Wednesday, September 15, 2021

TIME OUT

 

I’ve been taking a break. It wasn’t planned. It just happened. In fact, I hardly realized it was happening. I just suddenly awoke to the fact that it was about to be August, and when I looked up at the wall calendar over my desk, it was showing May.

“What the hell?” I thought. Did two months really get completely away from me? It was then too that I realized that I had written nothing for this blog in two months. I mean, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know I was delinquent in my deadlines. I knew I’d “missed a deadline or two.” But two months!

I changed my calendar and promised myself to get it together, to return to my usually highly disciplined writing schedule, to shrug off apathy and start living again.

Then, all of the sudden one morning, I glanced at the date on my laptop, saw it was September, raised my eyes to look at the calendar on my wall, and saw that, there, it was still August. What the hell! Yet another month had drifted past. I was beginning to feel a little like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but without the state of immortality or all of the quaint and interesting townspeople.

The fact is, however, that I haven’t just been “vegging out” for more than twelve weeks. I mean, I’ve been working. A lot. I had gotten impossibly behind on a ghost-writing project. I was contracted more than a year ago to ghost the autobiography of one of the lesser-known members of one of America’s traditional “royal families”. You would all know the name. Just about everyone in the Western world would. When I was first approached by the publisher for this private edition book and asked to provide a deadline, I said I figured three months give or take.

By the time we’re through, it will be more like a year and three months. It’s become impossibly unprofitable for me, even though I managed to talk the publisher into negotiating a fifty percent increase in my fee. The publisher can’t wait to be done with it either. And like me, they claim, they’re losing their shirt.

But at least they have the advantage of owning a book that, although it is likely to have a very limited audience, that audience is filled with people who might very well entrust them with their own life stories, especially because this promises to be a good book. Myself, I don’t have that advantage. When I’m done, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief that a difficult project is finished and pat myself on the back for a job well done. Or then again, maybe I’ll just think bitterly about how much time and energy I put into a book that isn’t mine in any real sense—thousands of hours of time and energy when time and energy are at a premium in this chapter of my own life—for a book that no one will ever know I wrote. Hence the term ghostwriter.  

There was a time not all that long ago when, once I’d given my word, I would have met that deadline even if it nearly killed me. And I would have met it by doing “the best I could” in the time allotted. But there’s something about reaching this stage in life (seventy plus, with a forty-seven-year writing career behind me) that makes you immune to a lot of the rules you once imposed on yourself—or let others impose on you. Priorities change when you are no longer “building a career for yourself”, when your reputation is already well established, and, furthermore, when you know that the time has come for your career, such as it is, to be whatever you want or don’t want to make of it.

It didn’t take long to figure out that I was way off on my estimate. Especially when I had written the first two chapters which contained a great deal about the world-famous family to which the subject belonged, only to have her reject them out of hand. This was her story, she said, not that of the family to which she had often wished she didn’t belong, because it was more of a burden than a benefit.

So, there was a rather lengthy process of making her understand that while her life might be interesting in itself to a handful of friends and family members, what made it more interesting to a much broader audience was that she was a relatively unknown member of a very well-known family and that even though she might want to be her own person, it was impossible to separate how her life had been from the fact that she came from a very wealthy and very famous clan. The truth was, just about everything that had happened to her was inextricably connected to that fact. There was simply no denying the fact that being who she was born had a profound effect on her being who she had become.  

More specifically, what was perhaps most interesting of all was that the story was her personal history within the environment created by that family. Indeed, how she had coped with that—and how different her life had been

from what an outsider was likely to imagine—was the main value of telling her story. 

Renegotiating the storyline and the telling of it with her took several months. Then suddenly, one fine morning, she got out of bed on the other side, and it was all systems go. The pause, however, gave me time to think as well, and I decided that I was no longer okay with publishers imposing impossible deadlines on me or setting any but the most basic of rules for how a story would be told. I no longer wanted to feel like I was digging ditches instead of writing, obliged to write for money rather than getting paid for writing the very best way I knew how.

It was a kind of revelation. I discovered that I was no longer capable of writing any way but my best. Not the best that time or publishing constraints allowed, but as well and as authentically as I knew how. As a result, the narrative that I am now very close to finishing for the client—and in which I will have no acknowledgement whatsoever, since that is the fate of the ghost, a job that couldn’t be better named—is of far higher quality and authenticity than could ever be expected for a private edition, such as this will be.


What’s important about this isn’t that I’ve gone above and beyond for the client—which I have—but that I have been true to myself and my craft. I haven’t compromised on research, fact-checking or quality writing, and that achievement is of major importance to me as a writer. What it has meant is that an assignment that could have turned into a nightmare has instead made me feel accomplished—not like a hack to whom the importance of the money far outweighs the importance of the work. 

But I can’t blame free-lance work entirely for being as remiss as I’ve been in fulfilling my commitment to my regular readers, or in at least letting them know earlier what was going on.

Regarding this point, I can only say that there were just entirely too many external factors eating at me to permit me to concentrate on more than one creative task at a time. In short, my normally robust multi-tasking mechanism was jammed by extenuating circumstances. My growing concern over these external factors seemed to cut me off at the knees, to partially cripple and disable my usually ample and eclectic creativity.

To start with, a few days after I wrote the last entry here, my sister-in-law, Alicia, passed away. It shouldn’t have been unexpected. She was eighty-two and had been seriously ill for three years—what doctors described as dementia accompanied by Parkinsonism. We, the family, had been supervising her care for that entire time. And we decided early on that we weren’t going to have her placed in “a facility” since she had been single and independent her entire life and had lived in the same century-old apartment on a busy avenue in Buenos Aires for the past three and a half decades. She would, we decided, end her life surrounded by the things she was familiar with.

Alicia, left with headscarf, as she looked when I
first met her in the late 1960s. Enjoying a seaside 
holiday with a friend and little brother, Miguel, little
sister Virginia, and her mother, Teresa.

Twenty-four/seven, she was in the capable hands of a male nurse, who was a friend of my brother-in-law’s, and his sister, who took turns seeing to her many, many needs. Thanks to their effectiveness and care, she didn’t spend a single day in the hospital and they became so attached to her that they considered her a sort of surrogate grandmother—and cared for her more and far better than the majority of young people would care for their real grandmother. Their loyalty to her was absolute.

On several occasions, the work and knowhow of the nurse pulled her out of downward spirals that should have ended her life. And the next day he would again have her sitting at the table for her meals and doing supervised exercises in her bedroom or in the patio, depending on the weather. We had long since understood that this wasn’t like some other terminal illnesses that have a more or less accurate prognosis. We simply were in it for the duration, as she would have been for any of us. So there came a time when we had almost forgotten, as one does, that death would be the ultimate factor.

So, it came as a sort of vaguely anticipated shock when the nurse called to say that, after having her breakfast like any other day, her blood pressure started dropping steadily. He got her on a drip and sought to bring her back the way he had before, but this time she simply went to sleep and slipped away. It was over and the feeling was one of utter emptiness.

Like a lot of other people, I had already become saturated, frustrated, jaded with the general climate in which we are all living—the seemingly endless pandemic and the great divide between science and politics that is perpetuating it; the juxtaposition of democracy and authoritarianism that is no longer the worldwide phenomenon that used to geopolitically divide East from West and North from South, but which now is threatening to end the once largely successful two and a half-century-old experiment in American political tradition, and the general sense of being utterly fed up with an atmosphere in which those who should be representing the people are obsessed with their own selfish political goals and no longer do anything for the good of their constituencies because they are too busy trying to put each other out of business.

Never mind that I’ve spent an enormous amount of my career commenting on political and social realities and am bound at some point to keep doing the same because I can’t stop trying to analyze what often seems so utterly incomprehensible. For even an obsessively political person like myself, however, there are moments when you are simply fed up and can’t think about it anymore for a while without feeling nauseous. And the current moment in politics almost everywhere, but especially in my native United States, is a perfect one in which to feel nauseous.

But life goes on. And giving in to despair is not only an attitude of defeat, but also a monumental waste of time. So, I’m back, and with new impetus, and an unwillingness to compromise my vision of the past or of the future in the slightest, whether writing for my literary blog or for my political blog. Because my writing is who I am, and if I can’t be completely honest with myself and with you at this late stage in the game, when will I ever be?

 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

THE HAMILTON ROAD BRIDGE

 

My hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio is stitched together by three main bridges, the Blackhoof Street Bridge, the Harrison Street Bridge and the Hamilton Road Bridge. That’s because although the town itself grew up along the high south bank of the Auglaize River, its surrounding neighborhoods expanded both north and south of that river.

Hamilton Road Bridge
Courtesy of Auglaize County Historical Society

The town was built more or less in the same area where several Native American tribes, headed up by the Shawnees, had a major settlement. It was, in fact, the Council House of the Shawnee Nation. That is, before white settlers reneged on a treaty resulting from the Battle of Fallen Timbers and had them unceremoniously packed off on a grueling exodus that eventually ended in Kansas and Oklahoma, where the now much reduced population of Shawnees is today headquartered under the leadership of Chief Ben Barnes.

I doubt the Shawnees, who considered Wapakoneta a sacred venue, were unaware of the fact that the Auglaize was special. I once read that it and the nearby St. Marys are two of only a few rivers in Ohio that flow north instead of south. And Wapakoneta is where the impetus for this rare phenomenon takes place.

The Auglaize indeed starts out flowing south from its source near Harrod in the next county over. But just as it flows into Wapak—as the name is familiarly abbreviated—the Auglaize bends sharply and runs east to west, smack through the middle of town. After that, it meanders west by northwest, makes a couple of snaking turns through a deep ravine at Horseshoe Bend and takes a long loop through the countryside to the site of the War of 1812 outpost known as Fort Amanda about eight miles from Wapakoneta, before turning more or less straight north to eventually join the course of the Maumee River, that carries its waters into Lake Erie.

Courtesy Auglaize County Historical Society
By the time I was growing up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the Native Americans who had lived and thrived on the banks of the Auglaize just a little more than a century before seemed mythical to us. The only signs to attest to their passing were our town and street names—Blackhoof, Logan, Willipie, historic chiefs all—and the arrowheads and stone tools that even today are not infrequently discovered in plowed fields and along the banks of the river. Little did we know that they weren’t legends at all but still a living, breathing people, descendants of Chief Blackhoof, among others, who had remained where the Shawnee diaspora ended up after being driven from this, there sacred land.

Still, for me there was always a mystique about the Auglaize, something that attracted me to its banks and bridges and encouraged introspection. Although the Blackhoof Street Bridge was the unavoidable corridor from practically anywhere to anywhere in our town, the one that I considered “my bridge” was always the one on Hamilton Road.

Like the others, back then the bridge on Hamilton Road was a riveted iron-girder bridge—in more modern times replaced by a far less impressive and less romantic concrete abutment bridge. The old bridge with its iron super-structure seemed so much more of a landmark, more of a venue, a “place to go”, not just to cross. I will sometimes still dream about it, standing on the old wood-plank walkway above the dam, hands folded on the iron railing, gazing up-river toward town, a full moon shimmering on the surface of the pitch-black nocturnal water.

Courtesy Linda Knerr Collection
The Hamilton Road Bridge was also unique in that it was where the dam was (and is), a kind of definitive man-made dividing line between the up-river and down-river segments of the Auglaize—a name sometimes said to be a bastardization of eau glaise (muddy water) which is what French fur trappers down from Canada may have called it, back when they were the only white men sharing the surrounding hunting grounds with the Indians. And indeed in the spring, when it runs high and fast and is fed by clay-laden snow-melt, it does become a rich coffee and cream color. But in the winter-time, when the river freezes solid, the surface often resembles nothing as much as dark green marble under the grey leaden winter sky.

When we lived in a stately old house on the western end of historical Auglaize Street, Wapakoneta’s main thoroughfare, this was the bridge I crossed on foot or on my bike to go to the public swimming pool or to surrounding Harmon Field, the town’s main park, where I would often meet my friends. But the bridge itself was often my destination even then. I fished from it and under it and along the nearby lower banks of the Auglaize beneath the dam.

Flood of 1913
Courtesy Linda Knerr Collection
In flood season it was a scary place to stand in the rain and look down at the roiling water that grew higher by the day, so that the dam was engulfed and the water flowed almost level past it, swamping the banks below it and spilling into fields and backyards. In Ohio’s violent spring-time thaw, the river fairly roared and threatened to wash one or all of the town’s bridges out, sometimes skimming their undersides, but their soundly engineered infrastructure always prevailed—even as it had back in the town’s historic flood of 1913.

When we moved to the other bank of the river, the house on Kelley Drive where my parents lived for the next forty-two years, the Hamilton Street Bridge became my link to the other side of town. In other words, to town proper, the shops downtown, the Wapa movie theater, the soft ice cream dairy bars and the homes of many of my friends. It also connected me with school and with my jobs selling papers, cutting lawns, raking leaves and shoveling snow.


In summer, when the flow of water over the dam waned to where it just remained interesting, my new neighbor Joe, who was my same age, and I would dare each other to walk across the green slime-slippery dam under the bridge from one bank of the river to the other with the water flowing over our bare feet and carrying our shoes and socks in our hands. Joe was more agile than I was—just about everybody was—and as an earlier resident in the new addition known as Oakwood Hills, had had more practice. He would hurry swiftly across with mincing step, arms out for balance, his sneakers hanging from one hand, and then taunt me from the other side as I moved across sideways, shuffling with agonizing prudence from one end to the other.

Harrison St. Bridge
Courtesy Linda Knerr Collection

Falling east would most likely have deposited us unhurt, except for our pride, in the deeper water above the dam—although, truth be told, even that side of the dam was often filled with branches and twisted debris carried there by the spring thaw and hung up against the wall. Falling the other way, however, would almost surely involve injury, perhaps smacking your head on one of the concrete supports of the spillway and falling unconscious into the water to drown. But the consequences were clearly not something we were thinking about—merely enjoying the vertigo of the dare and the accomplishment of completing the entire trajectory without slipping into the drink.

I did fall in once. It wasn’t in summer however, but in winter. Again, for that event, I was with Joe. We must have been about twelve at the time. It was a particularly cold winter and the river was frozen solid enough to drive a truck onto it. But near the dam the ice was never safe. Joe and I were taking a shortcut back to our bicycles over a part of the dam that was merely a floodwall with no spillway. We were both bundled up against the cold and were wearing rubber boots over our street shoes, so I was moving even more gingerly than usual. Joe had climbed up onto the dam wall behind me so was having to follow the indecisive pace that I set.

At some point, he was like last-one-to-the-bikes-sucks-eggs sort of thing, and tried to rush past me on the narrow wall. His shoulder accidentally clipped the side of my head and knocked my horn-rimmed glasses off my face. I kept my balance for a second, but when I tried to catch the glasses in the air, I lost it and went over the wall, breaking the ice and falling through.

The shock of sliding into the freezing water and trying not to be pulled under completely by my soaked winter clothes delayed any panic that might have gripped me. There had been an almost historic dredging operation on the upper segment of the river the summer before and the water was unusually deep. But I was a strong swimmer, and keeping my head, I was able to find my way back out through the same hole I’d fallen through. I struggled back up onto the dam wall, dragging with me what felt like gallons of water that had filled my boots and soaked into my heavy wool coat.

I had lost my glasses and all I was thinking about was punching Joe in the nose, but by the time I regained my composure and sat panting on the flood wall, he was nowhere to be seen and his bike was gone. He had evidently panicked and taken off, maybe, I thought, to find help. I couldn’t blame him.

Heavy with freezing water, my coat was rendered useless. It felt warmer without it, so I threw it over my handlebars and pedaled home with water squishing out of the tops of my boots. By the time I arrived, I felt like I was freezing. In fact, my shirt was stiff with ice crystals.

I was grateful that my mother, Reba Mae, wasn’t home. She couldn’t swim and was deathly afraid of the water. She was always warning me, when I said that whatever body of water I was swimming in “wasn’t deep” that “a person can drown in six inches of water.” I was alone in the house, with my father working and both my sister and brother off who-knew-where. I hid my clothes to let them dry in a corner of the basement that my mother wasn’t likely to visit.

I told Reba Mae later that my missing glasses had fallen out of my pocket. She said that they should have been on my face and reminded me that eyeglasses “didn’t grow on trees.”  I never mentioned the incident to her or anyone again. Nor did Joe and I ever talk about it. We just avoided each other for a week or so and then took up our friendship where it had left off before we climbed onto the wall of the dam.

In my early teens, the bridge on Hamilton Road became the place I went at night when I wanted solitude. It started out just being the place I went to smoke. I’d taken up the habit tentatively at twelve, when I would pilfer cigarettes from my father Whitie’s pack. Shortly, however, I started buying them myself, telling the local grocery store owner that they were “for my dad.” I eventually figured out that I needn’t make up a cover story, because just about any gas station or grocery in town would sell them to me no questions asked whether I said they were for Whitie or not, so I no longer had to smoke the filterless Pall Malls that he favored. But I needed a place to smoke them so my mother wouldn’t find out.

The bridge after dark was the perfect place. Stand by the rail and smoke, then toss the butt into the water when you were done, or if somebody came along whom you were afraid would squeal. The town had no police curfew back then and after I started working part-time at age twelve, my parents didn’t impose one on me either, as long as I was back before eleven.

That interval there between ages twelve and fifteen was not a good one for me at home. There were all the normal pitfalls of early adolescence combined with an extremely stormy relationship with my father. Whitie was sick and I couldn’t understand it. We were constantly either at each other’s throats or not speaking at all.

If he’d had heart disease or diabetes it would have been easier to comprehend. But he suffered from mental illness. And in the mindset of those years, being mentally ill was seen as somehow phony, an excuse for not manning up and doing what you had to do. But poor Whitie had done more than should be expected of anyone, spent the last three years of World War II in front-line combat zones, then came home, started a business and provided for a family from the outset. At some point, something had broken inside of him. If he had externalized it, it would surely have been manifested as a large and gaping wound, a horrific running sore that never closed. But since he carried it on the inside, I, for one, couldn’t see it. And being a typically self-centered teen, I figured it was just that he didn’t love me and clearly didn’t approve of me.

So I rebelled and spent a good deal of time feeling sorry for myself. The bridge was a great place for it. I would stand there smoking cigarettes and watching the black water slide over the dam. I’d gaze at the night sky or watch the lights of Wapakoneta and the moon play on the breeze-riffled surface of the Auglaize. I’d stand in the rain and enjoy getting drenched, or in the snow and turn my face up to try and track the course of snowflakes as they fell. A few times, when I was feeling reckless, I even scaled the girders and used the upper part of the bridge as my observation point.

I thought about the books I was reading—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Salinger—and wonder what their protagonists would do. I wondered how old I needed to be to join the merchant marines. I wondered whom you had to know to become a drummer in a traveling circus band. I thought about the stories I would write, and the jazz clubs in New York and Chicago where I was sure I would play, sooner than later. I thought about traveling the States and traveling the world. About going away, far away. The further the better. And the sooner the better.

And then I thought about Whitie, and wondered why I wasn’t enough. Why he didn’t love me. Why he couldn’t be supportive of what I wanted to do even though it wasn’t what he would have preferred I did. I wondered, mostly, why he couldn’t just be happy. Was I so awful that I was ruining his life, that he could never seem to be proud of his son?

It would take decades for me to comprehend that what I did or didn’t do had little or nothing to do with Whitie’s state of mind. He was off on his own road. He was just coping as best he could with his own tortured mind and no amount of striving on my part was ever going to make him happy. The bridge was the confidant I talked to about all this, the holder of my doubts and secrets, the place I went to feel solid and grounded beneath its girders.      

Now, when I periodically return for a visit to my home town, the journey is never complete without a walk to the Hamilton Road Bridge. I like to stand there a while, hands folded on the railing, and remember all the people I knew, and the ones I still know. I remember both the joys I celebrated and the heartbreaks I sought to quash there. I remember the dreams I entertained so long ago and think with satisfaction about the ones that, one way or another, have come true, and try to contemplate without regret the ones that haven’t. Often I think of Whitie, and hope he’s having a much happier life wherever he is now.

Even now, that bridge remains, in my mind, much more than a practical piece of engineering over which to travel from point A to point B. But it is indeed a bridge, a unifying link between my past and my present, between one world and another.           

 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

GREG—A PORTRAIT

 From the time we were just little kids, and throughout my childhood and youth, my cousin Greg was also one of my closest friends—one of my two best friends, in fact, along with our classmate Mark Gallimore. And throughout our pre-teen and teen years, the three of us were inseparable, since we were mutual best friends as well.

When we were still very young, I could always count on getting into trouble, and having fun doing it, whenever I was with Greg. Like his father before him, Greg was a natural athlete. But he was a completely different body type than his dad. They looked nothing alike.

Greg Newland

My Uncle Red (a.k.a., Bob Newland), Greg’s dad and my father’s older brother, was a Henry (his mother’s family) through and through—pink skinned, red-haired and prone to struggling with weight throughout his life, despite having been a Navy frogman and a truly dangerous Golden Gloves boxer in his youth. He remained, however, agile and ever quick on his feet, despite the extra pounds he carried around from late middle-age onward. Greg, on the other hand, took after his mother’s side, more specifically after his Grandma Adams, whose family was said to have Native American blood.

Whether they did or not, Greg looked the part. He was black-haired and copper-skinned, with very white teeth and a certain angle to his dark brown eyes. The two sides of our families seldom if ever got together. You met with the Newlands or you met with the in-laws. That was how it worked. But I one time asked my mother, Reba Mae, if I could take Greg along to a summer reunion of her maternal family, the Cavinders. Greg and I, who were the same age, must have been eight or nine at the time. She said she didn’t see why not so off we went to Grand Lake Saint Marys for a multitudinous family picnic. At one point, Reba Mae’s mother, my Grandma Myrt, came over and whispered confidentially to my mother, “Reba Mae, who’s that little Korean boy playing with Danny?”

My mother looked at her quizzically and said, “Korean boy?” Then she glanced over at Greg and me and, turning to Grandma, she laughed out loud and said, “That’s Bob Newland’s oldest boy, Greg, and he’s not Korean, Mom, he just looks that way!”

Taken out of perspective, he was naturally built like a figurine of the perfect male body, with broad shoulders, a torso cut in a V to the waist, and with very narrow hips. But seen in context with the other kids his age, he was diminutive—a pint-sized scale model of the “average boy”. He was jockey-size but much better proportioned. By high school, he looked like an aspiring featherweight, and he had the swagger to go with it.

He was a problem student who was always in trouble and tended to give serious teachers ulcers and grey hair. He also had a laid-back, drawling tone and cadence and a wise guy attitude that put teachers on edge, but the things he said kept his classmates in stitches. Like the time an eager young English teacher told us how important outside reading was and that we would have to do at least two book reports during the term in order to pass.

From behind me, where Greg always sat, alphabetically proper, in classes we had together unless one or both of us had been moved for disciplinary reasons, I heard, “Book reports!?”

“Greg Newland, did you have a question?” the teacher asked. “If so, please raise your hand.”

Slouched as coolly as he could possibly slouch in his seat, Greg raised a desultory hand, and again, in exactly the same tone of voice, said, “Book reports!?”

“Do you have something against book reports, Greg?” the teacher asked.

“Well, no...not as such,” Greg drawled, “But...man! I think the last book I read all the way through was The Three Billy Goats Gruff in the second grade!” Everybody but the teacher found this uproariously funny, so he’d succeeded in his goal of disrupting the class.

Just as different as he and I were in looks—I couldn’t have been more Teutonic with my light complexion, blue eyes and big bones—so too were we different in character. I was a worrier who was always weighing risks and looking before I leaped. Greg was just the opposite—adventuresome, bold and courageous, a kid who never backed down from a challenge or a dare. A boy who was curious about life, about others, about how the world and human nature worked. But at the same time, unlike most of the other “winners” in our midst, I never once saw him make fun of or bully kids who were less brave, less coordinated or less adventurous than he was. In fact, he seemed to have a soft spot for the underdog, as if he realized that his innate abilities were the luck of the draw and that a lot of other kids had to train a lot harder and overcome a lot more inhibitions to accomplish a lot less than what came naturally to him.

Nor did Greg ever boast about his clear athletic prowess. His grace, speed and ability spoke for themselves and he knew it. In sand-lot games, he was usually one of the first picked for one team or another, while I was one of the last. But he always made sure that whatever team he was on, I was on it too.

When we were both still little—maybe five since I think we were both still pre-K that summer—I accompanied my mother one sunny morning to the pretty little grey-shingled house where Greg’s family still lived then on Washington Street in our home town of Wapakoneta. Reba Mae had to talk to my Aunt Betty about something—can’t remember what. But it was an unusual visit. For Greg and me it was as if a children’s holiday had just been declared. We immediately were out the door to play in the yard while our mothers sat at the kitchen table inside talking and drinking coffee.

In the yard of that little house on Washington Street there was an enormous hardwood. I can’t remember if it was a sugar-maple or an oak, but it dwarfed the house. While we were hanging out under it, Greg started talking about how cool it would be to build a tree fort in it, like ones we’d seen in the kid shows we watched on TV.

“Where would we put it?” I wanted to know.

“There are some real good branches up high,” he told me. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

And with that, he scampered up into the first big crotch in the spreading branches of that tree as if it were nothing. I followed as best I could, clumsily scraping knees, ankles and palms on the rough bark and, with a hand from him, managed to struggle onto that perch with him. But as soon as I’d made it, he moved on to higher goals, shinnying up another large branch that grew up and out in a different direction. Not wanting to be a wuss, I started to shinny up after him, but halfway up, the ground started looking so far below us that I froze, in a wave of vertigo. Higher up on that branch, Greg grappled his way out onto another one that reached out in a new direction from it.

“Come on up,” he said. But he could tell by the petrified look on my face that I wasn’t going to. “Just come up to this one today,” he coaxed. “It’s straight, you can sit on it.” And with that he sat up as comfortably on it as if he were on the couch in his living room, ankles crossed, swinging his feet as if to a happy tune. “I’ll show you from here where I think the fort should be. Come on up.”

And then he continued to climb until he got to the intersection of two fairly large branches that he figured would make a pretty good foundation for a fort. I painstakingly inched my way up the branch I was on to the one where he had told me to sit. It took a monumental effort to overcome my vertigo enough to sit out there, but I finally did. However, I had no notion of how I was ever going to get back down.

From where he was, Greg said, “See, isn’t this a great place?” I could barely nod and was thinking he’d play hell ever getting me to build anything, not even a birdhouse, let alone a tree-house, out there where he was.

“Isn’t it great up here?” he cried. “You can see everything from up here! And with that, he started moving higher, and higher, and higher still. Like a little spider monkey, he was swinging hand over hand from one branch to another. Testing, testing, testing to see how much higher he could go before the top branches would no longer hold his slight weight.

It was about then that, from far below, I heard my mother gasp and say, “Oh my god, Betty! Look where they are!”

And then my Aunt Betty, voice cracking, was screaming, “Gregory Bruce! You come down from there right now!”

And Reba Mae was like, “For godsake don’t scare them, Betty!”

But Greg wasn’t one to scare easily. If he was going to be punished, it would be after he got down. So he was taking his time, moving from branch to branch like a beautiful little simian and thoroughly enjoying the view while he still could.

Me, I was frozen stiff with fear out on the first big limb where he’d left me, looking down at the pale, panicked faces of my mother and aunt. When Greg, one of the most willful five-year-olds ever, got good and ready, he picked his way swiftly down, swinging from one branch to another, to the desperate gasps of the two women on the ground. When he got to where I was out on the limb, he deftly sidestepped me and then put his hand on my shoulder and gently said, “Come on Danny, I’ll help you.” And with that he guided me safely down out of the tree to the ground.

As we grew older and more independent, we often played at each other’s houses, rode our bicycles all over town, or hung out down by the Auglaize River that runs right through the middle of Wapakoneta. It was what Greg called “messing around”. And that was his standing invitation even when we were young men. He’d call me up and say, “So, ya wanna mess around?” I came to understand that this simple phrase had a deep meaning: take a drive, get a bite to eat, have some coffee, go on a double date, get a drink, shoot some pool, build a house, rob a bank, take a trip to the ends of the earth. There was only one motive behind any of it, and that was to get together, because we were brothers at heart, and the only thing that was important was getting to see each other.  

I avoided organized sports like the plague after a season of Pee Wee League with a perpetually hung-over frustrated “baseball star” coach who was a lot more interested in having a winning team than in teaching little kids to love the game. But with Greg I learned to play sand-lot sports of all kinds.

His backyard was our stadium. (Uncle Red and Aunt Betty believed that yards were meant to be played in and were never worried about the grass getting torn up). We played baseball and softball and pitch-and-catch and touch or tackle football with our brothers, and mutual cousins, and with whomever else dropped by from the neighborhood. We even played badminton when Greg’s parents bought him and his brother Mark and sister Dianne a set for Christmas one year.

Aunt Betty was our den mother for Cub Scouts, and Uncle Bob taught us all to box. I learned how to hit with all of my body weight. Greg was greased-lightning fast and could keep his left jab perpetually in your face until he saw an opening to clip you on the button with his right and put you down. His brother Mark, whom we called “Mugsy”, was a lot younger than us, but from the outset was just plain dangerous on all levels—big, fast and a very hard hitter. As we all grew older, I remember Greg saying, “I’ve never backed down from a fight, but the only guy who it’d scare the shit out of me to tangle with is Mugsy. That boy’s like my dad. He’s lethal.”

For Greg, on the other hand, fighting was all about the challenge, never about a grudge, and that’s what made him so good at it. Like all good boxers, he maintained grace under fire. He was quick and agile enough never to lead with his face, and he was skilled enough that despite his size, he could usually end a fight quickly and, unlike me, without resorting to fighting dirty. He was too small to do something as stupid as saying, “Give me your best shot,” and allowing his opponent to hit him first. And he had the most disarming tactic to ensure that when a fight was inevitable, the first punch would be his.

When we were together, I always knew that we’d passed the point of no return when Greg would grin at the leader of whatever merry band was trying to pick a fight with us and say something like, “Well, I guess I’m just gonna have to smash my nose all over your fist.” It was in the split-second that the guy was off-guard thinking, “What’d this punk just say?” that his fate was sealed. Because he was usually on the ground before he could take his first swing. And more often than not, the fights Greg got into were because he was defending someone else. He hated bullies. He saw them for the cowards they were. And even if he didn’t know the victim, he wasn’t one to say it was none of his business and walk on by. If they wanted to pick a fight with somebody, he was their huckleberry.  

But Greg was an even better lover than he was a fighter. In fact, Greg was all about love and kindness. But also about sexual discovery. He and I spent hours on end talking about girls even before we had any real idea of what we were talking about. Even then, Greg was a far better, more well-applied investigator than I was and he was the one who availed me of my first salient data about the birds and the bees. Some of the details were dicey, but he was in the ballpark from the time we were eleven. It’s just that when he told me who put what where and what they did with it, I balked. Especially when he told me that all mothers and fathers did it. That, I told him, wasn’t something my mother would ever do—though I wasn’t terribly sure about Whitie.

Undeterred, Greg kept right on probing the subject. Girls liked him. They liked me too, but it wasn’t the same. Me they liked like a friend-friend, a surrogate brother. Greg they took as an intimate friend, a confidant. And so he was able to find out what they were curious about too. They compared notes with him about what they’d heard and how much of it they believed. He was able to confirm some things his little girlfriends had heard about boys and they were only too glad to reciprocate with confirmation of some really incredible things he’d heard about girls. Later, he would share all of this ground-breaking knowledge with his nerdier friends, a group in which I was not only included, but starred. It would have been interesting if someone had taken pictures of these quasi-teen conferences in which Greg sat cross-legged like a guru, holding forth, with the rest of us in a semi-circle around him, mouths agape.

When we were in junior high, another kid whose father had stacks of some really explicit porno material stored in the attic of their garage, pilfered a few and traded them to Greg for a first-baseman’s mitt. The photos, a few of which he generously ripped out and shared with me and a couple more friends, documented some of the stories that he’d told us and that we had been hard put to believe. Now the proof was there in black and white and vivid color and had become indisputable fact.

It wasn’t long before Greg’s mutual investigations with girls had gone from share-your-secrets-and-I’ll-share-mine to show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine. And then one thing led to another and before we’d reached high school, Greg was the only one of us with the hands-on experience, so to speak, to be an impartial arbitrator on all matters of debate about sex. There was no sex education back when I was in school. But we didn’t need it. We had Greg.

Greg in high school

In high school Greg discovered something that interested him even more than girls and sports—well...than sports, anyway. Namely, business. Up to then, he had found just about everything they had ever tried to teach us superfluous and impractical. But there was a new course of study called Distributive Education, which taught basic economic and business skills and even placed students in on-the-job training as part of the course. Greg suddenly perked up. This was what he wanted to do: make money and, more importantly, find out how to keep it.

He enjoyed the Distributive Education training, and through it, he landed, first, an internship and, later, a regular job with the G.C. Murphy’s Five and Ten chain. Retail appealed to his minimalist simplicity. He had always thought that there was nothing complex about life. Happiness was in your own backyard. Nothing to get all het up about. Just take it as it comes. Retail, especially five-and-dime retail, was about selling little things everybody could afford and still making a tidy profit. That was something he thought was well worth learning about.

And it was working for him. While we were still in high school, he’d bought himself a nice old Mercury Monterrey to drive around, and later on he got himself a Honda Superhawk bike that we all envied him.  He had always had a deep interest in music. And when I joined the school band, he joined too and took up the clarinet. But the band director’s Toscanini-esque temper tantrums, shouting and abuse were too much for Greg’s gentle soul and he quit during the first year of junior high. But now he bought himself a good box-guitar and started teaching himself the blues. And it wasn’t long before he had mastered some impressive riffs.

Greg in Mr. Carmean's
Distributive Education class
Before we graduated from high school, Greg had become assistant manager at the Wapakoneta branch of the Murphy’s chain. And shortly after graduation, the manager told Greg that he would be sending him to headquarters in Pennsylvania for management training. Murphy’s was expanding at the time and would be needing able store managers like Greg was sure to be.

That’s where my cousin and best friend Greg’s life was heading when I left on my first trip to South America and then came back and went to the Ohio State University for a year, before joining the Army for three years. At some point in the first year that I was away, Greg got an induction notice from Uncle Sam, before he could realize his ambitions in retail. By the time I was enrolled at OSU, he had been drafted and was doing his basic training. He went from there to advanced combat training and then was part of a special group of draftees who joined regulars for jungle survival training in Panama. The Vietnam War was at its peak at the time, and Greg was about to be dropped into the thick of it, as one of the “boy soldiers” (average age nineteen) who fought and sometimes died in the most traumatizing and unpopular war in US history.

I was in the Army when Greg came home from his tour in Nam. I recall seeing him when I was home in Wapakoneta on leave. He and our friend Mark Gallimore came over. Like me, Mark was glad to have Greg back in one piece, unlike our friend and classmate Mike Oen, who had been killed in an exchange of small arms fire and came home in a body bag. I had attended his funeral, in uniform, when I first got out of Basic Training.

Mark and I tried to take up where the three of us had left off. We drank beer and talked about our friends and our town and our families. We joked and tried to force laughter on Greg. We tried to talk about anything but Nam. And that seemed okay with Greg.

In response to our effusive behavior, Greg wore a tight-lipped, enigmatic grin. But his dark eyes held no humor. They were deep, black, anxious and old beyond his years. He was tense and agitated. Any loud sound made him jump, and it seemed he might hop up from where he sat chain-smoking and run out of the house at any time.

Downtown Wapakoneta in the 1960s
Murphy's 5&10 is just visible on the left

He wasn’t quite twenty-one yet. In the State of Ohio of those times, he wasn’t old enough to marry without parental consent, to vote or to drink hard liquor. But he was already a highly-tested war veteran, who had witnessed enough pain, suffering, senseless violence and mass destruction to last him a lifetime—and indeed it did.

I didn’t see Greg for a long time after that. The Army sent me to Los Angeles for a year and then to Europe for more than a year after that. After I was discharged, my wife—whom I’d married while in service—and I struggled to adapt to civilian life for six months in the recession that took shape toward the end of the Vietnam Era, and then decided to move to her country (Argentina) “for a year”. It wasn’t until five years later that I returned to Ohio for the first time.

By then, Greg had rented an old farmhouse out in the country near town and was living with the woman who would turn out to be the love of his life, Mary Jo Knoch. Beautiful, creative, positive and full of energy she gave Greg something to live for and motivated him in the most non-invasive of ways.

Greg no longer seemed to have any more retail ambitions. He wore his thinning hair long and tied it back in a ponytail, and like many Vietnam vets, he sported a variety of facial hair styles, all matching his quasi-Asian looks. His greatest ambition was to find peace, and in that, Mary Jo, who was a country girl, as well as a gifted photographer and artist, perfectly adapted to the quiet lifestyle he sought. She was his solace.

Back from Nam
His entrepreneurial spirit, however, led him into some business ventures. For years he organized and promoted rock recitals. Later on he did what seemed to many totally out of character, studying for and acing the complicated licensing exam to become a financial advisor. As such, he worked as an independent agent for Prudential Investments and did quite well, mainly thanks to his simple, down-to-earth style that small town and rural investors identified with.

But the older he got, the more he drew into himself and into that dark cloud that had followed him back from the war. He had his bone-deep battle scars where nobody could see them. He never lost his wit, however. He was laconic and often morose, but if you were lucky enough to be paying attention when he said something, it was usually either profound or knee-slappingly funny.

Once when I was back from Argentina for a visit, I called Mary Jo, who by this time had also become one of my very best friends, to ask if it would be okay to go out that evening to the farm near the village of Fryburg, Ohio, where they had lived for decades, and where Mary Jo still lives today. I said I’d bring pizza and she told me to get it at the Beer and Wine Carryout in Wapak.

“They have great pizza!” she told me.

So I went to the carryout on the east side of Wapakoneta, bought a huge pizza with numerous toppings and then drove out to Fryburg five miles away. When I drove back their quarter-mile lane, I saw that our friend Mark Gallimore’s car was there as well. We were all old friends, no formalities. It was always as if we were taking up where we’d just left off, no matter how many years had passed in between.

Greg was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette and drinking beer from a can with a neoprene sleeve on it while watching one of his favorite cartoon shows on TV. Once the hellos were said he got mildly irritated that we went on talking when Wiley Coyote was about to lay another ingenious trap for The Roadrunner.

Greg on the right, with my wife Virginia, 
Mary Jo and me at my parents' 50th
wedding anniversary party in 1992.

Over our chitchat, he said to me, in that drawl of his that lately sounded for all the world just like Sam Elliott’s,  “Hey man, go get yourself a beer and come watch cartoons. This is a good one!”

“I’ll bring you one,” Mark said and Mary Jo said something like, “Heaven forbid we interrupt cartoon night!”

So we all gathered around Greg and the TV and started having at our beer and pizza. After taking the first bite of mine, I said, “Hey Mary Jo, you were right! This is some kind of great pizza.”

“Isn’t it?” she said looking around for agreement from Mark, who said, “It’s all right, I guess,” and Greg who ignored her entirely.

“All right?” she said. “I think it’s great pizza. It may just be the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.” His eye on The Roadrunner, Greg took a long drag on his cigarette, swigged his beer and in his best Sam Elliott voice said, “Yep, sure enough. People come from all over the world just to eat Beer and Wine Carryout Pizza.”

Another time, Greg’s brother Mark and I had set up a family get-together at The Old Barn Out Back, a smorgasbord-type country eatery located in the industrial city of Lima, fifteen miles north of Wapakoneta. We had, of course, invited Greg and Mary Jo but she said she was going to be in Columbus visiting her daughter, and she wasn’t at all sure that Greg would venture out of his lair in Fryburg if she wasn’t there to drag him off the couch and out to the car, but she would tell him.

When I arrived at The Old Barn, Mark had everything organized. He had reserved one of the private rooms off the main dining room and people from both my mother and father’s sides of the family plus a few friends were already there. When I asked Mark if Greg had come, he said, “Well, he said he was coming, but you know Greg.”

I decided to go have a look around. It didn’t take long to spot Greg’s Mahatma-skinny frame and thin ponytail from the back as he gazed first into one side room and then into another, searching for a familiar face.

“Greg! Hey Greg!” I shouted across the dining area. He turned, grinned, shrugged and started over. I went over to meet him halfway and when I got to him, spontaneously gave him a semi-bear-hug.

“Geezus, man,” he said, “thanks, you cracked my back. I needed that.”

And while I was still laughing from that, he glanced over his shoulder and back at me and, cocking his head at the side rooms across the way, he said, “Ya know, I joined another party over there for a while.”

Not often, but now and again, veteran to veteran, Greg would sometimes mention something about Nam to me. Just a sentence or two. An image. An impression. And I think the only reason he did was because I had once told him how guilty I felt that I’d spent my foreign tour in the Army with the NATO forces in Europe, while he and so many of our friends were humping through the boonies in Nam.

“Consider yourself lucky and don’t regret it,” he had said.  “I sure don’t hold it against you.”

Once when we were having a breakfast beer together at a Wapakoneta tavern, out of the blue he said, “Ya know, I think about Nam every night just before I fall asleep. I remember how I used to dig a grave-sized trench and lay my blankets out next to it so I could just roll in if shit started flying.”

But he never talked in detail about the fighting. He did, however, talk about the people and about the countryside. He said he found it the most beautiful place on earth. Scenery in the mountains and jungle like you wouldn’t believe. And the people, some of the nicest, sweetest and most beautiful people he had ever known. And therein lay his everlasting pain, guilt and sorrow, for those good people who had known only war and dying for decades on end.

My cousin Mark once said that “One Greg went to Vietnam and another Greg came home.” Today, he would surely have been diagnosed with PTSD. But no one wanted to hear about the Vietnam War back then. It was a war no one wanted to remember and its veterans were an uncomfortable reminder of it. Greg was one of the Vietnam vets who fell through the cracks but had the good fortune to fall into the arms of Mary Jo, his wife, his lover, his friend and companion for forty-four years. It was in those arms that he passed away last week at age seventy-one, taking her love with him and leaving his dark cloud behind.