Essays - Winter 2005

A Sturdy Man

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Notes on a human symphony

By Brian Doyle

December 1, 2004


 

 

I met Bob Boehmer when he was seventy-eight years old and I was thirty-four. He was a short, tough man with a chest like a refrigerator and a perfectly round belly that hung between his suspenders like a face between fence posts. His face was the color and consistency of bark and his nose took a neat left turn near its point. His ears had been mashed by cleats and fists long ago and they resembled tulip petals. His jaw looked like the business end of an axe. He spoke beautifully in a halting woodsy drawl and he used an endless cascade of interesting words. I never once heard him curse or raise his voice. When he was annoyed he would hoist his eyebrows, which looked like caterpillars.

His wife was the quietest woman I ever met and their three sons were quieter. Bob was quiet, too. He was the first of six children, and lived to see his one sister and four brothers dead, Lois Philip Kenneth Barney and Johnny, Phil in a factory accident and the rest eaten by cancers. It must have broken his heart to see his brothers and sister and parents die, one after another, leaving him an elderly orphan, but he rarely spoke of this sadness, for he was a discreet man, loath to burden you with information you did not want, although no man enjoyed the trivial and esoteric as much as Bob, and no man so cherished discovering the etiology of things: buildings, names, towns, businesses, customs. He loved wandering through the University of Portland’s voluminous dank basement-of-a-dormitory archives in this characteristic pursuit of the small but telling detail. He also loved chaffing the archives’ elderly keepers, for he was older than they were and no respecter of age as privilege.

He told tales with energy and affection and burnished skill. Stories of  the two boyhood years he lived in a tent on a main street in Portland, on a lot thick with fir trees, while his father built a house for the family—a house later flattened by the State of Oregon (which Bob always referred to with audible initial capital letters) and replaced with the southbound lane of Interstate Highway 5. Stories about being left back in sixth grade at Holy Re- deemer School because instead of walking to school he often walked to a golf course where he could make sixty cents for caddying all day. Stories about the wet afternoons he spent on the streets of Portland, hawking copies of the News, the Telegram, the Journal, the Oregonian. Stories about dragging a wagon through the rain selling copies of the Country Gentleman and the Sat- urday Evening Post and Liberty. Stories about the summers he spent wandering Oregon as a teenager at work in the far fields, “jigging sacks of wheat, baling hay, picking prunes, picking apples, fending off the working girls who came to visit the hay balers when we flopped down in the flophouses,” as he said. Stories about his father, George, a printer’s devil in Aberdeen, South Dakota, who played cornet in the South Dakota State Band, who arrived in Portland in 1911 with eleven dollars in his pocket. Stories about his grandfather Andrew, who died mysteriously in Cheyenne County, Min- nesota, shot in the temple, whether by his hand or someone else’s no one ever knew. Stories about his own roustabout days in the United States Army Air Corps, how he was named commander of the Southern Pacific troop train taking recruits from Portland to the Presidio in San Francisco for pro- cessing and how he lost eleven recruits in bars along the way; how when he marched for the first time in formation at a base in Texas he marched one way and the rest of the company marched the other and the drill instruc- tor’s voice “burned the hair right off the side of my head”; and how Technical Sergeant Bob (Boomer) Boehmer got in a bar brawl in North Africa during the war and woke up with a new tattoo of a rose on his left buttock.

“I don’t believe it, Robert,” I’d say. “Want to see it?” he’d ask, reaching for his belt. War stories about the time he accidentally shot himself in the hand

with a Belgian pistol in Africa, the bullet passing completely through his hand, puncturing the mosquito netting around his bed, and ending up in a wallet in the back pocket of a soldier walking by. Other war stories of his days in Malta (where he was on loan to the British Royal Air Force), Sar- dinia, Sicily, Germany. Stories about his days as a lumbermen’s represen- tative in the State of Washington, in which capacity he got to know every knockabout sawmill and gyppo outfit in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, wandering his vast territory (“from the crest of the Cascades to the sea, from Chehalis to British Columbia”) with his golf clubs in his trunk and a well-thumbed United States Geological Survey map on the seat beside him, with his tweed hat perched on his crew-cut head, his hair like a fresh-mown lawn, with a song on his lips and a notebook in his pocket.

“I knew damned near every lumberman in the West—maybe every one, come to think of it,” he told me once, in the course of a story about how he learned to spot hookers and cardsharps at the annual lumbermen’s convention at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco—a convention at which Bob didn’t take a drop of his favorite concoction, Scotch and water, because he was running the convention and needed to be “attuned,” as he said.

“How could you tell the sharps?” I asked. “By the way they dressed.” “How could you tell the hookers?” “You just … could,” he said. “They had a certain self-assurance.” Stories of his days as a college boy in 1934, playing football, boxing in smokers in 1935 (he lost), running for junior class president in 1936 (he won), reporting for the student newspaper. Stories about how he ran out of money and couldn’t graduate with his class in 1937 and ended up work- ing deep in the woods in Idaho building dams with the Army Corps of Engineers (he finished his degree in 1947, the year he won the student news- paper contest for best short story written by an undergraduate, with a story called “Winter Rain,” a short, hard, eloquent piece of work about an Ital- ian father who resolves to murder the American soldier who impregnated and abandoned his daughter). Stories of his days as a reporter in Califor- nia, where he lived across the hall from an apartment full of stewardesses. Stories of his career as a counterman in a camera store, this brief career enlivened by the day that John Steinbeck came in to get his camera fixed and Bob, knowing he was in the presence of a master storyteller, was speechless. Stories of his days as a writer and editor on the McMinnville Telephone-Reg- ister and the Oregon Journal, the latter of which sent ace reporter Bob Boehmer on the first commercial 727 flight from New York to Paris, where Bob spent three days at the Folies Bergères, finally filing a single brief story (in which he failed to mention the Folies).

Tales of his adventures and misadventures as, variously, the University of Portland’s news bureau director, editor, placement officer, yearbook adviser, sophomore dance organizer, alumni association director, and writer, from 1947 to 1951 and then again from 1978 until he died on September 22, 1998, late in the afternoon on the last day of summer, surrounded by his family, worried about the editing project he’d left on his desk a few days before. Tales of his little cabin at Arch Cape, on the Oregon coast, where he spent his summers cutting brush and reading and working his land and watching the sea. Stories and tales and anecdotes and jokes and poems and musings and memories. It was by his tales that I came to learn what poet Wendell Berry calls “the order of his delight,” and it is by his tales that I will remember the sturdy man.

He read widely and well and his restless mind never stopped ranging far afield. One fall day I innocently asked him what he had read that summer at his coast cabin.

“The complete works of F. Scott Fitzgerald; Messer Marco Polo by Donn Byrne; a history of Oregon coastal trails; Poor People by Fyodor Dostoevsky; a history of the Tillamook Burn; and something by Stewart Holbrook that wasn’t all that great, I’m sorry to say, for I like Holbrook, a terrific storyteller. Did you ever read Holbrook’s The Far Corner? …” —and he was off and running on a story that started with Holbrook, the greatest of Oregon journalists, a Vermonter by birth who came west to work as a logger in the jungles of British Columbia before nailing his Boston derby hat to a stump in the deep cedar woods, and then slid sideways into accounts of such leg- endary woodsfolk as the logger Jigger Jones, who could walk a felled spruce barefoot and kick off every knot, and who coined the famous logger battle cry I can run faster, jump higher, and spit farther than any son-of-a-bitch in this camp!; and the shanghai crimp Bunco Kelly, who usually sold drunken loggers (for $50) to ships bound for the Far East but who once sold a life-size wooden Indian to a British ship (upon discovery, it was pitched overboard near the mouth of the Columbia River, where astonished Finnish salmon fishermen retrieved it); and the great logging-camp brawler Silver Jack Driscoll, who could fell an ox with one punch. The story ended with Erickson’s Saloon, a Portland emporium legendary among loggers and sailors and journalists and much mourned by Holbrook, who had been a steady customer until the day he started seeing bats and winged eels where there weren’t any and so retired from the drinking life.

Erickson’s didn’t close, exactly, said Bob; it shrank, in a most unsaloon-like fashion. Once it was a block long, with five entrances on various streets, and a bouncer at each door, but then it began to close a door here and there, and pieces of the saloon were sold off, and then finally it was a little hole in the wall, and then one day it just wasn’t there anymore.


Here are some other things to know about Bob: He never forgot any- thing and never misplaced a sheet of paper. He wrote all editorial comments in pencil. He carried his mother’s rosary in his left-hand pants pocket. He wiped his glasses clean using the fat end of his tie. He disliked using the phone to do a task his legs would carry him to. He called heavy editing of a manuscript a “rewrite,” which is what it is. He perched his glasses on his crew cut when musing. He had a habit of crooking his finger at me and saying, sonorously, “I would have words with you”—a courteous locution.

He never stopped using his typewriter because, he said, the sound was workmanlike, although when electronic mail suddenly became normal in 1994 or so Bob easily got into the habit of it. His first e-mail message was to his second son.

He could identify, by sight and touch and sometimes by taste, a hundred species of trees, and perhaps twice that many species of bushes and plants. He knew where elk slept in his woods at Arch Cape and did not scythe the grassy beds they came back to every winter, but let them grow, “so there’s a spring in their mattress.” He had exactly four-tenths of an acre of woods, and I believe he knew every tree on it. A woods had to be worked, he said, or else the idea of owning it was irresponsible, and so he cut brush and vines and poison oak, and kept walking trails clear, and carted firewood to his cabin, and planted trees, and weeded the flowers his wife set out at the feet of the spruce and cedar trees, and cut what little lawn there was, until there came a time when he could not cut and cart and plant and weed with his usual vigor, which greatly saddened him and reduced his joy at being in his cabin, a joy that had been patent.

He knew what fish were running at what time of the year off Arch Cape, and when I asked him how he knew this, he told me that he kept a weather eye on the gear of the fishing boats. Once, when he was looking out to sea, he saw a bald eagle, the only one he ever saw at the Cape. I did not tell him then that I thought he was rather like a bald eagle himself: close-cropped white head, prominent beak, sharp eye, a predilection for fish.

He once showed me a spruce tree in which he had seen a black bear sleeping. He stared at the tree with real reverence; it had held the king of the woods, if only for a night (“a bear could kick a cougar all to pieces, you know”), and Bob ever after felt a special affection for that tree, refusing to cut it even when it died.

He showed me another tree in which he had seen a great gray owl as big as a child.

He once handed me a tiny Douglas fir and asked me to plant it in my yard. He said that when it was three feet tall I would be a real Oregonian, having nursed a tree. The tree is now taller than my daughter. It reminds me of Bob.

He knew that cottonwood made the loveliest plywood, and that ply- wood had been invented by the Portland Manufacturing Company in Ore- gon. He knew how to leach red dye from sawn alder. He knew that alder trees often curved together in canopies over streambeds and that alder of that sort would dry crookedly, in the shape of its original bend, and that this was called tension alder and that it was the bane of sawmills. He knew what species of trees would snap first when overburdened with wet snow or thick ice: elm, birch, white maple.

At his city home in Portland, a mile from where he was born, he and his wife had a lush tiny garden in which there were beans, begonias, carrots, claredendrons, dahlias, figs, firs, garlic, grapes, irises, lanaria, marigolds, myrtle, onions, pears, peas, plums, potatoes, radishes, raspberries, rhodo- dendrons, roses, sedums, snapdragons, squashes, strawberries, thyme, violets, zinnias, and an apple tree that Bob had pruned in such a way that it grew horizontally along the porch from west to east like a long green arm.

Once I walked into his garden with him and walked out a few minutes later with garlic and radishes filling my pockets. Also in my pockets were sprigs of thyme, which dried and became powder that made my ancient raincoat a redolent thing. Recently I reached into a pocket and my fingers came away covered with thyme dust, which smells loud and reminds me of Bob.

He founded the Waud’s Bluff Literary & Jawing Society, named for the cliff on which the University of Portland sits, high over the Willamette River. The Society consisted initially of two members, him and me, and demanded of its members only the recitation of a poem from memory before lunch, which was always at Dan and Louis’ Oyster Bar on Ankeny Street in Portland. In the way of all men, we were gently competitive when it came to a contest of any sort, and once I thought I’d bested him when I recited twenty lines of William Blake’s great bizarre poem Milton, but Bob leaned back in his chair and without pause recited all forty-four lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s awful poem “The Day Is Done” from memory. He’d learned it, he said, in sixth grade, in 1925.

I remember the opening stanza. Imagine you are hearing it delivered by a gravelly, careful, worn voice in a wood-paneled restaurant with captain’s chairs and a thousand pieces of maritime memorabilia on the walls:

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

But more often he would recite limericks before slurping his crab stew and buttermilk, the latter forbidden by his doctor and his wife, and which the waitress brought without asking. Bob always wrapped his buttermilk in a napkin in case his doctor or his wife or both should suddenly appear in Dan and Louis’ Oyster Bar.

“God forbid such a thing, although I like the man and love the woman,” he would say.

Once he said, “I have a joke about Vassar girls.” “Robert, are you about to tell me a dirty joke?” “Yes.” “Okay.”

“If all the Vassar girls in the world were laid end to end (long pause), I wouldn’t be surprised.”

This was the only vaguely dirty joke he ever told me.

He once spent a whole Waud’s Bluff Literary & Jawing Society meeting telling me how he met his wife, Gabrielle. He was the university’s alumni relations director at the time and she was a professor of nursing. A caravan of cars and people from the university was heading to eastern Oregon on an admissions recruiting trip. Gabrielle, a native of Baker (now Baker City) in that dry part of the state, was to go along. She’d been told to meet the caravan on a street corner but the message was garbled and she waited in a hotel lobby.

“So I was mad at her before I became mad for her,” said Bob. “Our first date was at the Guild Theater in Portland. We went to see the movie Gigi, with Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan. Very good movie.”

“Did you kiss her?” “No. Louis kissed Leslie, though.” He once walked into my office and showed me the diary his mother kept

in 1913, the year he was born. Here is the first entry: “Born: our first child, a boy. May God bless our boy and help us to guide and guard it.” The hand- writing is that of his father, who wrote entries for two weeks in a sudden, slanting hand until his wife returned home with “the Boy” and resumed her writing. Her handwriting was quiet and circular. (Bob’s father never did name his son in the diary; after carefully noting his son’s intermittent feed- ing habits for two weeks, he ends his entries with “Louise and the Boy came home today. The Boy is trying to be real good.”)

Another day he walked into my office with another diary, this one his own from his years in the army. It was more of a daybook, or scrapbook, than a diary, really, as it contained snippets of newspaper articles, witticisms read and overheard, lists (“Fifteen Hints on Marriage,” “Eight Rules for Failure,” a survey of cattle brands), poems, the definitions of interesting words, books to read, films seen, cartoons he liked, travelogues of towns he was stationed in or passing through. In his lovely handwriting there is a note from a trip to Rome in 1944: “ … a drinkfest at the club—remember how when each man would complete his tale another would say, ‘Now let me tell my story’? …”

Often he would walk into my office with a snippet of poetry very nearly lost to the world. Once, after we’d spoken of wars and the dead too young, he came in and handed me this shred of the poem “For the Fallen,” by Laurence Binyon (1869–1943):

They shall not grow old,
As we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them< Nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun And in the morning We shall remember them.


As a football player, Bob was small and tough—a “watch-charm guard,” in the lovely old phrase so beloved of sportswriter Grantland Rice. A friend of Bob’s from his football days at the university told me this story, which Bob swore was a lie, but the storyteller was a late and colorful Oregon newspaperman named Edward Francis O’Meara, who used to say “I am a professional newspaperman and so have never told a lie,” and I believed him when he said it. One day the university freshmen were scrimmaging a high school varsity. There was only a year in age between the two squads, but there was that gaping social chasm between high school and college, and so the scrimmage was ferocious, with a great many fouls and stealthy punches. After one angry pileup the teams trudged back to their huddles.

One college player remained at the scrimmage line, a small sturdy fellow who tore off his helmet, faced the high school boys, cocked his fists, and said, grimly, “I’ll fight you one at a time or I’ll fight you all at once!”

This was Bob.

Another friend of his, Henry Eder, told me another football story about Bob. In 1933 Henry and Bob were the pulling guards on the team; one play called for them both to pull to the right to lead the blocking for a sweep; Henry pulled right; Bob pulled left; the ensuiing headlong collision left them huddled together in a heap.

“The resultant loss of brainpower led him to be an editor in later life,” said Henry.

“That’s a lie, too,” said Bob. “Although I did become an editor.”

Bob was a “photogrammatrist” (his word) during the Second World War, a man who specialized in photo reconnaissance—reading the photo- graphs taken by pilots, analyzing them for ammunition dumps, culverts, roads, camps. He and his colleagues also made the photos into maps used to orient bomber pilots to the terrain they’d bomb. Bob was proud that his maps indirectly saved much of Rome from being razed. When the war ended, he took a crowded troopship to New York City and then instantly boarded a crowded troop train and rode all day and night for three days to Portland, where he got off the train at Union Station and walked home, several miles, arriving in time for dinner with his parents.

Over the years Bob had been “edited heavily by surgeons,” as he said, and he’d lost a gallbladder and two testicles (at age eighty-one—“Well, lad, no more sons,” he said ruefully) and several lumps and cysts and melanomas of various sizes, and he had had a triple bypass heart operation, the result of a heart attack suffered one day as he walked into his office on the fourth floor of the building where he worked. He pitched forward on his face just after he crossed under the lintel. He was taken down the stairs on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital. He had no recollection of all this, which he regretted, for, he often said, he would have enjoyed being carried down those damned stairs, since he had labored up them so damned many times. Partly as a memorial to this red-letter day and partly as a precaution, he carried with him a Heart Valve Patient Identification Card from American Edwards Laboratories in Santa Ana, California. The card noted that George Boehmer had had a prosthetic heart valve, size 10A, implanted on October 29, 1985. It also noted the serial number, AV8718, and the model number, 1260.

I asked him once why in heaven’s name he carried around what amounted to a receipt. “So Gabrielle can send the valve back for a refund after I kick the bucket,” he said. His health was extraordinary for a man of eighty-five, although he had to take pills of various colors for his ailments and the pills made his handwriting a fragile thing. He used a typewriter whenever possible because his shaky scrawl embarrassed him. Once he presented me with The Wonderful West (another of Holbrook’s books), and I asked him to sign it. Writing his signature took him nearly two minutes; and as I watched his hand crawl slowly across the page, I was ashamed of my thoughtlessness.

He was a bibliophile of the first water and no man ever took more delight in finding an extraordinarily beautiful book for fifty cents. In the end he favored content over form, but it was a near thing. More than once I saw him buy a book simply for its beauty as a printed object; he once bought a Liturgy of the Hours (for fifty cents) because it was bound in a novel fashion, and I have before me a copy of Henry Van Dyke’s The Man Behind the Book (1929), which he presented to me as a fine example of a “foiled” cover, as he said. (I also have before me Bob’s foiled-cover 1923 edition of Garrulities of an Octogenarian Editor, by Henry Holt, which makes me smile.) He was a past master of the exotica of bindings, glue, papers, inks, imprints, frontispieces, tissue sheets, stitching, dingbats, doohickeys, and bookplates. He was also a serious scholar of prefaces, afterwords, notes on the type, notes on the author, and the other ephemera of bookish prose. He could use printer’s words like deckle, em, en, intaglio, and quoin and expected you to know them, and he was the sort of man who knew offhandedly that the notation “-30-” at the end of a manuscript had come originally from telegraph operators, who used it as a sign-off because it was easy to stroke.

He was also a diligent and delighted student of punctuation, especially its history, and he knew and was not shy about letting you know that the word period comes from the Greek periodos, or “all the way around,” as the period began as a circle indicating the end of a complete sentence; and that comma comes from the Greek word komma, “to cut,” as the comma is a stylized cutting instrument, cutting sentences in pieces; and that colon is the Anglicized Greek word kolon, “limb of a tree,” and that the colon was originally two periods side by side until a sixteenth-century printer stacked them to save space; and that the question mark comes from the Latin quaestio, “I am asking you a question,” which the Romans shortened to Qo, this shorthand finally sliding into our modern mark; and that quotation marks are really pictured lips, a habit harking back to the Romans and the Latin word quotus, “to speak”; and that the dash was traceable to the Danish word daske, “to strike”; and that the word asterisk comes from the Greek words asteer and ikos, “star” and “little”; and that the exclamation point traces back to the Greek word Io, “I am surprised,” and is used, according to the ancient tattered little booklet on punctuation that Bob had kept in his desk since his high school days, to indicate fear, surprise, pleasure, or dismay.

Occasionally Bob would appear suddenly in my doorway and in his most schoolmasterish tone say, “What does the exclamation point indicate, lad?”

“Fear, surprise, pleasure, or dismay,” I’d say dutifully. “The four horsemen, lad,” he’d say, and retreat.

He had a hawkeye for detail work on drop-cap lettering and the art that once led chapter heads in books. It was his considered opinion that the finest practitioner of this sort of thing, at least in the Pacific Northwest, was the legendary Oregon printer and writer Ben Hur Lampman, and it is a reflection of Bob’s omnivorous and gleeful bookishness that I once saw him buy (again for fifty cents) a copy of Lampman’s How Could I Be Forgetting?, a book that I knew Bob had. In fact I knew he had several copies of it.

“Another one?” I asked. “Lord, lad, look at the beautiful binding,” he said. He and I spent many hours together, poring over the proof sheets and galleys and bluelines of various publications, looking for small errors, telling stories. Thousands of hours, thousands of stories. He savored stories and told them beautifully. He had a special affection for the peccadilloes of the university’s faculty and staff, and he remembered a truly startling number of, as he said, “whiskey priests, amorous secretaries, dignified thieves, fools and mountebanks and charlatans of all sorts and styles.” He treasured tales of misadventure and told them with such gentle amusement and wry identification that they became not gossip at all but the rueful accounting of hu- man foolishness and so a sort of prayer for all fools, which is to say all of us.

He had a great horror of interrupting a colleague during concentration and so would often stand quietly in an office door, holding a sheet of paper, his pencil cocked behind his ear, waiting. I have seen him wait in this fashion for more than five minutes. This is how I remember him best. All the rest of my life as I am working and writing and reading and playing with my daughter and sons, I will pretend that Bob is standing behind me, his belly peeking out between his suspenders, his pencil jutting up from his ear like a yellow horn, his glasses perched atop the lawn of his hair, his features composed in his old man Zen face, a sheet of yellow legal paper in his hand, his careful crabbed handwriting visible on the paper. His peace is as big as the ocean. He is waiting to see me.

Now I am waiting to see him.


Brian Doyle , an essayist and novelist, died on May 27. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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