Wednesday, May 25, 2022

OHIO COUNTRY

 I’ve been back in my native Ohio since April 30th. I’ll be flying back to Miami tomorrow and back home to Patagonia a few days later. It has been great being back in my home town and my home state over the course of the past month. It has been the first trip “back home” I’ve made since the pandemic broke out. The first, in fact, since November of 2018.

Wapakoneta, Ohio, my home town

I could have done worse than to have returned with two new books under my arm—one published toward the end of last year and the other newly out last March. Clearly, I took advantage of the pandemic isolation to get some work done.

I discovered on arrival in Ohio that, in my absence, I have become a bestseller… A bestseller, that is, in Wapakoneta, my home town in west-central Ohio. That may not mean much to highly successful writers, but the truth is, Stephen King couldn’t have gotten a warmer welcome.

My friend and local agent Mary Jo Knoch had set up a couple of events for me at the local library. The ladies at the Auglaize County Library were gracious and generous with their space and time. Two nights in a row, I invaded their basement event room—once with the flamboyant Jim Bowsher, the protagonist of my first published book, The Rock Garden and Other Stories. The second time they had to put up with just me, since I used that occasion to discuss my latest book, Visions Of What Used To Be, and my life as a musician, journalist, writer and traveler.

With Jim Bowsher during a joint talk
Photo by Mary Jo Knoch
Jim does a lot of public speaking: Writer, historian, ancient artifact-hunter, ad hoc anthropologist, expert on Wapakoneta personalities and indeed on Ohio (among other things), collector (of stories and of the myriad conversation pieces that represent them), renowned local figure, folkloric hoarder and resident eccentric, Jim has no problem holding forth for hours on end. I, on the other hand, have spent most of my adult life in quiet, lonesome spaces, researching, writing, opining on paper and pondering in isolation, with only very occasional company. Which means that when I am coaxed out of my lair and placed before the public, the first reaction is a deer-in-headlights moment. Mine, I mean, although the public sometimes follows suit.

Jim, on the other hand, fills a room with his exuberance and personality. He couldn’t care less if there’s anyone else there to “take up the slack”. With Jim, in fact, there just is no slack. He’s never at a loss for words. He’s the perfect conference partner for an inveterate wallflower (i.e., me), since, if I felt like it, I could just sit there all evening and say nothing, and let Jim talk.

Actually, a couple of weeks before I arrived, he even signed a score or so copies of The Rock Garden, the book I wrote about him and the extraordinary mental and physical world he lives in. He was giving a talk, and, in the absence of the author, for many, getting an autograph from the protagonist was just as good…maybe better. Even now, at one of our joint conferences—I, talking about my books and he, about the subject of the first one (namely, him)—we’re sitting side by side, busily co-signing copies of The Rock Garden, when somebody asks for us both to also sign Visions.

Jim says, “Hey, whoa, wait, should I be signing copies of the other book. I’m not even in it!”

Above and below, with friends from Casa Chic,
State and Local, and the Riverside Art Center

“Knock yourself out, man,” I say, “no problem,” so Jim ends up signing a few copies of Visions as well. It’s an autograph free-for-all!

There are two joint talks. One at the library and another, fittingly, at the Rock Garden. It turns out to be wonderful weather and a lot of people come to see and hear us there, as well as to bring their books, or to buy them in situ, to be signed.

This is all new to me. And for a while, I get this little voice in back of my head asking me who the hell I think I am, acting like a bigshot and signing books. But then I suddenly realize that, hey, these are my books, and as their author, I have not only a right but also an obligation to sign them if people ask.

I’m on Jim’s turf. He’s Home, I’m Visitor. He talks about the Garden, talks about our relationship, talks about the myriad miracles that have taken place in his own backyard. Now and then he says, “Sorry Dan, go ahead,” and I’d love to, but am damned if I can remember what I wanted to say.

Finally, I say, “I’m going to do a brief reading now from The Rock Garden,” and then, as an aside to Jim that a few people close by hear and snicker about, I say, “and you are gonna shut the hell up.” Not everybody could get away with saying that to Jim Bowsher in his own backyard, but when I say it, he laughs out loud. He knows I’m being facetious, and adds, “Well, I may have to interrupt you.” To which I respond, “Oh no you won’t.”

There’s another event, two days after the one at the Rock Garden. It takes place at the Riverside Art Center, right downtown in Wapakoneta. The RAC is a great event space, full of works by local artists and artisans. This event is organized by Wapakoneta Daily News publisher Deb Zwez, the folks at Casa Chic—one of three stores in town that are graciously selling my books (Image Masters and State and Local are the other two)—and by the RAC.

Joint talk at the Rock Garden

They’ve gone all out to provide me with a purely meet-and-greet event and have even provided soft drinks and iced sugar cookies made to look like the keys of a computer keyboard. Three of them spell out DAN at the top of the cookie tray (have to confess I ended up eating some of those, since iced sugar cookies are my favorite cookies in the world).

All four of the events—the two with Jim and the two I do alone—are flattering. I’m touched by the number of readers who turn out to meet me. Some are people I’ve known on Facebook for years but am meeting for the first time. Others are just now meeting me after reading one or both of my books. Still others go back with me a very long way. Like the mother of a former classmate, whose younger son I taught percussion to when he was, maybe, ten or eleven and I was nineteen. She is ninety-four now and shows up dressed to the nines and wearing a lovely spring hat. She’s with her husband, who was my family’s mailman from the time I was in grade school and we moved onto his route.

Several of my former classmates are there as well, including my old friend Tom Shaw, who has flown in for the occasion from Charleston, South Carolina. I’m very grateful for their presence. There are others as well, classmates of my sister, Darla, who is also there, ever supportive of my writing efforts. One of my nephews, Andrew, has also driven down from Cleveland, and I have the pleasure of spending an afternoon giving him a tour of the town as I remember it, even showing him the now much remodeled house where his great-great grandparents once lived. I also take him to the Rock Garden, where Jim Bowsher gives him a personalized tour of his opus magnus, the Temple of Tolerance.

With Miss Jean
At one of the presentations, a spry-looking lady who doesn’t look much older than I am, comes up and says hello, handing me a book to be signed.

I say, “Pleased to meet you.”

“We met a very long time ago, Dan,” she says.

With that, she takes a little cardboard folder out of her purse, opens it and lays it on the table in front of me. Inside, there is a black and white picture. At the bottom there’s a legend that reads: Centennial School, Kindergarten, 1955.

Pointing with her index finger, she says, “That’s your cousin Greg, and there you are.”

“Wow!” is all I can say. And then, “So which one are you?”

“I’m this one,” she says with a smile, and points to the teacher at the top of the picture.

“Oh my god!” I say, “You’re Miss Jean!” I am truly moved that she has taken the trouble to come to my event. And so glad to find her steady on her feet and as lucid as the first day I knew her.

Going solo at the library
This all happens at the RAC. Miss Jean also attends one of my two events at the library. When she does, we take advantage of a photo opportunity by having Mary Jo, an excellent professional photographer, take our picture in the children’s reading area, which is decorated with kindergarten-like images. As we’re sitting there, Miss Jean turns to me and says, “You know, something I’m very proud of is that none of my kids—I call them my kids—was ever in prison.” I reflect that it’s a real sign of the times that this, above all other achievements, has done her proud.

The last event—it’s at the Auglaize County Library—is a test of my meager ability to hold an audience’s attention. As I face my audience—lots of familiar faces from a half-century ago—there’s a second when I’m sorry I didn’t invite Jim to join me here too, even though the subject of this talk is Vision Of What Used To Be and my life and times. At least if Jim were here, I fret, people wouldn’t be bored.

But it doesn’t take long for me to find the “improv” performer in me, and to my delight, I hear the audience laugh and see their hands go up to ask questions, and surprise myself by knowing the answers and enjoying providing them. All in all, it turns out to be a truly gratifying experience.

I had the pleasure of being in Wapakoneta two Thursdays. Whenever the weather is good, Jim Bowsher’s Rock Garden hosts a group of “pickin’ people” in the evening. They come straggling into the yard one at a time along toward sunset. Mostly they carry guitars, both acoustic and electric. Most are store-bought, but at least one of the regulars makes his own instruments and they’re pretty amazing. Another performer arrives carrying a five-string banjo.

Mark at the Rock Garden
My childhood and life-long friend Mark Gallimore is one of the regulars. Mark was always a talent. An outstanding artist, a musician and songsmith, an accomplished writer
who majored in English at Miami University in southern Ohio many years ago, he has chosen a quiet life here in our old stomping grounds. He has that in common with Jim Bowsher. Guys with amazing talents who have kept to themselves and kept to their home turf.

It’s always a celebration when Mark and I meet, as it is with Jim and me, and with our mutual friend Mary Jo, an artist and photographer whose haunting images of our neck of the woods should long ago have found their way to a much broader public. Incredible people who have stayed in the places they love and documented them in their art.

"Y'know Bill? He knows three thousand songs."
It's a jam session in the Thursday Rock Garden twilight. Musicians and public alike carry their own refreshments in various and sundry coolers—beer, wine, soft drinks. They relax in lawn chairs that they carry into the yard, or they scatter among the myriad stones piled everywhere, choosing the best vantage points from which to enjoy the impromptu recital.

Another of the regulars, besides my friend Mark, is Bill. Bill is a force. A big guy with a big voice and an easy guitar style.

Walt's "washtub bass"

Mark says, “Y’know Bill? He claims to know—and I believe him—three thousand songs by heart. He’s got a fake-book about the size of the one I have the songs I know in. Those are just the ones he doesn’t know by heart.”

Often, it’s Bill who leads. He’ll start a tune—maybe pop, maybe blues, maybe a nice country song—and the others will strum around until they find the key and then join in, taking turns soloing and singing lead or harmony. They improvise and enjoy the musical dialogue. They are clearly in touch with one another. Very little talk. Just lots of mutual playing and singing.

Another regular at these sessions is Walt, Jim’s brother. His instrument of choice is a variation on the washtub bass that he has rendered all in wood. He adds rhythm to the tunes and sings harmony. And when it’s cool out, he also builds a fire in the fire ring that is at the center of the musicians’ gathering place.

On the last Thursday that I’m around, Jim comes out of the house and brings an extra chair for me. I pop across the street to the Beer and Wine Depot and buy a six-pack of Miller Highlife—"the Champagne of bottled beer”—and, back at the Rock Garden, take the seat that Jim has provided me with. Sitting on the other side of him is Larry Street, a close friend of his who is a major local figure in the exploration of Native American digs. He is the discoverer of no few of them, whole former villages he has found, places buried by time until a local farmer's plow turns parts of them over. Or until rivers and streams wash away the dusts of time and reveal the treasures beneath. I share my beers with them, and we sit there enjoying the music at the end of a perfect week—back in Ohio Country, back in my childhood home.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN—A COVID CHRONICLE

 It had been, literally, years since I’d traveled. Last time I was in the States was November of 2018. In 2019, my wife’s older sister was mortally ill, and Virginia was traveling a lot back and forth the thousand-plus miles from our home in Patagonia to Buenos Aires, so I decided to postpone my annual visit to my homeland until early 2020.

I finally made reservations for March 25th, 2020. Had my tickets, hotel reservations, rental car reservation, the whole works. Got my pre-trip haircut on March 10. Little did I know it would be the last one with my barber of twenty years, who would die a month or so later of COVID. The pandemic wasn’t yet a thing then. Or rather, it was. We just didn’t know it. It was like, ho-hum, another “Asian flu” epidemic.

But the same day I got that haircut, I also went to my cardiologist and family doctor for a routine checkup. I told him I was glad I’d gotten in to see him before I left.

“Left? You going someplace.”

“Yes, my belated annual trip to the States.”

“You’re going now?”

“Yes, in two weeks.”

“Do you have to?”

“Uh, well, no, I don’t have to. But I want to. I didn’t make it back last year because of my wife’s sister’s illness, and in case you hadn’t noticed, Doc, I’m not getting any younger, and neither are my family and friends back home.”

“I understand,” he said, shrugging slightly and looking worried.

“What is it?”

“Well, this whole COVID thing.”

“Is it that serious.”

“Yes, it is. Especially since you have high blood pressure, arrhythmia and you suffered a life-threatening lung injury…when was it? A year ago?”

“Year and a half.”

“Still…”

“So what you’re saying is, I shouldn’t go.”

“Well, no, if you have to go, go. But I can’t say I recommend it.”


“Well, I don’t have to. And if you really think it’s that serious, I’ll postpone it."

"It'd be a good idea. If there were a vaccine, it'd be different, but there isn’t one yet. And the government here is going to impose a quarantine, so if you go, when you come back you’ll have to be in quarantine for a couple of weeks.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

So I postponed. I figured in six months or so everything would be back to normal, and I could reactivate my reservations. Fat chance. Over the next two years I watched in horror as a million of my fellow Americans died in one of the most advanced countries on earth, where, incredibly, the ultra-advanced medical system was overwhelmed—and while tens of thousands died in my adopted country. In the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, I lost several friends and acquaintances to the ravages of the plague.

My wife and I isolated. In Patagonia, especially where and how we live, it's easy to isolate. It’s also easy to become alienated and out of touch, to slip into an almost anti-social, hermit-like existence. And that’s what we did. Out of an abundance of caution, my wife wasn’t even letting me go to the grocery store with her, since she was concerned about my pre-existing conditions like the lung injury, high blood pressure and drug-controlled arrhythmia.

I became a creature of the forest. Getting out into nature, into the mountain woodlands. But as far from people as I could keep. Social media kept me from getting any squirrelier that I became from being my own best (and worst) company. But still, I could feel something akin to agoraphobia setting in. Just that it wasn’t limited to my house, but to the house and the seventy acres of forest surrounding it, where I was unlikely to meet up with any other human being.

We got the vaccines. A mixed bag if there ever was one—Russia’s Sputnik the first time, America’s Moderna the second and England’s AstraZeneca the third time.

Still, it didn’t feel safe out. I wore a mask everywhere, and “everywhere” was the gas station, the bank, doctors and dentist, the essentials. I was supposed to have eye surgery for a failing retina. That had to be postponed too and my left eye drew dangerously close to blindness waiting.

But then one day, it was as if a long night was ending, and I could begin to see the dawning of life sort of as I recalled it. Not carefree like before, admittedly, but no longer scared to death that I’d catch the plague and die gasping for breath like a hooked fish on a dock. I saw my doctor to adjust the dosage of my blood pressure medicine. I told him we were getting so tired of the pandemic, especially of its stealing life, or rather, living, from us at this time in our lives when we shouldn’t have a care in the world and should be living the freest ever.

He said, “But you’ve had your vaccines and you’re boosted, right?”

“Yes, but…”

“What is it you want to do?”

“Get my eye surgery so I can see again…”

“You can do that. You can do it tomorrow, if you want.”

“Really?”

“Really. You’re chances of getting seriously ill even if you do get breakthrough COVID, which you very likely won’t, are practically nil.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Great news, but I have to travel to General Roca for the surgery. That’s two hundred fifty miles on a bus.”

“You’ll be fine. Just wear your mask.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“So when do you think I’ll be able to travel back to the States.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Suddenly, it was as if a heavy weight had been lifted off of me. As if the darkness had lifted and the sun was shining. It was suddenly a beautiful day. I was free again. It was a more dangerous world than I’d known pre-pandemic, but it was doable. You just had to arm yourself with mask and hand-sanitizer, and social distancing, but hey, it was no longer the life of a mushroom, of fungus sitting alone in the dark, waiting for manure to be spread on it. It was no longer a life restricted to an island of COVID isolation.

Cleveland skyline
I got my eye surgery and, while recovering, made my travel reservations. And here I am, in Greater Cleveland. This is my Stateside residence, Rocky River, a Cleveland suburb. And in the decade and a half that I've been living here whenever I’m back, Cleveland has become my home city. I recognize the skyline and imagine the places I’ve known, the bars and restaurants, the museums and bookstores, the coffee place around the corner where I have breakfast and write for a while each day. Ever since my parents and brother died and my hometown became more memory than tangible home, Cleveland has become the closest thing to home that I have here now. My Stateside address, my sister’s place, the hometown of my two nephews, the city I identify with whenever I’m “back home”.

I’ve celebrated in a variety of Cleveland’s excellent micro-breweries with family and friends since I got here at the end of last month. I also celebrated by getting a good haircut from Jason at Irish barber Sean Gormley’s place in Rocky River. Sean also owns the pub on the corner of Center Ridge and Wooster, next door to the barbershop. Not surprisingly, it’s called Gormley’s Irish Pub and there’s a Guinness sign in the window.

This week, it’s on to my home town of Wapakoneta, two and a half hours or so southwest of here. I’ve accidentally rented a hot car—it was a promotion for cars rented for more than a week. It’s a black, metal-fleck, fully-loaded Toyota Corolla. It’s a far cry from the ’95 Toyota four-by-four truck that I drive at home and is a barrel of fun to drive, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my truck. I’d love for my truck to know these streets.

I’m getting a warm welcome. I’ve written a couple of books about my town—The Rock Garden and Other Stories, and Visions of What Used to Be. I’ve been invited to give a series of talks and to sign books starting on Thursday. I’ll be doing a few of them jointly with my friend and fellow writer Jim Bowsher, about whom I wrote The Rock Garden. Jim is, without a doubt, a Wapakoneta icon, so this is a very big deal.

It’s odd for me to feel like a big deal. Unlike Jim, who has made an art of public speaking and oral storytelling, I’m one of those nerdy research-writers who has spent most of a half-century writing career in the shadows. Oh, there have been moments when, because of my positions as a newspaper and magazine editor, or because of a particular story I’ve written, I’ve had my quarter of an hour on radio or TV. But not often enough for anyone to put my by-line with a face. In fact, I’ve spent the last fifteen years or so as a ghostwriter, a career in which, as the name suggests, the writer disappears from view—nearly ceases to exist. (I’ve actually had people say “I thought you were dead” when I’ve shown up somewhere after having left the newspaper and magazine trade more than twenty years ago).

Indeed, once a job is done, ghostwriting is the kind of work where the client almost wishes you really would cease to exist. In this trade, you research and write like a spy, behind the scenes, out of sight, nameless, and “the author” will very likely disavow any knowledge of your existence if you should accidentally come to light.

So, it feels odd to be the center of attention. Good, it feels though, if a little scary. Best of all is how I feel about finally bringing out two books under my own name and both about one of my very favorite topics—growing up in the fifties and sixties in smalltown, Midwestern America, as only an expat can remember it.

I’m really grateful to the people who are making this a special homecoming for me—my friend and local agent Mary Jo Knoch, the Auglaize County Public Library, the folks at Casa Chic, State & Local, Image Masters, the Riverside Art Center, local newspaper publisher Deb Zwez, Rachel Barber at the Auglaize County Historical Society, and my friend and colleague Jim Bowsher. I’m hoping to return their kindness and confidence in me by providing participants in this week and next week’s events with something at least thought-provoking for them to take away with them.

Looking forward to seeing old friends and new. Thanks!

 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

GOOD FRIDAY


Yesterday was Good Friday…all day.

Here in Patagonia, it was atypical. A gorgeous, sun-drenched day. Frosty in the morning. Clear and warm in the afternoon. Almost windless. Pleasant in the sun.

This, as I say, is not at all usual. Good Friday is usually windy, dark, rainy and chilly. Sometimes it even snows in the high country. It tends to be raw, with wind chill factors well below the temperature that the mercury marks.

I was particularly grateful that the good weather held—Maundy Thursday had been spectacular as well. The reason I was glad was because the eye operation that I’d had in February had kept me from making hay (firewood, actually) while the sun shone. Doctors told me I’d have to be patient. It was a delicate operation on the retina, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything strenuous until it was fully healed. But I was watching the short window of good weather that Patagonia provides exclusively in the summer months (late December to mid-March) slipping away, and my woodpile wasn’t getting any bigger. And firewood, in Patagonia—having enough to be sure to get through the winter—is a matter of survival.

Rain came early, starting in March, and still the doc refused to let me get out my chainsaw and axe. If the rain kept up, fallen timber would be too soaked to use until the next year.  I finally broke down and paid a friend and his son—both excellent hands when it comes to rural tasks—to help out. Between what I’d been able to get in during December and January, before my operation, and what my friend and his son gathered in March, I had enough good firewood to get me through the winter months. But perhaps two-thirds of it—the part that my friend had gathered—remained under black plastic sheeting out in the woods. I’d still have to get in there in my truck and get it all loaded and back to my house. Because once winter set in, there would be no getting into the woods until late spring. And time was of the essence since there was heavy rain in the forecast for the almost immediate future.  

At long last, earlier this month, the time finally came that, although the retina still has a way to go to be back to normal, I was recovered enough to be able to get back to work. Firewood-gathering is manageable if handled gradually, one truckload at a time. But getting, say, nine or ten cords of wood loaded, hauled out of the woods, unloaded, stacked and covered, can be a truly daunting task…especially when you’re not nearly as young as you used to be. 

So, I rather grimly set to the task. But it wasn’t long before the grimness wore off, as I once again became one with the forest and nature, breathed in the clean, fresh air, and began to really enjoy the healthy sweat and strain of loading and unloading, and the adventure of picking my way into the mountain woodland with my battered—no more battered than the driver, surely—but ever noble ’95 Toyota four by four truck.

It was slow going with me being the only one driving, loading, unloading and stacking. But luckily, Oscar, the friend who’d lent a hand with the gathering, decided to devote part of his Easter weekend to also helping me haul and stack. Between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday—both radiant days, as I say—we managed, working shoulder to shoulder, with a bit of help from his son after he got off work on Thursday, and pressing both my Toyota Hilux and his 2005 Nissan Frontier into service, to haul out the last seven cords of wood and get them stacked along my fence. That done, we made sure that all the gathered timber was protected from the elements under thick plastic sheeting. It gave both Oscar and me a real sense of accomplishment, since we’d calculated four days to do the job and had completed it in just two.

So it turned out to really be a good Friday. When I went to bed last night, it was knowing that my wife and I had all firewood we needed to get us through the winter months, and then some, since I have a two-cord reserve in a lean-to, on a small woodlot below our house.

Mind and memory tend to wander when I’m keeping my body busy with hard manual labor. So with the joy I felt at the gift that was a truly good Good Friday, it was only natural that I would recall other somehow memorable Good Fridays. If you’re a Christian—even a somewhat lapsed Christian—it’s hard for Christian holidays to go unperceived. They are mile-markers. Another Easter, another Thanksgiving, another Christmas, another year gone and, thankfully, a new one beginning. So it wasn’t a rarity for me to identify with related remembrances. 

One that sprang to mind was a Good Friday thirty-odd years ago that my wife and I spent camping under the maitén trees near Lake Futalaufquen in the remote Los Alerces National Park in Argentina’s Southern Patagonian region. It would have been nice if we’d just been enjoying an Easter holiday, but I had to make it about business. Not that I’ve ever known anything about business. But over the years I have occasionally ventured into uncharted waters with some scheme or other whose final aim was always to free myself from the bonds of j-o-b-type work, provide myself with a way of making a good living and, in the process, give myself the experiences and freedom necessary to further develop as a writer.

Journalism was always a good way to make a living writing every day, but a poor choice in terms of time to relax and think and travel and create, if that was the goal. This was in early 1988 and I’d been sort of half-hatching this plan ever since my wife and I had first started tramping around the Patagonian wilderness every chance we got, while both of us were still living and working full-time in Buenos Aires. By this time, we’d been frequenting the Patagonian region for more than a decade whenever we could get away for a week or so. This time was different. The first that I hadn’t been working regularly for a daily newspaper and could, within reason, give some rein to my fantasies.

This one involved bringing small groups of Midwestern Americans—people cut from the same cloth I was—to Patagonia for a week or so of bespoke adventure tourism on one of the world’s last great frontiers. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I would need the help of some partners—wilderness guides, lodge and campsite owners etc. The business end? Well, I figured that would shake itself out.

Like I say, I clearly knew nothing about business, and was thus too ignorant to realize that the project was doomed from the outset if the business end of it wasn’t sound from the get-go, but it was a nice pipe dream while it lasted. To make a long story short, however, this was one of my self-imposed “survival training” outings, and the choice of Holy Week was, if not intentional, then at least disregarded, in terms of just how inclement the weather was apt to be in Patagonia at this time of the year. And the underlying purpose was not only recreational, but also aimed at meeting and befriending a semi-reclusive mountain guide named Américo Rosales, who not only knew this wilderness area well, but was also a born and bred native of it. There was, in fact, a pass between Argentina and Chile through the Andes that bore the name of his fairly recent ancestors. It was called the Pérez Rosales Pass.

Paso Pérez Rosales

Américo and his brother Ricardo eked a living out of the wilderness however they could but their most lucrative occupation was as fishing and hunting guides. Though they often worked together, Américo’s specialty was brook and lake trout fishing, while Ricardo’s priority skill set was as a hunter—mainly, wild boar hunting. But I was interested more in their noted expertise as mountain guides.

So here I was, in Holy Week, camped out where both Américo and Ricardo were likely to be, at a mountain campsite run by their sister’s son, César. Out of the two weeks that we were camped there in our sturdy but old-fashioned campaign tent, it rained eight days and snowed one. And although I’d let César know from the outset that my main purpose in staying was to have a chance to meet Américo, he’d let me know that if his uncle wanted to meet me, he would, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t, and there was nothing either César or I could do about it.

It was in the early afternoon of a particularly foul Good Friday, while, having decided with my wife that we would break camp the next day, pack our truck and leave—defeated—that Américo showed up at our tent, where I was having a cold, damp nap, and invited me to go walkabout. Telling me that, although it was kind of late in the day, he thought maybe we could go take a hike up to the top of nearby Mount La Torta (The Cake)—as if he were saying he thought maybe we could go for a stroll around the town square. We set out cross-country on the most grueling forced march I’d participated in since my days in Basic Combat Training, dictated by the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, nearly twenty years earlier.

But by the time we got back down that mountain, with night about to fall, and made our way back to camp under now-starry skies, Américo and I were the best of friends. That too, then, had been a very good Friday.

The other Good Friday that came to mind while I was toiling contentedly in the woods this year was the one when I was nine. I was old enough by then to be struggling, in my Christian upbringing, with the concept of the Passion of Jesus Christ. I was pretty much just happy as a honeybee in clover that I was off school, and would be off for the next four whole days.

Anyway, I’d caught some sort of stomach flu at school the week before and, although it hadn’t been bad enough for my mother, Reba Mae, to let me stay home from school, I was still having stomach cramps and some intestinal turmoil and was worried that if my mother noticed, I’d miss out on all the wonderful chocolate, marshmallow and jellybean treats, which, at that age, were what Easter was all about.

Anxious to ignore “the bug” and show that I was fit as a fiddle, I quickly dressed, had my breakfast and was rushing out to play. Reba Mae wanted to know where I was going.

“To play with Steve,” I told her. Steve was my neighbor. He was a couple of years older than I was but treated me like the kid brother he didn’t have. He only had a sister and she was a lot older than he was. Old enough that she had a fiancé.

“Listen,” she said. “You need to remember that today isn’t just some holiday. It’s Good Friday. So you really shouldn’t be celebrating, running around the whole neighborhood whooping and hollering and carrying on. You can go out if you remember that. And I don’t think you should be going to Steve’s. At least not until the afternoon.”

“Why not?”

“Because this morning you should be thinking about the Crucifixion of Jesus. These were His last hours, His moments of doubt and revelation, the time of His greatest suffering and final agony. You’re old enough to think about what that means.  Not only to Jesus, but to us as well, because he died for our sins and so that we could be saved.”

My mother was not an overly zealous Christian. She wasn’t one of those creepy people who are always quoting the Bible, ranting about the saving grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, or spending an inordinate amount of time at church in competition with other Methodist women who might seek to establish who was the most pious of them all. In fact, she despised women who were like that, women who seemed bereft of sin and sexuality, women who, in Reba Mae’s own graphic words, “wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if they had a mouthful.” She liked women with a sense of humor and a taste for adventure. Women who were just the slightest bit naughty. She said the word “nice” in describing those who wore their piety like a garish mask as if she were uttering an insult. But one of her quirks was this fervor that seemed to well up in her during religious holidays. She was adamant about remembering what each of them meant, or should mean to any good Christian, rather than get caught up in their more festive and commercially motivated aspects.

I wanted to tell her that I hadn’t asked Jesus or anybody else to sacrifice anything for me, and also tell her that I was having a hard time believing that a super-hero, a prophet, perhaps the most renowned man ever to walk the face of the earth, had given his life two millennia before so that I would be saved from my sins today. And while we were at it, what constituted a sin. But I figured those were queries that might be answered with a slap in the kisser, so let it ride.

Well, that pretty much ensured that I wouldn’t be enjoying this particular school holiday. Reba Mae had given me a lot to think about. And as the weather got ever darker and uglier as the morning wore on into forenoon, I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t something to this whole Crucifixion thing. Wasn’t the weather, perhaps, accompanying the agony and the final hours of Jesus Christ, reminding Christendom of the debt it owed to its Savior? As I watched the dark clouds roll in, I felt a certain apprehension, a sort of primordial fear, and couldn’t help wishing my mother had kept her big mouth shut.

Condemned to a grim and solitary morning, I decided to take a walk alone around our quite long block. When I reached the corner where Clara’s grocery store was, I checked my immediate finances and found that I had two dimes in the pocket of my stiff blue dungarees. This would be as good an opportunity as any to test my stomach for the hours to come, when the heavy mourning climate of Good Friday (what was good about it, I wondered, since, beyond how it was sucking for me personally, it clearly hadn’t been a good day for Jesus of Nazareth) would give way to the joyous celebration of the Resurrection and the advent of Life Everlasting. About that, I realized, it was all a matter of faith, but there could be no doubting that Jesus so put the fear of God into his Roman murderers that the Holy Roman Empire would eventually come full circle and become the very seat of Christendom.

Inside Clara’s store, I calculated what my two dimes would buy. I could get a Payday peanut caramel bar for a nickel, which meant that if I also got a six-ounce Coke and drank it there so I didn’t have to pay a one-cent deposit on the bottle, I’d still have a dime left. On a whim, I decided to blow the other dime on caps. For that money, I could get a five-roll box.  A hundred shots per roll.

Once I’d made my purchase, I sat on the grocery store steps drinking my Coke and enjoying my Payday. It was only then that I realized I had nothing to shoot my caps with because my cap gun was lying broken at the bottom of our toy chest. Out of sheer boredom, I could think of nothing better to do than go home, find a nice-sized rock in the garden, and sit down on the curb to fire my caps by smacking them with the rock.

At first, I popped them one at a time. But if one was that loud, how would two sound? So I folded one over another and smacked two at a time. The effect was so much more satisfying. So what might four or five sound like? And on and on I went, until, inevitably, I decided to slam my rock down hard on an entire roll. This, I told myself, was going to be loud! Only thing was, what about Good Friday? Wasn’t busting an entire roll of caps at once and making a helluva loud bang a bad thing to do? Wasn’t it maybe even sacrilegious?

I said to hell with it, brought my rock down with all my might, and immediately got an answer to my query. Red-hot powder from the deafening blast shot fire from under the rock and scorched the tips of my fingers black. My sinful ways had been avenged, and just in time for a violent electrical storm that broke above me and drove me scurrying home to hide in fear and shame.

Yesterday was a different kind of Good Friday. A day so beautiful in the fall-fragrant Patagonian woodland that near sunset, standing panting and sweaty next to my freshly loaded truck and seeing the sun sparkling like droplets of gold on the surface of the lake just visible through the trees caused a knot to catch in my throat and tears to well up in my eyes. What a truly beautiful world it was when you could hide away where Humankind wasn’t running rampant and doing its damnedest to end it all. It was the first time all day that I thought of the horrors unfolding in Ukraine, and reflected that even after the living hells of two world wars, and of all the horrific wars since, men were yet again seeking to burn it all down, to use mass violence and murder to satisfy some diabolical thirst for unlimited power. To seek, in short, to play God in a game that could only end in self-destruction.

There was no way for someone of my limited intelligence and spirit to even remotely understand the power of the cosmos or the Plan of some Higher Being, if either existed and this wasn’t all just random. But if one did, it was hard to imagine, even on a Good Friday this indescribably good, how any attempt, divine or otherwise, to save humans from themselves wouldn’t end up proving a fool’s mission.    


Thursday, April 7, 2022

THE WAPAKONETA THAT I KNOW

 

In Part Five of a recent series that I posted in The Southern Yankee entitled Maybe Thomas Wolfe Was Right…Maybe You Can’t, I stated the following:


Being an expatriate is not an easy matter. Unless you truly have the soul of a nomadic vagabond, you are always torn between where you’re from and where you are. And being an expat for an extended period of time complicates this matter still further, because you are always a foreigner where you make your new home, no matter how integrated into that society you might become. But when you return “home”, you find that you are seen as a foreigner there too, or at least as a sort of prodigal son, who no longer has a right to call that birthplace your home.

So many times I’ve had people say to me, you left so you have no right to an opinion. Or, you’ve been gone so long that you no longer think like us. Or, you don’t even live here, so what the hell do you care about this or that. Little do they know that no matter how accustomed and “at home” you might become in your chosen environment, the “homing instinct” that reminds you constantly of “where you came from” never goes away.

But then again, while the place you’ve adopted becomes the place you are familiar with on an everyday basis, your place of origin becomes an image frozen in your mind and heart. It isn’t, then, a daily recording of reality as it happens, but a sepia snapshot of how it used to be, in an era that now only comes alive in your mind, but that no longer exists as it was. It’s only through daily contact—whether virtually or in person—that you can hope to have a clear vision of “home” as it is now, and not, as the song goes, just “visions of what used to be.”

This is, in a nutshell, the theme contained in a new book of non-fiction stories that I’ve just published entitled, precisely, Visions of What Used to Be. Fellow Buckeyes will recognize the title as a line from the traditional Beautiful Ohio Waltz, the original chorus of which goes:

Drifting with the current down a moonlit stream,
While above the Heavens in their glory gleam,
And the stars on high
Twinkle in the sky,
Seeming in a paradise of love divine,
Dreaming of a pair of eyes that looked in mine.
Beautiful Ohio, in dreams again I see
Visions of what used to be.

Adopted as the Ohio State Song, the lyrics were modified in 1989, but the version above was the original, penned in 1918 by Ballard McDonald.

I felt the title was fitting and proper, since the Ohio, and indeed, the Wapakoneta that live on in my memories no longer exist. I’ve had more than one self-imposed mission in my nearly half-century career as a journalist and free-lance writer. But not the least of these is what I’ve tried to achieve in writing this book—namely, to seek to capture, as sincerely and authentically as possible, the era in which I grew from childhood to adulthood.

When (if) you reach my age, it can be a stark realization to find that from your salad days in the sixties and seventies—which still seem like “only yesterday” when I recall them—to the present is twenty years longer than the period from World War I (which we considered “the olden days”) to the year of my birth, four years after the end of World War II. And it’s only thirty years less than the period from the end of the Civil War until the year of my birth!

It’s little wonder, then, that young to middle-aged people of today would find it hard to fathom what it was like for us growing up, and growing to maturity, in a world without personal computers, smartphones, credit cards, the Internet, the World Wide Web, cable and satellite TV, Netflix, MP3 (and 4), hybrid cars, e-books and Wikipedia. Lifestyles and technology—technology that vastly affects our daily lives—have so changed over the course of the past half-century that people in their twenties and thirties must ask themselves “how we lived” and “how we didn’t die of boredom.”

Tell them, by way of response, that we had radio, hi-fi, black and white and later color TV (three or four channels seemed like plenty), land lines (which we just called telephones) at home and public phone booths in the street, libraries and bookstores, movie theaters, savings accounts, manual and “modern” electric typewriters, gasoline that cost as little as twenty cents a gallon, World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica, and they look at you as if you were speaking in Martian.

As a writer, then, I’ve always felt it was my pleasant duty to document those other times, in the most personal way possible, not as an historian, but as a story-teller. Because if those times now only live in the minds and hearts of the survivors of my generation, then one of my literary missions should be to collect and transmit those memories to others, so that they live on, rather than dying with us when our time comes. And that’s how this book was born.

It is currently available on Amazon in both print and e-book formats:

 https://www.amazon.com/VISIONS-WHAT-USED-Dan-Newland/dp/B09WPZVTDP/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1649376237&sr=1-1

https://www.amazon.com/VISIONS-WHAT-USED-Dan-Newland-ebook/dp/B09WYC2LY8/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1649376237&sr=1-1

The print version of the book will shortly also be available for purchase in Wapakoneta at Casa Chic, State & Local, and Image Masters.

I hope all of you enjoy reading it, and I look forward to hearing from you, whether here or on Facebook.