Thursday, July 27, 2017


This is the second part of a two-part essay. You can read the first part at the following link:

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.          

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