Sunday, May 13, 2018

GOING ROGUE IN THE GOLDEN YEARS



This may sound strange, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ambrose Bierce. Bear with me. At my age, this makes sense, and I think it might make sense to some of you as well.
Scene from a 1962 French film adaptation of "An Occurrence at
Owl Creek Bridge" 
For those of you who don’t remember Ambrose Bierce, he was a famous nineteenth-century American writer, journalist and poet. He was an extraordinary short story writer. Perhaps his best known story—and one of the best known of all stories in modern American literature—is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a Civil War tale which, in short, is a description of everything that runs through a man’s mind as he is hanged from a railway trestle, from the time he is pushed from the bridge with a rope around his neck until the noose snaps his spine.
Not your lighter, more optimistic literature, mind you, but a masterpiece all the same. Published in 1890 and anthologized for the first of many times in 1891, it is also considered one of the great early examples of stream of consciousness.
Contemporary bestseller Kurt Vonnegut once described the story as “a flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.” He also defined as “a twerp” anyone who’d never read it. Biographer Richard O’Connor said that “war was the making of Bierce as a man and a writer.” O’Connor praised Bierce for his grim and graphic style, observing that he was “truly capable of transferring the bloody, headless bodies and boar-eaten corpses of the battlefield onto paper.” Even the often jaundiced and disdainful New York Review of Books and Washington Post critic Michael Dirda concedes, if snottily, that Bierce “is arguably the finest not-quite-first-rate writer in nineteenth-century American literature.”
There’s a substantial literary reason, then, why other later extraordinary writers (Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Vladimir Nabokov among them) were influenced by Bierce’s writing—just as he was influenced by Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and other great and innovative authors who preceded him. But Bierce wasn’t just a writer. He himself was to become the stuff that fiction is made of—the subject of a mystery that remains unsolved and is the topic of vast research and speculation up to the present day.  
Like me, Bierce was born in Ohio, but on the opposite side of the state, in Meigs County, which today borders on West Virginia, an area which is part of the Appalachian region. The tenth of thirteen siblings—all with given names beginning with the letter “A”—while he was still a small child his parents moved to Kosciusko County, in north-central Indiana, where he grew into adolescence. He would eventually attend high school in the town of Warsaw, the county seat.
If he wasn’t born with ink in his veins, young Ambrose would quickly be immersed in it when he struck out on his own at age fifteen and went to work as a printer’s apprentice at an Ohio abolitionist newspaper called, oddly enough, the Northern Indianan. Working at a newspaper was not a random choice. Although he came from a home of humble means, his parents were highly literate people and obviously encouraged him in his love of books and his penchant for storytelling and writing.
Lieutanant Ambrose Bierce, 1862
From the printshop, Ambrose would edge his way into journalism, but that career ended up being interrupted by the US Civil War, in which a still very young Bierce would attain the rank of first lieutenant in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment of the Union Army, and would lead his men in such famous (and infamous) confrontations as Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, the Atlanta Campaign and the Battle of Nashville, among numerous others.
Bierce was cited for bravery in one of the earliest battles in which he took part (and indeed, one of the first of the Civil War) and was seriously wounded at Kennesaw Mountain. Although he spent several months in 1864 on medical furlough because of the head wound he had sustained, he returned to battle in September of that same year and was only discharged from the Army in January of 1865, a few months before the war ended. However, his former commander, General William Hazen (who had recommended Bierce for admission to the military academy at West Point) re-commissioned him in 1866 to take part in an inspection tour of Great Plains Army outposts, a journey which ended up in San Francisco, California. There, Bierce was awarded the largely ceremonial rank of “brevet major” and resigned from the Army forever.

It was there, in San Francisco, however, that Bierce seriously delved into his career as a newspaperman and writer. As a journalist, he attained great acclaim while working as a reporter and columnist for the Hearst family’s San Francisco Examiner, as well as for other publications. He would continue to write for Hearst papers until 1909, just five years before his disappearance and presumed death.
Battle scene from Kennesaw Mountain, where 3,000 Union
soldiers and a thousand Confederates were killed, and where 
Bierce was critically wounded.
Ambrose Bierce’s trenchant commentary and in-depth reporting not only brought him fame, but also the rancor of many of the powerful people he wrote about. It is to the credit of the highly controversial William Randolph Hearst—who in the 1880s inherited the Examiner at age twenty-three and with whom Bierce had an often combative relationship—that, despite what must have been intense pressure to fire Bierce with the aim of silencing him, the famed newspaper owner kept the writer on his payroll for decades. The opposition pressure on Bierce himself was such that he is said to have started carrying a pistol with him wherever he went. As I have learned in my own career as a journalist, if you please everyone with what you write, you’re not doing your job. If you write an in-depth piece or an editorial that elicits praise but no opposition, you need to ask yourself what you’re doing wrong...or find another profession. The irascible if cruelly witty Bierce was the clear embodiment of this principle.
Bierce in the early 20th century
But he was also—like many journalists who are writers first and foremost—a multi-faceted artist who also excelled in satire, short story writing, fantasy and early sci-fi, humor, criticism and poetry above and beyond his notable work as a newsman. Some of his best known work, as O’Connor points out, was based on his vast military and combat experience during the Civil War.
What I’ve been mulling over recently, however, is less about his writing than about his way of approaching life. After an admirable career as a man of letters, Bierce could easily have retired, written the odd story or commentary, traveled a bit, dabbled in his memoirs and been the toast of the town. But that would have been completely out of character for Ambrose Bierce. He was a man of action.
In 1913, at age seventy-one—in an era when the average male life-expectancy in the US was between forty and fifty—Ambrose Bierce had already lived to a ripe old age. But what was left, he must have wondered, to sit in a rocker on the porch and wait for death? Not likely. He hadn’t been a particularly good husband or father, but now even those tenuous ties were pretty much gone. His former wife, Molly Day, had passed away some time before this, but he had already been estranged from her for years by the time she died. Of his three children, only his daughter, Helen, who was nearly forty years old by this time, was left. One of his sons, Raymond Day, had committed suicide in 1889 at age seventeen, and the other one, Leigh, had died of alcoholism-related pneumonia in 1901, aged twenty-seven.     
Some accounts claim that the thought of being put out to pasture was weighing heavily on Bierce when he decided that sitting still wasn’t an option if one was alive, and set off on what was very probably his last great adventure. There are a number of conflicting accounts of where Bierce went and what happened to him, but the most plausible story appears to be that he started out from Washington DC on a research tour of Civil War battlefields that eventually led him to the Texas border with Mexico. He is thought to have crossed the border at El Paso.
Francisco "Pancho" Villa
In Mexico, Bierce supposedly gave free reign to a fantasy he had entertained for some time of catching up to famed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and riding with him as an observer. Some accounts say that he joined up with Villa in Ciudad Juárez and was at least with the revolutionary for the Battle of Tierra Blanca, which was fought thirty-five miles south of Juárez and was considered a major win for Villa over forces loyal to Mexico’s ruler, Victoriano Huerta.
From there on, the story becomes hazy and speculative. Some versions have Bierce being executed by a detachment of federales for his relationship with Pancho Villa. Others have him being shot as a spy by a rebel firing squad. One town even claims that it was there that he died and has erected a monument that is visited by tourists. But the body of Ambrose Bierce was never found.          
Mexican military ruler Victoriano Huerta
There are strong indications that Bierce accompanied Villa’s army to the city of Chihuahua in northwestern Mexico. In a last letter to his niece, Lora, Bierce is purported to have said that he was writing to say good-bye. “What an intolerable world this would be,” he wrote, “if we said nothing but what is worth saying! And did nothing foolish—like going into Mexico and South America.”
He added that “if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”
His last communication read: “I don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios.”
Much of Bierce’s fiction is said by critics to highlight “the inscrutability of life and the absurdity of death.” His own disappearance and probably violent death ended up being as inscrutable as it was absurd for a man of his age and literary stature.
Whatever the case may be, while some observers have claimed it was tantamount to suicide for Ambrose Bierce to wonder into the Mexico of Huerta and Villa like some ad hoc septuagenarian foreign correspondent, I consider it a declaration of independence and freedom, and an act of uncommon courage. It was a clear choice to live life to the fullest, right up to his last breath. It’s a philosophy each of us facing the so-called “golden years” might do well to ponder and, to the extent that we can, and each in our own way, to imitate, in the interest of making the absurd worthwhile.


Friday, April 27, 2018

RANDOM TURNINGS



Sometimes when I’m busy doing something else I’ll get a flash of my Grandma Myrt’s hands.
I don’t usually notice people’s hands right off. My wife does. Hands are important to her. They may even be her most vivid memories of people. But not me. I notice their hands after I’ve known them for a while.
Grandma Myrt and I
But Grandma Myrt’s hands were exceptional—work-punished hands, but not like my mother’s or mine, thick-skinned and rough like Grandpa Vern’s. No, Grandma’s were delicate, if tortured, with translucent skin through which the blue veins were clearly visible. They were slim but strong and they were deft and quick when it came to embroidering or crocheting or darning, things she did while Grandpa Vern watched TV and she pretended to. Hands that were only idle when she slept.
She had one finger, the middle one on her right hand that wouldn’t lie straight. If she laid her hands palms down, flat on the table, that one hooved up like a small hillock in an otherwise plane topography. Sometimes, when I was small, I would lay my hand over hers and feel how that knuckle protruded. I didn’t ask her about it. I was a curious child and my mother, Reba Mae, always said I asked too many questions, that I shouldn’t be so nosy. So I withstood the temptation to ask when I first noticed that crooked finger. But I did ask her if it hurt.
“No, honey, not anymore,” she said.
I did eventually ask my mother about Grandma’s finger, however. She said it was from a bout of scarlet fever that developed into rheumatic fever. They were tenant farmers and medical attention was less than adequate in rural Ohio back then.
“I was little at the time,” Reba Mae said, “But I remember being scared because Mom had such a high fever and was in such pain that she was delirious. I remember her pacing and pacing the floor cradling one hand in the other and mumbling something about an old Chinaman all night long. The doctor, when he finally came, said she was lucky the fever had settled in her hand, that if not, it probably would have killed her.”
I could never look at my grandma’s twisted finger again without thinking of the pain that had left it that way and wondering who the Chinaman was that she had seen.


People are always telling me I look like Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway, the twentieth-century novelist. I don’t see it.
Hem in Cuba
I mean, okay, two gone-to-seed heavyweights with white beards and a crooked, sardonic grin. I get it. But that’s where the resemblance ends, I think. Papa Hemingway was brown-eyed and darker-skinned. In his youth his hair was dark brown, almost black. I am Teutonic pink sausage-skinned fair with blue eyes. True, however, we were both born with a stubborn jaw. And like me, he was already white-haired in his forties. Put a pair of steel-rimmed glasses on us both and there may be a slight resemblance...in a darkened bar after a shitload of margaritas.
But that doesn’t keep me from liking the comparison. As a boy, I ate up Hemingway’s Nick Adams series and went to the Wapa Theater in my hometown of Wapakoneta (the world’s only Wapakoneta) to see a movie called Adventures of a Young Man that was based on those short stories.
Dan in Patagonia
In it, the restless Nick Adams (Richard Beymer) strikes out from his rural Michigan home on a cross-country journey that ends up being the road to his coming of age. His purported goal is to bum his way to New York and land a job as a big city reporter, but this is a true life case of the journey’s not being about the destination but about the road to get there. While riding the rails and hitching, Nick—clearly young Hemingway’s alter ego—is touched and changed by his encounters with a punch-drunk ex-prizefighter (stunningly played by Paul Newman), a personable telegrapher and an alcoholic burlesque show barker. He eventually makes it to New York, where he thinks the world of journalism is waiting for him with bated breath, but is turned down for the reporting job.
Discouraged, he decides to become a soldier of fortune and, in an odd twist of events, ends up joining the Italian Army as an ambulance driver. This last, at least, is carbon-copy autobiographical as is what happens after that to Nick and what happened to a very young Ernest in real life. He ends up on the front lines in World War I, where he and his ambulance crew take a direct hit during shelling. Nick/Ernest ends up in an Italian hospital with a severe leg wound (Hemingway would carry shrapnel in that leg for the rest of his life). Despite his youth, he is now a hardened veteran of war and has learned about the camaraderie of men in battle, a lesson that will accompany him for the rest of his life. He also finds impassioned, lusty, first love, in the person of a nurse with whom he shares a furtive romance within the confines of the hospital where he is laid up for long weeks.
Hemingway in World  War I Italy 
When he walks out of that hospital, Nick/Ernest is no longer a boy. He has become a man.
Admittedly, I wanted—like many literate youths of my time—to be Hemingway, wanted to be the man and the legend. But most of all, I wanted to be even half the reporter and writer he was. And I have to admit I’ve worked toward that goal all my life. Early on, I read everything he ever wrote to try and see how he did what he did, something (some magic) that looked so simple but that was so utterly complex—a stroke of genius.
The last time somebody said I looked like Hemingway was last year in Florida. I was with a friend at the Coral Castle near Homestead, trying to ignore the constant stream of made-up bullshit coming out of the guides’ mouths and attempting to imagine for myself the madman who had built this monument to dementia in the early twentieth century. As my friend Saúl and I were leaving, one of the employees at the place said, “Hey buddy, did you ever get into the Hemingway look-alike contest down in Key West.”
“No,” I said.
“Anybody ever tell you you look like him?”
“No,” I lied, then added, “Not today at least.”
“Well, you do. Spittin’ image. You should join that contest.”
“You think so, huh?”
“Oh yeah, you’d win for sure.”
“Poor ol’ Hem,” I said. “He’d already been dead seven years by the time he was my age.” Then thought, suddenly a little depressed, “And had knocked the literary world on its ass.”



There are things you don’t get over, no matter how old you get. Sometimes it’ll just sneak up on me when I’m not paying attention. If I see it coming I keep it at bay. But such thoughts are crafty that way. They waylay you when you least expect it. That’s the way it is with this memory of the time my dad, Whitie, told me he hated me and wished I’d never been born.
Wait, let me put it into context. He and I weren’t getting along at all at the time. I was a very rebellious and independent teen, and he was in the midst of one of his multiple mental crises. Sometimes his chronic depression took the form of a deep, paralyzing, suicidal sadness that drove him into hiding within our own house. Other times it filled him with almost murderous rage. This was one of those times and that day I was the target.
For me, however, at that age, it seemed to provide proof positive of what I had always suspected—that I was the source of his depression, that I was what was wrong with him, that I was what he most despised in a world that he saw as rigged against him.
i
Whitie and I
Now that I think about it, growing up I don’t ever remember Whitie specifically telling me that he loved me. But then, in that pre-sixties world, there was nothing surprising about that. That generation of men, World War II vets, tended to be sparing with expressions of any emotion that might be construed as weakness. But after he said the words, after he said, “Sometimes I hate you. Sometimes I wish you’d never been born,” I naturally figured he had never said he loved me because, well, he didn’t.
Our relationship improved greatly after I’d grown up and left home. Especially when I joined the Army. Military life was a subject we could mutually relate to. And absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder.
So this one time, when I was back for a visit, he and I were sitting at the kitchen table together smoking and drinking coffee and I brought the subject up. I asked him if he remembered telling me he hated me and wished I’d never been born. He looked at me as if I were insane and said, “Oh, Dan, I’m sure I never said anything like that!”
I could have shrugged it off and said, oh, okay, forget it. But I didn’t. I brought back the whole sordid scene, the shouting match, the where and the when, and his pronouncement that sometimes he hated me and wished I’d never been born.
“If I said that, Dan,” he said sadly, reaching over and taking hold of my hand, “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was really ill back then. There are a lot of things I don’t remember.”
“That’s all right,” I said, taking a drag from my cigarette and then crushing it out in the ashtray for effect, “I’ve remembered for us both.”
In my adult years, my father often told me that he loved me. It was as if he were trying to make up for lost time. Every time I was leaving to go back to wherever I’d come from, he would say, “Hey Dan, I love ya buddy,” and he’d give me a bear hug.
And although in my head I’d always heard myself say, “Well, you sure took your sweet damn time to tell me so,” I’d hug him back and say, “I love you too, Dad.”
And it was true. No matter how long or how deep the hurt had been. I had always loved him. 


Friday, April 13, 2018

VIGNETTE FIVE: TO GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE WE GO



It’s a mid-summer’s day and I’m about eleven. It’s early. Early enough that, dressed as I am in t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, I can still feel the morning coolness on my bare arms and legs. But even the fresh morning air and sky hold the promise of a sultry-hot Ohio day ahead. I am unaccustomedly unworried about sunburn. It’s far enough into the season that, after burning and peeling, burning and peeling several times already—since I practically live at the public swimming pool this time of year—my self-despised whitebread skin is now cured to a brick-orange-brown and I can pretty much be out all day without blistering.

I try to take every class the pool offers and also tag along for “Mothers’ Morning” with whatever mother I can find to take me (friends’ mothers, cousins’ mothers, neighbors’ mothers, since my own mother can’t swim a lick and can seldom be talked into going). I’ll do just about anything to have more time to swim beyond the one to eight p.m. hours that the pool is open to the general public. While I have shrunk from every other sporting activity they’ve tried to enroll me in, they’d need a hand grenade or a stick of dynamite to get me out of the pool. This, and a love of boxing, are a couple of things my dad Whitie and I have in common. He’s a strong swimmer despite being a smoker, and in the Army, he was an underwater swimming champ, while his big brother Red, who taught him to swim when they were boys, was a Navy frogman and tactical scuba-diving instructor. These days, Whitie never goes to the pool either, however, and my earliest swimming lessons I got from my sister, Darla, when I was four or five and she was seven or eight.
But today I’m not headed for the pool. This morning I’ve volunteered to accompany my Grandma Alice, Whitie’s mother, to do some yard work at the home of Whitie’s grandmother, my great-grandmother, known to all of us as Grandma Numbers. She’s not Grandma Alice’s mother, but her mother-in-law. But Grandma Alice, whose own mother has been dead for many years now, cares for Grandma Numbers as if she were indeed Great-Grandma’s daughter. Perhaps better.
I spent a few years being confused as to why, if Grandpa Murel was a Newland, his mother’s last name was Numbers, but for a long while I just accepted it as a family eccentricity. When I grew a little older, however, curiosity got the best of me and I finally asked my mother, Reba Mae, what the score was. She explained that Grandpa Murel’s father had been Elmer Newland, a barber from Alger, Ohio, who had died young and left my great-grandmother widowed. It was from his father that Grandpa Murel had learned barbering, a trade he plied for a number of years before becoming a grocery store owner and, later, a door-to-door salesman.
Grandma Numbers
This explains why my great-grandmother, the former Maude Bowers, has been so independent for the times she has lived in, making a living from a diner she owned across from the Allen County courthouse in Lima, Ohio. Sometime after the death of Elmer—by whom she had three children, my grandfather, his younger brother Dale, and their little sister, Irene (whom we all called Mame)—she would meet and marry Roy Numbers. Roy was also destined to die fairly young, so Grandma Numbers spent much of her life alone (although she was “courted” for some time, I’m told, by a Mr. Hemingway following Roy’s death). But in my short life, I’ve always known her to be alone, and that strikes me as somehow sad, even though, feisty independent woman that she is, she seems okay with it.
Grandpa Murel has already left for work, so Grandma Alice and I are on our own. She doesn’t drive, so we walk. It’s not all that far—three longish blocks up North Defiance Street to Hoopengarner and then two blocks right on Hoopengarner to the corner of Murray. That’s where Grandma Numbers lives in a small but comfy, moss-green-shingled house that Grandpa Murel built for her when he moved down to our town (Wapakoneta) from Lima, Ohio, after he landed a sales job with the Wapak office of the Western and Southern Life Insurance Company and convinced her to also move down and be closer to him.
Grandma Numbers is a big lady who loves eccentric, colorful clothes, when she’s not wearing a simple housedress. She’s fond of flowery smocks that reach halfway down over her long skirts. She also likes comfortable, wedge-heeled shoes and lots of jewelry—ring-type bracelets worn several together or clunky silver and turquoise cuff-bracelets like the kind the Hopi Indians make. She likes flashy earrings as well, with loops and colorful stones and stone-carved birds. She still likes to wear rouge, powder and lipstick when she goes out and she often wears satin hats of the brightest hues. I find her fascinating!
She is growing somewhat elderly, however, and Grandpa worries about her. He sometimes treats her rather as if she were a child. I recently overheard him and his brother Dale talking about her. It was about how she would sometimes simply get into her car and drive off to wherever she felt like going. In the garage built onto the side of her house, she has an impeccable, creamy green forty-nine Dodge, which she refers to as “her machine”.
Independent woman that she is, she has been driving practically since motorcars first replaced the horse and buggy and she doesn’t see why she should stop anytime soon. She drives herself to the grocery store, sometimes even to her favorite supermarket in Lima, fifteen miles away. And she also will sometimes travel incredibly long distances on a whim, at a leisurely pace, seldom breaking more than thirty-five or forty miles an hour. Florida has been one of her destinations—she drove down on the Dixie Highway. And she once also drove all the way out to Arizona.
In the conversation between Grandpa and his brother that I overheard, Grandpa was saying that their mother was talking again about driving down to Florida to visit her daughter, Mame.
“Hell, Murel,” Great-Uncle Dale was saying, “we should just get that car out of her garage and sell it.”
“Why, we can’t do that, Dale,” Grandpa said. “That’s her machine, not ours. We can’t just sell it.” Like his mother, Grandpa also refers to cars as “machines”.
“Maybe you can’t, Murel, but I can,” said Dale, who is a used car salesman. “If we don’t, one of these days they’ll be calling us to go pick up the pieces of her in a hand basket.”
Grandpa Murel has tried deflating one of her tires in the hope that this will discourage her from taking the car out of the garage. But it doesn’t. She just pays one of the neighbor boys to come change it and then goes to one of the tire places downtown to have it checked. He has thought about deflating all four, but that would be suspicious and would mean a confrontation between him and his mother. So he resigns himself to the fact that she’ll do whatever she pleases and hopes the Good Lord will protect her. Dale chides him for not taking the bull by the horns, but as Grandpa points out to his brother, “I don’t see you a-layin’ down the law to her.”
Grandma Numbers has a few of the tools we’ll need to work on her yard in her garage—a push mower, a hoe, a spade, a garden rake—but there are tools of her own that Grandma Alice likes to take along. Among them, her own garden cart. I’m pushing the cart up Defiance Street. In it are my grandma’s favorite leaf rake, her hand trowel, a pair of well-sharpened grass-clippers and her gardening gloves. She has also brought along a half-peck basket with some plants and seeds in it that she wants to plant in a new flowerbed we’re planning to spade up behind the house.
So we go rattling up the street toward Hoopengarner, talking all the way. We always have things to talk about, Grandma Alice and I. We must make an interesting sight—I, in shorts and t-shirt pushing the rumbling, clanking garden cart, and Grandma Alice wearing a heavy dark green man’s cardigan with leather elbow patches over her light summer housedress, a pair of well-worn oxfords on her feet and a long-billed fishing cap with a picture of a marlin emblazoned on the front. She’s ready for anything—the cap because a few years back she almost died from a sunstroke she got working under the hot sun without a cover for her extremely fair head, the sweater against the morning chill to keep pneumonia at bay, and the light cotton frock underneath for the noonday sun.
As usual when we’re together, she tells me stories I’ve heard her tell a dozen times before. But I never stop her, because I always like to hear them again.
One of my favorites is about a schoolboy who is always blurting out the most outrageous things in the classroom. I can picture the classroom because Grandma has told me what classrooms were like when she was a girl, back in the early nineteen-hundreds—the children sitting at their varnished wood and cast-iron writing desks with their inkwells and nib-holder pens, the teacher up a step on a little platform, a small woodstove at his back on the right, the black slate chalk board at his back to the left, his heavy oak desk like an un-breachable barrier between him and them.
Every time the teacher asks a question, the boy in the story blurts out an answer without thinking. The answers are always wrong and often ridiculous. After a particularly outrageous answer, the teacher admonishes the boy to never again speak in class unless he has thought three times about what he’ll say before he opens his mouth.
One day, while enthusiastically explaining the grammar and structure of a sentence he’s diagramming on the board, the teacher backs too near the hot woodstove and the tails of the long swallow-tailed coat that he’s wearing start smoldering and, then, suddenly, burst into flames.
As usual, the boy is the first one on his feet and waving his hand, but this time, he takes the teacher’s advice, takes his time, and says, “I think, sir...(Grandma takes a lengthy pause for effect), I think, sir...I think, sir...your coat-tail’s on fire!
But my very favorite stories are the ones about real people. I never tire of hearing about my grandmother’s maternal grandfather, Jerry Hamilton, for instance. This is the story she’s re-telling me today as we walk to Grandma Numbers’ house. I’ve requested it. It is actually two stories in one, since one serves as a proper prelude to the other one.
The first is about how her Grandpa Jerry was a mess sergeant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Back then, he was a big, irascible man whom soldiers liked to goad just to get a rise out of him.
One day, Grandma says, a couple of them stuffed a rag into the mess tent stovepipe so that all the smoke backed up inside. They’re laughing outside hearing how Sgt. Hamilton is cursing them through the smoke between choking fits. But suddenly, in a cloud of blue wood smoke, he bursts through the tent flaps, roaring bloody murder and wielding a meat cleaver. One of the jokers doesn’t get away quickly enough. Jerry seizes him from behind by the collar and is raising the cleaver over his head—maybe to whack him with the flat of the blade, but then again...maybe not. The other trooper, who has hidden behind the tent, now rushes up behind Jerry and poleaxes him with a heavy stick of firewood. Jerry goes down like a sack of potatoes and stays down.
“He was never quite right in the head after that,” Grandma Alice says, after a solemn pause. “And although he was usually a nice man, gentle despite his size, he had these ‘spells’ when he could be dangerous.”
And here begins Part Two of the Jerry Hamilton Story—how sometimes he’d sit quietly, ominously, for a long time sharpening a butcher knife with a soapstone. Grandma Alice’s grandmother, who stuttered, would say, “Hey, J-j-j-jerry, what’re you gonna d-d-d-d-do with that kn-n-n-n-n-nife?” And he would stop whetting the razor-sharp blade, look up from his stone at her and, in a blood-chilling tone, say, “Just wait. You’ll see.”
Grandma says her father, Jerry’s son-in-law, was the only one who could handle him when he was like that. They were friends. “They visited saloons together, neither shy about swilling beer.” (Grandma lowers her voice to say this last, as if afraid somebody will overhear, since she is a teetotaling Methodist and a respected member of the Women’s Society of Christian Service).
So one day, says Grandma Alice, Jerry and her dad are together in this saloon when several ruffians start bullying a poor old drunk. After a few minutes, Jerry tells them to lay off, but they ignore him and say, “Who’s gonna make us, Pop?”
Now Jerry’s had a belly full of this nonsense and starts over toward the band of bullies. Grandma’s dad tries to stop him but Jerry brushes him aside and wades into the group, making quick work of them. Men go flying over the bar, out through the swinging saloon doors, through the glass windowpane at the front of the place, before Grandma’s father can finally settle Jerry down and usher him out of the bar.
A warrant is issued for Jerry Hamilton’s arrest. But he holes-up for a couple of days on the second storey of a rooming house. Finally, the sheriff, who, it just so happens, today has his tin star pinned to the lapel of a brand new suit, arrives with several deputies at the rooming house, and, standing just under Jerry’s window, scatter-gun in hand, hollers up at the billowing curtains of the open window, “All right, Hamilton, I got a warrant here for your arrest. I don’t want us to have to go up there after ya. Come on down and come with me.”
In response, the curtains part, and, with incredible aim, Jerry heaves the stinking contents of the chamber pot that he’s been using for the last couple of days, raining down onto the sheriff and his brand new suit.
I’m waiting with bated breath for the punctuating line that I know is coming. And after a dramatic pause, Grandma Alice delivers it: “He was locked up for a long while after that,” she says.
The End!
This story carries us to Grandma Numbers’ house at the corner of Murray and Hoopengarner. It’s not a big yard but there’s plenty to do this morning. There’s a man who lives right across from my great-grandmother’s place who fixes lawn mowers and sharpens blades for a living. So her mechanical push mower is always well-oiled and sharpened and in great working order. It’s a pleasure to use and I eagerly set to mowing the grass, pleased with the quiet whirring, slicing sound that the machine makes as I push it through the yard.
Meanwhile, Grandma Alice tackles the existing flowerbeds at the front of the house, hoeing, weeding, trimming, beautifying. She has a peculiar way of working. She never squats. She either bends straight over at the waist or she sits flat on the ground, legs outstretched, her housedress tucked between thighs and knees, working to one side or another. But it works for her. She excels at this. She’s fast and effective. She has a green thumb.
After a while, Grandma Numbers calls us in for a break and we go in the back door through a tiny utility room into her cramped little kitchen. It wouldn’t be nearly so cramped if it weren’t for the many shelves on the walls, wherever there are no cupboards. But she obviously couldn’t get along without all the shelving, because they veritably tremble under the weight of every manner of dry grocery product imaginable—beans, coffee, tea, crackers, cookies, canned goods, cereal, flour, sugar, etc. etc., all in a variety of brands and sizes.
Like the rest of the house, what little extra room there is on the walls and windowsills is liberally covered with knick-knacks, souvenirs of trips she has made and places she’s been. There is also a birdcage on a stand that sits by the small kitchen table. In it are a couple of parakeets. I can never recall a time when Grandma Numbers didn’t have parakeets—and when at least one of them wasn’t called Petey. Grandma Alice has little use for caged birds, but sometimes cares for them when Grandma Numbers is away. The birds turn their little heads, inspecting us as we sit at the table and occasionally let out a shrill tweet.
Grandma Numbers has laid out cookies and Ritz crackers in the middle of the colorful oilcloth-covered table. From her percolator she serves Grandma and herself coffee in cups with saucers and adds a swirl of heavy half-and-half, which blooms beautifully in the black coffee before they both add sugar and stir it all in to a homogenous tan. I’m served a shot of black coffee and the cup is filled the rest of the way up with warm milk to which I add abundant sugar. Nobody asks sarcastically if I’d “like a little coffee with my sugar” because both my grandma and my great-grandma have a notorious sweet tooth.
I enjoy my milk and cookies and feed the birds little pieces of Ritz cracker, which they seem to relish, while the two ageing women discuss family members and acquaintances whom I either don’t know at all, or only vaguely remember having met. Some of Great-Grandma’s relatives and in-laws live elsewhere in Ohio, some in Chicago, others in Florida, so we seldom see them.
After our snack, Grandma Alice and I get back to work. She finishes primping the front flowerbeds on either side of the stoop, while I use her leaf rake to rake up all the grass clippings I’ve left with the mower. I fork them into the garden cart with the rake and haul them to a little burn pile behind the garage. Then I use Grandma’s grass clippers to tidy up along the sidewalks and driveway. When I’m finished, I survey my work and feel a burst of pride at how neat and manicured the yard looks.

Now Grandma comes around to where I am in the backyard and she indicates where she wants to put in new flowerbeds on either side of the back stoop. I take the spade and get the soil on one side of the stoop turned over and while I’m turning over the ground on the other side, Grandma starts hoeing the first one. And while she’s hoeing the second one, I’m using Grandma Numbers’ garden rake to work the first one into a fine texture. While I work on the second one, Grandma plants and sows in the first, and so on.
It’s almost noon by the time we finish—my last task, sweeping the sidewalks clean of grass clippings.
Grandma Alice says, “I don’t know about you, bub, but I’m pooped. Let’s get a drink of water, say good-bye to Grandma Numbers and head for home. I’ll make us a couple of pork chops with greens and potato patties, how’s that sound?”
Grandma Numbers gives us each a glass of ice-water from the fridge, thanks us for all our help and we say our good-byes. We’re rumbling down the street again, this time with Grandma’s cardigan draped over the handlebar of the garden cart. She’s tired, so we walk a little slower heading back. I’m tired too, but in a good way, sweaty, a little sunburned, smelling of fresh grass and damp soil, the tips of my sneakers as green as Grandma’s thumb. I feel accomplished, useful, as if I’ve done a good job. Maybe I’ll go to the pool later this afternoon.
On the way back to Grandma Alice’s house at the corner of Defiance Street and Glynwood Road—a house Grandpa Murel also built—she tells me once again the story about how a jealous husband on Grandpa Murel’s insurance debit once accused him of trying to steal his wife. Drunk, the man reeled down from his porch onto the icy sidewalk as Grandpa was leaving and challenged him to a fight, but before he could throw a punch, Grandpa caught him with a right hook to the eye and he went sprawling on the slick pavement. The man sat up holding his left eye and saying over and over, “Oh, Newland, you put my light out, you put my light out!”
This strikes us both as hilarious and we laugh uproariously as we rumble along, and Grandma follows up with some more of Grandpa’s zany exploits.
We make a good team, I’m thinking, as we walk along side by side. And right now I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather be.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

VIGNETTE FOUR—HARD WORK



I sometimes wonder why I’ve worked as hard as I have in my lifetime. I’ve thought a lot more about this recently since I’ve started taking it a little easier. I still work fairly hard and am very busy with projects of my own besides those of my select clientele, but I no longer kill myself jamming my days with more work than I can safely handle and driving myself to the limits of my mental and physical capacity.

When you have time to think, and not just to work until you drop, you start to ask yourself why on earth you used to do that, when life could have been so much more fun and rewarding if you’d always picked and chosen what you did the way you do now. After all, if you look back, most of the “work-work” you invested so much time and vital energy in was, seen objectively, of little or no consequence, and certainly not worth squandering your youth and good health on it.

But then again, when you start having such thoughts, you realize that they’re futile. Then was then, and now is now, and you’re not the same person you used to be back then, and, as Willie Nelson sagely sings, “I could cry for the time I’ve wasted / but that’s a waste of time and tears / And I know just what I'd change / If I went back in time somehow / But there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.”

If I analyze my subconscious drives, they, like a lot of other things about me, can be traced back to my father, Whitie, and certain thoughts and traditions that he managed to instil in me, no matter how hard I tried to rebel.
Whitie, my dad, was forever telling me about how hard he’d had it as a kid. And I didn’t doubt that he had. Those were the Great Depression days and his father, my Grandpa Murel, had, like many other people, lost everything by entrusting it all to a single bank, which closed its doors overnight and left him holding the (empty) bag. Banks weren’t backed by the Federal Treasury in those days and if an institution went belly up, you were simply screwed if you had money in them.

I once heard that the amount my grandfather had lost was twenty thousand dollars. In today’s money, that would be pretty close to three hundred thousand bucks or more. A lot of savings for a thirty-something barber and later grocery store owner, and a traumatic enough loss that for the rest of his life, Murel always had accounts spread around in numerous banks and sometimes carried as much as a couple of thousand dollars in cash in his wallet, just to make sure he was never again left wiped out and penniless.

Murel had always been thrifty, but after the Depression, he became downright tight. So much so that a distant relative, whom we all knew as “Aunt Odie”—more by reputation than by sight, since she lived in another part of Ohio and we only saw her very occasionally at family reunions—referred to him as “Squeaky”, as in “Hey, Squeaky, how ya doin’ you ol’ rascal, you?” When, as a small boy, I asked once at such a reunion why Aunt Odie called Grandpa “Squeaky”, my mother, Reba Mae, whispered that she’d tell me later. When we were alone, she said the moniker was short for “Squeaky Pete”—as in, Don’t be such a Squeaky Pete—a term apparently employed to describe a guy who was so tight he squeaked.

Grandpa Murel figured he’d had to work for every dime he’d ever made and that everybody else should do the same. It didn’t much occur to him that a parent had certain responsibilities toward his offspring, and already as a little kid I’d heard stories about my Grandma Alice fleshing out her meager household allowance by turning out his trouser pockets while he was asleep to get whatever roll of smaller bills and loose coins he had there that weren’t in his wallet, which he carefully put away at night.

As soon as a boy was strong enough, he should be earning his keep, Murel figured. So, according to Whitie, from the time he was about ten, his father made sure he was never idle in the summertime when he was out of school. Often the jobs involved a long bike ride out past the city limits to clear land or to pick fruit and vegetables. Other times it was ditch-digging for field-tiling. And at the end of the day, he said, there was only a shiny quarter or fifty-cent piece for his trouble.

There were some Depression Era parents I knew who spoiled the heck out of their kids because they never wanted them to have to make the kind of sacrifices they themselves had. Kids, they felt, should be going to school, devoting time to extracurricular activities and having fun with their friends, not being saddled with the drudgery of work from a young age. But Whitie was of a different school. Whatever had been good enough for him was good enough for me. The only way you learned the reality of life was by earning your keep from a young age, the way he had and the way his father before him had. What hope was there for you if you thought money grew on trees? You’d only end up taking a fall once you’d been kicked out of the nest and had to fend for yourself. 

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think I was above hard work. On the contrary, I tended to enjoy physical labor and often volunteered for it at home and to help out my Grandma Alice whenever she was doing the heavier yard and garden tasks, like spading, mowing, weeding, etc. With me it was kind of the Zen thing. You know, before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. I didn’t mind or think that kind of labor was beneath me. In fact, I considered it noble and adult.

But some of the things Whitie got me saddled up with were above and beyond. I remember “a little yard job” he got for me when I was about nine or perhaps ten. It was at the home of a lady who worked in the kitchen at Whitie’s business, the Teddy Bear Restaurant, on Blackhoof and Main in Wapakoneta, Ohio, my home town. The most she could pay me was fifty cents. But, hey, like Whitie always said, fifty cents was fifty cents. It was “a lot if you didn’t have it.”
Auglaize River, Wapakoneta Ohio.
Photo by Linda Kneer

Turned out the lady lived in a little house behind a rocky flood wall, on the north bank of the Auglaize River, which ran through our town. It was a nasty, stony, gullied, spit of low land recovered from the river, seeded with a tough, wide-bladed growth that looked for all the world like pure quake grass. It had been a while since anybody had mowed it and the grass was ankle high.  I’d asked Whitie if I could use his mower to do the job but he allowed that hers would be “better suited to the terrain”, and besides, I “might hurt myself” working there alone with a power mower.

The lady’s “better suited” mower turned out to be a relic, an ancient push mower that had seen a lot better days. At that age, the handle came to just beneath my chin and the grips, when I would lean forward to push, were at about the height of my ears. Maintenance was conspicuous by its absence. The mower’s blades were somewhat rusted and less than sharp. The wheels appeared never to have been greased. So when I would push, the hand-mower would often jam so that neither the wheels nor the blades turned and the thing would just skid on the grass and make me cuss under my breath. Then I would have to unjam the blades and wheels by hand and start again.

The ill-kept, dull mower was no match for the deep crabgrass and multiple gullies, and as such, the job turned into a slow-progress nightmare that quickly exhausted me. The sun was going down when my father—at the behest of my mother—showed up to take me home for supper. He found me frustrated to the verge of tears, still trying to shove the ancient manual machine through the thick grass to no avail. 

“What’s the story?” he wanted to know. “You should have been done long ago.”

“Not with this piece of crap mower,” I said, my voice shaking.

“Can’t be that bad,” he said.

“That’s easy for you to say.” I said.

With that, he took the machine from my hands and started manhandling it through the dense grass, as if to show me how it was done. I was beside myself with glee when the mower jammed on him and I heard him mutter “What the hell?” The lady wasn’t home. So Whitie went up to her tiny tool shed on the carport and helped himself, scrounging around until he found an oil can and brought it back to where the mower had hunkered down and refused to budge.

“You’ll tell her I didn’t take her oil, right?” I asked. I didn’t want her accusing me of being a thief. But Whitie didn’t answer. He was cussing under his breath and abundantly lubricating the machine in the failing light. Suddenly, after a few experimental pushes, the clattering antique started to function.

I thought Whitie would give it back to me and tell me to finish the job I’d started, but he didn’t. Instead, he curtly said, “Go back to the car and wait. I’ll finish this up quick so we can get the hell home to supper.”
It was the beginning of autumn and almost dark by the time he hustled the old mower up to the shed, put it away and climbed into the car.

“Sorry, Dad,” I said, not trusting my voice to get out around the big lump in my throat. And when he said nothing, I said, “Sorry you had to help me out. I just couldn’t get that darn thing to work.”

Still silence.

Then he said, “At least the job’s done. That’s what’s important.”

But I could tell he wasn’t happy with me. I’d failed him once again. And I promised myself never to do that again. Whatever job I took on, I’d finish it, even if it killed me.        

But the worst job by far that Whitie ever got me into was when he hired me out for a summer job painting a picket fence around the property of a breakfast customer the Teddy Bear. The guy was a union tool and die man at the Ford plant in the nearby industrial city of Lima. He lived on the east edge of town and could be to work in a hop, skip and a jump from there. He made his home in a nice old two-storey brick house, which, I can only guess, had once been part of a farm before the land was divided up into lots and a housing addition built up out there. The house was surrounded by a typically small-town American white picket fence.


Anyway, it seems this customer had been asking for estimates from painters to get that fence re-done—adult painters, who charged real living wages. He was griping to Whitie about how high their prices were while waiting for his eggs and bacon. Whitie, who was known for being thrifty, was commiserating with this guy, but one of the other patrons sitting at the long front table, where many of the town’s movers and shakers had their morning coffee together, piped up and said, “You union guys are all alike. You think what you do’s worth a fortune, but then when you ask for a labor estimate for some job you want done yourselves, you scream highway robbery and cry like babies.”

So the guy clammed up and let the subject drop. But he’d left Whitie brainstorming. School was out and a summer job would do me good, since, in his view, I refused to play baseball or anything and “wasted” all my time banging on the drums, reading or hanging out at the pool. This was actually not true, of course. That year I was ushering and cleaning at the movie theater, mopping the dining room after closing at the Teddy Bear, playing a few teen dance gigs with a little rock ‘n’ roll band called The Trees, and taking care of a few yards on the residential end of Auglaize Street, Wapakoneta’s main thoroughfare. But my father clearly believed this was way too little to make profitable use of my time.

So when this guy got up to leave, Whitie said, “Say, Jim, my boy’s not doing anything much. Maybe he could paint that fence for you.”

“Well, does he know how to paint?” the man asked.

“Oh yeah,” said Whitie, “he started helping me paint when he was ten. Helped me scrape and paint that big old house we owned on West Auglaize. He’s pretty good and does a nice neat job.”

Indeed, that tall gabled house had had old slate roofs and Whitie hadn’t wanted the two adult painters he’d hired to help him walking around on that roof and cracking the fragile slate tiles. I was tall for my age but still, compared to the men, I didn’t weigh more than about seventy pounds back then. So Whitie handed me a paint scraper and a wire brush, showed me how to set and steady the extension ladder, and sent me up to the lofty heights of the gables to start chipping old paint.

Now, I was fourteen, and I’d painted a lot of things in the four years since then.

“How much will he charge me?” the guy asked.

“How about forty bucks?” Whitie said, grabbing a figure out of the air without having any idea what the job entailed. The guy was probably pleased since any professional painter would have charged him way, way more, but he couldn’t help haggling.

“How ‘bout thirty?” he tried, and Whitie said, “Sold!”

That night, Whitie said, “Hey Danny, I found you a neat little odd job so you can make a little extra money this summer. I figured it’d make a nice little difference for you.”

“What is it?” I asked a little suspiciously.

“You know Jim, the Ford guy who comes in for breakfast every morning at the Teddy Bear?”

“Yeah...”

“Well, he’s got this little picket fence around his place that needs painting."

I didn’t say anything.

“He’ll pay you thirty bucks to do it. Hell, you’re a good painter. Shouldn’t take you long.”

“You think I’m a good painter?” I asked incredulously, since I seldom got anything like a compliment from Whitie.

“Hell yes you are!” he said enthusiastically. “And let’s face it, thirty bucks is thirty bucks. How long can it take to paint a little fence?”

After the first morning of meticulously scraping and brushing the badly peeling paint from a section of pickets, posts and rails, I started to realize how long. In that entire morning of painting-chipping and wire-brushing toil, I had managed to prepare about twenty pickets and their corresponding sections of rail and posts for painting—the actual painting would only come when the entire fence had been scraped and wire-brushed. When I broke for lunch, I gazed down the long rank of pickets that I was working on and decided—probably unwisely, since once the job had begun, it would have been unthinkable for me to quit before it was finished—I decided to count how many there were in the entire fence surrounding the house.

The answer was devastating for my morale: There were four hundred fifty pickets, thirty four by four-inch posts, and fifty-eight sections of two by four-inch rail, all with paint in a similarly disastrous state of disrepair. Clearly, the job would take most of the summer, since, having other obligations, I could only work mornings on it.

It was obviously a losing proposition. Even if I brown-bagged for lunch and didn’t let myself be tempted more than once a week or so to get a foot-long hotdog and a slush or a root beer at Mayor Max’s dairy bar a block up the street, there was no way the economics on this project worked. And if I did a meticulous job, I would have to put up with the owner of the fence and Whitie constantly asking me when I was going to finish. By this time, however, I had read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, which detailed Michelangelo’s arduous struggle to complete the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and it was clear to me that patrons never appreciated the work of true artists—whether they were painting the Sistine Chapel or a picket fence. Like Michelangelo’s Pope Julius II, they would forever be badgering the artist to hurry up and finish, oblivious to the fact that quality took time and patience.

I lost money and the free time to enjoy with my friends that summer, but I gained the self-respect of carrying a hard job through to the end, and of doing the highest-quality job I was capable of. Every job I did from then on would be done the same way...right up until today.

There have been times when well-meaning friends have encouraged me to take a more mediocre attitude toward “work-work” and to save my energy for my own creative projects. Perhaps I’m obtuse, but I’m afraid I don’t know how to do that and I’ve always suspected that if you take a slovenly attitude toward one job, that will end up being your attitude toward every job. In other words, practice working badly and when it comes time to work well, you won’t know how. Perhaps the trick is, then, as I said earlier, to choose the projects you undertake better, making sure that they fit within the focus of what you love, rather than what you think you need.