Monday, August 14, 2017


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.
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.”


Joe Ballweg said...

Thanks for another wonderful installment Dan. I've done some of the same reminiscing on those same roads, but your words put me right back there again.
Would be fun to get you, me and Bow to drive that Kelley Drive-Glynwood circle again and talk about what memories it sparks!

Dan Newland said...

Thanks Joe!
I'm ready when you are, buddy!