Remembering Tony Kneidek and the Marmot Road deer
I'll never forget the day that I met Tony Kneidek (pronounced "Nigh-deck").
It was February 1985. He was the editor of the Gresham Outlook. I was applying to be his news editor.
I had already submitted my resume and clips of my work. Several years before I had launched my newspaper career as editor of the Sandy Post and had gone on to work for various weekly and daily newspapers.
Fortunately, I made the cut to become one of three final candidates for this Outlook job. Our individual personal interviews would now help determine who got hired.
I knew people who knew Tony, who was approximately my age. And I knew he was a first-rate editor and seasoned reporter. Before signing on with The Outlook he had covered the Oregon Legislature and political beat for the Associated Press. He was darn good.
I really wanted that job.
Tony and I shake hands. He leads me into the conference room and closes the door. Tony sits down on one side of the table; I sit down on the other. He opens his notebook and starts asking me questions. To tell you the truth, it was an inquiry that totally surprised me. I was definitely not prepared for this.
At the time, I didn't realize that this guy had a master's degree in journalism. He was asking me "big picture" philosophical questions about the news business. And I was trying my best to answer and to sound smart. But I felt like — or more accuratlely, I knew — that I was blowing it.
Tony's third or fourth question: "What do you feel is the purpose of 'community journalism?'"
As he waits for an answer, Tony shellacs me with this ever-so-serious stare.
I really want to say: "Beats the heck out of me."
Instead, I hear myself launch into this stream-of-consciousness verbal mumbo-jumbo. I want to impress this guy so badly. But I can't get my thoughts to coagulate. No doubt about it, I fear I'm spouting nonsense.
Suddenly, mid yet another clumsy disjointed sentence, I give up. I stick my index finger sideways between my lips and exhale, making that little kid fluttering, sputtering noise. It's an antic that the Three Stooges might pull on you.
After his initial look of surprise, make that astonishment, Tony starts to laugh.
I start to laugh.
We both hit our internal relax buttons. We both reach up and loosen our neckties. And we mutually embark on what I felt was one heck of a productive, insightful two-way conversation about running a suburban newspaper.
Three days later my phone rings. I got the job.
An excellent editor
I truly enjoyed working as the Gresham Outlook's news editor. We had a great, cohesive newsroom staff. Tony was an excellent editor to work for. He and I became good friends.
And while I never told Tony this — an oversight that I will always regret — I learned a lot from him professionally. The art of interviewing someone requires a clever combination of psychology, skill and craft — and maybe just a pinch of voodoo. To do this dance "correctly" for the most beneficial result is no easy task.
My desk was next to Tony's. Often I coould hear him on the phone interviewing people for news stories. Through eavesdropping and osmosis, Tony made me a better reporter. As you will see, I wish I would have told Tony that when I had the chance.
Tony also moonlighted as a journalism instructor at Mount Hood Community College. I hope those students realized how lucky they were to have this particular newsman teaching them the craft of journalism.
Embracing wildland fire
It still pains me to admit this, but circa six months or so into my new job, the call of the wild beckoned me and I abandoned the Outlook ship.
Several years earlier I had spent two summer seasons as a firefighter with the Zigzag Ranger District. That passion for interfacing with wildfire was still burning in my blood. And now I learn that they have an opening on the 20-person elite Zigzag Hotshot Crew. After a few sleepless nights, my heart of hearts convinced me to go for it.
When I sat down in that same conference room to inform my editor that I would be leaving, Tony was surprised. But he also respected my decision. Next thing I know, I had replaced the challenge of producing a twice-weekly newspaper with the challenge of embracing wildland fire. While this move perplexed practically everyone, including my poor mother and all the relatives, it was a career decision that I will never regret.
During the course of the next couple years, Tony and I tried to keep in touch. For a while, I even played on the Gresham Outlook softball team. Our main goal was to get Tony up to my tiny secluded log cabin located deep in the Zigzag woods that he had heard so much about from others. But, unfortunately, we could never quite seem to make that happen.
As more and more time zoomed past, Tony moved on, continuing his impressive career arc, sharing and implementing his talents elsewhere. He and his wife, Sharon DeBusk, another well-respected journalist, welcomed two little girls into the world. Our life trails slowly diverged. As happens so often in life, we eventually lost contact.
Terminal brain cancer
Several years later, in 1999, I heard the terrible news. Tony had terminal brain cancer. I managed to track down his phone number and called him.
In typical Tony Kneidek fashion he informed: "I'm doing just fine, thanks, except for this nagging case of brain cancer."
My dear chum was going through yet another onslaught of chemotherapy. He had lost all of his hair and a whole lot of weight. But he wasn't complaining. Tony showed a lot of gumption and class that I doubt I could ever muster knowing that my time on spaceship earth was quickly slipping away from me.
We both realized that it was time to finally have Tony come visit my cabin.
He was unable to drive. So I drove down to southeast Portland and picked him up. I thought it would be cool to take Tony back up to my place via the backroads scenic way, basically following the Sandy River from Troutdale to Brightwood.
Tony and I headed out for my cabin via this more rural route on a perfect spring day. As we drove, it felt so good to be catching up with my former news buddy.
Knowing that I had some of my poems published here and there over the years, Tony told me how he had also started writing poetry. Back when he had more energy, he had even participated in poetry slams.
We were cruising along the Marmot Road ridge. Tony sees him first.
"Paul, watch out!"
Inside that moment a huge buck leaped from the cut bank and tried to jettison across the road. I reflexively hit the brakes and attempted to swerve away. But everything happened so fast, there was absolutely nothing I could do. The buck instantly collided — WHAM! — into the front side of my pickup. The animal's head smashed into my front windshield.
The deer hit my truck with enough force to shatter the windshield and cave in the front side panel.
I pulled over.
The broken animal was lying in the road behind my truck.
Tony, with his cane, and I walked back to him.
Stretched out on his side there on the road, the poor buck was still trying to move his legs. His purple tongue was out. His mouth was filling with blood.
In silence, Tony and I, respectfully, held vigil over this dying animal with the broken neck until he finally stopped breathing.
Together, Tony and I then helped move him off the road and over into a nearby patch of Douglas fir.
For the next few miles, Tony and I were silent.
It's like we both realized the irony of a man dying of cancer witnessing a sudden, raw, unexpected death. What could it mean?
Tony spoke first.
"We both need to write a poem about this."
I totally agreed.
We promised each other we would do so as soon as possible, then share our work with each other.
I really don't recall too many specifics of what Tony and I talked about at my cabin that afternoon. I do remember how this very proud father shared many anecdotes about his two young daughters. It was obvious that he loved them very much.
Rather than dwell on his "terminal" prognosis, Tony expressed this positive attitude that he was going to do everything in his power to defy the odds. At the same time, he was going to live what time he had to the fullest.
Despite everything, I think we managed to laugh a lot that day, just like we had when we first met that afternoon so many years before. Mainly, I remember how weak Tony was, even though he was trying so hard not to show it. And while he never mentioned it, I knew he was in a whole lot of physical pain.
After a couple hours, I drove Tony back to southeast Portland via U.S. Highway 26 and then returned home.
Sometime around 3 a.m. that morning, my phone starts ringing. Engaged in a deep sleep, I let my voicemail tape machine answer it.
I hear Tony's voice floating through my cabin. He is reading his poem about our deer encounter. I am smiling again right now as I write this, recalling how my friend got busy and crafted his poem so darn quickly. Just like an ace reporter on deadline.
When I got up that morning, I did the same thing. It took me all day. I finally finished my deer poem that evening and called Tony to share it with him.
The next time I saw Tony was in November at the Hopewell House Hospice on Portland's west side. It would be the last time that he and I would ever share words.
Tony Kneidek left us forever on Nov. 21, 1999.
I miss you, brother.
We all do.
Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his "Beneath Wy'east" column once a month here on the Post's editorial pages.
For the Buck Yesterday on Marmot Ridge
Last night in moonlight, I dreamed
I went back to you. To that road above the river,
where Tony and I held you with our hands
to pull you back forever into a silence of fir,
a taste of old earth swollen with rain.
I will never forget how you met us. Trying to run
back into that fir. When the bones of your neck
broke into my windshield.
We walked back slow
to where your black hooves still clicked sideways
against that intrusion of road. Your purple tongue out.
Your eyes crazy with life. But your mouth filling
In that moment, I wanted to be my cousin Dean.
Or anyone who would have known. Who would
have taken their rifle out and knelt down with you.
Then hefted your warm weight up into their arms
and carried you back home.
But all I could do was light a flare
and stand there and wait.