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Soon, as it turns, I’ll be attending my own funeral. But before I get there, I know that I’ve outlived many. You especially, coach.
I’ll be going down the road soon (except for my quarter century in Portland, growing dope indoors, that could be my epitaph) and I have to decide whether to drag my photo albums along. There’s 30 of them, and they’re a reminder of many long ago places and friends, but they’re also heavy and cumbersome and there’s no-one who gives a damn about their contents but me. (If I dropped dead tomorrow some stranger would have to dispose of them.)
So the other day I yanked them from their storage containers and gave them a look. It had been awhile, and as I flipped through the pages I kept thinking, “well, he’s dead; she’s gone; hard to believe I’ll never see him (or her) again; I sure miss that character, etc,” until finally it dawned on me that I’ve outlived more of my contemporaries than I thought. I even grabbed a notepad and made a list: when I stopped counting there were over 70 names on it. (And that’s just friends; if I included family the number would stretch past a hundred.)
This was startling to me: I would have put the number at two-dozen, tops. Does this make me an inadequate mourner? Or just numb from so many exits? I suppose if you live long enough this is how it works, and I guess it’s better than the alternative. In my defence, I’ve attended more than my share of memorials, and I thought today, in honour of my ghosts, I’d mention the most absurd ones.
First in line was the tribute for Alice Cable, my friend Jim’s mother. She was the family matriarch and had lived a long, courtly life, the kind of woman who raised the level of elegance everywhere she went, even while raising five kids. (She was my idea of WASP royalty when I was in high school.) Her first four children followed her lead, then the seed ran out and Joey arrived. Even as a kid he was the marble in the jar and would likely be considered an Asperger’s victim today.
Mostly he was just a loveable, inappropriate weirdo. Very big, very bright, and a determined slob and hoarder. He lived in an overstuffed trailer in the woods and was virtually unemployable until word processing came along in the ’80s. After that (like me) he could always find someone to hire him.
Which is where, in my mind, the comparison between us ended. Cable, on the other hand, always acted like the two of us were separated at birth. Maybe he was trying to convince himself that if I’d made it (even if “it” was “as a criminal”), then maybe Joey could, too.
Jim moaned audibly next to me… I could only hope that somewhere, Alice was laughing as hard as I was.
It was a long shot. I hadn’t seen Joey in years when Jim invited me to their mother’s memorial at the Multnomah Club in Portland. She was an active church member, but I was still surprised by the number of old people who showed up. They filled every seat in the room; I was in my sixties at the time and felt like a kid.
There were some words from the minister, then one by one the siblings took to the podium to praise their beloved mother. Finally it was Joey’s turn. He’d been very close to Alice, and as the youngest and most dependent of the kids he’d spent considerable time in her company.
And now his rock was gone. Jim was seated next to me in the audience, and as his younger brother stepped to the microphone, obviously overwrought, he leaned over.
“This could be bad,” he muttered.
“Or,” I said, “it could be magic.”
Joey looked out at that crowd of relics, the last of the Greatest Generation, and spread his arms wide. At 6’2” and 250 pounds, with wild eyes and hair, he looked like a giant Moses up there.
“Do you want happiness?” he thundered. “Do you want the kind of exemplary life my mother lived? Because I can tell you how to get it!”
Jim moaned audibly next to me.
Joey paused, sucked in some air and pointed to the crowd. “The secret is: don’t do psychedelics! I know how it works in those old folks’ homes of yours. You guys are sitting around, with nothing to do, and you start thinking, ‘Hey! I could really use a hit of LSD or mescaline today, or maybe some ecstasy or peyote!’ I’m telling you to fight that urge, people! Stick to coffee and laxatives!”
I could only hope that somewhere, Alice was laughing as hard as I was.
Also on The Big Smoke
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My next most memorable sendoff occurred in November of 1999. I was sitting around one Saturday morning, drawing a cartoon, when the phone rang.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hey, Bird. It’s Tank.”
It was Tank Buehler, a long-ago teammate on the varsity basketball team. He was the only guy who still called me “Bird Legs”, the nickname given me by Olaf Matson, our coach. He knew I hated it but so what? I was Bird Legs and he was Tank.
“What’s up, bubba?” I asked. “You out of pot again?”
“Always,” he answered. “But this is something else. Coach Olaf died.”
I took a moment to process that because Buehler was the last guy I’d expect to be calling me with news like that. (Well, without a celebratory tone in his voice, anyway.) He was the only player on the team who got along with Coach worse than I did, and that wasn’t easy. It became so bad our senior year that Olaf booted him from the squad. He attributed it to Tank playing in an unsanctioned basketball game that Fall, but that was simply convenient. At 6’3” and 230 pounds Buehler was a huge guy with an attitude to match and I, for one, really enjoyed playing with him. (He was a gunner and I made my living under the boards, though at 6’3” he was hardly the tallest kid on the team; when we ran on the floor at the start of games the PA system would blast Land of the Jolly Green Giants. It was embarrassing then and often worse later, when we’d been pummelled by shorter, quicker teams.)
“Are you sure he’s dead?” I said finally.
“The obit’s in the paper this morning and there’s an Eastside memorial at noon.”
Again I paused. “You’re joking, right?” I said.
“No, I think we should do it.”
“Give me a break, Buehler…he hated us! He told my mother he’d rather be killed in traffic than ever speak to me again. He’d have told your mother something worse if he could have found her.”
“Come on, Bird. I’m serious about this.”
“That’s what worries me, Tank,” I said, and hung up.
Who was he kidding? Was he some kind of funeral ghoul or something? Why would I honour a man who’d not only vowed to break my teenage ass, but couched it as “coaching”? Oh sure, I was a rebellious, irreverent know-it-all, and I’ve learned over the years not to put my life off on others…but the loathing in that man’s eyes when he looked at me. Or the way he gave me The Most Valuable Player award at the end of the season, in front of the whole school…and apologised for it!
“I regret to say that his teammates have voted Wilson High our ‘Most Valuable Player’.”
I laughed at the heavy booing (led by my girlfriend in the front row) but hey!, it wasn’t my fault Coach had kept me on the team. He even approached me at a reunion 20 years later, begging forgiveness for the way he’d treated me. I was happy to give it to him, and certainly appreciated the gesture, but not enough to care whether he was still breathing or not.
Then Tank called back. “I’ve got Buck and we’re headed your way,” he said. “Put on a suit…we’re going to that memorial!”
Buck Carroll, who was nearly as big as Tank, had been a member of our varsity team, too.
“Sorry, pal,” I said, “but I haven’t owned a suit since high school.”
“Then slip on a tie and slacks and wear that oil duster of yours. See you in a half hour.”
I still wasn’t interested, but if it meant that much to Tank I’d straggle along. I even told myself how irked Coach would be if the only teammates attending his memorial were the malcontents. I slipped on a white shirt and slacks and when Tank and Buck arrived we each ate a marijuana brownie (one of my Scud Bud bangers) and smoked a couple of joints. (I would have preferred psilocybin but we’d have to make do; this effort – our “duty” as Tank described it – was going to require major fortification.)
Fortunately, the site of the service was in my part of town. The line of mourners stretched down the church steps and out onto the sidewalk, so we were forced to park several blocks away.
“Damn!” I said. “I thought we and his wife would be the only ones here.”
“I thought it’d be just us,” said Buck.
Once in line it took us another ten minutes to get inside. It was more like an amphitheater than a church, and I looked around as we seated ourselves. There must have been 200 people in there, with more flooding in.
I turned to the short, neat stranger next to me. “This is the Olaf Matson memorial, right?”
“It certainly is,” he said sombrely.
“Tall guy? Flattop? Coached basketball in the PIL?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
I shook my head. Here I thought Olaf was an asshole and, judging by that crowd anyway, he was the Pride of Portland. I snatched the program from Tank’s hand and yeah, there was his name alright – Olaf Matson, 1925-1999 – with a recent photo below it. He’d aged considerably in 30 years, of course, but who hadn’t. Even the biography matched what I knew of him, except for the mention of a daughter. As I recalled he had three sons, not two boys and a girl. I mentioned this to Buehler.
“Look!” I said, pointing at the program. “I don’t remember Coach Olaf having a daughter.”
“Bird Legs,” he replied, glancing around with purple eyes, “where are we exactly?”
Jesus…it looked like he and Buck had both achieved liftoffs. I envied them their oblivion while I settled in to listen to “Pastor Boris” and a series of family and minions testify to Coach Olaf’s sterling character.
“Could it be?”, I thought. “I was young…maybe I misjudged the guy.” Then one of his ex-players rose to describe not the coach I’d known, but the kind of Hoosiers deity I only dreamed of.
Something wasn’t right here. I turned to the guy next to me again.
“You know,” I murmured, “my friends and I played for Coach Olaf, too.”
“Oh yes?” he said. “At Madison or Benson?”
“Coach Olaf didn’t coach at McKinley.”
“Uh…I’m pretty sure he did, pal. I was there.”
“No no, that was the other Olaf Matson.”
I just looked at him. “What do you mean?” I asked finally. “Are you saying there were two guys with that name, and they not only looked alike, but both coached high school basketball in Portland!? Gimme a break!”
“Well, it’s true. I’m surprised you didn’t know that already. You must have played those schools when this Olaf was coaching them.”
I continued to stare at him, mouth agape, as he leaned over. “And just between you and me?” he said. “I met your Olaf, and there’s no way he’d draw a crowd like this.”
Do tell. I shook my head at the perfect absurdity of life (much less death), then leaned over to Tank and Buck. Explained to them that our old coach wasn’t dead and we were at his doppelgänger’s memorial. That would have been a lot to swallow in normal circumstances; as it was they hemmed and hawed, finally decided we should sit it out, anyway.
“You can’t up and leave something like this” said Buck. “That’d be rude.”
“I can,” I said. I glanced at the program. “There’s a prayer coming up,” I said. “When the faithful close their eyes, we’ll head for the exits.”
They still balked, but then Pastor Boris reclaimed the podium, asked everyone to bow their heads in prayer. Once he began the three of us struggled to our feet and started down the aisle. Buck tripped a little, half smashing some guy’s foot, and as the three biggest guys in the room we were hardly inconspicuous, but we finally made it to the end of the row, then up the stairs and out the front door with a minimum of dirty looks.
There was a strong wind whipping the awning overhead, and the rain was blowing sideways.
I pulled a joint from my case, fired it up.
“Jolly Green Giants my ass,” I said. “Olaf got the last laugh again.”