Monday, December 8, 2014

PART TWO: THE HOUSE OF THE TEMPLE MASTER


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

       
  


Monday, December 1, 2014

PART ONE: PORTRAIT OF A LONG LOST FRIENDSHIP


After a couple of marathon days of getting acquainted, there’s a point during a rare lull in the conversation at which I can’t help saying, “You, my friend, are one crazy sonuvabitch.” To which he laughs genuinely and heartily, taking the pronouncement like it was uttered—as a compliment.
Jim Bowsher and I: A meeting long overdue,and both of us still crazy 

after all these years.
It’s that we’ve both been around long enough and have gotten around far enough to know that, among artists, musicians and writer types (like us), being crazy isn’t a fault, but a virtue. In fact, being crazy is the principal requirement for what we do. The actual writing, the creating, is merely an outgrowth of our obsessive madness. The craft comes to us, as he keeps reminding me during our conversations, from “the muse” and—other than practicing and honing it, because that’s our assigned task and duty—is pretty much beyond our control. Being empathically obsessive-compulsive enough to want to know “the story” behind everything and everyone around us (and worse still, dying to retell it) is what sets us apart. And the fact is, we can’t help it. That’s just the way we’re wired, and still crazy after all these years. 
But this guy, Jim, has wandered beyond the lunatic fringe to bring myriad pieces of the stories he gathers home with him, creating a unique space (not just in Wapakoneta, but in the world) that isn’t for the mediocre, the obtuse, the insensitive or the faint of heart. At first glance, the inside of his house might remind some people of a museum. But it’s not that. It’s far more: a repository of meticulous and miniscule histories. Museums are places where what are on display are, in general, artifacts removed from the flow of the world and “collected for exhibition.” Things rendered dead by institutionalization, through which we might imagine a story, but that often no longer have any real, tangible anecdotes attached to them. Jim’s place, however, is a venue so saturated with human narrative that it hits me in the middle of the chest as soon as I walk through the door.
Each exquisite piece is there not for itself but for the story 
attached to it.
The fact is that every piece of memorabilia that clutters his house in orderly if—within the usual sense of normality—insane array is, rather like him, a living legend. Each exquisite piece is there not for itself but for the story (and so the spirit) attached to it. Or at least they are as long as he’s still around to mentally and spiritually connect with the countless items and to tell each of their stories. He is the veritable medium who maintains the link between all of this “stuff” and its plethora of stories. And that’s why the most sensitive of people either “creep out” or wax emotive on entering the place. Me, I just felt a powerful lot of energy pouring from that house the moment I stepped over the threshold.    
Jim Bowsher is a Wapakoneta icon.
Jim who? Wapakawhosis?
Among other things, Jim Bowsher is a guy I went to school with. And Wapakoneta is the little western Ohio town where we both grew up. He was a year ahead of me in school and ran with a different crowd. We weren’t friends. Nor were we enemies. Fact is, I don’t think we ever even spoke to each other all through grade school and high school. Whenever people mentioned him to me later in life, all I remembered was his bright little-boy face and the name linked to it because he was “Oh yeah, the one-eyed kid.”
He lost the sight in one eye in an accident while playing when he was six. My mother would always remind my brother and me of “that poor little Bowsher boy” whenever she saw us trying to lasso each other because the story was that Jim had had his eye knocked out with the end of a rope in similar horseplay. (When I dare to ask, he clarifies that it was indeed with a rope but that he was playing by himself at the time, lassoing not another kid, but a tree).
I’m reminded of this at our first get-together when, enthused with the story he’s telling and gesticulating to make a point, he bats his wine glass with the back of his hand and bathes the table in front of him in cabernet, instantly exclaiming, “Oh shit! One eye, people! No depth perception,” before sopping it up with a towel he’s handed while forging on with the anecdote and without missing a beat. I’m told that back when Jim lost the eye, when the surgeon explained to him that he would never be able to see out of it again and asked how he felt about it, the precocious six-year-old said, “Well, I guess it’s just one more thing that’ll make me unique.”
So anyway, oddly enough, we only just met for the first time a few weeks ago while I was back in town for a brief visit. The connection was immediate. And after our first volley of introductory dialogue—for which we commandeered not only the conversation, but also the kitchen table (and indeed the kitchen) until nearly 4 a.m. in the childhood home of mutual friend Victoria Smith—a sort of neutral ground familiar to both of us since we had separately hung out here in our high school days, basking in the warmth, humor, intelligence, generosity, cultural diplomacy and educational incentives of our extraordinary high school Spanish teacher and Vicki’s mother, Jan Smith—I, for one, and I think both of us, had a mixed sense of happy fascination and sorrow that we were just becoming friends at this late date and had missed a fifty-year opportunity to commune intellectually as innate and inveterate story-tellers and recorders of human joy, tragedy and foible. There was a feeling that we should have met in high school—that, hell, we should have met in grade school.
Jim is an innate storyteller.
By his own confession, Jim, like me, has never wanted to be anything but a writer, although that is not to say that we haven’t had other interests. My main one was music when I was young and making a living at it, before I began a full-time career in journalism after traveling to South America. Jim’s have been far more diverse: history, archeology, geology, anthropology, folklore and oral traditions. And in all of these areas he has sought supreme expertise rather than simply dabbling. It’s little wonder that, apart from his writing, he also earns a living as an itinerant and much sought after lecturer. This he does under his own name. Not so with his writing. Jim is known to be a successful writer, but you’ll have to take his word for it. An extrovert but with a hermit’s sense of privacy, he writes under a pseudonym...which practically no one knows. Not even his brother, Walt, with whom he shares not only family ties but a close and enduring friendship. And his fierce independence is just as patent in the unique relationship he shares with his Japanese wife, a highly respected photographer, who lives much of the time in her native Japan. Though tied by an intimate bond, neither would ever think of attempting to mold the other to his or her convenience or of restricting each other’s creative growth or geographic preferences. People in general might find this hard to comprehend, but between creatives, it’s a match made in heaven and they live happily together whenever they can.
Speaking of which, Jim is a world traveler. He has truly journeyed far and wide. Unlike me, however, he has always gone back home, while I’ve been an expatriate these past four decades.
He says his writer friends in New York are curious about why someone of his craft and talent would be so attracted to life in Wapakoneta, Ohio. His response and attitude remind me of a story about two great American writers—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Observing the brilliance, talent and intellectual capital of Thoreau, Emerson struggled to convince his retiring, rustic, untraveled colleague that he should venture out into the world, that he should tear loose from his native Concord, Massachusetts, and go to Europe. Why, Henry wondered, would he want to do that? Because, his friend Ralph explains, it’s Europe! Where the cultural capitals of the world are—the great art, the finest architecture, the grand museums, artists and writers of a superior order! To which Thoreau looks around him at the pastoral scenery of small-town Concord and says, “Isn’t this enough?”
Jim, like Thoreau, has discovered a fascinating world, an all-absorbing history, a spiritual and intellectual treasure trove right under his nose. He indeed travels the globe, but there’s always plenty to come home to.
Besides, Jim tells his big-city friends, here in Wapakoneta, there are no distractions, whereas in the Big Apple, there’s always something going on, someone to meet, some place to hurry out to. Wapakoneta is a sure cure for writer’s block, Jim figures. “Try living through an Ohio winter in a small town and see if you don’t write!” he laughs.
He is nothing if not original in his projects. His latest: teaching writing to hardened criminals in several high-security prisons. And, not content with this, he has invented a course that, to his knowledge, is unique in the US prison system: writing for death row inmates. Talk about a tough audience! Jim tells us about a prison class in which the guys are so tough he’s practically standing on his head to pique their interest. Little by little, however, he starts winning them over, getting them interested, even getting them enthused. All except for one guy, a hardened lifer-convict, who sits slouched low in his seat, arms folded over his chest, observing Jim as if measuring him for a pine box. Jim says, “Okay, something’s bothering you about me. What is it?” The guy never moves a muscle, never changes his pose. “You see me in a particular light,” Jim tries again. “Tell me, how do you see me?”
Without even bothering to unfold his arms, the felon looks Jim right in the eyes and answers, “In a ditch.”          
At three-ish, I reluctantly tell Jim I have a 9 a.m. breakfast date, to which he laughs and says, “Great! Then we have until eight-thirty.”
With continued reluctance, I say, “Maybe you do, pal, but my energy doesn’t stretch that far anymore. I drove five hundred miles today and I’m going to need a few hours of sleep.”
“Okay,” says Jim, “but one more story. You’re gonna love this one,” and off he launches into another anecdote about “Wapak” people, which reminds him of another one and another one, until, as four approaches, I have to insist.
Coincidentally, before arriving in town, I’d made an appointment to see Jim. For ten years, mutual friends had been urging us separately to get together. Having learned a little about him, I’d decided it was high time I shrugged off my innate diffidence and met him, so I’d asked Jodi Knoch, another close mutual friend, to set it up for the following Monday.
But this Friday meeting had been an unexpected gift bestowed on both of us by our friend Vicki. Her brother Bart, sister-in-law Elisha and niece Emily joined us for a late supper after I blew into town from a breakfast date with an old friend in Chattanooga, two states away. But shortly after midnight, when Jim and I were just getting warmed up, they had reached their saturation point for story-absorption and said their goodnights. As hostess, Vicki was stuck with us for the duration.
Now we both hug her goodnight. Out on her front walk, Jim and I shake hands and express our mutual admiration.
“You’re coming to my place Monday, right?” he says, but it’s a statement more than a question.
“Of course,” I say. “I’ll rest up.” We both laugh.
To be continued...      


  

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)