Walt Morey: A Friend in Autumn
Copyright 1998: Larry Leonard
I was living in a small trailer alongside Portland's
McGloughlin Boulevard. I had recently survived my first open heart
surgery. I had left my career in advertising three years earlier
when I found myself standing in a large city, unaware as to which one it
was. About that time, my second marriage had ended like the first
one, in failure; and, other than an occasional Northwest Magazine piece
for the Oregonian's Joe Bianco, I wasn't doing anything or going anywhere,
Then, the trailer court owner announced he had sold the land
to a developer. It was time for me to go.
The question was, of course, where.
Walt Morey, who I occasionally chauffered to speeches and writer's conferences, told me there was a court in Wilsonville, not far from his riverfront filbert farm. There was, and I got a space right on the river bank for fifty bucks a month.
I don't remember just how I first ran across Walt. He was a legend long before I met him, so it might have been at a writer's conference. At any rate, we became friends almost instantly because of one thing we had in common and one thing we didn't.
When I discovered that Walt's (first) wife loved to eat trout, I made a point of taking that quiet lady some Dairy Creek cutthroats whenever I came back from fishing. That was the thing we didn't have in common. Walt didn't, at that time, sport fish.
The thing we did have in common was Alaska.
Alaska Airlines had been a client of mine during the advertising days. I had been there many times, from the North Slope to Ketchikan. I knew gold miners, guides, commercial fishermen, loggers and even the native people we commonly call eskimos. (I put a photograph of one on the tails of the jets.)
I had seen the great bears, been chased by moose, fished for Arctic Grayling in the Sinuk and gotten drunk with the irish owner of the Nome Trading Post while helping him craft genuine hand-made eskimo artifacts for the tourists. I had walked on the pebble beaches in the electric fogs of Prudhoe Bay, and survived being lost in a winter storm on a frozen ocean.
Alaska, we had in common.
So, I moved to Wilsonville. There, I spent more time with him, trying to learn at the feet of the master. He understood my frustrations. He knew his muse was like mine, an opponent with a devastating left hook. I had been working for eight years on a book about my youthful experiences as a charter boat deckhand. I had written it eight times by then -- more than three hundred thousand words.
It was a piece of crap.
He worked on me like Buonarotti worked on the Pieta, a stone chip at a time. It never made one damned bit of sense to me. I gave up the novel for satire, and subsequently sold my first book: The Meanest Fish On Earth. But, then, a few years later, an old friend who was drinking himself to death down on Burnside asked me to write a letter to his son. The kid was getting into drugs, and his father, an alcoholic, knew what lay before the boy.
I began a letter, then stopped. It suddenly came to me that a story would be better. I put a fresh sheet of paper in my typewriter and, two days later, had completed my first serious work of fiction, Far Walker. I didn't write it, it wrote itself. I read the story as it came forth.
Everything Walt had told me was there. He read it and grinned. "That's it," he said.
Some years later, his health began to fail. At the time, we were working together on the structure of the sequel to Gentle Ben. The last time I saw him, he was in bed. His skin looked somehow transparent to me. We argued about the ending of the sequel. I wanted to set Ben free. Walt couldn't do it.
I never saw Walt Morey, again.
To me, the best thing he ever wrote is in the front of my copy of Kavik the Wolf Dog. It reads:
"For Larry -
One of my favorite dogs to one
of my favorite friends, wiz ze great laff."
You will never have the chance to laugh with this extraordinary man, and the article I have included on The Orphanage Press web site, from a 1991 issue of Oregon Magazine, is certainly an all too brief exposure to his humor, not to mention his energy and brilliance.
But, it is the best I have for you.
-- Larry Leonard
at the Dairy Creek cabin