On a Wednesday afternoon, in Eugene, Oregon, Uncle Ray was discovered by a woman searching for her missing cat, his dead body wrapped in a carpet that lay rolled up in a garage. Officer Slim Carter, a familiar face in the police force with a history of run-ins with Ray, was called to the neighborhood, and he surveyed the scene and reckoned the old derelict had been lying there for days. The air was heavy with the weight of unanswered questions, and the mystery of Ray’s demise lingered in the air, mingling with the whispers of those who knew him. At the same time, many people in town marveled that he had defied the odds to reach such an age, surviving on a diet of booze, cigarettes, and rambling tales that blurred the line between truth and fiction.

My own encounter with Uncle Ray dates back to when I was a boy of twelve in the summer of 1976, a chance meeting that left an indelible mark on my memory.

Uncle Ray at the Kiva in Scarborough Faire (1971)

He seemed like a cliche of the town drunk from a television western, or an old derelict one might find in the margins of a Bukowski novel; a grizzled drifter with a harmonica in hand, perched on the curb next to a shopping cart stuffed with clothing and other artifacts of unspeakable origin. His presence seemed to defy time, a relic of a bygone era brought to life in the gritty streets of Eugene. Despite his weathered appearance, I later learned that Ray was a mere fifty-six years old on that day.

When the rest of the cops arrived at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway they unrolled Ray’s cocoon and noted he was dressed in two pairs of pants, two shirts, a sweater, and a jacket. In his pockets were two wallets, three pens, a corn cob pipe, a tire gauge, and a hole punch. A silver ring adorned Ray’s withered finger, and a harmonica was clenched in his hand. Only some knew his biography.


The story of Raymond Greig’s origins can be traced back to the heartland of Bottineau, North Dakota, where he was born in the midst of Prohibition on July 18, 1920. The details of Ray’s early years are sketchy, but they paint a picture of a typical farm boy turned soldier, serving in the South Pacific during World War II. However, before Ray enlisted in the Army in 1942, he married a woman named Meryl and they had a child. He was discharged in 1946 and returned home a war hero.

Yet, beneath the layers of truth lay a tapestry of tall tales and half-truths, woven by Ray’s own tobacco-stained fingers. Like the time he said he served under the command of Eleanor Roosevelt when she led the charge at Okinawa, sending her men into battle with bayonets fixed to their rifles, crying, “Follow me to victory!” One thing is certain about his time overseas: Ray received a “Dear John” letter from his wife, and he returned to the states a bitter and heartbroken man.

After his stint in the army, Ray stashed away the medals that Eleanor Roosevelt had pinned to his chest, and he drifted through post-war America, riding the rails and living the life of an itinerant worker. The iron tracks eventually led him to the rugged terrain of Oregon, where he found himself settling in Vanport, a city of transient laborers north of Portland that was built to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during wartime.

It was in Vanport that Ray witnessed a merciless force of nature that swept through the city like a vengeful god, leaving destruction and despair in its wake. It was a flood that swept through the city on the afternoon of May 30, 1948. In its wake, fifteen people were lost to the unforgiving waters, and by nightfall, the city lay submerged, its streets silent and its buildings swallowed by the murky depths, casting 17,500 souls adrift in a sea of despair, leaving them destitute and homeless.


In the aftermath of this tragedy, Ray found himself grappling with the harsh reality of a world that could change in the blink of an eye, a world where even the strongest foundations could be washed away in an instant. I imagine Ray wandering the streets of Portland like a ghostly vagabond, haunted by his own past. He was only twenty-eight years old, his face aged beyond his years, and marked by war and a life filled with loss and tragedy that shattered his world and washed away his hopes.