Sunday, July 7, 2013

My Friend Roy by Norm E.

Harry Chapin's Song Circle was the inspiration for Topic 130 in my writing booklet.  His song states:

"All my life's a circle;
Sunrise and sundown;
Moon rolls thru the nighttime;
Till the daybreak comes around.


It seems like I've been here before;
I can't remember when;
But I have this funny feeling:
That we'll all be together again."

My focus on this topic stems from a personal experience where I was drawn back to people in my past.  I believe in circles.  Our lives are so intricately entwined, and if we open enough doors, we will all make that discovery.  As you can see one of the members in the write groups I facilitate has experienced his own circle.  Thank you Norm for sharing with all of us!


Following high school, I suppose that I was like many of my peers who knew that they wanted to go to college but didn't know in what to major.  Going both full and part time, I finally was able to complete my lower division courses, and it was now time to commit to a goal of some sort.  After some thought it seemed an easy decision as I had always been interested in art and therefore a career as an artist seemed to be the best match.  So I proceeded to take classes emphasizing fine art with a few classes in commercial art thrown into the mix.  Being young and not certain of what the future would hold, I still did not have a specific plan for a profession after graduation.  Also because of my age, thoughts of how I would make a living with my art never really entered into the equation.

A few terms went by, and I was making progress toward my goal of graduation when I decided that I needed to shift gears and work toward a major in Secondary Education with the emphasis on teaching art.  A major factor influencing my decision was the mentoring of an art teacher in High School by the name of Ruth Tennant.  She symbolized the bohemian, youthful energy of the 60’s  despite being from another generation.  Ruth was truly an “older” person---probably in her early 50’s!   But even at her “advanced” age she was a free spirit and encouraged her students to experiment with their art, try new things and really find the joy of making a work that was truly their own.  In 1966 she was one of those teachers that broke the mold of those in that profession.  Ruth not only channeled my thinking about my art but also about life and the changes that were happening to our world at the time.  By 1969 I knew that I wanted to be like her.

Filled with youthful vigor that was not tempered with practicality I started taking the courses needed for my new major.  The course requirements were difficult, and I struggled.  As time went on I began talking with others that I knew that had graduated with their teaching degrees and who were unable to find jobs.  Teaching jobs at that time were nearly impossible to land, and many had to leave the state to find work.  I began to question whether the course I was on was the right one, and on an impulse I decided to drop out of school for a while to reassess my life goals.  Doing so, I lost my student deferment and one month later received my draft notice.  Uncle Sam had some other life goals in mind for me, and it involved learning to be a soldier in the US Army.

There is a lot of ground to cover in my military experience, but I would like to fast forward to 1972 when, having left the Army, I needed to plan again for my future which involved more education.  Having amassed a lot of credit hours and not wanting to go back into Secondary Ed, I decided to get some additional art training at PCC this time following a path to a degree in Graphic Design.  One of classes was called “plate-making and printing”, and was taught by Roy Gyllstrom.  Roy was a part-time teacher and worked full time for an advertising firm.  Many of the teachers that I studied under at PCC were also professionals that used their art skills in the real world.  So the students were not just learning theoretical ideas from a text book, but they were learning practical skills that had a direct application in the job market.  This is what those of us in their classes wanted----to learn real job skills that would land us a good job once our studies were completed.

Roy was a good teacher, but strict, and he expected us to be exacting in the work that we did.  The other classes that I was taking taught us how to create quality original art that could be used for advertising.  Roy’s class showed us how to copy that artwork, make it into a photo negative and position it in a layout with print that could be used in a magazine or newspaper.  It was the final step in having your artwork published and it was rewarding to learn this important skill.

So after two years of learning a variety of job related skills and producing a portfolio of some of my best work, I graduated and walked out into the real world looking for a real job in my field, filled with high hopes.  After a few months of going door to door, showing my portfolio to every advertising agency, print shop and independent art studio in town, I wasn't able to find a job.  It turned out to be a kind of catch 22.  I was told that I couldn't be hired because I didn't have any published work.  But I couldn't get my work published unless I had a job.  And so the cycle went on.  Totally exhausted and terribly discouraged, I finally gave up on my dream.  I took a variety of part time crummy jobs to help out with the bills.  I even worked for a friend for a couple of years in his furniture refinishing shop.  Finally, I got a call at 9:30 pm one night in 1977 from a guy named Dale Johnson who was the head of personnel at Northwest Natural Gas Co.  He told me that he was looking at my job application (that I turned in about a year before and had no recollection of doing that) and said that everything looked good and would I be interested in coming in for an interview.  I said sure, and the rest, as they say, is history.  The story of my career in pipeline construction will be for another time, so we will fast forward again 31 years to the time that I retired from NW Natural in January of 2009.

Due to physical problems and job related stress, I retired early at 60 years old.  Because of my years of service I figured that I could live comfortably on my pension and my social security benefits.  The next decision was to decide how I was going to spend my retirement years.  I have a number of hobbies which I knew would help to take up some of that time and there was always things that needed to be repaired around our old house.  But there was a desire in me to get back to doing what I started to do almost 40 years before.  I really wanted to start doing some sort artwork again.  During those intervening years from the time that I quit looking for a job as a graphic designer, people would ask me to do posters to advertise community events and I even designed some of my own personal greeting cards.  Each card was an original piece of art custom designed for only one person.  These small projects kept me busy for a while but as we had kids and other commitments outside the home, time and energy for art became less frequent.  But with retirement came a lot of extra time, less energy than in my youth, but still a lot of desire.  One day I was thinking back to a gentleman that I met during my short working experience at a company called Pacific Stationery co on 2nd and SW Washington in downtown Portland.  His name was Larry Smelser and he ran an art studio called “The Brush and Palette Association”, located in the Oak Grove area.  He invited me to pay them a visit sometime.  That was back in 1972!  Well by this time it was 2010 and 38 years had passed.  I didn't know if the association even still existed.  So I looked them up in the phone book and was pleasantly surprised to find they were still around and so I gave them a call.  A nice lady answered the phone and I said that they were recommended by Larry Smelser and I was wondering they were still taking new students.  She said yes and the next day I went to pay them a visit.  As soon as I walked in the door I was welcomed by the studio full of artists.  Many of them said hello and made me feel right at home.  I also found out from one of the students that Mr. Smelser had passed away back in the 1980’s.  Well, one older gentleman on the opposite side of the room looked familiar so I decided to go over and introduce myself.  I extended my hand and told him my name and was shocked when he told me that he was Roy Gyllstrom.  This was the same gentleman that had been my art teacher almost 40 years before!  The very idea that my former teacher and I could be peers in an art class together was mind boggling.  But here I was and there he was and it was so hard for me to believe that our paths had crossed again after all of those years.

I asked the teacher of the class if it was o.k. for me to join the class and was told  that I could.  I explained a little of my background and she thought that I would fit right in.  So the following Tuesday I showed up with drawing pad and pencils in hand, ready to go to work.  I spent the first two or three classes mainly doing sketches.  There were models who came and posed and even some of the people in the class volunteered to be models.  Our teacher was Helen Trayle, a retired art teacher, professional print maker and an outstanding artist in her own right.  She was 92 and the same age as Roy.  Helen was strict with us on the fundamentals of composition, mixing colors and having a clear goal of what we wanted to do with each piece of art.  Her discipline was necessary for me as I had been so long out of practice and away from the very basic principles of art.  In time I began to feel more confident and my completed work reflected that.  The people in the class were so helpful in giving me tips and ideas to incorporate into my work.  It was a very positive and entirely enjoyable environment to be in and one that I have looked forward to each week.

But let me get back to the essence of my story.  One day after class one of the other students asked me if I could give Roy a ride back to his residence after class.  I told them that I would be glad to do that.  Little did I know that this was just the beginning of what would be a lasting friendship.

The 2 mile drive to his retirement home each week gave us a few moments to talk and get to know each other.  The man that I had known and respected as my teacher was now my fellow student and I could relate to him as more of an equal.  That is not to downplay the years of experience and skills that he had gained as a professional artist, teacher and as a recreational artist in his own studio.  But he was no longer just my teacher Mr. Gyllstrom...he was now my friend Roy.  Most of the time I would just drop Roy off at his front door, say goodbye, we wave at each other and I would leave.  After a few months he would occasionally invite me up to his apartment for a visit.  We would talk for an hour or more and it seemed that we had many things in common.  I really enjoyed our visits and it gave me the chance to get to know more about this man that I respected and admired.

Roy had been born in Chicago and his family moved to Michigan when he was very young.  He grew up there with his 6 other siblings, Roy being the 3rd oldest.  Now the only ones left are Roy and his youngest brother who lives in Minnesota.  Roy’s parents and grandparents were from Sweden and he is very proud of his Swedish roots.  His grandfather was a fisherman and Roy remembers him being a very tall and strong man.  He was also a tough, no-nonsense kind of person with a gruff exterior.  But there must have been a kinder, gentler side to him because his hobby was crocheting doilies.  A real man of contrasts to say the least.  He mentioned that his last name in Swedish mean “strong river”, which Roy is very proud of.  When WWII started Roy joined the army and spent his service in the Pacific theater as a combat infantryman.  He recalls one incident in particular that changed his life.  Roy had jumped in a foxhole to take cover from Japanese gunners that had his unit pinned down.  As he was laying there another soldier jumped into the same foxhole, not knowing that Roy was in there, landing squarely  in the middle of his back with his combat boots.  Roy heard a loud crack when the other soldier landed on him and pain shot through his body.  But there was no time to worry about the pain and so he continued to fight and survived the battle.  Roy’s combat group continued on through the months of fighting, capturing one island after the next.  Finally it was time for him to go back home.  When he arrived back in the states he was told that x rays showed that he had cracked vertebrae, but there was nothing that they could do to treat his injury and he would have to live with it.  That injury has stayed with him all of his life and he lives with constant pain in his back. Despite this he married, had children and had a wonderful life.

On one of our visits, as I was preparing to leave he came over to me and said “For what it’s worth...I love you.”  I told him that I loved him too and we hugged.  He went on to say during another one of our visits that he had perhaps 5 people in his life that he could count on and I was one of them.  I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.  My own father passed away in 1982 and Roy had become not just a friend but a kind of father figure to me.  I plan to continue to be that friend that he can count on and enjoy him for as long as he has left on this earth.  His friendship has added a new and wonderful dimension to my life and I will always remember the time we've had to spend together.

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What stories do you have which can relate to some type of circle?


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