Greg Nokes, Dec. 6, 2014
(When we are of a certain age and a close friend passes, it is a reminder to us that we need to nourish our remaining friendships, both the new and the old. Family and friends are the sustaining fabric of our lives. I have lost a close friend of many years, Mike Shanahan, and the following are remarks I gave at a memorial service on December 6, 2014. The service was held at George Washington University, where Mike taught journalism for the last 19 years.)
I’m doubly privileged today. I’m privileged to have been a friend of Mike Shanahan’s. And I’m privileged that among his many friends, I’m speaking here today in his honor and memory.
In every generation some go first, some go last, but everyone gets their turn. However, I would have thought Mike would be among the last in our generation. It didn’t occur even for a moment he might go anytime soon. He was strong, athletic, he exercised, and he had a great outlook on life.
In writing these remarks, I realized I thought of Mike as a brother, and I will miss him as a brother.
I came to know Mike at the old Associated Press office on Connecticut Avenue, probably about 1975 soon after he arrived in Washington. I think we heard that each of us played tennis and so we headed to a tennis court. We battled it out on a public court in Springfield, Virginia, with our shirts off in 90-degree heat and humidity to match. Crazy, but we both survived. I think we played at least once a week for the next dozen years. Mike could be obstinately competitive—I wasn’t, of course, aside from the hours I spent strategizing on how I might beat him. I seldom did.
Mike impressed me in many ways. He was an excellent cook. He invited me one evening to a dinner party when we both were bachelors. I was expecting the typical bachelor fare of steaks, hamburgers, or, even Shake and Bake, a staple of my own bachelor household. I was more than a little astonished to be served Cornish game hen stuffed with wild rice. Mike knew his wines, too. I remember it as one of the best meals I’d ever eaten.
We supported one another during long-ago divorces and we attended each other’s weddings, to Mike’s Victoria and my Candise. I was especially proud Mike consented to be best man at my marriage to Candise in Oregon in 1994.
When I moved back to my hometown in Portland in 1986, I remember a farewell conversation with Mike. While standing on a corner on Constitution Avenue—we had just had lunch—Mike turned to me and said, “I’ll miss you buddy. I always thought we would grow old together.’’ It was that kind of friendship. Sometimes people got us mixed up, much to our amusement.
My moving away led to our sharing many memorable adventures. Mike came West to visit during many summers, and I sometimes returned to D.C.
Among our adventures was a trip on horseback into northeastern Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness to camp and fish at a high mountain lake in 1998. Neither of us had much experience on horses. I’m guessing Mike was as nervous as I was, riding along a trail no more than a foot and a half-wide, high above a raging stream called Hurricane Creek. I didn’t look down much, and only fell off the horse once, fortunately on the uphill side of the trail.
No one ever argued when Mike volunteered to do the cooking on our camping trips. However, with Mike doing the cooking, the cleanup usually fell to me. And Mike did not spare the pots and pans. He was also not especially fastidious in maintaining a clean campsite. Boots, backpacks, dirty socks, wet towels, coffee cups and beer cans would tell me where Mike had been in the camp.
Mike may have saved my life on one of our adventures.
I had been working on a book on the massacre of Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border in 1887 and wanted to visit the massacre site at a remote cove deep in the canyon. It was a two-mile slog along a treeless bench and then another mile down a steep brush-filled draw to the Snake River, which flows through the canyon. The distance wasn’t so bad, but the heat was. I had, rather stupidly, arranged to make the trip in August when temperatures in the canyon typically rose into the 90s. Mike and I followed a trail on a Forest Service map, but after we left the bench and started down the draw, we soon lost the trail and faced blazing our own path over fallen snags and through mud, brush, thistles, loose rock, and clusters of poison ivy, all the while looking out for rattle snakes.
Mike wanted to turn back. He was experiencing some PTSD from his time in Vietnam. The terrain reminded him of patrolling in the Vietnamese jungle, fearing ambush. But good friend that he was, he consented to keep going. We finally arrived at the Snake River at a place called Deep Creek where the massacre occurred. While I stood in the hot sun sketching the site, Mike took a dip in the river to cool off. Were that I was so smart.
After two hours or so, we started back the way we’d come. The sun was high overhead, and I was sweating profusely. Moreover, I had lost a step or two since we played tennis on those hot summer days in Springfield. After only a short distance up the draw, I began to cramp. I’d brought plenty of water, but hadn’t thought about salt, a nearly fatal oversight. The cramps became so bad, and each step so painful, that I couldn’t go twenty feet up the steep hill without collapsing to rest, often into a patch of poison ivy.
Mike was hugely concerned, carrying my pack, giving me water, telling me to stay put and offering to go for help. But what help? We were hours from the nearest town, and it would take many more hours for anyone to reach me. We plodded on, with Mike helping me walk. And, of course, we made it.
I am eternally grateful to Mike for helping me out of this jam. After we got back to our camp, and I’d rested awhile, I joked to Mike I would understand if he didn’t send a Christmas card that year. However, Mike wasn’t in a joking mood. I included Mike in my book with a picture of him picking thistles out of his socks.
Mike and Victoria, as well as other friends, came from Washington to help dedicate a memorial to the murdered Chinese in 2012. This time we traveled to the massacre site by jetboat.
While most of our visits involved fishing, every visit started with Mike bringing me up to date on Victoria, his daughters and his grandchildren. He was so very proud of them all. Mike also talked about his journalism students at George Washington University and the pride he took in their abilities and successes—he would mention them by name. And, despite gloom and doom in the industry, he remained doggedly optimistic about the future of journalism. He loved teaching here.
Mike cared about people, his family, his students, his friends, and Mrs. Hilda Leon, his children’s nanny and her family. During his visits over the years, it’s no surprise Mike made many friends in the West. People connected with Mike.
Mike usually came with his fly rod, sleeping bag, tennis racket, and his prized Canadian Tilley hat—he never went anywhere in our adventures without that Tilley hat.
Mike developed into a fine fisherman. In the beginning, he didn’t know much about fly-fishing, but then, neither did I. It was just something for us to do. But as the years went by, while fishing in some of the West’s finest trout streams, Mike became an avid fisherman, He learned how to “read the water’’ to spot where fish were most likely to be found.
We usually caught at least a few fish. We were catch-and-release types, so we never brought fish back with us, leading to jokes from my wife about what we really were up to. She had just seen “Brokeback Mountain.’’
We laughed at one another’s foibles. For example, there was the time at Kelley Creek in northern Idaho when Mike hooked a decent-sized trout. However, in his struggle to land the fish, his Tilley hat fell into the fast-moving stream. I laughed from the riverbank as he battled the fish downriver while stumbling along the rock-filled stream trying to also catch his hat. Amazingly, he caught both. He had plenty of occasions to laugh back at me. We both fell in streams more than once.
The last trip I took with Mike in 2013 was one of the best. Mike and I and another friend, Steve Carter, fished the Wallowa and Imnaha rivers in northeastern Oregon where we caught a lot of fish. As we had grown a bit older, we slept in a motel instead of a tent, and ate at restaurants instead of cooking over a camp stove. We also on that trip attended a writer’s conference called Fishtrap at Wallowa Lake, Oregon. As a spur of the moment writing exercise, Mike wrote of his attempts to help his brother, who had led a troubled life and had died the year before. Mike wrote it in long-hand, and I don’t know if he saved a copy. But it was a beautiful essay and was loudly applauded. Mike was a talented writer, in addition to being a skilled journalist and educator.
I begged off fishing this past summer because I was busy with book events. Mike was disappointed, and I now deeply regret I didn’t make time to go. However, I thought at the time we had many moré fishing trips ahead of us. We tentatively planned one for next summer. If I go, I know I’ll be asking Mike to help me “read the water.’’
And, yes, Mike, we did do a pretty good job of growing old together.