combat to be a pacifist. What surprised me was just how emotionally vulnerable Paul was. Now Paul’s tombstone reads “Paul Manion, Navy Veteran.” Later I wondered just how the hell he joined the Navy at all.
One August day I dropped in on Paul and told him I was sick of working at the Creamery and didn’t want to have a shitty summer there and then go right back to school without a break. I wanted to have some fun before the summer was over. I asked, why don’t we take the week off before Labor Day, and go biking and camping?
After considering many destinations, we decided to ride our bicycles over two hundred miles to Crater Lake and back. We chose this destination we were seeking an authentic adventure; we wanted to test our own mettle. We got some topographical maps from the Forest Service and charted out a route using back roads wherever possible. We thought we could make it in three days, camping on the way, and then four days back. Piece of cake.
As the day of our departure approached, we watched the weather reports closely. Usually there was very little rainfall in Oregon in July, August, and September, but as luck would have it, this year was an exception. Rain was forecast for the Saturday that we planned to depart. We thought we didn’t have time to wait out the weather. If we waited too long, we’d have to give up and go directly back to school.
On Saturday we got up at 6:00 AM and set off on our bicycles in a constant drizzle, heavily weighted down by ponchos and backpacks, filled with sleeping bags, a tent, and other equipment. Ours were Schwinn bicycles with thick tires, not lightweight equipment, not the light sleek equipment you would find in a sporting store today.
We pedaled without incident on the main highway for about 15 miles until we reached the Lookout Point Dam near Lowell, and then we faced our first challenge. From this point Lookout Point Reservoir stretches about 15 miles to Oakridge. We choose to take the North Boundary Road instead of the very fast and smooth Willamette Highway.
As we pumped the pedals, sweating under our rain gear, we were dismayed that every time a creek came down from the mountains to meet the lake, the road took a big looping detour. Instead of riding in our target direction we had to get off our bikes and trudge uphill at a 90-degree angle, wondering just when this switchback would end. When we finally reached the bridge and crossed the creek, we had to ride back to the lakeside. As we got closer to Oakridge the annoying switchbacks became more frequent. It continued to drizzle, and potholes filled up with dirty water and mud. We slogged and slogged forward, and finally near dusk rejoined Highway 58 just before the town of Oakridge. We found an overpass where the highway crossed the river, dry underneath, and set up camp in the dust under highway 58.
In Oregon a few retired people spent part of the year hoboing, living off the land. They were not called “homeless.” A spry retired man had set up his camp under the same bridge. We saw his tent and a shaving mirror cleverly propped up on a stick. We explained where we were going, and he told us we were “nice kids,” not like the hoods that came around and threw beer bottles and stole his shaving mirror.
The man showed us how to fish the river, which was wide, fast, and muddy. He advised us to try using grasshoppers as bait. We threw our lines into the muddy water, and sure enough caught a few fish. I don’t know how they could see that bait. Maybe it just hit them over the head. Cooking not being one of our camping skills, we didn’t cook the fish and just ate the cold food that we brought along. Having had a full day of riding, we rolled out our sleeping bags and conked out right away.
We woke up the next morning early and peered outside the door of our tent. The rain had not let up at all, but we didn’t even consider waiting it out – we thought we were tough guys and could stick to our original plan. Instead of taking the easy route up Highway 58, we chose to follow the South Fork of the Willamette to its source at Summit Lake, climbing on a pavement road that became gravel, and stretched about 50 miles, with an altitude gain of over 4,000 feet.
We pedaled steadily up the road in our rain gear, humid and sweaty, making steady progress thru the morning. We could still see and hear the river on the right side of the road. The crest of the Cascades was not visible as we got closer, blocked out by mountains and towering Douglas Firs.
As we got closer to the summit the road got steeper, until in the afternoon we had to quit riding and just walk our bikes. We put one foot in front of the other, creating a rhythm just like jogging. By late afternoon we must have been at about 4,000 feet, the air was thinner, and it was harder to catch our breath. We lost sight of the river as it narrowed and moved further out into the woods. The road twisted and turned. We had no way of telling how close we were to the summit, and before every bend we hoped that it would be the last. But every bend led to another bend and another steep ascent. On and on it went.
As we got higher the weather started to get colder and the rain continued. On the left side of the road the slope was steep going up the mountain, and on the right side it sloped sharply down toward the creek. There was no traffic at all, and of course, no houses, no gas stations, no people, no nothing. All we could see was fir trees, underbrush, and rainwater running down thru the pine needles and mud. The rain froze and mixed with snow flurries.
I was getting pissed since we didn’t know where we were and didn’t know how much further it was to our destination, Summit Lake. We didn’t talk much as we walked. We stopped for at one point to catch our breath. I asked,
“Paul, how are you feeling?”
“What if we don’t make it to the camp site before dark? We can’t camp here. There’s no cover and no place flat enough to pitch a tent.”
“We have to just keep going…”
We set out again but were sopping wet, chilled to the bone, and every step was a big effort.
I thought, “Dave, you’ve really done it this time.” Paul and I had such poor wilderness survival skills; we didn’t even know how to start a fire to get warm. Luckily just after dusk a pickup truck drove by, the first we’d seen for hours. I waved at the driver. The driver continued by, then stopped, and backed up to talk to us.
“What’re you boys doing?”
“Riding to Crater Lake.”
“Where are you headed for tonight?”
“I’m going that way.”
I asked the man to let us throw our bikes in the back of the pickup and give us a ride up to the pass. He wasn’t too happy, but he agreed. Paul grumbled and only accepted the ride reluctantly, reminding me that the plan was to ride our bicycles the whole way by ourselves. I didn’t pay attention to his protest, and by the time the pickup climbed to the pass and reached the uninhabited Summit Lake it was dark. We got out of the truck, waved goodbye, and looked for a flat place to pitch our tent. We rolled out our sleeping bags, ate some chocolate and raisins for dinner, and tried to sleep. We were completely alone at this lake. No one else was camping out there in the rain.
The ordeal wasn’t over yet. No canvas tent is really waterproof, and it wasn’t long before we were even wetter than before we took shelter in the tent. Our tent was wet, the sleeping bags were wet, our feet were wet, and our bodies were wet. It was still raining and snowing and getting colder at night. I’d never been so frozen in my life. We shivered in our wet sleeping bags all night.
When dawn came, we saw a beautiful mist over crystal-clear Summit Lake, but it was still cold and everything around us was still wet. We tried to start a fire but failed. We couldn’t find any dry firewood. We realized that our only hope of getting warm was to get back on the bikes and ride another five miles to Crescent Lake where there was a resort.
I remember pedaling those five miles as one of the most miserable times of my life. We rode through the high meadows and trees, through mud and puddles for what seemed like forever. When we finally reached the Crescent lake Lodge, we rented a cabin, and stayed there for a whole day. Stoking the wood stove, we spread out our sleeping bags and tents and tried to dry out. Who would have thought that biking could be this tough?
To the Goal Line
The next day the clouds burned off and the weather returned to a more typical September pattern. Now the sky was blue, and the air was pleasantly warm, at least in the daytime. The forest started to dry off. We set off with determination on the last leg of the trip, another 60 miles to the rim of Crater Lake.
Again, it got steep and cold, but at least it wasn’t raining or snowing any more. On the 7,000-foot rim of Crater Lake there is always some residual snow. As we climbed up toward the rim the lake was invisible. We passed obsidian cliffs, lava deserts, green meadows, and looked out for miles on each side seeing huge fir trees and symmetric volcanic cones.
We walked the bicycles up to the end of one switchback, and then saw the next one. Again and again. Finally, we turned the last corner and saw the stone fence that surrounds the lake. Looking down over the rock fence we saw a 2,000-foot sheer drop to the lake. We rode on into the Crater Lake Lodge and unloaded our burden in the nearby campground. We celebrated with dinner at the lodge. We had made it!
The next day we rode around the 33-mile rim and hiked the only trail down from a thousand-foot low point of the rim. At the lakeside we could see the water drop off quickly, looking forbidding. We could see logs under the water that had been preserved by the cold for hundreds of years. From there we knew the water dropped off into a two-thousand-foot abyss. Incredible.
The next day we turned around to ride home. The ride was literally downhill most of the way. We took the same route, camping by the South Fork of the Willamette River where it was about 20-30 feet wide, and fished for trout. Paul was fishing one spot and called out to me because he saw a big trout rising toward his bait. I threw my line in, and of the fish took my bait on the first cast. Paul was angry, “You caught my fish.” Again, I got Paul very annoyed with me, as he was again later in the trip when I slowed down, and his bike crashed into mine.
Because of our inability to start a fire we were hungry, subsisting mainly on raisins, bread, and peanut butter. We also didn’t know how to slow down and relax. We reached home two days ahead of plan, and my mother was surprised. “Why are you home? I thought you were going take your time and camp out.”
I don’t think I even tried to explain what happened. I was proud of what we’d done, but both Paul and I were lonely during the trip and were ready to return to the comforts of civilization. We had talked to a couple of girls at Crescent Lake, and to the old man at Oak Ridge, but that was about the total extent of our human contact.
While saying goodbye to Paul, I said, “We did it!” But to Paul the trip was a failure.
He said, “We didn’t ride all the way. We got that lift up that last stretch to Summit Lake.”
I didn’t care. “We still made it. What were we supposed to do? Freeze to death on the road?”
Picking Myself Up and Starting Over
In 2010, forty years later than the Crater Lake adventure, after writing the first draft of this story for Paul’s parents, I was still struggling financially, but not as badly as when I was in exile in Woodbury. My job-hunting strategy of using insurance as an excuse to call everyone I knew paid off in October, 2010. One Thursday I called a friend at a brokerage firm in Manhattan to talk about insurance. He said, “Why don’t you quit that stupid job, and come work for us.”
I said, “Sounds like a good idea.”
“When can you start?”
I said, “I’ll start next Monday if you’re ready.” I quit the insurance job the next day and was back working in IT in a brokerage firm in lower Manhattan the next Monday. I learned another hard lesson while working Long Island. I swore I’d never stoop so low as to take a job like that again.
Meanwhile, now that I had a regular paycheck again, I could afford to visit Oregon.
Paul’s Parents Clear Up the Mysteries
The following summer I went to Eugene and dropped in on the Manions. The brown two-story house looked exactly like it had forty years earlier. I rang the doorbell, and when Paul’s mother welcomed me, I felt like I was transported back in time –she looked young for her age (she had to be almost 80). Her soft Texas twang and her warm smile felt familiar.
Paul’s father had been busy when I came in, and he joined us a little later. He was also the same cheerful man I remembered. Even though he was a career naval officer, he didn’t carry himself with a military swagger. He worked in supply and logistics in the Navy and they had even sent him to business school at Stanford.
Paul’s Mom thanked me for sending the stories, including the one about Crater Lake. She told me that Paul’s younger brother Mark read them, and remarked, “That’s not the Paul I remember.”
“What did he mean by that?” I asked.
“After all the trouble he had after high school, it’s hard to remember the good times.”
I apologized for losing touch with Paul after going away to college. I asked if they had ever heard the story of what happened when Paul visited me in St. Louis? He visited my campus in 1970 spring. When he got there Paul told me that the Ivies all turned him down, and he was left with a choice between two back-up schools, Reed College in Portland, and Washington University where I was.
It was February break and life at Washington University in the cold mid-western winter wasn’t festive. I didn’t have the cash to go home or on a trip to St. Lauderdale for spring break. Many out of state students like me were stranded at school. We bonded, visiting Holmes Lounge every evening for coffee and conversation, but we also spent most of the daytime in the library studying. I did introduce Paul to my college friends, and he came with us to the library with his own books. We offered to take him out for pizza, but he just wanted to read. I realized that he’d already made his choice about schools before arriving. He didn’t even want to see anything in St. Louis.
Reed College, his first choice, was in Portland Oregon near the Willamette River. Its students are “brilliant” but at the time they were the blackest sheep of their generation. Our City Manager Hugh McKinley graduated there before WWII, and when he heard of people going there, his reaction was, “What’s wrong with him?” (One of the more successful dropouts was Steve Jobs of Apple.)
While Paul was visiting me in St. Louis, he told me that during his trip to the Reed campus earlier that spring, one of the Reed undergraduates jumped up on a cafeteria table, removed her blouse and bra (if she was wearing one), and danced. This display of spontaneity clinched the sale for Paul. You would certainly not find Susie Cream Cheese doing that at Washington University, a school that mass-produces engineers, doctors, and dentists, and very few strippers. I felt snubbed by Paul’s disinterest, and I didn’t try to persuade him to join me in St. Louis.
Donna and Vince laughed, and we continued to talk. Now it was my chance to ask questions. I asked what happened to Paul at Reed and what happened after that?
His Mom told me that Paul broke down. Eventually the doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia. After the first time, he broke down again every time he went off the meds.
“What do you mean breakdown? Did he just get depressed, or did he actually hallucinate?”
“Yes, he had hallucinations and everything.”
“Yes, it was. I even went back to school and got my Master’s in psychology to understand his issues better,” Donna said.
“Yes, I’ve also done some reading, and I understand what you’re talking about. I know there’s little you can do about it other than just to stay on the meds.”
I thought about whether I had perceived some of Paul’s vulnerability when we were growing up. I concluded that I did, although there must have also been a trigger causing it to reach crisis proportions later.
Paul’s mother continued, “The meds had severe side effects, including weight gain, and that’s what finally brought him down,” she says.
“Did you see his final crisis coming, or was it a surprise?”
“A surprise. He moved to Fern Ridge where I couldn’t keep track of him as well, and while he was there, he didn’t stick to the program as well as he did before.”
“Hmmm… Really too bad.”
We chatted about my own family. My mother who was Donna’s age had pneumonia and was dying. Before I left Donna thanked me and asked me to come visit again.
She said, “Your stories did bring out some thing’s I didn’t know. As I read it, I laughed, and then I cried. I made copies and distributed it to the family.”
“Thanks, I’m glad that you enjoyed it. Paul was a dear friend. I should have made more of an effort to stay in touch. I still feel bad about that.”
Before I left, I told Donna and Vincent about one of our last high school adventures. Before my high school graduation in 1969 Paul and I cycled five miles across Eugene, and then walked our bicycles up a steep road to Spencer Butte Park. From the picnic ground at the base of the mountain we looked up at the dusty trail leading to the top –- only 700 of the 2,000 feet to the summit left, but a steep enough climb to discourage most visitors. Pancaking dust, scrub brush, poison oak and sunning snakes, and a final stretch consisting of slippery moss and looming basalt boulders. Grasping rocks or bushes to steady ourselves, we clambered up onto the basalt dome that forms the cap on top. Paul got up first and stretched out his hand to give me a final lift, and we had both made it.
Paul and I were silent for a while as we caught our breaths. We could see cars and trucks in Eugene at the base of the mountains, but we heard no street noise, just the sighing of the wind through the boughs of Douglas firs, the tops of which we could see below our feet. It was late spring, and the sky was as blue as can be. We saw a few high cirrus clouds, not the low gloomy ones that block the sky for most of the Oregon winter.
The view we saw to the east was the best; above the city of Eugene, we could see the snowcapped Three Sisters peeking up over 60 miles away on the summit of the Cascades. We sat side by side on a flat rock, and watched a hawk swoop gracefully, hardly flapping his wings, just riding the wind currents. I wished that it could be that easy for us.
Three Sisters from Eugene. Summit of the Cascade Mountains.
To the West we knew the Pacific Ocean was just over the rugged Coastal range of the Cascades. To the North we saw a panorama of the brown Willamette Valley stretching over a hundred miles to the Columbia Gorge. Down below we saw swampy Fern Ridge Reservoir, with cattails and red-winged blackbirds, near the place where 35 years later Paul’s life would come to an end.
As we rested on the big black rocks on top of Spencer’s Butte, we discussed our plans for the future. I had my ticket out of Eugene, an admission to Washington University, St. Louis. An unknown place I’d never visited. As for Paul, his teachers had told him that he was certain to be accepted by the Ivies.
The year, 1969, was a time assassinations, war, racial conflict, and campus riots – but we still expected that we’d get what we wanted. We thought that things would go better after we left Eugene, that academic success would give us an advantage, and that life from then on would be like riding downhill.
We were sitting on top of the world.
The profile of Spencer Butte, above downtown Eugene, Oregon