mardi 30 juin 2009

A Walk in the Park

But not just any park. Lincoln Park, our favorite park in Seattle. Neko loves to walk but her enthusiasm flags a bit when it gets hot. I can't blame her; she basically wears a fur coat at all times. Even with her recent cut she suffers when the sun is too bright.

What I love about Neko, though, is that she just stops for a few seconds when she gets tired and pants with her tongue out. She picks a shady, grassy spot and plops down to expose her belly to the cool grass. I always bring a small bowl and cold water, which she laps up from her belly flop position. Then she gets to her feet and moves on.

Back to Lincoln Park. It features a nearly deserted crescent-shaped beach that leads to the Fauntleroy ferry dock. Coleman Pool, an outdoor pool, is filled with salt water and looks out on Puget Sound. Both face west and then southwest as the path arks around, so the wide gravel path leading around the pool is generally in shade. Once past the pool, you can take one of the concrete uphill trails leading into the park. These lead to a wide dirt trail that takes you along a cliff and back to your starting point. It is always in shade, flanked by huge towering cedars, hemlocks and fir trees.

In 1970, when I was 14, I signed up to go on a 10-day hike (through the CYO - Catholic Youth Organization) in the Olympic Mountains that involved climbing Mount Olympus. My twin sister Cathy, our friend Sherry Baynard, and I decided to get in shape for this hike and climb - our first real one - by filling our rented backpacks with hardcover books and walking to Lincoln Park from Shorewood Elementary school and back home again. We packed some food and bought candy at the little store (a Rexall, I think) next to what is now Endolyne Joe's, a restaurant. We wore hiking boots we had rented from REI (to this day, REI employees gasp when they see my membership card, because I am practically a founder) and of course did not think about protecting our tender feet from blisters.

It was a rude awakening! I think we made it to and from Lincoln Park, though I can't be sure we didn't give up and call for a ride. I will guess that it is about an 8-mile round trip.

As unprepared as we were, it was a great 10-day hike and climb, except for the fact that one of the members of our party was killed and another seriously injured. Here's what happened: After climbing a mountain, it is customary to slide back down. This is called "glissading". It is really fun. However, you have to beware of crevasses, some of which are not easy to see until you are up close. Father Dalton, who was the priest on our hike (believe it or not, there were enough to go around back then for assignments like this), saw a huge and gaping crevasse and stationed himself in front of it to alert others to the danger. Jim O'Neil, who was a 21-year old seminarian, decided to come down the mountain on a tarp, for extra speed and thrills. There is nothing wrong with this, by the way. But he was unable to stop and ploughed into Father Dalton, who was trying desperately to keep him from falling into the abyss. And they both disappeared into the dark and icy crevasse. Miraculously, there is or was a UW glacier study center on Mount Olympus, so a helicopter and rescue crew were brought in. Unfortunately, Jim had broken his neck and did not survive. But Father Dalton did, with broken ribs and fractures of all kinds. He nearly froze to death as well. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital.

The other day, my brother Charlie gave me a letter he had found while cleaning out my mother's house. It is from Jim O'Neil's father, also called Jim, to Father Dalton. Father Dalton was unable to attend the funeral, but all of us Nanamakee girls did go. And we sang. We sang the title song from the Sound of Music. It probably sounds corny and maudlin, but it wasn't. I still get tears in my eyes when I think about the funeral, Jim's parents, our voices blending to say goodbye to that young man.

Here's what his dad wrote, just hours before going to meet Father Dalton for the first time. Jim's dad wrote the letter because he wanted to be sure and say everything he wished to say when the moment of meeting came:

The funeral was a completely overwhelming experience for us, and I'm sure for all others who were fortunate enough to be there... The frosting on the cake, so to speak, was having all the young CYO group there who sang so beautifully. It was just overwhelming.

The death of Jim O'Neil became a pivotal experience in my life, and I am sure that this is true for many of my fellow hikers. I often think of Pauline Cline, who was the director of the CYO Nanamakee program for girls and a PE teacher at Blanchett. She was probably in her late 20's when this happened. She and the other counselors, aged 19 to 25, were responsible in loco parentis for a bunch of 14-year old girls. When this accident occurred, we were in the middle of the Olympic Mountains. We had to hike out, in part through the rain forest. I'll never understand how she and the other "adults" managed to remain so composed and adult, dealing with their personal grief (Jim was a fellow counselor and their friend) and shock, and with our 14-year old ways of coping. They remain for me models of how to keep your head together when you have every good reason to fall apart.

I remember Jim O'Neil's father as a soft-spoken and extremely courageous man. A few days after losing his oldest son in a tragic accident, he wrote this, just hours before meeting Father Dalton, the man who almost lost his life trying to save a life:

Jim was thrilled beyond words at the opportunity of going on this climb. He was most excited and could not have been doing anything he liked better... So you see, Father Dalton, he was happy in doing what he was doing, he reached his objective in life as well as the top of the mountain because he was so happy being with the young people that he loved, and doing the things he liked most... Please believe us when we say we have no regrets at all.

Every time I go to Lincoln Park, and look out across the water to the Olympic Peninsula, I have a thought for Jim O'Neil and for Father Dalton, wherever he is. I am always brought to the same thought, though I didn't remember until recently that Jim's father had written about it in the letter. We have no regrets at all, he wrote. Life is such an improbable and glorious gift, and harboring regrets is a way of letting it slip through your hands unappreciated.