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Rodger & Me

rodgertolmanA good man passed last week, a hard-working, hard-laughing man. An honorable man. His name was Rodger Tolman, and I had the good fortune to be one of his many pee wee basketball players back in Boonville a few lifetimes ago, when Anderson Valley still had trees and sheep and apple orchards, and you could lay down in the middle of the road outside the Boonville Lodge for an hour before a car came by, or Deputy Squires gave you the business end of his “fire-out-and-stay-low.” And while I’ll think of a thousand other things in the time left to me, I realize what Rodger taught me wasn’t just about boxing out and finding the open man on the court, but boxing out and finding the open man in the only game that counts: life. I know Rodger was a modest man who’s no doubt cringing at these sentimental words, but the lessons he imparted have influenced me every day of my life, even though I’m a slow learner. I mean, for years I thought when Rodger said, “Zack, have you been burlappin’ on the kimmie region?” I thought he meant playing softball tournaments.

Of course now that I’m here, I don’t know what to say. A million thoughts and memories and glimpses of mile markers flash through my mind. How many weekends did you spend, Rodger, driving a team full of giggly kids from one tiny bandbox gym in the middle of nowhere to another, then back again? You must have spent most of your “free time” ferrying around a bunch of Junior. Panthers in red-striped uniforms in the back of your blue Ford pick-up with the white stripe on the side, barreling down the lonely two-lane asphalt from Elk, Point Arena, the steep sinuous grade from Navarro by the Sea, up the craggy coast towards Mendocino and Fort Bragg — sometimes south to confused Geyserville or powerhouse Cloverdale, to Knightsen somewhere in the marshy delta east or maybe south or maybe even ten miles underneath Vallejo, who knows for sure. Rodger gave us his time, his patience, his discipline, and without an extraneous word or flamboyant gesture, and in the process showed us that there’s gold in them thar hills; but more precious than money, it’s the stuff of childhood memories spun into anchors to keep us from capsizing in the seas of stormy adulthood, when nothing makes sense and home is a million miles away, but if you close your eyes you can remember a few things, nothing special, just the only things that matter.

And with Rodger at the wheel we were always on an adventure, headed to auditoriums that smelled of floor wax and stale popcorn and the cheap perfume wafting from small town girls who were just like us small town boys, desperately trying to break out of our little worlds, or so we thought. Now it’s the little worlds I miss more than anything.

Now when I dream it’s of places where the hollow th-th-thump of basketballs danced in faint murmurs to the staccato dreams in our coyote hearts. From Leggett to Gualala, from Ten Mile Bridge to Little River and Albion and down again to Giannini’s with the giant burgers in Point Arena, we were chasing life, one eight-minute quarter at a time, and in no particular hurry. Beyond the ever-changing landscape of American wilderness, I remember Aron Evans playing the band Boston on an eight-track player.

And as “More Than A Feeling” blared we drove into Laytonville, which is like Redway minus the riffraff. And with our red wristbands on and Converse high tops we tumbled into deserted Potter Valley parking lots, swayed down the endless road to Covelo, which even for a Boonville kid like me seemed beyond the end of the world, wild and dangerous. We would zig-zag towards the mythic coast past Edmeades and Husch vineyards, soaking in the golden light of youth, rolling through the Deep End where a few good old boys were always propped up against the Drunk Tree at Navarro, past the old Masonite Road and the Boy Scout Camp, and look! there’s the turn off to Comptche where bush hippies were rumored to celebrate pagan rituals with naked offerings of burnt sage and sweet apple wine, past the O’Brien house where Charlie Manson once fried his morning eggs, past the baby lambs like living white poems amid fields of Irish green, and all-woman communes behind locked gates and past the old tramp called Bicycle Man pushing his wheeled art exhibit of rusted chains and plastic bag voodoo down the endless darkening highway, and again the bursts of blinding sun filtering through the towering redwoods of Paul Dimmick, then onto the lip of beach at Van Damme where abalone divers measured the morning chill with their crowbars, past the Elk Store on sleepy Saturday dawns, past Stornetta Farms in the fog, and giant white caterpillar skins of fertilizer, and farmhouses stranded in distant high meadows, orange porch lights dim and dimming, and sometimes telephone poles alive with blue-black ravens, and no matter which way Rodger turned the wheel we sliced further into thick fog hanging low like smoke from a witch’s cauldron. Only the spells were kind, and the magic was real.

I remember once atop the Manchester Road, Rodger stopped at Devil’s Slide. We rolled an old tire down a steep precipice where it disappeared from view but then magically reappeared several seconds later, plunging down further into an abyss of 11-year-old grins and “How is that possible?” The yet again tire vanished and appeared again, and if we kept still and quiet we could hear it scuffling its way to an anonymous resting place.

Another time in Rodger’s silver four-door sedan, G.P. Price suddenly thrashed awake, a look of pure panic on his jolly face. “What the heck was that?” Rodger smiled into the rear-view mirror: “Barking spiders, Greg.” “What kind of spiders bark?” Rodger smiled again, “G.P., you’re not in San Francisco anymore.” And G.P., who was a great rebounder and even better napper, tumbled back into uneasy arachnid dreams.

For thirty years every time I drove to Boonville I expected to see Rodger and his aero-dynamic Tolman Trucking rig barreling around the bend. Every time I heard jake brakes I prepared myself to wave to Rodger or Paul Hughbanks or a Hiatt Logging truck. There used to be days as a kid when the only vehicles on the road would be log trucks. Now on weekends it takes five minutes just to cross from Boont Berry to the Hotel, because of the endless stream of cars going this way and that. And I must be getting old, because here I am talking about traffic again and the good old days with nothing to worry about but how we were going to beat Davey Mastin’s Mendocino team, or how cool Tony Piver’s Fort Bragg squads looked in pre-game warm-ups, with their fancy ball-handling drills. I remember Jerry had a handheld video football game that beeped like a goose trying to shift a mini-bike into second gear, but never once did Rodger complain, though I’m sure I would’ve hurled the noisy thing towards Lone Pine after two minutes. And therein lies the difference. Rodger wasn’t part of the Me Generation. He was part of the We Generation. End of story.

I’ll shut up now, Rodger, and honor you the best way I can, by finding a metaphorical baseline to cut-off. To crash the boards and hit the outlet man without wasting time with a dribble. I’ll look to give up an open ten-footer so Richie or Danny or Brian can have a lay-up.

But one last thing, Rodger, as I’m pretty sure I never told you. The proudest moment I ever had in all of my short-lived basketball career was in the Point Arena gym during a high school game. I was taking the ball out at half court and caught Jerry’s eye. We knew instantly what was going to happen. He cut towards the hoop and I lobbed the ball towards the rim and he leaped and dunked the ball softly. Simple graceful teamwork. Yep, the greatest basket I can remember making was a pass, a pass forged from hundreds of hours of practice and traveling and laughing. Thank you, Rodger. Maybe I made the pass, but the assist belongs to you.

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