Wednesday, September 4th 1996 11:30am
PVO died about five years ago in a motor cycle wreck. Found out yesterday in an e-mail note from Rob Hollman, the person I worked for in Corvallis. Paul V. O’neill. He said, “you can remember how to spell my last name as ‘one-ill’.” A cancer survivor, he lived with a dog in a cabin near Alsea, Oregon, and drove to work each day on a big Harley. His clothes were always dirty — mostly he wore canvas coveralls and motorcycle boots. He carried one of those large, leather wallets that are connected by a chain to the belt. He smoked clove cigarettes and drank black coffee in the Beanery across the street from the Oceanography building. His teeth were rotten, “all the throwing up I did on chemo messed me up,” he said.
I met Paul when he helped me with the macro-11 assembly programming that I had to understand. He was Dale Bibee’s engineer. “Call me an engineer, but don’t call me a research assistant,” he said. Paul had a degree in physics and knew machine programming on the LSI-11’s — the fancy PDP-11’s that were the best machines then — and he knew programming, better than anyone else in the department. He also seemed to know everything: electronics, how to weld, Fortran, C, geology, and how to buy great bottles of wine that cost less than six dollars. He carried DayTimers in his large wallet, and would keep notes about many things in them: the bottles of wine, names of songs that were playing on the radio, weather conditions.
Paul taught me how to use debuggers, how to pick locks and how to organize complex machine systems and designs down to simple parts and ideas. And PVO kept me from falling apart after I broke up with my girl, when I simply did not know what to do. I first listened to a CD-rom because of him. “Listen to this, Steve,” he said, and put a pair of headphones on me. Joni Mitchelle, Dog-Eat-Dog. When I took the headphones off he said, “You just have to forget about her. You just have to go and do something with your hands man.”
But Paul was also a misfit. Someone who wanted to be wanted but had too many peculiar habits: piles of Penthouse magazines on his coffee table; leaving scraps of paper everywhere he went; looking like a Harley-riding-bad-ass although he was just a tall, very thin, fragile, scientist.
When I left Oregon I gave him my car. A yellow dodge dart. I hoped he would stop riding the cycle — because he always seemed crazed on the bike — and I hoped that he would visit me soon in Montana. But he didn’t. And we never saw each other again.
For a while we wrote. Before the days of e-mail. He sent me a letter once with mushroom spore prints along the margin — sealed to the paper with spray fixative. Then the letters stopped, about the same time Sam was born and around the time when I became obsessed with work.
Recently, though, I had been trying to reach PVO. I wanted to tell him all about this software business that I helped start. I wanted to bring him to Missoula, maybe even work with him again. You see, he taught me things, and these days that is what I miss. I miss someone who says, “Let me show you something” I miss that. No one shows me anything now, and I am lonely for new things.
Once, at sundown, PVO rushed into my lab and said, “Steve, atmospheric phenomena alert.” I was busy and not wanting to move. Surrounded by wires and test equipment and harried because of an eminent deadline, I said, “Oh Paul, not now.” He wouldn’t listen though, and convinced me to rush with him outside to look at a tall, ghostly green light that was above where the sun had just set.
So, I had been thinking of him, and using the Web to search for his name and initials, and sending e-mail to all the Paul O’neill’s I found. If anyone would be on-line, it would be PVO. Then, a week ago, I found in an FTP site at Oregon State University a text file that listed “Oceanography People’s e-mail addresses.” A huge file, it lists thousands of people involved with Oceanography fromt he whole world of research centers and Universities. And, in the list was an address that was the Paul V. O’neill I was looking for. PVO@—- . So I wrote to him. I wrote a long letter, closed my office door and just typed. Told him the history of my last six years, the kids, the company, the emptiness of no longer being directly involvedwith all the code or electronics. And I sent the letter.
In the list of people there was also the address of Rob Hollman, my boss at OSU who I never really was close with, but I sent him a note too, very short.
A few hours later the letter I sent to PVO was bounced back to me with a machine generated message that said, “account closed.”. A long, honest letter is a sad thing if not delivered. So I decided to call OSU and ask about Paul, but the hecticness of work kept me from making the call. “Tomorrow,” I told myself, “tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,” as I’ve been telling myself for six years, these six years since I’ve lost nearly all of my friends. And days went by. And I did forget, again, about PVO. Until yesterday morning. The short note sent to Rob Hollman was answered, and not automatically by a machine. I was drinking coffee in the office, and there was the reply from Rob, with no warning in the subject. Rob sent me a few sentences. He was surprised that I had children. He mentioned his work. Then, at the end of the note, he wrote, “I assume that you heard Paul O’neill died in a motorcycle accident about five years ago.”
Just ASCII text on a vga monitor. A message sent to SSaroff@FreeMail.com received by a chunk of software that I had helped create but now no longer even know how some of it works. Some kind of SMTP gateway and some kind of PPP connection and all the other connections. The networks and wires and routers. Things that I have built and worked relentlessly on. Then to a computer in our reception area, then the message waiting for me as one of the daily “receiving 27 messages,” or “receiving 41 messages,” and most of these hundreds and hundreds of letters and notes and machine generated junk and confirmations and headers are just plain clutter or petty bureaucracy.
PVO, I do miss you. I am looking west now. I am looking for phenomena, and taking notes. Somehow I will send these words out.
Wednesday, September 4th 1996 11:30am