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




JoAnne said...

Excellent interpretation of those nostalgic memories!

~Einstein…times existing simultaneously…how we cope with forever….memories a chain of DNA that connected places…“that would live on as long as I did. 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.” ~

Thank you, Dan, for giving an illustration of the basis for those emotions that stir within us as we recall our past.

Dan Newland said...

Thank you too, JoAnne, for reading it and "getting it".