Pebble in the Water Inspiration

Welch's words, written or spoken, remind us our ripples go farther than we've ever dreamed.

Earning my Wonderful Life wings

Posted By on July 19, 2012

Pacific Continental Bank in my home town of Eugene has an interesting requirement for all new employees going through their orientation: they must watch It’s a Wonderful Life from start to finish.

“The message in that film is the message we want our employees to come to work with every day,” says Dean Hansen, senior vice president & relationship manager. “The idea that our actions make a difference in the community around us.”

I first watched the movie as a home-from-college kid in the mid-1970s. And over the decades I’ve come to appreciate the same thing that bank president does about the movie. It is an hour-and-a-half-long “teachable moment.”

From time to time, over those years, I jotted down some of those lessons. Before long, I realized I had a lesson a week for a year: 52 bite-sized nuggets of wisdom. Thus, the movie can be more than just holiday entertainment—though our family, like so many others, has its traditional December viewing—but can inspire us about how to live. About what really matters. About honor and integrity.

For nearly four decades, I’ve made my living writing books, magazine articles, and newspaper stories with a decided emphasis on people who inspire. George Bailey, Mary Hatch, and the rest of the Wonderful Life crew certainly qualify as examples of that. And, in essence, live on in all who take to heart the quiet but character-enriching lessons found in Bedford Falls.

To that end, I’m excited that on Sept. 12 Thomas Nelson Publishers is releasing 52 Little Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life. Question: If only one reader’s life is bettered by the book’s inspiration, uh, might I earn my wings?

The simplicity of sailing*

Posted By on June 19, 2012

* I’m kidding, I’m kidding!

The Great “At Last” Calamity of 2012
(In Which a Lifetime of Sailboat-Launching Problems Occurred in Three Weeks)

Friday, May 25

At boat storage place to pick up my 85-year-old mother’s boat, “At Last,” realized trailer lights were not working. Used hand signals for the four-mile trip. While setting up mast, realized that the pulley mechanism for adjusting the back stay had vanished, probably lost in the boat-painting process the previous fall.

Realized that the metal “eyes” for the two forward side stays had been removed in the painting process and replaced with putty. Called boat painter, who said he did not have the back-stay pulley mechanism but did have “eyes.” Drove out, drilled two new holes through the putty and replaced them.

Launched boat in lake. Could not get motor bracket to disengage and allow motor to lower into water, which turned out to be a moot point because noticed a quarter-inch split in the fuel line, meaning the motor wouldn’t work anyway. Paddled boat to moorage slip. Later, went online and ordered two blocks to replace the ones that were missing.

Sunday, May 27

Returned to boat and attached new fuel line. Guy from Newport helped me figure out that the motor bracket had a safety arm on it that was in place and, thus, not allowing the motor to be lowered. Disengaged safety arm.

Motor would not start. No juice from battery. To alleviate my frustration, turned attention to rigging mast. Realized that the internal jib halyard, apparently in the painting process, had gotten pulled out so far from top of mast that the other end of the line was not reachable, lost somewhere inside the mast. After a few phone calls to sailing friends, realized what I thought would be the case: The only way to get that halyard out was to pull the boat out, place on trailer and take down the mast. Gave up and went home.

Wednesday, May 30

Took boat lights to auto-electric place to have them fixed. After they were fixed, the lights would still only work when I slipped a small shim of wood under the car-trailer connection. Not a great “fix” job by the auto-electric place but I’m too frustrated to have them redo it.

Friday, June 1

Went to Fern Ridge to pull out boat. After did so, noticed a one-foot-by-three-foot chunk of wood floating in the lake, one of two braces for the trailer that had busted off. Wondered if millions of locusts might descend on me at any moment. Took down mast. At home, was able to use fish tape to re-run the jib halyard through the mast, though I had to remove mast light to get the line through, a job that took an hour itself.

Friday, June 7

Took boat to auto-electric place at 8 a.m. to have battery system repaired so I could put boat back in water Saturday morning, my only free time slot to do so. Was told I’d get call at noon with update. No call came. Was told they’d call mid-afternoon with update. No call came. Called at 5 p.m. Was told they wouldn’t get to it until Monday. Was not surprised. Meanwhile, blocks arrived in mail. Realized one of them needed to have a clam cleat. Reordered.

Monday, June 11

Picked up boat from auto-electric place.

Thursday, June 14

Left at 5:08 a.m. to put boat, with fixed battery system and jib halyard now reachable, back in Fern Ridge. Got mast raised by myself. Realized a very inconvenient truth: Now, the MAIN halyard was missing; like the jib halyard two weeks before, it had somehow slipped inside the mast. What were the chances? The only fix was to lower the mast and, using the fish wire, run the halyard through again. Detached trailer from car. Drove 20 minutes back to house in Eugene for fish wire. Returned. Busted off mast light I had just glued on the previous day. Fished main halyard line through mast. Re-glued mast light on top. Tied two giant knots in main and jib halyards so they could not get lost again. (Should have done that before.)

Re-raised mast for the third time of the season, although we hadn’t sailed yet. While raising mast, front pin on the forestay fell off bow, meaning I was holding up mast with one hand on the forestay while desperately trying to reach the pin on the ground. Nobody else was in the parking lot to help. Finally cajoled it over with my foot, picked up and secured forestay.

Placed boat in water. Engine started right up! The electrical system worked. Yeah! Halfway over to moorage, engine quit. Smoked. Would not start up again. Paddled toward slip. Wind blew me from D Slip to E Slip. had to paddle 2,500-pound boat backward against wind. Finally got in moored in our slip.

That evening, was absolutely resolved that Mom and I would sail the boat. Motor worked long enough for us to get out of the moorage and into open waters, then quit. Got sails up. Wonderful sail. Returned and docked under sail power. Turned boat around. Removed motor. Placed on a dolly I normally used to carry books. Rolled 8-hp motor 200 yards to pickup.

Friday, June 15

Took motor to marina to be fixed. Felt good about that. “How long will it be?” I said, hoping they might have it done Saturday so we could put boat back in Sunday.

“Looking at about three weeks,” I was told.

“Three weeks?”

“Yeah, we’re backed up.”

Drove off, thinking what more could go wrong? Three weeks? Hung a u-turn. Returned.

Offered the guy undisclosed amount of cash if it could be done in a week.

“We’ve already lost three weeks of the season,” I said. “I don’t want to lose anymore.”

He agreed.

Estimated time spent putting our boat in this year: 36 hours over three-week period. Estimated amount of money spent: $600.

Gotta love the simplicity and ease of sailing.

Back to the woods and rivers

Posted By on June 1, 2012

Brother-in-law Greg and I on the McKenzie River.

On August 20, 1905, Oregon wilderness wanderer John Waldo wrote a journal entry from the east slope of Mount Jefferson. In it, he quoted one of his two favorite authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson (the other being Thoreau): “In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth.”

After last summer’s hike of the Oregon’s Pacific Crest Trail — my book on it, Hiking Home, is due out in October — someone asked me what surprised me about the trail. Two things, I said. First, that it’s dominated by non-Oregonians, including lots of people from other countries. Second, that it’s dominated by youth.

I expected the latter, but not in such a one-sided ratio. Beyond my brother-in-law, Glenn, and I — both nearly 60 — we hiked with a California couple our age and ran into a 75-year-old guy named Turtle Dan above Highway 20 near Big Lake. Beyond that, hardly anyone on the trail was more than 30.

That said, I seldom felt my age, 57. That’s because Emerson is right: the woods bring out the child in us. Having gone on two elk-hunting trips — as journalist, not hunter — I noted the same thing. The trip wasn’t so much about killing or meat. (OK, some of it was.) It was really about grown men getting to play cowboys again. And good for them for doing so.

A few weeks back, I did some fly-fishing with my brother-in-law, Greg Scandrett, on the McKenzie River and on the north fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River. From the minute I slipped into the booth at the Vida Cafe for my traditional pre-trip three-eggs-over-easy-and-hash-browns breakfast to the minute I returned, I felt like a kid again.

In fact, on Sunday evening, after Greg headed back to Hillsboro, I was driving to Eugene with Greg Hatten, a friend, excellent fly fisher and guide who’d taken us down the McKenzie. Earlier, he had lamented, as we pulled out at Helfrich Landing, that we didn’t have time to continue on and do the much-ballyhooed Marten’s Rapids. Greg Scandrett needed to get back home, so we’d pulled out.

We zipped up to Blue River for gas and were headed back to Eugene when it occurred to me that neither of us had — and this is rare for me — any deadlines. No place we needed to be. As if, well, we were kids again. “I’m game if you are,” I said.

“You serious?”

“Yep. Let’s do it.”

And so we put the boat back in and, a little like the two brothers in A River Runs Through It, “shot the chutes.”

It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend of returning to Emerson’s “perpetual youth.”

The best 25 columns of all time

Posted By on March 29, 2012

Mary White, subject of my favorite column.

A WHILE BACK, Ed Russo, a Register-Guard colleague, suggested we read a book called Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns and each choose our favorites.

Great fun. Great inspiration. And a great sense that old-school columnists may have done it better than us contemporary folks. Six of my top 20 were written in 1953 or earlier. Only two were written since 2005.

I was interested to note how my bias was toward columns about people, passion, patriotism and quiet heroes; seven of my top 10 had to do with death or war or both. I’m still mulling what that means and from whence that interest in such came.

I was reminded that some great columnists barely find that perfect — and hard to find — balance between passion and passion-gone-wild (Leonard Pitts, Molly Ivins, Chris Rose) and some pack their passion into the specific detail of great storytelling (William Allen White, George Will and Steve Lopez). The best columns evoke some sort of emotion within you, the reader. And nearly all of these did. (You’ll note a glaring lack of political or process-oriented columns; such stories rarely touch my soul.)

I was disappointed in the book for two reasons: First, its editors overlooked some great columnists. Where was Ellen Goodman, Garrison Keillor, the really great stuff of Dave Barry and the myriad diamond-in-the-rough columnists, often from smaller papers? And where was Mike Royko’s column about his last trip to his summer home? Beautiful. Right up there with E.B. White’s wonderful “Once More to the Lake.”

Second, the book loaded with embarrassing typos and punctuation train wrecks, an allegation that almost guarantees that this blog post will include at least one, if not more: “Golf War” instead of “Gulf War.” Really? Asterisks instead of quotation marks. And, in some cases, no quotation marks. Yikes.

That aside, it was an inspiring book. Who can forget the Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts, after 9/11, slapping his anger on the page as if with a six-inch paint brush? Pete Hamill’s haunting coverage of his friend RFK’s murder? Molly Ivins’ measured anger about a war that took a friend?

But no column moved me more deeply than one written in 1921 by the Emporia Gazette’s William A. White. Called “Mary White,” it was about the death of his daughter, though I don’t believe he ever mentions his connection to her, even if it’s obvious. It has the measured tone of a man who loved his daughter dearly — and yet has the discipline to let the story, not his emotion, carry the day. Incredible. You can read a version of it here.

With a tip of my hat to Ed, here’s my top 25 from the book:

1. Mary White, William A. White, Emporia Gazette, 1921.
2. The Death of Captain Waskow, Ernie Pyle, Scripps Howard , 1944.
3. Vietnam Memorial , Molly Ivins, Dallas Times Herald, 1982.
4. Jon Will’s Aptitudes, George Will, Washington Post, 1993.
5. Man of the Streets, in 3 Suites, Steve Lopez, Los Angeles Times, 2005 .
6. Open Letter to America, Chris Rose, New Orleans Times-Pic., 2005.
7. We’ll Go Forward…, Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald, 2001.
8. Jock Evans Was on Duty…, Robert Casey, Chicago Daily News, 1940 .
9. There Is a Ship, Heywood Broun, NY World-Telegram, 1939 .
10. Eastern Middle School , Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 2001.
11. Morning in America, Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, 2008.
12. How to Cure a Hangover, Mike Royko, Chicago Daily News, 1974.
13. There Ought to Be a Law, Langston Hughes, Chicago Defender, 1948.
14. Woman Burned; Police ignore, Murray Kempton, Newsday, 1984 .
15. A Death in E.R. One, Jimmy Breslin, NY Herald Tribune, 1963.
16. Two Minutes to Midnight, Pete Hamill, Village Voice, 1968.
17. If You’re Expecting One-Liners, Jim Murray, LA Times, 1979.
18. A Fools’ Errand, Bob Herbert, New York Times, 2000.
19. To Root Against Your Country, Art Hoppe, SF Chronicle, 1971.
20. Yes, Virginia—There is a Santa, Francis Church, New York Sun, 1897.
21. Ah, San Francisco, Herb Caen, San Francisco Examiner, 1953.
22. The Power of One, Anna Quindlen, New York Times, 1993.
23. When God Created Fathers, Erma Bombeck, Dayton Journal Herald, 1974 .
24. When God Created Mothers , Erma Bombeck, Dayton Journal Herald, 1974.
25. To Old Times, Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, 2007.

New book came easier than ‘Nightingale’

Posted By on March 20, 2012

Some books come hard. American Nightingale had a longer gestation period than a camel. Information only came grudgingly. In my third day of trying to get Frances Slanger’s 1930s school records, I got transferred to a janitor in the Boston School District’s boiler room. In all, I spent nearly two years researching Nightingale.

Ah, but some books come more easily.

Last spring, in my post-Beachside Writers recovery week in Yachats, I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Great book. And one that reignited by interest in perhaps writing about World War II.

But despite all the research on Nightingale and Easy Company Soldier, no new ideas had surfaced.

Once at home, however, I arrived to discover an e-mail from my agent, Greg Johnson, of Colorado Springs, Colo. Four brothers in Indiana wanted a book written about their late father, who had eluded the Bataan Death March in 1942 and survived for 34 months in the jungles of the Philippines.

Was I interested?

Definitely. Even more interested midway through a phone conversation with one of the sons, Jim Conner, of Indianapolis. I asked him what kind of information was available.

“Are you at your computer?” he said.

“I am.”

“I’m sending you some files.”

In five minutes, I was sent far more information about his father’s WWII experience than I could gather in nearly two years of research on Frances Slanger.

Resolve: From the Jungles of WWII Bataan, the Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept is due to be released by New York’s Penguin Books in November.

The only caveat was that Penguin wanted it not in June 2012, which our proposal had promised, but in January 2012. In other words, they wanted me to write a 90,000-word book in 10 months, not the 16 we’d planned on.

I did it. That’s not a credit to me. That’s a credit to Clay Conner, Jr., my subject, who kept a journal, wrote extensively about his experiences after the war and saved everything: records, photos, newspaper clippings and, most importantly, letters.

His mother and father never gave up hope that he was alive, even though they went nearly three years without hearing from him and the Army continually listed him as “missing.”

Resolve is a book about perseverance. About people rising above their own backgrounds; Conner was a Duke cheerleader who’d never camped out overnight, but managed to stay alive in a jungle full of Japanese soldiers, disease and snakes as thick as his legs. Finally, it’s a book about the bonds of friendship; Conner survived, in part, because of the relationships he and his men built with the Filipino natives and a pygmy Negrito tribe.

An author friend of mine, Mike Yorkey, says the book is “Unbroken meets Robinson Crusoe.”

All I know is it was far easier to research than American Nightingale. And included a bonus I got while on one of my two trips to the Indianapolis area: playing basketball in the “Hickory” gym used for the movie Hoosiers! (See video.)

I still consider Nightingale the most profound journalistic experience I’ve had, so profound I wrote a second book, Pebble in the Water, to recount the life lessons I learned on the way.

But I have to be honest: I could get used to writing books in which information seemingly drops down from heaven.

‘Generations’: Music inspired by a book I wrote

Posted By on February 22, 2012

A Eugene man, Dale Bradley, recently wrote me to say a piece of music he wrote was inspired by a book of mine he’d found at a garage sale. I was honored. Humbled. Stoked. No, not because someone had found my book at a garage sale — they’re my No. 1 outlet! — but that someone had written a song after reading A Father for All Seasons.

The out-of-print book was written in 1998 after my father had died at 72 and my older son, Ryan, was heading off to college. In a sense, I was losing a father and a son in the same season of life. Father rests on the premise that fathers and sons go through five seasons of life, much of it a process of letting go.

At any rate, what’s important here aren’t my words but Dale Bradley’s music. When I first heard it, I can’t even explain how moved I was. It reminded me vaguely of my favorite movie score, Mark Isham’s A River Runs Through It. Every bit as good.

So, I just wanted to post it here so others could enjoy it as I have. Thank you, Dale. As an author, it’s nothing I ever thought I’d receive as a gift for my words. (Usually, it’s just a small royalty check.) But I treasure it deeply.

Here is a video of his trio playing it:


Thoughts of a nephew now gone

Posted By on December 31, 2011

Today is the 17-year anniversary of the death of a nephew, Paul Scott Scandrett. In his honor, here’s a piece I wrote long ago in Where Roots Grow Deep.

On January 2, 1995, my two sons and I watched our beloved University of Oregon Ducks play Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Thanks to a friend with connections, we sat on the 45-yard line: Section C. Row 27. Seats 14, 15, and 16.

From the Goodyear Blimp we were just three dots in a colorful collage of football fans. But from our perspective, we were paupers at the king’s palace—a stadium whose history and symmetry were steeped in nearly century-old tradition. Pilgrims who had driven nearly a thousand miles in a single (long) day to the gridiron mecca of Pasadena, California. Quacker backers wildly waving green-and-yellow pom-poms and blowing plastic duck lips in honor of our underdog heroes—a school whose unfamiliarity with these royal digs inspired shirts that said: “Just Like Clockwork—Every 37 Years, Oregon Goes to the Rose Bowl.” Indeed, the last time the University of Oregon had appeared in the Rose Bowl, 1958, I was getting ready to enter kindergarten.

As the kickoff neared and the roar from the stands escalated, I remember momentarily thinking that this was a dream. Was this really Oregon lined up across the 35-yard-line? The school that had finished last in the Pac-10 conference the previous season and had lost two of its first three games this season? The school that, when I was sports editor of its newspaper 20 years before, had lost 14 straight games, including one 66-zip, and had drawn such small home crowds that people joked that it would be faster to introduce the fans to the players?

Now Oregon was playing in the most prestigious bowl game on the planet in front of a crowd ten times the size of those during the lean years. My sons looked awestruck at the surreal scene surrounding them. Millions of people watched from TVs in homes and bars and stores. Some 103,000 fans were on their feet, stomping and screaming, some of them waving roses in the blue Pasadena sky.

I have never felt so lonely in my life.

Because amid this magical mass revelry, I knew something that nobody else in the stadium knew; something that I had learned within hours of arriving in Los Angeles two days earlier; something that, coupled with the joy I was sharing with my sons, had me experiencing the highest high and the lowest low of fatherhood.
Paul, my brother-in-law’s 16-year-old son, was dead.

• • •

Paul Scott Scandrett was born on October 24, 1978, the same day that my wife learned she was pregnant with my oldest son, Ryan. Because of that and other similarities, I’ve always thought Ryan and Paul enjoyed a link that went beyond their being cousins. To this day, it’s hard for my wife’s sister, Linda, and her husband, Greg, to see Ryan because he reminds them so much of the son they no longer have: independent, people-oriented, and down-to-earth. He had a penchant for mischief. A knack for a good one-liner. And a quiet faith in God.

He was the last of three children Linda and Greg would have. As our two families grew, we seldom lived close enough to spend much time together, so ours was one of those Christmas, Thanksgiving, and special occasions relationships.
I see Paul, his brother Brad, and my two boys belly flopping onto an old water-bed mattress in our backyard one summer.

I see him playing in a family baseball game—the day my youngest broke his first window with a line drive.

Mostly, I see him standing beside a Christmas tree, playing a shepherd boy in our family’s traditional Christmas Eve play while one of his cousins (the innkeeper) holds up a sign saying, “No room.” As director-by-default, I had, over the years, assigned Paul to be everything from the Ghost of Christmas Past to a store clerk, but more often than not, he played a simple shepherd boy. Though it was not a leading role, he always accepted it and, dish towel tied securely around his forehead, played it well.

A week before the Rose Bowl, my wife’s side of the family—four generations, 22 people in all—gathered in Oregon for yet another Christmas Eve.

A week later, at 5:30 a.m., my sons and I left our Eugene, Oregon, home in a van with a friend and his two sons for Pasadena. Fourteen hours, three Big Mac stops, and a couple of potty breaks later, we arrived. After checking into the hotel, I weaved my way through the New Year’s Eve celebrants in the lobby and phoned my wife to let her know we had arrived safely. I could barely hear above the lobby noise, but when she answered, it sounded as if she were sobbing.
My mind raced. “I have some terrible news,” she said.

Grandma Klein, I thought. At 90, Sally’s grandmother was wearing down; in fact, on Christmas Eve, she had surprised everyone by interrupting the present-giving to simply say how much she loved us all, as if she knew something we did not.

“It’s Paul,” Sally said.

Earlier in the day, he had been hiking with his 17-year-old brother Brad above the canyon-flanked Skokomish River southwest of Seattle. He had slipped and fallen some 40 feet into turbulent, icy water.

“They . . . think . . . he’s . . . dead,” she said. “They haven’t found his body.”

Paul? No, not Paul. No . . . no . . . no.

We talked some more. I stood in near disbelief. Should we come home? No, Sally said; the service wasn’t to be held for five days. She had her sister—and best friend—Ann to lean on. Enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience, she said; even Greg, Paul’s father, had said as much when he heard we were in Los Angeles.

Should I tell the boys and shatter the trip for them or wait until we returned? Neither one of us knew the right answer. I said good-bye, buried my face in my hands, and cried. As I wandered back to our hotel room amid people laughing, wearing New Year’s Eve hats, and holding drinks, I was thinking: This is not how the script is supposed to go.

A street kid with a needle-pocked arm dies, but not the son of my brother-in-law, a small-town minister in Washington state.

An adult with a disease dies, but not my healthy nephew, the all-star soccer player, the kid who had just played an impish shepherd boy in the family Christmas play.

A 90-year-old grandmother in constant pain dies, but not a 16-year-old kid who, a week earlier, had spent the night with us. I had come home from work and heard strange noises coming from upstairs. “It’s Paul and Ryan,” said my wife. “They’re having a burp-off.”

Before returning to our hotel room, I decided to not tell the boys until we were home. The news would only taint the trip. There was nothing we could do. I would find a way to mask my pain. As I lay in the hotel room that night, everyone asleep but me, I remember dozing between dream and reality.
Paul is dead.


Paul is dead.


Paul is—

“Happy New Year!” yelled someone down the hall.

• • •

Death is ugly. Death is seeing your 44-year-old, unshaven brother-in-law for the first time after he has lost his son, almost too weak to stand, looking as if he has aged ten years in ten days.

Death is a house full of relatives and friends talking in
library-soft voices.

Death is a table in the church lobby that’s displaying childhood photographs and a model airplane and a soccer ball that no one will ever kick again.

Death is a vase of roses next to the portrait of a young man.

Even if your faith were as deep and wide as the love of God promised in all the Sunday school lessons, how could you deal with the death of your son? How could your lips even move, much less sing “Amazing Grace”? How could you ever walk to a pulpit again, much less proclaim the glory of God?

As I watched my brother-in-law and his family during the memorial service, I grieved for them and held tight to my wife and sons, having already tried on the thought of death to those nearest me.
A couple of months after Paul’s death, Greg and I sat alone in his living room. Given my brother-in-law’s grief, I had learned to accept long stretches of silence, because it often said what words could not. “I was at the computer, cleaning out programs,” he said after a while, “when I came upon some stuff of Paul’s. The computer asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to delete?’”

He stopped, unable to talk.

“I wanted to scream—No!!! I don’t want to delete. I didn’t want it to be so . . . so final.”

We drove to the spot where Paul had fallen, and we stood on a bridge, far above the frothy white water that pounded through a notch in the Olympic Mountains. Greg lamented that so many young people today regard life as cheap—not a privilege, but a pain.

“What hurts is that Paul loved life,” he said. “Why did it have to be someone who loved life so much?”
Why? Why? Why? A million whys, churning through our souls like the icy waters below.

Though we hadn’t communicated much in the past, Greg and I began e-mailing each other—first only occasionally, then with growing consistency. As a pastor, he was forever under the congregational microscope; some members of his church felt that recovering from the death of one’s son was like a military furlough: Once the period of time was up, say a month, you rejoin the regiment with a stoic sense of business-as-usual.

But it will never be back to business-as-usual for my brother-in-law or his family. Late at night, in the safety of cyberspace, Greg would bare his often-tormented soul with the click-click of computer keys.

He wrote of wanting someone to be held accountable for Paul’s death. Why hadn’t the Forest Service placed signs warning of the dangerous canyon slope? He wrote of trying to be strong for his wife and family when he felt no strength. He wrote of the listlessness of life. And of anger at God.
“I really miss Paul,” said one e-mail message. “And the predominant emotion for me is anger. Anger at God. It is so intense sometimes that I fear I will not be able to preach.”

• • •

He did. With the passage of time, Greg not only preached again, but did so with renewed fervor; with a certainty that had been steeled by a faith shaken but not shattered; with a faith strengthened by a willingness to finally say, “I do not understand. I may never understand. But, Father, I still

Often when speaking, Greg would refer to the words of Isaiah 50:10: “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.”

On Christmas Eve, nearly a year after Paul’s death, our family theater group announced that the annual production would be presented by the Paul Scandrett Theater Company. Every play would be dedicated to the memory of the missing shepherd boy, reflecting the faith and fun that made him who he was.

The play was a comedy aimed at Paul’s sister, Traci, and her new husband, Brandon. Greg laughed. Linda laughed. Everyone laughed. And I sensed healing, though I knew none of us—particularly Paul’s family—would ever be the same.

A week later, I watched the 1996 Rose Bowl on TV. Seeing the stadium brought it all back: the best and worst day of my life exactly one year before. The day I was wrapped in a schizophrenic funk, one moment sharing the wonder of it all with my sons, the next minute wanting to shout to 103,000 people: “How can you all be so happy? Don’t you understand? Paul is dead.”

A Penn State fan, he would have been pleased with the outcome; the Nittany Lions won, 38-20. I told my sister-in-law I wish he had been there to see the game with us; he would have had a great seat. “He had a better one,” she said.

Since that day, I think of Paul whenever I see a rose: petals of promise inextricably linked to the prickly thorns below. Joy and sorrow on the same life stem, waving in the blue Pasadena sky and, in a church lobby, dutifully guarding the sweet face that a father will never forget.

Farewell, Andy Rooney

Posted By on November 5, 2011

Longtime “60 Minutes” curmudgeon Andy Rooney died Friday night, exactly one month since his last show. Here’s a piece I wrote on him after a brief “one-on-one” with him in 2003:

TUCSON, Ariz. – On the roof of the Sonoran Ballroom at a cactus-ringed resort, columnists from around the country sipped drinks and shared small talk. The same warm, evening winds that were whipping the Aspen Fire 40 miles east fluttered ties and dresses.

Suddenly, I saw him, the man whose favor I coveted: Andy Rooney.

The “60 Minutes” commentator and 24/7 curmudgeon was surrounded by people. This was a hopeful sign; I was thinking he might slip in, accept the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, then split. And I’d never get my big chance.

Frankly, I was surprised he’d agreed to come; after all, this was the same guy who’d recently chided journalists for giving out too many awards. But, drink in hand, he seemed to be enjoying himself.

From a distance, I clutched my copy of “My War,” his book about reporting for the army’s “Stars and Stripes” newspaper while in France during World War II.

The autograph, I confess, wasn’t my ultimate goal. Though nice, I hoped it might stall him so I could make my pitch: would he consider endorsing a book I’ve written – and due out next spring – about the first World War II nurse to die after the landings at Normandy? Twice I’d written him. No response.

I joined the ring around Rooney and realized just getting to him was going to be hard enough, much less getting time to chat. But suddenly, a group left, and it was just one man telling a Charles Kuralt story to Rooney. And me.

I tried to pretend I was the third part of this conversation – you know, nodding and looking interested even though I wasn’t. Once, Rooney, dressed in a dark suit, nodded at me, which I took as a subtle sign that he’d somehow welcomed me around his campfire.

But I knew I didn’t belong. This was, after all, one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, a man who tells stories about sharing a tent with Ernie Pyle. Author. Columnist. Commentator. And all-around equal-opportunity offender, a guy who’s honked off presidents, gays, blacks, Republicans, Democrats, the French and a truck driver in New York whom he yelled at for littering.

And who was I? Some nobody from Are-Uh-Gawn wearing khakis and a poorly tied basketball tie.

Suddenly, it was just Andy Rooney and me. It was as if the wind stopped blowing.

We shook hands. His eyebrows, I noticed, look even larger in person than on TV, like those cotton ball eyebrows kids glue on their construction-paper Santa Clauses.

He’s a small man, around 5 feet. His cheeks aren’t as rosy without makeup. He walks with a stoop. (Heck, he’s 84; he has a right to.)

I’d considered leading with a quick “ice-breaker” – something like, “You’re right, naps are underrated” – but instead began stammering about my book. About this nurse who wrote a touching letter about the American GI to the same “Stars & Stripes” newspaper for which he had written in 1944 – and then was killed in a field hospital tent the next night.

I showed him a copy of the nurse’s letter as it appeared in “Stars & Stripes.” He looked at it. His brow furrowed. “Yes, yes, I remember this,” he said. “Sure.”

My heart quickened. I’d survived the preliminary heat; now for the finals. “So would you consider reading the galleys and perhaps – ‘

“No,” he said, about as subtly as a belly flop. “I never do endorsements. I get three offers a week, and I turn them all down. Don’t have time.”

He looked at the name on my badge – “want to spell it right” – and wrote in the book: “To Bob Welch. Tucson. Andy Rooney.”

After dinner, I found myself next to him in the dessert line. “Don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered,” I said.

“No,” he assured me.

Later, he gave a light yet crusty acceptance speech. Then, during a transition in the program, he got up and shuffled toward the door. “No offense,” he said to anyone within earshot. And, just like that, he walked into the warm Arizona night.

I smiled to myself. None taken.

Finishing the PCT journey

Posted By on September 6, 2011

After 26 days, 450-plus miles, snow, fire and far too much gorp, I reached the “Entering Washington” sign on the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks this afternoon to complete backpacking the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

The scariest part of the journey was, of course, the bridge. It’s one of those metal grate kind where you can see everything below you. Give me Devils Peak in the snow any day.

The saddest part of the trip was finishing alone. My brother-in-law, Dr. Glenn Petersen, awoke Monday morning suffering from vertigo. Though we’d spent the previous day traversing Mount Hood’s lower flanks, the condition, for him, has nothing to do with heights. It hits only every few years and, weirdly, came on with us just two days from completing our up-the-state’s-spine adventure. There’s no “pill” or other quick fix; he just needs to stay still — sleep works — or he’ll get dizzy and throw up, nobody’s idea of a good time.

We were fortunate in some ways, however. Had this happened the previous day, on the flanks of Mount Hood, far from a road, he would have been in more serious trouble. As it was, we were camped along Highway 35 (Hood River to Mount Hood) for the night. What’s more, though I hadn’t been able to find a cell connection the previous night, I kept phoning his wife, Ann, and moving around until I found one of the few spots that worked. She was able to pick him up and get him back to Albany.

Meanwhile, I headed on alone. Weird feeling that, after we’d walked every step from the California border starting July 22, with a thee-week break to get back to work before resuming Aug. 27. Weirder still when I got to Wahtum Lake, which the forest service had designated as on part of the rerouting around the east/north flank of Hood instead of the west/north, only to find it void of human life. The only car there had a sign on its windshield: “Evacuate! Because of nearby fires … ”

Hmmm. I soon headed north, down into the Eagle Creek basin and away from any fire danger, which, by the looks of the smoke from the Dollar Lake fire, was far, far away.

After camping in one of the few flat spots around, I headed for I-84 down Eagle Creek this morning. Besides one of the most beautiful sections of trail — waterfalls seemingly around every bend — it was a sentimental journey. This was where Glenn and I had first met, camping with the Youngberg sisters nearly 40 years ago. (See photo of the four us in 1973; I was 19.)

When, about 2 p.m., I’d skirted along I-84 for a couple of miles and gotten on the bridge at Cascade Locks, most of the emotion, frankly, had gotten played out in my mind on the trail. I had Sally take a photo of me with my arm around nobody, planning to later PhotoShop in Glenn, who was there in spirit. But later, when I talked to him on the phone, he was feeling much better and thankful for, as he put it, “the trip of a lifetime.”

Our plan for next summer? Timberline Lodge to Cascade Locks, to complete the trip that a fire — and a case of vertigo — complicated but didn’t end.

He’s already agreed to spring for the Timberline breakfast buffet before we leave.

Note: Thanks for following me on the trip and for the encouragement some of you sent. My three-part series on Phase II of the PCT hike begins Tuesday, Sept. 13, in The Register-Guard.






Going it alone

Posted By on September 5, 2011


Much has happened since Sunday morning’s report. First, having been told by the forest service that the Dollar Lake Fire had closed the Pacific Crest Trail and that a USFS and PCTA-approved alternative route would be at least a day or two in the making we made arrangements to be picked up and come home, disappointed that we’d been stymied only two days’ hiking from the WAshington border. Then, in swept a USFS employee named Mary Ellen with just such a plan, sending us east around Mt Hood. Because it was a longer route it would take us three days instead of two, but we werent complaining. At 11:30 am we were back on the trail. Did a tough 15 miles till dark.

But things again turned bad. At 5 I awoke to the sound of my brother-in-law Glenn throwing up. Every few years he has a vertigo attack and this was one. We were fortunate, though, in that we were camping on a major road (highway 35) and though I hAdnt had cell phone luck the previous night, I was able to connect with
My sister-in-law Ann who was there in three hours.

This isn’t the happy ending I’d imagined. Glenn and I first met — We were college age — when we went backpacking on Eagle Creek with the Youngberg sisters. I was looking forward to revisiting that trail for our final stretch to the Columbia after 26 days of PCT backpacking together. Instead he’s headed back to Albany and I’m hiking alone. I can see the fire (see pic) but it’s A few ridges away And after reaching Wahtum Lake I’ll descend to the north, spending the night along Eagle Creek. The plan is to
Meet Sally and walk to the “Entering Washington” sign Tuesday afternoon on the Bridges of the Gods But it won’t be the same without Glenny.






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