Mounting disappointments dampen searchers' optimism
Every time the telephone rings at the Blades' residence on Northwest Logie Trail Road, a faint glimmer of hope is reflected in Beula Blades' tired gray eyes.
Beula is sure to personally answer the phone's summons, her voice carrying a subtle hint of expectancy that resonates into the wood-fire warmth of the Blades' small log cabin home.
Beula's 77-year-old husband, Sterling Blades, has been missing since Monday, Dec. 17, a time span of two weeks at the time this paper has gone to press.
After the brief opening exchange with the telephone receiver, Beula's shoulders subtly sag. On the other end is a well-wisher, a warm voice of support, or family seeking a status update or to see how Beula is holding up under the increasing strain.
While the support calls are welcome, absent is the voice she most wants to hear: the voice informing her of Sterling's discovery.
'Everybody has been so nice,' Beula said. 'I'm overwhelmed with love for all of them.'
Search parties hastily organized by family and friends have joined law enforcement efforts in the attempt to find Sterling, who was last seen driving a navy blue Dodge D20 pickup truck with the license plate number TBF-558.
On Saturday, Dec. 29, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office organized a search party to look for Sterling. Other search efforts have involved scouring known roadways, checking over steep embankments. Beula said she even heard secondhand that the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office conducted an aerial search, though she had not been contacted directly.
'I guess it is more frustrating than anything, because we haven't heard anything, we haven't seen anything. Nobody has seen anything,' said Shani Blades, Beula's daughter-in-law who has been staying with her since Friday, Dec. 21.
Mounting levels of disappointment are starting to drain the searchers' optimism, a diminution in mood reflected in Beula's outlook as well.
'I can't figure out anything, because they've been all up and down these roads,' Beula said. 'I just don't feel like there's any point in it anymore.'
'If I knew someplace to search, I would,' she said.
Vanished without a trace
The replay of events leading to Sterling's disappearance has an almost haunting effect for Beula. He was wearing a light-blue vest, trimmed in artificial fur, and a fur-lined shirt. He donned a billed cap, one selected from his extensive collection, over a full head of silver-white hair. He was probably wearing jeans, she said, not fully certain.
Earlier on the Monday he went missing, Sterling had a telephone conversation with Nellie Arnold, a St. Helens woman who owns property on Holaday Road, located in hilly terrain several miles west of Scappoose. There are legal complications with the property, and it has become the target of a forced clean-up action after having been overrun as an illegal garbage dump and a known habitat for squatters.
Sterling, who had a passion for dealing in scrap, wanted to help Arnold clean the property, and the two had spoken about it on several occasions.
A later police search of the Holaday Road property turned up empty. Beula said that was the last gut feeling she had regarding Sterling's possible whereabouts.
There was something funny in Sterling's actions that Monday morning, Beula said, as though he planned a secret trip to the shopping mall to buy her Christmas present. He was never very good at concealing his intentions.
'I could kind of figure out what he was doing,' Beula said.
Sterling, a hard worker not inclined to make too much of a fuss about less-than-ideal situations, also complained of a headache.
He left the Northwest Logie Trail Road home around 11 a.m. Monday. Fifteen minutes later, he deposited a check at the St. Helens Community Federal Credit Union in Scappoose. That was the last documented activity on the checking account, and there has been no credit card activity.
At 1 p.m., Sterling arrived at the home of his friend, Duane Dalebout - who also goes by the name 'Dutch' - on Church Road in Warren, about a 14-mile drive from home.
Typically, Beula accompanied Sterling on longer excursions. She did not join him that day because he would be driving a known route to a known destination.
Dalebout is the last person to have seen Sterling. The two talked about scrap metal prices, fishing and other common interests, much as all friends do when they get together.
'We're both kind of scrap monkeys, you know,' the 74-year-old Dalebout said.
Sterling also talked about heading to Vernonia on the chance of helping out the flood victims by hauling away unwanted scrap, such as junked appliances and discarded metal.
'There's a lot of deep canyons between here and there, too, you know? He might have run off the road,' Dalebout said.
Sterling also mentioned his interest in a Vernonia trip to Beula, though she doubted he would venture so far from home alone.
Dalebout said there was little unusual with the visit.
'The only thing that I noticed about him was that he was complaining about a headache,' he said. As Sterling left, he walked backward down the stairway to the front doorway of Dalebout's home, talking as he did so. He loved to talk, Beula said, reflecting on the account of his exit. Then he left.
'The last I seen him he was driving down the driveway and was just getting ready to turn onto Church Road,' Dalebout said. Though he did not see which direction Sterling turned, Dalebout doubted he would have steered away from Highway 30, noting a turn to the west results in a dead-end.
Beula fretted the night he was gone, second-guessing herself about when to call the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. She didn't want to raise a false alarm.
'The first night he was gone, I was panic-stricken by the time it got dark,' she said. Her imagination conjured images of car wrecks, pictures of Sterling trying but unable to reach home.
By daybreak, she called the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, and said a deputy there told her not to worry, that he could come back soon, or even that he does not want to be found.
'I said he would not do that. That would not happen because he needs to be home where he can be taken care of,' Beula said. In 2002, Sterling underwent open-heart surgery. Prior to that, he had suffered a stroke, and has recently been using prescription anti-depression medication. Beula said he was not in good health, and would on occasion get lost.
On Thursday, Beula marked the passing of her 68th birthday. Typically, she and Sterling would drive into Beaverton for a fish dinner at a restaurant whose name she couldn't recall.
Wednesday, Dec. 26, was the first day she had left the house since Sterling's disappearance. Her daughter, Connie, picked her up a cell phone and linked it to the house phone. No incoming calls would be missed.
A day earlier, on Christmas, family visited, but there was scant attention paid to the holiday.
'We just had like a regular day,' Beula said. "It was just lonesome, I guess, without him,' Beula said
Adornment in the living room was spare; a ceramic Christmas tree seated in the front window serves as the only outward showing of the holiday season. Beula said she and Sterling made little ado about Christmas décor since moving to rural Multnomah County 17 years earlier.
She considered freezing Sterling's portion of the Christmas dinner for when he returned, but in the end she decided not to.
On Wednesday, Dec. 26, Beula watched as daylight again faded into twilight outside her dining room window, the close to another day of sustained questions and no answers. Weather forecasts called for increasing rain, snow in the higher elevations, and temperatures dipping into the 30s.