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...      


  

13 comments:

Jane Maley said...

I walked through the Temple one day in early spring with Gretchen-she insisted that we visit. I felt as if the earth was hard put to hold up those mighty rocks. Thank you for putting context to that amazing place as I never knew Jim either. I look forward to your next installment. Thanks, Janie

Anonymous said...

You have no idea how much I wanted to be an interloper into the Monday meeting. I was so very curious as to your reaction to his Temple. Oh to be a fly on the wall listening to the 2 of you. It was not enough on the Friday night/morning. I'll need another dose some day!! Vicki

Dan Newland said...

Thank YOU, Janie, as always for your kind comments and for sharing you thoughts. The Temple is indeed a powerful, rare and wonderful place that I'll be writing about soon.

Dan Newland said...

Oh, I'm sure there will be new opportunities, Vicki, and you would surely have been welcome. That time and the next were even more marathon sessions than the one at your house. I walked away from the second one happy but exhausted. By third third one, I was in training and perfectly capable of "taking Jim on" one on one, haha.

Michael Doseck said...

Too cool. Jan Smith was my inspiration to be the white kid from Wapakoneta, OH to leave the town and be comfortable amongst people of different colors, cultures and languages. I'm proud to say that I have passed this quality on to both of my children but also to my wife who was taught to not wander far. Like you I also received the message from my parents about the one-eye Bowsher boy.

Jeff Esser said...

Dan, as always, you're words are to be sipped slowly like fine wine. I, too, talked to Jim last summer. I had meant to go to the temple for years and never made it. Always something stopped me. My wife and I were lucky enough to find Jim in the back yard. As you found, 5 minutes turned into an hour or so. He is a Wapak treasure. I wish him a long, long life. I have so much to go back and learn from him.
Jeff Esser

Sally Oyer said...

I met Jim for the first time at my fiancé's Christmas party in 1976. It was love at first meeting! I can't believe you never met in school. It seems fate destined you to cross paths at the perfect time and it is interesting that it happened in the Smith home...a magical place. Important things happen there...my first date with George, set up by Jan Smith...your first meeting with Jim Bowsher set up by Vicki Smith.
Your description of the wine and a lull in the conversation made me laugh out loud. Wine and a rocking chair are like crack to Bow....
Once Jim was at our house and he was checking out some of George's guns. He held one up and George said, "I didn't know you were left handed." Jim smiled and pointed to his glass eye and shrugged...typical Bow!
We were fortunate to see the transformation of the Bowsher property...from the first big rocks hauled in by Walt and Jim to the current maze and Temple of Tolerance....what a treasure he is to Wapak and the world....
You have perfectly captured the essence of Bow...thank you.
Sally Oyer, wife of George Oyer

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your observations, Mike! Yes, I think Jan nurtured the wanderlust and aspirations of a lot of us and taught us to be a lot more cosmopolitan and sophisticated in our views of the world. The road less traveled: once you've taken it, its hard to quiet your wandering heart.

Dan Newland said...

Sally, I feel honored by such high praise. Oddly enough, George is another of Jan's close friends with whom my contact has been practically nil. Your kind comments make me all the more regretful that we've never crossed paths. Unlike Jim, except when I occasionally venture out into the world, I tend toward being a hermit, so...my bad.

Dan Newland said...

Thank you as always for your kind words, Jeff, and for sharing your vision of Jim, a true Wapak icon.

Barb Srisongkham said...

I love listening to Jim's stories! I could listen to them for hours and I know he could go on for hours! He is such an interesting person and a wealth of knowledge. I hope that his stories live on long after we are gone and the history he has created in the house along with the Temple all are available for generations to come. I know people from all ever like to come to visit the Temple it is almost as much of a part of Wapak as Neil Armstrong is.

Dan Newland said...

I hope so too, Barb, and I understand that it's in Jim's plans to donate it all to the city upon his death, as long as there is an agreement to maintain it as is.

Barb Srisongkham said...

That is great news. I know that many people have enjoyed it. I know I have as well as my children and grandchildren.