`Dark visitor' hasn't gotten best of Charlie Porter.
For most of my 2 1/2 decades as a reporter and editor at The Register-Guard, there was one thing I could always count on - a weekly call from Charles Orlando Porter.
"Hello, Paul, this is Charlie. How ya doin'?" they invariably began. And usually, before I had a chance to tell him how I was doing, Charlie's raspy, rascally voice was off and running with his latest passionate cause - hooking up Amazon Creek with the millrace and turning downtown Eugene into the Venice of the Willamette Valley, removing the cross from the top of Skinner Butte, nationalizing the oil industry, normalizing relations with China, getting dastardly Republicans out of office and putting godly Democrats in their place and more. Much more.
In recent years, I hadn't heard much from the former Fourth District congressman and liberal icon, but I didn't give it much thought. His wife of nearly 60 years, Priscilla, had passed away in 2002, and I knew the loss had hit him hard.
I'd also heard that Charlie, well into his 80s, had closed his downtown law office and was devoting the bulk of his time to tilting at his latest windmill - the impeachment of the five U.S. Supreme Court justices whom Charlie believed had stolen the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush and, as he put it, "trampled on our sacred rule of law."
Last week, I finally heard from Charlie again. "Hello, Paul, this is Charlie. How ya doin'?" he said. It was Charlie, all right, but something was different. His voice was softer, and a weariness seemed to penetrate his words. There were long pauses, broken sentences, disjointed references. Then he told me what I already had sensed - he'd been afflicted by what he called the "dark visitor" - Alzheimer's. He wanted to know if I would be interested in writing about it.
I have more than a passing familiarity with Alzheimer's, having watched a family member and a couple of friends deal with this obscenely slow, cruel disease. But I had difficulty reconciling the idea of Alzheimer's and Charlie, who a former R-G political writer named Ron Abell once beautifully described as "brash, glib, witty, smarter than hell, younger than springtime, a political disaster, a martyr who won't stay dead, a chronic meddler, a thick-skinned egomaniac who's lovable as a puppy, persistent as a bulldog, optimistic as a bride, moral as a preacher, imaginative as a mad scientist and beneath it all, where it really counts, an authentic American hero."
Charlie met me in the lobby of the Eugene Hotel, where he's lived the last several years. He will soon be leaving to move to the Emerald Valley Assisted Living Center. He looked surprisingly fit for an elderly man in the middle stages of Alzheimer's - a tad thinner, slower and more tentative - but still with the same glad-to-see-ya grip and grin and intense blue eyes whose gaze seemed to have turned inward.
We went to his fifth-floor studio apartment, which looked a lot like his old law office, including a wooden sign leaning up against a wall that read "Charles O. Porter Law Offices." The room was jammed with old easy chairs, a bed, bookshelves, a writing desk and a drafting table in front of a window that looked out - if you peered around the Kerry-Edwards campaign sign taped to it - on downtown and Skinner Butte.
His walls and shelves were filled with books and pictures - a picture of Charlie and Priscilla when they were first married, his law degree from Harvard and an award honoring him for founding the school's prestigious law review, a videotape of his 1959 appearance (he was the first congressman to be invited) on "Meet the Press," and photos of Charlie talking (yes, Charlie's always the one talking) with notables ranging from JFK to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Our conversation moved slowly. At times, I had to lean forward to hear what he was saying, and Charlie's sentences and thoughts sometimes disappeared down rabbit holes of forgetfulness and confusion. I could see his frustration as the words and ideas churned agonizingly just out of reach.
But then, suddenly, there were flashes of old Charlie - like flares exploding in a nighttime sky.
"Charlie," I asked, "remind me how many kids you have."
"Seventeen," he answered with a perfectly straight face. "Oh," he whispered, "you must mean the ones we can talk about."
A stack of library books on Alzheimer's on a nearby footstool brought us to the topic of his disease, which was diagnosed three years ago.
"I was shocked," he said. "I had to come to grips. But after I thought about it a while, I realized that I'm ahead of most people who never had any fun."
Oh, yes. Charlie Porter has had his fun. Fun getting elected to Congress at the whippersnapper age of 37 and serving in an august delegation that included Wayne Morse, Richard Neuberger, Edith Green, Walter Norblad and Al Ullman. Fun building an outrageously overreaching agenda as what he called "this nation's self-appointed secretary of state," arguing presciently for admission of China to the U.N. and for the United States to stop playing footsies with Latin American dictators such as Trujillo, Somoza, Batista and Peron. Fun running for office - and losing - at least a half-dozen more times along the way. Fun pulling in a six-figure income as a prominent attorney while taking up causes ranging from the Emerald Canal to the Skinner Butte Cross. Fun leaving a long trail of ardent friends and foes along the way.
Charlie smiles impishly when I ask how he spends his time. "I go to church on Sundays - that'll surprise some people." He has a girlfriend whom he visits regularly and takes on occasional outings.
When inspiration and memory collide, he doles out "assignments" to friends on the impeachment effort or other longtime projects. And he makes occasional public appearances, such as a recent Kerry-Edwards fund-raiser where he stood up to speak "a few words" and eventually had to be cut off in mid-soliloquy.
When I asked Charlie what he wants people to know about him and his struggle with Alzheimer's, he said he was coping with the help of family and friends. "But that dark spot in my brain - it still exists."
For a foolish second, I thought Charlie was talking about Alzheimer's. But he wasn't - I had been duped. The dark spot, he went on to explain, was a Bush administration that was illegally put into power by the Supreme Court and "those five guys we're still going to get."
It's classic Charlie - promoting his latest cause, tilting at the biggest windmill in sight, climbing into the ring to dance 15 rounds with any heavyweight foolish enough to take him on.
As I was leaving, Charles Orlando Porter had one more thing to say. It was a reminder. An admonition. A reassurance. "I'm doing all right," he said. "I've had a lot of fun along the way, so don't pity me."
Paul Neville (email@example.com) is an associate editor at The Register-Guard.
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|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Aug 8, 2004|
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