Who ever believed I’d live this long? I vividly recall the hippie maxim: “never trust anyone over thirty.” When I was twenty-nine the odds seemed even whether I would make it to untrustworthy.
Chapter 6: Brushes with mortality
The month before I turned twenty-nine I found myself in an Allentown motel beside a small burbling trout stream, thinking deep thoughts about mortality and funerals. Seven months previously, I had been rear-ended. A month later the old man died in Georgia. Doctors said no flying due to my head injury from the wreck. I was too banged-up to drive. So I missed his funeral.
Ironic in a way: when I worked in Georgia, he designated me his official representative at his sister’s funeral when he was too ill to come from Florida. Chloe still had a letter I wrote about driving behind the hearse, chauffeuring my political uncle and my Episcopal-deacon uncle, fresh from his canonical exams in Brunswick. I wrote about what her daughter said of the day she dropped dead of a stroke: “She was in such good spirits, even hugged my husband — two or three times! And she usually gave him crap. Laughing and joking she was never serious, it was all in fun, like her and her brothers in the old days…”
She must have been fey was my thought, felt death coming. At the funeral home run by the matriarch’s old bootlegger boyfriend she looked perfectly natural, lips pursed as if about to wake, expel a stream of snuff, cuss everybody out and then laugh that wild, mad laugh of the clan. Across the street Greyhound-station loudspeakers announced buses bound for more mundane destinations than where she had gone…Now the old man was gone too.
Allentown was one of my oddest assignments. Two predawn hours daily in the press room of the local newspaper as they prepared to print my Harrisburg paper, whose presses were under Susquehanna River floodwaters. My July log recorded: A month since fishing Clark’s Creek…things have happened.
My first Clark’s Creek fishing had been a month after the surgical drain in my side was removed. My huge, curving railroad-track scar was pink and healthy. In first post-op lovemaking Chloe was very gentle with me in bed, eager as me to reaffirm life after intimations of mortality. When I fished Clark Creek she sat in the truck and read, unwilling to let me go alone for fear something else might happen.
Spring days were fine. My new Fenwick rod felt light as a magic wand. But I was no magician. Not only did I not raise a trout, I hung flies in trees and brush to the amusement of an old-timer who said hemlocks ate flies greedily as trout. In his thirtieth season with his elegant bamboo rod, he said“Nothing to it. Easier than spin casting.” Taught me to roll-cast to avoid trees. I lost one of the hand-tied flies the assistant city editor gave me in the hospital as a get-well gift.
There was Zen-like calm waving the slender wand, fat fly line bellied on the sun-dappled water. The ice-cold stream raved over smooth stones with the simple joy of flowing. Anglers were friendly despite my scraggly hippie beard, rebellion against having my entire body shaved clean. I forgot IVs, tubes down my throat, recovery-room awakenings. “It’s just good to be out,” said one guy brewing stream-side coffee on his camp stove.” Especially sweet to me,” I said.
But Fate wasn’t through schooling me on mortality. My Kentucky brother, driving his souped-up Olds 442, went off a mountain curve in Indiana and killed himself against a huge oak tree. Highway workers repairing winter damage left loose gravel on the road. At his speed it might as well have been black ice. We went to his Kentucky funeral. Hurricane Agnes was still way down south where hurricanes belong.
The Louisville funeral home had little artistry over violent death. I said nothing about the poor reconstruction. My father, his wife and my brother’s fiance said he looked natural — maybe it’s what you have to say. The Indiana coroner said he died too fast for pain. I hoped so. His girl had been following in her car on the way to shop for furniture for when they were married. To me, the nightmare was less his sudden death than her slamming on brakes, rushing to the smoking ruin screaming. The rest was mercifully a blur, she said.
I hoped it stayed that way — if she was telling the truth. Not just trying to spare his mother, who was utterly devastated. My father was terribly saddened, but no stranger to violent death of fellow GIs from Normandy to the Hurtgen Forest. A son’s death is increments more awful. But he handled it stoically.
Now my Kentucky brother and I would never hunt ducks together, as we’d always planned. Chloe and I were introspective going home with only late-night semis — and Agnes — for company. Torrents of rain — blasting wind. I fought the storm across the Alleghenies, a Floridian fighting a hurricane in Pennsylvania mountains. Too drubbed when we got home to go to work. The understanding switchboard operator offered condolence for my loss. She had less than twenty-four hours to live.
A newsroom linchpin who juggled calls so reporters never lost a caller eager to spill secrets, she kept her second-floor vigil with one dried-up little rewrite man as flood waters rose to desktops on the first floor. Finally a rescuer in a Jonboat took them out up Market Street. The intersection with Cameron was a riptide. The boat rocked. She tried to stand. The boat capsized. She went under. “Like a rock” an eyewitness said. The others were saved.
Thursday the creek below our hill was a quarter-mile wide. Friday I found a back way out. Cameron Street was under water — our operator’s body still unrecovered. A lawn chair, oil drums, sundry junk floated on the oil-slick. Rescue choppers pounded overhead. I donned hip boots and started for the newspaper. Water was too deep halfway across. Still rising. Ultimately it crested over thirty feet above flood stage, the Great Flood of ’72.
Newspaper staff regrouped in branch offices. Phone lines still worked. I spent hours on the phone tracking recovery efforts. The Fourth of July I was assigned to Allentown. Did final typo checks when they fitted Harrisburg plates on their presses at 4:30 a.m. Rubbed elbows with pressmen on the catwalks of the big Hoes, like Jacksonville copy-boy days. Speed-read pages as they cranked and registered the edition with our trucks at their loading dock. Done by 6:30, I had the rest of the day off.
Fly-fished the stream behind the motel. Contemplated the year. Medical trauma and family deaths were intimations of mortality hard to ignore. Work seemed irrelevant. I had bounced from the Berrigan antiwar trial to a boring three-month copy desk stint, back to the street when the ME said stories were being missed without me out there. I went through the motions but the zest was gone.
So I flew from Allentown to DC to interview for a PR job with a public-employee labor union, recommended by the governor’s press secretary. The union made headlines supporting the governor’s run on his promise to end state-worker patronage. With his election, they had organized hundreds of state employees. The union PR director, an old UPI hand, said the press secretary was repaying me for a heads-up that permitted the governor to head off a potentially dangerous and certainly embarrassing confrontation in coal country.
Desperate homeowners, facing strip-mining juggernauts bearing down on their homes, planned to lie down in front of the machines. The strip-miner dementedly said he’d call their bluff. This asshole was county chairman in the governor’s party. My page-one story would run next day if his machines rolled. I gave the press secretary a choice of leads: the governor called him off, or the governor let him endanger citizens. Good page-one story either way. The machines didn’t roll. The old UPI hand admired my move, and offered me a job.
Chloe drove up with news of another death: the matriarch’s oldest friend — one of the always-well-dressed ladies who were a fixture in my youth. My uncle the Episcopal deacon read Tennyson’s lines over her that were read over the matriarch’s beloved older sister during the war: “Sunset and the evening star, and one clear call for me…” We watched the tumultuous Chicago Democratic convention on TV, made love, discussed the union offer without reaching a conclusion. When Harrisburg presses were functional and I was back in town, still another death — this one of a stranger — tipped the scales.
A young black female prisoner in county lockup had committed suicide during the flood. I was sent to investigate and found a tragic tale of wrongful imprisonment leading to terminal despair. After my story, the sentencing judge falsified court records to justify his sentence. Demanded I be fired. Management seemed so inclined. I proved his falsification with unaltered police arrest records. The Newspaper Guild saved my bacon. But my trust in management was broken. I accepted the union job and gave my notice.
By my twenty-ninth birthday we were moving on. Pennsylvania good times had ended in a long bad year of brushes with mortality. Family, co-workers, old family friends — ultimately an innocent stranger. I wondered if I would live to see thirty.