Wednesday, December 24, 2014

PEACE ON EARTH, A HUNDRED YEARS AGO TODAY


One of the most inspiring factual Christmas stories in modern history is, perhaps, that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. I know that it has been told many times before by journalists, novelists, screenwriters and others, but I feel that, as a parable, it bears repeating, more because of the implications of its meaning than as a mere anecdote, although it remains a singularly moving and colorful story as such. And if there was ever a holiday season in which it deserved re-telling, it is surely this Christmas, on the one hundredth anniversary of this extraordinary event.
World War I, known back then as the Great War, was one of the most intimately horrific wars in history. Still fought in extremely close quarters and, at the peak of battle, still a war about hand to hand combat and grim, bloody, “justified” murder, it was also the first war that introduced the technology to permit even more effective mass slaughter: tanks capable of breaking through firing lines and overrunning barriers and men, machineguns that could fire between 400 and 600 rounds a minute and out-match a hundred riflemen, mustard and chlorine gasses that choked the air and blinded, suffocated and incapacitated soldiers on the opposite side...in short, the things nightmares are made of, and all up close and personal.
Losses in the Great War were tragic and, for their generation, devastating. By the end of the conflict ten million combatants on both sides had died and another six million civilians had perished with them. Tens of millions of others would be wounded, mutilated or incapacitated for life.
This new technology necessitated keeping a low profile during battle, which, in turn, meant getting below ground level. It was because of this that World War I became, essentially, a trench war—to such an extent that, by the end of the war, the trenches built by both sides, laid end to end, could have easily stretched once around the circumference of the earth.  Trenches were usually built in threes and roughly parallel to each other on either side. The front-line trench was typically fifty yards from the enemy and was backed up by support trenches a couple of hundred yards back and a reserve trench several hundred yards farther back still, holding relief troops and equipment. They were purposely serpentine, snaking their way through the countryside in order to discourage direct frontal attack and to provide different angles from which to fire on the enemy. In between, no-man’s-land, a bleak strip of shell-cratered land strewn with barbed wire and other obstacles and surveilled by machine-gunners on either side.  
But the intimate nature of this arrangement meant that the men hunkered down in those trenches for weeks and months on end became “neighbors” with those who populated the enemy trenches across from theirs. And clearly, like nearly all other wars, the Great War wasn’t about any enmity among the individuals involved in the fighting, but about politicians doing the bidding of ambitious imperial leaders who set their sights on each other’s holdings and used propaganda to dupe common citizens into believing that it was their patriotic duty to fight and die for “king and country” and for a set of imposed “ideals” that served to invent “an enemy people” who only yesterday had been a neighbor, a fellow European, a brother or a sister.
It is worth recalling, nevertheless, that this was a time in which common individuals were starting to come into their own. It was the time of growing anarchism and Marxism, of movements toward increasing democratization, of unions and guilds to protect the rights of those whose toil and skills were augmenting the wealth of the powerful on both sides who were conducting this war for reasons of their own while adducing matters of patriotism and the glory of “just war”.
As such, there was no little concern among leaders on both sides regarding the “morale” of the troops in the trenches. And indeed those concerns, for anyone hoping to conduct a prolonged and widespread conflict in such conditions, were warranted. Nearly a half-year into the war, the two sides had reached a deadlock after British and French troops blocked initial advances by the soldiers of Kaiser Wilhelm. This was where the grueling trench war intensified, but ended up often being a waiting game in which no one could advance and no one could retreat and everyone had to become accustomed to periods of sitting out their days in cold, wet, filthy earthworks, randomly broken by the adrenalin of firefights or over-the-top hand-to-hand battles.
Odd though it may seem, by the latter months of 1914, verbal contact and even a certain amount of fraternization wasn’t unheard-of between opposing trenches, particularly between German and British troops, though there were occasionally such cases reported between the French and the Germans as well, to such an extent that a young French officer named Charles de Gaulle is said to have termed “lamentable” the attitude of a number of his troops who would have been perfectly content to let the enemy be. Incredibly enough, informal ceasefires were sometimes called just before nightfall to allow one side or the other to receive food or other supplies. And there were even reports of “visits” during lulls in the fighting by members of one army to the opposing army’s trenches, in a sort of courtesy-call etiquette respected by riflemen on both sides of the war.
As this sort of thing progressed, superior officers began being alarmed by reports of the practice and started sending down rigorous orders forbidding troops from any sort of fraternizing with the enemy. But that didn’t stop what amounted to a Christmas miracle’s taking place over the course of several days from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26th), 1914.
It all began with some of the German soldiers placing reminders of the Christian holiday up on the edges of their trenches—a candle here, a makeshift Tannenbaum there, and suddenly the rims of their excavations were beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It’s easy to speculate that some of the troops in the opposite trenches might have suspected a trick to get them to break cover. But then, the Germans began singing Christmas carols in their language. And soon, the British soldiers started answering them in English. Someone shouted, “Frohe Weihnachten!” And someone shouted back, “Merry Christmas!”
Finally, a few brave souls climbed up out of their trenches, negotiated the barbed wire and obstacles and met each other halfway in no-man’s-land, which was now converted into Every Man’s Land. Others came. They shook hands, smiled, shared and exchanged what they had—cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, whatever liquor they had in their flasks, chocolate, small deserts from their battlefield rations. And they traded souvenirs, buttons from their coats, caps, scarves, whatever might serve as a gift.
They took advantage of these rare moments of peace and shared Christmas sentiments to gather and bury the bodies of their most recent dead and they held joint Christmas services to honor the day. Even the artillery fell silent as soldiers from both sides of the rolls of concertina wire greeted each other, not as enemies, but as fellow human beings and as brothers with this same tradition, with families, and with memories of previous years of peace in common.
A reflection of how touching these moments were, is the account of one British trooper who wrote, “I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons...I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange....I saw one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”
In the end, literally tens of thousands of opposing troops took part in the informal Christmas Truce of 1914, before their superior officers desperately imposed drastic measures to put an immediate stop to such an appalling display of...brotherhood. For a moment, men pushed into battle with other men just like them for unquestionable reasons neither understood and on the basis of fabricated logic and false justifications invented by their handlers, took their lives and their wills back and, responding to the higher orders of their own shared religious and social traditions, decided for a few days to no longer be enemies.
Imbued as they were with as much civic as religious doctrine, however, the brief silencing of the guns to celebrate Christmas would inevitably end, since they were, unfortunately, already past being free enough to believe in the power of one, by which individuals of like mind retain the power and the human duty to say “no” to their self-imposed authorities. Their upbringing, their schooled sense of patriotism, their feelings of contrived loyalty to anyone but their fellow man, led them back into war, and before they were through, millions more would die.
For a few days in December of 1914, however, the power of the Christmas spirit outweighed the power of warring empires and erstwhile enemies gave each other the gift of peace in the name of a common and loving human tradition.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND PEACE ON EARTH!


Monday, December 22, 2014

PART THREE: THE TEMPLE OF TOLERANCE






Read Parts One and Two at the following links:


Impressive though it was to spend time with Jim Bowsher inside his extraordinary home full of stories on Wood Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio, the really astonishing sight was still awaiting me on the other side of his unobtrusive back door. He led me through an old-fashioned kitchen—whose walls and shelves, like those of the rest of the house, were festooned with memorabilia, rather like proverbial strings tied around the digits of his memory so as to remind him of the stories that they symbolized and to hold them in their grasp—out through a classic back door (wooden with a windowpane in the upper half), and down some steps into the backyard.

Astounding and surreal...
From that point on, however, it was like in my most vivid and moving dreams in which doors that look commonplace so often lead to totally unexpected venues, whose impact is astounding and surreal. For such a sight as greeted me on stepping into that magical place, I might rather have expected a great gate, an imposing portal, huge bronze doors with ornate reliefs, or something, at least, other than a common, early twentieth-century kitchen door to give me a first clue as to the nature of the phenomenon that lay beyond it. But that only rendered it more surprising still, more like jumping down a rabbit hole only to find yourself in a whole new world that you had never imagined existed. 

Some people call it simply The Rock Garden. I would call it something more like “the Wapakoneta Stonehenge”, at the center of which stands the imposing Temple of Tolerance. The best description I’ve heard was provided by my high school friend Jane Siferd Maley, who said that, on seeing it for the first time, “I felt as if the earth was hard put to hold up those mighty rocks.”
Entrance to the temple proper


Without seeing it, this garden filled with natural stone “sculptures” (for lack of a better term) is hard to describe and harder still to imagine, unique as it is. Jim told me a story about a pilot who showed up at his door one day after clocking the coordinates of Jim’s house so that he could come and find out first-hand what it was that he had seen from the air. The guy had been so surprised the first time he’d flown over The Rock Garden and Temple of Tolerance that he decided to do a three-sixty and overfly it again. That’s how big and impressive a sight it is, even from thousands of feet up.
Jim explains that the millstones behind him are "the smoking gun"
regarding the usurping of Shawnee land by white settlers. 
(Photo by Mary Yo Knoch)
As for me, I tried, almost immediately, to imagine some archeologist centuries from now coming across this baffling find and speculating about what sort of culture might have erected it, and what its purpose might have been. That is, of course, assuming that, after Jim passes on, future generations of Wapakoneta and/or Ohio officials are wise enough to preserve it for posterity and that the town’s citizens will be savvy and tenacious enough to make them do so.

Whatever the case may be, it is unlikely—unless Wapakoneta historians are as meticulous about preserving Jim’s story and passing it on as he has been about preserving and recounting those of the generations before his—that far into the future anyone will immediately surmise that The Rock Garden and its centerpiece Temple of Tolerance are the brainchild and work of a single human being. They will likely jump to the conclusion that it is the product of a cult, because it would be ludicrous to think that a single man could have the strength, will and persistence to build something so intricate yet massive, so universal yet focused, so free-minded yet obsessive.
Standing atop the temple and in typically histrionic style, Jim 
explains the tremendous forces of nature that created a particularly
unique rock.


But if that ends up being their presumption, then it will only be because they’ve never met Jim Bowsher personally. Because meeting Jim, spending time with him, holding a conversation with him, is a little like standing on the verge of an enormously powerful whirlpool. You get as close as you can, teeter on the brink, so to speak, because his massive swirling energy is so magnetic that you want to peer over the edge into the vortex, but, caution! His force field is so potent that, if you don’t keep a firm footing, it can draw the energy of everything around it into its core, rather like some extraterrestrial phenomenon that unintentionally blacks out entire cities, just because it doesn’t know its own strength. And that’s precisely the kind of unique vigor, stamina and purpose required to create something like The Temple of Tolerance and its attendant Rock Garden.  
The imposing profile of Jim Bowsher's visiom, the Temple of Tolerance. 
(Photo by Michael Boruff)
Jim tells me that everything I see, there beyond his unassuming back door, was “a vision”. He saw it all before he built it—with the scant mechanical help of a World War II vintage dump truck and a tractor with a backhoe—and having seen it, felt compelled to make his vision materialize. Most of the “heavy construction” has been carried out with enormous stones (many weighing several tons) that form part of the story of Mother Ohio herself. These are the striped morainal boulders of Ohio’s Ice Age, stones dragged and sheared and compressed and worried by the gargantuan blocks of continental ice that carved, planed and molded the landscape from Lake Erie in the north to Hocking Hills in the south. Jim and his brother Walt and sometimes one or another of a handful of close friends traveled far and wide across the state culling the stones from farmers’ fields—and, in the process, gleaning the stories of some of the farmers themselves and of their ancestors.

Jim perched atop one of the stair columns from
our junior high school.
(Photo by Robyn Becker Scott)
But these geologically significant stones are combined with cut stones as well, pieces of carefully collected masonry with what might be called anthropological and historical meanings of their own: the stone entry columns from the Blume school building where Jim and I went to junior high and from which our parents graduated high school, the stone water fountain that used to sit on a corner downtown and where generations of kids on bikes stopped to quench their thirst, the slab that was the first step leading up to the meeting hall of the Ku Klux Klan headquarters above an erstwhile popular jewelry store on Wapakoneta’s main drag, random pieces of the old Cincinnati ball park where the Queen City’s baseball tradition was born, two huge mill wheels used by early Ohio settlers to grind the grain grown on land usurped from the Hog Creek Reservation (of which Wapakoneta formed part), ostensibly ceded to the Shawnee Nation after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, an obelisk-shaped stone post that is the only known surviving marker from that same reservation, theater-mask-like façade ornaments from some long-since demolished emblem of architectural history—pieces known to the Irish as “moon dogs” since they change expressions from jovial to sinister by the light of the full moon—a chunk of the Berlin Wall, wrought iron fences and gates and myriad other items, each with a story of its own, skillfully and artfully combined with the natural stone base-work.


"What's  this?" Jim asked, and I immediately recognized it as a counter
stool from the Teddy Bear restaurant that my father had owned and 
closed down in 1969.                                             (Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
Speaking of items with a story of their own, as Jim and I are standing at the top of the 14-foot temple with our mutual friend, photographer Mary Jo “Jodi” Knoch, Jim suddenly says, “Oh wait, I’ll be right back,” and dashes off down the steps from the altar and out of sight. But he’s back as swiftly as he left, carrying something in his arms. What he sets down before us at the top of the temple looks immediately familiar to me.
“What’s this?” he asks, to which a dubious Jodi responds, with a palpable question in her voice, “A barstool?”

I gaze at the pitted chrome foot and cracked red leather seat of the piece and say, “One of the end-counter stools from my dad’s restaurant, the Teddy Bear,” a business that my father shut down for good in 1969. 

A barrel-shaped speakeasy...
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
“Correct!” Jim says, and now I’m almost convinced that between his house and this garden, he must have a piece of every Wapakoneta son and daughter at his fingertips. Like the barrel-shaped wooden hut that sits just outside of Jim’s covered back patio (which is also crammed with objects whose stories he hoards more than the items themselves) and that once sat on Jodi’s Uncle Bum’s farm. In the Prohibition era it served as a kind of rural speakeasy and it still has the bullet holes in it to prove it.    
One other memorable piece is a marble slab salvaged from a demolished bank in nearby Bluffton, Ohio. The attraction to this piece was its connection with thirties gangster John Dillinger. Elsewhere in The Southern Yankee
(http://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com.ar/2009/11/tour-1-defiance-street.html), 


The notorious John Dillinger
I’ve narrated, in detail and with a personal family anecdote, the story of how Dillinger’s reign of terror affected local history in our part of Ohio, mainly because of his gang’s murder of Sheriff Jesse Sarber at the Allen County jail in the city of Lima, fifteen miles north of Wapakoneta, where the gangster was being held in 1933. And Jim hasn’t forgotten it either. That particular slab was the one Dillinger hopped up onto before catapulting himself onto the tellers’ counter at the Bluffton bank and, for the first time in his brief but prolific criminal “career”, shouting, “I’m John Dillinger, and I rob banks.”


Johnny Depp in "PublicEnemies"
But this isn’t the only Dillinger story Jim knows. The best one he tells is how Dillinger, in a way, introduced him to actor Johnny Depp. It seems that when Depp was cast as Dillinger in the 2009 picture Public Enemies, part of the movie was shot on location in nearby Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Van Wert, Ohio. Someone involved in the motion picture’s production had heard of the Temple of Tolerance and decided to drive over to Wapakoneta and have a look-see. In the course of talking to Jim, the guy mentioned that he was working on the film and, typical of the ever-outspoken Jim, he told this fellow to give a message to Johnny Depp: “Tell him,” Jim said, “not to go turning that murdering gangster into some kind of folk hero.” Depp, Jim felt, should be honest in his portrayal, and show Dillinger for the hardened killer and thief that he was, not as some romanticized Robin Hood of the Depression era, which he wasn’t.
A short time later, Jim was working at his house with one of his volunteer helpers who, answering the phone, turned to Jim and said, “Hey Jim, there’s either some delusional guy on the phone who thinks he’s Johnny Depp, or it’s Johnny Depp asking to talk to you.”
Jim took the phone, said hello, and immediately got a batch off hell from Depp, who asked him who he thought he was sending critical messages to him about his interpretation of Dillinger when he had no idea who Depp was, the depth of his skills as an actor, his own thoughts as to how to play the role, etc. Jim unabashedly came back with his own thoughts on how Hollywood all too often turned scoundrels into heroes and vice versa, and, although his intention wasn’t to offend Depp, it wasn’t hard to figure that if Dillinger was to be the protagonist of a Hollywood feature film, the producers weren’t going to sink that kind of money into a film about a guy the audience would hate.
They argued on for a while and finally, agreeing to disagree, said their chilly goodbyes and hung up. A short time later, however, Jim got another call from Depp, who asked laconically, “So what the hell’s this Temple of Tolerance?” Jim invited him to visit it and find out. To his surprise, the actor showed up. When he saw The Rock Garden, he was blown away, and remained there talking to Jim, listening to his stories and asking numerous questions about this vision made reality. By the time Depp left, they had become friends.

Jim sits at the summit of his stone vision explaining the 18-year 
construction process. Just behind him, the only known surviving 
boundary marker for the Hog Creek Shawnee reservation of which 
Wapakoneta formed part.
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
It took Jim Bowsher eighteen years to build The Rock Garden and Temple of Tolerance, frequently to the chagrin of city building inspectors, whose basic question was, “Just what the hell are you building anyway, Jim, and why the hell don’t you have a permit?” Jim basically told them to think of it as art rather than architecture, and somebody finally decided to set a standard policy of ignoring “whatever the hell it was” that this genial madman was doing in his backyard...even when he started acquiring other backyards and erecting his stone sculptures further and further beyond his own back door. By the time he was finished, Jim owned the entire center of the block and his maze of stone monuments had expanded to cover it all.
By the time Jim was finished, he owned the entire center of the block
and his maze of stone sculpture had expanded to cover it all.


The same dichotomous line that I had earlier discovered inside Jim’s house comes into full bloom out here, and the reason for it is the same as indoors. It is a combination of the sacred and the profane, of good and evil, of right and wrong, of, in the end, tolerance and intolerance. And the idea is that the good should assuage the bad and, eventually, cleanse and purify it.  The step from the KKK hall is a good example: Jim says that when he first saw black kids and white kids sitting on it together, he knew the karma cleansing had begun.
Anybody’s welcome anytime at the Temple of Tolerance, but kids have the run of the place. There’s only one hard and fast rule—besides no dope, no bullying and no bad vibes driving wedges between folks: No profanity. In "Bowsherspeak", that doesn’t mean you can’t cuss. What it means is that no racial epithets, no party politics, no religious intolerance, indeed, no verbal intolerance of any kind will be permitted. This is a place for peace, harmony and human fraternity.
As such, it tends to be a gathering place for writers, poets, photographers and “pickin’ people” who, when the weather is good, get together and jam on Thursday evenings. And even when it’s chilly, at the top of the temple there’s a pit for a fire around which people can sit and exchange their songs and stories, like people did in the earliest of societies.  
Jim no longer considers the vast garden—with its multiple emblematic natural and cut-stone structures—to be his. It is a privately owned property that he has conjured into a public space, where people come and go at all hours of the day and night and from all over the state, the country and the world, slipping in through a side entrance without having to go through Jim’s house. It’s now more like Jim belongs to the garden than it to him, in his role as the keeper of the temple—a sort of respectful but often irreverent, non-denominational but highly spiritual monk, charged with the task of imbuing others with the philosophy of tolerance that inspired its construction. 
It's now more like Jim belongs to the garden than it to him. 
(Photo by Michael Boruff)
At one point, as I’m sitting at the summit of the temple, in the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, looking around at the painstakingly modeled piles of massive stone—each a kind of “side altar” to the Temple of Tolerance proper—I’m reminded how necessary this instructional role of Jim’s might be in understanding what all of this is for, since I recall the dry stone pirkas built by pre-Columbian Native Americans and scattered throughout South America. The Spanish Conquistadores, who had no interest whatsoever in comprehending the local culture, were only capable, in their discriminatory and narrow-minded conquerors’ vision, of seeing the pirkas as walls. Conjecturing at what they might be used for, they referred to them as “corrales de piedra” (or stone corrals). But in fact, these open-air stone enclosures were carefully constructed as places of gathering and worship, social magnets of sorts, temples, as it were, integrated into the big-sky landscape of the Andean region.

Yes, stones have a magnetism all their own, but in the hands of humans, they are also imbued with other forces and may well require interpretation, philosophy and even cleansing when arranged with purpose, intent and aforethought. So Jim remains the Temple Master of his creation for now, with the hope that, when he’s gone, others will carry on the tradition of tolerance and growing empathy that his vision has bred in this unique garden and gathering place that he has lovingly built and nurtured to be shared with the world.

Monday, December 8, 2014

PART TWO: THE HOUSE OF THE TEMPLE MASTER


You might drive by Jim Bowsher’s house on Wood Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio, and not even notice it. Structurally, it looks like any other typical early twentieth-century rural American house.
Jim Bowsher's house on Wood Street in Wapakoneta
If you’re walking, though, you can’t help but notice right away the heavy glacial rocks that completely clog the easement between the sidewalk and the curb and in the little door yard in front of the porch, bearing testimony to Ohio’s topographical formation—scraped flat in the northwest by planing megatons of continental ice and wrinkled into rocky hills and cliffs in the southeast, at the site of the terminal moraine. And if you turn and look Jim’s way, you might even notice the red letters painted on the wooden riser of the top step before the porch that read: TEMPLE OF TOLERANCE.
Now, if you were to walk down the other side of the street and look toward Jim’s house what would probably draw your attention first is the bomb hanging from the gable of his dormer. That’s right, I said bomb, or more accurately, bombshell. You know what it is right away because it looks like every bombshell you ever saw in cartoons as a kid: torpedo-shaped with tail fins at the rear. And as in the cartoons, this one has something written on it: If it belonged to Wiley Coyote it would say ACME BOMB, or if it were Bugs Bunny’s it might say BOMB or BANG or BOOM. But when you get close enough to read this one, it says PEACE. It is painted an eye-catching red with letters in bright yellow (like the Beatles’ 1960s flower-power yellow submarine).
Like a forgotten Christmas ornament 
The bomb looks comical hanging there like a bizarre, forgotten Christmas ornament, and if you scratch the surface of Jim’s personal dialectic, you realize that the cartoonish effect is no coincidence. It’s part of his complex process of decommissioning evil, since this shell, now rendered harmless, comedic and almost childish, is exactly the kind used during the Vietnam War to rain napalm down on jungle villages and burn men, women and children alive. Hanging it in the top gable of the house is a lot like the message the “flower children” sent when they smiled at dog-faced soldiers blocking their path and slipped the stems of fresh-picked daisies into the barrels of their rifles at the myriad peace rallies of the sixties. It is a disarming gesture with an empathic message of peace and harmony—one that seems almost outdated and futile in a world that, except in tiny corners like this one, has all too cynically accepted war and mass murder as “inevitable” or as “collateral damage”.   
From his grandmother's lamp to the Ku Klux Klan
The mix in Jim’s house, which gives anyone with the slightest sensitivity the feeling of stepping into a powerful force-field as soon as he or she steps across the threshold, is about as eclectic as you can possibly imagine, ranging from a gracefully turned table lamp with a delicately painted milk-glass shade that he inherited from his grandmother to a couple of long-rifles made by his gunsmith ancestors specifically to be traded to the Indians; from nearly life-size and colorfully painted and gilded plaster saints culled from some long-demolished Roman Catholic church to the Aron Kodesh or Sacred Ark from the erstwhile ad hoc Temple ceremonies of Wapakoneta’s tiny and, today, all but forgotten Jewish community; from Nazi era artifacts to Native American artifacts from prehistoric times; from local Ku Klux Klan memorabilia to treasured reminders of the traveling shows of local vaudeville legend Harry Shannon; from letters, documents and journals of local pioneers to items of soldiers’ gear from the famous Battle of Fallen Timbers; from rare pictures and symbols of early settlers and aboriginal tribal leaders to a “one-armed bandit” that an old-time “city father” bought for his wife to keep her out of gambling halls and speakeasies; from historical tributes to heroism to bits and pieces of the brief but murderous story of infamous bank robber John Dillinger and his gang—and the list goes on and on.
The dichotomous nature of the thread that runs through the endless collections that cover walls, shelves, tables, cabinets, display cases and just about any other surface big enough to hold a book, picture or trinket throughout the house is not only attributable to Jim’s uncanny ability to recognize historical significance wherever time and oblivion have hidden it under their shroud of dust and indifference, but also to a very conscious underlying aim of “drawing the poison” out of everything evil and ill-intentioned by purging that negativity and rendering it harmless—something to be observed and recounted within the general context of history and through objective hindsight, ever accompanied by a message of peace, forgiveness and understanding, but not without remembrance, reparation and atonement, and a vow to serve a better future while comprehending the perennial inevitability of human foible.
Descendants of Wapakoneta’s early Jewish residents got it, this intentional dichotomy that runs through everything Jim does. So much so that they didn’t balk at the apparent contradiction of Jim’s unique recounting of Nazi and KKK evil under the same roof where their sacred ark rests. In fact, it was their idea.
Seeing the Aron Kodesh there in its special place, a focal point in the center and at the top of Jim’s history-festooned parlor, I ask, “What’s that!”
“What’s it look like?” Jim asks back.
“Like the Ark of the Covenant,” I say.
To which he answers, “That’s exactly what it is. The ark once used by Wapak’s Jews in their religious ceremonies.”
The Aron Kodesh of Wapakoneta's erstwhile Jewish community.
(Photo by Mary Jo Knoch)
I feel a story coming on, and sure enough, Jim launches into how he came by the ark (also known, I’m told, as a Torah Ark, the holiest spot in any Jewish temple). In tracing some traditional intolerances that formed a darker side of our hometown’s history—Catholics against Jews and Protestants, Protestants against Papists and Jews, the different Protestant denominations against each other, the original City Fathers against African Americans and anybody else not undeniably white and the Klan against...well, everybody, basically, but their own pointy-hatted brethren—he had taken an interest in the handful of Jews who had decided to make Wapakoneta their unlikely home. He meticulously traced their history and interviewed as many members of their community as he could still find, eventually discovering a total of fifteen Jewish families that once formed part of the Wapakoneta story.
In the process, Jim made a number of friends and acquaintances among descendants of leading local Jews, who were grateful to him for conscientiously piecing together an often obscure and fragmented story. One discovery among many was that the Jewish community had suffered a falling-out with the then-rabbi in the city of Lima, a short distance away, which was where the nearest synagogue was located. So they broke with Lima’s Jewish community and held their own temple services with “Jim’s” ark as their sacred altar and en lieu of an actual temple in which to worship.
Photo by Mary Jo Knoch
When Jim’s project was completed, representatives of that now defunct religious community showed up at his house with the ark. They wanted him to have it. Although he was truly honored and moved, he said he didn’t feel he could accept it. He was clearly not Jewish. In fact, if he did indeed consider himself “spiritual” he was not “religious” in any traditional sense. Why should he be entrusted with something so sacred to local Jews? Because, they explained, his home was a spiritual place and nowhere else would their ark be in more respectful, appreciative and caring hands. Even so, Jim’s bent for the contradictory runs deep, and despite how prominently and respectfully displayed the ark is in his home, on exhibit with it is a Star of David armband, of the type the Nazis made Jews wear in their ghettos in order to identify them as such. But clearly, it isn’t there so much as a direct contrast with the Aron Kodesh as it is to render homage to the six million Jews who died in the Nazi concentration camps before and during World War II.
The other thing that runs deep in Jim is the intimate nature of his interest in people’s stories. It isn’t just a matter of collecting and recounting their tales but of getting inside of the stories themselves, walking around in other people’s shoes—even those of people long dead—and finding out what makes them tick. And doing so, it should be said, with a combination of admirable objectivity and heartfelt empathy. Even the way he first started interviewing people bears witness to this, since his first interviews were with the last ultra-elderly veterans of the Civil War, beginning when he was only eight. Even then he had the vision to know that once these old-timers were gone, their stories would be buried with them and that it was important to the cause of keeping history from being a fiction written in retrospect that those stories should be told in the words of their protagonists. By the time he was twelve his task as a chronicler of the stories of the community’s most senior personalities had become more important to him than hanging out with his contemporaries, and although he was always an outgoing and popular boy, he admits that he often “neglected his friends” when the choice was between them and a good story.    
Nor does Jim shrink from stories that others might consider fanciful, impossible or just plain nuts, like the story entitled Rivets that he tells about a bridge on a country road that bears his own surname. In it, a World War II vet tells Jim of how he was a rifleman with a demolition team who were setting charges to blow an iron girder bridge on a German road, similar to the one near the soldier’s farmhouse home on Bowsher Road near Wapakoneta. The charge is set, the detonator plunger raised, but out of nowhere comes a German fighter plane and strafes the bridge. The American rifleman takes cover behind a girder of the bridge and survives the strafing, but when he looks around, all of the other men on the team are lying dead, and now two German riflemen are swiftly crossing the field on the other side of the bridge and have opened fire on him.
Pinned down, the guy knows he’s going to die and leans against the girder of the bridge with his head down on it. All he can see are the girder rivets. But suddenly, the gunfire stops, the noise of war fades away and he hears water splashing and children laughing. He opens his eyes, looks around and finds himself on the old bridge on Bowsher Road. He’s a boy again and below him, there are other kids swimming in the creek. For a moment, he remains there, safe in his own childhood, but then, suddenly, he is back in real time and the two German soldiers are running up onto the bridge, firing at him to try and finish him off. But before they can, the American soldier sprints to the detonator, shoves down the plunger and blows up the bridge, complying with the team’s mission and killing the two Germans.
After that, as Jim tells it, the guy ran away, found another American unit, joined it, and made it through the rest of the war unscathed, before going back to Wapakoneta and to his farmhouse home on Bowsher Road, near the bridge that he’d seen in that vision at the bridge in Germany. So, Jim asks him, didn’t he maybe think about someday going back to that spot in Germany, where they’ve surely erected another bridge, to see where it all happened so long ago? The vet looks frightened and adamantly shakes his head, telling Jim that he’ll never go back there. Why? Because he’s convinced that he never survived that attack. That if he goes back, he’ll see himself lying there dead at that German bridge. “Everything,” he tells Jim, “you here listening to me, me telling you this story, all of it is no more than a death dream drama. It isn’t real. It’s only the dream of a man who died, the same as that dream back then of me playing at this bridge on Bowsher Road.”
To be continued
(Watch and hear Jim tell the story himself at www.youtube.com/watch?v=P999-4Z02vo).
       

       
  


Monday, December 1, 2014

PART ONE: PORTRAIT OF A LONG LOST FRIENDSHIP


After a couple of marathon days of getting acquainted, there’s a point during a rare lull in the conversation at which I can’t help saying, “You, my friend, are one crazy sonuvabitch.” To which he laughs genuinely and heartily, taking the pronouncement like it was uttered—as a compliment.
Jim Bowsher and I: A meeting long overdue,and both of us still crazy 

after all these years.
It’s that we’ve both been around long enough and have gotten around far enough to know that, among artists, musicians and writer types (like us), being crazy isn’t a fault, but a virtue. In fact, being crazy is the principal requirement for what we do. The actual writing, the creating, is merely an outgrowth of our obsessive madness. The craft comes to us, as he keeps reminding me during our conversations, from “the muse” and—other than practicing and honing it, because that’s our assigned task and duty—is pretty much beyond our control. Being empathically obsessive-compulsive enough to want to know “the story” behind everything and everyone around us (and worse still, dying to retell it) is what sets us apart. And the fact is, we can’t help it. That’s just the way we’re wired, and still crazy after all these years. 
But this guy, Jim, has wandered beyond the lunatic fringe to bring myriad pieces of the stories he gathers home with him, creating a unique space (not just in Wapakoneta, but in the world) that isn’t for the mediocre, the obtuse, the insensitive or the faint of heart. At first glance, the inside of his house might remind some people of a museum. But it’s not that. It’s far more: a repository of meticulous and miniscule histories. Museums are places where what are on display are, in general, artifacts removed from the flow of the world and “collected for exhibition.” Things rendered dead by institutionalization, through which we might imagine a story, but that often no longer have any real, tangible anecdotes attached to them. Jim’s place, however, is a venue so saturated with human narrative that it hits me in the middle of the chest as soon as I walk through the door.
Each exquisite piece is there not for itself but for the story 
attached to it.
The fact is that every piece of memorabilia that clutters his house in orderly if—within the usual sense of normality—insane array is, rather like him, a living legend. Each exquisite piece is there not for itself but for the story (and so the spirit) attached to it. Or at least they are as long as he’s still around to mentally and spiritually connect with the countless items and to tell each of their stories. He is the veritable medium who maintains the link between all of this “stuff” and its plethora of stories. And that’s why the most sensitive of people either “creep out” or wax emotive on entering the place. Me, I just felt a powerful lot of energy pouring from that house the moment I stepped over the threshold.    
Jim Bowsher is a Wapakoneta icon.
Jim who? Wapakawhosis?
Among other things, Jim Bowsher is a guy I went to school with. And Wapakoneta is the little western Ohio town where we both grew up. He was a year ahead of me in school and ran with a different crowd. We weren’t friends. Nor were we enemies. Fact is, I don’t think we ever even spoke to each other all through grade school and high school. Whenever people mentioned him to me later in life, all I remembered was his bright little-boy face and the name linked to it because he was “Oh yeah, the one-eyed kid.”
He lost the sight in one eye in an accident while playing when he was six. My mother would always remind my brother and me of “that poor little Bowsher boy” whenever she saw us trying to lasso each other because the story was that Jim had had his eye knocked out with the end of a rope in similar horseplay. (When I dare to ask, he clarifies that it was indeed with a rope but that he was playing by himself at the time, lassoing not another kid, but a tree).
I’m reminded of this at our first get-together when, enthused with the story he’s telling and gesticulating to make a point, he bats his wine glass with the back of his hand and bathes the table in front of him in cabernet, instantly exclaiming, “Oh shit! One eye, people! No depth perception,” before sopping it up with a towel he’s handed while forging on with the anecdote and without missing a beat. I’m told that back when Jim lost the eye, when the surgeon explained to him that he would never be able to see out of it again and asked how he felt about it, the precocious six-year-old said, “Well, I guess it’s just one more thing that’ll make me unique.”
So anyway, oddly enough, we only just met for the first time a few weeks ago while I was back in town for a brief visit. The connection was immediate. And after our first volley of introductory dialogue—for which we commandeered not only the conversation, but also the kitchen table (and indeed the kitchen) until nearly 4 a.m. in the childhood home of mutual friend Victoria Smith—a sort of neutral ground familiar to both of us since we had separately hung out here in our high school days, basking in the warmth, humor, intelligence, generosity, cultural diplomacy and educational incentives of our extraordinary high school Spanish teacher and Vicki’s mother, Jan Smith—I, for one, and I think both of us, had a mixed sense of happy fascination and sorrow that we were just becoming friends at this late date and had missed a fifty-year opportunity to commune intellectually as innate and inveterate story-tellers and recorders of human joy, tragedy and foible. There was a feeling that we should have met in high school—that, hell, we should have met in grade school.
Jim is an innate storyteller.
By his own confession, Jim, like me, has never wanted to be anything but a writer, although that is not to say that we haven’t had other interests. My main one was music when I was young and making a living at it, before I began a full-time career in journalism after traveling to South America. Jim’s have been far more diverse: history, archeology, geology, anthropology, folklore and oral traditions. And in all of these areas he has sought supreme expertise rather than simply dabbling. It’s little wonder that, apart from his writing, he also earns a living as an itinerant and much sought after lecturer. This he does under his own name. Not so with his writing. Jim is known to be a successful writer, but you’ll have to take his word for it. An extrovert but with a hermit’s sense of privacy, he writes under a pseudonym...which practically no one knows. Not even his brother, Walt, with whom he shares not only family ties but a close and enduring friendship. And his fierce independence is just as patent in the unique relationship he shares with his Japanese wife, a highly respected photographer, who lives much of the time in her native Japan. Though tied by an intimate bond, neither would ever think of attempting to mold the other to his or her convenience or of restricting each other’s creative growth or geographic preferences. People in general might find this hard to comprehend, but between creatives, it’s a match made in heaven and they live happily together whenever they can.
Speaking of which, Jim is a world traveler. He has truly journeyed far and wide. Unlike me, however, he has always gone back home, while I’ve been an expatriate these past four decades.
He says his writer friends in New York are curious about why someone of his craft and talent would be so attracted to life in Wapakoneta, Ohio. His response and attitude remind me of a story about two great American writers—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Observing the brilliance, talent and intellectual capital of Thoreau, Emerson struggled to convince his retiring, rustic, untraveled colleague that he should venture out into the world, that he should tear loose from his native Concord, Massachusetts, and go to Europe. Why, Henry wondered, would he want to do that? Because, his friend Ralph explains, it’s Europe! Where the cultural capitals of the world are—the great art, the finest architecture, the grand museums, artists and writers of a superior order! To which Thoreau looks around him at the pastoral scenery of small-town Concord and says, “Isn’t this enough?”
Jim, like Thoreau, has discovered a fascinating world, an all-absorbing history, a spiritual and intellectual treasure trove right under his nose. He indeed travels the globe, but there’s always plenty to come home to.
Besides, Jim tells his big-city friends, here in Wapakoneta, there are no distractions, whereas in the Big Apple, there’s always something going on, someone to meet, some place to hurry out to. Wapakoneta is a sure cure for writer’s block, Jim figures. “Try living through an Ohio winter in a small town and see if you don’t write!” he laughs.
He is nothing if not original in his projects. His latest: teaching writing to hardened criminals in several high-security prisons. And, not content with this, he has invented a course that, to his knowledge, is unique in the US prison system: writing for death row inmates. Talk about a tough audience! Jim tells us about a prison class in which the guys are so tough he’s practically standing on his head to pique their interest. Little by little, however, he starts winning them over, getting them interested, even getting them enthused. All except for one guy, a hardened lifer-convict, who sits slouched low in his seat, arms folded over his chest, observing Jim as if measuring him for a pine box. Jim says, “Okay, something’s bothering you about me. What is it?” The guy never moves a muscle, never changes his pose. “You see me in a particular light,” Jim tries again. “Tell me, how do you see me?”
Without even bothering to unfold his arms, the felon looks Jim right in the eyes and answers, “In a ditch.”          
At three-ish, I reluctantly tell Jim I have a 9 a.m. breakfast date, to which he laughs and says, “Great! Then we have until eight-thirty.”
With continued reluctance, I say, “Maybe you do, pal, but my energy doesn’t stretch that far anymore. I drove five hundred miles today and I’m going to need a few hours of sleep.”
“Okay,” says Jim, “but one more story. You’re gonna love this one,” and off he launches into another anecdote about “Wapak” people, which reminds him of another one and another one, until, as four approaches, I have to insist.
Coincidentally, before arriving in town, I’d made an appointment to see Jim. For ten years, mutual friends had been urging us separately to get together. Having learned a little about him, I’d decided it was high time I shrugged off my innate diffidence and met him, so I’d asked Jodi Knoch, another close mutual friend, to set it up for the following Monday.
But this Friday meeting had been an unexpected gift bestowed on both of us by our friend Vicki. Her brother Bart, sister-in-law Elisha and niece Emily joined us for a late supper after I blew into town from a breakfast date with an old friend in Chattanooga, two states away. But shortly after midnight, when Jim and I were just getting warmed up, they had reached their saturation point for story-absorption and said their goodnights. As hostess, Vicki was stuck with us for the duration.
Now we both hug her goodnight. Out on her front walk, Jim and I shake hands and express our mutual admiration.
“You’re coming to my place Monday, right?” he says, but it’s a statement more than a question.
“Of course,” I say. “I’ll rest up.” We both laugh.
To be continued...