Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
camped under the same tree with my wife for twelve days. Out of that dozen days,
it rained eight and snowed one.
was in Los Alerces National Park in Chubut Province, Argentina, almost two
million acres of stunning wilderness located in Andean Patagonia. At the time, I
was trying to strike up a relationship with a renowned mountain guide so as to
get him to help me set up some trekking circuits.
Los Alerces National Park
long story... I was about forty at the time and had recently left my job as a
newspaper editor. I decided that I wanted to do something else, something fun,
with my life for a while. This was about 1988. I had been traveling to different
parts of the vast Patagonian region every chance I got since about 1975. I
loved the region and eventually wanted to live there.
I got it into my head that a good way to mix business with pleasure would be to
bring groups of no more than six Americans at a time to Patagonia on walking
tours of some of the wildest areas in the Andean wilderness. I would eventually
take a three thousand-mile working tour of the region with a nature
photographer whom I had known for some time, and we would make contact with
different trackers and guides in the various places we visited to get a
commitment from them to help us if we started bringing American travelers in. The
guy I happened to be tracking down now was a cantankerous mountain man and
fishing guide called Américo Rosales, who had made his first trips to the
surrounding mountain tops on horseback under his father’s poncho when he was
only four. Now in his fifties, to say that he knew the area like the back of
his hand was an understatement.
to seek Américo out on my own but he shunned me. I was invisible to him and the
messages I left him in the different places he frequented went unanswered. So I
tried a different tack. I made friends with a nephew of his who was the owner
of a campsite—the one where we set up our bivouac while I waited for Rosales to
deign to talk to me. César, Américo’s nephew, and his wife, a descendant of
Welsh settlers whose name was Elizabeth, were nice, pleasant people. We spent
some time at their comfy cottage by the fire, drinking mate or coffee and enjoying the biscuits or pastries that Elizabeth
Eventually, I explained my plight to César. I had
heard that Américo was the best guide in this part of Chubut and I wanted to
see if I could get him to work with me if I started bringing small groups of
Americans down for trekking tours.
His uncle, César said, was a loner. A difficult man
with an irascible nature. It wasn’t easy to get him to meet people unless he
himself decided he wanted to.
Seems, for instance, that he had once taken up with a
woman for a couple of years who shared a shack by the lake with him. Once he
came home carrying one of his dogs that had been opened up by a wild boar that
Américo and his pack had been hunting (he hunted wild boar with dogs and a
knife). The boar had ripped the dog’s side open with its tusks and now Américo
laid the whimpering dog on the kitchen table, got out peroxide, iodine, needle
and monofilament fishing line, and starting cleaning the wound and sewing the
Just then Américo’s woman friend came in and
immediately said, “Get that thing off
of my table!”
Américo looked up from his sewing, stared at her with
his cold blue eyes and said, “This thing,
as you call him, is my dog. He’s been with me nine years. You’ve been here two.
You can get the hell out, now!”
But César promised he would see what he could do.
Obviously on César’s urging, Américo began to observe
me. I could tell, because he started showing up at the campsite oftener than
usual. He would pretend not to see me, pretend to be going down to the
lakeshore to get something from his fishing hut or to check the moorings of his
boat or whatever. But I realized that he was keeping an eye on me, seeing how I
was coping with the inclement weather, how I built our cook fires, how I stowed
my equipment—in short, seeing if I was nature-worthy. Clearly, his first
impression of me was that of some American journalist type by way of Buenos
Aires and that, as such, I was bound to be a tenderfoot pain-in-the-ass who
would be a liability in the field if ever there was one.
But after keeping an eye on me from afar for a while, he
finally decided to give me a try. It was raining torrentially that afternoon and snowing in the high
country. It was way too wet for a fire so my wife and I had managed to boil
some broth and noodles on the gas ring, washed them down with a so-so red wine,
and then settled into our damp bedding for a nap. The squawking of a couple of tero-tero birds (they're better than a
watchdog) woke me and I heard feet shuffling on the ground outside and sat up.
Under the tent flap I saw a pair of well-worn military hiking boots and heard
somebody clear his throat. I opened the flap a tad. It was Américo Rosales. He
looked sternly down at me and said, "Feel like taking a little walk?"
the first time he’d ever spoken to me. He clearly didn’t stand on formality. No
introductions. No names. Not even a howdy-do. Just, “Feel like taking a little
I said, pulling on my hiking boots, my jacket and hat. I drove, following his
instructions, along flooded, swampy dirt roads and up a mountain side on an old
logging trail as far as my poorly adapted two-wheel drive Ranchero pickup would
take us. Where it stalled out and refused to go any further, we set out on
going up there,” the crusty guide said, pointing to the truncated summit of a
mountain known as “The Cake” (La Torta).
“Takes a few hours to get up there and a couple to get back down and we’re
starting kind of late. So we don’t have time to take the trail to the top.
We’re going cross-country. You got a problem with that?”
said, knowing that any other answer was unacceptable.
Américo went in front of me, opening the dense underbrush with his hands and a
sharp facón with a bone handle that
he carried stuck crosswise at his back through the black sash that he wore to
hold his pants up. His pace was incredibly fast. I was immediately reminded of
my first hunting trips when I was still very small with my tenant farmer
grandfather. Grandpa was long-legged and a tireless walker. He’d take off
through cornfields and overgrown thickets setting his own pace and you either
kept up or were left behind. This was the same thing.
The land was a densely wooded roller coaster
of ridges and ravines punctuated by impassable cane breaks leading toward the
summit. It was apparent that Américo was putting me through my paces. I hadn’t
done a forced march like this one since I’d taken my Basic Combat Training with
Ranger and Green Beret instructors at Fort Bragg North Carolina nearly 20 years
before. But I knew it was of vital importance to keep up, to be dogging his
heels all the way up the mountain.
more than halfway to the top, we crashed through a dense thicket into a high
mountain clearing where the wind suddenly grew chilly. There were a couple of
fallen trees there. Américo reached into a hollow in one of them and retrieved a
Tetra Brik carton of common red wine. Seeing my surprise, he said, “I keep a
carton here and a carton there in different places.”
the small canvas field pack that he was carrying, the guide removed two loaves
of French bread and a small salami. Américo handed me one of the loaves of
bread, and on a fallen tree trunk, he used his facón to cut up the salami into about a dozen slices. In silence we
ate bread and salami and passed the carton of wine back and forth to wash it
down. When the carton was empty, Américo put it back into the hollow tree.
“These are good for cooking,” he said.
you catch a fish, you put it in one of these cartons that have tin foil inside,
you put it on the fire and when the carton has burned off and only the tin foil
is left, your fish is done.”
forced march became even more intense. It was a grueling climb through tangled
thickets going almost straight up the side of the mountain. When we finally
broke from the vegetation at the tree-line and reached the last gravelly few
hundred feet, the climate changed drastically. We were wet with sweat under the
outer shells of our clothing and now we had to brave thirty-five mile-an-hour
“Andean breezes”. Sleet blew almost horizontally, slashing at our faces.
Above the tree-line
stood catching our breath, quail-like copetonas,
unaccustomed to human company, came almost up to our boots to check us out. “If
a person were pernicious,” said the guide, “these birds are really good
eating.” He grinned, shooed the birds away and we made the last run to the top
of the rock.
view was spectacular, range after range of Andean wilderness. “I wonder what’s
beyond those ridges,” I said a little too romantically for Américo’s taste.
ridges,” he grunted. “And eventually, the Pacific.”
take a picture,” I said, digging my 35mm camera out of my shoulder bag.
going to be a picture of us dying of cold,” he said. It was the first time he’d
shown any sort of weakness.
what?” I said, found a rock to perch the camera on and set the timer.
we climbed back down to the tree-line and prepared for our descent.
then that Américo turned to me and said, “You walk pretty good!”
smiled. It was the best compliment anyone had ever paid me, and I knew I’d made
A couple of weeks back I had what, at the time, I considered “a little
accident”. I was doing some work outside the house here in Patagonia—scraping
the snow off of Virginia’s car, checking to make sure the entry valve to our
water storage tanks wasn’t frozen, unsticking the padlock on the front gate so Virginia
could get out, etc.
I was doing all of this in my indoor shoes, something I seldom do in
freezing weather, but I was in a rush and not putting on my boots, I thought,
would save some time.
It was as I was again climbing to the top of our flagstone steps to open
the gate for Virginia that I stepped on a patch of ice and felt myself starting
to slip. Now, I’m usually sure-footed and immediately sought to recover, but
failed to be able to get off of the ice or to stop the slide.
Unfortunately, I was at the top of a six-foot drop into our patio and
simply, like a man washed overboard, slipped off the edge back first. The first
thing to break my fall was a large granite boulder. Obviously, my body did the
giving. I tried to scramble to my feet so as not to scare Virginia who was
running back to see what had happened, but I was feet upgrade, head down, and
scrambling never came into it.
I struggled to turn over, got on my knees and managed to push myself to
my feet with the help of the roof of a sturdy doghouse. The pain was
excruciating. I knew it was bad. Nothing had ever hurt like this before. But I
managed to convince Virginia to go ahead about her errands. I just needed to
catch my breath, I told her.
Inside the house, I did a quick damage control. The pain was persistent
but I was getting my breath back. I could walk with certain difficulty but none
of my limbs was broken. I was sure it was just a bad fall and that by the next
day I’d be feeling better.
The next day, however, I realized that certain ways I moved a rib was
clicking and decided to get myself looked at. At the local clinic they took
x-rays and confirmed that I had a broken rib. There wasn’t much I could do about
it, they said—wear a wrap eight hours a day and take painkillers. No going out
for at least five days and no physical exertion for at least two weeks.
The third day, a Saturday, I did as I was told, but I started feeling
worse all the time. I had to wear the wrap only a couple of hours at a time
rather than eight straight because I was having difficulty breathing. In the
evening when I took off the wrap, I immediately felt dizzy and confused. I had
tunnel-vision and felt that I might black out. I told Virginia that I wanted to
lie down on the couch and that if I didn’t get to feeling better soon, I’d let
her drive me to the clinic to get checked out.
That never happened. Once I was down on the couch, I was never able to
get up again under my own power. Virginia called the paramedics and in a short
time, two consummate professionals, a man and a woman, managed to sit me up and
started asking questions. I kept trying to doze off but they kept talking to me,
“Come on, champ! Hang in there. You’re going to be all right.” They
asked about medication, ailments, etc., and I muttered answers as coherently as
I could. But by now, all I wanted to do was sleep, and they apparently had to
avoid that at all costs.
They’d had to leave their vehicle fifty meters above the house, partly
over rough terrain. They wanted to see if they could get me there on foot. They
managed to drag me to my feet, but as soon as they did, everything went black.
Next thing I knew the male paramedic was yelling my name in my face. I think I
tried to say something like, “Just let me sleep a while and I’ll be okay.” But
I don’t know if I actually said it.
Finally, with the help of Virginia, they were manhandling me into a
strange sort of wheel chair and strapping me in. How they did it I’ll never
know since the woman couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds, but between
the two of them, they managed to maneuver my 235 pounds up the path one step at
a time, across the gravel and into the ambulance.
Once inside they locked my chair to the wall so as not to have to get me
onto a stretcher. They told Virginia to follow us in her car. It was already
well after midnight by this time. We had a mile of rocky pitted mountain road
to negotiate before we reached the highway. They were constantly asking how I
was doing, if I was with them. I could hear them like from very far away
talking among themselves. The woman was driving. At one point he was consulting
her about my condition, reading her my vital signs, such as they were, and she
stopped the ambulance and climbed into the back with us.
She was busying herself over me, perhaps giving me an injection, when I
heard him say, “You’re lucky you got her, champ, she’s a genius.”
And then we were under way again. I felt the jostling stop as we pulled
onto the blacktop of the highway. As we drove, the guy stayed close, talking to
me, squeezing my hand, saying, “Stick with me, champ! Come on, it won’t be long
now. You’re doing great!” But then I heard him say to the woman, “Hit the
lights and step on it. I can’t find his pulse anymore.”
At the clinic they were waiting for us. Between sleep and
semi-consciousness, I felt myself being borne dizzyingly fast on a stretcher
through the narrow halls, the front end being used as a battering ram to open successive
swinging doors. There were drips hanging above me and they were taking blood
pressure, temperature, pulse. Somebody cut my shirt off with surgical scissors.
Then I felt them slide me into the tunnel of a tomography unit. I wanted to
warn them that I was claustrophobic, but suddenly I was asleep again.
The next thing I knew, a doctor was shouting in my face, “Danny! Danny!
Can you hear me?”
“You punctured a lung, buddy.” I wanted to mention that I was taking
blood thinners, but clearly, he was already aware of that. Instead, I grimaced
and nodded. “The surgeon’s here. We’re going to get a tube into your lung to
draw off the blood.”
Later, in recovery, I heard the surgeon say, “We’ve drawn off about four
and a quarter pints of blood. We’re leaving you hooked up because you’re still
bleeding and we’re taking you to the ICU.”
I would later find out I’d lost another couple of pints to an intramuscular
bleed that had bloomed across my back and side.
When I awoke in the ICU the next morning, I knew where I was. I was
fairly comfortable. I’d gotten an end bed with a window where I could watch the
sunrise on the mountains and the lake. As I lay there watching the beautiful
red light tinge the snow-choked mountain tops, the phrase “brush with death”
came to mind. And I suddenly, to my surprise, teared up and felt a wellspring
of emotion thinking, “This is what it means. I might never have seen this
Then I thought, “It’s a new day, the only one I have, and nothing will
ever be the same again.”
TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life earlier this
month, would have been 62 years old today. I thought this might be a good
occasion to remember him briefly, because although he was best known as a
“foodie” he was so much more than that.
Bourdain once described his TV shows as “stand-alone essays”. That was,
indeed, what they were, outstanding literary pieces set to food and film
excellence. Some years ago, I began watching his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel while I had
my lunch, and quickly became an avid fan. Although I appreciate good food of
all sorts, I’ve never given any importance whatsoever to the finer points of
the culinary arts. But that wasn’t why I watched Bourdain’s program. I watched
it because it was, perhaps, some of the finest writing on television. And it
was, as well, a cultural gold mine, a guided tour of the world from the vantage
point of native dinner tables and backstreet food stalls, where Bourdain not
only delved courageously into abundant and outrageously varied food and drink,
but also into the politics, history and grassroots culture of the places he
Bourdain was the type of guy every writer wants to meet (and be). I
remember feeling a moment of grief when I heard he had done a show in Buenos
Aires and I felt as if I’d missed a chance to see if I couldn’t, perhaps, meet
him and talk to him for a while. I would have liked to have gotten to know him
well enough to call him Tony.
But writers, I think, must have also envied him his powers of
observation—a kind of radar that seemed to come on automatically as soon as he
touched down in yet another country—and his ability to take those observations
and mold them into a powerful, accurate, yet pleasant and compelling portrait
of the places he visited.
In my own case, I couldn’t help also envying him his gig, not so much the
part that concentrated on typical cuisines and how they were made, but surely
the part where he stood up from the table, walked the streets in the company of
locals, and described so eloquently what he saw, smelled, felt and heard. He
was, without a doubt, a traveler, not a tourist, a philosopher, not an
investigator, and he did a full immersion course in every culture in which he
found himself, literally, breaking bread with the world.
But the pieces he crafted were never travelogues per se. Clearly, it was more
literature than TV show. Like an audiovisual version of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Jack Kerouac’s
On the Road, or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. His competition
was never other foodies, but the memory of other great TV travelers who
preceded him, like CBS roving correspondent Charles Kuralt, or “the world’s
foremost globetrotter” and 1950s CBS TV personality Lowell Thomas.
From the time I had watched Thomas as a boy and Kuralt as a teen, there
was a voice inside me that told me that this was what I wanted to be, a
traveler and writer. Seeing Bourdain’s show brought that longing back, made me
want to be on the road again. Numerous times over the years, I’ve longed to put
aside my other journalistic activities, the politics and the financials, and
write about what really matters in life: the people, places and customs of
different world cultures, what we all have in common and what sets us apart.
On April 8th, Palm Sunday, 1979, Breece Pancake went to Mass.
In recent days, he had been giving a lot of his stuff away. Things he figured
he wouldn’t be using anymore.
These things that he gifted to others included some of his guns. Like a
lot of boys who grew up in the Appalachian hills and hollows of West Virginia,
Breece had long been a hunter, though often a repentant one, with a real
sensitivity for nature and a mind well attuned to the existence and lives of critters
of all sorts that inhabited the hills of his homeland along with him.
But he didn’t give all of his guns away. One in particular, a Savage
over-and-under shotgun, he kept with something like aforethought and intention.
Breece D'J Pancake
A few hours after that Palm Sunday Mass, Breece Pancake used that Savage
shotgun to blow his own brains out. He was twenty-six and almost famous. But
not quite. And so ended the life of a brilliant writer, who surely had
compelling stories left to tell, but who decided—selfishly in the estimation of
those of us familiar with his work, I’m sure—to leave behind only a tiny legacy
of extremely well-crafted literature.
For the brief “quarter of an hour” that Breece was almost famous, he
signed his work as Breece D’J Pancake. The pen name was the result of one of
his first great successes, the 1977 publication in The Atlantic Monthly of a story of his entitled Trilobites. When the magazine printed
the story up, there was a typo in his name, in which he included his middle two
initials (for Dexter John). Breece liked how that out-of-place apostrophe
looked and decided not to correct it. So, as if Pancake were not a unique
enough name, the D’J in his nom de plume
stuck—for the two years that he would live afterward and on his published works
up to the present day.
Despite the deceptively back-woodsy settings and plots, and the simple style of
Breece’s stories, he was not a self-made writer. Five years before his untimely
death, he had received a BA in English from Marshall University in Huntington,
West Virginia. As a graduate student, he later attended the University of
Virginia’s creative writing program, headed up by National Book Award-winning
novelist John Casey and by Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer and
essayist James Alan McPherson. With that education under his belt, he would
later teach English at Virginia’s Fort Union and Staunton military academies.
In Trilobites, probably
Pancake’s best known short story, the main character is stuck on a failing
family farm that he doesn’t know how to leave or where else to go. The
surrounding hills contain trilobite fossils (an extinct prehistoric marine
organism from the time when the oceans covered vast expanses of the earth). The
unfolding story of the protagonist, who feels stuck in the middle like the
fossils he sought as a boy, takes us on a guided tour of the flood of emotions that
assails him when his mother decides to sell the farm and move to Ohio. Why
should he want to stay, he wonders, when he has no knack for farming and is
merely overseeing the spread’s demise? But still... I look
at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round, the narrator says. It took over a million years to make that
smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it
has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters.
Pancake delves into the despair and darkness of the poor mining and
farming communities of his native West Virginia. It’s a rugged world of truck drivers,
mechanics, waitresses, miners, river rats and hookers. But there is always an
underlying feeling of discontent and longing mixed with an itch to move on and
a taste for violence. There’s a tacit darkness and foreboding also, never as well
expressed as in Time and Again, in
which what appears at first glance to be the story of a lonely man whose hogs are
his only company, ends up making us wonder if a stranger who hitches a ride on
a snowplow hasn’t just had an unwitting brush with a serial killer.
But then too, there is a stunning sensitivity that challenges the
brutality of the society he describes, like when he opens a scene by telling it
from the viewpoint of a possum and her young, steering clear of the danger
posed by all men, or when he makes a fox the real protagonist of a story in
which hunters play the antagonists.
Breece has been compared to Hemingway, and indeed he admitted Hemingway’s
influence on him. But this is Hemingway without the ego. This is a world
inhabited by anti-heroes and confused characters, people for whom life is a
baffling conundrum, as it very likely was for the author himself. The simple
complexity of his writing is stunning and tears at your imagination, but also
at your deepest fears, your deepest feelings and at your heart.
Other powerful writers who admit to being influenced by the incredible
craft demonstrated in such a paltry body of work include such successful
fiction writers as Fight Club author
Chuck Palahniuk and the acclaimed author of House
of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III.
Bestselling novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote the following in a letter sent
to Breece’s former professor, John Casey, after the young writer took his own
life: “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most
sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no
fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”
Whitie, you were never what I would call “The Ideal Father”. But then
again, hands on our hearts, whose was? Besides, if the collective evolutionists turn
out to be right, I picked you before I reincarnated—if, indeed, I did—so
perhaps I have no one to blame but myself.
That said, I’ve known of a few who pretty nearly were ideal for their
kids—within the margins of human foible—and let me just confess to you that,
growing up, I often envied those kids.
Be that as it may, “ideal”, I’ve learned, can have its drawbacks.
I have one friend who, when he talks about his dad, (and no offense,
Whitie) he makes you want to crawl up into his ol’ man’s lap and beg him to
adopt you. My friend’s dad was a shop worker who busted his ass for his family,
but who always had time for his sons, and especially for my friend, who was a
rare bird by any standard. But his dad always supported him in every endeavor.
If my friend wanted to write, if he wanted to gather the stories of those who
couldn’t tell theirs in their own voices, then he should, his dad said, throw
himself into it heart and soul. Go after his dream. Not let anybody discourage
him. He had a talent, his father said, and by golly, if you were lucky enough
to have one, you should flaunt it.
He didn’t tell his son to forget his stupid fantasies about being a
writer and learn to do something that would make him rich, or something that would give
him a trade, or something with womb
to tomb benefits. In fact, his ol’
man used to do more than encourage him. He used to help his son get interviews
when he was still just a sprout, and drive him back and forth, and read what he
wrote afterwards, and comment. Once he even told his son that the boy had gone far
beyond his own understanding, that his dad no longer understood exactly what
the boy was doing, but that whatever it was, he admired his son for it and that
the boy should shoot for the stars.
I hear him talk about his father and, you know, Whitie, I get a lump in
my throat thinking what I wouldn’t have given for a little, a fraction, of that
kind of encouragement and understanding. But like I say, “ideal” sometimes
isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And one day my friend’s father went down into
the cellar, stuck a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out—in the very
house where his sons lived, and where my friend still lives and writes today. I
mean, all that had gone before in their almost ideal relationship was shattered
in a thunder-clap. How could a boy, by now a man, who had felt so close to his
dad compute this? That his father would want so badly to leave the world they
shared that he was willing to kill himself to get away?
My friend still has the shotgun. It’s not some morbid “souvenir” of his
“ideal” father’s death. On the contrary, the shotgun has become a celebration
of life. Every year my friend and his brother take that very shotgun hunting,
and after spending a great day afield together, my friend looks out at the
great beyond as the sun goes down and says, “See what you’re missing, you
But let’s talk about us, Whitie. I’ll have to say this, that you were
never the everyday, ordinary dad. For better or for worse, you were unique.
Obsessive-compulsive, manic, bipolar, most of the time at least mildly
depressed, irascible and short-fused, ever worried about what might happen in
some future that only God knew would exist or not, seldom if ever just living
the moment and enjoying life, usually predictable but sometimes, exceptionally,
off the charts, unfathomable. But some other times, once in a great while, countable
times, happy and hilariously funny....like the time, during one of those
lighter moments, when we were playing My Father Owns a Grocery Store and had
exhausted every item on the grocer’s shelves so we changed the name of the game
to My Father Owns a Drugstore and when somebody said, “My father owns a
drugstore and in it he sells something that starts with‘s’,” the first words out of your mouth were,
“Is it bullet-shaped?” We still laugh
about that sometimes!
But then there were the dark, dark times when you’d hole-up in your room
for weeks on end or check yourself into a psych ward, where you could hide
out even from us, and it was as if nothing but your illness existed—for any of
us, but especially for you. You barely recognized us. We barely existed in your
world, and if we did, it was only as a burden, a responsibility, added noise
and static you’d rather not have had. Especially me, I told myself, because
that was what it felt like, as if I were what most vexed you in the entire
And then, all of the sudden, right after one of these psychotic
episodes, you’d get up and, after a brief period that acted a lot like a
hangover but wasn’t, because you never drank when you were depressed and only
occasionally, socially, when you were happy (or on a manic high), you could be
a completely different person. Especially around others. So much so that my
friends would say, “Wow, you’re dad’s so
cool. I wish I had a dad like
him!” And, although it embarrasses me to tell you this, Whitie, I’d say, “You want
him? Take him home with you when you leave. Strictly no return policy.”
You always had such physical grace. I admired that in you, Whitie. A
natural sportsman, you were. As a boy, none of that rubbed off on me. If
somebody had seen you walking down the street, marching with long strides and
sure feet, your Popeye arms pumping, one-two, one-two with each stride, they
would never have guessed that you were chronically ill. Nobody could have
looked more confident and in control.
Clearly, I was overgrown and clumsy. You told me so yourself on many an
occasion. I know it must have embarrassed and disappointed you. It wasn’t until
I was a young adult that I learned to overcome that by training my body. Like
in anything else, there are naturals like you, Whitie, and those who need to
train like crazy, like me. I just wish I’d known that, wish somebody—like you,
Whitie—had told me that when I was still a boy, instead of allowing me to believe,
before the Army got hold of me, that if you weren’t a natural, you might as
well get used to being a washout, a nerd, a benchwarmer. Confidence is so important
in becoming athletic, and I didn’t have any. I had to find it and build it
myself—with the help of a drill sergeant’s boot up my ass.
It hurt when I was a kid that we never tossed a ball together, that you
never taught me everything you knew about sports, that neither did you take any
interest in my interests, that we never hunted, or fished, or hiked, or camped
together. I remember joining the Scouts, working hard to fit in, to get my
merit badges, to be “one of the boys”. Not because I gave a rat’s ass about
being a Scout, but because I thought maybe it would make you love me more and
maybe take an interest in something I was doing. Mom ended up going with me to
buy my uniform, accompanied me—along with widows and divorcees, since
the other boys were with their dads—at the Blue and Gold Banquet, was there to
cheer me the day I won the Pinewood Derby, while I’m not even sure you knew I
was in Scouts. Which I wasn’t for long because, not surprisingly, I lost
interest and quit.
And when I decided sports of any kind were a lost cause and excelled in
band—head percussionist, student conductor, head of the percussion section in
All-Area Band, head percussionist in the Buckeye Scarlet concert band my first
and only year at Ohio State—you wrote me off, never came to a game or a
concert, never acknowledged my achievements, never said you were proud of me. I
didn’t realize it consciously then, but everything I did, even later when I
found myself in charge over and over again in whatever activity I undertook, it
was to seek your approval, Whitie.
Why was that? Because I always loved you. I still love you.
But I want you to know, Whitie, that, like I told you in those
long-overdue talks we had while the cancer was killing you, there’s nothing
pending between us. I’m okay, you’re okay, Whitie. It’s an EST thing. No blame,
no regrets. Mostly, I feel bad for you. For how sad and broken you were much of
your life. How you couldn’t break far enough out of your personal darkness to
see us better. To see me better.
Still, if I seldom managed to make you feel proud of me, there were lots
of times I felt proud of you. Like the time on a hot summer day that I took a
black friend to your restaurant and soda fountain, the Teddy Bear, for a Coke.
The chief of police was sitting drinking coffee at the long table up front, the
only other patron in the middle of a slow dog-day afternoon. The same chief who’d
held that post for as long as anybody could remember, mainly because he’d been
so adept at keeping our all-white town that way. And he made a nasty racist
comment, said he hadn’t known you were a nigger-lover, and you told him that if
he could get out of there before you got out from behind the counter, it’d save
you the trouble of throwing his fat ass out on the street.
My heart burst with pride that day, Whitie.
Or the time later when you were a route salesman, killing yourself
working twelve, fourteen, sixteen-hour days on minimum salary and a three
percent commission but pulling down the best money you’d ever had in your life,
selling several million dollars’ worth of goods a year out of the back of a
twelve-ton truck. One afternoon you stopped by the house to pick something up
and the company president happened to drive by. That evening he left a note on
the windshield of your truck where it was plugged in for the night at the
plant. It said he never again wanted to see your truck parked in the driveway
of your house at two in the afternoon.
You went inside and marched up to the president’s office. Pushed past
his secretary who said that he was “in a meeting” and told her, “Don’t worry,
this won’t take long.” You burst in, nodded to the president’s guests, then turned
to him, slapped the note down on his desk top and said, “The next time you
leave me a little note like this, I’ll personally shove it up your ass.” And
then you turned on your heel and walked out, not knowing whether you’d have a
job the next day—but you did! And not caring either, because no matter how much
money you were making, it wasn’t worth letting yourself be humiliated.
That day too, Whitie, you filled me to bursting with pride. And there
were others, lots.
So, I get it that maybe there just wasn’t anything left over from your
illness to invest in being “the ideal dad”. I get it. I understand. You were
fighting that all your life. You were constantly struggling to overcome a
handicap. If you’d been blind, or in a wheelchair, or missing an arm or a leg,
I’d have gotten it back then too. But mental disabilities don’t show. People
with them just seem to be “acting up” or “not getting their shit together.”
Those of us who, right along with the person suffering them, become victims of
them always want to say, “What the hell’s wrong
with you? Why are you acting this
way? Why can’t you just be normal?”
But, Whitie, I get it now. It’s like blaming a paraplegic for not being
able to walk, or a deaf person for not being able to hear, or a blind person
for not being able to see. You couldn’t reach me, because you couldn’t reach
But you taught me so much with your example, Whitie. You taught me that
you only had your name and your word and that without them you were nothing.
You taught me the nobility of work, of not owing anybody anything, of being
your own man. You taught me not to back down no matter how scared I was inside.
And also with your example, with your suffering, with your constant and losing
battle, you taught me about depression, and I learned that you had to get it
before it got you, that as soon as it loomed into sight, you needed to confront
it, grab it by the throat and shake it, choke it to death, before it had a
chance to grab you.
I don’t know if there’s anything beyond this, Whitie. But the day you
died, you sent me a message. You know what I’m talking about. So if that was
your way of telling me that there is something else, I’m hoping you are really in a better place, Ol’ Man. And wherever
you are, Whitie, know that I love you and always did.
It had poured the night before. Truly torrential rain. And the morning
didn’t look very promising either. There were patches of blue here and there.
And the late-summer sunrise had been spectacular—reds, purples and fiery
oranges, even before the sun crowned on the horizon, shooting rays, like a
Hand-of-God church bulletin photo, through the thunderheads gathered there, and
that elsewhere scudded across the sky propelled by a stiff breeze. Moments
later, the sun was an enormous fireball that spotlighted the drenched
landscape, taking my breath away, filling my chest with a feeling not unlike
awe, and providing me with hope that the weather might change, that the rain,
rain, would go away, and come again some other day.
I watched morning break from our backyard until my mother called me in
for breakfast. I was six at the time and there was a semi-promise afoot to go
fishing with my paternal grandfather...if it didn’t rain too hard...if he could
see a few clients first...if he didn’t get stuck at the office...if, in short,
he felt like it. I’d been up since six, driving my mother, Reba Mae, nuts with
questions about whether or not she thought it would stop raining, whether Grandpa
Murel would come even if it didn’t, whether maybe it was clearer at Indian Lake
than here. “Stop fretting,” she said finally. “You’ll just have to wait and
see.” But waiting-and-seeing when you’re six is an almost unbearably iffy
As the morning sky clouded over and it started to rain yet again, I
invested my time wisely, praying that it would stop. But then there was that
Methodist Sunday School pang of guilt. It worried me that perhaps I was being
selfish. I mean, I didn’t want it to stop raining everywhere. Especially not in the parts of the country where there
was currently a drought...or where the farmers needed it for their crops...or
where wells had run dry...or where there were forest fires (the places Smoky
the Bear reminded me of when he pointed at
me from the TV screen like some furry Uncle Sam and said, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”).
Back then, I believed literally in the power of prayer—indeed, of my prayers and the specificity of my
requests. Reba Mae was always quick to remind me that prayers weren’t to be
taken lightly and that their subject shouldn’t be frivolous or selfish. In
fact, prayer should mostly be for giving thanks, not for asking for more all
the time. Most of all, you should be careful what you prayed for. What, then,
if I prayed for the rain to stop, and it never rained again? I remembered the
desolate Saharan dunes in Buster Crabbe’s TV interpretation of Captain Gallant
of the French Foreign Legion, and I shuddered.
So I added a little addendum to my prayer, a kind of postscript in which
I told God I was only asking for it to stop raining today...and only where I was going to be, not all over the world.
Not even all over Ohio. And then I
told Him that if I was being selfish, then I was truly sorry...but I really,
really wanted to go fishing with my Grandpa Murel.
After praying, I stood, disappointed, in front of the picture window in
the living room and watched it drizzle steadily outside, searching the sky for
a patch of blue, some sign that my prayer would be answered. When I wasn’t
sky-watching, I was continuing to badger my mother. By ten-thirty, she’d had
enough and said, “Look, it’s barely misting out now. Why don’t you go down to
the pond and fish for a while and stop driving me crazy until your grandfather
“Is he coming for sure?” I cried excitedly.
“I don’t know, for the thousandth time!” she said. “But go
anyway before you drive me insane!”
I reminded her that I didn’t have a pole or tackle, that I depended on
Grandpa Murel for all that, since, unlike his father, my dad, Whitie, wasn’t a
fisherman. There wasn’t a rod, reel or speck of tackle in the whole house. So
she gave me a length of butcher’s string and an open safety pin en lieu of a hook and instructed me to
go find a stick to tie them to.
I found one under a tree near the pond and tied on the string and safety
pin. Nightcrawlers were lying out everywhere, their tunnels flooded by the
previous night’s storm, so bait was easy to come by. After skewering one on my
safety pin hook, I put more with some dirt in a rusty tin can I found, to take
along when and if my grandfather finally came to get me. He’d be proud of me
for bringing my own bait.
“The pond” was actually a boggy lot two doors down on which an enormous
puddle formed any time there was heavy rain. The rest of the time, it was a
gateway to some other swampy land several blocks square that the developer of
our neighborhood had never been able to sell, because it would take so much fill
dirt to make it livable. Clearly, fishing here was a fool’s errand. But seeing
its surface reflecting the oil-paint sky of that rainy morning—the scudding
clouds that now broke a bit here and there to reveal a heavenly world of
sunshine and blue behind them—for me, it might as well have been Lake Erie.
I’d been dunking my writhing bait in the futile waters of the pond for a
good half-hour, when I looked up the street toward home and saw my
grandfather’s maroon Studebaker turning into the driveway. I tossed down my
makeshift pole—string, pin, worm and all—and ran home as fast as my legs would
“You came, you came!” I shouted, and was even happier to see that not
only Grandpa Murel, but also my Grandma Alice had come.
Reba Mae greeted them from the door of the garage and asked them in for
coffee. I hoped they’d say no so we could get on the road at once, but, to my
chagrin, they accepted. So I ended up cooling my eager heels for another
grandparents and Grandpa Murel regaled her with his theories on sound financial
practices—which, he indicated, neither she nor my father knew anything about.
Did I want cookies and milk, I was asked? No, I didn’t want to do anything more
to hold up the show and I was too anxious to be hungry. I managed, however, to
wolf down a chocolate chip cookie anyway.
It was about a twenty-mile ride to the lake. But I might as well have
been Marco Polo on the Silk Road to China. This was an unexpected journey, a
weekday treat to accompany my grandparents to the lake while the rest of the
adult world was occupied with workaday tasks. The road to the lake back then
was a narrow two-lane strip, despite carrying US Route 33 signs. It wended its
way through bucolic Ohio countryside, past pretty farms and lovely woodlots
that were already, if you paid attention, a different, more autumnal shade, but
not yet, not for another month, sporting the red, ochre and gold tones of actual
fall. Occasionally the rain clouds parted fleetingly, letting through rays of glorious
sunshine that spotlighted a barn here, a shed there, a seemingly special tree or
hill, a silo that, in that golden light, could have passed for the Tower of
We passed through the tiny villages of New Hampshire and Santa Fe
(pronounced Sana Fee in our neck of the woods), and then we were driving
through Russells Point and I had my first glimpse of Indian Lake, past the
famed, if now down at heel amusement park with its barn-like dance hall where
swing bands of renown had played in the twenties, thirties and forties—bands
that had made the records my mother collected: Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Billy
May, Les Brown and others. On we drove to Lakeview, a short distance down the
road and from there to a place that was apparently one of Grandpa Murel’s
favorite fishing spots, a pier of sorts, made of concrete, with a parking lot above
and a not wide but also not narrow strip on which to stand or sit below.
Just as Grandpa parked the Studebaker and we started to get our
collective gear out of the trunk, it began to sprinkle once more. And I started
“Dang rain!” I complained, afraid this might be like when Reba Mae would
say, “Okay, it’s raining, everybody back in the car.”
But Grandpa Murel said, “Why, what’s wrong with the rain, bud? Rainy
days are the best days to go a-feeshin’. That’s when they bite the best. When
it’s rainin’ a little.”
With that, Grandpa retrieved his see-through nylon raincoat out of the backseat
of the car and pulled it on over his white sports shirt and cardigan. His
battered, felt fishing hat—a faded dark green Mallory of Fifth Avenue that had
once been a dress hat—was already on his head. His fishing shoes were scuffed
old two-tone wingtips and his fishing pants the bottom half of a dark suit he
no longer wore as such.
Meanwhile, Grandma Alice broke out her long-billed fishing cap—the one
with the marlin emblazoned on the front—and pulled it down over her blue-white
perm. Then she dug through the trunk for her faithful green men’s cardigan with
the black leather patches on the elbows and slipped it on over her sober cotton
housedress. She handed me the canvas windbreaker Reba Mae had sent along for me
and I put it on, along with my red baseball cap.
Grandpa walked off toward the pier without us, carrying his rod, reel,
minnow bucket and tackle box. Grandma carried a big picnic basket and a canvas
bag with two Thermoses and an extra cup in it, while I carried her already
rigged cane pole, the short section of cane pole Grandpa had rigged up for me,
and my can of nightcrawlers. Once we’d deposited our stuff on the pier, Grandma
and I went back to the car to retrieve two folding chairs for her and Grandpa
and a folding canvas and wood camp stool for me.
By the time we got back, Grandpa had thrown his first cast, under a
light rain, and was already fishing. Grandpa was proud of his casting ability
and he would throw his line out so far you could barely see his bobber from the
shore. With cane poles you could only fling your line out a few feet and fish
from the tip of the pole itself.
“If the fish are everywhere,” I asked my grandfather, “why do you cast
out so far.”
“I’m a-throwin’ it out there where the big ones are,” he answered with an ornery grin. And right then I
wanted to have a rod and reel too.
I said as much to Grandma Alice, told her that someday, I’d really like
to have a rod and reel. She said, “Any fisherman worth his salt can fish with a
cane pole.” And then she added, “But Christmas is coming up in a few months. Put
it on your list and maybe Santa will bring you one.”
With this tentative promise under my belt, I settled into fishing. I
sidled up beside Grandma. We were the cane-pole fishermen. We left Grandpa to
his casting further down the quay. This was his fishing spot and the lake was
part of his life insurance sales territory. He knew people here and they knew
him, so while he fished, he chatted with others on the pier. And they only
moved to “try their luck” further one way or another, or drove off to find
another fishing hole altogether when he started hinting that they might want to
talk to him about expanding their insurance coverage.
After a while of watching him scare away the other fishermen—to say
nothing of the fish—with his constant chatter, Grandma said, “Murel...Murel...Murel!
Come on over here with us and eat something. And with that she left her pole to
fend for itself on the pier, her line still in the water, and with an
occasional eye on her bobber, and opened up the picnic basket. There was never
anything boring, like carrots or celery or apples in Grandma Alice’s picnic
fare. And today was no exception.
On paper plates she served each of us a sandwich of pressed ham and
American cheese on the whitest of Wonder Bread, slathered with butter. On the
side she shook us each out a generous portion of Dayton’s own deliciously salty
Mikesell’s potato chips. There was plenty of both, so I, for one, had seconds
and nothing had ever tasted better, especially with piping hot sugary coffee and
cream from one of the Thermoses. For dessert, there were Milky Way candy bars,
Grandma’s own favorite. We all had a sweet tooth. It seemed everybody on my
father’s side of the family did.
Now it was drizzling a little harder. Not a soaking rain, just a heavier
drizzle. And Grandpa had been right. The fish were starting to bite. Grandma
was the first to snake one out of the water with her cane pole. It was a
Grandpa, of course made light of it, said, “Hang on, in a minute or so I’ll
show you some real feesh. They’re
a-nibblin’ at my bait right now.”
Grandma said, “Shut-up, Murel,” and re-baited her hook and put the fish
she’d caught on a stringer.
Then it was my turn to snag one. I pulled it out, a beautiful silvery
fish that flapped on the pier until Grandma helped me get it off the hook.
Grandpa said, “That there’s a nice little 'croppy',” accent on “little”. But he was the only one to belittle my catch. It
was a weekday. Younger adults were at work or at home caring for their kids,
since school hadn’t begun yet. I was the only kid on the pier with a number of
mostly retired, grey-haired men and women like my grandparents and a few other,
younger men, who looked as if they were fishing for survival rather than for
sport. So when I pulled out my first fish, I heard applause from a few of the
anglers down the way from me and some, “atta boys!” and “way to go kids!” to
celebrate my catch.
When I pulled out a second bigger crappy, however, their enthusiasm
waned and by the third one, they were ignoring me completely and tending to
their own lines. Grandma Alice pulled out a couple more fish as well. Grandpa
was livid with envy, since his professional casting was turning up zero
results. So he went back to the car and returned with another sectioned cane
pole and line that he kept in the trunk. He put his chair between Grandma’s and
mine, clearly hoping some of our luck would rub off on him. Eventually it did,
and before we knew it, the three of us had harvested a nice mess of fish.
As the afternoon progressed, a breeze stirred up, ruffling the water in
front of the quay and heaving up whitecaps further out on the lake. The sky
began to clear as the sun sank lower and our outerwear felt good despite the
sunshine’s appearance after a day of steady drizzle.
As quickly as they had begun, the fish quit biting, and one by one, our
angler colleagues decided to call it a day, packed up their stuff and made
their way back to their cars to leave. Eventually it was only us and the
hungry-looking fishermen on the far end, passing a bottle of Gallo among them, who
remained. And soon, Grandma also decided to pack it in and said, “Come on,
Murel, let’s go.” He complained that “this was just the time when they were
gonna start a-bitin’ again,” but even as he said it, he was packing up to go.
By the time we headed for home, we had an ice chest full of fish in the
trunk and the three of us were feeling happy, satisfied and accomplished.
Grandma Alice divvied up the remainder of the sweet coffee in her old
scotch-plaid metal Thermos among the three of us and offered Grandpa and me a
sugar cookie from the tin canister she’d brought along. Then she took one for
herself as well, and for a while we all rode in contented silence, munching our
treat and watching the scenery in the last light of day.
We’d had a wonderful afternoon and the crappies, bluegills and rock bass
that we had caught—worthy pan fish all—would make a delicious fish-fry. The sky
was clear now, and it was growing even cooler. I snuggled into a corner of the
backseat, covering myself with an old Indian blanket Grandma kept in the car,
and finished my few sips of coffee and my cookie while watching the sun sink
Just before it reached the horizon, the sun became a huge glinting
orange disk, its light now sufficiently muted by twilight that, if you peered
across the open fields that whizzed by outside, you could gaze right at it. To
me, it looked like nothing as much as an enormous orange sucker, and I said as
much. “Hey Grandma,” I said, “ever notice how sometimes the sun looks like a
great big orange sucker?”
Grandpa Murel harrumphed and said, “A sucker!?”
But Grandma Alice was less quick to belittle the proposal and turned
toward the passenger side window. She took a judiciously long, appraising look
as the setting sun came to rest on the western horizon, smiled and said, “Y’know,
bub, I think you might just be right!”
That evening, that big orange-sucker sunset was all mine, the perfect
end to a perfect day, to carry with me for the rest of my life.