Wednesday, December 25, 2013


I’ve been told I have a good memory. Actually, I’d qualify that statement and say I have a good memory for stories from the distant past. I’m hopeless at memorizing poetry, lyrics, passages from books, quotes, etc.—a dangerous thing for a newsman and non-fiction writer, which is why I’ve always had to take abundant notes and frequently look things up to check facts.
But I even amaze myself, sometimes, at how I can trigger a memory from twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more years ago, and it will come back to me, not as a story, but as a special brand of video clip, a sort of dream-clip, if you will, in which not only the images are there, but also the sounds, smells and the exact feelings and mindset with which I experienced those scenes at the time. In fact, I can actually “time-travel” to that era, and experience those past times exactly as they were, or at least as they were for me, before the world changed and became the new state of mind that it is today. (I sometimes wonder if this isn’t precisely how the elderly eventually get trapped in their own past, in a sometimes blissful, sometimes anxious state, much like a dream that can suddenly turn nightmare, and that others describe as “dementia”, when observed from the outside).
Actually, I can remember certain scenes vividly as far back as when I was three or a little before. That’s why yesterday, on Christmas Eve, as I was trying to recall the first Christmas that sticks in my mind, I was at first a little surprised to find that it wasn’t until I was five that this holiday, so special to Christian-reared children, managed to make a lasting impression on me. But after I gave it some thought, I realized why: Because it was, quite simply, a uniquely perfect Christmas.
Back then, “The Christmas Season” began for me in November, when, Sagittarian-winter-child that I was, I already started longing for snow, and driving my mother crazy asking her, every time the thermometer dipped to near freezing “if she thought it would snow...No? But it could, right? I mean, it could, couldn’t it, please, please, please, couldn’t it?” Thanksgiving, my birthday in early December, and Christmas proper all blended together in one joyous season that I wished would never end.
The first thing to whet my seasonal appetite were the Christmas catalogs from major mail order houses like Penney’s, Sears, Spiegel and others that would start arriving  in November and that were filled with pictures of toys and ornaments and lots of other things to spark the fantasies of a five-year-old. I pored over them, filling my greedy eyes and mind, and wanted everything! I couldn’t understand why, if  Santa Claus was a god-like elf who could do god-like things, like flying all around the world making deliveries to every good little boy and girl in a single night, he was incapable of bringing me precisely what I was wishing for. But my mother made it abundantly clear that Santa wasn’t made of money and had millions of kids like me to please around the world and that it was a terrible thing to be an ingrate. I had to be grateful for whatever Saint Nick brought. Besides, I should be thinking more about the birth of the Baby Jesus than about what I was getting for Christmas. It was His birthday, not mine.

But then again, it was pretty darn close to my birthday, now, wasn’t it, coming only a couple of weeks afterward? So the Little Lord Jesus and I kind of shared a season. As if to celebrate that fact, this particular year my Grandma Myrt made a special request to DJ Cliff Willis at the local AM radio station in Lima, Ohio. My mother sat me right next to the radio in the kitchen, with a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows melting on its creamy surface, so I would be there to hear when Cliff said: “Mrs. Myrtle Weber of Wapakoneta has asked us to play a special request for her grandson, Danny, who is five years old today. And here it is, ‘Christmas Dragnet’.” For some reason, I loved that story (recorded for Capitol Records on a script by comic genius Stan Freberg), which was a spoof on a noir genre TV detective show starring Jack Web and Harry Morgan, in which the strait-lace Joe Friday is investigating a guy called “Grudge” who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus (nor, he says, does he believe in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or the Easter Bunny... “What about Toledo?” he’s asked. “Toledo...uuuh...I still haven’t made up my mind about Toledo”).
Needless to say, I was amazed at my grandmother’s clout. She had actually made the radio talk to me. 
This particular year, however, I was indeed reminded of the birth of the Christ Child, because we had a birth of our own. Just a month earlier, in mid-November, my brand new brother was born. Dad, who was nicknamed “Whitie” because of his blond hair, wanted to call him Rusty, because he was born with a shock of bright red fuss on his head. (Luckily, Reba Mae talked him out of that because when “Rusty’s” baby hair fell out, what came in to replace it was even blonder than Whitie’s). Now, you’d have thought that having an eccentric name like Reba Mae herself, my mother would have been less whimsical in naming us. But no. Her preference over Whitie’s “Rusty” was “Dennis James”. Why? Because she thought Dennis James, the sports announcer and later game show host, who at the time was the face of Old Gold cigarettes on TV, looked “like such a nice fellow.” My sister, Darla, she had named after Darla Hood, the child actress from the Our Gang children’s comedy movies. And me she called Danny, because she had always loved the song, “Danny Boy”. So Dennis James it was (regardless of the fact that the original Dennis James was actually born Demie James Sposa). And since Denny and Danny sounded so much alike, the poor kid would go through childhood with an “indoor” name and an “outdoor” name—Jim or Jimmy at home and Dennis at school.
A special gift that year, Jimmy!
Anyway, I was thrilled with this novelty. I mean, I’d have time later to tease the poor little guy to exasperation and to fight with him all the time when we got a bit older, as brothers are wont to do. But this year, this perfect Christmas, he seemed like another gift for me, a little brother all my own. He seemed to be a part of the Christmas miracle. My mother had gone away for a few days, and while she was out, picked me up a kid brother.
So, this year, when she sat us down on the couch to read us The Night before Christmas, Darla was sitting on the floor facing Reba Mae, I was sitting on the couch on one side of her, and little brother Jimmy was lying bundled up on a blanket on the other side of her sucking on a pacifier. My sister and I knew this poem from other years and knew when the funny parts were coming—especially our favorite one. I wanted to tell my new brother, “Listen, Jimmy, listen, here it comes!” And then Reba Mae read it: “...Away to the window I flew like a flash / Tore open the shutters / And threw up the sash!” At which point Darla and I made gagging, puking sounds and were swept away in gales of giggling at how clever we were. Threw up the sash! How funny was that? Jimmy, for his part, was unimpressed, oblivious in fact, except for a pruney frown that crinkled his ruddy little brow, at all the noise we were making when he was so obviously trying to catch forty winks.
Fredric March as Scrooge
We were one of the first families in town to have a TV set, and it was a magical world that it offered at Christmas time. This was the year of the première television production of the classic Charles Dickens story, A Christmas Carol, with Fredric March playing Scrooge and Basil Rathbone playing the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, who comes back to haunt Scrooge and convince him to change his ways or face the eternity of the damned, as he has had to do. With the special effects of today, kids now would probably find that old black and white film quaint if not downright laughable, but we were enthralled, and every bit as terrified as March’s Scrooge at the prospect of spending Christmas Eve in the company of four frightening specters. And then too, there was the tragicomic humor of comedian Red Skelton in his Christmas special, in which Freddy the Freeloader (the first homeless character to star in a nationwide broadcast), in a take-off on an O. Henry short story, is trying to find a warm place to spend a lonely Christmas Eve. He decides jail is his best bet, but “in the holiday spirit”, can’t find a single cop who’ll arrest him. (The sketch has a “happy ending” though: Freddy gets ninety days for vagrancy and thus has a “warm room” and three squares a day until spring). And also, the Perry Como Christmas Special, starring that famous crooner who was so relaxed you kind of wondered how he didn’t doze off and fall from the high stool he sat on to sing.
Red Skelton as Freddy the Freeloader
Christmas Eve dinner was at my Grandma and Grandpa Newland’s, cattycorner across the street from us, where we got together with all of our cousins, aunts and uncles on the Newland side. And Christmas Day lunch was at my Grandma and Grandpa Weber’s on the other side of town with the myriad members of the clan on that side of the family. Two very different affairs, but both veritable feasts with every kind of homemade dish and dessert imaginable, plus traditional cookies and candies: festive frosted sugar cookies, chocolate, vanilla and peanut butter fudge, snow-white-creamy-sugary-to-die-from divinity...
But in between there was the delight of Christmas morning and seeing what wonderful packages Santa had left under the tree for us, and it was so hard to wait until Whitie and Reba Mae decided it was time to get up—especially after their fitful night of resting in accordance with Jimmy’s feeding times.
This year, however, 1954, was, as I say, particularly special. Whitie seemed to know it too that year. With a newborn baby, Reba Mae wouldn’t be going to Candlelight Service at the First Methodist Church this year, but Whitie decided to go anyway, when the Christmas Eve family festivities were over. And although it was way past my bedtime, I decided to tag along with him and Darla. The old church across from the courthouse was dazzling inside. It was the first time I had ever seen it at night and it was decked out in boughs of cedar, ribbons and a multitude of candles. Everyone was full of season’s cheer including the minister. The choir sang “Oh Holy Night” and when they got to the climactic line that goes, “Fall on your knees / Oh hear the angel voices...” I could feel myself break out in gooseflesh.
Later, while—as Whitie used to say—“the preacher missed a few good places to stop,” I dozed off leaning against my dad’s arm, which he put around me when he realized I’d conked out. It was a comfort to be there, safe in the church on Christmas Eve, with the power of lots of people all thinking good thoughts, my father’s arm around me, the scent of his pinstriped wool suit, mixing with his cologne and the sweet bite of the filterless cigarettes he smoked. It was safe, warm, like the best place in the world I could possibly be. I was, quite literally, “in a good place.”
The next year would be different. Whitie would have the first in a series of nervous breakdowns that extended over the course of three decades. His chronic manic depression would virtually become a sixth member of our family and would change his life and ours forever. For now, however, Christmas, Eve, 1954, I was happier than I’d ever been, trusted and believed in, well, everything, and couldn’t have asked for anything more.



Sunday, December 15, 2013


I have long loved the title of Norman Maclean’s 1976 autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, which Robert Redford turned into a stunning 1992 film, starring Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer. In fact, I’ve envied him that title and wished it were mine, because it so aptly describes my home town. Different river, different state, different landscape, different era, a different kind of fishing and hiking, but a lot of shared sentiments about the importance and symbolism of flowing water in the life of a young man.
The three bridges in our town were a lot like
 the Steel girder one shown in this WPA photo
The Ohio county that I grew up in and the main street in Wapakoneta, my home town, were named after “my” river, the “mighty Auglaize”. It runs right through the middle of town, parallel to the main (Auglaize) street, which is why our tiny little town needs three main bridges (the Blackhoof Street Bridge, the Hamilton Road Bridge and the Harrison Street Bridge), all of which have since been rebuilt as concrete abutment bridges but which, when I was growing up, were the typical steel girder bridges built in the 1930s under the Roosevelt administration’s famous WPA employment program.  That same program, to get the nation’s laid-off laborers back to work and to promote progress following the crippling Great Depression, was also responsible for the building of our Post Office (still headquarters for the town’s mail today) and the public swimming pool (a welcome and delightful addition to the summers of generations of the town’s youth since then). 
Although some local historians have sought to convince people that the name Auglaize comes from the Ottawa or Shawnee dialects (perhaps because of some conservative Midwestern prejudice against all things Gallic) and that it means “fallen timbers”, it is almost certainly of French origin.  Besides, I recently read on a Shawnee Nation webpage that our Native American precursors in the region called the river Kathinakithiipi, so I figure that particular Auglaize-origin myth is pretty well busted.  The linguistic structure is most probably built on the French words eau (water) and glaise (as in terre glaise, meaning clay), which, if you observe the coffee-and-cream color of the river when it runs high and fast in the spring, makes a lot of sense. But there’s still another theory among Ohio historians that claims the name is a bastardization of the French words eau and glace, and means frozen waters. If you’d ever seen the Auglaize in the harsh winters of my youth—every “elder generation” of Ohioans posits that there were never any winters as cold and snowy as their winters, and we used to roll our eyes when our parents and grandparents said it but, by golly, global warming might just be proving right every one of those successive generations since the dawn of the Industrial Age—that theory would also make sense to you.
Until we were forced to study Ohio History in junior high, however, for most of us kids, Auglaize was a name that seemed as American as  John Wayne and apple pie, because of its familiarity to us—our river, our main street, our county, all Auglaize.  Why, even the first line of our Alma Mater anthem contained a reference to it: “There’s a high school in Ohio / On the banks of the Auglaize / And to her we each say I owe / Thee a heartfelt song of praise...”
When I first proudly spoke of the Auglaize to Virginia, my exchange student girlfriend-and-wife-to-be, back when we were both 18 years old, she observed it dubiously from the Hamilton Road Bridge, then looked at me with a wry smile and said, “You call this a river? A stream maybe, a trickle...but a river? Hardly!”
The River Plate, so broad you can't see the other side.
But then, you have to understand, she’s a Buenos Aires girl, a porteña, who grew up on the vast estuary of the River Plate, into which the great rivers of South America all pour their flow, a vast expanse of lion-colored water so wide you can’t see the other side,  25 miles across to Uruguay at its narrowest point, so enormous that the first Spanish explorers marked it on their maritime charts as Mar Dulce (literally, freshwater sea), a muddy giant that stains the Atlantic a tawny yellow for miles on end where it belches into the ocean surf. So I suppose she can be forgiven such blasphemy, since she comes from the banks of the widest and most voluminous river of all. But, frankly, we usually wouldn’t put up with such impudence, even from somebody who lived on the broad Ohio or the mile-wide Mississippi, because the Auglaize has had its moments in the limelight of Ohio history (as I’ve mentioned here before) and is something of an oddity in a region where the natural flow seems to tend south.

The mighty Auglaize
Indeed, the Auglaize does flow south through our town, but that’s the only place that it does. It springs to the surface near Harrod, Ohio, south of the industrial city of Lima and north of the Indian Lake Reservoir, flows south through Wapakoneta—almost as if it had purposely made that little detour just so that we wouldn’t be left a dry and riverless venue with no place to reflect our lights at night or to mirror our autumn sunsets—before describing a sharp bend and heading due north, over a hundred miles to its confluence with the Maumee, which carries its contribution of water and silt into Great Lake Erie. And it was precisely at that confluence that General “Mad Anthony” Wayne built Fort Defiance in 1794 (where the modern-day town of Defiance, Ohio, still stands), as a last defence against a Native American confederation in the Northwest Indian War, which ended in the nearby Battle of Fallen Timbers that same year.
Map by Karl Musser
The name of the fort near the mouth of the Auglaize was to prove prescient.  It was derived from a statement by Charles Scott, the leader of a detachment of Kentucky militiamen supporting General Wayne in the region, who said, “I defy the English, Indians, and all the devils of hell to take it.” The fortress would prove important not only in the Northwest Indian War, but also in defeating the Native confederation that, in the early years of the nineteenth century, first fought U.S. troops and militia in Tecumseh’s War and then joined forces with the British against former colonists in the War of 1812 (in the course of which Chief Tecumseh was to be mortally wounded, the aboriginal confederation crushed and disbanded and the British defeated forever in their lost American colonies).
Fort Defiance,as depicted by Hermann Wiebe 
For me, however, as a pre-school child, the Auglaize was simply what I pictured in my mind when I heard the word “river”. Specifically, when I was very small, what that word brought to mind was the Blackhoof Street Bridge that we crossed from our home on the north side of town to get to “downtown”, as well as the view from the municipal parking lot “behind town”, where my mother would park by the flood wall, facing the river, and leave me in the car, telling me to “be good and stay in the car”, while she ran some errands. She always promised to “be right back”, but time is relative and to my four or five-year-old mind it would have seemed like forever, had I not been fascinated by the river as it flowed south then west past the back of town and under the bridge. I would stand or kneel on the front seat of our ’49 Ford and watch it, observing the flow, the birds, the backs of the houses and the sway of the weeping willows on the other side, and the time seemed to go a lot faster.
But the Auglaize didn’t really capture my heart and my imagination until we moved to the west side of town the year I turned nine. That was the year,in the huge, hundred-year-old house to which we moved on West Auglaize Street, that, on the urging of my older and highly literate sister, Darla, I started slowly but surely making my way through Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and then through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tom was “a winner”, a wiseguy, a trickster and con artist, and although I envied him his forward extroverted personality, his rougish character and his ability to pull off one scam after another, he wasn’t the kind of boy I could really identify with. Huck, however, was something else again. Anything Huck did was out of a sense of curiosity, desperation, self-preservation or pure adventure. He seemed right up my alley and I immediately became a fan. He had the great Mississippi and its tributaries as his path to destiny. So I too needed a river, and small though it was, the Auglaize was elected.

Our house on the south side of West Auglaize Street
At first, my relationship with it was timid. But the itch was there. We lived on the south side of West Auglaize Street and when I looked across the street at the rambling old houses on the north side, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of envy, because I knew that their backyards stretched down to the tree-lined south bank of the river. Some of them, like the spinster sisters who lived with their aging father directly across from our house, had large gardens that thrived in the dark bottom-land soil, and if I craned my neck a little, I could sometimes catch a glimpse of one of the sun-bonnetted, long-aproned sisters out there hoeing up weeds or picking tomatoes, sweetcorn and beans.
Still, I now didn’t have far to go to enjoy the river myself. A long block east to the corner and another long block north and I was at the Hamilton Street Bridge that spanned the river and its flood dam. There, I could slither down the bank to the river’s edge and watch, when the water was high enough, how it brimmed over the dam and foamed under the bridge.
As I say, I started out shyly that first summer, on my way to the city pool, which was just across the bridge. At first, I’d just slip down and watch the water a while, sitting on the bank on the civilized upper side of the dam, where it still crested the spillway until a few weeks of summer drought stopped the flow and where people’s large, manicured backyards blended with the river’s edge. Then later, I started visiting the lower side of the dam, where a gallery of scrub and hardwood forest followed the gently curving Auglaize behind the much broader backyards west of Hamilton Road, many of which had long supported big gardens and truck patches behind homes that had witnessed the turn of the century and some a goodly part of the nineteenth century before it.
That gallery of trees and undergrowth broadened out a little further along and became a full-fledged woods, which I wouldn’t venture to know until later on. For now I mainly just skipped stones on the surface or heaved them into the deeper pools in the middle to hear them plunk, while thinking of scenes from Twain’s adventure stories and vicariously wishing I could at least become a lesser Huck Finn on this lesser river. I got to know the calm of the river in summer, the fiery scarlets and yellows of the folliage that reflected in its surface like sacred stained glass in the fall, its hard-frozen marble green surface in the winter and its terrifying white-water rage during the spring flood season. But it wasn’t until three years had passed—and my father decided that it was, again, time to move—that I really made the Auglaize mine.
That was the year (the year at the end of which I would turn twelve) that we moved out of the rambling old house on Auglaize Street—that both my mother and I loved—almost literally, straight across the river to a brand new, characterless house like four others to either side of it, which would be my parents’ home until they both passed away four decades later.
To be continued...