Peter Shelton

Warm Coastal Waters (3)

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History, Uncategorized by pshelton on November 7, 2017

I’m convinced he was in charge at the end. After the rehab fiasco, he was ready to go.

When it was time to leave the hospital, Dad’s doctor prescribed a week at a nursing home to finish the antibiotics and continue the physical therapy. But it didn’t work out. He had his doubts, even before we left the hospital. A new nurse struggled to get Dad’s socks on preparatory to getting him into the wheelchair. He couldn’t even sit up on his own. I had to stand on the opposite side of the bed and prop him up from behind. “See this man who’s got my back,” he told the beleaguered woman. “He can bounce. He can jump. And run. I’m quite envious of him.”

At the rehab place, instead of slowly regaining strength, he gradually lost it. Supported walks became shorter. The hoped-for goal of getting himself to the bathroom unaided slipped farther out of reach. Staff did not always respond timely to his calls. He soiled himself in bed and was mortified. After a week, the antibiotics course had finished. His internist wanted him to extend his stay: You just need to work at it, Bob; you can regain that mobility, that pre-fall independence, and then go home.

Dad agreed, reluctantly, to another week. He worked at it. He really did. But the results weren’t coming. He wanted to go home. He wanted it to end. The indignities. The complete dependence on others. Wendy thought he was depressed. And he probably was. But who wouldn’t be at that point? He was ready, and he knew it. His doc ordered hospice.

I flew south a second time. Wendy drove down from her home in Truckee. Tom borrowed an electric keyboard, a “full 88,” from a theater where he played on weekend nights, crammed it into his vintage Prius, and reconstructed it in the hall outside Dad’s study. Tom played Joplin. Slow ragtime. He knew Dad loved it. It was exquisite. It was heartbreaking.

One afternoon I took a break and drove to the cliff overlooking the Big Beach. There, surrounding the harbor, was the city Dad built. No, that’s too grand. And not true. He was the city’s first city manager, starting when they adopted their charter in 1955, and helped guide what had been a sandy, isolated, commercial fishing and summer-cottage town to become… What? Dad would be the first to say he didn’t approve of much that characterizes the place today: a city squeezed to the last developable square inch; a crushing, shiny river of Bentleys and Beamers; ugly politics; $20 million homes; a mooring on the bay for your boat, if you can find one, for half a million more. Dad’s hospital window looked out over a piece of the bay and a small sampling of the 10,000 yachts moored there. A youngish hospital orderly (too young, really, to know) caught me gazing out the window and told me, “I grew up in Newport Beach before it was ‘The O.C.’”

Back then, when Dad was fresh out of the war and out of school, growth was an unquestioned good, progress a straight line rising. Back then we drove 20 minutes on surface streets through orange groves to get to the Santa Ana Freeway. Disneyland hadn’t yet opened. Dad’s job was to manage the growth as rationally, as intelligently as possible. Many people think he did just that. In later decades, though, he’d cringe at his own naiveté, his failure, if it was a failure, to perceive the onrushing future.

A brown pelican, endangered when I was a kid but making a comeback, glided right over the rock on which I sat. So close I could hear the air whistling through its feathers.

I have long believed, and I think Dad came to believe, too, that his signature professional achievement was the preservation from development of a stretch of wild beach between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. He was working at the time for the Irvine Company, developer of the City of Irvine, the Irvine campus of the University of California, and large, terraced chunks of Newport Beach. They had plans to develop this four-mile strip of beachfront, too – one of the last pieces of undeveloped coastline in southern California. I’m not sure whose idea it was initially, but I do know that Dad spent years negotiating with the Coastal Commission, the State of California, Orange County, the surrounding city governments – and succeeded eventually in transferring the land to the state parks system, where it remains wild and open to the public, its honey-colored cliffs and rock-strewn beaches, its tide pools and pelicans protected.

Tom played Joplin. Our mother came, briefly, to pay her respects, driven up from Laguna Beach by somebody… Eliza? Diana? They, Mom and Dad, had remained civil, often friendly, living just a few miles apart, in the years since their divorce. She stood at the foot of Dad’s bed, her expression hard to read. Later, at her house, I asked her what she had been thinking, assuming she’d say something about his spectral appearance, the handsome skull beneath papery skin. But she just said, “It’s complicated.” Of course it was. We left it at that.

Dad’s wife, Barbara, never completely comfortable around Sheltons, disappeared or padded purposefully around the house that would soon be hers alone. It was in part to spare her the burden of caregiving that Dad was so determined to go. I don’t know this for certain, but I believe it’s true.

As Dad marched on, I sat next to the bed, hand on his shoulder, and talked. Talked about letting go. I reminded Dad of a recurring dream he used to tell me about. A skiing dream in which he had to push through typical dream obstacles to get to the actual skiing part, but then, when he did get there, the skiing was exquisite, like nothing he’d ever done but as he imagined it could be. He was floating down the mountain, and it was effortless.

I told him about a dream I have had more than once. I’m underwater, way down below the surface, I’m holding my breath and I’m not at all sure I’ll make it back up. I’m swimming, breaststroking, my lungs about to burst, I have to exhale, and then… slowly at first, but with increasing awareness and pleasure, I realize I don’t have to breathe. I’m fine. Not exactly like a fish with gills, but something like that. I’m getting plenty of what I need: oxygen? air? neither one? In the peculiar logic of the dream, it doesn’t matter. I’m ecstatic. This was something I’d always known, or should have known, but discovered only now. And I’m freer than I’ve ever been. At ease.

Wendy touched my arm. I had drifted off in the lounge chair with a blanket over me. Tom slept on a day bed nearby. “He’s gone,” she said. It was 4:00 a.m. She’d been sitting with Dad the last couple of hours. His breathing got slower, she said. And then it stopped.

We decided to motor northwest along Catalina’s lee shore, out beyond Avalon’s last moorings, past the Casino, the 1930s-era Art Deco ballroom, past the towering cruise ship, past the faux Amalfi Coast condos terraced into the cliff, my tension dissipating with each nautical mile. Past the dive boats at anchor that were the last sign of civilization.

We wouldn’t get as far as White’s Landing, where Wendy, Tom and I (and sister Polly, who died 10 years ago) had slept many a summer night rocking gently in the Good Grief’s bunks. Days spent in and out of the water, mostly in. Dad, lithe and tan, salt crystalizing on his forearms, rowing us back from the beach in the dinghy. White’s was the cove we knew best. But it was too far on this day.

This spot, though, was far enough. It was perfect. We killed the engines and drifted in silence, our two boats linked by arms and hands, my starboard alongside Tom’s port. There was still no wind. The water lapping against the hulls was the deep blue of Concord grapes, but clear, clear down deep, like looking into a sapphire. Ellen and I passed out the tins. We’d already talked with the little ones about what we were going to do, how special this was, and that they were to be reverent, although we didn’t use that word. And they were. Splendidly so, in spite of their excitement. In spite of, or perhaps because of the (for them) entirely new sea on which we bobbed. The warm coastal waters off Catalina Island.

I don’t know who first sprinkled from his tin of ashes. In time, each of us leaned over the side and reached down close to the water before letting Geegeepa go. When I sprinkled my few spoonsful I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. The finer, lighter bits formed a cumulus cloud billowing just below the surface. (I don’t know why I thought they might float.) The heavier pieces drifted purposefully downward in a sparkling column that flashed and glowed in the sunlight. The deeper they went the darker the blue background, but they never stopped catching light and throwing it back, like individual flakes of gold.

Eventually there were 12 clouds and descending star columns – each angling slowly away as the boats drifted closer to shore.

Ellen has written a lovely, rhyming book called “A Cat Named Clyde,” in which Clyde dies and is transformed, over time, from his backyard grave into a cloud, and rain, a grain of sand, and eventually a pearl “… that was worn by a woman who liked to twirl…” Ellen had read “Clyde” to Alex and Lily, at home in Bend. Maybe that’s where Lily’s comment came from, for, just when it was time to pull the starter cords on the outboards and head back, a young sea lion poked its sleek, whiskered head above the surface and regarded us for a long moment. And Lily said, “Maybe that’s Geegeepa come to say goodbye.”

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Warm Coastal Waters (2)

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History, Uncategorized by pshelton on November 6, 2017

It wasn’t his heart.

When, weeks later, Dad lay dying, at home with hospice care, his two nurses Dahlia and Leticia, who took turns keeping him clean and (more or less) comfortable, gave me diametrically opposed advice. One said, your father can hear everything you say; talk to him. The other said, no, he’s not hearing anything now.

I chose to believe the first. Dad hadn’t opened his eyes or responded to questions for the last day and a half, so there was no way to know for sure. He was done eating. And the little bits of water we trickled into his mouth with the popsicle sponge were less and less welcome.

He didn’t need sustenance. He was concentrating. Working hard at breathing. Or at stopping breathing. The animal brain, of course, wouldn’t countenance a voluntary cessation. Thus the resistance. Why it was taking this long. The man, the cerebral, dignified man who had thought long and hard about this, and whose body had finally betrayed him, was marching steadily toward the end. His breathing came in orderly – labored but orderly – patterns, like waves in and out on a beach. Then every once in a while there’d be a big exhale, a lengthy sigh. Pause. And the pattern would recommence.

Sitting there, I was reminded of his time in the Navy in World War II. He’d joined up in 1943 as a college sophomore and enlisted right away in a quickie officers’ candidate school that turned out “90-day wonders.” Three months and you were a Navy ensign. During this training period, Dad had led a precision drill team. I’ve seen pictures. They were a near-perfect machine, a white-capped, white-gloved cube of synchronized movement – marching straight, pirouetting right, stopping on the exact dime – with my fresh-faced dad off slightly to the side calling out the cadence. They won competitions. They were magnificent. Later, he taught his four children how to salute and how to march, tongue ever so slightly in cheek, across the living room rug. “For’ard, harch! One-two… About… Face! At ease!”

Now he was marching again, or so I imagined. Working hard. Working at precision. Getting there. So, maybe he wasn’t hearing me. But I talked anyway. I talked about our boats and our time together on boats. Long ago but still vivid. (A portrait, an actual oil painting of the Good Grief, at anchor on a glassy day, hung on the wall around the corner from Dad’s rented hospital bed.) I reminded him of the time we’d started out for Catalina, the two of us in a pea-soup “marine layer,” on the Mister Robert’s. (The name painted on the hull referred to Dad’s given name, but also steered an alert reader to the 1955 movie starring Henry Fonda and Jimmy Cagney. It’s the story of a small, humorously fractious Navy supply ship on the fringes of the action in the Pacific, and it roughly paralleled Ensign Shelton’s experience.) That foggy day we set our compass course for Long Point, near the center of the 20-mile-long island, just in case. We took turns steering and blowing the foghorn. At one point during the morning an overloaded cabin cruiser veered suddenly out of the mist into shouting range. “You headed to Catalina?” “Yes!” “Us too!” And they roared off, vanished. I don’t think either of us mentioned it, but the encounter brought back the grisly memory of three bodies laid out on the Coast Guard dock. Dad was city manager of Newport Beach at the time. A very hands-on manager who showed up and sometimes got wet or got his hands dirty supporting city employees. And sometimes I happened to be there with him when he got a call. The bodies on the harbormaster dock were the first dead people I had seen. They’d been nibbled on by sharks. Bloodless white meat after days in the water. The autopsy later decreed (kindly, I thought) that all three had drowned first. Their powerboat had sunk somewhere in the Catalina Channel and they had put their life jackets on backwards, which pushed their faces in the water.

At some point mid-crossing the fog lifted, and Dad and I were stunned to see we were aimed, not at the island’s midsection but at its east end. A strong cross current had shoved us left by almost 10 miles. Had we continued to rely solely on the compass heading, we’d have missed the island altogether.

I talked to him about the marching he had taught us kids. I asked him if that’s what he was doing now, marching. He didn’t show any sign of having heard, but kept on with the metronome, open-mouth breathing. One of the last things I did hear him say was, “I’m organizing on deck…”

Every once in a while he would grimace and stiffen as if in pain. We had struggled with morphine dosages. The hospice people had left a set of guidelines but stressed that we could give more if needed. Cloe, who is a doctor, said on the phone from Oregon that as a rule she favored easing pain. She didn’t think we were giving Geegeepa too much. Wendy, on the other hand, remembered conversations with our father in which he stated his desire to be “present” at the moment of death; he very much wanted to experience the passage. (This is a man who wrote his own obituary. He didn’t like the fluffy scripted ones he read in the paper. We all thought his was overly modest, cleaved of much accomplishment and honors bestowed, but it was in character and included, near its end, the sentence: “As for the afterlife, I’m not telling.”)

Most of the time when these grimaces took over Dad’s face, he just needed to pee. He never quite got the catheter thing. That he could just let go and urinate without violating that age-old prohibition against wetting the bed. He’d grimace, eyes tight shut, and I’d peer under the sheet and see that, yes, the prophylactic was still attached and despite his psychic discomfort, the dark urine had begun to flow.

Back when Dad was in the hospital, following his living-room collapse, he’d suffered from what one doc labeled “hospital psychosis” and another referred to as “hospital delirium.” It happens, she said, especially to old people who are ripped from their routines. And it did perhaps explain Dad’s discombobulation. One time soon after I’d arrived, Dad lurched upright as if to get out of bed just as the day nurse, Desiree, walked in.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Is there a urinal?” Dad indicated he was heading to the bathroom.

“You’re in a hospital!” Desiree said, grabbing him, mildly put out.

“Oh, that’s a good place to be,” he said, giving in, lying back down as Desiree explained about his catheter, not for the first time.

Desiree was a natural blonde with a lovely curve to her back. Dad never stopped appreciating what he called “female pulchritude.” He actually used those words one time when we were at the beach. He was in his 80s and the two of us were body surfing small waves at the Corona del Mar State Beach. The Big Beach, we called it. It was warm and windless. Clear green water, refracted sunlight off a sand-gold bottom. Bikinis everywhere one looked.

Dad didn’t exactly flirt with Desiree, but he was solicitous to her commands. He remained, I couldn’t help thinking, a handsome man, despite the slightly skeletal look. Our mother, Miriam, a great beauty herself when they met at Pomona College, is a sculptor who often comments on bone structure. Dad had great bone structure. They were married for 27 years, divorced for 42. Other women told her, she delighted in repeating to us kids, that Dad was “the handsomest man in Newport Beach.”

Early in his hospital stay, Dad said to Desiree, “I hired you to work at the Nature Center.” Which hadn’t happened. (In retirement Dad had been instrumental in founding the Environmental Nature Center on Newport’s back bay.) This was during the delirium time. He also talked, with no context, about “the tools.” And once, out of the blue, he called me “Bo.”

The condition manifested in more powerful flights of fancy, too. He had hallucinations, or dreams, or visions, he wasn’t sure which. So vivid, so potent, he thought they might herald a new reality. He said he could see out of his bad eye. In his 70s he’d suffered a detached retina, which ultimately hadn’t been reparable. He was blind in that eye. But he insisted from his bed, to me, to nurses, to anyone who would listen, that he could now see things with that eye.

“If I deliberately put the left eye in service,” he told me, as rational-sounding as always, “then I can see things I normally don’t see.”

For example, he saw his car there in the room. The new Ford hybrid he’d proudly driven up to Bend, to see us, two years before. He “saw” a meal being prepared, with my mother’s help, for a kids’ camp taking place in “open space” next door to the hospital. There was no kids’ camp. There was no open space.

“If I get to believing what the left eye sees… it might become a spare…” His voice trailed off. And then, as if awakening to something, “…it might be a problem.”

Dad had always had a dread of lingering, as his father had, for months, following a stroke. My fear was that Dad was deteriorating neurologically to the point where he, we, none of us could prevent a similar fate. But my fear abated the following day when Dad’s head cleared considerably. He knew where he was and why: his collapse had been the result of sepsis, a blood infection probably related to a wound on his leg that had not healed. His trusted internist (in essence his GP for the last several decades) said, “You’re not dying, Bob.” And put him on a course of strong antibiotics and gentle physical therapy.

Back on more solid ground, we talked baseball. The World Series would be on television that night. Cubs versus Indians. In Cleveland. The seventh, the deciding game. The Cubbies, the snake-bit Cubbies, attempting to come back, on the road, from a 3-1 series deficit. Baseball had been a second pillar, along with the boats, of our father-son relationship. He’d taken me to Dodger games beginning soon after they moved from Brooklyn to L.A. He taught me the game’s wonderful grammar. How a throw across the diamond can be “on a rope.” When to steal and when to bunt. Why third base is the “hot corner.” We went to a World Series game in the fall of 1959. Dodgers versus Chicago White Sox. A hundred thousand people filled the L.A. Coliseum. We parked about a mile away (or so it seemed), on the front-yard grass of an enterprising family in South Central.

Just as memorable, in aggregate, were the games we listened to coming home from Catalina. Sunday afternoon day games. Fair winds whipping up a following sea. The Grief rolling through the troughs, exhaust burbling the aft wake. Me at the wheel, age 12. Vin Scully’s melodic, unhurried, fatherly play-by-play emanating from the transistor radio. At home, with the sports section spread out on the dining room table, I learned how to calculate batting averages and earned-run average. Warm evenings after supper, Dad would grab his old college mitt, black with spit and neatsfoot oil, and we’d play catch until we could no longer see the ball.

I came back to the hospital that night to watch the game with Dad. He fell asleep early on and missed the Cubs’ stunning comeback: 8-7 in 10 innings. An amazing finish. The end of the Loveable Losers’ historic, 107-year title drought. Dad, hands folded on his hospital gown, snored next to me.

 

To be continued…

Warm Coastal Waters (1)

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History by pshelton on November 5, 2017

It was fun teaching the little kids port and starboard. Dad would have enjoyed the lesson. He would have enjoyed giving it himself, but he’d been dead for seven months. So, if he was there, somehow, listening, he heard me pass the nautical knowledge on to his great grandchildren.

The youngest, Boden, who is six and lives in Colorado, told me later that he had a way of remembering: “Airport! Starburst! I left the airport… Starburst candies!” Starburst being the other side, the right side looking forward, the side that’s not airport.

We were motoring out of Avalon harbor in twin six-passenger runabouts: red and yellow painted hulls, with bench seats, high gunnels, and powered by appropriately unpeppy, but steady (like Dad near the end), 15-horsepower outboard motors. The skippers, Tom in one boat, me driving the other, steered with a starboard-side wheel.

We were twelve: my brother, Tom, his long-time girlfriend, Diana Burbano, and their son, Lionel, who is almost 11; my sister Wendy, with her daughter, Eliza; my two daughters, Cloe and Cecily, with their kiddoes, Alex and Lily (who live in high-desert Oregon), and Boden. Plus Ellen and me, the senior crewmembers, made twelve. I had done the pre-trip research from afar. Ellen and I live in Oregon, too, after nearly 40 years in Colorado. I’d talked on the phone with Jay Guion of Joe’s Rent a Boat, on the Pleasure Pier in Avalon. Ellen had carefully rationed Dad’s ashes into a dozen small, screw-top tins, one for each of us.

I liked Jay immediately, even though now, in person, he was telling me I couldn’t reserve the boats. This made me nervous. They didn’t do reservations, he said from behind the open-air counter on the pier. Come back when your whole group is here ready to go, and we’ll have two boats for you. He managed to be reassuring without budging on procedure. Sandals. Broad straw hat. Sparkly blue eyes. Gray handlebar mustache. He’s been working the pier on this island off the southern California coast his whole life, 80-some years. His dad, the original Joe, started the business 90 years ago. “We’ll have your boats,” he said again, island mellow.

He must have sensed my eagerness for this day to go right, my fear that some piece of the puzzle might not fall into place, might mess the whole thing up. There’d already been snafus that morning with my siblings and ferry travel over from the mainland. I could have blurted out to Jay that we really, really needed for him to not run out of boats, even as we waited on pins and needles for my tardy sibs, and Avalon’s morning beaches and shopping streets writhed with tourists. There was a cruise ship anchored off shore, its layer-cake decks having disgorged an untold number of revelers to the shore boats. Some of them were lined up to rent Jay’s boats.

Dad had said he wanted his ashes spread on the “warm, coastal waters off Catalina.” That’s a direct quote. He wrote to each of his children quite a few times over the last several years with thoughts on his mental and physical slowdown, his death, whenever it might come, which he said he didn’t fear – he was curious, actually – and how he’d like to see things go.

“The warm coastal waters off Catalina Island.” That was classic our father. He embraced a certain old-fashioned – you might say romantic – specificity in language, spoken and written. He could be formal without coming off as condescending, sentimental without seeming weak. People responded to his enthusiastic precision. He once signed off a note to the vice-principal, to get me out of school for a week of skiing, with the words, “Intense excitement!” She was a notorious sourpuss. But I got my excused absence. And we all use the phrase to this day. You’re coming for a visit? Intense Excitement! Cowboy Junkies are playing for free in the park? Intense Excitement!

We had half of Dad’s ashes. His widow (his second wife) had the other half and planned to take hers to the desert Southwest, to Indian country around the Four Corners, where the two of them had had some of their happiest times.

Among other things, I had worried about the weather. June in Newport Beach, where my crew of seven boarded the Catalina Flyer, can often mean “June gloom.” I remember the pattern as pretty common during our youth there: school’s out but the sun isn’t. Inland southern California is getting hot but the Pacific Ocean is still winter cool, and the resulting temperature clash laps ashore as fog, a marine layer, as the weathermen say. Some days the fog retreats off shore, and the beaching is fine. Other days, the layer stays put, pulsing inland, up the canyons of the coastal hills.

That marine layer can bring a serious chill. And what if it’s windy? Or there’s a big swell? Is it smart for us to cast off in two small, open boats, out of Avalon’s harbor with its calm-water bustle, and out along the island’s uninhabited coastline to a place that was quieter but more exposed, wilder, a place to get quiet ourselves and do honor to our dad’s expressed wish? So far, on this day, the sea shone like glass. But what if the wind kicked up before my sibs and their kids arrived?

I could have told Jay about my worries, told him about our mission, and he might have taken pity on me – I had the tins right there in my backpack – but I wasn’t sure if there weren’t some rule, some environmental regulation or local ordinance that prohibited scattering remains in the sea within drifting distance of civilization. Better to keep it a secret.

And so we waited. With no guarantee of boats for us. We waited for Tom and Diana and Lionel, and for Wendy and Eliza, who had taken different ferries from other embarkation points (Long Beach, San Pedro) thanks to the aforementioned snafus. Eliza’s flight from San Francisco had been delayed. Lionel wasn’t feeling well, and a sitter couldn’t come until later; then he decided to come after all. My plan, to have us all rendezvous at the Newport boat, to make the crossing together, had blown up. There was still a chance they’d all make it, and with enough time to get out in the little boats. (Our return, my crew’s return, via the Flyer, boarded at 1630 hours, sharp.) But who knew? It was hot. We had to drink lemonades and hog a bench that clung to a bit of palm shade at the foot of the turquoise-painted Pleasure Pier.

That was one good thing: the bright Avalon sun meant the marine layer of the past few days had disappeared. First thing that morning Alex, Lily, and Boden had stood clinging to the Flyer’s portside rail, sun on their cheeks, too excited to sit, as we rounded Newport’s jetties and headed west across the channel. The kids were sure we would see sharks, or whales, or dolphins. Or all three!

It was one of the smoothest crossings I’d ever experienced. There was barely a breath of wind on the sea surface for the 27-miles, just a blue-on-blue texture, like a fabric design, or faint rippling on snow. And there was only a light, short-period swell from off the starboard bow, a swell that rocked us side-to-side, more like a baby’s cradle than the headlong pounding one can sometimes get. We did see two sunfish, and a bazillion dolphins. And Alex, by dint of his desire, conjured a shark fin that nobody else saw, surface lolling in the distance.

Between the ages of eight and 18, before I felt the pull of the mountains, I made 56 round-trip Catalina crossings with my dad. (Like all good skippers, he kept a log.) Twenty of them were on board our first boat, the Mister Robert’s, a 27-foot, double-ended Navy “whaleboat,” and the rest were aboard her successor, the Good Grief, another surplus Navy hull, at 36 feet and beamier, able to accommodate the whole family. Both boats had maximum speeds of around seven knots. The Flyer, a 100-foot twin-prop catamaran, flew along at 20 knots plus. That’s where the wind came from that whipped back Lily’s seven-year-old curls, and Boden’s six-year-old buzz cut, and Alex’s 8-year-old shag. Their faces shone. They’d never seen or done anything like this.

The kids called him Geegeepa, great grandpa. And he remained hale enough into his 90s for them to really get to know him. Boden spent time with him in his garage woodshop in Corona del Mar learning to cut dowels with a coping saw, the easiest saw for little hands to work. And Dad visited all three at their homes in Colorado and Oregon. He was creaky and getting creakier. But his mind was still sharp, and he reveled in the very fact of having lived long enough to have “greats.”

Then last autumn, shortly after his 93rd birthday, things rather rapidly fell apart. He got up from the couch, and, even with his walker, couldn’t remain standing. He crumbled to the floor, too weak to move. At first he thought he was having a heart attack. He had dealt with hypertension for decades; he was on blood thinners; he had a pacemaker; he’d had at least one stent inserted into an artery. (A couple of years ago, he’d fired his cardiologist when he overheard her telling a colleague, “It’s amazing he’s still alive.”) He’d done about all the maintenance a man could do. In addition to the heart work, he’d had both hips replaced, and one knee. He drove an electric cart down the street to his beloved senior center so he could take balance classes and chat up strangers at the hot-lunch tables. “Four dollars!” he’d marvel. “For a hot lunch!”

But all the maintenance an accountable man might muster couldn’t delay forever the last fall.

 

To be continued…

Dream Field

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Life in Central Oregon, More Sport by pshelton on June 16, 2015

When we got over to the first base side where Vinnie the Elk was posing for pictures, Alex wormed around my leg and said he no longer wanted to say hello. The Bend Elks mascot knew what to do. He held up a fuzzy-hoof high five to which Alex, suddenly relieved of his shyness, responded with enthusiasm.

The other big distraction was the loud-clomping girl. She was tall and gangly, a pre-teen in short shorts, part of what looked to be three generations of a tall, rangy family sitting near us in the stands. The rest wore cowboy boots. She was in flip-flops and somehow made more noise coming and going on the metal bleachers than the rest of them combined.

Of course, there was baseball too. (more…)

Block Party Surprise

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on October 30, 2014

That 4th Street summer block party Ellen and I were invited to? We had no idea the surprise we were in for.

We don’t even live on 4th Street, but Ryan and Heather, young teachers from across the alley who were handing out printed invitations (“bring a chair and something to grill”) said we were welcome.

Drifting on the street, beverage in hand but knowing no one, I was rescued by a round, smiling woman who introduced herself. She was just starting to show with her second child. She said her name was Wintress. I had to ask for clarification, and she said yes, Wintress. “My parents love winter.”

She’d grown up in the Bay Area. She and her husband were buying the house on the corner, the one with the overflowing vegetable garden. (Later, she would lead a tour of her tomatoes and leeks, berries and squashes. “I’ve had to relearn how to grow everything,” she said, “with the short growing season here.”) She was open and earthy.

Then she started down the road to astonishing coincidence. “Peter Shelton. There used to be a Peter Shelton living across the street. I liked to tease him about being married, a long time ago, to my favorite auntie.”

I told her I’d heard from someone else – I couldn’t remember who – about a second Peter Shelton in Bend. Only natural, I ventured, in a town this big for two people to share a name. I guess.

Wintress enjoyed pestering this other Peter Shelton about their nonexistent connection. “He had been married, but not to my auntie.”

Off to the side, Wintress’ husband kept an eye on their toddler, who careened repeatedly over the curb perilously close to the condiments and buns.

“My auntie was just here in Bend this spring helping us buy this house. She’s a realtor, in California. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago she told me the story of her marriage to Peter Shelton. It was in the 60s.” Long before Wintress was born.

Ellen, my wife of 40 years, mingled nearby, chatting with yet more friendly neighbors – another teacher couple as it happened.

“I was married, briefly, in the 60s,” I volunteered, a sense of inevitability, like gravity, drawing me on. “In southern California. I was really young, a month shy of 20 when we married. It only lasted about a year, two by the time the divorce was final. She kept pet chuckwallas.”

“Maureen.” I don’t remember which of us said it. Didn’t matter, the link was forged, a wave of associations flooding in. What were the chances? Wintress’ “favorite auntie,” Maureen Carpenter, had married in the distant past this guy, Peter Shelton, the stranger standing before her, who just moved to a house three doors away across the alley and happened to be invited to the annual 4th Street block party.

It’s hard to say for whom the shock was greater. I had the 45-year-old memories, some sharp and sweet, some understandably (or subconsciously) vague. I hadn’t seen or heard from Maureen since the afternoon we said goodbye on the steps of the Alameda County courthouse. In our hand-written settlement, I got the VW bus and half the record albums. She got most of the wedding presents and the record player. And the other half of our record collection. And the chuckwallas. For her part, Wintress had an ongoing, apparently close relationship with her auntie and had somewhat recently been told the story of her youthful falling into and out of love. Who knows what Maureen shared with her?

Dear Ellen, for all her elegance and sophistication has remained jealous of Maureen since I first told her the history. “She whose name must not be uttered,” she jokes, not joking. I understand. She’s seen the dewy wedding photos, heard the stories. Ellen is close to my mom, who did not approve of my first marriage, though she didn’t put up any real barriers at the time. She did tell me it was a bad idea. You’re in thrall to the sex, she said. It’s your first. A mother knows these things. She’s shared her witchy wisdom, conspiratorially, with Ellen, in the decades since.

At the block party, when I introduced them and told Ellen Wintress’ astonishing news, the two of them linked arms immediately, like sisters with important things to talk about.

I have been curious about Maureen. Of course, I have. It was the first. And it was the last time I flopped down on my back and sobbed uncontrollably. Did she ever remarry? Wintress told me she hadn’t. Kids? Nope. I stared at Wintress looking for a resemblance. At the time of our breakup, I wanted to cut ties completely. I was the one who had been hurt, my trust betrayed. At least that was my side. Some months or years later Maureen came to my mom and asked if they could be friends; she was still fond of the family. My mother told her no.

After we split up, I finished college and moved to New York City. Then to the mountains of Colorado, where Ellen and I met and began our long and happy union. She’d been married once before, too. Early on we went together to a jewelry store that bought gold and sold our old wedding rings.

Still, time doesn’t erase your first love. I flew out to southern California for my 40th high school reunion a few years back half-hoping that Maureen would be there. She wasn’t.

When we left the block party after dark to walk home, I bagged up two folding camp chairs, thinking they were the ones we had brought. One of them was ours. The other one sat in our yard for a while before we noticed the faint black lettering on the back. LOVERING. Wintress’ last name. She had our chair on her front porch.

Staking a Claim

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Life in Central Oregon, More Sport by pshelton on October 15, 2014

I’m new to Bend. By definition that means I’m a kook on the single track, a neophyte on the most obvious of tourist hiking trails.

It’s not easy being new, especially in a place as tuned into its athletic tantra as Bend is. You’re bound to appear gauche in your enthusiasm for Mt. Bachelor’s stately hemlock forests, guaranteed to sound naïve gushing about the single-track flow in Phil’s Canyon.

But that’s how you learn. That’s how you get, eventually, to make a landscape your own.

I started out with the tree in the back yard. It’s a statuesque, full-figured juniper. I assume it’s a juniper. It has the vertical, scaly red bark and blue “berries” typical of the junipers we knew back in Colorado. But this one is much bigger (50 feet tall at least) – a Rocky Mountain juniper on steroids. It’s probably a different subspecies. Or maybe it’s the Northwest water.

The branches are perfectly spaced for climbing, the interior of the tree a rustling aroma-therapy (spiced cedar tea?) world of its own. Near the top I swayed in the wind as the tree swayed, “bending and swirling,” John Muir wrote, of a climb up a sugar pine in his beloved Sierra, “so noble an exhilaration of motion.”

I had hoped to get a glimpse of the four nearby volcanoes from up there, but other big trees in the neighborhood blocked my view of the Bachelor and the Three Sisters. (I’ve wondered: who is pursuing whom? Is it the eager bachelor forever unable to close the distance to the haughty sisters? Or is it the sisters who are, Jane Austin-like, frozen in their desire for the timber-camp bachelor?)

My first hike was up the well-traveled North Fork trail past Tumalo Falls. Yes, it was obvious, and busy, but not so busy as I feared. In fact, the farther up I went, the closer to my turnaround at Happy Valley, the quieter it all became. Except for the rush of water pouring like silver Slinkys down a giant flight of stairs. Cold, clear water from the basement springs of Broken Top (a fifth volcano worn to remnant shards by successive ice ages). To a parched Coloradoan, this was an unprecedented lushness.

It took me almost four hours to do the eight miles up and back (though I may have dozed a bit in the soft duff beside the creek following a snack stop). When I returned, my son-in-law, Adam, challenged me to guess what the mountain bike record is for the North Fork climb. The correct answer was 21 minutes, held by his buddy Chris Shepard. Staggeringly fast. Then Adam went out and bettered Shepard’s time to 20 minutes and change.

Adam and our daughter, Cloe, are both serious bikists. They met on bikes in New Hampshire, while Cloe was in med school and Adam worked carpentry for Close Enough Construction and raced the NORBA pro circuit. They moved to Bend two years ago with our first two grandchildren. They’re blissed out.

I’m a rider of a different sort. We came here to be with the kids, but also for the sweet single track and the swoopy lines on Bachelor Butte. On skis, I try to be the proverbial silent Indian slinking through the woods without snapping a twig. My mountain biking is mostly about exploration, also known as getting lost. One ride early in our residency here: Deschutes River Trail to the Meadows picnic area to COD (I walked the technical parts) to Marvin’s Gardens, the ultimate beginner’s trail. Along the way I stared for minutes at bone-white monster logs in the river that had wedged together and become earth-building islands of green growing things. Rolling down Marvin’s Gardens I yielded to the carve-y turns in the Ponderosa shade. The flow plucked my mind out and left only the giddy, banking movement. I hadn’t planned any of it, except for the start above the river. The rest just materialized, one unexpected puzzle piece after the other.

None of it would be considered adventurous by my kids or by many Bend locals. Old hat that. But it was all new to me, staking a claim.

Be Nice Two

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Life in Central Oregon by pshelton on September 5, 2014

What were the chances we’d run into Kelby on the Deschutes River Trail?

Bend is a big town. Eighty thousand plus. Big anyway compared to where we come from on the western slope of Colorado. There, the biggest town by far (we call it a city) is Grand Junction, currently an oil-and-gas boomtown on the Colorado River, bisected by Interstate 70, population 60,000.

I only know a handful of people in Bend. And yet here we were, my brother Tom and I, on this mountain bike trail running into Kelby, my grandkids’ baby sitter. She lit up in recognition and delivered hugs all around. Well into our conversation, the river burbling at our backs, Tom asked, half kidding but also genuinely curious: “Where is the dark side to Bend?”

It’s a question I ask myself all the time. Bend seems to a newcomer like a bright and happy place. A place comfortable in its own skin. A place with a built-in openness, a friendliness not exactly universal in other places we’ve lived.

At first I was reminded of “The Truman Show,” the scary-perfect Florida town that turned out to be an elaborate set in the 1998 Jim Carey vehicle. And Bend is indeed beautiful, flush with water, lush for the high desert, manicured, proud. But beauty and pride of place do not guarantee a good attitude.

We lived for the last 38 years within the physical and intellectual sphere of Telluride, a place as gorgeous as any on the continent. But something about that mountain valley encourages a cloistered vibe, a kind of protective defensiveness. Not surly exactly, but not exactly welcoming either.

I wonder about history. Both places were founded on extractive industries. Telluride’s miners started digging a full quarter century before Bend’s lumbermen unsheathed their saws. Bend is a very young community, incorporated in 1905. The timber heyday lasted only a few decades before the big trees became scarce and economics and environmental consciousness changed. But unlike a lot of other Oregon timber towns, Bend made a successful, a very successful, transition to recreation tourism, helped along by the launch in 1958 of the ski area at Mount Bachelor, and more recently by the proliferation of craft breweries.

Telluride faced the same prospects when the last mine closed in 1978. But its isolation (six hours from Denver; an hour and a half from the nearest airport) and the limits of its steep, awkwardly laid out ski mountain slowed its growth.

More significantly perhaps, Telluride’s box canyon denizens weren’t at all sure they wanted the scene a destination ski area would bring. The chant in the ‘70s was “Not another Aspen!” These new Telluriders were bi-coastal sophisticates, utopians, trust funders, mountain athletes, PhD snow shovelers and short-order cooks, and they did their best – continue to do their best – to slow anything that smells of a headlong, or insufficiently examined, advance.

I gather that was not the case in Bend. The city has grown exponentially since I first skied here in the mid-1980s, when the population hovered around 17,000. Some of the new developments have been higher-quality than others. Sprawl is, and traffic has grown proportionately. But city planners seem to have stayed a step ahead of the growth. Dozens of roundabouts (rather than stop lights) move cars, and bicycles, with remarkable efficiency. They (the city, county and ODOT) built an elevated “parkway,” a pseudo freeway with a 45-mph speed limit, to move traffic across town. There are bike lanes on almost every street, with cyclists of every stripe using them. And the network of public-lands trails is rumored to be somewhere north of 500 miles long, and counting.

Topography plays a part. Telluride’s tiny canyon is guaranteed to dial up the claustrophobia, and the home prices. Not to say the insular smugness. Bend sits at the low-angle intersection of the forested eastern Cascades and the sage of the Great Basin. The self-congratulatory air here is largely a “Lucky us!” reflex. There is room, generous room, in every direction. Room for a rather large, economically diverse population to build, to spread out on the trails, float the river, disappear from one another in the ponderosas, and . . . be nice.

I’ll never forget the phone call we got from our son-in-law Adam hours after he arrived in Bend two years ago. He had driven out alone from Boston ahead of the rest of his little family, with a pickup load, to their rental house. Adam is a born and bred New Englander. Not taciturn in the clichéd (“Can’t get there from here.”) way, but private in the sense that holding something in reserve is often the best policy. Adam told us on the phone that he couldn’t get over how happy people in Bend seemed to be.

“Everybody’s smiling,” he said in amazement.

‘Goodbye to All That’

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Personal History, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on May 30, 2014

Joan Didion opens her famous essay on her New York years with this: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” She arrived in the city at age 20, from Sacramento, intending to stay six months and left eight years later. We came to western Colorado in our twenties expecting what? We didn’t know, beyond a new ski area and jobs with a new ski school. Now, 38 years later, I agree with Didion that seeing beginnings is easier than puzzling through endings, their tangles of reasons and meaning. (more…)

Holding On and Letting Go in 2013

Posted in Confessions of a Grandpa, Ski racing, Watch columns by pshelton on December 28, 2012

I resolve to age gracefully. Ha! Show me a 64-year-old man who feels, inside, like a 64-year-old man and I’ll show you a corpse. “Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.”

Speaking of 64, since when did Paul McCartney’s sweet, it’ll-never-happen-to-me vision of old age come true? “Will you still need me, will you still feed me . . . ?” (more…)

Cats Nap 20 Hours a Day

Posted in Animal Dreams, Confessions of a Grandpa, Watch columns by pshelton on September 7, 2012

The last couple of times Cecily has called from Bishop it has been in the afternoon, during Boden’s afternoon nap. He’s a high-energy little guy, and will sometimes take morning and afternoon naps, to recharge his batteries. But now Cecily is trying to encourage only the afternoon naps.

She has found a day-care pre-school situation that will give her some time a couple mornings a week. It’s called Smokey’s. (The name comes from the fact that children of Forest Service employees – Boden’s dad Mike is a wildland firefighter – are reserved spaces at the school.) At Smokey’s there is no morning naptime.

We accept the need for naps at either end of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man – while little bodies and brains are growing fast, and again when things are slowing down, before we are “sans everything.”

My dad, who turns 89 in a few weeks, has earned his afternoon naps. He went hard for all those decades in the 20th century; he’s still busy, but now his schedule is his own. He’s got one of those very comfortable loungers that tilts back and pops a footrest up under your calves just so, supporting every inch of your length in soft leather.

He watches TV in that chair, and he falls asleep in it. He’s probably watching the U.S. Open tennis right now. But unless it’s a particularly exciting match, he may be catching a few zzz’s between points.

I was reading on the couch on Sunday. Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. The early chapters zero in on her poor-starving-artist years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe, before he became a famous photographer and she became a famous punk-rock poet. This was in the late 1960s. They are almost exactly my age. (Smith is my age; Mapplethorpe died, of AIDS, in 1989.) They lived on day-old bread and lettuce soup. Smith would come home from her job at Scribner’s bookstore to their ratty apartment in Brooklyn, and the two would stay up all night working side by side on their art. From the sound of it, they rarely slept.

My eyes were swimming across the page a little bit. I had to reread the same paragraph twice. Then a third time. Ellen has a phrase: “Just resting my eyes.” Not sleeping, just resting my eyes. I placed the book face down on my belly and set my reading glasses on the table. I would rest my eyes for just a few minutes.

We frown on naps in the productive years. Unless you are sick. Or recovering from a hellacious night. As Americans we are expected to be doing, creating, generating wealth or at least producing satisfaction from our work, or our play. Doing nothing is a kind of Puritan sin. Napping in the middle of a perfectly good day is somehow unacceptable.

Look at Spain. They siesta after lunch and then they can’t manage supper until 11 p.m. Not productive. Not acceptable.

My mother took a nap one afternoon while hiking on Catalina Island. The rest of the family was roaring around on the beach, and she needed to get away by herself. She lay down in the dry grass in the shade of a small tree and fell blissfully asleep. She was awakened by an odd sound and found herself in a staring match with a rattlesnake just a couple of feet away. Though terrified, my mother managed to back away as carefully as Marcel Marceau.

I once fell asleep at the base of the White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly. It was the middle of the day. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d scrambled down the opposite canyon wall at an unauthorized spot near some Navajo sheep corrals. For the longest time after I awoke I believed I had just scaled the impossible, featureless sandstone to the upper ruin in its cave. At the very least, I was sure I had been shown something inexplicable, something marvelous that haunted the rest of my drive to Colorado.

When I woke on Sunday, the sun had shifted position in the sky. For a second, I didn’t know where I was, or who I was. I felt sheepish for having “missed” the last 60 minutes. Then I wasn’t. And I was able to stay up until 11 p.m. finishing a couple of stories for this week’s newspaper.

Boden still needs his naps. Cecily is not about to deprive him of that sweet time, morning or afternoon. He needs his sleep. So does his grandpa.