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...


Anonymous said...

Hi, Dan! It's Bart. This takes me back to when Rob Schlatter were self proclaimed "River Rats." We could spend hours back there! We dug big holes; covering them with, first long branches, then tall weeds. We would leave a hole just large enough to crawl through and bam, a fort! Great memories!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for reading it, Bart, and for commenting. Foxholes, forts and other adventures coming in Part Two, which I'm sure you'll identify with, having been a river rat yourself.

Anonymous said...

I know Bart thinks he was the only river rat in the family, but, on a smaller scale, I was, too. I followed him to the river and never went in his forts until a few years after they were built. I was younger and not allowed to go when he and Rob did. Were you around when the old bridge on Hamilton was torn down and the new one not up yet? We still went to the pool across the river, but had to walk across the dam. I'd take my bike and walk across and ever somehow get over the place where they were letting the water flow. Nowadays, they'd never let the kids do that, someone would sue. For us though it was the only way to get there without having to walk all the way to Blackhoof.

Dan Newland said...

Hi Vicki!
No, I think I must have been in the Army when that happened. However, I used to walk back and forth across the dam all the time--sometimes even when there was still a littler water going over it, which was dangerous because the cement got pretty slippery with silt--and often fished from it. I also used to climb the steel girder superstructure after dark, sit up on top and smoke cigarettes. I was a lot braver then.

Janis Jeanneret said...

Another well wrote story. I really get a kick out of Virginia's comment about "Our River" being a stream, or a trickle. Thanks for sharing the picture of the river that she was used to seeing, it gives a great comparison. I remember the old steel bridges also. It is nice to think about the damn back there behind the pool, wow did it have rushing water after a good Spring rain. I was a bit scared to get close when it was that way. I had a friend many moons ago, Doug Epperly and he rented a duplex on the banks of Auglaize. It was such a fun time to sit by the River while we all sang and drank and shared the joy of life. I had a babysitter when I was young Betty Spurlock, who lived on the bank of the River also, you could see the Dairy Dip across the water from her back yard. We had very strict instructions about what bush we were aloud to approach to be safe from possible drowning. I was scared to ever cross that boundary. Other children pushed that issue and I can remember at about age 6 the fear of God that struck me when they would adventure past the marked bush. I love that Auglaize River too, I am glad we can share that. Bravo for your keen perceptions and comparison to the movie "A River Runs Through It." I watch the reruns of that movie every time it is on. The Huck Finn adventure image is very neat. I had a friend Elle Doseck who lived back in Oakwood Hills, you could see where the river was but not well, unless there was flooding in the adjacent field. Well thanks again for another wonderfully entertaining story. Until next time...Janis Jeanneret

Dan Newland said...

Janis, thank you for your kind comments and for sharing your own memories of the river. By the way, when we moved to Oakwood Hills, it was to the house next door (east) to your friend, Ellie Doseck. My parents were her neighbors for 42 years.

Steve Carter said...

Dan - It's Steve Carter, your old keyboardist from Wapak. I had a meeting today in Wapak with the attorney who bought the Wapa Theater from the George's and lo and behold Emil lives there so I went up and saw him. Great reunion. I asked about you but all he said was 'Patagonia' so when I got home I googled it and here I am. Spent 10 years as a hippie in California going to Cal State. Now I'm a civil engineer in Columbus with my own engineering company but I still play my baby grand hard. I just read a little of your Writer's Log and I'm impressed. I intend to read it cover to cover. Went to Iquasu Falls and did a trip up the Amazon several years ago. What a freak - I was just thinking about you the other day when I came across an old Wapak newspaper article about you playing the drums for my Green Berets arrangement that we played at a Spring HS concert - almost 50 years ago . . . Jesus.

Dan Newland said...

Steve! So good to hear from you. For some reason I didn't get notification of this comment, so I apologize for the delay in answering. I often think of those days when we rehearsed in the Wapa. Glad to hear you're still playing the piano (by the way it was more like I was your drummer than you "my keyboardist" and the real leader of the band back them was Emil, although I also remember great times practicing at your house in Uniopolis). I, on the other hand, quit playing music "cold turkey" back in the mid-70s when I started pursuing a career as a writer/journalist in Buenos Aires and have missed it ever since. Oddly enough, last month,just about the time you wrote this comment, in fact, I bought myself a drum set (electronic so I can practice with headphones and don't drive my wife, pets and neighbors nuts) and am now so far distanced from being anything like as good as I once was that I can just relax and enjoy getting a faint shadow of my "chops" back. Many thanks for reading this blog, Steve, and for letting me know you did!