Friday, May 13, 2011

Portland and One Higher

A few weeks ago, I went to my inbox and found this message, in response to an ad I had put on Craigslist for this experiment, waiting for me:

Hey there Ms 25 peeps...

I have a bit of insomnia going tonight and grabbed my laptop.

So at around 4:00 AM I'm cruising CL in an attempt to get sleepy again, when I stumble
on your "social experiment" ad and find myself somewhat intrigued. I
like people that have a bit of an edge and approach life at an
unconventional angle. After perusing a couple of paragraphs of your blog,
I'm already willing to bet you fit that description, if only loosely.

I don't technically live in Portland anymore. I now live in my
vehicle, so home for me is where ever I end up at the end of the day.
Tonight it is at the base of Smith Rock outside of Redmond, yesterday
it was somewhere between Bend and Sisters, and a few days before it was
behind a small import store on Market street in Salem where I planted a
garden in a handful of large pots. It's been a few weeks since I
called Portland home, and even then it was only for a few days.
However, I will be back in the Rose city today for a meeting,
and I plan on "living" in Bridgetown again for, well,
until I decide to move on again I guess. Since I don't really reside
in PDX full time, I don't know if you consider me a legitimate
contender for your experiment, but there is a small place in Portland
that is quite special to me. Does this count? It's a big part of the
reason I'm alive today.

Immediately I am thinking that he already sounds like the coolest guy ever; living in his car?!?!  Moving around to beautiful spots to sleep?!!?!?!  A BIG REASON WHY HE'S ALIVE TODAY?!?!?!  I mean, come on!  This is a no-brainer.  Even if I never got to write about this guy, chances are, the things he has to say might, at the very least, blow my mind, if not alter my path in some incredibly meaningful way.

We start exchanging emails, trying to arrange a time, which between his not working and my working, proved to be surprisingly tricky, but we did manage to work it out.  

He asked me to meet him at the cafe at Emanuel Hospital, which struck me as a strange place, and frankly, a bit scary, as my own memories of hospitals centered around waiting for people to die.  But, science was calling, so I went ahead and made plans.  The day before the meeting, he sent me this email:

Me... 54, 5' 11', 175, brown hair, blue eyes, scars.  Will either be in bike garb or blue jeans, T shirt and black ropers.  See you there.

This put things more into perspective.  Now I felt like I had an understanding of why we were meeting at a hospital.  I had no real idea what kind of scars Rich had, but the "reason I'm alive today" thing made much more sense.  I started to get a feeling that this was going to be beyond my wildest dreams in terms of favorite places. 

I had ridden my bike from work like a bat out of hell in order to get to the hospital in time, which put me at there about fifteen minutes early.   There happened to be some sort of Luau happening in the common area of the cafe at Emanuel hospital, so I got a bottle of water, sat, and listened to a man doing very bad covers of Don Ho and the like.  Comically excruciating is the best way I could describe this sound.

Finally, Rich showed up, right on time.  He was as he had described himself: Wranglers, brown hair, blue eyes, and scars over most of his face, arms and hands, narrating a narrow victory over a fire at some point in his past.  His voice was warm and friendly, and his smile was broad.  By way of introduction, he offered his burned and mangled hand for a strong and confident handshake, paired with direct and friendly eye contact.  I liked him immediately.  He purchased a bottle of water from the cafe and led me out of the hospital.   As we walked, it was mostly small talk; he said he had read my blog, had been busy lately, and asked how I had been.  After walking past two parking garages and in between two construction trailers, we approached a small brown brick building; Emanuel's burn center.

We walked through the doors and entered the cool of the waiting room.  It was somewhat dark and filled with incredibly  stiff-looking couches and chairs, toys, a small wooden kitchen play set, and, of course, a small TV.  As we sat down, Rich was beaming.  Smiling, he told me that this was the place he loved most in Portland.  It was the place that he had lived through roughly seven years and 33 surgeries mending his broken and burnt body, and the place where so many had gone so far beyond the call of duty to help him.  I really had no idea where to start.  Here was a man who had clearly gone through an incredibly traumatic experience, and had come out on the other end as what looked to me to be a pretty happy person.

His accident happened in September of 1987.  He said he had been in the real estate business, was now retired, and had been flying down to San  Antonio Texas for one week a month to volunteer at the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, until some recent financial difficulties had kept him from doing so.  He also volunteered at Emanuel, most recently by helping to plan and participate in a four day rafting trip on the Rogue River for other “newbie”  burn survivors.  
Being as we had just met, I did not feel like I could ask him about his accident yet, that he would tell me if he felt comfortable.  Looking back, I realize that it was not he who was uncomfortable.  I have to admit, it took me a few minutes of conversation to not feel his scars on my skin.  He seemed unaffected by the scarring on most of his body, and to look at him, I really couldn't tell that he had been living out of a car; he was neat as a pin, very well groomed, and all in all, incredibly easy-going. 

He wanted me to meet some of the people who had done so much for him, because they were who had made the burn center special, who had made it great.  Unfortunately, we scheduled our meeting in the evening after hours and most of them were not around, so we planned to meet another day so that he could introduce me to some of them.  For the rest of the time we talked, it was mostly on the topic of my project, and what I hoped to do with it.  He expressed his doubts as to whether one small person could change the world or not, but, as I said to him, the world is a big place, anything can happen, once you put yourself into it.  He smiled and agreed with me.

Not long after, maybe a week later, maybe less, I got an email saying his peeps would be at the burn center that evening, so I planned to go.

I got to the burn center just a bit early and sat on one of the afore mentioned rock-hard couches in the waiting room and waited for Rich to come out and get me.  At around seven p.m., he came to retrieve me and bring me back into a conference room within the burn ward.  About eight or nine people were sitting around a large, oval conference table talking, and as I walked in, they all stopped and looked at me, somewhat expectantly.  My first thought was, "um,'s just me", and then the inevitable, "if only I were just a bit taller," then Rich pulled a chair out for me and introduced me.

The people at the table were planning the rafting trip in June for other burn survivors.  Rich started telling me about each one of them warmly, but of one woman in particular, Helen, he could not say enough, including that she was the only one in the room who had seen him completely naked.  He spoke of her glowingly, which clearly embarrassed her, but in their interaction was a trust and a tenderness that was incredibly touching.  When she spoke of Rich, and of why she put so much energy into her professional endeavors, she said that her contact with the people she worked with was inspiring, and these interactions motivated her to go above and beyond.

One of the men spearheading the group, Matt, had lost a child to a fire just a year and a half before, and since that time had thrown his energies into this group.   He planned the outing and  helped people safely through an activity (rafting) designed to challenge them physically, mentally and emotionally, while instilling confidence and personal growth along with a bit of joy.  I feel like I say this a lot, but once again, I found myself in a situation where I was surrounded by amazing people, and could feel nothing but fortunate and humbled in their presence.

After talking with the group, Rich and I went back out to the waiting room to talk again.  During the conversation in the conference room, Helen had brought up Rich's accident, so I felt like I could ask him what had happened.  Evidently, he had been spotting cows for his brother, a cattle rancher in eastern Oregon, who had cows turned out in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Area, just outside of John Day.  Shortly after what was to be Rich's final take off, the plane's engine quit, leaving him no alternative other than going down in the Mountains of the Strawberry Mountain wilderness.  He attempted to bring the plane down between two trees in an effort to shear off the wings, (where the fuel is stored), but he did not quite make it.  Instead of shearing the wings off, they ended up wrapped around the the trees, bursting the wing tanks and sending the whole thing up in flames with him trapped inside.  After he was life flighted to the Emanuel burn unit, he remained in a coma for a quite a while, with not much sign of coming out.  His family was asked to talk to him on a continual basis in an effort to generate a response, with hopes of pulling him out of the coma.  An aunt came in and asked him to come out of it for the sake of his son, who was 6 months old at the time.  This was the prompting he needed, and with more talk of his son, he slowly came out, and spent the next six or seven years in and out of surgery and physical/occupational therapy.

When I asked him about his general state of happiness, he told me that ironically, his  accident had been the best thing that had ever happened to him because it changed his life in ways he could not have imagined:  

“I was able to spend 24/7/365 with my young son for years.  What father gets to do that?  Today my son is 24 years old and because of my accident, we have  one of the most special father son relationships I've ever known.  I mean, I was learning to walk again when he was learning to walk.  Rolling a ball across the floor was therapy to me and fun for him.  We spent every waking hour together forging a relationship that has incredible depth.”

In a way, it was just as I had expected; meeting Rich was-life changing.  He turned out to be one of the coolest people I have ever met and he blew my mind.  All other of my expectations had been far exceeded; I never could have dreamed of the stories I would hear, of the great conversations I would have, or of the generosity of spirit I would encounter in Rich and his peeps at Emanuel Hospital.  Evidently, my idea of hospitals was wrong.  They are not only places where people go to die.  They are places where life is found, where hope is recovered, and where inspiration lives. 


  1. I teared up a little reading this as I remember my most recent experience with that very building, that waiting room. The quickening of my heart and the broken breaths. That place is deeply personal for anyone who has ever been there. Terror and hope wrapped into one small brick building.

  2. Yeah. I thought of you through this whole process. I was wondering what you would think. Thanks so much for posting.