London Stories: Dover

Earlier this month, Americans celebrated Veterans Day, an observance that originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I.

One hundred years after the first Veterans Day, I found my thoughts skimming across the Atlantic Ocean to the southeastern coast of England and the humble little town of Dover.

During my second summer of teaching abroad, I had the opportunity to take a day trip from London. I considered my options and chose Dover for two reasons: One, the city is home to the world-famous White Cliffs of Dover and, two, I wanted to learn more about the community’s role in World War II.

I wasn’t disappointed on either count.

***

The White Cliffs are part of an 8-mile-long ridge of chalk hills along the English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France. They don’t make the list of Seven Wonders of the World, but that doesn’t mean they are any less impressive.

From Dover, you can walk along a national trail that takes you up and above the seaport town, providing stunning views of the Strait as well as a path leading to Dover Castle, an 11th century fortress where the Brits first housed troops and equipment in a complex of barracks tunnels during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). During World War II, the tunnels were converted first into an air-raid shelter and then later into a military command center and underground hospital. Amazing.

You’re only 21 miles from the European continent when you’re in Dover. With the naked eye, I could barely make out the distant coastline.

I was captivated during the few hours I spent there, touring the city on foot and meeting a few people. I vowed to learn more and bought myself a book written by a couple of locals: “Dover in the Second World War.” (More on that later. Bear with me as I share more on one day in Dover.)

***

I left London’s Victoria Station early on a Sunday for a relaxing train rise that would take me about 67 miles east in roughly 90 minutes, allowing for several stops along the way. I brought along a book and a journal, looking up occasionally to catch glimpses of the pastoral countryside once we got beyond the city.

Arriving at mid-morning, I joined a gaggle of other passengers walking toward the center of Dover. The town had a working class feel, with mom-and-pop restaurants, tattoo shops, discount variety stores, and posters slapped onto walls and telephone poles advertising a pro wrestling event.

Near the town center, there was a church with an adjoining cemetery on the main street. It was St. Mary’s Church, one of several that would be mentioned in the book I bought. Nearby, the central plaza known as Market Square had a visitors center and museum, where I began to appreciate the historic significance and geographic vulnerability of Dover to invading armies over the centuries. During WWII, Market Square was bombed relentlessly.

From there, I headed to the seafront, where I observed new construction alongside older residential buildings, dipped my hands in the seawater at Harbour Beach, and met a young couple out for a walk on the esplanade with their charming niece.

I made my way to the White Cliffs, passing through a picturesque neighborhood and soon found myself among a passel of international visitors on the national trail.

The hike was an easy one along dirt trails and I welcomed the quiet after a week of being in London. Afterwards, I sought out a policewoman to ask for the best fish-and-chips place in town, only to discover it was closed. I settled for a tasty lunch of roast lamb that I consumed at an outdoor table as I watched townspeople and visitors alike pass by on Cannon Street.

I would have liked to stay longer but with time running short, I bought myself the aforementioned book and headed to the train station.

***

Back in Portland after the end of my study-abroad program, I, ahem, dove into the Dover book. I loved it.

At just 147 pages, co-authors Terry Sutton and Derek Leach do a masterful job of describing the hell-on-earth that Dover residents experienced during the Second World War. Though I’ve been exposed to stories of wartime loss in Britain and other countries, I have to say, somewhat sheepishly, that I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of death and destruction until I read this account.

Drawing on the first-hand descriptions of survivors, as well as newspaper accounts and historical archives, Sutton and Leach vividly recreate the terror of those times. And the assault was staggering.

Beginning in July 1940 and continuing for the next four years, 2,226 shells landed on the town of Dover with many more in the harbour waters, in the Dover Strait and in the nearby countryside. In addition, around 464 high-explosive bombs, 1,100 fire bombs, three highly damaging parachute mines and three V1 flying bombs dropped within the town’s boundaries.

No wonder, the authors said, Dover became known throughout the world as “Hellfire Corner.”

Dover’s population fell from about 40,000 in early 1939 to an estimated 12,000 in 1940-41 before some of those who evacuated began to drift back to the town. Imagine a similar-sized community in Oregon — Lake Oswego, Keizer or Oregon City — sustaining that kind of damage and losing two-thirds of its population.

Owing to its location, Dover had felt the wrath of war before, going back to the days of Roman invaders and up to World War One, when German planes dropped bombs on the town and enemy destroyers in the English Channel shelled the city.

King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill both visited Dover during WWII as regular troops and reservists arrived in the port city in the early days of the war. As the fighting grew more fierce, schoolchildren were evacuated to the west to South Wales, and town councilors feared the city and its remaining shopkeepers would go bankrupt.

In 1941, Dover played a huge role in the evacuation of 338,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The majority of them — 220,000 — were landed at Dover’s western docks, and local hospitals were swamped by hundreds of badly injured soldiers and sailors. So many died that mass graves had to be dug at the town-owned cemetery.

The book is filled with black-and-white photographs showing before and after shots of bombed-out buildings as well as soldiers, civilians and children. What’s especially haunting is reading the names of ordinary people who were perished in the attacks.

One of the worst incidents came in 1941 when a parachute mine floated down onto a row of working-class homes, causing 16 deaths.

The authors soberly reported: “Those who were killed were Mr. and Mrs. John Willis, their sons Horace and Brian, their 16-year-old daughter, Vera; and a married daughter, Hilda Mills (six out of the seven in the family); Mr. and Mrs. Fred Moore and their two-month-old son, Frederick, and Minyon Elise (aged four); Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Cock; Doris Smith (aged three), and Charlie Talbot, whose wife Minnie died in Maidstone Hospital three weeks later from her injuries. The damage was so bad that more than forty houses on Randolph Road and Union Road had to be demolished.”

Every other page, it seems, there is a similar listing of three people killed here, five people there, 10 soldiers perishing in combat.

Reading about the pummeling that Dover took during both World Wars, and especially the Second, made me appreciate the resilience of the city and its people. To walk those streets in the present day, knowing that 70-plus years earlier they had been bombed into oblivion, is to behold the legacy of unbelievably courageous people who’ve rebuilt their city by the sea.

Dover’s population today is about 30,000. It’s almost beyond my ability to imagine a time when nearly every day brought air-raid sirens, low-flying planes and devastating shells.

As best as I can tell, nearly 500 civilians died in Dover and nearby towns and another 2,500 were injured, according to a tally by the volunteer-run Dover War Memorial Project. Never again will I join in honoring America’s armed forces without thinking of this scrappy little city on the other side of the ocean.

Discovering Dunthorpe

Just before August ended, I dug out my guidebook of urban hikes and headed for a part of town I’d otherwise have no reason to visit.

This would be Dunthorpe, a wealthy enclave of homes in unincorporated Multnomah County, just south of the Portland city limits and a few miles north of Lake Oswego, the affluent suburb that lies in Clackamas County not far from Tryon Creek State Park and Lewis & Clark College.

On this particular weekday morning, I set out to see two public gardens about two miles apart on opposite sides of Oregon 43, the state highway running along the west side of the Willamette River. I wound up seeing one.

No big deal, though, because I saw plenty in my two-hour hike following the directions outlined in Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks.” She does an amazing job of providing ground-level detail and historical context no matter which neighborhood walk she is describing.

This walk was titled “Dunthorpe Gardens.” And so here we go:

***

Starting at the intersection of SW Riverwood Road and Military Road, a stone’s throw from the river, I headed west, up a hill toward a leafy neighborhood full of big homes and lots of gated driveways. A plaque nearby informed me of what had been there long before: an 1870s-era structure called the White House that featured a casino, dining room, dance hall and racetrack. It was destroyed by fire in 1904 and the area was later developed with homes.

In recent years, the area has become popular with the Portland Trail Blazers, as players have bought homes here or further south and east in Lake Oswego and West Linn. I didn’t see anything that screamed “NBA player lives here” but I had just barely begun my walk when I spotted an open garage with a silver Jaguar. Talk about the Dunthorpe stereotype.

Moving forward, I heard the banter of a Spanish-speaking crew hired to maintain the grounds of one of these sprawling homes.

(Quick aside: Military Road is an old American Indian trail that once ran across the Tualatin Mountains. Farmers would bring their produce via this road to the ferry landing, whose owner so happened to be a business partner of the man who owned a mill directly across the river in Milwaukie. The pair would offer free passage to any farmer who ground his grain at the Milwaukie mill. Can you say “monopoly”?)

It wasn’t long before I turned onto a quiet side street, SW Military Lane. Beyond two giant sequoias at the end of the lane was my first destination: Bishop’s Close.

According to Foster, close is a Scottish word that refers to a road, usually with private homes, that vehicles can enter only from one end. A bishop’s close is a cloister area set apart from but still accessible to the public.

In this case, a wealthy couple who moved into this area in the early 1900s are the ones responsible for the lovely garden found beyond the end of the lane. Peter Kerr, a grain merchant from Scotland, and his wife Laurie built a home on an estate that also included a garden, tennis courts, swimming pool and golf course. The grounds were designed by the stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous designer of New York City’s Central Park.

After the couple died, their two daughters set up an endowment to provide for maintenance and gave the property to the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon with a stipulation that the grounds remain forever open to the public.

And that’s how I found myself visiting Elk Rock Garden with its impressive collection of trees, plants and flowers, and a footbridge.

The sun was still rising and the automatic sprinklers were going, keeping everything green and misty. I followed a small stone staircase that took me onto narrow gravel and dirt trails that passed through the rock garden. At the southernmost end of the trail I came to the Point.

The Point is where you can peer carefully over a low wall built on sheer cliffs and see down to the Willamette River. Here at the Point the view is somewhat narrow — a 180-degree panorama at best — but you can get a good view of Milwaukie on the east side of the river as you walk back to he main garden. Also plainly visible is Elk Rock Island, which the Kerrs owned and later gave to the city of Portland in 1940 on the condition it be preserved as a natural area.

***

With my garden tour completed, I headed back out to Military Road and resumed my hike. I crossed the busy highway and soon came to Riverdale Grade School (pre-K through eighth grade). The grade school and its sibling, Riverdale High School, are the only two schools in the exclusive Riverdale School District, which serves about 600 families in the neighborhood.

Leaving the grade school behind, I was grateful for the shade as I made my way up the twisting two-lane road without sidewalks. As with residences nearby the river, the homes in this area are characterized by luxury and privacy. At one point, I came upon a cluster of streets carved out of the former Henry Corbett estate, named for a U.S. senator who served during the 19th Century.

I turned off Military Road onto a side street and headed for my second destination: Berry Botanical Garden.

According to the guide book, the garden is known worldwide for its species plant collections and conservation efforts. The garden is named for Rae Selling Berry, a Northeast Portland resident. She and her husband bought nine acres of previously logged-off land here in 1938 after she had run out of gardening space at the family’s home in Irvington, the neighborhood where we live.

There was no sign for the garden and as I reached the end of the street, just past the last house, the road headed downhill, as if I were about to walk down someone’s private driveway. That’s when I spotted the “No Trespassing” sign.

Turns out the garden is closed.

After Rae Berry’s death in 1976, a nonprofit group bought and maintained the property but sold it in 2011 because of funding problems. The new owner? The Environmental Science and Management Program at Portland State University.

Foster’s book was published in 2005 and reprinted in 2006 and 2007. How was she to predict the Berry Botanical Garden’s fate?

I was only mildly disappointed to learn the garden had closed. After all, I had enjoyed the solitude at Bishop’s Close and got in two solid hours of walking up and down hills. I turned around, took a few more photos on SW Summerfield Lane, and headed back to my car, this time going downhill.

I was grateful to have Foster’s guidebook. Without it, I would have never known about these public gardens in Southwest Portland. More to the point, it’s been an indispensible resource as I’ve ventured out beyond my neighborhood and learned more about the history and topography of this city I’ve adopted as my own.

I may have missed Berry Botancial Garden, but I will gladly return to Bishop’s Close for another visit to Elk Rock Garden.

Chasing Kristin

Colorful signage marks the Kristin Armstrong Bikeway in Boise.

By John Killen

The road keeps climbing in front of me.  There are almost no trees.  Instead, the brown hillside is dotted with stocky blue-green sagebrush.   

The low cloud cover that was shielding the sun’s rays for much of the morning is burning off, so the temperature is climbing.  And I’m running low on water. 

But I’m wondering:  What would Kristin do? 

She’d keep going, of course. 

I should have started earlier in the day.  In fact, that was my plan.  I was going to begin my ride by 9 a.m.  But as I often do, I procrastinated.  I was staying with my brother-in-law, Galen Louis, at his condo in southeast Boise, and we were having a pleasant post-breakfast conversation about community theater, one of his passions in retirement. 

Before long, it was 10:20 a.m. Aargh.  Time to put on my cycling gear and go.  It’s supposed to climb well north of 90 again today, which is pretty normal for Boise in August. 

Galen has been battling some health issues and my sister, Peggy, was going to be out of town for a few days.  He said he would be fine, but she was a bit concerned, so I said I could come over to Boise for a few days and keep him company. 

And I had an ulterior motive.  Boise has some mighty fine cycling. So I threw some clothes and my road bike into the back of my old Volvo wagon and headed east. 

One ride that I wanted to try while there was the road that heads from town up to the Bogus Basin ski area.  It’s a steady climb, rising about 3,400 feet over 15 miles.  The road takes you from the foothills of Boise – elevation 2,700 feet — to the base of the ski area, which is about 5,700 feet. 

I had done this route once before, but that was 43 years ago when Marlie (my wife-to-be) and I were living in Boise. I was 25.  Now I’m 68.  But I’m a pretty avid cyclist and I do a fair amount of climbing in Portland’s West Hills, so I figured I could handle it.   

I wasn’t sure I would do the full 15 miles. Instead, I wanted to see how far I could get from the time I left the condo and headed up the road, which is in north Boise.  

So I aimed my bike north, turned west when I reached the gorgeous Boise River Greenbelt, pedaled through the Boise State University campus, and then took North 13th. I knew it would take me to the base of the climb. 

All the while, my mind was alternating between the traffic and thoughts of Kristin Armstrong.  For those who don’t follow competitive cycling, Armstrong is a bit of a legend — and a Boise resident.   

A former swimmer, distance runner and triathlete, she focused on cycling in the late 1990s and developed her true talent.  She won gold medals in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the time trial discipline.  She also won world championships in that event in 2006 and 2009. 

Along the way, she also helped promote cycling and bicycle racing in the Boise area.  Boise responded.  The city these days has a burgeoning network of cycling pathways, cycling events and bike boulevards.  It also has some of the best single-track riding in the West.  

In thanks, Boise renamed a city park after Armstrong and — more to the point — has designated Bogus Basin Road as the Kristin Armstrong Bikeway. 

Which is where I am right now. 

Awhile back, I passed the 3,000 foot marker and I’ve lost count of number of switchbacks as I climb — slowly but steadily — up the grade.  

I look down at my Garmin — the small bike computer fixed to my handle bars — and note that I’m averaging about 6 to 9 miles an hour.  Not speedy, but not bad given the heat and the steady 4 to 8 percent incline. 

So far, I’ve seen more bikes than cars on the road, which is nice.  It’s a Tuesday and most of Boise is at work, so that makes sense. 

I’ve heard stories that this was one of Armstrong’s main training regimens as she prepared for the Olympics.  I can see why.  I’ve climbed steeper grades in Portland’s West Hills, but none of them go on and on — and on — like this one does.   

I pass the 3-mile marker, the 5-mile marker and then the 7-mile marker.  Another sign says 4,000 feet. The heat is starting to build.  The grade isn’t doing me any favors.   

I’ve finished off one of my two water bottles and take a sip from the second.  I also pour just a bit through the slots on the back of my helmet. The cool water runs down my neck and onto my back.  The relief is short-lived, but much appreciated. 

A lone wild sunflower highlights the foreground while the city of Boise can be seen in the deep background, below the switchbacks.

I don’t know where Armstrong lives but I find myself wondering if there’s any chance I might see her as I climb.  I know she’s retired, but I hear she still rides.  In fact, I saw her on a YouTube broadcast a day or two ago when she was helping promote a cycling event in Boise. She looked ready to race. 

She’s actually become a sort of hero to me, partly because she’s a champion cyclist, partly because what she’s done for cycling in Boise – and the world. 

And there’s the fact that I actually met her once – sort of.   

It was in the summer of 2002 and Marlie and I were in Boise for our niece’s wedding.  The ceremony was actually held at one of the lodges at the top of Bogus Basin Road. Our niece, Brooke, was also a former collegiate distance runner and had converted — like Armstrong — to cycling.  She also had found that she could excel on two wheels and had been invited to join the women’s T-Mobile professional team with Armstrong. 

They became friends and Armstrong and some of her other teammates were among the bridesmaids at Brooke’s wedding.  I can’t say I have strong memories of her or the others, but I do recall being introduced to several very tan and fit-looking young women wearing bridesmaid dresses. 

There’s the 8-mile marker.  I’m about halfway through the second water bottle. The clouds are gone and the sun is truly getting hot. 

I’m also thinking about the fact that I told Galen I would be home by 1:30  p.m.  I do some mental calculations.  I know I will descend about three times faster than I am ascending. I roll the numbers around in my head.  I pass the 9-mile marker, and take another drink. 

I’m actually still feeling pretty good. Up ahead, I can see that I’m not too far from entering the pine forest that starts up at about 5,000 feet. Shade!  I also know that just after that, the road flattens out considerably and most of the climbing will be behind me. 

A little less than 1,000 feet and I’m on top. But there’s not enough time.  Not enough water.  And honestly, maybe not enough energy. 

Time to turn around. 

This photo looks uphill from the spot where I turned around. You can see that I was just getting into the pine forest.

I pull over, snap a couple of photos with my iPhone and begin the downhill spin.  I can hear the gentle, rapid clicking from the rear hub of my bike.  

I’m coasting at about 25 to 30 miles per hour.  The rushing air feels cool.  Boise is in the distance below, but crawling steadily closer. 

I’m mildly disappointed that I didn’t keep going, but I did climb about 2,600 feet, so it was definitely a good workout. Also, the Bikeway is well kept and the pavement was smooth. And very few cars.  As a cyclist, you can’t ask for much more. 

And as it turns out, I just missed Kristin. 

I’m a member of Strava, which is a social network for cyclists and runners.  One of its features is called “fly by.” After a ride or run, it allows you to see other Strava members who you passed or who may have passed you or ridden near you. 

I mouse over to “fly by” and there, two names below mine, is “Kristin.” 

What?  I click on the name to get more info.  Sure enough, the rider’s full name is Kristin Armstrong of Boise, Idaho.  I click on her route from that morning and realize she and I just missed each other.  She was riding some nearby roads as I was climbing the Bikeway.  In fact, for a brief time, we were probably within a few hundred yards of each other. 

For a second, I wondered what I would have said had I seen her. 

But I knew.   I would have smiled and waved and felt a momentary surge of excitement — and just said thank you.   

Marlie and John Killen

John Killen is a retired journalist. He worked for The Oregonian for 27 years and for two other newspapers before that. He now spends his time riding his bike and helping his wife Marlie take care of their two granddaughters.

Editor’s note: John and I started at almost the same time at The Oregonian. Though I’ve never biked with him, we’ve found common interests in teaching, basketball, bowling, hiking, journalism, parenting and now grand-parenting.

Tomorrow: Patricia Conover | Thoughts on returning to Oregon

My name is Eric. I am an addict.

In the middle of nowhere, but somewhere near The Dalles, OR, in May 2019.

By Eric Scharf

My name is Eric, and I have a confession.  I am an addict.  I love food.  I know what you’re thinking.  The guy must be a glutton.  No, it’s not quantity I’m talking about — it’s variety and quality. 

Notwithstanding my protestation about quantity, you may think that I’m about 5’ tall and 300 lbs.  Well, you’d be half right — or close to it; I’m 5’ 5”, but am pretty scrawny, thanks to the other thing I love, which is riding a bike.  I’m not talking about gentle turns down the bike path.  My addiction is worse than that.  I’m talking about rides on terrain, and to places, that only fellow two-wheeled addicts think are normal. 

OK, so I’ve made two confessions.  I’m happily an addict, and this is the story of how Portland enables my addictions, and fails me in one small way. 

I come by my food addiction naturally, as I am a New York City refugee with no regrets about living in the Diaspora.  I grew up in New York, left home to go to college, and never returned.  To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if they make it anywhere, you can get it there, in NYC — at least when it comes to food. 

Unlike the stereotype, I don’t miss New York, and have no desire to return – ever.  Life is hard there in many ways.  Notwithstanding the difficulty of life in New York, the food is great.  I’m not talking about Michelin Star restaurants.  I have in mind mom-and-pop restaurants, kosher delis, pizzerias, Chinese-food joints, bagel bakeries and open-all-night diners. 

Until I went to college in a small town at 17, I thought you could find something good to eat anywhere, at any time.  When I was a kid, I loved to pick up the Sunday New York Daily News at midnight on Saturday, and swing by the Chinese take-out for some fried rice and soup.  I’d head home, spread out the sports page and devour my feast.  So, that’s the genesis of one of my addictions. 

The road to my other addiction is more circuitous.  I woke up in grad school one day, and I was fat. I had never been fat in my life.  I always played sports and was naturally thin — until I wasn’t.  I realized I put on weight because all I had done for two years was live in a library.  No sports.  No physical activity.  Very little fresh air.  So I did what many neurotic people do, I overreacted.  I started running.  Not Forrest Gump running, but some significant mileage: 60-70 miles per week at times.  I did this for decades, until I couldn’t.  That’s how I became a cyclist.  When you’re a runner, your body breaks.  When you’re a cyclist, the machine breaks. 

By the time I got to Portland a few years ago, both my addictions were in full bloom, or so I thought.  Portland has an abundance of two things I didn’t find anywhere else I’ve lived: hills, and their larger siblings, mountains.  My cycling addiction hit overdrive the day another cyclist asked me if I liked to ride up hills.  Not having much experience with vertical reality, I lied, and claimed l loved riding up hills. 

Turns out, I wasn’t wrong.  I have seen beauty from the saddle of a bicycle that rivals travel posters.  Paved roads, dirt roads, forest roads and gravel ruts — they all run up the sides of mountains in the Portland area.  They yield wild flowers in the spring, reach-out-and-touch-it views of Mt. Hood in the summer and a real appreciation of fireside warmth after a winter’s ride in the drizzle.  

As for food, Portland has the gift that keeps on giving: food trucks.  And they are great, mostly.  Egyptian, Thai, Serbian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Somali, vegan, paleo – almost everything you can think of; we’ll talk about the “almost” part of things in a second.   And breakfast is a sport here.  In our house, Wednesday is Breakfast Day, where the only rule is we have to eat somewhere new. 

This mural graces the new Hawthorne Asylum food cart pod in SE Portland, named after a 19th-century hospital for the mentally ill.

And now for the “almost” part of things.  Portland sates every part of my addiction, except one of the loves of my life: New York City kosher deli.  I cannot understand how a city that indulges my food addiction so well, continues to fail me this critical way.  Do not tell me that Kenny and Zuke’s fills the bill.  Do not ever tell a NYC refugee that K & Z is a kosher deli.  The only way that place evokes a New York vibe is as a punch line to an old Yiddish joke: “The food is so bad here, and the portions are so small.”   

My name is Eric.  I am an addict.  I like to ride my bike uphill to food carts.  Hit me up if you know where I can score a good kosher pastrami sandwich. 

***

Eric Scharf has lived in Portland since December 2015.  They used to say that Portland was where young people came to retire.  Eric isn’t young, but he is retired and is enjoying pretending he’s young, as he pedals around Portland visiting food carts and breakfast joints.  Born and reared in New York City, Eric bounced back forth between the coasts before he was lucky enough to land in Portland for his second childhood. 

Editor’s note: I’m happy to welcome Eric to the VOA community after meeting him earlier this year. His wife is a client of Lori’s and we’ve discovered mutual interests in food, exercise, IPAs and food. (Oh wait, did I mention food already?)

Tomorrow: Lakshmi Jagannathan | One step at a time

Falling from the sky

Eric Wilcox: Thrillseeker

By Eric Wilcox

Sky diving is a very safe sport, but when things go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong.

The young lady nearest the door, probably in her mid-20s, is getting ready to do a “pop and drop.” As the roll-up door on the side of the plane is opened, cool air flows in and the noise level goes up. According to the altimeter on my left wrist we are nearing her jump elevation of 6,500 feet. She is small and with the main and reserve chutes, she looks even smaller.

She has at least 10 successful solo jumps in her log book, so she knows what she is doing. She checks her harness and altimeter then tightens her chin strap, gives a thumbs up to the jumpmaster, and receives a thumbs up in return. She moves to the doorway, positions her feet and body to face forward into the wind. She leans out, pulls back in, then steps out. She’s gone…

The jumpmaster leans out, watches for a few seconds. The door is rolled down and we continue our climb up to my jump elevation: 13,000 feet.

Alone in my thoughts in a crowded plane, in a male macho way I think, if she can do it I can. The jumpmaster leans over, tugs on my harness, smiles and gives a thumbs up, I try to smile back, but can only manage a nod. He points to my helmet and signals to put my goggles on.

This is my second solo jump. I so badly screwed up my first that I have to do it over again. I did everything wrong. Most importantly, due to bad body position, I couldn’t find my main deployment handle (commonly known as the rip cord) and the jumpmaster had to move in and pull it for me. No matter how well you do everything else, if you can’t pull the main deployment handle, you pretty much fail the jump. So, I’m jumping again, I have to prove to myself that I can do this. 

There are actually three of us on the jump: the jumpmaster, assistant jumpmaster and me. These two men will be right next to me, watching my every move, adjusting my body position as needed, and in case I have problems like my first jump, they will move in and take over.

As the plane turns into the jump run at just over 13,000 feet, the door is rolled up. The sky is clear blue and cold. Off in the distance and slightly below us is Mount Hood. Ground is two and a half miles down. This is it. A check of my goggles, harness and altimeter, a quick touch of the pull handle, it’s where it’s supposed to be. A nervous thumbs up and a smiling thumbs up in return and we are ready.

The plane isn’t big enough to stand up, so we move in a crouched position. The assistant moves to the doorway and leans out, then he climbs out the door and hangs on the outside of the plane and waits for me. I’m next. I have to move to doorway position myself in the opening with each foot aligned with the edge of the sill. One hand on a grab bar overhead, one on a grab bar on the jamb and I’m ready.

This position only lasts for a few seconds, but seems forever. I’ve got 100 mile per hour wind in my face, the noise drowning out all other sounds. Making eye contact with the assistant, I yell “check-out.” A nod in return, looking back then forward l lean out and shout “out.” Pull back in, shout “in” then yelling “oooout” I step out and let go.

The next few seconds are absolutely amazing, incredible adrenaline rush, complete freedom, no control and everything is a blur.

Breaking down a free fall. 1) Body position: good. 2) Eye contact with the jumpmaster: thumbs up. 3) Going the right direction: down.


Then back to the task at hand, getting safely to the ground. First, body position: on my stomach, head up, legs spread, toes pointed, knees slightly bent, arms spread out, elbows bent so hands are just above your head, back arched. All good. Then check the horizon. It’s there where it’s supposed to be. Which means I have good body position. I make eye contact with the jumpmasters, one on each side, look for any signals from them. Lastly, check the altimeter on my wrist: 11,000 feet. I’ve already dropped 2,000 feet and I haven’t done anything. We are falling at a rate of a thousand feet every 6 seconds, almost terminal velocity.

Thumbs up from the jumpmaster. This is the signal to do three practice touches of my pull handle, a cloth ball about the size of a golf ball positioned in the small of my back, just above the right hip. I reach back, find it, grab it, pretend to pull it. All good, do it again and again. Thumbs up, all good.

Now I get to look around. Horizon, yup. Jumpmaster, yup. Altimeter: 9,000 feet! Time really does fly. It is beautiful, the sky is clear, horizon all around, earth below, complete and total exhilaration.

Check the altimeter: 8,000 feet. Thumbs up from the jumpmaster, I return a double exaggerated thumbs up. Look around, check my body position. Check the altimeter: 7,000 feet. Focus on the altimeter.

Waving off the jumpmaster, getting ready to pull the handle

At 6,500 feet the process to pull the handle starts. First, wave off the jumpmasters. They move further away to avoid becoming entangled. Wait a few seconds then reach back, grab the ball, pull hard and fling the ball away.

As the pilot chute deploys, in turn pulling out the main chute, there is a gentle jerk as I am pulled into a vertical position. After a few anxious seconds, the slider drops down and the chute is fully deployed, bright yellow and beautiful. Everything is now completely quiet. Drifting along on a silent wind at about 5,000 feet. I reach up and grab the loop pulls.

Main chute starting to deploy.


Over the one way radio I hear “yellow chute turn right.” I pull down on the right loop and turn right. “Yellow chute turn left.” I pull on the left loop and turn left. I am flying the chute. Pull both loops and I suddenly get a brief period of lift. Let go and I start back down. Flying the chute is fun. I take a few turns and spins. Next, I need to find the drop zone, right next to the runway, all good. I get to play for a minute.

At about 1,000 feet “yellow chute turn right.” I turn and line up parallel with the runway on the downwind run. Holding this direction for the length of the runway and dropping to about 300 feet. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn again. Now on the final leg, at about 200 feet.

Pulling down slightly I slow and control my descent. 200’, 100’, 50’, 30’ 20’ “flare”. With a slight jolt, like stepping off a low wall, a roll and I’m on the ground.

I did it. According to the jumpmaster all went very well, except I didn’t have to roll on the landing. For that minor error I only got a score of 3 out of 4. I am relieved, I did it. I proved to myself that I could do it. And as my jumpmaster said, “any jump you walk away from is a good jump.”

But, I still had two jumpmasters as my safety net. The young lady that did the “pop and drop” was on her own. She had less than 9 seconds to get through the full jump sequence, less the practice pulls, before things start to go wrong. That is what the jumpmaster was watching before he closed the door. Apparently she did everything right. I have a lot of respect for her, I’m not sure I could do that.

My jump was a good jump, but probably my last.

Eric Wilcox is an architect living in Northeast Portland with his recently retired wife, Sue, and Murdoch (“Not-a-bear”), their Newfoundland.

***

Editor’s note: Eric is a longtime friend and neighbor whom I’ve known for 30 years-plus, ever since our wives met through a play group that included each of our youngest-born children. As the years pass, I find more to admire in my friend’s artistic side (a designer and maker of stained glass) and his adventurous side (Spartan Race finisher and now skydiving).

Tomorrow: Andrea Cano | Tears

Fear and Loathing Between a Farter and a Fatso

Michael Granberry, next to a bust of Ernest Hemingway in El Floridita in Havana, Cuba.

By Michael Granberry

The first time I went to England was 1981. I had booked a 14-hour flight from LAX on Freddie Laker Airways. The company went bankrupt in 1982, and well, I’m not surprised. I remember being scrunched in a middle seat between two ginormous dudes — one of whom was uncontrollably flatulent — and soon resorted to scarfing potato chips and tuna fish from the limp brown bag I’d brought on board. It is, however, a minor miracle I made it at all, considering what I’d done the night before.  

I was at Dallas Cowboys training camp, visiting an old college buddy. He was at the time a Cowboys beat writer for a Dallas newspaper. And, well, he was a drinker. He cajoled me into going out and having, in his words, “just a few” the night before my first-ever sojourn across the pond. Against any semblance of sanity in my yet-to-be-formed frontal lobe, I said yes. And within minutes, “just a few” was a bunch.  

Miller Time.  

My defense? I was, in the summer of 1981, a wee lad of 29 and didn’t know any better. By the time we schlepped back to the Cowboys’ prison-like quarters at Cal Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks, Calif., we were, well, you know, blitzed, to use a football term. So, my friend got the bright idea to have “a nightcap” by going to the practice field and working out on the blocking sleds before going beddy-bye. Problem was, the padding for the sleds had been stored away for the night by the Cowboys’ equipment crew. So, what we were hitting, over and over, was raw metal. Even so, I followed along, like the stupid idiot I was in the summer of ’81.  

“Ready, set, HUT!” my friend bellowed, with Lombardi-like glee, his beery chant piercing the dank night air. In the windows above, I could see Cowboys players peering out the windows, their faces expressing a collective annoyance, wondering what in the hell the ruckus was. They, after all, would have to be up early the next morning.   

“BAM!” my friend proclaimed, as we both struck the jagged metal, our bare shoulders providing the only protection our fragile bodies could muster against the stupidity we were inflicting on them.  

Photo credit: oxnardchamber.org

Minutes later, I succumbed to a deep sleep, not yet feeling the ravishing pain yet to come. By the time I awoke, it was there. Was it ever there! Despite my agony, I wedged my damaged torso into my absurdly cramped seat on Freddie Laker, wondering if I could possibly endure a 14-hour marathon from L.A. to London, stuck between a Farter and a Fatso, feeling as though I needed to scream every three minutes. By the time we limped into Heathrow, in what was easily the longest 14 hours of my life, I was in more pain than I thought any one knucklehead could endure. Somehow, I stumbled outside and summoned a cab. I all but barked at the cabbie, demanding he take me to a hospital as fast as his Cockney wheels could get me there.  

Within minutes, I was nursing my pain in a grim-looking hospital, whose idea of décor put the “D” in Dickensian. Within minutes, they whisked me to a room, albeit a pitiless, cold room, where they commanded me to wait for the doctor. Soon, a peach-fuzzy chap showed up looking eerily like Harry Potter — though Harry Potter had not been invented yet.  

“You have a separated shoulder,” he announced after a short but suitably thorough examination. “I will put your arm in a sling and prescribe painkillers that should have you feeling much better quite soon. May I ask, though, how did you do this?” 

I debated whether or not to tell him, then decided, oh, what the heck, I have a return ticket. I can always return to the warm blanket of America, the one that tolerates idiots. I explained that I had been striking the unpadded blocking sleds at Dallas Cowboys training camp over and over the night before, and the reason I did that was, I had been drinking for hours with my friend, who by the way is now in prison, having been sent there (again) for numerous DWI violations. I will note, however, that my friend went on to have a remarkable writing career. He is the author of 10 books, two of which became best-sellers, one of which will soon become a major motion picture. And he, by the way, suffered no injury whatsoever from our drink-induced shenanigans. 

“You what?” my Hunter Thompson wannabe of a pal said later, laughing uproariously. “Nope, I was fine.” 

Of course, he was. But I digress.  

The Harry Potter lookalike simply stared at me quizzically for what seemed like forever, then muttered, “Yes, well, you should feel better soon,” and with an ever-so-slight British grin added coyly: “I would, however, not recommend hitting another unpadded blocking sled, presuming you can even find one in Britain.” He might as well have added, “Stupid American.” But he was nice enough not to. 

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, nervously.  

“You mean payment? Oh, you owe us nothing. We have national health coverage. Your treatment is free.” 

To use an American phrase, is that a great country or what?!? 

Sure enough, I felt remarkably better within hours, igniting a love affair with Britain that has lingered for decades. I call my strange experience and the feeling of longing it engendered “The Catch.” And ironically, that’s how the Cowboys’ 1981 season ended, after my blocking-sled debacle: Dwight Clark caught a game-winning touchdown pass from Joe Montana in the closing seconds of the NFC Championship Game that came to be known as The Catch, thus ending the Cowboys’ playoff hopes on a bleak January day in 1982.  

Bleak for me and the Cowboys, that is. The San Francisco 49ers are still hoisting beers over their shining moment from the ’81 season.  

I, however, am enjoying a different kind of catch. Mine has returned me to Britain, London in particular, multiple times, albeit on better flights than Freddie Laker. I returned there in 2008 to preview the King Tut exhibition and ended up staying in a place a friend recommended called Portobello Gold, on Portobello Road in the magical neighborhood of Notting Hill. It was a lovely, quaint, crackling pub with eight rooms above it that I soon fell in love with (as did President Bill Clinton, who showed up there in the last month of his presidency). Owned by a delightful chap named Mike Bell, Portobello Gold stayed open long enough for me to indulge myself with as many exquisite visits as my family and I could squeeze in. All good things come to an end, and sure enough, Mike closed it a couple of years ago.  

My visits to the Gold allowed me the most blissful accommodations while roaming London with my stunning wife, seeing some of the best theater the world has to offer. My favorites were God of Carnage with legendary actor Ralph Fiennes and Grief, a scintillating world premiere written and directed by Mike Leigh and starring the incomparable Lesley Manville.  

I need to go back. The last time I went to London was 2014, when I flew across the pond from my home in suburban Dallas to see the Cowboys whip up on the Jacksonville Jaguars. That, too, was a lovely visit. And not once did I pummel a blocking sled.  

Michael Granberry is the arts writer for The Dallas Morning News. He has also worked for the Los Angeles Times (from 1978 to 1997) and once worked as a sports editor in Alaska, where he covered such things as the Iditarod and the Eskimo Olympics. And during the Watergate summer of 1973, he interned at The Washington Post with some dude named George Rede.

Editor’s note: I’ve been blessed to call Mike a friend for 46 years now. He was a standout in the Post intern class of ’73, and not just because of his precocious talent. He was pretty hard to miss with a shock of red hair and a Texas twang. He was a groomsman at our wedding and he remains one of my favorite people on the planet. Even if he is a Cowboys fan.

Tomorrow: Alana Cox | Let’s talk about breastfeeding

Three hikes in one

I like variety. I’m not one of those who thrives on routine. I intentionally mix things up, whether it’s working out on a bike or in a pool, walking my dog on different routes, or choosing something new on a menu.

So it came as a pleasant surprise that Friday’s urban hike felt like three walks packaged into one.

Once again following “Portland Hill Walks,” I chose a route that began 12 miles from where I live — out to Southeast Portland and up to the Willamette National Cemetery on Mount Scott.

Starting at the city-owned Leach Botancial Garden just off SE 122nd Avenue, I walked through what I’d call a working class neighborhood, with wide streets, no sidewalks, houses set back into the woods, and an abundance of pickup trucks and not-so-new Hondas and Fords.

From there, I trudged up the hill to the national cemetery, a sacred space where more than 116,000 men and women have been interred on an expanse of 269 acres straddling the Multnomah and Clackamas county line.

On the way back down, I found myself in a more affluent neighborhood with luxury homes, many with spectacular views of the West Hills and downtown Portland and other trappings of exclusivity.

These two neighborhood walks sandwiched around a tour of the cemetery grounds made it seem like three-in-one. And now I can add another part of town to those I’ve become familiar with, thanks to “Portland Hill Walks” author Laura O. Foster.

***

Truth be told, I did this urban hike backwards. No, not literally. What I mean is for some reason, I turned west instead of south from the lush, shaded Leach Botanical Garden. As a result, I began with the working class neighborhood instead of the higher-elevation affluent neighborhood.

No harm, no foul, though. I enjoyed the solitude in both places.

Except for a woman who was walking far ahead of me and eventually turned off onto a side street, I was alone on Brookside Drive and adjoining streets as I passed a number of oddities. Here are a few:

On the return trip to my car, I was completely alone as I walked through the upscale neighborhood, passing by homes with strikingly different facades. Take a look:

The real highlight of this hike was the time spent at the cemetery. It’s the second time I’ve walked among the dead on these urban hikes and I have to say it’s good for the soul. To be alone with my thoughts in a beautifully cared-for space, lush and green and quiet, is something to appreciate in this hurly-burly world.

And if death is the great equalizer — between rich and poor, between young and old — then it’s doubly true at a national veterans cemetery.

According to Foster, there’s a reason why you don’t see huge, ornate monuments like you do in private cemeteries. It’s because the flat, unadorned grave markers, no matter a service member’s rank, provide the national cemeteries “with a deep and humbling sense of democracy.”

To me, that equal treatment honors the service to country performed by each of one of the thousands laid to rest in parallel rows stretching as far as the eye can see.

They all sacrificed, whether they were named Floyd, Chester, Cyrus, Arthur, Benjamin, Margaret or Isidro. Whether they served in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. Whether they served in the Second World War, Korea or Vietnam.

When I visited at mid-morning, Old Glory was at half-mast in memory of the victims of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the latest stains on this country’s character.

Near the entrance on SE 112th Avenue, there was a racket from weed wackers and leaf blowers — a necessary aspect of keeping up the immaculate grounds. Similarly, there was a crew with a backhoe in another part of the cemetery, working on a minor construction project.

Away from those two areas, it was quiet and peaceful. I could walk alongside the grave markers. I could pause and take in the west-facing views of downtown. I could linger at the amphitheater beneath the U.S. flag, hanging limp. I could focus on the bios of four Medal of Honor winners buried nearby. I could watch from a distance as a young woman and child laid fresh flowers at a grave — that of her husband or father or some other loved one? Who knows?

I left the shade of Willamette National Cemetery and headed back out to the entrance road. Walking downhill, I learned from Foster’s book that the land had been originally owned by Harvey Scott, a former editor of The Oregonian and the person for whom Mount Scott was named. Scott cleared the land over two decades and sold it in 1909 to the Mount Scott Cemetery Corporation.

According to Foster, the hillside was graded by hand — imagine that — by WPA laborers from 1935 to 1936. Eventually, the property was given to the state of Oregon just before World War II. Congress passed a bill in 1941 authorizing the cemetery but no money was appropriated for several years. Finally, construction began in 1950 and the first burial occurred in 1951, the same year Oregon deeded the land to the federal government.

Since then, Willamette has become one of the busiest of the 131 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico with about 3,500 burials a year.

On this day, I felt privileged to walk among these veterans and appreciate their patriotism. At the same time, I felt humbled to tour the grounds of an emerald jewel that wouldn’t exist without the painstaking labor of ordinary workers whose names and faces we’ll likely never know.

Up, up to Pittock Mansion

During the first nine months of 2016, I got into a great routine of doing weekly urban hikes.

Using “Portland Hill Walks” as my guide to assorted explorations in city parks and neighborhoods, I logged 15 of these hikes — each one of them enjoyable and educational. And then I stopped.

I took on two part-time jobs, then three, and found I no longer had time for these Friday morning hikes.

Yesterday, I got back to it. And, boy, did it feel good.

I did a 4.75-mile hike that began in the flats of Northwest Portland, near Wallace Park and Chapman Elementary School, and took me up into the tony Nob Hill and Kings Heights neighborhoods, into Forest Park, up to Pittock Mansion and back down again via a labyrinth of terraced hillside streets laden with BMWs, Jaguars and Range Rovers.

Little did I suspect that I’d find a backdoor entrance to Forest Park and hike for a ways on the Upper Macleay Trail and Wildwood Trail. Little did I suspect I would emerge at the end of this loop into a parking lot leading to the elegant Pittock Mansion and its spectacular view of downtown Portland.

Had I not taken along the book, written by local author Laura O. Foster, and followed its precise directions to take this left and that right, and to follow a handful of easily overlooked staircases, I would still be wandering those hilly neighborhoods.

Friday’s urban hike took me about 2 1/2 hours, much of it on steep sidewalks and forested switchbacks, reaching up to about 930 feet elevation at Pittock Mansion, the former home of Henry Pittock, the legendary publisher of The Oregonian, and his wife, Georgina. Coming down to level ground, my quads got quite the workout.

Here are a few takeaways from the walk:

Weather. Friday brought an unexpected but welcome drizzle. I stayed cooler than I would have otherwise, but the tradeoff was sacrificing a clear view of the Northwest Portland industrial area that included the hulking building that formerly housed Montgomery Ward. On a clear day I would have been able to see Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams, all in Washington state.

Staircases. I must have taken at least five shortcuts from one residential area to another, following Foster’s explicit directions. I’d probably never notice them on my own, even if I were walking past. But I find them to be little neighborhood jewels, ranging from 24 in one spot to a total of 280 steps on two staircases used for training by Portland firefighters.

Big-ass homes: Undoubtedly, I was traversing through neighborhoods where the city’s doctors, lawyers and business executives make their homes. While the gargantuan Pittock Mansion stands out as a historic home museum, jointly preserved and operated by the city and a nonprofit society, there are plenty of massive homes in Kings Heights. Many are constructed on stilts that I sure wouldn’t trust during an earthquake. Among those not on stilts, I passed by the former homes of Oregon Gov. Oswald West and U.S. Senators Richard and Maurine Neuberger. When he died suddenly in 1960, she ran for his seat and won a six-year term of her own.

Forest Park: Any time spent in this wooded wonderland is always good. I entered the park from a residential street and followed the Upper Macleay Trail to its intersection with the Wildwood Trail. I passed by a man and his dog; a dad with his daughter and their dog; and said hello to a runner as he passed me going uphill. It’s such a nice break from the concrete environment to pad softly on these trails and have your senses filled with fresh air and the sounds of a creek or two.

I hope to do another one or two these walks in August, so I can check off another couple of these on Foster’s list of 20 hill walks.

Yesterday’s hike was not only invigorating but, more importantly, it added to my repository of knowledge about Portland, a place that is abundantly blessed with topographical variety, neighborhood diversity and beautiful vistas.

Sunshine and softball

Pink ribbons symbolizing cancer awareness flank the Portland State logo at Gordon Faber Recreation Complex in Hillsboro.

As a sports fan and member of the Portland State University faculty, I’ve always wanted to be supportive of our school’s student-athletes. Friday afternoon gave me a chance to do that, with the women’s softball team holding its final home stand of the season in nearby Hillboro.

I set aside a pile of papers I was grading and made the 20-minute drive to the Gordon Faber Recreational Complex, where I took a seat behind home plate and settled in for a couple hours of exciting action on a sun-drenched afternoon.

I couldn’t have picked a better time to show up.

— The Lady Vikings were taking on Weber State, the first-place team in the Sky West Conference in which PSU competes. The visitors from Utah had a 12-1 record in conference play compared to Portland State’s 7 wins, 7 losses.

Handmade signs show support for family and friends during the StrikeOut Cancer game.

— The Viks were wearing pink jerseys because they were hosting a StrikeOut Cancer game. The outfield grass featured two giant pink ribbons on either side of the school logo, and two cancer survivors — each related to a Portland State player — threw out a ceremonial first pitch. On the receiving end of the pitches were the daughter and niece of those respective cancer survivors.

A breast cancer survivor prepares to embrace her niece, a PSU player, after throwing a ceremonial first pitch.

— Coincidentally, one of the players was a former student of mine. I had Kaela Morrow in the very first class I taught at PSU, when she was just a sophomore. She earned all-conference honors last year as a junior, and on Saturday she was one of three players honored during Senior Day at the final home game of the season.

Kaela Morrow, star athlete and star student, between games of Friday’s doubleheader.

— During the just-completed winter quarter, Kaela was among a group of Communications majors I supervised in an academic internship class. She got a taste of journalism by writing a blog for the PSU Athletic Department called Kaela’s Corner, which she used to interview teammates and provide an insider’s view of the season’s ups and downs.

The game I watched Friday was well-played and closely contested. Weber State took a 3-2 lead into the final inning and scored 4 more runs, only to have Portland State rally with a two-out, 3-run home run that cut the deficit to a final score of 7-5. (I didn’t stick around for the second game of the doubleheader, but Weber State won that one, too.)

What I saw was plenty entertaining. These young women are superb athletes. I saw outfielders make diving catches, and infielders make back-handed stops and sharp throws. The pitchers for each team zipped the ball hard and fast, resulting in an audible “pop” every time it landed in the catcher’s mitt. Batters whacked the ball or laid down bunts, and displayed considerable speed running the bases.

The Lady Vikings gather with their coach after a tough 7-5 loss.

The atmosphere was as casual as could be. The players on each team served as their own cheerleaders. Sporting ribbons in their hair and paint on their faces, they cheered, chanted and clapped, and exchanged elaborate high-fives during pre-game introductions. You could sense a real camaraderie among the players.

As a spectator, you could sit on metal bleachers behind home plate or either side of it, or stand wherever you liked. (Weber State had a rooting section of its own along the first-base line.)

You could also watch from a grassy berm beyond the outfield fence, and plenty of spectators chose to do that, sunning themselves in the process. I made my way out there during the last inning and was pleasantly surprised when the Vikings’ clean-up hitter bashed a fly ball that sailed over the left field fence. The yellow ball landed a few feet away from me and I scooped it up, thinking what a cool souvenir it would make. A member of the PSU game crew came out to get it, however, and I gave it up without a second thought.

A home run by Rachel Manlove landed a few feet away from me.

In my three years of teaching at PSU, I’ve had various athletic team members in my classes, ranging from football, basketball and soccer to the most recent, tennis, cross country, and track and field. I’ve managed to see two men’s basketball games, but nothing else.

Teaching Sports and the Media this year, I’ve gained a greater respect for these young men and women who compete at the NCAA’s Division I level. Not only must they put in long hours of practice and travel time, they often have to deal with injuries, high performance expectations from coaches and fans, and mental stress — all while keeping up with their studies.

Friday was a chance to show support for the softball team while taking a much-needed break from my own workload. I’d call that a win-win, no matter what the scoreboard said.

Mental health: End the stigma

Oregon State student-athletes Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten, co-founders of the #DamWorthIt campaign, on the WSUV campus.

When I sat down earlier this year to review plans for this semester’s Sports and the Media class, I knew I’d be raising issues of race, gender, politics, economics and technology. This year I decided to add a new topic: mental health.

After back-to-back classes this week on the subject, highlighted by two student-athletes who came in as guest speakers to deliver a powerful peer-to-peer presentation, I could see the value of adding it to the syllabus. My only regret was not doing it sooner.

Think about it. If you’re a college athlete, you’re trying to balance your academics with the demands of grueling practices, traveling to games, and the expectations of performing at a high level in your sport, in front of screaming crowds and national television audiences. Throw in concerns about injuries and playing time, and that’s a whole lot of pressure on your young shoulders.

Taylor Ricci, a gymnast, and Nathan Braaten, a soccer player, endured those experiences during their athletic careers at Oregon State University. Further motivated by the deaths of teammates who died by suicide 11 months apart, they co-founded a campaign, using the platform of sports, to spark conversation about mental health issues at universities around the country.

Their campaign is called #DamWorthIt — a play on words involving the school’s Beaver mascot — and the Twitter hashtag #EndTheStigma is at the heart of it. Since launching the initiative a little over a year ago, their campaign has received national recognition and the Pac-12 Conference has awarded them a $60,000 grant to take their message — that “It’s OK to not be OK” — to student-athletes and coaching staffs at all the member schools.

On Thursday, the two of them drove up from Corvallis to speak to my students at Washington State University Vancouver. Taylor and Nathan presented a slideshow and a video, and told their individual stories of facing mental health challenges as scholarship athletes and top-tier students expected to maintain a facade of perfection.

Taylor, originally from North Vancouver, British Columbia, began competing at age 4 and committed to Oregon State’s nationally ranked gymnastics team as a 14-year-old, rising to become team captain at OSU. A Kinesiology Pre-Med major, she graduated last spring and is awaiting word on her applications to begin medical school in the fall.

Nathan, from Littleton, Colorado, was recruited to play midfielder. He is a Business and Finance major who interned for Nike last summer and will return to the company as a full-time employee after graduation this spring. Both he and Taylor were named Academic All-Americans.

Needless to say, they stand out as shining examples of smart and successful young people. But there’s the catch. As they note, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental health illness in a given year — and the proportion is even higher among college students.

Taylor and Nathan spoke with honesty and conviction about their stresses and what drove each of them to see a therapist. The implication was clear for my students. If high achievers like these two can ask for professional help, any of them should feel free to do the same — or, at least, check in with friends who might benefit from similar encouragement.

In three years of teaching at two campuses, I have seen many young adults in my classes struggle with challenges involving family and finances, academics and health, romance and roommates, car troubles and work schedules, as well as incarcerated siblings, and immigrant parents facing deportation. No wonder a good many of them are stressed out or experiencing depression.

The #DamWorthIt campaign launched in January 2018, the same week that Tyler Hilinski, a universally admired WSU quarterback, took his own life on the Pullman campus. Because of that tragic coincidence, our guest speakers said they have felt a special bond with WSU.

On Thursday, it was gratifying to see Taylor and Nathan connect so powerfully with a message designed by students for students.

One student wrote to me later to say: ” (T)his week I made a big step to see a therapist and after my visit I realized that it wasn’t a form of weakness but of strength. The timing of this topic could not have been better.”

Another one said this: “Their presentation made me want to stop and be more present for the people in my life. I know that we all get busy and we carry our own lives, but it is important to be present and in the moment for the people important to you. By being present, we are able to hopefully notice signs of the people in our lives and notice that they might be struggling.”

I am indebted to Taylor Ricci and Nathan Braaten for sharing their stories and bringing light to a subject that’s still shrouded in shame. Had I not noticed a short story on their efforts in a Sports Illustrated article in January, I would not have been aware of their trailblazing efforts to address a hidden epidemic. They responded graciously to my emails inviting them to come up to Vancouver and left having made a lasting impression on my students and me.

#DamWorthIt, all right.