Sunday, October 4, 2015

FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’: A Journalist’s Memoir

The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of the memoir I’m currently writing about my early days as a journalist in Buenos Aires. I hope you enjoy it and would appreciate any and all comments you might wish to share.   

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times
Downtown Buenos Aires - Avenida 9 de Julio
I was excited about my decision to move to Buenos Aires just six months after I finished a three-year hitch in the US Army. I’d had a long time to think about it and the Ohio I had returned to—what with the start of a two-year-long American retreat from Vietnam and the corresponding initiation of an economic decline back home that was to turn the northern part of the state from industrial belt into rust belt practically overnight—was little like the one I’d left in 1970. Still, I wasn’t burning any bridges, really. The plan was to go to Buenos Aires with my native Argentine wife “for a year” to see what we could see. In the end, I could always come back to the United States. For now, however, this was the plan, and the start of a new adventure.  
Perón was back.
But if the Ohio of my pre-Army life had changed a lot in the last three years, so too had Argentina. The Buenos Aires of 1973 was nothing like the one I had known on my first visits, in 1968 and 1971. Oh, the porteños were still themselves—colorful, roguish, warm and generous to a fault—and the city was still as fascinating a metropolis as ever, but something in the climate had changed. The once impeccable walls of the city were covered with political graffiti and posters, cryptic phrases and open threats that suggested severe internal conflict. The police no longer walked their beats but were sandbagged inside their precincts. Something long covert was now boiling to the surface. And the cause of it all was clear: General Juan Domingo Perón was back.But if the Ohio of my pre-Army life had changed a lot in the last three years, so too had Argentina. The Buenos Aires of 1973 was nothing like the one I had known on my first visits, in 1968 and 1971. Oh, the porteños were still themselves—colorful, roguish, warm and generous to a fault—and the city was still as fascinating a metropolis as ever, but something in the climate had changed. The once impeccable walls of the city were covered with political graffiti and posters, cryptic phrases and open threats that suggested severe internal conflict. The police no longer walked their beats but were sandbagged inside their precincts. Something long covert was now boiling to the surface. And the cause of it all was clear: General Juan Domingo Perón was back.
There can be no doubt that during his decade-long reign in the 1940s and '50s—and especially up until the untimely death of his charismatic wife and co-leader, Eva Duarte (Evita), in 1952—Perón was the most popular president in Argentine history. But there can be little doubt either that he was also one of its most hated. While Juan Domingo and Evita enjoyed overwhelming popular support, Perón took ample advantage of that backing to create a popular dictatorship in the guise of a democracy. His government systematically persecuted its opponents, banned dissent, compiled and enforced blacklists and used brownshirt tactics to impose its will and dogma on the country. For a few brief years between the mid-forties and mid-fifties, Perón and Eva were the absolute monarchs of Argentina—with all of the beneficial and detrimental effects that this signified. But in 1955, the West's anti-communist/anti-fascist psychosis made Perón and his labor-based movement exceedingly suspect—as did his rather too obviously fascist-leaning "neutrality" during the Second World War. This, combined with his alienation of multi-national business interests, his imprudent clashes with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and his reckless nationalization of big business holdings of all kinds, provided his rivals in the armed forces with the political artillery they needed to revolt and overthrow him. Hundreds of his most loyal and humble followers died in the short but bloody revolution of 1955. Still others were executed in the anti-Peronist witch-hunt that followed.
Perón, for his part, escaped to the dictatorial haven of his colleague, General Alfredo Stroessner, in Paraguay, later spent some time touring other parts of Latin America, where he met—and subsequently married—María Estela Martínez, an exotic dancer thirty-six years his junior, whose stage name was 'Isabelita', and then retired from politics, in the lap of luxury, in Generalissimo Francisco Franco's Spain. There Perón was venerated not only as a great leader but also as a very wealthy man (a financial position he almost magically attained from the Spartan lifestyle of a career soldier and the relatively austere post of president, without ever having had any other visible means of support).
For over seventeen years, Perón lived in Spanish exile, puttering among his memoirs, his personal interpretations of military history and his reorganization of Peronist dogma. He probably could have lived happily ever after in semi-reclusion in Europe, except that his movement marched on in Argentina without him, thanks, ironically, to the Armed Forces' Revolución Libertadora, which proposed to abolish Peronism and inadvertently perpetuated it in the process.
The abolition was carried out with no apparent knowledge of human psychology. Childishly vindictive and almost ludicrously strict, the ban on all things Peronist literally defeated its own purpose. It wasn’t simply a matter of banning the Peronist Party (and all other party politics) 'for the duration', but was, rather, an attempt to make Perón and Evita non-persons. Busts, posters, books and pictures alluding to the two were removed, broken, burned and banned. The Peróns could not be publicly referred to by name. You could be reported to the police by a nosy neighbor for singing the Marcha Peronista in your own patio, and you could be arrested for daring to hum or whistle it in the street. Declaring yourself to be a follower of Perón or even an ex-Peronist could get you fired from your post and blacklisted from any new job opportunities. (This last was payback, since under Perón's government, in prime sectors of industry and trade, you were either a card-carrying Peronist or you were unemployed).
Ironically, the leaders of the also staunchly anti-communist Revolución Libertadora were applying methods of de-personification that were classically typical of Soviet domination. But as the intellectual defectors of the Soviet Union had long-since proven, a system of government that had to resort to brainwashing and historical lobotomy to preserve its power was not only tyrannical but also intrinsically weak and anemically supported. If a given personality was worthy of collective amnesia by executive decree, then that person must have sufficient power to be mortally feared by the regime. So it was that Perón's more than seventeen-year absence turned him into a national hero and a figure as charged with mystical power as El Cid. The obstinate ignorance of the anti-Peronist regime helped the myth of a Peronist workers' heaven spread among the country's proletariat and especially among laborers too young to actually remember the final period of Perón's "popular" dictatorship, when the general shut down Congress and ruled by decree. Suddenly, Juan Domingo Perón became the figure around whom thousands of rash young leftist students and extremist intellectuals also rallied. And in some cases, they armed themselves to overthrow "military oppression at the service of the oligarchy". These misguided scholars were precisely the type of educated ultra-liberals that Perón despised—a preference he would make clear once he returned and broke with what he called the "beardless idiots" who demanded he keep his long-distance promises of shared power with the left.
Still, the simple fact that Perón was the symbolic arch-enemy of the regime was sufficient for leftist rebels to take him as their leader in exile. So great was this political dichotomy and so meticulously misleading was the rhetoric of Peronism in exile, that the bold brushstrokes of underground revolutionary poster art often pictured Perón not only with the revered ghost of his beloved Evita, but also with that of Argentine-born Marxist martyr, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, at his side, when the truth was that, from the very outset, Peronist philosophy had been steeped in fascism, not Marxism.
Plan and Reality
 It was to this Argentina that I, like Perón, had returned and about which I planned to write. It didn't take me long, however, to realize that I had highly over-romanticized my idea of what life was going to be like in Argentina. I figured any of the major US-based multi-nationals would be more than happy to have a native-English-speaking American working for them. I would quickly get a job to support my wife and myself, get down to work on my first novel by night and within a year or so, I would surely be an up-and-coming published writer with no need to do anything but that, write. In reality, however, when I showed up in the personnel offices of the multi-nationals that I had found in the listings of the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina, they all looked at me as if I were a Martian.
"Haven't you heard, son?" They invariably said. "Perón's back. All the Yankees are going home."
Downtown Buenos Aires - Calle Florida
I finally got a job as a graveyard shift bellhop in a downtown four-star hotel. They needed somebody on nights, other than the concierge, who could speak English. Heaven only knew they weren't hiring me for my Spanish, which was like the dubbed version of Tarzan on the Latino channel. Even in a big city hotel like that one, there was not a lot to do on the shift that ran from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., except make sure the late-night drunks got safely to bed, check in the occasional straggler, check out the early risers, polish the brass on the lobby doors and elevators, wash to windowpanes on the double front doors, and make sure not to get caught napping by either of the managers should they decide to pay a surprise visit. And that was a distinct possibility because they were brothers and each had an apartment in the hotel. 

That left me a lot of time to sit and talk to the concierge when I wasn't trying to look busy. He told me his name was George, then immediately told me that wasn't his real name. He also told me his last name but said that too was phoney. He had assumed the name when he had come to Argentina back in the mid-1950s. George spoke seven languages, including perfect French, perfect German and perfect Spanish as well as good English. We traded off. He helped me improve my Spanish and I helped him practice his English. Beyond this entirely practical aspect, the conversations were, for me, extraordinary and fascinating.
George was a small man, not more than five-feet-six, with fair, neatly cropped, thinning hair gone to sandy gray. He was trim and wore his blue and gray hotel uniform with military correctitude. His eyes were an icy blue, but with a leprechaun twinkle that reflected intelligence and a sharp sense of humor. He was formally serious with customers and management, but when he talked to the bellhops, his face almost always bore a sardonic grin as he thought of new ways to poke good-natured fun at us. It struck me from the start that he had, on the one hand, the prim and proper look of the perfect little clerk, but on the other, an air of self-confidence and rigid bearing that made him look somehow self-assertive and even dangerous.
My instinct was apparently not wrong. As our nightly talks unfolded, I learned that George had been born in the mountains of Central Europe to parents who lived an isolated life in abject poverty and spoke a dialect that few people elsewhere in Europe would have understood. Suffice it to say that they were less than model parents and that George was brought up in a house where love and understanding were luxuries used sparingly. He ran away to Germany when he was sixteen, lied about his age and joined the German Army.
Smart, unobtrusive and extraordinarily gutsy, besides having a natural gift for languages, George eventually found his way into undercover work, where, under orders of the Third Reich during World War II, his job was to feed false information to the French, while collecting sound information for his handlers in the Gestapo. He once told me a horror story of how, on orders from the Nazis, he had slit the throat of a Frenchman who had been his contact and his friend for several years. Captured later by the French Resistance, he was given the choice of taking a bullet in the head or acting as their double agent, feeding lies to the Nazis and gathering intelligence for de Gaulle.
Calle Florida by night
That was how he had survived World War II. But after the war, fearing the vengeance of either side at any time, he had assumed a false name and joined the French Foreign Legion. By now a chameleon by nature, he served with the Legion for a number of years, first in Indo-China and then, for a year or so, in Algeria. He hated Algeria, hated the desert, with its broiling days and freezing nights, and began to have a very bad feeling about intense fighting against the National Liberation Front in which he frequently had to take part. After a firefight in which a bullet went clean through his thigh and killed his mule, he decided to escape at the earliest opportunity.
Once recovered from his wound, he eventually saw his chance to get away and ended up gravitating, almost by accident, to Buenos Aires—long known as a city that harbored anonymous exiles—where he took the first job he could get, as a bellhop, and faded, like many other former Nazis, into the urban landscape, changing his name once more and becoming a naturalized Argentine citizen.
Whenever I complained about the oppressive humidity of summer in Buenos Aires, he scoffed and said he loved the humidity. “Anything,” he said, “but the desert, thank you.”
 George’s Spanish-teaching methods were, to my young mind, extreme. When he asked me to answer a call on the switchboard one night after the operator had gone home, I made the mistake of saying that my Spanish wasn't good enough to answer the telephone. George laughed and said, "Ah, well then, Newland, we've found a new job for you," and turning to the other three bellhops, he said, "From now on, after the operator goes home, no one answers the phone but Newland, understood?"
I begged him to reconsider, arguing that the hardest thing about Spanish for me was understanding what people said over the phone. He said, "Look, Newland, the telephones in Argentina are notoriously bad. There's nothing uncommon about a bad connection. So if you don't understand what the caller is saying, all you have to do is say, 'Disculpe, no le escucho,' (Sorry, I can't hear you), and get them to repeat until you understand what they want."
Obviously, I quite often found myself saying, "Sorry I can't hear you," over and over again, while the poor callers shouted their business until they were hoarse on the other end of the line. But my Spanish quickly began to improve. It was George, too, who first introduced me to the Buenos Aires Herald. I saw him reading the English-language daily early one morning, when the fellow from the newsstand up the street brought us the day's papers, and asked him about it. He suggested that it should form part of my Spanish training. "Read the Herald first each day to familiarize yourself with the news and then read the same stories in one of the Spanish-language papers and see how much you can understand." I started doing as he said and found that my Spanish vocabulary expanded by leaps and bounds.
I only worked a few months at the hotel before I landed myself a slightly better-paying job as a rental agent for Avis Rent-a-Car. But my pal George had provided me with invaluable help, not only with the local language but also by presenting me to the Herald. By the time I went to work for Avis, I was already planning to find a way to start writing for the city's only English-language paper.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


Every once in a while, I find myself having to apologize to my blog readers. This is always when, in the midst of a sort of running dialogue (some would say monologue), I’ll just go silent for a spell without so much as a “by your leave”. This is one of those occasions, and I know all too well it’s not one of my better traits.

In my defense, I never mean for these broad lagoons of silence to form. They just do. They’re a lot like life itself for many of us, in which we find ourselves doing whatever it is we’re doing “because we’re supposed to”, from one day to the next, with such focus, so as “not to get off the track” that, all of the sudden, we awaken to find that weeks, months or even years have gone by without our realizing it, making us wonder, with something like panic, “where on earth the time has gone!”
And in my mind, there’s always a good excuse. It usually has to do with what I call “writing for hire”, meaning the writing/editing/translating that puts food on the table and a roof over my head—work that my Midwestern American upbringing tells me must always come first. (By this logic, it follows that doing what you truly love, and what fills you with passion, can’t be considered “serious work” and so, must be somehow “wrong” if you do it in anything but your “spare time”).
While most of the people I know and care most about would (and do) say that this Middle-American work ethic of mine is a good thing, something I should be proud of, I have to admit that, deep down, I’ve always wished I could cut it loose, like an unbearable burden, place it on a pyre and, in a less than solemn ceremony (I can only imagine drinking, dancing and general debauchery would be in order), burn it to unrecognizable cinders and then spit—or whatever—on the ashes. But I’ve never seemed to have it in me to do that. I guess you can take the boy out of the Midwest, but not the Midwest out of the boy.
Some would say it’s a virtue, a strength to always be “takin’ care o’ business” but that depends on what you see as business—whether business is going after “what you can” or going after “what you want most”. My late and ever-missed brother would have put it down to “a lack of balls”. Deep down, and to my everlasting chagrin, I would have to agree with him. Still, know this: that even if it has taken me the longest time imaginable to start getting a dose of courage, it’s finally coming, little by little and better, perhaps, late than never.
This blog, which I began writing in fits and starts just over seven years ago, was a first step toward writing more of what I wanted to and less of what I had to. To those of you who have followed it, commented on it, encouraged me, told your friends and generally enjoyed what I’ve had to share, all I can do is say thanks for your loyalty, indulgence and patience, and add: stay tuned…there’s more to come.     

Sunday, May 3, 2015


A large anvil-shaped cloud on the horizon over the Andes
It happened a week ago last Wednesday. Virginia got home from work in the early evening (most nights she doesn’t get here until nine but on Wednesdays, if she hurries, she can make it home by seven, and although autumn is advancing in Patagonia, the sun is still just setting at that hour), and we rushed to take a walk in the mountains together before dark.  After climbing the steep grade on our street to get to the high road, we stopped to catch our breath and looked back toward the mountains. There we could see a strange, dense, anvil-shaped cloud on the western horizon over the Andes, colored a breath-taking luminous peach and grey in the setting sun and in an otherwise cloudless sky. At once ominous yet incredibly beautiful, we took it as a visual gift of nature and walked on.
A neighbor warned us that Calbuco had erupted
Once we were back, I got a text message from a neighbor who suggested prudence in our water use (we draw our water from a natural spring) because the Mount Calbuco volcano on the other side of the mountains in Chile had erupted at 6 p.m., spewing ash and pumice high (about eleven miles high, in fact) into the atmosphere.
So, I thought, it’s starting again. The price we pay for living in one of the most beautiful places on the feet of a string of sleeping giants. Four years ago it had been Puyehue. This year it was Calbuco, both within sixty miles, as the crow flies, from our house.
Remembering the previous eruption, I could feel the first rumblings of barely controlled panic rising—like an internal volcano of my own—as I contemplated our potential fate. When Puyehue blew, we saw mid-afternoon on an otherwise sunny day turn new moon dark as a crushing cloud of coarse sand-like ash loomed over the mountains and pelted us with an all-enveloping blanket of over four inches of pyroclastic debris before edging on eastward to bury other areas beyond. We had braved the hot, abrasive ash-storm outside to shut off the water intake to our tanks and to get the dogs under cover in the workshop and then cowered inside with our family of cats awaiting a “passover” of biblical proportions.
The scene the next day was desolate, with a heavy, ankle-deep blanket of grey ash covering everything. But things were far worse elsewhere, in places where the furious mountain had dumped tons of ash a yard deep on people’s homes along the Chilean border, caving in their roofs, skewing their dwellings like houses of cards and closing the mountain pass between Argentina and Chile.
During the Puyehue eruption, a veritable storm of ash
We, then, were blessed. We lived, after all, in the manner of Johnny Cash, in a ring of fire...but literally, not virtually or poetically. And for weeks and months after that our activities were governed by the direction of the wind and whether the ash was blowing our way as Puyehue remained active for what seemed like ages, starving the nearby towns of Bariloche and Villa La Angostura of the tourism they live on, with the airport being shut down “for the duration”.
So awaiting the arrival of Calbuco’s wrath—better prepared this time, with bigger, better water tanks, an electric power generator and plenty of fuel in the shed—I set about covering the air intakes on our vehicles and finished my preparations just as the air outside started to turn dense and the first light ash started to fall, a bit like tepid grey snow.  We went to bed that night resigned, not wanting to think about what we would wake up to and only hoping what came our way wouldn’t be sufficient to strain the roof beams.  But we knew that it would be what it would be, that natural flood, fire and wind are phenomena which humans as powerless to control, especially here in “the wild forties” below the fortieth parallel.
The next morning the house and yard appeared to be enveloped in a dense fog and in the short time it took me to go out to the woodshed for more wood to fuel our fire, my cap and vest were heavily dusted in grey ash. I couldn’t help recalling a few trips I’d made over the years to the busy old crematorium in Chacarita, the biggest cemetery in Buenos Aires—a veritable “city of the dead”—where the clothes of the municipal workers who would come out of the furnace room to the reception hall to turn over the incinerated remains of scores of departed each day to their respective families were always covered with a fine grey layer of the ashes of the deceased—enough so that my brother-in-law would quip, “I wondered what percentage of these are really the ol’ man’s,” after accepting the little wooden box that a slightly hunched and red-eyed worker offered him.
Across the mountains in Chile some places were buried in ash
But by noon the air was much clearer and the fallen ash was so light that it resembled a sort of grey hoarfrost that clung to grass, bushes and trees. Nothing like the pyroclastic blizzard we had endured four years earlier. It was, I reminded myself, all a matter of wind direction and the luck of the draw. Across the mountains in Chile, a few villages and towns had been literally buried under five feet of heavy, sandy ash and other pyroclastic debris, with many homes being crushed under the weight and over four thousand people being evacuated to safer ground. And on the Argentine side, in the next Patagonian province north of us, the highway had to be closed until road graders could be brought in to clear the pavement for cars, trucks and buses.
By evening in our neck of the woods, however, the air and sky were clear enough for Virginia and me to enjoy an evening walk (her afternoon and evening classes at the institute where she teaches having been canceled as a safety precaution). Despite how pleasant it was on our side of the Andes, there had been two eruptions—one at six on Wednesday evening and the other at one in the morning on Thursday and the dense plume over Calbuco was over eight miles high. The second eruption had blasted four or five new craters in the mountain top and Chilean volcanologists were warning of a possible third eruption. That eruption came a week after the first two, just when the mountain had settled down and even some experts were venturing that maybe Calbuco would simply go back to sleep. After all, before this latest incident, it had been four decades since it last awoke in a rage of hellfire and brimstone.
But this time, in our area, twelve miles west and south of the ski resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, you would never have known, if you didn’t ask, that a third eruption had taken place. And there was a sense of gratitude mixed with guilt in knowing that the wind was standing between us and the brunt of the volcanic storm.
A hoarfrost of ash on dirt roads...
...and foliage
The week after the first eruptions, Virginia went back to work and I went back to taking my evening walk in the mountains alone. And although I was grateful for the beautiful, mostly clear autumn days nature was bestowing on me, Calbuco continued to give me pause for reflection. For one thing, I could still see the “frost” of ash that remained on the foliage and dirt roads. But more than that, instead of the usual sweet mountain air that greeted me in the great Andean outdoors of Patagonia, there was a hint, a reminder of cataclysm in the air, a whiff of brimstone, the sulfurous breath of a fiery hell belched up and out the spout of Calbuco from three thousand miles beneath the surface of the earth in the planet’s molten liquid core.
Flame-yellow leaves of an old Alamo poplar
But it was easy enough to distract myself from the latent threat of the volcano when my boots crushed the flame-yellow leaves of an old Alamo poplar, cast around its massive trunk like the fragrant and elegant lingerie of a shy but impassioned autumn Amazon, releasing beneath my soles their sweet "tobaccoy" scent that mitigated the rotten-egg stink of sulfur in the air.
When I walk in the mountains after a day of highly focused work, my mind ventures off in all sorts of directions, sparking the most eclectic of thoughts and memories. At one point this past week, I suddenly recalled H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. For those who have never read it or seen the movie, it’s about a British scientist in the times of Wells (it was published in 1895, when the writer was not yet thirty years old) who invents a machine that permits him to become a Time Traveler.
The Time Machine
At one point in the story, the Time Traveler journeys more than eight hundred thousand years into the future. There he finds a world that appears to be an absolute paradise. It is inhabited by a beautiful people known as the Eloi. The Eloi exist in a perfect and bountiful climate and live off of the land with no need to cultivate anything. Everything is provided for in this benign world and they have no reason to work. It is a bucolic life of peaceful Eloi co-existence, mutual love, harmony and plenty. The Time Traveler feels at his ease here and quickly becomes enamored of a beautiful Eloi woman named Weena.
H.G. Wells
There’s only one problem with this paradise on Earth, as the Time Traveler soon discovers, and that is that nothing comes free and the Eloi only enjoy the life they have thanks to the Morlocks. The Morlocks are trollish ape-like creatures who live in a subterranean world to which access is gained through a series of “wells” that dot the heavenly landscape. Subsisting in the bowels of the earth, the Morlocks do the drudgery that provides the Eloi with the perfect life they enjoy on the surface, but in exchange, the Morlocks frequently slip to the surface at night, snatch an Eloi here and there and drag them into the murky underworld, where they end up on the Morlock menu.
The round-about connection I made to the Wells sci-fi classic is that living in one of the most stunning landscapes on Earth has its risks. If you want the kind of beauty that one of the last frontiers of earthly nature has to offer, then you have to risk being at least a witness to— and perhaps a victim of—the cataclysmic events that such a place is also capable of hosting, and hellfire and brimstone belched from the guts of the planet like the acid reflux of the mountain gods is just one such event—a disaster in human terms but business as usual for this landscape that was largely formed thanks to the natural cycles of the “Morlockian” monoliths that ring this habitat.
But Wells’ story also prompted me to think beyond the Morlock-ruled world of the guileless Eloi. Later in the story, the Time Traveler ventures many millions of years into the future and what he finds there is a world with an ominous red sun and a planet with a rarefied atmosphere that can no longer sustain prolonged life. Frightenly, what Wells describes sounds chillingly similar to the world alarmed scientists are warning us of today if we fail to take immediate action to reverse the devastating effects of our noxious ecological actions in the name of “human progress”. These actions are proving, in the end, far more cataclysmic, not for nature but for the human species, than anything Mother Nature is wont to dish up.
Over the course of our evolution, nature has squeezed us often enough, but has yet to choke us out of existence. We, on the other hand, seem bent on goading Mother Nature into choking the life out of our species, ignoring, justifying or shrugging off the warning signs, putting off “until tomorrow” (when today is already tomorrow) the actions necessary to reverse the damage we’ve done and continue to do, as if nature might be counted on to give us yet another comfy extension on the debt we owe her.
It’s amazing what thoughts a little brimstone in the air can trigger, and that’s the point, in a way, of the brilliant Conservation International shorts being run worldwide on TV: to put a little whiff of brimstone into the air, to see if maybe people will wake up and start demanding that their leaders take immediate, and drastic action, to stop and reverse the devastating “human volcano” that is threatening to lay our habitat to waste.
In one of those shorts, Mother Nature (in the steely, dispassionate voice of a hardly recognizable Julia Roberts) says, in part, “I have been here 22,500 times longer than you. I don’t really need people. But people need me. I have fed species greater than you and I have starved species greater than you. I’ve been here for eons. My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests: They all can take you—or leave you… Your actions will determine your fate. Not mine.”
Mother “Julia” Nature’s final challenge goes: “I am prepared to evolve. Are you?” And beyond any worry about natural hellfire and brimstone, that’s the real question we should be asking ourselves and each other every minute of every day if we’re at all committed to leaving behind a livable habitat in which the human species—meaning our children and their children and their children’s children and so on down the line—can continue to survive. Nature won’t care, one way or another, what we do. But we should.

Friday, April 3, 2015


By the time I was fourteen going on fifteen, I had graduated from a paper route and odd jobs to working as a movie theater usher and janitor and playing in a rock and roll band. I could have just played for fun, but this was my kind of in-your-face, rebellious raspberry to Whitie. “Look at this, Daddio,” I was symbolically saying, “not only did I buy my drums myself, but I’m also making money with them.”

Truth be told, back then, at the beginning, it was the grunt work that made me the money that kept me largely independent of parental interference (and of any insistence I go out for sports), even if I’d already started thinking of myself as “a working musician”. I worked three or four times a week as a ticket-taker and usher at the Wapa Theater and then made a little extra sweeping up the popcorn, popcorn boxes and candy wrappers, and scraping the chewing gum and half-sucked candy off the floor. After my father’s night janitor at the Teddy Bear Restaurant retired, I also took up that job for a while, after I got off work on movie nights and every other night of the week but Sunday.
Working at the movie theater was fun. My best friend Mark worked there with me for a while as well, which made it more fun still. And the concession stand was run by the theater-owner’s daughter, Barbara (who was a year younger than I was), and a classmate of mine called Debbie. They were both shy girls whom I’d never really gotten to know at school other than to say hi, but here at the movies, we chatted and joked and laughed during the lulls in our work and generally had a good time.  
The Wapa’s manager was a young guy called Leslie who was from out of town, someplace in Indiana. He drove a powder-blue Caddy convertible and dressed to the nines, but lived in a rented mobile home in a court on the north side of town. He was easy to work for and was always good-naturedly kidding us. When he found out Mark and I were old-movie buffs he used to now and then invite us to his place to eat popcorn and watch the black and white classics that he collected and projected on a screen in his living room.
Leslie didn’t own the Wapa. The building was from the turn of the century, had originally housed an opera house and theater and was quite grand inside for a small-town cinema, with a main floor and two balconies. One of the balconies—referred to as “the third balcony” for some reason the logic of which escaped me—had long since been hidden from view by a lowered acoustical ceiling, above which lived a colony of brown bats that would swoop down in the darkened theater and flash their scary silhouettes across the silver screen during projections, eliciting shrieks from the girls and nervous laughter from the boys in the audience, especially during viewings of Christopher Lee’s stunning portrayals of Count Dracula.
But you could still appreciate the scrolling and ornamentation on the side walls and the fancy fronts of the former box seats that had also been closed up.
I liked to imagine what it must have been like back in the building’s pre-Great War beginnings, when early twentieth-century Wapakoneta residents arrived in gala dress for the first shows at what was then the Brown Theater. It had been owned from the 1930s by the husband of a grade school teacher of mine and she had inherited it when he passed away.  Leslie leased the movie theater part of the building from her. A former Ball State University student, he had done some acting in college and had a real love of Hollywood and theater, but this appeared to be as close as he could come to getting into show biz.
I also became friends with the projectionist, ‘Herbie’. That wasn’t his real given name, but he preferred his moniker. Herbie was a couple of years older than I was. He was shy and overweight and didn’t have many friends. At school he was a popular enough “folk figure”, since he was the photographer for the high school yearbook (known as The Retro) and for school newspaper publications. We didn’t have a school paper per se, but rather, a column in the Wapakoneta Daily News entitled The Lantern. Herbie’s nom de guerre at school, then, was ‘Flash’. When he showed up with his 35mm camera around his neck, everybody was glad to see him, but he wasn’t the sort of guy most of his classmates hung out with. He wasn’t one of the “cool kids”.
I didn’t feel cool either, but I tried to make eccentric, rebellious and non-conformist work for me. I felt it should work for Herbie too. To my mind, he was eccentric enough to be non-conformist-cool. He was a conscientious projectionist and a surprisingly mature and artful photographer. And his “secret cool” that nobody saw during school hours was that when school was out, he was a biker! Herbie had a Honda Superhawk. That and his Pentax camera were his two prized possessions. They were also props in his dual-life persona. Seeing him mounted on that bike with his oversized denim jacket, engineer boots and two-hundred-plus pounds of humanity, you’d have thought Herbie was really bad-assed, somebody you didn’t want to mess with. You’d never have guessed he was a melancholy, easy-going boy with a big sad heart who hadn’t had it easy.
Herbie used to invite me to the projection booth when there was nothing else pressing to do and show me how the twin carbon-arc projectors worked, how it was important to adjust the carbons every so often so that the picture didn’t dim, or how when a reel was reaching its end, you had to look through the little window that gave onto the theater to watch for some small white dots that would appear on the right-hand side of the screen to let you know when to turn on the second machine that held the next reel. Herbie also knew how to splice broken filmstrips and how to fix the huge projectors when they broke. Herbie knew a lot of things and I found them all fascinating.
Another thing Herbie was in charge of was changing the big metal letters on the marquee whenever the feature film title changed. I used to help him do that and found it a lot of fun. It involved going in through a restricted-admission lateral entrance from outside and climbing a narrow staircase on which a tall folding step-ladder was leaned up against the wall and covered that side of the staircase practically from top to bottom. The staircase led to a cramped store room, in which the wall on one side bore a series of large pigeonholes containing several sheet-metal cut-out copies each of every letter in the alphabet. Reading from a paper where the theater manager had written down the title of the upcoming movie, we gathered the letters necessary to spell it out twice (once for each side of the marquee), placing them in a sturdy wooden box. Then one of us would grab the box and the other the stepladder from the staircase. We would also take along another wooden box to put the letters in that we took down. Once the two-sided ladder was set up under the marquee, Herbie would climb up one side of the ladder and I’d climb up the other carrying the empty box. He’d take down the old title letter by letter, handing them to me, and I’d put them in the empty box.  Then I’d take that box down, carry up the other box holding the letters for the new title and hand them to Herbie as he called them off: C-H-A-R-A-D-E, for instance. Up close some of the letters looked kind of pitted and scratched and rusty. But when we would climb down to inspect our handiwork against the lighted marquee, they looked like for a New York premiere.

Herbie and I remained friends even after I quit working at the Wapa. A couple of summers later, he would announce he was joining the Air Force. People said, “Herbie? The Air Force?” But I wasn’t surprised. Herbie was a guy who knew what he wanted...and it wasn’t this. He had gotten into a special experimental training program that the Air Force was trying out on overweight recruits. It was not your regular Basic that did fat guys a lot of good but that didn’t get to the root of their problem. This was a rigorous regime of healthy eating, psychological motivation, and intensive, scientifically engineered physical exercise.
A few months later, Herbie came home on leave and had to tell my mother who he was when he showed up to say hi. She didn’t recognize him! And if he hadn’t spoken, I wouldn’t have either. It was as if he had gone into training as William Conrad and had returned home as Steve McQueen. We were amazed and Herbie was pleased, self-satisfied and more self-confident than I’d ever seen him before. After he shipped out for overseas, I would never see or hear from him again.          
The job at the Teddy Bear was a routine janitor’s job, but I managed to make that fun too. I was always my own best company, so working alone in the place after hours was okay with me. A couple of years earlier, I had enjoyed working at the Teddy Bear during business hours in the summer or on Saturdays because the older girls who worked there always treated me a little like a pet and I wasn’t all that used to that kind of attention from the other sex. Whitie had me in the back a lot, peeling spuds and cutting them for french fries, washing dishes and helping with other types of food preparation, while he was out behind the counter.
My most fun relationship was with a bouncy, bubbly girl called Linda, who was about eighteen at the time. She pretended to flirt with me, which caused me to have an instant and terrible crush on her and to loath her older fiancé who often dropped by for coffee and to see her. The Christmas that I had turned thirteen, Linda blocked my path under the mistletoe that hung above the kitchen door and laid a big wet kiss on me that left my lips smeared with her bright red lipstick, and then laughed her head off at the combined look of shock, embarrassment and contentment on my face.
But it wasn’t like Linda was having a laugh at my expense. She genuinely liked me, as if I were an adoptive kid brother, and we shared little inside jokes and secrets. For instance, I had started pilfering smokes from Whitie’s packs of Pall Malls when I was twelve going on thirteen. The first time Reba Mae smelled smoke on me she said if she caught me smoking again, I’d be punished. But I wasn’t put off by the warning. I simply tried not to get close to my mother if I’d just had a smoke. Then I got greedy and started helping myself to Whitie’s cigarettes to the point that he noticed. My father was a lot more pragmatic than my mother, so his warning message was more economic than moral: If I was going to smoke I should “buy my own goddamn cigarettes,” because he didn’t plan to support his habit and mine too. So I took him at his word, found a corner grocery store that wasn’t picky about whom they sold tobacco to and, by age thirteen, was smoking several cigarettes a day. Linda, for her part, smoked incessantly and usually had one going in an ashtray on the shelf above the work counter in the kitchen, so when we worked there side by side on Saturdays, we would take turns smoking and if my father or mother came into the kitchen while I was having a smoke, she’d swiftly grab my cigarette and take a drag, leaving the end marked with her lipstick.
That part of working at the Teddy Bear during the daytime when it was open I sometimes missed, though not the almost constant bickering between Whitie and me, since none of the work I did was ever quite up to his exacting standards of quality control. Speaking of which, I don’t think there has ever been another restaurant in our town (or anywhere else) that had a more thorough clean-up routine than the Teddy Bear. After closing each evening every member of the staff had a specific cleaning task to do. And after they had all gone home, Whitie would go back and re-do every single one of those tasks—always alternating between whistling tunelessly and cussing under his breath. For himself, he reserved the jobs of re-ordering the refrigerators and cleaning and polishing the stainless steel back counter, soda fountain, under-counter refrigeration unit, fryers and grill. By the time he was done with them, these pieces of equipment always gave the impression of being brand new and having just been installed the day before. So when I came in, long after closing, the place was practically spotless, except for the dining room floor, which had merely been swept clean.
My job was, first, to mop it thoroughly with hot water and industrial detergent, to dry it with a squeegee and floor rag, and then to wax it with a thin layer of fast-drying liquid wax and buff it with the industrial buffer that Whitie kept in the back room—a machine so powerful that, more than use it, I was dragged around the room by it. The whole process took a couple of hours and I took advantage to turn it into some quality alone time (as if I hadn’t already been enough of a lone wolf). 
After making sure all of the curtains were drawn over the front windows, I would put a quarter into the cigarette vending machine and get myself a pack of Winstons or Salems, depending on my mood, and light up with a book of the free advertising matches that were in a fish-bowl by the cash register. Then I’d take a couple of “special quarters”—the ones painted with red fingernail polish that the restaurant got back when the maintenance man came to service the machine and change some of the records—and, putting them into the coin slot on the colorful Wurlitzer jukebox, I’d choose eight of my favorite tunes—usually ones that would have been the last choice of any other kid in town, numbers by Peter Nero, Duke Ellington, Enoch Light, Henry Mancini, Ferrante and Teicher, Frank Sinatra, Mantovani, and so on. Finally, being very, very careful not to leave a single mark or drop of water on the stainless steel fountain, the meticulous last inspection of which would surely have included a final obsessive once-over with my father’s own pocket handkerchief, I would build myself a vanilla phosphate with extra “dope” (trade jargon for syrup) and light on the ice. Then, and only then, I’d be ready to get down to work. I “danced” with my mop to the sounds of the Duke’s band playing Satin Doll, to Ferrante and Teicher playing Theme from The Apartment (a movie that had made me fall in love with Shirley MacLaine and loath Fred MacMurray even more than I originally had), Mantovani’s orchestra playing Hernando’s Hideaway, Frank singing I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Peter Nero mixing The Yellow Rose of Texas with Mozart in a fascinating fugue, and Enoch Light and the Light Brigade playing a rousing rendition of Whatever Lola Wants, among a list of other personal favorites.

There, alone by night in my father’s restaurant, I could be whoever I wanted to be. I didn’t see myself as a confused, unhappy fourteen-year-old boy. I was a cigarette-smoking adult with a vanilla phosphate that could just as easily have been a tall scotch and soda. And I could pretend that the famous musicians on the jukebox were my personal friends. I could see myself playing with a studio band in New York City instead of mopping the floor in my dad’s soda fountain and grill. I could imagine myself a whole other life that I had no doubt would eventually come true, one where I was doing what I wanted to do and was really good at it. I would be a writer and musician and was sure my combined arts would be my ticket out of here and into a brand new and glamorous world.
To be continued...

You can read Parts 1, 2, and 3  of The Reluctant Athlete at the following links: 

Monday, March 2, 2015


From the age of twelve, work became a big part of my life. I started out, like a lot of boys, with a paper route. My dad, Whitie, thought it would be a good idea.  He felt I needed to man up. The implication was that if I wasn’t going out for any sports, the least I could do was learn how to earn my own spending money, and not just be sitting around the house “with my nose in a book all the time.” It would build character for me to get out and see what earning money entailed, to see that it didn’t grow on trees, that there were no “free rides”.

The first paper route I had was for a morning newspaper, the Dayton Journal Herald. The city of Dayton was over an hour away from Wapakoneta, my home town. And the Journal Herald didn’t have an arrangement, like a number of other Ohio newspapers did, with the local Newsstand—actually not a “stand” at all, but a storefront business—so each morning the Dayton daily’s distributor delivered the local carriers’ bales of papers, hot off the press, to the Post Office across the street from the Newsstand. Although the Post Office counter was closed behind a heavy rolling metal curtain at night, the main hall of the building was open twenty-four/seven, to allow patrons to get to their PO boxes. So it was the perfect place us for paperboys to get together with our papers.

The job entailed getting up at five in the morning, pedaling my bike up to the Post Office, cutting open my bale of papers with a pair of wire-cutters I carried for just that purpose, rolling my papers to a proper throwing size, slipping a rubber band around each one, packing them into my delivery bag, and then making the rounds of my paper route, which started a few blocks north of downtown Wapakoneta and extended almost to my house in the west-side Oakwood Hills addition. I would arrive home in time to wash up, have breakfast and catch the school bus or ride my bike back to town for classes.

Reba Mae, my mother, was less convinced than Whitie that this was such a good idea. She was concerned about my health. The year before, I’d been seriously ill, having caught infectious hepatitis. I’d spent several weeks in bed, so sick I could barely look at food.

Illness was something Whitie and I had shared that year. He was experiencing one of multiple nervous breakdowns that he was to suffer, from the time I was five years old on.  That year, when I was eleven, his manic depression was rampant and he spent weeks on end holed-up at home, mostly in the room he and my mother shared, curtains drawn and sleeping throughout much of the day, while Reba Mae took over for him at our family restaurant, the Teddy Bear, running both his shift there and the house until he got better. So while my older sister and younger brother were off at school and Reba Mae was off at work, it was just Whitie and me there at home, in our new house on Kelley Drive.

For all the company we were to each other, however, my father and I might as well have been each on his own planet, instead of just down the hall from each other in our separate rooms. We were mutual aliens, he trying to purge himself of a crippling inner sadness that seemed to know no cure, and I, biding my time until my young liver turned from a volatile jelly-like state back into a properly functioning organ. One of us only knew the other existed by the creaking of the hall floorboards and the sound of the toilet flushing or the water running. Neither of us was eating much (with the state my liver was in, I mostly subsisted on weak tea and saltine crackers or dry toast) and neither offered to make anything or do anything for the other. In the harsh light of day, we were both painfully thin and pale, my own pallor a ghastly shade of yellow. But we were entities more separate than if we’d been living in a boarding house. If we saw each other at all, it wasn’t until Reba Mae and my sister and brother got home in the evening and my mother prepared supper. And even then our contact was limited since Whitie often refused to come out of his room to eat and, at my sickest, I took my frugal meals in bed.

I remember feeling guilty. I realized how depressing a climate Whitie and I were creating for the rest of the family and how worried my mother must be for both of us. For my part in this silent, blue environment, I was full of remorse.

Still, when I got to feeling a little better, so I could sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, I began to take a strange comfort in this illness, and because I did, I reluctantly began to understand, somewhat, how Whitie must feel holed-up there in his room. Hepatitis had become my shield from the world. The fact that I was so ill meant nobody expected anything from me. I was sick! There was nothing for me to do but stay in bed and get better. Once the early symptoms of the disease were past, however, I was free to do what I did best—read and write—all day long. In fact, it was part of the routine established between my mother and me “to keep me from getting bored.” In addition to bringing me my homework assignments from my fifth-grade teacher, who lived less than half a block from the Teddy Bear, every few days Reba Mae would bring me a new batch of books from the public library, and once I had finished my school work, I would almost obsessively gallop through that outside reading between naps. Then later, I would try my hand for a couple of hours a day at writing stories of my own.

After a couple of weeks of hanging out in my room doing what I loved most in the world, I began to feel safe and unassailable there. Even though I knew it wasn’t normal or healthy, I started developing a feeling that I never wanted to leave that room again. It became my world, my safe harbor, a miniature planet on which, despite my illness, I was in complete control. And through the books my mother brought me, I could live the most exciting adventures in my mind, traveling to exotic destinations without ever changing out of my pajamas. Whitie, I understood, must feel much the same way: safe, unaccountable, unassailable, immune to the demands of others, in complete control of something for a change, even if only of this hundred square-foot space.  

But remorse eventually got the better of me. It became impossible for me the read the sadness in Reba Mae’s face each day when she came back from work to find the house in the same morbid stillness it had been when she’d left and both Whitie and me still barricaded in our separate rooms. Somebody had to break this stay-at-home stand-off and, on the spur of the moment—one afternoon when I went by the kitchen door and saw my mother sitting alone at the dining table crying—I decided it would be me.

As soon as the yellowness had drained from my eyes, I emerged from my room one early-spring day, fully dressed and, donning jacket and cap, declared myself cured and told my mother I was going for a ride on my bike. She was too elated to tell me no, and instead smiled a little dubiously and said, “Well, all right, but don’t go far and don’t over-exert yourself. You’re just getting over something serious and you’re still very weak.”

As it turned out, her warning about “not going far” wouldn’t have been necessary. Within a very few blocks, I had run out of steam and had to laboriously walk my bicycle back home, panting and feeling awful the whole way. When I stumbled in the back door, she looked at me and said, the smile draining from her eyes, “Are you all right? Gosh, your lips are blue!” And with that she rushed me back to bed. So it was that I learned a new word: relapse. And I never could hear the term after that without picturing myself half-walking my bike and half using it as a crutch so as not to collapse, and wondering how I’d ever make it back home.

But perhaps my premature outing served a purpose, because that evening Whitie got up, and that same week he started back to work, and began going to the psychiatrist again. For my part, I spent another few weeks in bed, guilt-ridden the whole while by the fact that I couldn’t have felt more at home there.

So it was little wonder that, the following year, when I was just starting to gain back some of the weight lost and to regain something like an appetite, Reba Mae was less than anxious to see me hopping out of bed at 5 a.m. to ride my bike around in the dark delivering newspapers before school. But Whitie was on a manic high right then, being so assertive that he was hard to recognize. And when he was like that, weakness wasn’t something he easily tolerated. Working would be good for me—get me out of the house, give me a taste of reality.  

At first, I wondered how I would ever remember all of the houses I had to go to each morning. And the first few days, Reba Mae and I did the route together in the car until I learned the streets. She made it fun, almost like a game, and I quickly learned that each house had defining traits to help me remember it: an aluminum initial on a grill over the screen door; a nameplate hanging beneath the yard-light; shingles, stucco or tongue-and-groove siding; a lawn dwarf, a birdhouse, or a metallic-glass ball on a pedestal; a friendly dog; an unfriendly dog; a distinctive weather vane; a certain kind of wind chime on the porch, or any of a number of other distinctive features. In no time at all, I had learned the route and was ready to do it alone —even if, on the foulest of mornings Reba Mae was still apt to say, “Let me take you today. It’s just too awful out for you to do your route on your bicycle!”

Though I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to get up so early, especially as autumn progressed and the mornings turned frigid, and although staying awake in class got to be an issue, Whitie was right about one thing: Making your own money was a game-changer. Suddenly, I not only had new options and increased independence, but also a logical explanation for not doing the things I didn’t want to do, like going out for team sports. Those things were child’s play. In rural Midwestern society, work was serious business that superseded everything else. And a lot of things might be forgiven of a boy who worked compared with one who didn’t.

In the meantime, at school I had joined the band. I was studying percussion and loved it. Being a drummer took a great deal of brain-muscle coordination—precisely what Whitie had always claimed I didn’t possess. But as it turned out, I was quite good at this new coordination-intensive skill. I apparently had a talent for it. Who knew!
That, of course, quickly led to my wanting to also join some kind of pop band outside of school. For that, I needed a set of drums. A friend of my sister’s, who was three years older than I, was selling his old set to buy a new one. He wanted ninety dollars for it. I asked Whitie for the money.
“If I thought you’d stick to it,” my father said, “I probably wouldn’t mind. But how do I know you will? I mean, you’re not very good at sticking to things, are you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you?” he repeated. “You know, baseball, basketball, and so forth...”

Still I didn’t respond.

“I just don’t want to put a bunch of money I don’t have into something like this and have the drums just sit around later.”

“They won’t,” I said. “I’m good at this and I really like it.”

“Well, yeah, Danny, but what if tomorrow you quit liking it?” he said. “Then what? I mean, you are kind of a quitter. I mean, be honest. You need to be more responsible. Maybe you should save up and buy the drums yourself. That way you’d appreciate them more.”

With that, he considered the subject closed.

I sulked. Eventually Reba Mae intervened. He wasn’t being fair. Hadn’t they paid for my sister’s trumpet when she joined the band? That was different, Whitie felt, because she stuck to things. She wasn’t a quitter. They eventually reached a compromise: he’d let my mother lend me the money to buy the drum set. But I’d be required to make weekly payments until the loan was paid back.

I grudgingly accepted the loan, determined to prove I was more than good for it. Very shortly, I found a bigger, better afternoon paper route with The Lima News, headquartered in the industrial city of Lima, Ohio, fifteen miles away. Its routes were run out of the back room of The Newsstand, operated by Russ McLean. Mr. McLean was good about letting me browse the racks in his shop before and after I delivered my papers each afternoon, after school. It was there that I started reading Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, as if I were in a lending library. I read “stolen” snatches of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone magazine and Classics Illustrated, as well as of Time, Life, Look, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular adult-audience publications as well. All of which fed my other passion: writing.

As I became aware of how liberating it was not to depend on my father for money, I sought more of both cash and independence. Keeping busy was, I found out, almost as safe a haven as holing up in my room. Who could expect more of an adolescent who kept busy every waking hour either in school or working for his own keep, instead of looking for trouble?

Before long, in addition to the bigger and better paper route, I had also started picking up extra work among my newspaper customers, mowing their lawns, raking their leaves, shoveling their snow, and doing any other odd job they might trust me with, as well as volunteering for kitchen work in our family’s restaurant whenever I had spare time on Saturdays or in the summer.  This allowed me to pay off my drum set in short order.

If Whitie was notoriously stubborn, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and once the drum set was mine, free and clear, instead of finding the good in the lesson my father had sought to teach me, I tacitly and obstinately vowed to myself never to ask him for anything again and that vow was to form part of the emotional barrier he and I erected between us for a number of years afterward.

The most emblematic symbol of that division would continue to be team sports, which he loved and which I no longer simply avoided, but adamantly opposed. We asked and expected nothing of each other and chose to be strangers from that point on through my high school days.

To be continued