Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Dialing for Steve...

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on October 17, 2006.

In my last column, I wrote about how turning 50 prompted me to wonder about my best friend, Stephen Gibbs. Steve lives in Portland, and I mused about why, after 30 years of friendship, we hadn’t spoken in five years.

The column elicited many responses from readers who’d also lost touch with friends, and while most encouraged me to call Steve, I hesitated, uncertain about our friendship.

Then Denise Rousset wrote in an email, “Go find your friend because our lives are peppered with the friendships we've made, but the ones we remember are like sinew and bone. . . . It will give you peace to tell this person how much his friendship has meant to you, and I'm sure it will mean a lot to him as well. Maybe even timely for him. Maybe even vital at this moment.”

That did it for me. I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and dialed.

As the phone at the other end began to ring, I wondered if Steve even lived at the number anymore. When I last saw him, he was renting a room in a basement from friends. But maybe that arrangement had ended.

I also harbored a deeper worry about Steve because twenty years ago his father, who was manic-depressive, committed suicide by swimming out to sea. Though Steve had never exhibited the slightest sign of depression, his silence scared me.

On the other hand, perhaps he’d gotten married and simply moved on with his life. I just didn’t know.

After a couple of rings, the phone picked up. It was a recording of a woman’s voice. She listed the people who lived in the household. Sure enough, Steve was one.

I stumbled through my greeting and left my number. Then I waited.

After three long days, while listening to my messages, I heard a voice I’d know anywhere. He sounded good.

But hidden in the background of his call was the unanswered question: Why had we lost touch?

When we spoke the next evening, I learned the answer. But before I share it, here’s what’s new with Steve.

“I’m passionate about pulling barbed-wire,” he said. “I’m a volunteer.”

Steve said he works with people committed to restoring wilderness to 175,000 acres in the Oregon desert by removing miles of fencing from federal lands no longer used for ranching. Removing the fences allows antelope and other wildlife to roam freely.

Because the area is wilderness and machinery is prohibited, volunteers trek in by horse and manually coil and remove the wire. It’s a difficult and dangerous job, and Steve loves it.

Since volunteering pay no bills, Steve works odd jobs to earn a meager living. Each year he helps organize a rummage sale that raises money for Portland’s Catlin Gabel School. He works part-time for the school, but receives no benefits.

“In other words, I’m looking for an heiress with a health plan,” Steve said, laughing, though I could tell he was serious. “In the world of money and power, I’m on Baltic and Mediterranean.”

I also learned that Steve’s mother, who as a little girl in England had a Nazi bomb plummet onto her porch, is alive and well at age 87. “I wouldn’t be here today if that bomb had exploded,” Steve said.

Along with his relentless wit, Steve continues to make life choices that intrigue me. He still lives in a basement, though he managed to take an expenses-paid trip to India a few years ago. He doesn’t have email or even own a computer, but he’s saving for one. If asked for a business card, he uses obsolete cards from a company he worked for years ago. He turns the card over, applies a label with his name and address that he gets free from his insurance agent, and jots down his phone number.

In other words, Steve hasn’t changed a bit.

But why, then, did we drift apart?

I asked him this toward the end of our two-hour call, and I pictured his blue eyes when he said simply that over the years he has often lost track of friends, that staying in touch with people in different places in life seems to take too much effort.

As he has done throughout our 30 years of friendship, Steve was able to articulate what I couldn’t. His words, of course, described my own reason for not trying to reach him.

As we made plans for a visit, I felt as if we’d cleared a path in our friendship, as if we’d pulled away the barbed wire of a needless fence.

. . .


she said...

i've been hoping and wondering...

and how wonderful to click over to your blog and "surprise" read the good news!

first thought: i loved reading how denise's words "did it for you." and, 'of course!' i thought, because look what she did... she said, it will give you peace... but more importantly, she said, "it will mean a lot TO HIM; maybe even be timely; maybe even vital"

and she shifted the importance of the connection away from you, and pointed out it may benefit HIM.

she spoke right to your heart, because you are in fact that kind of person (i'm coming to learn). if the reaching out were only for your benefit... hesitation. but if you thought it might help someone else.... BINGO.

and i can see here easily, why the two of you would be such good friends, because he has a loving, caring, selfless heart also!

as does denise.. AND i was so glad to see her recognize and honor that intuitive truth... that i believe in too: that when our minds are filled (or even sprinkled) with the thought of reaching out to a person. it is generally for good reason. those thoughts and feelings should never go ignored or neglected.

so "cheers!" to you
to denise and steve!

and to another happy beginning!


she said...


dial and breathe deep..

that's all together a different blog now isn't it.


Jim Ott said...

Wonderful observations, she. Steve will be thrilled (if he ever reads your comments) to be characterized as having a loving, caring, selfless heart. Even if he doesn't read them, I'll tell him what you said.

By the way, Denise Rousset--whom I didn't know before she emailed me--is the publisher of The Sentinal, a monthly newspaper dedicated to highlighting positive aspects of life in the San Ramon Valley. Visit her site at valleysentinal.com.

As always, she, thanks for reading and for illuminating elements of my columns that I never see when writing...

she said...

thanks jim! and -shall do-

p.s. just happen to notice my lucky numbers scrambled in your post time

this is like my 3rd lucky day in a row! "let it ride"

happy day! ~s.

Melissa said...

I read it
that's interesting that he enjoys pulling barbed wire
Will we be seeing him soon do you think?