So long, Ruckley
My wife and I just learned that one of Portland's true characters, "Tin" Welch, left us on September 11, 2004, at the age of 75. "Tin" was short for his middle name, Quentin; his "real" first name was John, but we never called him that, except on the rent checks.
We had the great pleasure of knowing Tin in the early '90s, when we leased a house from him and his wonderful wife, Carol, in close-in SW Portland. They lived next door. You couldn't ask for better landlords, and we became fast friends.
The houses were both heavenly slices of Old Portland, down in the old Jewish part of Lair Hill, below where the infernal OHSU aerial tram is going to be built. The Welches had a great reverence for history, and an eclectic taste in art and furnishings, the likes of which I'd never seen before and haven't seen since. The neat old features of the homes were lovingly preserved -- there was still a mazuzzah on our threshold -- and enhanced by the many fine antiques and perfectly oddball decorations that Tin lined them with. You might not think that half-buried bowling balls would make a good garden border, and in most yards you'd probably be right, but at the Welches', they were positively works of art.
My now-wife and I were just starting out living together. We had little furniture, no curtains, and no rugs. But in the first of what was to become a long string of kidnesses, the Welches graciously loaned us surplus items from their huge collection of antiques and stained-glass windows. It really went a long way toward making that little house a home. Eventually we bought a couple of the items that we liked the best, and they're still prominently displayed in our current home, a couple of addresses removed from our renter days.
At the time we were next door to them, the Welches were heavily into buying and selling antiques, both as an agent for estates and on their own account. They owned a funky store up in North Portland -- open only on Saturdays, as I recall -- where they would re-sell tons of stuff that they had picked up from various sources during the week. It was a popular spot, and when it closed, many of the regular customers mourned.
Tin taught us the fine art of garage sale-ing. Stick to the estate sales, he'd say. Most of the rest is junk, and you'll be wasting your time. Moving sales? Forget it -- if the stuff were any good, they'd take it with them. And beware the "huge" garage and yard sales -- that word was a sure sign that junk was all you'd find. As we tool around to weekend sales these many years later, Tin's sage advice still rings in our ears.
We even bought a car from the Welches. They were selling off the estate of a friend of theirs, who had died unexpectedly, and included in it was a like-new Ford Taurus that was guaranteed to go to the highest bidder. We put in a bid, and a few days later, we had a new grown-up car, which we got at a relative steal.
It wasn't until many months into our friendship with Tin that he mentioned casually that he had been an actor in a prior stage of his life. He was very nonchalant about it, but as we demanded more information, we found out that Tin had been a stage actor in Portland for many years. Toward the end of the conversation, he remarked that he had even been in a Hollywood movie once. Just a small part.
Maybe we had heard of the movie? "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
My jaw dropped. "You're kidding," we said. No, he said as he rooted around the living room. "Here -- here's a videotape of the movie. Play it some night and see if you can spot me."
So we took it next door to our place and turned it on. Could we spot him? Are you kidding? He's walking around as a prominent extra throughout nearly the whole film. His character even got a name -- Ruckley, the mute inmate. Remember the scene in which the protagonist first arrives at the mental hospital, and he's looking around at the disturbed inmates around him? There's Tin, staring into space with a look of the truly dazed and deranged. And the stunning scene in which Jack Nicholson teaches the "Chief" how to ram the basketball through the hoop? There's Tin again, roaming around quite conspicuously in the background. The director, Milos Forman, knew what he wanted in every frame, and so this was no accident.
Wow. If I had been on the set and on the screen for some of the greatest moments in the history of cinema, you wouldn't have to pry that information out of me, I'll tell you. But for Tin, it was just one of life's many amusing moments. It seemed as though to him, magic happened all the time. His days on the stage and screen had been just a few of many such days.
It turns out that the surprise residual check that he received after the movie was a smash hit enabled him to make the down payment on the house that he was renting to us. And so not only can I say I'm just one handshake away from Nicholson and Forman, but I can also say I now have an antique print hanging in my living room that I wouldn't have if Ken Kesey weren't such a great author, Nicholson weren't such a spectacular actor, and Forman weren't such a splendid director. And I can also boast that I knew a man whose name appears in the credits of an Oscar-winning best picture.
One thing I didn't know about Tin until reading his obits was that he fought in Korea. He served as a lieutenant in the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron ("Every Man a Tiger"), 67th Tac Recon Group, 5th Air Force, Far East Command. He served out of K14 Kimpo Air Base.
I did see him in action in Asia in the mid-1990s, however, when he took a trip to Indonesia and came home with a large container full of antiques. It was amazing stuff, as was the sale he and Carol improvised for these items in a storefront around the corner.
But for all the remarkable things we saw him do, and for all the native intelligence and worldly wisdom that he displayed in the four years we rented from him, what impressed me most about Tin was his gentle spirit. It combined generosity, creativity, curiosity, ingenuity, a wicked sense of humor, and a twinkle in the eye.
I can still hear his laugh, which I'm grateful for having shared. Catch you later, friend.