Monday, August 14, 2017

TWENTIETH CENTURY KIND OF GUYS: EPILOGUE


Whitie was dying. That was clear by now. The Big C. I tried to comfort myself by saying, “Yeah, well, aren’t we all?” Dying, I mean. You never really knew who’d go first. Maybe I’d go before my dad did. You just didn’t know.
But it was clearly a self-deluding ruse. Whitie was on his way out. They’d originally guessed six months, after he first started complaining about excruciating, cramping type pains up under his ribs, and the tests they ran—hundreds of them, it seemed—showed the problem to be rapidly advancing lung cancer. But he’d already defied them on that count and lived a couple of years. Survival was getting tough, however, an uphill battle, wearing on his resolve, badgering him with severe pain and the adverse effects of the dope they were giving him to make it more bearable. He was a tough old bird, but everybody had a limit, even Whitie.
Whitie
Up to now, I had put on a positive face, avoided talking about the obvious, tried to keep the patter upbeat. It helped that my brother Jim was there. He’d left his life in Saint Louis and moved back home to Ohio, moved to Wapakoneta, our home town, and in with our parents to help take care of Whitie and give moral support to our mother, Reba Mae. I was so indescribably grateful to him, even though every time I tried to tell him so, he’d shrug it off and say, “Forget it, bro, I’ve got it. No sweat.” But I could tell it was eating him up. And our sister Darla got down from her life in Cleveland as often as should could as well, despite the obvious pressures of her job and family. She was there often to take up the slack for Jim and our mother.
They’d been there during the tests, during the exploratory surgery. That was when the surgeon had told Whitie that if he woke up and saw a lot of tubes coming out of him everywhere, it would be because they’d been able to take out a lung and stop the cancer’s advance. If not, it would be because, surgically, there was nothing they could do. When he woke up there were no tubes. The news was not good. But his family, minus me, was there. And he lightened the mood for them, I was told, by croaking out a few of the nonsense songs he’d sung to us to make us laugh when we were kids.
Way up in the mountains
Where all the snakes have legs,
The bullfrogs speak in English
And the roosters lay square eggs,
I shaved my beard and mustache
The morning I was born.
That night I beat up my ol’ man
And drank his rye and corn... 
I felt bad. Helpless, guilty, and alien, since my life had for years been unfolding thousands of miles away in South America.  But I was trying to get back as often as possible, which wasn’t very often within the timeframe of a dying man.
Right now, I was on one of those recently more frequent trips back home. I’d already been around for a few weeks. In another week, I’d be going back to Argentina, back to Patagonia. It got harder every time—harder to face coming back, harder to face leaving when it was time to go. A few nights earlier, he'd grabbed hold of my arm when we were alone for a minute and said, "If I promise to hang on a while, will you promise to come back again before I die?" It was a tough question to answer and I didn't trust my voice to answer it, but I managed to say I would, that I'd be back real soon. "Good," he said, "cause this ain't gettin' any easier."

All my life, there had been issues between Whitie and me. When I was young, the hostility between us had been manifest. Back then I’d thought we were nothing alike. And truth be told, from politics, to religion, to lifestyle, there was little we agreed on. But now that I was fifty, I had begun to realize that there were a lot of ways in which we were exactly alike—stubborn, married to our convictions, combative, unwilling to give an inch when confronted, only giving up ground when it was taken from us by force and, even then, bent on taking it back, no matter how futile the battle.
Nevertheless, we’d reached a sort of truce, an understanding, an agreement that there was no longer anything pending between us. In fact, we’d reached it on this particular visit, in unusually quiet talks we’d shared whenever we were alone together.
Clearly the tacit mediator in those “peace negotiations” was impending death. Not the theoretical death that each person lives with daily as an idea, as an inescapable reality, as a “someday” event, a bridge to be crossed when we come to it, but as an “announced death”, in the words of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, one that was definitely coming sooner than later. It was the great equalizer, the factor that rendered all other points moot.
Far from clarifying and alleviating what I was feeling, however, this new common ground between my father and me only served to complicate still more the whirlwind raging in my head and heart and it appeared as if I were seeing everything unfold from behind a kind of barrier, a place from which I couldn’t seem to get in touch with myself. It was hard to explain, harder still to resolve. A sort of numbness, like a blow so hard that, for an instant, it obliterates pain, but infinitely less easy to withstand.
That answered, to a certain extent, the question of why I felt a need to get out for a few hours during the day, when Whitie was resting, and visit old haunts—roads, streets, stores, bars, parks and other points of interest that held youthful memories for me. In that vein, on a golden autumn afternoon, near sunset, with nostalgia sitting on my chest like an anvil, I drove out around Horseshoe Bend. This was a set of hairpin curves where then still picturesque Glynwood Road followed the sharp twists and turns of the Auglaize River, which, here, in its meanderings from south to west, through and around Wapakoneta, was still trying to decide to finally break north and flow to the clear destiny of its distant confluence with the Maumee and Lake Erie.
This was “the long way” to high school that my best friend Mark and I would often take in the morning after I bought my first car. I lived on the treeless outer edge of the “Oakwood Hills addition” and he among the exquisite hardwoods of “Kelley’s Woods”, from which those more modest hills took their name. I would pick him up in my rusted out ’57 Dodge and we would make a quick dash out of the woods, onto Glynwood, out away from town into the country, smoking as many pre-class cigarettes as we could fit in along the way—through the sharp curves of Horseshoe Bend, to a piece of country pike that split cornfields on either side, backtracking on old Infirmary Road to Route 198 and on into town and to the high school, where we would arrive on the heels of the first bell, our clothes reeking like we’d just put out a grass fire. Our daily rebellion before surrendering to the obligation of education.
Three and a half decades later, I take that route again, in a shiny new rented car and in no particular hurry. This is emotional reconnaissance, an attempt to rediscover myself, to remember that rebellious teen, to feel something other than stunned. I couldn’t be more alone on the road. Almost Twilight Zone alone, as if everybody else has been placed in a state of suspended animation while I live this moment. It’s eerie and I’m suddenly in a cautious state.
It’s as I’m coming out of the last curve of Horseshoe Bend and taking the narrow country road that forks off of Glynwood and separates harvested cornfields on either side that I catch a glimpse of movement out the corner of my right eye and turn to see a large whitetail stag galloping up on my vehicle with sure-footed agility through the corn stubble and broken stalks of the harvested land. He’s making a run for it, to vault the road in front of me before I come even with him. He won’t make it if I keep going, an encounter we’ll both regret. So I pull to the berm and stop cold. A few short yards in front of me, he vaults the seven-strand fence in an easy leap, his hooves skittering and clattering on the blacktop, and then he neatly vaults the ditch and fence on the opposite side of the road, and continues his spirited flight across the other open field toward a nearby woodlot and cover.
Stopped here alone by the road, seeing him in the sharp-slanted golden light of a late autumn afternoon, is almost dream-like. And he is a splendid specimen, tall, muscular, fully grown with a rack of wide-branching antlers and the greying coat of a well-matured buck, wise enough to have avoided getting shot or hit by a car up to now. The scene is so extraordinary that I sit there in the driver’s seat by the road for a few moments, only the soft clicking of my flashers breaking the silence. The encounter suddenly seems to have unleashed all the pent up feelings inside me, and, awash in this powerful moment, I find myself recalling the advice of Ernest Hemingway, something like, “Whatever you had to do, men had always done. If they had done it, then you could do it too.”
Like much of what Hemingway wrote, it wasn’t meant to be a comfort, just a fact, a truth, stripped of all the bromides we availed ourselves of to make things seem less dramatic. Life was indeed dramatic, however, and what Hemingway had said was applicable to us all, to Whitie and me, to fathers and sons like us everywhere.
The news wasn’t any better than it had been, but now I was better prepared to deal with it. This was a new stage.
The next day, I drove to nearby Lima, Ohio, to pick up some prescription refills for Whitie and to do some shopping. Again I took some time to revisit old haunts. Most of the nightclubs I’d played as a young musician were long gone, victims of steel belt turned rust belt. One, where I was part of the house band for over a year, was abandoned, the doors boarded up, a weathered, fading "for sale" sign hanging above the door. Another, which had once been the swankest place in town, and where I’d played my first New Year’s jazz gig, was now a parking lot. The music store a half-block from the Square, where I’d been a musical instrument salesman and percussion teacher while still in my teens had, at some point, gone belly up and now was a vacant lot. These, I thought, were the things that happened if you lived long enough. Places and people who had been part of a reality that, when you were young, seemed permanent, as if it would last forever, eventually only existed in your memories and the yearning for them became something personal that you couldn’t share with anyone but your fellow survivors, for as long as you all stayed alive.
I remembered Bruce Sims, the man who had given me that job in the music store and who had given me lots of lessons as well, about music, about instruments, but also about people and about life. I remembered that he had opened an instrument repair shop on East Kibby Street on the south side of town, where he and Whitie and my uncles had grown up in the same tough block. I figured he would surely be retired by now. He had to be close to eighty. But I swung by anyway.
The shop still had a faded sign reading LIMA INTRUMENT REPAIR, but the lights were out and there was a bar across the inside of the glass and wood front door. But the place didn’t look abandoned—the sidewalks swept, the windows clean. I decided to do my shopping and make another pass later.
When I came back, the bar was off the door. I parked along the side of the building and went inside. Despite his age and the passing of at least thirty years since the last time I’d seen him, I recognized Bruce right away. He was sitting in a chair behind the counter, arms folded over his chest, eyes closed, having a nap. My closing the heavy old door made him start awake, but he merely snapped open his still piercing eyes and gruffly barked, “Can I help you, sir?”
Remembering an old joke that the regulars at the old music store always shared, I said, “Yeah, maybe. I’ve got this bull-kazoo I’d like to get re-plated.”
Standing and facing me then, he said, “Well, you’re outa luck, pal. I guess you’ll just have to take it back to South America with you!” Then we both laughed and shook hands and he told me how good I looked.
“Fat, you mean,” I said. “You look just like always!” I added.
But he waved the compliment off frowning and shaking his head. And then he said, “Here, pull up a chair.” And we sat there for the better part of an hour talking about all the crazy musicians we’d known back in the day, and the places we’d played and the club-owners who had once been famous locally and who now were no more. We shared old jokes and stories, and laughed at them the same way we had back then.
And as we talked, I realized, suddenly, what all of this—the barrier I’d felt, the threshold I’d been trying to step over—was about. I was on the verge of becoming part of “the older generation” as this one took its leave.
When I finally got up to go, Bruce said, “Jack’s still around. He’s down in Florida. We still take turns calling each other. Wednesday’s my turn to call him. Stop by about noon and I’ll let you talk to him.” I thanked Bruce and said I’d try, but I knew that wasn’t happening. When I walked out that door it would be for the last time.
When we shook hands at the door, Bruce smiled that wry smile of his and said, “We sure had fun back then, didn’t we?”
“We sure did, Bruce,” I said, “we sure as hell did.”



Sunday, August 13, 2017

TODAY'S BLOG ENTRY...

Dear Friends, 
A work deadline beyond my control has made it necessary for me to postpone the blog entry that should have been posted today. It will, instead, be posted tomorrow, August 14. 
Sorry for the inconvenience and many thanks for your patience. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

TWENTIETH CENTURY KIND OF GUYS: PART 2, UNCLE DALE


This is the second part of a two-part essay. You can read the first part at the following link: http://southernyankeewriter.blogspot.com.ar/2017/07/twentieth-century-kind-of-guys.html

So, as I say, when Bruce and I turn to go back inside the store, after the excitement of the bar fight and arrests across the street simmers down, we look north toward the Square and see a singularly eccentric character heading our way, sauntering down the sidewalk on our same side of the street. Brown-mustard-color suit with extra-wide lapels, dark brown shirt with wide cream-colored tie, two-tone tobacco-brown and white shoes, a broad-brimmed tan fedora with a wide grey sweat band, an extra-long green-wrappered corona clenched in the guy’s teeth.
“Now what?” says Bruce with a chuckle, pausing to watch the man, who looks to be in his sixties, and who, to me, is beginning to look very familiar. “Who the hell is that?” he asks rhetorically, “Al Capone?”
“Nope,” I answer, “that’s my Great-Uncle Dale!”
Bruce turns to look at me to see if I’m pulling his leg. I’m not.
“What, like Red and Whitie’s uncle?” he asks
“The very same,” I say. “My Grandpa Murel’s brother.”
By this time Uncle Dale is approaching us—or rather, he’s about to walk by us. I figure he’s coming from the cigar store on the Lima Square, which I’m sure is one of his hangouts when he’s in town. It’s been a while since I last saw him. I was a pre-teen at the time. I know he’d be hard-pressed to recognize me now.
“Hello, Dale,” I say.
He slows his pace, takes the cigar out of his mouth and, holding it between his index and middle fingers, reaches up and touches the brim of his hat in a perfunctory salute. Bruce and I are sort of standing in the middle of the sidewalk, so if Uncle Dale wants to go by, he’ll have to go around us. The Newland brothers, Murel and Dale, never were about going around. Their path was always through. He’s looking at me a little suspiciously, head cocked to one side, taking me in with one eye from under his hat brim, rather like a tall bird, almost measuring me. What he sees doesn’t seem to impress him in the least. As his eye flicks to Bruce, however, it’s with a look of greater concern for where this might be going.
Uncle Dale's world: High St. Lima in the 1940s
“Do I know you, sonny?” he asks with only just a hint of a snarl.
“You should,” I smile. “You’re my dad’s uncle!” And then, reaching out to shake hands, I say, “I’m Norman’s boy, Danny.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he says and reaches out to clench my hand in a warm handshake. I introduce him to Bruce, who shakes hands and then excuses himself saying he needs to get back to work and disappears into the store.
I’ve always had a sense of admiration when I’ve met up with Uncle Dale. The times have been few and far between, but he has always given me the impression of being his own man, of being self-sufficient, of being vaguely irritable but generally uncomplaining. More than anything else, he has always impressed me as being totally himself. And he always seems to be breezing through, on his way to somewhere or from somewhere, but never about to be tied down.
Now is no exception.
“So what’re you doing here, Danny?” he asks.
“I work here,” I say.
“What, in this store?” he asks.
“Yeah, I teach percussion and work as a salesman.”
“Well, good for you!” he says
“So, how are you?” I ask.
“Couldn’t be better,” he says.
“How’s Aunt Martha?”
“Doin’ fine,” he says, and then after a beat or two, “...far as I know.”
This must be one of those times when Dale and Martha are living separately. In those days, their relationship seemed mildly scandalous, on again, off again, sometimes together, sometimes not, but always, I got the feeling, somehow meant for each other—even though Martha wasn’t his first wife. This sort of behavior in my otherwise traditional Midwestern Protestant family seemed even more inappropriate by virtue of the couple’s “maturity”. These break-ups and make-ups might seem romantic and cute when people were in their twenties, but if you were in your sixties, it tended to raise eyebrows. Myself, I found it intriguing, rebellious, non-conformist, and it was part of what fascinated me about them. Somewhere, Dale had a son, Bill, my father’s cousin. But my dad seemed to have had practically no relationship with him—unlike my own cousins and me who were pretty tight as kids—and I’ve never met him.
I’d like to stand here all afternoon talking to Uncle Dale. Or better still, to go someplace for coffee and a long conversation. There’s so much I’d like to know, but at the same time, I can’t really think of anything else to say, and Dale’s getting antsy.
“Well,” he says, sticking his cigar back into the corner of his mouth, “you’d better get back to work, and I’d better get going. Tell Norman I said hello.” And then he shakes my hand again and walks on down Main Street.
The chance encounter gets me to thinking about every story I’ve ever heard about Dale. And although he tries to cover it up, I’ve seen the same boyish admiration in my dad Whitie’s eyes whenever I’ve seen him with his uncle. His usual reaction when somebody mentions Dale is to shake his head with a wry chuckle and to say, “Uncle Dale, what a dude!” But I can tell that Dale evokes a storybook hero quality for him too. More still for Whitie, because he carries his uncle’s name, Norman Dale Newland, Whitie’s given name and Grandpa Murel’s tribute to his younger brother—or perhaps Grandma Alice’s, since Grandpa’s relationship with his brother is, I’ve noticed, a difficult one, fraught with grudges and petty rivalries.
Dale’s exploits were legendary in the family. What’s strictly true and what isn’t has become a moot point over the years. But there’s none of it that one can’t imagine Dale doing. He’d always been a sharp dresser, if in unquestionable gangland style. In the years when he was a young man, the twenties and thirties, Lima was known as “Little Chicago” in the underworld. It was a place with its own mafia, guys who answered to the big bosses in Chicago and Cleveland but who locally were capos. I heard the men in my family as I was growing up talk about how some fairly big mafia names used to come down to Lima to hang out with their guys there “when the heat was on” in the Windy City.
According to family lore, Dale enjoyed feeling he was a part of that world, even though he wasn’t. He dressed the part, took on the tough, cynical air, and liked to hang out with other young guys like him who admired the gangsters.
There was one of these guys, the story goes, who seemed more authentic than the rest. Dale used to run into the guy at his favorite hangouts in downtown Lima—coffee shops, the cigar store on the Square, diners, etc.—and they’d stand around chatting for a while. This fellow seemed like a stand-up guy and his gangster clothes were second to none. Although some days, he and Dale looked like a matched set. They liked each other, but weren’t exactly friends, just kind of casual buddies, who enjoyed hanging out in the Square together like a couple of gangland peacocks.
So there comes a time when Dale doesn’t see the guy around anymore. At first he doesn’t think anything about it, since the guy did travel now and again. But then a long time passed and the guy never came back.
One day Dale meets up with a mutual acquaintance and so he asks, hey what do you know about ol’ so-and-so?
 And the mutual acquaintance says, “Didn’t you hear? The guy bought it up in Chicago, a vendetta killing. Got cut down with a machine-gun. Coroner said he had a hundred and four bullets in him.”
“Too bad,” says Dale, maintaining his tough, unemotional demeanor, as if this sort of thing happened every day in his world. “He seemed like a good guy. And a helluva flashy dresser.”
“Yeah,” says the mutual acquaintance, “I’ll say! They said when they stripped his body down in the morgue, he was even wearin’ silk underwear.”
But Uncle Dale was apparently not just all show either. There was a story in the family that he was so slick that he once fenced a consignment of tires that some guys he knew from the South End had jacked and then won a contract to sell them to the sheriff’s department. He was understood to have headed to Florida for a while afterward, just in case the sheriff ever put two and two together. But the sheriff never did.
I only saw Uncle Dale at the occasional family get-together, some years for Thanksgiving, others for the odd Newland family reunion, still others for the Fourth of July. One such memorable occasion was an Independence Day picnic we had decided to hold at Indian Lake. The weather, however, failed to cooperate and that July Fourth ended up being unseasonably chilly with a steady drizzle.
It was Dale’s wife Martha who saved the day, managing to reserve the party room in the Redbird restaurant (which Whitie jokingly referred to as "The Early Bird", a name that stuck at our house) in the Indian Lake town of Russells Point, where she then worked. The lunch was a great success with Newlands and in-laws from all over showing up to enjoy one another’s company. But just after lunch, there was an ungodly commotion out in the street and most of the men decided to go out and see what was happening. I must have been about ten or eleven at the time and, with a couple of my cousins, tagged along.
What I witnessed was the first riot I’d ever see. A huge group of college-aged kids had gotten out of hand at the amusement park across the way, for which Russells Point was then famous, and the police had been called in to restore order. Now everywhere on the main drag in town, kids were running amok, kicking over trash cans, throwing cans and bottles at the cops, breaking windows and generally creating chaos. Fire trucks arrived to give the outnumbered riot cops a hand, by laying into the rioters with powerful blasts of water from their fire hoses, while the police fired tear gas and charged at the kids with their batons.
We were all standing on the sidelines, close enough to watch the action—as if it were some strange violent sport—but far enough back to keep out of the fray. All of the sudden, however, I started hearing a familiar voice rooting for the rioters and I looked to see my Great Uncle Dale stepping onto the curb and gesticulating at the kids with his cigar. “Hey kids,” he shouts, “Don’t let those cops do that to you! Hit ‘em back! Knock ‘em flat! They got no right to do that to you. Nail ‘em!”
The amusement park at Russell's Point
I saw when one of the policemen got the attention of one of the guys manning a fire hose and pointed Dale out. Dale never saw it coming and got washed right off of his feet. I found this hilariously funny, since it was like watching a cartoon character get washed away. Dale, for his part, was furious and wanted to take on the police and fire departments single-handedly but cooler heads prevailed and the Newland men managed to wrestle him off the street and back inside the restaurant, before he got carted away. 
I never heard of Uncle Dale having a j-o-b-type job. He always had “something going” but it wasn’t like other people in the family who all worked at steady jobs for name companies or were in business for themselves with a business address at which you could actually find them. Whitie once told me that what his uncle mostly did when he didn’t know what else to do was sell used cars.
Was he good at it?
“Good?” Whitie asked rhetorically. “Why, he’s so good that he can walk onto any used car lot from here to Miami, say he’s Dale Newland, and they’ll give him a job right away, because he’s a closer. He sells more cars than anybody else.”
Whitie’s dad had a less high opinion of his kid brother. My Grandpa Murel was street smart and a savvy salesman, but he believed in being a steady, responsible, goal-achieving salesman and it rankled him that his mother had always seemed to prefer the more colorful son, Dale, despite the fact that Murel was always there for her after she was widowed for the second time. It seemed to bother him that she always brightened up when Dale was going to be in town and it bothered him too that his boys seemed sucked in as well by Dale’s gangster charisma.
So over the course of their lives they were always reuniting, only to have new fallings out. After they retired, they both started going to Florida to live during the cold months, and, almost by chance, ended up wintering in the same Sarasota trailer park. While there, they got together often and really seemed to enjoy spending time with one another, even if just to have someone worthy of arguing with.
Whitie was visiting his father in the winter of 1978, and spent a lot of time refereeing between Murel and Dale. Despite his best efforts, however, there was a big row and they vowed never to speak to one another again. Whitie always regretted it that, a couple of days later, Dale died in his sleep and he and Murel never had the chance to reunite one more time.
Dale, my father had once told me, had been what was known as a “century baby”, born just past midnight on January 1, 1900, a child born into an incredible new modern era. He was almost exactly seventy-eight when he died after witnessing two world wars and the worst depression in history, but also some of the most amazing advancements the world had ever known. Street-smart, tough, entrepreneurial and self-confident to a fault, Dale was, indeed, a twentieth century kind of guy, if there ever was one.          



Thursday, July 13, 2017

TWENTIETH CENTURY KIND OF GUYS


It was a hot mid-afternoon in July, 1965. I was standing with Bruce in front of the store, half a block from the Square on South Main in Lima, Ohio. When I’d first started working for the store, I had called him Mr. Sims. It had been my last few weeks of being fifteen. But now I was sixteen going on seventeen and a lot had happened in a year. I now owned a car, was a professional nightclub musician (for the time being, a relief drummer for any dance band that needed one), taught percussion to dozens of students each week, and had proven myself enough to earn being on a first-name basis with Bruce. After almost a year of working with him—part-time during the school year and now full-time in summer—he and I were friends. That wasn’t a strange thing among musicians. You got respect for what you knew how to do. If you played like a pro, you were treated like a peer. And if you worked like a man, you were respected as a man. You weren’t shunned by the adults in the music world because you were a kid. On the contrary, you got taken under the wings of the best in the business.
The store we were standing in front of was the B.S. Porter & Sons Music Company, better known to its regulars simply as Porter’s. It was the middle of the afternoon, a dead time in summer. This time of the year, high school band directors were on vacation and retail customers came in during the morning or more toward closing time, 9 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with Saturdays being a busy half-day that ran from nine to one. The only people filing in and out of the store at this hour were pretty much all students coming for private lessons in the cramped little lesson rooms that Porter’s maintained in the basement, down the hall behind the sales floor and office, and on the upper floor—more of an attic, really—that a couple of other percussion instructors and I shared with the guys in the electronic sound equipment repair shop. 
Downtown Lima, Ohio, back in the day...
Bruce and I had come out with the excuse of lowering the green canvas awning a little more to protect the instruments in the show window from the afternoon sun, since the store faced west. Bruce had brought his pipe with him, lit it with a kitchen match while I cranked the awning down further, and was now enjoying a smoke. We were in shirt-sleeves and ties, his, as usual, a short-sleeved white button-down dress shirt and slender dark tie, mine a long-sleeve Oxford cloth light blue shirt, cuffs rolled to the middle of my forearms, worn with a very-sixties paisley tie. He was short and solid and proportionate, with a head of thick, close-cropped, salt and pepper hair, the nose of a pug, but sharp, dark eyes that reflected his quick intelligence, mordant humor and equally quick temper.
Bruce was from the same neighborhood, the same block, in fact, in Lima’s then-notorious South End as my dad and his brothers. Bruce, now in his forties, still had a reputation, not for starting fights, but for finishing them quickly if challenged. My Uncle Bob, whose nickname was Red, had garnered the same sort of rep. But what was funny about Bruce’s being that way was that he was an accomplished classical musician.
Bruce’s most recent run-in had been with a big blowhard who was drunk and spoiling for trouble at the then-popular Milano Club downtown on Market Street. Bruce told the guy to hold it down and they guy told Bruce to make him, and that was about when Big Joe Guagenti asked the clown to leave.
I’d heard that the guy, who was almost twice Bruce’s size, had waited for Bruce in the parking lot out back. But he got more than he bargained for and ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw and several broken ribs. Bruce had walked away unscathed, except for skinned knuckles. One of the regulars at the store later said, “I know that guy. He’s big! What’d you do, kick him once you dropped him?”
Lima South High School where Bruce and Red studied together
“No,” Bruce said with a wry grin, “I jumped on him with both feet.”
I once asked Bruce, “How’s a cello-player get so tough?”
“If you lived in the South End like I did when I was a kid, played cello and had to carry it through the street to your lesson, you got tough real fast.”
How well had he known my dad and his brothers? “Real well. I went to school with Red at Lima South.”
“I understand he was a tough little guy himself,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Bruce, “they used to say the guys got meaner as you went down our block. I lived in the next to the last house and your Uncle Red lived in the last one.”  
Normally, while we took a break, Bruce would have been sharing some anecdote with me about one of the crazy and unique musicians he’d known over the years. The stories were endless and he’d collected most of them during his long years here at Porter’s. In a city the size of Lima, which had several music stores but only two major ones—Porter’s and Zender Music—just about every musician in the area was sure to happen through the store at one time or another. Many had become friends who used Porter’s as a place to kind of hang out and talk to other musicians, and before he’d gone to work for the Porter family, Bruce had also worked for a time at Zender, so he knew everybody in the business. But today, we were just standing there waiting to see what was going to happen at the bar across the street.
Just as we had come out, a Lima PD cruiser had pulled up across the way. Its two uniformed occupants had gotten out, but were now just standing there, expectant but relaxed next to their car, one with his hand on the grip of his nightstick, the other with his hand resting, rather casually, on the butt of his holstered revolver. From inside the bar, a dive if there ever was one, we could hear an ungodly ruckus—men shouting, furniture crashing, glass breaking.
There were only two major music stores in town and Bruce had 
worked for both.
The place was well known for nothing good. It had become a source of anguish for Dave Porter in his final years to have it across from his store. I’d only had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Porter very briefly, when I first started working at the store. He was in the latter stages of terminal cancer at the time. He had died shortly after I started working there. And when I met him, it already showed that he was heading that way. His suits hung on him as if from a wire hanger, as if the body inside could walk around in there without breaking the crease. But it was still plain to see that he had been an impressive man at one time, tall, straight-backed, immaculately groomed, with eyes that gazed frankly into yours through steel-rimmed glasses when you spoke to him. He was known for being honest, ethical and of high moral character. But he was also a man willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.
Some suggested that these traits sometimes rendered him naïve. Naïve or not, however, it seems that when Mr. Porter had heard a couple of the guys at the store making wise cracks about the side business the saloon owner across the way was running, he’d asked Bruce what they were talking about. “Seems the guy’s added a cathouse upstairs to supplement his income, Dave,” Bruce told him. Mr. Porter was incensed. After mulling it over for awhile, it seems he marched across the street, into the bar, up to the owner, and to the guy’s astonishment, leaned down so that he was right in the man’s face and said, “You’re not an honorable man! And you know what I’m talking about! Do the right thing. Shut it down!” And then he turned on his heel and strode back across the street to his store.
Bruce said some of the guys in the store snickered behind Mr. Porter’s back about the incident. Who could be that naïve, right? But it would appear the power of Mr. Porter’s character had won out, because for all intents and purposes, the saloon apparently quit serving anything more inappropriate than watered liquor, warm beer and bad food on the premises.
Now a second LPD cruiser screeched to a halt at the opposite curb, and suddenly Bruce knew what the other two cops had been waiting for. “Get ready for all hell to break loose,” Bruce murmured around his pipe stem. “That’s Louie Hamilton.”
The mere mention of the name was sufficient. Even I’d heard of him. He wasn’t particularly impressive at first sight, no bigger than a middleweight, neat and trim in his summer uniform, with razor-creased dark uniform trousers contrasting with the neat short-sleeved white shirt to which his badge was pinned, the deep-black skin of his forearms contrasting just as sharply, peaked cap pulled low over his mirror shades.
A fellow drummer who worked with me at Porter’s—and had a father that was a local radio anchor who knew everything about everybody who was anybody in Lima—had told me a Louie Hamilton anecdote that was right out of an action movie. Seems that there was this ostensibly shy young guy who had been visiting a particular girl repeatedly over the course of several weeks at Big Ruth’s, down in the deep South End, an area that, rumor had it, even the police usually avoided. So anyway, this guy, who was clearly semi-delusional, decides he’s in love with this young professional woman at Big Ruth’s and on a certain Saturday night, he declares his love for her and asks her to elope then and there and marry him.
The girl thinks he’s kidding and practically laughs him out of the place. The guy leaves, but in a little while he’s back, drunk out of his mind, and down in the parlor, he pulls a .38 and starts threatening to kill the girl and anybody else who gets in his way. But it seems pretty clear right away that he can’t get up the nerve to kill anybody like that, in cold blood, so it turns into a sort of sad-sack hostage situation.
Now, according to this other drummer, nobody knows if somebody managed to call Louie or if he just happened to be in the neighborhood.  But all of the sudden he shows up, walks into Big Ruth’s front room, right up to the guy and says, “Okay, hotshot, party’s over. Hand over the piece.” And just like that, he reaches out to take the .38 out of the guy’s hand.
Whether by accident or design, however, the .38 goes off, and nobody’s more surprised than Louie, who takes a .38-caliber revolver slug pointblank in the belly. But according to this drummer, Louie Hamilton just sort of takes a quick step back, like as if he’d accidentally touched a hot stove or something, and then, to the surprise of the shooter, he strides forward again, growls, “Gimme that goddamn gun!” snatches the .38 out of the guy’s hand, knocks him to the floor with the butt of it, cuffs him, bleeding all the while, then jerks the guy up, bum’s-rushes him out the door and into the caged backseat of his cruiser, and off they go, siren blaring. Louie calls for backup—or so the story goes—to meet him at the hospital, and drives himself to the emergency room, where he turns his prisoner over to the cops waiting for him there. Then he signs himself in for treatment of a gunshot wound to the abdomen.
How much of this is true, I have no idea, but what I’m about to see on this particular summer afternoon is going to make a Louie-Hamilton-believer of me. Because right now, as Bruce and I look on from the other side of the street, Louie motions for the other two cops to post themselves on either side of the door, and in he goes...alone, nightstick in hand.
All we can hear before he moves deeper into the fray is when he shouts, “Aw right! Ever’body up against it, hands on the bar where I can see ‘em.” Then there’s a tense silence, a break in the earlier chaos, before we start hearing new shouts and crashes and then, one at a time, four guys come flying out the open door onto the sidewalk—one on his chin, a second one on his side, the third on his back and the last one, a big guy, just kind of staggers out the door backwards and falls on his ass on the pavement as if he’d been pole-axed and was out on his feet before he ever hit the ground.
For the cops outside, it’s a lot like fishing with dynamite: They just gather up the stunned bar-fighters, cuff them and deposit them, two each, in the backseats of the two cruisers. Shortly, Louie comes swiftly out the door, all business, no swagger, re-tucking and straightening his uniform, climbs into his cruiser, and off go both cars, roof lights flashing, to the city jail. All in a day’s work for the legendary Louie Hamilton.
“Well that’s one way to liven up the afternoon,” says Bruce. “Time to get back to work.” But as he swivels right to go back inside, his eyes fall on another eccentric character heading our way, sauntering down the sidewalk toward us from the Square. Brown-mustard-color suit with extra-wide lapels, dark brown shirt with wide cream-colored tie, two-tone tobacco-brown and white shoes, a broad-brimmed tan fedora with a wide grey sweat band, an extra-long green-wrappered corona clenched in the guy’s teeth.
“Now what?” says Bruce with a chuckle, pausing to watch the man, who looks to be in his sixties, and who, to me, is beginning to look very familiar. “Who the hell is that?” he asks rhetorically, “Al Capone?”
“Nope,” I answer, “that’s my Great-Uncle Dale!”
To be continued...


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

INVISIBLE FRIENDS


Every coming-of-age story includes best friends. Mine’s no different. Except that I didn’t make friends easily. So it wasn’t like I had “a gang” of friends. It wasn’t even like I had a “handful”. As a small boy, I spent a lot of time alone and didn’t really have a problem with that. I had a huge imagination. I fed it with lots of TV-watching and reading (which I avidly took up from the first moment that I was able to make the slightest sense out of symbols on a page). TV was different back then. Everybody’s heroes were on a channel or two. I thus had no problem playing alone. In the winter, I was Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the magic of summer, I could be whomever I wanted to be. Sometimes Robin Hood, other times the Lone Ranger and still others, Superman. Whatever secondary characters I needed I simply made up, and they seemed as real as could be.
North Defiance Street, with my sister Darla on the back stoop. 
But those were temporary friends. Actors on a stage in works of my own making. I also had, like many (neurotic) kids, a couple of stable self-created friends. Or at least I think they were self-created, although they seemed real enough to me. Not unpredictably—since I never went through a girl-hating stage, and truly liked and identified a lot with the opposite sex, having tagged around behind my older sister for my first five years before my little brother was born—the two phantom friends were sisters: Marie and Chuddah. I know, I know, such unlikely names, right? Where did I come up with them? Actually, I didn’t. That’s just what they told me they were called when they showed up one day while my sister was busy with stuff of her own and I was playing by myself.
My sister Darla knew about them and essentially ignored them, even when I looked over my shoulder to make sure they were coming with us, or beckoned them to, when we went down the street to the grocery store. But it wasn’t like they went everywhere with Darla and me. I mean, it wasn’t like they had a life entirely of their own, after all.  They were only around when I wanted or needed them to be.
Reba Mae, my mother, knew about them too but had read somewhere that it was just a stage some kids went through and as long as ethereal friends didn’t follow children into puberty and adulthood it wasn’t necessarily a sign of delusional behavior. She did, however, ask me once, “What kind of a name is Chuddah?” To which I replied, “I don’t know. It’s just her name. Ask her!”
In a paper published a decade ago, psychologists Espen Klausen and Richard Passman reported that imaginary friends were once thought to be supernatural creatures or spirits that were believed to link people with past lives. But they also indicated that some observers see children’s connection with such characters as akin to what fiction writers do. Many writers, they pointed out, talk about their characters taking on “a life of their own” and that, it would seem, is kind of what certain kids do: make people up and let their imaginations run away with them. Neither explanation would be alien to my personality, I suppose. But although I’m clearly a skeptic when it comes to the other-worldly, I’d almost pick the first explanation over the second, considering how Marie and Chuddah just showed up and told me their names. Especially because, neither before nor since, have I ever known another Chuddah.    
Whatever the case may be, I was four going on five when they went away. It was autumn. My mother was pregnant (very pregnant, since she gave birth in mid-November) with by little brother and had gone off for the day to do I-don’t-know-what in the nearby city of Lima, Ohio. She’d left me with my father’s mother, Grandma Alice, and had probably left Darla with her mother, Grandma Myrt. I don’t recall for sure, but I was alone with my father’s mother.
On this clear blue autumn day, Grandma and I had gathered walnuts from under a neighbor’s tree and had been sitting on her back stoop peeling the fragrant green outer skin off their shells to let them dry out. Marie and Chuddah were standing at the bottom of the steps watching us. It was a small stoop and there wasn’t enough room up there for all of us, just Grandma and me. We’d husked most of a big brown paper grocery bag full of nuts with my two little friends silently looking on. We were getting pretty tired. Grandma Alice suggested a breather, told me to wait there, and went into the house to get us a cream soda, her favorite pop.
It was while I was sitting there alone on the back porch with them that Marie and Chuddah told me they had to go. They said they’d just come to say good-bye. Then, with no further ado, they turned and walked away. After they’d crossed the alley behind my grandparents’ house and were part way across the field on the other side, they half-turned and waved. I waved back and they turned and walked on. I never saw them again.
Seeing imaginary friends didn’t become a habit. They were the only two I ever had. But at about that same time, overlapping the period in which Marie and Chuddah arrived and left, I did receive a number of visits from another other-worldly personality.
At the time, we lived in a two-story house on North Defiance Street in Wapakoneta, my home town. Built in 1900, it was the house where my dad and his brothers had spent their teen years after their parents decided to move down to Wapak from Lima in the 1930s, in order to be closer to the Western & Southern Life Insurance branch office that my grandfather, Murel Newland, worked out of. Whitie, my dad, bought the house from his dad when he returned home from service in World War II, and that’s the first house I recall living in.
Anyway, there were three bedrooms upstairs and one down. In summer, when it was hot, Whitie and Reba Mae slept in the downstairs bedroom, but the rest of the year, we all slept upstairs. My sister and I slept in one bedroom and my parents in a second one across the landing at the top of the steep stairs that rose from right in front of the front door, with the staircase dividing the dining room from the living room. The third upstairs bedroom adjoined the room where my sister and I slept and was kept shut in winter to conserve heating. The fact that it had a bed all made up with a quilt, a bureau full of odds and ends, and a closet where off-seasonal clothes were kept, and that it was kept closed except when my mother opened it to clean and air it out, gave it, for me, a touch of mystery.
The encounters involved what was, for lack of a better term, a recurrent dream. In it, I would awaken to find myself lying under the quilt in the spare room, where none of us ever slept. I would sit up and find a woman of indeterminate age sitting on a straight chair that was usually against the wall by the closet. She would be looking at me attentively. She was dressed in a manner not unlike what I would much later in life come to know as saints, rather like the Virgin of Luján, her head covered with a sky-blue shawl, her face pallid almost to the point of giving off a luminescent glow.
On her first visit, I was frightened but managed to ask her who she was and what she was doing there.
“I am your mother,” she said serenely, with no flicker of change in her expression.
“No you’re not,” I said emphatically. “I already have a mother.”
“I’m your true mother,” she insisted.
And that was when I would start howling for Reba Mae. My mother would come to find me sitting up screaming in my real bed and would comfort me, telling me that it was “just a dream” and not to be afraid. That there was nobody in the house but us, that everything was okay.
But the same thing kept happening for a time. Every so often, I would awake “in the spare room” with the woman who claimed to be my “real mother” sitting by my bed. She no longer said anything but remained there gazing attentively at me until I would squeeze my eyelids tightly shut and scream for my mother to make the specter go away.
Then, almost as soon as my little brother was born, we moved to a new house on the other side of town, and I never saw the lady in blue again. I never missed her. Indeed, I was glad to be rid of her. But I still wonder from time to time whatever became of Marie and Chuddah.