Sunday, June 22, 2014

WHEN TRAVELING ALONE CAN BE TOO MUCH TOGETHERNESS


Now in my mid-sixties, I often find I'm surprised by what a different take I have, when I go back and re-read books I first read when I was much younger. That happened to me a few months back when—having long since lost my original print copy in some move or other—I decided to re-read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in its Kindle ebook version.
I had first read this non-fiction account by the twentieth-century Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist when I was in my late twenties. At the time, I saw it as an enjoyable, well-crafted "travel book" about an aging writer setting out to discover America and, as a kind of afterthought, taking his dog Charley (a giant poodle) along for the ride. But when I read it again a few months ago, already just a few pages in, I found myself slapping my forehead and asking aloud, "What was I, drunk the first time I read this?"
Steinbeck in his latter years
From my own "third age" perspective, I now saw it as an introspective journey on which a renowned writer embarks—at fifty-eight and suddenly staring the prospect of old age in the face—to try and rediscover, not America, but himself. Clearly, it wasn’t that I was drunk while reading this contemporary classic for the first time at twenty-something—although, if I’m honest, I have to confess that back then that would have been a distinct possibility—but rather, that already six years older than Steinbeck was then, I could now, on a second reading, identify completely with him and know precisely what he was feeling.
Back in the nineteen-seventies, with the probability of my whole life stretching before me, I really hadn’t a clue where the author was coming from. So true is this that when I picked the book up again after more than thirty-five years, I realized that the only thing I recalled vividly about it was an important section toward the end when Steinbeck decides to be a witness to a major event in American history: the enforcement of racial integration at a grade school in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Obviously, back when I had read it the first time—when I was very clearly still in my “salad days”—that had seemed like a pivotal part of the book (which in many ways it is, but not like I thought), because having been a school boy in the days of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Dr. Martin Luther King, among other civil rights heroes of the era, that chapter underscored itself in my mind.
But a much better reason why that chapter in New Orleans is important is that it constitutes one of the only passages in the narrative in which Steinbeck disengages from his own apparent self-identity crisis and gets intimately involved in perhaps the biggest thing that was going on in the United States at that time: namely, not only the legislating of equal rights, but also, and more importantly, the material enforcement of those new and ground-breaking federal laws against discrimination. Quoth Steinbeck: “The show began on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blonde felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in starchy shining white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.
“The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school...”
Steinbeck with Charley
But throughout most of the rest of the book, I now was reading—between the lines—a John Steinbeck who was trying to recapture something he felt slipping inexorably away from him and his country. This trip, this book, is all about the writer’s trying almost desperately to fend off the impending finality of a life that he seems to know intuitively is ending. (In fact, Steinbeck died at the age of sixty-six, just six years after Travels with Charley was published). And he was hardly “taking Charley along for the ride,” as I had at first assumed. Charley was a fundamental part of the journey, a sidekick, but one that wouldn’t cloud still further with doubts, “certainties” and opinions of his own the fog that the writer was seeking to clear away from a new (the last) phase in his life, yet friendly and familiar company enough to act as an emotional anchor, so as to keep Steinbeck’s being “alone with himself” from spinning out of control.
Clearly, the jadedness that he was feeling in himself Steinbeck saw even more graphically reflected in the rest of the population—a sort of endemic illness that he, for one, wanted to shake off: “Having too many things,” he says of Americans as a nation, “[they] spend their hours and money on the couch, searching for a soul. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.” Of the trip itself, the author says: “[A] journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
The journey began rather ominously: He had chosen US Labor Day (the first Monday in September) as the deadline for his preparations, since right after that weekend, vacationers would be back in their jobs, and kids and college students would be back in their schools. The “open road” would thus be more truly open. But now, with his camper truck “Rocinante” loaded and ready to go, he would have to weather a storm, Hurricane Donna, before he even hit the road. Donna started brewing on August 29, 1960, and even though prediction wasn’t nearly as accurate then as now, the prospect of its at some point reaching Long Island, where Steinbeck lived, may well have had something to do with his putting off starting the journey in the first part of September. At any rate, Hurricane Donna did indeed, in her rampaging finale, pass right over the Steinbeck home on September 12, and called on the author to prove himself, ironically enough, on the eve of a journey that he had planned for just that purpose. Says Steinbeck: “...But there was one added worry—Rocinante sitting among the trees. In a waking nightmare I saw a tree crash down on the truck and crush her like a bug...” In the end, however, it wasn’t Steinbeck’s truck but his boat that would test him against the elements: Before the storm hit, Steinbeck had seen how two boats were left poorly moored in the bay near his own, the Fayre Eleyne. All is well during the first blast of the hurricane, but after the eye passes over and the other wall of the hurricane tears through changing the direction of the wind, the two tethered boats he saw earlier now drag the Fayre Eleyne up against the piles of a neighboring pier where “we could hear her hull crying against the oaken piles.”
With his wife running behind him in ninety-five mile an hour winds warning him to stop and come back, Steinbeck fights his way out into the water, holding onto the piles of the pier that is now four feet under. “My boat cried and whined against the piles, and plunged like a frightened calf. Then I jumped and fumbled my way aboard her. For the first time in my life I had a knife when I needed it. The bracketing wayward boats were pushing Eleyne against the pier. I cut anchor line and tow line and kicked them free, and they blew ashore on the mud bank...Under ordinary conditions I can barely pull [the] anchor up with both hands in a calm. But everything went right this time. I edged over the hook and it tipped up and freed its spades. Then I lifted it clear of the bottom and nosed into the wind and gave it throttle and we headed into that goddamn wind and gained on it...A hundred yards offshore, I let the hook go and it plunged down and grabbed bottom, and the Fayre Eleyne straightened and raised her bow and seemed to sigh with relief.”
His boat safe, the aging writer is now a hundred yards offshore with no way to get back but to swim with the wind, fortunately, at his back. “I saw a piece of branch go skidding by and simply jumped in after it. There was no danger. If I could keep my head up I had to blow ashore, but I admit the half-Wellington rubber boots I wore got pretty heavy. It couldn’t have been more than three minutes before I grounded and that other Fayre Eleyne [his wife] and a neighbor pulled me out. It was only then that I began to shake all over...”
And this dangerous prologue seems to set the ominous mood in which he undertook much of the rest of the trip. To my mind, throughout the book, even this fine writer’s great craft couldn’t keep me from feeling an underlying desperation. What pushed him to organize the trip in the first place, and what impelled him to more or less follow some sort of itinerary to some sort of end was the same emotion that caused him to skim over places that ordinary travel writers—those cheeky travel guide reporters who, when you tell them that you’ve spent the day hiking to the top of Mount X are wont to ask if you actually reached “the cross at the top and did you sign the book in the box in the niche underneath it?”—would have chided him for “missing”. It was the same thing too that permitted him to re-chart his course as he went (giving himself a break and steering clear of chaos whenever the all-too-familiar feeling of panic tightened in his throat and chest). After all, it was his journey, his and Charley’s, and no one else’s, and Charley was game to go wherever, as long as it meant being with his master.
Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, said it best when asked about Travels with Charley. “This trip across America was just something John had to do,” she is quoted as saying. “And he had to go alone. He wanted to prove to himself that he was not an old man, that he could take control of his life, could drive himself, and could learn things again.”
Steinbeck's camper, Rocinante
No passage hints at a Steinbeck grown claustrophobic at the prospect of old age as much as when he finally finds solace in the vast open expanses of Montana:  I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it...It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana. Its people did not seem afraid of shadows in a John Birch Society sense. The calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants. It was hunting season when I drove through the state. The men I talked to seemed to me not moved to a riot of seasonal slaughter but simply to be going out to kill edible meat....[I]t seemed to me that the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.”
And then Steinbeck adds, tellingly: “I found I did not rush through the towns to get them over with. I even found things I had to buy to make myself linger. In Billings I bought a hat, in Livingston a jacket, in Butte a rifle I didn’t particularly need, a Remington bolt-action .22, secondhand but in beautiful condition. Then I found a telescope sight I had to have, and waited while it was mounted on the rifle, and in the process got to know everyone in the shop and any customers who entered. With the gun in a vise and the bolt out, we zeroed the new sight on a chimney three blocks away, and later when I got to shooting the little gun I found no reason to change it. I spent a good part of a morning at this, mostly because I wanted to stay...Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”
There is a feeling, then, at least to my mind, of the author’s—above all—refusing to let anything interrupt his need to deal with his crisis, to flee from stress and impending illness—he’d been suffering occasional dizzy spells and numbness in his fingertips later attributed to a series of minor strokes—to eschew anyone else’s agenda, to answer the call to keep moving, to simply be on the road, to run away, perhaps from himself and his own desperate thoughts.
But in the end, what readers of all ages are left with is an unusual and extraordinary portrait of the United States from the point of view of a major talent and authentic man who has known much better days—his own and those of his country—and who, while unwilling to overly criticize the changing reality, provides a clear vision of trends the results of which we are witnessing today. In short, a writer who set out to rediscover himself ended up, against all odds, actually discovering the changing face of America and remembering what once was all-important but was now being left behind.

Monday, April 21, 2014

THE TEDDY BEAR TRADITION: FRONT TABLE


“Two eggs sunny side up and I want them snotty. A side of bacon and an order of whole wheat toast and I want it cut horizontal, not on the bias,” said Charlie, the undertaker, in a quiet but assertive tone.
Red, Chuck and Whitie, owners of the
Teddy Bear Restaurant.
“Tell me, Chaz,” said Whitie, the almost platinum blonde man with the pop-bottle-thick spectacles and middle-weight’s build who was taking the order from the other side of the counter, “what the hell difference does it make which way your toast’s cut? I mean, no shit, I really want to know.”
“When you cut it on a diagonal,” said Charlie, his expression remaining deadpan, “the points poke me in the throat.”
“Ask a stupid question...” Whitie trailed off as he turned, carefully laid out three strips of lean bacon to cook, then selected two eggs from a stack of two-dozen-egg cartons and cracked them, sputtering, onto the sizzling grill.
Just then, Miss X, a new elementary schoolteacher walked in. She was pretty and shy and blushed at the slightest provocation. But crinoline petticoats were in style and Miss X’s made her full skirt bloom out around her like a bell, so that, with her bouffant hairstyle and buxom build, she looked a little like the pleasant country girls who square danced with rangy gents on Dayton TV’s Midwestern Hayride.
Charlie watched her cross the dining room to the counter and smiled. She smiled back and cheerily said, “Good morning!” Charlie leaned in close and—confidentially, but loud enough for everybody close-by to hear—said, “Hey, Hon, I think you forgot to let the air out of your underwear.” The teacher went red to the roots of her teased-high hair as a wave of laughter went up among the men at the front table just behind Charlie, and she placed her order with Whitie’s older brother Red, without ever looking Charlie’s way again, while Chuck, the third brother behind the counter, held his ribs and guffawed unabashed.
This was typical of the banter that formed part of breakfast at the Teddy Bear Restaurant.  If you wanted to know what was going on in Wapakoneta when I was a kid, all you had to do was spend any weekday morning sitting at the long table at the back of the Teddy Bear’s dining room, next to the kitchen—or in one of the two booths next to it. Sitting in one of those booths was the easiest option if you weren’t a “regular”, because in order to sit at the “front table”, as it was called, despite its being the furthest table from the front door, you had to form part of one of several “in” crowds who sat there.

That table seated eight, and the eight who sat there rotated throughout the morning, and indeed continued to rotate throughout the day. But as the day wore on, it became less and less frequented, and unless a very large family were to come in and usurp it, people just didn’t usually sit there without being part of one of its standing populations. It wasn’t like there were any hard and fast rules chiseled in stone or anything, nor was the table “reserved”, but it just wasn’t done. That was also “the owners’ table”, where Red, Whitie and Chuck sat to socialize with their friends and habitual clientele whenever one of them found five minutes to take a break. The front table was the front table for a reason, and it was kind of naturally reserved as such, unless rush hour precluded sitting anyplace else.
Now, you didn’t have to be a VIP, exactly, to be welcome to sit at the front table. But you did have to have some outstanding trait that made others want you to sit there. You had to be interesting or distinct in some way. For instance, the police chief sat there, not because anybody thought he had a winning personality (he didn’t), but because he’d been the police chief since anybody under the age of forty could remember. Charlie regularly sat there too, not so much because he was the undertaker, though, as because he was the funniest man in town and kept the whole table in stitches whenever he was there (some people in our town, depending on their sense of humor, got some of their best laughs in at the funerals he directed). His jokes were mostly clever and cute, like, “Hey Whitie, did you hear about the girl with three breasts? Yeah, two in front and one on her back. She wasn’t much to look at, but she sure was fun to dance with.”
Whitie and regular "Pudge" Hepp take a break at the "front table".
Then there were business types who had the skinny on commerce: Mark the hardware store owner, Jim the realtor, Scotty and Dutch from the insurance company, Mac McMurray from the bank, Zimmy from the newspaper, Fred who owned the local fertilizer plant, Cecil from the seed and grain company, Vernie the county auditor, Dick who worked at the Marathon oil depot in nearby Lima, Doc Schaefer from across the street, Larry the grumpy junior high principal that the boys called “Bear”, the aging former City Service Director George Washington Anderegg (not so much because of his office as because he knew everything about everybody in Wapak), townspeople from all walks of life, really. Then there was another George, who managed the local J.C. Penney’s. He joined the front table by another means since he was “from out of town”.  He was introduced by Whitie, who’d taken a liking to him right away and said, “He guys, scootch over. This is George, the new Penney’s manager.”
“Hey George, grab a pew,” said Charlie who that day was sitting at the head of the table. He offered George his hand and said, “Charlie. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, Charlie,” said George. “So tell me, what do you do?”
“Me? I deal in underground novelties,” Charlie quipped to an immediate peal of laughter from everyone at the table, except George, who looked baffled.   
Happy Vosler, the justice of the peace sat there too, and so did a former prosecutor (though extreme cheapskate that he was, it was hard to call him a customer since his order often consisted of a ten-cent cup of coffee and all the free refills he could hold, or free hot water, free ketchup and free crackers with which he made himself some “soup”).
There were others, though—local personalities of sorts. Like a fellow some of the guys called “Ace” who was on the work crew for the Gas Company who sat there when the gas gang took its mid-morning break. But he could also sit there any other time he wanted because he had a story, a past, an experience. Ace walked with a very distinct limp. He was an older gent and it seems that when he was much, much younger, well before The War, he had ridden the rails for a time, picking up jobs where he could, doing this and that, seeing new places, barely surviving economically, but actually living along the way.
Local legend had it that it had been Ace’s misfortune to meet up in his travels with an infamous character of nationwide repute, a sadistic railroad detective who had been written up on numerous occasions in a periodical called the Grit—founded by an industrious German immigrant in the 1890s and which, by the 1930s, boasted a circulation of four hundred thousand in rural communities throughout the forty-eight states.
Started in the 1890s the Grit has a 400,000 circulation
by the 1930s.
Known for haunting the boxcars of trains wending their way across America from coast to coast, the railroad enforcer took wicked pleasure in the work of keeping his company’s freight cars bum-free. To make sure any that he caught hitching a ride on his trains never came back, he often tied them up and beat them with a rubber hose, club or sap before unceremoniously chucking them overboard. It all depended on his mood. On occasion he’d put his revolver to a rail hobo’s head and give him the choice of jumping or taking a piece of lead in the temple. Other times he’d pistol whip them and shove them half-unconscious out the door. Still others, he’d enjoy kicking their ribs in for a while before forcibly ejecting them from the moving train.
The story was that he’d eventually gotten his due from a gang of some of the less submissive rail bums who laid an ambush for him by putting one of their number in plain sight and the others hiding in the dark at the far end of the boxcar. When the detective started in on their friend with his nightstick, the others jumped him, disarmed him and beat him within an inch of his life with his own club before knifing him and dumping him off along the tracks. So ended, they say, the infamous career of a high-profile railroad legend...but not before he met up with Ace, who spent days, badly beaten and both legs broken after being kicked off of a moving freight train, lying in the ditch by the tracks in the middle of nowhere before someone found him by chance and saved his life. The fact that he sat at the front table in the Teddy Bear and chewed the fat with the rest of the regulars, then, was a not-so-small miracle.
Then there were Web and his wife, Reena. They had a roofing business and worked shoulder to shoulder. Between Web and Reena, it was hard to tell which was the tougher or crustier and they both dressed identically in plaid work shirts, blue denim bib overalls, engineer caps over their shaggy white hair and well-worn Red Wing work shoes on their feet. One difference, Reena wore gray cotton railroad socks with her clunky shoes while Web was partial to black ones, one of which—you could see when his dungaree legs were hiked up—was held up by a red thumb-tack, a singularly disturbing sight unless you happened to know that, from the knee down, that leg was made of wood.
Web never said much. Drank his coffee and ate his donuts in silence, clearly glad to have a table full of other men to have to listen to his wife’s constant jabber for a while. Besides, every time he opened his trap, she’d say, “Oh pipe down. You don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about anyway.”

Reena, on the contrary, always and authoritatively had something to talk about and the stories she told were so hair-raising that nobody wanted to miss them, so the couple were also regulars at the front table. No matter what she did, it seemed to turn into a folk narrative. Like the time she and Web were quarreling while they were on a roof working and under confusing circumstances, Web ended up rolling off the roof onto the ground. It knocked the wind out of him but he readjusted his peg leg and dragged himself to his feet. While Reena was hollering down, “Hey, answer me, y’old fool, are you okay?” Web quietly took down the ladder, loaded it onto the pickup and drove home, leaving his partner on the roof. “Bastard left me there all night,” Reena complained. Web just nodded and smiled as the other men at the table roared.
Or the time Reena told about her pitched battle with a huge rat that had gotten into their house on the edge of town. “Tried to shoot the damn thing with my shotgun, but all I did was blow the screen door off its hinges. I finally got it cornered but didn’t have anything to hit it with so I just reached down and grabbed it, but only caught it by its hind quarters, so it kep’ a-flippin’ back and forth and a-bitin’ me on the wrists, see?” She pulled up the cuffs of her work shirt and showed her chewed-up wrists to her fellow diners at the long table. “But I couldn’t let it go, so I finally got one hand around its neck and choked the bastard. Wanna see it? I got it out there in the truck...”
“No!” a collective shout went up.
“Thought I’d send ‘er down to Columbus, see if it had rabies.”
Guys like Charlie and Fred found Reena hilarious, but some of the more squeamish customers on occasion ended up leaving their breakfasts half-eaten when she was in. Like the time she came in and said, “Well, I sure screwed up this time. Just look at this!” and set a little rectangular cardboard jewelry box with something lying on a bed of cotton in the middle of the table.
The guys all leaned forward to look. Some put on their reading glasses. Somebody said, “What the hell’s that, Reena?”
“Well, can’t you see? It’s my damn finger. Cut it off at the first knuckle with the tin shears this morning. Came to ask Doc Schaefer to sew it back on, but he said it was too late, so I guess I’ll keep it for a souvenir.”
Reena was generous to a fault, though. Once, right in the middle of the noon rush, she elbowed her way through the people waiting to place their orders and slung a stringer full of crappies, bluegills and rock bass onto the counter before the horrified stares of the clientele and squawked, “Here, Whitie, these are for you. Caught ‘em at Turkeyfoot this morning. Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’.”
Practical jokes were the order of the day among the livelier boys at the front table, and sometimes among the boys behind the counter as well. For instance, Charlie was always razzing Whitie about the size of the eggs the Teddy Bear served—not because there was really anything wrong with the eggs, which were farm fresh from Frosty Erb’s poultry shop across the street, but just because it was so much fun to needle Whitie, who went livid with irritation instead of simply saying, “Screw you, Charlie,” like the other two brothers did. So, every time Whitie served Charlie his eggs and bacon, the towering funeral director would raise the plate halfway to his nose, gaze disdainfully at his breakfast and say, “Hey Whitie, where the hell’d you get these eggs, out of a sparrow’s nest?” or, “Since when do you guys have Cornish hen eggs on the menu?” or, “If I’d have known the size of these things, I’d have called ahead and had you scramble me up a dozen or so.”
Sick of the wisecracks, when Whitie was buying the eggs across at Erb’s Poultry one morning, he said, “Hey Frosty, don’t you have any bigger eggs than these?”
“What’s wrong with these?”
“I don’t know, Charlie’s driving me nuts about how small they are all the time. Makes me so mad I could just spit! Always razzing me about sparrow eggs and Cornish hen eggs and whatnot.”
“They don’t get any bigger than this, Whitie,” Frosty chuckled, lovingly caressing the large white eggs stacked in their cartons on the counter. “These are grade A farm eggs. You know Charlie, Whitie. He just likes to josh you.”
“Yeah, well, it gets friggin’ old, I can tell you,” Whitie complained. “I serve the best quality stuff I can find.”
On the way out the door of the shop, however, he passed by a crate that caught his eye. It held the biggest eggs he’d ever seen. Twice as big as even the most respectable of hen’s eggs.
“Hey, Frosty,” he said, “if those are grade A large, what the hell are these?”
“Oh, those? Why, Whitie, them’s duck eggs.”
Whitie picked one up, held it up between his middle finger and thumb, then laughed and said, “Wrap me up half a dozen of these babies.”
Next morning, as usual, the undertaker ordered two eggs, sunny side up and snotty with a side of crisp bacon and whole-wheat toast cut horizontally, not on the bias. When the order was ready, Whitie set the platter on the counter, a wide grin on his face and said, “Okay, Chaz, your order’s up.”
When Charlie stepped up to the counter, he was stupefied at what he saw: two perfectly cooked eggs that not only completely covered the plate but hung amply over the sides, so that his bacon was lying on  the egg whites instead of beside them and his order of toast had been served on a separate saucer, because there was no room for it on the platter.
Charlie seemed stunned into silence.
Still grinning, Whitie said, “So what’ve you got to say about those goddamn eggs, Charlie?”
“Well...tell you what, Whitie,” Charlie said, “I think you better put me on another couple of orders of toast. I’m gonna be here a while.”
Charlie never again challenged the size of the Teddy Bear’s eggs.  
And then there was this one March seventeenth when Red went to pick up the big waxed-cardboard boxes of breakfast rolls at the City Bakery and when it was time to pay Mr. Bennett, the baker, he said, “No charge, Red. Mac McMurray said to tell you that, this being Saint Patrick’s day, breakfast is on him.”
“No shit?” said Red, open-mouth.
“Scout’s honor, Red,” said Mr. Bennett holding up three fingers with one hand and crossing his heart with the other. “That’s what Mac said.”
And when Red got the rolls back to the Teddy Bear and unboxed them, every single donut, long-john and jelly roll was iced a bright shamrock green.
There was this other time when another front-table cut-up and wild thing, Dick “the Marathon man”, who was always complaining that the coffee was too strong, when asked if he wanted a refill, said, “Hell no, I don’t want a refill! In fact, Whitie here shouldn’t even have a license to sell coffee! He should be banned, shunned, shut down. In fact, I have half a mind to toss a stick of dynamite in here and blow this sonuvabitch up!” Then he drank down the rest of his coffee in a single gulp, shuddered, stormed out the side door into the alley, got into his pickup and peeled out of the parking lot spraying gravel.
So convincing was his planned mad and exit that some of the more naïve patrons at the front table said, “Hey, what the hell, who bit him in the ass?” But minutes later, Dick was back, screeching to a halt at the front door and shouldering his way in with a Zippo lighter in one hand and what looked, for all the world, like a stick of dynamite in the other. Like John Wilkes Booth shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” after shooting Lincoln, Dick histrionically yelled, “I warned you this’d happen you white-headed bastard,” lit the fuse and tossed the hissing cartridge into the dining room in front of the counter. Some of the guys who were used to Dick’s antics grinned dumbly waiting for the punchline, but Dick was already back in his truck, burning rubber up the street (though not very far before parking to watch what happened). Now even the three boys behind the counter, who knew wild man Dick well, were laughing a little nervously. As for the clientele in the booths and at other tables, some had jumped up and raced out the door as soon and Dick threw in the “bomb”, while others screamed or hit the deck. And even Dick’s buddies at the front table had gone pallid and were standing to make a run for it by the time the fuse sputtered, went psssssft, and went out, leaving the whole place in shocked silence under a pall of blue smoke, staring at the harmless, red-painted length of broom-handle that lay on the floor by the counter.
Another morning, Reba Mae, Whitie’s pretty young wife, who also worked at the Teddy Bear Restaurant, was working in the kitchen when she saw Charlie and Louie sail like a streak past the side door toward the parking lot in Charlie’s Cadillac ambulance and wondered what the rush was. Louie was Charlie’s assistant and friend from high school days. They were practically bookends in size, two huge men who pretty much filled the broad front seats of the funeral home’s matching Caddy ambulance and hearse whenever they rode in them together.
On this particular morning, no sooner had the ambulance zipped by than Charlie was back, on foot, rushing in through the side door and into the kitchen, grabbing Reba Mae around the waist and hauling her, with her feet barely touching the ground, toward the storage room at the back of the shop.
“Quick, Reba!” Charlie urged her. “Hurry, we have to hide you!”
“Hey, wait a minute!” Reba squealed.
“No time, hurry, SAVE YOURSELF!” Charlie cried.
“Why, Charlie?” Reba Mae asked, trying to twist free from the big man’s grasp. “What the heck’s going on?”
“Louie’s got a sore throat,” Charlie answered, “and he said he was coming in here to get something to suck on!”
The front table at the Teddy Bear Restaurant had a life of its own. Like the Teddy Bear itself, it was unique, familiar, a singular place in a singular town. It formed a tradition and part of the story of Wapakoneta that seemed stable, unchanging, never-ending, like a rock that would always be there. But in the end, it turned out to be a memorable chapter in an ever-changing world. 

(This is the first essay in a random series on the Teddy Bear Restaurant)               

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!