|Photos by Mary Jo Knoch|
Friday, October 13, 2017
THE GO-TO PLACE FOR WAPAKONETONIANS IN THE KNOW
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.”