A mutual friend once said, “The best way to describe Doug is he epitomizes oops-ishness.” And half the reason that stuck with me (besides being true) is that I simply love the coined word, “oopsishness!” I met Doug back in 1976, shortly after moving to southwest Washington from Colorado. I met him shortly after joining an interdenominational (fundamentalist evangelical) teen touring choir, as we were both placed in the same section. Doug was two years younger than I was. He was one of the first guys I had ever met who was nerdier than me–and that’s saying something!
Now, his oopsishness wasn’t just a matter of clumsiness. No, Doug took things to a much higher level. Doug wasn’t dumb, by any means, but sometimes he would be extremely oblivious. He would get himself into strange (and usually hilarious) predicaments without being able to explain afterward exactly how it happened. Which meant people who knew him wound up laughing, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or picking their own jaws up from the floor after some of his mishaps. You know that old silent movie scene where a character steps into what appears to be an ordinary puddle of water on a street, but plummets completely out of sight? That actually happened to Doug. It was a flooded basement at his workplace rather than a street, but it happened.
Twice in a single evening. The second time at a different basement nearby.
That hardly scratches the surface, though. No, to really understand how oopsish Doug could be, you have to hear about the Train Crossing Incident.
We’d been out gaming with friends, and Doug was giving me a ride home. I was attending community college part-time and working multiple jobs at the time, and living at my grandparents’ house. I was trying to get the funds together to transfer to a university. Anyway, my grandparents lived in a part of town that was between several mills and the port, so there were a number of train tracks that crossed roads. None of the crossings had gates, but all of them had lights and those clanging bell signals. And because none of the crossings had gates, the trains were required to sound their whistles a lot. Living in that neighborhood, by the way, is where I developed my ability to sleep through just about any noise.
We were driving along a dark road and Doug was enthusiastically telling me a story about some horrible thing that had happened to him recently. Ahead of us was a crossing, there was a train off a ways to our right, sounding its whistle, and the lights and bells of the crossing signal ahead of us were going full blast.
And I realized, suddenly, that Doug wasn’t slowing down. So I said, “Doug! There’s a train coming.”
Doug kept talking, and he’s not slowing down.
I repeated, slightly louder, “Doug! There’s a train! Stop!”
Doug kept talking. We are now close enough that I don’t know if we can stop in time, and the train is awfully close. I exclaimed, “Train! Train! Train! Stop the f–ing car!”
We crossed the tracks. The train was so close to us that as I shouting obscenities and looking out of the passenger window, I couldn’t see the headlight because it was blocked by the roof of the car, but I can count the smashed bugs on the front of the engine.
I was holding on for dear life, absolutely certain the train was going to hit us before we were past.
And then we’re on the otherside and I’m still shouting, and honestly, I don’t know how Doug could hear me over the deafining whistle, but he says, “What are you so upset about?”
“WE NEARLY DIED! DIDN’T YOU SEE THE TRAIN!?!”
I looked at him, and he’s peering at the rearview mirror, his mouth dropped open in a shocked expression, because all he can see is freight cars rushing past fairly close behind us. And then he said, “Wow, where did that train come from?”
Given the physics of the situation and how long Doug’s big ol’ four-door Oldsmobile was, I think the train couldn’t have missed the back bumper by more than an inch.
Doug stopped the car. He sat there, gripping the steering wheel and almost hyperventilating. “I didn’t hear anything. Was the signal working?”
“Yes. Bells clanging, lights flashing, train whistle blowing, and me shouting at you to stop!” I replied.
After about a half a minute he says, “Wow,” and he starts laughing as he takes his foot off the brake and we start moving again. “I don’t know how I missed that!”
I was still trying to calm down. Doug seemed sincerely shocked and insisted he hadn’t seen or heard the train or the signals, nor my first several warnings. And I believed him. It fit perfectly with many things I’d seen before. He could recall miniscule details from a movie he had just watched, or a book he had read, but swear he didn’t notice that a door which had been open a few minutes prior was now closed and walk right into it.
I used to love telling this story to both people who had never met Doug, and to folks who knew him. And the thing is, Doug loved telling these kinds of stories about himself, and did so all the time.
As funny as they are in retrospect, the experiences were often painful and terrifying to live through. And then, years later, we got an explanation.
Doug and I hadn’t lived in the same town for some years when I heard that he had become seriously sick and was trying to get on disability. I had last visited him and his wife about eight years previously, but we kept in touch via email. I pinged him to see how things were going, and soon we were on the phone. We laughed a lot, despite the subject matter being so serious.
Originally he had been diagnosed with generic peripheral artery disease, which is most commonly the result of the gradual build up of fatty materials inside the arteries. But they eventually discovered that the underlying cause was a more rare condition, one in which a person has fewer capillaries per volume of tissue to begin with. It was a congental problem he’d had his entire life, it was just getting noticeable as a medical issue as the ordinary build up of fat inside the vessels restricted things further.
In effect, his entire life every organ in his body had struggled with less than optimal levels of oxygen and nutrients because there were literally fewer tiny blood vessels, everywhere. It’s probably the reason that he always caught every virus or sniffle that went around. It also contributed to his longer than usual recovery times when he got injured. And it also meant that under lots of circumstances, his brain would be left with inadequate oxygen. And we think that one of the ways that the brain defends itself from damage in those cases, is to essentially shut down some functions temporarily, until oxygen levels return to normal.
I was getting depressed listening to him describe it, and starting to feel guilty for all the times we had shared those “Doug does something unbelievable weird or dumb” stories.
But Doug didn’t look at it that way at all. “It’s a relief, actually,” he said. “I mean, for years I kept wondering if something was wrong with me, mentally. But finding out that yeah, something is wrong, but it’s medical is a lot easier to accept. It’s not that I’ve got an intellectual deficiency, it’s that my body was dealing with this weird problem we didn’t know about. Literally, part of my brain would be starved of oxygen and shut off!”
Sadly, by the time of this diagnosis, there wasn’t much they could do. He had already suffered a lot of tissue loss not just in the muscles of his extremities, but also throughout his organs. They could slow the progression of the tissue necrosis by keeping him on oxygen, for instance, but the usual techniques for treating arterial disease such as bypass and so forth couldn’t address the underlying issue. The blocked arteries made it worse, but the capillary deficiency would still be there.
We stayed in touch mostly through the magic of the internet until his death just over six years ago. He remained his usual cheerful self throughout the last few years of his life. He always made a joke no matter how bad the news that he was sharing about the latest development was. As he said just about every time he told a story about one of his mishaps, “If you can’t laugh about it, what’s the point?”