Losing It

For several years now, Murray Tate has been watching his life--daily rhythms, details regarding his loved ones, directions to the gas station up the street--slip away from him a little at a time.

Alzheimer's is like that.

Murray Tate has vivid memories. Working his way backward through his life, he lets his customary reserve fall away as he describes farming wheat as a boy near the Canadian border outside of tiny Crosby, North Dakota. Nearly six and a half feet tall, he sags his shoulders and holds his 73-year-old arms out in front of him like a man about to be handcuffed. "I used to run a team of four horses in front of a plow until I could barely hold the reins, then go home and do the chores," he says. Murray was the eldest of five children; his alcoholic father left when he was 11 years old. His mother always called him the steady one, the surrogate father who never lost his temper. In high school, while his family was on welfare, he was an A student who lettered in four sports. But Tate himself volunteers none of this information, preferring to sum up his childhood in a simple declaration. "I worked hard--daylight 'til dark."

His most detailed memories are of his 38 years with the Chicago and North Western railroad company. He started there shortly after being discharged from the Army after World War II. The Omaha Railroad, as it was called back then, wasn't hiring, but he had an uncle who knew a superintendent, and on the day he applied they called him in for night duty shoveling coal. The hours were hard and irregular--if you didn't work, you didn't get paid; if the phone rang at 3 in the morning, you got dressed and went. But he tenaciously scaled the union's seniority ladder until he was "number-one man" for the last 15 years of his working life. "Number-one man gets the best jobs," he says, as if this were the last fact on earth.

That meant sitting up in the cab as the engineer on the runs back and forth from Elroy, Wisconsin, just east of Eau Claire. "We'd haul 75, 100 freight cars in one long string," he says. "That's a pretty big job. You've got to know your business."

At one point his wife Lois interrupts the reverie. "Tell him about the last time you were on a train," she says. "Coming home from your sister's in Portland."

The three of us are sitting in the living room in their retirement townhouse in Roseville. "It was two years ago in June," she explains, turning toward me. "We got on the train at 4 o'clock on a Sunday and didn't get home until 8:30 Tuesday morning and during that time he was not with me. He was very confused. Then we get off the train down here at the Amtrak station and he's fine, like nothing happened." She swivels back her husband's way. "Remember? Remember when you thought you were standing on your friend Burt Hendrickson, who had been dead for a year?"

"Well--" Tate begins.

"Remember when you got off the train, wanted to go up and drive it, and the conductor had to put you back on?" To an old railroad man like Murray, this is a greater breach of protocol than standing on his dead friend, and he winces and lets out a curse under his breath. "I remember part of it," he says.

"He was in the upper berth and he kept undoing his straps and finally I thought he was asleep, so I went to the biffy. When I came out, he was trying to get into the sleeper across the hall because he couldn't find his glasses," Lois Tate says.

"I don't know what happened; something got triggered," Murray says. "It was raining, one hell of a rainstorm. I've never seen such a rainstorm."

"You couldn't figure out why you weren't getting wet," Lois says.

"There was a big red ball--about so big--and I felt it was going like this," Murray says, forming his hands around an imaginary object the size of a basketball and then whipping his arms from side to side. "It was shooting at something and I was trying to aim it. It was early in the morning."

But Murray remembers that he was not scared. "It's like the little guys we've got running around the yard here at night. Sometimes they're on the couch over there. And sometimes when I go upstairs, there's this one guy," he adds with an ominous chuckle, "he's about 7 or 8 feet tall, walking with me up the stairs. At the top he stops in front of me. I ducked the first two or three times he showed up. Now I just go through him."

I look hard at Tate to see if he's pulling my leg, a reaction that provokes a quick, nervous laugh. Over on the couch, Lois is sitting with a tight smirk, slowly nodding her head.

"Oh, it doesn't happen all the time," Murray says. "I guess it depends on whether you are tired or not, or what you ate, or some darn thing." He nods toward the picture window. "But there is always something in that yard."

Next Page »