Caption: Lima even boasted a few "skyscrapers" like Cook Tower.
Caption: Dan and sister Darla, back porch on Defiance Street, 1952.
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
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.
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
Owned and operated by the Aguirre brothers, El Azteca is a fortuitous anomaly in a very white, very traditional
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
“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
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
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?”
“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. “
“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
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:
Nov. 14, 1954
Dec. 12, 2005
LOVING SON, LOYAL FRIEND, BELOVED BROTHER
He was always dressed to the nines no matter what the occasion was and he was slender, athletically built and clean-cut. He was a long-distance runner – rather than a jogger – much of his life and although he was a light smoker and enjoyed his beer and Jack Daniels, he couldn’t have looked healthier if he had tried.
“What, you guys go run and then do this?” she said, obviously peevish, pointing at the beers.
Jim grinned, held up his well-chilled brew and said, “Nope, we go run soooo we can do this. Here, have one yourself and chill out.”
Truth be told, my life of tough deadlines, night work, and a tendency toward overweight, as well as toward often self-abusive habits surely must have made most of the people who knew us think that I would die long before him. I was certainly a better candidate for sudden death than he was and my life as a newsman had not infrequently put me in situations where I could easily have died of something other than natural causes. In fact, when I called Pastor Rick Bell at our parents’ church to tell him that Jim had passed away and that he would have wanted his funeral to be in the Methodist Church in our home town and would have wanted him, Rick, to officiate, the preacher got confused, was convinced that he was talking to Jim and that it was I who had died. I realized this when he said, “Where did it happen, here or in
So Darla and I were not only in a profound state of grief, but also of shock. All of the grisly details and befuddling bureaucracy did, however, help us come to grips with reality, by chucking us headlong into it. Jim had been living for about a year in the
Darla flew down from
The friend had been calling him because he had missed a meeting of the condo board of which they were both members. After several calls she got a little worried, but jokingly – because it seemed unthinkable enough to be funny – said in her last message, “Dennis, this is the third or fourth time I’ve called. If you don’t answer this message, you had better be dead.”
The body had to be turned over to the Medical Examiner. A positive ID had to be done using dental records. A complete autopsy had to be performed. The deceased’s next of kin had to be questioned separately by detectives. The apartment had to be gone over for evidence, etc.
When it was my turn to talk to the detective in charge, he asked me a lot of typical detective questions: Did my brother have any enemies? Did he live alone? Did he have any known illnesses? Was he an alcoholic? Did he use drugs? And so on and so forth. Then he said: “Mr. Newland, we have to investigate, but I’ve seen a lot of corpses in my life and bodies tell you things. For me, your brother’s was a case of sudden death. I don’t think he even had time to react. I think he just had a heart attack or stroke, died instantly and fell over to the left on his bed the way we found him.” Then he added: “The Medical Examiner’s got the corpse. We’ve positively ID-ed him by his dental records. You and you sister have a right to see him but I’m suggesting you don’t.”
So after the detectives and the crime scene cleanup team were done with the condo, Darla and I started the grueling task of going through Jim’s personal effects and papers and getting a lawyer to handle his estate, while we waited around for the coroner to be done with our brother’s body and to hand it over to us. This all happened starting on December 14, and no amount of pestering could make the Florida Medical Examiner hurry things up. But finally, in a dead heat with the Christmas holiday, the body was turned over to the funeral home we had contracted and was cremated.
Christmas Eve found us still slipping and sliding through the mountains of
Our baggage and some family things we had taken from the condo were in the back. In the hidden lockbox under the floor in the rear end compartment of the wagon were two small, sturdy cardboard boxes. The largest one contained a metal urn with our kid brother’s ashes in it. The smallest one contained the ashes of Jim’s beloved cat, Stinky, custody of whom he had gotten when he divorced his second wife. This box, with the cat’s name on the lid, we had found on a little pedestal beside Jim’s bed. The cat had died about the same time as our father had in our family home in
When Jim was about four or five, we lived half a block from a soft ice-cream shop. It changed hands a few times, but I think back then it was a Tasty Freeze. Anyway, Jim was always little for his age. Darla recalled how he weighed about the same for like three years straight when he was a little boy. He was so small that when Mom gave him a quarter to go to the ice-cream place, he couldn’t see over the lip of the little self-service counter. So he would reach up with his coin and, tap-tap-tap, peck on the Formica counter-top and call out, “Heeeeey! I’m heeeeere!”
The girls who worked at the place thought the little tow-headed kid was about the cutest thing they’d ever seen, so they would hide out in the back for a while, spying on him while, increasingly frustrated at the lack of service, Jim would tap harder and harder and shout louder and louder, “Heeeeey! I’m heeeeere!” until they finally waited on him.
I said that, in a way, Jim had been doing that all his life. He was always saying, “Hey watch this, big guy,” whenever he did something daring or clever or just plain funny. He enjoyed great physical grace and poise and was something of a show-off, but a really likable one, a natural comic, the kind of guy that was popular and that everybody wanted to hang out with. But also the kind that it was hard to be truly intimate with, a fiercely private person who covered up his deepest feelings with a truckload of wise-assed attitude and carefully learned savoir faire.
Shortly before he died, on one of my visits back home, he said: “Hey big guy, I don’t know how you’ll take this, but you know what I’ve always wanted?”
“For you to write something about me.”
“Like, you know, how you feel about me.”
“Well, hell, y’dumb ass, you know how I feel about you. I love ya, y’dipshit.”
“Yeah, no, but I mean…seriously, how you see me, y’know?”
He never mentioned it again, but I know that this was important to him, for people to like him and see him in a positive light and it was devastating to him when they let him down and didn’t seem as committed to him as he was to them.
So after the funeral service, when both his ex-wife – who had left him because she “needed her own space” – and the woman whom he had most recently lived with (and who had left him six months earlier for similarly vague reasons) came with tears in their eyes to ask what we were going to do with the ashes, it was with a kind of cruel, ugly glee that I told them it was a family affair and private.
And it was. Later, on that chilly, windy, last day of the year, Darla, her two boys and I spread the ashes at an undisclosed location, in a ceremony of our own devising, and to which only we were privy. I was only sorry that our cousin, Don, had already left after the funeral and that I hadn’t thought quickly enough to invite him along, since he had been a second big brother to Jim when I wasn’t around and I knew he deserved to be part of this farewell.
Anyway, now, three years later, we had decided that we needed to give Jim some kind of marker, some minimal “shrine” to which friends and family (and ex-wives and ex-girlfriends) could go and remember him and pay their respects. The “where” wasn’t really a matter of great debate. Jim had told me that often after both of our parents died, he had gone out to
“You’re gonna think I’m crazy,” he said, “but I’ll get to thinking about things and I’ll go out there, and, y’know what I do? I sit down on top of their headstone, I light a cigarette and I talk to them.”
“What do you say?” I asked.
“I just sit there and tell them all of the things I always loved about them, and everything I hated. And when I’m done, I feel a lot better. People go by and look at me like I’m nuts, sometimes, but I really, really, feel a helluva lot better afterward.”
So like I say, it wasn’t a question of “where”, but “what”.
Darla and I had taken a week’s vacation together in
It was in central
It was late and cold and raining torrentially and threatening to turn to snow. We were both hungry and tired. But I just kept on driving. Once we crossed over from
Darla was quiet. She could tell something was up. My behavior begged an explanation. I said: “I thought maybe we could get to Wapak tonight and tomorrow morning see if we can find that stone-cutter.”
“Which stone-cutter’s that?”
“You know, the one that used to be there next to Leland Stroh’s house. The older guy’s dead, I think, but maybe his family took over the business.”
We checked in at the motel where I had stayed when Jim died. It was, back then, what I had fondly referred to as the “Worst Western”, but was now under new management and had a new logo as a Comfort Inn and had improved greatly. We had something to eat at the Bob Evans that stood where the Chalet Inn once had. The Chalet had never been, to my mind, a particularly good restaurant but it had been where people held their fanciest events. It had been there that we had held a surprise party for our mother on her sixtieth birthday, and the venue for Mom and Dad’s golden anniversary with all of their old friends, many of whom we saw there for the last time. It was funny, I thought, that I had never had any special liking for the Chalet. It had always been, I felt, overpriced and overrated as restaurants went, but now I missed it, seeing the Bob Evans chain store there in its place.
We turned in right away after supper, but I couldn’t get to sleep until quite late, despite having driven all day. I read, took notes for something I was writing, checked e-mail on my laptop and looked out the window of my room at the rain mixed with snow falling steadily through the halos of orange light from the sodium streetlamps in the parking lot, while listening to the big 18-wheelers swoosh by on I-75 hauling freight north to south from Detroit to Miami.
By the next morning, the rain had stopped, an icy north wind had kicked up and everything was fast drying off and turning cold. Darla was unimpressed and would rather have been still in
It didn’t, as it turned out, at least not in the little shop next to the Stroh residence on the far end of the main street out near the
“So we’re done here, right?” Darla said. Which was Big Sister for, “Let’s quit dicking around here and head for
The idea of waiting three years to put a marker in Greenlawn for Jim was that it was something Darla and I wanted to do together. So now, in
The woman who waited on us couldn’t seemed to think “outside the box”, as it were, and looked at us with such suspicion that you would have thought we had asked for an illegal firearm or a half-kilo of blow. She said flatly that no such thing existed. So we decided to go elsewhere.
At the other place, the “showroom” was a much more modest one. A quarter the size of the first one, discreetly arrayed with a dozen samples of tombstones and adornments and nothing else. But the woman in charge was a real go-getter. She took us into her cramped little office at the back of the shop and started going through catalogs of photographs until she came up with what we were looking for. A solid bronze stake and plaque.
But then she said: “Have you checked with the cemetery to see if they’ll allow these.”
“Uh, no,” I said. “Never thought of that. Since it’s something you just stick into the ground.”
“Oh, well they’re real particular about these things. I mean like mowing issues, or how deep it goes into the ground, or if the person named is actually buried there. Stuff like that.” So she generously called information, got the number for
“Who am I speaking to? Sam Ruck?” She raised her eyebrows and made a questioning gesture with her free hand in our direction like asking if we knew the guy. I shook my head no. So she proceeded to ask Mr. Ruck a long series of technical questions. After hanging up, she said, “He said you might want to stop out and talk to him personally, but it doesn’t sound like a problem.”
But she wasn’t very convinced about the stake idea. It was too easy to knock over or uproot and it was unnecessarily expensive, she thought – twice as dear as a nice footstone. Why didn’t we consider a ground-level stone, something the maintenance workers could mow right over without damaging it, and so on? She showed us samples in different materials and had started to convince us, but then came the clincher. All of their stones were done in
So we were back to square one. This was not going to be something we could do together before I left and if I left before it was done, Darla was going to have to find a way to get a 200-pound stone from
Plan B: No problem, I’d go back to Wapak and find somebody local to do the job. And while I was there, I was thinking to myself, I would do something I had been thinking about ever since my parents and brother had died: A Tour of Homes.
In Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe said, “…you can’t go home again.” But maybe he got it wrong. Maybe some people never really leave, no matter how far away they go.
To be continued.