Rusty Norvell, 1930-2008
by Bruce Anderson, February 13, 2008
The last time I saw Rusty was the Friday after the first big January storm. He hadn't had any electricity for several days. His place at The Woods, the oddly suburban senior housing complex in the Pygmy Forest of Little River three miles from the Pacific, was still strewn with down tree limbs. Mexicans were cleaning up. I asked him if The Woods could survive without Mexicans. "Hell, no. This country wouldn't survive without them, either." Rusty said so far as he was concerned the power could stay off permanently. He said he'd watched a lot of television in the year he'd lived at The Woods and "couldn't believe how bad it was." He said he was reading Montaigne and, I supposed, so deep in the 16th century that candlelight, good enough for ancient skeptics, was plenty good enough for modern ones like him, too. His cancer was in remission and he'd stopped talking like a man ready to die.
You don't have to be Montaigne to know that other people are mysteries, unknowable. I'd known Rusty and his wife, Flo, since 1984. When I met them they lived in a forested enclave near Mendocino. Their second house was on the bluffs of Caspar vertiginously perched directly above the pounding surf.
Rusty was a book guy, I was a book guy. That was our connection. Books were our church, the Hamilton remainder catalogue our sacrament. We exchanged bargain tips. His collection took up all his wall space. Mine took over my house.
I visited the Norvells when I was out on the coast, they stopped by Boonville when they were on the road south. Rusty occasionally wrote for my newspaper, my newspaper supported the environmental involvement that was a large part of the Norvells' lives. But the longer I knew them, the less I knew them, and the longer I knew them the more I came to sympathize with Mrs. Norvell, and came to regard my book friend as fortunate indeed to have such an unfailingly cheerful live-in nurse for the five decades she picked up the shards of her husband's many shattered lives. I wasn't surprised that Rusty got sick soon after Flo died, and wasn't surprised that Rusty's son Cove assumed Flo's incessant responsibilities.
The last time I visited Rusty at The Woods he told me that Flo had come to see him. He may have been reading Montaigne but the skepticism had briefly abandoned him. "You know Bruce, it's the damnedest thing. I was just sitting here right where I am now when I felt a hand patting me on the shoulder. I looked around and, of course, no one was there. But then Flo said to me, 'It's alright, Rusty. It's alright', and she patted me on the shoulder one more time and then she was gone."
I didn't know at first that Rusty was an alcoholic. Other people told me. He kept his drinking life away from me. Flo never talked to me about it either. The Norvells were of the generation and social class where scandalous behavior was, insofar as possible, confined to its victims, in this case the family. Today, of course, bad behavior is celebrated, but as generous and loyal as Rusty could be, and he often was very generous, he was, in the modern phrase, "a high maintenance person," and it was his wife who did almost all the maintaining. I'd call him and he wouldn't be at home, and Flo, always discreet, always protective, would cheerfully say, "I'll have him call you when he gets back," as if he'd just gone out to the store for a carton of milk and not to the rear unit of the Fort Bragg motel where he'd stay for days at a time with a case of whisky, and Flo would send money to the man who managed the place who would throw an edible life buoy into whisky river for the drowning man who would eventually float by.
Rusty would dive to these motel depths several times a year, but in between he read books, listened to music — he knew all about jazz — and occasionally wrote an article for me or one of the coast papers. Blessed by birth with Oklahoma oil money, Rusty and Flo were able to exist outside the economic pressures that otherwise would have doomed them given Rusty's volatile drinking. Not that he didn't work. In his way he worked hard. He worked at newspapering and teaching, but something would always "happen" and the Norvells would be on the road again. They traveled the world, having lived in Spain, Mexico, Japan, Manhattan, San Francisco, and, finally, Mendocino.
Rusty was a better editor than he was a writer. And he was a very good editor in the old fashioned sense because he was not only a big reader but one of the many jobs he'd held was editor and reporter for several daily newspapers in the long gone times when even newspapers tried to be both interesting and clear, when journalists and their editors appreciated a well-turned sentence, a well-told story. Now, of course, most newspapers could simply be outsourced to, say, India, whose educated classes write better than most of the word processors processing the daily deluge of misinformation and tedious bilge force fed Americans these days. His own prose tended to get away from him in careless ways Rusty did not tolerate in others, me especially, and he'd phone me up almost every week to tell me how this or that story could have been improved. I seldom disagreed. I'd challenge him. "Come on down here every Tuesday and go over this thing, Rusty. It's no good after the fact, after it's already out there." He'd promise to "think it over," but he really didn't like doing what he was best at — making other people's prose better.
Rusty liked teaching, too, and from the passion he invested in the numerous errors, conceptual and real, in the spoken and written word around him, I knew he must have been a truly excellent teacher. He was certainly in demand as a teacher in his youth, having been engaged by a series of elite private prep schools, many of whose graduates would write to Rusty years later to tell him how much they'd benefited from his instruction. Locally, Rusty taught at the old Whale School in Albion but, and probably out of the anxiety public school administrators seem to feel at the prospect of genuinely talented individuals in their classrooms, Rusty never taught in any of the other local schools, which meant one more lost opportunity for local children.
He often had mysterious errands for me. Once he had me take his watch to a San Francisco repairman, "the only guy left in this country who can be trusted with it." When I arrived at the office of the Only Man Who Can Be Trusted With It, I was seven floors up in a non-descript building a block off Union Square. The door was locked. I knocked. A tremulous male voice asked me what I wanted. I said I'd brought Mr. Norvell's watch to be cleaned. The door flew open and an instantly effusive old man, "a Spaniard from Spain" he later informed me, told me I was "most welcome." He said it was "a great honor to be entrusted with such a fine instrument."
I've owned a Timex or two, but I'd never possessed any object approaching "fine instrument" status. And I hadn't opened the box I'd been entrusted with to look at the thing; I wasn't curious about it even though Rusty had emphasized that the watch was too valuable to send through the mail.
"My father gave it to me," Rusty had said. "It means everything to me." In that case, I thought, I had zero business transporting it, but I knew if I'd asked him for a favor Rusty would have instantly agreed, so...
The old Spaniard, speaking as reverently as if I held a lock of hair from Christ's suffering head, said the watch was Patek Phillipe gold and more than a hundred years old. Bowing his head, his voice lowering unctuously, the old man added, "and probably worth more than $40,000." I pantomimed tossing the box out the window. The watchmaker was unamused. "I will call Mr. Norvell when it is ready," he said, carefully removing the box from my clownish, irresponsible hands with both of his. I've wondered how that watch survived its owner's many misadventures, and I hope now that Cove Norvell will own it.
One sunny summer day Rusty appeared at the paper's Boonville office. It was a Tuesday, production day for us, and not a day for distractions. Rusty had roared up in his big bomber of a Buick, one of the last really big ones Buick made. He was driving. Leonard Cirino, the Albion poet, sat in the passenger seat. We'd heard them coming up the driveway because, as always, Rusty was driving too fast for conditions, in this case the dusty forty-foot length of our driveway. I met them at the door. Rusty, in what we called his seaweed hat, a cowboy Stetson with a length of kelp in place of the usual hatband, was so drunk he wobbled. Cirino grinned that unnerving, maniacal grin he seemed to reserve for encounters with me. Rusty pulled a garbage bag of clothes from the back of his Buick 707 or whatever it was. "Keep these here for me, Bruce, I'm on my way to Nashville."
Nashville? Nashville, Tennessee? I asked, incredulous.
"That's the only Nashville there is, buddy," Cirino said, his deathhead's grin managing to out-shine the afternoon sun.
I told them to come in out of the heat and rest awhile because I wanted to get them away from the car so I could snag the keys out of the ignition. But the keys weren't in the ignition, they were in Rusty's pocket. I told Rusty he wouldn't make it to Yorkville let alone Nashville in the condition he was in.
"I've never known you to be judgmental, Bruce," Rusty said with audible disappointment.
"I've never known you to be suicidal, my friend," I replied.
The upshot was that I called the CHP, hoping the cops would head him off at Cloverdale. If he got that far. I knew in my bones he'd kill someone in that big Buick, and wouldn't my friends in the local media like that. "Enabler Editor's Pal Kills Family In Head-On Crash Near Boonville. Anderson Admits He Knew Friend Was Too Drunk Too Drive, But..."
Somehow Rusty got all the way down 101, all the way through the city, all the way to SF International, all the way onto the airplane, all the way to the only Nashville there is.
Months later my wife sold the garbage bag full of his clothes at a garage sale. She'd washed them, carefully folded them, arranged them on a table with the real cheap stuff where, she reported long after they were gone, "They went real fast. Where'd they come from anyway?" Months after his Nashville run Rusty called me to ask where his clothes were, which is when I discovered their fate. Flo laughed about it every time I saw her right up until the last time I saw her, and if ever there was a martyr to holy matrimony it was that lady.
According to a terse press release issued by the CHP last week, "Russel S. Norvell of Little River died Sunday afternoon, February 3rd, in a single car accident on Highway One near Gordon Lane, south of Mendocino at mile-marker 48.50. The accident occurred at 2:40pm under cold, cloudy conditions, following several days of rain. Norvell was southbound in a 2001 Toyota Prius when he lost control of the vehicle and ran off the road into a dirt drainage ditch, spinning backwards into a eucalyptus tree. Norvell was not wearing a seatbelt at the time."
"At the time" Russel Norvell died of a broken neck from driving backwards into the tree at about 50 miles an hour.
I'd talked to Rusty the Wednesday before he died. The power had been out again at The Woods, and he was still reading Montaigne. He told me his cancer was in remission, that he was feeling a lot better, that he was going to write the article on his illness he'd promised me. He was happy, optimistic. He wanted to go on living.
Rusty leaves behind his son Cove Norvell, Cove's wife Lorraine, and granddaughter, Elizabeth.
All of us who will miss Rusty will gather this Sunday in the Abalone Room of the Little River Inn at 2pm to remember him.