Monday, March 3, 2014

THE UPSIDE TO PROCRASTINATION

Recently, I read an interesting article that a friend had recommended in The Atlantic Monthly. It was by Megan McArdle and was called “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators”. McArdle began her article by saying, “Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.”
Except for her bent for shopping lists and inventing gourmet desserts (I just grab a scone or a piece of the vanilla pound cake my wife has kindly bought at the grocery), I couldn’t have identified more. McArdle goes on to say that she has, over the years, “developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class.” She then adds, as a kind of caveat, “This sounds crazy, but hear me out.”
And her explanation makes sense. She holds that while English was one of the hardest classes for a lot of the other more “left-brained” kids, writerly types like us who spent hours reading literature because we liked to, were fond of how words went together, couldn’t resist a good story and didn’t mind getting down and dirty with sentence diagramming, were always ahead of the game in that department and could easily ace it.
He looked at me as if observing something uncommon but
not exceptional--say, an albino dung beetle...
This may have been truer in my case than in most since I couldn’t have been more “right-brained”. I recall after graduating high school driving down to Columbus to take the entry exams for the Ohio State University. After the grueling hours of examination and orientation, I was called off to the side by one of the scholarly-looking gents who was acting as a monitor and grader for the tests. He’d evidently had his eye out to discover who I was when the test results were put up.  I must have fractured some test curve because he asked my name, looked at me as if he were observing something uncommon but not exceptional—say, an albino dung beetle—and asked (rhetorically, as it turned out), “Do you realize that you are in the upper ninety-eight percentile in the United States in Language...” I beamed but he held up a staying hand, “...the upper ninety-five percentile in social sciences...” I continued to smile and blush, “the upper ninety percentile in history and current affairs...” at this point I was shuffling and somewhat nervously awaiting the punch line, “and the lower ten percentile in exact sciences?” (He clearly said this last with a question mark but it deserved a whole slew of exclamation points behind it as well). Then he said, with the cautious restraint and tense grimace of someone opening the lid of a box in which he or she might expect to find a time-bomb, “Tell me, what do you plan to study in college...” again he held up his hand to stop me from answering too quickly, “and please...please!...don’t tell me architecture or engineering?”

When I said my plan was to study music and literature, he almost swooned with relief, shook hands with me and said, “Good luck then, son!”
But back to Ms. McArdle’s theory: She says that after acing English throughout our school days without its ever being particularly hard for us, we suddenly find ourselves out in the world competing with all the other language nerds who are now professional writers. And suddenly, inevitably, we’re scared to death that we might not be up to the challenge. We are no longer even albino dung beetles, but part of an international guild with a top, a middle and a bottom. More than writer’s block, what attacks us when we sit down before the blank page or screen is the question of whether we’ll be up to the challenge of writing something worthy.  The fear, in other words, is that what we’ll write might simply not be very good. And that thought is a veritable nightmare. So, says McArdle, we stall...and stall...and stall...until the last minute, until we’re hot on a deadline and the fear of writing nothing at all overcomes the fear of writing something not so hot.

In some of the most commercially effective writers, this constant fear of failure to create the perfect story manifests itself merely as a mildly neurotic nature. In others, like, say, Hemingway or Bukowski, it seems to lead to hard work with brilliant results juxtaposed with unbridled alcoholism and self-destructive behavior. In still others, gentle, private souls like, say, the great Harper Lee, it spells a single brilliant coming-of-age novel and then a lifetime of silence.
I think one of the first five-syllable words I ever learned was “pro-cras-ti-na-tion”. The thing is, it was written on many of my grade-school report cards—in the space reserved for teachers’ comments—pretty much from first grade on. Sometimes it was accompanied by other descriptive qualifiers such as lazy, indolent, day-dreamer, excuse-maker, inattentive, under-achiever, etc. Teachers were often mildly or sometimes even very actively and vocally irritated with me for this. I wish I had a dollar for every time one of them told my mother, “Dan is so intelligent, but also so very lazy. It’s a shame! He doesn’t even try!” If he did, he’d be brilliant!
One teacher disagreed. She figured I was just a dunce.
There was one teacher who disagreed. She figured I was just a dunce. She told me as much once. I had her for a teacher two years in grade school—with one year off for good behavior in between. At the start of the second year, I wanted to make a commitment from the outset. I went to her on the first day and said, “Mrs. X, I just want you to know that you won’t have any trouble with me this year. I plan to buckle down and not get behind. In fact, I plan to get straight-A’s.”
She laughed a bitter, cynical laugh and said, “Well, you might as well not even bother trying for that, Dan. You’ll never be a straight-A student. It’s not in you to be one. Some pupils are no better than average. You aren’t cut out to be top of your class. Besides, you’re left-handed and lefties are at a disadvantage from the outset. They’re under-achievers and usually just not as smart as right-handed people.

A few years later when my interest in art, music, writing and the biographies of famous people became more acute, I wanted to go back to her and ask—politely, mind you—if she’d been dropped on her head during teacher-training, since, obsessed as I was about being a southpaw after that (and even before because teachers were always clucking their tongues over my “messy handwriting”), I was always interested to know which hand the famous people I read about favored.  Artists Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael, famed humanist and missionary Dr. Albert Schweitzer, award-winning radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow (although in the fashion of the time he had been broken of writing with his left hand), writers H.G. Wells, Franz Kafka and Eudora Welty, as well as a multitude of other renowned over-achievers...all left-handed.
However, about my tendency to put off until tomorrow...and tomorrow...and tomorrow...what I should be doing today, she and other frustrated educators through whose hands I passed during those twelve years of grade school, junior high and high school had a definite point. But it wouldn’t surprise any of them to hear that I have an excuse for that too. For the first five of those years I was handicapped by poor eyesight, which, oddly enough, nobody seemed to notice—least of all myself because I’d never known any other way of seeing and thought everybody saw that way. That would tend to explain what teachers referred to as my “inattentiveness”. Any normally sighted person who has reached forty or forty-five and suddenly felt increasing disinterest in reading the newspaper or looking up telephone numbers or reading a book instead of watching something they’ve seen a hundred times already on TV, only to discover that they need reading glasses because, as part of the aging process, they are becoming far-sighted will understand what I’m talking about. The tendency isn’t to say, “Boy! I’ve simply got to go get some specs because I can’t see for crap!” It is, instead, to “lose interest” in anything that you need perfect vision for, to put off whatever it is for as long as you can, or to duck it completely until it finally becomes impossible to ignore the problem any longer.
That’s what happened to me in the first five years of grade school, while I unwittingly struggled with my impaired eyesight. I had a great deal of trouble seeing what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. It was like hieroglyphics to me, even when I sat up front. And that never lasted long because I would get bored to death from the strain of trying to see the teacher’s hen-scratchings on the slate at the front of the room and would start whispering or passing notes to my neighbors and distracting them as well, until I was ultimately asked to sit at the back of the class for the rest of the year. From that vantage point, the effort of making out what the teacher was writing on the board was rendered futile, which meant that while I was still trying to figure out what the words on the board said, the teacher was erasing them and moving on to the next point.
In all that time, however, I never lost my avid interest in reading. Left to my own devices, I could take as long as I wished to read a book and could adjust the distance at which I read it so as to accommodate my sight as best I could often closing one eye to compensate for a double astigmatism. And also left to my own devices, it got so that I read what I wanted to read more than what was assigned, or even in addition to what was assigned, but without sticking to any lesson plan whatsoever.
It was the summer after fifth grade that my vision problem was finally diagnosed. That summer—the last one in which I didn’t have a job of one kind or another—I spent either hanging out at the public swimming pool or reading books. I read in the morning, spent the afternoon at the pool then read some more. And since it was summer and there was no school to worry about, I would also stay up late at night reading as well. By mid-summer I had developed a condition known as “granulated eyelids”—a series of tiny blisters on the underside of the lid that makes it feel as if a pinch of coarse sand has been tossed into each eye with every blink.
My mother figured it was from the chlorine in the pool water (no red-blooded American boy back then would have been caught dead wearing goggles in the pool) but when, for the first time in my life, she took me to the eye doctor, he declared the cause to be severe eye-strain, said my vision was clearly impaired, and immediately prescribed corrective lenses. And when I went back for the fitting some days later, the doctor said, “You need to wear these all the time, okay, not just for reading.”

Glasses opened up a whole new world of visual perception for me and made learning a much less exhausting process. But by then, my unusual study habits were formed, and I’d been getting away with their results for years. I would gallop through the textbooks on my own in the first part of the year, take notes in class and listen carefully to what the teacher had to say and that was enough to get a passing grade. That meant I seldom did any but written homework and that I spent a lot more time on my own reading and writing than I did on schoolwork. Since I’d been convinced from the outset that I was incapable of straight-A’s, I never strived for them and lived perfectly well with B’s and C’s, giving all of my real effort, instead, to learning to play music and write stories.  
When I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, while still in my twenties, I decided I was going to find a way to write for a living. After banging my head against the wall for a while trying to land a job with one of the major international agencies or publications, I ended up badgering the managing editor of the local English-language newspaper (which was already building a worldwide name for itself as a paladin of human rights) until he finally, reluctantly, gave me a thirty-day trial. I ended up working for the daily for the next 13 years and eventually became its managing editor, before deciding to go free lance. Let me just state, for the record, that nowhere can a writer learn more about getting busy and getting done with things than in a daily newspaper.
When I first started there, however, I found myself going through all of my "writerly" procrastination processes, because I knew no other way to work. The editor, a procrastinator himself, knew precisely what was going on and said, "For chrissake, Dan! You have got to come right in and get down to it! Just dig in and get it done! We've got about six or seven hours a night to write a paper. There's no time for messing about!"
So I learned to work fast, really fast, sometimes as much as three thousand or three thousand five hundred words a night between writing and translation (and still found time to procrastinate a little). The night desk editor had a rule of his own, a sort of news quality rule of thumb, which posited that “what is utterly unacceptable at 6 p.m. may be deemed sublime at 11:30.”
But some years later, when I moved up and became an editorial writer and columnist, I learned to handle my editorial executive duties early on in the afternoon and evening, and leave the writing for later. Soon, I was right back to my same old writer's game, while, of course, jumping all over the younger writers for not getting the lead out. In this position, I was no longer expected to put out such a heavy load of wordage and in the meantime, I had learned to put word to page with lightning speed. One well-written piece a night was all anyone could expect of a good writer. But real writing time was, perhaps, two hours. The rest was spent reading up, drinking coffee, talking to colleagues about unrelated topics, going out for a quick drink and a quick sandwich with a friend, coming back and catching up on correspondence, and finally, under the gun like nobody's business, knocking out what I'd been writing in my head all day and all night and editing it to fit the hole that had been left for me to fill.
Still, clear through my middle years, I felt guilty about procrastination. It was my dirty little secret, sort of like being a secret morphine addict or wearing lifts to look taller might be for somebody else. I thought it diminished me as a person and a writer, that it made me damaged goods somehow. In very recent years, however (almost too late for it to make any real difference), I've come to terms with procrastination and accepted it as part of an inevitable process. It’s the first time I’ve said that out loud and in public, mainly because it sounds so vain and lame and "artistic" that it makes me want to puke (which as some of us know is also sometimes part of the writing process) that I really never wanted to own up to the fact that there even was a process. But there is...and for most writers, systematically “wasting” time seems to be a big part of it.

While I tend to agree that the fear of writing nothing at all has to surpass the fear of writing something horrible before many of us can write (another reason writers ask for criticism but are then crushed when it's not what they wanted to hear), I don't believe that this means good writers will always write something less worthy by procrastinating until a few scant hours before the deadline. On the contrary, I think that if many of us didn't play the waiting game and dashed something off as soon as it was assigned, it might very well...er...suck. For while we're fretting, writing unnecessary and inconsequential posts about Atlantic Monthly articles, complaining about not being understood and crying about how much more recognition we should have had than we've been given, we are also—even if subconsciously—running phrases over in our heads, finding a stance on our subject, flirting with research sources, finding a point of view and voice for what we're about to write, and convincing ourselves that we might actually be something like qualified to write on the subject assigned (despite our constant self-doubt) and it's only once we've done all this that we are anywhere near ready to put word to page or screen.

The trick, then, is to turn procrastination from a fault into a craft. And I plan to get started on that first thing tomorrow...or the next day...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

ON THE BANKS OF THE AUGLAIZE (Part Three):

Winter Solstice...A December baby, I was born with it in my blood. Like every schoolboy, I often longed for the freedom of summer. But in my heart and mind lived the clean black and white landscapes of northern winters; the low, chill sun that, on the short days of winter, passed from east to west almost more horizontally than vertically, dodging behind houses and trees and surprising you in the clearings; the glint of daylight on the frozen road; the hiss of the drifting snow blowing north to south across the fields, the impeccable white mantle on the lawn by first light after a storm, before anyone had polluted it with their boot prints; the warmth of yellow lights in the windows of cozy homes when nightfall caught you out of doors in the late afternoon.

Years later, living in Buenos Aires for two decades, those were the scenes from childhood that I would miss most—the snow, the sharp cold, the black and white landscapes—in a city where snow had been a once-in-a-lifetime event that the old-timers remembered and talked about, but that smacked of urban legend to those who had never experienced temperatures below 40º F. I would try to time my visits “back home” with northern winter, and preferably Christmas. A few times I even prefaced visits with family and friends by taking a few days in wintry Toronto, before flying across the puddle to Cleveland and then “home”, as if to make sure I was storing enough frost in my cells to see me through until the next time that I could fly north.

As a boy, Ohio winter whisked away my Huck Finn fantasies of summer and immersed me in the harsh northern world of Jack London and in the TV adventures of Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in the hopes and dreams of Christmas and in the stark beauty of Arctic-borne weather that changed everything so that it was hard to recall what it all had looked like that summer before...so long ago, it now seemed.
There’s a joke that claims that the seasons in Ohio are “almost winter, winter, still winter and construction.” That wasn’t quite true, even back then, before the vagaries of global warming. Summers could be long and very, very hot—Southern hot!—when Ohioans traded the Arctic blast of persistent winter for the equally persistent heat and humidity of the South Wind that blew up across the Ohio River and through the Miami Valley like the gritty draft from the subway grate up Marilyn’s skirt. But the mid-seasons were often brief and unpredictable: a fleeting shout and burst of amazing autumnal hues from late September through October, or a Stravinsky-esque rite of spring that flooded, roared and raged, then returned to intermittent winter again from late March to almost May before settling into a sudden explosion of unfolding leaves and multi-colored buds and blooms, just before the early arrival of the summer heat. Often it was hot enough for the city pool to open on Memorial Day, hot enough even for a member or two of the high school marching band to feel faint while standing at field rest and have to sit on the curb in order not to pass out during the endless droning speech by the VFW president at the end of the parade route—and before all were shocked out of their stupor by the color guard’s 21-gun salute.

But West Central Ohio winters were indeed long—often running from mid-November through March, with abundant snow and bitter cold, including wind chill factors that frequently and consistently plummeted to double digits below zero. It was Arctic weather, Alaskan weather, the icy breath of the polar circle that reached us undiluted, straight out of the glacier-planed north on 35-mile-an-hour winds that could drift the snow taller than a man—dunes more than drifts, like a sort of miniature, frigid Sahara.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Centers)

But when you’re a kid, unconcerned with job schedules or road conditions, you don’t care how much a severe winter storm costs businesses and the economy, and you can only hope that it’ll be bad enough (or good enough) to keep you from going to school. You listen with bated breath from the breakfast table to the radio as the local announcer reads the list of schools that have been snowed out and hope that you’ll be among the lucky ones who get to stay home and play in the snow. You explore your own yard as if it were uncharted territory and delight to see that, where it hasn’t yet been plowed, you can’t tell the road from the ditch or the yard from the road. Winter, then, is just another part of the rich tapestry that is your childhood, another backdrop for everything fun you invent to do. And in my case, it was my favorite time of all.

Often, tempestuous winter storms were followed by serene, windless, bright blue and white days, when the surface of the snow seemed glazed and glittered like diamonds in the pale sun’s rays, days when the surface snow was too dry to pack and the lack of humidity in the air belied the shrunken mercury at the very foot of the thermometer. Paying scant heed to our mothers’ warnings about the dangers of frostbite and exposure, we broke out our Radio Flyer sleds and took turns pushing each other down the hill on our road. And once the county snow plow cleared the road, as many of us as could duck our mothers hurried off a few blocks to a slope next to the city swimming pool in Harmon Field that was just made to order for sledding.

Oh, and we froze, just like our mothers said we would, so that when we made our way back home for lunch, it was on numb feet in socks, street shoes and rubber boots and pulling our sleds with mittened yet unfeeling hands. Back home the pain of thawing out fingers and toes and ears was excruciating and those appendages seemed about to catch fire once the initial pain of circulation had passed...But none of it was so terrible that we didn’t want to go right back out into the snow again, once hot soup and fried bologna and cheese sandwiches had been devoured and chocolate tapioca pudding eaten. Snow came often and sometimes stayed all winter, with new snows building on top of old. But in our minds it was unpredictable, ephemeral. You took snow while you had it because there were no guarantees for its endurance.

It was when I moved to Oakwood Hills, just across an open field from “our river” that the Auglaize first became part of my winter territory. At first I got to know the joys of winter ice on common foot leather and with my sled (to the chagrin of figure skaters who hated sled runners on the ice)—removing my rubber snow boots and depositing them on the bank so as to increase my slide factor. By the time I got there that first year, the ice had already been thoroughly tested and cleared of snow by other people of all ages so I forged confidently out onto it, only mildly frightened by how expansion and contraction made it creak and crack and thud and groan underfoot. With temperatures that often dipped well below zero at night and never got above freezing for weeks on end during the day, the ice became solid and deep 
enough to hold just about anything you placed on it, and as such, it became the town’s winter playground.
Back then there were people on the ice at pretty much all hours of the day, but after school things really got lively. At that hour, skaters who did the entire run from near the dam to the downtown Blackhoof Street Bridge—gliding under it, continuing past the back of town and then making the curve and skating north to the Harrison Street Bridge and back again—had to thread their way through absolute beginners who jigged, scrambled, recovered, then fell in their path, past random hockey games that sprang up wherever there was a puck and enough boys with sticks and skates to make two teams, around young families with mothers and fathers skating at a leisurely pace pulling sleds full of small children behind them, and skirting other figure skaters who imagined more than drew a circle, as far as possible from the hockey stars, in which to practice their twists, spins, leaps and axels, imitating as best they could their favorite athletes from the Winter Olympics team.
(Photo courtesy of Don Elsass)

Immediately, of course, I started badgering my parents for a pair of skates. Although Whitie was always pestering me to take up a sport, figure-skating wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, so he said that if I wanted skates I’d have to get out and shovel sidewalks until I had enough money to buy a pair. I already had an early-morning paper route before school, but the proceeds from that brilliant job would never be enough for skates—at least not if I wanted them before I was 30. So I started also shoveling snow off of every walk anybody would pay me to shovel, only to find that, with those handsome profits, I might be able to cut the projection for when I’d have my skates to, say, 25 years old. It looked hopeless.

But then, my Uncle Chuck saved the day. Chuck was a little guy, like most of the Newlands. I took after the Weber side of the family, and at age 12, already had the same shoe size Chuck did. He was always razzing me about my big feet, asking if I had “paddles for those canoes” and so on. One day at the family restaurant that he, Whitie and their older brother Red owned, he said (for everyone to hear), “I swear, if Dan ever grows into those big feet of his, he’ll be nine feet tall.”

Mr. Z, a maintenance man in the local school system, happened to be sitting, reading his newspaper, at the long community table next to the counter where the town’s men sat and “fixed the world” over coffee in the morning. Mr. Z was a good six-feet-five tall and wore size 15 work shoes, so huge and boxy that they prompted the kids to refer to him as “Herman Munster” or “Frankenstein” behind his back. Without even glancing up from his newspaper, he said, “Hey son, just tell that pipsqueak it takes a bigger foundation for a courthouse than it does for an outhouse.”

Everybody guffawed, except Uncle Chuck, who flushed with irritation and embarrassment. But then he pulled me off to the side and said, “Hey Dan’el, your dad said you wanted skates. I have a pair I never wear any more. If you don’t mind used ones, I’ll bring them for you. If they fit, you’re welcome to them.” I thanked him profusely. I couldn’t wait!
(Photo courtesy of Douglas Beam)
Within a year, I’d outgrown Uncle Chuck’s skates—for the next couple of years I outgrew my shoes by half-sizes every few months and my trouser legs always looked as if I were preparing for high water—but those used blades served their purpose well that first winter when I was learning to skate. The first season I fell a thousand times and spent more time lying or sitting on the ice than skating on it. But by the end of winter, though bruised from head to foot, I was gliding more or less effortlessly from the dam to town and back again and had learned to stop and turn without breaking any bones (or accidentally flying over the dam).

By the next winter, there was no longer any way that I could stuff my feet into Uncle Chuck’s skates. But I went down to the banks of the Auglaize every day that homework and odd jobs allowed and hung out anyway, watching with something like longing as the other kids glided along on their wide variety of skates—shiny-bladed figure skates (black for boys, white for girls, sometimes with pink pompoms attached to the uppers for a coquettish touch), battered two-tone hockey skates on stocking-capped lads armed with hockey sticks, “shoe-skates” that were basically a set of blades that strapped onto the wearer’s street shoes, double-bladed skates (like training wheels for beginning skaters)—and envied them their mobility. I’d had it too. I’d been one of “the skated”! But now I was grounded on the river bank in my buckle-up snow boots.
(Photo courtesy of the Siferd Family)

That, however, was a new world I hadn’t known before. I had a powerful and growing interest in girls by then—actually, I’d never gone through the typical girl-hating stage that most boys do and had always had “girl friends” but now what I was looking for was more like a girlfriend. And, it seemed, girls were in great supply next to the campfires that skaters built on the south bank of the river to get warmed up.

That’s where I met up with Mary and had an immediate and searing crush on her. Most of the girls my age in town I’d known since kindergarten. They were as familiar to me as sisters. But Mary was “exotic”, a parochial schoolgirl who went to Saint Joseph’s. I was seeing her for the first time there in the firelight, with her prominent overbite and high cheekbones that were like an arrow through my heart, and I wondered where she’d been all my life! She skated like an angel, graceful, swift and agile, in her short white jacket with faux fur collar, pink and white-striped stocking cap worn fashionably askew, and leg-hugging black ski-pants tucked into her impeccably white skates with their pink and white pompoms.

By the fire, she was always surrounded by a covey of boys, some wearing Catholic school Knights varsity jackets, and she always managed to entertain them with her magnetic wit and sensuality. I tried to get close, tried to find the courage to talk to her, but always ended up standing on the outer edges of her campfire circle. I was, after all, skateless! Like a lizard who drops his tail in a fight in order to get away and is then ostracized in his own society until he grows a new one, I formed part of the unfortunate “unbladed” and there was no way to be cool if you didn’t have blades. Besides, Mary was an older woman. She was gorgeous 14 and I was barely, bespectacled 13. What hope was there? So I suffered and waited.

But I didn’t have to wait long. That winter, my mother took pity on me and bought me a brand new pair of shiny black figure skates for Christmas. And when I reached the Auglaize the very day after Christmas, I was amazed to find that skating was a lot like riding a bike: Once you knew how, you never forgot, and off I went on my new skates and never stopped until the ice thawed the following spring. Once I was “skated”, I dropped by Mary’s fire a few more times and skated close when she was on the ice, but it wasn’t meant to be. She didn’t even know I was alive. In the end, however, it was easier than I’d thought to write her off as “stuck-up” and move on. I mean...what was it about girls on skates!? Girls I went to school with every day...strap a pair of skates on them, put them on the ice in the orange glow of the streetlamps or in the blue light of the rising moon and they suddenly had a new allure, a kind of seductive magic as they glided on the smooth ice or warmed up in the firelight, and I would fall in love at least a dozen more times before that skating season was over.

I was 54 the year my father died and I made an unscheduled journey back to Ohio from South America. I was sorry that I hadn’t made it back in time to see him one last time before he passed away. He’d been very ill for a very long time, so when my brother called to let me know that they were sending Whitie home under the care of Hospice because there was nothing left to do for him, I somehow figured there would still be time. But he was gone before I could book a flight. He died in mid-January and my brother sagely suggested that I not rush home for the funeral but wait a few weeks for when everybody had delivered their condolences and offered their immediate support and our mother ended up being left very much on her own.

When I finally got there, it had been hard-freezing cold for weeks on end—one of those old-fashioned winters like when I was a boy. I never travel back to my home town, back to my past, that I don’t spend a great deal of time walking, retracing the paths of my childhood and youth, revisiting the neighborhoods that saw me grow up, passing by the four houses that I called home at different points in that journey. And these pedestrian sojourns never fail to lead me to the Hamilton Road Bridge, where I did a lot of my best (and worst) thinking when I was young.

Despite the frigid temperatures, this trip had been no exception to my walking tours, and now I found myself standing midway across the Hamilton Road Bridge, gloved hands folded and forearms resting on the railing, gazing at the stretch of the Auglaize between the dam and the Blackhoof Street Bridge. My thoughts on this particular walk, and throughout these difficult days, had been unequivocally existential: what my father’s life and death meant to me, what they had been to him, the realization that my mother might also be gone soon, my links to this town as a base that I had always come back to and what their passing would signify in that context, the fact that the passing of the older generation meant that mine was becoming the “new” older generation...

But suddenly, I was distracted from these thoughts by the long, broad stretch of clean, smooth ice that was the surface of the Auglaize River that day. At first, it was just the sheer beauty of it that attracted me. It was a clear blue day, despite the polar cold, and the pale sun gleamed on the ice as if it were a freshly waxed green marble floor. It was stunning, that straight stretch of natural ice between the two bridges. But that was also what was disturbing enough to have shaken me out of my existential reverie: There wasn’t a blemish on it—not a rock thrown to gauge its safety, not a skate or sled mark on it, not a single burned-out blackened bonfire scar on the right bank, not a single pitch squared off as a hockey rink, not a single sign that any human being had noticed the gift that winter had bequeathed to the town. Perhaps, I thought, the joy of skating, like so many other wonderful things from times gone by, had been discouraged and prohibited. “But how conformist could kids these days be?” I asked myself, and wondered what authority, short of the National Guard, would ever have been able to keep teens of the sixties generation off of that exquisite ice.

I stood there gazing up the frozen Auglaize, every other thought gone from my head, seeing images of the new-millennium cyber-kids all home with their PCs, laptops, notebooks, play stations, MP3s, etc., etc., and felt genuinely sorry for them. They had no idea what they were missing!




Saturday, January 4, 2014

ON THE BANKS OF THE AUGLAIZE (Part Two)

Over the years my family and our neighbors would manage to tame the hard yellow clay on which our little row of undistinguished, new and modern, modified A-frame homes had been built—all by the same contractor—and would find ways to make them distinct from one another. But when we first moved to Oakwood Hills, on the opposite bank of the Auglaize River, that row of five new houses looked gut-wrenchingly stark.
When we first moved in the little row of houses looked 
gut-wrenchingly stark.
Oakwood Hills was a misnomer when it came to our immediate neighborhood. Not so, however, in talking about what was colloquially known as “Kelley’s Woods” just down the road. My mother, Reba Mae, had made it abundantly clear that if she was moving out of the handsome hundred-year-old home on stately West Auglaize street, which she had worked so hard over the past three years to refurbish, it would only be to reside in Kelley’s Woods, with its beautiful oaks, maples and hickories, its broad, shade-grass yards that rolled like a green carpet down to the river, its narrow streets that wound among the trees and followed the bends in the river.
They say "close only counts
in horseshoes," and Whitie
was always adept at that game. 
But there’s an old Ohio saying to the effect that “close only counts in horseshoes” and Whitie, my dad, had always been an able horseshoe player. So for him, I guess, being on the outside edge of the woods was “pretty near as good” as being in it...maybe even better because you didn’t have “all those leaves to rake and to clean out of the spoutings.” Besides, the house we were moving to “was a steal”—only slightly more than what he had gotten out of the house on West Auglaize, “and a lot cheaper to heat and maintain than that big old barn,” where he was damned if he’d spend another winter.
The house on Kelley Drive as it looked in the early sixties, when we first
moved in.
Thirty years later, Whitie would be rudely reminded just how “not pretty near as good” living on the edge of the woods was compared to living in it, during a lively debate about whether the now generously populated area should be incorporated into “the city” or not. Lots of people like Whitie, who lived just beyond Kelley’s Woods, were now faced with the cost of updating their aging septic tank and leach bed systems and the town was holding out the carrot of incorporation into the city sewage system and free sidewalks in exchange for fresh property taxes for the municipal coffers. But the folks in the woods weren’t having any: Putting in sewer lines and sidewalks would mean cutting down trees or severing their roots in order to widen the streets and lay piping. After Whitie had delivered an impassioned argument in favor of city sewage over the high cost of new leach beds and septic tanks, one of the neighbors from the “real” Oakwood Hills stood, and, hands folded and pressed to her heart, said, “But what you don’t understand is that we love the woods and don’t want to see it damaged.
Thirty years later it was a different place, with a character of its own.
We’re tree people!”
These words were like holding a red cape up in front of an enraged bull, and Whitie retorted, “Yeah, you’re tree people all right...Like a bunch o’ goddamn monkeys swingin’ from the trees!”
As is the case with a lot of excellent salesmen, when Whitie heard a convincing spiel from another good salesman, he tended to forget it was a pitch and was perfectly capable of letting himself be talked into...well, whatever he wanted to be talked into. And he evidently wanted to be talked into that house on Kelley Drive because he appeared to have forgotten the age-old rule of thumb in purchase and sale: that whatever you want to buy will always, in the view of the purchase and sale agent, be “worth a great deal more” than whatever it is that you want to sell. In short, whatever you’re buying will be “all the rage” and whatever you’re selling “nobody will want”. So his argument for selling quickly and taking a loss on the house Reba Mae so loved, and paying substantially more than what he’d gotten out of it for a house that she didn’t, was precisely that of the real estate agent. “Nobody wants those big old houses any more. Too hard to heat, too expensive to maintain, higher taxes than out in Oakwood Hills that’s outside the city limits...No, I’m telling you, Reba, we got out just in time! The guy says in another year or so you won’t be able to give away one of those places on West Auglaize Street.”
It was the modernism of the postwar era: Old was bad. New and modern was the trend. Out with the old, in with the new. So we moved.
Reba Mae eventually made her peace with the modern, built-in, all-electric kitchen and latest Formica counter-tops, and I compensated my sadness at leaving the old house behind by plunging into my new and much wilder surroundings. Today the land behind the house where my parents would live for over forty years is full of nice middle-class houses and new streets. But back then, there was a wide swath of open field that we kids started referring to as “the mud flats”.
Unlike the field that lay across the road in front of our house, which each year was sown with corn, beans or wheat, the one behind it was, like our yard, mostly made of hard yellow clay. A kind of slick gray in the rainy season and a yellowish erosion-cracked surface in the summer, it didn’t seem to be good for much of anything but construction. But in the meantime, it would serve as a vast battlefield in which we “played war”.
We played war with an eclectic collection of toy weaponry.
When I say we, I’m referring to my little brother Jim and me, along with the kids from the other houses along the edge of the flats who ranged from my age to my brother’s, a difference of 5 years. And sometimes when we wanted to pitch really major battles, we would also bring in my cousins, Newlands all, from across the way on Barbara Lane and from nearby Glynwood Road.  Depending on the season, we dug deep foxholes and narrow trenches or built snow forts. Sides picked and battle lines drawn, we would sometimes exchange fire with each other, making use of an eclectic collection of toy weaponry that we all brought to the table. And when we tired of arguing about who had killed whom and who hadn’t, battle lines were crossed and hand-to-hand combat ensued, in which we would wrestle each other to the muddy ground and settle matters no holds barred, or lob “hand grenades” made of packed snow or brittle dirt clods to see how many troops we could bean on the other side. And it never failed: Someone always ran home whimpering and clutching a war wound, after which mothers were called and reiterative warnings were issued to us about how that sort of thing was “a good way to get your eye knocked out.”
Back then, still, a gully ran through the middle of the flats, which, in the dry season was just another trench to do battle from. But in early winter and early spring, when first the rains and then the thaw came, it turned into a gushing stream that ran to a little creek on the edge of the woods that was a tributary of the Auglaize. It was that stream that I followed through the woods on my first river incursions from “this side of the world”. Nothing at all like the old, well-kept, traditional backyards on the south bank above the dam, the little stream cut through a strip of tangled woods on the north side, a no-man’s-land that didn’t form part of any of the yards in Kelley’s Woods, and no one ever bothered us when we played there.
I seldom went there with the other kids, though, saving and savoring it for myself, going alone, or sometimes with our dog, a dachshund called Corky, who, despite his short legs, liked nothing better than chasing after the rabbits, squirrels, muskrats and raccoons that abounded there. Except when the water was low in summer, that section of the Auglaize flowed fast and formed a little set of rapids just behind the town’s sewage disposal plant—visible on the other side through the trees—before broadening out and growing deeper further downstream. The disposal plant was an ugly, industrial, brick building with large concrete settling tanks built on embankments and resembling ramparts, and with a high chain-link fence all around it, topped by several strands of barbed wire.
Sometimes when dusk would find me still exploring the woods there by the river, I would see the high yellow lights that surrounded the entire plant come on, casting an eerie glow in the evening river haze. Seeing the place like that, I might imagine it to be a Nazi prison and myself to be an American spy working for the French Resistance, assigned the mission of creeping across the river, setting charges to blow out a section of wall and so facilitating an Allied prison break. When these imagined dramas unfolded in my mind, I was sure to come home wet to my knees or waist, shoes squishing. But when my mother asked how I’d managed to get soaking wet, I could never reveal the truth to her because my mission had to remain a State secret.
A section of the sewage disposal plant. In the backgound, a glimpse of 
the old forgotten cemetery and the tangled woods beyond that fed 
our Huck Finn fantasies. (Photo: Branden Furgeson/Multimedia)
It wasn’t long before I figured out that the land just across the river from there belonged to the father of a schoolmate of mine. His name was Dave, and although we’d been classmates since kindergarten, we’d never been close enough friends to visit each other’s houses. Now, however, the river was to become the link that would bind us. We were both avid readers and I finally had someone with whom to share the Huck Finn fantasies that I’d brought with me from my days on West Auglaize Street.
Ironically, Dave lived on West Auglaize, but further out toward the County Fairgrounds and the west edge of town. Although the place fronted on that main city street, the backyard sprawled into a small piece of rich black farmland, perhaps a couple of acres, on which his banker father kept a truck patch and had a couple of outbuildings including a big white barn, complete with hay mow. It was a fascinating place because behind the plowed field that Dave’s dad cultivated, bordered by the gravel service road that ran from Auglaize Street to the disposal plant, there was an old and long forgotten cemetery that bristled with tombstones from the earliest times of our town, and from even before, when it was a mere settlement, a white enclave in what had only very recently been the council house of the Shawnee Nation. Some of the stones were so old and eroded by the elements that they were barely legible. Many were from the early to mid-eighteen hundreds, a few, only, from the early twentieth century.
On the other edge of Dave’s father’s land, which ran behind the cemetery, the lot gave onto a delightfully unkempt piece of woodland that fell steeply away from the field and cemetery. It tumbled down to a scrub-forest bottom-land that the Auglaize flooded at certain times of the year, so low down by the river that when you turned and looked back through the penumbral woodland light you could see the spiky silhouettes of the headstones at the back of the graveyard that seemed to stand on the crest of a cliff. The odd river-bottom woods, a venue that teetered between enchanted and haunted, was to become, for the next couple of years, a secret playground that Dave and I shared, a place where we acted out our Huck Finn fantasies. There we built a camouflaged shanty from the dead branches that littered the forest floor, a place to keep secret possessions, like the corncob pipes that we fashioned ourselves and the pouches of tobacco that we pilfered from our fathers or from wherever else we could find it—shaken from butts in ashtrays, scraped from the bottoms of discarded pipe tobacco tins all of which we fleshed out with dried corn silk—and old metal cigar tubes in which we kept dry our kitchen matches, with which to make a small fire of twigs on the river bank and sit by it to smoke our pipes.
This was the sort of raft we had in mind when we set out to build one,
but the one we 'crafted' out of scavenged timber was a scary ride with
our feet always in a couple of inches of water. Still, it floated!
Eventually too, we undertook the task of building a river raft, which turned out to be no mean feat. Neither of us was a very able carpenter and despite having thoroughly read all the theory of “life on the Mississippi”, we had zero experience. But after several failed attempts, we finally were able to securely tie together enough scavenged timber to create a raft that would sort of float and that was big enough for both of us to stand on. It was a little unstable and scary to ride. We had to make sure one of us stood at the prow and the other at the stern (which were indistinguishable from each other) and once aboard we were always standing in an inch or two of water, but with great effort and with each of us armed with a pole long enough to reach the river bottom and push, we actually could navigate, after a fashion, on “our river”.
After the spring floods there was never any shortage of timber to 
scavenge along the Auglaize. (Delphos Herald Photo)
We kept our eminently homemade vessel in a little cove close to the disposal plant. We recalled a scene from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck hides his raft by mooring it in a cove and covering it with green branches so that it blends into the undergrowth. We did the same, every time we finished using ours, which made going out for a spin on the Auglaize a complicated affair in which we spent a lot of time and effort improving our camouflage skills and rendering our dock and raft invisible to prying eyes.
Right along there too, we used the shallow waters of the rapids to set up communications between my side of the river and Dave’s. We floated and then jammed a couple of big logs the river had dragged over the dam and downstream to create a makeshift bridge. This was really for me, so that I didn’t have to wear gumboots or get my feet wet wading, since our adventures were always on Dave’s side of the river and he never crossed over to my bank.
Swift-racing waters of the Auglaize during the thaw. 
(Photo courtesy of Linda Knerr)
Our rafting days were short-lived, however. With the first snow of that year, we stowed away the raft in its hiding place and forgot about it until the spring thaw. When the thaw came, it was with heavy rains on frozen ground that immediately caused the area’s rivers and creeks to rise above their banks and foster flash-flooding. When I remembered the raft and went to look for it, the river was running so high and fast that it was unrecognizable. It was swift-racing cold coffee and cream topped by frothy white foam and had spilled knee deep into the woods. There was no question of crossing to Dave’s side. Any attempt to do so would have spelled instant drowning. An optimist, I thought, “Maybe our moorings held and the raft’s down there, tied under all this water. And when the flooding is over, there it’ll be.” But when the waters subsided that spring and allowed me to hike through the muddy, ravaged-looking bottom land along the river banks, I eventually found our raft, or what was left of it, mangled and broken against the tree trunks, never to sail again.
Photo courtesy of Linda Knerr
It was after this that my river crossings to Dave’s became a little less frequent and I started also spending time with my brother and my neighbors, Joe and Greg, upstream by the dam, fishing. For a little river, the Auglaize offered a wide range of fishing possibilities. Huge carp, sheephead (sometimes called freshwater drum), marble and yellow-belly catfish, sunfish and rock bass, were among the ones we caught regularly. Unfortunately, bottom-feeders like the catfish and carp had to be thrown back no matter how big they were because in those pre-EPA days, the river water was polluted by local industries upstream that hadn’t yet made effluent treatment part of their agenda and didn’t seem to care what they dumped into everyone’s river, but we could sometimes talk our mothers into pan-frying the others that we filleted. Another species that was plentiful was the crawdad (known elsewhere as freshwater crayfish). So plentiful, in fact, that if you planned to keep what you caught you had to take along a bucket, because if you tried to use a stringer, when you pulled your catch out of the water at the end of the day, all that were left on it were the fish’s heads, the rest having served as a ‘seafood’ smorgasbord for these voracious crustaceans. These we also caught, having discovered early on that their tail meat was excellent for bait when we were short of nightcrawlers or minnows (which we caught along the riverbank in seine buckets when schools were there sunning themselves in the warm water on summer mornings).
We seldom met up with adults. It was a boys’ world in general. But the ones with whom we did cross paths on summer mornings, when our own fathers were stuck in their jobs somewhere, formed part of Auglaize lore. One such man we knew only as ‘Doc’, and only because we’d heard it through the grapevine, because none of us was ever brave enough to approach him. To me there was a pirate-like quality about him. Slim as a sapling and obviously wiry, he wore tight-fitting bone-color jeans, now mottled gray with wear, tucked into well-worn laced boots. His shirt was often open two buttons down to reveal his rock-hard chest or sometimes simply tied shut at his waist. He wore a wide belt with a big buckle and when he turned his back towards us we could see the large, sharp, wood-hilted kitchen knife that he carried tucked unsheathed under the leather of that belt. A red bandana kerchief was always tied at his throat and he wore a faded and sullied broad-billed fishing cap on his head. His face was hardened, weathered and ruddy and he wore a bushy, reddish moustache that drooped to his jawbone on either side of his mouth, but that was insufficient to completely cover the botched corrective surgery he’d had at some point on the cleft in his upper lip, which gave him a sardonic half-grinning, half-snarling air.
'Doc' always fished from the bridge, or in the  dry season,
from the dam.
This guy, we realized, was a pro: He fished to eat and to feed a family. He fascinated me, made me wonder about his life, where he lived. Indeed, how he lived. He always fished from the bridge, or, in the dry season, from the crest of the dam, and used a gunny sack to carry home his catch. His patience was boundless, tempered by the bottle of Gallo or Thunderbird wine that always accompanied him and by the smokes he carried rolled in his sleeve.
The days when the turtles were out and he managed to snag two or three, he’d make an early day of it, heading home with his sack heavy over his right shoulder, his rod and tackle in his left hand. When, from down below on the rocks beyond the dam, where we fished, we saw him haul up a big round-shelled gray mud turtle or a helmet-shaped snapper, we would watch with bated breath while, his back turned to us, “Doc” would draw the turtle’s head from its shell and slipping the big knife from his belt, slice it free from the body in one slick move. Then he’d toss the head into the water and string the turtle up by a leg from the bridge rail or from the metal structure of the floodgate to let it bleed out. Sometimes I would later walk across the bridge or the damn to see where “Doc” had been fishing, and those days, it looked like a murder scene.
(To be continued)                             


        

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

THAT PERFECT CHRISTMAS


I’ve been told I have a good memory. Actually, I’d qualify that statement and say I have a good memory for stories from the distant past. I’m hopeless at memorizing poetry, lyrics, passages from books, quotes, etc.—a dangerous thing for a newsman and non-fiction writer, which is why I’ve always had to take abundant notes and frequently look things up to check facts.
But I even amaze myself, sometimes, at how I can trigger a memory from twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more years ago, and it will come back to me, not as a story, but as a special brand of video clip, a sort of dream-clip, if you will, in which not only the images are there, but also the sounds, smells and the exact feelings and mindset with which I experienced those scenes at the time. In fact, I can actually “time-travel” to that era, and experience those past times exactly as they were, or at least as they were for me, before the world changed and became the new state of mind that it is today. (I sometimes wonder if this isn’t precisely how the elderly eventually get trapped in their own past, in a sometimes blissful, sometimes anxious state, much like a dream that can suddenly turn nightmare, and that others describe as “dementia”, when observed from the outside).
Actually, I can remember certain scenes vividly as far back as when I was three or a little before. That’s why yesterday, on Christmas Eve, as I was trying to recall the first Christmas that sticks in my mind, I was at first a little surprised to find that it wasn’t until I was five that this holiday, so special to Christian-reared children, managed to make a lasting impression on me. But after I gave it some thought, I realized why: Because it was, quite simply, a uniquely perfect Christmas.
Back then, “The Christmas Season” began for me in November, when, Sagittarian-winter-child that I was, I already started longing for snow, and driving my mother crazy asking her, every time the thermometer dipped to near freezing “if she thought it would snow...No? But it could, right? I mean, it could, couldn’t it, please, please, please, couldn’t it?” Thanksgiving, my birthday in early December, and Christmas proper all blended together in one joyous season that I wished would never end.
The first thing to whet my seasonal appetite were the Christmas catalogs from major mail order houses like Penney’s, Sears, Spiegel and others that would start arriving  in November and that were filled with pictures of toys and ornaments and lots of other things to spark the fantasies of a five-year-old. I pored over them, filling my greedy eyes and mind, and wanted everything! I couldn’t understand why, if  Santa Claus was a god-like elf who could do god-like things, like flying all around the world making deliveries to every good little boy and girl in a single night, he was incapable of bringing me precisely what I was wishing for. But my mother made it abundantly clear that Santa wasn’t made of money and had millions of kids like me to please around the world and that it was a terrible thing to be an ingrate. I had to be grateful for whatever Saint Nick brought. Besides, I should be thinking more about the birth of the Baby Jesus than about what I was getting for Christmas. It was His birthday, not mine.


But then again, it was pretty darn close to my birthday, now, wasn’t it, coming only a couple of weeks afterward? So the Little Lord Jesus and I kind of shared a season. As if to celebrate that fact, this particular year my Grandma Myrt made a special request to DJ Cliff Willis at the local AM radio station in Lima, Ohio. My mother sat me right next to the radio in the kitchen, with a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows melting on its creamy surface, so I would be there to hear when Cliff said: “Mrs. Myrtle Weber of Wapakoneta has asked us to play a special request for her grandson, Danny, who is five years old today. And here it is, ‘Christmas Dragnet’.” For some reason, I loved that story (recorded for Capitol Records on a script by comic genius Stan Freberg), which was a spoof on a noir genre TV detective show starring Jack Web and Harry Morgan, in which the strait-lace Joe Friday is investigating a guy called “Grudge” who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor, he says, does he believe in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or the Easter Bunny... “What about Toledo?” he’s asked. “Toledo...uuuh...I still haven’t made up my mind about Toledo”).
Needless to say, I was amazed at my grandmother’s clout. She had actually made the radio talk to me. 
This particular year, however, I was indeed reminded of the birth of the Christ Child, because we had a birth of our own. Just a month earlier, in mid-November, my brand new brother was born. Dad, who was nicknamed “Whitie” because of his blond hair, wanted to call him Rusty, because he was born with a shock of bright red fuss on his head. (Luckily, Reba Mae talked him out of that because when “Rusty’s” baby hair fell out, what came in to replace it was even blonder than Whitie’s). Now, you’d have thought that having an eccentric name like Reba Mae herself, my mother would have been less whimsical in naming us. But no. Her preference over Whitie’s “Rusty” was “Dennis James”. Why? Because she thought Dennis James, the sports announcer and later game show host, who at the time was the face of Old Gold cigarettes on TV, looked “like such a nice fellow.” My sister, Darla, she had named after Darla Hood, the child actress from the Our Gang children’s comedy movies. And me she called Danny, because she had always loved the song, “Danny Boy”. So Dennis James it was (regardless of the fact that the original Dennis James was actually born Demie James Sposa). And since Denny and Danny sounded so much alike, the poor kid would go through childhood with an “indoor” name and an “outdoor” name—Jim or Jimmy at home and Dennis at school.
A special gift that year, Jimmy!
Anyway, I was thrilled with this novelty. I mean, I’d have time later to tease the poor little guy to exasperation and to fight with him all the time when we got a bit older, as brothers are wont to do. But this year, this perfect Christmas, he seemed like another gift for me, a little brother all my own. He seemed to be a part of the Christmas miracle. My mother had gone away for a few days, and while she was out, picked me up a kid brother.
So, this year, when she sat us down on the couch to read us The Night before Christmas, Darla was sitting on the floor facing Reba Mae, I was sitting on the couch on one side of her, and little brother Jimmy was lying bundled up on a blanket on the other side of her sucking on a pacifier. My sister and I knew this poem from other years and knew when the funny parts were coming—especially our favorite one. I wanted to tell my new brother, “Listen, Jimmy, listen, here it comes!” And then Reba Mae read it: “...Away to the window I flew like a flash / Tore open the shutters / And threw up the sash!” At which point Darla and I made gagging, puking sounds and were swept away in gales of giggling at how clever we were. Threw up the sash! How funny was that? Jimmy, for his part, was unimpressed, oblivious in fact, except for a pruney frown that crinkled his ruddy little brow, at all the noise we were making when he was so obviously trying to catch forty winks.
Fredric March as Scrooge
We were one of the first families in town to have a TV set, and it was a magical world that it offered at Christmas time. This was the year of the première television production of the classic Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol, with Fredric March playing Scrooge and Basil Rathbone playing the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, who comes back to haunt Scrooge and convince him to change his ways or face the eternity of the damned, as he has had to do. With the special effects of today, kids now would probably find that old black and white film quaint if not downright laughable, but we were enthralled, and every bit as terrified as March’s Scrooge at the prospect of spending Christmas Eve in the company of four frightening specters. And then too, there was the tragicomic humor of comedian Red Skelton in his Christmas special, in which Freddy the Freeloader (the first homeless character to star in a nationwide broadcast), in a take-off on an O. Henry short story, is trying to find a warm place to spend a lonely Christmas Eve. He decides jail is his best bet, but “in the holiday spirit”, can’t find a single cop who’ll arrest him. (The sketch has a “happy ending” though: Freddy gets ninety days for vagrancy and thus has a “warm room” and three squares a day until spring). And also, the Perry Como Christmas Special, starring that famous crooner who was so relaxed you kind of wondered how he didn’t doze off and fall from the high stool he sat on to sing.
Red Skelton as Freddy the Freeloader
Christmas Eve dinner was at my Grandma and Grandpa Newland’s, cattycorner across the street from us, where we got together with all of our cousins, aunts and uncles on the Newland side. And Christmas Day lunch was at my Grandma and Grandpa Weber’s on the other side of town with the myriad members of the clan on that side of the family. Two very different affairs, but both veritable feasts with every kind of homemade dish and dessert imaginable, plus traditional cookies and candies: festive frosted sugar cookies, chocolate, vanilla and peanut butter fudge, snow-white-creamy-sugary-to-die-from divinity...
But in between there was the delight of Christmas morning and seeing what wonderful packages Santa had left under the tree for us, and it was so hard to wait until Whitie and Reba Mae decided it was time to get up—especially after their fitful night of resting in accordance with Jimmy’s feeding times.
This year, however, 1954, was, as I say, particularly special. Whitie seemed to know it too that year. With a newborn baby, Reba Mae wouldn’t be going to Candlelight Service at the First Methodist Church this year, but Whitie decided to go anyway, when the Christmas Eve family festivities were over. And although it was way past my bedtime, I decided to tag along with him and Darla. The old church across from the courthouse was dazzling inside. It was the first time I had ever seen it at night and it was decked out in boughs of cedar, ribbons and a multitude of candles. Everyone was full of season’s cheer including the minister. The choir sang “Oh Holy Night” and when they got to the climactic line that goes, “Fall on your knees / Oh hear the angel voices...” I could feel myself break out in gooseflesh.
Later, while—as Whitie used to say—“the preacher missed a few good places to stop,” I dozed off leaning against my dad’s arm, which he put around me when he realized I’d conked out. It was a comfort to be there, safe in the church on Christmas Eve, with the power of lots of people all thinking good thoughts, my father’s arm around me, the scent of his pinstriped wool suit, mixing with his cologne and the sweet bite of the filterless cigarettes he smoked. It was safe, warm, like the best place in the world I could possibly be. I was, quite literally, “in a good place.”
The next year would be different. Whitie would have the first in a series of nervous breakdowns that extended over the course of three decades. His chronic manic depression would virtually become a sixth member of our family and would change his life and ours forever. For now, however, Christmas, Eve, 1954, I was happier than I’d ever been, trusted and believed in, well, everything, and couldn’t have asked for anything more.