Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Tour 2 – Pine Street

*Caption: Our house on Pine Street as it looks today.

A stark, bulldozed lot, a typical, post-war, fifties-style, modified A-frame. A house that differed only in paint color from two beside it, the three all built by the same man, an erstwhile farmer by the name of Botkins, who had decided to start a real estate development, one house at a time, on the cheap and on a piece of his land that was more town now than country.

Whatever possessed my father to sell our house on Defiance Street in a lightning operation while Mom was giving birth to my little brother, I’ll never know. But if I’m guessing (judging from my father’s Scottish thrift, which he inherited from his own dad) it probably had to do not with comfort or aesthetics, but with economics. Perhaps a rise in the price of coal, coupled with less than adequate insulation, with his compulsive neatness and utter hatred of getting his hands dirty – in those days, you had to go down to the basement every so often and heave a few shovelfuls of coal into the furnace, and later clear out the “clinkers” with long-handled tongs – and with the high cost of converting to some other fuel, were what decided him. And when he was on one of his manic highs, he was nothing if not gregarious. So I’m speculating here, but I can just imagine him bumping into Mr. Botkins at, say, the gas station, striking up a conversation, deciding to go see the three new houses the man had built, “just a stone’s throw from the elementary school…young feller like you, y’got kids?” – and, bingo! A down payment and “something to surprise Reba with when she gets home from the hospital, by golly – our brand new, modern home!”

Mom was less than thrilled, I’m sure. The last thing she needed to do when she was just home with her new baby boy was pack up and move. But it was all decided, signed, sealed and delivered. As usual, she made the best of it, looked at the bright side and along with her mother and sister, even made the move fun for us, while her brothers and father organized and handled the grunt work. In a matter of hours we were moved in and within a couple of days, the Pine Street house was a fully operating home.

As it looks today, that house is closed all the way across the front. I’m assuming some subsequent owner added on another room or a workshop. But the original design had some surprising features for being a basically economical construction and a house built for sale, not for the builder to live in. Built off of the north end of the house there was, originally, not just a car port – an invention of those times that was basically a cheap way to provide shelter for a vehicle without going to the expense of building a full-fledged garage – but also a garage. This opened up a whole range of possibilities that neither construction, on its own, could deliver. You could have two vehicles, or you could have one and park it conveniently on the car port in good weather and in the garage in bad. You could use the car port for the car and turn the garage into a workshop or storage area. You could even finish the inside walls and floor of the garage and turn it into a playroom or guestroom. This dual feature was really an added value.

There were also some purely design features that were surprising, like the false shutters with rhomboidal designs on the front windows that gave the house a more finished look (and that have since been removed). But in general, it was plain, cheap construction.

Caption: L-R - Dan, Darla and Jim, first summer on Pine Street.

It was fairly bright and roomy for a small house, however. It was all ‘50s efficiency: rather small but well-placed windows to cut down on heating bills, a natural gas furnace for heat, a modern all-electric kitchen and built all on one storey with 8-foot ceilings. The front door at the top of a two-step concrete stoop opened directly into the living room. From the living room there was an open archway into the kitchen and dinette (efficient post-war construction also did away with the dining room, since most people ate in their kitchens anyway). Unlike our kitchen on Defiance Street where light flooded in through side windows and the glass pane of the back door, this kitchen was the only room that was always a bit dark, since it only had a small square window directly over the sink facing west, so that it only got light in the afternoon. There was a side door out of the kitchen with a small windowpane in the top part of it but it gave onto the carport, which was roofed and faced north and, so, offered little light. But the living room had a large thermo-pane picture window that let in plenty of light. Typical of energy-efficient ‘50s construction, it had no side windows that could be opened, so the only way to ventilate this main room in the summertime, when it was hot, was to open the front door and let air in through the screened storm door. But the living room was nothing if not cozy in winter.

Caption: Our first Christmas on Pine St. (L-R: Dan, Jim and Darla)

There was no hallway to speak of, just a sort of indentation off of the southeast end of the living room, off of which opened doors into two bedrooms and the bathroom, located left, right and center. The bedroom on the left was where my parents and infant brother slept. The one on the right was my sister’s. The tiny bathroom stole a piece of space from the bedrooms on either side of it so as to have room for the toilet just inside the door on the left, the lavatory and medicine chest right next to it and a short-ish bathtub wall to wall across the back under a privacy window. On the right-hand wall was a towel rack and above it, my mother had hung a family of five typically ‘50s mother-of-pearl and black ceramic fish that ranged in size from large to small and three diminishing magnitudes in between and there was a tiny linen cupboard behind the bathroom door to which there was access only when the door was closed. The windows in the two bedrooms and bath – one small, typically American-style, double-hung vertical sash window per bedroom – faced east onto the back yard. The only bedroom that faced west onto the front yard was mine, the door of which opened onto the living room.

The Sun also Sets

In my five-year-old world of sheer immediacy, I recall being in two minds about my room. On Saturday mornings when my sister, Darla, would, out of boredom, occasionally invite me into her room for some game of her invention – paper dolls, for instance, which I wasn’t yet old enough to find effeminate and which consisted of using blunt-ended scissors to cut out magazine pictures of our favorite movie and TV personalities, affixing them to poster-board backing traced and cut to fit the cutouts that then became dolly characters in plots that Darla created – I recall wishing I could have that room where the morning sun streamed in when my room was still dark. But each afternoon, I would once again favor my own room where the west-bound sun now lighted the hills and dales of my bed and floor that became the routes on which my toy trucks and cars made fascinating and often dangerous journeys.

Back in our days on Defiance street, we had been among the first families in Wapakoneta to have a television set. It had been a real novelty. But Darla and I had since become part of the first generation of American kids who didn’t know what it was like not to have TV and our little brother Dennis James was born directly into Marshall McLuhan’s “global village”. So our enormous Admiral cabinet-model TV naturally traveled with us to our new home and was ubiquitously placed in a strategic corner of the living room where it was easily visible from all angles.

Clearly, however, we were not the totally media-absorbed, media-interactive kids of today. TV was still a primitive, black and white medium, with fast-growing but still highly limited technology at all levels. And as such, it still had a stimulating rather than stultifying effect on our young brains. I would watch the Lone Ranger (Rossini’s William Tell Overture that served as its theme song was my first introduction to classical music and I never missed the start of the series because I found that piece so thrilling and inspiring) and then act out the episodes in the vast world of our back yard, in scenes peopled by the invisible cast that I carried away from the show in my imagination. When there was snow on the ground, I was Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the warning I shouted to the crooks and killers I invented was, “Stop in the name of the Crown”, which was fair warning, I figured, just before I gunned them down.

Homemade Interactive

That’s not to say, however, that there was no such thing as interactive TV. Stone Age interactive, admittedly, but interactive all the same. It was a show called Winky Dink and You that aired Saturday mornings at 10:30 on CBS. It starred the tousle-haired, plaid-trousered cartoon character Winky Dink and his dog Woofer. The adventurous boy and his dog were always getting into tight spots and it was my job to help them out. For this purpose, I was required to pester my mother until she finally ordered the official magic screen and special Winky Dink crayons. The kit cost 50 cents (or the price of two hamburgers), which didn’t seem like such a lot to me. My mother assured me, however, that 50 cents was, indeed, a lot if you didn’t have it. But when she saw how frustrating the show was without the interactive portion – the cow-eyed protagonist would stand around waiting for your help that never came, which seemed almost tragic – she eventually gave in.

The Winky Dink interactive kit consisted of a large piece of transparent yellow vinyl and the magic Winky crayons. The TV screen generated ample static electricity so that the plastic “magic screen” could easily be applied to the glass surface and remain in place as if it had been glued on. I then sat cross-legged on the floor, directly in front of the TV or in a little child’s chair that my mother provided so that I would be more at the proper height to carry out the task at hand. As the plot developed, situations emerged in which Winky required my help: “Quick! Winky Dink is being chased! Draw a bridge so that he and Woofer can cross the river to safety!” And I would use my Winky crayons to create a bridge on my magic screen and then watch the cartoon hero cross it – or cross reasonably near it, at least. You had to have a rag handy to wipe off whatever you put on the screen, however, unless you wanted the bridge, or tent, or stick figure, or whatever you had drawn, to invade every scene from then on.

At first, I was often too slow and Winky would, I was astonished to find, eventually rush across whether the bridge was finished or not. But I ended up getting quicker – if for no other reason, in order to maintain the illusion that I was actually helping the hero.

Field and Stream

But except for evenings and weekend mornings, I really wasn’t the kind of kid that was glued to the TV screen. I was crazy about the great outdoors, and even in the dead of the harshest Ohio winters, my mother was hard-pressed to get me to stay inside. She worried because I had had pneumonia when I was three and was prone for years afterward to any combination of croup, bronchitis and tonsillitis, but my health probably improved as much as it did thanks to all the time I spent outdoors.

I wasn’t picky about activities. Left to my own devices, my vivid imagination permitted me to play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians or war with a host of other personalities that only existed on TV or in my mind. And later, books would be added to the mix. I never minded playing alone. If somebody else was around, great. But if not, my made-up characters were practically as real to me as any playmate I could have had.

If all else failed there were always Marie and Chuddah, my imaginary sister-friends from Defiance Street, who would continue to accompany me for a while longer. In fact, I remember the day that we parted company. It was about a year after we moved. I was on the back stoop of my father’s parents place, across from the house on Defiance where we had once lived. My Grandma Alice had been peeling green walnuts for some culinary project and, messy as the job was, had decided to do it on the back porch instead of in the kitchen. I was sitting on the steps watching her, taking in the pungent, almost citric fragrance of the green walnut peels, when Grandma Alice hurried inside to answer the phone. It was a long conversation and, as usual when I was bored, Marie and Chuddah showed up. But this time, it was different. The two of them just stood there. They were holding hands. We talked but none of us seemed to have anything to say and nobody seemed to want to do anything special. After a long silence, the two of them, still holding hands, held up their free hands to wave goodbye. Then they turned their backs on me and walked away in the direction of our old house. They had evidently decided to stay there and not return to Pine Street. I never saw them again.

I also tagged along with my sister whenever she let me. Sometimes she naturally got tired of my company, as big sisters will, but she usually was tolerant and involved me in her own more complex games, since she was an unusually intelligent little girl and was already feeding her mind with every children’s book she got her hands on. She often shared them with me, showed me the pictures and read them to me. I was fascinated by this whole reading thing and couldn’t wait to learn how myself. In spite of the new TV phenomenon, reading became an enormous part of our lives. Both our mother and her mother, Grandma Myrt, were avid readers and whenever Mom had time or Grandma was over for a visit, it wasn’t uncommon at all for one or the other of them to sit in the middle of the couch with my sister on one side and me on the other and read classic stories and fables to us from the Golden Book and Childcraft series that Mom bought for us.

Darla was much more gregarious than I was, though, and it was through her that I started meeting the neighbor kids. The first ones to start coming over were Junior and Patty, who lived across the street. Darla made friends with Patty, who was a couple of years older than she was, and Junior, who was between Darla and me in age, started coming over and trying to make friends with both of us. I didn’t really like him much. He was loud, and his nose, which he wiped on his sleeve, ran all the time. He was constantly spitting hawkers in the grass or farting or doing some other gross thing. And if things didn’t go his way, he took it upon himself to beat up whoever his playmate happened to be at the time. On top of everything else, he told the most tremendous lies!

Once when my father was trying to create a lawn out of the rocky, gullied terrain that was our front yard, Junior came over and stood watching. I didn’t want to play with him and stuck close to Dad, pretending to be absorbed in the work I was ostensibly “helping” with. With his usual “joy” for manual labor, Dad was attacking some tough, gnarled roots with a spade and then with his bare hands, yanking, heaving and pulling on them, trying his best to get them to break free. And, also as usual, he starting taking their obstinacy personally. He would punctuate each jerk and tug with an epithet: “Come-the-hell-on, you-stubborn-assed-son-of-a-bitch!” And then remembering my presence and that of Junior, he toned it down, saying, “Did you ever in your life see more uneven terrain than this? You’d think Botkins could have at least leveled the damn thing properly before he built the house on it. I mean it’s just one dip and gully on top of the other.”

Junior, who had a wildly imaginative seven-year-old’s opinion on every subject, took this as his cue.

“Well now, Mr. Newland, I know why it’s like that,” he said.

“Oh you do, huh?” my father answered absent-mindedly while continuing to heave on a particularly stubborn root with his bare hands.

“Yup. It’s cause o’ what ol’ Botkins buried under here.”

Now this even got Dad’s attention. He stopped, stood up, pushed up his steamy eyeglasses with his middle finger and stood with his hands on his hips staring at Junior.


“Yup. No wonder it’s so uneven. Ol’ Man Botkins buried a Ferris wheel under your house.”

“A Ferris wheel! Aw come on now Junior!”

“Yup, I seen him do it. There used to be a Ferris wheel. I used to come over and ride it all the time. Ol’ Botkins, he couldn’t get it tore down cause it was too big, so he just covered it up with dirt and built that house on it.”

“Aw, come on now, Junior,” Dad said again. “Your darn nose is gonna grow if you keep lyin’ like that.”

“I ain’t lyin’, Mr. Newland. Cross my heart. You got a Ferris wheel right under your house. Nobody else knows it, but I seen that ol’ man bury it.”

Long afterward my parents still laughed from time to time about the Ferris wheel on top of which Mr. Botkins had built our house.

Junior was right about one thing, though: There was indeed something buried there. Namely, the roots of what Mr. Botkins’ tractor had stripped from the surface of the land, the very roots that my father had been attacking with such righteous vigor and with his bare hands. The roots of the ancient stand of poison ivy that had long thrived there, before the land became a real estate project. Needless to say, Dad suffered the worst case of poison ivy you could possibly imagine on his hands, arms, face and chest and almost went crazy with the itching, before Mom soothed his blisters with cornstarch and Caladryl. We also made a discovery about me, since I had been “helping”. We found out that I had a natural immunity to poison ivy. I didn’t get a single blister.

For all of his other faults, however, it was Junior who introduced my sister and me to the “forbidden zone”. Forbidden, because he wasn’t allowed to go there and neither were we, but we went every chance we got. Right behind our back yard was about an acre of land that Mr. Botkins still farmed for his own consumption – a truck patch, he called it. And right behind that was an area that, at the time, was still wild and untamed. It wasn’t very big, I now realize, but back then it seemed like an endless wilderness. It was on the southeastern edge of town, a few acres of swampy, low scrub forest that still probably looked much as it had when part of the Shawnee nation still made its home in all of this area. It formed a kind of crescent around the east and south sides of the three lots that Mr. Botkins had built up with fill-dirt before he constructed our house and the other two beside it and ended in a sometimes-pond beyond the third lot, which went dry in the dead of summer, but sometimes spilled over onto the street during the spring thaw.

The Zone

That was a world like I’d never seen before. It was strange and somehow eerie. The low tree-canopy and heavy underbrush created a natural filter that, to me, made the place seem as if it were in constant twilight. It was so marshy that cattails grew there along with scrub oak, pussywillow, bittersweet and spearmint. That’s not all that thrived there. It was also home to groundhogs, possums and raccoons, crows, cardinals, owls and hawks, toads, tree frogs and a colorful variety of snakes – king snakes, grass snakes, garter snakes and (the name that most fascinated me) blue racers. Some old folks in the neighborhood said there were water moccasins and copperheads back there too, but I think that was just to scare us. There were also anthills and hornet nests and spiders the size of a golf ball.

Caption: Darla and Dan, just back from the forbidden zone.

The topography included soppy, methane-smelling swamp, small grassy knolls, briary thickets and an occasional quartz boulder. There were even treacherous patches here and there of what we called quicksand – perhaps not the real quicksand that sucked people in and swallowed them whole like in scary movies, but boggy ground with greasy clay-like mud into which a child could easily sink to mid-calf and over. For us, it was a vast land of adventure, practically in our back yard. And when our mothers heard the yard fall silent and we were nowhere to be seen, they could usually count on finding us there.

Punishment for straying there, in our case, ranged from being made to stay inside (Darla couldn’t have cared less, since if grounded, she simply read, colored with Crayola crayons in her coloring book or played with her dolls, but for me, being penned up was a fate worse that death) to a couple of good whacks across the bottom with Mom’s yardstick, which, if she had to come looking for us because we failed to answer her calls, she was sure to carry along for the occasion.

Mom was not the cold, premeditative type, who would tell you you were in trouble, leave you stewing and thinking about your transgression, call you into a room after the fact, give you a talking-to and sentence you to a spanking “when you father gets here.” No, not at all. Reba Mae believed in swift, on-the-spot punishment. Though back then this sometimes seemed to me unfair, arbitrary and even cruel, I learned to love this trait in her. I found the meditative, dangling-sword judgments of some other kids’ mothers and fathers sinister, unloving and mean. Didn’t they have better things to do than to think all day about how to better make their children’s’ lives miserable, I wondered, or how to demonstrate that they were the superior power and that their kids were mere subjects? With Mom it was never like that. Swift, balanced, expedient, over. That’s how punishment worked with her. Usually she had forgotten completely about such incidents within minutes, while Darla and I were still going around acting as if we were “never speaking to her again”.

Even though we knew the risk we were taking, however, ‘the zone’ was entirely too attractive not to risk it. Usually, it’s the little boys who scare little girls with creepy crawly things. But in this case, Darla was the white hunter and Junior and I who stood by watching in open-mouthed amazement. There was almost nothing my sister was scared of. She caught lightning bugs, preying mantises and spiders in jars, and toads and snakes in her bare hands. She knew just how to hold a toad so that it didn’t hop away or pee on her and she was, to our amazement, able to do it without changing expression or squealing ‘like a girl’. She snatched up snakes, latching onto them at the back of their heads with the professionalism of a snake-charmer and let them wrap body and tail around her forearm. She would catch flies and feed them to a captive mantis and watch as the strange creature enjoyed the feast, holding the prey in its dexterous ‘paws’ and devouring it with it triangular swiveling head. But, unlike a lot of boys, she was never intentionally cruel and always let her captives go after observing them for awhile. It was a treat to go to ‘the zone’ with her. And it wasn’t long before we no longer felt we needed Junior to guide us and left him out completely. ‘The zone’ became exclusively ours. No amount of punishment seemed capable of keeping us from slipping off there from time to time.

Other Friends

Also soon after we arrived at the house on Pine Street, Darla and I were playing outside, making a snow man in our back yard, when we received the visit of two little girls whose own back yard was just across an alley from ours. They approached us like two little phantoms. We were concentrating on our snow sculpture – mostly trying to figure out how to roll up the pristine snow without its getting all full of grass and dirt from the ground beneath – when we suddenly looked up and there they were, standing on the very edge of our yard, by the alley, just gazing impassively at us.

“Hi there!” Darla said, stopping what she was doing. One of them, the biggest one, smiled but didn’t respond. The other one drew closer to her big sister, clutching the sleeve of the older girl’s coat.

I ignored them at first and kept messing with the snow, unsure what to make of the pair. They looked so pretty and vulnerable, somehow, standing there mute in the drifted snow in the pale winter sun. Especially since we had no idea where they had come from. They were wearing tweedy coats and woolen scarves. From under the hems of the coats hung skirts that reached beneath their knees and what showed of their wool-stocking-clad legs were plunged into the same sort of rubber boots my sister was wearing. They were pallid, Nordic-looking girls, with light-colored eyes to match their skin. They wore warm wool stocking caps but the hair that emerged from the bigger girl’s was a shiny, light brown while her little sister’s was unmistakably blonde.

"Do you want to play with us?” Darla tried again.

In response, the older girl leaned over to the younger one and, cupping her mouth and her sister’s ear with a mittened hand, whispered something. Then the other little girl precisely mimicked this same gesture and whispered something into her big sister’s ear. Then in unison, they said, “Okay!”

That was how we met Martha and Mary Lou. Martha, it turned out, was my age and Mary Lou a year or two younger. Darla played with all of us on an occasional basis, but Martha and I became inseparable and wherever Martha went, there too went Mary Lou, so we became a band of three. The fact is, these two sisters came into my life just before Marie and Chuddah decided to leave for good.

Caption: Martha, aged about 8.

With Martha, it became a friendship that would last throughout grade school and high school. But never was it more intimate than during the years when our back yards were an alley apart. On sunny days our respective yards expanded into one and became a world of our making. In bad weather we played at Martha’s house and although my mother tried her best to prevent me from “driving Martha’s mom nuts every single day”, Martha’s mother always got Mom to give in and let me go over and play. The two of us started primary school together, and since Centennial School was just a hundred yards the other way down the alley from us, we walked there and home together every day during the three years that we both attended Centennial.

Martha was a lot like my sister, except that she was my same age, was much less capricious about playing with me and wasn’t, well, my sister. She was, like Darla, however, intelligent, adventurous, imaginative and fun. We were both fast to learn to read in school and by third grade competed to see who could read the most books. We not only enacted many of the fantasies that we read about and saw on TV but also used them as the basis for fantasies of our own invention.

I particularly recall Martha’s “magic wand”. She was “Queen of the Fairies” and could make any wish come true with a wave of that wand. The “wand” was, in reality, a wooden paint-stirrer that her father or mother had obviously used on numerous projects around the house. Half of it – the half Martha held in her hand - was a plain, wooden stick, but the other half (the wand per se) was adorned with the most gorgeous colors – robin’s-egg blue, flamingo pink, ivory-white and bright canary-yellow. But the colors were not nearly as captivating as the magic with which Martha imbued the otherwise unremarkable stick. Over time, I became so enchanted with her ability to convincingly play the Fairy Queen that I actually believed she could wave the wand and make fantasies come to life.

As we grew and had a greater run of the block, our sphere of friends extended and we all engaged in games that permitted more people to participate. Darla was invariably an organizer, along with a newfound friend a year or two older than her, Darlene, from the big house on the corner: We played ‘statue’ and hide-and-go-seek and built snow fortresses for our snowball wars, in the expanding territory of our combined back yards. But from the time I met Martha until the time we once again had to move, if the game didn’t include her, it didn’t include me either.

Moving Day

Three years after we moved to Pine Street, Dad one morning tried to raise the bathroom window that was swollen shut and couldn’t. By this time he was convinced that Mr. Botkins had somehow “hosed him” and had again gotten it into his head to move.

By this time, his manic depression had led him to have his first complete nervous breakdown. After he came back from a clinic in Indiana where he went for treatment, he hit a new high and once again swiftly sold the Pine Street house and moved us to a new place. But this time, Mom couldn’t have been happier. It was, she felt, a dream home.

For me, it would take awhile to adjust. For right now, it simply meant leaving behind Martha and ‘the zone’ and it wasn’t something I wanted to do.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Tour 1 – Defiance Street

Caption: Our fomer house on Defiance Street as it looks today.
The very first home I recall in my hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, was the one on Defiance Street. It wasn’t the first place we lived after I was born, but we moved there not long afterward.
The first place was, I am told, on Lima St. (That’s Lima pronounced like lima beans, not like Lima, Peru). That place my mother, Reba Mae, had gotten not long before my father, Norm, came home from World War II, when the fighting in Europe ended. They got married in the early days of US action in the war, while he was on a three-day leave from training and maneuvers. Almost immediately, he went into processing for overseas duty. He was gone for three and a half years.
Mom had saved for the down payment on that place, first waitressing and then working at the Tank Depot in Lima, Ohio, which was the most important military tank and amphibious vehicle maker in the country. She rose through the ranks there from being a “duck” taper – the job consisted of using a special tape to seal all seams on the amphibs (landing craft called “ducks” because they could “swim” in the sea before coming ashore bearing infantry troops) – to the post of tank inspector by the end of the war.

Lima…not that one, the other one
Since I’ve mentioned Lima twice, I might as well permit myself a generous digression here, since – in addition to the fact that my father was born and raised there – for all of us in Wapak back then, Lima, located 15 miles north, was “the city”. Anybody today seeing, for the first time, the rather hollow shell of Lima that has remained would find this hard to understand, but back then, in the first half of the 20th century, Lima had a real big-city feel about it. And indeed, it was an important American city on a number of fronts.
It was built on what had been part of the Hog Creek Reservation, land which, for a number of years after the Treaty of Greenville, belonged to the Shawnee Nation, but which was opened to white settlement in the 1830s, when the Shawnees were rounded up and forced to surrender their holdings, before being packed off to Kansas. Malaria was rife among the first settlers along the swampy banks of the Ottawa River (better known as Hog Creek – or if you’re from there, Hog ‘crick’). When the settlers found relief through a remedy manufactured in Peru, a pioneering city father known as Judge Patrick G. Goode, suggested that the early white settlement should be called Lima in honor of the Peruvian city where the medication was made. The Judge insisted that the name should be pronounced as in Spanish: Lee-mah. But the Anglicized pronunciation, Lie-mah, was the one that stuck.

It was also on the banks of the Ottawa that Lima’s first source of fortune lay. In 1885, businessman Ben Faurot accidentally discovered oil there. It wasn’t that he wasn’t looking to exploit some natural resource, just not oil. He owned the Lima Paper Mill and wanted a cheap source of both natural gas and water to run it. So he decided to drill for either on the banks of Hog Creek. Whatever he struck first, he would figure that’s what he’d been drilling for. But what his drill hit wasn’t gas or water. Instead, he struck oil and in so doing kicked off the Northwest Ohio Oil Boom.
A savvy operator, Faurot organized a syndicate of local businessmen to buy up the oil rights on farmland on the outskirts of Lima and in the surrounding two counties. But when word of their find got out, the little syndicate, called the Trenton Rock Oil Company, even with its 250 established wells, wasn’t enough to scare off the likes of John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil was operating out of Cleveland at the time.
Rockefeller moved Standard Oil into Lima, built a refinery to improve the sour crude (petroleum with high sulfur content that stinks to high heaven) that the local basin yielded, and by means of the kind of price fixing he had employed elsewhere to create monopoly industries – in this case selling oil at 15 cents a barrel when the earlier market price had been 60 cents – sought to run his smaller Lima competitors out of business. The local oilmen fought back, however, and when an anti-trust decision handed down in 1911 forced Rockefeller to break up his interests, fourteen independent Lima producers founded the Lima Oil Company that would later evolve into Marathon.
In the first decade or so of its history, the Lima oilfield was the largest in the United States and although the Texas oil boom was to render it pale by comparison, Lima remained an important oil industry center, as both a major pumping station (home to the Buckeye pipeline that piped crude all the way to Chicago) and as the headquarters for huge refining operations (the Standard Oil Refinery and Lima Petrochemicals).
I recall when I was a kid, Lima residents being proud that, due to its oil interests and the Tank Depot, Lima was – legend had it – “seventh on Hitler’s list” of American cities he would bomb if Nazi Germany ever found a way to attack the United States directly.
But oil was not Lima’s only claim to fame. Lima steel tycoon John Galvin’s Superior Coach was to become the world’s largest manufacturer of school buses and funeral coaches. The Lima Locomotive Works (later Lima-Baldwin-Hamilton) created the prototype for the modern steam engine and was known worldwide for creating some of the fastest, most powerful steam locomotives anywhere. Out of that industry grew the Ohio Power Shovel Company, a renowned steam-shovel builder. Westinghouse had a major plant in Lima, as did Ford. The Ex-Cell-O Corporation had its headquarters there, as did the electric machinery-maker Lima Electric. The city was also a major manufacturer of parts for heavy cranes used in steel, logging, construction and other industries. And Lima was, additionally, home to a wide variety of other industrial shops, cottage industries, factories and printing operations.
To add to the big-city feeling, it had a few modest “skyscrapers” like the Cook Tower, the National City Bank Building and the Hotel Argonne. No fewer than eight railways served the city carrying passengers and freight all over the United States. The city had two major hospitals, its own symphony orchestra and, eventually, a branch of the Ohio State University. All of this in a city whose population, even in its heyday, never surpassed sixty thousand.

Caption: Lima even boasted a few "skyscrapers" like Cook Tower.

Big-City Bad Boys

But the big-city illusion was also upheld by the less savory side of city life. In the Prohibition years (1919-1933), when the United States Congress provided the Mafia with a golden business opportunity by banning the making, purchase, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, Lima developed, along with its connections to big business, some no less fluid ties with the mob. In those days and in certain circles, the city was known as “Little Chicago”. And although the Italian families that were popularly known to have Mafia connections were considered to be “small potatoes” at a national level, they were apparently held in high esteem in their peer group, since Lima was where certain “heavies” hung out when things were too hot in Chicago or Cleveland, and the local bosses were their hosts: a sort of hospitality industry for temporarily exiled gangsters. As a result, Lima was also home to some great Italian nightclubs, restaurants and speakeasies.
Perhaps the most notorious event in the city’s crime history was the Dillinger jail break, which ended up being a little slice of my own family’s history.

Caption: Notorious gangster, John Dillinger

Bank robber John Dillinger’s criminal reputation reached the status of an urban legend by the time Federal agents gunned him down coming out of a movie theater in Chicago in 1934. But, truth be told, his “fame” was largely undeserved. The fact is that Dillinger went to prison after his first serious armed robbery. He and a friend, who couldn’t find work in their native Indiana, decided to hold up a grocery store. They beat up the owner, stole 120 dollars and were promptly arrested. The judge decided to make an example of Dillinger, who had a previous rap for grand theft auto, and sentenced him to ten to twenty years in prison. He was paroled after eight and a half years in 1933. While he was in prison, he made friends with some of Indiana’s most hardened criminals and became a highly applied apprentice. When he was paroled, it was as if he had graduated from “crime school”.
That year was the one in which Dillinger built his reputation as an armed felon and – in the hard times of the Depression when so many were out of work because of a stock market crash caused mainly by Wall Street’s greed – became, along with Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker and other “professional” gangsters, something of a folk hero.
He went on a crime spree immediately upon release from prison. The first bank he robbed was in New Carlisle, Ohio in June of that year. But after that one he became more sophisticated, posing as a vault security expert and gaining access to safes in several banks using this trick. He and the gang that he formed were eventually credited with having stolen a total of more than 300,000 dollars (an absolute fortune in those days) from a dozen or more banks in a series of holdups using a variety of modus operandi. They also held up a few police stations in order to supply themselves with weaponry, bulletproof vests and other paraphernalia. But all of Dillinger’s major exploits took place within the single year between June 1933, when he was paroled and July 1934, when he was killed in the Chicago shootout with Federal officers.
His jail break at the Allen County Jail in Lima, was what placed him on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list – that and the fact that while he was on the run he stole a car and drove it across the state line into Indiana, which gave the Feds the excuse they had been looking for to take over the Dillinger investigation from a variety of local police from Chicago, Illinois to Dayton, Ohio and points in between. On September 22, 1933, Dillinger and his gang robbed the Citizens National Bank in nearby Bluffton. He was holed up in Dayton, 70 miles south of Lima when he was recognized and tailed by police back north to Lima, where he was placed under arrest.
It was on Columbus Day, October 12, 1933, that three gunmen from Dillinger’s gang, Harry Pierpont, Charles Makley and Russell Clark rolled into town to break him out of the Allen County jail. My great-grandmother, Maude Numbers, owned the diner right across North Main St. from the Allen Country Jail and Courthouse in Lima. She was just closing up when two hulking men in overcoats with slouch hats pulled low over their eyes tried the door and, finding it locked, tapped on the glass with the edge of a fifty-cent piece. Maude ignored them at first, but they were doggedly persistent. When she drew near the glass and mouthed the words “I’m closed!”, one of the men said, “We just want a couple o’ steaks, lady.” Then, holding a fifty-dollar bill up for her to see, he added, “We’ll make it worth your while.” She remembered thinking that they looked like cops or gangsters, one or the other, not just your normal run-of-the-mill guys.
Maude let them in and made them a meal and coffee. They ordered more coffee and pie for dessert. Then they paid her the fifty dollars they’d promised, thanked her and crossed the street to the Allen County jail, where they were joined by a third man.
It was only a matter of minutes afterward that Maude heard gunfire and shouts from across the street. She was hurrying around the counter and across the little dining room to relock her door when – according to her own account – a cop who was one of her morning regulars, burst in, jumped the counter and lay on the floor trembling, revolver in hand saying, “Sweet Jesus, Maudie, they’re gonna kill us all! They’re bustin’ Dillinger out!”
From her description, it seems likely that the two gunmen who ate at Maude Numbers’ diner were Makley and Pierpont. Makley was a big guy with an imposing presence whose nickname was “Fat Charles” and Pierpont (a.k.a. “Handsome Harry”) was always neat, well-dressed and presentable enough to pass for whatever he wished. He had actually held a legitimate job as an insurance salesman – when he wasn’t knocking off banks.
This was not Grandma Numbers’ only brush with gangsters in Lima. She once left her car running in front of the butcher shop while she went in to pick up an order of meat for her diner. While she was inside, a man who had just been involved in an armed robbery and was running from police, jumped into her car and drove off, burning rubber. The car turned up a few weeks later in a high-speed chase in Chicago in which police strafed the vehicle with machine gun fire, killing the driver. He turned out to be a second cousin to Chicago Mafia boss and bootlegger Al Capone. Maude’s car was returned to her much the worse for wear.
In the Dillinger break-out, it seems probable that the thugs were betting on the county jail’s only having a skeleton crew at that hour on a holiday. Although Columbus Day wasn’t declared a Federal holiday until the following year, it was already widely celebrated as a banking and administrative holiday in the United States. It seems odd that Allen County Sheriff Jesse Sarber wouldn’t have been better prepared when holding someone as notorious as John Dillinger, but news stories from that time indicate that when Dillinger’s men walked into the county jail, the sheriff was sitting at his desk reading the newspaper and was accompanied only by Mrs. Sarber and Deputy Wilber Sharp.
Rumor had it at the time that the breakout was a Plan B. The Dillinger Gang had first asked their mob contacts in Lima to check around and see if Sarber could be bought. The answer that came back was, “not a chance”. So they decided to try a ruse instead, telling Sarber that they were Indiana State prison officials and that they were there to take delivery of one John Dillinger and return him to that state for trial. Sarber coolly asked them for their credentials and that was when Makley, Clark and Pierpont all pulled handguns. Clark apparently covered the deputy, while the other two trained their guns on the sheriff and his wife and told Sarber to hand over the keys to the cells. When the lawman reached for his desk drawer, Pierpont evidently thought he was going for a gun. That’s when he shot the sheriff in the stomach. Jesse Sarber fell to the floor, critically wounded.
Now completely out of control, both Pierpont and Makley started shouting at the dying sheriff to tell them where the keys were and punctuated each shout by clubbing him with their pistol butts. Finally, Mrs. Sarber handed over the keys to make them stop pistol-whipping her husband, but by then the sheriff was already mortally wounded.
They gave the keys to Deputy Sharp and made him open the cell block, locking the two witnesses in a holding cell and leaving the sheriff bleeding to death on the office floor. Sharp was later quoted as saying that they fired their guns down the corridor to intimidate the other prisoners and one of them shouted, “You other bastards get back. We don’t want anybody but Johnny.” It was also reported that when Dillinger emerged and saw the moribund lawman on the floor in a pool of blood in the outer office, he said, “Why did you have to do that?” Dillinger knew what this meant. Now there was a murder rap against them, and not just any murder, but that of a cop – and a sheriff to boot.
The murder in the City of Lima not only placed Dillinger on the most wanted list, but also turned out to be the final downfall of Pierpont, Makley and Clark. They were on the lam for some months after the jail break that cost Sheriff Sarber his life and got as far as Tucson, Arizona, but by March 1934, they had all been captured, tried and found guilty of murder. When they were extradited to Lima for trial, it was the new Allen County Sheriff, Don Sarber, the late Jesse Sarber’s own son, who headed the posse that escorted the prisoners back to the scene of the crime and bound them over to the court for trial.
Makley and Pierpont were sentenced to death. Clark got a life sentence. Makley, a native of Saint Marys, Ohio, was shot to death in a botched prison break at the state penitentiary in Columbus, where he was awaiting execution. Pierpont, who was born in Muncie, Indiana, but whose family later moved to the Leipsic area in Ohio, was wounded in the same attempt but survived and was later put to death in the electric chair. Clark – Indiana-born and raised, like Dillinger – lost his nerve and decided at the last minute not to take part in the escape. He lived to serve 34 years of his life sentence. He was paroled in 1968 for reasons of health and died of cancer four months later on Christmas Eve.
First Light
But although Lima was to play a big role in my youth later on, when we first moved to Defiance Street, I was too young to know or care that the city even existed. My world, the first one I recall, was restricted to that house and the yard and sidewalk on which it stood. And at that age, it seemed like an entire universe.
Many years after the fact, my mother admitted that she was crushed when my father came home from overseas and taking one look at the home she had created for them with great sacrifice, said he didn’t plan to live in “a shithole like that” after sleeping in foxholes, salt mines and pigsties for three and a half years in combat. The place was a reconverted log cabin with only basic facilities, but she figured they would be happy wherever they were as long as they had each other. Norm had other, bigger, ideas.
The house on Defiance Street was Dad’s father and mother’s place before we moved in. My grandparents built a much smaller house half a block away on the other side of the street for themselves, and Dad took out a mortgage to buy their place. I was only about two years old when we moved in so my first remembered images are from there.
My very first recollection is of lying on my back, very comfortable and warm, hearing my mother hum a tune while she cooked at the stove next to me and seeing the beautiful pattern of light that the half-closed Venetian blinds cast on the kitchen ceiling. When I told my mother about this purely sensory memory years later, she said it was because she used to place a laundry basket on the kitchen table next to the side window with a cushion and blankets in it and put me in there while she baked, so she could keep an eye on me while I had a nap.
From then on it was as if my mind had suddenly awakened. I can recall sitting on the wet sidewalk in the sun after a summer rain, leaning forward to wet my head in a puddle of clean, clear water and seeing my face reflected there for the first time. I remember watching black ants marching along in a straight column through an expansion gap in the cement sidewalk slabs carrying leaves on their backs, and hearing a mourning dove coo and a cicada (that we called locusts) sing and asking my mother what they were. And I also remember being awakened on a mid-summer morning, light from the east window of the room I shared with my older sister flooding in, hearing the sound of a jackhammer breaking up the pavement on Defiance Street outside and thinking it was the most wonderfully powerful sound I had ever heard, loving the vibration of it in my chest.

Caption: Dan and sister Darla, back porch on Defiance Street, 1952.

I have a memory too of sitting under the sill of one of the downstairs windows that looked onto the street and watching my sister, Darla, trot down the steps to the sidewalk and board a school bus. It was a dark, wintery, rainy morning and she was wearing the kind of bright yellow oilskin slicker and matching sou’wester hat we almost all wore to school on rainy days back then. Its yellow hue was so bright that both Darla and the bright yellow school bus seemed to be giving off a light of their own in the pouring rain. I was crying because I didn’t want my sister to leave and my mother handed me a picture book that she had read to me a thousand times. It was called “Daddies” and it was all about what daddies – good all-American, hard-working daddies – did when they went off to work in the morning. The illustrations were beautifully drawn and painted and that morning my eye fell on the one of a daddy who was a policeman. He was wearing a black slicker not unlike my sister’s yellow one and was directing traffic on a dark stormy morning not unlike this one. So that daddy immediately became my favorite and whenever I saw that book I would open it up to the policeman and ask my mother to read that page to me.
It was in that house too, probably out of loneliness and boredom in the hours that Darla was away at grade school, that I invented two invisible friends, sisters called Marie and Chuddah (Chuddah? Don’t ask…), with whom I played and talked all day – to such an extent that I think it kind of worried my mother. Marie was the good girl and Chuddah the bad one and depending on my mood, I identified with one or the other.
When Darla got home from school, or on Saturdays and in the summer, we played with a brother and sister from up the street called Buzz and Brenda. Darla, who was always a smart cookie and had a perversely ornery streak, found the two of them delightfully naive and used to talk them into doing all kinds of things. She was so incredibly persuasive that she even got them, for instance, to actually eat the mud pies she “baked” for them.
The Omar Man and Others
On Darla’s school days the highlights of my day were provided by visits from various and sundry vendors that, in those days of one-car families and corner grocery stores, offered their services and products door to door to stay-at-home housewives.
My favorite, hands down, was the Omar Man. The Omar Man worked for the Omar Bakery in Lima. He came in a red and white panel truck with a winged doughnut on the side. At the time, I was too young to know that the doughnut was also a logo and stood for the O in Omar. For me, it was just a doughnut that could fly. The truck was rigged up specially with a sliding door that the Omar Man could leave open and with a tall steering column and gas and brake pedals flat on the floor so that he could drive standing up. There was a fold-down seat he could sit on to drive the distance from the bakery to his route, but once he was in his territory he had to stop at practically every house and being able to drive with the door open and standing up saved him the time and trouble of having to get up and sit down and open and close the door every few minutes as he made his way up the street.
The Omar Man wore a uniform that reminded me of the policeman’s in my “Daddies” book. It was charcoal gray with a military-style peaked cap that bore a silver shield with the winged O on it, trousers with a regimental stripe down the side of the leg and a waist-length jacket with epaulets and silver buttons that looked a lot like the so-called “Eisenhower” jacket that was part of the uniform my father had worn toward the end of the war, when he was with the Seventh Army. The majority of men from ages twenty-five to forty at that time (the early 1950s) were World War II vets and, whether they were cops, gas station attendants or delivery men, knew how to wear their uniforms with pride and flare. The Omar Man was no exception. You’d have thought he belonged to some elite flying-doughnut squadron.
When he rang the bell and sang out, “Omaaaar!” there was always a struggle between my mother and me, with her trying her best to keep me behind her and out of the doorway. What she was trying to avoid was my perusing the spectacular display of goodies that the Omar Man carried up to the porch from his truck in a large, heavy-laden, two-tiered tray: peanut-butter, chocolate chip and oatmeal-date cookies; rich, cream-filled devil’s food cupcakes with fudge frosting; glazed, iced and powdered-sugar doughnuts; white cake with sky-blue-trimmed white frosting, cream or jelly-filled long johns; buttermilk crullers, frosted cinnamon rolls, sticky pecan rolls…anything to make your mouth water, that guy had it in his portable bakery case. He had white and whole-wheat and rye bread too, but I never paid any attention to them.
If I whined and groveled and badgered enough, Mom would sometimes get something for the evening’s dessert or even some small sweet treat for me to have after lunch – if, that is, she was in the mood. If she wasn’t, however, begging and sniveling while the Omar Man was there smiling at me and subtly egging me on could get me a pinch on the arm, a swat on the bottom or a twist of my hair. But there was no keeping me away when the Omar Man was on our porch.
Other favorites were the Ruck Brothers, two older German gents who drove matching bright red Model T trucks loaded with fresh vegetables and fruit that they hawked door to door, the Meadow Gold milkman who brought fresh milk each day in thick green returnable glass bottles that he left on the porch, and the coal truck from Cotner’s Coal Yard. This last one was a World War II vintage vehicle that the driver would expertly park on the yard between our house and the one next door. He then installed a heavy galvanized iron chute between the bed of the truck and a little trap-window in the foundation of our house that allowed him and his workmate, whose hands and faces were so sooty with coal dust that they looked like black-face minstrels, to easily shovel a ton of flat-black bituminous fuel into the chute and down it, directly into our coal bin next to the furnace. I found the whole process, these night-camouflaged men and their aggressive-looking truck absolutely fascinating.
Early Snapshots
Amazingly, I have, tucked away, a multitude of other memories from that house, despite the fact that we left it when I was barely five: my sister’s and my sandbox in the backyard made from a disused tractor tire that Dad bought from a friend who was a salesman for John Deere; a hemp rope and board swing that hung from the big Elm next to that sandbox; a pair of identical twins who were older than my sister and I and almost diabolically mean, always together, always dressed the same as one another, always doing something cruel with birds and cats and insects, or whipping hunks out of the neighbors’ shrubbery with a bullwhip their father had given them; Jack Snyder and his wife Esther (née) Locomovitz – two of a mere handful of token Jews who lived in Wapak back then – whose miniature junkyard separated from our lawn by a tall wooden fence always tempted me to slip between the loose boards and wander through the surreal array of extraordinarily diverse odds and ends; the way Darla and I used our bed for a trampoline on Saturday afternoons, when we were supposed to be taking a nap (so we wouldn’t “get too tired and catch polio”); when I was three and had pneumonia and Dr. Clyde Berry pressed me like boiled ham under the weight of his fluoroscope in order to X-ray my chest until I thought the claustrophobia would suffocate me; the ear-ache I got on my fourth birthday and how my Grandma Myrt had WIMA-Lima Radio DJ Cliff Willis play “Christmas Dragnet” (the case of the guy that stole Christmas) to cheer me up; our first TV and the first shows, like Arthur Godfrey’s variety shows and specials, “I Love Lucy” and “The Red Skelton Show”, as well as the black and white film version of “A Christmas Carol” starring Fredric March and the Saturday night fights sponsored by Gillette Blue Blades that I would watch sitting on my father’s lap and listening to his running commentary about the fighters…among many other mental pictures that are still fresh in my mind.
But the two most vivid ones are my last two memories of that house on Defiance Street and our life there.
The first was when my parents took me across the street and left me with my father’s parents and took Darla across town and left her with our mother’s parents and promised us they would be back in a couple of days with a brand new little brother for us. I don’t recall either of us being particularly thrilled with this idea, but I remember being fascinated with the little red-faced, red-haired infant when he arrived and figuring he belonged to me somehow, because I was his older brother.
The second happened almost immediately afterward. While Reba Mae was in the hospital giving birth to Dennis James, Norm suddenly developed “a wild hair” and, practically in a single operation, sold our house on Defiance Street and bought a new one on South Pine. (This was one of the first clear-cut signs of what would later be diagnosed as severe manic depression). So when Mom got home from the maternity ward, she almost immediately had to start packing things up and getting ready to move.
Grandpa Vern came with his bright red ’47 Ford pickup and Mom’s whole family helped us move. I got to ride in the back of the truck with some of our stuff on a couple of trips and we all had beef and potpie and mashed potatoes and apple pie at Grandma Myrt’s house for lunch, which made the move fun and less traumatic. But it was the first time I realized that homes weren’t permanent. They could suffer a change of venue at any time, and if you were a kid, it didn’t matter how you felt about it. When Dad said, “We’re moving,” there was no choice but to pack up and go.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tour of Homes 4 – Back in Town

When I went back to Wapakoneta alone, it welcomed me with the same icy February breath that I recalled from my childhood. The weatherman had been gabbing about “lake effect” snow for several days in Cleveland but there was already more snow on the ground down here than up by Lake Erie and it was drifting in winds gusting to 35 miles an hour. The temperature was minus 10ºF – cold enough – but the wind chill made it feel like twenty below. I didn’t mind, though. It was Wapak winter, just as I remembered it. The Midwestern version of northern exposure.

  • Caption: A freezing day in downtown Wapak.

I checked back in at the Comfort Inn on the edge of town by I-75, where the wind whistled through the large, open, black-topped parking area unimpeded. This was now my second stay at the place in as many weeks and I had gotten to know Rodney, the manager. He was a good guy, knew I was a native son, knew I spent a lot of time in my room writing and translating, and wanted me to be comfortable.

“If I’m ever not here when you check in, just tell whoever’s on that I said to upgrade you to a suite,” he said.

The suites were nice, with a luxurious queen-size bed, a fridge, a microwave and a coffeemaker, a full-size, comfortable desk to work at, a couch and coffee-table, a dresser, a lazy-boy easy chair with reading lamp and a breakfast table and two chairs. It was much more inviting than a generic motel room and made me feel more at home and not so strange about staying in a motel in my own town. In fact, it almost gave me the feeling of living there again.

  • Caption: When I checked in this time the manager gave me a suite.

I didn’t arrive until late afternoon and that evening I decided to walk to dinner instead of taking the car. The wind had died down and it didn’t seem all that cold when I first stepped out of the motel lobby. But living in South America, even in often chilly Patagonia, I had forgotten just how cold the northern Arctic cold is. By the time I had walked a few hundred yards across the parking lot and up Bellefontaine St. – originally having thought I might walk all the way to downtown and back – I found I was frozen stiff, my fingers, toes and ears numb, and I decided to forego the exercise and duck into El Azteca.

Owned and operated by the Aguirre brothers, El Azteca is a fortuitous anomaly in a very white, very traditional Ohio town. A real, authentic, genuine Mexican restaurant, with excellent quality cuisine. Anyway, I had their scrumptious beef fajita with pico de gallo – which is about the same thing we in Argentina would call salsa criolla (diced onion, tomato, peppers and spices) – and washed it down with a couple of Coronas after a José Cuervo aperitif. My belly full, and after the freezing walk in the Arctic breeze back to the motel, I decided to call it a night.

The next morning was still below zero, but calm as could be and sunny with the very low humidity that accompanies such days. It felt almost pleasant out – as long as you were careful not to stay out so long that you got frostbitten. I walked over to the Waffle House across the way from the motel and had a real, as opposed to ‘continental’, breakfast – eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast and abundant hot black coffee. Then I went back to the motel parking lot, managed to get my frozen car door open, scraped the ice off the windows and – not unconcerned that, since I’d rented the car in Florida, the radiator fluid might be watered down – headed across town to the cemetery.

There, working in a spacious new pole-barn at the back, I found Sam Ruck, the caretaker. I told him my sister and I were the ones who had put in the call to him from Cleveland and then I launched into a bit of our family history, including the fact that our grandfather had been the Greenlawn Cemetery superintendent for a quarter-century, until he retired in the early 1970s. This got us into a rather lengthy conversation.

“I’ll bet they did most of the work by hand back then,” Sam said, shaking his head sympathetically.

“Oh yeah, and Grandpa Vern was really particular about how the graves got dug. Said he never did manage to hire a hillbilly that could dig a straight-sided grave and he always ended up doing a lot of the work himself.”

“Must’ve been tough work in this kind of weather,” Sam allowed.

“Yeah, when he got older, Grandpa finally let them get him a Holland compressor and jackhammer to bust up the frozen surface in the dead of winter. But once they got under the frost line, they went back to spades. He prided himself on it.”

An amiable guy, Sam smiled.

“I see you have a tractor with a backhoe.” I was looking over his shoulder at an aging John Deere.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the machine, “but this one we use for other things now. Did you see the big one out back,” he chuckled. “That one’s kind of an exaggeration, I guess, but I asked for it and they got it for me. With that one, I can have a grave dug in half an hour. Beats the heck out of shovelin’ it by hand.”

Sam confessed he had never really wanted the cemetery job. “I farm,” he said, “but I used to lend a hand around here when the other fellow was in charge. Then he got sick and couldn’t work anymore and they asked me to take over. I said just till they found somebody else, but they just never seemed to get around to finding anybody else,” he laughed. “Anyway, they finally said, ‘Well, why don’t you just stay?’ And here I am.”

I asked if he was originally from Wapak and he said he was. I said, “I don’t know why I don’t remember you. You must be a lot younger than I am.” He looked it, a sturdy, clear-eyed, medium-sized man with a pleasant, youthful face and a fringe of salt-and-pepper hair visible from under his cap.

“Oh I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sixty-five.”

I was really surprise and said, “Boy, the outdoor life surely agrees with you, Sam. I’m six years younger than you, but I guess the mileage is catching up with me!”

When we talked about the marker for Jim, he said, “you sure you want a stake? A slab is cheaper and not so likely to get damaged or knocked over or anything”. So he took me out behind the shed and showed me what he was talking about. A smooth concrete slab of about 28 inches by about 20 inches that could be in-set to ground level so it could be mown over without suffering any damage.

I said I would talk it over with my sister and asked if anybody still prepared stones and markers in Wapak. “There used to be a fellow called Schneider…” I said.

“Oh, he’s still around,” Sam interrupted.

“Really?! I thought for sure he’d be retired or dead by now.”

“Oh, no! I didn’t mean him. Yeah, he passed away. No, I mean his son, Dave.” Sam smiled.

“I notice the shop’s not there anymore where it was by Leland Stroh’s place.”

“No, Dave works out of his place out there by I-75, where his dad had the farm.”

“Oh, I thought that place was gone too! Isn’t that about where the new Super-Wal-Mart is?”

“No, no, the Schneider place is still there. Just hidden back behind all the fast-food joints. You go out to where the Lucky Steer is and right after it there’s an entrance. You just turn in there and follow the driveway around till you get to the house and Dave’s got his shop out back.”

So I drove out to see the stone-cutter.

Dave Schneider was a friendly if no-nonsense type of guy. After only minimal small talk, he got right down to business. We talked about the markers Darla and I had been looking at, the ideas we had been kicking around, what Sam had suggested, and so on. Dave listened, looking at me with frank attentiveness and then said, “You don’t want a stake. It’s not like when your granddad was the caretaker out there. Most of the boys that do the mowing are kids and they use the tractor. Whatever’s in the way, they’ll run right over it, and you don’t even wanna see what that stake’ll look like after it gets hit with the mower.”

“So you’re saying a footstone…”

“Well, no. You’ve already got a stone out there. You and your sister the only survivors?”

I nodded.

“Then that stone of your mom and dad’s is yours. You own it, and one whole side of it’s blank. Since your brother isn’t actually buried there, I’d use that, just put the inscription on the blank side of that tombstone.”

So after calling Darla and talking it over with her, that’s what we decided to do. We also talked over what we wanted it to say. It wouldn’t be traditional, but it would be heartfelt. I went back to Dave and told him to go ahead. How long?

Said Dave: “They say it’s gonna warm up some and maybe thaw a little, so I’ll get out there tonight, probably, while the ground’s still hard, and get that stone out of there while I can still get the truck in without tearing everything up. Have it done and back in place by the weekend.” Did he want me to pay him up front? He held up his hand in a ‘slow-down-there-buddy’ kind of gesture and almost seemed offended by the question. “I trust ya,” he said, narrowing his eyes and tightening his lips.

He was respectful about it, but I could tell that Dave also had his doubts about the inscription. “Lot o’ words to get on there,” he said, doubtfully.

“Well, we don’t need the birth and death dates,” I suggested.

His face twisted into a scowl of disapproval. “Now, see, you’re gonna want those dates on there. That’s history. It’s not for you, it’s for the future, for your descendants and so on. Cemeteries are historical.” So I gave in on the dates. Dave also balked a bit at putting an exclamation point on a tombstone, but this time I held my ground. It was an inside message. It was Kabbalah. I wasn’t budging on that one. So he shrugged, sighed and worked up a mock-up on his computer.

In the meantime, there was finally time for my Tour of Homes. This was a private, singularly intimate ceremony that I had promised myself. I would go around to the four homes I recalled living in, take a photo of each of them and help myself remember some events from each of those stages of my life.

I returned to my sister’s place in Cleveland and enjoyed those days with her while Dave Schneider was doing the work we had contracted. Darla and I enjoyed each other’s company and just hanging out together for a while. Always at the back of my mind was “the tour”, recalling each house in turn, remembering the things that had happened in each of them and what they had meant to me. Even taking the pictures would be exciting. Would I knock on the door and ask their current owners if they minded? Or would I simply “steal” a snapshot, which to me seemed somehow akin to the belief of some primitive tribes about the camera stealing their souls.

  • Caption: Hanging out. A winter walk in Rocky River Park near my sister's home in Cleveland.
However, it was on this that I finally decided. I decided I didn’t really care who lived in the houses now. It was like what Einstein said about all times existing simultaneously. How in order to cope with forever, we humans moved through time as if we were in a boat on a river. The river was time that flowed endlessly, but we were always in our boats on a bend in the river and couldn’t see ahead to the future or behind to the past, although both were there and existing simultaneously. Those homes existed for me now as they had back then, when they were part of my life. Whoever lived in them now couldn’t change the fact that I had lived there before them and that my memories were a sort of chain of DNA that connected one place to another and that would live on as long as I did, even if those structures were sold a thousand times over or torn down and their scraps hauled away. In my mind, in my soul, those homes were still mine and always would be, because they formed pieces of my past and who I was.
Time was running out. I would soon have to be back in Miami for the flight back to my other life in Argentina. I began to get anxious again, to get the itch.

Then Dave Schneider called. The stone was done and back in place. I could stop by whenever I liked. And so, a couple of days later, I hugged Darla good-bye and headed back to Wapakoneta one more time. The weather was warmer. The snow was still on the ground, but like Dave had said, it had started to thaw a little. The first thing I did was drive out to Greenlawn to see his work. He had done a good job, made it all fit. Now the inscription on the back of our parents’ tombstone read:



Dennis James

Nov. 14, 1954

Dec. 12, 2005