Who Was Your First Hero, Bill Wood?

Timberbeasts, seaman, street fighters and biologists, spreading out of Novia Scotia and into the Great Pacific NW by land and by sea: these were the dinner stories of my dad. On my mom’s side I heard of covered wagons, charm school and running printing houses; tales of the last three generations of my family.

I could just as easily talk about country bumpkins, mental illness, and jail time, because sure, my family has all that stuff, too. But I grew up with storytellers, and the past was filled with family and friends, of exaggerated acts of bravery and acts of kindness, that came to life with undisputed certainty in my parents’ stories–particularly my dad’s, and particularly after the second or third bottle of wine.

George Wood was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, around 1909. Fourteen years later, he apparently determined that he was ready to be a man because he left home and moved to Florida to work in the blossoming logging trade. He was the hightopper, meaning he was in charge of lopping off the tops of giant trees before the good wood was felled. It was the most dangerous job in the woods, not just because a man (or boy) had to climb and saw, hundreds of feet in the air, but also because as the tops severed from the trunks, the trees could split, crushing a man to death with his own safety harness pulled taut against the releasing timber. Sometime during the next 20 years he wound his way up to the Pacific NW (what I now call Cascadia), where he would eventually raise a family and die one week after his 100th birthday.

I remember the size of his hands. I was probably 8 years old and he was stooped and old, already 80 years old. But his hands hung like giant paddles at his side, easily large enough to palm my entire head, flaccid reminders of the giant he once was. The callouses worn so deep they never faded, creases of a life as a timberbeast.

I remember watching the Olympics with him, my parents, and my younger sister. It was the 400 meters. A quick race, a sprint, really. As the runners came around the last curve, somehow still accelerating with legs pumping and arms whipping like the blades of a fan, my grandpa leapt up and yelled:

“Somebody shoot the n—–! Let the white guy win!”

Because this is a true story.

My grandpa’s first son, my uncle James, was a streetfighter. His younger brother, my dad, swears his record was 112-0. And surely, or probably, that wasn’t his actual record, but the funny thing about James is that he grew up to be a biologist, a serious geek, and a moderate Democrat. He and his wife had 2 children, one of whom came out as openly gay in the late 1980s, a scandal in anyone’s family at the time, and one my family struggled mightily to comprehend.

Grandpa Wood’s youngest daughter married a black man, a drummer in a respected local jazz band. And somehow, not 10 years after my grandpa’s outburst at the Olympics, we found ourselves sitting down together at a family reunion eating salmon: (former?) racists, gays, and blacks. And I’m not going to lie and say it was easy–it most certainly was not, but it happened. And Grandpa Wood wasn’t an angel, but he didn’t die a racist, either. And to see an old man with no education change his views like I saw him change his…that’s a kind of strength of character it is sometimes hard to believe past generations may have had, I think.

And he wasn’t the only one from his generation to do it. In 2, maybe 3 or 4 generations our culture has come further than I think anyone except the great luminaries like MLK thought we could. And it’s not easy remembering my grandpa yelling those things at the Olympics. Of course it makes us all cringe inside, but that was the truth of the time and it’s not the truth anymore. My gay cousin, he just disappeared–no one knows where he went, no one has a lot of hope that he’s alive. My aunt divorced the jazz musician, although they remained friends until his death, and much of our family attended his funeral. Honestly it’s hard for me to tell you who I looked up to the most growing up; my heroes didn’t wear capes and say pithy things, they were dirty folk from the country who wore their emotions on their sleeves and fought for what they thought was right. And I’ll be telling these same stories to my children at the dinner table, right after I’ve drunk that second bottle of wine, and my kids will decide for themselves who their heroes are going to be.

In honor of our current theme, How Are We Remembered? Bill shares both his personal and professional bios:

Bill grew up in rural Cascadia where he did a lot of different odd jobs and played in the woods a lot. Eventually he spent a bunch of time really enjoying Portland, and now he’s a neuroscientist trying to work with a bunch of cool people in a bunch of cool places. He is currently in Paris, although you may be equally likely to find him in Portland, Seattle (check the College Inn Pub), the San Juan Islands (diving for tasty snacks), or Brazil.

William Wood was born in Salem, Oregon, and holds a BA in biology from Reed College and a Ph.D. in Neurobiology in Behavior from University of Washington. He is the recipient of numerous grants and awards including a Fulbright Postdoctoral Research Fellowship and a Ruth L. Kirchstein National Service Research Award (NRSA) from the National Institute of Health. He currently is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, France.