NSP Correspondent / Bill Hall / Oswald West and Tom McCall Meet in Heaven

(NSP Meditations features regular contributions from Correspondents. If you are interested in becoming one, contact Matt Love through the NSP web site for more details.)

A hospital room in Portland. It’s a grey, damp Saturday morning at the beginning of 1983. The man in the bed hooked up to the machinery is Thomas Lawson McCall, thirtieth governor of the State of Oregon. He’s about to draw his last breath; his journey on earth is reaching its end after sixty-nine years.

He’s unconscious—the blessing of painkillers—but his restless mind is still active. He’s going to be sad to leave this place he loves so much; sad to leave Audrey, Tad and Sam. But he’s ready to go. The pain, oh, the pain is finally getting to be too much.

Tom McCall spent the final Christmas and New Year’s of his life in this room. It was the last battlefield in his decade-long war with cancer. Treatment had kept his prostate cancer in check for years, but it had come roaring back with a vengeance a couple of years earlier, and now wracked his bones. His sliver-gray hair was snow white. But when he was awake, his piercing blue eyes still burned with his love for his family and the special place called Oregon.

Now all the battles had been fought; land use planning, the Bottle Bill, the Beach Bill and so many more. A strange thought flashed through his brain. He remembered a story about the film comic Stan Laurel. As he lay dying in a Los Angeles hospital bed a few years earlier, a nurse had asked him how he was doing. Laurel answered, “I’d rather be skiing.”

“Do you ski, Mr. Laurel?” she asked.

“No!” he said weakly. “But I’d rather be there than here!”

Tom McCall wished he could be at his beach retreat at Road’s End. Just one more time in his old Pendleton jacket, marching across the sand, feeling the wind and breathing the salt air. Another stab of pain—damn! Were the drugs wearing off again?

But then a bracing, familiar smell filled his nostrils. He also realized the pain that had been his constant companion for so long was no more. He opened his eyes and found himself standing on the bluff above the beach at Road’s End. He inhaled the bracing salt air, felt the sun and wind against his face, the grass beneath his feet; all his senses told him where he was, yet it made no sense. How had he gone from his deathbed to paradise?

Paradise? Did this mean –

Before he could follow the train of thought to its destination, he heard a hearty voice say, “Hello, Tom!” He turned and found himself face to face with Governor Oswald West. McCall had met West a few times, and had once interviewed him for KGW, but he knew him as old man; this was a West he only knew from pictures, young and vital.

“Governor West? But—“

“Tom, let me save you some time. This is Heaven.” West stuck out his hand to clasp McCall’s. “I want to thank you, Tom.”

“Thank me? For what?”

“For preserving my legacy. For saving these beaches for the people.”

“My pleasure, Governor.”

“Os. Call me Os. That’s what my friends call me.”

“OK, Os.” Tom McCall smiled. It was the first smile he had managed in a long time.

“I should thank you for quoting me when you signed your Beach Bill. You had a pretty fair way with words yourself.”

“’The great birthright?’ That was too memorable a phrase to pass up, you know! ‘No local selfish interest shall be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or impair this great birthright of our people.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“Thanks, Tom, but I don’t think I could top your warning about ‘the grasping wastrels of the land.’ Great stuff.”

“Os, you crafty old son of a gun, that was brilliant—the way you snuck your bill through the legislature. Making the beach a public highway. Sixty-six words. It passed without a peep. The legislature never knew what hit ‘em.” McCall made a fist with his right hand and smacked his left palm. “Brilliant.”

West laughed. “No, they sure didn’t. You didn’t have it that easy. But your gift for political theater saved the day.”

“You mean my trip to the beach in the helicopter? Had the press eating out of my hand that day, I suppose. You know, I had been one of them, and they still thought of me that way. That always helped.”

“I saw the way you stared down that bastard who tried to fence off the beach in front of his motel—well, stared down his motel, anyway?”

“You saw that?”

“We can watch what’s going on in the world, though we can’t influence it in any way. Gets damn—er, darn frustrating at times. But you learn to deal with it. That’s why we knew you were coming. Some very special folks are waiting to greet you inside the house, including your dad and your grandfathers.”

Tom McCall felt a lump forming in his throat. Hal McCall had died when his son was just thirty-three. This was going to be a joyous reunion.

“Dad,” he croaked, looking away from West and at the waves crashing below. “It’s been a long time.” Then, regaining his composure, he looked back at West. “Grandpa Hal was in Congress and Governor of Massachusetts, you know,” McCall said. “Grandpa Tom Lawson…I’m sure you’ve heard of the Copper King. He was worth forty million dollars at the turn of the century. That’s still a lot of money. A heck of a legacy to live up to with those men….a heck of a legacy.”

West smiled and clasped his hand on Tom McCall’s shoulder. “Don’t worry Tom, you served their memory well. They can’t wait to see you.”

“Lead on, Os, then. Lead on.”

Bill Hall is serving his fourth term as a Lincoln County Commissioner and is the author of the utopian Oregon novel, McCallandia. Like Tom McCall, he started as a journalist and then made the transition to politics…but he says Tom did it better.