brandy and iced milk—she got the recipe from a magazine—which left us all
blotto. Though hens and brandy put a serious dent in her twenty-five-dollar
grocery budget, Penny simply couldn’t economize when it came to Woodell.
If I told her that Woodell was coming to dinner, she’d reflexively gush: “I’ll
get some capons and brandy!” It was more than wanting to be hospitable.
She was fattening him up. She was nurturing him. Woodell, I think, spoke to
her newly activated maternal streak.
I struggle to remember. I close my eyes and think back, but so many
precious moments from those nights are gone forever. Numberless
conversations, breathless laughing fits. Declarations, revelations,
confidences. They’ve all fallen into the sofa cushions of time. I remember
only that we always sat up half the night, cataloging the past, mapping out
the future. I remember that we took turns describing what our little
company was, and what it might be, and what it must never be. How I wish,
on just one of those nights, I’d had a tape recorder. Or kept a journal, as I
did on my trip around the world.
Still, at least I can always call to mind the image of Woodell, seated at the
head of our dinette, carefully dressed in his blue jeans, his trademark V-neck
sweater over a white T. And always, on his feet, a pair of Tigers, the rubber
By then he’d grown a long beard, and a bushy mustache, both of which I
envied. Heck, it was the sixties, I’d have had a beard down to my chin. But I
was constantly needing to go to the bank and ask for money. I couldn’t look
like a bum when I presented myself to Wallace. A clean shave was one of my
few concessions to The Man.
WOODELL AND I eventually found a promising office,
in Tigard, south of
downtown Portland. It wasn’t a whole office building—we couldn’t afford
that—but a corner of one floor. The rest was occupied by the Horace Mann
Insurance Company. Inviting, almost plush, it was a dramatic step up, and
yet I hesitated. There had been a curious logic in our being next door to a
honky-tonk. But an insurance company? With carpeted halls and water
coolers and men in tailored suits? The atmosphere was so button-down, so
corporate. Our surroundings, I felt, had much to do with our spirit, and our
spirit was a big part of our success, and I worried how our spirit might
change if we were suddenly sharing space with a bunch of Organization Men
I took to my recliner, gave it some thought, and decided a corporate vibe
might be asymmetrical, contrary to our core beliefs, but it might also be just
the thing with our bank. Maybe when Wallace saw our boring, sterile new
office space, he’d treat us with respect. Also, the office was in Tigard. Selling
Tigers out of Tigard—maybe it was meant to be.
Then I thought about Woodell. He said he was happy at Blue Ribbon,
but he’d mentioned the irony. Maybe it was more than ironic, sending him
out to high schools and colleges to sell Tigers out of his car. Maybe it was
torture. And maybe it was a poor use of his talents. What suited Woodell
best was bringing order to chaos, problem-solving. One small task.
After he and I went together to sign the Tigard lease, I asked him if he’d
like to change jobs, become operations manager for Blue Ribbon. No more
sales calls. No more schools. Instead he’d be in charge of dealing with all the
things for which I didn’t have the time and patience. Like talking to Bork in
L.A. Or corresponding with Johnson in Wellesley. Or opening a new office
in Miami. Or hiring someone to coordinate all the new sales reps and
organize their reports. Or approving expense accounts. Best of all, Woodell
would have to oversee the person who monitored company bank accounts.
Now, if he didn’t cash his own paychecks, he’d have to explain the overage
to his boss: himself.
Beaming, Woodell said he liked the sound of that very much. He reached
out his hand. Deal, he said.
Still had the grip of an athlete.
PENNY WENT TO the doctor in September 1969. A checkup. The doctor
said everything looked fine, but the baby was taking its time. Probably
another week, he said.
The rest of that afternoon Penny spent at Blue Ribbon, helping
customers. We went home together, ate an early dinner, turned in early.
About 4:00 a.m. she jostled me. “I don’t feel so good,” she said.
I phoned the doctor and told him to meet us at Emanuel Hospital.
In the weeks before Labor Day I’d made several practice trips to the
hospital, and it was a good thing, because now, “game time,” I was such a
wreck that Portland looked to me like Bangkok. Everything was strange,
unfamiliar. I drove slowly, to make sure of each turn. Not too slowly, I
scolded myself, or you’ll have to deliver the baby yourself.
The streets were all empty, the lights were all green. A soft rain was
falling. The only sounds in the car were Penny’s heavy breaths and the
wipers squeaking across the windshield. As I pulled up to the entrance of the
emergency room, as I helped Penny into the hospital, she kept saying,
“We’re probably overreacting, I don’t think it’s time yet.” Still, she was
breathing the way I used to breathe in the final lap.
I remember the nurse taking Penny from me, helping her into a
wheelchair, rolling her down a hall. I followed along, trying to help. I had a
pregnancy kit I’d packed myself, with a stopwatch, the same one I’d used to
time Woodell. I now timed Penny’s contractions aloud. “Five . . . four . . .
three . . .” She stopped panting and turned to me. Through clenched teeth
she said, “Stop . . . doing . . . that.”
A nurse now helped her out of the wheelchair and onto a gurney and
rolled her away. I stumbled back down the hall into something the hospital
called “The Bullpen,” where expectant fathers were expected to sit and stare
into space. I would have been in the delivery room with Penny, but my
father had warned me against it. He’d told me that I’d been born bright
blue, which scared the daylights out of him, and he therefore cautioned me,
“At the decisive moment, be somewhere else.”
I sat in a hard plastic chair, eyes closed, doing shoe work in my mind.
After an hour I opened my eyes and saw our doctor standing before me.
Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead. He was saying something. That is,
his lips were moving. But I couldn’t hear. Life’s a joy? Here’s a toy? Are you
He said it again: It’s a boy.
“Your wife did a superb job,” he was saying, “she did not complain once,
and she pushed at all the right times—has she taken many Lamaze classes?”
“Lemans?” I said.
He led me like an invalid down a long hall and into a small room. There,
behind a curtain, was my wife, exhausted, radiant, her face bright red. Her
arms were wrapped around a quilted white blanket decorated with blue baby
carriages. I pushed back a corner of the blanket to reveal a head the size of a
ripe grapefruit, a white stocking cap perched on top. My boy. He looked like
a traveler. Which, of course, he was. He’d just begun his own trip around the
I leaned down, kissed Penny’s cheek. I pushed away her damp hair.
“You’re a champion,” I whispered. She squinted, uncertain. She thought I
was talking to the baby.
She handed me my son. I cradled him in my arms. He was so alive, but so
delicate, so helpless. The feeling was wondrous, different from all other
feelings, though familiar, too. Please don’t let me drop him.
At Blue Ribbon I spent so much time talking about quality control, about
craftsmanship, about delivery—but this, I realized, this was the real thing.
“We made this,” I said to Penny. We. Made. This.
She nodded, then lay back. I handed the baby to the nurse and told Penny
to sleep. I floated out of the hospital and down to the car. I felt a sudden and
overpowering need to see my father, a hunger for my father. I drove to his
newspaper, parked several blocks away. I wanted to walk. The rain had
stopped. The air was cool and damp. I ducked into a cigar store. I pictured
myself handing my father a big fat robusto and saying, “Hiya, Grandpa!”
Coming out of the store, the wooden cigar box under my arm, I bumped
straight into Keith Forman, a former runner at Oregon. “Keith!” I cried.
“Heya, Buck,” he said. I grabbed him by the lapels and shouted, “It’s a boy!”
He leaned away, confused. He thought I was drunk. There wasn’t time to
explain. I kept walking.
Forman had been on the famous Oregon team that set the world record
in the four-mile relay. As a runner, as an accountant, I always remembered
their stunning time: 16:08.9. A star on Bowerman’s 1962 national
championship team, Forman had also been the fifth American ever to break
the four-minute mile. And to think, I told myself, only hours ago I’d thought
those things made a champion.
FALL. THE WOOLEN
skies of November settled in low. I wore heavy
sweaters, and sat by the fireplace, and did a sort of self-inventory. I was all
stocked up on gratitude. Penny and my new son, whom we’d named
Matthew, were healthy. Bork and Woodell and Johnson were happy. Sales
continued to rise.
Then came the mail. A letter from Bork. After returning from Mexico
City, he was suffering some sort of mental Montezuma’s Revenge. He had
problems with me, he told me in the letter. He didn’t like my management
style, he didn’t like my vision for the company, he didn’t like what I was
paying him. He didn’t understand why I took weeks to answer his letters,
and sometimes didn’t answer at all. He had ideas about shoe design, and he
didn’t like how they were being ignored. After several pages of all this he
demanded immediate changes, plus a raise.
My second mutiny. This one, however, was more complicated than
Johnson’s. I spent several days drafting my reply. I agreed to raise his salary,
slightly, and then I pulled rank. I reminded Bork that in any company there
could only be one boss, and sadly for him the boss of Blue Ribbon was Buck
Knight. I told him if he wasn’t happy with me or my management style, he
should know that quitting and being fired were both viable options.
As with my “spy memo,” I suffered instant writer’s remorse. The moment
I dropped it in the mail I realized that Bork was a valuable part of the team,
that I didn’t want to lose him, that I couldn’t afford to lose him. I dispatched
our new operations manager, Woodell, to Los Angeles, to patch things up.
Woodell took Bork to lunch and tried to explain that I wasn’t sleeping
much, with a new baby and all. Also, Woodell told him, I was feeling
tremendous stress after the visit from Kitami and Mr. Onitsuka. Woodell
joked about my unique management style, telling Bork that everyone
bitched about it, everyone pulled their hair out about my nonresponses to
their memos and letters.
In all Woodell spent a few days with Bork, smoothing his feathers, going
over the operation. He discovered that Bork was stressed, too. Though the
retail store was thriving, the back room, which had basically become our
national warehouse, was in shambles. Boxes everywhere, invoices and papers
stacked to the ceiling. Bork couldn’t keep pace.
When Woodell returned he gave me the picture. “I think Bork’s back in
the fold,” he said, “but we need to relieve him of that warehouse. We need
to transfer all warehouse operations up here.” Moreover, he added, we
needed to hire Woodell’s mother to run it. She’d worked for years in the
warehouse at Jantzen, the legendary Oregon outfitter, so it wasn’t nepotism,
he said. Ma Woodell was perfect for the job.
I wasn’t sure I cared. If Woodell was good with it, I was good with it.
Plus, the way I saw it: The more Woodells the better.