I have a drawer in my desk which for years I have thought of as Jack’s. I tuck into this drawer all of the things I’m planning to mail to him: old postcards, articles to make him laugh, stickers, photos I’ve torn from Birder’s World, address labels, and of course Jack’s cards and letters to which I have yet to reply. I’ve had a drawer like this in one desk or another for thirty years.

We only see [the] Goldfinch for one or two days in midsummer, not at all this cold year. To me, there is something mystical about it; a quick glimpse and that’s all you get for the year…If I saw one at one of our finch/thistle feeders I would probably croak with excitement…hard to xplain in an obit.

When I met Jack, I was an aspiring science fiction writer, and he was younger than I am now. I actually met his wife, Pauline, and their daughter, Tilda, first. This was at a science fiction convention called Orycon, in Portland, Oregon, over the 1980 Halloween weekend. I thought they were cool because they had fannish alter egos: Pauline was Ofelia Swanshitté, and the teenaged Tilda was Paisley Muffin. (The only name that ever stuck for me was Steve.) I’m not sure how we started talking, there amid the general babble, but probably we bonded over the Seattle Mariners. In 1980, the M’s were like the Cubs, minus the charisma. You had to bond over them or you wouldn’t survive.

The poor hapless M’s are about as low as they can get…Pauline won’t even listen to them any more. She usually doesn’t come to that until the very end of the season.

The M’s are a disaster. Ofelia has gone from Euphoria to the Sloughs of Despond, about twenty miles, all downhill.

I lived in Seattle and they lived in Bellingham, then a sleepy town north of Seattle, close to the Canadian border. We began writing to each other. I then met Jack in March 1981, when the three of them were Fan Co-Guests of Honor at Seattle’s Norwescon. They invited me to come visit them in Bellingham. I remember the late-spring bus ride through the wet, wooded hills with their crowns of mist. This section of I-5 is now a gallery hemmed in by casinos and outlet malls, but in 1981 (when I was still new to the Pacific Northwest, having moved there from Boston) I felt as if I were traveling into Middle-Earth. Their cheerily cluttered house on a densely forested hill overlooking a sleepy lake in the mountains (to me they looked like mountains) completed the sense of stepping into a fantasy world, with fantasy people who lived a bohemian life.

You two are so romantic. We didn’t even have wedding photos. A judge did it at city hall and my pants were splitting. Really! What a day that was. Then the four of us went to breakfast, then I went to work…Wedding party included a poet and his wife. They asked us for a critique of his work. Over many objections we gave it. Shortly after they moved out of town.

It took me a while to lure the grumpy old bear out of his den, but eventually Jack began to write to me, and I became the recipient of his unique descriptions, observations, insights, and general gnarliness.

What do you mean “a person of my station & breeding”? Makes me sound like an Irish setter waiting for the Long Island RR.

I have never read anything by Gore Vidal. If the DAR would not approve of “Burr” (I thought it was a Western) then maybe I should try it.

Weird that the wedding “went off without a hitch…,” I thot [sic] a hitch was the desired result.

Nampa sounds like a town full of auto parts.

I have to step up to the plate and fish or cut bait.

If I had my way I would put blimps on just about everything.

Jack had always been an artist. In the 1950s, when he lived in Seattle, he knew many of the members of the Northwest School, but he didn’t work in their style.

You know me pretty well, yes I did, and do, like [Joan Miro’s] paintings. I guess he was an “influence.” Isn’t there a shot for that now?

In the early ’80s, Jack switched to a new medium: mail art. His envelopes and postcards became a cascade of rubber stampings and collage. I’m a frustrated artist, and I took to this right away. I didn’t have to know how to draw, I could just whale away with stamps and glue sticks. The canvas was so small that you could finish in minutes. This was one of Jack’s many lessons: Art is supposed to be fun, dammit.

Haven’t read an art review in ages. Better man for it.

Mail art will wind up in the museums over my dead body.

Jack became involved with mail art globally. Like in the song, he had correspondents in New York, London, Paris, Munich. He played in the mail under a series of names, usually as Rudi Rubberoid but also as Ace the Postcard Pal, Billy Joe Ziploc, Wingo Fruitpunch, and a host of one-offs in the tradition of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. In the ’90s, I kept a list of these names but quit after I passed 100. In their entirety, they remind me of the evocative three-page list of guests who came to the summer parties in The Great Gatsby…especially Jack’s more aristocratic nom de stamps, such as Abstruse Hokkenspit and Fridge Woolhampton.

Jack published two mail-art zines and convinced me to participate, which I was at first reluctant to do. I’m a writer, not an artist, I told him.

Thanks a lot! What a voyeur; “I don’t want to do it, I just want to watch.” Come on, express yourself, Bieler! A little scene, a little situation, a little story, that’s all it takes. You did fine on the outside of the envelope, now take a piece of 4×6 glossy white paper and go! I know you can do it…Maybe two pieces, I am a little short of contributions.

Eventually he lured me out of my den. I became so involved that he called me “sort of a vulcanized old master.” After four years he let me take over as editor. Though that might have been Tom Sawyer tricking me into whitewashing his fence.

Our mail back and forth was like the Milky Way. The light you see from every star tells you what happened in the past. Everything that arrived in my mail box from Bellingham told me about life as it was two or three or four days before. We wrote about almost everything. Their cats and our dogs had lives of their own in our letters:

Luther is working on a hard-hat project in the basement.

Fern is having this affair with a male raccoon to, let me tell you, mixed notices…

Thanks so much for all the fine and funny postcards, particularly about Sailor. Tell me, when you took out his stitches did his sawdust fall out?

Jack’s brash block letters marched across the paper as he reported on food, trips, books, music, family, friends, household emergencies (“Today we are going out to buy a new toaster, the old one exploded”), and their cars Vonda, Leon, and Grandma, an ancient AMC Hornet (“Grandma is hors de combat whenever there is even 1/2 inch of snow on the roads. She is, however, doubling as an excellent birdfeeder”). His bread-and-butter letters were not like anyone else’s thank yous:

I have a hidden weirdness about presents. I like them well enough when I first get them, but then I lay them aside for a bit to get their full ripeness. (Unless it’s food.) Then, sometimes months later, I REALLY enjoy them! Something like the way wolverine bury their kills.

He wrote about county fairs, garage sales (where you haul basementium out of your house and try to turn it into getridium), Christmas bazaars (always “bazzers”), football, baseball (after the Mariners’ Chris Bosio threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox: “Ofelia was beside herself with joy as she had no great hopes for him as he looks like a Roto-Rooter salesman”), and the everydayness of life:

Ofelia is bizzily wrapping prezints and I am doing Christmas cards and Fern is napping under the tree. Now there is a fine division of labor.

He wrote about Pauline’s doings and Tilda’s, and Tilda’s husband, Rick (“Rickalope”), and their daughter, Jasmine, who visited a restaurant when she was 3 and “was very good, except when a stack of menus got out of hand & had 2B disciplined.”

We had many adventures together: road trips, train rides, conventions, antique shows, new restaurants. I remember in particular a party at our old house in Seattle, at the end of which Jack, Pauline, my wife, and I spent an hour cleaning up and gossiping about everyone.

We had a lovely time at your partay! Met some nice, interesting new people, some dull old ones, a relative here, a daughter there, got to play with trains, lose at pool, eat too many forbidden goodies, talked our heads off and generally had a lovely time.

Jack’s letters to me were only a sample of his total correspondence. God only knows what he wrote to other people. “I wouldn’t correspond with me for all the tea in China,” he once opined. I don’t know if he had one of his artist pals in China but I know he had one in Japan.

In 2002, for Jack’s 75th birthday, I read my way through all his old letters and notes. I wrote down the best lines, scanned some of the envelopes, and made a little book for him. Reopening envelopes and finding artwork, flyers, news clippings, stickers, and assorted weird stuff from so long ago was like unearthing treasure. It was especially fun, after all those years, to send some of it back and see what kind of reaction I got. Not to mention the mental gymnastics involved in chortling over a letter Jack had written me 10 years ago before trying to answer a letter he’d sent me 10 days ago.

In the ’90s, Jack’s health began to deteriorate. His baritone faded to a whisper. His handwriting became spidery, and his communications (his “sendings”) became shorter. He refused to switch to a computer, though he had tried it years before.

How did I get into a second page? I was just going to write you a short note. Computers encourage blabbing, ever notice that? As if I needed encouragement.

Jack became increasingly housebound, and sometimes stumbled into despair, but he always rallied: “The planets must be maligned,” he sighed. He gave succinct accounts of his troubles.

It was pretty exciting for a while. I got my first ambulance ride and the ER was a kick; all glass & chrome & a cast of thousands. Sort of like “All That Jazz,” but without the dancing.

Nor did he lose his sense of joy in the smallest pleasures in life. “The world is full of wonders, if you only know where to look,” he taught me.

When I smoked, all those years ago, I used to wander about outside whilst smoking. At night I quite often saw coyotes and foxis [sic]. Very curious littel [sic] guys, they would sit on the road and “regard” me. For ten-fifteen minutes. Then flick out of existence. Also saw skunks, possums and raccoons at night. All you have to do is wait.

“I believe in the healing power of mail,” Jack wrote. People all over the world kept his mailbox full, but Jack died on Sunday, January 15, 2012, surrounded by his family. He was 84. He was my oldest friend and my oldest friend.

When Jack entered his last crisis and had to leave the home he bought in 1960 and go into hospice care, he was sitting at his command center, surrounded by his art supplies, blank note cards, and mail waiting to be answered. He was writing a postcard to my wife and me. He never finished it. When I come home from work now, my mailbox holds bills, magazines, junk mail, and love letters from presidential candidates. I used to collage this electoral crap and send it to Jack. I keep finding things to send to Jack. This reflex will take a long time to go away.

E-mail, pfui! I want real paper, real stickers, real stamps, things enclosed, etc. It’s not the same.

 

 

Dear Rudi:

No, it’s the mail itself that’s not the same.

Love,

Steve

 

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STEVEN BRYAN BIELER bats right, throws right, leans left. Long ball hitter, but deadly with a vignette. Long-range plan: To appear in The New Yorker's "20 Under 80" fiction issue. Bieler lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, the mystery writer Deborah Donnelly, and their dog, who is illiterate. He works as a writer and editor and teaches chess to grades K-8 (the one population of chess players he can always beat). Bieler makes fun of your favorite bands at http://rundmsteve.wordpress.com/.

5 responses to ““Déjà vu, where is thy sting?””

  1. […] friend Jack Palmer died yesterday. He was 84. Jack was my oldest friend and my oldest friend. Thirty years ago, when I […]

  2. Citizen X says:

    Jack was one of my oldest friends too.
    I got in touch with him in 1986, soon after I got involved in mail art; we had a correspondence that lasted years up to about 7-8 years ago, then things got spotty.
    I loved his letters and I guess he liked mine, since he always wrote back.
    I was lucky enough to visit him a few times too.
    I loved that little old cluttered house of theirs; it was a box of treasures indeed.

  3. Ruud Janssen says:

    Thanks for this article. Was one of Rudi’s cossespondents and even interviewed hin in his good years. We miss his energy in the network. Good to read this story that he isn’t forgotten at the senders address as well. Ruud Janssen

  4. Lovely bit of writing Steve. Brought a lump to my throat! Rudi (Jack) was a long time correspondint and always perked up when I saw one of his small but perfectly formed envelopes drop through our letter flap. Always full of intweresting gew gaws, snippets, doo-dads and ephemera. And his letters were always a delight to read. We miss him very much too. He was a one-off – truly one of a kind.

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