Life at the Tower: A Remembrance of Alex Cockburn

by Sheryl Chard


The first time I met Alex Cockburn we were staying in The Tower, the beautiful box of light Alex had built on the hill behind his home in Petrolia, California. My boyfriend Deryle had seen it advertised on the Counterpunch website, and its outdoor bathtub, its large windows opening to morning fog off the Pacific, its art and fine craftsmanship all hinted at a world of rest and books, music and beauty.

We set out from New Mexico—up through Utah’s canyon country, across Nevada’s loneliest road in America, through the fires that were burning northern California that summer—and arrived in Petrolia three days later. To get to The Tower, you park on a dirt road next to Alex’s row of lumbering American steel, including my favorite: a 1959 red Chrysler Imperial convertible with white leather seats, which, Alex once quipped, “was made for dentists.” You let yourself in through the gate near the cider house with its frescoes of California bootleggers and an ornate blue-and-gold painted roof. You divide up your belongings into small, manageable parcels, and you haul them up several switchbacks, past large ceramic installations and a mosaic bench built into the hillside. You do all this with gratitude for having somehow slipped through the veil into a place that will end up meaning more to you than you ever imagined.

A day or two into our first visit, Alex hollered greetings to us as we were cutting through the edge of his garden to the road. He was standing on a ladder, painting the trim on his house a bright red. His love was going to visit the next day, he said, and he wanted to spruce the place up. Down he came, insisting on whipping up a nice pasta for lunch and opening a bottle of wine, which we drank in his garden until late afternoon—the first of many luxurious hours together that would become days that would become years of friendship.

When we returned a few summers later, after Alex had visited us in New Mexico, we were already in love with the Mattole River, which parallels the road to The Tower; in love with the way the cliffs of the King Range and the Pacific Ocean collide in steadfast contradiction; in love with the walk up to our nest on the hill; and in love with Alex. It was during this second visit, the summer of 2010, that Alex asked Deryle if he would go with him up north to a doctor appointment. He needed someone to drive him home afterward—an understandable plan if you’ve ever driven the Lost Coast Highway, or if you’ve ever ridden anywhere with Alex Cockburn. In hindsight, I imagine Alex already knew something was wrong, and in his first efforts at keeping the monster in a box, it was easier to ask Deryle—a newer friend, not his inner circle in Petrolia—to take him. It was safer.

When the afternoon began to slip away and I hadn’t heard from them, I assumed they had decided to stay in Eureka and have dinner there. I enjoyed my time alone on the light-filled hill until Deryle finally called to explain that they were in the hospital and that the news was not good. They arrived back late, and when we were headed to dinner a night or two later with some of Alex’s dearest friends, he asked us for our discretion.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve pored over the obituaries and essays written to mark Alex’s death. They speak of his invaluable contribution to journalism and truth-telling, and many describe him as the uncompromising, acerbic journalist that, in fact, he was. I know and am in awe of Alex’s intellectual firepower and ability to string together words in a way that makes your head spin. But what I will remember about Alex is something else altogether. I loved that he fed his beloved dog Jasper out of a gorgeous ceramic bowl made by a local artist. I loved that his bird Percy would ride around on his shoulder, sometimes shitting right on Alexander’s shirt (the same shirt he had been wearing for three days) and his not giving a damn.

I loved when he called his neighbor to say Deryle and I would be hiking the hill through the neighbor’s property and then presented us with an old-fashioned leather shoulder bag and a Mason jar filled with water. I loved that we were named the Best Tower Guests Ever because we didn’t go running about to see everything within a 200-mile radius, something that irritated Alex immensely and which, as one can imagine, he had no problem saying to any poor soul who happened to want to drive north to the Oregon border and back in one day. No, Deryle and I stayed. We soaked in the outdoor tub at night and in the afternoon sun with stacks of books within easy reach. We walked down to Alex’s garden in the late afternoon or rang to see if he wanted to come up for dinner. There was no reason to go anywhere else.

We returned to Petrolia last summer for a week in mid-July. We returned because The Tower is salve on your soul, and we returned because the news the prior summer had not been good. Deryle had heard what the doctor had said to Alex, and he was carrying that verdict tenderly and quietly.

Our last week with Alex held many of the same qualities as all of our other visits. We ate and laughed, talked and played records. And Daisy, Alex’s daughter, became our friend too. One night, we picnicked in a clearing in the woods, hosted by Alex’s friends at Counterpunch and generous others. We crossed a wooden plank over the creek, lounged on old blankets, and ate corn cooked on the open fire. I remember thinking, these are all such fine people; Alex had surrounded himself with true and good souls. On our last night, Alex, Daisy, Deryle, Jasper, and I piled into the Imperial and drove the two-lane dirt road to the beach. I recently found a tarnished silver fork wedged in a side pocket of my backpack, a relic of our picnic that night.

Where the Mattole River meets the Pacific is an awesome place. When you stand at the steep edge of sand where salt and fresh water mix, the feeling is akin to standing on the edge of a tall cliff. The drop-off is a matter of only a few feet, but the water there is alive, vibrant, and terrifying. We parked at the Mattole Campground and walked out to a large piece of driftwood; imagine a redwood tree that’s been churned around in the ocean then tossed up on the beach during some high tide. We spread our blanket and leaned back against the sheltering wood. For once, though, there was no wind at the beach, only miles of sand and sky, water and disappearing light.

There are some people you know for only a few years but they carve out a corner of your heart that is theirs alone. Alex was like that. It’s true that Alex was combative and sharp-tongued, as so many have pointed out since his death. He did not suffer fools—period. But there was also the Alex that called me “dah-ling” and always had a meal ready for us when we arrived, regardless of the late hour. There was the Alex who tended his flowers like a lover. And there was the Alex who built shrines to his family of animals, embedding their images in the garden wall.

I know that these were all the same man, and that’s the man I will remember. He loved those around him as much as he loved speaking and writing his truth. And he loved this world fiercely; it mattered enough to him to make him angry and passionate, unabashed and edgy. And when it mattered to be tender, he knew that too. I know I’m not alone in feeling that the world is smaller, and sadly quiet, without Alex Cockburn in it.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 18. Sept. 15, 2012.