Monday, October 14, 2013

HOMETOWN SUNDAY



Downtown Wapakoneta, Ohio
An unseasonably hot mid-September morning in West-Central Ohio. Temperatures have been in the nineties for the past few days. Maybe global warming’s to blame. Or maybe it’s just a freak heat wave. There’ll come a storm, and suddenly, it’ll be fall.
Today’s Sunday. I came up yesterday from Miami, with its Caribbean-like tropical heat and sultry funkiness, dreaming of the late-summer and early autumn softness of Ohio September, only to find that the sizzling hell of Florida hurricane season had tracked me north and was waiting for me when I got off the plane in Dayton. I cranked up the air-conditioning on my rented car for the hour-long drive north to Wapakoneta, the uniquely named place that witnessed my childhood and adolescence, cranked it up too in the hotel suite that I booked at what I’ve come to call “the Worst Western” on the southern edge of town, then showered, changed and called an old friend. I waited to go see her until the sun went down and took a cold six-pack of Corona from the Zip Stop with me—the only thing I could think to take on an evening like this one.
Her mother was my friend before she was, when she was still just a little girl, and now she’s moved to her mother’s old place, so it’s a lot like getting together with family whenever I go back. The place hasn’t changed much...except that her mother’s missing from it—a really big change when I stop to think of it. I can almost still see her mother there in the living room in her favorite rocker, laughing and chatting with visitors who were always dropping by, a margarita by her elbow, a freshly lit Montclair between her fingers, a fat, lazy cat on her lap and a scruffy little dog asleep by her feet. I miss her. Her daughter misses her a lot more, can’t get over her being gone.
She (the daughter) has some Blue Moon and Modelo in the fridge, apart from the Corona I brought. So we order a pizza from La Grande—a local tradition for decades that followed another local tradition that once lived in that same building, my own family’s Teddy Bear Restaurant, which fed several generations of Wapakoneta residents from the forties through the sixties—and sit at her kitchen table, the front and back doors open, with just the screen doors to keep out the night and the bugs, swapping beers and stories until after midnight.
It was Saturday, after all, and who could sleep in this heat?
The Ohio Bar
Now it’s 9 a.m. on the Sabbath, and I’ve got downtown Wapakoneta practically to myself. It’s in the low eighties already, but I’m not paying attention to the heat. It’s a bright blue day and, like a tourist in my own land, I’m snapping pictures right and left. In a town like this one in rural Ohio, at this hour on a Sunday morning, people are in church, getting ready for church, sleeping in, having breakfast at home or out, or they’re already out at the Country Club practicing their swing. On the main street—which is called Auglaize Street, not Main (Main is a block over and, as I say, not the main one at all)—you could roll a bowling ball down it end to end and not hit a thing. The only signs of life are at the Ohio Bar and the Alpha, which have lights on in their windows and are apparently preparing for the first regulars of the morning. They’re the only two local taverns left out of the iconic half-dozen or so watering holes that lined the street in my youth. The Horseshoe, the Roxy, Minerding’s, The Brunswick, Hobo’s, The Koneta Inn (Ernie’s before it)...all long gone.
The Alpha
I stand in the middle of the deserted sidewalk on the south side of the street to shoot a store front and the frontispiece of a familiar façade—the emblematic Distelrath Building—on the north side and am suddenly aware of a shuffling presence just over my left shoulder. “Oh, sorry!” I say to a man who has stopped and waited patiently for me to take the picture. He looks a little emaciated in the oversized white t-shirt, flappy pastel blue slacks and tattered ball cap that he’s wearing. He has the bob-and-weave stance, red nose and wizened face of a serious drinker. “No problem,” he says softly. “Take your time.” And as I step aside to give him the right of way, he shuffles on to the door of the Ohio Bar and disappears into the twilight interior for his first steadying beer of the day.
The Alpha back bar an altar to Wapak tradition
They used to say that Wapak had more bars than it did churches. That’s no longer true, but I’m thinking that the regulars at the Ohio Bar and the Alpha may take that cultural tradition at least as seriously as any churchgoers do theirs. In fact, the Alpha is a kind of pagan temple, with the altar being its 120-year-old back bar that was the pride and joy of long-time owner and operator Bill Gutman. That barstead was carved and crafted in 1893, from solid oak, by the artisans of the Brunswick Balke Collender Company of Cincinnati. Back in the day, Bill was fond of telling whoever would listen that there were only three like it ever made, but that the only similarity was their size and style (24 feet long) since each bore its own unique hand-carvings. Now there was only the one in the Alpha and another one out in Arizona somewhere, since the third one had long-since been destroyed in a fire at the bar where it was installed (maybe in Chicago, I can’t recall anymore). 
Bill Gutman - himself a Wapakoneta
icon for over half a century
A good thirty years or so ago, Bill told my dad that a guy had come in one day and offered him fifty-thousand bucks, cash money, for that barstead, but Bill had turned him down flat. It simply wasn’t for sale. Was there any price he’d take for it, my father wanted to know? “Hell no, Whitie,” Bill had said. “That back bar is unique. Priceless.”
Priceless like the local history of the bar itself, the venue of record for how the town lived every era from the Gay Nineties through two world wars, Korea, the Vietnam era and right up to the present day. Like the stories they tell about how, in the days of prohibition, a few years before Bill himself became a part of its story, the Alpha was the speakeasy that served bootleg whisky to mafia kingpin Al Capone every time he breezed through town on the way to his hideout down at Indian Lake on Route 33, twenty miles away. As of 1938, Bill presided over the establishment for over half a century, first as the bartender, later as a partner, and finally, as the sole proprietor. His daughter started managing it in the mid-eighties, and his family still operates the place today, I’m told. Clearly, the pride Bill invested in his establishment and his reverence for that barstead have a lot to do with the fact that the Alpha hasn’t gone the way of the rest of the town’s old taverns and remains a Wapak icon even today. It also remains a tiny corner of the Wapakoneta I knew as a child, back when this was a real town with a life of its own, “Main Street” businesses, community pride and the stoic Scots-Irish-German culture of the farming community that surrounded it.
Now an antique mall, it used to be a stand-alone J.C. Penney's
As I make my way west to east along Auglaize Street, snapping pictures like a serial shutterbug, I rack my brain to try and recall what was where, way back when, before downtown became a jumble of antique shops, local service offices and craft stores. Where, for instance, was The Equity—the sandwich shop and dairy bar that Carl Sawmiller had run on the north side of the main drag in the post-war years? And what about Uhlman’s, what passed for a high-fashion ladies store in smalltown America back then—a place to buy formal wear, fancy lingerie, perfumes, scarves and such? I think I know, and then, all of the sudden, I’m not so sure. And what about the five-and-tens: G.C. Murphys—a long-successful national chain, famed for its Big Murph workwear, in addition to the normal knickknacks of its sector—Wrights, across the way, and W.T. Grants toward the end of the block on the north side of the street (although Grants thought of itself more as a department store than as a five-and-ten-cent store)...I count storefronts and struggle to locate their predecessors in my mind’s eye. Some are easy: What now is called the Auglaize Antique Mall, for instance, used to be a J.C. Penney’s, before the days of shopping malls, when the J.C. Penney Company had stand-alone stores on Main Street America. The manager they sent to run it in the early sixties was George Fox, who, it turned out, had a wonderful tenor voice and became a proud addition to the choir at the First Methodist Church.  But, if that used to be the Roxy over there, and that one there was Bud Abbott’s shoe store, and the other one over there was Bud Hemmert’s, where was the Moore’s Store, where I bought my first BB gun and accessories for my bike? It’s frustrating, like torturing yourself to find a name or a word that suddenly gets lost in some damaged fold of your gray matter.
Concentrate! Murphy’s candy counter at the front of the store exerted an irresistible force on us as kids, as well as on my father’s inveterate and insatiable sweet tooth. I reflect that this was typical of a lot of World War II vets: tough guys who loved their sweets. Was it just upbringing or coincidence? Or was it comfort food that helped them deal with what they’d been through—both the Great Depression and the worst war in the history of Humankind?

We might visit Murphys candy counter alone when we had a few cents to spend. But the real treat was to go there with Dad on a Friday evening—when some stores stayed open until nine—because his capacity for sweets knew no bounds and he would never leave there without several pounds of his favorites in tow: malted milkballs, Hershey’s chocolate kisses, “green leaves” (spearmint jelly candies), orange slices (a lot like the spearmint jellies but orange-flavored instead), roughly broken hunks of real milk chocolate, sugar-coated peanuts (burnt peanuts they were called), cream-filled chocolate drops, peanut-butter cups, cream-filled peanut clusters, Milk Duds by the scoopful, cinnamon balls, juju fruits, salted cashews, chocolate-dipped raisins and peanuts, licorice jellybeans, assorted gumdrops, lemon drops, little brown jug peanut candies, Brach’s chocolate-covered cherries and milk chocolate stars...the list was endless, and if we could have taken the entire counter with us, we would have.
A ghostly reminder of business past
Now, squinting through my camera’s viewfinder, I realize that on some of the old façades, I can still barely make out scant archeological traces of another age, like the faint shadow of the name “Piel’s” on a building at the east end of downtown. I see the faded remnant of the name and immediately get a vivid image of the store, and the two impeccably attired, aging men who ran it (who were, I can only imagine, the reason why, rather than Piel’s, people referred to the store as “Piel Brothers”). It was a long, narrow men’s store with shelves and shelves of fine dress shirts and cases of handkerchiefs, belts, bowties and other accessories at the front and racks of conservative ties, suits, coats, tuxes, sports coats and slacks at the back. Also at the back was a large glass case displaying fine felt, canvas and straw hats of different styles. It was there that I bought my first snap-brim Mallory of Fifth Avenue, when I was just sixteen and had begun playing with jazz bands in the sophisticated nightclubs of the City of Lima, Ohio, fifteen miles north of us, and wanted to look the part. There too, I would also later buy a fine hound’s-tooth topcoat (38 long in those days!) to complete the look of mature classiness that I was trying so hard to achieve.
Another Wapakoneta fashion icon, Zofkie’s, is—to my delight—still there, I see, midway down the street. When I was a boy it was Joe Zofkie and his father, Cletus (‘Clete’, they called him, a serious-faced, white-haired man always dressed in suit pants, white shirt and soft shoes, sleeves rolled to mid forearm, with a tape-measure around his neck and a piece of tailor’s chalk in his hand) who ran the place and they had the finest men’s wear in town. Later, Joe’s daughter Jeanne Marie (we called her Jeanie, when we were kids and so was she) installed a bridal shop in part of the store, and eventually ended up having the whole place to herself.
At the west end of the main drag, my “archeological dig” turns up another shadow of another age: Faintly on the front of a building that now, I think, houses law offices, I can still make out the words “Western & Southern Life”. My grandfather, Murel Newland, worked out of that building for a quarter-century. It was his home office for the “debit” (as insurance routes were called back then) on which he very successfully sold life insurance in Russell’s Point, Lakeview and other points southeast of Wapak for those two and a half decades. The names of his friends in that office—Scottie, Dutch, Morris, Red and others—still stick in my mind, because he always talked about them as if I should know them. And some of them I did, like big, ruddy-faced Red, whom I recognized immediately when he dressed up as Santa Claus for the Western and Southern family Christmas party that the company threw for its salesmen on the upper floor of that building and to which Grandpa and Grandma invited my sister and I when I was about four and she was about seven. 
Another archeological find, my grandfather's old office.
Sadly, what was once the Koneta Hotel and that in its latter years housed Ernie’s restaurant and cocktail lounge and later the Koneta Inn—a bar my late brother and I favored whenever we were both in town—now stands empty and slowly crumbling. As I take a couple of photos of it for old times’ sake, I recall an incredible anecdote. While working at a century-old English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires, I met an elderly man called Julius Robson, a proper New England Yankee, of 90, who had met a lovely Argentine woman, 70 years young, married her and moved to her country in the rapture of December love. When he found out I too was American, he asked where I was from.
“Ohio,” I said.
“Where abouts in Ohio?” he asked.
“Oh, a little town in West-Central Ohio,” I said. “You probably wouldn’t know it.”
“Try me, son,” he said. “I sold farm implements in the Midwest for many years and know just about every little town in the Tri-State Area.”
“Well,” I said hesitantly, “Wapakoneta...W-A-P-A...”
“K-O-N-E-T-A,” he finished spelling. “Used to rush to get there for lunch just so I could have some of Mrs. Steinberg’s delicious sugar-cream pie for dessert. Best pie I ever tasted in my life was in Wapakoneta.”
“Mrs. Steinberg?” I queried.
“Yes...the Steinberg Hotel. Big masonry building there on the main street...what was it called? Auglaize Street, right?”
“Oh, you mean the Koneta Hotel,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “perhaps it’s changed hands.” This was in the 1970s and I knew it had been called the Koneta Hotel at least since I was born at the end of the forties. “A pity,” Mr. Robson continued, “since the Steinbergs were such nice people, so hospitable.” And then he sat there, staring, a quizzical smile pulling at the corners of his eyes and of his heavy white handlebar moustache. “Tell you what,” he said finally, “next time you’re back there for a visit, take a look at the sidewalk right at the front entrance on Auglaize Street. I’ll bet good money there’s still a marble slab right in front of the door that says Steinberg Hotel on it.”
For Julius Robson, it was the Steinberg Hotel.
 I knew it as the Koneta.
The next time I was back on a visit, I did just that. There was now a heavy doormat in front of the entrance to the old Koneta Hotel, but for curiosity’s sake, I lifted it up and there was the marble slab that Julius Robson recalled. Steinberg Hotel, it read.
Back at the “Worst Western”, I download the dozens of pictures I’ve shot on that hot Sunday morning, and as I do, I think again about Mr. Robson’s story—and the incredible coincidence of hearing it halfway around the world in Buenos Aires. As I look at the pictures, I realize that no one who looks at them without having lived the same childhood I did—in other words, no one not from my town and same generation—will ever see the same things in them that I do. Just as with Julius Robson’s pleasant memories of Mrs. Steinberg’s friendly hotel and delicious sugar-cream pie, the things I see and feel in that town no longer exist anywhere but in my mind’s eye and in my heart. For others, they’re just pictures of another rural town that has all but died. For me, it will always be home...and always as I remember it, not as it is.
 

8 comments:

Mauricio Kitaigorodzki said...

What a wonderful, bittersweet picture of old home! Thanks for sharing it,
Mauricio

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for reading it, Mauricio, and for your comment.

Vicki Smith said...

I always read what you post here. I always enjoy it. But for reasons you already know, this one is so very special for me. I couldn't get Mom off my mind when we were eating pizza at the kitchen table. I had done that so often with her and many, many other people. Recently, I was looking at a friend's pictures on Facebook. He had been tagged by a friend in a couple. I looked and was shocked to see my kitchen. MY KITCHEN!!! It was Mom's wallpaper. I had no idea just which of Mom's exchange students had posted this, but I was so surprised! Well, I figured out that I did know the guy. I was so happy to reconnect with him. It made me thing again how many people would be glad to know I was taking the house for my own. Maybe they'll come visit me like they did Mom. I know I'm not her.. and I know it wouldn't be the same.. but I keep hoping to open it up to friends from all over.
Then as I read more of your story, I got to the part where you mention Al Capone. Another Mom connection!! Mom was born in Chicago. She and her parents lived in the apartment below Capone's pick-up man, Hymie (sp) Levin. He'd walk past Mom when she was little and give her coins or candy or something. Nana would go shopping with Levin's wife and sister. I had no idea he'd been through Wapak.. and that later Mom would settle here with her family.
I wish you could come back with Virginia sometime. Mi casa es su casa... besotes.

Dan Newland said...

Oh Vicki, thank you so much for sharing these comments and feelings. We've been friends for so many years now, and every time we're together, I feel like Jan is there too. And it feels like family.

Joe Ballweg said...

Wonderful to read your log and reminisce with you Dan. Also pleased with your memories of Jan and great to see Vicki's comments too. Save me a beer Vicki, I'll bring the pizza when I come back to Wapak!

Dan Newland said...

Thank YOU, Joe. It's great to have you as a reader.

Cheryl Kuck said...

So glad to read this post, Dan. I was trying to find The Brunswick online, a place my dad used to go for a drink and a game of sheepshead or euchre back in the 60s. He'd come home with a pocketful of candy bars for Mom and us kids, always a Clark Bar for Mom.
I'm thinking of coming back for my 40th reunion and was looking up old familiar place names. Sadly, you identified several no longer in Wapak on Auglaize Street, but you answered my questions.
You also brought back the memory of Uhlman's clerks asking if we needed help and my terror that they might walk right in my dressing room! Uhlman's had personal shoppers before Nordstrom invented the term. I always preferred JC Penney's.
Moore's Store - oh my, no one strung a tennis racket like Frank Zimmerman at Moore's Store. And Bi-Rite was the place to go for my school supplies.
Memories. Thank you.
Cheryl Kuck, daughter of Oliver and Virginia Kuck, original homeowners/residents of 8 Hamilton Road
I've lived in Portland, Oregon, for 25 years.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks so much for your comments and for sharing your own memories, Cheryl. I really enjoy hearing people's reactions since my reason for writing these blog entries is not only to jog my own memory but also those of others who might recall what it was like to live in those oh so different times, not only in our town but also in other small towns all over the Midwest and the nation. So glad to have you as a reader.
BTW, I have a number of Facebook friends in Portland, since it's a city that seems to attract writers...and good ones!