Saturday, January 4, 2014


Over the years my family and our neighbors would manage to tame the hard yellow clay on which our little row of undistinguished, new and modern, modified A-frame homes had been built—all by the same contractor—and would find ways to make them distinct from one another. But when we first moved to Oakwood Hills, on the opposite bank of the Auglaize River, that row of five new houses looked gut-wrenchingly stark.
When we first moved in the little row of houses looked 
gut-wrenchingly stark.
Oakwood Hills was a misnomer when it came to our immediate neighborhood. Not so, however, in talking about what was colloquially known as “Kelley’s Woods” just down the road. My mother, Reba Mae, had made it abundantly clear that if she was moving out of the handsome hundred-year-old home on stately West Auglaize street, which she had worked so hard over the past three years to refurbish, it would only be to reside in Kelley’s Woods, with its beautiful oaks, maples and hickories, its broad, shade-grass yards that rolled like a green carpet down to the river, its narrow streets that wound among the trees and followed the bends in the river.
They say "close only counts
in horseshoes," and Whitie
was always adept at that game. 
But there’s an old Ohio saying to the effect that “close only counts in horseshoes” and Whitie, my dad, had always been an able horseshoe player. So for him, I guess, being on the outside edge of the woods was “pretty near as good” as being in it...maybe even better because you didn’t have “all those leaves to rake and to clean out of the spoutings.” Besides, the house we were moving to “was a steal”—only slightly more than what he had gotten out of the house on West Auglaize, “and a lot cheaper to heat and maintain than that big old barn,” where he was damned if he’d spend another winter.
The house on Kelley Drive as it looked in the early sixties, when we first
moved in.
Thirty years later, Whitie would be rudely reminded just how “not pretty near as good” living on the edge of the woods was compared to living in it, during a lively debate about whether the now generously populated area should be incorporated into “the city” or not. Lots of people like Whitie, who lived just beyond Kelley’s Woods, were now faced with the cost of updating their aging septic tank and leach bed systems and the town was holding out the carrot of incorporation into the city sewage system and free sidewalks in exchange for fresh property taxes for the municipal coffers. But the folks in the woods weren’t having any: Putting in sewer lines and sidewalks would mean cutting down trees or severing their roots in order to widen the streets and lay piping. After Whitie had delivered an impassioned argument in favor of city sewage over the high cost of new leach beds and septic tanks, one of the neighbors from the “real” Oakwood Hills stood, and, hands folded and pressed to her heart, said, “But what you don’t understand is that we love the woods and don’t want to see it damaged.
Thirty years later it was a different place, with a character of its own.
We’re tree people!”
These words were like holding a red cape up in front of an enraged bull, and Whitie retorted, “Yeah, you’re tree people all right...Like a bunch o’ goddamn monkeys swingin’ from the trees!”
As is the case with a lot of excellent salesmen, when Whitie heard a convincing spiel from another good salesman, he tended to forget it was a pitch and was perfectly capable of letting himself be talked into...well, whatever he wanted to be talked into. And he evidently wanted to be talked into that house on Kelley Drive because he appeared to have forgotten the age-old rule of thumb in purchase and sale: that whatever you want to buy will always, in the view of the purchase and sale agent, be “worth a great deal more” than whatever it is that you want to sell. In short, whatever you’re buying will be “all the rage” and whatever you’re selling “nobody will want”. So his argument for selling quickly and taking a loss on the house Reba Mae so loved, and paying substantially more than what he’d gotten out of it for a house that she didn’t, was precisely that of the real estate agent. “Nobody wants those big old houses any more. Too hard to heat, too expensive to maintain, higher taxes than out in Oakwood Hills that’s outside the city limits...No, I’m telling you, Reba, we got out just in time! The guy says in another year or so you won’t be able to give away one of those places on West Auglaize Street.”
It was the modernism of the postwar era: Old was bad. New and modern was the trend. Out with the old, in with the new. So we moved.
Reba Mae eventually made her peace with the modern, built-in, all-electric kitchen and latest Formica counter-tops, and I compensated my sadness at leaving the old house behind by plunging into my new and much wilder surroundings. Today the land behind the house where my parents would live for over forty years is full of nice middle-class houses and new streets. But back then, there was a wide swath of open field that we kids started referring to as “the mud flats”.
Unlike the field that lay across the road in front of our house, which each year was sown with corn, beans or wheat, the one behind it was, like our yard, mostly made of hard yellow clay. A kind of slick gray in the rainy season and a yellowish erosion-cracked surface in the summer, it didn’t seem to be good for much of anything but construction. But in the meantime, it would serve as a vast battlefield in which we “played war”.
We played war with an eclectic collection of toy weaponry.
When I say we, I’m referring to my little brother Jim and me, along with the kids from the other houses along the edge of the flats who ranged from my age to my brother’s, a difference of 5 years. And sometimes when we wanted to pitch really major battles, we would also bring in my cousins, Newlands all, from across the way on Barbara Lane and from nearby Glynwood Road.  Depending on the season, we dug deep foxholes and narrow trenches or built snow forts. Sides picked and battle lines drawn, we would sometimes exchange fire with each other, making use of an eclectic collection of toy weaponry that we all brought to the table. And when we tired of arguing about who had killed whom and who hadn’t, battle lines were crossed and hand-to-hand combat ensued, in which we would wrestle each other to the muddy ground and settle matters no holds barred, or lob “hand grenades” made of packed snow or brittle dirt clods to see how many troops we could bean on the other side. And it never failed: Someone always ran home whimpering and clutching a war wound, after which mothers were called and reiterative warnings were issued to us about how that sort of thing was “a good way to get your eye knocked out.”
Back then, still, a gully ran through the middle of the flats, which, in the dry season was just another trench to do battle from. But in early winter and early spring, when first the rains and then the thaw came, it turned into a gushing stream that ran to a little creek on the edge of the woods that was a tributary of the Auglaize. It was that stream that I followed through the woods on my first river incursions from “this side of the world”. Nothing at all like the old, well-kept, traditional backyards on the south bank above the dam, the little stream cut through a strip of tangled woods on the north side, a no-man’s-land that didn’t form part of any of the yards in Kelley’s Woods, and no one ever bothered us when we played there.
I seldom went there with the other kids, though, saving and savoring it for myself, going alone, or sometimes with our dog, a dachshund called Corky, who, despite his short legs, liked nothing better than chasing after the rabbits, squirrels, muskrats and raccoons that abounded there. Except when the water was low in summer, that section of the Auglaize flowed fast and formed a little set of rapids just behind the town’s sewage disposal plant—visible on the other side through the trees—before broadening out and growing deeper further downstream. The disposal plant was an ugly, industrial, brick building with large concrete settling tanks built on embankments and resembling ramparts, and with a high chain-link fence all around it, topped by several strands of barbed wire.
Sometimes when dusk would find me still exploring the woods there by the river, I would see the high yellow lights that surrounded the entire plant come on, casting an eerie glow in the evening river haze. Seeing the place like that, I might imagine it to be a Nazi prison and myself to be an American spy working for the French Resistance, assigned the mission of creeping across the river, setting charges to blow out a section of wall and so facilitating an Allied prison break. When these imagined dramas unfolded in my mind, I was sure to come home wet to my knees or waist, shoes squishing. But when my mother asked how I’d managed to get soaking wet, I could never reveal the truth to her because my mission had to remain a State secret.
A section of the sewage disposal plant. In the backgound, a glimpse of 
the old forgotten cemetery and the tangled woods beyond that fed 
our Huck Finn fantasies. (Photo: Branden Furgeson/Multimedia)
It wasn’t long before I figured out that the land just across the river from there belonged to the father of a schoolmate of mine. His name was Dave, and although we’d been classmates since kindergarten, we’d never been close enough friends to visit each other’s houses. Now, however, the river was to become the link that would bind us. We were both avid readers and I finally had someone with whom to share the Huck Finn fantasies that I’d brought with me from my days on West Auglaize Street.
Ironically, Dave lived on West Auglaize, but further out toward the County Fairgrounds and the west edge of town. Although the place fronted on that main city street, the backyard sprawled into a small piece of rich black farmland, perhaps a couple of acres, on which his banker father kept a truck patch and had a couple of outbuildings including a big white barn, complete with hay mow. It was a fascinating place because behind the plowed field that Dave’s dad cultivated, bordered by the gravel service road that ran from Auglaize Street to the disposal plant, there was an old and long forgotten cemetery that bristled with tombstones from the earliest times of our town, and from even before, when it was a mere settlement, a white enclave in what had only very recently been the council house of the Shawnee Nation. Some of the stones were so old and eroded by the elements that they were barely legible. Many were from the early to mid-eighteen hundreds, a few, only, from the early twentieth century.
On the other edge of Dave’s father’s land, which ran behind the cemetery, the lot gave onto a delightfully unkempt piece of woodland that fell steeply away from the field and cemetery. It tumbled down to a scrub-forest bottom-land that the Auglaize flooded at certain times of the year, so low down by the river that when you turned and looked back through the penumbral woodland light you could see the spiky silhouettes of the headstones at the back of the graveyard that seemed to stand on the crest of a cliff. The odd river-bottom woods, a venue that teetered between enchanted and haunted, was to become, for the next couple of years, a secret playground that Dave and I shared, a place where we acted out our Huck Finn fantasies. There we built a camouflaged shanty from the dead branches that littered the forest floor, a place to keep secret possessions, like the corncob pipes that we fashioned ourselves and the pouches of tobacco that we pilfered from our fathers or from wherever else we could find it—shaken from butts in ashtrays, scraped from the bottoms of discarded pipe tobacco tins all of which we fleshed out with dried corn silk—and old metal cigar tubes in which we kept dry our kitchen matches, with which to make a small fire of twigs on the river bank and sit by it to smoke our pipes.
This was the sort of raft we had in mind when we set out to build one,
but the one we 'crafted' out of scavenged timber was a scary ride with
our feet always in a couple of inches of water. Still, it floated!
Eventually too, we undertook the task of building a river raft, which turned out to be no mean feat. Neither of us was a very able carpenter and despite having thoroughly read all the theory of “life on the Mississippi”, we had zero experience. But after several failed attempts, we finally were able to securely tie together enough scavenged timber to create a raft that would sort of float and that was big enough for both of us to stand on. It was a little unstable and scary to ride. We had to make sure one of us stood at the prow and the other at the stern (which were indistinguishable from each other) and once aboard we were always standing in an inch or two of water, but with great effort and with each of us armed with a pole long enough to reach the river bottom and push, we actually could navigate, after a fashion, on “our river”.
After the spring floods there was never any shortage of timber to 
scavenge along the Auglaize. (Delphos Herald Photo)
We kept our eminently homemade vessel in a little cove close to the disposal plant. We recalled a scene from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck hides his raft by mooring it in a cove and covering it with green branches so that it blends into the undergrowth. We did the same, every time we finished using ours, which made going out for a spin on the Auglaize a complicated affair in which we spent a lot of time and effort improving our camouflage skills and rendering our dock and raft invisible to prying eyes.
Right along there too, we used the shallow waters of the rapids to set up communications between my side of the river and Dave’s. We floated and then jammed a couple of big logs the river had dragged over the dam and downstream to create a makeshift bridge. This was really for me, so that I didn’t have to wear gumboots or get my feet wet wading, since our adventures were always on Dave’s side of the river and he never crossed over to my bank.
Swift-racing waters of the Auglaize during the thaw. 
(Photo courtesy of Linda Knerr)
Our rafting days were short-lived, however. With the first snow of that year, we stowed away the raft in its hiding place and forgot about it until the spring thaw. When the thaw came, it was with heavy rains on frozen ground that immediately caused the area’s rivers and creeks to rise above their banks and foster flash-flooding. When I remembered the raft and went to look for it, the river was running so high and fast that it was unrecognizable. It was swift-racing cold coffee and cream topped by frothy white foam and had spilled knee deep into the woods. There was no question of crossing to Dave’s side. Any attempt to do so would have spelled instant drowning. An optimist, I thought, “Maybe our moorings held and the raft’s down there, tied under all this water. And when the flooding is over, there it’ll be.” But when the waters subsided that spring and allowed me to hike through the muddy, ravaged-looking bottom land along the river banks, I eventually found our raft, or what was left of it, mangled and broken against the tree trunks, never to sail again.
Photo courtesy of Linda Knerr
It was after this that my river crossings to Dave’s became a little less frequent and I started also spending time with my brother and my neighbors, Joe and Greg, upstream by the dam, fishing. For a little river, the Auglaize offered a wide range of fishing possibilities. Huge carp, sheephead (sometimes called freshwater drum), marble and yellow-belly catfish, sunfish and rock bass, were among the ones we caught regularly. Unfortunately, bottom-feeders like the catfish and carp had to be thrown back no matter how big they were because in those pre-EPA days, the river water was polluted by local industries upstream that hadn’t yet made effluent treatment part of their agenda and didn’t seem to care what they dumped into everyone’s river, but we could sometimes talk our mothers into pan-frying the others that we filleted. Another species that was plentiful was the crawdad (known elsewhere as freshwater crayfish). So plentiful, in fact, that if you planned to keep what you caught you had to take along a bucket, because if you tried to use a stringer, when you pulled your catch out of the water at the end of the day, all that were left on it were the fish’s heads, the rest having served as a ‘seafood’ smorgasbord for these voracious crustaceans. These we also caught, having discovered early on that their tail meat was excellent for bait when we were short of nightcrawlers or minnows (which we caught along the riverbank in seine buckets when schools were there sunning themselves in the warm water on summer mornings).
We seldom met up with adults. It was a boys’ world in general. But the ones with whom we did cross paths on summer mornings, when our own fathers were stuck in their jobs somewhere, formed part of Auglaize lore. One such man we knew only as ‘Doc’, and only because we’d heard it through the grapevine, because none of us was ever brave enough to approach him. To me there was a pirate-like quality about him. Slim as a sapling and obviously wiry, he wore tight-fitting bone-color jeans, now mottled gray with wear, tucked into well-worn laced boots. His shirt was often open two buttons down to reveal his rock-hard chest or sometimes simply tied shut at his waist. He wore a wide belt with a big buckle and when he turned his back towards us we could see the large, sharp, wood-hilted kitchen knife that he carried tucked unsheathed under the leather of that belt. A red bandana kerchief was always tied at his throat and he wore a faded and sullied broad-billed fishing cap on his head. His face was hardened, weathered and ruddy and he wore a bushy, reddish moustache that drooped to his jawbone on either side of his mouth, but that was insufficient to completely cover the botched corrective surgery he’d had at some point on the cleft in his upper lip, which gave him a sardonic half-grinning, half-snarling air.
'Doc' always fished from the bridge, or in the  dry season,
from the dam.
This guy, we realized, was a pro: He fished to eat and to feed a family. He fascinated me, made me wonder about his life, where he lived. Indeed, how he lived. He always fished from the bridge, or, in the dry season, from the crest of the dam, and used a gunny sack to carry home his catch. His patience was boundless, tempered by the bottle of Gallo or Thunderbird wine that always accompanied him and by the smokes he carried rolled in his sleeve.
The days when the turtles were out and he managed to snag two or three, he’d make an early day of it, heading home with his sack heavy over his right shoulder, his rod and tackle in his left hand. When, from down below on the rocks beyond the dam, where we fished, we saw him haul up a big round-shelled gray mud turtle or a helmet-shaped snapper, we would watch with bated breath while, his back turned to us, “Doc” would draw the turtle’s head from its shell and slipping the big knife from his belt, slice it free from the body in one slick move. Then he’d toss the head into the water and string the turtle up by a leg from the bridge rail or from the metal structure of the floodgate to let it bleed out. Sometimes I would later walk across the bridge or the damn to see where “Doc” had been fishing, and those days, it looked like a murder scene.
(To be continued)