Tuesday, January 28, 2020

THE COMEBACK...SORT OF



I might have neglected to mention when I wrote about my New Year resolutions last time https://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com/2020/01/new-year-resolutions.html that as part of my self-improvement goals, I’m not only determined to lose at least twenty pounds but also to get back into training. I was already doing this to a certain extent by alternating treadmill training with my usual walks in the mountains. The idea was to recover the respiration capacity I’d lost as a result of a life-threatening lung injury that I suffered a year and a half ago.
At first—a lot like when I first started blogging—I thought nothing much would come of it and that, at this juncture, I’d have to settle for “as good as it gets”. But to my surprise, the additional intensive training on the treadmill started working wonders, and the recovery of lung capacity was really noteworthy when I hiked up long steady hills, which, ever since the accident, had become my bane. (I was kind of beginning to think I was going to have to move from the mountains to the plains if I didn’t want to keep gasping for air like a fish out of water every time I had to face the tiniest hillock).
Well, so while I was doing this aerobic program, which I had started in physical therapy following the injury, I had to do my treadmill routine amidst my old weights that had been collecting dust for the past two years. I should note that weight-training has played an important role in my life off and on since I was in my mid-twenties. In fact, at one time and in one Buenos Aires gym or another—from the sleaziest (but best) facilities frequented by boxers, wrestlers, cops, fire-fighters and bodyguards, to some of the most dazzling modern weight and aerobic gyms in the city—I went through long periods in which I would regularly spend three or four hours a session, four times a week building strength, resistance and muscle.
Piñeyro in his prime
I had the good fortune to do my earliest weight training in a rough, down-at-heel gym where the clients were mostly guys who made a living with their bodies and really knew what was what when it came to building muscle. I was introduced to the place by my brother-in-law, Miguel, who had been an avid body-builder since he was fifteen and had won several titles, including Mister Buenos Aires. He was (and still is) close friends with the gym’s owner, Ernesto Piñeyro. I learned a lot in the beginning from both of them. And muscle became a regular talking point whenever Miguel and I got together.
Piñeyro had been a pro wrestler whose ring handle was “Mister Músculo”. He was a favorite for spectators because he was so small and so perfectly built and threw guys three times his size all over the canvas. But he was also a serious contender in his weight class in international body-building competitions, although he could never aspire to the top prizes because he was a five-foot-seven miniature. He was so well-formed that, at a competition in Miami, then-Mr. Universe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, asked Ernesto to pose with him for part of a photo-shoot. Ever deadpan, laconic and witheringly frank, Piñeyro thought about it for moment and then said, “Okay, but with you down on a knee in the background and me standing in the foreground.”
His cheekiness tickled body-building star Schwarzenegger, and with a hearty laugh, Arnold said, “Okay, whatever you say.”
Despite his tough-guy demeanor, Ernesto’s still waters ran deep and it wasn’t until I’d known him for over a year that I learned that he not only had a degree in physical education but also another one in fine arts.  
Bonavena and Ali
But the guy who trained me the most was Omar Patiño. Omar had been Argentine heavyweight champ Ringo Bonavena’s sparring partner. Boxing fans might recall when, before the famous match between Ringo and Muhammad Ali, the American champ had boasted, “He’s mine in nine.” But the hard-headed, flat-footed Bonavena went the distance, fifteen rounds with the world champion, and it took Ali three knockdowns in the last round to finally keep the two-hundred four-pound Argentine down on the canvas for a ten-count.
But Patiño was a lot faster than Bonavena ever thought of being, two hundred forty pounds of sheer muscle and no fat, a heavyweight who fought like a bantam. In fact, his own trainer coming up had been the 1948 Argentine bantam-weight champ, Cacho Paredes. Omar had also been chief bodyguard for several of the country’s top Peronist union leaders and was, as Rocky Balboa’s fictional trainer, Burgess Meredith, might say, “a very dangerous individual.”
Since I worked nights, I just happened to be in the gym at the same time of the morning when Patiño was training. Since he knew and liked my brother-in-law, and since we usually had the gym to ourselves at that hour, he started taking an interest in me. “No, pal, you’re doing that wrong. Better like this. It works the muscle deeper. Keep your back straight on the squats unless you want a herniated disk. Try doing some rowing over here. You need more strength in your shoulders. Don’t skimp on the crunches. Abs are your core strength,” and so on.
Patiño (right) with welterweight Lucas 
Matthysse in 2013, when Patiño was
already in his sixties. He was the welter's 
trainer and manager, and Lucas went on 
to win theWBA belt in 2018 before 
retiring from the ring.
I remember once when I was starting to feel pretty cocky and had loaded up a couple hundred pounds on the vertical press and about midway through my second set, I got a charley horse that stopped me cold. These weight machines, most of which Piñeyro had built himself, had no safety features or fail-safes and there was no way I was going to be able to get out from under without it falling on me if I abandoned the maneuver with my legs still doubled.
I finally managed to grunt, “Omar...little help.” And in one swift, smooth movement, he hefted the two hundred pounds of weight off of me with one hand while grabbing me by the sweatshirt and dragging my own buck-ninety out from under it with the other.
You gain a whole new kind of respect for a guy who can do that.
I think of him every time I start training again. And because of him, whenever I do start again, I don’t have to go back and correct the movements. He burned them into my brain from the outset and when you learn it from a guy like him, you remember it.
Omar has had an important gym of his own in Buenos Aires for years now and specializes in training and managing young fighters. Some of the best Argentina has to offer.  
But anyway, in the last ten years or so, despite having a fairly complete home gym, I’ve done less and less, letting advancing age, overweight and laziness lull me into apathy. Especially since the jobs required of living where I live—gathering, sawing and chopping firewood, for instance—plus my mountain and forest walks kept me in reasonably good shape. But the prolonged recovery period following my injury and the miraculous recovery that I’d undergone from cardiac arrhythmia the year before that, really took their toll. And I could see and feel the reduction in my muscle mass and in my level of physical resistance.
So, one thing kind of led to another, and I’m just timidly returning to a light resistance training routine. Now, when I say light, I really mean light. When I was at my peak in my late thirties, I was regularly benching two hundred forty or two hundred fifty pounds and doing squats with three hundred. That, as they say, was in another life.
In the last commercial gym I worked out in regularly, I learned a lot about the benefits of high reps and low weights in what was called “the circuit”. The circuit was made up of perhaps a dozen Nautilus-type and universal weight machines on which the idea was to do three sets of fifteen repetitions with only as much weight as you could comfortably do them and still make it through the entire circuit. There was a green light for each set and a red for each ten-second rest to help you budget your time. But in practice, it was a mad race from one machine to the next.
Circuit
One circuit was about five hundred forty reps that worked your entire body, and depending on the time I had to work out, I did between two and three circuits. At first it was absolutely grueling. This is when weights become not only resistance training, but also aerobic. And it’s not until you’ve done it for a month or so that you start really hitting your stride. But once you do, it’s exhilarating! Or at least it felt that way to me. And once I got so that the circuit was a pleasant routine three or four times a week that I never wanted to miss, I started alternating, one week circuit, another week heavy lifting. Eventually, I also added jogging to the mix and felt so healthy it was scary.
There came a time that I felt what well-trained athletes must feel. That was something I knew nothing about, because, as a teen, I was a nerdy musician bookworm, who thought anything connected with the world of sports was beneath me. The only thing I did well was swim, but I wouldn’t have thought of having any part of swimming as an organized sport. And as soon as I was lying on my towel drying off, the first thing I did was light up a smoke. But now, with this intensive weight-training, I understood that look of physical and mental confidence of the athletes I’d known in school. I felt like I could walk through walls and pick my teeth with the splinters. Even after Army combat training I had never been in this kind of shape, since, by this time, I had pretty much kicked my heavy smoking habit, which had followed me all through my Army days from my early teens. Suddenly, I felt physically confident and competent for the first time in my life.
I remember at the time that I was at a peak in that transformation, I was running the news desk in a newspaper in Buenos Aires. My cables editor was a retired sergeant major from the Argentine Army. It was the time of the so-called “dirty war” following a military coup that placed the Armed Forces in bloody charge of the country, and military and ex-military men did concealed-carry as a matter of course. They also displayed the arrogance of an unquestioned ruling class.
This aging ex-NCO was notorious for doing things like flashing his weapon to quickly end traffic disputes with other drivers or any other time that he felt the least bit threatened. When he came to work, he would walk to his desk across from mine on the news desk, open the top drawer, reach under his sport coat to retrieve his nine millimeter service pistol from his belt and deposit it inside his desk until time to go home.
So one night, I arrive carrying my briefcase in one hand and my gym bag in the other and as I’m taking off my blazer, rolling up my sleeves and getting ready to settle in for the night’s work, I see him watching me with a crooked, sardonic grin on his face.
“What?” I say.
“You’re getting big.”
“Am I?”
“Yes. I remember what a tall skinny kid you were when you first came here.”
“I was twenty-four and had been three years in the Army. Hardly a kid.”
He went back to cutting and separating cables and I got down to editing copy.
Then he looks at me again and says, “Now tell me this...”
“What?”
“Why do you do it?”
“What?”
“All this body-building.”
I put down my ballpoint pen and looked at him. “To feel healthy,” I said. “To get strong.”
He grinned that crooked, sarcastic grin again, and sliced a few more cables from the teletype roll. Then he stopped, laid down his ruler, and opened his desk drawer.
“Because, you know what?” he said.
“No, what?” I said, getting annoyed at the interruptions.
With that, he pulled the nine millimeter out of its hiding place, held it up for me to see, and said, “No matter how strong you get, I put a couple of pieces of lead in you, and you don’t get back up. And it won’t matter how strong or weak I am.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said, “but I’m getting pretty quick. And if I can get across this desk before you can chamber a round, aim and fire, I’ll snatch your heart right out of your chest and run the pistol so far up your ass that they’ll have to remove it surgically.”
He nodded, chuckled a wry chuckle to himself and put the pistol back in his desk. And that was the last time he ever flashed a piece in the newsroom again.
So anyway, as I was saying, what I’m doing now, at seventy, is mere recovery. Trying not to be so decrepit. But I have to admit that I tend to stop and read when I see stories about old men who have either begun or returned to weight training in their senior years and gotten into incredible shape again. Will I be one of them? Will I have the constancy and the willpower and the mental and emotional stability and discipline that it takes? I admit, it’s hard for me to imagine I will. But, as the great Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and just trying to get going again will be better than not trying at all.   

Monday, January 13, 2020

NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS



I’m rushing to get this entry out before the year is no longer new. Plus, according to some statistics I’ve seen, New Year resolutions are usually broken, on average, by the nineteenth of January. So, that’s another consideration to take into account. No sense making resolutions the day before you’re going to break them.

But then again, I always hope that this year will be the one in which I break with tradition and actually keep my resolutions. And I usually figure that until about mid-February, when the year no longer seems impeccably new and hope starts to fade.
One that I had for this year was to not miss another deadline for this blog. I made it on December 27 and broke it on December 28, before the New Year had even begun. (My sincerest apologies to my readers, by the way). But since it was broken before midnight on the thirty-first, well, it’s still doable. So okay:
Resolution 1. Don’t miss any more blog deadlines. This is for this blog, The Southern Yankee, which comes out every thirteenth and twenty-eighth of the month (more or less). But I have another one...
Resolution 2. Set deadlines for the other blog: A Yankee At Large http://yankeeatlarge.blogspot.com That’s my political blog and up to now, I’ve written it at random and often very occasionally. Although I like to think the articles I publish there reflect the journalistic professionalism that I acquired during a twenty-year full-time career as a newsman and foreign correspondent, my inconsistency in keeping it up is anything but professional.  And I’ve promised myself to do a lot better from now on...but maybe don’t count on it. I already carry all the remorse I can handle.
Resolution 3. Lose weight. I think this is everybody’s, just about. Like a lot of fat guys, I’ve always had trouble thinking of myself as fat. And I wasn’t always. But I have struggled with weight since middle age. I know I’m big. I know I’m strong. And okay, maybe I could drop a pound or two. But other people are fat. Not me. Well, I’ve got news for you, Chief. You’re fat. Or have been off and on since your late thirties.

I remember once when Whitie’s older brother, my Uncle Red, had started getting pudgy. He went for a checkup to his doctor—a man who wasn’t known for his diplomacy and more than a “bedside manner” had a “bedside invective”. For instance, he was of Polish descent, and one time a few men with medical issues sitting in his waiting room cooling their heels until he could see them started telling jokes to while away the time. In honor of the venue, they soon sort of naturally fell into swapping “Polack jokes”. You know, like, “How many Polacks does it take to screw in a light bulb...” So anyway, they’re on about the sixth of these when the door to the consulting room opens a crack and the doctor sticks his head out.
“Hi Doc!” all the guys say in unison.
“I’ve got a riddle for you,” Doc responds. “What’s black and blue and moans?”
The guys all shrug, like, “beats me”.
And Doc snaps, “The next sonuvabitch that tells a Polack joke!”
Anyhow, Red goes in for this checkup.
“You’ve gotta lose weight, Red,” the doctor says after examining him.
“Why’s that?”
“Cause you’re fat as a friggin’ pig.”
“Think so?”
“I know so and I’m your doctor.”
“Tell you what,” Red says, turning the color of his name, “Let’s go out back and I’ll whip your ass, and we’ll see who’s fat!”
But there’s no use getting feisty over it. If you’re fat, you’re fat. Face it. And, there’s something you can do about it, I tell myself.
This year my wife was away with her family for the holidays and, other than work, I had no commitments. So I thought, “No reason to indulge in all of the holiday excesses. This would be a good time to start getting back into shape. I stepped on the scale for the first time in over a year and tipped it at just under two-sixty. Over the past ten years, that had always been the top weight at which alarm bells would go off and I would begin watching my diet and losing weight. And in that time I’d been down to two-fifteen, two-twenty several times. But as soon as I started feeling “light”, I always re-initiated my ascent.
Last time was a year and a half ago. It was the first time I sought help and didn’t just diet on my own. I went to a clinical nutritionist. I didn’t really learn anything new from her. I mean, come on, I know what makes me fat and if I want to lose weight I just stop doing it. But I found that it was a huge help to have to go weigh in with her every three weeks. Especially since she was a lovely young woman and it would have been really humiliating for me to go weigh in and be just as fat as I had been three weeks before. I still have a modicum of male pride. So, I ended up losing twenty-five pounds in under three months.
Then I couldn’t go anymore, because I had an accident in which I almost bled to death and it took me a long time to recover enough to be thinking about anything but recovery. The massive blood loss took my appetite with it and for the first time since I was a child, it became a torture to eat. A wave of nausea came over me every time a meal was set before me. My cardiologist who had previously always been urging me to slim down now said, “Eat whatever you want, whatever sounds good to you until you get better.” I needed to recover my strength. Hamburgers and potatoes and chocolate should do the trick.
Before I got my appetite back, I had lost another eleven pounds and was down to a trim two-fifteen. But by then I had already put calories out of my mind and was eating “whatever I felt liked” (doctor’s orders!) and kept right on doing that until I was back up to two-sixty.
Anyway, on December 22, I decided, once again, to renew my resolution. Lose weight. Since then, I’m down twelve pounds and if you ask me today, I’m going for another thirty or so. But I’ll let you know what happens.
Resolution 4. Publish. This has been a New Year resolution of mine for at least the past forty years. This, despite making my living with the written word for the past forty-five. It’s not like I haven’t published anything—hundreds upon hundreds of articles, essays, translations, blogs and ghost-written works since I was in my mid-twenties. But never a book of my own.
When I first got into newspaper journalism, being a newsman was only my immediate goal. I wanted writing and reporting experience. I wanted a daily audience. I wanted to learn more about writing from people who really knew how to do it. And I did. But my ultimate goal was to write books, to be a novelist. So I was following my unwitting mentor, Ernest Hemingway’s advice. The advice encompassed in his statement that everything useful that he’d ever learned about writing, he had learned from copy-editors as a young reporter.
But I liked newspaper work and stayed on. Eventually, I was a copy-editor myself and teaching other young men and women how to write. But in the meantime, I was writing short stories, novellas, novels and non-fiction essays. All of which ended up stowed away in the drawers of my desks at home and at work.
Grandma Moses, never too late?
Back then, if you wanted to publish something, you needed a literary agent or a friendly publisher, or both and I had neither. And I had no idea how to go about getting them. While I had myriad contacts back then in journalism, I had none in the literary world. So I fumbled from one New Year resolution to the next, never managing to reach my book-publishing goal. And then, for awhile, after several unsuccessful attempts to get agents interested in my work, I gave up. It was just too hard to break into the US literary market from a remote foreign country. You needed to know people. And that was next to impossible long-distance.
But then, I ended up living long enough to witness the most egalitarian event since the Gutenberg printing press. Namely, the birth of Amazon’s Kindle service for writers. A free portal in which to self-publish previously unpublished works in the form of e-books and/or print-on-demand. Launched in 2007, it has since become a mega-publishing and marketing operation with hundreds of thousands of titles and millions of readers. Numerous self-published authors on the Kindle Direct Publishing platform have even become bestsellers.
Much as I considered it a brilliant and democratic idea that gave voice to a vast community of writers who, otherwise, would never have been heard, I hesitated for a long time to go the self-publication route. My old-timer thinking made me question if, perhaps, it wasn’t a cheat. So I submitted my work to overstocked publishers and hoped for “discovery” but ended up on the slush pile. And the older I got, the less likely “discovery” seemed—especially without the ever more de rigueur English major pedigree from a top US university.
All of the sudden, last year, at age sixty-nine, I found myself once again putting “Publish!” on my New Year resolution list. And I thought to myself, septuagenarians are never “discovered” —with the possible exception of Grandma Moses, who didn’t begin painting in earnest until she was seventy-eight and who, before her death in 1961, aged a hundred and one, had become an American art icon—so, I told myself, from now on, for as long as I’m alive and lucid, I’m going to publish at least a book a year.
Last year, I failed to keep the resolution, although I did prepare an anthology of stories that is pretty much ready to go except for an ISBN number. So that resolution is once again on my list for 2020. Today, if you ask me, I’ll tell you, “This year for sure.”
Ask me again after January 19.  

Sunday, December 15, 2019

DUDLEY NICHOLS—LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD



If you’ve ever heard of Wapakoneta, my home town, you’re probably a “moon freak” who knows the story of Neil Armstrong by heart, you stopped off at the Wapakoneta-Bellefontaine (which we say like bell-fountain) Street exit on I-75 to go to the Bob Evans and discovered that there’s an aerospace museum next door—can’t not have one of those in the town where the First Man on the Moon was born—somebody told you about Jim Bowsher’s incredible Temple of Tolerance and, even though you’re not an Ohioan, you decided to go see it for yourself (Johnny Depp did, and so did a number of other notables over the years), or you are a reader of this blog.
Dudley Nichols
But unless you were a real Hollywood connoisseur, you probably wouldn’t make a pilgrimage to Wapakoneta to walk the same streets that saw Dudley Nichols grow to manhood, or to try and get a selfie in front of his family’s home. (If you did, you would be, as my father, the inimitable Whitie, used to say, “shit outa luck”). That house, where Dudley’s stepmother, Kitty, lived until her death, and that used to stand at the corner of Blackhoof and Main, has long since been torn down. Despite the good work of the Auglaize County Historical Society, Wapak (as we natives lovingly call it) has often been less than sensitive to historical value. Not long ago, for instance, what had once been the main station for the late-nineteenth-century Interurban Streetcar Line was purchased and torn down to provide more parking space to the pizzeria next door. But, c’est la vie.
Whether you’ve heard of him or not, Dudley was once a highly renowned personality—one of Hollywood’s most influential writers and a film director and producer in his own right. Born in 1895, the son of a Wapakoneta doctor, Grant Nichols, and his wife, Mary, Dudley got in on the ground floor of the golden age of cinema, the early years of “talking movies”, and earned a place for himself as a true Hollywood icon. He is credited by some film experts with having elevated the status of the Hollywood screenplay to a level of literary excellence, and with having almost single-handedly elicited a whole new realm of respect for the American screenwriter.
The pizza place that I mentioned earlier is in the same building that my grandfather, Murel Newland, built in 1945-46 so that three of his sons, who had gone off to service “for the duration” during World War II, would have a place of business to come back to. And it was there, shortly after the war, that Whitie, his big brother Red and their younger brother Chuck opened the Teddy Bear soda fountain and sandwich shop, which, over the years, would morph into a family restaurant. The Nichols home was just a couple of doors away, and Dudley’s stepmother, Kitty, who was more Dudley’s age than she was his father’s, now lived there as a widow and had become a Teddy Bear regular from the outset. She mostly liked the coffee and the pie, but would now and then eat a meal as well.
I was only a little boy when Kitty used to come into the Teddy Bear daily, but I remember her well. She seemed somehow regal and a little intimidating if you didn’t know her. I thought she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen, elegant with her long silver hair pulled back tight and tied in a kind of ponytail with a velvet ribbon, her makeup ever perfect. I loved her full, pleated, ankle-length skirts and starchy white blouses, her slender hands with their red-painted nails, the long fingers that held her cigarettes the way female-lead movie stars did, up close to her scarlet lips, her elbow propped on the table.
Kitty liked Whitie and he liked her. She often came in between rush hours, and when he had time, Whitie would sometimes pour both of them a cup of fragrant, steaming Continental coffee and sit down with her to chat for a while. She never sat in a booth, always at a table, usually a square table for four right at the end of the counter.
Kitty wasn’t much for small talk. She could be, in fact, a bit cantankerous, so her conversations with Whitie usually verged on serious. Whitie, who was obsessive-compulsive to a fault, often tried to steer the conversation toward religion, or at least toward “belief”. My father had been brought up to be a devout Methodist and it was inconceivable to him that anyone could be an atheist, which Kitty was, and didn’t care who knew it.
This bothered Whitie. It bothered him for her, he said, because he liked her a lot, and he felt that anyone who believed in “nothing” was damned from the get-go. So he tried, as subtly as he knew how (which, if you knew Whitie, was anything but subtle) to convert her. Or at least to get her to say, unequivocally, that she believed in something.
One day, Whitie came home crestfallen. He said that he had suggested that Kitty must believe in something. He just couldn’t believe that she believed in nothing. So after he had badgered her into a state of acute ill-humor, it seems Kitty snapped, “I didn’t say I didn’t believe in anything, Norman. I said I didn’t believe in God. I do believe in something. I believe in money!”
Although few people I’ve ever met were more interested in money than my father—perhaps because he never was able to figure out how to make a ton of it and had to make do with being just “comfortable”—this statement of Kitty’s shocked him. “How could she say that?” he wanted to know. “Money couldn’t buy happiness, could it?”
“It will buy a hell of a lot more of it than poverty will,” Kitty Nichols responded. “The more money you have, the more insulated you are from hardship, and therefore, the happier you’ll be. Money is the solution to almost everything.”
Despite this answer that was very apparently designed to get Whitie to put a sock in it, however, he persisted, for as long as he knew Kitty, in trying and get her to admit she was a believer at heart. He felt that he should know. He’d been through several years of combat during the war and he’d seen it time and again. When shit started flying, even the most ardent non-believers started praying. But he never managed to convince her, even though they remained friends for years.
There was lots of talk over the years about Dudley and Kitty. Some said that they didn’t get along at all, that there was a lot of resentment over his father’s having married a much younger woman. Others said they got along very well indeed. Too well for some of the worst tongue-waggers around town. Still others said they had practically no relationship at all, since Dudley left home quite young and, basically, never went back. But it was through Kitty, via my father, that I knew that Dudley was a famous writer, and since I was in awe of writers and, more than anything in the world, wanted to be one myself, I always fantasized that Dudley might drop by for a visit and come to the Teddy Bear, where I might meet him while he was having coffee and pie. But, no such luck.
Already at age eighteen, Dudley was getting his first communications experience as a radio operator aboard a ship on the Great Lakes. From 1914 through 1917, he furthered his education at the University of Michigan. There, one of his activities was working as a student assistant in the university’s radio laboratory.
This experience both on the Great Lakes and at the university, served him well during the two years that he spent in the Navy, right at the end of World War I. Such was his expertise that, while in service, he created two highly useful inventions. One was a new kind of electronic discharger that would find application in commercial radio following the war, and the other was a new method of electronic protection for naval minesweepers. The new Nichols Method was successfully used in the sweep-up of some fifty thousand mines in the North Sea after the war. It was because of these inventions that Dudley was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1920. And it was during this period that he honed technological skills that he would later be able to apply to movie-making.
After his discharge from the Navy, Dudley went straight to the Big Apple to start accumulating the skills that he would need to become a successful writer. Hollywood was nowhere in his plans at the time. Like many writers before him, he believed that the best place to learn writing skills was in journalism, and there was no better place to do it than in New York City.
The World Building
His first writing job was at the New York Evening Post in 1920. Before long, however, he sought and got a job at New York World, which operated out of New York’s World Building. The paper, which was founded in the 1860s, and had featured the likes of Mark Twain, among other renowned writers, was owned by the Pulitzer family. Joseph Pulitzer himself commissioned construction of the World Building, located at 99 Park Row, specifically to house the paper. Built in the 1890s, it was one of New York’s early skyscrapers, a “towering” twenty floors, designed by famed architect George Browne Post. If you’re planning a trip to New York, however, you won’t be able to visit it, since it was razed, unfortunately, in 1955.
At New York World, Dudley not only met, but worked alongside such writing legends as Dorothy Parker—the brilliant satirist and short story writer who would also later turn to screenwriting, only to be blacklisted for her left-wing politics during the McCarthy Era—and Heywood Broun, founder of the American Newspaper Guild. Dudley would spend the next decade in New York City, working as a court reporter and theater critic for the World, and eventually as one of its columnists. He also free-lanced for other publications during that time.
In 1929, Dudley was scouted by Hollywood film companies as a screenwriter. He made it clear that he knew nothing about cinema, but the scouts insisted that what they were seeking were professionals with sound writing skills to create quality scripts for the growing “talking movie” market. So, in 1929, he accepted an invitation to move to Hollywood. He moved there a newlywed, with his bride, Esther “Esta” Varez, to whom he would remain married for the next thirty years, until his death in 1960.
Dudley in Hollywood
Dudley fit beautifully into the glimmering world of Hollywood. He was over six feet tall, a handsome, slender man who wore a suit well. And his elegance and intellect, combined with his superior writing skills, made him an almost overnight success. During the 1930s and 1940s, he was one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood.
Despite his enormous success, Dudley remained a highly principled man, a democratic liberal with a strong sense of solidarity. I never tire of saying that Wapakoneta has had two major firsts: the first man to walk on the moon, and the first person ever to refuse an Academy Award.
This last happened in 1936, when Dudley Nichols was granted the Academy Award for best-written screenplay, for the 1935 hit, The Informer. The movie, directed by iconic film-maker John Ford—with whom Dudley would work on another dozen pictures—is set in 1920s Ireland and is about a former Irish rebel named Gypo Nolan. The plot finds Gypo recently ousted from the rebel movement and on the point of starving. When he finds out that his destitute lover Katie has turned to prostitution in order to make ends meet, Gypo decides to accept a twenty-pound bribe from the British authorities to rat out a former fellow rebel and the tense storyline recounts the consequences of that decision.
At the time, film companies were involved in a stand-off with screen writers and other unions in the industry. For obvious reasons, the Academy opposed independent unions, claiming that the Academy itself was the sole representative of all people working in the motion picture industry. If the Academy refused to recognize his guild, Dudley reasoned, he would refuse to recognize the Academy by turning down its award and boycotting the Academy Awards ceremony.
Twice the Academy tried to mail the Oscar to Dudley, as a de facto means of forcing acceptance, since his unprecedented snub was a slap in the face to film industry leaders. But both times, Dudley mailed it back.
His stubbornly ethical stance paid off, and, in 1938, two years after the boycott, the Academy finally certified the Screen Writers Guild as a bona fide and representative labor organization, and Dudley finally accepted his Oscar for The Informer. By that time, Dudley had been elected president of the guild, a post he held in 1937 and 1938.
Over the course of his career, Dudley Nichols garnered numerous honors. The same year that he won the Academy Award, he also won the Venice Film Festival Prize for best-written screenplay, also for The Informer. In 1940, he was nominated for an Oscar for best-written screenplay for The Long Voyage Home. He was nominated again in 1943 in the category of Best Original Screenplay for Air Force. He received the Writers Guild Laurel Award in 1953 for his contribution to screen writing, and was nominated again for an Oscar in 1957, for Best Writing and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. It was for his original story, The Tin Star, which became an Anthony Mann movie starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins and Betsy Palmer.
He had one spectacular flop—the 1947 screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play, Mourning Becomes Electra, for which Dudley wrote the screenplay as well as directing the picture, for RKO. It starred Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave, Kirk Douglas and Raymond Massey. Despite the fact that it was critically acclaimed and that Michael Redgrave was awarded Best Actor for his role, the picture was a box-office disaster on which RKO lost 2.3 million dollars—at the time, the most money a film company had ever lost on a movie. But he bounced back in the fifties with new hits including not only The Tin Star, but also films like Rawhide, Return of the Texan, The Big Sky, Prince Valiant, Run for the Sun, The Hangman and Heller in Pink Tights.
A letter from Chaplin
In all, Dudley Nichols—Wapakoneta boy made good—wrote, directed and/or produced over sixty motion pictures, including some like Bringing Up Baby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Stagecoach and The Bells of St. Mary’s that were destined to become film classics. But he never forgot his activism for democratic and humanitarian causes. In 1947, at the outset of the so-called “Red Scare” and its attendant “McCarthy Era” of persecution, paranoia and anti-democratic witch-hunts that wrecked numerous lives and careers—nowhere more than in Hollywood—all-time emblematic silent film star Charles Chaplin wrote a letter to Dudley praising him for his independent stance. On meeting Dudley at a mutual friend’s house, the British-born Chaplin, who, himself, would be persecuted and deported for his socialist political stance, seemed to recognize a kindred spirit, and wrote in part: “It is deeply gratifying to know that in these reactionary times of hate and conspiracy, there are still voices of protest and sympathy for what is being done to individuals by the so-called ‘free press,’ which is so violent and crude that intelligent criticism is inadequate to cope with it.”
Small-town people, like those of us from Wapakoneta, all too often think that “nothing ever happens here.” But it’s not true. Quite often, stars are born among us and we fail to see them until they wander elsewhere and then streak through a different sky with blinding light.   

Sunday, December 1, 2019

STELLAR


There’s an old grandfather clock in one corner of the room. It’s large, but is one of those models that hang on the wall, not free-standing. It ticks with a low hollow sound. More like a slow, solemn klok-klok-klok than a tick-tock. It truly marks the passage of time in real time in the quiet of the small-town neighborhood on the edge of the city limits and in the uncomfortable silence of this living room. Klok-klok-klok-klok...another minute passes—but who’s counting? On the hour and the half-hour, the clock makes a mechanical, whirring, gear sound, seems to hold its breath for an instant and then goes thonk, its chimes having been muted to keep them from being a half-hourly nuisance.
There’s a big Admiral console black and white TV in another corner. It’s off. Usually at this time of day, Sunday afternoon, it would be blaring away and the regular occupants of the house, my great-grandmother, Mary Landis Cavinder, and my Great-Uncle Jesse, would have turned their straight-backed wooden kitchen chairs toward the screen to watch it. Each would have been wearing a pair of the dark glasses that are in their cases on a wooden kitchen table in the middle of the room, because there have been some rumors that too much unfiltered TV-watching can make you go blind.
But TV has been foregone today because there’s company. We’re the company. I would vote for switching the TV on if anyone were to ask me, but no one does. And my mother, Reba Mae, has forewarned me to behave, to keep my mouth shut, not to ask for anything, and to speak only when spoken to. I’m six, so I’m obliged to obey, because, if not, there will be consequences.
The clock and the TV are the only things in the room that, by any stretch of the imagination, could be considered “luxury items.” Everything else here is characterized by its utilitarian simplicity and by obvious poverty—the straight chairs (three), a couple of other wooden chairs with arms on which the upholstery long ago wore out and which are now neatly wrapped in several thicknesses of disused towels, cut to size and held on with wide strips of elastic, a very carefully preserved davenport that takes up most of the wall on the opposite side of the room and that is reserved for company, an oil-burning stove for heat in the middle of the far end of the room, a small end-table strategically placed under the single sash-window, between the two wooden armchairs and loaded with the kind of magazines Uncle Jesse reads (National Geographic, Argosy, Field and Stream, and, on a small under-shelf, a several-seasons-old Sears & Roebuck catalog). And then there’s the kitchen table in the middle of the room, which is not a retro version of a country kitchen table, but the genuine article, marred and worn with decades of rural service.
Seated, my great-grandfather Job Cavinder and
my great-grandmother, Mary (Landis). 
Standing, my great-aunts Ruth and Edith.
It is all neatly ordered and impeccably clean. Even the well-trodden linoleum floor-covering is so spic and span that it shines like a mirror, except in the places here and there where it has worn through to the black backing.
This is the only room of this house that I really know. I can’t recall ever having asked for the bathroom. I don’t even know where it is, although, I assume, somewhere off of the kitchen. There’s a master bedroom off of the living room but the door is always shut. There’s a door out of the room that leads into a hallway that goes to the front door, and to the foot of a staircase that leads to a second floor, where, I assume, there are probably a couple more bedrooms. But I wouldn’t know for sure because I have never been up there. And I’ve never come in or come out of the front door because, according to country-people rules, family comes in the backdoor. The door between the living room and hall is usually open and I can see a hat-tree there that holds a couple of coats—one is obviously Grandma Cavinder’s and the other Jesse’s—as well as several hats and caps.
I have been in the downstairs bedroom, but only once, and a long time ago, when I was three. I barely remember it. My Great-Grandpa Job Cavinder had had a heart attack after a day of raking leaves. He took to his bed and never recovered. All I remember about that visit or about Grandpa Cavinder, for that matter, is how my mother took me into the twilight of the bedroom, where Grandpa Cavinder lay gaunt and pale in his bed, his ever-dark mane of hair and thick black moustache in sharp contrast with his pallor. I recall Reba Mae picking me up and holding me down close to her dying maternal grandfather so that I could kiss his brow.
The only other room I’ve ever had a glimpse of is the kitchen. Sometimes when we’ve come on one of our rare visits, the door to the kitchen, which is across a small backdoor entry hall from the living room, has been open and I’ve sneaked a peek before Grandma Cavinder shuts it. She always does. She wouldn’t want “company” seeing her “messy kitchen”, where you could literally eat off of the floor.
Job and Mary with Myrtle, who is holding my sister, Darla.
It’s a much cheerier room than the living room, with sash windows that look west and north and a lot of natural light. There are home-made, carefully painted cupboards, a sink with a hand-pump in it, a gas range, a woodstove, an antique refrigerator that dates back to the barely post-icebox era and another big square country-kitchen table, this one topped with linoleum—the perfect surface on which to roll out pie dough, egg-noodles or pot-pie.
This wasn’t always the Cavinder home. My great-grandparents moved here after their children were mostly grown—my Grandma Myrtle, my great-aunts Flossie, Ruth and Edith, my Great-Uncle Ivan and Jesse. There were a couple more children, I believe, but they died. No one talks about them. Back before they came to town, they farmed. And then, later on, Grandpa Cavinder had a job with the railroad. Perhaps it was then that they moved to town.
Jesse moved with his parents. He remained with them all their lives. And would take his own life another six years from now after his mother died. He had had spinal meningitis as a boy and was small and twisted. I was fascinated by his shoes, one a normal, lace-up, black ankle boot, and the other one, identical to the first but sitting atop an always shiny black platform that was a good four inches tall. Jesse still limped, obviously, but a lot less than he would have without that special shoe. This was, now that I think about it, the only other “luxury item” in the house. Thanks to the orthopedic shoe, he never used a cane or a crutch, and out on the farm, although I don’t know how, he used to carry out many of the hard tasks of family farming in those days, including walking behind the horse-drawn plow.
I never know how to act on these visits. It’s mostly a matter of sitting on a chair and being seen but not heard. So I notice things. One sight that I find fascinating is how my great-grandmother has pieces of wooden toothpicks stuck through her earlobes. I can’t take my eyes off of them—fascinating and a little horrifying at the same time. Later, my mother explains that her grandmother has pierced ears. I’ve never known anyone with pierced ears. The women in my family at this time wear either clamp and screw-on earrings. Piercing won’t be popular until I’m a teen. Reba Mae explains that Grandma Cavinder only has one pair of earrings, good ones, silver with tiny diamond sets. She only wears them when she goes out. If she doesn’t keep her piercings open, my mother explains, they’ll heal shut. So she cuts off the two business ends of a round toothpick and sticks one through each earlobe. It seems barbaric to me. But what do I know? Later, I’ll have one of those earrings which my grandmother has had a local jeweler convert into a tie-tack—a legacy from her mother to me.
My great-grandmother and 
grandmother with my mother,

Reba Mae, between them, and my 
sister, Darla, beside them.
The restroom used to be outside. It was in an unobtrusive place in the garden. Once while Grandma Cavinder was in the hospital for a few days, Jesse and my mother’s younger brother Kenny decided to give her a surprise. They installed an indoor running-water bathroom and they also installed a gas range in the kitchen, where previously there was only a woodstove. They did it all in record time, and then removed both the woodstove and the outhouse because, Uncle Kenny reasoned, she’d no longer have any use for them.
When my great-grandmother gets back home, she is more incensed than surprised. Who the devil did they think they were? What made them think she wanted them to change anything? She had never understood indoor plumbing.
“Why on earth would anybody do those things inside the house?” she demanded. “There’s a reason bathrooms are outdoors,” she said.
As for the gas range, if she’d wanted one, she’d have gotten it. Things baked in a gas oven couldn’t compare to those made in a woodstove.
Uncle Kenny would later say that the reason she had been so upset by the removal of the woodstove was because she always had a fire going in it, and it was where she spit her tobacco juice. She’d just lift up one of the burners and let fly.
“Tobacco juice?” I asked incredulously.
“Sure,” Kenny said. “Didn’t you ever notice how she didn’t talk much and always held her mouth shut real tight? Well, that was because she always had the space between her gums and her cheeks full of Mail Pouch.”
“I want my outhouse and my woodstove put back right now,” she told my uncles, “and no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Kenny and Jesse obeyed. When Grandma Cavinder spoke, that’s what you did, if you knew what was good for you.
But they also left the new bathroom and the gas range in place. And little by little, Grandma Cavinder began to use them. Turning on the gas was a lot quicker than building a fire. And, although as Uncle Kenny described it, her outhouse was neat as a pin, it was a lot more comfortable to bathe in a bathroom than in a tub in the kitchen, and a blessing not to have to sprint across the backyard to the outhouse in winter. But both men knew better than to mention this capitulation on her part. Doing so would be a sure way to guarantee that she never used either the range or the bathroom again.
Grandma Cavinder was little—barely over five feet tall—but she made up for her size in feistiness and obstinacy. She seldom smiled. In fact, I don’t ever recall seeing her smile, but then I only really got to know her after she was widowed.
She seldom if ever had anything to say to children, beyond a cursory hello and a hug. But I remember once when I was twelve, shortly before my great-grandmother died, seeing her for Christmas at the home of my Grandma Myrtle, her daughter. I was full of joy and Christmas spirit and when Grandma Cavinder and Jesse arrived after we did, I took her by surprise by rushing to give her a big hug and to wish her a merry Christmas. I had spurted up in height that year and now wore the same shoe-size as my father. My soaring new stature was taking a lot of getting used to and now, seeing how I towered over my great-grandma, I blurted out, “Grandma Cavinder’s so tiny that I could just pick her right up.”
“You do,” she said, “and it’ll be the last thing you ever pick up.”
I believed her.
My mother said that although her grandma had never exactly been the life of the party, she’d gotten a lot sterner and sadder after Grandpa Job died. She and my great-grandfather had shared a quiet contentment that was uncommon, my mother said. Even with the hard work of the farm, they had always found a quiet time for each other that didn’t include children or grandchildren or anyone else but them.
“She was never much of a talker,” my mother said, “and Grandpa Cavinder was so soft-spoken that you sometimes only realized he was talking when you saw his moustache moving.
“But I’ll never forget this one time when I was a young girl,” Reba Mae said, “when I was visiting them on their farm and I heard them get up and go out early to do the milking. Since I helped Mom with the milking at home, I decided to go out and see if I could give them a hand.
“It was still dark and kind of chilly. I could see the light of the coal-oil lantern coming from the barn. For some reason I knew better than to just burst in. And what I saw made me stop and just stand there in the dark watching. I saw their two milking stools a few feet apart. Grandma was sitting on hers and Grandpa was standing next to her as she gently milked a sweet-looking Guernsey. He took his pouch of tobacco out of his barn coat pocket and offered her a chew. She accepted, stuffing the leaves into her mouth, and he served himself. Then he pulled his stool over next to hers and as the milk from the Guernsey pinged into the metal bucket, they just sat there chewing and chatting in that quiet, quiet tone of theirs.
“I still remember it as something very beautiful to watch.”  
Jesse
Why I remember this particular Sunday, though, is because of Uncle Jesse and something very special he gave me that day. Jesse’s illness had made him shy and withdrawn. But it had also left him with a childlike quality that was endearing to me. I liked it during these infrequent visits when, although quiet at first, he would grow almost as bored as I was and would discreetly motion me over to the table to show me something while my mother made mostly one-sided conversation with her grandmother.
He had an entire collection of treasures that he had discovered in the furrows of his plow as a boy. He had kept them all and consulted books, magazines and local historians to learn more about them.
“Know what this is?” he would ask. And when I shook my head, he would say, “This here’s a real injun tomahawk head. Some was sharper than others. Depended whether they was a-choppin’ trees or people. You had your work tomahawks and your war tomahawks.”
Then he’d rifle around in the shoeboxes where he kept these precious objects and come up with another collector’s item. “This here’s a scraper,” he’d say. “They used these to scrape the meat loose from the leather of the deer they killed. They never wasted nothin’. They ate the meat and innards and used the skins for their shelters and clothes. They was real smart people, the Shawnees here abouts.”
But today, on this particular Sunday, he leaves the room and then comes back with something extra-special.
“Know what this is?” he asks. I shake my head. But my eyes are already trained on the strange object. He puts it on the table for me to ponder over and then takes his time, taking out his pouch and paper, rolling himself a smoke and lighting up. He takes a big draw on his cigarette and says, “Go ahead, pick it up.”
I oblige. It’s very strange. It fits neatly in my two hands but is very heavy for its size. “Heavy, ain’t it?” Jesse asks, watching the wonder on my face.
It looks almost man-made. Perfect in shape. Like a globe that has been evenly pressed in the middle to make it into a thick, well-rounded disk shape. Its surface is covered with small, evenly distributed, nearly uniform craters. The words impeccable and pristine come to mind.
“Is it like some grinding stone the Indians made?”  I ask.
Jesse grins, shakes his head and says, “Nope, that there used to be a star. A star maybe bigger than the earth. And then it fell out of the sky and burned and burned and burned until this here’s all that’s left of it. And for some reason, it picked my dad’s cornfield to fall into. And I just happened to hit it with my plow.”
I turn the meteorite over and over in my hands, enjoying its uniform roughness. In my mind, I try to imagine it as a star. A star bigger than the earth. And the thought intrigues and amazes me. Jesse has uncovered a star with his plow, and now I’m holding it in my hands.
“What do you think?” Jesse asks me.
“I think it’s amazing. I love it!”
“Well, you can take it home with you, if you like.”
“You mean it? You’re giving it to me?”
“Well, lending it to you at least. If I ever need it back, I’ll let you know. But if you like it, you can have it.”
That day, I took a piece of another world home with me. It was an alien world, but it also formed part of Jesse’s lonesome but rich and special world. And he’d given it to me. He’d given me something more precious than I’d ever had before. My very own star.