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



Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tour of Homes 3 – Home away from Home

  • Caption: L-R - Jim, Darla and Dan, in the '90s at the Newland family home on Kelly Drive.
As shopping sprees go, I’ve had better. My sister Darla and I were in the market for some type of monument to mark our younger brother Jim’s passing.

We had been talking about this ever since his sudden death three years before. At the time we had both been in a kind of prolonged state of shock. Our brother – whose name was Dennis James and who was known to us as Jim and to his friends as Dennis – had been one of those guys who are always looking for a good time. He loved life, took his play-time as seriously as his work and liked to party. He looked young for his age. In his mid-forties he could easily have passed for late thirties. When he was unattached after his second divorce, if we were out having a drink together and he struck up a conversation with the barmaid, waitress or some other young woman in the places we frequented, I would always interrupt when he started to introduce me and say I was his “uncle”. I didn’t want to cramp the guy’s style, since I knew I looked fifteen – rather than five – years his senior.

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.

  • Caption: Fun guy. Above: A door glass decoration reminds Jim of a "mic" and he spontaneously breaks into song. Below 'bumper-car' fun with friends.

    He had a whole philosophy about the balance of things. I recall once when I was visiting him in St. Louis, where he was regional manager for Camelot Music, he and I had gone for an afternoon jog together and when his then-wife got home she found us both, still in our sullied sweats, sitting at the kitchen table with a six-pack of cold Miller long-necks on the table-top between us and each with a cold one in his fist.

  • Caption: Time out! Jim gets in a little fishing.

“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 Argentina?” Jim had never been out of the States in his life, except when he was sixteen and visited me for ten days in Germany, with our parents, while I was on a tour of duty with the US Army.

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 Ocala, Florida condo that had belonged to our late parents. I had spoken to him three days – apparently – before he died and he had seemed fine, if depressed because of some things that were going on is his personal life. Five days after that, Darla received a call from the Marion Country Sheriff’s Detectives saying that Jim had been found dead in the apartment and that they were investigating. Jim had listed Darla, in some papers they found, as next of kin.

Darla flew down from Cleveland and I flew up from Argentina immediately. We checked into the nearby Silver Springs Holiday Inn and for the next ten days, the hotel became our home and the Denny’s attached to it, our dining room and office. Since Jim had died alone and his body had been in the condo a couple of days before it was discovered by a friend and neighbor, the police had to treat the place as a potential crime scene.

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 Tennessee and Kentucky on an icy, snowy I-75. I was driving. We were in the Taurus station wagon that had been our parents’ last vehicle and that Jim had taken with him when he moved to Florida. The scent of his Marlboros and pricey cologne still lingered there and was somehow comforting to me as I steered the big car through the chilly darkness.

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 Ohio, next to the bed Jim was sleeping in while taking care of our parents. It didn’t seem right, somehow, for Stinky’s ashes not to travel back to Ohio with his owner’s.

  • Caption: Jim and Stinky playing. Inseparable.
So, we ended up holding Jim’s funeral on New Year’s Eve Day. I recall quipping that a party animal like he was would have found it amusing to have all of his old buddies gathered in church for his funeral on an ultimate party-day like December 31st. I also told a story. It went like this:

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.

  • Caption: Jim in the Ocala National Forest in 2001.

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?”

“No what?”

“For you to write something about me.”

“Like what?”

“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 Greenlawn Cemetery to “visit” them.

“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 Florida. It was the first time in six years that I hadn’t come back to the States to mourn the death of a loved one and we were celebrating. We met in the Miami Airport – I on a flight from Buenos Aires, she on one from Cleveland – rented a car and headed across the State via Alligator Alley (where I-75 runs east to west through the Everglades wilderness) to the Gulf. We paid a pleasant visit to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, then visited our Aunt Marilyn – our mother’s younger sister who has always been like an older sister to the two of us – and her husband, Virgil, who were vacationing in northern Florida, and then headed north for Ohio.

It was in central Kentucky that I started getting “the itch”. I’m talking about my hometown itch, that feeling that grabs me when I start seeing countryside I recognize, when the air starts smelling like home, when the farms start looking like the ones surrounding our town. And suddenly, I was in that trance I get into when Wapakoneta is within my reach. Like an old fire-horse, I start heading for the stationhouse and the devil himself can’t stop me.

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 Kentucky across the bridge over the Ohio River into Cincinnati, I was on automatic pilot, headed for Wapakoneta an hour and a half to the north.

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 Florida, I think. But for me the north wind was the native breath of home and the chilly blue sky with ragged snow clouds still scudding across it cheered me. After partaking of the motel’s “continental breakfast with original sausage gravy” (which I gave a miss, though I did have a do-it-yourself waffle), we were off on what I figured Darla would consider my ‘wild goose chase’. And she would have been right. I had no idea what I was doing. It was mostly an excuse to drive around town and “see the sights” while pretending to be looking for something. I was a newsman, after all, and hadn’t even bothered to look in a local phone book to see if Wapak Monuments, the place I was hunting for, still existed.

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 County Fairgrounds and not far from Greenlawn.

“So we’re done here, right?” Darla said. Which was Big Sister for, “Let’s quit dicking around here and head for Cleveland.” Which is what we did. By mid-morning the “city tour” was done and we were back on I-75 heading for the Ohio Turnpike.

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 Cleveland, her adopted hometown, we set off on our lugubrious shopping spree. The places we visited dealt in what the late and inimitable Wapak undertaker Charlie Siferd would have referred to as “underground novelties”. The first of them was a veritable “underground supermarket” that displayed every imaginable kind of cross, star, header, footer, angel, inscription, stone, urn, vase, plaque, vault, statue, statuette, mantle and monument imaginable. But not what we had decided we wanted: namely a stake, with a plaque, something in bronze that we could just drive into the ground in our family plot with an inscription in memory of our brother.

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 Greenlawn Cemetery in Wapakoneta and called up.

“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 Pennsylvania and even at the most urgent, delivery would take ten or fifteen days, maybe longer depending on backlog.

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 Cleveland to Wapakoneta and get it installed by herself.

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.