|North Defiance Street, with my sister Darla on the back stoop.|
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
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.
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.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Why I ever thought there would be a Schwinn in the trunk of Whitie’s ’52 Chevy when he pulled up next to our screened-in back porch at the big house on West Auglaize Street where we lived back then I’ll never know. It was clearly the result of wishful thinking and day-dreaming over the course of the previous couple of years that caused me to entertain such an absurd idea. My sister’s bike, which I’d been “borrowing”—often without her knowledge—up to now wasn’t a Schwinn either. It was a sturdy, practical, “Frankensteinian”, Weitz bike.
And that’s precisely what my father pulled out of the trunk of his shiny dark green Chevy now: the most practical bike possible. It was what was known as a standard “rebuilt”.
My little brother Jim (foreground) and I on our bikes. He was
such a little guy that he couldn't share either our sister's 26-inch
or my 24, so his 20-inch acquisition was an easier "sell".
“Eddy Weitz says it’s every bit as good as a new bike,” Whitie said a little too enthusiastically as he set it on the ground. I knew I should mirror his exaggerated enthusiasm, and did. The worst thing you could be in Whitie’s eyes was “an ingrate” (or a Democrat). I wanted so to please him, and so seldom did. Hiding my disappointment was the least I could do.
Mr. Weitz owned a bicycle shop housed in a very neat and clean but then rather ramshackle building next to the B&O Railroad line that cut a more or less straight northeast to southwest diagonal through the center of Wapakoneta. The back of Mr. Weitz’s shop was almost literally inches from the tracks, and if you happened to be in there when a big diesel locomotive lumbered through town towing a half-mile convoy of freight cars behind it, the sound was deafening. The whole place, with its wooden shake sides and wood plank floors quaked and rattled and seemed to hold its breath until the danger had passed. But the problem was that ours was a very busy rail line, so that this humiliation was visited on Mr. Weitz’s shop numerous times each day, as an incredible number of trains cut through Wapakoneta on their way south. Indeed, every time I recall my home town, train whistles play a major role in my “soundtrack”, so much so that I can never hear the lonesome howl of a diesel train horn in the night, anywhere in the world, and not feel suddenly homesick.
|The Weitz Bicycle Shop in Wapakoneta.|
Mr. Weitz was a pleasant, slight, somewhat shy man with a full head of neatly clipped salt-and-pepper hair, an angular face, a ready grin and a twinkle in his eyes. His workshop was at the back of the store next to the railroad tracks, with a little side-door right on the street that had a close-up view of the crossing signal. It was a cramped but military-barracks-neat shop in which he not only expertly fixed but also manufactured bicycles out of disused parts that he recovered, refurbished and pressed back into service in the form of his locally renowned “rebuilts”.
I don’t remember his attaching any sort of trademark to his bikes, but I never saw one that didn’t bear his signature colors: a sort of neutral blue with clean white trim. The balloon tire rims were always buffed to a steely sheen rather than a chrome-like shine and handlebars that had started to lose their chrome finish were stripped of rust and carefully spray-painted with metallic finish. His were not the sort of flashy two-wheelers that drew second glances and looks of envy, but they were sturdy, durable and dependable transportation.
Thinking back, I realize how patient Mr. Weitz was. Since all of his merchandise—from new and used bikes to a wide assortment of bicycle accessories (ranging from headlights and horns to handlebar streamers and steering knobs)—was all out on display so that any “artful dodger” could nip in, pilfer an item or two and run out again. So every time somebody came into the store, he would have to drop whatever he was doing in the shop and come out behind the counter, because he ran the place all by himself. Despite that fact, he was never impatient with me or any of the friends with whom I visited the store and always took the time to explain to us what all the accessories were and what they were good for. He knew who his customers were: the kids, not the parents.
If I was at first disappointed in the bike Whitie had brought me, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with it. It was a sudden revelation: This bike was mine, to use as much and as long as I wanted. And it was emblematic of pure freedom, to go farther and faster than ever before, to tour the town, to reach the city limits and return in a matter of minutes. It was a key to new adventures and it immediately became my constant companion. And now that I had a bike of my own, a sturdy boy’s bike rather than a borrowed girl’s that had made me the object of such ridicule, I became more sociable and was ready to hang out with other cycling friends.
Hollywood comic Phil Silvers. Terry was
sort of child version of the zany
One such friend was Terry, a boy most adults were quick to describe as “obnoxious”, but whom I found hilarious, and utterly free. Terry was a continuous stand-up comedy routine, sort of in the style of a lesser Robin Williams (who wasn’t yet known to the world), although, with his crazy, faux-astonished expressions and black horn-rimmed glasses, Terry looked for all the world like a boyhood version of Hollywood comedian Phil Silvers. He was a natural comic whose running routine was full of slapstick and crazy sound effects, as well as smart-assed one-liners. In the summertime and on weekends, Terry spent the day on his beautiful red Schwinn, touring the entire town and making stops to harass shopkeepers with his crazy antics wherever the spirit moved him.
Ever polite, shy and self-effacing Sunday school kid that I was back then, I found Terry’s comic ways and his complete irreverence for authority refreshing and tagged along on my new bike with him wherever he went. He was more than happy to have a sidekick, because, only child and off-beat character that he was, he was very likely often lonely. Together, we rode our bikes all over town and visited every shop from five and dimes to hardware stores, and it was a thrilling new experience for me to get thrown out of most of them. If we felt like a Coke, we dropped in unannounced on either of our fathers—his was a softer touch than mine, although we could now and again talk Whitie into a freebie as well—both of whom owned soda fountains and were competitors.
|Terry's dream car, the original 'Vette'|
Our favorite places of all were car dealerships. We both loved cars and knew the names and models of just about everything on the road. But my interest was more aesthetic than practical, while Terry seemingly, at least to me, knew everything there was to know about cars and had an uncle, I think, out by Kettlersville, west of Wapakoneta, who prepared stock cars and even drove them in local drag races. Terry found me sorely lacking in automotive knowledge and started teaching me about the technical specs of all the cars we went to see. Our favorite place to go the summer we hung out the most together was the Chevrolet dealership on the north side of town. It was far, far from home and it seemed like a real adventure to go there in the company of my new friend. There was a Corvette convertible (before it was a Stingray) in the showroom and Terry was an absolute fanatic of that car.
Every now and then, he would say, “Let’s go see the ‘Vette’,” and I would accompany him. Clearly, the sales staff was accustomed to his visits, because as soon as we parked our bikes by the big plate glass showroom window and walked in, the salesmen on duty would appear and start dogging us around the sales floor. To their credit, neither they nor the managing partner, Mr. Bovee, were ever mean to us—just watchful. Mr. Bovee and the salesmen, Mr. Gering and Mr. Binkley, were all the fathers of friends of mine and I tried to be on my best behavior. It was embarrassing to me that my companion made them nervous, and I tried my best to be polite and friendly, and to keep Terry reined in. But with Terry, that was like trying to lasso the wind. All it took was for the salesmen and me to drop our guard for a split-second. And Terry would be vaulting the driver’s side door of the sports car convertible, slumping low in the bucket seat and running through the gears while making motor noises so incredibly authentic that they sounded like the Indy 500.
|Terry vaulted the door and jumped into the |
It was always at about that point that we were politely but firmly asked to leave.
My carefree roving days were short-lived, however. On Whitie’s urging, my bike was pressed into service as a delivery route vehicle, first for the Dayton Journal Herald, and later for the Lima News. The Journal Herald job was a killer paper route that I inherited from a friend of my sister’s named Blaine, who was three years older than I was, and was giving it up for something better-paying. Since it was a morning daily, I had to be up before 5 a.m. to pedal my bike up to the Post Office, where a truck dropped off my bundle of papers. There, I quickly folded my newspapers on the Post Office floor, stuffed them into my paper-bag and pedaled off to deliver about eighty copies in time to get back home, have breakfast and mount my bike again to ride it to school, where I struggled for the rest of the day to stay awake in class, especially after lunch.
On my own and unbeknownst to Whitie, one Saturday when I was out collecting from customers on my Journal Herald route, I stopped by The Newsstand, run by a man named Russell McLean, who managed distribution for the local afternoon paper, the Lima News. I knew Russ from my father’s restaurant, where he was a regular, and he knew who I was because I was a regular “customer” at his shop, where I often, in the guise of browsing, read entire stories in the Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen mystery magazines or in Argosy, Look, and The Atlantic Monthly. So I overcame my shyness, told him I was looking to leave my Journal Herald route and asked if there were any openings for the News. He said not right then, but that they came up frequently and if I’d check back regularly, he’d let me know. It wasn’t more than a few weeks before he had one for me.
Whitie had a thing about not wanting me to be “a quitter”—I’d blown off Peewee League, refused to play basketball and football, quit Scouts and quit trombone lessons—and I was sure he’d try and stop me from quitting my Journal Herald route. But I had the most compelling argument possible when it came to Whitie’s line of reasoning: The Lima News route was bigger—considerably bigger—and I’d be making more money.
I quickly found I liked making my own money. With the new, bigger, afternoon route, and a Sunday morning route that not only included the Sunday edition of the News but also delivery to Newsstand subscribers of The Columbus Dispatch, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Toledo Blade, The Chicago Tribune, and other major papers, I started doing pretty well. A couple of cents off each paper I delivered, I found, quickly added up and some weeks I’d make over ten dollars. I won a camera, a change holder to wear on my belt when I collected and a half-hour ride on a Lake Central prop passenger plane out of the new Lima Airport, all for winning sales performances. I also accepted some peripheral business propositions from Russ McLean, like selling a set of cookbooks in monthly installments to my newspaper customers.
Suddenly, I was feeling flush and wanted to feel flusher, so I also started taking on side jobs like mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, painting fences, cleaning out garages, etc., usually for people who were already my newspaper customers and trusted me to do a good job. By now I had way too much money to only think about such immediate investments as bottles of Dr. Pepper, Hershey’s chocolate bars, Jack Horner pies, burgers and fries. I started looking at fishing rods and reels, BB guns, pocketknives, and finally...a new bike.
|A black Schwinn Speedster with 2-speed brake...I was in love.|
I often stopped by Eddy Weitz’s bike shop with the excuse of needing my tires pumped up or my hubs tightened. But that always led to my browsing through the accessories in Mr. Weitz’s display case and to drooling over the shiny new bikes that crowded the shop floor. I’d bought a battery-power horn and headlight, a sturdy basket, a fancy rear reflector, a new, more comfortable saddle and other knickknacks. But now I was saving for a brand new Schwinn. One in particular. Most Schwinns seemed to be either flashy red or flashy blue. But this one was a shiny jet black Schwinn Speedster, and it was embellished with not just white racing stripes on the fenders, but with a slender red one as well. Every time I saw it, I fell in love.
Once I had put away enough for the bike—a little over sixty dollars with tax—I told Whitie about my planned purchase. I was afraid he would be offended that I was purchasing a new bike to replace the one he’d given me as a gift.
I said, “Dad, I’ve been saving up for a new bike I saw at Mr. Weitz’s shop and I finally have enough to buy it.”
“Y’do, huh?” Whitie said laconically.
“It’s not that I don’t like the one you got me,” I went on, “but I’ve been riding it awhile now and it’s getting kind of old...”
“Well, you know, kinda used.”
“Is it a better bike?”
“It’s a Schwinn,” I said excitedly, “a twenty-six inch, black, with red and white racing stripes...”
“The color’s not important. What’s important is if it’s a good, practical bike. It’s not an English bike, is it? Because they’re a pain in the ass with handbrake cables and gears to go wrong, and you’re like me, not the handiest with tools.”
“No, Dad, it’s a real solid American bike with a two-speed Bendix coaster brake.”
“Oh, it’s really neat! When you back-pedal to brake, it automatically downshifts to first.”
“What’s Eddy Weitz say about it...the brake I mean?”
“That it’s the best, that they never break or need maintenance.”
There was a long pause, while Whitie mulled this information over. He always hated being hit with things like this as soon as he got home from work...or when he was watching TV...or when he first got up...or when he was about to leave for work...or, especially, at work. And I figured he’d say, “Well, we’ll think about it,” and promptly put it out of his mind.
But to my surprise, he said, “Wanna drive up there and us have a look at it together?”
“Sure Dad,” I said. And right then and there, I excitedly ran off to dig out my savings and we got into the car and left for the bike shop.
On the way, I said, “Dad, I was thinking maybe I’d keep the bike you gave me too.”
“Why?” he asked, glancing my way.
I shrugged. “I don’t know...I thought maybe I’d use it for work and keep the other one just to ride.”
“Know what I think? I think once you’ve ridden that new Schwinn, you’ll never want to ride your old bike again and that it’s going to end up sitting in the garage rusting, and we don’t have room in the garage for a lot of stuff we don’t use. It’s like getting a new car. Best thing you can do is sell the old one or trade it off.”
I sat there beside him on the broad bench seat of the Chevy giving what he’d said some thought. Worrying maybe I’d hurt his feelings and he was just covering it up by telling me to get rid of my old bike. And besides, although I knew inanimate objects didn’t have feelings, somehow, I couldn’t help “feeling sorry” for my old bike. It had been a good friend and I was abandoning it. What if it could feel something?
“You do what you want,” Whitie said after a brief silence, “but if you want me to, I’ll talk Eddy into taking it as a trade-in. Maybe he’ll knock a few bucks off the price of the new one.”
I knew my ol’ man to be a great “horse-trader” and assented.
Then he said, “Y’know, Danny, this buying a bike with your savings is going to be good for you. I’m pretty sure you’re going to see how much you appreciate something you buy with your own sweat. A person learns a lot from working, and it’s nice in life to know you don’t owe anybody anything. That whatever you’ve got, you earned.
At the bike shop, Whitie negotiated with Mr. Weitz to the point of exasperation. It was late and all Eddy wanted to do was close his shop and go home for the day. In the end, my father cut me a deal where I got the shiny new Speedster for forty-eight dollars plus my rebuilt and I went home with a beautiful new ride and twelve dollars still in my pocket.
The rebuilt I traded in was the last vehicle Whitie would ever buy me. From here on out, I was free-wheeling.