Tributes 2009

December 22

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Aloha to John

A few days ago, while I took a break from grading duties, I went outside to pick up the mail. A copy of the Pitzer Participant, the magazine for my for college, was in the mail. I glanced through its pages, reading about a successful pop musician who was a Pitzer grad I had never heard of, and how Pitzer was leading the nation in Fulbright Scholars, when I came to a small with news of the passing of a few Pitzer graduates. The last one was my Hawaiian freshman year roommate, John Portlock. It said he died in December, 2008. It did not say how he died.

Distressed, I did a search on the internet, and found the information I was looking for. I found an article which said that John died after a head on motorcyle accident on December 21, 2008. He suffered severe brain injury, and died on a few days after the accident, on Christmas day. What a way to go! My search revealed the following information about John. He was still living in Claremont, where Pitzer College is, and still married to Carol Curtis, the woman he began dating soon after we first arrived at Pitzer. I also found out that they had 3 children together. In fact, I found that there is a John Portlock who is a top tennis player at the Claremont Colleges. I am guessing he is John and Carol's son. John was listed as being an engineer, which was a little odd, since he was a chemistry major at Pitzer, but feasible. Since we were about the same age, I believe John was 49 years old when he died. Interestingly, John was born in Hawaii around the time that it officially became one of the United States. The accident occured on Glendora Mountain Road, a windy road which goes into the San Gabriel Mountains not far from Claremont. It seems another motorcyle rider going the opposite direction had crossed into the wrong lane while going around a curve, and the 2 motorcyles collided. The other motorcycle rider only received moderate injuries. John's wife, Carol, said that John wore all of the protective equipment he could find, and took motorcycle safety classes every 6 months. Obviously, it wasn't enough. Ironically, I had tried to locate John using the internet a couple of times, but found nothing. It took his death for him to be mentioned on the internet, and there he was, living in about 40 miles away in Claremont the entire time.

John and I were like brothers of a sort. We had been paired as roommates months before arriving at Pitzer, and had written letters and sent pictures to each other even before starting our college careers. Although John had several siblings, he was the first person from his family to even go to college, I think, while in my family, everyone went to college. John was from a place called Wai' anae on Oahu, which he said was a fairly impoverished and tough area, with few Haoles (white people) such as myself. John's father was a Haole originally from Missouri, who was on disability, and his mother was half Hawaiian, half Chinese, making John a Hapa Haole (half white). (By the way, Haole is a demeaning term which means "without a soul" in Hawaiian, horribly untrue and prejudiced, but perhaps earned by the way that early white settlers in Hawaii treated the native people. John never told me that part.) Since John was 1/4 native Hawaiian, he was able to go to the Kamehameha School, which is only open to people with a certain amount of Hawaiian ancestry. I had never heard of such a school before, although I had heard of schools for native americans such as the Sherman School in my hometown, Riverside. John had a full scholarship and was a bright student, who majored in Chemistry from the beginning. I am sure his family was very proud of him.

John was like a Hawaiian brother to me. Obviously, we spent a lot of time together, although he quickly began to spend more time with Carol who lived across the hall than he did with me. I frankly was astonished at how quickly they formed a pair. Clearly, though, John and Carol's relationship lasted and was successful. At least I was glad to see that. John and Carol were listed as having been married for 31 years at the time that John died. I found that strange, because we were all freshpeople living in the same dorm corridor 31 years earlier. That means they must have gotten married during their first semester in college, if that is true, or perhaps they were common law husband and wife, and never actually got married. Carol was a local girl from Claremont (and also a Haole like me), who had an older sister who was a Pitzer student. Her father was a prominant businessman in Claremont, and had gone to one of the Claremont Colleges himself.

I remember John telling me he had worked in the Dole Pineapple plant in Hawaii before coming to Pitzer. Consequently, he was so sick of Pineapples that he never cared to see or eat another one in his life. On the other hand, he was always hoping his dining hall mashed potatoes would turn into Poi (mashed Taro). He couldn't understand why there wasn't a pot of Poi in every home on the mainland. He also was fond of eating salted, dried, sour plums. I like lots of exotic foods, but having tasted it, salted, dried, sour plums are not one of them. By the way, these plums are a Chinese invention. One time, John went to a party, and drank an alcoholic beverage which someone had apparently slipped PCP into. He didn't show up until the next morning. He told me he didn't want to force me to be around him while he was acting crazy from the drug. John never intentionally took any "hard drugs." I remember him talking about Marijuana, but I am not sure whether he smoked it. I never saw him smoke Marijuana, although most of the students on our corridor did, and its insipid sweet odor often permeated the hall. Another time, John drank too much liquor and said it made him feel aggressive. After that, he decided to avoid alcohol. I avoided all drugs, including alcohol, so hopefully I helped John avoid them, too.

After our freshman year, John and I continued to talk to each other regularly. No, we weren't close buddies, but we were friends. John had Carol, his Chemistry major, and his Chemistry buddies, and I had my own best friends and my own Biophysics major. We had different interests. He liked surfing (no surprise), Steely Dan and Aerosmith music, and apparently, motorcycles, although I did not know that at the time since neither of us had a vehicle; I liked fishing, the Moody Blues, Genesis and Earth, Wind and Fire music, and when I drove, drove a Toyota Corolla (which I still do, but not the same car) wishing it was run on an environmentally friendly alternative fuel source -- solar panel driven, perhaps. Nonetheless, there is something difficult to explain about the experience of being freshperson roommates. We were both away from home for the first time. We depended upon each other for support. When we had differences, we figured out a way to get along. I watched his relationship with Carol quickly blossom, and saw him succeed in his coursework as the first member of his family to go to college.

When I graduated from Pitzer, I remember hearing John and some other friends shout "Roberto," which was a nickname of mine, since they all thought I had a mediterranean appearance. John had even asked me whether I was hispanic, despite my anglo name. Actually, there was more to my nickname, but I will leave that part out. It was only a vicious, totally false rumor, anyway. The summer after graduating, I was with my family at Laguna Beach (in Orange County) when to my surprise, I encountered John and Carol there. We had a nice talk for awhile. That was the last time I saw John, as I went on to graduate school after that. Now it is my time to say my final farewell to John. Here's to you brother! Aloha roomy -- may your soul be in a wonderful place.