You could hardly see him in time; that old man with his hands grasped behind his back; head down, concentrating on that center line of the road; A belly full of beer and whiskey blurring his failing eyesight. The road from his favorite bar in Toledo to his float house was pretty straight after that first quarter mile of curves and sliding hillsides. But there were no curb lines to follow on the skinny gravel shoulder; there was only the centerline. Sometimes he would see headlights well in advance and get to the side of the road. Other times he would be as startled as the driver swerving to avoid his shabby outline in the night. Most drivers from the area knew to watch for him but over the years he was grazed by more than a few cars. Nearly every day he would slowly plod for 2 miles each way, in his shabby dark jacket and “newsboy” hat. As a little boy I had occasionally passed him on the road. He would look at me with those deep, tired eyes, in refuge behind wooly grey eyebrows. His grey frizzy beard extending down to his belly would hide any facial expressions; but sometimes I thought I could see a smile. I was shy and unsure what to do; looking up I would meekly smile and say “hi” before continuing on my way.
Pete lived in a “float house” across the road from my grandparent’s place. It was essentially a single room shack built on a platform above two very large logs on the edge of the river. Most of the time it rested on the grassy tide flat but every now and then, a high tide would come in and float it; a rickety walkway from the road to his front door would always creak in protest. The little paint there was had long since rotted away and some boards were hanging precariously by a nail or two. The house was weather beaten and mysteriously shabby, like the man who occupied it.
Life on the Yaquina involved a lot of walking for me too. My grandparents lived just down the road from us and I was often sent back and forth to fetch various things. Pretty much from the time I was 7, I was allowed to make the walk along Yaquina Bay Road. I was expected to be careful and for the most part I was. Then, when I was about 8, the neighbor’s house between our place and my grandparents caught fire and burned to the ground. Soon after, Jack the owner, put the place up for sale and my folks bought it. Now grandpa and grandma were truly our neighbors. This also provided a route to my grandparents’ house that did not involve the road; we were encouraged to use it.
You would think that a young boy with this much independence would be scrappy and adventurous; the opposite was true. My father was not an easy man to live with; he was not a drinker but his temper was unpredictable and fierce. He believed in old school punishment and as it turned out, he wasn’t very good at administering it. Lessons are lost at a certain threshold of pain, fear or indignity. When my folks split up my grandfather and uncles stepped in as male role models. This transition was rough and utter confusion was my constant companion. My world of grownups was busy taking sides, spouting expectations and layering disapproval on me with their indignant expressions.
One particular stormy night in February I was sitting in my grandparent’s living room watching TV. I was oblivious to the adult conversation but my ears perked up when I heard the phrase “…send Darrel for it”. I have no memory of what I was supposed to fetch that night. All I can recall is that my mom gave me my coat, a flashlight and told me to be careful. My grandpa and my uncles were all in the living room giving me the “you’re not scared are ya boy?” look. I sucked up my fragile 9 year old courage, headed out the door and down the stairs.
The wind whipping the trees was all I could hear. The rain was heavy yet the wind was blowing it sideways like shooting stars across the beam of my flashlight. I proceeded carefully down the wet steps and through the front gate. My hoody raincoat kept me dry until the occasional wind gust would flip off the hood; I could feel the rain soaking into my collar and down my shirt underneath. Flipping my hood back on I tightened the chin string in an effort to keep it on. I wouldn’t be taking the path through our property under the bending trees; not in this windy weather. I elected to walk the road, away from the potential falling tree limbs. If a car should come I will have plenty of warning from the headlights to get well off the road. I pointed my head down and started walking.
The wind was driving water in a relentless stampede, pressing the incoming tide up the Yaquina river as I approached the weathered, grappling outline of ol’ Pete’s float house. I could see the house was floating; straining and smacking against the moorings as the wind and tide tried to push everything up river. The walkway squeaked and groaned against its anchor posts on the roadway. I could hear the waves breaking against the shoreline and the bottom of the float house but I couldn’t see much beyond the rain in the flashlight beam. Loose boards were clattering like the bones of the dead and I began to feel a growing sense of trepidation. Quickly, I pointed my flashlight up the road, put my head back down and continued walking.
That’s when I heard it. It was a low, quiet, groan that was barely, just barely, perceptible over the clatter in the storm. I stopped and waved my flashlight back and forth. All I could see was rain. I wanted to run but something was telling me to wait; and listen. A wild gust of wind popped my hood off and the rain commenced soaking my head and shirt again. As I reached to pull it back on, I heard it again; a moan swirling within the rain. But this time it was much clearer because my hood was off; the noise was coming from behind me. I moved back down the road across from the float house, the beam of my light flailing about, seeking something but drowning in the effort. Another slow but louder groan yanked my flashlight toward our field just off the road across from the float house. I could barely make out the blackberry bushes that covered the fence just 20 feet away. The wind pelted the rain against the side of my face as I strained to see what was there. My heart was racing and every bone in my body was telling me to get out of there, but I didn’t; for some reason I could not run. A final groan tugged at my light and I snapped it downward where a creek from our property met up with the storm ditch along the road. My heart jumped in my throat. Down the steep bank below, in that convergence of water, blackberry vines and tall grass was Ol’ Pete. Even though I heard the groans he looked like he should be dead. He was lying flat on his back in shallow water, his beard floating haphazardly round his pale white face; he was so frightened; just a few inches more water and he would drown.
I struggled to get control of my breathing and I started down into the ditch, but as I slipped down toward the water I realized I needed to get help. “I’ll be back Pete” I yelled as I scratched my way back up to the road. Now I would run; back through the gate and up the muddy steps to my grandpa’s house. As I burst into the living room all the adults looked pretty startled when I began shouting; there was just the briefest moment of silence as they tried to process the message; the image of a soaked and frightened little boy shouting “quick, Ol’ Pete’s in a ditch and I think he’s gonna drown”. Grandpa quickly directed my uncle Roy and LeRoy to “get down there” with me. Grandpa was still a strong man but he needed a bit more time to get his gear on. As my uncles followed me out the door and down the steps I kept going on about how I heard the groans and how Ol’ Pete looked like he was dead; my heart now pounding louder than the clattering boards and lashing trees in the wind. I lead them to the spot and flashed my light into the ditch where Pete was; he groaned in response to the light but the rain pelted his old face, forcing him to close his eyes again. My uncles cursed at the steepness of the ditch as they scooted down toward him. They each grabbed a shoulder and began to lift him out. Pete was stiff as a board and pushing him up the embankment was near impossible as he could not bring himself to lean forward into the slope. As they got him close to the top my grandpa hurried up the road to grab him by the shirt collar. I grabbed his soaking wet coat and pulled too. Finally we all crested the ditch onto the side of the road. Pete mumbled something but nobody could tell what he was trying to say. We guided his cold, wet, old body across the road to his creaking old walkway and to his front door. He kept trying to talk but there was no understanding him. Grandpa just shook his head. “He’s too f&%ken cold and drunk! He must have got a ride home and fell backward into the ditch when he was dropped off”. Grandpa reached around one of the old boards next to the door and found the key. We lead him into his house, got his wet clothes off and into bed. “Is he gonna be alright grandpa?” I chirped… Grandpa put his hand on my shoulder and gave me a smile.. “He’ll be fine” he said, “He’s awful lucky you found him” With that grandpa took his big hand and roughed up my hair as he turned to put on some coffee. As my uncles and I walked back to my grandparent’s house, they laughed and joked about how hard it was to push Ol’ Pete up the bank with his back all stiff like it was. They were also looking at me and talking to me in a different way.
It was weeks later before I saw Pete on the road again. I was really glad to see he was Ok. As we approached each other I looked up at his old face. This time his eyes were wide open and he had an obvious smile on his face. He stopped and turned to me on the road; he took one of his old, soft, wrinkled hands from behind his back and placed it gently on my head, looking me in the eye. “You feeling better Pete?”… Pete just smiled and chuckled a little. He patted my head, turned and continued walking. That was the last time I ever saw him.
Years later I would wonder if we should have taken him to the hospital to check him for hypothermia, but my grandpa and uncles were from an older school and must have thought he would be fine. But grandpa did go down several times over a couple days to check on him. Over time, when this story would come up, my mom would often say I probably saved Ol’ Pete’s life that night. It’s funny how I’ve never really thought of it that way. I was as frightened as a little boy could be and I didn’t feel much like a hero. But it is strange to think about how many things had to happen in order for me to find him down there. Like the item that suddenly needed fetching from my folks house; my decision to take the road instead of the trail; what caused me to resist the urge to run when I was frightened beyond belief; the wind blowing my hood off at the right moment so I could hear where the sounds were coming from. I don’t think I was the hero in this instance; there were other forces at work.
I think Ol’ Pete finally passed away just a few years later after my mom moved us out to the Willamette valley in 1971. I often wondered; if I really did save his life that night, was it the life of a lonely alcoholic leading an existence of little meaning or purpose; or a life that was like a self-imposed march through purgatory for past sins and indiscretions? I didn’t realize how much I needed to try and understand. But then one day, nearly 40 years later, my mom was showing me some old newspaper clippings from Toledo when I happened upon a story about a war veteran. I realized it was about Ol’ Pete. It outlined how he served with distinction in WWI and was well known in the town of Toledo. He also took part in a mob that ran Japanese families out of Toledo in 1925 but reportedly worked later to make amends. It didn’t say much about how he ended up alone in a float house on the Yaquina bay, dedicated to his daily trip by foot, but it was clear he lived a life much deeper and complex than any of us realized. Maybe my grandpa knew; which might explain why he continued to look after Pete despite his loathing of anyone who drank to excess. Life is unpredictable and complicated; our perceptions about people, or judgments of their past, is often, narrowly defined by our own experiences.
As for me, it took 40 years to learn the lesson of that night. When I think of Pete now I prefer to imagine there was always a smile beneath that beard during those greetings. He wanted to live alone, making that walk nearly every day. His reasons for this life were his own and when he patted my head that day, it was clear he was happy for the chance to continue living it for just a bit longer. As for me, it would be convenient to say the experience of that stormy night helped me discover the secret to being a man but in truth, it was just one small step in my own complex journey. Such is life; a series of steps defined by the steps you took before and often, we don’t get to choose the path; many times we make bad choices; and we seem doomed to not fully understand events until enough distance is put between them; if we are to ever understand them at all. How we choose to deal with that is a personal thing. Pete was determined to dedicate his life to that daily walk and he was clearly happy with that. And during his walks, hands clasp behind his back, he would occasionally see a little boy and smile; and the little boy would smile back.
Copyright © 2014 Darrel Boyd