Dan Newland celebrates his addiction to writing and the right to life, literature and the (sometimes desperate) pursuit of happiness. Essays, stories and comments on writers, writing and life in general, in a twice-monthly blog published on the 13th and 27th of every month..."or any other time the spirit moves me."
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 fixinghe 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 CookTower, the National CityBankBuilding 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 OhioStateUniversity. 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 AllenCounty 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 IndianaState 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 theLeipsic 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.
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.
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.