You might drive by Jim Bowsher’s house on Wood Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and not even notice it. Structurally, it looks like any other typical early twentieth-century rural American house.
|Jim Bowsher's house on Wood Street in Wapakoneta|
If you’re walking, though, you can’t help but notice right away the heavy glacial rocks that completely clog the easement between the sidewalk and the curb and in the little door yard in front of the porch, bearing testimony to Ohio’s topographical formation—scraped flat in the northwest by planing megatons of continental ice and wrinkled into rocky hills and cliffs in the southeast, at the site of the terminal moraine. And if you turn and look Jim’s way, you might even notice the red letters painted on the wooden riser of the top step before the porch that read: TEMPLE OF TOLERANCE.
Now, if you were to walk down the other side of the street and look toward Jim’s house what would probably draw your attention first is the bomb hanging from the gable of his dormer. That’s right, I said bomb, or more accurately, bombshell. You know what it is right away because it looks like every bombshell you ever saw in cartoons as a kid: torpedo-shaped with tail fins at the rear. And as in the cartoons, this one has something written on it: If it belonged to Wiley Coyote it would say ACME BOMB, or if it were Bugs Bunny’s it might say BOMB or BANG or BOOM. But when you get close enough to read this one, it says PEACE. It is painted an eye-catching red with letters in bright yellow (like the Beatles’ 1960s flower-power yellow submarine).
|Like a forgotten Christmas ornament|
The bomb looks comical hanging there like a bizarre, forgotten Christmas ornament, and if you scratch the surface of Jim’s personal dialectic, you realize that the cartoonish effect is no coincidence. It’s part of his complex process of decommissioning evil, since this shell, now rendered harmless, comedic and almost childish, is exactly the kind used during the Vietnam War to rain napalm down on jungle villages and burn men, women and children alive. Hanging it in the top gable of the house is a lot like the message the “flower children” sent when they smiled at dog-faced soldiers blocking their path and slipped the stems of fresh-picked daisies into the barrels of their rifles at the myriad peace rallies of the sixties. It is a disarming gesture with an empathic message of peace and harmony—one that seems almost outdated and futile in a world that, except in tiny corners like this one, has all too cynically accepted war and mass murder as “inevitable” or as “collateral damage”.
|From his grandmother's lamp to the Ku Klux Klan|
The mix in Jim’s house, which gives anyone with the slightest sensitivity the feeling of stepping into a powerful force-field as soon as he or she steps across the threshold, is about as eclectic as you can possibly imagine, ranging from a gracefully turned table lamp with a delicately painted milk-glass shade that he inherited from his grandmother to a couple of long-rifles made by his gunsmith ancestors specifically to be traded to the Indians; from nearly life-size and colorfully painted and gilded plaster saints culled from some long-demolished Roman Catholic church to the Aron Kodesh or Sacred Ark from the erstwhile ad hoc Temple ceremonies of Wapakoneta’s tiny and, today, all but forgotten Jewish community; from Nazi era artifacts to Native American artifacts from prehistoric times; from local Ku Klux Klan memorabilia to treasured reminders of the traveling shows of local vaudeville legend Harry Shannon; from letters, documents and journals of local pioneers to items of soldiers’ gear from the famous Battle of Fallen Timbers; from rare pictures and symbols of early settlers and aboriginal tribal leaders to a “one-armed bandit” that an old-time “city father” bought for his wife to keep her out of gambling halls and speakeasies; from historical tributes to heroism to bits and pieces of the brief but murderous story of infamous bank robber John Dillinger and his gang—and the list goes on and on.
The dichotomous nature of the thread that runs through the endless collections that cover walls, shelves, tables, cabinets, display cases and just about any other surface big enough to hold a book, picture or trinket throughout the house is not only attributable to Jim’s uncanny ability to recognize historical significance wherever time and oblivion have hidden it under their shroud of dust and indifference, but also to a very conscious underlying aim of “drawing the poison” out of everything evil and ill-intentioned by purging that negativity and rendering it harmless—something to be observed and recounted within the general context of history and through objective hindsight, ever accompanied by a message of peace, forgiveness and understanding, but not without remembrance, reparation and atonement, and a vow to serve a better future while comprehending the perennial inevitability of human foible.
Descendants of Wapakoneta’s early Jewish residents got it, this intentional dichotomy that runs through everything Jim does. So much so that they didn’t balk at the apparent contradiction of Jim’s unique recounting of Nazi and KKK evil under the same roof where their sacred ark rests. In fact, it was their idea.
Seeing the Aron Kodesh there in its special place, a focal point in the center and at the top of Jim’s history-festooned parlor, I ask, “What’s that!”
“What’s it look like?” Jim asks back.
“Like the Ark of the Covenant,” I say.
To which he answers, “That’s exactly what it is. The ark once used by Wapak’s Jews in their religious ceremonies.”
|The Aron Kodesh of Wapakoneta's erstwhile Jewish community.|
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
I feel a story coming on, and sure enough, Jim launches into how he came by the ark (also known, I’m told, as a Torah Ark, the holiest spot in any Jewish temple). In tracing some traditional intolerances that formed a darker side of our hometown’s history—Catholics against Jews and Protestants, Protestants against Papists and Jews, the different Protestant denominations against each other, the original City Fathers against African Americans and anybody else not undeniably white and the Klan against...well, everybody, basically, but their own pointy-hatted brethren—he had taken an interest in the handful of Jews who had decided to make Wapakoneta their unlikely home. He meticulously traced their history and interviewed as many members of their community as he could still find, eventually discovering a total of fifteen Jewish families that once formed part of the Wapakoneta story.
In the process, Jim made a number of friends and acquaintances among descendants of leading local Jews, who were grateful to him for conscientiously piecing together an often obscure and fragmented story. One discovery among many was that the Jewish community had suffered a falling-out with the then-rabbi in the city of Lima, a short distance away, which was where the nearest synagogue was located. So they broke with Lima’s Jewish community and held their own temple services with “Jim’s” ark as their sacred altar and en lieu of an actual temple in which to worship.
|Photo by Mary Jo Knoch|
When Jim’s project was completed, representatives of that now defunct religious community showed up at his house with the ark. They wanted him to have it. Although he was truly honored and moved, he said he didn’t feel he could accept it. He was clearly not Jewish. In fact, if he did indeed consider himself “spiritual” he was not “religious” in any traditional sense. Why should he be entrusted with something so sacred to local Jews? Because, they explained, his home was a spiritual place and nowhere else would their ark be in more respectful, appreciative and caring hands. Even so, Jim’s bent for the contradictory runs deep, and despite how prominently and respectfully displayed the ark is in his home, on exhibit with it is a Star of David armband, of the type the Nazis made Jews wear in their ghettos in order to identify them as such. But clearly, it isn’t there so much as a direct contrast with the Aron Kodesh as it is to render homage to the six million Jews who died in the Nazi concentration camps before and during World War II.
The other thing that runs deep in Jim is the intimate nature of his interest in people’s stories. It isn’t just a matter of collecting and recounting their tales but of getting inside of the stories themselves, walking around in other people’s shoes—even those of people long dead—and finding out what makes them tick. And doing so, it should be said, with a combination of admirable objectivity and heartfelt empathy. Even the way he first started interviewing people bears witness to this, since his first interviews were with the last ultra-elderly veterans of the Civil War, beginning when he was only eight. Even then he had the vision to know that once these old-timers were gone, their stories would be buried with them and that it was important to the cause of keeping history from being a fiction written in retrospect that those stories should be told in the words of their protagonists. By the time he was twelve his task as a chronicler of the stories of the community’s most senior personalities had become more important to him than hanging out with his contemporaries, and although he was always an outgoing and popular boy, he admits that he often “neglected his friends” when the choice was between them and a good story.
Nor does Jim shrink from stories that others might consider fanciful, impossible or just plain nuts, like the story entitled Rivets that he tells about a bridge on a country road that bears his own surname. In it, a World War II vet tells Jim of how he was a rifleman with a demolition team who were setting charges to blow an iron girder bridge on a German road, similar to the one near the soldier’s farmhouse home on Bowsher Road near Wapakoneta. The charge is set, the detonator plunger raised, but out of nowhere comes a German fighter plane and strafes the bridge. The American rifleman takes cover behind a girder of the bridge and survives the strafing, but when he looks around, all of the other men on the team are lying dead, and now two German riflemen are swiftly crossing the field on the other side of the bridge and have opened fire on him.
Pinned down, the guy knows he’s going to die and leans against the girder of the bridge with his head down on it. All he can see are the girder rivets. But suddenly, the gunfire stops, the noise of war fades away and he hears water splashing and children laughing. He opens his eyes, looks around and finds himself on the old bridge on Bowsher Road. He’s a boy again and below him, there are other kids swimming in the creek. For a moment, he remains there, safe in his own childhood, but then, suddenly, he is back in real time and the two German soldiers are running up onto the bridge, firing at him to try and finish him off. But before they can, the American soldier sprints to the detonator, shoves down the plunger and blows up the bridge, complying with the team’s mission and killing the two Germans.
After that, as Jim tells it, the guy ran away, found another American unit, joined it, and made it through the rest of the war unscathed, before going back to Wapakoneta and to his farmhouse home on Bowsher Road, near the bridge that he’d seen in that vision at the bridge in Germany. So, Jim asks him, didn’t he maybe think about someday going back to that spot in Germany, where they’ve surely erected another bridge, to see where it all happened so long ago? The vet looks frightened and adamantly shakes his head, telling Jim that he’ll never go back there. Why? Because he’s convinced that he never survived that attack. That if he goes back, he’ll see himself lying there dead at that German bridge. “Everything,” he tells Jim, “you here listening to me, me telling you this story, all of it is no more than a death dream drama. It isn’t real. It’s only the dream of a man who died, the same as that dream back then of me playing at this bridge on Bowsher Road.”
To be continued
(Watch and hear Jim tell the story himself at www.youtube.com/watch?v=P999-4Z02vo).