I put a blurb in the condo association newsletter offering to host a peak oil potluck, and Al Beale was the only one who answered. As it turned out, even he wasn’t interested in peak oil but he did want to introduce himself. He was maybe 15 years older than me and became one of the best friends I ever had. When I needed back surgery, he drove me to the hospital at the crack of dawn and brought me home afterwards. He transported me to follow-up appointments too. After my car was totaled by a hit-and-run driver, he helped me car shop. Often he took me out for dinner at his favorite restaurant, Saylor’s Country Kitchen, where he used to have a gang of friends who would meet in the bar and where he still knew Linda, the manager. Whenever we went, we always made a point of chatting with Linda.
Al volunteered with tours of the U.S.S. Blueback submarine at OMSI every week and was also a volunteer photographer for Special Olympics. He had served in the military and in his younger days, was an avid diver who had explored tropical waters all over the world with a diving buddy who was also his dear friend. He took the death of that friend very hard. I still have Al’s last calendar. He made one every year and filled it with Special Olympics pictures as well as gorgeous images of tropical fish and other intriguing marine life.
After my father died, Al drove five hours to Lynden to attend his memorial service. It turned out I had packed everything I’d need except the dress I was supposed to wear for the service. Al got it from the cat sitter at the last minute and brought it up with him, to my huge relief. Always Al to the rescue. He also brought his camera to take photographs. In his photos he captured a gathering of people who loved my dad and came to mourn his passing with us and celebrate his life. I still haven’t looked at these pictures. They were the last ones Al ever took. He died two weeks later of a heart attack, on the same day that I had my last conversation with him. I will always regret that I didn’t stay on the phone longer. On that day, I remember so clearly, I hated everything about my life, missed my father horribly, and just wanted to put a hole in my head. Al was recovering from the flu and, when I called him, I asked if there was anything he needed or anything I could do. He said there wasn’t. But I didn’t stay on the phone and the truth is, THAT’S what I could have done. Well. I hope and pray Al understands and forgives me.
We had always planned that some day he would take me on a tour of the Blueback which he loved with a passion. We never did it. I’m leaving Portland at the end of April so last Friday I took that tour. Our OMSI guide, Michael S., manned a submarine for over 20 years. He remembered Al and that made me happy. The Blueback was fascinating. It’s a technological marvel, of course, and so clearly made by and for men. It struck me as a uniquely, peculiarly male manifestation on so many levels. My father would have loved the tour. As I sat at the controls, looked into the commander’s state room, gawked at the gigantic torpedoes and gazed through the periscope, I thought about how many hours of his life Al had spent on this sub. Many of his fellow OMSI volunteers had attended his interment at Willamette National Cemetery and clearly thought the world of him. I wish so much that I had a photograph of Al.
By the time my tour group emerged from the Blueback, it was sleeting and darkness was falling. I held onto the railing as I gingerly ascended the metal ramp, slick with sleet, that led back to OMSI. Once I was standing safely on the Esplanade I looked up and around to see the Festival of Lights. Brilliant colors played on the Portland Opera building in a mesmerizing show. Big white bunny shapes in a field were lit whimsically with pastels. Tree trunks looked other-worldly, each illuminated with a different color than the ones around it. Riding the MAX home, I had a great view of creative light arrangements strung out dramatically, brilliantly in the night, all along the riverfront. I just had to smile. Al would have loved it.