|Photos by Mary Jo Knoch|
Friday, October 13, 2017
Decades ago, when I would come back for visits to my home town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, this was “the new place”. That was in contrast to all the “old places” that, over the years since I-75 had cut a north-south swath through the west central Ohio countryside—and carried through-traffic that used to come into town on the Dixie Highway a mile or so east—had been starved out by the lack of travelers and by townspeople’s’ temptation to “try out” all the new chain restaurants on “Hamburger Row” out by “the new highway”.
The business Whitie, my dad, had built with two of his brothers and then run on his own with my mother Reba Mae’s help later on, had been one of the early casualties. The Teddy Bear Soda Fountain and Grill that had become a Wapakoneta icon in the post-World War II era had succumbed by 1969, as had other downtown diners like The Club, The Equity, Lyman’s or The Dinnerbell. All victims of the chain store trend that swept America and much of the rest of the Western world, with constant multi-million-dollar TV ad campaigns coaxing viewers to abandon the old Mom and Pop hometown places and gorge on Whoppers, Big Macs, pizza-pizzas, Wendy Burgers and buckets of the Colonel’s crispy chicken with “secret spices”.
But “the new place”, known as The Coffey Cup (a play on words using the original owner’s surname), emerged optimistic from the dust that settled in the wake of that debacle. And by now, if in my mind it remains “the new place”, it counts its history in decades rather than years.
I recall thinking it a tragedy when he talked about how, as a fast-rising studio trumpet player back in his youth, he had stretched himself too thin playing multiple big-city gigs while going for his music degree and had “blown out his lip”. I’d heard the term before but had never known anyone it had actually happened to. Chadwick told me that his lip had literally split during a performance and shot blood into his horn and out the bell. Right then he knew it was over for him as a performer.
But clearly, his creativity sought a second outlet and all of us who had the pleasure of studying art with him benefited from his musical misfortune. He was an inspiring art teacher who ferreted out any glint of talent in his students and pushed them to develop it. Whenever I was back in town, I would try to drop around The Coffey Cup about mid-morning and share a conversation with the Chadwicks whom I found ever-interesting to talk to.
Another regular there a few years before his death was my former high school band director, William Thatcher Trunk. Bill and I too had shared more than the high school student-teacher relationship. My senior year, I had worked closely with him on the musical arrangements for our football season half-time shows. As a relief drummer with Lima Local 320 of the American Federation of Musicians, I had also played numerous professional gigs with Fred Rex and The Nightowls, the band in which Trunk played piano on the weekends.
He also took me along several years to summer Band Camp as an instructor and counsellor. My main job was to prepare junior-high students for the precision marching they would have to do as high school band members later on, as well as to give percussion lessons to both junior and senior high students. It was there that Bill and I became fast friends.
Whenever I came back to town and dropped by The Coffey Cup when he was there, it was as if I’d never left. Several years could pass and I’d walk in and say, “Hey Mr. T!” And Bill would glance up from the musical staff paper spread on the table before him and it would be as if the last time he’d seen me had been that very morning. “Hey, Danny,” he would say, “come over here and take a look at this arrangement I’m putting together for next season. Listen to this.” And with that, he would start humming the different instrumental parts to me, obviously excited by how it was all coming together. Then he’d say, “Maybe you can give me a hand with the drum parts.”
It was business as usual. As if I’d never been gone.
Here too, I’d met up with the Methodist pastor, Rick Bell, who had helped Whitie, my dad, get through the four years leading up to his death due to lung cancer. Whitie had been a believer, and Rick had been just the guy to help him deepen that faith still further, even in the face of an illness capable of shaking anyone’s belief structure.
Rick had told Reba Mae, my mother, that he wanted to meet me. He’d indicated that Whitie had talked a lot about me, which kind of surprised me, since my father and I had always had a troubled if tensely cordial relationship, so different were we from one another.
At first I’d balked. But later, I agreed to meet him. I felt I owed Rick, because he’d been there for Whitie when I couldn’t be. I’d have “a cuppa” with him and thank him for being Whitie’s friend to the last. How long could it take?
Turned out, Rick Bell and I were kindred spirits. And the venue he picked to meet me wasn’t the Methodist church, but The Coffey Cup. Hopeful agnostic that I’d always been, I ended up telling Rick that I envied him his unquestioning faith. It must be, I thought, of great comfort in pivotal moments like this one. Pastor Bell was the sort of guy who made you want to believe in something. I told him I was spiritual but not religious, a statement that rolled off his back without a flutter. He asked what I based my spirituality on and I set to telling him anecdotes about inexplicable things that had happened to me over the years.
When I was through, he sat gazing at me with a kind of puzzled curiosity, his mouth hanging slightly open, and said, “My God! When are you going to look through those glasses you wear and see! For a lot less than the things you just told me, I enrolled in the seminary.”
This had also been where I’d met with my late brother’s ex-girlfriend two days after his funeral. Clearly, there was no love lost between us. She had made the last six months of his life a living hell and, to a certain degree, torn by grief as I was, I found it hard not to blame her at least partially for his sudden death.
Now, I had word from our attorney in Florida that she might be trying to claim part of condo where my brother had been living in Ocala and which my sister, brother and I had inherited from our parents. The problem was that my sister and I had ceded the apartment to our brother so that he would be free to take out a loan to improve it and now the lawyer feared this former girlfriend would try to stake a claim based on her having lived there with him for a time as his common law wife.
“Here,” said our veteran Florida probate attorney, handing me an envelope, “take this with you to Ohio, arrange a meet with this woman, and get her to sign it, no matter how you have to do it.”
It was at The Coffey Cup where the brief drama unfolded. She and I sat at the table nearest the cash register, the one next to the window through which the pale morning light of a clear and chilly January morning was shining in. She’d always had a histrionic flare. It was what had captured my brother’s heart. And now she had managed to arrive early so that I would see her there as I walked in, her face pale, tear-streaked and without make-up, a damp hanky balled up in her fist. She trembled slightly as I sat down facing her.
“You know I really did love him,” she said, by way of prelude.
“Uh, right,” I answered gruffly, unconvinced. “Here,” I said, removing the page the attorney had given me from its envelope and placing it on the table before her. I took a pen from my breast pocket and handed it to her. “Don’t bother reading it,” I said. “Just sign.”
She looked across the table at me again, wearing the most hurt and tragic expression she could muster. Then she signed. I took the paper and pen from her and said, “Thanks. Now I’ll leave you alone here with your grief.” And with that, I stood, paid and left.
Here too, over a decade ago, I had brought an Argentine friend and colleague, who had been working on his master’s degree and teaching some courses at the Columbia University School of Journalism and had flown in to visit me while I was back in Ohio. He said he wanted to have lunch at some “typical Wapakoneta place and eat typical Wapakoneta food.” I’d brought him to The Coffey Cup and fed him a pork tenderloin sandwich. He was, in a word, enthralled.
Sitting here this morning having the Early Bird Special (two farm fresh eggs, any style, toast, bacon, home fries and coffee—or is it coffey?—all for seven bucks and change), I realize I no longer recognize anyone. Not even the servers. But still, the people in the place could quite easily have been Wapak folks from just about any era. The aging guys in ball-caps and suspenders all sitting at the long front table enjoying their morning coffee and shooting the breeze could, I realized, be holdovers from opening day, or have been bussed over from the Teddy Bear the day it closed and simply stayed here as part of the local color.
Outside in the parking lot, one of the geezers in a plaid shirt dungarees and suspenders who’d been holding forth inside has now climbed into his truck and started it. I notice he’s left the door ajar and is holding onto the steering wheel and leaning way over as if looking at something up under the dash. I think nothing of it at first and walk up the way a bit to a hardware store I’ve been wanting to check out.
But when I come back out twenty minutes later, the guy is still slumped there in his truck, engine running. I sidle over to the truck and peer in. The fellow is still in the same position, grasping the wheel and slouched down almost under the dash. He doesn’t seem to be moving.
I rush into The Coffey Cup and go up to the waitress.
“You know the fellow in the plaid shirt who was sitting up at the counter?”
“Yeah, he’s a friend of the owners,” she says.
“Well, he was slumped over with his truck running when I went to the hardware store twenty minutes ago and he’s still there like that now. I think he may be...”
“Sleeping,” she says. “Yeah, he’s sleeping. He has this condition, uh...”
“Uh, maybe...not sure. But he does that all the time. People are always thinking he’s...you know...”
“But...he drives!” I say.
“Yes, I know,” she says looking a little worried. “It’s kind of...”
She nods. “Anyway, thanks for being observant.”
But nobody’s going to take this guy’s license away. In Wapakoneta everybody knows who he is, and they’ll be watching for him to doze off. If he looks sleepy, they just pull over and let him pass.
I walk out and, sure enough, the guy is now sitting up in his truck, looking a little stunned but trying to shake off the narcoleptic trance.
“Small towns,” I think. “A world of their own.”
Monday, October 9, 2017
Jim Bowsher in his incredible living room.
Sometimes tourists just wallk in. They
think it's a museum.
(Photos by Mary Jo Knoch)
Just when you thought his monumental back garden couldn’t get any more enthrallingly insane, my friend and colleague Jim Bowsher will do something else to make your jaw drop to your sternum. The latest addition: his war veterans monument. Something he was talking about as an idea a year ago, which was the last time before this that I saw him.
I have to confess that, back then, when he told me about it, I didn’t get it. Couldn’t picture it. It was just too crazy a concept. But I’ve gotten used to that. Jim’s ideas are often so far beyond the realm of normal reality that when he tells you about a new one, you may have to nod politely as he speaks and then simply wait for it to come off the drawing board and become a physical fact before you’ll be able to understand what it’s all about.
When I call him to tell him I’m in town—town being our mutual and uniquely name home-town of Wapakoneta, Ohio—and ask “if he’d mind” if I drop by, he says he’d “love it” if I dropped by.
At first, we take a seat in his living room, which is more like a chock-full miniaturized museum salon. Everywhere you look, the walls, the coffee table, the mantle, there is a patchwork quilt of historical objects and behind each one there is a story. Jim wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the orderly clutter, there is nothing extraneous in the room—or any room in the house for that matter. Meaning, that while there may well be a lot of completely impractical things in the room, there is nothing random. Everything has a story behind it...everything. There isn’t a single piece that you can point to and say, “So, where’d you get that?” and have Jim say, “Geez, beats me. Can’t recall.” Anything you ask about, there will be some at least amusing if not amazing story that Jim will gladly tell you.
And like most “genius clutter”, there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. I’ve never heard Jim say, “I wanted to show you such and such but can’t remember where I put it.” He knows right where everything is. Like the time he went out of the room to get us a drink and I reached out and picked up an attractive glass piece on the coffee table to look at it and then put it right back, exactly, I thought, as it had been. When Jim came back, he handed me a drink and as he did, his eye went right to the piece I’d just had in my hand.
“Know what that is?” he asked.
“What what is?” I asked back.
“That glass piece on the table,” he said—a table trembling under the weight of a gazillion gadgets and trinkets—in a tone that said, “You know exactly what piece I’m talking about.” It was uncanny.
But something you notice right away about Jim is that he’s generous with the stories about his stuff. Which might make you jump to the erroneous conclusion that he’s not a secretive guy. As with nearly all writers—which is what Jim Bowsher thinks of himself as, first and foremost, a storyteller/writer—nobody ever meets “Jim the Writer”. In fact, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, he writes under a pseudonym—perhaps Wapakoneta’s best-kept secret, in a small town where everybody knows everything about everybody else—precisely so that no one ever will.
The other thing he’s secretive about is his rocks. I’ve written here before about his extraordinary rock garden, a burgeoning collection of rocks, stones, boulders and masonry samplings that also all have specific meanings and stories behind them, iconic pieces of geological and human history, precisely and significantly placed in Jim’s backyard, which, like the rock collection itself has crept over boundary after boundary, until it has taken up the entire center of the block. Amazing as it may seem, his neighbors have ceded to his advance and accompanied him in the growth of his monumental project. The entire block is dominated by this unique “Bowsher Collection”.
Jim's latest project: The veterans
But how he places his rocks where he places them and how he built his stunning Temple of Tolerance, which is at the heart of the rock garden, are facts that remain largely a mystery. And one that Jim jealously guards. Although I know for a fact that he has destroyed at least one Army surplus truck and tortured his battered Toyota pick-up almost past the breaking point getting his stony prizes to their destination, the engineering nitty-gritty of how he actually placed them in his backyard in the carefully thought-out positions they hold, is one of his best-kept secrets. Other than his brother Walt and a couple of other close aides who act as muscle for his pharaonic moving projects, nobody knows how the largest of these daunting monoliths got where they are, or more specifically, how one man with only the crudest of machinery and a little help from his friends got them there.
Jim’s always tweaking the rock garden, but doesn’t often work at all on any of this in front of tourists. He waits for quiet times “out back” for that and toils alone with his closest collaborators. But if a visitor should wonder into the work area when he’s setting up a new installation, he’s quick to bark, “No pictures!”
He’s not so touchy about his house. In fact, he seems to draw on all of his mental and spiritual resources as the master of the Temple of Tolerance and readily forgives uninvited prying eyes.
“The other day,” he says, “I was writing and forgot to hook the screen door. All of the sudden I heard voices and came out to find people taking pictures in my front room. They’d just walked in. Thought it was a museum. I just turned around, left the room and went back to my typewriter. (Yes, he still writes on a typewriter—no computer, no cellphone, no Internet, no distractions from his purpose and aims).
After a long while of sitting their chatting about writing, while our mutual friend, Mary Jo (“Jodi”) Knoch busies herself snapping pictures of us and the room, Jim leaps to his feet with admirable agility for a man kissing his sixth decade good-bye and says, “Come on, let’s go out in the yard and I’ll show you what I’ve been working on.”
When I see it, the veteran’s monument, I’m nonplussed. Like a lot of Jim’s special areas in the yard, this one is surrounded by wrought iron fencing painted red and gold (elsewhere red and silver). I’ve been around Jim long enough to know that none of these barriers is random. They will all have some significance, historical or otherwise, no matter how surreal the overall effect might be. The centerpiece is raised a couple of giant steps from the ground using rough-hewn quarry stone, and is paved in the old cobbles that I recognize as having once been part of the streets and sidewalks in our town, back when our parents and grandparents were young. The sidewalk around the county courthouse in the center of town is still made of these, but almost everywhere else, they were already replaced with concrete and blacktop back when we were little kids sixty-plus years ago.
At the center of the monument is an enormous transparent polymer tube. I’m guessing that it’s nine feet tall and at least eighteen inches in diameter. And it is filled solid, to within three feet of the top, with spent bullet casings of every imaginable caliber. Some, he informs me, came from nearby shooting ranges, but many others have been donated by vets from wars fought in our lifetime and still others Jim has ferreted out with his metal detector on battle sites from long-forgotten conflicts fought on blood-soaked Ohio sod.
Hanging high over the entrance to the site is a sign that reads:
“In this tube is one shell casing for each military man and woman from Ohio who died in a war—from 1812 to...” And then there’s a number with a blank before it, just in case. It reads, in white on black symbols _71,388.
Jodi, rather spontaneously, remarks, “Y’know, it’s really not that many, considering that it’s everybody since the War of 1812.”
Her statement rings true for a second, as it would to practically any American standing here, so sadly accustomed are we to our nation’s involvement in wars practically everywhere in the world and to seeing our young soldiers, sailors and airmen of every era shipped home in flag-draped boxes.
For a second, I hear in my head, the echo of my drill sergeant’s voice at Ft. Bragg, nearly half a century ago, singing as we marched:
“...and if I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home...Airborne, drive on, your left, your left, your left...”
Jim reminds her, “Yeah, but you have to multiply that by every state in the union.” There’s a moment of silence while we all do the math in our heads and simultaneously picture the resulting carnage in our mind’s eye. It is unspeakable.
Jim is quick to tell me that the rough-hewn stones that serve as a base for the monument are from the foundation of the Bowsher cabin, still carefully preserved in the nearby village of Cridersville. This shows how long his father’s people have been in this area. North of town, out in the country, there’s a road named after them. An old bridge—which has since been torn down and replaced—on that road is the scene of one of Jim’s short stories, called “Rivets”. Jim’s family on his mother’s side goes back to the Revolutionary War and they built a fine reputation for many years as firearms manufacturers, which is why, Jim tells me, he has inherited a life-long membership in the National Rifle Association.
General Johann August von Willich, commander
of "Die Neuner".
The back fence of this latest monument, says Jim, comes from the home of Brigadier General August Willich of St. Marys, a little town about the size of our own, ten miles down the pike in our same county. Willich was an immigrant, a former Prussian Army officer, who brought his knowledge of war with him and made good use of it in the bloodiest of American tragedies, the Civil War, leading union troops of the Ohio Ninth Infantry in such major battles as Shiloh, Stones River, Liberty Gap, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Resaca and Peachtree Creek. Jim says the reason he chose to remember General Willich was his reputation for never unduly risking his men’s lives. There were so many fellow German-Ohioans under his command that his outfit was nicknamed “Die Neuner”.
An historical footnote to Willich’s years in the States was his stormy relationship back in Europe with leftist writer and ideologue Karl Marx. Willich was, himself, a radical communist, who railed against Marx and his writings for being “too conservative”. One public debate between them became so heated that Willich challenged Marx to a duel, which, in the end, never took place. Despite the obvious acrimony between them, in his Revelations Concerning the Communist Trial in Cologne, Marx would write: “In the Civil War in North America, Willich showed that he is more than a visionary.” Indeed, he never shirked his duty as a soldier in accompanying his men into battle and ended up spending long months in a Confederate prison as a POW before his release in a prisoner exchange. He was severely wounded at the Civil War Battle of Resaca (Georgia)—and never fully recovered from it.
While his far-leftwing views may seem strange for the profile of a Union general in today’s political context, back then, the humanist views held by socialist and communist activists would have been entirely consistent with the rejection of slavery and racism that was part and parcel of the North’s Civil War stance.
When I look up at the gold-painted structure above my head, I suddenly realize that it is an iron bedframe. “That’s right,” Jim says. “It was the bed of a veteran who won three purple hearts for wounds received saving eight people.” Jim says the fellow actually saved the lives of several more people in war, but that those rescues “didn’t count” because the people happened to be “enemy Gerrmans” whom he pulled out of a burning building during World War II.
The wrought iron side fences once belonged, Jim says, to the home of Christian Schnell, who is buried in our home-town cemetery, Greenlawn. Schnell was born in the state of Virginia in 1838 but later gravitated to Ohio. During the Civil War, he served in the Thirty-Seventh Ohio Infantry, which led to his participation in the infamous Battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi, on May 22, 1863, when he was a corporal in the Union Army. As a result, he won the country’s highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor, for “gallantry in the charge of the volunteer storming party.”
Although this award quite often ends up being given posthumously, Christian Schnell survived the Civil War and settled in our town after the fighting was over. He died in Wapakoneta in 1908.
Asked about the paving stones used for the platform around the tube full of shell casings, Jim says that they are from the Blackhoof Street depot in Wapakoneta, from which our fathers, grandfathers and probably great-grandfathers were mustered to be shipped off by train to war. The more you look the more you find other symbols like a pile of flint from Flint Ridge, from which raw materials were quarried for flintlock rifles manufactured in Ohio. A sign in memory of a Union Army volunteer regiment from Auglaize County, of which Wapakoneta is the county seat. And the door lights from a World War II National Guard armory in our town that would later serve as a recreation center called “The Wigwam” where the kids from our generation danced and played music every weekend.
At the pinnacle of the monument, capping the tube, there is a conical piece painted silver that I ask Jim about. I ask what it is and Jim asks me what I think it is, and I dig back into the training from my brief three-year military career and recall a ceremonial piece called “a truck”. In military lore, the truck is the piece—often a golden or metallic-colored ball—at the top of the flagpole, which, so the story goes, contains a match and a single bullet. The idea is that if a military installation falls, the last survivor will be able to use the match to burn the stars and stripes in order to keep the flag out of enemy hands, and then use the bullet to kill himself. But I’ve heard of some trucks being used to hold time capsule-type items that are kept in secret. Neither story is readily provable and may just be the result of fantastic speculation by soldiers standing for too-long moments at attention on hot parade fields facing the national emblem.
I say, “It’s a truck.” Both Jim and Mary Jo look at me blankly. “The thing that goes at the top of a flagpole.”
That’s right,” Jim says. “This is the one that used to be on top of the flagpole that was installed on the very spot where Colonel Crawford was tortured to death by the Indians.” How he came about it, Jim doesn’t say, but he assures us it’s authentic.
Ohio history buffs will recall that Colonel William Crawford was a well-known military officer in the American fight for independence (which makes this the only symbolic reference in the monument that is pre-War of 1812). He retired from active duty in 1781. But the following year, General William Irvine talked him into leading a five hundred-man expedition, the mission of which was to carry out surprise raids on enemy Indian villages along the Sandusky River.
A period artist's depiction of Colonel Crawford being tortured to
death by Native Americans.
Turns out, Colonel Crawford would have done well to remain in retirement. British troops out of Detroit and allied with the Indians against American settlers got wind of Crawford’s adventure and had 450 warriors and troops awaiting his arrival in the area. The resulting ambush led to a couple of days of fighting, but, in the end, Crawford and his men were surrounded and out-matched. He and many of his men were captured. The colonel himself was turned over to the Indians, who made him the focus of their vengeance for the mass murder earlier that year of ninety-six peaceful Christian-converted Native Americans, many of them women and children, by Pennsylvania militiamen. Crawford ended up dying a terrible death, suffering horrendous torture for hours before being burned to death at the stake. The Crawford Counties found in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan are all named after him.
Jim tells us a few anecdotes about people who have come to see the veterans monument to date: like the elderly lady who came with a relative and didn’t seem to get what it was all about until, all of the sudden, as if the meaning had just dawned her, she stepped forward, embraced the tube and cried, “I want my son back!” The son who had died in Vietnam nearly half a century before. Or the Italian family who searched the contents of the see-through tube for two matching cartridge-casings and when they found them, had pictures taken standing there pointing to them. Seems two long-lost relatives, brothers who had gone off to battle together during World War I, had simultaneously died together on the battlefield, just inches from one another. The two bullet casings were a reminder, and from now on, the “belonged” to that family. Or the aging US combat veteran who had laconically and stalwartly entered the yard and climbed to the platform where the tube holding the casings stands with seemingly implacable calm, until he pictured all of the comrades he had lost and couldn’t help embracing the monument and weeping. “I get it,” he said. “I get it.”
Jim proudly shares the news with us that people from elsewhere in the US who have seen the veterans monument have gone back to their states and begun plans for similar projects. Already, Jim says, there are plans for such monuments in three states and he readily and excitedly admits that he never thought that such an idea could turn into “a cottage industry”.
It’s Mary Jo who asks Jim about the “golden orbs”. And oddly enough, after all the times that I’ve been here, it is only right at that moment that I realize that almost every installation, decoration, nook and cranny in Jim’s incredible house and yard includes at least one golden orb of uniform size. There are even a couple nestled among the stony adornments in front of his house when you pull alongside the curb on Wood Street. And as if I’ve become suddenly hyper-focused on these, I notice that one of them on the new monument has turned a bit so that I can see a thumb-sized hole in the bottom of it...It’s a bowling ball! As are all the others, every one spray-painted a bright metallic gold.
What do they mean, Jodi wants to know? “They’re my dad,” says Jim. He explains that his father worked hard to provide for his family all his life, and that the first job he ever had, back when he was just a kid, was as a pin-spotter at a bowling alley, when that job was still done by hand, prior to automation. Jim has told me before how his father always inspired and encouraged him in everything he did. Even when some of Jim’s projects surpassed his dad’s powers of comprehension, he cheered Jim on. “I don’t understand what this is all about, son, but if it’s what makes you happy, you keep right on doing it!” he would tell Jim.
The bowling ball orbs are Jim’s homage to that love and inspiration.
With Jim Bowsher, there’s never a dull moment.