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, 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|
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|
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.
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|
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."|
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"|
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.