Up-and-down day, managing aches and pains of old-age health issues that interfered with and finally halted my work on a lengthy and complex novel I hope will be counted one of my best. Assuming I finish its edit before the Green Ripper, as John D. MacDonald styled him, edits me.
Reaching a point of relative stasis in my health struggle in the wee hours, brain unwilling to resume the rigors of creative writing, I look up Unfinished Symphony on a whim. The internet says:
“Schubert’s Symphony №8 was started in 1822, but for reasons that have never been understood, Schubert never completed the work. The first two movements are complete — and this two-movement piece is one of the composer’s most famous works — but there are only fragments of the final two movements….”
In my teens, a long time ago, I loved classical music when my contemporaries idolized Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Schubert’s Eighth often was on the record stack of my “hi-cap” stereo. Ready to automatically drop into place beneath the needle following Beethoven or Muller as accompaniment to completion of my first novel. With the hubris of youth, I was sympathetic to his failure to finish. Never imagined I would grow old enough to face the prospect of such failure myself.
My perspective shifted in my twenties when I read The Snows of Kilimanjaro. To quote a modern internet review: “The story is about the slow death of an unnamed writer…His leg is rotting away due to gangrene caused by a scratch he got on a thorn in the bush. The trivial nature of the wound that proved fatal suggests one theme, that death is omnipresent and never far away. Another main theme…is the opposite, focusing on the random events and feelings that make up life… and his sense that, while it was his ‘duty’ to write of such things, now he never would, suggests that what is most precious to the writer is this lived experience, even if the ‘story of his life’ makes no logical sense….”
For thirty years after reading the Hemingway, I abdicated my “duty” as a writer while absorbing many “random events and feelings that make up life” per his reviewer. At least as much material as his fictional writer dying from a scratch. When I finally published a second novel, I wryly proposed my three-decade writer’s block for the Guinness record-book.
In the subsequent two decades, encompassing the turn of this new century, I published nineteen books, and one well-received short story in the revenant Saturday Evening Post. Making the Post, my oldest friend and present publisher told me, was an achievement Hemingway himself had been denied.
I was sort of on a roll. Then a year ago an old nemesis, sarcoidosis, reappeared. My health deteriorated. My writing dried up. By Christmas life was imitating art. My left hiking boot rubbed a small scratch on my foot. The scratch became a painful sore. The sore became infected as I stubbornly refused to seek medical attention. I was eight miles from a hospital, not isolated on the African veldt, when my lady-love finally called paramedics. There was plenty of muscle to load my almost-inert 300-plus pounds on a gurney and take me away.
I spent four days over Christmas in the intensive-care unit, attended by space-suited, masked personnel whose other patients on the floor fought for their lives against the lethal pandemic bug. In my agitated brain, secret fear of that infection piggybacking on mine, and of gangrene, joined drug-induced hallucinations vivid as those of Hemingway’s writer dying in Africa. Along with similar thoughts of all my stories yet unwritten.
One of those was about Jane Doe in the Age of Aquarius.
It was the nineteen eighties. A handful of looney-tunes Californians had begun to filter into the Evergreen State, convinced the Age of Aquarius that had so much cachet in the sixties was finally upon us. Events of cosmic importance were about to commence in the Pacific Northwest. My job at the time was dealing with harsh realities of everyday life as public-relations mouthpiece for the State Patrol. Which led me to Jane Doe’s hospital room in Olympia.
The young woman was concussed. Nearly comatose. In brief intervals of lucidity, the medical staff learned she had no idea who she was. Amnesia, like a soap opera. When brought in, she had no ID. In an era before women affected more tattoos than nineteenth-century sailors, she had one. I seem to recall it was a discreet butterfly on a part of her anatomy that would only be known to intimate acquaintances.
The hospital was in a quandary: patient privacy versus issuing a media release about the amnesiac victim, hoping to establish identity and medical history. So they deferred to me, official state spin-doctor. I made the call, and her story went out.
Compelling reading that, these days, would surely “go viral” overnight. Young woman attired like a biker chick on the jump-seat of a Harley when troopers tried to pull down the rider for speeding. Fleeing arrest, he gunned it so abruptly she lost her grip on him. Flew backwards to the pavement and landed flat on her back, head smacking the concrete with sickening force. Saving the girl trumped catching the Harley; he escaped. Never was caught.
In the dear old days of newspapers, TV news and hourly radio news bulletins, traditional wire services, AP and UPI, carried the story just about everywhere. An eye-opener for me. Scores of distraught families, missing a woman between the ages of eighteen and thirty or so, began ringing my phone off the hook. Missing-persons units all over the country checked in. Time-zone differences kept me on the phone late nights with London tabloids following tips of countrywomen who vanished into the U.S. One estimate I saw as Jane Doe lay abed was over seven thousand missing women in her estimated age-range. The Brits said they had nearly that many. Never heard from France or Germany, the USSR or New Zealand or anywhere else. But logic suggests they had their own lists.
The secret-flesh tattoo was crucial. No family member I spoke to recalled their gone girl having one. Some were horrified. Some were insulted, as if mentioning one stigmatized the missing. A very few were thoughtful: maybe she got one after she went away; could they see her photo? I absorbed so much grief, so much pain, from traumatized families. It made my head swim.
To say it was a busy, crowded time is to understate. Jane Doe dominated my life. In the middle of the kerfuffle the hospital notified me of another mystery: “Maurice” had slipped into Jane’s room bearing a flower-pot full of Mums — Chrysanthemums — and slipped away again. Jane said she’d never seen Maurice before.
The hospital PR guy theorized Maurice was the phantom biker, remorseful about abandoning his squeeze. but it was only a theory. In those days CCTV didn’t watch every hospital corridor. Eyewitness descriptions were vague. More perplexing to me, nobody at the hospital ever read the card Maurice left with the Mums. No one ever saw him again.
Hospital officials may have been distracted by a woman calling from a Navy-port town on Puget Sound, saying she thought Jane Doe was her sister. A wild-child teen who became a street kid in rebellion against their parents’ strict religious upbringing, and then ran away as far as California and Florida. She said from age sixteen her sister was into drugs, massage parlors, and biker gangs. Would be twenty-eight now. Estimated age and description tallied.
The parents drove to Olympia to see. Arrived at midnight, unobserved by any media. I wasn’t present for the reunion. The hospital PR guy said it was tense and emotional, and not exactly happy. Jane didn’t know her parents. Her father wasn’t sure he wanted to know her. But in those pre-DNA days her dental records established her ID beyond doubt. Jane Doe was found. The old man decreed they would take her home and look after her in secret; no one was to know the prodigal daughter had returned.
Which is how I got involved again. The hospital PR guy had as many message slips from hurting families as I did. News media checked in daily for an update. Ethically his hands were tied: patient privacy. But Jane was such big news the media would rain all over his hospital if he admitted she had been identified and refused further detail. Let alone if he started the old “no comment” routine. And there remained all those families out there, hoping against hope. Cruel as it may appear they deserved to know their agony of unknowing was not resolved by one amnesiac woman in Olympia.
So I called the old man and his wife into a hospital office, sat them down, and talked turkey. If their roles were reversed, leaving them uncertain, as his decision would leave scores of grieving families — how would they feel about that? The wife got it at once, her empathy for others fully engaged. The husband was stubborn in his shame over his daughter’s profligate behavior. It reflected badly on him, see? I didn’t exactly call him a gutless, insensitive coward. I was, after all, a trained PR guy.
I gave him a choice. He could blow off the press conference I scheduled at 10 a.m. to announce Jane had been identified. Or he could attend and stonewall. Or he could step up, and claim his daughter, and say they were taking her home. Do that for all the other hurting families out there, and I would take the media heat, halting all questions they were dying to ask. I could talk about mysterious Maurice, about the still-missing biker whose carelessness and indifference caused this, about our detectives still looking for him. All that was public record, and good copy. The media would have to be satisfied. They wouldn’t be. But I could take it. I was paid to take it.
The father manned up. There were more reporters and photographers and TV News cameras jammed into the hospital briefing room than I ever confronted before or since as a flack. He bowed his neck like an annoyed bull, and said the necessary. His wife added a quiet request for privacy to allow the family to deal with her daughter’s injuries and memory loss. I stepped in and cut off the barrage of questions as they left to get their daughter and go home.
My roasting wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. Because at the end of the day it was a feel-good story: gone girl found, reunited with her family. They played it that way and, as the world always works, the news cycle moved on to the newest hot topic. Our Jane Doe was history. As far as I know, no news outlet outed her cutesy alternate identity as a sex worker in magic-fingers California massage parlors run by hoodlums.
With finally some breathing room, I drove to the waterfront with a Thermos of coffee after lunch, to sit and watch sailboats and decompress. And encountered a scout seeking the Evergreen State Age of Aquarius. A gorgeous blonde in an adjacent convertible lifted her latte as I lifted my cup. Our eyes met. We laughed at the simultaneous surreptitious glances. She hopped right out of her car and came around to my door to chat.
Surreal: she had thrown up her acting work in LA to come north seeking enlightenment. She said she could literally feel the cosmic flux here — couldn’t I? Didn’t know from cosmic flux, but with Jane Doe on my mind I told her the story. Her reaction was memorable: she said the cosmos was aware of my acts on behalf of families of the lost, and would repay the karmic debt. Yeah, right. Californians, what can you say?
Then I got back to the office. First phone call I took said I just read the wire-service story about identifying Jane Doe. If you’re the guy who taught me how to pull wire-service copy in Florida in 1963, and got drafted same day as me in 1965, and went to Military Police School with me, and on to Germany as MPs later…
“Damn, Don,” I said. “Where are you? ” Last time I saw Don was in Germany, when he stayed in one MP Company and I was transferred to another one. Twenty years ago.
Don was North Coast correspondent for the Portland Oregonian. Living in a beach town a little over a hundred miles south. Married again, to a Northwest chef the tourists loved. Plenty of room if I wanted to bring my family down for a vacation and long-delayed catching up. A renewal of an old, good friendship. Among its many enjoyments, watching my kids love his wife’s custom pizzas even more than Portland yuppies did.
If the cosmos really did watch me deal with Jane Doe, it wasted no time offering the payback predicted by the blonde Aquarian true-believer. How did the Shakespeare go? “More things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy….”
And so ends my tale of a single Jane Doe, in a putative Age of Aquarius.