Friday, October 13, 2017

THE GO-TO PLACE FOR WAPAKONETONIANS IN THE KNOW


Decades ago, when I would come back for visits to my home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, this was “the new place”. That was in contrast to all the “old places” that, over the years since I-75 had cut a north-south swath through the west central Ohio countryside—and carried through-traffic that used to come into town on the Dixie Highway a mile or so east—had been starved out by the lack of travelers and by townspeople’s’ temptation to “try out” all the new chain restaurants on “Hamburger Row” out by “the new highway”.
The business Whitie, my dad, had built with two of his brothers and then run on his own with my mother Reba Mae’s help later on, had been one of the early casualties. The Teddy Bear Soda Fountain and Grill that had become a Wapakoneta icon in the post-World War II era had succumbed by 1969, as had other downtown diners like The Club, The Equity, Lyman’s or The Dinnerbell. All victims of the chain store trend that swept America and much of the rest of the Western world, with constant multi-million-dollar TV ad campaigns coaxing viewers to abandon the old Mom and Pop hometown places and gorge on Whoppers, Big Macs, pizza-pizzas, Wendy Burgers and buckets of the Colonel’s crispy chicken with “secret spices”.
But “the new place”, known as The Coffey Cup (a play on words using the original owner’s surname), emerged optimistic from the dust that settled in the wake of that debacle. And by now, if in my mind it remains “the new place”, it counts its history in decades rather than years.
Photos by Mary Jo Knoch
Although I only get back to my home town once a year at most, even I have forged a few memories here at this now emblematic Wapakoneta watering hole. Way back, some of the former “regulars” of the Teddy Bear crowd had become habitués of The Coffey Cup. Dick and Cindy Chadwick, for instance. Mrs. Chadwick had been the choral music teacher and high school chorus director when I was in school back in the sixties and Mr. Chadwick had been my high school art teacher. But I’d also known Dick as a musician, which was my first and foremost passion back then.
I recall thinking it a tragedy when he talked about how, as a fast-rising studio trumpet player back in his youth, he had stretched himself too thin playing multiple big-city gigs while going for his music degree and had “blown out his lip”. I’d heard the term before but had never known anyone it had actually happened to. Chadwick told me that his lip had literally split during a performance and shot blood into his horn and out the bell. Right then he knew it was over for him as a performer.
But clearly, his creativity sought a second outlet and all of us who had the pleasure of studying art with him benefited from his musical misfortune. He was an inspiring art teacher who ferreted out any glint of talent in his students and pushed them to develop it. Whenever I was back in town, I would try to drop around The Coffey Cup about mid-morning and share a conversation with the Chadwicks whom I found ever-interesting to talk to.
Another regular there a few years before his death was my former high school band director, William Thatcher Trunk. Bill and I too had shared more than the high school student-teacher relationship. My senior year, I had worked closely with him on the musical arrangements for our football season half-time shows. As a relief drummer with Lima Local 320 of the American Federation of Musicians, I had also played numerous professional gigs with Fred Rex and The Nightowls, the band in which Trunk played piano on the weekends.
He also took me along several years to summer Band Camp as an instructor and counsellor. My main job was to prepare junior-high students for the precision marching they would have to do as high school band members later on, as well as to give percussion lessons to both junior and senior high students. It was there that Bill and I became fast friends.
Whenever I came back to town and dropped by The Coffey Cup when he was there, it was as if I’d never left. Several years could pass and I’d walk in and say, “Hey Mr. T!” And Bill would glance up from the musical staff paper spread on the table before him and it would be as if the last time he’d seen me had been that very morning. “Hey, Danny,” he would say, “come over here and take a look at this arrangement I’m putting together for next season. Listen to this.” And with that, he would start humming the different instrumental parts to me, obviously excited by how it was all coming together. Then he’d say, “Maybe you can give me a hand with the drum parts.”
It was business as usual. As if I’d never been gone.
Here too, I’d met up with the Methodist pastor, Rick Bell, who had helped Whitie, my dad, get through the four years leading up to his death due to lung cancer. Whitie had been a believer, and Rick had been just the guy to help him deepen that faith still further, even in the face of an illness capable of shaking anyone’s belief structure.
Rick had told Reba Mae, my mother, that he wanted to meet me. He’d indicated that Whitie had talked a lot about me, which kind of surprised me, since my father and I had always had a troubled if tensely cordial relationship, so different were we from one another.
At first I’d balked. But later, I agreed to meet him. I felt I owed Rick, because he’d been there for Whitie when I couldn’t be. I’d have “a cuppa” with him and thank him for being Whitie’s friend to the last. How long could it take?
Turned out, Rick Bell and I were kindred spirits. And the venue he picked to meet me wasn’t the Methodist church, but The Coffey Cup. Hopeful agnostic that I’d always been, I ended up telling Rick that I envied him his unquestioning faith. It must be, I thought, of great comfort in pivotal moments like this one. Pastor Bell was the sort of guy who made you want to believe in something. I told him I was spiritual but not religious, a statement that rolled off his back without a flutter. He asked what I based my spirituality on and I set to telling him anecdotes about inexplicable things that had happened to me over the years.
When I was through, he sat gazing at me with a kind of puzzled curiosity, his mouth hanging slightly open, and said, “My God! When are you going to look through those glasses you wear and see! For a lot less than the things you just told me, I enrolled in the seminary.”
This had also been where I’d met with my late brother’s ex-girlfriend two days after his funeral. Clearly, there was no love lost between us. She had made the last six months of his life a living hell and, to a certain degree, torn by grief as I was, I found it hard not to blame her at least partially for his sudden death.
Now, I had word from our attorney in Florida that she might be trying to claim part of condo where my brother had been living in Ocala and which my sister, brother and I had inherited from our parents. The problem was that my sister and I had ceded the apartment to our brother so that he would be free to take out a loan to improve it and now the lawyer feared this former girlfriend would try to stake a claim based on her having lived there with him for a time as his common law wife.
“Here,” said our veteran Florida probate attorney, handing me an envelope, “take this with you to Ohio, arrange a meet with this woman, and get her to sign it, no matter how you have to do it.”
It was at The Coffey Cup where the brief drama unfolded. She and I sat at the table nearest the cash register, the one next to the window through which the pale morning light of a clear and chilly January morning was shining in. She’d always had a histrionic flare. It was what had captured my brother’s heart. And now she had managed to arrive early so that I would see her there as I walked in, her face pale, tear-streaked and without make-up, a damp hanky balled up in her fist. She trembled slightly as I sat down facing her.
“You know I really did love him,” she said, by way of prelude.
“Uh, right,” I answered gruffly, unconvinced. “Here,” I said, removing the page the attorney had given me from its envelope and placing it on the table before her. I took a pen from my breast pocket and handed it to her. “Don’t bother reading it,” I said. “Just sign.”
She looked across the table at me again, wearing the most hurt and tragic expression she could muster. Then she signed. I took the paper and pen from her and said, “Thanks. Now I’ll leave you alone here with your grief.” And with that, I stood, paid and left.
Here too, over a decade ago, I had brought an Argentine friend and colleague, who had been working on his master’s degree and teaching some courses at the Columbia University School of Journalism and had flown in to visit me while I was back in Ohio. He said he wanted to have lunch at some “typical Wapakoneta place and eat typical Wapakoneta food.” I’d brought him to The Coffey Cup and fed him a pork tenderloin sandwich. He was, in a word, enthralled.  
Sitting here this morning having the Early Bird Special (two farm fresh eggs, any style, toast, bacon, home fries and coffee—or is it coffey?—all for seven bucks and change), I realize I no longer recognize anyone. Not even the servers. But still, the people in the place could quite easily have been Wapak folks from just about any era. The aging guys in ball-caps and suspenders all sitting at the long front table enjoying their morning coffee and shooting the breeze could, I realized, be holdovers from opening day, or have been bussed over from the Teddy Bear the day it closed and simply stayed here as part of the local color.
Outside in the parking lot, one of the geezers in a plaid shirt dungarees and suspenders who’d been holding forth inside has now climbed into his truck and started it. I notice he’s left the door ajar and is holding onto the steering wheel and leaning way over as if looking at something up under the dash. I think nothing of it at first and walk up the way a bit to a hardware store I’ve been wanting to check out.
But when I come back out twenty minutes later, the guy is still slumped there in his truck, engine running. I sidle over to the truck and peer in. The fellow is still in the same position, grasping the wheel and slouched down almost under the dash. He doesn’t seem to be moving.
I rush into The Coffey Cup and go up to the waitress.
“You know the fellow in the plaid shirt who was sitting up at the counter?”
“Yeah, he’s a friend of the owners,” she says.
“Well, he was slumped over with his truck running when I went to the hardware store twenty minutes ago and he’s still there like that now. I think he may be...”
“Sleeping,” she says. “Yeah, he’s sleeping. He has this condition, uh...”
“Narcolepsy?”
“Uh, maybe...not sure. But he does that all the time. People are always thinking he’s...you know...”
“But...he drives!” I say.
“Yes, I know,” she says looking a little worried. “It’s kind of...”
“Scary?”
She nods. “Anyway, thanks for being observant.”
But nobody’s going to take this guy’s license away. In Wapakoneta everybody knows who he is, and they’ll be watching for him to doze off. If he looks sleepy, they just pull over and let him pass.
I walk out and, sure enough, the guy is now sitting up in his truck, looking a little stunned but trying to shake off the narcoleptic trance.
“Small towns,” I think. “A world of their own.”           

Monday, October 9, 2017

A MONUMENT TO SACRIFICE...AND TO PEACE


Jim Bowsher in his incredible living room. 
Sometimes tourists just wallk in. They


think it's a museum. 
(Photos by Mary Jo Knoch)
Just when you thought his monumental back garden couldn’t get any more enthrallingly insane, my friend and colleague Jim Bowsher will do something else to make your jaw drop to your sternum. The latest addition: his war veterans monument. Something he was talking about as an idea a year ago, which was the last time before this that I saw him.
I have to confess that, back then, when he told me about it, I didn’t get it. Couldn’t picture it. It was just too crazy a concept. But I’ve gotten used to that. Jim’s ideas are often so far beyond the realm of normal reality that when he tells you about a new one, you may have to nod politely as he speaks and then simply wait for it to come off the drawing board and become a physical fact before you’ll be able to understand what it’s all about.  
When I call him to tell him I’m in town—town being our mutual and uniquely name home-town of Wapakoneta, Ohio—and ask “if he’d mind” if I drop by, he says he’d “love it” if I dropped by.
At first, we take a seat in his living room, which is more like a chock-full miniaturized museum salon. Everywhere you look, the walls, the coffee table, the mantle, there is a patchwork quilt of historical objects and behind each one there is a story. Jim wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the orderly clutter, there is nothing extraneous in the room—or any room in the house for that matter. Meaning, that while there may well be a lot of completely impractical things in the room, there is nothing random. Everything has a story behind it...everything. There isn’t a single piece that you can point to and say, “So, where’d you get that?” and have Jim say, “Geez, beats me. Can’t recall.” Anything you ask about, there will be some at least amusing if not amazing story that Jim will gladly tell you.
And like most “genius clutter”, there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. I’ve never heard Jim say, “I wanted to show you such and such but can’t remember where I put it.” He knows right where everything is. Like the time he went out of the room to get us a drink and I reached out and picked up an attractive glass piece on the coffee table to look at it and then put it right back, exactly, I thought, as it had been. When Jim came back, he handed me a drink and as he did, his eye went right to the piece I’d just had in my hand.
“Know what that is?” he asked.
“What what is?” I asked back.
“That glass piece on the table,” he said—a table trembling under the weight of a gazillion gadgets and trinkets—in a tone that said, “You know exactly what piece I’m talking about.” It was uncanny.
But something you notice right away about Jim is that he’s generous with the stories about his stuff. Which might make you jump to the erroneous conclusion that he’s not a secretive guy. As with nearly all writers—which is what Jim Bowsher thinks of himself as, first and foremost, a storyteller/writer—nobody ever meets “Jim the Writer”. In fact, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, he writes under a pseudonym—perhaps Wapakoneta’s best-kept secret, in a small town where everybody knows everything about everybody else—precisely so that no one ever will.
The other thing he’s secretive about is his rocks. I’ve written here before about his extraordinary rock garden, a burgeoning collection of rocks, stones, boulders and masonry samplings that also all have specific meanings and stories behind them, iconic pieces of geological and human history, precisely and significantly placed in Jim’s backyard, which, like the rock collection itself has crept over boundary after boundary, until it has taken up the entire center of the block. Amazing as it may seem, his neighbors have ceded to his advance and accompanied him in the growth of his monumental project. The entire block is dominated by this unique “Bowsher Collection”.
Jim's latest project: The veterans 
monument.
But how he places his rocks where he places them and how he built his stunning Temple of Tolerance, which is at the heart of the rock garden, are facts that remain largely a mystery. And one that Jim jealously guards. Although I know for a fact that he has destroyed at least one Army surplus truck and tortured his battered Toyota pick-up almost past the breaking point getting his stony prizes to their destination, the engineering nitty-gritty of how he actually placed them in his backyard in the carefully thought-out positions they hold, is one of his best-kept secrets. Other than his brother Walt and a couple of other close aides who act as muscle for his pharaonic moving projects, nobody knows how the largest of these daunting monoliths got where they are, or more specifically, how one man with only the crudest of machinery and a little help from his friends got them there.
Jim’s always tweaking the rock garden, but doesn’t often work at all on any of this in front of tourists. He waits for quiet times “out back” for that and toils alone with his closest collaborators. But if a visitor should wonder into the work area when he’s setting up a new installation, he’s quick to bark, “No pictures!”
He’s not so touchy about his house. In fact, he seems to draw on all of his mental and spiritual resources as the master of the Temple of Tolerance and readily forgives uninvited prying eyes.
“The other day,” he says, “I was writing and forgot to hook the screen door. All of the sudden I heard voices and came out to find people taking pictures in my front room. They’d just walked in. Thought it was a museum. I just turned around, left the room and went back to my typewriter. (Yes, he still writes on a typewriter—no computer, no cellphone, no Internet, no distractions from his purpose and aims).
After a long while of sitting their chatting about writing, while our mutual friend, Mary Jo (“Jodi”) Knoch busies herself snapping pictures of us and the room, Jim leaps to his feet with admirable agility for a man kissing his sixth decade good-bye and says, “Come on, let’s go out in the yard and I’ll show you what I’ve been working on.”
When I see it, the veteran’s monument, I’m nonplussed. Like a lot of Jim’s special areas in the yard, this one is surrounded by wrought iron fencing painted red and gold (elsewhere red and silver). I’ve been around Jim long enough to know that none of these barriers is random. They will all have some significance, historical or otherwise, no matter how surreal the overall effect might be. The centerpiece is raised a couple of giant steps from the ground using rough-hewn quarry stone, and is paved in the old cobbles that I recognize as having once been part of the streets and sidewalks in our town, back when our parents and grandparents were young. The sidewalk around the county courthouse in the center of town is still made of these, but almost everywhere else, they were already replaced with concrete and blacktop back when we were little kids sixty-plus years ago.
At the center of the monument is an enormous transparent polymer tube. I’m guessing that it’s nine feet tall and at least eighteen inches in diameter. And it is filled solid, to within three feet of the top, with spent bullet casings of every imaginable caliber. Some, he informs me, came from nearby shooting ranges, but many others have been donated by vets from wars fought in our lifetime and still others Jim has ferreted out with his metal detector on battle sites from long-forgotten conflicts fought on blood-soaked Ohio sod.
Hanging high over the entrance to the site is a sign that reads:
“In this tube is one shell casing for each military man and woman from Ohio who died in a war—from 1812 to...” And then there’s a number with a blank before it, just in case. It reads, in white on black symbols _71,388.
Jodi, rather spontaneously, remarks, “Y’know, it’s really not that many, considering that it’s everybody since the War of 1812.”

Her statement rings true for a second, as it would to practically any American standing here, so sadly accustomed are we to our nation’s involvement in wars practically everywhere in the world and to seeing our young soldiers, sailors and airmen of every era shipped home in flag-draped boxes.
For a second, I hear in my head, the echo of my drill sergeant’s voice at Ft. Bragg, nearly half a century ago, singing as we marched:
“...and if I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home...Airborne, drive on, your left, your left, your left...”
Jim reminds her, “Yeah, but you have to multiply that by every state in the union.” There’s a moment of silence while we all do the math in our heads and simultaneously picture the resulting carnage in our mind’s eye. It is unspeakable.
Jim is quick to tell me that the rough-hewn stones that serve as a base for the monument are from the foundation of the Bowsher cabin, still carefully preserved in the nearby village of Cridersville. This shows how long his father’s people have been in this area. North of town, out in the country, there’s a road named after them. An old bridge—which has since been torn down and replaced—on that road is the scene of one of Jim’s short stories, called “Rivets”. Jim’s family on his mother’s side goes back to the Revolutionary War and they built a fine reputation for many years as firearms manufacturers, which is why, Jim tells me, he has inherited a life-long membership in the National Rifle Association.
General Johann August von Willich, commander 
of "Die Neuner".
The back fence of this latest monument, says Jim, comes from the home of Brigadier General August Willich of St. Marys, a little town about the size of our own, ten miles down the pike in our same county. Willich was an immigrant, a former Prussian Army officer, who brought his knowledge of war with him and made good use of it in the bloodiest of American tragedies, the Civil War, leading union troops of the Ohio Ninth Infantry in such major battles as Shiloh, Stones River, Liberty Gap, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Resaca and Peachtree Creek. Jim says the reason he chose to remember General Willich was his reputation for never unduly risking his men’s lives. There were so many fellow German-Ohioans under his command that his outfit was nicknamed “Die Neuner”.
An historical footnote to Willich’s years in the States was his stormy relationship back in Europe with leftist writer and ideologue Karl Marx. Willich was, himself, a radical communist, who railed against Marx and his writings for being “too conservative”. One public debate between them became so heated that Willich challenged Marx to a duel, which, in the end, never took place. Despite the obvious acrimony between them, in his Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne, Marx would write: “In the Civil War in North America, Willich showed that he is more than a visionary.” Indeed, he never shirked his duty as a soldier in accompanying his men into battle and ended up spending long months in a Confederate prison as a POW before his release in a prisoner exchange. He was severely wounded at the Civil War Battle of Resaca (Georgia)—and never fully recovered from it.

While his far-leftwing views may seem strange for the profile of a Union general in today’s political context, back then, the humanist views held by socialist and communist activists would have been entirely consistent with the rejection of slavery and racism that was part and parcel of the North’s Civil War stance.
When I look up at the gold-painted structure above my head, I suddenly realize that it is an iron bedframe. “That’s right,” Jim says. “It was the bed of a veteran who won three purple hearts for wounds received saving eight people.” Jim says the fellow actually saved the lives of several more people in war, but that those rescues “didn’t count” because the people happened to be “enemy Gerrmans” whom he pulled out of a burning building during World War II.
The wrought iron side fences once belonged, Jim says, to the home of Christian Schnell, who is buried in our home-town cemetery, Greenlawn. Schnell was born in the state of Virginia in 1838 but later gravitated to Ohio. During the Civil War, he served in the Thirty-Seventh Ohio Infantry, which led to his participation in the infamous Battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi, on May 22, 1863, when he was a corporal in the Union Army. As a result, he won the country’s highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for “gallantry in the charge of the volunteer storming party.”
Although this award quite often ends up being given posthumously, Christian Schnell survived the Civil War and settled in our town after the fighting was over. He died in Wapakoneta in 1908.
Asked about the paving stones used for the platform around the tube full of shell casings, Jim says that they are from the Blackhoof Street depot in Wapakoneta, from which our fathers, grandfathers and probably great-grandfathers were mustered to be shipped off by train to war. The more you look the more you find other symbols like a pile of flint from Flint Ridge, from which raw materials were quarried for flintlock rifles manufactured in Ohio. A sign in memory of a Union Army volunteer regiment from Auglaize County, of which Wapakoneta is the county seat. And the door lights from a World War II National Guard armory in our town that would later serve as a recreation center called “The Wigwam” where the kids from our generation danced and played music every weekend.
At the pinnacle of the monument, capping the tube, there is a conical piece painted silver that I ask Jim about. I ask what it is and Jim asks me what I think it is, and I dig back into the training from my brief three-year military career and recall a ceremonial piece called “a truck”. In military lore, the truck is the piece—often a golden or metallic-colored ball—at the top of the flagpole, which, so the story goes, contains a match and a single bullet. The idea is that if a military installation falls, the last survivor will be able to use the match to burn the stars and stripes in order to keep the flag out of enemy hands, and then use the bullet to kill himself. But I’ve heard of some trucks being used to hold time capsule-type items that are kept in secret. Neither story is readily provable and may just be the result of fantastic speculation by soldiers standing for too-long moments at attention on hot parade fields facing the national emblem.
I say, “It’s a truck.” Both Jim and Mary Jo look at me blankly. “The thing that goes at the top of a flagpole.”
That’s right,” Jim says. “This is the one that used to be on top of the flagpole that was installed on the very spot where Colonel Crawford was tortured to death by the Indians.” How he came about it, Jim doesn’t say, but he assures us it’s authentic.
Ohio history buffs will recall that Colonel William Crawford was a well-known military officer in the American fight for independence (which makes this the only symbolic reference in the monument that is pre-War of 1812). He retired from active duty in 1781. But the following year, General William Irvine talked him into leading a five hundred-man expedition, the mission of which was to carry out surprise raids on enemy Indian villages along the Sandusky River.
A period artist's depiction of Colonel Crawford being tortured to 
death by Native Americans.
Turns out, Colonel Crawford would have done well to remain in retirement. British troops out of Detroit and allied with the Indians against American settlers got wind of Crawford’s adventure and had 450 warriors and troops awaiting his arrival in the area. The resulting ambush led to a couple of days of fighting, but, in the end, Crawford and his men were surrounded and out-matched. He and many of his men were captured. The colonel himself was turned over to the Indians, who made him the focus of their vengeance for the mass murder earlier that year of ninety-six peaceful Christian-converted Native Americans, many of them women and children, by Pennsylvania militiamen. Crawford ended up dying a terrible death, suffering horrendous torture for hours before being burned to death at the stake. The Crawford Counties found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan are all named after him.
Jim tells us a few anecdotes about people who have come to see the veterans monument to date: like the elderly lady who came with a relative and didn’t seem to get what it was all about until, all of the sudden, as if the meaning had just dawned her, she stepped forward, embraced the tube and cried, “I want my son back!” The son who had died in Vietnam nearly half a century before. Or the Italian family who searched the contents of the see-through tube for two matching cartridge-casings and when they found them, had pictures taken standing there pointing to them. Seems two long-lost relatives, brothers who had gone off to battle together during World War I, had simultaneously died together on the battlefield, just inches from one another. The two bullet casings were a reminder, and from now on, the “belonged” to that family. Or the aging US combat veteran who had laconically and stalwartly entered the yard and climbed to the platform where the tube holding the casings stands with seemingly implacable calm, until he pictured all of the comrades he had lost and couldn’t help embracing the monument and weeping. “I get it,” he said. “I get it.”
Jim proudly shares the news with us that people from elsewhere in the US who have seen the veterans monument have gone back to their states and begun plans for similar projects. Already, Jim says, there are plans for such monuments in three states and he readily and excitedly admits that he never thought that such an idea could turn into “a cottage industry”.
It’s Mary Jo who asks Jim about the “golden orbs”. And oddly enough, after all the times that I’ve been here, it is only right at that moment that I realize that almost every installation, decoration, nook and cranny in Jim’s incredible house and yard includes at least one golden orb of uniform size. There are even a couple nestled among the stony adornments in front of his house when you pull alongside the curb on Wood Street. And as if I’ve become suddenly hyper-focused on these, I notice that one of them on the new monument has turned a bit so that I can see a thumb-sized hole in the bottom of it...It’s a bowling ball! As are all the others, every one spray-painted a bright metallic gold.
What do they mean, Jodi wants to know? “They’re my dad,” says Jim. He explains that his father worked hard to provide for his family all his life, and that the first job he ever had, back when he was just a kid, was as a pin-spotter at a bowling alley, when that job was still done by hand, prior to automation. Jim has told me before how his father always inspired and encouraged him in everything he did. Even when some of Jim’s projects surpassed his dad’s powers of comprehension, he cheered Jim on. “I don’t understand what this is all about, son, but if it’s what makes you happy, you keep right on doing it!” he would tell Jim.
The bowling ball orbs are Jim’s homage to that love and inspiration.     
With Jim Bowsher, there’s never a dull moment.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


I'll be traveling for the next few days. As soon as I get to a quiet destination, I'll be posting some stories. Thanks for indulging me the missed deadline today. Talk to you all soon!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

EXCERPT 11 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — COPING WITH FEAR


The following is a new excerpt from the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled “Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir”, about my early days working for a newspaper in Buenos Aires. It is taken from a chapter called “Cops on My Door”.

1979: Robert Cox with son Peter and daughter 
Victoria at the international airport on their way to 
the United States. Overnight, the entire family 
had become political refugees.
Obviously, having an objective press reporting on the country’s current situation was not something to which the hardliners were partial. Only a couple of months before Cox left, there had been an incident that made it clear just how serious the hardliners’ threat was: namely, the release of newspaper editor/publisher Jacobo Timerman from prison and the hardline reaction that it sparked.
The military had arrested Timerman on trumped-up charges in 1977 and the hardliners considered his head a real trophy. Timerman’s center-left daily, La Opinión (a publication the editor modeled after the famed Paris newspaper, Le Monde) was the only Spanish-language paper at the time that was reporting on the Proceso’s “dirty war” much in the same way that the Herald was, with professionalism and without self-censorship. But while the government might have been willing to reluctantly overlook the Herald’s ‘indiscretion’ in this regard, La Opinión, as a local Spanish-language paper, was another matter entirely. The hardliners wanted it silenced by any means necessary. And the illicit activities of one of Timerman’s associates gave the military ‘moderates’ a way to shut Timerman up and take him out of circulation, without simply letting the hardliners gun the publisher down and close his paper.
La Opinión editor Jacobo Timerman
The Timerman associate in question was financier David Graiver, suspected of laundering money for the Montoneros terrorist organization, as well as of defrauding important banking institutions abroad—provoking, in the United States, for instance, what was, at the time, one of the largest bank failures in that country’s history. Despite the fact that Graiver’s association with Timerman was clearly a legitimate one, the newspaper editor was publicly framed in a major media show put on by the Army at its High Command headquarters, following the journalist-businessman’s detention.
I was present for that press event in the Army HQ, for which reporters from all of the local press and foreign correspondents of every description showed up. Lieutenant General Videla himself was the main speaker. I recall noticing that his back was stiff with tension and apparent anger as he made his way to the front of the large hall where we were all seated, that his ferret-like face looked sweaty and that his hands and knees shook as he made his presentation of the alleged ‘facts’ surrounding the Timerman-Graiver connection. And I remember too that, as I watched him and listened, what came to my mind was the phrase so often repeated by ranking military officers during those days, who said that “their hands would not tremble” in taking the lives of “the enemies of the fatherland”. His, I figured, certainly would if the way they were shaking right now was anything to go by.
The front page of the mass circulation paper La Nación headlines
the press conference about the Graiver Affair. The picture shows
the de facto president, General Videla, addressing the press. 
 
By then, Timerman had already been snatched and arrested, and his newspaper shut down and confiscated. While in jail, at the mercy of hardliner General Ramón Camps, who was acting as chief of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police,  the fifty-four-year-old publisher was held in solitary confinement and was repeatedly beaten and subjected to electric shock torture. In the intervening two years before Timerman’s release, it was Cox, who almost single-handedly mounted a desperate international campaign against his colleague’s arrest, his detention without trial, the violation of his rights, and the direct threat to the press that this represented.
Videla: The 'disappeared' aren't here, either dead
or alive.They're 'disappeared'.
It was largely thanks to the enormous world coverage that Cox managed to mount that Timerman was “whitewashed” and didn’t end up forming part of the list of ‘disappeared’, who died at the hands of the Armed Forces government. Almost anything was better than that destiny, described in such sinister terms by General Videla himself, in that fateful year of 1979, when Timerman was released and forcibly exiled and when Cox too chose self-exile, in fear for his and his family’s lives. Asked in December of that year by a reporter for the mass circulation daily Clarín about the fate of the ‘disappeared’, the general said, “What is a ‘disappeared’ person? As long as he is such, the ‘disappeared’ person is an unknown factor. If he reappears, he’ll have X treatment, and if the disappearance ends up proving to be the certainty of his death, he’ll have Z treatment. But as long as he is ‘disappeared’ he can have no treatment in particular. He’s an unknown, ‘disappeared’. He has no entity. He’s not here, either dead or alive. He’s ‘disappeared’.”
A La Opinión banner head from 1976 says 
the government was investigating the 
disappearance of journalists. 
But the article suggests the probe is a ruse.
Thanks to Cox, to the Herald’s coverage, and to the major international media that repeated our express concerns throughout the West, Jacobo Timerman didn’t go missing. Eventually, the Argentine Supreme Court, which had managed to maintain a certain degree of independence from the dictatorial regime, reviewed Timerman’s case, ruled out any links between him and the neo-Peronist Montoneros terrorist organization, and ordered his immediate release. Army hardliners, however, put pressure on the Junta to disobey the Supreme Court, letting it be known that they wouldn’t stand by and watch Timerman walk.
But the international campaign that Cox led for the editor/publisher’s release was having a powerful impact. And such were the petitions, editorial coverage and worldwide outcry for Timerman to be freed that now, in September 1979, the Proceso had finally bowed to worldwide pressure, and, in the face of the damage it was doing to its own international reputation, decided to let Timerman go.
The ‘triumph’ was clearly a bittersweet one: Timerman’s newspaper and personal property had been confiscated, and despite the fact that his family had emigrated from the Ukraine to South America when he was only five, he was stripped of his naturalized Argentine citizenship. He thus accepted the refuge offered to him by Israel, before later moving to Spain and finally to the United States.  
Major General Luciano B. Menéndez
None of these injustices was enough, however, to quell the anger of the hardliners, who considered the release of Timerman an act of cowardice and surrender on the part of the Junta and the president, General Videla. But the hardliner who decided to act on these feelings was Major General Luciano Benjamín Menéndez, perhaps the regime’s bloodiest enforcer.
Less than a week before Timerman’s September 25 release and exile, Menéndez, together with a small group of other hardliners, mounted a countercoup attempt at the General Paz Military Academy in Córdoba Province, against the central Armed Forces government in Buenos Aires. He claimed that his threat of armed military action was to back his demand for the resignation of General Roberto Viola—another ‘moderate’ appointed by Videla, in his role as president, to command the Army, which automatically made Viola a member of the ruling three-man Junta and, as commander of the largest force, probable successor to Videla as president. Clearly, Menéndez wanted Viola’s head, charging, as he did, that Viola had reneged on a vow to completely annihilate leftwing subversion. As an extreme rightwing advocate of a “blood and fire dictatorship” like the one General Augusto Pinochet had led in Chile three years prior to the Argentine coup, Menéndez accused both Viola and Videla of being “soft” and had always maintained a strained relationship with his superiors. But it was clearer still to those of us covering Timerman’s impending release that this was quite probably the culminating event that sparked Menéndez’s revolt, considering that Viola had already been Army commander since his appointment by Videla the previous year. With the upcoming release of Timerman, hardliners were obviously sensing a trend toward greater moderation and a more prudent international image, following three years of witch-hunts, mass murder and institutionalized torture.
Menéndez revolted against Army 
Commander Lt. Gen. Roberto Viola, 
who, he said, was soft on terrorism. 
Menéndez was not about to stand for it. He was calling for a resurgence of the original fervor of the 1976 coup. He wanted heads to keep rolling (very likely ours among them). If he could pull off a countercoup, the obvious plan would be for a new hardline government to take power, and what had already been a terrifying wave of repression and government-sponsored violence since the coup three years before, would then become an unbridled bloodbath, washing over anyone even vaguely opposing the Proceso.
 Menéndez’s record spoke for itself. He had been Third Army Corps commander since 1975, when Provisional Senate President Italo Luder, temporarily exercising the presidency in the absence of a supposedly ailing Isabel Perón, had declared a state of siege and given the Armed Forces free reign to “annihilate subversion.”  And although his command was headquartered in Córdoba, its influence in the “dirty war” extended to nine other Argentine provinces, where Menéndez had set up no fewer than sixty clandestine detention and interrogation centers. The most infamous was La Perla, from which at least two thousand detainees ‘disappeared’ and where the torture techniques were among the most brutal of the entire military era. He was an unrepentant ultra-rightwing authoritarian, who would have none of Videla’s qualms about being referred to as a dictator.
Fortunately, Videla and Viola were able to maintain discipline within the Army and the other forces followed suit. Menéndez was forced to back down in the face of overwhelming military superiority and was placed under arrest. He served ninety days in the prison at Curuzú Cuatiá, Corrientes Province, and was retired from active duty. But there was speculation that the harsh terms of Timerman’s release—exile, loss of citizenship, confiscation of his property, etc.—were a concession to the hardliners, of whom Videla was very obviously terrified. 
Little of this was speculation on our part. We had it right from the horse’s mouth.  Time and again, General Llamas had “invited” Cox to “have a cup of coffee” with him at his office in Government House. These “invitations” were always a form of reprimand at which the general would state the Junta’s displeasure over the terms of the editorials we were publishing.
More recently, however, Bob had sensed the sharper tone of these complaints. Videla’s government was seeking to refloat the economy through foreign investment while fighting for its political life against the Army hardliners. And the thousands upon thousands of skeletons in its closet, gathered over the past three years of repression and murder, weren’t helping matters at all—particularly not in Jimmy Carter’s rights-conscious Washington. At the latest meetings he’d had with Llamas, Bob had been told in no uncertain terms that the military government was not willing to accept the Herald’s continuing publication of editorials about human rights abuses in Argentina. And in one such meeting, Llamas claimed he himself was being blamed for Cox’s disobedience and then he stormed out of the room, purposely leaving an open folder in plain sight on his desk, the contents of which were clippings of Bob’s by-lined articles on human rights abuses and disappearances published in major international news media, accompanied by formal complaints from military chiefs. This, Bob took as a final and serious warning, something more definitive than other threats he had received. But it wasn’t until his ten-year-old son, Peter, was threatened that his own personal decision to leave the country also became final.
Oddly enough, when Cox made public his decision to leave, General Videla scheduled a meeting with him. To Bob’s surprise, Videla asked him to stay. He said that he knew Bob thought the threats were coming from the Armed Forces—clearly there was no denying this despite the puerile attempts of Army Intelligence to cover their tracks by blaming the Montoneros, something they had done throughout their most high-profile counterterror operations—but said that it would be bad for the country’s reputation if the Coxes were run off. Everyone would blame the government, Videla said (the implication being that it wasn’t the Proceso itself, but the hardliners in the Army that were doing these things).
By now, however, there was no turning back. Cox and his family were leaving. Bob told Videla that he didn’t feel the government could guarantee his family’s safety. Videla tangentially agreed, saying he could no longer even guarantee his own.
So now it was my turn to go see General Llamas. But I went with the strange freedom of a condemned man. I had no doubts or false expectations. If my predecessor as news editor, Andrew Graham-Yooll, had taken his threats seriously enough to leave three years before, and if Bob, who had undoubtedly been the country’s most courageous newspaper editor, was now, three years later, calling it quits because he no longer had any illusions about these threats just being scare tactics, I realized full well that if I stayed, it was at my own risk. So why stay? I might justify the decision now by saying it was a career move, or that I liked living on the edge, or that it was an exciting time for a writer in Argentina or any number of other hollow excuses. But the truth is that it was out of stubbornness.
As a boy, I was once bullied for well over a year by three older boys who ganged up on me and beat me up every time they saw me on the street. It was a terrible, humiliating, traumatic experience that had me buffaloed and that kept me from going anywhere for fear of meeting up with them. More than a year along, when I had grown several inches and put on some poundage, I dealt with them one at a time and, suddenly, I was free. A weight had been lifted from my shoulders and those cowards never bothered me again. In fact, years later, when I was home on leave from basic combat training after joining the Army, one of the three walked into a bar in our town where I was shooting pool with friends, took one look at me, turned pale and left. I promised myself, once I got those guys off my back, that I would never, ever, allow anyone to bully me again.
Clearly, I was now really scared, and more frightened still for my wife’s safety. Threats from the regime were so very obviously worthy of fear, since thousands of people had already been ground up in its gnashing teeth. But even my wife wouldn’t give me the excuse I needed to leave. The night before my meeting with Llamas, I talked it over with Virginia.
“We could go,” I said. “I could get a job in the States with a paper in Miami or New York, maybe, or someplace else for that matter. I don’t know. But if I stay here, I won’t let up. In fact, I’ll be doing more writing than ever, a lot more, as Neilson’s second, and I won’t knuckle under. I’ll do my best to uphold Cox’s editorial policy. What I’m afraid of is that they might eventually go after you to get to me, like they did with Bob’s family.”
“Do whatever you want,” Virginia said. “But I’m Argentine, and I won’t let anybody run me out of my own country.”
So as far as I was concerned, the die was cast. We were staying, and from that time on, I promised myself that I would do my best not to flinch from the hardline liberal stance on rule of law and human rights that Cox had set or from my own ethical views. Even if they also managed to run Neilson out, I was staying. I had no children, no one but Virginia to worry about. And if she was as adamant about staying as I was, then—to paraphrase a line from my favorite Western, The Magnificent Seven, nobody was tossing me my own typewriter and telling me to run. Nobody.
When I went to my appointment with General Antonio Llamas, I did so without having totally thought out what I wanted to say. The truth was that I felt like a complete idiot going to the Army to ask for protection from the Army. It seemed like a page out of Orwell or Kafka. There might be different bands within the same force, vying for control of the dictatorship’s policies and power, but among themselves, they would never side with a civilian—and less still with a journalist. Our going to Llamas for protection from the hardliners was a little like Jews going to Goebbels for protection from the Brownshirts.
As I approached Government House, I started getting really angry. I detested being in this kind of position where I would always come out a loser, where I was ever at a disadvantage. Llamas would know precisely where the threats were coming from, yet would act as if he didn’t, just as he and Videla had done with Cox. It was a game. And we were the pawns they were playing it with. So my only choice was not to play it, not to politely pretend there wasn’t an elephant in the room with us when there definitely was, and when it was my foot that it was standing on with all of its weight. I couldn’t help but wonder how dangerous that would be, calling the bluff of the man responsible for “Operation Clarity”, a detailed propaganda policy designed by the Proceso as a means of seeking to infiltrate the media, in addition to controlling it via brute force. But as I entered Government House wearing my best suit as if it were a suit of armor against anyone who tried to see me as anything but a man to be taken seriously, I decided that I probably couldn’t be in any more danger than I already was. They knew who I was, where I worked and where I lived. They could kill me or take me any time they wanted. So why beat around the bush?
When I was ushered into the general’s office, I was surprised at how huge it was. Llamas was not a big man and the high ceiling, tall windows and enormous desk, behind which he was seated when I came in, dwarfed him. It was the first time I had ever seen him. Despite his rank, he was very much a behind-the-scenes figure in the Proceso, of whom one would have been hard-pressed to find a picture in the photo archives. Now, as I came into the stark, rather austerely furnished office, the general got up from his seat and hurried over to greet me. He was in full regular dress uniform, complete with olive drab jacket, khaki-color trousers, khaki shirt and slightly darker tie. I half-expected to find him in shirtsleeves since he was ‘at home’ and working in his office, but he appeared to have dressed for the interview, just as I had.
Señor Newland,” he said shaking my hand and smiling, then leading me toward an armchair in front of his desk. In a voice of rehearsed concern, he went on. “So sorry to hear about the trouble you’ve been having, these terrorist threats…”
“I’m glad to hear you call them that, General,” I said, “considering where they’re coming from.”
“Yes, the Montoneros, I heard.”
“But of course you know that’s not true.”
The infamous 601st Army Intelligence Battalion in downtown 
Buenos Aires
He flushed, with irritation, I felt, more than embarrassment, but continued to wear a diplomatic smile.
“And do you suspect some service?” he asked feigning innocence.
“Yes, sir, I do,” I said. “Yours.”
“And what makes you suspect this?” he asked.
“Because they’re coming from the same place Cox’s threats came from. I’m thinking maybe First Army Corps. Perhaps, the 601st Intelligence Battalion.”
The general pretended shock and started to say that he couldn't believe that this could be true but added that he would “certainly look further into the matter.” However, I held up a hand to stop him. I was glad to be sitting down because had I been standing he surely would have noticed that I was trembling and my knocking knees would certainly have given me away. As it was, I realized that I was sweating profusely.
But getting control of my voice, I said, “General, I'm not asking you to do anything, except make sure there's police protection on the door of my building to ensure that no one else gets hurt.”
I told him of my visit to Precinct Captain Ricciardi and of the comisario’s refusal to give me protection despite the judge’s orders. I said, “I don’t want them blowing up the entire building to kill me. I want protection for my neighbors and my wife. If they want me, they’ll take me no matter what.”
I noticed that Llamas was no longer disagreeing with my theories. That didn’t come as a relief to me. He said, “Señor Newland, I want you to know that when you get home, there will be Federal Police protection on your door. We’ll also have a policeman assigned to protect you personally.”
“You mean a bodyguard?”
He nodded.
“No thanks. I’m a newsman. I can’t work with a guy following me around all day, and like the comisario says, if they’re set on killing me, they’ll do it whether I have a bodyguard or not.”
Then I played a card that I had been mulling over all day before coming to this meeting. I tried to keep my voice from trembling when I said it. “One thing though,” I said. “I do indeed want a license to carry a weapon.”  
The general was taken aback. “I see,” he said. “Well, I, for instance, don’t carry one.”
“You don’t have to, General,” I said. “You have people to carry them for you. But I do, and if they come to get me, I have a message for them. They’ll be facing an ex-NCO of the United States Army and an expert marksman. I still have the medal to prove it. If they come, they’ll only take me dead, and I’m taking some of them with me. I’ll carry a weapon whether I get a license or not, but I’m asking you, please, to get me one.”
To my surprise, Llamas said, “Yes, yes, of course. Give me a day or so, then call this number.” He wrote the number on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “Ask to talk to Señor Trentadue.”
When I recounted this part of the conversation to Cox later on, I saw him laugh genuinely and heartily for the first time in days. “Mr. Thirty-Two!” he exploded in mirth, “They’re sending you to Mr. Thirty-Two! Trentadue! It’s Italian for thirty-two. It’s a code name!”
But before I went in to work, I returned home. I found that when I came out of Government House, after my conversation with General Llamas, I was shaking like a leaf. What if that conversation were a sort of test, to see how far I’d bend? And what if my hardline stance was my own death warrant? What if Llamas was testing the waters to see if I’d leave the country, go peacefully and be no more trouble to the military? What if right now, while they knew exactly where I was, they just snatched me off the street? It wouldn’t be the first time someone was taken in broad daylight. Nor would it be the first time someone disappeared right after leaving a police station or a government office.
Feeling tense and nervous, I walked quickly across Plaza de Mayo in front of Government House, crossed the street and hailed a cab heading up Avenida de Mayo toward midtown. But after about ten blocks, I left the cab and took the subway. Then I left the subway two stations before my stop and walked the rest of the way home. These diversionary tactics that I spontaneously applied as a precaution were to become a habit for a long time after that. As would things like sitting with my back to the wall and facing the entrance—near a side exit if one existed—when I was in a bar or restaurant, walking on past my apartment building instead of going in if I saw suspicious cars or people in front of it, glancing up and down the block from the doorway before stepping off the stoop of my building onto the sidewalk, and carrying a knife in the outside pocket of my jacket where I could get at it quickly. Sometimes these precautions seemed silly, paranoid or plain futile to me. But then again, doing everything you could to foil an attempt on your life was the only insurance you had, and once you were in the midst of a situation it would be too late to wish you had been more precautious.
For many weeks to follow, Federal 
Policemen like this one would
stand guard at my apartment building.

When I arrived at my building, to my surprise, I saw that the general had kept his word. Two cops were standing on the stoop talking to the portera, Silvia. Previously, Silvia’s husband, Luis, had been our porter, but he had recently died of cancer and apartment owners had decided to keep her on. She and her two young daughters lived in the cramped portería on the ground floor.
“Here he is now!” she said, excited by the prospect of our proletarian building’s being important enough to merit a police detail. “Hola,” she said as I made my way up the two steps from the street, and leaned forward to brush my cheek with hers. “Los señores are here for you,” she said.   
Both of the cops were dark, very clean-cut and looked to be in good shape. They had politely removed their caps to talk to the portera and had them high up under their arms, like cadets. One was a sergeant, whose carefully trimmed black hair was graying a little at the temples. The other one was younger, a corporal.
Señor Newland?” the older one queried, holding out his hand to shake mine.
“Yes, mucho gusto,” I said.
“We’ve been assigned to protect you.”
“Thank you for coming,” I said, then added, “Actually, as I explained to the comisario and to General Llamas, you’re here to protect the building. In reality, I’m going to have to take care of myself.”
The sergeant explained that there would be two or three pairs of policemen guarding the building in shifts twenty-four/seven until it was decided that their presence was no longer warranted. Whenever possible they would always be the same sets of policemen. We discussed details of where they would mount guard and how their presence would affect the other residents of the building.
Very soon, the cops on my door had become a regular feature of the building. We made sure they got coffee and sandwiches and snacks and the portera frequently plied them with refreshments of her own accord. On my way in or out, I would sometimes stop to chat with them for a while.
They had been assigned to me for about a week, when the sergeant with whom I had originally spoken took me aside one morning to talk to me. This was the first confirmation I had ever personally had of the rumor that the editorial pages of the Herald were frequently translated into Spanish by the government and disseminated among the country’s military and security forces, since now the policeman said, “Señor, we know what you think of the police.”
I looked puzzled and said, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, “that if a corporal from the Army comes along and tells us to beat it, we will.”
I started to protest, but he held up his hand to stop me.
“All I want you to know, is that if anybody comes here and tries to harm you or your wife, they’ll first have to go over two from the ‘Federica’,” he said, using the nickname cops gave to the Federal Police.
I felt my face flush and said, “Thank you, Sergeant, I really appreciate that.”
Ustedes lo merecen,” he answered, which means, “You folks deserve it.”
It was many weeks before the cops were taken off my door, as quickly as they had been put on. But for a very long time afterward, it wasn’t unusual when I was walking the streets of the Almagro district for a passing squad car to give its siren a little rev and for the occupants, one of whom, at some point, had stood watch at my home, to wave or touch the bills of their caps in an informal salute.
Never again after that did I think of all cops as being the same or of all of them as kowtowing to the military regime. It was the institution that was flawed, not necessarily the individuals.