Monday, January 23, 2017
It started as pilfering. Every time Whitie (my dad) opened a new pack of Pall Mall’s, which was about once a day, I’d wait until he’d smoked a few and then sneak one out of the pack and carefully into my pocket. I figured he’d never notice. But I had to be really cautious, because Whitie was nothing if not fastidious in his obsessive-compulsive tidiness. If you wrinkled or damaged the packaging in any way or left bits of tobacco lying around, he was going to notice. But, like any pre-teen, I figured I was way cleverer than he was. I was about twelve at the time.
His neatness was also what made it easy. He never liked bulges in his clothing, so whenever possible, he would leave his smokes lying on an end table, or on the telephone table, or on top of the TV, or wherever else they’d be handy without his having to carry them on him. He never used cigarette lighters for the same reason. He always used book matches that lay flat in his pockets and didn’t make a bulge.
Once I’d managed to nick one, I didn’t rush right out to smoke it. Instead, I’d take it to the room I shared with my little brother and, after making sure he wasn’t around—since he, Jim, would squeal on me for sure—I would place it in a piece of tinfoil with other purloined smokes, carefully re-wrap them, put them away in any of a number of hiding places I’d devised, and save them for a time when I could slip off by myself and “enjoy” them.
At this stage of my relationship with tobacco, “enjoy” was hardly the right word. Blowing the smoke out through my nose without actually inhaling caused a sinus pain not unlike “swallowing” water through my nose at the pool. And trying to inhale the way I’d seen Whitie do—deep and with apparent satisfaction, since he seemed to genuinely enjoy each smoke—made me cough, made my throat burn and made my eyes water. And usually, one deep drag was enough to make my head spin and make me feel a little nauseous so that I would have to sit down and put my head on my knees until the vertigo stopped and I got to feeling okay again. Of course, as soon as I did, I’d inhale again and have to go through the whole process all over. But, hey, practice made perfect, right?
Indeed it did, and it wasn’t long before I could smoke an entire cigarette without so much as a single cough, tear or dizzy spell. Most of my smoking I did down by the river, which was my haven as a boy, a place to be alone or with my closest friends and to do pretty much whatever I wished. It was there that, with my friend Dave, who lived across the river from me, we began acting out our Huck Finn fantasies, building log rafts and camouflaged shacks like hunting blinds in the scrubland behind his house. And part of that Mississippi fantasy on “our” Auglaize was corncob pipes. We fashioned them ourselves from dry cobs found in the cornfield along the riverbank with hard-dried hollow reeds as stems, stuck into holes worked open in the sides of the cobs with the leather punches on our pocketknives, once we’d used our blades to hollow out a bowl.
Most of our “pipe tobacco” was meticulously recycled from butts recovered from the trash when my dad dumped his ashtrays and Dave’s mother dumped hers. If we got lucky, Whitie would toss a San Felice cigar butt, but he usually only smoked those at work, because my mother, Reba Mae, didn’t like how they stank up the house. We kept our painstakingly harvested and rare assortment of “fine tobaccos” in small leather pouches that Dave generously provided. At home we had to carefully hide them from prying eyes. But they had extra-long drawstrings so that when we were living our fantasy lives down by the Auglaize, we could wear them like medicine bags around our necks in the tradition of the Shawnee braves who had made their home on these very banks a couple of centuries before us.
This kind of smoke was a nasty combination of stale, overdrawn cigarette filler and raw, scorched corncob inhaled through a moldy-tasting reed, but it fit so well with our adventures and our narrative that we could think of nothing finer than to sit by a small twig fire, puffing on our “Ohio Meerschaums” and swapping stories about everything from pirates, bank-robbers and murderers to the ghosts that supposedly rose up from the old, abandoned cemetery behind Dave’s dad’s barn and walked these riverbanks by the light of the moon.
By age fourteen, I had a habit. Not a bad one yet, but a habit all the same. Even before that I used to buy a pack of my own about once or twice a month besides swiping smokes from Whitie. I nervously bought them at corner grocery stores, always ready with some elaborate story about “buying them for my great-uncle who was up visiting from Florida,” or whatever. But seldom did anyone ask who they were for. So I started trying different brands until I found some that I liked better than Whitie’s harsh, filterless Pall Malls: smooth L&Ms, recessed-filter Parliaments, mentholated Salems (“one puff and it’s springtime”). Cigarettes that then made smoking the ones I stole from my dad seem a little like inhaling a brush fire...but smoke them I did, anyway.
Then I discovered cigarette vending machines and gas stations and there was no longer any need to make up stories of any sort. The machines were ubiquitous and often in the entrances of stores or restaurants where nobody paid any attention to who was or wasn’t buying cigarettes, and gas station attendants couldn’t have cared less whom they were selling smokes to.
I was in a teen rock band by this time. We were playing at teen centers and living the fantasy of one day becoming stars. Joe, our bass player, was the oldest boy in the band and had an old station wagon that became our band van. The rest of us were no older than fourteen at the time, but three of us were already regular smokers. Joe himself didn’t smoke, but with the way the rest of us left the inside of his battered old wagon smelling, he’d never have been able to convince his parents of that, I’m sure. He was, however, a really good and easy going guy and generous to a fault, so he not only let us smoke in his car and took us to our gigs and never wanted any extra for gas, but he also gave us driving lessons out on the rural back roads surrounding our home town. Joe was a hard guy not to like. Only his shy, quiet nature kept him from having more friends than he did.
Dave, our lead singer and guitarist, was a wild kid who had no apparent complexes about his smoking—or anything else, for that matter. Pint-sized, bespectacled and as funny, entertaining, impertinent and irreverent as any teen could be. It was all part of his rocker persona. But keyboards man Ron and I (the group’s drummer) were often consumed by guilt about our habit (brought up as we both were in Methodism, where obligatory guilt and self-chastisement seemed almost as prevalent as in Judaism). Frequently, as we were lighting up, Ron would say, “God, man, I gotta quit doing this! I don’t want to get hooked.” And then, after a deep drag, “Do you think we’re hooked?”
Until finally, it started bothering me that he spoiled every other smoke I was about to have and I would snap, “Hell yes, we’re hooked! You wanna smoke, smoke. You don’t, don’t. But don’t lay this guilt trip on me!”
By fifteen, I was smoking, maybe, a half-pack or so a day. Still mostly down by the river. But now I also risked a smoke here and there at home: in my room with the window open and blowing the smoke out through the screen; in the basement, which had become my music studio, keeping the butts in a closed jar in an old cedar chest where I also kept my music books and percussion traps and accessories, until I could safely dispose of them; and on long walks around town that I often took after dark, my favorite places for a smoke being two of the bridges over the Auglaize, where I could stand as if gazing at the water and if anyone my parents knew happened by, flick my cigarette into the drink.
It was a few months after my fifteenth birthday that I one evening told my mother I was going over to the park to shoot some hoops with a couple of friends.
“Basketball players don’t smoke,” Reba Mae said, with a wry smile but a hurt look in her eyes.
I sputtered and started to think of something to say but she held up a hand to silence me. “God knows I don’t like it that you’re smoking, but I like it even less that you sneak around and think you can deceive me.”
“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” I said lamely.
“Too late for that,” she answered, cutting me to the quick.
When I came back from the park, I found her and Whitie together and said, “Listen, I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t want to sneak around anymore either. I’m going to smoke and want to smoke at home. No more sneaking around.”
Reba Mae looked stern but said, “Well I suppose at your age, if I try to stop you you’ll just do it behind my back, so...”
And Whitie added, “I’d like to tell you not to do it, Dan, but I’d be a hypocrite if I stood here and told you not to and then lit up myself, so I’m in no position to tell you what the hell to do. But if you gonna smoke, buy your own goddamn cigarettes and stop stealin’ mine!”
To be continued
Friday, January 13, 2017
Despite the time-warp leg-up that Joerdie’s mystic Lincoln had provided us with, I seemed to be somehow out of sync on this latest trip back to Ohio. After Mark Jordan had left his car in the Mansfield city parking lot and climbed into the Lincoln with us, he informed us that we could, if we wanted to, go out and take a look at the Ohio State Reformatory—of Shawshank Redemption fame—but it would have to be from the outside, since, for tours inside, it had just closed for the season.
Now, frankly, the prison and its macabre infamy were pretty much my whole reason for having wanted to come to Mansfield in the first place. And when I was younger, this news would have hit me like a bucketful of cold water. Back then, I always had plans that were meant to be followed to the letter and set stories I planned to tell, outlines already forming in my head before I hit the road. This, back then, would have been disappointing and irritating news. But perhaps you don’t reach your late sixties without learning something...like that some things happen for a reason...or not. But it doesn’t really matter. Wasn’t I already experiencing a place I’d never been before and could never have imagined? Hadn’t I just lunched in one of the last great 1930s diners? Wasn’t this day-trip with amazing friends, wherever it happened to go from here, an adventure in itself? So why not just take the day as it came and see where it led? I mean, so far, so good! And if there was one thing I’d learned from long experience, it was that there’s a story around every corner, behind every window, inside every heart.
So, just for the sake of saying I’d been there, we drove out to the old, abandoned state prison. Promising myself another road trip back here at some point in the future when the place was open, I grappled my sciatic humanity up onto a boulder by the road in front of the prison and took a few panoramic shots of it. Like that, it looked, I don’t know...institutional, I guess, more than anything else. It wasn’t until I clambered down off of the rock, moved up to the chain-link fence, and looked at the digital viewfinder from that angle, that I got a better, more chilling feel for the place. Jim Bowsher was standing right beside me as I framed the shot, and I couldn’t help remembering his telling me about his experiences teaching hardened felons in Ohio prisons how to set their stories down on paper.
“One thing you never get used to,” Jim had said, “is that cellblock door slamming shut behind you after they’ve checked you through.” It was a feeling, he had intimated, of here but for the grace of God go I. A feeling that, by error or by design, none of us was more than the slamming of an iron gate away from the fate of the caged men and women inside such institutions.
It was a chilling thought. It was, perhaps, what made this and other American prisons so terrifyingly fascinating—that odd, unnatural reality of humans keeping other humans caged up in carefully structured, industrially constructed institutions. It was “the system” at its most frightening. I felt that perverse fascination now, as I bent to the chain-link for a clear shot with the fence as a frame. I made a mental note to come back here again one day. I needed to get into closer touch with these dark feelings.
Several film-makers had evidently felt the same way. Although the prison was most famously and centrally featured in Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption, it had also figured in certain scenes from other Hollywood pictures, such as Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One and the 1989, multi-director action movie Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell.
But Mansfield was no stranger to Hollywood from long before. Not only was there Malabar Farm owner and Ohio writer Louis Bromfield’s life-long link to Tinsel Town, but also that of Mansfield native son and Hollywood actor Robert F. Simon.
“Robert F. Who?” you might be asking.
Once while my late brother Dennis and I were drinking beer, eating pizza and watching a movie together, he suddenly pointed at a familiar face on the screen.
“See that guy?” he asked.
“How many movies have you seen him in?”
“I don’t know...a dozen at least.”
“What’s his name?”
“I have no idea.” Pause. “Sooo...What is it?”
“I don’t know either,” said my brother. “That’s my point. He’s one of those guys who’s worked his ass off in Hollywood all his life and it’s only when he dies and you see his picture and obit in the paper with his name on it that you go, ‘Oh yeah! That guy! So that’s his name!’ Pleased to finally meet you, buddy, and happy trails!”
|Robert F. Who?|
Well, Robert F. Simon was one of those guys, a perennial supporting actor on both the silver screen and in television, who, from the 1950s through the mid-1980s, worked in literally scores of films and shows, every time a tall authority-figure character actor was required, while remaining, throughout a prolific three and a half-decade career, virtually anonymous. Simon was well into his forties before he became a professional actor. Before that, he was a traveling salesman and took up amateur acting to help him overcome his shyness. At some point, he realized he’d found his passion and went to New York, after a few professional gigs with the Cleveland Playhouse. His talent was recognized in New York, where he attended The Actor’s Studio (of which he would eventually become a lifetime member) and he landed a job as Lee J. Cobb’s understudy in the lead role (Willy Loman) for the famous Broadway staging of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a part in which he would eventually succeed Cobb. Broadway would be his professional home for nearly a decade.
But Hollywood awaited: He would be Hardy Strong in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart), Captain J.B. Henderson in Operation Petticoat (with Carey Grant and Tony Curtis), Dr. Norton in Bigger than Life (with James Mason), and Police Lieutenant Johnson in Compulsion (with Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell), among dozens of other movie credits. On TV, he was Samantha’s father-in-law in Bewitched, J. Jonah Jameson in The Amazing Spider Man, Captain Rudy Olsen in The Streets of San Francisco, General Maynard Mitchell in M*A*S*H, and he racked up over 190 other credits in television shows throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, becoming known in the profession as a master of comedy, drama and the American Western. A Mansfield native who became one of the best known, unknown faces in America.
|Mark Jordan instructs Jim Bowsher on the origins|
of Oak Hill Cottage
Coming into town earlier in the day, Joerdie had pointed to a large brick house on a hill above the city proper, partly obscured by the last surviving, late-autumn foliage of the deciduous hardwoods that thrive in the region. She said she’d noticed it a couple of times before and had always wanted to go up there to see it.
Turns out, Joerdie has a real eye for outstanding architecture, since now, Mark is telling us that the house she spotted is a Mansfield landmark known as Oak Hill Cottage. He says he’ll be glad to show us around when we go back into town to pick up his car before going out to Malabar Farm.
On the way, I wonder aloud about the origin of the name of Malabar Farm. But not even Mark seems to know where the name came from. Being a Spanish-English translator besides writer by trade, I’m thinking out loud that, in Spanish, malabar (almost always used in the plural, malabares) refers to any sort of juggling or exercises (whether figurative or literal) of coordination and balance. And I try to imagine why someone would use such a term as the name of a rural estate. But later, I recall that there’s also a region known as Malabar in southern India, the Malabar Coast on the Arabian Sea. And I remember too, Bromfield’s novel entitled The Rains Came, made into a movie called The Rains of Ranchipur that I went to see with my parents as a boy in the 1950s. The story of a torrid romance against a background of flooding, disease and poverty on the Indian subcontinent. It seems that in the Indian dialect from which it is derived, Malabar there means “hill country” and that the Malabar region is one of deciduous hardwood forests, so Malabar Farm’s name suddenly makes sense to me.
|Bromfield, the gentleman farmer/writer|
Perched on a promontory of sorts, a stone’s throw from the railway lines that powered Mansfield’s early growth, the so-called “Oak Hill Cottage”—actually a large, sturdy, gabled, red brick house with Carpenter Gothic trim—dates back to 1847, when it was built for John Robinson, superintendent of the Mansfield, Sandusky and Newark Railroad. Ralph Adams Cram, a celebrated Gothic Revivalist architect whose renowned ecclesiastical works include Saint John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, is quoted as having once described Oak Hill Cottage as “the one perfect Gothic House I’ve seen in the United States.”
|Jim bones up on the history of the landmark|
Its most famous residents, Dr. Johannes Jones and his wife, Francis (née) Barr, purchased the house toward the end of the Civil War. While they and their four daughters lived there, Oak Hill Cottage became a veritable center for Mansfield high society events. When Dr. Jones died in 1895, his funeral was held there. His wife would continue to reside in the house until 1912, and other members of his family long afterward.
Francis Barr Jones, Mark tells us, was the great-aunt of Louis Bromfield, and as a boy, the author spent happy days visiting there. Bromfield immortalized the house as “Shane’s Castle” in his first novel, The Green Bay Tree (1924), which launched him to almost instant fame. The house was purchased by the Richland County Historical Society in 1965 but wasn’t opened to public tours until 1983.
|Joerdie takes a self-guided tour of the |
True to my trend on this trip, Oak Hill Cottage wasn’t open for tours on this particular day either, but we had a walk around the yard and enjoyed it from the outside, while listening to Mark’s running account of the connection with Bromfield. It was easy enough to see what a pleasant place it must have been to visit for an imaginative boy like Louis, who would embellish it in his boyhood dreams and file it away as a venue for tales he was surely already spinning in his young mind.
After we left Oak Hill Cottage, we swung back through town to pick up Mark Jordan’s car and then followed him out to Malabar Farm. The road we took was a pleasure: a winding, rolling ribbon of two-lane highway, wending its way through the rises, woodlands, ridges and valleys of the region. This is maple syrup country, where the western edge of the Allegheny Mountains’ foothills reach into the heart of northern Ohio and fashion a stunning landscape.
In a little while, Joerdie says, “The land on the right, there, is the beginning of Malabar Farm.” She’s smiling, and now so am I because the fields are so sweetly picturesque in the gold-dusty light of an advancing late-autumn afternoon. The setting for Malabar Farm is quite aptly named Pleasant Valley. The farm’s meadows rise out of a deep, fertile-looking hollow into a series of gentle hills that climb to what Bromfield called The Big House, backed and flanked to our left by a tall, wooded ridge, under which, I’ll discover later, the writer’s body was laid to rest.
|My first look at Malabar Farm|
I’m about to cry “Bingo!” as I watch a family saying good-bye to a caretaker who is standing by a tractor and climbing into their car to leave. They are, clearly, the last round of tourists for the day, and now the tractor pulls out behind them and heads down the hill to an equipment area separate from the farmhouse. It’s about 4 p.m. Guided tours are over for the day as I ask Joerdie to let me out at the open gate before she drives on up to the farmhouse, which to me looks more homey than I would expect a place called “The Big House” to look. I shoot a few stills of the house, the barn, the sheep in the barnyard. If I didn’t know better, I’d figure I might be able to walk up, knock on the door, and invite myself in for a cup of coffee with Bromfield. Despite having been long ago turned into a state park, Malabar still has a warm, working farm feel to it.
|For Bromfield, his farm was serious business|
This sensation is underscored by visiting it with somebody like Mark Jordan, who makes his home here, as manager of the on-site hostel just down the lane. He talks, although he is far too young, as if he’d known Bromfield and his friends personally, and as if the anecdotes he’s relating had happened yesterday. In fact, Bromfield has been dead for over sixty years and most of his Hollywood star friends with him. Storyteller Jim Bowsher too has been here enough that the place feels like home away from home to him as well, and he, like Mark, has incorporated anecdotes into his repertoire that make you feel he was there when Bromfield still entertained his illustrious guests.
Right now, as we’re standing on the porch, Jim says, “You know, Bromfield had his quirks. Like he used to make his guests earn their keep by going down by the road to sell produce.” He grins and adds, “No, really! So people would drive by and maybe see James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart down there selling corn out of a roadside stand.”
|Gazing like a peeping-tom through the windows...|
his typewriter, his desk...
Suddenly, as I gaze through a window like a peeping-tom, I’m no longer disappointed that the house is closed for the day. There’s something about looking at it through the windows and past the shutters that makes this self-styled tour seem all the more intimate, as if I’m stealing a look at something I shouldn’t be seeing—the desk Bromfield sat at, the typewriter he wrote on, the stairs Lauren Bacall descended the day she married Bogart...
That’s right. Bogart and Bacall were married right here, at Malabar Farm. Sneaking a peek through one of the front windows I see the impressive dual staircase down one side of which the trembling still teen-aged Lauren made her grand entrance on May 21, 1945. She was just nineteen. Bogart was forty-five. Mark tells me that Bacall’s mother was so opposed to the marriage that she refused to attend the wedding. And the bride was shaking so badly that the bouquet she was holding quaked uncontrollably.
|...the dual staircase Lauren Bacall descended...|
As the select covey of guests waited below, Mark says, the nervous young Lauren decided at the last minute that she wasn’t going to make it through the ceremony without one last pee. In one of the less romantic moments of the event, Bromfield’s loyal live-in secretary and business manager George Hawkins leaned over the banister and shouted, “She’ll be down in a minute. She's in the can.”
Some months earlier, the couple had met when director Howard Hawks discovered the as yet unknown Bacall and, just like that, flew her out to Hollywood to star opposite “Bogie”, a major Hollywood name, in a screen adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel, To Have and Have Not. Almost immediately, Bogart became Bacall’s mentor. Lauren was so frightened and overwhelmed that she couldn’t stop trembling—very much like her response to the Ohio wedding—and looked stiff as a board on camera. Bogart took the situation into his own hands and started joking and cutting up and making the whole rigorous process of movie-making into a fun first-time experience for his film-debutant co-star. Off-camera, he made her feel relaxed and at home and showered her with attention and confidence. By the end of the shoot—to the chagrin of not only Bacall’s mother but of director Hawks as well—they were an item. And the wedding took place at Malabar Farm almost as soon as the ink was dry on Bogie’s divorce from his third wife, Mayo Methot.
Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not...
the romance was real.
Despite all predictions to the contrary, and in spite of its being a tempestuous relationship in which each put up with the other’s indiscretions, by Hollywood standards the marriage that began in a simple ceremony at Malabar farm in 1945, was a success and lasted until Bogart’s death in 1957. So lasting was Bacall’s regard for the relationship that she and Bogie had shared that her second husband, Jason Robards, would often caustically refer to her as “The Widow Bogart”.
Bromfield (center) helps Bogart and
Bacall cut their wedding cake
With Joerdie as our enthusiastic chauffeur and Mark Jordan as tour guide, we take a drive around to see some other Shawshank memorabilia.
“That’s the tree!” Jim cries from the backseat. “The one next to a stone wall that Andy tells Red to look for when he gets out of prison, remember?”
“Where?” I ask, seeing only some fine fallen oak timber.
“It fell over in a big windstorm a few years back,” Mark says sadly.
Shortly afterward, he directs Joerdie up a winding logging road that leads to a small camp of rough-hewn buildings that now serve as infrastructure for a maple sugar operation that is mostly kept working for the tourists who come here every year for the maple run. On his instructions, we pull up in front of one of the cabins.
“This is where they filmed the first scene in Shawshank Redemption,” Mark tells us.
“The one where Tim Robbins is sitting in his car in the dark with a .38, drinking whiskey and trying to decide whether to go in and kill his wife and her lover,” Jim adds.
Where Andy (Tim Robbins) sits in the car with bourbon
and a .38trying to decide whether or not to killhis wife and her lover.
For the life of me I can’t recall this scene https://youtu.be/2cHiBF1TreA, because, I suddenly realize, I’ve only ever seen the movie—one of my favorites—on TV, and, almost always, already started when I find it while zapping through the movie channels. It makes me nostalgic for the days back in the seventies and eighties, when the grand old movie theaters of Buenos Aires were still operating and I could enjoy the magic of sitting in the darkened cinema excitedly waiting for the first scenes of great movies from around the world to fade in on the big screen. In fact, it makes me nostalgic for a lot of things that don’t exist anymore. Indeed, it’s a nostalgic day, here on Malabar Farm sharing time with the ghosts of such extraordinary and creative visitors and their host.
We can’t leave the place, however, without a visit to the home of a much darker spirit. A much less pretentious home, a clapboard farmhouse that was once the home of the infamous Celia “Ceely” Rose. Ceely was a mentally challenged girl with severe learning disabilities. By all accounts, her parents, David and Rebecca Rose, tried to protect her from the outside world, but her encounters with local residents were often tainted by derision and taunting. One person, however, always treated her with kindness and respect. He was a young farmer by the name of Guy Berry.
Mentally childish, but by now growing physically developed, Ceely quite naturally fell in love with Guy and started telling him, and anyone else who would listen, that she was soon going to be his wife. Local legend has it that Guy, not wanting to hurt her feelings but not knowing how to dissuade her of the idea that he might have any but a friendly relationship with her, told Ceely he couldn’t marry her because Mr. and Mrs. Rose and her brother, Walter, didn’t approve of him as a husband for her. The apparent lie got Guy Berry off the hook, but unleashed a terrible tragedy.
|The house where Ceely Rose murdered her family|
Ceely’s disappointment quickly turned to rage, and in the summer of 1896, she poisoned her parents and brother—some accounts say by lacing their coffee with rat poison, others, by pouring poison soaked from flypaper over their food. Mr. Rose died almost immediately. Brother Walter lingered for some days longer before succumbing. But Ceely’s mother survived the attempted homicide. She apparently told Ceely she knew what her daughter had done, but sought to protect her from the authorities. Two weeks after Walter’s death, however, Ceely slipped Mrs. Rose a second dose of poison and, this time, succeeded in murdering her.
Following the deaths of Ceely’s entire family, Guy Berry decided he had better skip town before he came under investigation. Sad and distraught by the news of Guy’s departure to parts unknown, or so the story goes, Ceely confessed to a neighbor what she had done. She was ultimately committed to the State Prison Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Lima, Ohio, and resided there until her death. Ghost stories about her abound in Pleasant Valley and at the site of her reclusion and burial in Lima. Mark Jordan has a collection of Ceely Rose stories of his own and has written on her extensively (including a Ceely Rose play staged at Malabar Farm). Here’s a sample: http://www.ghostvillage.com/encounters/2004/06152004.shtml
With the sun sinking low, we now drive to the top of a tall ridge across from Malabar Farm to see the glorious landscape in the last golden light of a beautiful, chilly autumn day. Even after the sun has set, we linger for a while, near a pond down by the road and the haunting feeling I’ve had in this place all day long only increases.
Standing here in silence with my friends after an extraordinary day, I couldn’t be more pleased to have come. Mansfield, it turns out, is an amazing place.
Standing here in silence with my friends after an extraordinary day, I couldn’t be more pleased to have come. Mansfield, it turns out, is an amazing place.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
In all the traveling around I’ve done in Ohio since my teen musician years, this time-warp ride on Joerdie’s magic carpet was my first trip to Mansfield. And my first impression was of “something different”, as Joerdie’s Lincoln SUV climbed the hill on which the town is perched and she parked it in the municipal lot on the main square. I mean, to start with, you’ve kind of got to like a town from the get-go, when the principal feature of the main square is a huge indoor carousel. But it went beyond that.
I’ve been in towns where depression seemed to hang in the air. Like the one not far from this one, where, when I briefly returned to my native state in 1990, I was offered a job as its daily newspaper’s editor. I really wanted to “go back home” to Ohio for a while, after seventeen years as a newsman and international correspondent in Buenos Aires, and equally wanted to like the idea of being that small-town paper’s editor. But after a less than inspiring talk with its editor-in-chief and a long walk around town, I pretty much decided that trying to make a career out of that place would, at the very least, turn me from a social (quite often too social) drinker into a full-blown alcoholic. So, I had to respectfully decline the offer. There was a kind of heavy pall that hung over the place, from the newsroom to the shops downtown, and attempting to cope with it would have been impossible—fatal, even. But Mansfield didn’t feel that way at all. It seemed to have character, a kind of vitality that belied its recent history.
|Have to like a town whose main feature is a carousel|
Speaking of which...Mansfield is a sort of “rust belt icon”. This is something I know a bit about, since Wapakoneta, the little town Joerdie, Jim and I all hail from, is a next door neighbor to Lima, Ohio, an erstwhile thriving industrial town with a once big-city feel that pretty much choked to death on the post-Vietnam industrial recession that ended up spelling the permanent demise of a lot of northern and central Ohio steel-related industries (once known as the “steel belt”—hence, rust belt), and on the decline of its once vibrant oil industry that gradually fell victim to the growing importance of oil finds elsewhere in the country and abroad. Today, Lima’s population is about half what it once was and many of the myriad industries that once thrived there have since gone elsewhere or have shrunk substantially—so much so that two of the city’s top three employers are now hospitals. And although its perennial mayor has brilliantly sought to rehab the city center and keep its spirit alive in the nearly three decades since he first took office, downtown Lima today looks to me like the fossilized, if carefully staged, remains of the still hopping town that it continued to be when I played in its then-numerous nightclubs and worked at a music store just off the main square back in the 1960s of my youth. And even back then, it was a far cry from the City of Lima that my father had grown up in, despite the Great Depression of those years.
Perhaps it was just the inspiring company I was with—the aura of any sort of visit or adventure with Jim Bowsher is palpable and our friend Joerdie has a powerful, positive and engaging personality of her own—but downtown Mansfield didn’t feel “ruined” like that to me. It was more a feeling of “still being there,” of persisting in the face of adversity, despite everything that’s been thrown at it. And indeed, the years since the sixties have not been kind to that city. Like Lima, the once booming industrial town that burgeoned on the junction of three major regional rail lines, is today bereft of most of the industries by which it once prospered. A drive around town reveals huge, empty concrete-covered wastelands where factories once stood, or abandoned red-brick industrial structures from another age, whose dark, vacant windows now haunt passersby with their dead, mournful stare.
Nor do its economic woes date back entirely to the seventies and eighties when the rust belt first encroached on the region. As late as 2010, Mansfield became the largest Ohio city (population a little under 50,000) to be declared in a state of fiscal emergency by the state auditor’s office. At the time it had already initiated urban renewal efforts and blamed its inability to reduce its deficit on the Great Recession inherited from the Bush era market crash and banking crisis. It wasn’t until 2014 that the town was able to get itself taken off the auditor’s list and once more indulge its penchant for civic pride, which is plain to see in the historic downtown area.
We meet Jim and Joerdie’s friend Mark Jordan at the Coney Island Diner on the main drag. Mark’s a Mansfield native son. A writer, journalist, playwright, actor, director and full-time manager at a farmhouse hostel out on Malabar Farm, Mark is also something of a local historian. Through him, I begin to piece together a picture of community engagement that I could only presume before. As it turns out, we’re having lunch on the edge of what has become the heart of Mansfield’s cultural revival, which now includes an open-air recital venue called The Brickyard, hosting events such as jazz festivals that sometimes draw crowds in the thousands. But the town’s “Carousel District” also manages to support a symphony orchestra, a youth orchestra, two dance companies (the NEOS Ballet and the Richland Academy Dance Ensemble), an opera company and a performing arts theater (the Renaissance, which is also home to the Symphony).
|Inside the Coney Island|
Lunch at the Coney Island is an experience in itself. It’s a diner of the type my father and two of his brothers founded in our town in 1946, after they returned from armed service during World War II. This place makes me miss Dad’s, which was called the Teddy Bear, and which, in 1969, finally succumbed to the super highway that by-passed Wapakoneta and to the plethora of fast-food chain stores that sprung up out by the Interstate exit. But the Coney Island pre-dates the Teddy Bear. It’s been around since the 1930s and looks, inside and out, like a typical 1950s soda fountain and grill. If the décor piques my nostalgia, the food also couldn’t be more like the kind of unabashedly caloric comfort food (just known as “food” back then) that my dad and his brothers dished up when I was a boy.
Although I’m eyeing a case full of homemade pies, Mark suggests crossing the street for dessert and coffee. Turns out it’s a unique building with a sort of New Orleans façade full of ironwork that I was looking at when we first pulled in, intriguingly named “Relax It’s Just Coffee”.
On the way, nursing a fetish from my newspaper days, I stop in front of a newsstand/bookstore next to the Coney Island call the City News. I expect to see magazines, newspapers and the usual depressing array of trite, vacuous, gazillion-copy bestsellers, but am surprised, instead, to see a display for whom the window-dresser might have been Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King. Prominently featured in the show-window are books about the darker side of Mansfield that it has become best-known for, and which has lately turned it, increasingly, into a something of tourist attraction. The books have titles like The Mansfield Killings, The Shawshank Trail Guidebook, and The Haunted History of the Ohio State Reformatory. There were also books by Louis Bromfield, the late owner of Malabar Farm (now a State Park) and an author of national note.
|Relax It's Just Coffee|
I could have lingered there for a spell, but everybody else was already crossing over to Relax It’s Just Coffee, so I did the same. The coffee shop is obviously a popular downtown meeting place that has no problem being just that, since it advertises business hours seven days a week and is open 24 hours a day Tuesdays through Saturdays. I’m still thinking “pie” when I walk in, but am such a sucker for iced sugar cookies that I have one of those instead and it turns out to be one of the best ever.
But it’s mid-November and the afternoon daylight hours limited, so, although it would be tempting to sit here and chat a while, it’s time to move on.
To be continued...
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Before making one of my ever more regular visits to my home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, last month, I first emailed my friend, Joerdie, and suggested she, our mutual friend Jim Bowsher, and I should go on an outing together. Jim doesn’t have email...or a cellphone...or a computer, despite being a writer, researcher and historian. Jim’s old-school and considers those things distractions, folly if you will. So Joerdie’s always our go-between—except when I call Jim on his landline—since snail mail from Patagonia to Ohio can take weeks...months. Nothing new for Joerdie. She has long acted as Jim’s link to the virtual zone that just about everybody else these days thinks of as the “real” world. Cyberspace, the place where “everything’s happening.”
By way of suggestion—though I said I was up for whatever adventure they might have in mind, since, knowing Jim, if he had gotten wind of a potential archeological treasure trove somewhere, wild horses wouldn’t be able to restrain him from going off to sift through layers of time to see what he could find, so he would ultimately decide our destination—I said I’d heard of an abandoned prison in Mansfield, Ohio, that was supposed to be one of the most haunted places in the United States and that I thought it might be fun to go there. Did she or Jim know anything about it?
They did. Joerdie wrote back right away to say that she and Jim went on a practically annual pilgrimage to that area, which was very close to Malabar Farm, one of their favorite places to visit. And it was about time for them to go there again, so we could go together for sure. I should count on it.
When I blew into town from Patagonia, via Miami, one of the first people I called on checking into the Wapakoneta Best Western was Jim.
“So Joerdie tells me you want to go up to Malabar Farm,” he said.
“To the old Mansfield prison, actually. But Malabar Farm sounds nice, even though I know nothing about it,” I said. “The prison just sounded like something I might want to write about.”
“Well, we can do that too,” Jim said, seeming to betray a certain air of ennui, “but you’re going to love Malabar Farm!”
“Is it the old prison farm.”
“No. Nothing to do with it.”
“Oh, so maybe we could go to the prison, and if there’s time after...” I tried.
“Joerdie’s setting it up with our friend down there, Mark Jordan. You’ll love this guy, and he’s an expert on that area.”
That night, I got together with Jim for supper at near-by Woody’s bar and grill and then we went back to his place to continue our chat. While there, I again mentioned the prison, and he again said, yes, we’d be going down to Malabar Farm the next day. Then he called Joerdie and she confirmed we’d be heading for Mansfield the following day, Monday.
Why was I so interested in going to an abandoned prison? Well, for one thing, because it’s the one where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed: the feature film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, based on a Stephen King novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. And for another thing, because it was there that another close friend, photographer Mary Jo Knoch, took one of the most haunting pictures I’d ever seen. An image one might describe, superficially, as of a chair and a window in an otherwise empty room, but a scene that I was unable to get out of my head for days after seeing it and that, when I first saw it hanging on her living room wall, I was sure was a print of a hyper-realistic painting.
The next morning, I picked Jim up at his house and we drove up to near-by Shawnee where Joerdie lives. On the way, I said I’d drive. I had a rental, it was all-wheel drive, a Mazda CX5, and comfy to ride in, so there was no use Joerdie’s having to use her car and fuel.
|The Ohio State Prison of Shawshank fame|
“Oh, no,” Jim said. “She’ll want to drive. She always drives. And she’s got all this stuff in the back of her vehicle that she takes along so...better not mess with it.”
It was a lovely November morning. Cool, not cold, and sunny. And Jim was right. Joerdie had it all under control, her big Lincoln SUV waiting and ready to go as she took orders in the kitchen, where we stood chatting with her pleasant, soft-spoken cardiologist husband, Eric, another home town boy: “Dan, do you want a coffee for the road? I have a Thermos mug here for you, if you do. Jim, you do, right? Water? Well, there’s water in the car...”
And soon we were on the road. Along the way, Joerdie spoke to her car, saying: “Call Mark Jordan.” And it did.
I listened as she and Mark made plans to meet at Malabar Farm and horned in once again: “And then I’d like to go to the prison in Mansfield.”
“Mark,” Joerdie said, “Dan wants to go to the prison, so do you want to meet us in Mansfield for lunch?” He was game and suggested the traditional Coney Island Diner on Main Street.
Whenever Jim, Joerdie and I get together, we always have a lot to talk about and this was no exception. And in the midst of the running dialogue, we missed the turnoff of I-75 for 30 East to Mansfield. Joerdie’s navigation system told us which exit to take in order to backtrack south and catch Route 30 from a different angle.
Then something strange happened. Just shortly after Joerdie called Mark Jordan again to let him know we’d missed our exit and would be arriving a little later, Jim said, “Hey, this isn’t Mansfield coming up already, is it?”
Now, Mansfield is a good hour and forty-five-minute to two-hour drive from our neck of the woods and, according to my watch, we’d only been on the road for a little over an hour.
“It can’t be,” I said.
“Can’t be,” Joerdie said, “but it is.” And then looking into the rearview mirror, she said to Jim, who was riding in the backseat, “We’re warping again, Jim.”
“Warping?” I asked, bewildered. And in a confidential-like aside to me, she said, “This happens to us all the time.”
“But only in this car,” Jim added. “I don’t know what it is but it’s something about us traveling in this car...”
And sure enough, we were on the outskirts of Mansfield, as if magically transported there in record time, despite missing our turn and having to backtrack south to Route 30.
Joerdie called Mark again and told him the news, that we were pulling into Mansfield.
“Already!” he asked. “I thought you said you’d missed your turn...”
“Then how the...Well, I haven’t even left the farm yet to drive into town so you’ll have to wait for me.”
When they hung up, I said, “If I hadn’t been in the car with you, I’d never have believed it. This is crazy!”
Jim said nothing.
Joerdie just smiled.
This was business as usual for them. I’d just happened to witness it.
To be continued...