Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Tour 4 – Last Stop: Kelley Drive


Caption: The house on Kelley Drive as it looks today.

Dad was always futurizing. The big question on his mind was always, “What if…?” And neither the question nor the self-generated response was ever a happy one. Not, say, what if we were successful, or what if we hit the jackpot, or what if everything works out okay, or even what if we don’t do this or that and miss a chance to have a really great time or to find happiness and fulfillment?

No, the terrible questions (and the even more horrific answers to them) were always along the lines of, what if tragedy strikes, or what if I go bankrupt, or what if I can’t pay my bills, or what if one of us gets a catastrophic illness, or what if I’ve just plain bitten off more than I can chew? Although he had manic-like highs in which he leapt headlong into seemingly capricious purchases and investments – rather than projects or activities that might have brought him a measure of satisfaction – these were almost always followed by manic-like lows in which he would just as compulsively regret such impetuosity and beat himself up endlessly over it.

In general – though he seemed affable enough to outsiders when he was feeling okay – he thought that the world pretty much stank, that things seldom went as planned, that true happiness was a fool’s dream, that responsibility was sheer torture but inescapable and top priority just the same, that random was always bad, and that if there were a choice between things going right and things going wrong, he could pretty much count on their going wrong every time.

Perhaps this was because he was a child of the Great Depression – although, truth be told, even though his father was wiped out in the stock market crash of ’29 and subsequent bank failures, by the time he retired early, at age 62, he was very well off indeed and lived to a ripe old 86. Maybe, too, it was because Dad had seen so much horror during World War II, or perhaps it was simply the result of the mental and emotional disorders for which he was treated off and on from the time he had his first major nervous breakdown when I was only five. I can’t really say. But the result was that nothing was ever done, no decision was ever made, without there first being a great deal of hand-wringing and gut-wrenching worry (which, generously, he shared with everyone in the house). Nor was any decision ever made and acted on without there being an immediate and almost panic-stricken sensation that, whatever else it might have been, it had surely been a terrible mistake.

I only mention this because I recall that we had barely gotten settled into the big old house on West Auglaize when Dad started scouting around for something else. This was at about the same time that he started seeing a psychiatrist regularly (a kind of eccentric hybrid, the shrink was, a Jewish Freudian with a Puritan work ethic, who said Dad’s problems stemmed from pent-up anger at his father and who insisted he keep doing everything he loathed in life because it built character). And it was also at the same time that he developed what were diagnosed as “psycho-somatic symptoms” (severe lower back pain, which, though not a physician, I would have blamed on his being twelve hours a day on his feet behind the counter of our family restaurant that he had come to hate).

Kelley’s Woods

I can’t say how much of a connection there was between one thing and the other, but within a year of our moving to the big, beautiful house on West Auglaize, Dad had, on the advice of his father, who had done the same, bought a lot in the new Oakwood Hills addition. He almost immediately decided this was a disastrous mistake (location, price, resale value, etc.) and sold it at a slight loss. But his sights were already set and although my mother had no desire whatsoever to move out of her dream home on West Auglaize, he sent her to have a look at that end of town. So, I remember one day my accompanying Mom and a neighbor lady “to take a ride” and ending up just on the other side of the river from where we lived, in the part of Oakwood Hills known as Kelley’s Woods.

The woods was named after the owner of all of the land that was being sold in that area, W.E. Kelley. Mr. Kelley’s rambling farmhouse and barn still stood in the shade of huge old hardwoods across Hamilton Road from the municipal swimming pool at the entrance to the addition. At the time, part of the road that would later be Kelley Drive was still unpaved. It felt like a real adventure to me as Mom maneuvered our ‘52 Chevy sedan over the dirt and made her way out of the open fields and into the oak and maple forest, passing an old rough-hewn cabin that stood as a reminder of the Kelley family’s past. There we got out of the car with the neighbor lady and had a look at a couple of lots that had been staked out. Mom and the neighbor stood imagining the beautiful homes they might one day have, nestled there beneath century-old trees, with back yards that would reach the banks of the Auglaize River.

I remember Mom’s later telling Dad that if she were going to live “out there in the sticks” she would want to build her house on one those gorgeous lots in the woods, not on one of the ones bulldozed out of a cornfield closer to the intersection with Hamilton Road. But three years later, just as he had done twice before since I was born, Dad made a snap decision to buy a new house. And not one of the ones that were being built rapidly to order in Kelley’s Woods for some of the wealthier families in town, but rather one of a string of five houses of similar size and design built for sale by a contractor named Gerlich. These were not in Kelley’s Woods, but a couple of hundred yards short of it near the Hamilton Road Bridge. Okay, to be fair, they weren’t bulldozed out of a cornfield. That year, the farmer who had leased the land in front of and in back of what was to be our home from Mr. Kelley had sown wheat.



Caption: That year the field had been sown in wheat.

810 Kelley Drive

I would eventually come to make friends with the house at 810 Kelley Drive and to love the neighborhood and countryside that surrounded it, but when we first moved in, I was furious. Why, I wanted to know, did we have to leave the big house on West Auglaize, a house that was so obviously superior in grace, beauty, style and mystery to this spare, clean-cut, Formica-countered, modified A-frame piece of spiritless modernity?





Caption: The house on Kelley Drive as it looked when we moved in. Darla and I are on the porch. The '56 Royal Crown Imperial was Dad's pride and joy, but so long it didn't quite fit on the carport.



It wasn’t as if it weren’t a perfectly nice house. It had a front door that opened directly into the living room, pretty much the way the front door had in our house back on Pine Street. It was that modern post-war idea of “why waste perfectly good living space on an entryway or foyer?” It was a fairly large rectangular living room with a big picture window in the middle facing south and a double sash window in the west end. The back door was off of the carport (which, a few years later, Dad would pay my Uncle Kenny, Mom’s younger brother, who was an excellent carpenter, to turn into a real garage) and opened into the kitchen. From that door, you could also go directly down into the basement, since the door to the basement stairs faced the back door in a tiny entryway next to the kitchen range that was just about big enough to turn around in. The kitchen was modern and efficient with ample cabinetry in light-colored hardwood, all hung at a convenient height since the house had eight-foot, rather than twelve-foot ceilings (as had been the case on West Auglaize), Formica-topped counters, a double sink with a window above it that provided a view of the field across the way and a strip of woods along the Auglaize River beyond, under-counter cupboards and drawers and built-in Westinghouse electric oven and range, with more cabinetry above and below both. Just beyond the kitchen next to the doorway to the living room was the dinette, a dining area just large enough for our dining room table and chairs (the hutch cupboard ended up in the living room), which featured a broom closet and guest closet, as well as a large window looking onto the front yard. Just past the door from the living room into the dining area was a long hallway that ran the length of the house behind the kitchen and living room and off of which were the three bedrooms and single bathroom.

Caption: From left - Dad, Virgnia, Dan, Jim, Jim's second wife Val, Darla's eldest son Jon, Darla and Darla's then-husband Tom. The dining room suit barely fit into the dinette.

One of the bedrooms, the one in the middle, had originally been an open area with a window and “spare” closet, planned by the builder as a sort of den, TV room or, perhaps, library. But Dad quickly had a wall and door put in and it became Darla’s room. Jim and I shared one of the larger rooms and Mom and Dad the remaining one, which were about the same size. Except for Darla’s room, which hadn’t been designed as a bedroom and had a regular sash window, the bedrooms had what were called “privacy” windows. These small rectangular windows were installed high up and close to the ceiling in the east and north walls of one bedroom and in the west and north walls of the other. They were made so that no one could look in from the outside but had practically the same effect from the inside. I, who had so enjoyed looking out onto the street and neighborhood from the big sash window in the north bedroom on West Auglaize found these new modern windows singularly frustrating. Though tall for my age, I hadn’t yet shot up to the full six-foot-one that I would eventually reach and had to stand on my tiptoes to be able to see out. My brother, always small for his age, could only see out if he stood on his bed.



Caption: The house and yard in the '90s after 30 years of Mom's green thumb.


Had I been in an admitting mood, I would have had to admit that it was a nice, solid, modern home. But I wasn’t and wouldn’t. I was going on twelve now and had a definite mind of my own, which generally clashed with my father’s. I was, however, still young enough that I couldn’t feel okay about not agreeing with him.

So most of the time, I felt angry and wrong-minded and confused. What kind of son was I if I was constantly rebelling against my father’s wishes? He couldn’t even get me to stay in Peewee League – not even after Mom had spent Sunday afternoons teaching me to pitch and catch and swing a bat. She had played softball when she was young and was a natural. And Dad was always too exhausted or too depressed or too pissed off at the world to feel like teaching me. But that didn’t keep him from expecting me to go out for the team…some team…any team. So Mom would teach me the basics of the all-American sport, while Dad napped on the couch in front of a ballgame on TV.

Caption: Mom in '92 - 50 years with Dad, 30 years on Kelley Drive.

Eventually, the ol’ man talked me into “at least trying” baseball. (What kid didn’t like baseball? It was downright un-American). So off I went to the baseball diamond in the Harmon Field city park with my spotlessly brand new ball cap and stiff, new, untamed glove, both of which made me stick out, as the saying went, like a whore in church – a non-baseball-believing heretic to be sure.

The coach, I discovered, had been our postman back when we lived on Defiance street when I was four, and back then I had liked him. I soon found out that, as a coach, he was a whole other animal. He took Peewee League and winning games so seriously that you’d have thought he was running the Cincinnati Reds. He took one look at my impeccably new cap and rigid unsullied glove, put his hand on my shoulder and said, close up and right in my face, “Go sit on the bench over there, rookie, and when I get time I’ll pop ya a few flies to catch."

His eyes were bloodshot and his breath smelled of liquor. It was only 9 a.m. I didn’t protest. I went and sat on the bench while he asked boys with well-worn, faded, sweat-stained caps and pliant, neatsfoot-stained mitts what positions they played, and then deployed them on the field to “see what they had”. The only flies I caught were the ones with wings and legs that landed on my pants legs while I sat on the bench watching “the good kids” play. So after a string of wasted mornings spent going through the humiliating agony of sitting there with a fat kid who looked like he was about to cry and another boy whose glasses were so thick it was hard to tell what color his eyes were, I refused to go anymore.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking I was surely one of the reasons the ol’ man was depressed so much of the time. With a son like me, who wouldn’t be depressed? What kind of a son loathed team sports? What kind of kid read books and wrote stories and drew pictures all the time instead of getting out there and mixing it up? Who wouldn’t be depressed to have a kid like that? But that didn’t keep me from being angry too, especially now. I simply couldn’t believe that he would give up West Auglaize Street for Kelley Drive over something as banal as heating bills.

In our house – in just about any house in the entire, extended, Newland family, in fact – if there was one thing you always learned about, it was money matters. Sales, small business, and personal banking and investment, this was what made the Newlands tick. That and team sports. Which was precisely the opposite of Mom’s family. The Webers (her father’s family) and the Cavinders (her mother’s) were rural folk, unconcerned with matters of money, as long as there was enough to put food on the table and keep a decent roof over their heads and a decent vehicle in the shed. And most of them had no more than a mild and passing interest in organized sports, since nearly all of them had, at one time or another, lived on farms where there was no time for a boy to be off fooling around on a ball field when there was hay to be made and livestock to be tended. They talked about the weather, about crops, about the people they had seen when they last had been downtown. They played sheephead and euchre and yahtzee when they got together. Some of them chewed tobacco. Others smoked short, non-filter Luckies or rolled their own smokes. They didn’t talk about money because they didn’t figure there was enough of it to talk about. It would be something akin to putting on airs to discuss money matters. And besides that, it was simply nobody’s business what you had and what you didn’t have. But give a Newland ten bucks and he would have a corresponding ten theories as to how to stretch it to twenty. It just seemed to run in their Scottish blood. Granted, the theories quite often didn’t pan out, but they made for lively conversation whenever anyone was there to listen – whether the other person was interested or not.



Caption: Dad and Mom - retirement and happier days.

For example, my Uncle Bob Newland once met up with my Uncle Ken Weber at the gas pump. Bob, who had just bought a Mercury sedan, was first in line and Ken was waiting behind him in his Dodge truck to get to the pump. Always genial, Bob walked over to the driver’s window of Ken’s truck, said hi and decided to strike up a conversation. For lack of anything else to say after greetings and pleasantries were exchanged, Bob started talking about the great features of the new Merc, and one, of course, was the improved gas mileage of the new models.

“For instance, Ken,” he said, “what kind of mileage do you get on this truck?”

“I don’t know, Bob.”

“Ballpark, I mean?”

"How the hell should I know, Bob. When it’s empty I fill it up,” said Ken.

“Well, look at the size of that Mercury. And you know what kind of mileage I get on it? Go on, take a guess…”

“Bob,” said Ken, his hands gripping the wheel, eyes staring straight ahead, his ball cap pulled low, “I don’t give a good goddamn what kind o’ mileage you get. Get that piece o’ shit out o’ my way sometime today so I can get some gas.”

So anyway, I had heard all about the sale of our old house and the purchase of the new one and I was flabbergasted. I mean, sure, Dad made it sound logical: It was a bad time, the market value of old houses was going down, everybody wanted new modern ones – “and, hey, I don’t blame ‘em!” – and so on. I could just hear the real estate agent saying all this and see Dad nodding heartily in agreement. But the long and the short of it was that the house on Auglaize Street was sold at a loss and the one on Kelley Drive bought at a premium. Worse still, the beautiful house on Auglaize with its grassy yard, hedges and huge old trees was actually sold for a lower price than the sum paid for the new house, despite the new one’s being half the old one’s size. According to Dad, however, we had gotten out of the old house “just in time”, because the market for old houses hadn’t bottomed out yet. (The values of those times seem ludicrous today: The house on West Auglaize went for 13,500 dollars and the one on Kelley Drive was purchased for 14,500).

Be that as it may, the ol’ man was nobody’s fool. He could be a really “hard sell” and he was – as were most of the men in his family – a consummate salesman himself. When driving a hard bargain was in the cards, he had ice-water in his veins and would hold out until hell froze over to get the price he wanted. If you didn’t believe it, all you had to do was ask Lloyd Bovee at the Chevy dealership or Big Ed Clark at the Ford dealership, whom Dad played off against each other every time he was in the market for a new vehicle. The difference here was that the sale of the Winget house on West Auglaize was typical of times when the ol’ man had made a decision and was truly done with something, and Dad was definitively done with that house, even if the rest of us weren’t.

Adjustment

I could have set my watch by Dad’s next breakdown. Almost as soon as we moved into the new house on Kelley Drive, he hit the deck like a ton of bricks. A new place, a new, bigger mortgage to replace the one on the Winget House, a business that was being eroded to an ever greater degree by the new Interstate that by-passed town and took business with it. What if changing houses right now had been a disastrous error?


Caption: Darla and I goofing around in the early '60s

He started staying home and sending my mother in to run the restaurant in his place. By this time, his older brother, Bob, had taken a job at the bank and his younger brother, Chuck, had taken over my grandfather’s Western and Southern Insurance debit. It was just Mom and Dad – and a wonderful group of young women, including my sister, who worked for them – at the Teddy Bear now, and there were days when the ol’ man decided he simply couldn’t take going in. Then it got to be a couple of days a week, and then a week, and finally, he went to bed for a couple of months.


Caption: Jim (left), Darla (right) and I still goofing around in the early '70s.


I mean this almost literally. He lived in the bedroom he shared with my mother. All day he lay there in the dark, the curtains drawn, slipping in and out of sleep for days on end. Sometimes Mom would talk him into coming to the dinner table. It was like dining at a wake. We would sit there, all of us in silence, not looking at each other, saying “Pass the potatoes, please,” and eating as quickly as possible, swallowing past the collective lump in our throats. Sometimes the ol’ man would sit there at the head of the table in his flannel robe, staring at his plate, sniffling.

“Why don’t you eat something, Normie?” Mom would softly suggest. “You’ll feel better.” And then his face would crumple up like a ball of paper and he would start to weep.

“What’s the matter, Norm?” Mom would ask, embarrassed and chagrined. "I don’t deserve to eat,” he would say. “I’m no goddamn good.” And back he would go to his bed.

Seen from the different perspective that one gains with age and experience, I learned to sympathize with my father’s suffering. It’s hard to imagine how much anguish he endured throughout the long years that he lived with this kind of paralyzing depression. Nor is it easy to understand what he went through in the process of seeking a cure, with a variety of psychiatrists and admission to several different psychiatric facilities at different times over a 20-year period, before he finally began to take drugs that didn’t cure him, but at least placed him in a kind of stable, if always slightly depressed state, in which he could at least function within a certain climate of normality.

Back then, however, as a pre-adolescent and later, as an adolescent, I was just angry. Angry that my dad wasn’t like other dads, that our home wasn’t like other homes, that we couldn’t have friends stay over, that we had to sneak around the house in broad daylight so as not to disturb the ol’ man’s “rest”. Angry that dinner-time was a time of such anxiety and sadness, angry at the sensation that happiness was something you had to go out into the world and find because, at home, depression was the ever-present variable that you had to deal with constantly. Angry that the rest of us couldn’t even just forget about the ol’ man if he wanted to lie around feeling sorry for himself, that we could never leave him alone for too long “for fear he might do something to himself.”

So I started avoiding the house every chance I got and spent the rest of the time hidden away in the side of our basement that Dad had had made over into a “family room” with its acoustical ceiling, tile floor and Philippine mahogany paneling. Once it was done and Mom had furnished it, the “finished” half of the basement was really nice. It had a bar at one end, bookshelves at the other, a row of modern ceiling lights, two couches, two armchairs, end-tables with art deco lamps, a coffee-table and, eventually, a TV. It was practically an apartment.

But almost as soon as this basement room was done, the family discovered that it had no use for a “family” room. The upstairs was comfortable and roomy. The living room was large and bright, the dining area was attached directly to the modern all-electric kitchen and those were the two places where we congregated whenever Mom was home and we were all together. Who wanted to go down to the always dank, cool basement where, despite its various ground-level windows, it seldom got enough light that you didn’t need artificial light to be down there? And the fact was that whenever Dad wasn’t laid up sick, he was working twelve or fourteen-hour days and Mom was usually either working with or instead of him at the restaurant or working somewhere else – first as a cook at the new Wapakoneta High School across from Harmon Field, later as the secretary at the Cornell Agency insurance brokerage and finally, as the office manager at the Henkener Law Office. My kid brother, Jim, immediately loved the surroundings and, gregarious as always, right away made friends with all of the kids in the neighborhood. Mom practically had to rope and tie him to get him to come in and eat whenever the weather was at all fit to be out. My sister Darla, meanwhile, had lots of friends and activities, including part-time work in the restaurant, and if she was home, she was usually in her room reading or sleeping, when she wasn’t studying (since she was always an outstanding scholar).

So I ended up claiming the basement no one else wanted and it became my world whenever I was in the house. There I had my books, my music, my Smith Corona typewriter, my art supplies, everything I could want to feel happy in a world of my own making. There was a Simon and Garfunkel song that was popular back then and it became a kind of secret hymn I heard in my head when I was there, especially the lines that went: I have my books /And my poetry to protect me / I am shielded in my armor/Hiding in my room/Safe within my womb / I touch no one and no one touches me…”

Caption: I took over the basement no one wanted and it became my domain.

Work

Dad had this fixed idea that I thought money grew on trees. And I had a similarly fixed idea that, as my father, he was duty-bound to take care of my needs until I became of legal age to take care of my own. But he quickly dissuaded me of this philosophy, reminding me that it was never too early to earn one’s keep and that his own father had sent him off to work as a rural laborer the summer when he was my very age, twelve.

The first thing he did, of course, was put me to work Saturdays and a couple of days a week after school at the Teddy Bear. I didn’t really mind the work itself. I mostly washed dishes, peeled potatoes, cut them into french fries in the hand-operated, mechanical french-fry cutter and generally helped with food preparation and cleanup. I also took carry-out orders over the phone, and sometimes prepared them if everybody else was too busy. I liked the pretty, older, teen-aged girls who worked there and they treated me with the same sweet playfulness that they might have a kid brother. Nor did I mind working with Mom and Darla, since we often had fun together and were always looking for an excuse to cut up and laugh when Dad wasn’t around to chide us for not working hard enough. But Dad and I set each other off like match set to fuse. Nothing I did was ever fast enough, neat enough, careful enough or uniform enough to suit him and he followed me around, cussing under his breath and redoing things as fast as I finished them. There were only two ways to do things: his way and the wrong way.

So he started “helping me” find other occupations. The first one I remember was mowing the lawn of a lady called Hilda who worked for him. Hilda was full-time kitchen help. She was an older lady who had a problem in her legs that made her walk with a pronounced limp – a kind of strange, side-to-side, rocking gait – and couldn’t mow the lawn herself. Wages at the Teddy Bear weren’t any better for kitchen help than they were in any other restaurant in town and all she could afford to pay for the job was a dollar.

Hilda’s house was a little place across the river “behind town”. That is to say, the view from her back yard was the flood wall along the river, a piece of the river itself, the city parking lot and the backs of all the buildings on the main drag of town. She owned what was known back then as a “hand mower”. These were mechanical, motorless lawn mowers with a series of blades mounted on an axle that turned when you pushed the apparatus by hand, causing the rubber-covered wheels of the mower head to turn. The mower head was attached to a wooden handle, not unlike a wagon tongue, with a crosspiece at the top for your hands. I had seen hand mowers that were so well maintained, well greased, well sharpened and well made that they were a pleasure to use and almost preferable to power mowers for civilized yards. This mower, however, wasn’t one of them. And this, combined with the fact that Hilda’s yard was a never-ending series of ruts, gulleys, broad-blade tufts, rocks, gopher holes and quack-grass clumps made the job next to impossible. The machine stuck, snarled, jammed and dragged until I wanted to bawl. I sweat and strained and cussed the mower and cussed Hilda and cussed the ol’ man until I was blue in the face.

It took me until dark after school on a Friday evening and all morning that next Saturday to do the job. And when I was done I told myself that this was the last time I would do it. And it was.

But when I went to the Teddy Bear that noon to tell Hilda I was through, I felt guilty about having cursed her and her lawn mower under my breath the whole time I was working and about deciding not to work for her again. Suddenly, it was clear to me what a sacrifice she was making by paying me that dollar, when she took me aside as if to keep others from seeing such a precious exchange of wealth. She thanked me and, glancing over her shoulder, as if afraid we might be held up, handed me a little packet, made of several paper napkins, twisted at the top around their contents. When I opened it up, inside were two shiny fifty-cent pieces. Obviously, she had wrapped them like this to set them aside for fear of spending them before she got me paid. I was so moved that I almost told her to forget it and handed them back, but imagining the look on the ol’ man’s face if I were to do that, I desisted and slipped them into my pants pocket. “Business,” Dad surely would have said, “is business. Don’t be a sucker, Dan.”

Once you start working, however, no matter what age you start at, there’s an element of maturity and self-reliance in it that makes it, well, addictive, sort of – habit-forming, I guess, is a better choice of words. So before I knew it, I had a short list of clients who paid me for my somewhat dubious gardening skills: Mr. McMurray, the president of the People’s National Bank; a businessman called Koge, who lived in a big brick house with a back yard on the river; a retired schoolteacher, whose neat little yard came to a point where Mechanic Street branched off from West Auglaize in my old neighborhood, and several others in different locations around town. For these people, I cut grass and weeded flowerbeds in the summer, raked and burned leaves in the fall, shoveled snow in the winter and turned over the dirt in their gardens in the spring, in exchange for the few bucks per service that they paid me.

Before I turned 13, I also started delivering newspapers, first an early morning route for the Dayton Journal Herald and later, an afternoon route for the Lima News. The Lima News routes were run out of Russell MacLean’s Newsstand, and those of us who worked out of there also did Sunday morning routes for other papers that he sold: the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Toledo Blade, the Columbus Dispatch, and others. Having access to all of these periodicals and to the literary magazines – like the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The New Yorker and Reader’s Digest – among others, that Russ sold at the Newsstand across the street from the Post Office fed my already budding desire to be a newsman and writer. And having the paper route also led to opportunities to sell other things to my customers – serialized cookbooks, anthologies of condensed novels and magazine subscriptions, among other things.

But I now had another interest as well. I had joined the band at school and was learning to be a percussionist. My sister Darla was already becoming an accomplished musician by this time, an excellent trumpet-player. I’m not saying this because she’s my sister, honestly. Like with just about anything else she took up, she demonstrated immediate talent, perseverance and extraordinary brilliance. By the time she finished high school, she could easily have pursued music as a career, and with a little work, would certainly have stood a good chance of winning a chair in auditions for a professional orchestra. As it turned out, she didn’t, and gave up playing entirely after high school.

As with reading and books, it was Darla who first whetted my taste for symphonic music of all sort – classical, romantic, impressionist, modern classical and contemporary – and who got me started collecting records of serious music as well as books.

At first I had also wanted to play a brass wind instrument and so admired the band director, Mr. Bigelow, that I decided to take up his instrument, the trombone. But that was the year I had been ill with infectious hepatitis and the disease had left me weak and under-confident. Mr. Bigelow was a temperamental man who shouted and berated students as a regular part of his teaching method and he was particularly touchy about how the trombone was played, so I ended up quitting just weeks after I started.

“Another thing he quit without giving it a chance,” I could hear my father saying. But I wasn’t up for so much pressure right then.

Music Man

Nearly a year later, I screwed up my courage, went back to Mr. Bigelow and said, “I want to play the drums.” He said to forget it. That I could come back and play trombone or not come back at all. He was a regular customer at the Teddy Bear, however, and liked my mother, so she worked on him until he finally called me in one day and said, “Okay, Danny, you can play the drums, because Reba thinks I should give you a second chance. But the first time you pussyfoot around on me again, you’re outa here, for good.” I appreciated the second chance and wanted to show him I was made of tougher stuff than it had appeared at first glance and sought to become the best he could ask for. Turned out, as a percussionist, I was a natural…who knew?

Caption: Playing the drums in my basement studio.


So by age fourteen, music was already taking up a lot of my time. I saved up and bought drums of my own so as to be able to practice at home, and more than ever, the finished half of the basement became my studio and my domain. At school I was learning all of the classic percussion instruments from snare drum and bass drum to cymbals and triangle and everything in between. I turned out not to be a terribly swift study when it came to “keyboard”-type instruments like the xylophone, chimes or glockenspiel (fortunately my friend JoAnne was and she generally handled the hardest parts on these instruments and would cover this weak point of mine from junior high all the way through high school). But I practiced those parts too, just in case I was ever called upon to play them.

Though highly proficient on all other drums and “traps”, it turned out I had a particular talent and love for the timpani. For those unfamiliar with the term, these are what are most commonly known as kettledrums, consisting of a membrane (laminated plastic or calfskin) head stretched over a large copper bowl and played with special fiber-headed sticks of varying degrees of hardness known as timp mallets. They were originally religious and military instruments descended from ancient Hebrew ceremonial drums and later mounted on horses and used with clarion trumpets to accompany cavalry movements in Europe.

Caption: At school they could always find me in the Band Room.



But by the 16th and 17th centuries they started to be incorporated into the orchestra. In the early 19th century, Beethoven, revolutionized their use and gave them a voice of their own beyond mere percussion. From Beethoven on, the timpani have played a major role in some of the most stirring passages of classical music as a whole, and I immediately fell in love with them.

Furthermore, their prestige appealed to me. They marked the difference between a mere “drummer” and a true percussionist. The timps are tunable instruments that require a sensitive musical ear, especially in complex orchestral pieces that require multiple tone changes throughout their execution. And I proved to be expert at handling this task as well as at the complex playing technique required to properly execute timpani parts.

At fourteen, I was a serious musician. In order to devote more time to practice, I got rid of all the most time-consuming little jobs I had and got two better-paying ones that I could do in the evenings. Several nights a week (weekends and one weeknight), I was a ticket-taker and usher at the local movie theater. I also helped with clean-up after the feature was over. Then I would go from there to the Teddy Bear, where, for a time, I took the place of a night janitor, who had decided to retire. I would let myself in with a back door key Dad lent me, put a couple of quarters in the jukebox to have music to work to, and then I would proceed to do the heavy cleaning, mopping and waxing the floor of the dining room.

Then, as I got better, music also became how I earned my money. First, it was with a rock group called The Trees, whose front man was Dave Emerson, a fourteen-year-old kid with a great set of pipes, who played a mean lead guitar. We played Saturday nights at the Wigwam, a municipal youth center that was also known as ‘The Rec’ (short for recreational center). We got a percentage of the cover charge – which was about enough to cover our burgers and Cokes. Then we started getting gigs in other places. The bass player was the only one old enough to drive, so we would all pile into his broken-down station wagon and venture off to play in ‘exotic’ locations like the village of Minster, or the lake-front town of Celina, or in summer ‘battles of the bands’ at the Auglaize County Fairgrounds.

But just as Darla had shared her love for classical music with me, from my mother, I inherited jazz. Mom had a huge collection of old 78 rpm records and I wore them out listening to them and memorizing the ‘licks’. Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, the Dorsey Brothers, Nelson Riddle, Woody Herman, Louie Armstrong, Les Brown, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Pearl Bailey, Artie Shaw, swing, big band, blues, Dixieland and singers of every ilk, she had them all and I learned their sounds by heart. Naturally enough, as soon as a dance band was formed at school, I was in it, learning how to read charts and lay down a beat. And as soon as I could drive, there was no stopping me.

The band director, Mr. Bigelow, sold me his son’s old ’57 Dodge Royal for fifty dollars and helped me get a job Mondays and Fridays after school until 9pm and Saturday mornings selling musical instruments and giving percussion lessons to beginners at the Porter Music Company in the nearby City of Lima. There I met other, older musicians and almost immediately started playing with jazz and pop bands at clubs of all kinds in the area. I joined the musicians union and got the union’s business agent to get me gigs substituting for jazz drummers who were sick or out of town. I ended up playing with over a score of different jazz and pop bands in a year, before I became the steady drummer with the Doug Price Trio.

To make a long story short, during my last two years of high school, I was working at the music store, playing gigs 4 nights a week, teaching private students in my basement studio at home and going to school. I was also head percussionist in the high school concert and marching bands, student director and band president, as well as being head percussionist in the Lima All-Area Concert Band. The house on Kelley Drive became little more than a “pit stop” for a little rest and recovery.

Love Walked In

What happened next changed everything. The plan was college (Ohio State had a famous School of Music), a music degree, a band to direct somewhere in Ohio, play some jazz, maybe get lucky and go someplace big – Chicago, New York, do some writing during the day, maybe a novel, maybe a blockbuster, but there would always be Ohio, surely. Where else did an Ohio boy go?


Caption: Virginia. Love walked in.


Then Virginia walked into my Spanish class and the world expanded by leaps and bounds. She was our first Youth for Understanding student. She came from Buenos Aires. She hadn’t wanted to come to Wapakoneta, had tried to change her destination to New York, LA, somewhere, anywhere that someone had heard of. But the program director talked her into it. He said, “You’ll have a unique experience, something different, unlike the kids that go to the major cities. Take my advice. Go.”

Within a week of her arrival, we had fallen in love. That was early winter. When she left the next June, I told her I’d be visiting her in Buenos Aires. She told me not to lie.

The next December, I sold my ’63 Chevrolet Biscayne and bought a ticket. I celebrated my nineteenth birthday aboard the Pan Am 707 Clipper that bore me to South America for the first time. When I landed in Buenos Aires for that month-long visit with the young woman I loved, I still didn’t know it was to be the start of a journey that would last the rest of my life.

4 comments:

Vir said...

Un relato encantador dan y me sentí parte a medida que lo iba leyendo ( tal vez cueste creerlo pero lo sentí cercano y cotidiano)
Me dejaste intrigada con lo que pasó después...
espero lo que sigue

Me encantó

JoAnne said...

I laughed out loud at your baseball experience about catching flies!!! Someone who is so gifted with music and writing didn't need to waste time with agressive sports!!! (Norm was wrong.) Only lifetime sports are important...the sports we can still enjoy. Of course swimming is still my favorite! :)
Your band experience was similar to mine. I began on one instrument, dropped out and came back as a drummer. I started out on flute but my dad refused to pay $170 for a "polished piece of pipe with holes in it." When my daughter joined band she wanted to play flute, so we purchased one!!
I have enjoyed your "Tour of Homes" blog. My memory isn't as easily "played back" as yours, but thank you for dusting away the cobwebs inside the "jutebox" and dropping in the coins so that I, too, could remember "the good old days" in Wapak!

Dan Newland said...

Virgina,
Te agradezco mucho tu comentario. Sabés que te admiro mucho como escritora y es, por lo tanto, un cumplido que aprecio muy especialmente el hecho de que te hayas sentido identificada con mi relato.

Dan Newland said...

JoAnne, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. I am moved by them, coming from someone with whom I shared so much of my childhood and adolescence. Your dad's belittling comments remind me a great deal of many I heard from my own father, and help me understand a little more why we always hit it off as friends back then. (It was kind of like looking into a mirror). I'm really glad you enjoyed the tour of homes and apreciate your sharing it with others who might be interested. These essays have helped see where an eventual book on those bygone but still vividly remembered days might go.