Make the McKenzie Connection!

Sometimes all we could do was hold hands and listen

My first column about The Whip appeared in the Eugene Register-Guard in Oregon in December 1994. She called the newspaper because the DMV wanted to yank her license.

I don’t know if those people still call or write to media outlets. I hope they do. Some of them from my newspaper days became legendary figures, such as the “Rain Lady” who badgered reporters at The Oregonian for years.

During her, yes, reign of terror, any reporter who dared write cheerfully of sunny weather or who disparaged dampness was sure to get a hand-written cursive thunderbolt from the Rain Lady. She despised the wicked, wicked sun and said many people, such as her, LOVE the rain and the wet.

Reporters were commonly assigned to do breezy weather stories after any stretch of particularly hot, cold, dry or wet days. Generally, weather stories were considered quick and dirty assignments, done to acknowledge what was going on in people’s lives and handed out to whoever might be standing near an editor at the wrong time. But as a result, dozens of Oregonian reporters received Rain Lady letters, and getting your first one was cause for a round of congratulations in the newsroom. I received at least two, I think; others received dozens, and phone calls, too. Many of us apparently saved our Rain Lady letters; I think mine are in a plastic tub in the basement storage room. I hope so.

I posed a question about the Rain Lady on an Oregonian alumni Facebook page and got tons of comments. The question prompted recollections about other cranks who called or wrote to newsrooms about various conspiracies or perceived slights. One former editor vividly recalled a guy he’d nicknamed “Mr. Benghazi.” The caller hated Hillary Clinton and called frequently to rage about her alleged responsibility — and the Oregonian’s outrageous coverup — for the 2012 attack in Libya that killed four Americans, including the ambassador. She was Secretary of State under Obama at the time and the rabid right wingers did, and still do, hate her guts.

At the Register-Guard in Eugene, prior to The Whip, I had correspondence from the Balloon Lady. She sent what seemed like a charming letter suggesting we all wear balloons so that, if we collided, we would all bounce away unharmed. I thought she was one of Eugene’s warm-hearted old hippies, and this was her fanciful way of wishing everyone peace. What a cheerful story. So I went to interview her.

She wouldn’t let me in, but spoke to me through the living room glass. She didn’t want to be interviewed, and I realized she was mentally ill in some fashion. I worried I’d scared her. Later, she sent me a letter saying the Kennedys were planning to kill her because she knew too much.

I called the county mental health office and said: Look, I know you can’t even acknowledge this woman is a client. I don’t expect you to, that’s fine. I just want to let someone know that it might be a good idea to go check on her. She thinks the Kennedys are going to kill her. Mentioned the Mafia, too.

The person I spoke to was a study in neutrality. She said thank you for your call, we have received your information. I didn’t hear from the Balloon Lady again, so hopefully a caseworker went to see her. Or else the Kennedys did indeed rub her out.

The Whip was something else. Old, lonely and bedeviled by bureaucracy, or maybe just by the passage of time, but in full possession of her wits.

Her name was Helen Mary Moon. She said “The Whip” was a nickname she picked up during World War II when she and the third of her four husbands — the one descended from Blackbeard the Pirate — herded convoys of newly-made Army trucks from Detroit to various seaports, where they were shipped off to war. Her job was keep the convoys organized and moving, “The Whip,” see? She said most of the drivers were retired cops who wanted to loiter in any coffee shop that had a pretty waitress. The Whip had to roust them out to get back on the road.

That was the sort of the thing The Whip told me. She was dramatic. She said she’d associated with gangsters in Detroit and seen a guy stabbed to death with an ice pick right before her eyes. “I’ve lived a full life, and I’ve lived a dangerous life,” she told me. “When I look back, I shudder, I shudder.”

The Whip — Helen — originally called the newspaper because the DMV was going to yank her driver’s license. She’d gotten a speeding ticket from a Eugene cop and then they flunked her for wobbling during a driving test. In her opinion, it was the DMV guy’s fault because he made her nervous, sitting in the car with her during the test. She said he just should have followed in his own car.

The Register-Guard was then in its golden days, with a national reputation as one of the best mid-sized daily newspapers in the country, but our local readers still expected us to pay attention to their woes. I sat within view of our redoubtable news aides, Lisa and Sue, who fielded many scattershot calls from troubled readers, and often transferred them to me when they didn’t know where else to send them.

Helen was a month shy of 91 when she called. She stood about 3 inches shorter than her 5-foot custom-made pool cue, had a scratchy, shaky voice and didn’t hear well. She maintained she was still a good driver. Why, she knew more about driving than those bureaucrats down at the DMV ever would.

So of course I had to go for a ride with her. We hopped into her 1988 Ford Escort station wagon and cruised around Eugene and Springfield. She did pretty well: hitting the lights, using her turn signals and checking her mirrors. We stopped in at her regular haunts, two senior centers, where she played pool with some men, checked a card game that was in progress and inquired if so-and-so had died. He had.

Helen and I held hands as we toured the second senior center. It was so cool that I laughed out loud, and so did The Whip. She said, “Oh, I haven’t had a hand to hold for so long, it feels good!”

I wrote about her. She was able to keep her license, although I don’t think that was any of my doing. She insisted I’d brought her out of her lonely shell, however, and she’d call from time to time with ideas or proposals.

“HELLO, HELEN, HOW ARE YOU?” I’d shout into the phone, silently mouthing “I’m sorry” as everyone in the newsroom looked up.

“What’s that?” she’d say in that shaky voice. “This darn phone…”

Afterward, people would say, “Was that The Whip?”

Helen wanted me to write a regular column about her views. She had a lot of things to say about Ronald Reagan, for example, although he’d been out of the presidency for years by then. I told her three times the editors wouldn’t be interested, but she persisted.

“They wouldn’t have to pay me a salary, just expenses,” she’d say.

Helen died in January 1996 at the age of 92. The manager of the trailer park where she lived said she died of a heart attack. She hadn’t been feeling well and she took a piece of bread to bed with her, to nibble on, he figured. A grandson came out from Michigan to handle the burial arrangements. The park manager said there was a rumor that Helen had $60,000 squirreled away in her trailer, but now nobody could find it. I doubt that was true.

So that was about it. I wrote about her, and listened to her. I went to see her a couple times, and she made us lunch once. I showed her how to use her microwave. I didn’t make her nervous when she drove.

And I held her hand when we walked through the senior center. I hope reporters today, busy as they are in the frenetic news cycles, are able to do the same, sometimes.

Eric Mortenson is a Pacific Northwest writer who spent 37 wondrous years at Oregon newspapers. Per Eric: “I’m a husband to one wife, dad to four kids, and a useful human to two dogs and two cats.” Subscribe for free at: [email protected].


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