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Dean Potter, Death, and My Dad

Submitted by rcecil on 2004-08-16

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Dean Potter, Death and My Dad
By Ron Cecil

My wife Meghan and I moved to Orange County, California in the spring of 2003. It was supposed to be a long vacation before we embarked for the East Coast, where in the fall we would intern at a think tank on the Chesapeake Bay. I, feeling bored and beleaguered by the suburban sprawl of the OC, got a job as a shift manager at one of the newest in a series of rock gyms in Southern California. After I dropped off my resume the owner called me back a few days later to say, “Your resume is the best I have ever seen. How soon can you start?” I imagine this was easy to say considering that rock climbing gyms are typically staffed by people who have no resumes :wily teenagers, ragamuffin wonderers, and at the first gym where I worked in Dallas, a three-time felon who slept in a van out in the parking lot.

The owner promised me treasures beyond my wildest dreams if I would ignore my college degree and past professional experience and start working for eight dollars an hour. This meant I would get to open and close the place, perform routine customer ass-kissing, set a million jug haul routes, baby-sit birthday parties with Ritalin and Strattera birthday cakes, tell the high school kids we staffed to get back to work, and not tell anyone he was having and affair with the mother one of our young clients, who, at forty had an impossible anatomy. Disregarding my over-qualifications and the fact that I was a newlywed living in the third-most expensive area of the United States, I said yes. At first the novelty of working in that environment was refreshing but, as time went on I lost my enthusiasm: as the promises of higher pay and better benefits never came to be, I shirked my responsibilities. I would show up late, leave early, and shuffle around the gym pretending to be busy. I became a terrible employee.

One early morning while I was sleeping, the doorbell rang at my in-laws house. My wife and I slept in the room above the garage, my wife’s old room in which we lived because we couldn’t afford to live where the average car was a German import that required premium gasoline at $2.30 a gallon. I ran downstairs and opened the door in worn boxers my mother bought me in high school. A sheriff’s deputy handed me a yellow slip of folded paper – “Call this number,” he said, and walked away.

I figured the security alarm at the gym had been set off and the security company was contacting me to disarm it or notify me that all our holds had been jacked. Not really caring one way or another, I dialed the number with an area code that seemed vaguely familiar. A woman answered sobbing. It was my stepmother’s Southern voice, sniffing and wheezy with sorrow. Right away I knew why she was hysterical. I had mentally prepared for that moment half my life. My father was dead on the floor of his double wide trailer house in the outskirts of Buffalo Gap, Texas, population 352 minus 1. His life up to that point had been defined by decades of unhealthy choices and denial. This was his eighth and final wife, and this was his third and final heart attack. She had tried all night to contact me, but had misplaced my number, so her last resort had been to call the police in Orange County, bringing the armed messenger to my surrogate front door. My wife and I wept for an hour and then went back to sleep.

I called the gym in the morning, and the owner was cool, asking me how long I needed off. I really had no idea. I had to fly back to central Texas and make funeral arrangements. I was nervous about how it was all supposed to fall into place. We were off the next day to Central Texas, making a connection in Phoenix. I took a few climbing magazines and a Bible with me on the flight; I have a degree in Theology and my father had asked me to speak at his funeral when the time came. That time was twenty six hours away, but I couldn’t read a word of anything and was too emotional to think straight. All I could do was gaze at the pictures in the magazines, my favorites being the photographs of Dean Potter rocketing over impossible vertical terrain.

We landed in the desert at 8:04 in the morning, grabbed mushy breakfast burritos, and headed for a space to sit in sunlight. My wife suggested we sit at our gate and wait for the plane, but as I angled for the large picture window, I found every seat filled with business commuters. Scanning for other options, perhaps on the floor near the glass, I felt my heart nearly jump out of my throat. A man sat cross-legged on the floor, flanked by a dog and a woman. Although sitting, he could not conceal his height. His hair was a brown flying halo. I stuttered to my wife, “Do you know who that is?” “Yeah, that’s the guy in all your climbing magazines.” I was frozen in disbelief. There, sitting in this desert airport, standing out to me like a beacon, was the climber after whom I wanted to mirror my climbing life. His stories and feats had at many times been my only motivation to climb longer and harder.

Meghan and I sat down a few feet from the thin giant and his dog. His wife had walked off only moments before, and, as the man and I glanced at each other, he seemed to know, and not want to hear, what I was about to ask. “Are you Dean Potter?” He grinned without disdain and nodded.

The small talk ended quickly, and the discussion of the nature of our trips turned into a conversation about death and mortality. I had briefly mentioned that we were heading to a funeral. And, our talk revolved around the experience of having a loved one die, the grief, and the celebration that must occur to honor the deceased and let the mourners begin to heal. Climbing talk was kept to a minimum. Jose Pereyra had died only a few weeks earlier, and Dean was planning a party in his honor at Yosemite. We also had a brief awkward talk about Dan Osman, another deceased friend of his and prolific climber. I had once run into him at a thrift store in Santa Cruz; a month later he was gone. I had often thought about that unfortunate loss. Dean knew better then I ever could.

Moments later my wife and I flew on to Texas. The funeral was bad episode of King of the Hill: the funeral home my stepmom had picked doubled as a Coca-Cola museum, and was the tackiest sight I had ever laid my eyes on. I was sure I was about to walk on the set of a daytime talk show. My dad’s brother showed up with his third wife, both shit-faced, and had no respect for my dad or the process of the funeral. The only person aside from my wife who seemed to have any ability to identify with my pain was somewhere in Utah by now, climbing a hidden desert tower. At moments during the few days of the funeral I would start to laugh about how strange and yet well planned our encounter seemed.

Getting to talk to someone like Dean was like taking a final breath before a burning swim to the deep end of the pool. The memorial service got stranger still. My wheel-chaired grandfather hit on my wife. The fraternal order that my dad (and every American president) had belonged to also said a few things, looking like waiters in their little white aprons. My wife and a close friend played a violin guitar duet while fire ants crawled out of the hole my dad was about to rest in and successfully tried to eat us all alive.

Meghan and I eventually found ourselves again in Orange County. I quit my job at the gym. All my climbing buddies wanted to hear about Dean Potter: what was he working on, where he was going, new free solos, etc. I had nothing along those lines to tell them – I had no idea, and I didn’t want to know. I could only talk about what we had shared together, the human experience of loss and memory. Everyone will eventually go through it at some point; I had the brief pleasure of sharing it with someone I looked up to. It was a simple step in the healing process. A step that will forever be connected with the memory of my father and my success in dealing with is death.


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