|Auglaize River, Wapakoneta Ohio. |
Photo by Linda Kneer
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
I sometimes wonder why I’ve worked as hard as I have in my lifetime. I’ve thought a lot more about this recently since I’ve started taking it a little easier. I still work fairly hard and am very busy with projects of my own besides those of my select clientele, but I no longer kill myself jamming my days with more work than I can safely handle and driving myself to the limits of my mental and physical capacity.
When you have time to think, and not just to work until you drop, you start to ask yourself why on earth you used to do that, when life could have been so much more fun and rewarding if you’d always picked and chosen what you did the way you do now. After all, if you look back, most of the “work-work” you invested so much time and vital energy in was, seen objectively, of little or no consequence, and certainly not worth squandering your youth and good health on it.
But then again, when you start having such thoughts, you realize that they’re futile. Then was then, and now is now, and you’re not the same person you used to be back then, and, as Willie Nelson sagely sings, “I could cry for the time I’ve wasted / but that’s a waste of time and tears / And I know just what I'd change / If I went back in time somehow / But there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.”
If I analyze my subconscious drives, they, like a lot of other things about me, can be traced back to my father, Whitie, and certain thoughts and traditions that he managed to instil in me, no matter how hard I tried to rebel.
Whitie, my dad, was forever telling me about how hard he’d had it as a kid. And I didn’t doubt that he had. Those were the Great Depression days and his father, my Grandpa Murel, had, like many other people, lost everything by entrusting it all to a single bank, which closed its doors overnight and left him holding the (empty) bag. Banks weren’t backed by the Federal Treasury in those days and if an institution went belly up, you were simply screwed if you had money in them.
I once heard that the amount my grandfather had lost was twenty thousand dollars. In today’s money, that would be pretty close to three hundred thousand bucks or more. A lot of savings for a thirty-something barber and later grocery store owner, and a traumatic enough loss that for the rest of his life, Murel always had accounts spread around in numerous banks and sometimes carried as much as a couple of thousand dollars in cash in his wallet, just to make sure he was never again left wiped out and penniless.
Grandpa Murel figured he’d had to work for every dime he’d ever made and that everybody else should do the same. It didn’t much occur to him that a parent had certain responsibilities toward his offspring, and already as a little kid I’d heard stories about my Grandma Alice fleshing out her meager household allowance by turning out his trouser pockets while he was asleep to get whatever roll of smaller bills and loose coins he had there that weren’t in his wallet, which he carefully put away at night.
As soon as a boy was strong enough, he should be earning his keep, Murel figured. So, according to Whitie, from the time he was about ten, his father made sure he was never idle in the summertime when he was out of school. Often the jobs involved a long bike ride out past the city limits to clear land or to pick fruit and vegetables. Other times it was ditch-digging for field-tiling. And at the end of the day, he said, there was only a shiny quarter or fifty-cent piece for his trouble.
There were some Depression Era parents I knew who spoiled the heck out of their kids because they never wanted them to have to make the kind of sacrifices they themselves had. Kids, they felt, should be going to school, devoting time to extracurricular activities and having fun with their friends, not being saddled with the drudgery of work from a young age. But Whitie was of a different school. Whatever had been good enough for him was good enough for me. The only way you learned the reality of life was by earning your keep from a young age, the way he had and the way his father before him had. What hope was there for you if you thought money grew on trees? You’d only end up taking a fall once you’d been kicked out of the nest and had to fend for yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think I was above hard work. On the contrary, I tended to enjoy physical labor and often volunteered for it at home and to help out my Grandma Alice whenever she was doing the heavier yard and garden tasks, like spading, mowing, weeding, etc. With me it was kind of the Zen thing. You know, before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water. I didn’t mind or think that kind of labor was beneath me. In fact, I considered it noble and adult.
But some of the things Whitie got me saddled up with were above and beyond. I remember “a little yard job” he got for me when I was about nine or perhaps ten. It was at the home of a lady who worked in the kitchen at Whitie’s business, the Teddy Bear Restaurant, on Blackhoof and Main in Wapakoneta, Ohio, my home town. The most she could pay me was fifty cents. But, hey, like Whitie always said, fifty cents was fifty cents. It was “a lot if you didn’t have it.”
Turned out the lady lived in a little house behind a rocky flood wall, on the north bank of the Auglaize River, which ran through our town. It was a nasty, stony, gullied, spit of low land recovered from the river, seeded with a tough, wide-bladed growth that looked for all the world like pure quake grass. It had been a while since anybody had mowed it and the grass was ankle high. I’d asked Whitie if I could use his mower to do the job but he allowed that hers would be “better suited to the terrain”, and besides, I “might hurt myself” working there alone with a power mower.
The lady’s “better suited” mower turned out to be a relic, an ancient push mower that had seen a lot better days. At that age, the handle came to just beneath my chin and the grips, when I would lean forward to push, were at about the height of my ears. Maintenance was conspicuous by its absence. The mower’s blades were somewhat rusted and less than sharp. The wheels appeared never to have been greased. So when I would push, the hand-mower would often jam so that neither the wheels nor the blades turned and the thing would just skid on the grass and make me cuss under my breath. Then I would have to unjam the blades and wheels by hand and start again.
The ill-kept, dull mower was no match for the deep crabgrass and multiple gullies, and as such, the job turned into a slow-progress nightmare that quickly exhausted me. The sun was going down when my father—at the behest of my mother—showed up to take me home for supper. He found me frustrated to the verge of tears, still trying to shove the ancient manual machine through the thick grass to no avail.
“What’s the story?” he wanted to know. “You should have been done long ago.”
“Not with this piece of crap mower,” I said, my voice shaking.
“Can’t be that bad,” he said.
“That’s easy for you to say.” I said.
With that, he took the machine from my hands and started manhandling it through the dense grass, as if to show me how it was done. I was beside myself with glee when the mower jammed on him and I heard him mutter “What the hell?” The lady wasn’t home. So Whitie went up to her tiny tool shed on the carport and helped himself, scrounging around until he found an oil can and brought it back to where the mower had hunkered down and refused to budge.
“You’ll tell her I didn’t take her oil, right?” I asked. I didn’t want her accusing me of being a thief. But Whitie didn’t answer. He was cussing under his breath and abundantly lubricating the machine in the failing light. Suddenly, after a few experimental pushes, the clattering antique started to function.
I thought Whitie would give it back to me and tell me to finish the job I’d started, but he didn’t. Instead, he curtly said, “Go back to the car and wait. I’ll finish this up quick so we can get the hell home to supper.”
It was the beginning of autumn and almost dark by the time he hustled the old mower up to the shed, put it away and climbed into the car.
“Sorry, Dad,” I said, not trusting my voice to get out around the big lump in my throat. And when he said nothing, I said, “Sorry you had to help me out. I just couldn’t get that darn thing to work.”
Then he said, “At least the job’s done. That’s what’s important.”
But I could tell he wasn’t happy with me. I’d failed him once again. And I promised myself never to do that again. Whatever job I took on, I’d finish it, even if it killed me.
But the worst job by far that Whitie ever got me into was when he hired me out for a summer job painting a picket fence around the property of a breakfast customer the Teddy Bear. The guy was a union tool and die man at the Ford plant in the nearby industrial city of Lima. He lived on the east edge of town and could be to work in a hop, skip and a jump from there. He made his home in a nice old two-storey brick house, which, I can only guess, had once been part of a farm before the land was divided up into lots and a housing addition built up out there. The house was surrounded by a typically small-town American white picket fence.
Anyway, it seems this customer had been asking for estimates from painters to get that fence re-done—adult painters, who charged real living wages. He was griping to Whitie about how high their prices were while waiting for his eggs and bacon. Whitie, who was known for being thrifty, was commiserating with this guy, but one of the other patrons sitting at the long front table, where many of the town’s movers and shakers had their morning coffee together, piped up and said, “You union guys are all alike. You think what you do’s worth a fortune, but then when you ask for a labor estimate for some job you want done yourselves, you scream highway robbery and cry like babies.”
So the guy clammed up and let the subject drop. But he’d left Whitie brainstorming. School was out and a summer job would do me good, since, in his view, I refused to play baseball or anything and “wasted” all my time banging on the drums, reading or hanging out at the pool. This was actually not true, of course. That year I was ushering and cleaning at the movie theater, mopping the dining room after closing at the Teddy Bear, playing a few teen dance gigs with a little rock ‘n’ roll band called The Trees, and taking care of a few yards on the residential end of Auglaize Street, Wapakoneta’s main thoroughfare. But my father clearly believed this was way too little to make profitable use of my time.
So when this guy got up to leave, Whitie said, “Say, Jim, my boy’s not doing anything much. Maybe he could paint that fence for you.”
“Well, does he know how to paint?” the man asked.
“Oh yeah,” said Whitie, “he started helping me paint when he was ten. Helped me scrape and paint that big old house we owned on West Auglaize. He’s pretty good and does a nice neat job.”
Indeed, that tall gabled house had had old slate roofs and Whitie hadn’t wanted the two adult painters he’d hired to help him walking around on that roof and cracking the fragile slate tiles. I was tall for my age but still, compared to the men, I didn’t weigh more than about seventy pounds back then. So Whitie handed me a paint scraper and a wire brush, showed me how to set and steady the extension ladder, and sent me up to the lofty heights of the gables to start chipping old paint.
Now, I was fourteen, and I’d painted a lot of things in the four years since then.
“How much will he charge me?” the guy asked.
“How about forty bucks?” Whitie said, grabbing a figure out of the air without having any idea what the job entailed. The guy was probably pleased since any professional painter would have charged him way, way more, but he couldn’t help haggling.
“How ‘bout thirty?” he tried, and Whitie said, “Sold!”
That night, Whitie said, “Hey Danny, I found you a neat little odd job so you can make a little extra money this summer. I figured it’d make a nice little difference for you.”
“What is it?” I asked a little suspiciously.
“You know Jim, the Ford guy who comes in for breakfast every morning at the Teddy Bear?”
“Well, he’s got this little picket fence around his place that needs painting."
I didn’t say anything.
“He’ll pay you thirty bucks to do it. Hell, you’re a good painter. Shouldn’t take you long.”
“You think I’m a good painter?” I asked incredulously, since I seldom got anything like a compliment from Whitie.
“Hell yes you are!” he said enthusiastically. “And let’s face it, thirty bucks is thirty bucks. How long can it take to paint a little fence?”
After the first morning of meticulously scraping and brushing the badly peeling paint from a section of pickets, posts and rails, I started to realize how long. In that entire morning of painting-chipping and wire-brushing toil, I had managed to prepare about twenty pickets and their corresponding sections of rail and posts for painting—the actual painting would only come when the entire fence had been scraped and wire-brushed. When I broke for lunch, I gazed down the long rank of pickets that I was working on and decided—probably unwisely, since once the job had begun, it would have been unthinkable for me to quit before it was finished—I decided to count how many there were in the entire fence surrounding the house.
The answer was devastating for my morale: There were four hundred fifty pickets, thirty four by four-inch posts, and fifty-eight sections of two by four-inch rail, all with paint in a similarly disastrous state of disrepair. Clearly, the job would take most of the summer, since, having other obligations, I could only work mornings on it.
It was obviously a losing proposition. Even if I brown-bagged for lunch and didn’t let myself be tempted more than once a week or so to get a foot-long hotdog and a slush or a root beer at Mayor Max’s dairy bar a block up the street, there was no way the economics on this project worked. And if I did a meticulous job, I would have to put up with the owner of the fence and Whitie constantly asking me when I was going to finish. By this time, however, I had read Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, which detailed Michelangelo’s arduous struggle to complete the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and it was clear to me that patrons never appreciated the work of true artists—whether they were painting the Sistine Chapel or a picket fence. Like Michelangelo’s Pope Julius II, they would forever be badgering the artist to hurry up and finish, oblivious to the fact that quality took time and patience.
I lost money and the free time to enjoy with my friends that summer, but I gained the self-respect of carrying a hard job through to the end, and of doing the highest-quality job I was capable of. Every job I did from then on would be done the same way...right up until today.
There have been times when well-meaning friends have encouraged me to take a more mediocre attitude toward “work-work” and to save my energy for my own creative projects. Perhaps I’m obtuse, but I’m afraid I don’t know how to do that and I’ve always suspected that if you take a slovenly attitude toward one job, that will end up being your attitude toward every job. In other words, practice working badly and when it comes time to work well, you won’t know how. Perhaps the trick is, then, as I said earlier, to choose the projects you undertake better, making sure that they fit within the focus of what you love, rather than what you think you need.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Yesterday we said good-bye to José. I helped carry him to the sober vehicle in which he would make his last earthly journey.
It was fitting and proper that my being in Buenos Aires for this event should have come about as it did. It was the result of a journey, an unexpected one. Not the carefully planned thousand-mile trips that I usually organize for the three or so visits a year that I make from Patagonia to the Argentine capital. This one was spur-of-the-moment, as if there were some urgent calling that drove me to make it. Fitting and proper, I say, because what José and I mostly had in common were journeys and the call of the Patagonian wilds.
In this case, my wife was the voice of Destiny.
“Why don’t you book a flight to Buenos Aires?” she asked.
“Because you need it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you’re all uptight and finding fault with everything. That everything irritates you. You need to get away and relax.”
“Why don’t you go if you can’t stand being around me?” I growled.
“See what I mean?” she said.
She was right, of course. I’ve recently been going through treatment for the chronic arrhythmia that I’ve been living with for a decade. And I’m a terrible patient. I—like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets—hate pills (“I’m using the word hate here...about pills”) and like hospitals and going to the doctor even less (my record for not setting foot in a doctor’s office was the twenty-two years from 1978 to 2000...and I only went then because I had cut a tendon in my foot almost in two and realized I wasn’t going to be able to stick it back together with Loctite Super Glue). As in the case of that neurotic Nicholson character, however—and like it or not—pills, in this case, do me good, as do the trips to the cardiologist that I avoid for as long as possible and then take what he tells me with a grain of salt (“Oh, and about salt, Dan, lay off of it!”).
But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or like no longer being able to be the hard-drinking, “indestructible” devil-may-care rascal I once was. And that makes me really irritable, because it makes me feel old.
So I made the arrangements—emailed a client who owed me money to see if I could go collect it and while I was there talk to him about an upcoming project, messaged a friend whose novel had just won a literary prize in Spain to see if he’d be available in Buenos Aires to celebrate before he left for Europe to accept the award, and made a few other contacts to ensure that I could justify what was basically a pleasure trip by making it also sound like work and thus not feel any guilt (Oh, but the Puritan work ethic doth die hard!).
I booked my flight and lodging on Wednesday evening and by midday Friday, I was on my way to Buenos Aires. The first thing I did on arriving was call Cris, José’s partner of 30-odd years, since Virginia, my wife, had let her know I was coming and she’d admonished that I had better get in touch as soon as I landed. Cris said I should plan for a cookout at their place over the weekend.
We’d agreed to get together on Sunday evening, but that never happened. On Sunday morning, Cris called to let me know that José had died during the night. So the get-together on Sunday evening was with numerous friends and family members who had come to accompany Cris, and many of us were present the next day as well for José’s funeral service in the chapel at Buenos Aires’s sprawling Chacarita Cemetery.
José’s death wasn’t unexpected. But it still came as a surprise. He was nothing if not stubborn and tenacious, and he’d been fighting death for several years now, despite having become permanently bed-ridden. He had put up such a valiant fight, that we’d all almost forgotten he could actually die at any time.
|José and Cris|
Virginia and I have known José and Cris ever since they met. They were both classmates of Virginia’s brother’s at the University of Buenos Aires School of Architecture and Urban Design. They hung out at my mother-in-law’s house working on projects together throughout most of their college years in the seventies and eighties and we all got to be very good friends. At first they were my brother-in-law Miguel’s friends and we were simply peripheral acquaintances, but eventually we became Cris and José’s friends in our own right.
My relationship with José was, I would eventually realize, a lot like the one I had with my father. José was enough like Whitie—and I enough like myself—that we often clashed despite having great affection for one another. And since he was considerably older than the rest of us—he had been a road-crew ramrod and later private building contractor for years before going to architecture school, and had an ex-wife and a pre-adolescent son by that marriage to show for it as well—he often tried to pull rank, which, belligerent cuss that I’ve always been, I wasn’t willing to put up with. Cris and I got along swimmingly, however, and Virginia liked them both a lot, so the foursome tended to work.
It was with José and Cris that we explored numerous localities in the vast Patagonian region. That was where we were in our element. Travel, adventure and a bent for driving interminably long distances were addictions that José and I shared, and our friendship flourished when we were on dusty back roads, our two cars loaded with gear and victuals, rolling in tandem like a miniature wagon train through that vast and mysterious region. Or anyplace else that we decided to camp, for that matter. Because Patagonia wasn’t the only place that we directed our convoy and pitched our tents. We also camped on the shores of the Atlantic in the sprawling territory of Buenos Aires Province. And on the edge of a lagoon known as Lobos, where activities including a little fishing, a lot of talking and a corresponding lot of barbecuing and wine-drinking.
|Cris, José and Virginia in their element: Patagonia|
However, the deep southern reaches of Patagonia were not just journeys, but a dream we shared. Someday, we both insisted, we would all go there to live, he and Cris and Virginia and I, the four of us, and anybody else from our little clique of friends and family who wanted to come along. We’d find a place that struck our fancy and set up housekeeping there for the rest of our lives. And indeed we did our homework on the trips we took together, checking out the prices of land and housing, weighing the possibility of work, projecting ideas to make a living and still be reasonably free, talking to the locals to get a clear feeling for the region, giving our minds free rein to dream the dream we shared.
Together we journeyed to the strange Patagonian coastal region of Puerto Madryn, with its clear blue-green bay, coastal caves (where Welsh settlers made their first homes in the eighteen hundreds), the low mesetas sculpted by persistent winds, rugged steppe land, and the tall lion-colored cliffs above stony beaches where penguins and fur seals formed colonies, and within sight of which scores of southern right whales came each year to mate and give birth. While there we toured the towns that Welsh settlers in search of religious freedom had first established—Madryn, Gaiman, Rawson and Trelew, and indeed much of the rest of the province of Chubut as well.
Together too, we crossed the broad Patagonian desert from the coast to the Andes on a stunningly desolate highway where an Automobile Club service station every few hundred kilometers was what passed for civilization—that and blink-of-an-eye villages like Las Chapas, Las Plumas, Dolavon and the hidden settlement of Villa Ameghino where Reynolds and Jones were common names and the Chubut River was the artery whose flow maintained life there.
|Cris, José and Dan on the road in Patagonia.|
Out of the gritty desert and raw steppes, we wended our way into the mountains and delighted to the lush forests and gentle valleys there, like the one that connected the pleasant Patagonian outposts of Trevelín and Esquel. We camped in the alerce evergreen and maitén forests of a national park on the shores of deep and cold Lake Futalaufquen, cooled our beer in a mountain stream that flowed by our tents and gathered watercress and mint there as well for our dinner salad. We pitched our tents on a tall table rock above the Río Azul and hung out at the artisan’s fair in El Bolsón. We camped in the heat of summer in Bariloche on Lake Nahuel Huapi, and curled up in our sleeping bags against the frost and autumn chill in San Martín de los Andes on the shore of Lake Lacar. And everywhere there was always a campfire, something to barbecue, spirits to drink and abundant laughter.
José was a cocky bantam rooster with a quick temper and a staunch resistance to backing down when challenged—traits he shared with Whitie. But he was also a joker with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for practical jokes. I recall once on a trip south, when I had charted our course for the day and was in the lead, seeing in my rearview mirror how José’s car suddenly veered off the road onto the earthen berm in a cloud of dust. We had just passed a field where manure had recently been spread, and the air was absolutely ripe with it (good ol’ fresh country air, as my mother, Reba Mae, used to refer to it).
I pulled over as well, and as soon as the dust had cleared, I saw Cris jump out of the car and start desperately inspecting the soles of her shoes. With the window down, I could hear her say, “No, José, mine are clean, it must be yours...but why can I still smell it out here?!” Meanwhile, inside the car, I could see José absolutely hysterical with laughter at the sight of Cris, a city girl for sure, checking and rechecking her shoes. Seems when she’d asked what that awful smell was, José said, “I don’t know, but whatever it is, you’ve stepped in it!” urgently stopping the car so she could get out and check.
|One of many campsites we shared.|
I have certain images of José etched in my memory. José getting up and hiking off to a nearby country store while the rest of us were still snoring in our tents and getting back just in time to offer us a breakfast of fresh French bread and butter. José with his half-glasses on the bridge of his nose, sitting at a camp table in front of his tent reading a newspaper, drinking yerba mate from a large gourd and using an enormous hunting knife to spread butter on his breakfast bread. José baiting his hook with sardine and casting from the pier in Villa Gesell, standing somewhat apart from the rest of the group, enjoying that moment alone with himself, never looking more relaxed and content than right then. José turning sausages on a grill over the campfire, cooking and talking at the same time regaling us with strange stories from his days as foreman on a road crew in Entre Ríos Province or from when he was an officer’s assistant during his obligatory military service.
There are ties that can’t be broken even when it seems they can. José and I had a falling out once. It wasn’t even our falling out. It was a tiff between him and Miguel, but I was tangentially involved. It’s hard to believe but for the next decade, Virginia and I didn’t see or speak to José and Cris. In hindsight, I would tell any young person who wanted my advice never to fight with good friends or family to the point of a break-up. Because in the end, it’s like cutting off an arm. Worst, it’s like cutting out a piece of your heart.
It was during that time that Virginia and I made the long-postponed decision to finally move to Patagonia. No one came along. No family, no friends. Just us. Our idea that if we went, others would followed turned out to be a self-indulgent fantasy. But go we did and there we’ve stayed, and no regrets.
|With Cris and José on the Patagonian coast.|
But after we’d been there for a few years, one evening we got a call. It was Cris. They were in our area and wondered if we’d like to have a cup of coffee. I made no attempt to hide my delight at hearing from them and she sounded relieved. I asked where they were and she told me that they had bought a time-share, which, as destiny would have it, was less than two miles from our place.
“Stay right there,” I said. “I’ll be right over to pick you up!”
That evening at our place was a celebration, a homecoming, a return to how things should always have been. But it also marked another hiatus.
I enthusiastically told them that this was just the time for two architects like themselves to come to Bariloche where we lived. The resort was growing. More people were coming all the time, and they all needed to build homes. There was a fortune to be made for skilled people like them if they came right then. But that was no longer Cris’s dream. She was, she told me, heading for Spain.
When were they leaving, I wanted to know? Soon, she said, but José wouldn’t be going. Maybe later. Maybe once she got established. But José never went, nor could Cris even really go completely. We lost her for nearly another decade, but she remained in contact. Almost daily with José. He had no interest in Spain. And for the time being, she was through with Argentina.
In the meantime, we saw José whenever we were back in Buenos Aires and he always had news to share from Cris. And José also came down to visit us in Patagonia. That, he told me, was still his dream. He had never given it up. Whenever Cris got Spain out of her system and came back home, he would insist that they move to Patagonia. And as if to prove it, he did as we had always done on our journeys together, checking prices, looking at land, talking to locals. Patagonia was still in his plans.
And Cris did eventually come home. Not really by choice, but because there was no other option for someone of her high principles. When both her mother and José fell ill, suddenly, she was back, leaving the quiet life she’d build for herself in Spain because, simply put, there are ties that can never be broken, and on this new journey, she would accompany both her mother and José right up to their own last ones.
We said good-bye to José yesterday and in doing so I realized that nothing is random. There are ties that are meant to be, or so it would appear, and no matter how much we might test them or how much we might distance one end of the tie from the other, it simply can’t be cut, because it’s already tied to your mind and your heart. Once, José, Cris, Virginia and I were inseparable. Then we thought we weren’t. But in the end, we found out that we’d been right the first time—inseparable.
This last journey José had no choice but to make alone, and we had no choice but to let him go. But I’m not discounting the possibility that we’ll all meet up again someday, like the immortal Joe Cocker may well still be singing, “with a different name / and a different face” but with that same mysterious attraction that fosters ties that would appear to last forever.