" Keeping Afloat in Trouble Waters"
audio documentary by Jeff McCrea & Mike Bliley
"Keeping Afloat in Troubled Waters"
About the Documentarians
Keeping Afloat in Troubled Waters
by Mike Bliley
“YOU'RE GOING TO LAW SCHOOL, RIGHT?" Paul Peter asks.
"Did you hear that they stopped giving Viagra to lawyers?” Peter says, leaning forward, his thick glasses barely clinging to his face. “Every time a lawyer takes Viagra, he gets taller.” Peter is wearing his church attire, a suit jacket covering a scarlet vest and an even brighter red tie. His overwhelmingly kind demeanor prevents me from drawing irony in the fact that he is setting up a vulgarly premised joke in his church outfit.
He and I share a good laugh. Peter’s style is unconventional certainly, but while I can say I was expecting the entertainment, I can’t say I expected a Viagra joke. It is easy, however, to expect the humor that he sprinkles throughout his stories of when he was young.
Peter fondly recalls living and working on a farm and “without a TV,” even though his father worked for “some small outfit called the National Broadcasting Company.” It can be easy to forget that Peter is actually telling a story, rather than just aimlessly linking anecdotal asides; he describes a goat that was bought for the farm, “although who knows whose idea it was to buy the goat.” The goat somehow found its way in the front seat of the neighbor’s new convertible, ruining the interior. “That was probably expensive for my father to fix…but that was the last we saw of the goat!”
The sporadic stories continue, as this memory somehow sparks another: “I have a penny that I laid on the tracks when the Roosevelt funeral train came by.” Some people say holding onto such an item is useless, but he jokes that one should always acknowledge the value of things that are commonly thrown away. On the farm, “when I got to 10 or 11, we always separated our refuse. And those things that were eggshells, pods of peas, chopped up rinds of lemon, orange, whatever…it was my job to go out and bury this refuse in what would become the garden. Absolutely despised it. And now I’m doing it religiously once a week, and it makes REALLY marvelous dirt!” Even through his thick glasses, I can see the sparkle in his eyes as he chuckles through his words.
His passion for building came early. After his father lost his job, his family bought eight acres of land with a barn in it, which they soon reconstructed in order to be a house. “And I grew up building a house with my parents.” He stresses this, and you can tell he finds such an endeavor something to be proud of. He would carry this love onto his later years, building a screened-in porch and a shed for his backyard. He did this in his sixties, and in just a year.
I tell him that he must be a hard worker, and he says that he just has crafty ways of getting things done. To illustrate, he cites his “first job of any consequence,” at the Washington Post. “When it snowed,” Peter says matter-of-factly, “I delivered papers on the tractor, with a grater blade on the back.” Upon saying this, he sits more upright. I can tell, in his head, he is assuming the position on top of that tractor, delivering papers. When he would deliver his papers, people would ask him to clear their driveway, or give them rides. “I was making money hand over fist, with a stipend on the side for newspaper delivery!”
He follows his hearty laugh with a pause, and looks at the wall for a second. His voice comes out higher than usual, the product of sentimental reflection: “It was fun growing up in those times.”
Peter continues through his timeline, bouncing back and forth between his schooling and his work. He went to Old Dominion, where he met every minimum standard he could find. “I took English as a foreign language – it was completely foreign to me!” He had one professor write a note on the front of his paper, saying that the paper read like an article from Reader’s Digest. “And you know, I was stupid enough to think that was a compliment?”
He did, however, find a love for mathematics, which he parlayed into a career in military research, helping keep submarines underwater for as long as possible, even staffing various vessels. He says that “the scrutiny of figuring out if this individual psyche can endure the challenges that mentally it costs one when you take this perfectly good thing that floats and make it go under water, with the hopes that at some point, sometime later, it will come back up again.” For one of the first pauses of the conversation, he does not laugh; this is precisely how he analyzed his work.
“While I was learning how to do this on submarines,” he begins, with a less serious tone of voice that must indicate a subject change, “I met a wonderful lady.” Peter described Betsy as being different than all the other girls. “But I really liked this girl. And you know what? We’ve been married for 45 years…I got down in front of her on one knee and put this proposal in front of her, and the crazy lady said yes! Why she did, I’ll never know.”
He continues on with his final two passions, all of which Peter describes as “having fallen into my lap.” After his military research career disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall, he stumbled into a job teaching math at his former high school, which he loved. He also volunteered heavily in Boy Scouts, quickly becoming the District Advancement Chair. This position had Paul Peter as the final signature to approve Eagle Scout Projects, which he has been doing since 2002. Peter’s predecessor simply had packets mailed to her which she reviewed, signed, and sent back. Peter, however, opts to meet with every potential Eagle Scout, to really help instill what the rank means to them. “I don’t know how many young men and their mother or father or possibly both have sat somewhere in this house and talked about what they want to do as an Eagle Project. Some come through with, very rudely, what is looking for a ticket punched in order to receive a VERY significant accomplishment. Some come through with what could impact our society significantly, and offers a very real leadership challenge.” This challenge is what he enjoys; he dismisses the true impact that he has on these young adults, but even in conversation it becomes obvious. When asked why he meets with them, he responds, simply, “I’m a selfish individual.”
One of the greatest aspects of these two jobs is their flexibility. “We have some challenges around this house that we have been faced with, that requires me to have full calendar flexibility.” Betsy, his dear wife, has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. It has forced Peter to prepare the meals, clean the house, and do everything “without my soulmate by my side. It’s a heck of a lot of extra duty that I take on gladly. And I wish I didn’t have to.” Even in his somber state, gripped with his wife’s horrible disease, Peter’s optimism shines through even though his voice wavers. “If one allows fear to creep in, I think that could be devastating. If we wrap ourselves with fear, we will be able to accomplish nothing.” It works, Peter says, because they make a “damn good team. I thought our marriage was strong, I had no idea how strong.”
Peter and his wife resort to the little things to keep going. Reading was prevalent before, but even more so now (Peter wholeheartedly recommended me NOT to pick up the excellent novel of Threat Vector, as it would swallow my life for a bit). Peter continues to work, both in the classroom, in the minds of young Boy Scouts, but also in the heart of his loved one, working around the house to help her in any way he can. ◊
Mike Bliley graduated from Christopher Newport University in 2013 with a degree in English & Philosophy (a double major). He held many on-campus jobs including being a Resident Assistant, Front Desk Assistant, and Writing Center Associate. Mike was also President of CNU’s Rock Climbing Club. Rock climbing is his greatest passion. In fall 2013, he matriculated to the George Mason School of Law, where he plans on obtaining his Juris Doctorate, as well as a Masters in Public Policy. He enjoys bitter coffee, being outside, and taking long driving trips.
Jeffrey McCrea is a senior English major. He is 21 years old, and lives in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. He works at the campus coffeeshop, Einstein’s Café, and is a Writing Associate at the CNU Alice Randall Writing Center. Using the English degree, he hopes to become a teacher for secondary school. He enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee, and spending time with friends.
“The challenge that we face right now is that my wife has been diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer. I am preparing a vast majority of the meals, I am doing the laundry, I am keeping the house clean, and without my soulmate at my side; that is a HECK of a lot of extra duty that I take on, gladly – and I wish I didn’t have to. Cancer is absolutely horrible. If one were to allow fear to dictate what we do, I think it could be devastating . . . because I can’t imagine how Betsy is able to (she’s the strongest person I know) maintain sanity with this horrific disease we’re dealing with.”—Paul Peter
Audio interviews with Paul Peter
"Living on a Farm" (2:15)
"Earliest Substantial Memories" (1:28)
"His Mother's Reading Habits" (:58)
"Paul's First Big Payday" (3:16)
"A Typical Boy Student" (1:10)
"Operating a Submarine" (1:06)
"Keeping a Ship Submerged" (3:03)
"Helping to Grow Leaders in the Boy Scouts" (2:22)
"Meeting With Eagle Scout Candidates" (5:58)
"The Danger of Accomplishing Nothing" (1:27)
"Boring TV Watchers" (2:46)
"Changing Faith & Boring Birthday Presents" (2:11)
"The Delicate Act of Balancing Reading & Reality" (4:10)