Sixty-three days after Alice McCormick passed away in 2020, the Aphasia Network planned its annual couples’ retreat. Because of Covid, they made it a “virtual event.” Aware of Alice’s demise, I was summarily invited as a “surviving widower.”
I accepted the invitation. It would have been stupid to refuse.
Both Alice and I loved the stroke survivors we met and several students-in-training, and I wanted to commiserate with them again. I suspected that seeing them on Zoom might help console me, but the virtual mass communication felt pretty empty.
In one of the sessions, two unfamiliar women in their 20s were chosen randomly to be my student counselors, and I determined I wasn’t going to cry for them. Instead, I looked for something else to focus on, so in desperation I grabbed hold of a page containing proposed chapter titles for my upcoming book. After a few strange-sounding niceties, I pointed to the proposed chapter titles. Chapter 4 stood out.
Typed in was a profane version of the N-word bandied about by white people in the 1950s describing the slum community close to downtown Miami. I knew if I ignored the epithets I heard about N-town, my book would be a fraud. Therefore, I tiptoed uncertainly. (I was denied a plum opportunity early in life because my skin color was too dark. Now that my childhood color has dissipated, I look like any old white man. But memories don’t disappear, so vivid moments from the past were relived in my head before currently residing in my manuscript.)
I read the objectionable word aloud and posed a follow-up question to the two students: “Do you think that’s appropriate?” I read the word again. “Is there another way to describe this?” Since these were university students, I wanted their input. We could work together to find acceptable terminology, right?
All of sudden, their live images disappeared, a blank wall took their place and a supervisor appeared forthwith on my computer monitor castigating me for saying and repeating an offensive word. Perhaps I was stupid. Or Pollyannaish. Or something. Nevertheless, my grief losing Alice was magnified.
This conundrum occurred three years ago. I’m a writer, not a coward, right? So afterward, while struggling to rewrite the harsh chapter title, I came up with a politically correct replacement: “N-town with three syllables.” And today, Chapter 4 has been completely written, rewritten and edited to conform to modern-day sensibilities.
Meanwhile, Portland’s Aphasia Network has risen from the dead. A gathering of old friends and adversaries is looming for a renewed camping experience June 9-11, this time in person at the familiar Methodist facility north of the fishing town of Garibaldi on the Pacific Coast. That’s fine with me. However, in anticipation of revisiting treasured memories, I’m being dragged through mud from the past. Former close friends in the group no longer communicate with me, and I suspect I’m being ostracized.
The Aphasia Network coordinates its camping weekends with Pacific University. This year’s event may be its last, so memories of our interactions are important. I also want to refresh the participants’ memories of Alice. But I don’t want any hint of a scandalous character assassination.
Historically, Pacific University once participated in eradicating Indian cultures, seizing their children to create strict boarding schools to “civilize” the “savages.” The infamous Carlisle School in Pennsylvania is an apt comparison. And Pacific originated in a state whose intent was to be lilywhite, threatening black people to leave its boundaries or face the sting of 39 lashes from a bullwhip in retribution.
Much of the state’s discredited liberal policies stem from an overreaction to its racist past. And that hasn’t changed much. Portland is still the whitest big city in the United States. That’s a fact.
Almost in tears three years ago, I related the hue and cry from my sorry interaction with students to my cousin, Margaret Johnston. She advised, “You will have to find a way to truly describe Oregonians – so open-minded but so un-worldly. So quick to judge and ostracize, while all the time touting to be fiercely liberal. But only as long as you think and act as they see fit.”
Margaret was “right on.” She now lives in Arizona.
In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt reveal three false mantras guiding college students today: “Strive to avoid unpleasant experiences at all costs,” “always trust your emotions over reason” and “the world is a black-and-white battle between good people and bad people. There is no middle ground.” With all the money students commit to attending college, the university experience now panders to students and avoids controversy. Period.
Meanwhile, my three-year-plus writer’s narrative is transitioning to the day I met Alice. I remember how on September 24, 2010, Alice draped her long, sinewy arm around me inside Andre’s, a subterranean wine-and-cheese bar inside the Doylestown (PA) Marketplace, and cooed loudly in my ear, “Oh, here you are, dear. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
That’s when I was smitten. And I had it bad. It took 67 years to finally meet the girl I was made to love.
So I’m trying to avoid stupid distractions. Alice sometimes comes alive in my head, and I trust she will guide me.
At least, I hope she will, because this shit is getting old.
Once Alice snaked her right arm around my neck in Doylestown’s Marketplace, I was hooked.
“Oh, here you are, dear,” she cooed loudly. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
The two “honeys” on the other side of the bar I had been impressing with tales of derring-do emitted muted harrumphs, paid their tab hurriedly and left the building quicker than Elvis. “This guy is married,” they must have thought. “What a cad.” I bet they muttered more explicit language under their breath.
Alice grinned bigger than a jack o’ lantern; she had me all to herself.
The woman towering over my bar seat measured a full 6’3″. And I was struck by her boldness. All my life, I supported women becoming emancipated; finally at age 67, I met one. It was put up or shut up time; otherwise, I was a fraud.
That’s how I met Alice McCormick on September 24, 2010. One year later, on September 24, we committed to one another utilizing a guide for gay and lesbian couples to demonstrate support for same-sex couples. Our commitment became a solemn promise, because an Apache prayer recited by Danawa Buchanan, self-appointed chief of the Allegheny Cherokee, made it so. The ceremony was guided by David DiPasquale, an interfaith minister with the township’s Pebble Hill Church.
Alice had a rough life, but SHE DANCED ON BANDSTAND. That’s all I needed to know. It didn’t matter she danced in the back row in ABC affiliate’s Philadelphia studio. Because of her Amazon-like height, whenever she bopped in rhythm with other girls, the TV studio and number of dancers appeared greater than the cramped physical space allowed.
Saying I would be the last man she ever loved, we moved to Oregon (the “left” Coast, we were told) in September 2014, a harrowing journey described elsewhere on this website. Six months afterward, Alice endured a stroke. Unlike the 90 percent of men who leave after their partners suffer a stroke, I stuck around. By comparison, 90 percent of women don’t leave a male partner. Loving is the meaning of the game; it means being around when a stroke survivor needs a friend the most.
Due to our new life in Oregon, later into Washington, Alice quickly became an inspiration for student nurses, administrators, stroke survivors and related care partners. At the Aphasia Network’s spring and summer camps on Garibaldi’s spectacular peninsula, I witnessed how Alice bonded with stroke survivors barely able to speak, encouraging all in a foreign unspoken language.
I fell deeply in love with Alice witnessing how she made friends with anyone who needed her ear. Those who no longer can rely on enunciated speech will substitute sounds, make gestures and point to turn a conversation into two-way communication. Alice knew this intuitively! Even better, she managed me (something men need to curb brutish behavior). I learned to appear brilliant by not saying a word. What a woman!
My time on Earth with Alice was cut short on March 27, 2020, after she suffered her ultimate coronary end. She never became stricken with Covid, an ailment she insisted we shun like the plague, so yes we managed to stay safe.
But now she was gone, and I faced the heartbreaking task of having her precious body cremated. With the help and encouragement of my first cousin, Margaret Johnston, we arranged it. The grief was seismic for Margaret, too. Alice instantly related to Margaret like a true sister.
So how did I manage without Alice? The pandemic was tough enough, but as a former Miami TV/radio/audio-video writer, I found more than enough distractions to get me through. But two questions continued to nag on me, “How should I dispose of Alice’s ashes? And when?”
Alice was attracted to lighthouses, especially the one at Cape May, NJ. During our first visit to Long Beach, Washington, I watched her pulse quicken as we scaled the steep driveway leading to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse. The structure’s revolving lamp possessed majestic candlepower to guide ships entering or exiting the vast Columbia River’s manifest destiny.
It made sense to scatter Alice’s ashes on the Pacific Ocean’s beach north of the lighthouse, ending the continent-ending journey we undertook to escape the hard life she experienced growing up in Philly.
And when? Our commitment ceremony firmly established one year – precisely – as our timeline.
I realized my mission of remembrance seemed foolhardy. After all, the month of March was notorious for serious storms moving parallel to the coastline; nevertheless, I kept moving ahead. There was a slim chance the weather would be benign, since Alice, Margaret and I once enjoyed a 72-degree St. Patrick’s Day on Long Beach. That day, we made faces at one another marveling about Long Beach’s unusual warmth while folks inland were under clouds and cooler. But this time the odds were significantly not in my favor.
Somehow Alice must have prepared our way. Gale warnings were hoisted for Sunday, March 28. But on the day before Saturday, March 27th, the anniversary of Alice’s passing and our precious remembrance, weather conditions on the beach turned serene. Oh sure, it was cool – 50 degrees air temperature, water temperature to match – but the usual gusty wind off the water calmed down to a reasonable 10 miles an hour in advance of an onrushing winter storm.
Six of Alice’s fans from the Aphasia Network had driven out to the Coast to be welcomed for an introductory dinner by my First Cousin Margaret and her friend, Bruce Douglas.
Later, Douglas built a traditionally correct, crackling bonfire – for an after-dinner observance at which we related tales of Alice’s inspiration that mesmerized each of our hearts while she walked this planet.
As we huddled close to the warmth of the talkative fire, John White, a dedicated professor of occupational therapy and semi-professional troubadour, performed songs chosen for the occasion. Two numbers – Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” – stood out as I sang along. In Doylestown, Alice had gifted me the sheet music for both songs so I could play them on her basement’s player piano.
While darkness shifted into a protective embrace around our retinue, a full moon glowed above our heads peering down through a thin, steady layer of clouds. No glare; moonlight was glowing blue across the sand! And Alice would love this extra touch; March 27th was Passover!
The good professor performed Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” a song that speech therapist Jordan Horner inspired Alice to join her in a sing-along, facilitating her recovery at RIO (Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon). White capped off the songlist with Willie Nelson’s song of forbearance, “One Day at a Time:”
“I live one day at a time, I dream one dream at a time, Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow’s blind, I live one day at a time.”
With my voice straining to reach the high notes, thus came the moment to gather the bag with Alice’s ashes, with the purpose of casting them across the waves.
Astonishingly enough, the onshore wind settled down even more, as our sacred gathering padded across the firm, pleasantly cool, beach sand for almost half a mile before our party made its way to the water’s edge at low tide. I looked up to the reassuring full moon, noticing how its blue reflection outlined the incoming waves, on guard for “sneaker waves” known to sweep unsuspecting visitors out to sea.
As my guests kept watch, I didn’t have to walk far into the water until I was up to my knees. I opened wide the heavy cellophane bag, turning it upside down, and saw Alice’s remains sweep slightly toward shore, until the breeze succumbed into a dead calm. Then her ashes dropped vertically to surround my legs. This wind was unpredictable!
Suddenly, I became thunderstruck by the culmination of a sacred mission; how did I manage this feat so deliberately without pausing? Without any doubt?
Everyone gave me a pat of congratulations as I emerged from the water, but I barely felt their happy hands. I was oblivious to White, who sang softly while walking the full distance playing his guitar. I focused my attention to the four forces of nature that gathered together this special night: water, air, earth and fire. What could have been more perfect for Alice’s remembrance than the environment Creator set?
As another chill encouraged our party to head off quickly toward the bonfire, leaving me straggling behind, something amazing happened.
While staring at the ground to ensure safe passage, I felt a warm breeze from shore envelop me, an answer from the seabreeze, another reassuring shift from one to the other, until suddenly I felt thrust into a mist-shrouded vortex that seemed to circle into the heavens above. What a bizarre occurrence!
I sloughed it off as nothing to remember.
Three days later, though, while at a doctor’s appointment, the attending nurse kept me later than usual.
Why? Because my heart was racing so fast she feared for my safety.
I had to tell her why. I realized the mist-shrouded vortex reaching heaven-bound three days ago was Alice’s embrace from a parallel universe, as she welcomed her Star Journey. Tears flooded my face, and I heard Alice’s voice call out, “Thank you.”
Her cry of appreciation infused the awareness that I had fulfilled her ultimate dream: moving the two of us to the West Coast into an area eminently inhabitable. What glories I was gifted! To love a woman like Alice? A woman who could love me, and moved heaven and Earth, not just for me but for members of Portland’s Aphasia Network as well?
The more I know, the more I realize what I don’t know. But one thing is for sure.
I will sing praises to Alice McCormick forevermore, because on March 27th, 2021, I experienced an unabashed encounter with eternity. It was a lovely remembrance.
This is more than a perfunctory post to honor the fast-moving political climate nearby. The time has come to acknowledge a comment to my website by a dear friend:
Too bad Portland’s gone the way of Detroit, Newark, Trenton, etc. etc. Wonder why?
My answer: Perhaps there’s sincerity to the demonstrations that were taking place in downtown Portland, Oregon, eh? And why lump the progressive city of Portland with big-city ghettos? Is that a convenient way of saying people of color embrace lawlessness?
Prior to 2020, I knew nothing about a massacre that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma targeting African Americans. As horrendous details came to light, my soul shuddered and I wondered why I never was taught about such an outrage in my high school history class.
There’s more to learn.
Last night on HBO, John Oliver took the lid off another massacre. This one was perpetuated by a Southern circle of 19th Century Democrats who subscribed to racist fear, Jim Crow behavior and white supremacy. On Nov. 10, 1898, they led a mob of 400 insurrectionists to burn down Wilmington, North Carolina’s local newspaper, murder 60 people and overthrow the local government elected only two days prior. It was the first, and only, successful coup d’état in the good ol’ USA.
In subsequent years, American history books spun a story that depicted black victims as the cause of the massacre and the perpetrators as heroic. What really happened, huh? Citizens of color were systematically butchered, brutalized, and their contributions to the American Dream sent backward. What better way to reinforce a prejudice saying people of color were intellectually inferior?
Those black lives mattered, because leadership from whatever sector it originates serves to advance this country’s progress, enriching ALL our lives. If it’s left to free thinkers like John Oliver to uncover the skeletons in our closets, we cannot tout our freedom worldwide when it’s more an illusion.
This is my way of saying I finished writing the first three chapters of my book. Tomorrow I plan to start a chapter about my life as a person of color. If you look at my images now, you might find it hard to believe.
Just as you might find it hard to believe what happened in Wilmington.
You know that feeling that overcomes you when functioning blind? Not literally, but the sensation realized outside one’s comfort zone. Visually, you can approximate the feeling by driving in foggy conditions, where you literally can’t see eight feet in front of you.
In Pennsylvania, I experienced that dysfunctional feeling several times while driving a six-passenger stretch limo, especially on icy roads, climbing the top of a snow-covered hilltop manor’s long driveway, or the disgustingly narrow Washington Crossing bridge during an ice storm, and especially downtown Philly’s jammed South Street during New Year’s Eve. My first trip to the Dakota in Manhattan, where the late John Lennon lived, produced a similar tingling the first time I pulled inside the covered driveway of the famous 72nd Street building.
Anyway, I digressed, as I am wont to do. Alice and I recently moved to Longview, Washington, escaping from Portland, Oregon’s growing pains and rent crisis, accompanied by a reprise of asking what happened to our stuff.
To recap, Alice and I managed some serious downsizing before moving West, so that all our possessions at our two-year Portland location were contained within a 900-square-foot apartment, plus 30 boxes of assorted stuff laid about a dusty, dingy garage.
We already had some heart-stopping moments moving out West and you can read about those here. (Follow succeeding posts in the archive to learn the resolution.)
Preparing for our second move in three years
In looking around the Internet, which is how almost everyone functions in Portland, I came upon a moving company based in Vancouver, Washington, that specified its territory includes Longview and Portland, with nothing else beyond. I put down a $100 deposit, and arranged a moving day for September 27th.
As typical, a plethora of tasks were left to the last minute, so we awoke before the sun did. As the 8 o-clock AM hour began to wane, my phone rang, and the young driver managing our move explained he and his crew would arrive around 9:30. I gave him instructions how to find our apartment, and like clockwork, three strapping young men showed up on time in a 17-foot-long box truck.
The rented garage across the parking lot was summarily emptied. While we carefully moved our respective desktop hard drives and monitors into the Ford Escape (“Betsy”), the crew set upon the entire apartment beginning with the upstairs bedrooms. The queen-sized bed was disassembled, and everything appeared well organized. My fragile, well-used computer hutch was deftly moved outside.
Two flat-screen televisions were wrapped carefully. Our newly purchased extra-long sofa was carried outside by two of the guys with nary a complaint or mishap. As the truck’s contents rose to its top, new rows of stuff utilized its full width. Alice and I were amazed how the guys managed to fit EVERYTHING into a small, contained space.
Nothing more could fit inside the moving truck. While the movers were doing their thing, we toted the computer peripherals into the SUV with the rest of our PCs, nonetheless saving a prime space for Millie inside her cat carrier. Alice packed some odds and ends from the fridge, enabling us to munch upon sustenance during the upcoming 50-mile drive. Amazingly, everything was packed inside our respective vehicles by 12 noon.
Before setting off to our new Longview address, I asked the driver/supervisor of the crew if he was going to drive to Longview using US-30 (St. Helens Road) paralleling the Columbia River, which involves a nearly 1,500-foot ascent and descent over Cornelius Pass, the route we planned to take. He declined, saying the crew requires a lunch break in the Vancouver, Wash. vicinity and that they “probably” would take the I-5 route to Longview.
We said goodbye to the truck, professional crew and 99% of our stuff, as we set out to Longview. I called the carpeting/flooring installer to alert them of our arrival, checking to see if everything was copacetic, only to discover that a problem area in the upstairs bathroom required the crew to work until the midnight hour the previous night.
Arriving in Longview
The carpeting and flooring were in place though, the salesperson assured us, and all was ready for our arrival. However, when we drove up to our newly acquired garage to unload Betsy’s booty, the carpet people were still working.
“Oh crap!” I thought, although a full crew was hastily vacuuming our newly installed carpet, promising apologetically they would finish in half an hour. In anticipation of that deadline met, we unloaded the computers and emptied the car, nervously checking our watches, hoping the movers’ arrival would not be imminent.
“Ask, and ye shall receive.”
A half hour went by. Then an hour had passed. I checked the elapsed time again: an hour and a half!
“Where’s our stuff?” I worried.
Finally, I received a text from the driver: “Got stopped at weight station. Getting inspection done. This time will not count toward your bill.”
“Ah, finally,” I thought, wondering about the station’s location, but relieved to know there was only a slight delay. An hour passed without further word, so I texted the supervisor again, “What is your status now?”
Within a minute, I received a reply. “We are stuck at weight station. There is a problem with our insurance. We are getting it figured out. I will let you know as soon as I know more.”
My heart sank. “What in God’s name?” I mumbled. I wrote back, “Is your truck being impounded?”
“No,” came the reply. “Just can’t leave until the system is updated.”
By this time, several of our new neighbors had gathered around, volunteering to help as much as they could. I looked around and texted, “All our neighbors are hanging about to help us with the move.” I asked for directions to the weigh station, hoping my appearance could smooth a quicker arrival for the truck.
“I intend to drive there and see what I can do,” I wrote.
“One second,” was the answer. “There isn’t much you can do. It’s an issue with our insurance. They messed up somehow and are working to fix the issue.”
Five minutes later came a phone call from the moving company’s female representative, whom I surmised was the moving company’s part-owner, and she revealed the awful truth. Our moving company did not have the proper INTERSTATE insurance paperwork that permitted it to operate a commercial moving business from the State of Oregon to Washington.
The Washington State Police had impounded the truck, refusing further movement into Washington, although its contents belonged to Alice and me. The only way this stalemate could be solved legally, the woman said, was for me to pick up a rental truck, pick up all our cargo, and drive it back personally to our Longview address.
WTF! The owner was asking the impossible. He wanted me, an Uber/Lyft driver at the ripe age of 74, to pick up a U-Haul rental truck large enough to hold our possessions – 20 feet long, but lower in height.
Heading south on Interstate-5
The clock read 4:30 pm as I proceeded to correct this move-it-or-lose-it situation. After one wrong inquiry at a location where I received blank stares, I arrived at the correct rental spot, whereupon I learned that credit card info given to U-Haul turned out to be “not authorized.” I waited around, twiddling my thumbs, until the owner of the moving company, who shall remain nameless, volunteered a different, acceptable credit card that absorbed the $204.29 charge.
Remember what I wrote about the feeling of operating blind as I began this website post? Sure, I had experience with limousines, Lincoln Towncars and driving for Uber and Lyft, but steering a 20-foot-long truck in a manner compatible with other commercial drivers along Interstate 5? Before I was able to realize the full extent of my dread, another “sizable” problem:
“I am stuck in Longview rush hour traffic adding another 10 minutes to my trip,” I texted the moving truck supervisor. “There is a narrow lane that I am coming to, which is only 10 feet wide. Do you think I will have a problem clearing that part of the road?”
No response. The silence was deafening.
I gripped the steering wheel tightly in true white-knuckle fashion, barely clearing the dreaded, offending section to emerge onto the busy interstate highway and drove like I belonged there. Nevertheless, I proceeded watchfully, looking for the weigh station 20 miles southward.
Once I recognized the station on the northbound side south of Exit 16, I turned around at the next exit. I pulled into the offending area where I was met by the same Washington State patrolman who was the bane of our movers’ existence. I identified myself by displaying my Oregon driver’s license.
“Okay, you can drive the truck back after it is loaded,” he ordered, “but only YOU can drive.” He then had me claim our possessions.
Was this a official order by the State of Washington or an invitation to a mishap?
My watch read 6:30 pm, Mount St. Helens was visible in the distance and the Washington State trooper allowed the transfer to commence with one more notable proviso: The contents of the moving truck were not allowed to be unloaded onto the tarmac until reaching the back door of the U-Haul. Everything inside the movers’ truck had to be rearranged, due to the major difference in dimensions of the two trucks. Nevertheless, the moving crew’s supervisor managed to direct the whole shebang in 90 minutes. None of our possessions were left behind, damaged or even dented during the entire ordeal.
The logistics in motion appear as the cover photograph of this post.
The first crew did their part, now it’s my turn
Then came the fun part. I drove a fully loaded 20-foot rental truck – filled with all our possessions from our seasoned lives — onto a frenetically busy interstate highway in the dark of night for a full 45 minutes – past mountainsides and over Washington’s military-green bridges.
As tightly as I gripped the truck before it was loaded, I believe the veins on my wrists were on full display as I steered the truck – which seemed to have L-O-O-S-E steering. I slowed the truck to ridiculous speed at every turn I encountered, until I pulled into the condominium’s driveway in front of our new residence. A new moving crew had been dispatched to greet me, and I noted the time: 8:45 pm.
“Would you mind backing the truck toward your garage door?” the new supervisor asked. I pulled forward about 10 feet, put the truck in reverse and proceeded warily until my new “friend” yelled out, “That’s okay. I’ll take it from here.”
I hit the brake, put the gear shift into PARK, and when I stepped down from the truck’s running board, I saw why he relieved me. I backed up the truck within a foot of the garage door. I could have hit the damned thing!
Whew! I was nearly done. The crew stayed with us, asking where we wanted every item of furniture or box to be placed inside our newly carpeted, sumptuous apartment. The moving crew worked tirelessly and when they were finished – at 11:30 pm – they said goodnight.
No one presented us with a final bill, and nothing more was communicated to us ever again. After 2½ months of silence, it’s safe to assume the final bill was the $100 deposit for the initial contract. After all, in return for my participation, the owner’s wife promised a “substantial” discount for getting the moving truck and crew released from their Washington Weigh-Station impoundment.
I don’t remember how we ate that day. I know I slept like a rock after going to bed at 2 am. Nevertheless, we’re happy in our new condominium, and Alice believes we will never have to move again.
That’s terrific news, because I never, ever want to ask myself, “Where’s our stuff?” again. That shit gets old – fast.
On her birthday in March of this year, Alice told me, “This year, don’t buy me anything. Instead, please, please get me a house.”
Alice realized the bloom had fallen off the Portland Rose City. We started looking around and found a two-story townhouse for sale in Longview, Washington, next to a public golf course. The photo above shows the crown jewel of Longview: Lake Sacajawea, a former channel of the Cowlitz River turned into a picturesque manmade lake, surrounded by 67 manicured parkland acres. Live music fills the air on six consecutive Thursday night concerts.
Alice and I were in a difficult spot, because we didn’t have money for a down payment. We were caught up in Portland’s rent crisis, and each year an increasing amount of money was being squeezed from us to rent a tiny 900-square-foot apartment next to a major freeway.
Mason Was a Navy Reservist
Thinking about my Uncle Eddie McCormick, though, led to an overdue realization. During the early 1960s, Eddie convinced me into joining the Naval Air Reserve. As far as the Armed Services were concerned, I was not a “man’s man.” This was especially true after I took the Navy’s aptitude test and set a new record for LOWEST score in mechanical ability. Eddie suggested I join the Naval Air Reserve’s six-month active duty group known as “Weekend Warriors.”
During that era, I was subject to the draft. So I enlisted as a preventive move and served six months of active duty – from October 6, 1960 until April 5, 1961, followed by 5½ years of active reserve duty spending one weekend a month at Jacksonville (Fla.) Naval Air Station and serving two weeks active duty during the summer. Most of those two-week tours took me to Guantanamo Bay, but my experience did not include combat, thank God.
After my discharge, I discovered legislation that disqualified 1960s reservists who served 180 or fewer days active duty from receiving VA benefits. This was a strike against six-month reservists, and I harbored resentment about the limitation of opportunity and expressed it to Uncle Eddie a few times.
Embracing a Revelation
Eventually, I found my niche as a broadcaster turned journalist, and regarded my military service as irrelevant history. My military history soon became relevant as I wracked my brain figuring out how to finance a condo purchase. I don’t remember how a flash of brilliance overcame me, but somehow I started counting my days of active duty from October 6 through April 5. That added up to more than 180 days, it was 182.
Oh my God, the commander at Jacksonville Naval Air Station must have mustered me out two days late. I was qualified!
Realtor Tami Cheatley was super-skeptical about VA financing, though, shunning it with a passion, but the Veterans Administration proved it was there for us. It recognized Alice and me as a married couple, and acknowledged my service. Oh yes, the VA did exact their pound of flesh, requiring me to document numerous explanations of every black mark our credit suffered over the last seven years.
We needed to get files from years past, copies of court judgments, visit the IRS, give every possible explanation for any bump in the road we experienced in life. But we did it, and today, on Eclipse Monday, we closed on the sale.
As we celebrate our hard-won victory today, I acknowledge what Uncle Eddie did for by getting me into the Naval Air Reserve. And I dote on his memory. So congratulate us, for today Alice and I became homeowners in a quiet, desirable neighborhood.
Since Alice and I arrived as mid-Atlantic transplants to the Left Coast almost three years ago, driving around, through and beyond Portland has revealed a downside of the Rose City. Over 600,000 of the city’s residents – over 2.3 million are cramped inside a flexible, but meticulously zoned, metro area – populate this formerly pristine forested area. Many locals reveal a thoughtlessness attendant to litterbugs who discard fast-food trash and cigarette butts carelessly. Franchised McDonald’s and Burger Kings are high-stakes fixtures to some of the worst body shapes we’ve seen in America.
“Portland is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country,” say a myriad of surveys comparing growth here with the rest of the country. City administrators wring their hands about a town that grew into a city and now create “zero-death” goals, because driver impatience or carelessness no longer resolutely yields to pedestrians and bicyclists. Freeways have become obsolete, because of bumper-to-bumper traffic on all roads leading into and out of downtown. City fathers and mothers speak openly about charging everyone a mileage toll for driving on city streets, enforced by mandatory GPS counters.
Homeless beggars jockey for freeway exits to display their homemade signs pleading for money. Buildings sprout upward at an astonishing rate, with new construction closing lanes around almost every block. Artists and people on fixed income complain about being priced out by the workers from high-tech industries, the two largest being Intel Corp. and Nike.
Most bridges across the Willamette River that bind the East and West sides together are always under construction in one form or another, as a nonstop crush of trucks, cars and buses steadily pound the newly added improvements into submission. Portland’s traffic ranking is worse than Philadelphia.
Driveways inside apartment complexes as well as residential streets are pocked with speed bumps, serving as automated enforcement of sensible speed limits. Portland police do not have the manpower to enforce restricted lane-changing. The turn lanes of downtown roads onto stop-and-go freeways outgrew their capacity years ago, and there is no room to add new infrastructure to accommodate exasperated recent arrivals.
The TV series “Portlandia” reflects the Chamber of Commerce image of the area; it serves as “Fake News.”
I have seen the urban side of the Great Northwest here, and the future doesn’t portend well. As an Uber driver over two years, I shared Betsy, our 2010 Ford Escape, with almost 3,000 riders and now realize this West Coast enclave has capitulated to the millennial nerd rush from Silicon Valley, California. With matching prices to boot, greed rules the mindset of today’s landlords and homeowners in the Rose City area. Alice and I are struggling to keep up with rising rents in our complex adjacent to a busy freeway. And visitors from Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco say it’s even worse there.
Here’s the good news: We found a place that would accommodate us nicely and not flaunt our presence. Two weeks ago, we made an offer to buy a two-story townhouse (listed as a condominium) in a quiet neighborhood 40 miles from Portland, where the unfettered sound of freeway traffic, police and ambulance sirens will become an unpleasant memory. I will not elaborate more yet, because we await word from the Veterans Administration to see if we qualify for a mortgage with no money down.
We do not wish to jinx our prospects, because the universe is working on our behalf.
Now it’s time to savor our reclining years. It’s also time to get off my duff and write a book in earnest about my life. Because Betsy’s air conditioning system is scheduled for repair on July 17, I will have time, albeit involuntary, to reinvigorate my creative juices. Alice will also feel more independent with the car at her disposal.
As Alice and I prepare to celebrate Christmas Eve with my cousin Margaret Johnston, here’s a Christmas tale of good fortune and considerable divine providence to share:
On Monday morning, Dec. 12, after having my bladder and prostate removed, I met with surgeon urologist, Dr. Daniel Janoff. When Janoff walked into my patient room, he looked directly at me, beamed and uttered two words summarizing my pathology report: “Completely cured!”
Omigod! Am I hearing correctly? Then, like a proper surgeon, he muttered, “Well, unless something microscopic gets through.”
That’s as good as it gets, and the insurance I bought into by undergoing major surgery seems to be worth this post-procedure pain and rigmarole.
Cancer Affects Everyone Differently
The elation I allow myself to feel adds to the joy of this 2016 holiday season and causes me to count my blessings. How many cancer sufferers endure the diagnosis of a malignant body part without years of heartache, excruciating pain and mind-numbing self-doubt? For many of them, they’re always looking over their shoulder dreading the day when it’s confirmed that cancer has made its way into other vital organs.
On the other hand, what are the ramifications to a cancer patient when he or she loses a reproductive organ?
At an art exhibit opening in Bucks County, I once became attracted to someone related to one of the most famous show-business families in America. We were so instantaneously enraptured that we began making out passionately on the second floor of the Lambertville, NJ gallery next to the Delaware River, in full view of everyone there, and I entreated her to see me again.
Upon calling her for the first time, though, she expressed inconsolable shame at having contracted ovarian cancer, saying she was no longer a real woman because her ovaries were being surgically removed. She asked that I never call her again, and hung up the phone. What horrible expectations some of us have while fighting cancer!
Other friends and relatives have faced the “Big C” diagnosis with far worse implications and over a far-longer period of time. Therefore, it makes sense for me to be stoic about sacrificing certain body parts. After 73 years of life in this state of consciousness, I rationalize that some organs can be regarded as irrelevant. Considering I was diagnosed with “high-grade” cancer – somewhere between Stage 3 and Stage 4 – this was no time to play coy with life choices.
Earlier This Year
My cancer ordeal started in March, after Providence primary care provider, Dr. Mathew Snodgrass, confirmed another in what was a series of urinary tract infections. He referred me to Dr. Janoff, a master urologist/surgeon. Janoff, one of the busiest surgeons I ever met, ordered a CT scan, and in May diagnosed my urinary problems as being caused by bladder cancer.
The wicked carcinoma, he said, was caused by the chemical additives U.S. cigarette manufacturers put into their products to enhance addiction. Throughout life, I always concerned myself with lung cancer. But bladder cancer? No way, I thought!
That’s why I recoil whenever I see anyone smoking a cigarette, and I retreat as far as I can get from the sweet seductive scent of tobacco smoke.
Looking back, I am grateful. My ordeal lasted only nine months. How many other cancer sufferers can say the same? My late uncle underwent years of deteriorating health from Lou Gehrig’s disease. How can I put my health challenges on the same plane as his?
I am one lucky guy.
Janoff recommended that before surgery, I undergo four rounds of chemotherapy, and oncologist Dr. Daniel Gruenberg at Compass Oncology kept an eagle eye on my changing blood work.
Three-and-a-half months of intense chemotherapy – consisting of Cisplatin and Gemzar – followed in July through early October at Compass’s location adjacent to Providence St. Vincent Hospital. When my white blood cell count dropped precipitously in September, an injection targeted my bone marrow to precipitate increased white cell formation. The stratagem – although quite painful days later – worked, enabling me to finish the course of treatment.
The surgery followed, and its results are now a matter of record.
Alice has been my confidante and partner throughout, although she would have preferred to see if cannabis oil alone would cause me to turn the corner. I decided otherwise, and she shares this victory without mollycoddling me through the rehabilitation process.
The future ahead, she declares, lies in writing my own book, and she asks that I focus more on such an effort. She is right, because we cannot continue our lives without seeking some semblance of adequate compensation for my creative work.
But on the eve of another Christmas Day, it’s time to spread some holiday cheer with my personal accomplishment. It’s no accident that Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve this year so whatever Jewish blood I inherited simultaneously shares season’s greetings with Christianity everywhere.
“They say ev’rything can be replaced
Yet ev’ry distance is not near
So I remember ev’ry face
Of ev’ry man who put me here
“I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released”
This photo was taken two days ago after I walked into Alice’s and my apartment on Portland, Oregon’s west side.
I am a post-operative rejuvenated human surviver after Dr. Daniel Janoff, an eminently qualified urologist, removed my diseased bladder, prostate and a nearby lymph node in an operating room at Providence St. Vincent’s Hospital on Tuesday, Nov. 29.
I am left to wonder what life will be like without ordinary manly attributes. Will my creativity be compromised? Will I be a shell of the man I once was? Will I be fun to be around?
Well, the true relevance is being able to contemplate essential questions. That’s a gift. No matter my mood, at least today I ponder such questions in my Mason Loika way.
I am alive. And a team of doctors and nurses in one of this nation’s great hospitals is responsible for that mean feat.
So let’s bless today and every breath I take. I have been RELEASED.
Frankly, it’s good he cannot; otherwise, he would be crestfallen.
I have bladder cancer. And, according to urologist/surgeon Dr. Daniel Janoff, who specializes in this aspect of cellular malignancy at Providence St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, my 40 years of cigarette smoking – which ended on Nov. 14, 2000 because of an inspiration while visiting my now-late uncle – is to blame.
How could that be? People who smoke are at risk for lung cancer – not this – right?
Wrong. In my case, almost dead wrong.
But I’m lucky. My cancer was caught early, due to a urinary tract infection (UTI) that required over two months of antibiotics. Since I had a history of UTIs over 10 years in Pennsylvania – relegated by a urologist there as prostate-related – I underwent a standard surgical procedure here, known as a TURP. While under the non-invasive laser, a tumor was detected and sent to pathology.
Janoff was quickly direct. “You have cancer,” he announced, as a matter of fact. I appreciate the news wasn’t sugarcoated. And I am planning on following doctors’ orders and the road ahead.
Bladder cancer exposed
This particular grade of cancer is aggressive and vicious. I write this post as a warning to anyone who smokes corporately manufactured cigarettes.
It’s not the nicotine that causes bladder cancer, Janoff says. The chemical additives purposely put in cigarettes to enhance their addiction are to blame.
I credit the use of cannabis in 2000 for enabling me to quit tobacco products. I even wrote a poem about it in 2006 dedicated to my uncle (the poem needs further editing to develop a more consistent meter, but it’s time for these preliminary lyrics to see the light of day):
I hugged a redwood tree and smoke came down, His brother, the Devil, issued warning sounds, So I gotta experience my epiphany And declare myself tobacco-smoke free.
Redwoods been ’round since time began, Way before the first human, Poisons can kill both trees and men, The question’s not if but rather when,
I hugged a redwood tree and smoke came down, His brother, the Devil, issued warning sounds, So I gotta experience my epiphany And declare myself tobacco-smoke free.
Light up a monster and breathe deep the scent How deep shall it go till the intrusion is spent Enough is enough, how sick must you get? Blocked windpipes and cancer are a good bet.
I hugged a redwood tree and smoke came down, His brother, the Devil, issued warning sounds, So I gotta experience my epiphany And declare myself tobacco-smoke free.
Next time you light up, better think again, You won’t feel better, cigarettes ain’t your friend, Wheezing and coughing, hear my point of view, Smoking’s no good if it takes something from you!
I hugged a redwood tree and smoke came down, His brother, the Devil, issued warning sounds, So I gotta experience my epiphany And declare myself tobacco-smoke free.
The road ahead
I began the first of four rounds of chemotherapy on June 29; it continues Wednesday, July 6. Each round consists of three weekly injections through my blood stream. After the final injection, I am given a week off, preparing for the next round to begin. That means each round takes four weeks.
Needless to say, chemo can get old in a short time. But I will persevere, and eventually undergo a major operation in Portland. How appropriate, eh? Was I a real pisser growing up? Irony serves as my dearest companion.
I sense that Creator became impatient with my lack of written copy for a book I had set my sights on producing. This way, I am being given a divine deadline to meet. Deadlines are a writer’s curse – as well as a blessing – because they force a writer with a work in progress to eventually say, “It’s done.”
Well, the work needs to be done, before I am done, right? And so on Independence Day 2016, I announce that I will charge ahead – into the wonderful world of oblivion – because that’s how we were meant to live life.
As someone once wrote, “Growing old is not for wimps.”
Alice has finished 50 per cent of intensive speech counseling. My partner in life began speech therapy on Jan. 4 at Portland State University (PSU), and my hard-headed woman has less than four weeks left.
We were anticipating professional guidance once we learned Alice qualified for the highly regarded research program, and, like a prized racehorse, she was chomping at the bit to get started. Communication has become Alice’s nemesis, especially when a critical word gets lost in the translation from thought to speech. Consequently, her frustration shows and builds.
Communicating is vital to intelligent beings, so Alice’s word-block syndrome takes a toll on both of us. While waiting for her two hours of therapy downtown to end, I sat on a wooden bench waiting for Alice to appear. Three weeks ago, though, a kindly professor took pity on my aching posterior and showed the way where a nearby cozy waiting area with cushioned chairs invited this weary interloper to ease those sore buttocks. Ah, relief!
The wait affords me this opportunity to chronicle her progress, because whenever we’re at PSU, I cannot Uber. However, on alternate days, Alice’s speech therapy is handled at our apartment. Wesley Allen, therapist extraordinaire (shown above), gives intense one-on-one sessions at aphasia sufferers’ homes and at PSU. The home sessions are extremely helpful to Alice and free me to drive for Uber and keep the financial ogres away, although writing takes a back seat to chauffeuring skills.
Researchers at Portland State University’s Aging and Adult Language Disorders Laboratory joined forces with the University of Washington’s Aphasia Lab to offer hope to sufferers of speech aphasia. Researchers want to understand more about aphasia and its related communication disorders. Alice’s participation not only helps her own recovery; it provides signposts for speech therapists who treat subsequent stroke victims.
Reflections of Christmas 2015
Because I haven’t written in two months, it’s important to report that Alice, Millie and I spent a pleasant holiday season. Close friends and family received our traditional annual photo with Millie around our grown-in-Oregon Christmas tree.
On Christmas Day, we once again celebrated as if we were Jews. We went to a movie and intended to eat at a Chinese restaurant. However, the Living Room Theaters in downtown Portland served so much fine cuisine and wine at plush seats where we watched “The Big Short” (which we wholeheartedly recommend) that our appetites were summarily squelched. Therefore, Chinese food was postponed until a week later.
I worked almost all day/night New Year’s Eve, prior to an unexpected invitation from friends to party hearty at their house less than a mile away from our apartment. We arrived half an hour before the clock struck midnight, and were treated like guests of honor. After some moderate drinking and smoking, kisses of congratulations were shared all around after the TV channel of our hosts’ choice showed the Times Square ball drop (on a three-hour tape delay).
Alice and I stuck around until 2 am. By the time we made it home, we didn’t fall into bed until 3:15. That equates to 6:15 am on the East Coast, so Alice and I became born-again party animals. What’s more, my cousin Margaret invited us to partake of a New Year’s Day sumptuous ham dinner joined by her offspring Brantley, Rori and Lauren.
Snow in Portland
It’s a good thing I worked New Year’s Eve, because the night of Jan. 2nd and the next morning this part of the Great Northwest was hit by 1-3 inches of snow and ice. Portland doesn’t salt its roads, claiming the product — used liberally in the rest of the country — is bad for the environment. Consequently, an outbreak of wintry precipitation shuts down sensible highway travel.
East Coast transportation is similarly affected, but only after the two-feet-plus snow event that buried the Northeast, including our friends in Doylestown, Pa. And oh, does Alice gloat! I suppose enduring a $400-plus monthly electric/gas bill for numerous years can do that.
Yes, Alice and I have reasons to embrace our newfound Portland life, but we are extremely wary of the explosive rental market and what a new lease on our modest apartment might entail. Nevertheless, we are optimistic about our prospects (at least most of the time), and Alice might surprise us all by going back to work. More to come!