(Photo by Tony Smallman)
This is true: in a concrete parking shelter behind the Portland Central Post Office, a seventy-two-year-old man named Floyd slept under a government surplus blanket. Floyd had worked on the assembly line at International Harvester in Rock Island, Illinois for forty years. He was married for forty-two years. I heard about Floyd from Dan. Dan runs a nonprofit called “Blanket Coverage;” he covers people with blankets for his vocation.
I do not make my living helping people keep warm. You might say I “cover them,” but that phrase would end “for a paycheck.” I write an obituary column.
I learned more about Floyd than about the deceased I memorialize. Six years of summarizing people’s lives in two-to-five paragraphs—exceed one column, you’re Section “A”–had given me a school yearbook view of the dead: “What’d you do? Who’d you know? Why’d you go?” Our staff (of three) prefers not to dissemble about our subjects, but we select which parts of the truth to report. Coroners and undertakers (as “funeral home directors” hate to be called) develop thicker calluses because they handle the bodies, but maybe that contact bestows a little honest humility. We’re more like newscasters who never move on to the human-interest story.
Obits sounded like a simple job: people die; I write about them. Pros—adequate pay, secure, home every night for dinner. Cons—slightly macabre, minimal prestige.
Turns out I missed some crucial points.
No one at my interview mentioned professional indifference, but it comes home with me. It winks at my wife when she grieves for her beloved co-worker who died of a heart attack at forty-one: “little cholesterol issue, there.” It reads novels and watches movies over my shoulder, then fills in the template: “led colorful but doomed Scottish revolt; Robert the Bruce and thousands of peasants; stabbed in the back by Robert, then beheaded.”
It grew familiar, if not comfortable. We live with ourselves, even if we don’t like ourselves.
Neither did I anticipate that when the coroner’s office in Los Angeles contacted me about my father, I would keep writing his memorial day after day, even though I had no history to distill, no memberships to list. Even though I last saw him when I was six and know nothing about him. For example, I don’t know why he died homeless at age sixty-four.
So I called Dan. Dan and I had spoken before: his people died, I asked questions. But when he answered the phone this time, my dozen rationalizations for bothering him sogged into pulp. Having no other words, I recited my father’s data. Dan expressed condolences and then listened silently while I tried to explain what I wanted. I said I did not expect answers or justification. I repeated “purely informational” more than twice. Eventually, I heard myself and stopped speaking.
“Being on the street drops life expectancy like slowly ripping a parachute,” Dan told me. “Even if the damage starts small…eighty-four becomes sixty-four. I don’t have what you want. I do have someone you can meet.” Then he took me to see Floyd.
I am going to tell what I discovered about Floyd’s life. Maybe this is how obits should run. The story does not involve me much. But as our staff often remind one another, “If you’re writing an obituary, it’s not about you.”
Floyd Howard Camerman HewHHHH was born in Kankakee, Illinois, on January 14, 1926. At age eighteen, Floyd received orders to report for induction into the US Army. The 99th Division shipped out November 1944. Less than a month later, as part of the Third Battalion, 394th Regiment, he survived the stand at Elsenborn Ridge, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. Churchill called it “the greatest American Battle of World War II.” Yet of the war, Floyd says only, “I saw a lot of places. Always wished I’d seen them in different times.”
Nine months after returning from Europe and seven months after he became a wheelman at International Harvester’s Farmall plant in Rock Island, Illinois, Floyd proposed to Virginia Stollway. He was twenty years old.
At IH, Floyd sealed the tractors’ three hundred pound wheel frames by reaming holes in, and then bolting and riveting, the steel casings. IH Corporation hired employees for a six-week probationary period. Once a worker proved punctual, efficient, and diligent, that worker was hired permanently, added to the pension plan, and given a certificate of employment. Floyd went to seek Nahum E. Stollway’s blessing with this certificate folded into the pants pocket of his new Sears and Roebuck suit. Floyd poked its edge with his thumb while he spoke. Virginia could not frame and hang Floyd’s certificate because of the creases. She displayed their marriage license, instead.
Floyd began at $.82 an hour for 10-hour days, thanks to bloody negotiations by the Farm Equipment Workers’ Union. On this wage, production incentives, and GI money (most of which he had saved), Floyd and Virginia purchased a farmhouse on one and three-quarters acres near Le Claire, Iowa. Virginia cultivated half an acre for her garden. She grew enough strawberries, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peas and rhubarb to feed her family, fill her larder, and stock her share of the Le Claire Farmers’ Market, though her family increased every two years or less.
Floyd and Virginia’s first three children—Eva, Donald and Floyd Junior—entered this world of IH and gardening and the Mississippi River through the Camerman master bedroom. Emily, though, stayed breach, and refused to rearrange herself for anyone else’s convenience. After eighteen hours of labor—double the combined total Virginia had endured with her three eldest —Emily remained wedged. Doctor Stanley “Elbows” Peterson (nicknamed for his basketball notoriety at Le Claire High) informed Virginia, and later Floyd in the waiting room, that her situation endangered both Emily and Virginia. Doc Elbows cut open Virginia’s lower abdomen, whisked tiny Emily out, then proceeded to sew Virginia closed again. Emily stayed in the hospital twenty-two days for recuperation and testing. Seventeen months later, Little Stan also arrived by caesarean. Virginia brought her youngest home within ten days.
Floyd, Virginia and the children attended Le Claire Presbyterian Church an average of fifty weeks each year. Reverend Harold D. Anderson baptized each baby at eight weeks. When a child fell sick, the Camermans grudgingly permitted school absences; church truancy occurred only if the patient could not move. Both Floyd and Virginia believed, though never articulated, that attending church prompted curative powers. Each year on “Christian education” Sunday, Reverend Anderson presented all seven Camermans with attendance pins.
The Camerman family traveled to Lees Summit, Missouri for the week immediately following harvest to stay with Virginia’s older sister’s family. Shad and Emily Bowen had farmed fifty acres on the edge of Kansas City, Missouri until developers offered exorbitant sums for the Bowens’ land. (The first visit, with Virginia two months into her first pregnancy, Floyd had helped finish the new guesthouse, which Emily Bowen dubbed “The Camerman Vacation Home.”) Once during each visit, everyone washed, combed, and dressed “to go back to the city.” All agreed, though, that the Family Olympics had become the highlight of their time together.
The nine cousins organized elaborate, week-long competitions. Each child, beginning with the youngest, chose an event. First place earned nine points, ninth earned one point. They carefully tracked their standings on the cracked blackboard Aunt Emily had salvaged from the condemned Summit elementary school. Donald and Cousin Cyrus, overachieving first sons/best friends/rivals, vied for Grand Champion of Family Olympics. Six boys choosing events ensured their domination.
Little Emily always placed dead last in the standings due to her “breathing troubles,” but she had mascot status. Her cousins enthusiastically supported her event. One fall, she challenged the competitors to recite horse-related poetry after spending three weeks memorizing “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” At age ten, she declared a “backward race,” giggled as her swifter cousins collided and toppled, then explained that the “backward” referred not to the direction one faced but to the order one finished. The clan joked about it for weeks afterward, including Donald, who lost the title by a single point because Cyrus “beat” him for “eighth place” by three steps.
During Family Olympics, the children borrowed center stage. In daily Le Claire life, as household sustenance focused on Virginia’s garden, so household interactions focused on Virginia. She planned and prepared the weekly menu, washed and pressed the children’s clothes, and supervised their chores and homework. She also announced all parental joint decisions: “Your father and I think…”
Floyd arrived home from the plant, washed himself conscientiously, and took his seat for supper. Everyone else sat down within a minute. Floyd asked a blessing, and then listened as his family talked about their day. After supper, Floyd read the newspaper. His children came to say goodnight and he kissed each one. Floyd always watched the cousin competitions and attended any church, school, or extra-curricular activity in which his children participated—work schedule permitting.
Floyd treated Emily uniquely. None of the other children complained of this; the household abided little complaining generally; perhaps with her frailty they understood, too. When Emily arrived at her father’s chair holding a book, his newspaper immediately disappeared into the magazine rack. She struggled onto Floyd’s lap and he read to her as long as she desired (until bedtime). Little Stan would drag his three-legged stool over and perch next to the recliner. The elder three, doing homework at the dining room table, felt too mature to gather around for Aesop’s Fables; they listened from where they sat. Little Stan might have arrived with his own books when Emily got older, had Emily gotten older.
On April 26, 1965, her thirteenth birthday, Emily went to bed with a slight fever. Virginia and Floyd assumed she had exhausted herself. Between three and five a.m., Emily awoke. She tried to cry out but something held her breath. Eva slept peacefully in the room’s other single bed, her back to Emily. The crickets chirped, but no other sound carried through the household. Emily was suffocating. The dark room grew darker. She flung herself from the bed and landed on her elbow. Sparks flew up her shoulder, but she could not scream. Eva remained asleep while her little sister passed out on the floor.
When he glanced in before work, Floyd saw Emily’s cheek pressed to the rug and one arm flung out toward Eva’s bed as if to swim there. Floyd gathered his daughter in his arms and carried her to his bed without waking Eva. Doctor Peterson, sitting at Virginia’s kitchen table, needed a moment to compose himself before he could explain that Emily had died of pneumonia. Fluid had filled her lungs but no one knew; she always wheezed and had said nothing about chest pain. She drowned.
Floyd was a quiet man, so little distinguished his silence after Emily’s death. He went to work, returned home, ate his dinner, and read his newspaper as before. His wife and remaining children did not see him cry. Virginia heard him, though, in the shower or in bed after he thought she had fallen asleep: a sudden, ragged breath, a catch and pause before the next. Once, the first week, she spoke his name into the silence. He did not answer. She would still hear his grieving over a year later.
That fall, the cousins held their last Olympics. Donald and Cyrus had turned eighteen. The US Army had drafted them for the Vietnam conflict and they awaited their physicals. Both would pass. Neither would return.
The tone of the competition changed that year. Not that anyone fought or exchanged harsh words, but no one laughed. When Emily had won the backward race—and after she finished clarifying the rules—the male cousins carried her on a victory lap around the house. Running backward, of course. Now, winners were congratulated with mutters and downcast eyes.
They discussed creating an event in Emily’s honor, but rejected the idea when Little Stanley pointed out that someone other than Emily would win. Donald defeated Cyrus by five points in the final standings, avenging his loss of the year before. He ate his victory apple pie a la mode in silence.
Floyd and Virginia’s three surviving children grew up. References to “the eldest three” or “the two young ‘uns” disappeared. Eva became a second-grade teacher in Iowa City and married another teacher, Reggie Robles. They quickly gave Floyd and Virginia two granddaughters. Floyd Jr., who had enjoyed neither academics nor Donald’s shadow, took classes from a trade school in Davenport and became a mechanic. He, too, married and he, too, produced a grandchild. But his wife left him and divorced him and somehow—no one in the family asked such direct questions—Floyd Junior was allowed no visiting privileges with Floyd III. After this, his calls and visits became increasingly awkward. Virginia wrote weekly and phoned every other week until the time she dialed and a decidedly unapologetic voice stated, “We’re sorry, the number you have reached has been disconnected. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please hang up and dial again.” Virginia knew she had not.
Little Stan was an atypical youngest child. Emily had received the attention and exceptions typically reserved for the baby. Finding this role taken, Little Stan became intensely competitive. He and Donald had the closest friendship among the siblings and Donald coached him in every sport. Mirroring the eldest, Little Stan earned straight “A’s” in every class from kindergarten through seventh grade (which forced more comparisons for Floyd Junior), and, though small, became the best athlete in his class. In his twelfth year, Little Stan grew seven-and-a-half inches (to six feet) and gained 38 pounds (to 165). In his twelfth year, he came home from school after a math test and found his mother not sewing or baking or cleaning, staring blindly out the kitchen window. His father sat in the recliner at 3:58 on a Tuesday afternoon. Little Stan guessed another lay off. Then he saw the telegram from the war department atop the evening paper.
They never spoke of Donald’s death. Little Stan ingested this silence and, that afternoon, became Stanley. Stanley still made perfect grades and excelled in sports, but dispassionately. His classmates respected him but often stopped talking when he approached. Floyd and Stanley could share a room for eight hours and speak only at meals:
“Please pass the cornbread.”
Stanley chose a college outside the Midwest. His parents received weekly calls from Amherst, Floyd passing the phone, Virginia asking about his friends and studies, telling him about her garden and the weather. The whole process rarely lasted ten minutes. Stanley majored in political science, proceeded to Georgetown Law School, and graduated twenty-third in his class. Two years later, Stanley married Naomi Stenowitz, an Amherst classmate. They compromised between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Reform Judaism by leading the Habitat for Humanity chapter in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In 1985, Case Agricultural acquired International Harvester. Floyd took the new management’s early retirement offer. Their three children grown, Floyd and Virginia settled into a comfortable routine. Twice each month Floyd took Virginia to the restaurant of her choice. Summers, they gardened; winters, they collaborated on jigsaw puzzles. Floyd read his newspaper and Virginia filed recipes. They lived simply. They did not own a stereo or television. Virginia buried her parents in 1986; Floyd’s had passed away soon after Eva’s birth.
In August of 1987, Virginia developed a painful rash on her left breast. She immediately called Doc Elbows’ successor, Doctor Jonathan Swenson, who took one look and referred Virginia to a specialist for blood tests and a cell biopsy. Within a week, Virginia underwent a mastectomy for inflammatory breast cancer.
Virginia was two treatments short of completing chemotherapy when her doctors—now the oncologists at Mayo Clinic in Iowa City—informed Floyd that the cancer had metastasized to Virginia’s spine. In calm voices and with still hands, they estimated Virginia might live three to five more months.
Virginia died three days after Christmas. The week before, Floyd drove to Davenport, leaving Virginia with his sister-in-law. Because he spoke so vaguely of his intentions, Virginia and Emily assumed that Floyd went to make burial arrangements, which the sisters then discussed openly. Floyd departed at eight am and returned at ten pm with a description of an apartment “somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico.” He began calling directory assistance.
On Christmas day, Floyd and Virginia gave each other one present, just as they had their first Christmas together. He set the phone beside her “for when the children call.” Virginia lay on the couch and watched Floyd open the packages. When the phone rang, Floyd asked if she felt up to speaking, then held the receiver to her ear.
“Merry Christmas,” Floyd Junior told his mother.
On December 30, Eva and Stanley stood beside their father. All watched silently as Virginia’s casket dropped from view.
After that day, tracing Floyd’s history becomes connect-the-dots without numbers. Something went wrong with Virginia’s insurance. Floyd had provided coverage through his pension, yet notice after notice arrived for the same tests and procedures, always declaring, “This is not a bill; no payment required. We billed your insurance for this amount.” Then one day they were bills, from credit agencies rather than hospitals, demanding immediate payment in full. More than one of the “TOTAL DUE” boxes required five digits.
Dozens of church members called on Floyd and brought him chicken-rice casseroles, potatoes au gratin, and fruit salads in gelatin. But sympathy visits have a protocol, including a statute of limitations. Most of Floyd’s co-workers relocated after the merger. Virginia had done all the inviting, all the cooking, and all the hostessing. The visits ceased.
Reverend Anderson retired. The selection committee recruited his replacement directly from seminary to appeal to the teens, who were disappearing from church. Morgan Watson refused to let anyone call him “Reverend” and preferred “Mo.” The youth returned. Floyd sat alone in a back pew. Parishioners rarely spoke of Virginia anymore, and few inquired as to the children. No one had ever asked Floyd about himself.
Floyd tried to take out a mortgage on the house, but Joe Fields at Pleasant Valley Bank explained to him that property values had plummeted in rural areas. Northeast Iowa had bordered on recession for ten years. Joe told the other bank officers he guessed that Floyd wanted to buy an RV to travel around the country. Floyd never considered explaining to anyone about the medical bills. They were his responsibility.
On the day Floyd called Eva, now the sole person with whom he spoke regularly, to tell her he had put the house up for sale, the Robles family had a “situation.” Eva offered no details, but she could not talk just then. Floyd called back several times during the next three weeks but could not contact her.
Of all the things he told me, he repeated, without my prompting, only that.
“I kept trying to call. Never could get through. Just the busy signal.”
Two of Floyd’s co-workers insist he exercised both common sense and thrift as long as they knew him. Yet, no evidence exists that Floyd approached a lawyer regarding the medical bills. United Insurance Company acknowledges he contacted them once, at which point they informed him the matter was “under consideration.” Predictably, claims representative Talbot Moore had little to say once he learned of Floyd’s situation. Marjorie Stackhouse, accounts director of Virginia’s primary hospital, St. Luke’s Riverside, has no record of corresponding with Floyd and no means of tracing such correspondence.
She did note one unusual “detail,” however:
“Insurance companies negotiate every item,” she explained, “and in most cases health care providers agree to the reduced rate. We have no choice, really. Mr. Camerman paid his bills in full, right after the collection agency took over the debt. No negotiations.”
Ms. Stackhouse ended our phone conversation with a verbal shrug.
“It sounds like an unfortunate case. We had no way of knowing. We don’t get involved with people on that level.” I knew what she meant.
Floyd’s trail vanishes here: no numbers and no dots.
He says, “I decided to come out West.”
He alternated between the post office parking shelter (cold weather) and the Mt. Tabor Park amphitheater (warm). He slept on cardboard to keep above the damp and cold. His friend Charlie slept next to him every night. They kept watch and protected each other from unwelcome visitors. Charlie was sixty-four.
What steps did he take between leaving Iowa and sleeping in the carport? Did he move anything? Or did he simply drive away after he sold his home—at half its (depressed) market value? Floyd’s pension account remained active, but lacked a forwarding address. Where did he live when he first arrived in Portland? Did anyone notice him? Help him? Did he slip from apartment to motel to shelter to street, as most homeless people have? But why would he? He never smelled of alcohol, never showed any signs of addiction, and states he neither drank nor used drugs. Dan and Charlie confirm this. Yet, why would Floyd have gone straight to a parking shelter? No scenario makes sense.
I asked Dan about mental illness.
“You’re saying it’s crazy to choose to live on the streets? Probably. But then the streets grind you down, strip your identity, turn you invisible, so you stay. How insane was someone before that grind? Out here, only God can tell cause from effect.” He studied me a moment longer than comfortable. “When you talk with him, does Floyd seem ill?”
Whether I posed my question short or long, specific or abstract, whether I searched for intermediate details or underlying motivations, Floyd gave the same answer.
“It just worked out this way.”
If I pushed too hard or dwelt on negative aspects, he stared down at his beaten, fifties-style black leather lace-ups and told them, “Not so bad. Got everything I need.”
When I first met Floyd, he told me only his age, his former employment, and, reluctantly, that his back “wasn’t quite right.” I returned to Dan’s minivan, which was still piled with blankets for the other fifty street people he would cover that night.
“Is that really—I mean, did he work somewhere that long?”
“I’ve never checked. The homeless aren’t known for accuracy and honesty. But in this case I believe him, yes.”
“How does a man like that wind up on the street?” I asked. Dan had anticipated the question.
“Lack of community. He fell through the cracks.”
I am no investigative reporter, though I do work with several. I kept visiting Floyd because I needed to talk with him—and because he let me—not because I had some grand redemption plan. Yet, after only a few weeks (and a little help from colleagues) I had enough clues.
When I contacted Eva Robles in Iowa City about her father, she could not speak for several minutes. I spoke with Reggie Robles while she recovered.
“The last time we saw Floyd—that’s coming on ten years now—he seemed fine. Quiet, of course. She never quit hoping, but she couldn’t even get a lead,” Reggie said.
Eva came to the phone again and asked me, “How did you find him?”
“I wasn’t looking,” I told her. “No, I guess that’s not exactly true. I was looking for someone else.”
I told Dan that Floyd’s daughter and son-in-law were flying out immediately to take Floyd home. Dan smiled wearily.
Then he said, “I doubt Floyd will go.”
“What are you talking about? Of course he’ll go! Why wouldn’t he?” I felt my Samaritan act threatened. Besides, it made no sense.
“He has friends here. He has Charlie,” Dan said. “When I started this work, we tried to get families back together. But people rarely can handle the change. Rarely. Floyd isn’t the father she remembers.”
When I pressed him, Dan recalled Blanket Coverage’s “successfully” reuniting exactly one family. He has worked with the Portland homeless for seventeen years.
I drove Eva and Reggie from the airport to Dan’s home.
“What happened? How did he get here?” Eva asked twelve different ways.
Floyd sat in a folding chair on the front porch, watching. He stood when we came into view but did not approach.
Eva jumped out of the car and ran toward him. She stopped three feet away.
“Hi, Dad. I’ve missed you.”
“Hi, Mr. Camerman.”
“Hello, Eva. Hello, Reggie.” Floyd looked confused, first swaying toward Eva, then sawing his hand at Reggie, neither hugging nor shaking. Dan had let Floyd shower and shave and had found him a clean shirt. Floyd had combed the few gray hairs on top straight back, while the hair on his nape hung unevenly almost to his collar. Age lines scored his face. Some patches he had razorburned pink while others he had missed, leaving white bristles below his jawbones. Without his nylon jacket collar turned up or his stained wool cap pulled to the bridge of his nose, he seemed, to me, like a homeless man scrubbed down. I understood Dan’s prediction.
But Floyd did go home with Eva.
He lives in a tiny bedroom (Eva’s converted sewing room) on the main floor of their three-story house. He plays with his grandchildren—they have four kids now. He receives treatment (fully covered by Medicare) on his fused vertebrae, and on good days can still lift the two younger kids. Floyd’s story became a cause celebré for Midwestern homelessness, he a lesser Rip Van Winkle. The WHBF/Channel Four News and The Rock Island Argus both ran stories of Floyd’s odyssey, fuzzing over the circumstances leading to his departure, emphasizing the loving daughter who initiated his return. Neither mentioned my name, which is just as well. “If you’re writing it…”
Because Floyd went “home” again, people wanted to talk about him. I made uncounted telephone calls, spent weeks wandering Le Claire, Rock Island, Iowa City, and Lees Summit, and even flew to Boston with Stanley and Naomi to complete our interview after one of their weekend visits. Eva awarded me my own chair. Over the course of six months, sitting with Floyd and Eva at her kitchen table or on her porch, Floyd chiseled a relief of his life. I learned as much about Floyd as I should have known about my own father.
Henry Joseph Tomeille died three weeks before I met Floyd. As the next of kin, I went to Los Angeles to find a resting place for his body. The director of the morgue knew only that he had died of liver failure while at the Catholic Workers’ shelter, apparently homeless. He had told a supervisor there about his son who lived in Portland. Few truths from which to select. A one-line obituary.
I tell Floyd’s story in lieu of telling Henry’s. I tell it to mollify the yearning to know my father. (“We’d seen him around here a long time,” the supervisor told me, and “He drank a lot.”) I tell it—though my wife protests, “Henry, what could you have changed?” —as penance. My last obituary.
This is true.