Peter Shelton

The Heart of Saturday Night

Posted in Personal History by pshelton on May 8, 2018

Hunder really wanted a ski day on Mt. Bachelor that would supersede his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day fifty-some years ago. He was a student at the University of Oregon then. Made the three-hour drive over the Cascade crest only to find that a not-uncommon sequence of rain followed by cold temperatures had turned the snow to blue linoleum. His edges skittered and skipped. His fillings rattled. He never went back.

He wasn’t Hunder then. Neither was I Sven. He was Mike and I was Peter, and, although we grew up a mere six miles apart, on the southern California coast, we had not yet met and become friends.

Ellen and I moved to Bend, Oregon, from Colorado four winters ago. I’ve regaled Hunder almost weekly since with tales of Mt. Bachelor’s better snow angels: powder so soft it’s called Cascade Cream, playful terrain features the volcanologists term “furrows,” ribs and gullies that remind me of open-ocean swells, waves frozen white and tilted toward the lakes below. The high-quality skiing is a big reason we made the move. As recently as November of last year, Hunder said he was hoping to make it out finally, Colorado to Oregon, this winter. Not to erase the old bad memory – he was too good a storyteller for that – but to add to the thread. Hunder and Sven adding story, making new memories on the slopes together.

We met in Telluride in 1976, both of us Californians, both new to Colorado. I hired him to teach kids in what was then a very new ski school in a fledgling ski town 65 miles from the nearest stoplight. He took to the task with gusto, a big man with a blond crew cut, six-two or three, well over 200 pounds, but possessed of quick feet and an irrepressible delight. Aptitude that was itself childlike.

One of my first Telluride memories is of dropping Mike off after work and him rhapsodizing about the dinner he was about to whip up. Bacon blue-cheese burgers. Ellen and I had not eaten meat for the better part of two years, but the way Mike enthused about it, the bacon sizzling, the bite of the blue cheese – his mouth pinched in stifled laughter, eyes wide as saucers, a big ruddy-cheeked leprechaun – well, that was the end of our experiment in vegetarianism.

My Ellen and Mike’s wife, Megan, were preggers together. Our first daughters were born a week apart. Mike and Megan and baby Caitlin lived above town, in the ex-silver mining hamlet of Ophir. Their cabin that first winter was heated solely with wood, and it was so cold I remember the sheet-metal woodstove glowing red and dancing, actually vibrating, on its hearth. Mike and Sharky, another ski instructor, put together The Ophir Band: two guitars, the mayor of Ophir on drums, Megan on sax, everybody singing harmony. My favorite song was their cover of Tom Waits’s “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”


Well you gassed her up

Behind the wheel

With your arm around your sweet one

In your Oldsmobile

Barrelin’ down the boulevard

Looking for the heart of Saturday night.


But that was part of the problem – the heart of Mike’s Saturday nights. We didn’t know how bad the drug thing was at first. We knew he liked to smoke dope. On slow afternoons, with no ski lessons to teach, he and I might share a joint and ski the velvety spring corn. But Mike was doing much heavier shit than that. Megan found him almost dead in the bathroom of a Telluride dive bar one night during an Ophir Band gig. He’d shot up a speedball, a scary mix of cocaine and heroin, and was unconscious on the stall floor. A year or so later, Megan insisted the family move to San Francisco, where she was from. If Mike wanted to get his act together and join them there he was welcome, but she’d had it.

And he tried, back in California. Lord, he tried. He adored his family; they had added a son by then, and would have one more. But it wasn’t long before Megan found needles taped to the inside of the toilet tank and she kicked him out for good. He worked jobs driving truck and baggage-handling for Amtrak. But he got fired from that one when he was caught rifling people’s luggage for cash and stuff to fence.

Decades later, clean and sober and remarried, he moved back to Colorado, not far from where Ellen and I had settled, an hour down the road from Telluride. He and Patty bought an old farmhouse in Paonia, on the North Fork of the Gunnison, surrounded by cherry trees. We started skiing together again, and he decided I was Sven. “Sven! Powderhorn tomorrow? The Weather Service is saying five to seven overnight!” He signed his e-mails Hunder.

On chairlift rides, I heard more of the backstory. He grew up a broad-shouldered, albeit fair-skinned, surfer in 1950s Laguna Beach. His dad, Bill Gwinn, was a radio and TV personality, a game show host (What’s the Name of that Song?), a piano-man singer of American standards, and an alcoholic. A charming alcoholic who could hold a room spellbound and leave everyone laughing.

Mike apparently inherited all of the above. His early life sounded like a kind of fantasy paradise. He surfed Brooks Street on single-fin longboards. While still in high school he dated Candy Calhoun, one of two blonde, beautiful Calhoun girls, daughters of blonde, beautiful Marge Calhoun, the first-ever women’s world champion surfer. He met Timothy Leary at a party in Laguna Canyon. He formed, with two surfing buddies, the “acid-folk” trio Gabriel Gladstar, which toured California and the Pacific Northwest for a couple of years in a converted school bus. They tried more than once to enter Canada at Vancouver but were turned back. Vietnam was raging, and “We were not welcome,” Mike said. Their sound reminds me now of spacey Seals and Crofts, with Pentangle-like interwoven guitars. Very sweet. “Sail Away,” with Mike singing lead, can still bring Ellen to tears.

The Gladstar “family” expanded and contracted, hippie-commune-school-bus style. Mike fathered a son. The band recorded an album. But when offered a record deal by Ahmet Ertegun, whose acts included The Rolling Stones and Ray Charles, they turned it down. They wanted to be free, and Ertegun had insisted on axing their flute player. “The Beatles were going independent then,” Mike told me. “What we didn’t get at the time was that the Beatles were already huge when they went off on their own.”

When we met in Telluride, Mike was already a pretty good skier. Hollywood paid Bill Gwinn well, and the family had spent a fair bit of time at June Mountain, next door to Mammoth, in the southern Sierra. In Telluride in the late 70s, he and I shared a then-heretical preference for short skis. We liked their quickness in the trees and the way they slipped through the troughs between bumps. Our free skiing was just a little freer, a little more fun – so we thought – than the traditionalists on their 205s. When he came back to Colorado some 25 years later, we took up where we left off, working the tools, figuring it out, getting better. All skis were shorter by then, wider, curvier, more talented. Mike was even bigger as a middle-aged athlete, but with those 170s on his feet, he quick-stepped through Powderhorn’s aspen glades like he was finding trim on the nose, hanging five.

Patty didn’t ski. Her passion is cat rescue and adoption. (Mike built her an indoor/outdoor “Cathmandu.”) She never warmed to me. She didn’t hide her suspicion that our ski outings might be leading Mike to imbibe again. The two of them had met at AA in southern California. She was fierce about no relapses, and Mike made it clear to his old friends that he owed his life to her. We honored her hopes and his wishes and never smoked in his presence. Instead we listened on chairlift rides – captive audiences – as he told stories. About his hair-brained year in Costa Rica dredging a jungle waterfall for gold. (“One leg half way into my swim trunks, and there’s a tarantula as big as my fist!”) Or the time near Bellingham in the Gladstar bus they were so hungry they made seaweed and mollusk stew.

And the jokes. He always had two or three in his back pocket. Most were goofy puns, but some he spun out as shaggy dog stories. You’ve probably heard the one (I hadn’t at the time and practically fell off the chairlift laughing) about the widower who was about to turn 90. And his friends thought it would be neat to give him a thrill for his birthday. So they hired a prostitute to go to the old man’s apartment. When he answered the door, she said, “Hi! I’m here to offer you super sex!” And the old guy thought for a second and said, “I’ll take the soup.”

In Paonia, already in his sixties, Hunder put together a new band, Mike Gwinn and Northfork Flyers, with horns and base and drums – a jazz-fusion big band. With Mike as arranger, lead singer, guitar, and chief songwriter. “Jazz Standards Man” rhymes Lady Gaga and Indian raga. “Social Network Blues” bemoans screen-time loneliness. The upbeat “Still Goin’ 70 in a 55” is clearly autobiographical: “Tried to throw my life away/But I’m still alive/Pray I’m sober on the day I die/Still goin’ 70 in a 55.” He took up fishing again, spin casting, like the fishing he’d done with his dad on the east slope of the Sierra. He was writing up the Gladstar bus stories, memoir style.

The Northfork Flyers didn’t play crunchy rock ‘n’ roll, though they could have; Mike had a gift for it. I guessed Patty would have frowned on it. Too redolent of the bad old years, as if the music itself could be a gateway drug. I did attend an Arts Guild house concert/lecture in Ridgway – just Mike and his bass player – that was all about the relationship between jazz and its rougher blues roots. They put together a fantastic primer. Everything from call-and-response to Coltrane, Monk to Mose Allison. “He was probably bipolar,” Gwinn said of Monk. “A genius madman. If you get a chance, see Straight, No Chaser. There’s a scene where Monk is walking in circles, backwards, at an airport. Monk couldn’t handle airports.” At one point Mike stopped and said to the audience, “The saddest blues song of all [pause for a liquid, improvised lick on the guitar] is the one that starts out, ‘I didn’t wake up this mornin’…’”

Like most people, I never thought about him not waking up. He had been living with Hep C for decades. Figured he got it sharing needles. But he had been dealing with it, successfully, we thought. Then one day in December my phone rang.



“Howz the skiin’? It’s nineteen degrees here and not a flake in sight! WTF! Powderhorn’s opening is in doubt.”

“Slow start here, too,” I said. “But we are skiing. The carving’s pretty good on Bachy’s groomers.”

“Sven, I’ve got a favor to ask…”

They’d found a mass on his liver. “Big as a baseball.” Test results weren’t back yet, but there was the obvious fear that this was liver cancer. “Plus they’ve spotted some possibly worrying nodules on my lungs.” He wasn’t sure he was getting either the timely communication or the best treatment advice in Grand Junction. In fact, he was frustrated as hell with his docs’ opacity. Would I ask Dr. Cloe (our Cloe, born the week after Caitlin) what she thinks he should do?

He traveled for some second opinions, got some answers, and decided he was getting good care in GJ. He got on an experimental chemo regime, paid for by the drug maker. It was taking a lot out of him, but he remained hopeful.

He died on Saturday, March 10, 2018. He was 75. Our Powderhorn ski buddy, Jack, called me that morning. It was a gut punch, but not a total surprise. Mike had gone quieter since the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which we obsessed about (“Ester Ledecká!”) as he watched from his bed at home. And I’d seen a revealing video on Facebook of a gig at Louie’s Pizza in Paonia that Mike had put together around the time of his birthday in February. Three of his kids had flown out from the Bay Area to play with their dad and the Flyers. Mike’s voice was weak, and he looked gaunt underneath his pork pie hat.

Jack said that he had been on hospice for just a couple of days. “He had a morphine drip, but you know how stubborn Mike was. He’d only give himself one trigger out of the four allowed. Kudos, you know. He’d faltered a time or two, but he was diligent about his sobriety the last 14 years.” The decline happened so fast, Jack said, “You could almost feel his spirit backing up into the shadows.”

I went up to the mountain the next day. Mt. Bachelor was not showing off her best soaring-volcano, ocean-swell features. But the summit was open, and there were strips of wind-burnished Styrofoam snow on the open slopes of Serengeti Plains. The strips were just wide enough to fit an arc, silent and yielding between fields of hard rime ice. I tried to channel Hunder when he had it going on: that big body rock steady above quick, almost dainty foot movements, finger pickin’ guitar chords, eyes sparkling like he – we, all of us – were getting away with something. Something fine.


Tell me is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzin’?

Telephone’s ringin’, it’s your second cousin

Is it the barmaid smilin’ from the corner of her eye

Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye


Makes it kind of quiver down in the core

‘Cause you’re dreamin’ of them Saturdays that came before

And now you’re stumblin’

Stumblin’ into the heart of Saturday night



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.”

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…

Saab Story

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on February 13, 2016

You are what you drive. With the family gathered over Christmas, I told the story of Footsie’s car-alarm tantrum in the ski area parking lot. It was snowing. It had been a beautiful, soft storm day on Mt. Bachelor. I was heading home in a glow. (more…)

Summit Day

Posted in Personal History, Ski evolution, Uncategorized, Weather & Climate by pshelton on January 4, 2016

The wind was not so loud I couldn’t hear the words of the volunteer patrolman at the top of the Summit Chair. My hood was cinched tight, and for the last thousand feet of the lift ride I’d held my gloved hand up to shield a bit of exposed cheek. It was a sunny morning, single-digits cold, with the wind ripping out of the southeast, rivers of snow like airplane banners streaming from the peak, gusts rolling over the mountain’s ribs like waves breaking over jetties. (more…)

The Airplane View

Posted in How the West was Lost, Personal History by pshelton on September 20, 2015

You can’t go home again. But I was going home to southern California to help my mother following her total knee replacement, an elective trauma none of her children was sure she should undertake at 90. She had made up her mind, though, and she’d made it through surgery and was about to return to her own home. I’d carved two weeks out of my calendar and prepared for a stint as Nurse Peter. (more…)

Largemouth Bass

Posted in More Sport, Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on July 31, 2015

We were waiting for Dick Bass. That was normal – waiting for Richard D. Bass: never-say-no human magnet, whirlwind of positive energy, Texas oil tycoon, builder of the Snowbird Resort in Utah, conceiver of the seven-summits project, first man to climb the highest mountain on all seven continents, and at that time (1985) the oldest man, at 55, to climb Everest. Life was a feast too big even for his prodigious appetites. He was constantly suffering, he would tell you, in his raspy Dallas drawl, from “the tyranny o’ the urgent.” (more…)

Obvious on the Pacific Crest Trail

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History by pshelton on July 26, 2015

The other day I was hiking a piece of the Pacific Crest Trail west of Bend. Not a through hike ala Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” Just a quick out-and-back to Matthieu Lakes. On the way out I stopped to greet a couple coming back. They were in tank tops and urban sneakers. He had a camera on a neck strap banging his collarbone. Neither one carried so much as a water bottle. (more…)

All Go Anywhere

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Personal History, Road Trips West, Ski history by pshelton on May 11, 2015

In December 1973, at the beginning of my second winter teaching skiing, my father gave me a slim picture book from 1936 that he’d rediscovered in his parents’ garage. SKI FEVER by Norman Vaughan. Fifty Cents. Fifty pages. Nipples on wooden ski tips. Pole baskets like personal-size pizzas. An unabashed paean to what was then the new sport of downhill skiing. My dad’s note read, in part, “I remember that my buddy Eugene and I devoured the contents before our first big ski weekend at Big Bear, where reality submerged fantasy.” He would have been 13. (more…)