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."
Saturday, January 23, 2010
The Tour 3 – West Auglaize
Caption: 717 West Auglaize Street as it appears today.
The move from Pine Street to West Auglaize was a monumental change for our family.
Auglaize is Wapakoneta’s main street. The town also has a Main Street, but it’s not the main street: Auglaize is. Back then, when I was growing up, if somebody said something about “a store up on main street”, they weren’t talking about Main Street (where there were no stores, except for a gas station, Lavina’s Beauty Salon, which was run out of the home of the lady of the same name, and Big Ed Clark’s Ford Dealership at the far end), but Auglaize Street, which was where Downtown Wapakoneta – with its multiple five-and-tens, bars, restaurants, shops and offices – was located.
A River Runs Through It
The street was named after the river that runs smack through the middle of town. The river is located less than a hundred yards from the street and runs pretty much parallel to it “behind town”, before curving and meandering off toward the northeast where the city parking lot ends, later roughly bordering a stretch of the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that crosses Auglaize Street north to south at the far end of the Downtown business district, causing what passes for a “traffic jam” in Wapakoneta, every time one of the still frequent freight trains rattles through town heading south, west of the Old Dixie Highway.
There are two theories about the name. One is that it comes from the Native American term meaning fallen timbers. I personally put little stock in this version since I have yet to hear anyone say what that “Native American term” was (and in the language of which Indian nation – Shawnee, Ottawa, Delaware, Mingo, Wyandot, Miami, Ojibwa or Potawatomi, all of which formed part of the so-called Western Confederacy led by Chief Blue Jacket, which was active in the area when the United States was still struggling to tame and control the Ohio Territory). This theory probably has something to do with the fact that the decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) – which led to white settlers and natives signing the Treaty of Greenville the following year and to Ohio’s being admitted to statehood in 1803 – was fought only about 60 miles from the confluence of the Auglaize and Maumee (of which it is a tributary). But I never really understood the connection. It always seemed to me to be tenuous at best. The other theory is that the name is a bastardization of eau glaise (from the French: eau meaning water and glaise meaning clay), hence, muddy water. This one seems more logical to me, since, first, the clay bed of the Auglaize indeed gives it a milky greenish color when it’s calm and a coffee and cream hue when it rages through town during the spring thaw, and, second, French trappers and traders were active in the Great Lakes region in the early days of the Ohio Territory and the Auglaize forms part of the Great Lake Erie watershed.
Downtown Wapakoneta is built along East Auglaize Street. West Auglaize is residential and the setting for some of the city’s oldest and most beautiful homes. When we moved onto West Auglaize, the mayor, a judge, a bank president, a couple of doctors and the managing editor of the newspaper all lived just a few doors away, as did members of some of the most long-established families in town.Dad acted like it bothered him that some of the regulars at The Teddy Bear (the restaurant and soda fountain that he owned with two of his brothers) kidded him about “livin’ out there with the ritzy people”, but knowing Dad, I think that, underneath and for as long as it lasted, it was a source of pride for him.
Although our house at 717 West Auglaize wasn’t one of the truly impressive, palatial, mansions that graced the gently curving, elm, oak and maple-lined blocks closer to Downtown, neither was it a commonplace home, by any means. It was already about half a century old when we moved there in 1958. It had been built to the specifications of its original owner, a man by the name of Winget and his surname was carefully chiseled into the riser of one of the quartz-sandstone steps leading up from the street to our front porch. There were two front doors (717 and 717½) since, for some reason, the house had been built as a main house and an apartment. Ever economically-minded, my father was surely attracted by this aspect, since it meant the big house would also provide a monthly rent to help pay utilities and taxes. Despite the division, however, the house was certainly anything but cramped.
A Life of Its Own
Old houses have a life of their own. Especially huge old houses replete with nooks and crannies, which have absorbed the tears and laughter and witnessed the lives and deaths of successive generations.
The Winget house at 717 West Auglaize was no exception. If you were the least bit sensitive, you felt it as soon as you stood alone in one of the rooms – a vibration, not unlike some distant tuning fork, a kind of constant, if almost imperceptible hum that was the life force of the house itself, the spirit that it had developed by soaking up half a century of human energy. Now it lived on its own and permitted us, as the new residents, to live there. Paying for it didn’t make it ours. We could lend ourselves to it, repair it, care for it, but the house was its own. It belonged to itself.
In a certain way, a house that lives to a ripe old age becomes a sort of unwitting sanctuary, a keeper of secrets, a repository of joys, sorrows, songs, cries and whispers, the recorder of a cavalcade of intimate human events. The DNA of its residents hides in its cracks and crevices, the walls are steeped in the remnants of their exhalations, their footsteps echo in its remembered past, the lint from their clothing and the dust of their skin nestles under the woodwork, no matter how immaculate its present homemaker may be. Only brand new houses are spiritless, and from the first day that someone takes up residence in them, they start absorbing life and becoming an autonomous entity of their own.
A Walking Tour
Touring the main house from front to back, the front door opened off of the roofed, iron-railed porch into a small, rectangular sunroom that served as both an entrance hall and as an extension of the living room. It had windows on three sides (counting the front door which had tall narrow panes on either side of it and a windowpane in the top half of the door itself) and was a wonderful place to sit on the small divan that my mother had placed in a corner there and read when the sun was bright.
Caption: Jim and Dan worn out from practicing cowboy 'rope tricks'
Through a square archway lay the living room, which, although it had no windows of its own, received light from the sunroom and from the dining room. It had built-in ceiling to floor bookcases in the northeast and northwest corners of the room on either side of the arch that it shared with the sunroom. I was an avid reader by this time – despite my poor eyesight, which no one had detected as yet – and found this a fascinating feature. To think that someone had actually remembered books when building the house all those years ago and built in a specific place for them! Through yet another ample, square archway was the dining room, with large windows in the western wall and a fireplace built into the eastern one. The fireplace had long since been bricked up, converted to gas, and then decommissioned altogether, but what remained was its lovely firebrick front and heavy oak mantelpiece. Between the dining room and the kitchen was a swinging door of hardwood and frosted, bevel-cut glass.
Caption: Darla, Jim and Dan with new family member, Corky, in the doorway between the living and sun rooms
Typical of houses from the 19th century, the kitchen was spacious but ill-planned. A big square room with a high ceiling, it was so dark that artificial light was required even on the brightest of days. It had a side door with a windowpane in the upper half and a large double-sash window in the west wall, but they both gave onto a roofed, screened-in porch, of similar proportions to the kitchen, which projected from the house onto the driveway and absorbed light from the north, south and west. So while the porch was a lovely addition, it made the kitchen dungeon-dark. Nor was there any counter space to speak of. Country-style cupboards lined the east wall ceiling to floor and between the upper and lower ones there was a ledge about fifteen inches wide, which was what passed for a counter – actually just someplace to temporarily set whatever one took out of the cupboard before using it. A clever carpenter had created a pull-out counter of sorts about a foot and a half wide and two feet long near the stove, which was an okay place to put ingredients one might be working with, but not resilient enough to be a real work space. So, as in the farmhouses of the same era, it was important to have a large, sturdy kitchen table on which all major food preparation could be carried out. And there was no shortage of room for one. Similarly inconvenient was the placement of the range and oven connections at the north end of the room and the kitchen sink at the south end, so that pots, pans, dishes and utensils had to be carried from one end of the kitchen all the way to the other each time a task was finished and the items used needed to be washed. But in its defense, the old kitchen had a pantry. Access to the upstairs of the house (the only access, which was yet another inconvenience of old-time, farmhouse-style construction) was from the kitchen, which left a slope-ceilinged space under the stairs and behind the kitchen cabinetry. And that was a nook that had been wisely pressed into service by the original owner for staple food storage. For some reason, however, my mother never found any particular use for it other than as a place to put the mops, brooms and dustpans. And this was okay with me, because it quickly became one of my hideouts – a kind of clubhouse for one, with an electric light on one wall by which to while away time reading magazines and comic books and pretending I was in my cabin in the Canadian Rockies or Alaska, places I had read about and dreamed of going some day.
Off of the kitchen there was a door with transparent beveled glass panes (which seemed odd considering where it led) that opened into the master bedroom, which was in suite with the only bathroom in the main body of the house. This meant that anytime anybody in the house had to use the bathroom, he or she was obliged to invade the master bedroom. In a household with three youngsters, this must certainly have placed a strain on our parents conjugal relations. The bathroom had a small privacy window for ventilation, but it opened onto the utility room rather than onto the outdoors. While the rest of the house was in need of remodeling, the master bedroom had apparently been a privileged place for the former owners since its walls were covered with a pricey velvet-relief, gold-flocked wallpaper, which bore an aristocratic pattern and in a deep royal red tone that contrasted beautifully with the gold leaf. The wide, antique woodwork had been painted in a tasteful ivory tone and there was a high-quality, full-length mirror attached to the surface of the heavy, hardwood, bathroom door. Like all of the other bedrooms it had a walk-in closet and was so roomy that my mother joyfully bought herself a used vanity and chest of drawers, which never would have fit into the bedrooms of our other homes, and refinished both pieces of furniture herself, using varnish remover and an antiquing kit that she purchased from Bowsher’s Hardware, a locally owned and operated store on the main drag of town – a building that would later be occupied by the regionally renowned Meinerding’s bar and grill. It was a bright cheery room with a big double sash window in the west wall and two high privacy windows in the south wall.
In the far southeast corner of the master bedroom, practically hidden by the closet, there was a solid wood door leading into the utility room. That was where the tank heater, washer, dryer and fuse box were. As utility rooms went, it was good-sized and bright with two big double-sash windows in the south wall looking onto the back yard. The back yard, in turn, gave onto West Pearl Street, with the house and yard thus straddling the entire block between Auglaize and Pearl.
This was not as grand as it sounds. Pearl started at the west end of our block forking off from West Auglaize, so that our block was shaped, west to east, like a slice of pie. Our lot was of respectable size, since ours was the fourth house in from the corner and thus situated in the wide part of the slice, but still two houses away from where the block was actually a full block wide with houses fronting on both streets.
The utility room had another door straight across in front of the one into the bedroom. That one had a lock and bolt and opened onto a small landing. Turn left off of the landing and you descended the stairs into the cellar. Turn right and you went out the back door into the back yard. Straight across was the back door to the other part of the house – a five-room apartment that ran the length of the east wall of the main house.
Through that back door, you entered the apartment’s kitchen. It was a much pleasanter and more practical kitchen than the one in the main part of the house. The sink, range and oven created an L-shaped work area just inside the door in a corner formed by the south and east walls of the house. There was a big window over the sink facing south, through which light streamed most of the day and another large window in the east wall, next to the stove. There was ample space for a kitchen table and chairs at the far end of the room and plenty of cupboard space and shelving.
Through a doorway at the north end of the kitchen was the bedroom, which tended to be dark, since it only received light from the kitchen and living room windows when the doors to those two rooms were open. The bathroom was off of the bedroom against the wall of our utility room. It still had a translucent glass window to let in light from the utility room windows, but when the apartment had become a rental property, that had become a fixed window so that it provided no access to the main house. I imagine that the only ventilation the apartment bathroom had must have been via the air ducts for the central heating system. The living room opened through an archway with sliding hardwood doors off of the bedroom. It was a small, though not cramped, square room with two large double sash windows that looked onto the side yard shared with the house next door. It was bright and pleasant, with its light-colored walls and dark-varnished door and window frames. Off of the living room and separated from it by a French door with multiple beveled-glass panes, was a small sunroom, glassed in on the east side, that served also as an entry hall and gave onto the front porch through a second front door exactly like the one to the main house, except that our door faced east and the apartment door faced north at a right angle to each other.
The upstairs of the house on West Auglaize belonged only to the main residence. It consisted of three bedrooms and an attic, accessible, as I mentioned before, only by means of a steep back staircase out of the kitchen. The first room on the right over the apartment was my sister Darla’s, the only room with access to the attic. The one to the left over the main house was mine and my brother’s and the third one facing onto Auglaize Street was what my mother had deemed “the spare room”.
The Games We Played
What I recall most about childhood activities at the house on West Auglaize is my growing fascination with reading and about how the imagery that sprang from the reading started emerging in our games. At first, my tastes were inherited from my older sister. And Darla had suddenly become obsessed with horses and horse stories.
When we first moved there, my little brother Jim was only four and I was nine, so most of my interaction with him consisted of teasing him until he screamed bloody murder. He found lots of things to keep himself entertained and just across the next yard over from ours were two houses with children just about his age so he didn’t lack for playmates and was immediately popular with them. My sister and I, however, continued to have the same close ties and the same fantasy world that we had shared on both Defiance and Pine Streets. But now it was more interesting because I too could read and write – and intellectual child that she was, Darla really had little use for anybody who couldn’t.
Black Beauty, Beyond Rope and Fence, Tonka, the shelves of the living room bookcases began to be lined with the titles of equestrian novels and reference books for children as Darla collected every story she could about horses, ranches and stables. This new obsession was fed too by a new friend, Mitzy, whose father was a newsman who had moved to Wapak from someplace in the South to take up the post of Managing Editor at the Wapakoneta Daily News. Mitzy, her mother and father and her older brother Ned lived just across the street in half of a huge old double house, whose back yard reached the banks of the Auglaize. With the arrival of Mitzy, another element was added to the equestrian mix: a growing collection of porcelain horses, not unlike one Mitzy had in a glass case at her house. One of the higher bookshelves that our little brother couldn’t reach was cleared for the little horse figurines that began to grow in number until they formed a veritable herd. Darla carefully collected them, buying them at Murphy’s, Grant’s or Wright’s five-and-ten with her allowance, asking Mom and our grandmothers for them for her birthday or for Christmas and receiving a few as gifts from her new-found friend.
She regularly dusted them, rearranged them and admired them from afar, occasionally taking them down one at a time in order to teach me their breeds and how to recognize them: “This is a quarter horse. See how he’s smaller than the rest? This is a pinto. They have these big white patches. This one’s a palomino. They’re blonde, like Roy Rogers’s horse, Trigger. This is a roan. Looks a lot like a bay but redder and with light-color mane and tail. This is a chestnut bay. See the dark brown body and the black mane and tail?” And on and on she would go, naming one kind of horse after another.
If I was ‘really careful’, she would sometimes let me hold one of the members of her horse collection. But I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted to play with them, make them gallop across the hills and dales of the couch and armchairs, build a corral for them on the living room floor. I was doing precisely this in Darla’s absence one day when one of Darla’s favorites, a shiny black stead with lowered head and raised front hoof, not unlike her revered Black Beauty, slipped from my hands and fell to the floor. The proudly raised front leg broke off clean at the knee. I quickly put the entire herd back on the shelf, pushing the wounded mount to the rear in the hope that no one would notice, but Darla knew right away that I had been tampering with the collection.
A rowdy scene of vengeance and tears ensued as she slapped and kicked me all over the living room and chased me through the house to the kitchen where our mother halted the mayhem and asked for explanations. Our cases pled, the judgment was handed down and, as the eldest, poor Darla lost out as usual. It was, she was told, her own fault for being so selfish and not letting me have a couple of the horses to play with. And this was the fine imposed on her. I got the black one with the broken leg, of course – Mom fixed it with airplane glue and it was good as new – and a pinto, since she had a number of pintos. I got one that was just standing still staring dumbly off into space rather than any of those in action poses.
But I was content with my two horses, which I placed on a separate shelf, out of Jim’s reach. He would point at them and say, “Horsey!” And I would say, “You can’t have them so just forget it.” And he would proceed to throw a fit and scream shrilly enough to shatter crystal, and Mom would intervene, saying that if Darla had to let me play with her horses, I had to let my little brother play with mine. My two horses thus eventually succumbed to his reckless infant hands, but by then I had moved on to other adventures.
Mitzy, unlike Darla, had actually owned horses, when she lived down south and planned to own one again as soon as her father found her a place to board one. And suddenly Darla started talking about the horse she was going to own. Our mother quickly let her know that owning a horse wasn’t in her future.
“You had a horse when you were a little girl,” Darla whined.
“That was different,” Mom said. “We lived out in the country and it wasn’t a horse but a pony and I rode her to school which was over two miles away, because the snow was up to my knees in winter.”
“I could keep it at the Fairgrounds.”
“Ha! Right! I can only imagine what that would cost!”
“Mitzy says its cheap.”
“That’s because Mitzy’s father can afford it. Yours can’t so just quit driving me nuts about it.”
And so, the equestrian fervor was channeled into other activities. Rainy Saturdays Darla and Mitzy spent at the long table in our dining room, reading passages from horse novels to each other and then writing stories of their own – which bore a striking resemblance to the passages previously read – on fat tablets of Golden Rod lined yellow paper. Between the two of them, it was hard to tell which was the more erudite, brainy little girls that they both were. Despite my pedestrian status, they tolerated my sitting at the table writing stories of my own. Mine were mostly childishly rewritten episodes from the cowboy series I watched on TV and were greeted with total indifference by the two older girls when I read them aloud. Meanwhile, their mutual praise and admiration were utterly effusive when they read their own stories to each other. And unlike mine, theirs were purely equestrian tales, stories starring horses, usually wild ones, and in which men were almost always the villains. These were tragic tales of wild horses corralled and broken. The language was technical and specific: check reins, curb bits, tack rooms, cruel whips, savage quirts, vile spurs, wicked hobbles. They knew the vocabulary and found ways to employ it to devastating effect.
And when the sun shone, the stories were acted out. We weren’t people in these stories, but horses. Mitzy with her dark mane was a black beauty, despite the thick-lensed, horn-rimmedspectacles she wore to correct her severe myopia. Tall, blonde Darla was a fine palomino. I wanted to be an appaloosa or an Arabian, but they would snicker derisively at my pretense and tell me to be a quarter horse or nothing. Our entire back yard was bordered by hedge rows, lovely waist-tall hedges that formed an unbroken wall except for the entrance cut through it near the driveway and garage and again on the other side of the drive where a narrow cement walkway led from the garage to the back door. These hedges, then, became the corrals with which bad white men sought to fence us in – while the good Indians often came to our aid and let us go. (White men were about control, about saddles and tack, whips and spurs, barbed wire and tall corrals; Indians let us roam free, rode us bareback and lived, like us, on the open range, ever wandering and savage. Darla and Mitzy were very clear on this point, while for me, it clashed with the admiration I felt for my cowboy and cavalry heroes and was already causing me my first philosophical – and ideological – dilemma).
It wasn’t a sport, but for budding intellectuals, it was a lot of exercise. Darla was, of course, the instructor. From her I learned to trot, canter and gallop, to rear up on my haunches and to bound, steeplechase style, over the hedge rows. Well, I mean long-legged, skinny Mitzy cleared the hedges with ease, and my tall gazelle-like sister flew over them like the graceful palomino that she portrayed, but chunky quarter horse that I was back then, I tended to catch a hoof midway across and topple headlong into the grass or gravel on the other side (usually crushing a section of hedge in the process, something that infuriated our father whenever he saw it, since the man liked his hedges to be uniform). Several times I was in danger of having to be shot after I twisted an ankle, until I could prove I was capable of running with the herd again. For hours on end, we would run and jump and whinny and nay in our flight to freedom beyond rope and fence.
For his part, little Jimmy was clear in his mind about cowboys, Indians and horses. First, he was no horse, so he had no interest in our antics. He was a cowboy. He owned a horse (a red and white candy-stripped broom stick that had a red and white horsey-head at one end, a red leather strap for reins and white yarn for a mane) and he rode it at a gallop until it dropped. The combined back yards of the neighbors were his ranch, little neighbor kids Brad and Sheila were his sidekicks and if any imaginary Apache or Sioux war party wanted to debate territory with him, he would be more than happy to draw his toy six-shooter and fill them full of lead.
I imagine any good sociologist or political scientist could have told us right then that Darla and I would end up being liberal Democrats or independents – in my case, an inveterate maverick, who would be ever plagued by the irritating capacity to see almost every issue from multiple angles – and that Jim was a born Republican (an intelligent and clear-minded one, who saw no purpose in confusing the issues when there was usually a strong, perfectly adoptable side to every question).
Hardy Boys, Ghosts and Murder So Foul
Almost as quickly as she had come into our lives, Mitzy was gone. Her brilliant brother Ned won a full scholarship to the ArmyAcademy at West Point and her father got a shot at an editor’s post in a bigger newspaper elsewhere in the country. Her family sold a few things before they moved and the only item our mother decided to buy was Mitzy’s dad’s portable Smith Corona typewriter, which she got for five dollars. What prompted my mother to buy it I don’t know, although I suspect it was that she fantasized about doing secretarial work and leaving the world of restaurants and food preparation behind. (In fact, in her latter working years she was a legal secretary and office manager and seemed to really enjoy those jobs, but for now, while we kids were young, she worked part-time at The Teddy Bear or as a cook in the school cafeteria). Whatever her motives, I thought the typewriter was a fair trade for losing Mitzy and immediately commandeered it for writing my short stories (using the same four-fingered – first two of each hand – typing technique that I still do today, if at a much slower, hunt-and-peck pace back then).
Darla was temporarily devastated by the loss of her friend, but this provided her with a new departure in her literary pursuits. Since she was off of horses for a while (what fun was it without Mitzy?) she began to take an interest in ghost, mystery and horror stories. We would go to the public library together and while I was perusing the children’s mystery and adventure novels, she would nip into the adult section and look for the scariest things she could find. She had developed a recent interest in mysteries as well, and that was how the entire Nancy Drew series had fallen into my hands. But I had trouble identifying with the “girl sleuth” – always picturing her as looking a lot like my sister, since it had been Darla, whose reading and dramatic skills were so keen that it was as if she were telling me things that had happened to her personally, who had read the first stories aloud to me in order to pique my interest – and quickly moved on to the Hardy Boys. But her real appetite at that moment was for the occult and for horror.
Nothing but the best for Darla, however, when it came to literature, and so, while I devoured detective novels of all sorts on my own and watched Mike Hammer, The Detectives, Naked City and other cop and private eye series on TV, sessions in which my sister still read to me were devoted to such gems as Dickens’ Captain Murderer, a short story about a ghoul who kills his wives, chops them up and eats them in a pie; Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, in which a narrator becomes the casual witness and unwitting accomplice of a madman who entombs his twin sister alive; another Poe masterpiece, The Black Cat, also a story of cruelty and burial alive, in which the murderer’s undoing is the pet of his victim; Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a murderous journey into every man’s darker side; and a thick anthology of ghostly and ghastly tales that was probably Bennett Cerf’s famed 1944 Random House anthology entitled Famous Ghost Stories, including a celebrated hair-raiser entitled The Monkey’s Paw, which Darla learned by heart and could tell to blood-curdling effect.
Caption: Dan as private eye.
Darla was nothing if not sensitive and our turn-of-the-century house provided the perfect setting for her recitations and permitted her to elaborate stories of her own about strange occurrences that may (or may not, “you can believe whatever you want but I know it’s true”) have taken place there. The house creaked and groaned in the night. The aging furnace knocked and echoed. Sometimes I could have sworn I heard footsteps on the stairs and I always leapt rather than climbed into bed, for fear that the madman who was surely hiding beneath it might grab my ankles, snatch me under and slit my throat.
Upscale as the neighborhood supposedly was, the proximity of the river and woods meant that it had a constant rodent problem – mice, shrews, bats and dreaded river rats that required constant preventive action. And this made it a perfect home for the family of great horned owls that came to nest in the huge cedar trees in our side and back yards. One of those trees grew right outside the window of the room I shared with my little brother and on windy nights the scratching and scraping of its branches on the side of the house and hooting and screeching of the owls as they swooped to clutch their rodent prey in powerful talons were petrifying additions to the weird symphony of noises that the house itself made.
As I mentioned earlier, the only access to the attic was through Darla’s room. And this gave her a certain power over me, as if she held the key to a secret world from which I was banned without her. We were both forbidden to go in there, but, clever girl that she was, Darla knew where the key was kept and when our mother was busy or away, would sometimes sneak in. It seemed to coincide that whenever she invited me along on this kind of adventure, it was shortly after she had read me a ghost story.
The attic door was so short and narrow that the only person in the family who could have walked through it frontwise and standing up was our little brother Jim. But he was never invited. Darla and I, meanwhile, both had to stoop and turn sideways to get through the entrance. And the only times I ever saw our mother go in, it was practically on her hands and knees. The attic, indeed, had personality. It was not just a dusty if harmless behind-the-walls look at the house. It was, rather, a mysterious little world that still held forgotten reminders of another time. Its small single window under the tallest eve of the house provided an ever-twilight illumination that entered from the south in a column-like beam, a soft, yellowish light in which dust motes lackadaisicallyswam. Its A-frame walls sloped to the floor from the formidable roof beam and the ancient nails in the splintery flooring squeaked and complained with our every step.
One of the Winget men had once been a lightning rod salesman and a pile of his wares still lay along one side of the attic floor, a modest heap of wrought iron rods with a candy cane-like twist to capture lightning bolts and carry them to the ground. (The outside of the house was rife with these protective rods and there was one in the ground under every tree – a fact that caused Dad to curse “that sonuvabitch and his goddamn lightning rods” – every time he hit one of them with the lawn mower blade. But that didn’t keep lightning from striking our TV antenna and blowing out the television set one summer evening while we lived there). Old, yellowed lightning rod handbills littered the floor around the rods. Some glass-covered photographs in frames leaned against the wall-rafters. One showed a serious-looking middle-aged man wearing a suit that appeared to be from the early 1900s. The sepia photo was faded with age, but the man still gazed steadily and frankly into the lens, holding his hat by the brim with both hands in front of him. Another was of two young women. They were of similar size and resembled one another. They were dressed in the sack dresses and cloche hats of the 1920s. I thought them pretty in a sad way as they stood facing the camera with slightly pursed lips and unsmiling eyes.
Darla told me that they were sisters. They had lived in this very house…and died there. They were invalids, had become invalids, in fact, shortly after this very picture was taken. They had lived the rest of their short lives in the front bedroom, over the street – the one our mother never let us use. Why did I think that was? It was because that room was where the two girls had died. Did I ever notice what a chill there was in that room? It was because it was…haunted! I said, of course, that I didn’t believe her, that she was making it up, that she couldn’t scare me. She just shrugged. I could suit myself but she knew the truth. And despite my bravura, the seed was planted and that room too became a place of mystery and night-time terror.
Eventually, however, I got better acquainted with that “spare” room. The truth about why our mother had made it a restricted area and often locked the door so that we couldn’t go in was because Dad was already fretting about the cost of heating such a big house and talked her into shutting the warm air registers to that room and keeping it closed so as not to be “wasting heat”. But when summer came, Mom would open the door to that room during the day and raise the window that looked north onto Auglaize Street so as to cross-ventilate and keep the upstairs where we children slept from being so hot at night. At first timidly, I started slipping into that room and gazing out the window. It was a different world from the one I could see from my window that looked onto the neighbor’s back yard and our driveway. Cars passed beneath it all day on their way to and from town and in the morning I could watch the aging Ritter sisters in their sun bonnets and aprons, washing down their front porch and the concrete steps to the street across the way. For lack of anyplace else to put it, my mother had placed a wooden toy tea table that my sister had outgrown under that window with its accompanying child-size chairs, and despite being way too big for this furniture, the pieces were swiftly converted into my “office”. There I whiled away a couple of hours at a time wearing a disused snap-brim hat of my Grandpa Murel’s on the back of my head (the way journalists and writers did in movies) and packing my Mattel Dick Tracey Snubnose .38 in its durable rubber shoulder-holster rig, while pecking out ‘mysteries’ on the Smith Corona.
Caption: Mattel Snubnose .38
The Closest I’ve Come to a Bestseller
Darla became a teen-ager while we were living on Auglaize and had the run of the neighborhood. She was popular and made friends easily. I was just the opposite. At the public swimming pool in summer I mostly hung out with my cousins, Greg, who was my same age, and Mike, who was a year older. But a lot of the rest of the time I just kept to myself and played war and cowboys with my little brother, who was older now and more fun, I felt. And if not, I tagged along with my sister and her friends, whenever she let me.
Caption: Darla in 7th grade.
I also hung out with a boy called Steve who was two years older than I and a year younger than Darla. He was a mature boy who treated me like a kid brother and never teased or belittled me. He wasn’t into sports, which made me like him all the more. Not because he didn’t have the strength and coordination to be, but because he had other things to occupy his time. His father was an excellent cabinetmaker and had his carpentry shop in the garage behind their house, which was across Pearl Street from our back yard.Steve was learning the trade – he had made all of his own furniture for his bedroom, including his bed and chest of drawers. He and his dad let me hang out in the shop with them, taught me to use a drill press and hand saw and would give me little jobs to do like sweeping up the scraps and shoveling them into the pot-bellied stove that they used for heat on cold days. Sometimes they took me along in Steve’s father’s ’52 Chevy pickup when they went to the lumber yard. A couple of times they took me along to Steve’s grandfather’s farm near Lake St. Marys, fifteen miles away, and then fishing at the lake. It was the first time that I realized how much fun it could be to have a guy friend to pal around with.
Darla liked Steve too – but the way girls like boys. I think she felt funny about his being younger and couldn’t figure out how to tell him she liked him. Although powerful for his size, Steve wasn’t very big physically, while Darla was tall and naturally strong – it was hard to find a guy who could beat her arm-wrestling. So one day when we were playing some rough-house game like statue, instead of letting him go when it was her turn to spin him around and sling him to the ground, she fell to the ground with him, straddled him and pinned his shoulders to the lawn with both hands. Then she leaned in close and murmured, “Hey Steve, y’know what?” And Steve said, “Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, now let me up.” It never turned into a romance, but they were friends for as long as we lived there.
Another friend Darla made for us was Jenny. One day she just came home and announced that she had “met this really neat little girl called Jenny” who lived a couple of doors away from the grocery store on Pearl Street. Jenny, it turned out, was a grade ahead of me in school although she was not quite a year older, which put her two grades behind Darla. But she was stunningly erudite and Darla found her literacy an immediate plus. She “got” the kind of scripted games we played and that were based on what we read. She was a cute, plump little redhead with an infectious laugh, as well as being adventurous and a good sport. Darla and I both immediately liked her.
Suddenly, the horses were back and we had Jenny, who was also an animal-lover, reading horse books, whinnying, naying, galloping, cantering and jumping the hedges with us. I was pleased by the fact that she was more like me, a stocky quarter-horse, when it came to physical pursuits and that she also often failed to clear the hedge. But of course, when it came to intellectual pursuits, both she and Darla ran circles around me. The horse stories she wrote were mature and well-crafted for her age and she was good at telling them and a funny and dramatic actress, as well as being girly-girl romantic, which I found “mushy”. Like Darla she was also better than I was at board games and when we had Monopoly marathons at her house or ours in rainy or snowy weather, she and my sister always ended up cleaning me out and owning everything on the board.
But the nice thing was that Jenny was close enough to my age that she wasn’t just Darla’s friend, but mine too, which meant we often played together when Darla was busy with her older friends. And, we had friends in common – notably, my dear friend Martha, from my days on Pine Street. Martha’s grandparents lived just across the alley from Jenny’s house. So whenever Martha came for a weekend or summer visit, the three of us played together.
On one such day, the three of us were acting out a “free version” of Poe’s The Raven. This will sound crazy to the Internet generation but just imagine (what?) Dungeons and Dragons, or whatever, before the existence of the PC. Scripted play, is the best description I can think of. Anyway, as the eldest and most dramatic of the three of us, Jenny was directing the game. She was the wife, I was the husband and Martha was our daughter (which was a little comical, since Martha was head and shoulders taller than Jenny). In Jenny’s plot, I was the writer who would come home from a hard day at the office, retire to my study and proceed to be badgered by the pesky bird and its persistent “Nevermore!” (quoth the raven).
Caption: Drawing of The Raven by E. Manet.
I don’t recall the details, except that we were playing alone and unsupervised in Martha’s granddad’s shed, which featured a little room attached to the garage with windows and a chair and table in it and that this was to be my study. And whenever anybody knocked there was always the possibility that it might be the raven – which, we were all bright and literate enough to know, represented death. But then again, not always. Sometimes it was my “daughter” dropping by to say hello and other times it was my loving “wife”, who tried her best to convince me not to trouble myself over a stupid blackbird.
Anyway, to make a long story short, at some point “suddenly there came a tapping / as of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door…” and when I flung open the door hoping to get the jump on the raven, it wasn’t the flighty bird at all, but Jenny. And to my utter amazement she cried, “Oh darling, I’m so glad to see you’re home!” And with that, she threw her soft freckled arms around my neck and kissed me full on the mouth. It was the first time a girl had ever kissed me and I was speechless. Fast on her feet, if blushing a little at her own boldness, Jenny gave me a hug and said, “Hurry up and wash your hands, dear. Dinner’s on the table.” I just stood there dumbly, feeling her kiss still stinging like a singularly pleasant brand on my lips. It was a chilly autumn day and I would recall the cool, wet, little-girl pucker for weeks to come. Suddenly, things were different. We still played like always, the two of us with Darla or Martha, and everything seemed normal. Nor did Jenny ever kiss me again – and I was far too shy to kiss her. But for the weeks and months from then until my family packed up and moved once more, I had a secret crush on Jenny that made me blush every time my sister mentioned her name.
A couple of years ago, I found an entry in Wikipedia for Wapakoneta and, out of curiosity, decided to read it. It was no surprise to me that it described my town as “the birthplace of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon” and of“Oscar-winning screenwriter Dudley Nichols”, but I was darned if I had ever heard of another famous Wapakoneta resident, best-selling romance novelist “Jennifer Crusie”, who was also mentioned there. When I looked the writer up, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the pseudonym was Jenny’s – ‘our’ Jenny’s – and that in the romance genre (of which I had never been an avid reader) she was a very big name indeed, with over a dozen bestsellers.
Back then, I kind of thought Jenny, Darla, Martha and I would be friends forever, but one day Dad read the fuel and electric bills, said “this sonuvabitch is too expensive to heat” and the die was cast. The house on West Auglaize on which our mother had put in three years of creativity and effort painting and remodeling and making it beautiful, was placed on the market and quickly sold. So it was off to a new neighborhood, off to high school for Darla, and off to junior high for Jenny, who was suddenly an adolescent. Martha and I would be “little kids” for a year or so more, and that was long enough for my path to branch off from Jenny’s forever.