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written by Gazette Publisher Tom Thomson
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DECEMBER 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
Questioning call of an owl
Winter flies out of the north and brushes me with its snowy wings. December. The nights grow long; the days shrink to a handful of hours. The cold countenance of the moon sketches tree shadows across a barren countryside.
Hoot-hoot-a-hoo, hoot-hoot-a-hoo. From a dark shape nearly hidden in hemlock branches comes the questioning call of an owl. As I listen, I become aware of something immortal in that forlorn calling.
Uneasy pioneers in the wilderness heard that same ominous hooting, speculated as to its portent. In more distant times, Indians and mound builders in their villages, around campfires, must have hesitated a moment, glanced at each other when they heard that incantation from the blackness of the woods.
Ah yes, each time it was a different owl. Individuals perish, only species live on. So I learned that this was not the last winter of the world. It will go on. Hopefully, it will continue for as long as I can imagine. I live only on the cutting edge. I look at the moon and listen to the owl, and I am exuberantly happy in knowing that when I am gone they will still be here.
NOVEMBER 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
A Recurring Dream
It was a sweet dream, and I remembered most of it through the following day, although, you know how it is with dreams, even when you’re thinking about them, they fade away like shadows when a cloud passes over the sun.
We were walking along an ocean coast, she and I, a woman I seemed to be very close to but otherwise unidentifiable, maybe a composite of all the women I have ever confided in, when suddenly, as is the case with dreams, another scene interposed itself on the first and we were swimming in those cool brackish waters. I was to swim ahead of her for seven days, go far to the north for some kind of award, and she was to follow. I was to wait for her and when we met she was to continue on without me for another seven days, and she too was going to receive some great honor.
Then I awoke. The realities of the dream were already fading, the splash and smell of salt water, the keen sharpness of pine-scented air, suddenly gone. All of it evaporated, beyond reach, like being snatched from a good book in mid-sentence or hearing the last haunting notes of Sibelius’ Finlandia.
I frequently dream of such settings, far to the north, some small town or village by an inlet of the sea, and I am looking for oceanic birds, walking past faces that are strangely familiar, wandering through the twists and turns of old brick and cobblestone streets. The dream recurs, the incidents differing, the locale the same. All of this is what I perceive, within the dream or immediately afterward, but I have also learned from experience that dreams can lie.
Persons of certain persuasions might say of the dream I just related that it was a manifestation of reincarnation. “In some previous life,” they would say, “you lived in some far northern fishing village or seaport.” To which I would gently reply, “Well, maybe it was reincarnation of a genetic kind. Perhaps it was the stirring of ancient memories stored deep within my brain, buried somewhere within the quilted layers and aqueducts of cerebellum, past the medulla, the image and the reaction coupled together, transferred and safely stored in the vault of the midbrain. That kind of reincarnation. That kind of occurrence.”
Perhaps it is a phenomenon not yet fully realized by science. And I would remind them that it is common for us to presume such traits in birds and animals. We say that they draw on mysterious powers retrieved from the dim corridors of time-past. For lack of something better, we call it instinct.
OCTOBER 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
A BenedictionInexorably the season advances. Fall colors are fading, the leaves dance earthward now in flurries, hastened by wind and rain. Midas’ touch becomes a shining reality under a grove of honey locust trees which seem to drop their leaves suddenly – as if on a whim – and the ground beneath is transformed into a pool of golden coins.
Even on calm days the leaves come drifting down as if by predestination, a silent and measured succession of them, a letting go, a self-inflicted amputation of leaf stalks from twigs and branches. Like dispassionate pilgrims on their way to an eternal shrine, they seek their destination, their place of final repose.
Down spin the shapely yellow leaves of the tulip tree. Then another and another to join the first and the others. Down come the crimson leaves of the sweet gum, scatter along the ground, accumulate in windrows, give birth to a universe of dying red stars.
Some of the leaves are perfectly formed when they fall, others are marked by the wear and tear of blight, the ravages of insects, and the vagaries of weather.
But most will perish together, and the process starts within hours. They will trade their bright colors for somber shades of brown, crinkle and turn up at the edges. Eventually all are baptized by rain, become sodden debris to be further broken down by insects, rodents, mold and fungi and the great hosts of bacteria.
I sometimes think that the fallen leaves are a last benevolent gift to the earth. Having taken so much from the soil, at the last, the trees return the favor. Enriching the humus, the leaves become one with it in the age-old cycle of replenishment – I call it a benediction.
SEPTEMBER 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
LOVE IN MY HEARTIt’s difficult consoling myself with the thought that the earth is but a speck revolving around a third-rate star and that I am but one of over six and half billion fidgety and uneasy human inhabitants on this sphere, stuck here, always looking up and out. I’m reminded of the woman Annie Dillard quotes in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. “Seem like we’re just set down here,” she remarked, “and don’t nobody know why.” I can relate to that. I’m always wondering what it’s all about.
But I pull myself together. In spite of unanswered questions I know that everything is all right for the simple reason that I care and – as a bonus – I have a lot of love in my heart.
Over the course of my life, in addition to family, there have been many people I cared for and more than a few that I loved.
It is love that lures me to the endless night sky. It is love that enables me to talk to the stars and the moon.
I love all the birds that I have seen during my lifetime. And the animals. Do I love inanimate things? Yes! I love the ocean.
I love the mountains. Along with Edward Abbey, I love the desert. I love everything that makes the world go ‘round and all the customers that are along for the ride. We’re all on the same merry-go-round.
Like in the song: It’s love that makes the world go ‘round. That and the fact I sometimes wear a straw hat with a blue jay feather stuck in the band which gets me through the day.
And I whistle a lot.
AUGUST 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
A VULTURE FOR ABBEY, SERENE AND SOARING
It was back in the ‘70s that I discovered Edward Abbey and read his hilarious and provocative book The Monkey Wrench Gang. It was the wild and wooly story of a small group of out-of-control environmentalists who went on a destructive rampage and how they were pursued by a remorseless and depraved law officer. I remember how much I wanted Jeff, my oldest boy, to read the story but, alas, he was in his teens. I didn’t want him to take the book literally and blow up Griggs dam, already made famous by James Thurber in The Day the Dam Broke.
Abbey died in 1989, but I didn’t give a whole lot of further thought to him until late in 1994 when I read a review of Confessions of a Barbarian, a volume of selections from his journals edited by David Petersen, in the Book Review Section of the New York Times.
As a result of this renewed exposure to Abbey, within the space of a month or two, I obtained a number of his other books that were still in print and proceeded to read through them one by one. The titles I now have are The Brave Cowboy, Black Sun, Fool’s Progress, Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s Road, and The Best of Edward Abbey. In Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, James Bishop, Jr., quotes a selection from Down the River, a book of essays in which Abbey ponders his own life after death: “For a lifetime or two, I think I’ll pass on eagle, hawk or falcon this time, I think I’ll settle for the sedate career, serene and soaring, of the humble turkey buzzard. And if a falcon comes around looking for trouble, I’ll spit in his eye. Or hers. And contemplate this world we love from a silent and considerable height.”
According to Bishop, “When a vulture is seen soaring over the canyon country, someone will say, ‘Abbey lives.’ After all he did predict it.”
In Desert Solitaire, Abbey expanded on these thoughts when he was talking about a person dying of thirst: “See those big black scrawny wings far above, waiting? Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering. For most of us a promotion in grade, for some the realization of an ideal.”
So be it. Actually, the two species that occur in Ohio, the turkey and the black vultures are birds that I cast a favorable eye upon. As a matter of fact, the vicinity of the Clear Creek Valley is one of the northernmost outpost of black vultures in the United States. As for the turkey vulture (or buzzard), it is quite common throughout most of Ohio, and even in the Clear Creek Valley it is more numerous by a ratio of at least 20 to one than its cousin.
Turkey vultures boast a wingspan from six to seven feet, and all that aerodynamic surface proves to be extremely useful as they course along ridges utilizing updrafts and ride the thermals rising from fields and highways. With the subtlest manipulation of their flight feathers, they can soar effortlessly for hours on end in their quest for their next meal. Dead animals are what they eat, their diet consisting mostly of roadkill, animals that have been mortally wounded by hunters and poachers, and animals that have died from disease or been killed by predators other than humans. Most of the roadkill they dine on are along country roads because both vulture species are savvy enough to stay away from heavily traveled highways.
Most people are unaware that turkey and black vultures have been known to kill and eat immature birds and animals. Occasionally, they have also been observed eating fruits and vegetables. Maybe they are on their way to becoming vegetarians!
Most of the time, however, in satisfying their own appetites with carrion, vultures become sanitary engineers for the rest of us. They locate their meals through the combined use of their extraordinary vision and an acute sense of smell.
Vultures have another endearing quality. In extremely hot weather, they will wet their legs with their own urine, thereby cooling down their body temperature.
Which brings to mind an incident a birding companion and I observed one September day on the south side of Columbus. We were headed for the city disposal plant which sometimes is a good place to find shorebirds and waterfowl. It is adjacent to a rendering plant, both sites located along the banks of the Scioto River. There are also gigantic landfills nearby, a trash burning power plant that was shut down because it was emitting dangerous amounts of dioxin, a men’s workhouse, and a women’s workhouse. A really upscale neighborhood, you can see. As we passed the rendering plant a beat up truck with a tarp over the bed turned into the entrance.
A few minutes later, while we were looking at some sandpipers at the disposal plant, we saw four or five turkey vultures winging their way northward, making a beeline for the rendering plant.
It was only at home, later in the day, while I was working on the day’s checklist that a question suddenly crossed my mind. Were the vultures following that truck, which most assuredly had one or more dead carcasses in it?
Another thought occurred to me. On past trips to the area, I had frequently seen turkey vultures flying in the vicinity of the rendering plant. Could it be they are attracted to the area by the smells emanating from that unsavory place? They might be. But I feel assured that Edward Abbey isn’t one of them. He’s out in the southwest, isn’t he?
Oh, yes, about 21 years later, I finally got around to giving Jeff a copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang. He liked it a lot, and the last time I looked, Griggs Dam was still there.
JULY 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
[September 2003, January 2000 issues]
HEARTS AND MINDS
The gray of a dove’s wing, the sky was. And that only in the east, where the diffused light of the unrisen sun was barely discernible. Overhead the color was old pewter and westward, beyond the hills of the Clear Creek Valley, the sky was dark as a blacksnake, the morning star glowing over the treetops like a bright enigmatic eye.
I take these occasional early morning trips to rouse my sensibilities from the apathy of everyday living; the commonplace happenings of the big city, the lurid headlines of the daily newspaper shouting news of the latest government corruption, international murder and mayhem, and the local crime scene.
In such a way, by escaping to nature, if I do not arrive at any ultimate and great truth, I at least clear my head, and I am able to search deep within my own soul, if not for the ultimate truth, at least for some compensation.
I study the trees, birds, flowers and, far beyond them, the starry heavens. In such a way, I ascertain that I am located somewhere in the middle of things, halfway between inner and outer space. I listen to the crowing of a rooster, the baying of a faraway hound, the awakening trill of a field sparrow.
Sometimes I take a loved one with me and thus, holding hands, we construct a triangle: her heart, my heart, and the eye of the planetary snake.
We become partners in the early morning darkness, joined in a conspiracy of awareness. There are no witnesses to our scheming other than a curious bird or two and sometimes a family of deer far off in the meadow next to the creek.
There are other times when I go by myself – yet I’m never really alone. Many of the people who influenced my life, personal friends I have known – some of them passed on now – or the authors who made a great impression on my life, they accompany me in my mind. It’s amusing in a way, isn’t it. To the casual eye it would appear that I am walking down the road alone, but the reality of it is there’s a merry little troupe of us, sometimes a new friend or author, this person or that joining us, or sometimes someone taking their leave after they have had their say.
I recall one morning when I was walking along in the company of Carolus Linnaeus, Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, Margaret Morse Nice, Alexander Wilson, Ed Thomas, and Esther Reichelderfer.
With the great Linnaeus in our company, I ask you: what else would we talk about other than the classification of species?
We all got a laugh from his stories about how the clergy and some of the more pious personages of his day got their noses out of joint because of the sexual basis for the plant classifications.
By the grimace on his face, I can tell that the old Scotsman, Alexander Wilson, isn’t too amused at our conversation. I lightheartedly remind him that sex is what makes the world go ‘round and he gives a consenting grunt and I can see a bemused twinkle in his eyes.
So it is that we walk along the old road as it threads its way through the hills. The nearby creek serenades us with its mysterious soliloquies, the rippling water reflects the growing light in the sky as surely as it chronicles the history of the valley. A towhee calls out its name, tentative at first, then trills his “drink-your-tea” song, as if it was an offering to the gods.
For a brief second, we glimpse an Indigo Bunting. Rachel Carson exclaims at the incredible blueness of the bird before it flies into a roadside tangle. I wish that I had known this dear lady in the real world, especially during the last one or two years of her life. That was when Silent Spring was gaining critical acclaim from environmentalists all over the world. Yet the big chemical companies and their cohorts – in the face of overwhelming evidence – attacked her like a swarm of angry hornets.
All the while she was dying from cancer. I wish that I could have held her hand. Held her hand and looked in her eyes as I told her what a great and wonderful contribution she had made to all of us. Yes, even to those who belittled and debased her.
“That’s the way of the world,” I would have said softly. “It has always been that way and probably always will be.”
I can imagine her nodding her head, smiling weakly, and thanking me for my kind words.
“Why is it so difficult for people to be kind and to do the right thing?” she might have asked. And to her question I would have no answer.
In the meantime, the sun climbs the sky, entices a twisting streamer of mist to rise from the hills. Shafts of sunlight shatter dark tree-shadows along the sandstone road, explode them into fireworks of dancing gold baubles.
One miracle follows another as a new day is born and, most important of all, I discover that even across the centuries there are some hearts and minds that are indivisible.
JUNE 2009 [July 2004]
HOUSE HOPPING DURING THE DEPRESSION
The Great Depression didn’t scare my plucky mother one bit. Once we moved up to the University District, she set about renting our spare rooms to students. In the big houses that we usually lived in, that meant as many as two or three rooms rented out, maybe more if the house had a finished third.
From my point of view, it was pretty exciting having all these strangers come and go. Most of them were undergraduates, but occasionally we would get somebody working on a master’s or a doctorate. Mostly they were men, but every once in a while a woman would settle into a room. And, of course, if she was pretty, I would fall in love with her, although I probably would have fainted if she had asked me what time it was because I was so bashful.
We even had professors, mostly quiet intellectual types, but I do remember a couple of oddballs, including one who drank too much, so Mother eventually had to ask him to leave.
Until I became old enough to acquire a paper route, I settled for selling packages of seeds door-to-door, and magazines such as Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies’ Home Journal.
Evenings we would gather around our faithful Clarion radio and listen to all the bad news about unemployment and World War I veterans selling apples, and the latest measures that President Roosevelt was proposing to combat the bad times.
To tell the truth, the never-ending news of people killing each other around the world made for more exciting listening.
Back in the ‘30s, Japan was rampaging through China, Italy invaded Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War was draining the vitality of that nation – all of this bloodshed over territory and to gain economic advantage, or to put down a rival religion, or to force their own national creed down somebody else’s throat. I still have the war scrapbooks that I faithfully kept for many years.
For relief from all this bad news, after dinner we would listen to our favorite shows, the likes of Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Shadow, Fibber McGee and Molly, and the Green Hornet. And, I dare not forget to mention some of the other great comedians of that era, such as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, and Joe Penner, to name a few.
I swear my mother must have had gypsy blood. If she wasn’t entirely pleased with one house, we would up and move to another. Maybe live there for a year or two, then move somewhere else.
In such a fashion, we lived in two separate places on Neil Avenue, two on West Tenth Avenue, one on Hunter Street, and two on West Tenth Avenue. Those are the ones I remember.
Off and on, if we had a spare room, my orbiting grandmother, “Da,” would live with us for awhile. She was a stern disciplinarian, so I was careful never to get her riled up. I remember one time I must not have been careful enough because she bent my arm behind my back and wrestled me to the ground – all the while chewing me out for whatever it was I had done. Come to think of it, my magazine manager had stopped by to collect and I didn’t have quite enough money to pay him in full. Must have spent a little too much for candy that week.
My grandmother was a very superstitious woman. I can remember she and my mother screaming and yelling at each other one time because my mother wanted to start a trip on a Friday. She wanted to take my brother and me up to Chicago to see our paternal grandparents.
“You’ll never make it back to Columbus alive!” my grandmother wailed.
“Don’t be silly,” my mother laughed, “the trains are perfectly safe.”
“The children will be killed,” Da shot back, “Or kidnapped!”
And so it went, their voices rising by the minute, until they were standing there face to face screaming at each other.
I can’t even remember now whether we left that day or not. Chances are we didn’t. Chances are my mother gave in to ignorance and superstition just to quiet Da down.
I forget most of my grandmother’s other superstitious fears, but I do remember that if you have to return home for something you have forgotten, it’s important to sit down before you leave again. It might even help to toss a dash of salt over your shoulder. Never walk under a ladder, and of course, she would have added that it was just plain common sense not to let a black cat cross your path.
I’ll say this for my grandmother though. True to her southern heritage, she was a mighty fine cook, and she passed a lot of that cooking knowledge on to my mother.
Fried apples, a breakfast specialty of hers, were so good they’d make your mouth drool just thinking about them.
Thus it was that the years passed and I slid through the educational system – Ninth Avenue Elementary, Everett Junior High and, finally, North High School.
In the ninth grade, I had gotten interested in bird study, and for all practical purposes, I was oblivious to everything else.
MAY 2009 [June 2004]
MOTHER FACED HARDSHIP WITH HOPE AND COURAGE
My mother was a courageous woman, as well as a survivor in the truest sense of the word. I say this in spite of the fact that she was a chronic worrywart and, in her last years on Earth, fearful of the inevitable end – even though she was an extremely religious woman, brought up as a Carmelite, a fundamentalist religious sect of the South. My feeling is that none of us ever figures out every nuance of what another person’s life is about, not to speak of our own.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” the old adage says, and my mother fit that description to a T. Widowed when she was in her early 30s with two young boys to care for, and little in the way of money, she soon demonstrated that she was capable of making her own way in this world.
My mother was brought up in Nashville, Tenn., and went to Ward-Belmont, a girls finishing school. There she learned the rudiments of proper English and all the social graces, but not much else. Don’t forget, in those days not many women pursued careers outside the home.
Fortunately, soon after my dad died, she heard that the owners of an apartment building on First Avenue in Grandview were looking for a manager. In spite of the fact she had absolutely no work experience, on sheer gumption, she applied for the job, and got it. A rent-free apartment went with the modest salary, and she was on her way to self-support.
And, guess what? She did such a good job that the owners of the building, the Huntington National Bank, offered her a much better position at their newly acquired Parkview Apartments on East Broad Street opposite Franklin Park. It was a pretty spiffy place in those days. Dr. Melvin Croaty, the famous goiter specialist lived right next door to the building we lived in. And Webb Huntington and his family lived in the apartment below us.
This was a big step up. A nicer rent-free apartment with utilities paid, a better salary, and other amenities such as complimentary laundry service, and dairy and bakery products.
Well, she did such a good job that she attracted the attention of the John Hancock Insurance Company which had just purchased the Cambridge Arms, Columbus’ premier high-rise apartment building at the time. So we moved again.
The nine-story building featured a tearoom off the lobby, uniformed bellhops, automatic elevators, a two-level parking garage, and an easily accessible rooftop from which I could look out over the city in all directions. I would take it all in – beyond the surrounding houses, past the church steeples along Broad Street, all the way to the AIU Building, which the Lincoln-LeVeque Building was called in those days. I swear I could see all the way to the fairgrounds and the buildings on the Ohio State University campus.
Boy, did I ever have fun while we lived there. Plenty of action. I got to know the bellhops and would be all ears when they’d gossip about the tenants.
I went to Douglas Elementary School, which I liked a lot. The old red brick building had a big cylindrical fire escape attached to one wall. James Thurber once attended school there.
Because I wanted a paper route but was too young to go to a sub-station to pick up my papers, Mother called up the Circulation Department of the Dispatch and talked to the manager, a Mr. Thomas.
Soon a Dispatch delivery truck was dropping off a roll of papers every day in front of the building. My route consisted of the apartments in the building and the stately homes along East Broad for a block or two in each direction. Two of the Dispatch Wolfe boys lived in the building with their young wives and were on my route.
Mother had gained a lot of self-confidence and was becoming ever more proficient in her job. She showed apartments to prospective tenants, listened patiently to those who had complaints, hired maintenance people for the endless task of keeping the building functioning properly, and painters every time an apartment needed refurbishing. Not only that, she was becoming ever more proficient at interior decorating, which included everything from selecting wall colors to purchasing draperies and carpeting.
Of course, she also had the never-ending job of running a household for our small family, which meant responsibilities: from grocery shopping and cooking, to keeping my brother and me reasonably well-clothed and shod, not to speak of trying to keep some semblance of law and order when we boys were fighting over one thing or another.
Those were depression years and up to this point Mother had been unbelievably lucky. But then the axe fell.
To save money, the owners decided to let the tearoom manager show apartments, and Mother was without a job.
So we set about packing. Cups, saucers, and dinner plates were wrapped in newspapers and put in a couple of wooden barrels along with silverware, bric-a-brac, pots and pans and whatever else we could tuck in. Books were boxed, linen bundled, clothing crammed in a couple of wardrobe trunks, and then (whew!) we were ready for the moving van.
Hand in hand, we climbed aboard a streetcar and headed for our next adventure. Mother had rented a big house in the University District, and we were going to rent rooms to students.
APRIL 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
Anytime I see even one, it's a red-letter day
On a rainy March day many years ago, I found 67 common loons scattered along the waters of the O’Shaughnessy Reservoir north of Columbus. Other observers have seen more loons at one time in Ohio, especially on Lake Erie, but the 67 I saw that day impressed me enough that I was quite happy with the experience. Loons are noble birds, and anytime I see even one, it’s a red-letter day.
That event remains in my memory as sharply recalled as if it had happened only recently. A low pressure area passing through the upper Midwest had brought a flow of warm air into Ohio – and with it the loons. With their primeval knowledge, they had taken advantage of the favorable winds, ridden that latitudinal escalator for all it was worth – and when they stopped to rest, they became a nice prize for my eyes, and my sensibilities.
Earlier in the day there was intermittent rain from nimbus clouds scooting along before a southwest wind. During the early afternoon, that weather had given way to a low ceiling and a gray stillness, absolutely void of wind, accompanied by a significant amount of fog. That was when I found the first of the loons.
The effect was wondrous because the fog produced two opposing effects, the most obvious being to shut out the rest of the world, yet it was this very phenomenon that created the second effect, an imagined or apparent magnification of everything within the bounds of vision, including the loons.
As I looked at the first half dozen of them through my binoculars, it was incredible the way they loomed up, seemingly larger than life, and I can say unashamedly that I experienced a sensation that birders sometimes enjoy and which can possibly be described by the term “virtual reality,” a melding together of the birder as subject and the bird as object along with its habitat and historical milieu producing what Claude Levi-Strauss or a “native mind” might define as a vision of the natural world in its entirety.
In that unequaled book, Birds of America, Edward Howe Forbush proclaimed that “Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness.”
I am inclined to agree. Whenever I see a loon, I think of Henry David Thoreau, that peculiar but immensely talented man who, over the years, remains one of my perennial heroes, a veritable icon of all that is reasonable and intelligent in mankind.
I wonder what long-ago literature class I was in and who my benevolent teacher was when I first read Thoreau’s classic account of a game of hide-and-seek with a loon on Walden Pond: “. . . suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself,” he wrote.
“I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before.”
Not quite the objective naturalist willing to concede the pond to the loon, he continued the chase until “At length, having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me, and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.”
So it is that once again I discover another rewarding dimension to life and nature – the experiences and interpretations of other minds enthralled by the wonders of nature.
From Birds of a Feather, by Tom Thomson ©1997
FEBRUARY 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
SISKINS IN LOVE
Siskins in love. I know such a notion is the worst (or maybe the best) kind of anthropomorphism. But before you dismiss such an idea, hear me out.
I had noticed this pair of small siskins for a month or more. They are closely related to goldfinches, but the males lack the bright yellow and black plumage of that species. Instead, they are heavily daubed with brownish streaks on a wash of pale yellow. Here and there, a few feathers are a bit brighter yellow – in the wings and in the base of the tail, for instance.
Every time I saw these siskins they were close together, seemingly inseparable. More than once I witnessed the male singing his exuberant song as he flew in circles around his female companion. Or I would see them bathing together in a little stream of water. Or foraging for seeds. Sometimes they would touch bills or one of them would pass food to the other.
Later, I saw the female gathering nesting material – and, as always, the male was at her side. Their nest of twigs and rootlets and grasses was concealed high up in the whispering branches of a hemlock tree in a shady ravine.
Then one day a Cooper’s hawk flew into a nearby tree. A blue jay screamed in alarm and a pair of robins tut-tutted their disapproval. But it was the male siskin who put his life on the line. Dauntlessly circling about the hawk, he repeatedly dived at its head and finally succeeded in driving it off.
The conquering hero returned to the nesting tree – and the female flew out to greet him. Together – for a few brief moments – they ascended into the sky, the male singing his song – vibrantly, triumphantly, tenderly – it seemed to me, and the female responded, her wings spread wide, excitedly chattering, uttering her own muted song in response.
In The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eisely, edited by Kenneth Heuer, there is this revealing passage penned by the great anthropologist: “Anthropomorphizing: the charge of my critics. My counter-charge. There is a sense in which when we cease to anthropomorphize, we cease to be men, for when we cease to have human contact with animals and deny them all relation to ourselves, we tend in the end to cease to anthropomorphize ourselves – to deny our own humanity.” So there you are.
Siskins in love. It is possible, is it not? If you don’t believe me, read The Human Nature of Birds, by Theodore Xenophon Barber.
JANUARY 2009 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
AN ETERNAL BECOMING
There is an improbability about birds, not that they fly, but that they seem to exist in a world apart from our own.
I’m sure that Annie Dillard was also thinking about birds when she said, “The great hurrah about wild animals is that they exist at all, and the greater hurrah is the actual moment of seeing them.”
She goes on to speak of their wariness and what a prize it is to behold them. That goes double for birds because of their ability to fly away when we most want them to stay.
Oh, birds have wings all right and for some birds that gift makes the world their oyster. Many of our spring migrants spend the winter in the neotropics, exotic places like the Bahamas and Trinidad and Venezuela and beyond. Black-bellied plovers that nest above the Arctic circle travel as far away as the coast of Chili. Nighthawks and upland sandpipers spend their winters on the pampas of Argentina. That’s tourism on a grand scale.
A scientist of the old school might say that these peregrinations really aren’t made from free choice, that bird behavior is mechanistic, that they are captives of their own genetic makeup. That is undoubtedly partly true, but when I look at the rush hour traffic on a freeway, I wonder who’s kidding who.
All birds aren’t world-class travelers. Some of them stay at home, others make journeys of a more modest kind, say from Ohio to the hills of Tennessee or the pine barrens of northern Alabama, or just to somebody else’s backyard. Blue jays, robins and downy woodpeckers, for instance.
The greater triumph of birds might be that they exist in a world of fast-motion with sensory perceptions that are beyond our conception, a place where life is lived in a fast lane that we can only imagine.
No matter. One of the nice things about the study of birds is that we can bring our own personal interpretations and feelings to the subject. For me, there are many such threads and one of them is that birds are the perfect eternel devenir, an eternal becoming, an abstract link between ourselves and the natural world, embracing the past, the present, and the future. I hear the same mournful sighing of the mourning dove that John Audubon heard along the Ohio River. It is the same sound I heard as a young boy, hear now and, hopefully, it is a sound that will caress the ears of posterity for many years to come.
JULY 2007 [From Birds of a Feather © 1997]
THE LOST NOTES OF LOREN EISELEY
I have been reading The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, a collection edited by Kenneth Heuer and published by Little, Brown and Company. At the time of his death in 1977, Eiseley was chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the author of many books, including The Immense Journey, The Night Country, All the Strange Hours, and The Star Thrower. He was also a poet and many of his poems were published, some in book form.
Although I came upon Eiseley rather late in my life, and after his death, his thoughts have made a great impression on me, and the easy style of his writing set new goals for my own endeavors. His willingness to bare his soul – including self-confessed inadequacies – helped strengthen my own sometime fragile psyche. In the words of another great writer, Ray Bradbury, speaking of Eiseley, “I shall be in debt to him to the end of my life.”
The Lost Notebooks contain fragments of Loren Eiseley’s journals, portions of an unfinished novel, letters to friends and admirers, and notebook entries dating all the way back to his boyhood.
“I was born,” he once reminisced, “when father was forty, of a marriage that had never been happy. I was loved, but I was also a changeling, an autumn child surrounded by falling leaves.”
His mother was deaf. As he grew older, he also came to realize that she was paranoid, neurotic, and unstable. His father was an itinerant actor, often away from home for long periods of time. The family lived in Nebraska and most of the time was impoverished. Yet he acknowledged that from his mother he gained an appreciation of beauty and from his father a love of poetry.
In his early 20s, Loren was diagnosed as having tuberculosis but fortunately for him the disease went into remission. During the Depression, he worked at odd jobs, rode the rails, traveled west and eventually, after discovering his affinity for science, continued his education. Assisted financially by a well-to-do uncle, Eiseley obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska and completed his graduate work in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
After he married he made a conscious decision not to have children because there had been talk of insanity in his mother’s family. All of his life he suffered from insomnia, but (happily for the rest of us) he did a lot of his writing when he couldn’t sleep.
For a while he was the head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Oberlin College in Ohio. Later he returned to the University of Pennsylvania to head the Department of Anthropology.
The great achievement of Loren Eiseley was to transcend the traditional scientific role of field trips, scientific papers, and the writing of textbooks and emerge as one of the most perceptive writers of our time – a metamorphosis that was belittled at the time by many of his colleagues. In the process, he revealed himself as a man of great compassion, a scientist, a naturalist, a writer of vision, and a humanist who was never pretentious enough to think he knew all the answers.
He died in the summer of 1977. His wife, Mabel, died July 27, 1986. She was buried with her husband under a tombstone with this simple legend: “We loved the earth but could not stay.”
Back to the past. Back to the glory days when we were all kids. Back to the days when a nickel bought a candy bar, or a cherry coke, or a telephone call, or a streetcar ride. I’m talking the late ‘30s, the early ‘40s.
Oh, I know the world was a mess back then, but when has it not been? Hitler was ranting and raving, and guess what? He had his share of supporters in this country – including right here in Ohio.
I guess when you’re a kid you just accept things the way they are, no matter how crazy and mixed up.
You’re born into a rich family or a poor one. You have brothers and sisters, or you have none. Most of us inherit our religion and our politics from our parents.
All that being said, there I was, a 16-year-old kid, wet behind the ears. Let’s say the year is 1940. I’m trying to get passing grades in school. I graduated from Everett Junior High, and now I’m in my first year at North High School.
Sometimes I have a paper route, sometimes I don’t.
My family has recently moved again; this time to 61 West 11th Ave. – a lot closer to High Street, and still across the road from the sprawling OSU campus. The white frame house we now live in had once been the home of John Schaeffer, a noted Ohio botanist. There were a number of advantages to our move. For one thing, it was close to the streetcar line that I took to school.
But wait a minute! Just hold on! They say that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and so far I haven’t mentioned many of the good times that were to be had. Just because it was during the Great Depression and my family was on the poor side doesn’t mean kids like me didn’t have any fun. Maybe more fun than kids today have. Maybe because the good times weren’t handed to us on a silver platter.
Television was still in the future, but we had radio. There were shows for kids like “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy” and popular shows for everyone like “The Shadow” featuring the mysterious Lamont Cranston.
Several local stations that were affiliated with networks carried programs that the entire family could enjoy. Shows like “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “Lum and Abner.” There were also plenty of comedians on radio back then. Some of the programs were hour-long extravaganzas starring big names like Bob Hope and Red Skelton. Local disc jockeys kept us supplied with plenty of good music – bands like Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, and Tommy Dorsey.
Give or take a few years, some of the local jocks that I remember were Erwin Johnson “the Early Worm,” Doc Lemmon, and Spook Beckman.
Those were the days!
Summer has many moods, many voices. As a rule, I like them all. Summer can beget little breezes that whisper in your ear like a lover; it can cannonade with the flashing of big guns and the booming of thunder, it can croon a lullaby like a mother robin.
Or, it can look kindly on a baby deer.
The one I am thinking about was standing smack in the middle of a dirt and sandstone road in Hocking County.
When driving on such hill country roads, I usually loiter along, frequently stopping. I get out of the car a lot, listen to the chorus of birdsong, try to identify a few wildflowers. This particular day, I had already done all of these pleasant things.
I was headed back to the crowded city, driving faster than usual, surrendering probably to the sirens’ admonishments that lure us back to the dubious quickstep of the hive.
I didn’t see the little fawn (for that is what a baby deer is called) until I was almost on top of him. Perhaps his handsome colors had blended in with the dappled sunlight filtering through oaks and sycamores onto the road.
Also, he was very small, about as tall as a yardstick set on end. He must have stood there not knowing what to do, his little matchstick legs propped wide apart, as he watched my car bear down on him. I still hadn’t seen him.
The sound of my approaching car should have alerted him, but it didn’t. He was obviously so young that his parents hadn’t had a chance to teach him about the dangers of this world. Either that, or he hadn’t listened.
From the very beginning, the contest was unfair. He was so little and my car was so huge.
When I first spotted him he was about four car lengths away. I hit the brakes and my car skidded on the loose gravel, then spun halfway around in a cloud of dust. When I finally stopped, the baby deer was one car length away.
He turned a bit sideways, as though to brace himself against the impending disaster. But he stood his ground.
I don’t know whether he was frozen with fright, or just totally unaware of the peril he had been in. I suspected the latter, but changed my mind when I saw that he was trembling all over.
After such a rude introduction, I am sure neither one of us knew exactly what was the proper thing to do. So, for about a minute, we didn’t do anything. I think we both needed a little more time to gather our composure.
With a great sigh of relief, I continued to look out the car window at him. He, in turn, looked back at me with his big unblinking amber-brown eyes. His coat was the color of buckwheat honey, decorated with irregular spots of white along the flanks.
About this time, I became aware of the doe (his mother) when I heard her soft barking and bleating. She was only a few yards away, secluded in tall grasses and blackberry tangles, difficult to see because of her subtle coloring and the flickering patterns of tree shadows.
Her eyes were fixed on the little scene in the middle of the road. I believe she was trying to tell her tiny offspring what to do, but I don’t think her message was getting completely through.
He seemed to have gotten over the shakes, and he was making tentative moves to escape his predicament. He just didn’t know what to do first.
Evidently thinking that discretion might be the better part of valor, he scampered about in a little circle. Then, when he should have been looking at his mother, he would stop and look at me. Moments later, he would back up a few steps, then dance forward again. Every now and then his knees would buckle.
Finally, mustering all his courage, he ran right by the side of the car, teetered down the road a short distance, then darted into the brush and disappeared. That was the last I saw of him.
About then, off in a nearby meadow, I saw another adult deer, then another, and another. They stood with ears alert, then suddenly raced away, their graceful bodies arching over the ground, snow-white tails bobbing up and down.
As I started up the car, a multitude of thoughts were passing through my mind. The most important one was that in a time when indifference and death are so casually accepted, somehow – luckily – I had contributed to life.
Many of you probably remember that great film Trains, Planes, and Automobiles starring John Candy and Steve Martin.
Well, let me tell you a little story about some neighborhood kids that might be titled Streetcars, Planes, and Automobiles.
On dog day afternoons, there we would be – two or three of us neighborhood kids hangin’ out on someone’s front porch steps. The time: mid ‘30s, smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression. The place: Columbus, near the Ohio State University campus, usually someplace along Neil Avenue or on West Tenth or Eleventh Avenue.
Most of us went to Ninth Avenue Elementary School – long since torn down – but not all of us.
I’m talking about kids like Rex Blair, Johnny Gardner, Bob Kerns, and Bill Baumgardner. Bob went to a Catholic school, and I believe Bill went to Everett Junior High.
Sometimes there were others: Jimmy McVicker, for instance. Jimmy went to University School.
There were always quite a few cars passing by in one direction or another, especially on Neil Avenue, plus an occasional streetcar, and sometimes we would make a game of trying to identify the cars.
One or another of us would shout something like, “Packard!” – and the games would begin.
The occupants of that elegant car with the stylish and unforgettable radiator grill would pass by unaware that they had just made someone’s day.
There’s no doubt in my mind that most of the cars back then were easier to tell apart than the cars today. The sleek, streamlined Studebaker, for instance.
Or the swanky Buick convertible.
Some of the cars that drove by actually had rumbleseats. In case you don’t know what a rumbleseat is, or was. I have no idea whether such things still exist. They were usually found on coups at the rear, which opened up into a seat. It was just like the trunk of a car opening up on top.
I never rode in one, but I can imagine the joy of having the wind blow through your hair as you tootled down the street.
Not many of us around now who remember those sporty little jobs. Nash, Hudson, DeSoto – gone now. Most of those old cars, classics now, are just relics on memory lane.
Back to the dog day afternoons.
Sometimes our attention was drawn to the noise of an airplane passing overhead.
We would play the same game and try to identify it. This would prove to be a lot easier.
Frequently it would be a Ford Tri-motor, all silvery and shiny, coming from or going to Port Columbus.
A couple of times a week we would get a real thrill by spotting a Curtis Condor, a strange-looking big bi-plane.
If you let your imagination go, I swear they looked like some kind of prehistoric dinosaur with wings.
The Neil Avenue streetcars were more mundane but still attractive, what with their bright yellow and orange colors.
The end of the line was at West Eleventh Avenue – at the very gates of the university.
At first there was a motorman up front and a conductor toward the rear. Later they redesigned the cars so that the motorman ran the whole show.
Adults could buy a strip of six little green tickets for the paltry sum of 25 cents. Children under 6 paid 3 cents. I think I was almost 10 years old before my mother quit insisting I was a 6 year old.
Well. That’s about it.
I didn’t have enough time to tell you about Big Little Books®, the Shadow, and the excitement of radio shows in the ‘30s!
Maybe next time.
Tough Years – 1934, 1935, 1936. The heart of the Great Depression. A severe drought in much of the nation. The Dust Bowl out West gave birth to John Steinbeck’s Okies and The Grapes of Wrath.
In the best neighborhoods of Columbus you could rent a house for $30 or $40 a month – or buy it for $2,000 or $3,000!
The problem was no one had any money. People were working for peanuts – if they were lucky enough to have a job. Twenty-five or 30 cents an hour was not unusual. But I was just a kid selling magazines. What did I know?
I had heard of children from well-to-do families getting allowances, but not this kid. If I wanted any spending money, I had to earn it!
I was a preteen, like I said, selling magazines after school and on weekends. My widowed mother, my brother and I lived in an apartment on the corner of West 11th and Neil Avenue. As I mentioned before, the building is still standing.
A couple of retail shops, a deli and a florist were on the ground level. Immediately next door was the Varsity Drug Store owned and operated by the Cummings family.
It occupied a cavernous space and included a long soda fountain that featured all kinds of goodies – including toasted pecan rolls for 4 cents each. I can still picture Mr. Cummings, tall and thin with a thatch of white hair and a neat little mustache, also white.
A couple of rooming houses were next door to Varsity Drugs, then Neil Hall. Maybe another rooming house, then the Campus Neil Restaurant and, finally, the Campus Neil Drug Store. That was the end of the commercial district. The Campus Neil Restaurant had exceptionally good food and was one of my mother’s favorite places to treat my brother and me to Sunday dinner.
Oops! I forgot to mention the Palm Grill behind where we lived. It was a small bar frequented by students and occasional faculty, owned by Mr. Warren, a heavyset man who was also enrolled in the OSU Dental School. You may recall that it was out back, between our little yard and the Palm Grill, where the scene of the famous boxing match I engaged in with Jimmy McVicker was held, a story recounted in one of my previous articles. This little bar, the Palm Grill, is not to be confused with the Palm Gardens, a nightclub that was located on High Street about where the Kroger store is.
From where we lived, it was four or five blocks over to High Street – quite a distance for a kid if you stop and think about it, and it wasn’t until a couple of years later when we moved into a house on West 11th Avenue that I dared venture that far, and boy did I start learning a few things about life.
Okay. I’ve given you some idea of what the neighborhood was like back then and how I earned my spending money.
But, as they say, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Not to worry. My mother didn’t have enough money to buy me a bike, but there were plenty of other kids’ bikes to ride. Not only that, I had plenty of roller skates – and was I ever a daredevil!
A lot of times on dog day afternoons, we would sit on somebody’s porch steps and try to identify the makes of passing automobiles. It was actually a lot easier back then because things were less complicated.
Back to the past. The dismal days of the Great Depression – but I was young. The events I’m going to tell you occurred when I was about 10 or 11 years old. Bright years of discovery. Discovery of self. Discovery of the world.
It was especially exciting for a kid like me because I was lucky enough to live right across the street from an institution of higher learning. You guessed right, Ohio State University.
During the years I speak of, the campus was my front yard. My mother, my brother and I lived in an apartment at 1628 Neil Ave. The apartment building is still there.
Those years represented a period when our mother wasn’t renting a large house in order to take in roomers for income. The apartment rent was reasonable, about $30 a month. To make ends meet, she might have been drawing on a meager savings account – whatever.
She managed to keep a lot of healthy, wholesome food on the table. Unfortunately, no junk food, no soft drinks, and very few sweets.
A big problem for a kid my age. The solution? Get off the seat of my pants and get a job when I wasn’t in school.
For starters, I became a door-to-door salesman peddling packets of seed from the Lancaster Seed Company.
It was springtime. I should have become a boy millionaire. Instead, I could hardly afford a licorice stick! You may recall my writing in this column before that I delivered the Dispatch when we lived at the Cambridge Arms downtown – even though I was too young to go to a sub-station to pick up papers. Instead, my mother arranged for a Dispatch truck to drop off a roll of papers each day for me.
Now I was still too young to have a regular newspaper route, but I didn’t live in a fancy-dantzy high-rise apartment building like the Cambridge Arms anymore, so, I had to come up with something else. Finally, I came up with it. Selling magazines – the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, the Ladies’ Home Journal – those kind of national publications.
A district manager would come around once a week, drop off new magazines and collect the money on ones I had sold the previous week.
I had a few regular customers I would deliver to, but most of my income came from street sales – which I liked the best.
I would trot alongside a student or whomever, giving them my best sales spiel. I had a magazine bag slung over a shoulder, at least one magazine in my hands, and the challenge of good in my heart. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. I loved it!
Here’s some more information on what the neighborhood was like back then – demographics, if you will, and I knew them like the back of my hand.
Directly across Neil Avenue from where we lived was Hamilton Hall – that’s where I was wandering around and almost fainted when I encountered a cadaver.
On the northeast corner of Neil Avenue and West Eleventh was Mack Hall. Beyond that was Oxley Hall. East of Mack Hall was Baker Hall.
And, just down the street half a block from where we lived was Neil Hall. All of these handsome old structures were residence halls for women students- coeds, if you please.
Overlooking Mirror Lake, was Pomarine Hall, the women’s natatorium was also the location of a wonderful cafeteria. Many of their delicious specialties still linger in my memory. Fluffy, a flavorful cheese fondue, for instance.
On West Tenth was South Hall, a residence for men graduate students. Most men students either lived in rooming houses, with their parents, or in fraternity or sorority houses – mostly on the east side of High Street.
Few students owned a car, and probably not many faculty members. They took the streetcar or walked.
Times were tough.
Remember HAL, the rogue computer in Arthur C. Clarke’s great novel 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or maybe you saw Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant movie version of the book. No matter.
Well, I have some bad news for you. Believe it or not, some of Hal’s descendents have invaded my workspace. They are an even more curious cast of characters than their infamous ancestor in that famous story. And, believe it or not, these shady characters inhabit the workspace where “Legendary Tales” is produced each month.
The motley crew I’m talking about are a rowdy bunch of ill-tempered and maladjusted cybernetic kooks. Surefire candidates for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s frightening when one considers that there are countless millions of other such groups in this country and all around the world. Curiously, it seems that no one has previously documented this subculture living in our midst – so I guess it’s up to me.
I realize that I’m walking on a slippery slope, but here goes. First of all, there’s the gang leader – my computer. Actually, on occasion he can be a rather decent fellow. Not that he doesn’t boss everybody around, including me. He lords it over everyone. Intimidating is how I can best describe it. I butter him up by telling him that he is the apple of my eye. A lot of other times (under my breath) I mutter, “Yeah, yeah, Winesap, that’s what you are for sure. Why do I have this distrustful attitude towards him? I have reason to believe he’s a secret drinker. A lush. Why else does he crash at the most crucial times? I hope I don’t sound paranoiac, but I also think he might have Mafia connections.
Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Now, it’s time to briefly meet some other members of the gang.
Meet my printer. My printer is like a little brother to me – a whimpering little sycophant. Not only that, he’s never sure who he is, so I’m always taking him over to the Chooser to reassure him. Next, meet my Surly Girl Scanner. She moans and groans so much on the job she sounds like a whelping sea lion. Next in the lineup is my copy machine. Most of the time he’s a nice obedient little fellow who seldom gives me any trouble. He’s a lot better than the carbon paper some local yokels once compared him to. He’s also a bit of a sycophant, but what else would you expect from a copycat? Finally there’s Max the FAX. An old curmudgeon, he’s like a punch-drunk boxer who doesn’t always respond to the bell. Worse than that, he’s been throwing a lot of fights. What other reason for the spam all over his face? Anyway, he’s just a wannabe, a broken down has-been.
Well, that’s the gang that’s running loose over at my place.
George Orwell, where are you?
In the last episode, I shared with you a few of my boyhood consumer purchases. Or, perhaps I should say boyhood consumer needs.
But, let me set the stage. I was 11, 12, 13 or so, and the years I speak of were snack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. The actual years were 1935 through 1937, maybe 1938.
Hitler had weaseled his way into power in Germany and was threatening countries all around him. It was a very nervous time.
A few years before, as a callow youth, he had applied for a scholarship at an art school in Vienna and been turned down.
What a shame!
In Columbus, Ohio, there was one skyscraper, the A.I.U. Building, better known today as the LeVeque Tower, at 50 West Broad St., like a pubescent phallic symbol rising up out of Thurberland.
Bright orange and yellow streetcars rocked and rolled all over town. The Neil Ave. line ended at Eleventh Ave., and I can still hear the motorman or the conductor walking through the car slamming the seats into their new positions while the other one reversed the trolleys.
A strip of six little green tickets cost a quarter. Individual cash fares were six cents. Kids rode for three cents.
Out at Redbird Stadium, Enos Slaughter was hitting homeruns before he went to New York. And, in what was billed as the game of the century, the 1936 OSU football team was defeated by Notre Dame in the last minute of play.
They say that the disappointed Buckeye fans were so unnerved that some of them haven’t recovered to this day.
James Thurber was ensconced in New York City writing some very witty books.
There were a lot of other talented American writers coming into their own: Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck, just to name a few of the prominent ones.
Out West there was a severe drought that created a Dust Bowl, the subject of some of Steinbeck’s stories.
Not too unlike the ones we are living in.
But the hearts and souls of children remain remarkably carefree even in the most troublesome of times.
It was darn hard for a kid like me to make a living during the Great Depression. Jobs were difficult to find even for veterans who marched on Washington, while many others were selling apples on street corners.
Gangsters like Al Capone, John Dillinger, and Baby-faced Nelson were terrorizing the Midwest. Tuition at Ohio State University was around $30 a quarter.
I was fortunate in that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a part-time job after school or during the summertime. After all, there were necessities in my life that required ready cash, above and beyond what I could expect from my struggling widowed mother, confections like hot fudge sundaes, sodas, and milkshakes, for example.
There was an Isley’s store on High Street that had sky-high ice cream cones. The clerks used long slender scoops that lent a distinctive shape to the ice cream that towered before the eyes of every kid that went into their store. And, I’ve already spoken of the Yummy Man that rode his bike through our neighborhood.
And, candy! Penny candy like Mrs. Veech used to sell in the little room at the back of her house across from the Ninth Avenue Elementary School, and there was also the confectionary at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Highland.
So many different treats to choose from: Tootsie Rolls, Green Leaves, Coconut Flags, and Life Savers are some of the ones that come to mind. And regular candybars, sometimes three for a dime, and often bigger than their contemporary counterparts. Many are still around: Milky Way, Mounds, Hershey Bars, Mr. Goodbar, Butter-fingers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Go on, tell me that all those sweets weren’t good for me! I was lucky, though. I didn’t gain a lot of weight and my teeth held up reasonably well. I guess it boils down to what we all learn as we go through life. There’s a price to pay for every pleasure, but sometimes it’s not in the form you might expect it.
So the extra income from my paper route, grocery bagging, and other odd jobs provided those necessities. I haven’t even mentioned my reading material needs – and I don’t mean school assignments. What I’m talking about are the many pulp magazines that were readily available at Barry’s Drug Store at Tenth and High and the Campus-Neil Drug Store at Tenth and Neil.
These establishments also had soda fountains that dispensed many of the goodies I’ve already mentioned. And, I guess I forgot to list such thirst-quenchers as cherry cokes and phosphates in a rainbow of flavors.
As far as I was concerned, it was pretty close to one-stop shopping.
Second-hand copies of my favorite magazines could be found in many of the little shops that lined High Street between Chittenden and King avenues on the east side of High Street.
I was hooked on many of the magazines all the way back to when I was 11 or 12 years old.
They had titles like The Shadow, Doc Savage, Sky Fighters, and Amazing Stories. I guess I had better not mention the copy of Spicy Detective I hid in a barrel of dishes in the attic.
I don’t dare forget movies. Starting sometime between ages 12 and 14, I became a regular patron of Neff’s State Theatre, which was on High Street in the same building that is now a popular off-campus music hall.
Overnight I became a teenage movie buff. It only cost 20 cents to get in, and there was always a double feature.
The really big films ran Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. A not-so-big film played the rest of the week. These films were evening shows with the exception of the weekend when there was also a matinee. On Saturdays there were usually a pair of Westerns or horror shows.
I remember seeing such classics as Topper, Stage Door, Algiers, and Boy’s Town. The older I got, the more often I was allowed to go.
Every year during football season when there was a homecoming rally, a huge crowd of students would converge at the State Theatre across from the campus. And guess who was sure to be in the crowd?
Well, I’ve rambled on for so long I’ve almost forgotten the point of my story.
Oh, yes, I remember now!
It was why I needed a lot of part-time jobs to maintain my lifestyle!
At the risk of boring you to death, I am going to continue my genealogical quest just a bit longer.
Up to now, all of my recollections have focused on my mother’s side of the family – all about my mother, my orbiting grandmother, and my brother, David. Of course, they are the ones I knew best, my immediate family.
The other side, my father’s side, were more or less strangers to me. I hardly knew them at all. They lived in Chicago, and I can’t remember meeting any of them, although they all trekked down for the funeral services at the time of my father’s death when I was four years old.
The funeral was held in my orbiting grandmother’s house in Grandview. Yes, the same house in which I encountered my earth mother not many months later. I wrote about that last month.
Lord, how the memories come tumbling! Anyway, the open casket was placed in front of the living room bay window overlooking Grandview Avenue. I remember I had to climb halfway up the stairs out in the hall so I could see him.
He looked remarkably well I thought, considering he had fallen out of a 10th-story hotel window in Pittsburgh a couple of days before.
A lady, possibly one of the Chicago relatives, came up the stairway where I was perched and gently told me my father was now in heaven. This confused me later when I saw a hearse take his body to Chicago for burial.
My mother never cared very much for my father’s mother. His mother’s maiden name was Bertha Randal, and she was born in a little Texas town near the Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge. As a young girl she was a talented artist, and my family still has one of her oil paintings, a nice still life of a vase of roses.
Her family later moved to Dallas, she married, and that’s where my father, David Drury Thomson, was born. Also my father’s younger brother Henry.
About the time of World War I, they moved to Chicago.
My dad’s father was in the hardware business. Times were booming, so there was plenty of opportunity in the Windy City. Meanwhile, my mother’s family had settled in Nashville, Tennessee, and that’s where my mother was born and raised.
It is said that the wheels of fate grind exceedingly fine. Well, at least when we try to attach our own destiny to them.
So it was about this time, when World War I was winding down, that my mother’s family decided to pull up stakes.
My mom’s dad was a traveling salesman, and where did he see opportunity knocking? Why, Chicago, of course! They eventually moved into an apartment in one of the fashionable neighborhoods around Jackson Park.
My mother took up golf, and some of the earliest pictures I have of her are on the golf course. And in more than one of the old photos she is surrounded by ardent suitors.
I keep forgetting to mention that my mother had a sister. An elder sister named Hazel. She later married, and the couple moved down east where they lived in several cities around New Jersey. The truth is she and my mother didn’t get along all that famously, so my memories of Aunt Hazel are pretty dim.
Funny thing about families, isn’t it? How they don’t get along, I mean.
Back to Chicago. One evening, my mother met my father at a church dance. Shortly after, they were married and the rest is history.
I mentioned that my mother didn’t get along very well with my father’s mother. One amusing little story that’s been handed down over the years might shed some light on the situation.
Shortly after her wedding, my mother accompanied her new mother-in-law, Bertha, into a butcher’s shop. The proprietor beamed at them, and looking at my mother he said, “I don’t think I’ve seen you in my shop before.” Whereupon Bertha chirped, “This is my sister, Lucille.”
And, that’s how wars are started.
My brother was born not much later up there in Chicago and, to tell the truth, he was always partial to that city.
He won a scholarship to the University of Chicago after graduating from the old University School here in Columbus. Well, my always-anxious mother didn’t think David was capable of living up there all by himself attending college, so she put our furniture in storage, packed up, and we all went down to Union Station and boarded a fast train for Chicago, and away we went.
I was eleven years old, in the fifth grade. Needless to say, I was all eyes, ears, knees, and elbows. Off for one of the great adventures of my young life.
And, yes, I did get to know my father’s mother a little better. Mostly, I remember her as powdery, perfumed and plump.
All of this happened many year ago: A few months after the shock of my father’s death, my mother began what would turn out to be one of many household moves that would continue until I finally left home years later.
The first of these moves was to an apartment building not more than three blocks away. There were two bedrooms, a living-dining room, kitchen and bath. David and I shared one bedroom. He had a regular bed; I had a little daybed. Mother had the other bedroom. About half our furniture was put in storage. I was five years old at the time.
Within a few months, we moved to another apartment building in the same block, probably because the rent was cheaper. Da, our orbiting grandmother and Gran, our ailing grandfather, still lived in their spacious home, which was not far away, and I was a frequent visitor.
I was aware that a lot of things were going on in our lives because Mother would explain everything she was doing, even if we didn’t really understand a lot of what she was talking about. Well, maybe my brother David could understand more than I did. But I wasn’t dumb; I usually got the general drift.
One of her major decisions was to get a job so she could hold her small family together. Getting a good job was going to be a case of easier said than done, because she had absolutely no experience in the workplace. The most logical – and the most abundant – kind of job would have been secretarial, but she was devoid of any skills in that direction and showed no inclination to attend a business school.
Her other best bet would have been something in the retail field, but she seemed dead set against that. “Too many hours on my feet,” she would explain. So you can see, finding a job that she felt capable of doing and one that wasn’t below the high standards set by her pride and my grandmother’s advice was going to prove a formidable undertaking.
Another big event the occurred about this time was my grandmother’s decision to sell her house – and this was probably the biggest mistake she ever made, one reason being property values were at a low ebb.
The next thing she did was strike a deal with a couple of painters to paint her house in return for her car. Even at my tender age, I knew this was a dumb deal. I couldn’t believe her getting rid of her really nice car for a stupid paint job. Even though she couldn’t drive, she could always try to learn, I figured.
I’ve seen pictures of my grandmother that were taken when she was 19 or 20 years old. She was an attractive blonde, slender and pretty, and you could tell just by looking at the photographs that she was high-strung and irascible. A blond bombshell, I guess. The same traits she passed on to my mother, even though my mother was a brunette.
Now, I’ll tell you a strange little story that has stuck in my memory over all these years like the memory of a first kiss.
After my grandmother decided to sell her house, she advertised it someplace. Don’t ask me where, probably in the newspapers. At any rate, I was staying with her one day and having a good ol’ time doing not much of anything. Living off the fat of the land, you might say – remember, I was only 5 years old.
My grandmother’s house had an interesting back yard with a cherry tree and a grape arbor, so I was probably playing out there part of the time. Anyway, I remember it was right after we had eaten lunch that a young married couple stopped by to look at the house. They were from out of town and the man was a junior executive with a large insurance company. His wife was about 23 and breathtakingly beautiful of face and figure.
How was I savvy enough to appreciate those qualities at the tender age of five? Don’t ask me. I have no idea how I knew. I just knew. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. All of her. Her face, her long hair, her slender neck, the swell of her breasts, her shapely behind, her marvelous legs.
Neither had I been exposed to any kind of sexuality of any kind. I had absolutely no idea of the concept of sex. I was totally unaware of sexual gratification of any kind. All of the females I had ever encountered were attractive but in a very subdued way. My mother was attractive, but not at all like this marvelous female who so entranced, charmed, and beguiled me.
Perhaps such an awareness on the part of a young boy is innate, something one is born with, a quality that is transferred genetically from one generation to the next. I don’t know.
However it came to be, I knew I was in the presence of a goddess-queen, a woman so beautiful and desirable that I was transfixed. Like a little shadow, I followed her from room to room as she and her husband inspected the house.
As I look back on this episode, I can see how laughable it is. Me five. In short pants. Mesmerized. My heart stolen away. My eyes soaking up every detail of this beautiful woman’s body, deeply inhaling her perfume, on the verge of swooning!
At one point in their tour of the house, the lady of my dreams excused herself to go to the bathroom. “Oh, my gosh, she’s human!” I thought to myself. “She has to go to the bathroom!”
I posted myself at the bottom of the staircase and watched her as she ascended, my eyes glued to her every motion.
What can I tell you? That’s what I did, and I must have been smart enough that my behavior wasn’t obvious. And I stood my ground. No way was I going to miss a moment of her reappearance and her descent down the steps. To my 5-year-old mind, she was Aphrodite.
Suddenly, I heard the faint flushing of the toilet and a minute later the opening of the bathroom door. Then, there she was!
Down the steps she came, gracefully, and I drank in her delicious beauty, my eyes on the mysterious swelling under her blouse, her trim waist, the wonderful way everything seemed to come together.
There was more talk about the terms of the sale, and then suddenly they were gone.
They were hardly out the door when, unobtrusively, I went upstairs, entered the bathroom and locked the door behind me. Quickly, and without thinking, I knelt down and bestowed a kiss on the sweet and blessed toilet seat.
That was the first and only time I ever saw my Earth Mother.
As it turned out, she and her husband bought the house, and a month or two later my grandmother moved out. But, like Christopher Columbus, I had found new land. And, like him, I wasn’t aware of the vast extent of what I had discovered.
Last month in this column, I was reflecting on the subject of signposts in one’s youth that might provide clues to future adult achievements. I listed some of the more obvious influences that undoubtedly determine some of our choices and life paths. I think we can all agree that our parents, siblings, teachers, and good friends play an important role in this drama. And, there are outside influences galore. Consider the massive impact of television, radio, movies, books, magazines and newspapers on a child, not to speak of the mind-boggling resources of the Internet.
Think back on your youthful years and try to remember what were the biggest influences in your life. Concentrate especially on the years between 7 and 15. In my own life, those years seemed to be loaded with signposts. In thinking back on those times in my own life, I have come to the conclusion that there were also some developments beyond explanation. I say this because there were no outside influences involved that I can remember. For lack of a better term, I call these episodes “illuminations.”
As an example, when I was about 8 years old, out of a clear blue sky I hand-printed on yellow-lined tablet paper a little newspaper that I called “Mrs. Peabody’s Rose Garden.” Where on earth I came up with that name, I don’t have the slightest. For the weather column, I rephrased the radio weather report, supplemented by my own observations looking out the window or walking to and from the old Douglas Elementary I attended. I forget what the rest of the editorial content was. Probably little tidbits about our limited family – my mother, brother, and me. It wasn’t long after that when I got a small Dispatch route. That’s when I cornered the owner of the paper in the elevator of the apartment building where we lived and tried to sell him a paper. Illuminations, I guess, for lack of a better word.
I also collected stamps during my boyhood. It’s not difficult to figure out how I got into that. My father had collected stamps, and, after his death, my brother carried on the tradition. When it came my turn, I was already captivated by the stamp company ads in magazines like Boy’s Life and The Open Road for Boys. Stamp collecting was a great hobby. I cultivated a lot of good habits. In the process of collecting stamps, for example, I became much more aware of the many countries around the world. Influences? Easy to answer that one: my family and the magazines, not to speak of the stamp companies with their tempting offers.
A major illumination occurred when I was about 10 years old. I started keeping a series of war scrapbooks that continued until I joined the Navy. I still have nine of these notebooks and am amazed at how neat and professionally done they were. They contain headlines, news stories, pictures, cartoons and maps clipped from the three local newspapers: The Columbus Dispatch, The Columbus Citizen, and The Ohio State Journal. Columbus was served by three newspapers back then. Isn’t that amazing! If I remember right, the Journal was the morning paper with an early edition that hit the streets the night before. It was called the Journal Night Green because the cover page were printed on green paper. I think the Citizen and the Dispatch were afternoon or evening papers. I don't know, maybe it was the other way around. There are also clippings from The New York Times and Time Magazine.
At any rate, that’s the way I chronicled the chaos and conflict that prevailed in the world – even back then. Let me tick them off for you: First, there was the Japanese invasion of China and the crisis when they sank the Panay, an American gunboat that was patrolling the Yangtze River. Then there was the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of Ethiopia by Italian soldiers. And, of course, during much of this time, Adolf Hitler was weaseling his way into power. I have the clippings. Then, on September 1, 1939, he invaded Poland, and World War II was off and running. It’s all in my scrapbooks, all the way to the screaming headlines of Sunday, December 7, 1939, telling of Pearl Harbor.
I was still in high school, so I had to wait a couple of years before I joined the Navy. I was a navigator aboard the U.S.S. LSM 245, as proud and jaunty a little ship as ever ploughed its way through the islands of the South Pacific. One of my duties was keeping the ship’s log. After the war, I majored in journalism at Ohio State University, and during my senior year wrote a weekly column in The Lantern. I also was writing a column for the Columbus Citizen about campus life.
So, you see, there were signposts all along the way.
In writing this series of articles, many of them about my boyhood, I have had to delve deep into my memory, not to speak of doing a lot of soul searching.
As a result of all this digging into the past (exploring my own boyhood), I became aware of all kinds of intriguing facts and fancies along the way. Oddities that I hadn’t thought of in years and years, if ever at all. And, increasingly, as I continued my digging, I wondered how I had become the individual that I am, for better or worse, take it or leave it. In a nutshell, I wondered what were the ingredients of childhood that go into making an adult.
In other words, are there signposts along the way that point to where that particular child is headed? Do some of these signs suggest future careers and vocations? Are such signs readily apparent or vague and indistinct? Do they change over the years?
The answers to the above questions in no given order are yes, no, and maybe.
Okay, let’s check out some of the possibilities, and remember, we’re doing this as a layman, not an experienced psychologist.
Surely, one’s parents and siblings exert a big influence on the life of a child. In my case, I was blessed with a well-educated and articulate mother. She was southern born, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, and a graduate of Ward-Belmont, a finishing school for girls. After my father’s death, my mother never remarried. Instead, she devoted her life to raising her two sons. She was a good parent, although way too overly protective.
For instance, when I was a sophomore in high school I had an opportunity to go to the marine institute at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to work and study. In spite of my pleading, she was relentless in her refusal to let me go. The episode left me not only bitter and frustrated, but even more eager to get away from home. Eventually, I accomplished that by enlisting in the Navy.
My only sibling was my brother David, seven years my senior and an intellectual whiz kid and bookworm. Were we close? No. Too big a difference in ages. He had his friends. I had mine. Of course, I couldn’t help but pick up some of his love of books. He even went to a private school from grades 8 through 12. It was called the University School and was located at Woodruff and High streets on the Ohio State University campus. He hung out with all these kids from wealthy families and professor’s kids and whatnot. And, meanwhile, my mother was breaking her back taking in roomers to pay for all this. All the while, I was going to public schools. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know the difference. But, what the heck. I wasn’t jealous of him or anything like that. I was proud of my brother. The schools I went to suited me just fine: Ninth Avenue Elementary, Everett Junior High, and North High.
My father, unfortunately, died in a tragic accident when I was 4 years old. My memory was just catching hold so I have few details of the events leading up to his death – some of which are available in the Legendary Tales archives on the Short North Gazette Web site. Funny thing, the older I get the more I think of him. Well, of course, that’s because of all my digging around into the past. “Goes with the territory,” as Willy Loman would say.
Other relatives often play a role. My maternal grandmother was far and away the closest and, consequently, the greatest influence. I kiddingly refer to her as “my orbiting grandmother” because she almost always lived somewhere nearby. And, we moved around a lot! And friends, teachers, librarians, and Sunday school teachers, of course. Society at large and all of its cultural ramifications. Huge influences.
Just consider how many of these exterior influences there are and how awesome their total impact must be. There are newspapers and magazines, television, movies, of course, a big influence in their own right. And let us not forget radio. All of these things must have a profound effect on the life of a child. And, I forgot books. How could I have done that? Since sometime in junior high school books have provided me with a treasure house of enjoyment and information.
I will continue these thoughts next month. I hope you will accompany me on this exploratory trip into the past. And, I hope you will do some exploring of your own!
There is a kind of rare magic evident in the lives of a growing segment of our population today. It has to do with their interest in wild birds and the numerous spinoffs that originate from that interest.
This sorcery enables those affected to transcend everyday life and, at least partially, to escape the humdrum work-a-day existence. It beckons them from their own backyards to numerous beautiful and remote wildlife sanctuaries scattered across the United States. The call of this siren is so strong that on an autumn weekend for those affected it is well nigh impossible to work indoors or, for that matter, stay at home.
The study of birds inevitably leads to ever greater adventures and to trips further and further afield. For beginner and veteran alike, hundreds, if not thousands, of bird books are available in bookstores, libraries, and wild bird stores. They deal with every aspect of ornithology and birding. And then, it doesn’t take long to discover the vast array of books on other phases of natural history. Attending natural history lectures and going on organized field trips is also an excellent way to broaden one’s interests and pick up a lot of useful knowledge.
But in the long run, for hands-on learning, there’s no substitute for just getting out-of-doors at every opportunity and keeping one’s eyes wide open.
In past articles in the Gazette, it has been my pleasure to write about a number of Ohio naturalists I have had the good fortune of knowing, and others I have encountered through my own reading.
As I often lament, there is so much to learn that one lifetime is barely enough time to scratch the surface. No wonder that the best time to get interested in birds – or any other discipline of natural history – is at an early age. The early teens would seem to be ideal.In my own case, I was fifteen.
The natural world is a fantastic place and the process by which it came about and continues to function is equally amazing – and absurd and beautiful and abhorrent and wonderful and intriguing and unbelievable and sad and enchanting. Take your pick. And, studying the birds is like having a ringside seat at the greatest show on Earth.
Birding as a hobby or sport is equally entertaining and challenging. Just identifying a bird can be tricky and difficult. Over 400 species have been known to occur in Ohio and some of them are remarkably alike. Many birders keep lists, and they can range from birds seen in one’s backyard to daily, annual lists, life lists, and other categories. Many of the birds are incredibly beautiful, their plumage often intricate in design and unbelievably colorful. This is especially true of the neo-tropicals, the species that migrate back and forth between our temperate latitudes where they nest and the tropics. Some of these journeys cover thousands of miles and, in many cases, the individuals return each year to the exact same nesting spot.
Sometimes Chimney Swifts, for instance, fly each fall all the way to the slopes of the Andes Mountains where they spend the winter. What a monumental achievement! How they do this is still not entirely known. Many of them fly during the nighttime hours, adding to the mystery.
Perhaps that’s why – for me – birds have come to symbolize the beauty and the fragility of all life on this mortal coil.
For a good many years, I have had the good fortune to share my thoughts with many other people. Sometimes ideas would materialize or restructure themselves in conversations with friends or impromptu discussions on birding hikes that I have led in the Clear Creek Valley and up on Lake Erie. At other times, inspiration would come in the middle of the night or, not infrequently, in the early hours of morning.
Some of my past articles have been drawn from articles that appeared in The Columbus Dispatch, Columbus Citizen-Journal, and a number of periodicals. Other material was derived from commentaries that were aired between 1988 and 2004 on National Public Radio’s Columbus station, WOSU-AM. But many of the pieces were written expressly for the Gazette. A good many of the pieces that have appeared here concerned themselves in one way or another with the Clear Creek Valley in Hocking County, Ohio.
Basically, everything I have written is true, even the flights of fancy were true in their own way because if they didn’t happen, they might have, somewhere, sometime.
The second edition of my book Birding in Ohio is also available as a resource from the Indiana University Press.
In the future, I hope it will be my pleasure to bring you other stories about birds and the great world of nature.
In the meantime, get thyself outdoors!
A Valentine for Melissa
September 2005, February 2008
Every now and then I think of a curious little story told to me by a friend and neighbor, the late Bob Bowman who worked at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus.
Bob had been a child of the Great Depression. His father was an Indiana dirt farmer, and the family, relying on “Give us this day our daily bread,” eked out a meager living from the land.
One afternoon in February, the father was fussing around with the tractor in the barn just about the time Bob’s oldest brother arrived home on the school bus. The smaller children, including Bob, were playing in the yard and, unnoticed by them all, the family’s favorite cat, Melissa, a gray tabby, was headed for the partly open kitchen screen door.
Bob’s mother, busy with supper, had placed a platter of liver and onions on the kitchen table and was headed for the door to ring the dinner bell. She didn’t see the cat passing by her feet like a phantom ship in the night.
Melissa was a Depression cat, a cat who had listened to many a FDR fireside chat and knew that the only thing to fear was fear itself, but right now her nostrils were quivering in ecstasy as she sniffed the heady, maddening scent of the liver.
Deciding that opportunity knocks but once, the cat’s subsequent leap to the table was a brilliant act of daring, perfectly executed. She landed on the liver with the grace of a barefoot girl stomping on grapes in southern France.
The mother screamed, “Oh, my Lord, the cat’s in the liver,” just as Bob’s 16-year-old brother came in the door. Sizing up the situation, he lunged at the cat unaware of a piece of liver that had slivered onto the floor as a result of the cat’s passionate dancing about.
The boy went down with a crash that shook the old frame house to its foundations. Undeterred and shouting words his mother never realized he knew, he pivoted up on one arm and continued his crazy charge like a San Franciso Forty-niner going after a fumble.
He scooped the cat up in both hands, ran out into the yard, and there he did a remarkable and terrible thing. He shifted the cat to one hand and then, like a passing quarterback, he let it fly.
Well, that cat described an arc that took it over the road and into the field beyond where it landed with a deadening thud, its inert body sprawled in an unnatural position.
It seemed only then that the boy realized what he had done, and he buried his face in the same hands that had doomed the cat to its wild ride. “I didn’t mean to kill Melissa, honestly I didn’t,” he wailed, and the tears streamed down his face. Then he sank to the ground beside Melissa’s body and bawled.
The other children reacted to this scene with mixed emotions, but for the most part they remained stoically silent, all of them, that is, except the smallest girl. She looked at her brother with the cool eyes and solemnity of a judge passing sentence. Then she stuck her tongue out and hissed, “Cat killer!”
Bob’s father and mother herded the small children back into the house and left the older boy with his grief. After a while he got up, walked to the barn, selected a spade, trudged back to the body of the cat and tipped the steel blade into the sandy Indiana loam.
He bent his back and started digging for all he was worth. When he was satisfied he had dug deep enough, he leaned over to pick up the cat. At first he didn’t know whether he was having a dizzy spell or what.
What he saw was Melissa pushing her legs out from her belly – sort of like she was stretching – and then she moved her head. Shortly after that she opened her eyes, got up, sort of shook herself, then walked away. She seemed no worse for the wear, except for a wobble in her rear end, like maybe she was a little bit out of alignment.
The boy was elated. He was prancing around like an Indian doing the Ghost dance and, after all, that would have been appropriate, seeing that this was almost like a reincarnation, only in this case Melissa had come back as her old familiar self.
“Melissa’s alive!” he shouted and the children came running out of the house laughing and clapping their hands.
That night the family fed Melissa all the liver she could eat – and in the kitchen at that. They sat down at the table and all they had for themselves was boiled potatoes, some carrots, a dish of hominy grits, bread and butter and hot cocoa.
All during the meal they couldn’t keep their eyes off that cat.
The valentines the children had stuck on the old ice box seemed to radiate some kind of extra special happiness. After that Melissa could do no wrong, and until her natural death, years later, she enjoyed some of the best meals of her life.
Bob’s oldest brother, of course, had the greatest interest in Melissa’s welfare. He made sure she was well fed and was receiving all the attention to which a reborn cat deserved. All of this happened a long time ago, in February, before the last snow, on St. Valentine’s Day.
FIRE AT THE FURNITURE STORE
I was 8 years old. My brother, David, was 15. Our mother was 37. We were in downtown Columbus, near Broad and High, waiting for a streetcar.
Because it was a beautiful summer day, we had walked downtown from the Cambridge Arms at 926 East Broad Street.
My mother was the manager of that beautiful and prestigious high-rise apartment building. Notable among the residents were two members of the Dispatch Wolfe family and a Mr. Garber, a State Senator who had romantic ideas about my mother.
One day he asked her for a date to see a movie at a downtown theatre. Mother said she would love to – and asked if it would be all right to bring her two sons?
He must have said ok because I remember all of us sitting inside the old Grand Theatre on East State Street, near the old Hartman Theatre which is also no longer there – part of the rape of downtown Columbus.
Anyway, as you can well imagine, Mr. Garber never asked our Mother out again.
The year was 1932 and the country was reeling from the first effects of an economic depression that was to last until World War II. But our spirits were high.
We were on our way to pay a Sunday visit to our orbiting grandmother who at that time lived with our grandfather out on Northwest Boulevard near Goodale Street.
They lived in a duplex next to Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins. A couple of doors down the street on the corner was a small factory that was home to a company the manufactured a cleaning product name Skidoo.
This was a neat scouring paste that came in a little gray can with a bright red lid. For some reason unknown to me, it fell by the wayside years ago.
So, anyway, there we were waiting for a streetcar.
Streetcars were really neat, lots more fun to ride than the bus. I especially liked the streetcars that were on the Grandview route because they had a lot of wood in their construction. For some reason this gave them a smoother ride than those that were all metal.
You would think just the opposite but, believe me, they had the smoooothest ride you can imagine. They just glided along.
Another thing. Along Goodale Avenue the tracks were not in the middle of the street like they were everywhere else. They were set in the ground on the south side of the street.
There weren’t many stops (at least on Sundays) because there were a lot of small manufacturing plants along there. So the motorman could open up the throttle and really let her rip. I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it was, gliding and swaying along for blocks on end without stopping.
All of the streetcars were electric . That is, they had trolleys that extended up to overhead wires, For that reason, they didn’t pollute the air like busses do.
They also had two-man crews: a motorman up front, a conductor at the rear.
Back then not all that many people had cars. So lots of people rode the streetcars – and took cabs.
It cost five cents to rise the streetcar. Less than that if you bought a strip of tickets for a quarter. The cabs were a bit more, but really not all that much considering they would take you right to the door of where you were going.
Some of them might have had meters, but during those depression days when they were competing for business they had all kinds of payment plans. The one I remember the best was a map they had posted in the back seat that had the city divided up into zones and it was five or ten cents every time you went from one zone to another.
There were probably half a dozen cab companies. The ones I remember were Hill’s, which my mother like best, and Green Cabs and Radio Cabs.
So, on this particular day my mother had evidently decided that we would take the streetcar. Probably to save a few cents because, after all, it was quite a way out to Grandview.
We were standing in front of Howald’s Furniture Store. Back in the 1930’s the two leading furniture stores in Columbus were Carlile’s and Howald’s.
Howald’s was located downtown on the east side of High Street between Gay Street and Broad Street.
Carlile’s was actually my mother’s favorite furniture store. It was located on the corner of North High and Vine Street, a short distance north of downtown, hence it came to be called “the Short North” by taxicab dispatchers.
How well I remember wandering around inside that store while my mother ordered drapes and various items of furniture. Although most of the apartments at the Cambridge Arms were unfurnished, a few of them were decorated and furnished with the help of my mother.
While we were waiting for a streetcar, I was fidgeting around like any eight-year-old would, but I was also keeping an eagle eye on my brother. In case you forgot, we were standing in front of Howald's Furniture Store located at 34 N. High Street in downtown Columbus. The year was 1932. Waiting for a streetcar, that's what we were doing. My mother, my brother, and me.
David was in the ninth grade at Franklin Junior High School. I was in the third grade at Douglas Elementary. David brought home all A grade cards. Mine were spotted with a few B's and C's, especially in arithmetic. Even at that age, I was in awe of my brother's intellect. As I’ve mentioned before, I was behind the door when the brains were passed out. All of his teachers recognized that my brother was something special. And, my mother! Oh, my God! My mother thought he could do no wrong.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I was well-loved, well-fed, well-clothed, and well-shod. My biggest worry was that I might have smelly feet. Speaking of feet, our mother used to take us to Gilbert's Shoe Store which was on East Town Street in the Central Market District. They even had an x-ray machine to make sure your shoes were a good fit.
Some more thoughts about my brother just danced into my head. He would not only religiously bring home his school books every day, he would lug armloads of books from the school library. Biographies and books about famous philosophers, and he would talk to our mother about them and they would read them together. Many a night, I would go to bed with the droning of their voices in the other room lulling me to sleep.
I'll tell you how smart my brother was – and remember we're talking about a 15-year-old kid. My brother, David (since grown old and died, by the way) could whistle the exact notes from dozens of symphonies and operas.
Our mother knew she had something special on her hands. That's why I didn't resent any special treatment he might get. I swear she probably thought he was going to grow up to become president of the United States, or maybe become another Albert Einstein, or, at the very least, a university professor at some famous university like Yale or Harvard.
Me? I guess I was just going along for the ride. Even way back then, I found out that there are many advantages in not being the center of attention. I wouldn't have had it any other way.
While my brother was basking in the limelight, I would just go off by myself with a Big Little Book or a pulp magazine. Or, more than once, I would find a newspaper or magazine with ads for women's fancy undergarments and do what I did best of all.
Well, I've been digressing too long.
It was a cloudless summer day and so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk. That was one of my grandmother's favorite expressions, and that was where we were headed, to pay my grandparents a Sunday visit. And, as I mentioned before, I was keeping a close eye on that 15-year-old brother of mine. He was standing near one of the store's plate glass windows, with his back to me, and he had taken something out of his pants pocket . He was behaving funny, acting as if he didn't want me to see what he was doing.
That just made me all the more curious, of course, and so I moved around to the other side of him to get a better look. Then I saw what he was doing. He had a little magnifying glass, the kind that came with stamp collecting outfits, and he was focusing a ray of bright sunlight onto the drapes that were hanging inside the show-window. Suddenly, a brown spot appeared on the cloth and as I watched with widening eyes it became black and emitted a wisp of smoke.
Oh, my God! A tongue of flame appeared out of nowhere, instantly grew bigger, all red and orange and yellow with evil-looking streaks of blue. Then without warning, the flames raced up the drape, jumped to other drapes that were framing the display of furniture and suddenly the entire window was on fire.
A passerby, a slender Thurberish-looking young man took one look at the conflagration, then ran down the street shouting “Fire! Fire! Fire!” at the top of his lungs.
The Thurberish-looking man ran down the street to a fire alarm box, all the while yelling “Fire! Fire! Fire!” at the top of his lungs. My mother who had turned deathly pale was hissing at my brother to follow her up High Street to the next streetcar stop. Then she almost jerked my arm out of its socket as she pulled me along after her.
Luckily, our streetcar came along just in the nick of time. We were climbing aboard as the first fire engines came racing past us. My face was pressed to the window as more and more of them went careening by. They seemed to be coming from all directions: pumpers, hook-and-ladders, fire chief cars. The whole shebang. And the streetcar we were on kept grinding to a stop as new equipment kept arriving. What a blast for an eight-year-old kid to be at the scene of the fire – right in the middle of things, you might say.
Finally, we left all the hubbub behind us, and it was clear sailing out Goodale Avenue to Northwest Boulevard. Being a Sunday, we practically had the car to ourselves. My mother was distraught-looking and tight-lipped during the entire ride. She was obviously confronted with a situation she had never imagined happening in her wildest dreams. The result was that none of us said anything. After all, what was there to say?
For my part, I had a lot to think about, including the fact that sometimes it wasn’t all that bad being the younger brother. When we arrived at our stop, we got off and walked the short distance up the street to my grandparent’s duplex.
“I’m a nervous wreck!” were my mother’s first words to my grandmother.
“What on earth’s the matter, Lucille?” my grandmother responded with obvious concern. “Let’s go in the kitchen, and I’ll tell you all about it,” my mother said with a sigh. They went in the kitchen, my brother had disappeared somewhere with one of his beloved books, and I was left for the time being in the connecting living and dining rooms with my grandfather. I should explain something about my grandfather. Bootleg whiskey and cigarettes had done him in when he was only in his mid-fifties. From a handsome and debonair traveling salesman, a series of strokes had reduced him to a pitiful shell of his former self. When he wasn’t in bed, he could barely hobble to the bathroom with the use of a cane. The rest of the time, disgruntled and distraught, he spent slouched in an easy chair in the living room. I had experienced the whack of his cane on the back of my legs more than once, so I was especially careful to give him wide berth.
I knew I had to get out of there or go bonkers, so I headed for the front porch and some fresh air. I had a lot to think about. The fire, of course. My grades at school. My financial situation – at the time, I think it was about fifty cents, more or less. And, there were other things equally important, like whether my feet smelled bad. That was always high on my list of things to worry about. And whether my stockings had holes in the heels. Don’t think little kids don’t have their worries. They surely do.
After we ate dinner, we said goodbye to my grandparents and took a streetcar back downtown. There were still a couple of fire engines hanging around the still smoking front end of the furniture store. The Journal Night Green had just hit the streets and the newspaper men were yelling: “Read all about the four alarm fire downtown!” We bought a paper, jumped in a taxi and rode home in silence.
So, that’s pretty much the story of the mysterious furniture store fire in downtown Columbus. The authorities never figured out what started the blaze, but they came close. They speculated that it might have been caused by faulty wiring, or the late afternoon sun. Close, but close only counts in horseshoes. Maybe some good came from the fire. Maybe, in its aftermath, they had a big fire sale and made a lot of money. Who knows? After all, those were depression days.
The above events happened when I was barely eight years old. But I remember them as vividly as if they had happened yesterday. And, I wouldn’t be telling this little story if my brother were still alive. I wouldn’t have dared.
The Shadow, Astounding Stories, a Murder, a Friendship – and Meeting Les Wexner
I was about 11 or 12 years old when my widowed mother took a break from renting rooms to students and we moved into a four-unit apartment building across from the OSU campus. There were usually three of us, including my mother and my older brother David. Sometimes my maternal grandmother "Da" lived near us, but now she lived in the same building. She was like a satellite, always orbiting around us, always somewhere near.
Mrs. MaGill and her son Harry Jr. lived in another of the apartments. Mrs. MaGill was an attractive widow, a school teacher at the Open-Air School that once existed off Neil Avenue north of the campus. She and my mother got to know each other a bit. And I remember Mrs. MaGill telling my mother she had recently had a date with a fellow teacher.
"Did he take you out to dinner?" my mother asked.
"No, he took me to a nudist camp," Mrs. MaGill replied.
My mother's mouth fell open. "You didn't take your clothes off, did you?"
"When in Rome do as the Romans do," Mrs. MaGill smiled sweetly.
I'm not sure how my mother reacted to Mrs. MaGill's cool presence of mind. I'm sure she didn't laugh. Maybe she fainted.
Harry Jr. was a likable kid, studious, a couple of years older than I was at the time. But what I really liked about him, he showed me how to stretch Japanese tissue tight and wrinkle-free onto my miserable looking model airplanes.
Oh, and he was also influential in upgrading my pulp magazine diet from Sky Fighters and The Shadow to Astounding Stories and a other sci-fi publications.
I vividly recall the day when Mrs. MaGill told my mother how her husband, Harry MaGill, died. They were living in Hillsboro where Mr. MaGill was a deputy sheriff. One night late, the phone rang, and he was told to get downtown; the hardware store was being burglarized, and he was needed in a hurry.
It seems there were two brothers – the Boggs brothers – in the hardware store. Well, to make a long story short, the building was surrounded by the police and there was some gunfire. Mr. MaGill was mortally wounded; and after a swift trial, the Boggs brothers went to prison, condemned to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. All of this happened in the early '30s.
Now zoom forward into the future. World War II is history. I’ve come home from the navy, finished college, and I'm working for myself as a small publisher downtown where I share a suite of penthouse offices at 16 East Broad Street. Dirt cheap rent for a prime location, just steps from Broad and High, located in the same building as the famous Marzetti's Restaurant.
Many mornings, after finding a parking spot, I had a habit of stopping at Jack and Benny's, a breakfast and lunch counter kind of place located on the same corner as my office. As a matter of fact, it was owned by Benny Klein, the proprietor of Benny Klein's Steak House, located right around the corner on High Street.
Benny was a real character, an émigré from Cleveland, where he'd made his money in pickles – you know, sweet, sour, dill, those kinds – a stocky Edward G. Robinson look-alike with a handshake that could crush rocks. One day. He introduced me to Sam Shepherd and his bride, Adrianne, who had gotten married earlier that day in Chicago.
Back to Jack and Benny's. One day I say down at the counter next to a pleasant looking, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes, an ingratiating smile, and we struck up a conversation. over the next couple of years I encountered him frequently and we became good friends.
He was a conduit for all kinds of Broad and High gossip and always lent a patient ear for my own problems. Despite his age, he had been married just a few years and had a young daughter. He had learned the real estate business, and sometimes he did this or that job for Benny Klein. His name was Doc Boggs. The Doc Boggs I've been telling you about.
One summer morning, Doc introduced me to a skinny little kid who had dropped out of college to work downtown in a men's store. Doc said, "Tommy, I want you to meet Les Wexner." And I said, "Glad to know you, Les."
Once I loaned Les five bucks for lunch and carfare. He paid me back. Promptly. Sort of a shame, when you think about it. Might have accumulated into a lot of money over the years.
Another time, Les asked if he could sell ads for me. I think I dissuaded him from the enterprise. My thought was that he wasn't aggressive enough. He was a very quiet kind of young man. Well- mannered, but quiet.
Toward the end of the summer, Les stopped coming in Jack and Benny's and I inquired about him. Doc said that Les' parents had bought him a womens apparel store that had been on the block in the Kingsdale Shopping Center. For something like $18,000. I remember whistling and saying, "Oh, my gosh, there goes the family money." Well, as you might know, I couldn't have been more wrong.
But there was one thing I did right. Never once over all that time did I ever intimate to my friend Doc that I was aware of his past. Not once, because I counted Doc Boggs among my best friends.
I also knew that a few years before I met him, a deputy sheriff on his death bed had testified that Harry MaGill had actually been killed in a crossfire, accidentally shot down by one of his own friends.
The Boggs Brothers had been exonerated and released from prison. What had started out as a small town youthful caper and ended in stark tragedy had eventually ended on a happier note.
Memory does play tricks. If my recollections of any of the events recounted here are inaccurate, or if you can add an interesting note, I would appreciate hearing from you.
The Yummy Man - April 2005
The Talmud is an ancient Hebrew book of civil and religious laws and precepts of wisdom. It is written there that we see things not as they are, but as we are.
Perhaps it is also written in that book that the basic tenets of life don't change much from one generation to another. The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least, that would be my guess.
When I was ten or eleven years old, during the warm weather months there was a Yummy Man who cruised through our neighborhood every afternoon. For those of you who might have difficulty figuring out what a Yummy man might be, let me explain.
A Yummy man was a kind of Good Humor man, a peddler of ice cream treats and frozen confections. His vehicle was a large tricycle. The seat upon which he perched was behind a large insulated box and a handlebar with bells arranged along its length.
The insulated box had a hatch door on the top which gave the Yummy Man access to all the goodies inside: Popsicles, Fudgsicles, Drumsticks, Creamsicles and, of course, plain old ice cream bars.
But we kids were in on a secret that the average person – especially our parents – had no inkling of. A secret not about cold treats but sizzling hot ones, creations to excite the minds and imaginations of pre-pubescent boys.
Snuggled down there amidst all those goodies was a brown paper sack which was full of dirty cartoon books. Pardon me, what I mean to say is that they were sexy cartoon books. Little 10- or 12-page jobs, stapled together, about three by five inches in size.
Depicted across those scanty pages were graphic sexual episodes involving plagiarized cartoon characters. Popular characters, such as Maggie and Jigs, Dick Tracy (and Tess), and Blondie and Dagwood. Comic strip people like that.
The plots were as miniscule as the men's endowments were unbelievably large. Capable either of giving young boys painful inferiority complexes or, more hopefully, a sensational and exciting new world to look forward to.
Price of the cartoon books? Two-bits. Twenty-five cents. That was when a quarter was a substantial piece of change and not to be thrown around indiscriminately by a twelve-year-old boy. By comparison, an ice cream bar or Popsicle was a nickel.
So you can see, we're talking sizable money here. Maybe the day's profits from a paper route.
Here lately, as we charge into the 21st century, with all kinds of sexual matters in the news, I've wondered about the paradoxical nature of our sexuality. It's very confusing, isn't it? Mixed signals and all the rest.
Life was much simpler when I was a kid.
Anyhow, as I said at the onset, it all depends on how you look at something. We see things not as they are, says the Talmud, but as we are.
This is the way I see them. When I look back on those good ol' days, I like to think we might have been the only boys in the whole world who got you-know-whats when we heard the sound of bells.
My Buddy Bruce Part III - March 2005
During the ‘70s, the Dell was one of Bruce’s favorite hangouts. The restaurant and bar, owned by Dick and Dee Johnston, was located on Parsons Avenue just a couple blocks off East Broad Street.
Much like a cabaret, the popular spot featured the Dell Singers who entertained weekend patrons with songs from Broadway musicals.
There was also a piano bar presided over by Janet O’Brien, and an open mike that attracted talented and not-so-talented singers like a dark alley attracts lovelorn cats.
All of this musical activity was of great interest to my friend Bruce who had a lot of musical talent himself. He played the piano and was the proud owner of a solid cherry grand piano.
I only heard him sing once, but he was good at that too. It was one evening at the Dell when Janet took a break. He sat there at the keyboard with all the confidence in the world as his finger picked out the melody to “Mack the Knife.”
Then he started to sing. In a low, sort of gravelly voice, he whispered the words to the song. He sounded like a pro. Like he’d been singing for years on the radio, in the movies. He was that good!
Bruce had another quality that made talking to him enjoyable. He was good at remembering obscure trivia. For instance, he knew that John Dillinger was shot and killed outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago and that he was betrayed by the mysterious Lady in Red. That kind of stuff.
It’s hard for me to remember the events of Bruce’s life in chronological order because I only saw him every once in a while. I do know that in his earlier days he had a pizza concession at the State Fair. Then, a few years later, he met a gal who was a police officer. He took a shine to her and before you know it they got hitched.
I met her once, and the impression I got was that she was straight-as-an-arrow, no-nonsense, law ‘n’ order, conservative type of woman. Pretty, but hard as flint.
She had a couple of kids by a previous marriage, and then she and Bruce had one of their own, a boy who joined the Navy when he grew up. I met him once. He was a nice kid, a lot like his father.
One evening Bruce and his wife were having dinner at Presutti’s, enjoying the music of a little combo that was playing there. Presutti’s was a fashionable, family-owned restaurant located at 1692 West Fifth Ave. During a break in the music, they invited the leader of the group over to their table for a drink.
During their conversation, the band leader mentioned they were staying at a nearby motel.
“We have a big house,” Bruce’s wife piped up, “Why don’t you fellows stay with us until you find something more permanent?”
He stepped away from the table and conferred with the other two members of the group. To say that they recognized a good thing when they saw it would be understating the fact. So, they all moved in for an extended stay – about six weeks or more.
A short time after that, Bruce came home unexpectedly in the middle of the afternoon and heard noises coming from the second floor. When he went upstairs to investigate he found the band leader in bed with his wife.
He hardly had time to splutter, “What the hell’s going on here?” when the two lovers jumped out of bed and began beating up on him – and don’t forget that his wife was a policewoman!
Bruce ended up in the emergency room with assorted bruises and abrasions, a broken bone or two and a black eye.
Shortly afterwards, his wife moved out, ditched Bruce and the kids, started smoking funny cigarettes and took off for Texas with Mr. Hot Pants Combo. She lived down there until she died, went through a number of men, even married several of them.
Bruce, of course, never forgave her. He might have met her briefly once when she was in Columbus, but there was no love lost between them.
A few years before he died, Bruce started working on a musical, writing the lyrics and the music. My memory falters, but I know it was based on some widely known classical story.
Something like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or maybe The Adventures of Robin Hood. No, no! That’s already been done. Now I remember what it was!
Edgar Allan Poe.
On first thought an unlikely subject. But why not? Poe led a kind of mysterious, colorful life.
I read some of the lyrics, and they were really good. Needless to say, it wasn’t published. Over the years, Bruce wrote dozens of songs and none of them were picked up. What a shame.
In the long run, it was cigarettes that killed him. He tried to quit many times, but they had a hold on him. Even after bypass surgery, he continued to puff on his beloved ciggies.
Bruce died in November of 1993 at the age of 67, all alone in the house on Neil Avenue. He didn’t even have an obituary in the daily paper.
Just fell through the cracks, you might say.
My Buddy Bruce Part II - February 2005
After losing touch with Bruce for a good number of years, I suddenly started running into him downtown, and at Costello's, a friendly neighborhood bar in the Thurber Village shopping center on Neil Avenue.
I saw him mostly at Costello’s, and we gradually renewed a friendship that dated all the way back to junior high school at Everett, which we both attended, although Bruce moved on to Central High School while I went over to North High after graduating from Everett. Central was located downtown in the building that is now occupied by COSI. It had a good reputation for manual arts, among other things. It was in this building that Emerson Burkhart painted a controversial mural the principle later painted over because it was too upbeat – it showed kids jitterbugging and all that kind of immoral behavior!
Anyway, I was happy to spend time with Bruce again after all those years apart. Interestingly, he would dye his hair coal-black, other times he would let it grow out gray. It was like knowing two people. But, the way I look at it, who cares what people do to enhance their appearance? They've been doing it all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, probably further, probably back to the caves when some bloke discovered he looked better with mud in his hair.
I always enjoyed talking to Bruce because he was one of those guys who had what I consider to be a kind of inner wisdom. No benefit of a college degree or any of that stuff, just sort of a sardonic way of looking at life with a wry sense of humor to see him through the hard times.
He was sort of a James Dean type, living on the ragged edge of things. He had been abandoned as a baby. His aunt took him in and looked after him all the way through high school. As a matter of fact, except for an interlude of a few years when he got married, he lived with her until she died. Bruce and his two married sisters inherited the big house on Neil Avenue after her death, and Bruce lived there a good many years afterward.
Her name, by the way, was Miss Higgins, and she taught English at Everett Junior High School. She was an excellent teacher and a positive influence on the many children who went through her classes.
Bruce wasn't very religious, at least in the conventional sense. He hadn't gone to church for years, and whenever we came close to talking about anything religious, he would just shrug and say he didn't believe in heaven and, as far as he was concerned, hell was right here on earth.
That would always get a rise out of me. I would say, “Aw, come on, Bruce, you don't mean that!”
Well, he might not have been religious, but he did believe in ghosts! Claimed there was one right there in the big old brick house he lived in on Neil Avenue.
It was apparently a female ghost because her name was Hannah. He claimed he could hear her walking around in the dark like she was looking for something. In the middle of the night. Night after night, he would hear her footsteps and the eerie sound of squeaky floorboards.
Sometimes when Hannah was in a devilish mood, she would go in the bathroom and unroll the toilet paper. Spin it right off its little cardboard tube until there was a spiraled heap of it on the floor.
“I always figured Hannah was harmless,” Bruce confided to me one time. “I thought she might have been a schoolteacher when she was part of this world.”
He would get a big grin on his face and lift his beer in a toast. “Here's to Hannah,” he would say, “the ghostess with the mostess!”
I never asked him if he thought Hannah might be the ghost of his aunt – coming back to keep an eye on him, you know. But, I guess not, or he would surely have mentioned it. I forget Miss Higgin's first name, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't Hannah.
I mentioned here previously how every winter Bruce made homemade peanut brittle and chocolate-covered almonds, packaged them, and sold them to patrons of the bars he frequented. Then he saw a classified ad in the New York Times for ladies lingerie at wholesale prices. He sent away for a batch of the frilly garments and, thus armed, launched himself on a new career. Or, at least, a summertime replacement for the lagging candy sales, toting his goods around to go-go bars and strip joints to sell to dancers.
Once when we were having a few beers together, he told me much of what had been going on during the time I hadn't seen him. For instance, he said that he was married for a few years to a lady police officer. She had been married once before and had a couple of boys. Then she and Bruce had a boy of their own.
He was a bright kid, and after he got out of high school, he joined the Navy.
My Buddy Bruce Part I - January 2005
Bruce used to hang out at Costello's, a friendly neighborhood bar that was located in the old Thurber Village Shopping Center on Neil Avenue. He didn't drive so he walked from the big Victorian house where he lived at Seventh and Neil.
In his last years Bruce looked a lot older than he was, probably because he had undergone triple bypass surgery. But you had to say this for Bruce: Even when he wasn't feeling on top of the world, he looked debonair and dapper. I used to kid him that he looked like the playwright Noel Coward.
Bruce drank Budweiser on tap, which at the time was eighty-five cents a glass. His usual routine was to arrive at Costello's early and leave late. When I would walk in and find him seated at the bar, I could always tell at a glance how long he had been there because he had a habit of lining up the dimes and nickels he got back in change like toy soldiers on parade.
When Bruce died in November of 1993 at the age of 67, there was no obituary in the Columbus Dispatch, or anywhere else. He just fell through the cracks.
A lot of people knew Bruce as “the candy man.” Every winter, he made peanut brittle and chocolate-covered almonds. Mouth-watering good, and he wasn't always jacking the prices up every chance he got. He packaged his goods – that's what he called his candy – in little white boxes or neat plastic bags.
He had gold labels printed up that said “Flytown Candy Company,” and placed them on each box or bag. “Nothing but the best,” he would say with a wink and a smile.
He would lug a big grocery sack of his goods into the bar, and before the evening was over they were all be sold. He would occasionally pass samples around to stimulate business, but he really didn't need to do that. Many of his old customers placed orders with him way ahead of time.
I can't begin to tell you how good Bruce's candy was. Maybe it was because it was so darned fresh – and made right there in his kitchen with loving care and top quality ingredients.
I enjoyed the peanut brittle and the chocolate-covered almonds. The peanut brittle was full of flavor and so crunchy you wouldn't believe it. Honest to God, it was hard to stop eating one piece after another.
Costello's wasn't the only place where Bruce sold his candy. He would visit plenty of other places, most of them downtown, close to the bus lines, you know, because he didn't drive. Places like Benny Klein's Steak House near Broad and High. He had quite a few customers there.
One of the bartenders at the Neil House used to buy two or three bags of his peanut brittle. The Neil House was a wonderfully comfortable hotel right across from the State Capitol on High Street.. Such a shame it was torn down by a bunch of blunder-headed developers, now forever gone along with a lot of other historic buildings in downtown Columbus.
Bruce even had a couple of customers at the Maramor, one of Columbus' most elite dining spots. That’s a laugh, because the Maramor made and packaged their own brand of candy and sold it over the counter. Pretty good stuff it was, too. Just not as flavorful as Bruce's goods.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's – that’s when Bruce's candy making venture went into high gear. Maybe even to Easter. After that, he put away all the pots and pans until another holiday season rolled around.
Earlier in life, Bruce had a number of jobs around town. Once he operated a little pizza place up Olentangy River Road near Dodridge Street. It was located in an old red brick building that had once been a little schoolhouse - or a church.
At one time or another, he worked in pizza parlors and places like that for other people. I would occasionally see him about town, but I didn't know him all that well back then.
Anyhow, during the period I knew Bruce best – the Costello days I call them – after the candy season was over, he turned to other ways of making a living.
He didn't need much money because his sisters helped support him, and he lived in his big Neil Avenue house rent-free. So, what did he do? Hold onto your hat! You'll find this a hoot! This kindly silver-haired gentle soul with the ingratiating smile would sell ladies undergarments to waitresses who worked in some of the places he frequented – and that's not all!
Back in the good ol' days there used to be two or three go-go bars downtown. He would go in those horrible (ha-ha!) dimly lit places, lugging his bag of goods and sell them to the dancers.
The girls would flock around him as he emptied all these goodies onto a table. They would rummage through all these flimsy unmentionables, often taking one item or another into the women's room to try on.
Once when I was with him, I warned him that the gals weren't bringing back all they left with.
That didn't seem to bother him too much.
I think he said something like, “It goes with the territory.” That reminded me of Willy Lowman's similar remark in “Death of a Salesman.”
In the aftermath of this year's sensational gridiron victory over the University of Michigan, I thought back to another – although almost unknown – happy time when, by comparative scores, a raggedy bunch of seventh and eighth-graders here in Columbus celebrated another victory over the Maize and the Blue.
And, to say that it was one of the happiest days of my life due to the fact that I had a hand in the victory would be an understatement.
So, friends, in the aftermath of this latest heartening victory, I will share that long ago experience with you.
During the years that I attended Everett Junior High School, a classmate of mine, Jimmy Reeder, organized a bunch of us kids into a sandlot football team. This was in the days way back before junior leagues and that kind of stuff.
If we had seen a parent coming to one of our games, we would have run for cover in fear that we had done something wrong.
We named ourselves the River Rats because we played our games in the OSU fields down along the Olentangy River, and we scheduled games with kids from nearby schools.
Sometimes we played on the OSU polo field which definitely had its hazards if you got tackled and landed in a pile of you-know-what.
A few of us had helmets, most did not. The same was true of shoulders pads, football shoes, padded pants, and jerseys. Mostly not. We recognized the kids on our team because we had to.
Jimmy was captain of our team and he played various positions in the backfield. Not hard to do because there were only seven or eight guys on each side.
Howard Yerges Jr., the son of an All-American at the University of Michigan, was our quarterback.
We played ten minute quarters and we usually cajoled a couple of high school guys to officiate.
During our second year of existence, the Yerges family moved over to Grandview, and Howard started his own team. I can't remember what they called themselves.
It wasn't long, however, before we had a game scheduled with them.
I'll never forget that overcast Saturday morning as long as I live. It was along toward the end of October, and as we pedaled our bikes over to Grandview it started to drizzle.
We played on one of the high school athletic fields. There were no goal posts. Points after a touchdown were made by trying to run the ball into the end zone.
For most of the game we wallowed around on the muddy field without either team scoring.
Finally, with time running out, less than a minute left, we had the ball somewhere around mid-field. In our huddle, Jimmy told me to run deep, get behind the defenders, cut to the right, and he would throw me a pass.
Well, that's what I did. I ran clear down to the goal line, but, for some reason, I cut to the left - and what do you know! There was the ball spiraling right into my outstretched arms.
I caught it and stepped into the end zone. Six points! And, can you believe it, as we were celebrating, Jimmy said, “I thought I told you to cut to the right.”
“Good thing I didn't,” I quickly replied with a smirk. About then I saw Howard Yerges take off his helmet, slam it into the ground, get on his bike and disappear down the street. There had been tears streaming down his face and I couldn't help but feel sorry for him.
The rest of his team called it quits, and the officials said we won the game by default since the last few seconds of the game were never played.
There's a postscript to this story.
Years later, after high school and a tour of duty in the Navy, I got married at the beginning of my senior year at Ohio State.
One afternoon my wife Jeanne and I were walking across the oval toward High Street after witnessing a University of Michigan team clobber Ohio State 21 to 0.
The Michigan quarterback? Howard Yerges.
That's how, by comparative scores, the River Rats from Columbus, Ohio, beat the mighty University of Michigan football team.
It's a stretch, but what the heck!
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap ...”
Those are the opening words of The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger, one of my literary heroes and a man still alive, living in his own carefully crafted world somewhere out in the wooded hills near Cornish, New Hampshire.
Whether or not I had a lousy childhood would depend on the way you look at it. My father died in a horrible accident when I was four years old. That was lousy. We were poor, but managed to get by. That was a little lousy. My mother was innovative, caring and a great cook. That was good. My brother and I were both healthy. That was great. He was really smart, but I was behind the door when the brains were passed out. That was good for him, but lousy for me.
As I wrote last month, much of my childhood was spent living around the university district, ten years of it right across the street from the campus on West Eleventh Avenue. That was really a positive experience, and it left me with a lot of swell memories - none of them lousy.
Here are a few memories I will share with you.
Back then there were not as many buildings on the campus. Take the women's dormitories, for example: Neil Hall, Mack Hall, and Baker Hall. That was it.
Because of the limited number of buildings, there was much less light pollution. I could walk across the street and go a few steps beyond the street lights and I would be in almost total darkness.
A couple of my friends like Rex Blair and Johnny Gardener would sometimes join me out there as we tried to learn the names of the brightest stars, planets, and constellations. Sometimes a student or two would join in and help us find some elusive configuration in the sky.
Oh, how the stars would sparkle back then! Something that city kids today know nothing about.
And, speaking of stars reminds me of the astronomy professor's girlfriend, a good-looking lanky redhead who lived somewhere around the neighborhood. Over on Tenth Avenue, I think. A lot of afternoons she would walk her Great Dane, a particularly ferocious beast with slavering jowls who enjoyed nothing more than chasing young kids around the block and scaring them half to death. I remember one time I ended up sitting on top of a car roof during a pursuit until she came along and called him off.
Almost as far back as I can remember, I had one kind of a job or another. Everything from selling magazines like Liberty and the Saturday Evening Post. I would have a bag of them over my shoulder, not to speak of the one I had in my hand, and I would walk alongside a student extolling the virtues of the publication until they relented and purchased a copy, probably just to get rid of me.
When I was a little older, I had paper routes. Oh boy, did I ever have paper routes. Sometimes the Columbus Dispatch, sometimes the Columbus Citizen. At various times, I had routes that extended from High Street to Perry Street, and from the campus all the way south to Third Avenue. Back in those days, they had neighborhood sub-stations, which were wooden buildings, little more than sheds, where all the carriers would pick up their papers after school.
Eventually, with money in my pocket, I experienced the heady feeling of growing independence and the power associated with buying my own stuff. Soda, candy and ice cream confections, sure. You can bet the folks at Berry's Drug Store, a friendly place on the northwest corner of West Tenth and High Street, were assured of their cut. It was like a tithe. A lot of it going to the candy counter, a huge amount to the soda fountain for banana splits, malted milks and sodas, not to speak of flavored cokes. And, as I got older, I spent more and more at the magazine rack.
The reading material was wonderful! What an escape from the mostly dull stuff I had to read at school! The pulp magazines were the ones that captured my imagination the most. Magazines like The Shadow, which celebrated the exploits of Lamont Cranston, and there was Doc Savage and a whole slew of detective magazines.
Another genre of these reader-friendly publications were the aviation magazines featuring action-packed stories of the World War I era. One title I remember was Sky Fighters, the stories within its pages were guaranteed to roil the blood of any young teenager.
There were the Sci-Fi magazines, publications like Astounding Stories, Amazing Stories and, yes, even Weird Stories, which boasted the fanciful work of some truly exceptional writers, H. P. Lovecraft, to name one.
Finally, as I have written before, in my junior and senior years, I clerked in the produce department of the original Big Bear Store on West Lane Avenue. Now I was really in the chips and, among other things, I could purchase my own clothes. And, where else but Moe Glassman's, a really sharp men's clothing store located on the east side of High across the street from Berry's Drug Store. At long last I could pick out my own clothes without parental interference.
Now, I was really living!
(To be continued)
(From the October 2004 issue)
There was a period in my life between the ages of ten and eighteen when I must have been one of the luckiest kids in the world.
During that time, I went to three good schools: Ninth Avenue Elementary, Everett Junior High, and North High. Not only that, I had some great teachers who made a lasting impression on my life. And, talk about an exciting environment to grow up in, my mother, brother David, and I lived right across the street from the sprawling campus of the Ohio State University.
So many memories come rushing back as I think about those impressionable days of my boyhood. If you bear with me, I will try to share some of them with you.
My widowed mother took roomers to help make ends meet and, from my youthful perspective, even that was immensely interesting and an education unto itself.
To this day, I still remember some of our roomers - mostly students, but a few professors and at least one librarian.
I remember one professor who would frequently visit a bar or two before coming home. One evening he couldn't quite make it up the steps to his room on the second floor. What he really ended up doing was falling up the steps. He was down on his knees crawling up one riser at a time when my mother encountered him. You can bet your bottom dollar the sparks really flew as she gave him a piece of her mind along with his eviction notice on the spot. Poor guy.
The bells of Orson Hall, like a metronome, marked off all of those boyhood years. Seldom was I out of earshot of their melodious tolling as they announced each quarter hour.
That picturesque old building was located on the north edge of Mirror Lake hollow and housed the archeology museum, classrooms, and the departmental library.
Every now and then, I got up the nerve to venture into the cavernous first floor which housed the museum. There I would gawk at a model of a giant dinosaur skeleton, and a lot of bones and other relics of the earth's ancient past. I was very impressed, I can tell you that. A Mrs. DeSelm, the mother of a high school classmate of mine, was the departmental librarian.
In the springtime, a favorite activity was joining the crowds on the oval to watch the ROTC reviews.
ROTC meant Reserve Officer's Training Corps. Back then, most male students were required to take at least two or three credit hours of military training per quarter.
The reviews were more like parades, and mighty impressive they were, what with the cadets dressed in their spiffy full-dress dark blue uniforms with white belts.
During the warm months, I would sometimes wander down to the picturesque amphitheater near Mirror Lake, where Elsie Kittle was busy rehearsing here students for a Shakespearian production.
All of the participants were coeds and I would sit there in awe at how adept the gals were in filling all the roles &endash; especially those of villainous men.
For me, the highlight of their season was the dress rehearsal, which was free and just as good as the regular paid performances that followed on ensuing evenings. So, there I would be, soaking it all up, back somewhere in the years when I was between twelve and sixteen.
And guess what? Way back then I was publishing a little neighborhood newspaper. It was called The Item and consisted of three or four 8 1/2" by 11" pages printed on a pan of hectograph jelly.
Sometimes - when we managed to agree on the paper's policy - I had a partner in this enterprise. He was a pleasant fellow named Jimmy McVicker who lived on a part of West Tenth Avenue that has long since been torn down. Jimmy's father worked for a national news service and his mother wrote romantic novels.
I guess I should mention here that I owed a debt of gratitude to my brother David, who was seven years older that me.
By everyone's reckoning David was brilliant - in the genius category - and our mother scrimped and saved to put him through University School, which was located at Woodruff and High.
Because of his scholastic abilities, David occupied the center of my mother's attention and she pinned a lot of her dreams on him.
Can you see the beauty of this situation for me? If not, let me fill you in.
I was free to roam. I was free to come and go pretty much as I wanted. The great OSU campus was my front yard, and the neighborhood was my back yard.
David got the glory, but I had freedom. I'll give you an example. One time, when I was seventeen, one of the Dodge brothers stopped by our house and I slipped out the back door with him and we made our way down High Street to the old Palm Gardens nightclub.
This was a cozy little place where Dean Martin once did a gig before he became famous. It was located about where Kroger's is today.
At any rate, I had a pocketful of money from my Dispatch route and my friend and I had quite an evening.
In one night, I had my first beer and saw my first naked lady!.
(to be continued)
(From the Sept. '04 issue)
From the very beginning, the contest was unfair. The baby deer was very little and, by comparison, my car was huge.
I first spotted the fawn when I came around a bend in the Clear Creek road. He was standing in the middle of the road about four car lengths away. I hit the brakes and the car skidded on the loose gravel, then spun around in a cloud of dust.
When I stopped, he was not more than a car length away. He had turned a bit sideways, as though to brace himself against the impending impact.
After such a rude introduction, I was sure that neither one of us knew exactly what was the proper thing to do. So, for about thirty seconds, we didn't do anything. The truth is, I think we both needed a little more time to gather our wits about us.
With a great sigh of relief, I continued to look out the car window at the little fellow. He, in turn, looked up at me with his big, unblinking amber eyes.
His coat was the color of buckwheat honey, decorated with irregular spots of white along the flanks. He was really cute.
I don't know whether he was frozen with fright, or just unaware of the peril he had been in. I suspected the latter, but changed my mind when I saw that he was trembling.
Maybe another ten seconds went by. He seemed to be getting over the shakes and making tentative moves to escape his predicament. The problem was he didn't know what to do first - so he compromised and did a little dance, backward, then forward, like a minuet. I noticed that every now and then his knees would buckle.
About this time, I became aware of the doe - his mother - when I heard her soft barking and bleating. She was not more than twenty-five yards away, secluded in tall grasses and blackberry tangles, difficult to see because of her subtle coloring and the flickering patterns of tree shadows. Her eyes were fixed on the little scene in the middle of the road.
I believe she was trying to tell her little offspring what to do, but I don't think her message was getting through. Although he seemed to have mostly gotten over the shakes, I got the impression he was still trying to decide what to do first.
Evidently thinking that discretion might be the better part of valor, he continued his little dance, scampering about in a little circle. Then, when he should have been looking at his mother, he would stop and look at me.
Every now and then his knees would buckle.
Finally, at long last, mustering all his courage, he ran right by the side of my car, teetered down the road a short distance, then darted into the brush and disappeared.
That was the last I saw of him.
About then, off in a nearby meadow, I saw another adult deer, then another, and another. They stood with ears erect, then suddenly raced away, their graceful bodies sailing over the ground, snow-white tails bobbing up and down. It was as if they were celebrating.
As I started up the car, a multitude of thoughts passed through my mind.
The most important one was that in a time when indifference and death are so casually accepted, somehow - luckily- I had contributed to life.
On the way home my heart was thumping a happy tune - like a melody rolling out of an old-fashioned player-piano.
It had been a good day!
(From the Aug. '04 issue)
Some of my fondest boyhood memories are of my mother's cooking.
Picture this: A platter of spareribs , browned to perfection, the succulent meat so tender it is practically falling off the ribs. On the side, baked sauerkraut, tart and tasty but sweetened with a dash of brown sugar, In a casserole dish, homemade scalloped potatoes, creamy, golden brown and, oh, so good. Another dish was heaped with broccoli, or maybe green beans. For dessert, there would be a thick slice of ripe Honeydew melon.
For Easter dinner we frequently had leg of lam with the traditional mint jelly, and for sides something like a baking dish of scalloped corn and, maybe another dish of candied carrots.
For Thanksgiving there would be a small turkey, basted in its own juices, roasted until succulent and tender. There would be a casserole dish heaped with yams that had been topped with marshmallows and placed under the broiler until melted. Two or three different vegetables, some of them in a cream sauce would round out the menu, not counting the homemade pumpkin pie.
It goes without saying that cornbread would accompany many of these meals.
Looking back on it, I'm still amazed at my mother's ingenuity and creative ability in the kitchen.
Off and on, we would have typical southern dishes, the kind she had grown up with.
Some of them were tasty, others I wasn't all that fond of.
Grits, for instance.
I could take them or leave them.
Another was black-eyed peas.
Not bad if I was starving/
She would usually serve them with a dab of butter on top, but sometimes we had the option of drowning the in syrup.
One of her favorite dishes was scalloped oysters. Not a food I would ordinarily enjoy, but the way she prepared them, they were sensational.
Oh, we had plenty of hamburgers for lunch or dinner, but my mother didn't call them hamburgers. They were "meat patties" consisting of upper round steak custom ground for her by the butcher.
On the other hand, I can never remember much junk food around, not even goodies like doughnuts, or most soft drinks - with the exception of Vernor's Ginger Ale. It goes without saying, there were no alcoholic beverages, After all, remember, it was just my mother, my brother, and me.
Getting back to the meat patties for a minute, if were having them for dinner, they would be accompanied by Idaho baked potatoes, a vegetable, and maybe a salad. There would be plenty of butter for the baked potatoes, and a dash of salt and pepper. Unfortunately, it was before scour cream made its way to Columbus,
Some of the dishes my mother came up with would sometimes prompt a "yuck!" from this sometimes rebellious kid.
Calves liver, for instance. But it would look so delicious, and smell so wonderful, that I would give in and taste it. And after the first taste, well, yes Mom, I'll have some more. Mother would always specify to the butcher that she wanted baby calves liver. For supper, she would fry it either with bacon or sliced onions.
These are the kinds of meals I'm talking about. Memorable. And she would put theme together on a limited budget. Of course, these were depression days and everything was selling at rock-bottom prices. By the same token, money was as scarce as hen's teeth, but she made do.
Mother was a wonder, and I wish I had her back so I could tell her so.
Funny thing, though.
She never mastered the art of Italian cooking.
Spaghetti, for instance.
She cooked her spaghetti in a big pot with all the ingredients thrown in. It was soup.
When we lived in the University District, one of my mother's favorite grocery stores was the King Avenue market. It was located right about where Viking Carryout is today. She especially liked their selection of meat.
There was a Mykrantz Drug Story over where Dragonfly neo-v cuisine is currently located. It had a soda fountain and everything.
Another friendly place where my mother shopped was the Weiss Sisters' Red and White store. It was located on either Hunter or Highland Avenue a couple of blocks south of West Eleventh. And, there was a small Kroger store on the west side of High Street between Ten and Eleventh avenues.
Amazingly, none of these place were self-serve. In other words, a clerk would take your order and fetch everything for you, the possible exception being produce where you could help choose what went into your market basket.
My mother was a very particular shopper and she would keep an eagle-eye on everything she ordered.
Sometimes, when we could afford it, we would eat Sunday dinner at a very nice restaurant at the corner of Tenth and Neil. I think it was called the Campus-Neil. Or, sometimes we would go up on High Street and eat at the Dutch Tavern. No relation to the Dutch Café. And, a lot of times, we would walk over to Pomerine Hall, which overlooked Mirror Lake. They had a cafeteria with good food at affordable prices.
As the old song goes, "Those were the good ol' days," and you can bet your bottom dollar I'll never forget them!
July 2004 (See June 2009 reprint)
House Hopping During the Depression
(From the June '04 issue)
With my mother on a vacation to Chicago
to see my father's family.
The nine-story building featured a tearoom off the lobby, uniformed bellhops, automatic elevators, a two-level parking garage, and an easily accessible rooftop from which I could look out over the city in all directions.
My mother was a couragous woman, as well as a survivor in the truest sense of the word. I say this in spite of the fact that she was a chronic worrywart and, in her last years on Earth, fearful of the inevitable end - even though she was an extremely religious woman, brought up as a Carmelite, a fundamentalist religious sect of the South. My feeling is that none of us ever figures out every nuance of what another person's life is about, not to speak of our own.
"When the going gets tough, the tough get going," the old adage says, and my mother fit that description to a T. Widowed when she was in her early thirties with two young boys to care for, and little in the way of money, she soon demonstrated that she was capable of making her own way in this world.
My mother was brought up in Nashville, Tennessee, and went to Ward-Belmont, a girls' finishing school. There she learned the rudiments of proper English and all the social graces, but not much else. Don't forget, in those days not many women pursued careers outside the home.
Fortunately, soon after my dad died, she heard that the owners of an apartment building on First Avenue in Grandview were looking for a manager. In spite of the fact she had absolutely no work experience, on sheer gumption, she applied for the job, and got it. A rent-free apartment went with the modest salary, and she was on her way to self-support.
And, guess what?
She did such a good job that the owners of the building, the Huntington National Bank, offered her a much better position at their newly acquired Parkview Apartments on East Broad Street, opposite Franklin Park. It was a pretty spiffy place in those days. Dr. Melvin Croaty, the famous goiter specialist lived right next door to the building we lived in. And Webb Hunting-ton and his family lived in the apartment below us.
This was a big step up. A nicer rent-free apartment with utilities paid, a better salary, and other amenities such as complimentary laundry service, and dairy and bakery products.
Well, she did such a good job that she attracted the attention of the John Hancock Insurance Company which had just purchased the Cambridge Arms, Columbus' premier high-rise apartment building at the time. So we moved again.
The nine-story building featured a tearoom off the lobby, uniformed bellhops, automatic elevators, a two-level parking garage, and an easily accessible rooftop from which I could look out over the city in all directions. I would take it all in: Beyond the surrounding houses, past the church steeples along Broad Street, all the way to the AIU Building, which the Lincoln-LeVeque Building was called in those days. I swear I could see all the way to the fairgrounds and the buildings on the Ohio State University campus.
Boy, did I ever have fun while we lived there. Plenty of action. I got to know the bellhops and would be all ears when they'd gossip about the tenants.
I went to Douglas Elementary School, which I liked a lot. The old red brick building had a big cylindrical fire escape attached to one wall. James Thurber once attended school there.
Because I wanted a paper route but I was too young to go to a sub-station to pick up my papers, Mother called up the Circulation Department of the Dispatch and talked to the manager, a Mister Thomas.
Soon a Dispatch delivery truck was dropping off a roll of papers every day in front of the building. My route consisted of the apartments in the building and the stately homes along East Broad Street for a block or two in each direction. Two of the Dispatch Wolfe boys lived in the building with their young wives and were on my route.
Mother had gained a lot of self-confidence and was becoming ever more proficient in her job. She showed apartments to prospective tenants, listened patiently to those who had complaints, hired maintenance people for the endless task of keeping the building functioning properly, and painters every time an apartment needed refurbishing. Not only that, she was becoming ever more proficient at interior de-corating, which included everything from selecting wall colors to purchasing draperies and carpeting.
Of course, she also had the never-ending job of running a household for our small family, which meant everything from grocery shopping and cooking, to keeping my brother and I reasonably well-clothed and shod, not to speak of trying to keep some semblance of law and order when my brother and I were fighting over one thing or another.
Those were depression years and up to this point Mother had been unbelievably lucky. But then the axe fell.
To save money, the owners decided to let the tearoom manager show apartments, and Mother was without a job.
So we set about packing. Cups, saucers, and dinner plates were wrapped in newspapers and put in a couple of wooden barrels, along with silverware, bric-a-brac, pots and pans and whatever else that we could tuck in. Books were boxed, linen bundled, clothing crammed in a couple of wardrobe trunks, and - Whew! - we were ready for the moving van.
Hand in hand, we climbed aboard a streetcar and headed for our next adventure. Mother had rented a big house in the University District, and we were going to rent rooms to students.
(To be continued)
(From the May '04 issue)
As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more of beloved family members who have departed this earthly vale. For instance, hardly a day goes by that I don't think of my mother who died in 1988 or my brother who passed away in 2001.
Actually, I have had long practice at this kind of retrospective looking back over my shoulder. My father died in an accident when I was only 4 years old. I barely remember him, just little snippets of memory, but I often think of him and wonder what he was really like, and I try my best to be a credit to him.
My mother as a young woman.
My Tennessee-born mother was just a few weeks shy of 95 when she passed away. Over a period of several months before her death, she suffered two massive strokes and probably others less discernible. During that time, she remained in the hospital for extended stays, most often in intensive care.
The first stroke disrupted her ability to speak clearly, robbed her of the ability to think clearly, and left her in a state that my brother described as "bewildered," but which the doctors referred to as dementia.
During the last month or two of her life, it had been difficult for me to honestly say whether our mother recognized us or not. My brother, David, said she did. I wasn't so sure.
Other times, she would react violently, lashing out with one arm or another at hospital personnel when her bed was being made up or when the catheter or IV was being changed.
This kind of spectacle was heartbreaking to behold and was the reason I sometimes felt she was better off asleep or comatose, whichever it might have been. At such times, I would picture in my mind a studio portrait taken in Nashville when she was about seventeen and a raven-haired beauty. In the photograph, she was wearing a white blouse with a single strand of pearls around her slender neck. Soft inquiring eyes met the camera lens with the hint of a demure smile.
I had a theory about my mother's behavior in the hospital. It wasn't unbearable pain alone that she was suffering, but an obsessive fear of the unknown coupled with an extreme aversion to any and all violations of her person.
I remember back to the '60s when I took her to University Hospital after she slipped on an icy pavement in downtown Columbus.
I will never forget that experience, the extreme anxiety she displayed, and what seemed to me to be a complete lack of self-control. Hysteria would be a more accurate description. Carefully I helped her from my car into the brightly lit hospital corridor of the emergency room. The tortured, helpless look of a trapped animal was written on her face.
"My back is broken," she wailed.
"If your back was broken, you wouldn't be walking," I tried to reassure her.
"I am hardly walking," she gasped, hanging heavier than ever on my arm, then almost falling so that I had to hold her sagging body up with both hands.
"It's probably my hip," she cried out, "I've broken my hip. Either that or I've hurt myself internally."
At the admissions desk she had little patience with the questions put to her. "My name is Lucille Thomson," she panted, a wild expression on her face as she stared accusingly at her interrogator. "I fell on the ice. I'm hurt! I don't know what my social security number is. I need medical attention before I die!"
I found myself torn between the realization that some questions had to be asked, my concern that she might have some serious injury, and my extreme embarrassment at the way she was behaving.
I helped with some of the needed information, then steered her down the hall for a series of x-rays - which confirmed that she had no broken bones. The examining doctor reassured her that she had suffered nothing more than a contusion which would probably result in some tenderness and a bruise.
All of the old traits, I realized, were alive and well during her last days some 20 years later. When it came to doctors and hospitals, she was one of the world's greatest cowards, afraid to swallow an aspirin tablet without crushing it up, afraid to go outdoors without covering her head, afraid of the rain, the snow, the lightning, deathly afraid of dogs, afraid of flying (she never stepped foot in an airplane), afraid of the dark, afraid of the unknown, the partly known, and most of the known.
Protecting herself from what she perceived as an alien world was her pride, a shield she wore like a suit of clanking quixotic armor - the helmet and all the various parts of which were her gentility, her southern upbringing, and her disdain of modern times.
She detested - no, make that dreaded - the very idea of doctors, nurses and aides invading the private domain of her body. And there was another overriding abhorrence, one she wrapped about her like a tight cloak. That was the thought of growing old. She despised the thought of growing old, the fact that she was getting old. She hated the expression "senior citizen." To the bitter end, she rebelled at the ravages and debilitation of old age.
Now, at the end of her life, she was like a collected butterfly, stuck on a pin and exposed to the eyes and probing fingers of countless strangers. I think that these final invasions of her privacy were equal to any pain that she might have suffered.
Something else needs to be said. Although it's true that she was fearful of the ravages of old age and death, she was fearless in facing the everyday obstacles of life. That famous line by Dylan Thomas - Rage, rage against the dying of the light - reflects the kind of defiance and strength she possessed that keeps her alive in my memory still. Again and again, she returns to those familiar places I've given her to become the beloved mother she once was.
(To be continued)
(From the April '04 issue)
The Fish Man
By Tom Thomson
I had heard a lot about Milton Trautman before I ever met him. As a matter of fact, I purchased his book, The Birds of Buckeye Lake, Ohio, at the Bibliophile, which used to be adjacent to Long's Book Store at Fifteenth and High.
I referred to that book so often, I probably succeeded in reading it a hundred times. In my opinion, it was - and still is - one of the finest regional studies of birds ever written. My only complaint with the book is a nagging suspicion that once in a while Milt played a little loose in estimating the numbers of birds present in the area at any given time.
Od course, it's true that we used to see more birds, especially migratory ines. A lot more. That's true. And once in a while there used to be a truly big wave of migrants. But 50 mourning warblers in one day? Forty-five gray-cheeked thrushes? Fifty least flycatchers? Sixty phoebes? Fifty-five Canada warblers? Those would be once-in-a-millennium numbers even for favored spots on Lake Erie. Oh, what the heck!. Who's to say how many birds he saw?
I think what Milt actually did was project the numbers for the entire Buckeye Lake area based on the numbers he would see himself. We all probably engage in this type of calculation from time to time. I know I do. For instance, if I see ten scarlet tanagers at Green Lawn Cemetery in one morning, I'll sometimes say to a companion: "I wonder how many scarlet tanagers are in Franklin County right now?" I'll try to answer my own question. "Two thousand?"
Not content with such small potatoes, I'll continue, "I wonder how many scarlet tanagers are in Ohio right now?" And my companion will think this over and finally say, "Oh, probably about 175,000." At this point we'll both break down laughing, knowing full-well that our little exercise in practicing omnipotence is pure guess work.
I've been nit-picking. I know that Milt's book has been long out of print, but if you ever see one in a used book store, grab it. The Birds of Buckeye Lake, Ohio is a classic.
Although Milt had a life-long interest in birds and frequently was out chasing them all over Ohio with his birding buddies, he is known mostly as an ichthyologist, and as the author of The Fishes of Ohio, published by The Ohio State University Press, in 1957, with a revised edition published more recently.
The Fishes of Ohio is a taxonomic masterpiece of things piscatorial. Aside from descriptions, distribution maps, and a key to the 172 species of fish found in the state, it is a veritable storehouse of additional information on the glaciers, climate, topography, historical accounts, and a fine glossary of technical terms. The only short-coming might be the lack of life histories and behavioral accounts. But, then, maybe that's another book for another author.
Milt was an old-time naturalist and was as often in the field with a fish net and a gun as he was with binoculars. In 1972, he estimated that he had collected more than 2,757 bird specimens and 60,000 fish specimens. All of these would end up in museum collections - with his name on the labels, of course.
From time to time, his bird collecting activities proved to be a sore point among many of his associates and birders. This was especially true when a really rare bird just upped and disappeared before many people had a chance to see it. This happened a lot and as people became more environmentally aware, a lot of rare bird sightings were never widely reported for fear they would fall prey to Milt's shotgun.
It would be a great oversight not to mention his wife Mary, nee Auten, who was a talented and tireless assistant to all of her husband's projects, and co-author of more than a few. Mary received a Ph.D. in entomology and zoology from the Ohio State University in 1933, a number of years before she met Milt.
Although Milt never received a university degree, during his lifetime he was awarded a number of academic positions and honorary titles.
I can't resist telling this one story about Milt. Back in 1960 several of his birding buddies were on their way home from a trip to the Rocky Mountains when they stopped to examine a black-billed magpie that had been killed by a car.
The specimen was in good condition so they kept it. Not many miles down the road they stopped in a small town where they were able to purchase a supply of dry ice. They put the magpie in a paper sack with the dry ice and continued on their merry way. Somewhere between eastern Colorado and Ohio they hatched a nefarious plot, which I have always called the Great Magpie Caper.
Hours before arriving home they took the dead magpie out of the sack so it would thaw out. Then, they drove quietly by Milt's house, tossed the dead bird in his driveway, then sped away, barely able to contain their mirth.
You can guess what happened next. Milt found the bird, considered it a legitimate stray that had accidentally wandered into Ohio, skinned it, attached a label to it, deposited it in the state collection, and included the record in his and Mary's Annotated List of the Birds of Ohio. You can find it there today under "Accidentals or Very Irregular Visitors." Very irregular, I would say.
Mary passed away in 1986, Milt died in 1991. I don't think he ever knew the truth about the magpie. But if he had, I can almost hear his high-pitched, squeeky voice excitedly declaring, "Well, that's one of the dumbest things I ever heard of!"
(From the March 2004 issue)
A Vulture for AbbeySee August 2009
(From the Feb. '04 issue)
A tiny battery-powered light within the box
enabled the two men to see five owlets huddled inside.
Irv Kassoy was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1904. Two years later his family immigrated to the United States where they lived in New York City, "four stories up, in the rear," he would jokingly say.
I first got to know Irv in the early '50s when he and his wife moved here.
For several years while in New York, he worked for a Manhattan jeweler's firm, selling diamond rings and Swiss watches, perhaps hoping to fulfill the American Dream, make it big, make a lot of money and live the good life, but it didn't work out that way. At least, the big money part.
He served in the United States Army during World War II, and somewhere along the way he learned how to live an even better life than the one he had envisioned early on. He developed a passionate interest in birds, especially owls. More specifically, barn owls.
He became a member of the Bronx County Bird Club, a group of young men, ardent ornithologists who were so selective they had even questioned the birding qualifications of Roger Tory Peterson when he was a young man before admitting him to membership. There were nine charter members of the club, which included such well-known names as Allan Cruickshank and Joseph Hickey. Peterson survived the one-upmanship, of course, and not only was elected into membership but became the club's most famous alumnus.
An artist and a writer, Peterson became famous for his series of field guides to the birds of North America and Mexico, and numerous other books. I had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions, and a few years before his death I was fortunate enough to get him to write an introduction to my book, Birding in Ohio, published by the Indiana University Press.
In his book, Birds Over America, Peterson describes an evening visit he and Irv made one evening to the old Huntington mansion on Pelham Bay, which in recent years had become part of the park system. Irv had access to a key to the house. On the third floor of that deserted old mansion he had been observing a family of barn owls. He had pushed a large cardboard box with a glass top up against a ventilator hole through which the birds gained entry to their nesting area. A tiny battery-powered light within the box enabled the two men to see five owlets huddled inside.
Irv had spent over 200 nights by himself hunched over that box, "like some immobile Buddha," observing the comings and goings of the parent birds: their feeding of the young, their housekeeping habits, even their lovemaking.
In that spooky place, waiting for owls to appear who had more than a passing resemblance to ghosts, Irv had plenty of time to think about life and death. Sometimes when the parent birds were out hunting, it was hard for him to stay awake.
Oftentimes it was hard to separate the world of the owls from his own world, fact from fiction, reality from dreams.
One night Irv awoke with a start when he thought he heard a downstairs door open, then slam shut. He knew no one else had a key. Then he heard heavy, deliberate footsteps that stopped just below the trapdoor that led up to his observation post. The hair on Irv's head stood on end.
Just then he heard the characteristic scream of the adult owls somewhere in the darkness outside. A second later, one of them swooped down and made its way through the ventilator and into the nesting box, a mouse dangling from its beak, Irv forgot all about the possibility of human intruders, or otherwise. He never quite made up his mind after that night whether he had been dreaming or whether someone had actually entered the house. The caretaker, who lived nearby, believed the house was haunted. Maybe that was the answer.
Irk kept copious notes on the barn owl families he so devotedly observed. Even after he moved to Columbus, he worked on this material, hoping that someday he could develop it into a definitive study of the barn owl. For one reason or another, it was not to be.
After he settled in Columbus, Irv started his own upholstery business. He became active in local birding circles, took part in numerous Christmas Bird Counts, and in the process discovered the Ross-Pickaway County Line Road, famous over the years for wintering hawks, occasional short-eared owls, and numerous other birding attractions. Ever after that, the area drew him like a moth to a flame.
Toward the end of his life, Irv suffered from emphysema that became ever more acute because of his inability to give up cigarettes.
He died in Cape Coral, Florida, on April 6, 1978, and his ashes were sent to Columbus where they were scattered at a spot along his beloved County Line Road by his friends Don Smith and Ernie Limes.
Smith said that while they were engaged in that sad task, three red-tailed hawks circled over the area as if in a last salute and farewell to Irv.
(From the January '03 issue)
Lawrence Hicks was another mentor of mine; not to the extent Ed Thomas was, but nevertheless a big influence. I got to know Lawrence when I was 15 years old - shortly after I became interested in birds.
At the time, my family lived on West Eleventh Avenue, right across the street from the big Ohio State University campus.
Those were Depression days. My father was dead and my mother took in roomers to make ends meet. She was Nashville-born, a graduate of Ward Belmont, a finishing school for young ladies, where she had gained a solid education in grammar and etiquette but precious little practical experience in making her way in the world as a widow with two boys .
My brother David was something of a prodigy and during his high school years Mother eked out the money to send him to the old University School at the corner of Woodruff and High. The special attention paid him proved to be something of a blessing for me. I more or less came and went as I pleased, which might have accounted for my being in the informal gardens behind the Botany and Zoology Building one April afternoon where I walked up to within a few feet of a ruby-crowned kinglet displaying his fiery crest.
I went to Everett Junior High School and North High School on Arcadia Avenue. North High had a bird club which I joined. My overwhelming interest in bird study not only saved me back then but was to prove to be "the big wave" which I was to ride the rest of my life.
When I say "saved," I don't mean like a born-again Christian. What I mean is it lifted me out of the humdrum everyday world and transported me into an unbelievable magical realm of beauty, song, and mystery without having to sell my soul to do so.
Better yet, it wasn't long before I heard about all the ornithological opportunities that were located right there on the OSU campus. And if you have guessed that pretty soon I was knocking on a few doors - and the doors were opening - you are exactly right. Just how lucky can one kid get?
One of those doors was opened by Lawrence E. Hicks, a big burly man with a ready smile; a wrestler in college, a tireless field biologist and accomplished ornithologist in later life. After graduating from Otterbein College, Lawrence earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at OSU from research done on the duckweeds and the original vegetation of Ashtabula County.
When I got to know him he was a professor of Wildlife Conservation and director of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit which was crowded into the basement of the old Veterinary Clinic building on Neil Avenue, a building no longer in existence.
The late Floyd Chapman, who was a student of Hick's, remembered when the Wildlife offices were a center of feverish research activity.
One year the group received national recognition for its work on the Ring-necked Pheasant. Chapman went on to relate how the tiny rooms they occupied in the building became so filled with file boxes, books, and specimens that there was little room for the students to work.
Lawrence was a restless man and his greatest love was to be outdoors roaming the state of Ohio. He used to say that he had done field work in every township in the state and there were few that doubted his boast. I still remember how excited I was when I got to go to Ashtabula with him and several other students to take a Christmas Bird Count. I was still in high school.
His big car was mud-splattered and in the back seat there was a supply of crackers, cheese, bologna, and candy bars to reduce the need to stop anymore than necessary. On the floor of the car and in the trunk there were blankets, extra clothing, shoes and socks, shotguns, ameras, binoculars, field guides, and notebooks.
I had already heard from some of his students of his fondness for singing while driving along, but I was nevertheless surprised when he burst into a loud basso-profundo rendition of "Waltzing Matilda." This was somewhere in the vicinity of Mansfield. He urged us to sing along with him and after I got over my initial timidity, we had a merry old time singing one song after another.
Lawrence left the Wildlife Research Unit in 1945 and devoted the rest of his life to beekeeping which afforded him time to look for birds and collect plants. As the owner and operator of Buckeye Apiaries, he maintained 2,000 hives in eight counties.
He was only 52 years old when he died on January 20, 1957 following a cerebral hemorrhage. In the preceding weeks, he had taken part in six Christmas Bird Counts, including one at Hoover Reservoir that I had led, another centered around Sugar Grove, which is just up the road a couple of miles from Clear Creek, and one at Ashtabula. On that census he had shot a white-winged scoter (he had a collecting permit), and when the bird failed to drift toward shore close enough to retrieve, he shed his clothes down to his undershorts, jumped into the icy water, swam out to the dead duck, got it in his teeth and swam back to shore.
That was Lawrence E. Hicks. They don't make them like that anymore.
(From the December '03 issie)
Edward S. Thomas was my mentor.
From old photographs I've seen, he was tall and darkly handsome as a youth. During the years that he was guru and teacher to me, his appearance was one of distinction with friendly blue eyes, high forehead, and a melodious resonant voice.
He was a gifted public speaker. He never used notes, his vocabulary was boundless, his metaphors appropriate, and he could recite the scientific names of thousands of plants, birds, and animals. He made friends wherever he went and for all these reasons he was in great demand as a public speaker. Little wonder that as a teenager, I practically worshipped him. I'm sure that the number of people he influenced for the good must have numbered in the hundreds.
For over half a century, he enriched the lives of central Ohioans with his exceptional knowledge of the natural sciences. From 1931 to 1962 he was Curator of Natural Science at the old Ohio State Museum, which was located on The Ohio State University campus at the corner of 15th and High. He had given up a career in law to follow the dictates of his heart. The Board of Trustees of the Historical Society named Ed to the post of Curator of Natural History on February 1, 1931. He succeeded Prof. James S. Hine, the former curator, and gave up the practice of law to devote himself full time to this challenging new enterprise.
During his lifetime, he received many awards and honorary degrees, but I will always remember him most for his friendliness and his eagerness to share his knowledge with everyone who might come along with a question. His weekly nature column appeared in the Sunday Columbus Dispatch for 57 years, starting in 1922, and resulted in something like 2330 separate columns. This was a labor of love. He was never paid a penny for his efforts.
No account of Ed's life would be complete without mention of Neotoma, his 80-acre wooded valley near Clear Creek, in Hocking County. What had once been a marginal farmer's old house became his cabin, a picturesque log structure that was to provide shelter and hospitality to hundreds of friends and scientists as they literally scoured the little valley for data on its natural history. He acquired the 80-acre tract on Arbutus Run about a half mile from Route 33 in 1921. Photographs taken at that time show hillsides cleared of trees, an eroded landscape, and a shack where a family of marginal farmers lived. Some tree planting was done, but mostly the land was allowed to re-seed itself. Today it is a lush tapestry of maturing trees and thickets. The name Neotoma," by the way, comes from the scientific name for the Allegheny Wood Rat. Shortly after purchasing the property, Ed and some frinds found an individual of this species in one of the many small caves on the tract. It was the first specimen ever collected in Ohio.
Over a period of many years the birds were studied, as were mammals, insects, flowers, mosses, ferns, lichens, reptiles, and amphibians. The valley's geology was investigated and exacting climatic data was accumulated. It might very well be that few areas on the face of the earth were ever so scrupulously scrutinized as was Neotoma.
Ed's wife, Marion, preceded him in death, but she is also remembered by many people throughout Ohio. She taught biology and zoology for many years at OSU and Whetstone High School in Columbus.
A few final words about this man whom I consider the finest all-round naturalist who ever studied the flora and fauna of Ohio. I remember Ed as a man who pursued natural history with unabashed enthusiasm and zeal. Whether it was a ruby-crowned kinglet or a bald eagle, a pipe-vine butterfly or some rare fern or a towering white oak - they were all sustenance for his unappeasable intellectual appetite,
During his lifetime, Ed had over 60 papers published in various professional and scientific journals. He was a past president and honorary life member of the Ohio Academy of Science. He was one of the founding members of the Columbus Audubon Society. He helped organize the Ohio Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; an elective member of the American Ornithologist's Union, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, the Entomological Society of America, the Wilson Ornithological Club, and a member and past president of the Kit Kat Club. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree at Capital University in 1943. If there was anything Ed did wrong, it was spending way too much time and effort writing that newspaper column. Instead, he could easily have written half a dozen books. I wish I could go back in time and tell him.
(From the Nov. '03 issue)
"They are the real thing," he laughed. "Come on.
Let's go down in the basement and box!"
Jimmy Reeder and his three brothers lived with their mother and grand-mother on Neil Avenue just down the street from my family. Jimmy and I were the same age, and at school, the old Ninth Avenue Elementary, we were in the same class together.
The year I'm writing about was midway between the World Wars and was most noteworthy for being smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression.
I've already written about how even at that early age Jimmy was athletic and sports oriented – and enthusiastic. His brother David, whom I contacted by phone recently, said that Jimmy was "always arranging something, from bicycle races to softball teams, like the one at Ninth Avenue Elementary."
Now I want to tell you about the afternoon Jimmy came over to my house after school, carrying a pair of boxing gloves. He looked at me intently and declared with a grin, "We're going to have ourselves a World Championship Boxing Match!"
As soon as I saw the boxing gloves I was on my guard. At first I feigned indifference to his suggestion, tried to change the subject, but he wasn't about to be dissuaded.
"Come on," he challenged, "Don't be chicken."
"I've never boxed with gloves on before," I protested. "I don't know how to do it."
The gloves were shiny and new, a deep purplish-red color with wicked-looking rawhide laces. I stared at them with an expression equally compounded of reverent awe and unreasoning fear.
"They sure look like the real thing," I blurted out.
"They are the real thing," he laughed. "Come on. Let's go down in the basement and box!"
I was thinking to myself that the gloves were the color of the bruises that were soon going to be inflicted on my body. I didn't want to think about the probable disfigurement to my face.
As we went down the steps to the basement, my mind was racing. How can I get out of this and still save what little honor I have left? There seemed to be no answer.
I can't remember if my brother or mother were home at the time. Probably not, but it was one time I would have gladly welcomed my mother's voice yelling down the stairs that I had some chore to do. Something that would take a couple of hours!
"Why don't we play some catch," I suddenly suggested when we got to the bottom of the stairs.
JNo way!" He replied as he shoved a pair of gloves into my hands and started slipping his hands into the other pair.
There was no escape. I was trapped. So it was that we dispensed with our shirts, laced each other's gloves on and started sparring.
A bare light bulb dangled from the ceiling. In a shadowy corner, the furnace crouched next to the coal bin.
At ten years old, Jimmy was already a superb athlete for a boy his age. Where I was awkward, he was coordinated, his stance confident, while mine was wobbly. His brown eyes sparkled with this competitive challenge. My eyes had acquired a stupified glaze, something like the eyes of a rabbit staring down the muzzle of a shotgun.
He started jabbing short left and right hooks toward my face. Jab, jab, jab
came the punches. Some thudded into my shoulder, some bounced off my arms, others went whistling past my ears. In response, I was flailing the air, dropping my left, swinging wildly with my right.
I could see the disgust written on Jimmy's face. "You're not doing it right," he panted.
"You've got to hold your gloves up in front of your face." He threw a flurry of punches toward my nose as if to illustrate what he was saying.
"I could kill you if I wanted to," he said matter-of-factly, as I ducked another whirlwind of jabs.
Since I was still alive and hadn't sustained any irreparable damage up to this point, I was gaining an iota of confidence. I decided on a new strategy, one of my own choosing.
I was still following Jimmy's advice about putting my gloves up in front of my face, but about half the time I was still swinging wildly with my right, and I could sense that he was definitely concerned about staying away from those haymakers.
The most important part of my plan was to start dancing around as fast as my feet would take me. I hadn't had my ear glued to the radio for nothing as one contender after another had tried to dethrone Joe Louis.
Fancy footwork was the trick. Some of them moved around so fast the announcer would gleefully shout that he was on a bicycle. So that's what I started to do. Forwards, backwards, to the right and to the left, like a crazy clown on a bike I jiggled around the basement.
I was just beginning to like this boxing game a little bit when Jimmy suddenly announced he had to go home. Gasping for breath and drenched in sweat, we unlaced each other's gloves. By the dour look on
his face, I could tell he was totally disgusted with my antics. I couldn't have cared less. I was still alive.
There's a moral to that little episode, and for many years I never figured out what it was. Now, I think I've stumbled upon it. In the words of Marcus Cato, "I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue than why I have one."
Unbelievably, several years later, I participated in a ten round fight (with gloves) in a makeshift ring, replete with a
bell, handlers, a referee, and a cheering crowd of paid spectators. But, I already wrote about that.
As for Jimmy Reeder, he was a true hero. At North High School he played baseball and basketball. He entered the Marine Corp. during World War II right out of high school, served in the South Pacific, and returned with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. At Ohio State University, where he received his undergraduate degree after the war, he also played baseball and basketball.
While working as a high school teacher in Oberlin after graduating from OSU, Jimmy met his future wife, Elaine Gatz, a fellow teacher. They eventually had two daughters, Becky and Connie.
Always ambitious, Jimmy continued to study, finishing off a Master's degree at Indiana University before too long, later teaching at high schools in Ypsilanti, Michigan and Van Wert, Ohio.
The family settled in California where Jimmy received his doctorate from the University of Southern California. He taught Physical Education and served as head coach at California State University, Los Angeles, for the Golden Eagles baseball team from 1958 until his death in 1971. He compiled a record as the University's "all-time winningest coach," and remained so until John Herbold broke the record on February 10, 2002.
Jimmy died when he was only 47 years old from hepatitis that he had contracted in China during the war.
The baseball field at California State University was named Reeder Field in his honor. A legend in his own time - that was Jimmy Reeder.
dark comes early
all the mothers calling
their children home
New Zealand, 1995
)From the Oct. '03 issue)
Unsung heroines they were, those brave and persevering women
who were raising children without men around to help.
There were no little leagues when I was growing up, but that didn't stop some kids from forming baseball and touch football teams on their own hook. There was a boy like that in my neighborhood, a real sports organizer. His name was Jimmy Reeder.
Jimmy lived down the street from us, in the 1400 block of Neil Avenue, in a big brick house with his mother, grandmother, and two brothers.
Bob, the oldest, was overweight and always had his nose in a science-fiction magazine. He went to Central High School. Jimmy's youngest brother, Dave, was a skinny little kid, probably about five years old, real likeable but a constant tag-along like most kids his age.
Jimmy was in between, both in age and in physical build. He was one of those fortunate kids whose body was muscular and well-proportioned and everyone - even way back then - knew he was going to be an outstanding athlete as he grew up.
Jimmy was a classmate of mine at the old Ninth Avenue Elementary School, which has long since been torn down. We were both in the same grade, and as long as I knew him he was nuts about sports. He was a big New York Yankee's fan. I rooted for the Chicago Cubs. Don't ask me why, I guess I liked their baseball cards better. Jimmy didn't think much of Joe Louis, but I said he was great. Just to be different, probably.
The Reeders were originally from somewhere in West Virginia. I don't think Jimmy remembered his father any more than I did mine, who died in an accident when I was four years old. His father, an unemployed coal miner, had walked out on his family and left them to survive the best way they knew how. Never looked back. So the family trekked all the way up here to Columbus, the five of them: mother, grandmother, the three kids.
Mrs. Reeder was a teacher at Central High School in downtown Columbus, and to make a little extra money during those lean depression years, she tutored students who came around to her house after school and on weekends. For many years, she also taught a citizenship class at old Central High School.
I remember Mrs. Reeder with a warm spot in my heart because she was always nice to me. She was heavy set with long black hair pulled back into a bun, and her pale face was always as calm and unruffled as the moon in a serene daytime sky. She looked like she might have been part Indian.
Even when there was a lot of rough house stuff going on while the boys were fighting or teasing each other, she always maintained a quiet dignity. I never once remember her raising her voice.
Mrs. Bartlett, the boy's grand-mother, was the sergeant-at-arms of the household. She also did most of the grocery shopping, cooking, laundry for the whole tribe and, of course, house cleaning.
But that's not all. During the winter, she would go down into the basement and shovel coal into the gaping maw of the monster furnace that was lurking there.
I think Bob helped out now and then, but it was mainly through Mrs. Bartlett's courageous and conscientious efforts that the family stayed warm.
My mother used to do the same thing. Unsung heroines they were, those brave and persevering women who were raising children without men around to help.
Mrs. Reeder had converted their dining room table into a makeshift desk for herself and it was piled high with books and papers. She had pushed the table and an accompanying swivel chair into a corner of the room next to a filing cabinet.
It seemed like every time I was over to their house she would be sitting there grading papers. She would always look up, smile at me, and ask how my family was.
I liked her a lot.
The three boys shared one bedroom. Their room was always a total mess and looked like a tornado had gone through it and tossed everything this way and that. There was a double bunk bed and a single bed, little bigger than a cot. The beds, of course, were always unmade.
A card table in the middle of the room usually had blueprints on it for a model airplane. Bits and pieces of balsa wood were cemented together and pinned down on top of the plans in various stages of construction.
Shoes were scattered across the floor, under the beds, in the closet, in corners, sometimes even out in the hall and down the stairs. And clothes! Shirts, sweaters, pants, and various articles of underwear were strewn every which way. It's a wonder they knew who owned what.
Bob's stash of science fiction maga-zines were stacked on top of an old dresser. Comic books and Big Little Books were recklessly thrown into a corner of the room.
Yet, in spite of all the disorder, I really liked that room. To me, it had character. Beyond any doubt, it looked like home base for three all-American boys.
(To be continued)
(From the Sept. '03 issue)
Hearts and Minds
(see July 2009)
(From the Aug. '03 issue)
My mother and father were married in Chicago at the Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, which was located on Dorchester Avenue off 53rd Street. Afterwards, there was a reception at the Chicago Beach Hotel.
Once, years later, my brother David was spending the summer with his grandmother who still lived in Chicago. She told him the following account of my mother and father's wedding night. David never got around to telling me this story until after our mother passed away.
When the reception was over, the bride and bridegroom left for an apartment, they had rented a few weeks previously and were still in the process of furnishing.
About two o'clock the following morning, my father was back at his parents] apartment, knocking on their front door. When his mother let him in she could see that he was in a state of great agitation.
"What on earth is the matter, darling?" she asked him in her Texas drawl.
Instead of answering her, he made his way through the darkened rooms to the kitchen where he slumped down in a chair at a little porcelain table.
He buried his face in his arms and started crying. Every once in a while, he lifted his head and sobbed out, "Gawd damn!" His mother looked at him nervously, wondering what was going on.
After futilely trying to soothe him, she started asking him questions.
"Is Lucille alright?" she asked. "Where is she?"
Over and over she asked the same questions, sometimes rephrasing them, hoping to get some kind of a response, but he was like in a stupor.
She was really worried now, maybe thinking in the back of her mind that her son had done harm to his bride.
Again she asked, "Is Lucille alright?
"Oh, she's alright", my father finally moaned, "You can count on that!"
To accent what he had just proclaimed, he slammed his fist down on the little table top so hard that the little cut-glass sugar bowl danced a jig.
"Well, I'll never know what the trouble is until you tell me," his mother exclaimed, a note of exasperation in her voice. "Goodness me, I can't imagine what has gotten you in such a state."
By now, she was walking in circles around the kitchen, and nervously biting her lip.
Finally, in desperation, she said, "Ill warm you up a cup of coffee. That will do you some good."
She lit one of the gas burners with a wooden matchstick and pushed a half-filled coffeepot onto the blue flames. Then she walked over behind her son and placed both her hands on his back. Gently she rubbed the tense, scrunched up area between his shoulder blades and neck.
By now he had quit sobbing and muttering to himself. He lifted his head up off his arms, and looked around like he had just awakened. His mother was hopeful that she would soon find out what the problem was.
In a few minutes the coffee was perking and she poured her son a cup of the hot black brew.
"Now you just tell me what the trouble is," she cooed in her most soothing Texas drawl.
"Whereupon, my father blurted out, "Momma, she wouldn't give me my rights."
He repeated this statement several times, as if he were in a trance or maybe, like he couldn't believe that he was telling his mother this bedroom confession. He looked up at here with imploring eyes. "Did you hear what I said, Mamma? My wife and my bride wouldn't give me my rights!"
"There, there," she responded, as at last the truth dawned on her. Why she hadn't understood sooner is anyone's guess. But when you stop and think about it, how often have you ever heard of a similar situation? Well, maybe if it had been a daughter fleeing home from her wedding bed in a terrified frenzy &endash; that might bed understandable. Maybe.
His mother shook her head to clear the middle-of-the-night cobwebs. She was thinking that such goings-on never would have happened back in Port Lavaca where women were women and men were proud of it.
Well, my father ended up drinking his coffee, then sleeping the rest of the night on the couch.
About noon a telegram arrived, delivered by a Western Union boy. It was for my father and it was from my mother.
My father sat up on the sofa, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, and opened the envelope.
He unfolded the message which consisted of printed out words pasted on a yellow Western Union form. He read the words half a dozen times before handing it to his mother.
Here is what she read: "Dining room suite to be delivered today. Stop. Need you to arrange furniture. Stop. Sorry about last night. Stop. Love Lucille."
"I guess I better get over there," my father said. "She's going to need me to move all that heavy stuff around."
"Good luck, son," she said softly.
As he was headed for the door, my father turned around for a moment. "Thanks for the night's lodging, Momma," he said somewhat sheepishly.
"You're always welcome, David," she replied. "I have an idea you won't need the sofa tonight. Bye, dear!
A smile crossed my father's face. "Well, I better get going. You know how women need help in arranging things."
When my brother told me about that night, I couldn't believe my ears. That was our mother alright, was the first thing that came to my mind. She was always good at arranging things and not always to everyone's satisfaction. But then my outlook brightened and I looked at David.
"Well, I guess they worked things out, huh?"
(From the July '03 issue)
My orbiting grandmother once made divinity fudge and sold it on consignment nt to shops and restaurants around Grandview. At one time,, she even started a little tearoom in her home on Grandview Avenue. I don't think this venture was very successful, but I do remember a bunch of women bridge players invading the premises on several occasions.
In all of these activities, she had the help of a loyal and hard working man named James, who did the yard word, drove her around in her Rickenbacker because she had never learned to drive, waited table with a big, wide, polite smile, and even washed dishes when she was lucky enough to have any business.
James was lanky and likeable. I remember that he would pour pancake syrup on his fried eggs.
"Miz Page ," he said one time after the members of a bridge club had departed, "those ladies sure liked the food you fixed for them. From the looks of their plates, they must have licked them off with their tongues. They hardly needed washing at all!"
James also played a major role in an episode I will never forget as long as I live. After my father dies, my mother found herself the owner of a shiny new car. It was a Franklin with a hood on it like a locomotive, She asked James to give her driving lessons, and they took me along for the first lesson. I was only four and a half years old. And, it pays to remember that my mother - the decidedly high-strung type - had never been behind the wheel of a car in her life.
The car was parked in the garage behind the house, and with an air of confidence, my mother took her place behind the steering wheel. James climbed into the front passenger seat, and they stuck me in the back.
Hanging over the front seat, I intently watched every change of expression that passed across my mother's face as James told her to push down the clutch pedal with her left foot, then turn the ignition key with her right hand. She followed his instructions and the car came to life with a roar, not to speak of a lot of shrill squealing sounds as she continued to turn the ignition key.
"Easy does it, Miz Thomson," James said. "You can quit turning the ignition key now." Mother's expression had momentarily turned to one of alarm because of the discordant sounds that emanated from under the hood.
James now was telling my decidedly edgy mother about the gear shift and how to put the car into reverse. Mother's face paled. Her left leg was still doggedly stuck out in front of her, holding down the clutch pedal as if her life depended on it. One white-knuckled hand gripped the steering wheel, the other clutched the gearshift knob, and from what I could tell, she seemed not to be hearing James. Even to my childish mind what had started out as a lark was rapidly becoming a life-threatening situation - and we weren't even out of the garage yet.
With wide eyes, I watched my mother's right hand, the one tightly wrapped around the gearshift. I had ridden with my father enough to know intuitively that a smooth movement to the upper left would get the car rolling backwards.
Suddenly my mother released the clutch pedal - all at once - and the car gave a shudder and lurched backwards out of the garage, then stalled. To my mother's credit, she started the car again, backed it out onto the street, stalled it again, somehow got it started again, and in spite of several inconsiderate motorists honking at us, haltingly drove it down the street.
When we came to the Grandview Avenue hill we proceeded swiftly but uneventfully to the bottom of the hill. Fortunately, the traffic light was green, and we careened around the corner and headed toward Broadview Avenue.
With tires squealing , Mother navigated that corner which, fortunately, had no traffic light, I was studying my mother's face again, this time in the rear-view mirror. I thought I detected a crazy glint in her eyes as the car started up the hill.
"Change gears," James kept saying. "Change gears, Miz Thomson." His voice kept rising in pitch. "For God's sake, put it in second, Miz Thomson!"
That's when Mother froze up again, went rigid as the proverbial ramrod, and in the rear-view mirror I could see an agonized look of desperation in her eyes.
James was now screaming, "Put it in first! Miz Thomson, put it in first!" His hands went to his face and I think I saw real terror written there.
We had navigated about half way up the hill. I couldn't understand why James was suddenly so excited. At my young age, I guess I had never heard the old expression, "What goes up has to come back down."
That afternoon, as it turned out, gravity defeated momentum and inertia might have been the winner over energy. The car shuddered to a stop, shook itself like a huge St. Bernard, gave a sigh, and died.
My mother's foot should have been searching for the brake, but I think at this point, her mind had gone blank. The car started rolling backwards down the hill
"Put on the brake! Put on the brake, Miz Thomson!" James was now shouting. "No! No! That's the clutch! "Use your other foot! Oh, Lord! Get it over on the brake!" He was halfway on his knees now, trying to lift my mother's right foot onto the brake pedal. Evidently her legs had turned to rubber, so he shoved them out of the way and tried to find the brake pedal with his hands.
The car was now rolling backwards down the hill faster than ever and had started to zigzag, which is probably what saved our lives. Mother had an iron grasp on the steering wheel, and seemed more intent on tugging it from left to right than anything else. She seemed oblivious to anything on the floor of the car, including James, who I think was now getting kicked in the face by her heavy oxfords. It seemed that Mother didn't comprehend how anything down there on the floorboard could be useful in driving a car.
In the meantime, and I am talking mini-second, in the rear view mirror I saw a car coming up the hill toward us. James couldn't see it because he was still down there on the floor, groping for the brake pedal and fighting off my mother's feet. My mother, of course, didn't see the approaching car either. Her eyes were riveted straight ahead as if she was hypnotized. I think James had probably forgotten to tell her about the rear view mirror and the function it played.
"Mummy, I think a car's coming up the hill behind us," I whispered in her ear.
"Oh, my God, " she shrieked, and without once looking back, she yanked at the steering wheel with all her strength. I ducked my head as I saw a utility pole whiz by within inches of the front fender. Finally, our car lumbered up onto a sidewalk and ground to a stop, its front end protruding into someone's bushes. James had finally gained supremacy over my mother's feet and was pushing down on the brake pedal with both hands. I think I was the only one who saw the red-faced man who had been behind us wildly waving his clenched fist in our direction as he drove by.
As James extricated himself from the floor and climbed out of the car, Mother, looking like she might faint at any moment, got out her side. "James," she said in a faltering voice, "I think you better drive us the rest of the way home," and with that she climbed into the back seat with me.
Well, that's the story of my mother's driving lesson and, would you believe me if I told you she never drove a car again the rest of her life?
(From the June 2003 issue)
My mother must have been part Gypsy. No, that wasn't it. I think it was more a matter of honor. She expected people to be honorable and to keep their promises. And that expectation applied especially to landlords. If a landlord did not keep his word, we would suddenly pack up and move - all our belongings, everything from clothes and books to pots and pans and dishware, which were wrapped in newspapers and stowed away in large wooden barrels.
I'm talking about the days when most people rented their homes rather than purchasing them. In other words, the days of the Great Depression when no one had much money.
Large houses in the University District rented for fifty to sixty dollars a month, and there were always plenty of them available. A nice two-bedroom apartment could be had for thirty to forty dollars a month, and rooms rented for ten to fifteen dollars.
Those were the days of my childhood, when my brother David and I lived with our widowed mother, and sometimes our orbiting grandmother.
I was about ten years old and in the fourth grade when we first rented a house. It was located south of the University at 1447 Neil Avenue and had four bedrooms plus a finished third floor, a garage, and a pear tree in the backyard. Jimmy, Bob, and Dave Reeder lived down the street with their mother and grandmother, a strong-willed woman if I ever saw one. That house of ours has long since been torn down to make way for an apartment building.
We stayed at 1447 barely two years because the landlord's empty promises didn't live up to my mother's expectations. So, we pulled up stakes and moved to an apartment on Hunter Avenue. It was while living there that the famous Orson Wells' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds was broadcast. Thousands of people on the East Coast fled their homes when they heard simulated news accounts of heavily armed aliens slithering out of their space vehicles and invading the countryside. I had been reading about the upcoming program in the papers for at least a week and was eagerly looking forward to it.
Well, our stay on Hunter Avenue was more of a temporary stopover until we found another house that suited our mother's needs, which included her plans to rent rooms to students.
We ended up in an attractive large house at 210 West Tenth Avenue, which was right next door to South Hall, a once-upon-a-time men's residence. I really loved this house, because to my youthful eyes it had style and class. I also remember that I had the measles while living there.
A couple of years later, we moved into an apartment at 1628 Neil Ave., on a corner at the entrance to OSU, and across the street from Hamilton Hall, the place where I almost fainted when I innocently walked into a laboratory where a grisly cadaver was laid out on a table.
We moved again and again and again. We moved so many times my head was in a spin, and sometimes I would wake up wondering where I was. A couple of times we ended up in this or that rooming house for a month or two, rubbing shoulders with students who were also struggling to make ends meet.
Our next major move was to a cute white cottage located at 145 West Eleventh Avenue, smack dab across the street from the campus. There was an OSU entomology research station on one side of us and a family named Beatley on the other. It was during our stay in this quaint cottage that I became interested in birds.
One April day, I was wandering around the campus after school and ended up in the garden behind the B & Z Building. I spotted a little bird close-up called a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and after that I was hooked. I was 15 years old at the time, a ninth grader at Everett. The garden, now long gone, was the pride and joy of Dr. Nelson Transeau, head of the Botany Department at OSU.
I used to walk around the garden with this dignified gentleman, pointing out bird species to him as we wandered along the winding paths. There I was, a 15-year-old kid instructing this internationally known botanist. Well, he was a talker too, so I learned a lot about flowers and trees.
It came as no surprise when the moving bug bit Mother again. I think it had something to do with a leaky roof and a temperamental furnace. The big white frame house we moved into at 61 West Eleventh Avenue had once been the home of another famed Ohio botanist, John H. Schaffner.
By this time, I was going to North High School and David had won a scholarship to the University of Chicago. I told you he had all the brains. I was working after school at the original Big Bear store on West Lane Avenue, often walking along the Olentangy River looking for birds, unaware that Margaret Morse Nice, an internationally known ornitholo-gist, was living on West Patterson Avenue right across the river. She had even studied under Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian biologist. I have often thought she probably did her shopping at the Bear while I was working there.
Those were the days before self-service. Back in the produce department where I worked there were probably a dozen white-aproned clerks, all of them, except me, university students. Without knowing it, I might even have helped Mrs. Nice pick out oranges and grapefruits and plunked then into the brown paper sack for her.
My orbiting grandmother used to say that three moves equals a fire. It's strange she didn't pass that wisdom down to her own daughter - or abide by it herself.
Well, that's life for you. Always full of contradictions: the frustration of unfulfilled promises, the trepidation of unexpected moves, and the lingering joy of newfound people and places.
)From the May '03 issue)
To the merriment of the creationists, it must be admitted that that not a solitary soul knows for sure how the earth was formed. I close my eyes and try to picture a cosmic event of such a colossal magnitude but my imagination falters, falls on its face.
It is difficult enough for me to imagine the coupling of my own parents and my resulting birth, so how can I be expected to visualize the creation of universes, stars, and solar systems?
I look out from the earth at the stars and everything seems reassuringly in place. The dark star-lit sky is elegant and serene, a fantastic backdrop for the human drama, a piece of stage magic capable of conjuring up gods and goddesses, not to speak of animals and birds, dragons, scorpions, and a whole menagerie of other creatures.
Except for the occasional meteor that disintegrates with a whisper or a stifled mummer, sidereal space is soundless, emitting not so much as the squeak of a celestial hinge. It is all illusion and I am a sitting duck, a babe in the woods, my ingenuousness intact.
In my imagination, I fly back 6,000 years to the Euphrates Valley, gawk with the best of the star gazers and wizards. But, then, I pull up short. "You can't kid a kidder," I once heard my mother say to the manager of a supermarket. She was taking something back, something or other that she wasn't satisfied with and she wanted her money refunded. That's the way I am, I keep taking things back. It's ingrained, inherited, and there's nothing I ca n do about it.
It's difficult enough consoling myself with the thought that the earth is a mere speck revolving around a third-rate star, and that I am but one of over four and a half billion fidgety and uneasy inhabitants on this sphere, stuck here, looking up and out.
I'm reminded of the woman Annie Dillard quotes in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek. "Seems like we were just set down here," she remarked, "and don't nobody know why." I can relate to that.
But, I don't want to be like the middle-ages woman I saw one summer day walking down the street talking to herself. Every now and then she would stop in her tracks, wave her arms, and stare directly up at the sun. I mean, for ten or fifteen seconds at a time.
"Don't think I don't know you're up there," she shouted. "Ol' Devil, I know you're up there in your city of flame."
Then she would walk a little farther, stop again, stare directly at the sun, and continue her harangue. "Devil, I know you're up there! You can't fool me!"
I walked up to her and said, "Lady, you shouldn't stare at the sun like that. You'll go blind."
It was as if I wasn't there, hadn't said a word. She continued down the street, stopping every now and then, repeating her performance. I shudder at the physical harm she was doing to herself, destroying her eyes and, probably, her brain.
But, then, I shake off these kinds of memories, try to pull myself together. In spite of unanswered questions, I know that everything is alright for the simple reason that I care and, as a bonus, I have love in my heart. It is the same love that lures me to the endless night sky. It is love that enables me to talk to the stars and the moon. The same love that makes the world go round. That, and the fact that I sometimes wear a hat with a blue jay feather stuck in the band. And, I whistle a lot.
So I go through life , whistling in the dark, halfway contented that I am doing the best I cam, halfway discontented that I am not doing nearly enough. Sometimes, in a peculiarly perverse way, like so many of my brethren, I rejoice at the shroud of mystery and ignorance that clouds the human experience and distorts the world about us into man-made images of self-acclaim.
Then, every once in a while, I come across true genius and the self-depreciating words of a truly great man. A few years ago I read an article in the New York Times about Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, and how he was once awarded an honorary degree by Lake Forest College. They asked him to give a formal speech befitting the occasion.
"No," he replied, I won't do that, but I will say a few words on the spur of the moment. He kept his promise, and the appreciative audience gave him a standing ovation when he was through. Here's what he said:
My uncle ordered popovers
From the restaurant's bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare.
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
As he sat there in that chair:
"To eat these things," said my uncle,
"you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what's solid . . .
But you must spit out the air!"
And, as you partake
of the word's bill of fare,
that's darn good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air,
And be careful what you swallow."
What a wonderful message that is, especially in this day of pompous politicians and cardboard corporate bigwigs with their pious prescriptions for what ails the world. And, to my mind, the last few lines of the poem provide a reliable antidote to the even more obnoxious spin doctors and their hocus-pocus, hoopla, and hogwash.
I'm reminded of George Orwell's 1984 where pumped-up militaristic propaganda gives the boot to truth and decency.
So let's hear it for Dr. Seuss!
Drawing by Lee Castle
(From the April 2003 issue)
I remember one time I asked Woody Hayes if he had ever read Hell in a Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall.
"Read it?" he snorted. "Tommy, I practically know it by heart. One of the greatest war books ever written. Not only that," he groaned, "I've probably bought a dozen copies and given 'em away."
I had read the book we were talking about and it had also made a great impression on me. It was a detailed account of the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the French bastion in North Vietnam by the Viet Minh. This was before we got entangled in the war, and the Viet Minh were the predecessors of the Viet Cong.
This conversation took place at the comfortable old Jai Lai restaurant on Olentangy River Road. I would frequently run into Woody and his wife Ann there, or sometimes just Woody by himself.
"Y'know, Tom, there was a similarity between this book and the other one we were talking about not long ago, Panzer Leader, by Heinz Guderian." He looked at me quizzically like he was checking to see if I understood what he was talking about.
I nodded my head, because I had a general understanding of what he meant. "I think you're probably right," I said. "General Giap, the mastermind who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu was just as inventive as his German counterpart had been during World War II. Panzer tank divisions doing their blitzkrieg thing, on the one hand, the genius behind the Ho Chi Minh trail and guerilla warfare , on the other.
I grinned as I asked Woody the next question. "Which guy do you relate to the most when you translate their strategies onto the gridiron?"
Woody grinned back, then furrowed his brow and thought for a moment before answering.
"That's too easy a question, Tom," he replied, "besides I really don't do it that way. I'm more interested in the broader strategies that were employed by the great military geniuses at various times in their careers."
I was all ears as I listened while the famous coach took me into his confidence:
"If I asked you which man - Guderian or Giap - might have influenced me the most when I use the expression 'three yards and a cloud of dust,' which one do you think it would have been?"
Now, it was my turn to think for a moment. Then, the answer became crystal clear. "It would have been General Giap," I replied. "He would be content with the short yardage, the guerrilla warfare, the fighting in the bunkers."
"Exactly," Woody smiled. "And Guderian, what would he have reminded you of?"
I didn't have to think long on that one. "Your passing attack when you use it. The unexpected. Taking your opponent by surprise. Going for the big gain."
Woody nodded his head in agreement, and I felt like a kid in school who had just gotten an A-plus.
Those were enjoyable times back then when I had the pleasure of talking to Ohio State's famous football coach. And Woody's wife, Anne, was also fun to talk to. She was smart as a tack, had a great sense of humor, and a lot of patience, a trait that would certainly come in handy being married to a Big Ten football coach.
It was so humorous, I'll repeat one little episode that I mentioned a year or so ago in Tom's Corner.
Woody and Anne were sitting in a booth on the bar side of the Jai Lai and invited me to sit down with them. Not wanting to compete with Woody's girth, I sat down beside Anne.
If I remember right, it was about this time of the year, and it was probably a few years after Woody's retirement. We chatted about everything from the weather to whatever was in the national news. Woody was evidently still much in demand as a banquet speaker, because Ann started complaining about how much time he was away from home.
"He's hardly home half the time," she said sadly. "And, they're after him all over the state - and sometimes out of state. Luncheon clubs, men's service organizations, college groups, high school classes, they all want him as a speaker."
"Does he ever turn any of them down," I asked.
"He doesn't know how to say no," she quickly replied.
That's when I looked at Woody and winked before asking her the next question.
"Well have you ever thought about divorcing him?"
"No," she said, "but I've thought plenty of times about murdering him!"
That was life around Woody. Never a dull moment. When he was sitting in a booth at the Jai Lai with Anne, there was a constant stream of people stopping by, wishing him well, shaking his hand, and moving on.
When you stop and think about it, making himself so available to the public was pretty unusual in itself. Not many celebrities would do that. But, one thing you gotta say about Woody Hayes, he wasn't cut from any ordinary cloth.
He had a heart attack in his sleep and died peacefully on March 12, 1987.
The conversations mentioned above are as nearly correct as I can remember, but after all these years, I have had to paraphrase what Woody and Anne actually said.
I remember the occasion like it was yesterday. One evening I went into the Jai Lai Restaurant with a dinner date, and owner Dave Gervis escorted us to a booth on the dining room side. After ordering, I excused myself to go to the restroom, and on the way back - Lo and behold! - there was Woody Hayes in the front corner booth.
He was alone, sheets of paper he had been writing on were scattered all over the table along with an unfinished bowl of soup and what looked like a Cesta salad, a signature dish at the Jai Lai.
When I went over to say "hello," he asked me to sit down and made a feeble attempt to restore some order to the table-top. I scooted into the seat across from him and asked where his wife Anne was.
"She was feeling a little under the weather," he replied, "so I snuck out to get a bite to eat and see if I could get a little work done on this dang book I'm writing."
"Speaking of books, have you read any good books lately?"
He chuckled. "Tommy, I thought you would never ask. Have I ever! And I've been reading some of the best ones over again.
Woody and I had talked war books more than once, but if I remember correctly, on this occasion we got immersed in one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. The book was Panzer Leader, by Heinz Guderian, a Prussian general who got caught up in the madness of Hitler's Third Reich.
He was a military genius of the first order and had developed the blitzkrieg theory of warfare which utilized armored tank divisions to strike deeply into enemy territory.
"Y'know, Tom, that man revolutionized modern warfare. It's just a pity he was on the wrong side."
"You're absolutely right," I answered. "From my reading of his book, I think he had some misgivings, but surely he must have been aware of the atrocities and genocide that was going on in the Third Reich."
"You would think so," Woody mused, "but, darn it, Tom, I think he was preoccupied and downright dissatisfied with Hitler's conduct of the war. Like after the campaign in the Low Countries and France had ended, he couldn't believe it when he got word to put his tanks on railroad flat cars and send them to the eastern front."
I agreed. "He couldn't believe that Hitler was going to invade Russia. I remember reading how unhappy he was because many of his tanks hadn't even been properly repaired and serviced."
"Those were complicated and bad times," Woody said. "That's why I was anxious to get into the service. Of course, you and I both ended up out there in the Pacific fighting the Japanese - while the Germans were being torn apart by the Russians."
"And the weather, and the huge distances," I added.
"You are so right," Woody said, taking a sip of his drink.
"You know, I'm going to get murdered if I don't get back to my date," I blurted. "She probably thinks I walked out on her."
"No, she doesn't," Woody said. "She saw you sit down here. I was watching her."
"That's good, but I better get back there in a minute." Then, picking up the thread of our conversation, I said: "The part of Guderian's book I liked best was when his panzer divisions smashed their way to the heights overlooking Dunkirk and Calais."
"Oh, yes," Woody remarked. "That was a classic case of his military genius being far ahead of the German General Staff. They held him back, told him that Goerring's Luftwafte would take care of things."
"Yeah," I said, "and shortly after-wards, the bad weather set in with low ceilings and all that, and the Germans could hardly get their planes off the ground."
"Exactly," Woody smiled, "and the Brits sent hundreds of boats, large and small, and they evacuated all those soldiers that had been stranded on the beaches over there. Thank God for that!"
"You can say that again!" I echoed, getting up from the booth.
"Guess I better get back there to my booth before I am in real trouble!"
Well, that's my story, and, as I said, I'll never forget that night. Not that I didn't see Woody and Anne in the Jai Lai often, because I did. It's just that I really enjoyed talking about the war that night with OSU's legendary coach. *
He and Anne usually sat in a booth on the bar side. They would have a couple of cocktails and then enjoy a leisurely dinner. Friends and well-wishers were constantly stopping by and chatting with them, so sometimes it took them a while to finish their meal.
The Jai Lai was noted for their prime ribs and many other dishes. It was a large comfortable restaurant that perhaps didn't keep up with the changing times as much as they should have.
There were some interesting characters who worked there - like Mary, one of the bartenders, who had an amazingly colorful vocabulary.
Many of my friends frequented those beautiful dining rooms and the long handsome bar. And, of course, it always made my day when I would run into Woody and Anne.
Interestingly enough, the Jai Lai was an immensely successful restaurant that started right here in the Short North, just north of Functional Furnishings.
But, that's another story.
(To be continued)
*The conversation we had that night is as nearly correct as I can remember it,
but after all these years, I have had to paraphrase much of what was said.
Did Woody Hayes equate the tactics of wartime generals with his own coaching strategies? Did he imagine that the competing football teams out there on the gridiron were like opposing armies? Did he sometimes lose control of his emotions in such heated moments of imaginative projection? Or was there another scenario? Some people have suggested that he was a master showman, demonstrating to the world in dramatic fashion his passion for the game.
Which was it at the Gater Bowl in 1978 when Clemson middle guard Charlie Bauman snagged an OSU pass which ruined the Buckeye's last minute frantic bid for victory? In case you have forgotten, Woody bopped Charlie in the choppers right there in front of the entire bowl crowd - not to speak of millions of other people who were watching television!
Was the 65-year-old OSU coach so frustrated by this sudden game-winning development for Clemson that he just totally lost his cool? Or, in the heat of the moment, was the history buff in him thinking of Leonidas and his brave 300 at the battle of Thermopylae? That was one of his favorite military stories, dredged out of ancient history. He recited it for the benefit of players and coaching staffs many times.
It was a tale of overcoming adversity and beating the odds. Xerxes, leader of the imposing Persian force threatened, "We will fill the air with our spears and they will blot out the sun." Woody would then relate how the brave Leonidas responded, "Good, then we shall fight in the shade."
I was in Cleveland with friends watching that big game on television when Woody threw that infamous punch. I couldn't believe my eyes and nobody else could either. Within days, Woody Hayes had become part of the history he cherished so much.
Sports television news exploited the event with so many reruns and reruns of reruns that they goosed the event into national and international proportions. Everybody, and I mean everybody, was talking about it, and displaying their sudden knowledge of advanced psychology.
On that sad note, Woody Hayes' 29-year career as head football coach at the Ohio State University was about to come to an abrupt end.
However, back in Columbus (before the axe fell), there was one more obligatory chore the great coach had to perform. Prior to the Gater Bowl, he had committed himself to speak before the Columbus Chamber of Commerce at the Neil House Hotel. He was not to be denied!
On January 18, the ballroom of the hotel was packed with over twelve hundred members of the Chamber and their guests, all of them breathlessly waiting to hear what Woody had to say for himself. And, he didn't disappoint them. In a speech considerably longer than most State of the Union addresses (he talked for forty-five minutes), he charmed the pants right off his audience.
Near the beginning of his talk, he looked over at Senator John Bricker in the audience, and said: "You know, Senator Bricker, I think it was President Buchanan who said that when he was young he wanted to be President so that he could reward his friends and punish his enemies. But he said that by the time he became President most of his friends were gone and he found out that his enemies were pretty good people after all. And, you know, as I grow older I have a difficult time ever disliking anyone unless it's on a matter of principle, something like that. But I do like Bo ..."
That was an interesting thing for Woody to say, especially under the circumstances he found himself in. It was as if he was getting all his ducks lined up and in order. How could he not respect and like Bo Schembechler, head football coach at the University of Michigan? Bo was an honorable man - and also a great competitor.
I think Woody was letting the OSU fans in on the fact that a lot of the noise in the sports' scene is pure hyperbole. Putting it into perspective, if you will, it's a lesson that still needs to be learned by a lot of overly enthusiastic fans.
After that was said and done, he continued, and got down to the case at hand.
"Am I bitter? Yeah. Losing the darn ball game. Yeah. Yeah. And I'll stay that way forever because I felt we could win it. I thought we played good enough in that game to win, and we were the underdog. I loved it when we were underdogs. But we didn't. But bitterness, no, I got what was coming to me. Let's just let it go that way, and let's just have good thoughts for everybody at that [Clemson] university, and I said everybody. 'And in the night of death,' as an orator said, 'hope sees a star and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.'"
Wow! Another side of Woody unexpectedly revealing itself! Woody the connoisseur of poetry, reciting lines from a poem by Robert Green Ingersoll.
(To be continued)
Photo by Charles Hays
(From the January 2003 issue)
Unpredictable was a word often used to describe Wayne Woodrow Hayes, Ohio State University's head football coach from 1951 to 1978. Better known as Woody, he has long been a legendary figure in the history of OSU athletics.
Competitive, with an insatiable will to win, are terms that fit him to a tee. Stubborn and unyielding would come close to filling the descriptive bill at times. A few other words would also suitably portray the man at times. Try "irascible, aggressive, and hot-tempered. He was also a scholarly and contemplative man, a serious student of history who could recite many famous military campaigns, chapter and verse.
"Thoughtful, generous, and kind-hearted" are just as accurate in describing Woody. He would visit young patients at Children's Hospital, stopping by their bedsides, talking to them, telling them to get well, signing autographs. Then he wouldn't breath a word of his visit to anyone outside his family, maybe afraid the press would get wind of what he had been doing and label him a big softie.
When Woody was around his wife Anne, yet another side of his personality became apparent. In her presence, he was soft-spoken and gentle as a lamb. Contrast this with his compulsive desire to have his team win on the field. He hated losing, especially to the University of Michigan. The stories about that rivalry are legendary. Maybe the most amusing was his refusal to say their name, muttering instead something to the effect of "that team up north."
So, you can see that Woody Hayes was an immensely complicated man, a person of many moods and temperaments to fit a variety of situations.
In an effort to capture the multiple facets of Woody Hayes' personality during his entire lifetime, there follows a compilation of anecdotes about him, spanning many years, collected from numerous sources.
Strange to say, physical education was not Woody's first choice for a college major. "I wanted to be a lawyer," he later recalled, "All my college work was in that direction." The only reason he undertook high school football coaching was to earn enough money to go to law school, he explained.
When he finally had saved enough money and got around to applying for admission to law school, he discovered they weren't enrolling new student during the summer. So he made a quick decision and majored in education administration instead. At the end of the summer, he accepted a position at New Philadelphia High School as a history teacher and assistant football coach. He never resumed his pursuit of a career at law, but can you imagine Woody as a lawyer! In a courtroom? He might have been brilliant. It's all in the timing, they say, and that's certainly true!
Interestingly enough, his son Steven did pursue a legal career and is now a highly respected judge in central Ohio.
Another story, this one occurring in 1972 - December 26 to be exact, just a few days before Ohio State was to play Southern California in the Rose Bowl. The scene: A Pasadena country club luncheon, crowded with members of the media, officials of the two universities, and local business and civic bigwigs. Featured speakers were the two coaches, Southern Cal's John McKay and OSU's Woody Hayes.
McKay spoke first, reviewing the past season and heaping praise on his players and coaching staff. Nothing really new, same ol', same ol' that you would expect to hear from a Rose Bowl bound coach. When he was finished, there was the usual polite applause as the luncheon crowd finished off their desserts and sipped their iced tea and coffee.
When Woody Hayes was introduced, he looked over the assembled crowd, hesitated a second, then launched into a 15-minute eulogy of former President Harry S. Truman who had died that morning after being in a coma for over twenty-four hours.
This was the controversial Woody Hayes at his best. Not only was he a superb speaker who could capture an audience, his knowledge of history was so keen he was able to devote his entire speech to the subject of the 33rd President of the United States without notes and evidently with only a few hours of thought beforehand.
When Woody was through with his unconven-tional talk, his listeners gave him a standing ovation. What might have been even more remarkable about all this was the fact that Woody Hayes was a staunch Republican and Harry Truman a Democrat.
Maybe the fact that Harry Truman had been a war president made the difference. After President Roosevelt died, Truman oversaw the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan which led to a quick treaty of peace, and a few years later he met the challenge of North Korea's invasion of South Korea.
In other words, politics be damned. Harry was Woody's kind of man!
(To be continued)
(From the December 2002 issue)
As I mentioned in Part I of this series, I first got to know Woody back in 1952. That was the year I edited and published an illustrated book titled The All-Time History of the Battling Buckeyes. It was Woody's second year as football coach at Ohio State, and he hadn't quite put all the pieces together for a winning season. In fact, that first year, OSU finished the season with a 4 - 3 - 2 record. Not very comforting, and some were predicting that Woody Hayes' stay at Ohio State would be a short one. Boy, were they ever wrong!
Woody would remain as head football coach at OSU for 28 seasons. His overall record would be 205 wins, 61 losses, and 10 ties. In the Western Conference, Hayes' Buckeyes won 152 games, went to 11 bowl games, including eight in the Rose Bowl. Of those appearances, four were back-to-back. His teams won five national titles. He won 13 Big Ten championships, and his teams produced 58 All-Americans and three Heisman Trophy winners.
Woody was a one and only. As assistant coach Esco Sarkkinen once said, "You don't describe Woody Hayes in one word, once sentence, or one paragraph. You describe him with chapter after chapter. Hopefully, in this series of articles, we can capture a glimpse of what he was all about.
Back to the book. Its dimensions were 12" by 9" and it had 68 glossy pages, including a montage of photos on the enameled cover. Inside, a photograph of "Chic" Harley is followed by pictures
and articles on OSU president Howard Bevis, Athletic Director Richard Larkins, and then, you guessed it &endash; a two-page spread on Ohio State's new football coach, Woody Hayes. There's a lot of
miscellaneous information about him that includes everything from the church he attended to a mention of his young son Stephen, now a prominent judge in Columbus.
There were also pictures and short biographies of all the football coaches from 1890, when the university joined the Western Conference, up until 1952.
The OSU football coaches, prior to Woody Hayes coming aboard in 1951 were:
¥ Jack Wilce 1890 - 1928
¥ Sam Willaman 1929 - 1933
¥ Francis Schmidt 1934 - 1940
¥ Paul Brown 1941 - 1943
¥ Carroll Widdoes 1944 - 1945
¥ Paul Bixler 1946
¥ Wesley Fesler 1947 - 1950
A few highlights of each man's career might be in order. Jack Wilce was long remembered as a perfect gentleman on and off the field. He was credited with building a reputation of courtesy and fairness for the university: the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. He was once quoted as saying, "It is curious that when a team loses it is the coaches' fault; when it wins it is on account of good material."
Sam Willaman was the first alumnus to become football coach. Francis Schimdt's teams were once billed as "the Scarlet Scourge," but they weren't able to contain Notre Dame in the first-ever game between the two schools, or save Ohio State from a 40 - 0 trouncing at the hands of the University of Michigan.
Paul Brown, when asked what kind of player he liked, replied: "I like 'em lean and hungry!" It was wartime and he joined the Navy, went to Great Lakes, coached there, came out in 1945 and signed on as coach of the Cleveland Browns. The university took a beating for letting him get away.
Carroll Widdoes had a short but brilliant run at Ohio State: His teams won 16 times and lost only twice.
In 1946, an OSU team coached by Paul Bixler lost to "that team up north," as Woody would have blurted out, 58 - 6. 'Nuff said.
After a dismal first season, Wes Fesler's 1948 Buckeyes shared the conference championship with the Wolverines then went on to beat California in the Rose Bowl 17 - 14.
Unfortunately, Fesler is probably most remembered for the 1950 "Snow Bowl" in which Michigan plowed their way to a 9 - 3 win. Shortly afterwards, he resigned to escape the wrath of irate fans and entered the real estate business. A few months later, he accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota.
Enter Woody Hayes. We already mentioned his somewhat dismal first year's record, but in 1952 there was substantial improvement. The Buckeyes won six and lost three, but the big news was that they snapped a eight-year losing streak against Michigan, winning 27 - 7. That was the year Hopalong Cassady made his debut.
The following year produced another 6 - 3 record, but the influence of Woody on the over-all type of game-play was now firmly established. It was "three yards and a cloud of dust!" The ground game became paramount. Oh, his quarterbacks would pass the ball once in a while - and when they did, the play was twice as effective because it was unexpected and caught the opposition off-guard.
Otherwise, it was grinding out yard after yard and first down after first down that ear-marked Woody's teams. Add a lot of what Columbus Mayor Jack Sensenbrenner used to call "sphizerinctum," plus a big dash of "the will to win," and a bigger dash of the necessity of winning." Woody was very explicit about this. He would say, "Without winners there would be no civilization," and "Success - it's what you do with what you've got."
Those sentiments pretty much summed up Woody Hayes' philosophy of life - and football. And, as most of us know, the two were inseparable.
(To be continued)
(From the November 2002 issue)
I first got to know Ohio State University's illustrious football coach Woody Hayes when I edited and published an illustrated booklet titled The Battling Buckeyes. It was subtitled All-Time History, 1890 &endash; 1952. Quite a number of notable newspaper columnists and sportswriters contributed to it. I will tell you more about the book later in this series.
At that time, Woody had only been coaching at Ohio State for one year.Unfortunately, at the time the book was published, it would have been more appropriate if it had been titled, The Battered Buckeyes, because they lost a good share of their games - I forget exactly how many and who they were, but it wasn't the best of seasons.
At any rate, Woody and the staff were appreciative of my publishing efforts and they showed their gratitude by gifting me with a pair of press box passes for many years. What a thrill that was, high up there, getting a bird's eye view of those thrilling games! And, by the way, Woody's overall record at Ohio State was: 205-68-10. His teams won three national championships and 13 Big Ten titles.
Woody was born in the little town of Clifton, near Springfield, Ohio. Most of his youth, however, was spent in Newcomerstown, Ohio, where his father Wayne Benton Hayes was school superintendent from 1920 until his death in 1929. Woody played baseball and football at Newcomerstown High School, and in his senior year was captain of the football team.
In 1935, Woody graduated from Denison University, where he majored in - aha! - history and English. That surely explains his lifelong interest in literature and history &endash; especially war history. Oh, yes, his minor was in physical education. For three seasons, he was a tackle on the Denison football team. His graduate work was in phys ed, most of it at Ohio State. His thesis for a master's degree was in educational administration.
Woody enlisted in the Navy in July of 1941, five months before Pearl Harbor. He was the skipper of the Patrol Craft 125 in the Palau Islands invasion. Before the war ended, he was Captain of the Destroyer Escort Rinehart in both the Pacific and the Atlantic. He was discharged as a Lieutenant Commander after the war.
The following episodes are not in any particular order and span his coaching years and much of the time after his controversial dismissal.
Many years later, I was sitting next to Anne Hayes in one of the barside booths at the old Jai Lai restaurant. Across from us sat her husband, Woody Hayes himself. They were both sipping away at their martinis before they had a bite to eat. The Jai Lai was their favorite hangout and they could often be found there. And, of course, a steady stream of old friends and admirers were sure to stop by their booth, shake hands, and exchange pleasantries.
In between these interruptions, Anne was good naturedly complaining about Woody being away from home so much.
"If it's not a recruiting trip," she sighed, "he's somewhere on a speaking engagement. Or worse still, a whole string of speaking engagements all over Ohio. When that happens, he might not be home for a whole week."
Woody winced at her words, but smiled and took another sip of his drink. "There, there," he said softly, "It doesn't happen all that often, Honey, and anyway, these days I'm beginning to turn down a lot of requests."
I wasn't the only one who had noticed over the years that the flamboyant coach, who could be so aggressive on the football field, was like a lamb when he was around his wife.
Going along with the bantering mood the two were in, I winked at Woody, them turned to Anne and asked if she had ever thought about divorcing him.
She kitted her brows, pretended to think for a minute, then blurted out: "No, but I've thought more than once about murdering him!"
We all laughed, and after a little more small talk, I left them so they could enjoy their dinner alone. But in my mind, I was thinking of Woody's answer to a reporter's question, "How much time does a coach have to spend on the job to produce a winner?"
He had replied, "I try to get six to seven hours sleep at night, and try not to miss any meals. What time is left goes to football.
(To be continued)
(From the October '02 issue)
David Drury Thomson
(This is Part VI of a fictional narrative in which I imagine the details of my father's last two days alive. The scene shifts from Joe's, a speakeasy in downtown Pittsburgh to the Roosevelt Hotel where he is staying.
Looking at his pocket watch, my father saw that it was nearing midnight and he wondered where all the time had gone. He felt like a time and space traveler out of an H. G. Wells book he had once read.
Here he was in a speakeasy in Pittsburgh, yet in one way he had hardly been here at all. His mind had been everywhere else but here. There are many mysteries in this life, he mused, maybe even dimensions of the mind that we know nothing about. He smiled to himself with this secret thought as he paid his check, left a tip, and said goodbye to the people he had exchanged pleasantries with. Then he was out the door and into the shadowy streets of the hushed city.
The hotel lobby was almost deserted. The cigar stand, flower shop, and dining room were all closed for the night. He chatted with the uniformed elevator operator as they ascended to the tenth floor, then made his way down the hall to his room.
Even though the window was open, the room was unbearably hot. It smelled of freshly laundered linen, furniture polish, maybe a whiff of lavender.
He stripped down to his underwear, went into the bathroom, turned on the faucet, brushed his teeth, bent over the basin and splashed his face with handfuls of cool water. As he looked in the mirror, he smiled wearily, and considered for a moment the idea of checking out of the hotel, driving home, and getting there before noon. No, I better not do that, he immediately decided. Too many mountain roads. Anyway, I'm tired. Might as well try to get a good night's sleep and leave in the morning. He turned out the bathroom light, walked over to the bed, pulled the covers back and lay down.
One time he almost drifted off, but the heat was so oppresive it was impossible to sleep. He got up, padded in his bare feet over to the dresser for his pack of Camels and an ashtray and took them over to the low window seat. Pushing back the heavy blue curtains, he leaned back against the window frame and lit a cigarette.
The office buildings across the way, their windows darkened, bereft of workers, were like high-rise tombs. He looked past them, through the haze, over in the direction of one of the broad rivers that delineated the city. Somewhere far out there, his ears picked up a familiar sound. It was the long drawn-out whistle of a train, so far away it came to him like something imagined than actually heard, echoing in his sub-conscious like a blues note that had followed him home from the speakeasy.
Sheet lightning played hide-and-seek with the low-lying clouds on the horizon, outlined them every few minutes, turned them into momentary shapes of whales and elephants.
Tomorrow morning, he thought, I will take the unfinished poem I scribbled on the hotel stationery home with me. On the drive back to Columbus, I'll stop now and then, soak up the atmosphere, write down some more impressions of the countryside. I'll write it for the boys so they will grow up to appreciate this great country. I'll call it "The American Land."
Tomorrow that is what I will do. But even as he was thinking these things, a humorous inner voice reminded him that it was already tomorrow. It was August 25, 1928. About then, the beginning of a dream entered his mind. Was it something about the Shenandoah? Yes, it was the Start Daughter! He could see her now, nosing through the dark clouds that were sharply illuminated now and again by flashes of lightning. She was being buffeted about by the wind and he reached out a hand as if he could steady her. Those were the last thoughts he had - except for the sudden sensation that he was falling, falling . .
My father was only 34 years old when he died. Way too young to leave this earthly vale. It's quite possible he was a victim of prohibition, because thousands of men and women died from the rot-gut they drank during those tumultuous times.
He left behind a grieving and guilt-stricken wife and two young sons. In fact, I can barely remember him. All I have are disconnected snippets of memory, like pictures in an aging scrapbook. When his Franklin was returned to Columbus, the sheet music he had purchased for my mother was still in the car, as well as two harmonicas, a large one for my brother, a smaller one for me.
I thank you for bearing with me while I told this tale. Writing it has been comforting, and even though all of this happened many years ago - I am still my father's son.
(From the September '02 issue)
(This is Part V of a fictional narrative in which I imagine the details of my father's last two days alive. The scene is Joe's, a speakeasy in downtown Pittsburgh, not far from the Roosevelt Hotel where he is staying. It is a hot night in August 1928.)
As he sipped his beer, my father continued to think about his visit to the crash site of the dirigible Shenandoah. He recalled that the word Shenandoah meant "Star Daughter." Meanwhile, the sad, wailing notes of a tenor sax emanated from the little bandstand behind the dance floor and made for an appropriate musical accompaniment to his memories.
He recalled that it was no more than a fifteen minute drive to the Neiswonger's farm where part of the airship had come down. After he arrived there that afternoon in 1925, he discovered that the adjacent Gamary farm was also part of the crash site. The control car had crashed there and that's where most of the fatalities had occurred.
At the Neiswonger's, there were even more sightseers than he had encountered at the Nichol's property earlier in the day, hundreds of them, giving the place the appearance of a county fair. As before, he pulled over to the side of the road that was crowded with other cars haphazardly parked, then walked toward the farmhouse.
Earlycomers had driven through a pasture right up to where the tail and aft section of the dirigible had come to rest. All of those coming along now had to pay admission charges. Talk about opportunism! Mister Neiswonger was in the process of setting up tollgates, the first of these near the house, about a quarter mile from the wreckage.
Here my father paid fifty cents. The second gate, further along, cost him twenty-five cents to get through. Finally, close to the tail of the dirigible, he had to pay fifteen cents to a congenial bald-headed man sitting at a card table with a cigar box on it for folding money and a muffin tin for change. "Care to sign a petition for us?" the man asked after he had given him a nickel and a dime.
"What's it for?" my father asked.
"Well, basically," the man said with a condescending smile, "I expect it's to reaffirm our belief in the Bill of Rights." He then went on to explain the intent of the petition. "Specifically, it's to allow the Ku Klux Klan to have a booth at the Noble County Fair which opened today."
"Maybe later," he remembered telling the man before walking away.
The gleaners had been busier here than at Nichol's. Most of the fabric had been stripped away from the fallen airship except higher up on the frame, beyond reach from the ground. He walked all the way around the aft section, which he figured was over fifty yards long. At one point he heard hushed voices coming from the shadowy interior, somewhere behind the collapsed gas bags, catwalks, and girders
Presently three teenage boys emerged, picking their way gingerly through the twisted framework, their faces smudged with dirt and grease. They were lugging burlap bags heavy with loot, and once out in the open they headed for a nearby wooded slope where they disappeared beyond the trees.
Suddenly, a photographer approached and offered to send him a set of professional quality pictures for a dollar down and four dollars by mail after the pictures arrived. "That's a good deal," my father said, and gave the bespectacled young man a dollar and signed his name and address below a number of others. Just then a red-haired young boy with earnest blue eyes and a freckled face tugged at his sleeve.
"Hi, mister," the boy hustled him, "I'll bet you'd like to take home a souvenir of the world's greatest dirigible crash, wouldn't you?" He then thrust out a fistful of silver fabric scraps, each one about the size of a postcard. "Take your choice for just fifty cents," he said. "That's just four-bits for a piece of history you can take home and show your kids."
"I'll take one," he replied, and he dropped two quarters into the boy's outstretched hand.
He continued sipping his beer as these memories spun through his mind. He pulled out a cigarette, tapped it on the back of his hand before lighting it, took a deep drag, and slowly exhaled. Swiveling on his bar stool, he looked over the crowded room. He noticed a young blonde woman in a yellow dress standing near the dance floor with a drink in her hand. She had a pretty face, an upturned nose and a complexion as smooth as cream.
She was smiling at him, and when he smiled back she winked before walking seductively to a nearby table where she sat down with a man and another woman. He was flattered by the brief flirtation, but his commonsense kept him in his seat. After all, he was a married man with two children to think about.
Nevertheless, he couldn't help think-ing that life is played by a strange set of rules. He recalled the precise moment that he met his wife at a charity dance in Chicago. She was sitting with her sister, quietly talking, hands folded on her lap. He walked up to her and asked if he could have the pleasure of the next dance. She accepted and they walked out onto the dance floor.
The orchestra was playing a slow number, and he held her close as they glided across the ballroom floor, losing themselves in a multitude of other couples, planetary lights flickering through the darkness like multi-colored shooting stars, the faint scent of perfume in his nostrils and the clean natural smell of her long brown hair.
They danced to several different numbers and in between made light conversation during which he had been impressed with her education and proper upbringing. Before he knew it, the evening was over and he had fallen for her, called her the next day, met her parents, started seeing her on a regular basis, then, before he knew it, he was married.
(to be continued)
(From the August 2002 issue)
(This is Part V of a fictional narrative in which I imagine the details of my father's last two days alive. The scene is Joe's, a speakeasy in downtown Pittsburgh, not far from the Roosevelt Hotel where he is staying. It is August 1928.)
There were several large electric floor fans at Joe's, which circulated the air and provided something of a breeze. It was probably a well-insulated building because even though it was hotter than blazes outside, the place wasn't too uncomfortable.
My father was sitting at the crowded bar, occasionally talking to people next to him, but basically alone, a traveling salesman, a stranger in town. In between snippets of conversation with the fellows next to him, his mind wandered back and forth between his wife and the two boys back in Columbus and other incidental thoughts such as the joys and dangers of alcohol, and the great storms he had often witnessed as a youth in Texas. Many had been killers wreaking death and destruction in their wake. The thought of those storms suddenly brought to mind the aftermath of a tragic event he had witnessed several years before.
He had been on his way to Marietta in 1925 on a business trip when he stopped at a little restaurant in Cambridge, Ohio. As he sat at the counter looking at the luncheon menu, he became aware of a heightened sense of excitement in the air. It seemed as if everybody in the place was talking to everybody else all at the same time, and he began to pick up phrases like "You don't mean to tell me!" and "It was an act of God, there's no doubt about that," and "It's hard to believe somethin' like that happenin' around these parts."
He asked the plump waitress what had happened.
"You ain't heard?" she said, her eyes growing wide as she wiped her hands on her white apron. "Why, a big dirigible done crashed down at Ava in Nobel County. I don't know how many men were killed. They say a dozen or more."
"A dirigible?" he repeated. "Are you sure about that? What was the name of it?"
"Land o'goshen," she exclaimed, "I can't remember the name of it." She turned to a gray-haired man in overalls sitting at the lunch counter a couple of seats away. "Bill, what was the name of that there dirigible?"
"Shenandoah," the man replied, turning in his seat to face them. "The United States Navy airship Shenandoah. Crashed about four, four-thirty this morning, part of it on the Nieswonger place, part of it over at the Nichols' farm, and other pieces God knows where. Someone said the control car and the men that were killed fell at Andy Gamary's."
"Does anyone know what happened?" my father asked.
"Crashed this morning just before sunup," Bill answered. "Just broke up and fell out of the sky in two or three pieces. They say it must have run into a storm south of here."
My father couldn't believe what he was hearing. For some reason he had felt a special kinship with that particular airship and the men who flew her. He had read numerous newspaper stories about the Shenandoah. Right then he decided he would try to find where it crashed.
After getting directions, he hastened to the register and placed a crisp dollar bill on the counter before heading out the door. He drove south out of Cambridge until he came to Route 78. From there on it was easy. All he had to do was follow a steady stream of cars that were headed for the crash sites.
The first place he stopped at was the Nichol's farm that was right off the highway. There were so many cars parked along the side of the road, he had to walk damn near a quarter mile before he got there. He noticed that most of the men and boys going back to their cars were carrying silvery swatches of fabric. Some of them were lugging pieces of the airframe and other parts of the airship he couldn't identify.
He quickened his steps thinking with a laugh there wouldn't be anything left for him to see if he didn't hurry. Then he saw it! It was just this side of an angular tree line, the grayish-silver hulk of the bow section, lying there like a butchered whale in a field speckled with yellow flowers, misshapen, crookedly tilted to the sky. At least a hundred people, maybe more for all he knew, swarmed around the fallen craft.
There were old men hobbling around as fast as their arthritic joints would take them. Women with babies in their arms and young children tagging behind them stood about gaping at the incongruous sight. Older boys and men in caps and summer straws either stood back a ways looking at the spectacle in awe or rushed right up to it, knives in hand, cutting, ripping, and tearing at the fabric in light-hearted abandon.
Many of the men were farmers, wearing suspenders, ruddy-faced from work in the sun, laughing and swearing as they stripped the fabric from the twisted framework. He couldn't believe his eyes. These damned people were dismembering it right out here in broad daylight, in front of God and everybody else. They were like ants crawling around a dead animal.
He wondered where all the authorities were, the sheriffs and the National Guard. He had noticed only one man with a badge, a heavyset fellow who looked like he might have been a constable or maybe a deputy sheriff, standing around laughing and talking to friends. He stayed there maybe twenty minutes, then feeling sick at heart, walked back to his car and headed for the Neiswonger farm.
All of these thoughts tumbled through his mind as he nursed his beer at Joe's speakeasy that hot August night. From the bandstand across the room, a voice was crooning "Toot-toot-tootsie, good-bye. Toot-toot-tootsie, don't cry." p
(To be continued)
[This is Part IV of a fictional narrative in which I imagine the details of my father's last two days alive. The place is Pittsburgh. The year is 1928.]
A stunning little brunette in a red knit dress was the only woman seated at the crowded bar in the speakeasy. Her bobbed hair framed a coquettish face, emphasizing painted lips and quizzical blue eyes. She was turned around on her bar stool facing three or four men standing behind her. She wore black net stockings, her legs crossed in such a way that her skirt had crept up above her knees, revealing an exciting curve of white thighs above red garters.
The night was steaming, so most of the men were in their shirtsleeves. Some had dispensed with their neckties or pulled them down, opening up their shirt collars. Many wore suspenders instead of belts. A gray-haired man with glasses, a reporter for one of the Pittsburgh dailies, was singing along with the band, a drink in one hand, waving his straw hat in time to the music with the other.
My father watched as one of the bartenders poured his beer from a chilled amber bottle beaded in sweat. I'll have to come here more often, he thought, meet more of the regular customers, get on a first-name basis with the bartenders. That's what drinking is all about. The sociability. Passing the time in friendly conversation with other men and having the opportunity to look at a pretty face once in a while. You leave all the problems of everyday life at the door, check them with your hat.
He realized he was rationalizing. Alcohol was the ruination of many a good man. He knew that. The thought reminded him that he had to start saving a little money. One of these days, he would buy a house for the family. Been married now a dozen years and still renting. That's no good. He continued sipping his beer.
He was feeling relaxed, entertaining himself with his thoughts, but enjoying the activity all around him. He glanced down the bar to see if the girl in the red dress was still there and discovered that she and her companions had left. It was getting on toward nine o'clock when he ordered a second beer from the bartender.
A pleasant fellow was sitting next to him, gabbing away with a couple of his friends, talking mostly about business and the people they worked with, or so he guessed from the small bits of conversation he overheard. They had gone
through God knows how many pitchers of beer, probably five or six at least. Every once in a while, they interrupted their own conversation to talk to him, tell him a joke, or share some humorous anecdote from their day at the office.
In between these diversions, his mind was free to roam wherever it willed. That was what he liked about bars. Even when alone, maybe mostly when you were alone, your mind sort of unloosed itself from its moorings. You hoisted your sails to catch
whatever prevailing wind happened along. He began to think about his drive back to Columbus the next day. Briefly, he recalled the argument with Lucille the morning of his departure, but just as quickly, dismissed it.
He looked forward to returning to Columbus with the purchases he had made, the two harmonicas for the boys and the sheet music for Lucille. The new piano he had given her, an A.B. Chase parlor grand, had set him back a thousand dollars, but it was worth it. Lucille was a gifted pianist with a lovely voice, and maybe the children would learn to play.
Lifting the glass to his lips, he savored the hearty taste of the brew, reminiscing about his college days in Dallas when he and his friends would go out on the town, bold and rambunctious as they chug-a-lugged tequila down with their beers. His friends would swig their drinks down, but he always preferred to make them last. He would lick the salt on the back of his hand, and then suck on a slice of lemon. Even when his best friends kidded him about it, that's what he would do.
The contrast between the beer and the tequila reminded him of the early spring storms that swept across the plains when hot and cold air collided. He had seen a lot of them, tumultuous clouds spread across the horizon like Furies, so black they looked as if they were full of India ink. Now and then they would spawn a twister that ripped up everything in its path. Same way with beer and liquor. You've got to treat them with respect.
He was thinking of those great storm clouds over Texas when his mind jumped to a tragic event that had occurred in Ohio just a few years previous. The U.S. Navy dirigible Shenandoah with a crew of 43 men on board had been caught up in the maws of a violent storm, which caused the 682-foot long craft to split apart and fall to the ground in Noble County with a loss of 14 lives. And, incredibly, he had witnessed the aftermath - within a day of the disaster.
(To be continued)
(From the June 2002 Issue)
This is Part III of a fictional narrative in which I imagine the details of my father's last two days alive.
Our lives of love, the perfect fruit,
Though soon will ripened be:
Then may they fall together down &endash;
Sweetheart, grow old with me.
And fallen, may the gard'ner Fate
Keep them from parting free;
Let us be gathered side by side &endash;
Sweetheart, grow old with me!
- Poem my father mailed to my mother from the Hotel Roosevelt in Pittsburgh several weeks before his death.
Saturday he made his business calls and toward afternoon he drove to the music store that was just a few blocks from the hotel. He purchased two harmonicas as gifts for his sons, the larger one with a double bank of reeds, the other a small one with a single row.
"Made in Germany, wonderful crafts-manship," the clerk, a frail looking man with a green eye-shade, informed him.
From a display of sheet music, my father selected the aria, "My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice," from Samson and Delilah, by Saint-Saens. That should please Lucille, he thought to himself. He smiled inwardly as he recalled the love poem he had written and mailed to her on his last trip to Pittsburgh.
After he left the music store, he went to a Walgreen's Drug Store. He sat on a stool at the counter where he could feel a breeze from the big floor fan. "I'll take a chocolate milkshake," he told a freckle-faced waitress with red hair. When the frothy confection was set down in front of him, he sipped it slowly through a straw and stared out the plate glass window behind the soda fountain past a cut-glass bowl of oranges and bananas. The late afternoon street was almost devoid of pedestrians. A street- car the color of ripe red plums rattled by, expressionless faces peering from the windows. A distraught woman dragged a squalling little boy along by his arm.
"It's so hot out there, the redheaded waitress smiled grimly, "you could fry an egg on the sidewalk."
He finished his shake and walked outside into the sweltering heat. By the time he had parked his car and gotten back to his room, he was bathed in sweat. He took a bath in the footed bathroom tub, stretched out on the bed and didn't wake up until almost seven o'clock. It was still light out, and from the big open window at the end of the room, the sounds of traffic eddied up from the street below like spiraling flocks of pigeons. He dressed, took the elevator down to the lobby and headed for the hotel dining room.
After dinner, he walked a couple of blocks over from Sixth Street where the hotel was located to a speak-easy he had been to several times. It was a place called Joe's, a fairly high-class spot where newspapermen, off-duty police-men, politicians, lobbyists, and more than a few good looking women hung out, along with anyone else who knew a good thing when they saw one.
During that Prohibition year of 1928, it was one of the most popular watering holes in Pittsburgh. I should mention that the 18th Amendment to the Constitu-tion had ushered in Prohibition across the entire country. That meant that the manufacturing, distributing, and selling of alcoholic beverages was prohibited by state and federal law. No whiskey, no wine, no beer. Period. And, much of the zealous, almost religious, fervor had originated right here in Ohio, the home of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The spirit of Carry Nation had won the day.
Joe's had been a popular establishment in other more carefree days when bars were legitimate But even so, with city and police officials looking the other way, such places were still doing a booming business, and the money - and payoffs - flowed like wine.
A handsome mahogany bar seating at least thirty persons ran down one side of the room; lots of tables with red-checkered tablecloths surrounded a saw-dust covered dance floor in front of a small raised bandstand. A Negro chef by the name of Woody was famous for some of the best broiled t-bone steaks in town. He kept the kitchen open until midnight so he was much appreciated by the regulars.
Outside the door, my father pressed the buzzer, said the obligatory "Joe sent me" to a hidden face behind the door and once inside gave his straw hat to the pretty hat check girl before striding into a Saturday night shindig in full swing.
The tuxedoed forms of five sweating jazzmen were swaying and bending to the sultry beat of The Saint James Infirmary Blues. Through a haze of cigarette smoke he glanced around the spacious room. On the small dance floor in front of the bandstand a couple was dipping and twirling, a green silk dress clinging to the girl's curvaceous figure. Her partner, a handsome blond-haired youth probably not more than twenty-one, was obviously tipsy. Together they swirled and stag-gered, bumping into tables, apologizing like mad to people they collided with as they twirled about, the girl's head thrown back, showing her white teeth, laughing and shrieking as if she were riding the Whip at the State Fair.
My father, a smile already on his face, looked around for a seat at the bar. He had made up his mind to have one beer and no more.
(To be continued)
(From the May 2002 Issue)
My father, my brother brother David, and me. I am the baby.
The soil is mixed with loam and clay,
In rugged rocks and silt and sand;
Here life suspended humbly lay,
American dust and soil and land.
- Lines reconstructed from my father's notes.
[This is Part II of a fictional narrative in which I imagine the details of my father's last two days alive.]
Sometimes the two-lane road cut along the sides of massive mountains, exposing a layered strata of conglomerate rocks and shale and seams of coal. Thinking back on it after he arrived at the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, he decided that's what he liked best. The mountains! The freedom of space. Here and there, where left undisturbed, towering trees paraded up the sides of those cuts, extending up the slopes until they seemed to reach the sky.
My father, David Drury Thomson, felt elated, almost euphoric that August evening. It had been exhilarating being on the road, driving across the undulating landscape. It was the only way to see the greatness of the American land and keep in touch with its people.
Sitting in the hotel room, his mind wandered to what he would do the next day. He looked forward to the calls he would make. There was one lumber supply company he hoped might give him a substantial order.
Once the bellhop left, my father took off his wilted shirt, then the rest of his clothes, ran a tub full of hot water, checked the temperature with his big toe, stepped into the porcelain. Carefully, he lowered himself into the tub, then slowly slid under the water until most of his body was submerged. He gave a great sigh of relief and pure contentment.
He loved to soak in a tub full of hot water and soapsuds. It was one of the few things you could count on in life, a great boon to civilization. Contemplating his legs and thighs stretched out in front of him, he reassured himself that he was still reasonably fit for a man his age. Soaking in a tub like this always made him feel young again, almost like a boy. When you washed away the sweat and grime along with the cares of the world, you washed away the years.
With the little bar of hotel soap, he lathered himself, rubbing the sliver of soap back and forth across his stomach, pressing it into the soft flesh around his navel, soaping the fine light hair on his stomach, his hand inducing his body and his mind into a state of complete relaxation.
What strange things navels are, he reflected. Belly buttons. Little inverted knots neatly affixed to every person like badges that say you're a member of the club. Well, at least for most people they're like that, but he remembered back to his school days in Dallas when there were a few boys with belly buttons that stuck out. He always thought they were ugly when they protruded like that, sort of unfinished looking.
Yes, and there had been a woman, a dark-haired girl, a prostitute at Rosie's place. Her belly button stuck out. He recalled how she would make fun of herself, laugh and say she had been born at home and her drunken father bit the umbilical cord off with his teeth and tied a granny knot in it. He laughed to himself as he thought back to those long-gone days.
His mind wandered back to the beautiful countryside he had been driving through that day. If only he could get his feelings down on paper. Maybe he could write a poem about the grandeur of the American continent. That would be something worthwhile to do. Ever since high school he entertained the idea that he might have a talent for writing, that someday he would try his hand at a novel, or maybe write poetry.
He liked that new fellow, the poet, what was his name? Oh, yes, Robert Frost. He liked him better than any of the other American poets he had read, except maybe for Walt Whitman. Walt was good but Frost was better, he decided. Easier to understand. His voice was that of the common man, you could sense he loved the American land with all his heart and soul. You could bet your last dollar on that, he grunted to himself.
"The Gift Outright" was just fine. The words themselves were like harness straps and tinkling bells and snowflakes, but there was a deeper and darker meaning, he thought. The words turned in upon themselves, revealing the poet's awareness of mortality. Maybe, too, against that somber backdrop, the words revealed a determination to pursue one's own personal destiny. My God, I wish I could write like that, he thought, as he brought the washcloth dripping with hot water up to his face.
I must have gotten my interest in literature from my father, he figured. He was well informed, read all the time. Kept a lot of books around the house. Yes, he was a good influence. It was probably his influence that got me into reading good books. And maybe it was Momma's artistic talent, too. All the arts are connected, and that includes writing. His mind thus engaged, he continued to relax.
He recalled the time his father gave him a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives and how much he enjoyed reading about the exploits of the ancient Greeks and Romans. All these years he kept the book, and just last year gave it to his eldest son, David on his tenth birthday. He took to it like a duck to water. That boy certainly liked to read, maybe too much. Wish he was more interested in sports. On the other hand, maybe he's going to be a scholar. David has the brains for anything he sets himself to.
After he finished his bath, he sat down at the little mahogany desk in his room, determined to at least start a poem. With his orange and black Parker Brothers fountain pen, he scrawled what he thought might make a promising title.
"The American Land," is what he wrote, and he proceeded to fill several pages with poetic impressions of what he had felt that day, then frustrated with his inability to capture the dream-like beauty of the land and his response to it, he ended up scratching out most of what he had written.
He got up from the desk, and for a moment he looked out over the smoky haze of the city through the big window in his room. Then he opened up his garment bag, selected a light blue shirt, a white collar, and a red and blue striped tie. Standing in front of a mirror, he put the shirt on, tugged the collar into place, slipped the tie under the collar, carefully tied a windsor knot, attached the collar buttons, pulled on the pants to his searsucker suit, and finally slipped into the jacket.
The exertion of dressing had brought beads of perspiration to his face. God almighty, it's one hell of a hot day, he thought as he locked the door to his room and walked down the slightly cooler hall toward the elevator. He was hungry and the hotel dining room served excellent food. After dinner he realized he was tired, so he returned to his room, undressed, and slipped into bed. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day with a lot of calls to make.
(To be continued)
(From the April 2002 Issue)
Samuel Clemens intimated that life is a dream. Perhaps it is, I don't know. All I know for certain is that when I was four years old my father went on a business trip and never came back. He fell to his death from a tenth-floor window of the Roosevelt Hotel in Pittsburgh.
No one knows how or why my father fell from that window or anything about the events leading up to the tragedy. Since the coroner couldn't prove his death was a suicide - there was no note or any other suggestion of such a self-destructive urge - they tried to determine that he had been drinking. So far as I know, it was never shown that he had more than a couple of beers. One of the bellboys and an elevator operator remembered he had gone to his room before 9:00 pm. After a lifetime of wondering what really happened, the following account is probably as close to the truth as any.
When my father drove his Franklin across the Monongahela River bridge heading for downtown Pittsburgh that long-ago August evening, he had the world by the tail. His good fortune included a faithful wife, Lucille, and two children - I was four and my brother David was twelve at the time. My father had a new job that held the possibility of a rise into management, an attractive apartment in Grandview, good health, a positive outlook on life and, of course, his shiny new black car with its imposing hood. Everything was coming up roses, everything, that is, except one or two annoying items that seemed beyond his control.
By the time the bellboy had taken him to his room on the tenth floor of the Roosevelt Hotel at Penn Avenue and Sixth Street, he was probably exhausted. The day had become hot and muggy after the morning storm, making it a long drive from Columbus along the old National Road through the hills of eastern Ohio and on through the mountainous terrain of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.
The memory of a heated argument with my mother that morning nagged at the back of his mind most of the way to Pittsburgh. That was one of the items. Lucille could be impossible, he decided. She was a carbon copy of her mother, that much was for sure. She was strong-willed, never failing to speak her mind. The least little aggravation would spark her anger.
She had been upset because he was going on a business trip for the weekend. He could understand her feelings, but she didn't seem to realize that Saturday was a good day for him to talk to some of his important building material customers. In
fact, the only day for some of them. How many times had he told her that?
It also infuriated him that she used the children in her arguments against him. Time and time again she would do that. It wasn't as if he didn't love the boys, his own flesh and blood. He loved them more than life itself. He spent all the time he could with them. When David was only seven years old, hadn't he taken him on a sales trip down to Ironton on the Ohio River? He brought home educational books and sporting equip-ment for David. And as for little Tommy, he had more toys than he knew what to do with.
It was terribly, terribly sad, he thought. My God, the argument that morning had been almost Wagnerian. Lucille screaming accusations at him, his shouting back at her. All of this going on as an August thunderstorm raged outside. Sheets of rain rattled the windows, bolts of lightning momentarily lit the mid-morning darkness, and claps of thunder reverberated across the sky. David had been at school, thank goodness, but hadn't little four-year-old Tommy cried out for them to stop? The memory wrenched his heart.
There was yet another source of unease between them, one that Lucille refused to discuss, but it was always there, at least for him, the issue constantly gnawing away at his gut. The truth was, he wasn't getting enough sex and he didn't know what to do about it. That was the plain truth. But then he chuckled to himself. Seemed that was a common complaint of most of his married friends.
The other concern, the second item: he wasn't getting any younger. Thirty-five wasn't exactly old, but then again it wasn't young either. Time was passing. And he was getting bald. No, he was bald. Hair around the sides and back but none on top. Damn, he hated the baldness! That was item Number Three, if you didn't count it as part of Number Two. Who the hell did I inherit my baldness from, he wondered?
His own father wasn't bald. He had a good head of hair. As for his other male relatives, he hadn't seen them for so long he didn't know whether they had hair or not. In their photographs they sported a full head of hair, running down their faces in sideburns, erupting into bushy beards. No telling though, those pictures were taken years ago. Today they might be bald as turkey buzzards!
He crossed the Ohio River about noon and by that time, he had pretty much dismissed his problems, including the argument with Lucille. I'll make it up to her when I get home, he thought. I'll get her something nice and I'll get a couple of presents for the boys. He remembered a wonderful old music store in downtown Pittsburgh he had wandered into on his last trip. That's what I'll do, he decided. I'll buy Lucille some sheet music for her piano playing, something she'll really like. I'll get a big harmonica for David and a smaller one for Tommy. He felt relieved, as if everything was settled.
He began to notice the countryside as he whizzed along the macadam road: the herds of Holsteins and Jerseys grazing in the valleys, a little herd of harlequin-patterned goats all bunched up close together, fields of tall corn in the bottomlands, the plants heavy with upright tussled ears.
Everywhere along the roadside were the colorful roadside flowers of late summer: the yellow splash of black-eyed Susan's, the bright purple of Ironweed, the dazzling white of Queen Anne's lace, and the nice mauve color of the tall Joe-Pye weed plants, some of them surely seven feet tall, And when the road had climbed up into some of the higher elevations, he noticed the first bright golden spangles of goldenrod blooming, even though it was only mid-August. There were other flowers, ones he didn't know, and he made a resolution right then and there that someday he would learn them.
He was curious to know the kinds of birds there were too. In a little town in West Virginia, he stopped for gas; and while the attendant was filling the tank up, he went to the restroom. As he came out the door, a brilliant orange bird flew out of a nearby elm tree. He thought it might be an oriole but he wasn't sure.
(To be continued)
(From the March 2002 issue)
I began delivering newspapers when I was eight years old and I'm still at it. So, as they say, what's wrong with this picture? You'd have thought I'd outgrown that kind of activity at my age. old fart that I am. Admittedly, I'm assisted nowadays by a couple other people and that's a big help.
I'll tell you right up front that I own the Gazette, so that makes the picture a lot rosier. Right? Well, I guess so! And, let me tell you, I love this newspaper! I eat, sleep, and dream the Gazette, which has grown from a tiny little pamphlet called the Fabulous Short North to a bustling tabloid with over 50,000 readers. In addition to writing three monthly columns, I help with the correspondence, sell ads, keep the Web site up-to-date, and whatever else needs doing.
If you're wondering how I got into this business, let me tell you how it happened. It was way back during the middle of the Great Depression, back when I was a kid delivering those papers. My mother was the manager of the Cambridge Arms, owned by the John Hancock Insurance Company, and surely Columbus' most exclusive high-rise apartment building at the time. Along with her salary, a beautiful two-bedroom apartment went with the job. How lucky she was to have that job when millions of people were out of work. And, they were lucky to have her, because she was hard working and talented. She made a good impression on the tenants, and she oversaw the maintenance and interior decorating of the apartments, the financial leasing arrangements &endash; all of that in addition to raising two boys by herself. As the years roll by, I am ever more aware of what a great woman she was. Sometime soon, I'm going to tell you more about her.
The structure is still there at 926 East Broad Street, but I fear it is no longer the fashionable place it once was. In the days I'm speaking of, there was a tearoom off the lobby, uniformed bellmen, and a roster of residents that included some of Columbus' wealthiest and most influential families. Among these elite tenants were two young married couples of the Wolfe family. Richard Wolfe and his bride in one wing of the building, Preston Wolfe and his bride in the other.
Ordinarily I would have been too young for a paper route, but my mother, bless her heart, called the Dispatch and talked to the circulation manager. I remember that his name was Mr. Thomas. As a result of this conversation, the Dispatch truck dropped off a bundle of papers for me in front of the Cambridge Arms every afternoon. I had a paper route! Not a big one, but a paper route, all the same. I delivered to the people who lived in the building and up and down Broad Street for about a block and-a-half in each direction.
So it was that one wintry evening, after delivering my route, a few leftover papers under my arm, I got on the automatic elevator to go up to our second floor apartment. Right on my heels, destiny stepped into the elevator car in the form of a tall burley man bundled up in a heavy overcoat wearing a Stetson hat. He pushed a button for one of the upper floors and acknowledged my presence with a nod.
I immediately recognized that I had a prospect here - better yet, a captive audience - for one of my leftover papers. This guy was trapped in an elevator car with the paperboy from hell!
Right away I pounced. "How about a Columbus Dispatch, Mister? It's Ohio's Biggest Home Daily! Not only that, it's got all the local news, national news, international news, stock market reports, sports, business news, who was born, who died, the weather, radio listings, movie reviews, comics"- almost out of breath, I gasped, "You need one to make your life complete!"
The man smiled and said, "I'll take one." He reached in his pocket, withdrew his wallet, took out a one-dollar bill and put it in my hand. "Keep the change," he said. "I own the Dispatch and that's the best damn sales talk I've heard all day."
My eyes grew big as I eagerly grasped the crisp dollar bill. Those were the days when a dollar was a dollar. A dollar would buy twenty candy bars &endash; and bigger ones than the little skinny ones you get today for all kinds of money. Gee, Mister, thanks a lot!" I managed to say. I found out later that my benefactor was Harry P. Wolfe, and he was going up in the elevator to see one of his married children. Oh, by the way, it was so many years ago, I can't be sure if it was Preston or Edgar in the one wing of the building.
That's when I decided to make journalism my career and I did - graduated from Ohio State University's School of Journalism with the a degree in Newspaper Management.
Incidentally, when I lived at the Cambridge Arms, I went to school not more than a block away at Douglas Elementary. That's where James Thurber went to school for a few years. He also worked at the Dispatch off and on. And here I am writing about him every month in the Gazette. Talk about a small world!
(From the Feb. 2002 issue)
Hold on! The world is upside down!
The most exciting day of my life occurred a good many years ago when I discovered the world was upside down. You heard me right - and I mean it literally, not in any poetic or moralistic sense. The first few minutes after I made my discovery, I didn't fully realize the significance of what I was on to. I suppose that's the way it was with Sir Isaac Newton. You know, when the apple bopped him on the head. "Damn!" he probably yelped, "That hurts! - especially if the blow on his noggin had caused him to bite his tongue. But, I'll betcha anything he didn't spring to his feet shouting, "Eureka! I've discovered the law of gravity!"
That's how it was with me. It took a while for the full impact of my discovery to sink in. As a matter of fact, I was having breakfast, and oddly enough, I was eating a baked apple. Isn't that a strange twist of fate? Apples are involved in each of these earth-shaking revelations, and that's not counting the little episode in the Garden of Eden. Anyway, there I was savoring this truly delicious baked apple - all jellied and sweet and syrupy - when one of my children asked me where Elephant Island was. I wasn't sure, so I had him fetch the globe of the world that I kept handy for just such unexpected questions.
I had a vague recollection that this little island was way down in the south Pacific, in the South Shetland Islands off the coast of Antarctica. I picked up the globe and started looking. Pretty soon I had the globe up over my head and upside down as I searched and squinted. That's when there was just a faint subconscious realization that all was not right with the world as I had been taught to view it.
After a minute or two, I found Elephant Island, just a dot out there in the middle of nowhere. That's when it happened. It was so obvious it was laughable. The world really is upside down - as we perceive it. And my mind rapidly began adding up a list of convincing and irrefutable evidence to back up this revolutionary theory.
For instance, if you fill a bottle full of water and add a little dirt, then shake it up good, where will the silt and sediment end up? Right! At the bottom of the bottle. Now look at a globe of the earth. All the great landmasses are positioned in what we call the northern hemisphere - which would actually be the dirt at the bottom of the bottle (or the Globe). I'll tell you, I felt mighty proud, yet strangely humble, after the full impact of my discovery sank in. It was probably this way with Sir Isaac, and all the other great pioneers of science. "Copernicus, move over," I chuckled to myself.
How often does a scientific discovery of this magnitude occur? Perhaps once, at the most twice, in each century. However, I had a premonition that my theory wasn't going to be too popular with a lot of people. For all I know, I might be in for some serious trouble, like some of the other famous heretics and fallen heroes of history, Galileo, for example. I remember saying to myself, "Well, old boy, you've really gone and done it this time!"
Let me tell you why. People don't like to have their minds messed with, even though it might be an attempt to tell them the truth. Just imagine the political fallout that would occur if my theory were widely known &endash; and accepted - throughout the world. Political systems would wobble and entire nations might topple. Why? Because nobody likes being knocked off the top of anything! It's deflating to the human ego.
There would be all kinds of repercussions: political, geo-political, economic, religious, philosophical, and probably some other stuff I can't think of. All of North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia would be dumped to the bottom of the heap. "Oh m'gosh," I groaned, "What have I gotten myself into?" My elation had swiftly turned into apprehension.
"I've become a pawn in the strife that's tearing the world apart," I thought. My own country will think I'm un-American. "Bottom of the world, huh!" people would jeer. Bolsheviks would think I'm out to destroy them. Capitalists would think I'm the devil reincarnate. I don't know what the Taliban would think. The only people who would look up to me are the Aussies, Anzios, and a handful of people down there in the tails of South America and Africa - and on Elephant Island, of course.
If you are so persuaded, you might go out and buy a globe, a couple of them if you're married. His and hers, so to speak - I've long suspected that the opposite sexes live in different worlds. In the privacy of your own home, turn it upside down, and you'll quickly see what I mean.
Well, that's about it. I hope you have glimpsed some of the truth of my theory and visualized this great planet, ever so slightly swollen at the equator, like a pregnant woman swathed in misty clouds as she swings in her majestic orbit around the sun.
All of this theorizing happened a good many years ago. I'm going to deny that I ever had a single thought about it. And if you know what's good for you, you'll pretend you never read this!
(From the December 2001 and January 2002 issues)
A Visit with Louis Bromfield
at his Beloved Malabar Farm
Louis Bromfield, author and farmer, is buried next to his wife Mary in the little cemetery on the Malabar farm in northeast Ohio. Yet, inexplicably, his presence is still very much alive in the fields and around the big rambling house he loved so much. I feel this in my bones. It comes upon me in a jumble of perceptions.
I picture him coming out of the house. His boxers -Prince, Baby, Gina, and Folly - are romping about their master's feet in a joyful, salivating frenzy. Hand outstretched, he welcomes the first of the day's visitors. They come from far and wide, as much to see him as to see Malabar, his famous farm.
They come to see the miracles he has wrought in changing a drab farmhouse and what were once worn-out eroded hillside fields into a verdant twentieth century version of Eden. They come to talk to him about his methods of farm management &endash; and just about everything else under the sun.
Titans of industry and educators come to exchange ideas and listen to his views on a rapidly changing world. The famous glittering names of Hollywood come for leisurely weekends of hospitality and stimulating conversation. Students and young people are attracted to Malabar &endash; and Bromfield. Sometimes they come to talk, then stay to help with work. Plain dirt farmers from around Pleasant Valley drop by to say hello to their good friend.
Someone once said that Bromfield was as big as outdoors. He stands 6'2" in his stocking feet. But he's big in other ways. As you listen to him talk, you're impressed with his deep convictions and the fire burning in his eyes. Then, immediately, he puts you at ease with his famous smile.
His tanned, wrinkled face changes expression as easily as Ohio weather changes. He has a religious fervor about the proper use of land, followed closely by the love of his dogs - and politics.
One moment he laughs derisively at bureaucrats. The next he remembers he has a speaking engagement before a group of state officials and business leaders. His large hands make a motion of exaggerated helplessness. Again his wide mouth breaks into a grin. In a more serious moment he outlines his dream of estab-lishing a youth camp to teach the principles of conservation and nature lore to children of all races and nationalities. About race in America, he wrote in his book, Malabar Farm:
The cure for all these racial differences and ills is at base equal economic opportunity, education &endash; better diet, and better soil upon which that diet is grown - better ethics, and finally the annihilation of ideas about the superiority of one race over another.
The morning sun burns through the mist hanging over the wooded ridge of the Ferguson Place across the road. Bromfield returns to the house from his morning walk. From the spacious Malabar kitchen comes the aroma of fried ham to accompany platters of scrambled and fried eggs for breakfast. He leans down and affectionately pats Prince on the head before heading for the dining room. Later in the day he will write in his journal:
At least 18 people sit down at table for every meal. We eat well and what we eat is the best in quality, fresh from the garden or dairy or hen house. Thousands of people from nearby and far away have paid us visits. Everywhere there are children helping with the haying and filling the silos, fish-ing and swimming in the ponds, learning to know and respect the farm animals . . . discovering the satisfaction of honest work.
On other pages he has recorded tales he heard as a boy about the exploits of Johnny Appleseed, renegade Indians, and such colorful local characters as Phoebe Wise who killed an ardent suitor by firing her shotgun through the front door of her house.
During breakfast there is animated conversation. Louis is in the thick of it. There is talk of the Cold War with the Russians, of unemployment, the plight of the poor, and the underfed. He lam-basts the politicians in Washington, then recalls how he was a Democrat most of his life. That reminds him of his father - and more stories. He says it was from Charlie Bromfield, his father, that he inherited his political savvy and his love for animals and the land. As a child his youngest daughter once remarked: "The trouble with the animals on this farm is that they all think they're people."
"My father was interested in two things, not counting politics," Bromfield says. "The restoration of ruined farms and the reformation of run-down horses." Everyone laughs heartily at the way he says it, even those who have read his books and know it's the gospel truth.
After breakfast he ambles over to his jeep, climbs in with Prince at his side, invites several guests to get in the back seat. Proudly he drives them around the farm which consists of over 900 acres. They stop to observe the sleek herds of highly productive Holsteins. He tells his friends how he reclaimed marginal hillside fields by nourishing the soil with humus and using new methods of disking and plowing.
His visitors notice the long luxuriant hedgerows of multiflora rose. Bromfield explains the hedge serves as a perfect fence, windbreak, and refuge for wildlife. As if to reaffirm his statement, a Mockingbird mounts to the top of a branch and bursts into song. Around and about come the melodies of Indigo Buntings and Field Sparrows.
At noon the group returns to the house, entering the spacious entrance hallway with its beautiful "floating" stairway, a style of architecture originally designed by Thomas Jefferson. That afternoon Bromfield retires to his book-lined study and its massive 10-foot desk to catch up on his correspondence. In his journal he will jot down conversa-tions and new ideas while they're fresh in his mind. Later in the afternoon he will be in the fields again.
Evening will find Bromfield tired, sunburned, and grimy, coming in from the fields where he has been mowing hay. He will jokingly tell his guests that Confucious said "the best fertilizer on any farm is the footsteps of the owner."
That night around a crowded dinner table the house will literally glow with renewed life and vitality. The game room will echo with laughter, and famous guests will add to the subtlety and bite of the conversation.
The unexpected death of Prince, his favorite boxer, was a great personal loss and left Bromfield dejected and downcast. On a fishing trip, he had felt a vague sense of something wrong. Returning to Malabar he was told that Prince had died. Fighting back the tears, he looked at Mary. "I think I'll go have a look at the farm before dark," he said. As he got into his jeep, Prince's brother, Baby, jumped in beside him. Before, it had always been Prince who went everywhere with him. Now it was he and Baby driving up to the Ferguson Place where he instinctively went when he was worried or depressed. In the pastures high above the valley, where the sky was so close he could almost touch it, he would seek peace of mind.
Bromfield with two of his boxers.
Halfway up the lane through the woods, Baby started inching over toward the driver's seat, suddenly leapt into Bromfield's lap, began licking his ear, exactly as Prince had done so many times. It was as if the dog knew. This sudden outburst of affection was so violent that Bromfield, gasping and laughing, shouted, "That's enough Baby! Let me alone! I have to drive!"
When they reached the high farm, he climbed out of the jeep, followed by Baby, and sprawled out on the warm wind-blown grass. He remembered back to how Prince always knew what a suitcase meant. The dog would grow worried and miserable even if he dressed to go into town. He would reassure him by saying, "It's alright, kid! I'm coming back! Don't worry!" In his journal he wrote: "Then as I lay there on the grass, Baby turned suddenly and again began licking my ear violently, and quickly out of the threatening sky a wild storm broke . . ."
After returning with Baby through the storm, he went to bed early. The spot at the foot of the bed where Prince had always slept on an old green rug was empty for the first time since he had been placed there as a puppy. He fell asleep but twice during the night he was wakened, once by the passing of another storm, the other time by the feeling of something stirring and pressing against his leg. When he sat up and reached down there was nothing there.
After a long time he fell asleep again only to be awakened this time by the sound of scratching on the screen door. It was exactly the sound made by Prince when the door stuck in wet weather. He listened for a moment, then concluded one of the other dogs had gone out and couldn't get back in again. He put on the light and went to the door. The storm was over and the moon was shining high over the wooded ravine. There were no dogs outside the door. Again he wrote in his, journal: "The two experiences were not imagined nor were they the result of drowsiness for each time I lay awake for a long time afterward. I do not know the explanation save perhaps that no creature, in some ways even a human one, had ever been so close to me as Prince."
Russell Lord described Bromfield as being an outsized person "outraged that it's a man's fate to live but one life at a time." Bromfield himself once said that he was forever destined to be seeking one thing and running away from another.
He had not yet recorded his sorrow on hearing of the death of his friend, George Hawkins, his manager and advisor on most of his books. And there will be the coming excitement of his good friends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall getting married in the rose garden and spending their honeymoon at Malabar. Later will come the terrible pangs of grief at the death of his beloved wife, Mary.
Great men always die too young. This was true of Louis Bromfield. Though he lived life to the brim, the breaking of the cup only emphasized the loss. He died of complications arising from cancer surgery at the Ohio State University Hospital.
Much of Bromfield's knowledge of conservation practices was gained from his farm manager, Max Drake, who had been the Medina County agricultural agent and Hershel Hecker, district conservationist for the Soil Conservation Service. As the sustainable agricultural theories they advocated were put into practice on the farm, Bromfield became an all-out supporter of such methods.
Born in 1896 in Mansfield, Ohio, he died in 1956. He wrote 34 books in 33 years. The Green Bay Tree in 1924 was his first big success. Two years later he won a Pulitzer Prize for Early Autumn. His other works followed in orderly succession. Seven of his books were made into movies. All of them were popular in the '30s and '40s. The Rains Came, The Man Who Had Everything, and Until the Day Breaks were big hits. Greer Garson starred in Mrs. Parkington. From his quick pen came the movie scenarios for Brigham Young and Walt Disney's The Vanishing Prairie.
Today Malabar is maintained by the state of Ohio and is dedicated to the memory of its founder and to his dreams of good farming practices. The 32-room house still retains an atmosphere of hospitality and elegant style. The valuable collection of 17th and 18th century French furnishings contributes to the charm. A sparkling chandelier of crystal festoon, brought from the Bromfield's French villa at Senlis, sets off the dining room. A mirror wall with an eagle and 48 stars of gold surrounds an Italian marble fireplace in the living room.
When I visited the house at Malabar, an impressive selection of art was displayed, including paintings by French and Spanish artists and two delightful oils by Grandma Moses. There were also several portraits of Bromfield and members of the family.
One of the guest bedrooms is variously called the morning glory room (because of the wallpaper pattern), the honeymoon suite (because it was occupied by the Bogarts), and the rooster room (because a large number of figurine roosters Louis gave Mary are displayed there).
Bromfield's study boasts his famous semicircular desk and a nearby card table where he did his writing. There are walls of books and an interesting assortment of memorabilia. In a corner of the study is a little two-way door that allowed his boxers freedom to come and go.
Bromfield had many friends here-abouts, and he would drive down to Columbus fairly frequently. Among the local restaurants he liked were Marzetti's and the old Jai Lai, which was right here in the Short North.
Lawrence E. Hicks, one of Ohio's finest biologists and a mentor of mine when I was in high school, knew Bromfield well. And, my old friend Ernie Limes met the great man a number of times. As a matter of fact, one time when Bromfield was scheduled to speak to the downtown Kiwanis Club, Ernie loaned him a clean shirt and a sport jacket.
The home and farm are now a state park; however, the house will not be open to visitors until May 1, 2002. The park is located off State Route 603 southeast of Mansfield. Special events include a Maple Syrup Festival every March. For further information, call (419) 892-2784. r
(From the November 2001 issue)
I visited the Clear Creek Valley in Hocking County for the first time on June 22, 1954. I still have the notes I jotted down that blustery afternoon and a check-list of the 58 species of birds I spotted. My friend and fellow naturalist Gene Rea, the manager of the old Biblio-phile bookstore, had recently described the beauty of the region as well as the bountiful birdlife to be found there.
Heeding Gene's advice, I followed the less traveled roads to Hocking County, heading down Route 23 over to Ashville, then stair-stepping my way southeast through beautiful Fairfield County, and finally following the road over to the tiny hamlet of Clearport. Not only did I find the family of Red-headed Woodpeckers right there where he said they would be, but I also saw three Dickcissels, a decidedly uncommon bird in Ohio, and a Bachman's Sparrow, a real rarity. But the best was yet to come.
Once I had driven through the glaciated, wide upper reaches of the Clear Creek Valley, and passed through one of the covered bridges Gene had mentioned, the road suddenly narrowed, became hemmed in by wooded slopes, and followed Clear Creek like a faithful dog at its master's side. For over seven miles the road twisted through these dark mysterious hills revealing new surprises at every turn. It was a wonderland. Dramatic sandstone outcroppings towered overhead, mature hardwoods and giant hemlocks clothed the hillsides, ferns of numerous species inhabited the shaded and sheltered ravines and hollows.
A storm had been threatening and I began to hear the muttering of distant thunder. Where the sky was visible through the trees, I became aware of a celestial-show of monumental proportions. Like an armada of clipper ships with billowing sails, approaching cumulonimbus clouds
were massing overhead. A restless breeze flirted with the upper branches of the taller trees, and the cooler air stimulated the birds into heightened activity and song.
I saw more birds than I had ever dreamed could possibly exist in the month of June in Ohio. Warblers, tanagers, and orioles flashed before my eyes. From the deeper woods I heard the silvery harmonics of Wood Thrushes, the teacher-teacher-teacher rhetoric of Ovenbirds, the burry, repetitious singing of a Yellow-throated Vireo, and the raucous yelping of Pileated Woodpeckers.
I also discovered other exciting features of the valley. In one or two places the stream's channel had created a gorge, dark and deep. I came across "Written Rock," a sandstone outcropping about fifty yards
long on which were inscribed initials and dates, some of them from before the Civil War. And there was "Leaning Lena," a huge chuck of sandstone that literally hangs over the Clear Creek Road.
About five o'clock, the sky became prematurely dark, the thunder was now near at hand; and I heard another sound, one that made my skin crawl, a sound that
I could not identify. It was an ominous roaring, like an angry surf breaking along a seacoast. Louder and louder it became until I finally recognized it as a wind of gale-force proportions blowing through ever-closer treetops.
As it approached, the tall trees around me bent to the chill breath of the approaching storm. Lightning split the sky like an electric-knife and the booming of thunder reverberated through the valley. Ferns and black-eyed Susans twitched and trembled as the first tentative drops of rain reached the ground and splattered along the dusty road. A moment later the rain came down in torrents. Through the car's windshield wipers, I remember seeing an Indigo Bunting diving for cover.
That was how I came to know the Clear Creek Valley. It was to be the first of hundreds of subsequent visits over the years. My interest in ornithology was to reach ever deeper commitments, in large part because of the remarkable birdlife I found there.
In the late '60s, Edward S. Thomas and Ed Hutchins, who later became director of the Columbus and Franklin County Metropolitan Parks, were among the first to express concern over a United States Army Corps of Engineers' project proposal to dam Clear Creek and flood over half the valley. When I heard this news, I was reminded of the old song, Big Yellow Taxi, in which Joni Mitchell laments:
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got
' til it's gone.
They paved paradise
And put in a parking lot.
I decided to do all I could to thwart such a thoughtless scheme with its resultant loss of plant, animal, and birdlife – well, in this case a dam instead of a parking lot. In that alarmed state
of mind, the idea came to me to take an annual census of the nesting birds in the valley, hoping in such a way to provide data that could be used to divert this travesty of bureaucratic idiocy.
As it turned out, the dam was never built, in large part due to the outpouring of criticism raised in opposition to such a boondoggle. By the time the final decision was made, I had completed the first two years of the census, which I began in 1970 and continued throughout the year 2000. During that time, I documented 118 species of birds nesting in the valley. The Clear Creek Valley had exceeded Gene Rea's promises and provided me with years of delightful discoveries and breathtaking moments of bliss.
(From the October 2001 issue)
In this 1958 picture of Wheaton Club members, Gene Rea is front row, center.
Ed Thomas is to his left, in the plaid shirt. The author is two rows behind Gene and slightly to his right.
Not long after I graduated from the School of Journalism at Ohio State University, I ventured into the Bibliophile, a very classy little bookstore wedged between Long’s College Bookstore and Hennick’s, a popular student hangout. I wanted to look through the Bibiophile’s nature books and say hello to my friend Gene Rea, the manager of the store.
I first met Gene when I was a senior at North High School. About that time, I had just been elected into the Wheaton Club, a group of professional naturalists and their associates. Gene was probably around 40, give or take a year.
It was hard not to like Gene, although I’m sure there were those who did not easily take to him. For one thing, he enjoyed twitting the vanities of Washington politicians. But mostly, his cynicism was directed at the inanities of the entire human race. His humorous remarks about the bombastic and pompous aspects of Homo sapiens were usually enough on target that even those members of the Wheaton Club who looked upon him with a jaundiced eye were apt to nod their heads or slap him on the back with a good-natured remark like “You tell ‘em, Gene!”
If Gene had any reverence for the human species, it was reserved for the giants of literature and science. He would excuse those oracles almost any excess, and when talking about them he would become a schoolboy again – a one-man cheering section for all that was progressive and idealistic in life.
To my youthful eyes, Gene was debonair as well as intellectually honest. He had a keen sense of humor and, most important to my unwrinkled idealism, he was humanistic in his outlook towards life. All qualities I admired and, by and large, still do.
The most distinguishing physical feature about Gene Rea was the contrast between his thatch of prematurely white hair and his thick dark eyebrows. His appearance, in effect, was a trademark, and the image was heightened by his quizzical blue eyes peering out through a pair of black horned-rimmed glasses. Short of stature and slim, he gave the impression of overall compactness.
Gene not only loved books, he selected his stock carefully, and he was adept at finding rare editions, especially of natural history books, so much so that he had a national reputation for sniffing out the hard-to-find volume. After books, Gene’s overriding passion was birds, followed closely by wildflowers. He gained considerable expertise in both fields and could identify a False Solomon’s Seal as easily as a Cerulean Warbler. His friend Dick McCutchen wistfully said of Gene, “When he made his choice for books, and the satisfaction therein, I think the ambition he surrendered was fame as a natural scientist and teacher.”
(And, yes, this Dick McCutchen was the very same Marine captain who appeared on the $64,000 Question, a popular TV show way back when.)
Why Gene didn’t pursue an academic career is anyone’s guess. Even though I grew to know Gene quite well over the years, I don’t pretend to have the answer to that question. Perhaps he didn’t do well in school, though that’s unlikely with a mind that could come up with hundreds of binomial scientific names for plants. More likely, his restless soul was intimidated or turned off by the bureaucracy of the educational system. His was a free spirit, no doubt about it, and that would account for his love of birds as well as the fragile beauty of a rare wildflower – like a colony of snowy trillium he once told me about.
Gene was married to Helen. They had no children. From pictures I’ve seen of the two of them together in earlier years, Helen appeared to be an attractive woman: a willowy blonde with a good figure. She shared her husband’s love of the Hocking hills, although her own knowledge of nature was limited. The few times I met Helen she was very friendly but as high-strung as telephone lines in a high wind. I always had the feeling she was ten minutes away from a nervous breakdown. Gene never talked about it, but I had the suspicion that he had a tough marital row to hoe. But who knows? I might be wrong.
Of course, there is more to life than domesticity, birds, flowers, and books. In his personal life, Gene enjoyed gourmet food, including the preparation of wild game provided to him by some of his hunting friends. This indulgence was a glaring contradiction in his life for he was a non-hunter and had great respect for wild animals. His talent at cooking was matched by his appreciation of good wine, or an Old Fashioned, or a dry martini made with imported gin.
So it was that I found myself in the Bibliophile one June afternoon many years ago. I had recently graduated from college, gotten married the year before, and just purchased my first car, a second-hand Ford sedan named Freddy. It was my intention to spend more time looking for birds. Gene was busy with a customer when I walked into the store, so I used the intervening time to browse through the many books on birds and biology that were on the shelves. To my way of thinking, even way back then, such works represented the acme of human accomplishment.
It was with something akin to reverence that I leafed through original editions of A.C. Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds, Henry Beston’s Outermost House, Frank Chapman’s Autobiography of a Bird Lover, and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. I decided to buy a copy of The Warblers of North America by Frank Chapman, a book published in 1907 and reprinted in 1914. Though not new, this 1914 edition with its colorful plates by Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Bruce Horsfall was in mint condition and cost ten dollars. A fair amount of money to pay for a book at the time, but I can truthfully say it is worth a good deal more today.
When he was free, Gene and I chatted as he made out the sales slip for my book and rang the transaction up on the cash register.
“Been getting out lately?” he asked.
“Not much,” I replied, “what with getting married, school, and finding a job.” Then I added, “But I’m going to fix that.” It was at this point that Gene mentioned the Clear Creek Valley, down in Hocking and Fairfield Counties. “Not more than an hour’s drive, he explained, “southeast of Columbus off State Route 33.”
As a matter of fact, I had heard of the valley. It was where the Wheaton Club held its annual spring heigira. On the first weekend in June, they would meet at an old cabin, once a marginal farmer’s home, perched on a hillside of fields and woods. Because of being in the service, plus not having a car until recently, I had never attended one of these outings. The cabin and tract of land, known as Neotoma, was owned by Edward S. Thomas, curator of Natural History at the old Ohio State Museum at the corner of 15th and High, right across the street from the Bibliophile. Ed’s weekly nature column appeared in the Sunday Columbus Dispatch for 57 years starting in 1922 and resulted in something like 2330 separate columns. This was a labor of love because he was never paid a penny for his efforts.
When I mentioned to Gene that I had never been to the Clear Creek Valley, he pursed his lips and made a soundless whistle. “You’ve got to get down there,” he said. “Sycamore Warblers nest along the creek and there are a dozen other species of breeding warblers.” He started ticking off the names of the warblers, and he mentioned a lot of other birds: Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Black Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, and I don’t know what all.
Before I left the store, Gene diagrammed a map showing me how to take an alternative route, one that would take me through the sleepy little hamlet of Amanda, then through the crossroads village of Clearport and Revenge. His face lit up as he explained that by following his directions I would travel through miles of gently rolling green hills, go past two covered bridges, and see a stand of dead trees inhabited by Red-headed Woodpeckers.
That was a memorable day – I had renewed an old friendship, acquired a book I had long wanted, and heard word of a place that sounded like paradise.
(From the September 2001 issue)
Whence the name Short North? Local legend has it that cab drivers and police cruisers used that lingo when calling in to their dispatchers. The area they were talking about extended from downtown to somewhere just north of the OSU campus and from North Fourth St. to the Olentangy River. Probably a great many of the taxi fares were headed to a bar or restaurant along North High because that thoroughfare was the heart of the Short North. From the early ‘50s back to the turn of the century those who didn’t take cabs rode the streetcars. Most days of the week, the trolleys were crowded with office workers, shoppers, students, and downtown sales people. For some of them, their only impression of the Short North was what they saw out the streetcar window.
And, believe-you-me, they often saw an eyeful. The Short North was no gentrified lady. No way! High Street from Fat Sam’s Spaghetti House in the basement of the Park-Goodale Hotel back in the ‘30s and on north to the university campus was, for the most part, bawdy and jumping with action. Back in the days of prohibition, there was a shootout near the corner of Goodale and High in which a couple of policemen were killed. There were exceptions, of course: The plush Jai Lai Restaurant at 591 N. High St. and the tasty food at Corollo’s at 1120 N. High, for example, were great drawing cards for the Short North for years.
There were also plenty of other diversions. The Kitty Show Bar and the 711 Club offered live entertainment and dance floors. At various times, there was a strip club and at least one go-go bar. But mostly there were a lot of neighborhood bars, many catering to harmless old geezers out looking for a good time, others attracting bikers and anyone hankering for a fight. The Dutch Cafe was one such spot. A favorite prank of fraternity boys was to run a classified ad in the OSU Lantern saying that a pin from such-and-such a highfalutin sorority had been found on the floor at the Dutch Cafe. That was good for a laugh clear across campus.
The Short North thrived during World War II era. Sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines were all over the place, before, during, and immediately after the actual conflict. An even bigger impact on the area was made by the workers at the giant Curtiss-Wright plant on East Fifth Ave. out near the airport. There, in that humongous place, zillions of intricate parts were fashioned into SB2C Helldivers and SO2C Seagulls. The assembly lines were awesome to behold, as thousands of people of many talents fashioned those sleek craft in an environment resembling something out of The Truman Show. Around the clock, three shifts every 24 hours, they labored to produce those blue-gray beauties for the United States Navy.
When I was in the Navy, I saw Helldivers in action several times. The occasion that stands out most vividly in my memory was during a landing our ship, the LSM 245, made at Sarangani Bay, on the western coast of Mindanao Island in the Philippines. All of a sudden, I saw a string of half a dozen Helldivers emerge from the clouds and drop their bombs along a jungle-covered mountainside. They must have hit their target because there was a big eruption of flames and smoke that went snaking skyward. During this bit of action, I was as excited as the kid in Empire of the Sun when the Mustangs went racing over the Japanese airfield. “Those are Helldivers from Columbus, Ohio!” I shouted, barely able to contain myself.
Back on the homefront, any number of bars and eateries were happily catering to the newly affluent defense workers. But the sad truth was there weren’t many other luxuries available that those folks could readily buy. Not only were there no new cars, gasoline was severely rationed. There were scant supplies of just about everything else.
A personal note: After the war was over and I got out of the Navy, I came home to finish my education at OSU. A friend persuaded me to join the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity – a really good deal with room and board costing only $65 a month. A lot of other veterans belonged, and I felt perfectly at home. I worked early mornings from 6 to 9 at the Huntington National Bank downtown in the Transit Department, which I’m sure they don’t have anymore.
One evening in August, at the end of the summer quarter, I showered and shaved thinking I might go somewhere and have a couple of cold ones. As I was going down the stairs, I heard a voice yell from the gameroom “We need a fourth for bridge!” So it was that I sat down at the card table, picked up a hand of cards across from the girl I would marry ten days later. Her name was Jeanne Michaels. We stayed married for eighteen years, had three kids, and I don’t know how many grandchildren. If I’d come down those steps 30 seconds sooner, or later, it would have been a whole different ball game. Scary, isn’t it? And, yes, I’ve told my children this story many times.
(From the August 2001 Issue)
Way back when, in the years immediately after World War II, North High Street across from the OSU campus was a bustling, well-kept retail area. Thousands of veterans returning from military service in 1946 had joined the ranks of recent high school graduates. As a consequence, college classrooms were crowded and campus-area streets were bustling with activity. I was one of the vets, and very happy, I can tell you, to be home from combat in the South Pacific.
Neff's State Theatre was still showing double feature movies on a daily basis, and OSU students were still getting out of hand. A city fireman was killed by a brick thrown while a rampaging crowd crashed into the theatre. Next door, Ptomaine Tommy's was flipping countless burgers. Isaly's was dishing out huge ice-cream cones, and Moe Glassman was still in business selling smart-looking clothes that didn't cost a fortune. There were drugstores all over the place. To name a few: Nicholas Pharmacy at Chittenden and High, Berry's at Tenth and High, Smitty's at 16th and High, Cunming's Drugstore at Eleventh and Neil, and the Campus-Neil at Tenth. There were some good, well-managed bars, including Ben's Tavern, the two Heidelburgs, and, yes, Larry's Tavern! If you were 18 years old you could drink.
The Ohio State Museum stood on the southwest corner of 15th and High. At the head of the steps stood a statue of a World War I doughboy eternally marching along. Inside the handsome limestone building were mummies, Native American artifacts, minerals, war relics, a library, and goodness knows what else. Of particular interest to me were the natural history exhibits. Located in the basement and close by, the offices and laboratories of a dedicated little band of scientists gathered together under the watchful eye of the curator, Dr. Edward S. Thomas, who had encouraged my interest in birds before I'd gone off to war. He also strengthened my determination to complete my college education when I returned.
Long's Bookstore was located at the corner of 15th and High, as it is today, and nearby was Hennick's, famous for flavored cokes, strong coffee, and tasty club sandwiches, a favorite hangout for sorority and fraternity kids. Just inside the entrance was a cigar counter and a bountiful selection of magazines and newspapers for browsing. In between the two establishments was a bookstore, appropriately named the Bibliophile, managed by affable Gene Rae, a man I will write about in a future column.
There was no lack of entertainment in the district. The Palm Garden Night Club was located at 1392 North High Street, right about where Kroger's stands now. Dean Martin sang there once, before he became famous, and Mel Torme was also a star attraction in 1946. As I related in an earlier column, a couple of my friends, the Dodge brothers, and I snuck up there one evening. Even though we were all under 18, we were shown to a table where we ordered some beers and settled back to see the floor show, during which I saw my first naked lady - well, except for some pasties. I was seventeen and just as incorrigible as I am now.
Jap Watring's Jai Lai was at 589 North High Street with a car wash out back, across Poplar Street. The little building that housed the car wash is still there, the current home of Orbit Design. The restaurant was just as plush and comfortable as the latter day version we remember over on Olentangy River Road. I heard the owner was more than a little paranoic about his employees cheating on him. And little wonder, I can remember one of the bartenders telling me just a few dozen of the ways that bartenders and wait persons alike cheated the house and, not infrequently, the customers. And wouldn't you know it! When Jap died and his body was on display at the funeral home, somebody stole his diamond stickpin right off the corpse.
About a block away from the Jai Lai - over at the corner of Park Street and Goodale Avenue - was Haft's Acre, a small outdoor arena that featured professional wrestling matches. I recall going by
that place when it was packed with wildly enthusiastic fans and the lights lit up half the night sky. (To be continued)
(From the July 2001 Issue)
Sometimes I pretend I'm shrinking and shrinking until I'm the size of a small bird, say, a chickadee. I'm a study in black and white with a touch of stlish gray. I have a black cap that's rakishly polled down practically to my eyes, and I have a matchingscarf, tucked in, sort of Hollywood style, you know.
I want to share a thought with you. When I'm in a tree, it's like I was in the midst of a large three-dimensional jungle at Disneyland.
Individual leaves are as big, or bigger, than I am – and there are zillions of them. It's almost overwhelming, but I have to admit they are handy for hiding behind, or crouching under during a rain storm, or for shade from the noon-day sun when I'm trying to take a nap.
Tree limbs are as big around as freight trains and tree trunks are as gigantic and toweribg as the Empire State Building. The branches sway in every passing breeze and the leaves are usually in constant motion, like human beings jumping around at a rock concert.
But I am agile, I am quick - and I can flit from one twig to another in nthing flat and, when need be, I can fly.
Oh, how I love to fly!
I just gosilly-willy-dilly when I fly. I throw myself into the air and just GO.
I've noticed it's something people can't do – well, without the aid of all kinds of contraptions they have to use, most of them so noisy it almost splits my eardrums.
Now, on the other hand, when I go flying, I can hear myself think, and I can hear other birds singing, and – I'll tell you a little secret – sometimes I do a bit of singing myself, even when I'm flying.
It's fun. You should try it.
The breezes whisper through my feathers real nice, when I fly. Well, you get the idea. I love being who I am. And I love to fly.
I'm frequently asked my opinion about such things as house cats. To someone of my petite size, you know, a typical house cat is big as a lion &endash; bigger &endash; and believe-you-me, I've had my share of close escapes from these behemoths.
I've been asked about dogs, too. How I feel about dogs. Dogs are not as dangerous as cats. Mostly because they are slower and they can't do a u-turn as fast as a cat. However, there are exceptions to the rule. One time I almost lost my tail to a Russian Wolfhound.
Dogs slobber a lot. The poor things can't seem to help it. In my book, it's not very couth, but who am I to judge? It's their barking I mostly object to. All that yelping and growling makes my feathers stand on end. Of course, I don't like the howling of cats very much either, but at least I can keep my eye on them when they'resinging their disgusting love songs.
Human beings? Well, they're as big as dinosaurs, and just as hard to figure out. Some of them are understanding and kind. They put out thistle seed and all kinds of goodies for us to eat. But others are not so kind. They throw stones and sometimes shoot at us.
I've heard they frequently kill each other this way and with even worse thingscalled bombs where they can kill a lot of themselves all at once. I can't believe it. I'll bet you never heard of a chickadee going beserk like that.
And a lot of human beings just don't notice us. They go their way and we go ours. I guess we just live in different worlds.
I have to admit that I eat a lot. Sometimes it seems that's about all I do. Zip. Zip. Zipity-doo-dah. One sunflower seed after another. But the up side of this is I don't seem to gain weight. My high metabolim does the trick. That's what I'm told.
I snack a lot, and not just seeds. Food is everywhere – on the hoof, you might say – and with a snap of my bill I get this one, that one, another one. It's easy. I have a knack for it.
Juicy little aphids are one of my favorite dishes. And tiny little insect eggs and larvae hidden within clusters of small leaves are like Baconbits in a tossed salad.
Ahh! The entrees. So good!
A grub!. A fly! They're like tender bits of beef stroganoff. And a beetle? Like a rump roast!
Northern Lights - A show of a lifetime!
From the onset of darkness to nearly midnight, the northern lights straddled the sky over Columbus the night of September 18, 1941, like a great colorful circus tent. Dazzling bands of brilliance radiated from the zenith downward and outward in all directions in what the following day’s Columbus Citizen heralded “Awesome Skies.”
The lead paragraph breathlessly declared: “Beauty indescribable, awesome and mysterious, made the skies above Columbus last night a panorama of chro-matic harmony as the northern lights appeared in one of the greatest stage presentations ever seen by men.”
The story went on to mention that 30,000 persons had gathered in the Ohio State stadium to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The United States Marine Band was on hand for the occasion, and when Governor Bricker arose to speak, he was almost at a loss for words, which is highly unusual for a politician. This is the same man who ran for vice-president on the Republican ticket with presidential contender Thomas E. Dewey in 1944. They lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his runningmate Harry S Truman: 432 electoral votes to 99. But, what the heck, Bricker later went on to become a United States Senator from Ohio.
There’s little doubt in my mind that the honorable governor was more than a little unnerved by the resplendent technicolor display sizzling over his head. Or, let’s say, upstaged. As he read his prepared speech on patriotism, every head in the stadium was probably tilted up, marveling at the wonderful technicolor sky overhead. Trying to win their attention, he ex-claimed, “It’s just as if heaven spread open its vast canopy to do these GAR veterans a last honor.”
The Marine Band struck up an overture by Beethoven followed by Franz Liszt’s “Dreams of Love,” and the lights continued to dance their macabre accompaniment. Some folks, uneasy about what they perceived as a heavenly warning, were seen leaving the stadium and heading for home.
Outside the stadium, football players who had been scrimmaging finally gave up any pretense of practicing for the big upcoming game with Michigan. Even the cajoling and threats of the brand new coach, Paul Brown, couldn’t stir them into action!
Meanwhile, events of a most unusual kind were taking place all over the city. Downtown at Broad and High, traffic was hopelessly snarled as people crowded into the intersection. Legislators and lobbyists, many with their girlfriends, poured out of the Neil House and Deshler hotels, some still holding onto their drinks as they gazed at the magical dancing lights in the sky overhead. “Thish is ab-absolutely the best party I’ve ever been to,” slurred one old-time lobbyist as he held up his drink and toasted the sky.
Our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Parsley was in a complete dither, running around inside her house from room to room, pulling down the blinds and closing the drapes so that not one scintilla of the alien light could enter her home. “Those lights are the work of the devil,” she told my grandmother, “Da” Page, who replied with twinkling eyes: “You might just be right, Mrs. Parsley, because where I come from I was always taught that if the sun is shining when it’s raining, the devil’s beating his wife!”
Meanwhile, across the street from our house on West 11th Avenue, crowds of students and neighborhood residents had gathered to view the miraculous skies. I heard one fellow telling his girlfriend that the northern lights were caused by the sun’s light reflecting off the ice up in the arctic. Even with my junior high school education, I knew this guy didn’t know what he was talking about. I snorted to myself and moved on to see what other people were saying. Just then, another man trotted by, this one muttering something about the world coming to an end. “It’s all over!” he suddenly bellowed. “Prepare yourselves. It’s coming to an end!” He was headed for High Street and even after I lost sight of him, every now and then I could hear his sonorous voice.
Here’s what the front page story in the next day’s Columbus Dispatch had to say: “The world still wobbled clumsily around on its axis today although a section of the populace thought the jig was up last night when the heavens turned to fire and celestial flames licked the sky.” What the paper didn’t say: Many folks were dead certain that Hitler’s armies were marching westward from Pittsburgh!
A version of this column appeared in the Short North Gazette in May 2001 and December 2008.
(April 2001 and September 2008)
"It's Hitler! It's Adolf Hitler! The Germans are coming!" the man was shouting as he ran down West Eleventh Avenue, a boy and a dog following close at his heels.
Northern Lights create street spectacle
“It’s Hitler! It’s Adolf Hitler! The Germans are coming!” the man was shouting as he ran down West 11th Avenue, a boy and a dog following close at his heels.
During the night of September 18, 1941, the eastern half of the United States was treated to a fantastic display of the aurora borealis. The next day, newspapers heralded the event as “the greatest display of the northern lights ever recorded.” The phenomenon so wreaked havoc with communications that newspaper offices, police stations and weather bureaus were overwhelmed with phone calls.
I will never forget that evening as long as I live. I have tried to forget – more than once – but there they are again, the memories looming up in my mind like inflated rubber animals in a long-ago Macy’s Parade. The shame of it all is that there was great natural beauty on display that night, perhaps greater than any human had ever witnessed or deserved to witness before or since, but the beauty and splendor were marred by the unbelievable absurdities of many of the feckless souls watching it. Let me start from the beginning.
It had been a beautiful September day, mellow and pleasantly warm, so nice that I walked home from North High School along the Olentangy River looking for birds. I had read in the Dispatch the day before that a concert by the U. S. Marine Band was to be held in the Ohio State Stadium on this very same night. As I walked by the big horseshoe, I noticed plenty of people already arriving, the parking lot around the stadium rapidly filling up with cars, crowds heading toward the entrance gates.
If I remember correctly, I stopped by the lunch counter in the Big Bear store on Lane Avenue. I had a hot dog and soft drink, then continued on past the stadium, hiking southward along the dikes, past the sycamores and cottonwood trees until I got to the garden behind the B & Z Building where I wandered around before heading home. By the time I was nearing our house on West 11th Avenue, it was getting dark.
I cannot recall the exact moment that I detected something unusual happening, but I do believe there was a sense of mystery in the air, a foreboding of some momentous event that was soon to transpire. Suddenly I saw the lights overhead, spread across the entire sky, a profusion of pastel-colored lights radiating out from the zenith. Then I was almost startled out of my wits by a man running down the street screaming at the top of his lungs.
“It’s Hitler! It’s Adolf Hitler! The Ger-mans are coming!” he was shouting as he ran down West 11th Avenue, a boy and a dog following close at his heels. The boy was also yelling: “Wow! Look at them anti-aircraft searchlights!” He was obviously taken with the importance of his role as assistant towncrier and bearer of this ominous news.
Both man and boy kept looking over their shoulders, more precisely up to the sky, staring in awe at the undulating bands of bright color, which to my eyes looked like the gates of heaven, but to theirs was something more sinister.
As they passed the old Inn at the corner of 11th and Worthington Avenues, the man’s hollering took on a new urgency. “The whole countryside’s on fire from the bombs,” he exclaimed, one breathless word tumbling after another. Suddenly, he stopped short, cupped a hand to an ear, then looking at the boy, he nodded his head violently, “Yes! I can hear them!
Junkers and Heinkel bombers! Medium bombers and heavy bombers! I can hear Stukka dive-bombers!” Then he wheeled about and started running toward Neil Avenue. The boy and the dog remained close behind.
The commotion outside had alarmed my orbiting grandmother “Da” who was living with us at the time. She had come to the door to see what all the turmoil was about. My mother told me later that Da had heard the man shouting that Hitler was coming, then she noticed that the sky looked strange. She had looked up and her first impression was that the sky was on fire. She almost fainted, but instead of swooning there on the doorstep where the Germans would have found her, she hurriedly closed the door, ran up the stairs, and locked herself in her bedroom.
Meanwhile, at the corner of Neil and 11th, at Mack Hall, there was much giggling and tittering and bobbing about as hundreds of innocent OSU coeds peered out their dormitory windows and wondered what on earth was going on up in the sky. And down at the stadium where the U. S. Marine Band was playing and Governor John W. Bricker was orating, it had to remain for the next day’s newspapers to tell us what went on there!
(To be continued)
(From the March 2001 Issue)
Like a howling hound dog on the trail of a frightened raccoon, George started attacking just about everything an environmentalist holds near and dear. Well, as a friend of the environment, I could see that Mother Nature needed some assistance . . .
Never talk politics or religion at a bar! It's an age-old piece of advice as true today as it was a thousand years ago. I know from a recent personal experience! Problem is, I was talking environment at the time. Twice as bad! Twice as bad because it's politics to some people, a religion to others. How did I ever get suckered into this kind of ambush?!
Here's how it happened. I was talking to an acquaintance, George - retired for a few years now - a very pleasant guy whom I've talked to plenty of other times. Seated on my other side was a married couple. They're the ones who precipitated the whole thing. The married couple started talking about the environment and my friend George jumped right in with heated objections to something they'd said &endash; and away we went.
Like a howling hound dog on the trail of a frightened raccoon, George started attacking just about everything an environ-mentalist holds near and dear. Well, as a friend of the environment, I could see that Mother Nature needed some assistance, so I started adding my two cents' worth. Our discussion rapidly ricocheted from the California energy crisis to the use of pesti-cides, to the preservation of wetlands, to the importance or non-importance of clean air and pure water, to drilling oil on Alaska's North Slope, to global warming. We didn't get around to the alarming disappearance of neotropical bird migrants, over-population, urban sprawl, or the clearing of tropical rain forests.
Where was all this serious talk taking place? We were sitting at a bar. It was a very nice, upscale bar at the Aspen Inn on Chambers Road, over Upper Arlington way. I've been hanging out there a bit lately, probably trying to relive some ancient history. Actually, all the way back to when Tommy McMurray was the bartender. Old-time patrons of the Aspen, by the way, still talk about McMurray with awe. He was a bartender's bartender, swift, efficient, polite. Always remembered your name. Always remembered your drink. This is not to deprecate Mike LeVan, the present bartender, one whit. Mike is also top-notch.
Back to Go. During the course of the above-mentioned heated debate, George introduced the word liberal a few times - usually with a sneer and a curl of the lip. I don't believe I actually used the word conservative. I do remember telling George to have some compassion and to keep an open mind. Well, that was like telling that hound dog that he could have a bowl full of Kibbles if he'd quit chasin' the coon.
After it was all over and we'd made our separate ways home, I got to thinking about George introducing the world liberal into the argument. All of a sudden, I became aware of an amazing self-evident truth, a fact that has certainly escaped the great majority of the population, including me. The words liberal and conservative have been totally corrupted, they have lost all semblance of their original meanings. In fact, the two terms have somehow, irretrievably, traded places with each other. In other words, liberals are really conserva-tives, and conservatives are really liberals.
Let me explain. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, is generally credited with being the father of present-day American conservation. He was for conserving the environment. He was an environmentalist! Back then, and much further back, in addition to being tree-huggers, these same bleeding-heart, squirrely Republicans were for emanci-pation, foreign intervention, and all kinds of programs we would call liberal today. The pointy-headed Dimocrats, on the other hand, were for states' rights &endash; and were sympathetic to the Confederacy to boot. Conservative to the core!
Now, we actually have a liberal in the White House. We have a liberal Supreme Court who helped get him there, and our daily newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, is a flaming liberal rag! So, there you have it. Take your choice, but make sure you get your definitions right! Laissez faire everybody!
(From the February 2001 issue)
What I'm trying to say is this: It's great to win, but you can't win all the time. A lot of Buckeye fans don't seem to get it. The guys on the team have a much better attitude than many of the fans. Most of the players understand that football is just a game. It's not a religion.
First off, I want to congratulate Jim Tressel for being appointed head coach of OSU football. I hope that his teams blaze a path of glory across the pigskin world, beat Michigan time and time again, and win every bowl game they play in. That said, and such fanciful dreams aside, I would like to review a few principles that OSU fans might bear in mind. First, I have always labored under the assumption that sports were supposed to build character.
That includes learning to lose like gentlemen. If two teams are playing each other, it is a simple assumption that they both want to win. With the exception of tie games, one or the other team is going to be the victor. It would be awfully boring if one team won all the time. Such an activity wouldn't deserve the classification of being a sport, now would it?
When I was but a wisp of a lad, for a year or so my family lived in Chicago. It was during Francis Schmidt's regime as coach of the "Scarlet Scourge," as OSU was colorfully billed in the nation's press. In 1935, an undefeated Notre Dame team was scheduled to play Ohio State, which was also unbeaten after six previous games. The event was touted as the "game of the century," and in the sports world was big news, right up there with the exploits of heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
I had my ear glued to our little table radio that fateful November day. The first two quarters everything was coming up roses, then the flower began to wilt. To make a long and tragic story short, OSU blew a 13 to 6 lead during the fourth quarter to lose 18 to 13. Tears were running down my cheeks as my beloved Buckeyes fell before the indomitable Irish. Funny thing, though. Over the years, I have looked back on that game as a heroic and epic encounter. Maybe it has something to do with giving credit where credit is due. Or, maybe it's just lending some credence to that old adage, "May the best team win!"
Francis Schmidt ended up resigning on December 16, 1940, reputedly "to beat the powers that be" to the punch. His rise and fall were considered one of the tragedies of intercollegiate football. Billed as a miracle man, he lived up to that reputation during the first several years of his contract, but, then, his critics charged that his regime went into serious decline, not just in the win-loss column but in his relationships with the team members, his coaching associates, the press, and the student body.
For many years, the Big Ten was more like the Big Five, or the Big Two. OSU was always one of the big, tough, winning teams, kicking ass among most of the smaller, weaker teams in the Western Conference. Finally, a few years ago, the NCAA established a whole set of new rules, some having to with recruiting, and this evened the playing field - a lot. Nowadays, most any team in the conference can win on any given Saturday. And do they ever want to!
What I'm trying to say is this: It's great to win, but you can't win all the time. A lot of Buckeye fans don't seem to get it. The guys on the team have a much better attitude than many of the fans. Most of the players understand that football is just a game. It's not a religion.
Studs Terkel understood this. He once wrote a insightful column about the irascibility of sports fans and their insistent demands for winning every game. Yes, this uproar does happen elsewhere: It's just particularily big time and uncompromising here in Columbus, Ohio. Studs concluded that it's like an infectious disease and there's not much one can do about it. He had spent much of his life in Chicago listening to the carping and whining of the poor losers in that town, but he finally decided the condition exists everywhere.
In a previous column, I wrote how I once beat the University of Michigan football team by comparative scores. This was when I was a kid in knickers playing the equivalent of sandlot football. The River Rats was the name of our team, Jimmy Reeder was the captain, and we played most of our games in the university athletic fields down by the river. I related how Howard Yerges was the captain and quarterback of a team over in Grandview and how we beat them 6 to 0 when Jimmy threw a pass my way and I ran it into the end zone.
I went on to explain that years later, in 1947 while attending OSU, I watched a National Championship University of Michigan team steamroll over the Buckeyes 21 to 0. They went on to beat the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl 49 to 0. Who was the quarterback? Howard Yerges! How can I deny the sweet taste of that boyhood victory and all that it implied? I can't. But! Even if we had lost, I would have savored the memories of that game. Howard and his family lived on Neil Avenue near Tenth before they moved to Grandview. He became a football star at Grandview High School and was inducted into that school's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989. He passed away on Christmas Eve of this past year.
Back to the coach dilemma. It should be realized that being a big-time football coach might not be all it's cracked up to be. Sounds like an ulcer-producing job to me. I suppose we could ask Earle Bruce about that! Which reminds me, I was having a drink a few years back with Woody and Anne Hayes over at the old Jai Lai Restaurant. Anne was complaining about Woody being away from home so much. Recruiting trips, speeches, and all the rest. Over our martinis, I winked at Woody before asking Anne if she had ever thought about divorcing him. "No," she quickly replied, "but a lot of times I've thought about murdering him!"
So there you have it. Winning is great, but it's not everything. And, to end on a lighter note, before Jim Tressel was chosen as coach, here were my nominations (and the reasons why):
1. Yasser Arafat: Picture him stalking the sidelines, robes flowing. He would attract international attention to the Buckeyes.
2. Madeleine Albright: She's handled tougher jobs.
3. Madonna: Why not? Isn't football all about show biz?
4. Larry Flint: We would probably have a great bunch of cheerleaders!
5. Clint Eastwood: Would he not add the discipline and dignity so many crave?
6. Jesus Christ: I can just picture him turning the job down with an agonized cry, "Oh, no, not again!"
(January 2001, March 2008 Issues)
I Talk to People Who Aren't Exactly Here Anymore
Whenever I drive by my old friend Bruce Armstrong’s house, I shout out loud, “Wake up, Bruce!” or “Put out that cigarette, Bruce!” Not so unusual, you say? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret. Bruce has been dead for years, and, yes, he died from a heart condition undoubtedly aggravated by his cigarette smoking. The last time I saw him alive, he was pale and peaked, sitting in the gloomy back room of his big house on Neil Avenue, watching TV, sucking on a cigarette, coughing his head off. He’d already had a bypass. Why he continued smoking I’ll never know, but to give him credit, he did try to quit. Went from one brand to another. Tried cutting down. Nothing worked.
That’s why I can’t help myself from talking to him when I drive by. Maybe his ghost is still wandering around inside that old brick house with the pretty cherry wood piano in it. Bruce dabbled at composing music and writing songs. He was pretty good at it, actually. To bring in a little extra money, he made peanut brittle and chocolate covered almonds and sold them by the bag at a couple of his favorite bars. Good stuff. He named his enterprise the Fly Town Candy Company.
Bruce used to tell me that there was a ghost in his house. Her name was Hannah. He would hear her walking around at night. Spooky, huh? Sometimes in the morning he would find toilet paper strewn all over the bathroom floor where she had spun it off the roller. Hannah was obviously a ghost with a keen sense of humor. Nowadays, maybe she helps keep Bruce from getting lonely. When I drive by I should speak to her, like, “Hey, Hannah, tell Bruce to put out that cigarette!”
So, I talk to dead people. Shades of Dead Man Walking! Another case comes to mind. A number of years ago, Nancy Patzer did a wonderful job of researching a story for the Gazette about the famous Snook murder case. That was back in 1928. Olympic Gold Medalist Dr. James Howard Snook, a married man with a family, head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University, did in his girlfriend at the police firing range on McKinley Avenue. Hit her over the head with a hammer as they sat in his car. There are several versions of what precipitated the attack: one involving sex, another her pregnancy, the lamest his leaving town for the weekend. Take your choice. He hit her again. Then to relieve her suffering, he slit her throat. Well, to make a long story short, he was caught, convicted, and went to meet his maker as he sat uneasily in ol’ Sparky down at the once-upon-a-time Ohio Penitentiary.
Seems like there was a bit of mystery about where the old boy was spending his last days (read “eternities”). Well, I unraveled the contradictory stories and a few months ago I went to pay him a visit in his final resting place. Following a set of instructions and a little map, I found the spot, which was unmarked, in a rather nice part of the cemetery. Upscale, I would say by the look of things. Pleasant landscaping, a fair share of monuments, but none really ostentatious like the super-rich frequently splurge on. Just nice and genteel. A pleasant neighborhood, as far as I could see, all things considered.
Looking around to make sure nobody was in sight, I wagged my finger at the bare grass that covered Dr. Snook’s final hiding place and I really let him have it. “You’re a bad boy!” I admonished him. “You shouldn’t have killed that girl no matter what she did to you.” I continued scolding him, “Bad, bad boy, Snooky! What were you thinking about? Huh? What was the matter with you? You, an Olympic gold medalist in pistols! A professor at OSU! Head of the department! A family man! What on earth were you thinking about?”
I never get any sass or back talk, of course, when I’m talking to people who aren’t exactly here anymore. That’s good in one way because I never get interrupted. But, on the other hand, it can get pretty boring. Take Snook, for example. Not a word in return. No defense of his actions. No alibi. No nothing. Just silence. Dead Man Balking, I guess. So after a minute or two of haranguing him, I walked away with a parting shot. “Behave yourself down there,” I cautioned him. “No monkey business!”
Sometimes I go over to Green Lawn Cemetery, which is not far from Downtown. It’s a lovely place, a veritable arboretum and wildlife sanctuary. In addition to many birds, I’ve seen deer, foxes, a coyote, many gray squirrels including a white albino, red squirrels, chipmunks, striped ground squirrels, bull frogs, and snapping turtles. If I am alone, I am apt to talk to any of them.
I occasionally say hello to James Thurber whose ashes are interred there, and tell him how much I enjoy working on the articles I’m doing about him. If I’m in a good mood, I tell him how wonderful and exciting life is. If I’m in a more wistful mood, I tell him how much I sympathized with his “Life and Hard Times.” Sometimes I have a word or two with flying ace Captain Eddy Rickenbacher, but he’s pretty tight-lipped. Security conscious, probably.
Then there is little George Blount. He died in 1873 on Valentine’s Day when he fell off a hotel balcony in downtown Columbus. He was only 6 years old. It’s easy to talk to Georgie because of the elegant life-size sculpture that marks his gravesite. Truth is, I mostly just talk to him in my mind. Things like, “Hi’ya, kid, how ya doing?” or “I see you’ve got a nifty new hat on your head.” Stuff like that. Because the sculptor elected to put his cap in his lap, for years now unknown good Samaritans have kept his head covered with one kind of cap or another, sometimes draping a scarf around his neck, even bringing him little toys at Christmas time.
Earlier on, I mentioned that I talk to inanimate objects. Yes, that’s true, and I do it rather frequently, and it’s not just talk either. Most of the time it’s more like shouting. I’ll give you some examples.
Automobiles are often the object of my scorn when they attack me. This has happened many times with my own car. Usually it goes for my knee, a shin, an elbow, or even the back of my hand. “Ouch! That really hurts!” I spin around and snarl, “You scurvy nitwit! I’ll remember that when I trade you in! Which might not be too far away!”
Around the house, I’ve been known to talk to furniture, a chair, a table leg, things like that. Talking is too mild a term. More like screaming and snarling and sometimes crying out loud. Usually it’s when these inanimate objects go after an elbow or try to plant a big blue bruise somewhere on my leg, but most often it’s when they break, or nearly break, one of my toes. This is commonly referred to as stubbing your toe. But I know better, and I tell them so with a vengeance!
There are a lot of minor skirmishes, like when I take a garment off a clothes hanger in the closet and a couple of other hangers pop up at absurd angles as if they’re complaining that I overlooked them. Do you think I walk away and leave them poking up in the air like that? No sir-eee! I bat them down with a few choice words and let them know who’s boss! The Native Americans had the right idea all along about this stuff. They knew that spirits inhabit just about everything. After all, if trees are inhabited by spirits then it only follows that when the tree is cut down and made into furniture those spirits have to go someplace, and they’re probably disgruntled as hell because they’ve lost their home.
So there you have it. I talk to dead people, including murderers, and tell them off. I blaspheme and yell at inanimate objects and let them know who is boss. Is this quirky, or what?
(From the December 2000 issue)
"Two freaks of nature," Mark Twain said."We came in together, we might as well go out together."
Halley's comet was a tiny white blur, almost a figment of my imagination. To see it, I drove down to the Clear Creek Valley in Hocking County during the dark lonely hours of early morning. I intended my trek to be a communion of sorts, the bringing together of a celestial wonder, the awakening of spring, along with a personal reinvestment in nature. A triumvirate, if you will. I was the least of the three.
It was an event I had looked forward to since boyhood, back when the comet was beyond sight, swinging around in its orbit far out in space, speeding along the distant edges of the solar system.
In books on popular astronomy, I had read of its wonders, how people flocked into the streets to see the great fireball in the sky. Later in life, I relished Samuel Clemens' intuitive observation that he had been born in the year of Halley's comet and thought it fitting that he die in 1910 when it would return. "Two freaks of nature," he said. "We came in together, we might as well go out together."
I was always flabbergasted at how his self-prophesy materialized. How had he been able to predict the year of his own death? I know it was just pure coincidence, as well as I know Sam Clemens was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. Funny thing though, I can't recall whether he saw the comet before he died.
But I hope he stood out there in the middle of the night, looking up at it blazing across the starry sky like nobody's business. In my mind's eye, I hope he whooped and hollered with joy. I hope the comet was so bright it lit up that rugged countenance of his and reflected the happiness and satisfaction in his pale blue eyes. I hope he had the enthusiasm and the strength to give it a rousing round of applause.
In my own case, as I grew up, the thought of Halley's comet was always lurking somewhere in the back corners of my mind. If someone happened to mention it, my eyes would grow wide and I would exclaim: "That's one of my ambitions. To see Halley's comet." So it was that I nourished the vision, bided my time, and hoped for the best.
Halley's comet is like an elusive hunting dog that lopes around the sun on a long leash. In 1948, when I was a senior in college, the year I got married, the comet had reached aphelion, the farthest point of its orbit from the sun. It was approximately halfway between the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. While it was way out there, I was spending my time in Columbus, patiently waiting. The event was a long time coming.
In 1977, the comet was almost halfway back to the sun, unerringly zeroing in for its brief flirtation with the Earth in 1985-86. In the vicinity of Uranus' orbit, it was headed next for the vicinity of Saturn, all the while solar winds creating the merest wisp of a tail trailing behind it.
The Clear Creek Valley was wrapped in sleep when I got there, silent except for what I took to be the barking of a distant fox and the hooting of a barred owl somewhere up on the ridge. Along the banks of the creek, sycamores stood like tall white-uniformed sentries. In the fields, the ragtag broken stalks of last year's milkweeds, sunflowers, goldenrod and Joe-Pye weed had been pressed to the earth by the past winter's wind and snow. Frost glinted off the fallen debris.
At first it was difficult finding the comet because a full moon was riding over the hilltops, lavishing its milky light across the sky. With my binoculars, I scanned the heavens, found Scorpius and Sagittarius, two constellations I had learned in my youth. I read that the comet was in that part of the sky. The red planet Mars, glowing brightly, was my other guide.
The proper timing was critical. The moon was sinking below the tree line now. That was good. There was just a suggestion of a new day's light in the eastern sky. That was bad. Hurriedly I scanned the sky. Then I saw it! Pale and luminous, a faint fuzzy orb with what might be construed as a tail, barely discernible, actually better seen, I discovered, from the corners of my eyes. I set up my spotting scope on its tripod and, after a few exasperating minutes of searching, found the comet again. The higher magnification of the scope brought it up closer. Elated, I feasted my eyes on the tiny image. There it was, its light coming to me across millions of miles of space, nebulous and mysterious.
It was now after 5 a.m., and even as I continued looking it was growing dimmer as the eastern sky continued to lighten with the approach of the sun. Then, suddenly, I could no longer find it. It was gone. On the other side of a field, a song sparrow sang his litany. From a wooded hillside came the drink-your-tea song of a towhee and the cheery whistled notes of a cardinal.
My vigil with Halley's comet was over and already I felt a keen sense of loss. True, it had not lived up to its advance billing. I had even thought of the words to Peggy Lee's hit song, "Is That All There Is?" Yet, in spite of every-thing, I had seen it. From this way-station in the solar system, I'd personally recorded its passage. I had kept my promise to myself, which was more than poor Loren Eiseley had been able to do.
In 1910, when Loren was a small child in Nebraska, his father had held him in his arms one night in front of their little frame house and together they had watched the comet. "If you live to be an old man," his father had said, "you will see it again. It will come back in seventy-five years.
"Remember," he had whispered in his son's ear, "I will be gone, but you will see it. All that time it will be traveling in the dark, but somewhere, far out there it will turn back. It is running glittering," he had said, "through millions of miles.
"Remember, all you have to do is to be careful and wait. You will be seventy-eight or seventy-nine years old." The father had sighed. "I think you will live to see it for me."
"Yes, Papa," the boy had dutifully replied. Throughout his life, Loren had remembered the promise he had innocent-ly made to his father. Late in life, he had written to an astronomer friend asking him where the comet was on its home-ward track.
"You're pushing things, old man," his friend replied. "It headed back this way in 1948 but has a long way to go."
In his book, The Invisible Pyramid, Eiseley wrote: "Because of my father and the promise I had made, a kind of personal bond has been projected between me and the comet."
Eiseley, a chronic insomniac, relates how he could sometimes imagine the comet light like a mote in his eyes, or like a far-off train headlight that he remembered seeing on a western prairie.
That sad and nostalgic train whistle echoed in his head and in a nightmare became the mournful voice of the comet that was still sweeping through the endless black reaches of space.
Eiseley died of pancreatic cancer on July 9, 1977, ten years before Halley's comet was visible from the earth.
When the comet finally swung by, I found a kitten that I took in and named Sam.
(From the November 2000 issue [August 2008])
Off to one side, on a table, was what I took to be a human figure. It didn't move, and foolishly I tiptoed closer. It was a man. A dead man . . .
The Ohio State University campus was my front yard from the time I was about 10 years old until I graduated from North High School, right before enlisting in the navy. My mother was a widow, and much of the time she would rent a house and take in students to make ends meet. It was just my mother, my older brother, David, and me. And the students, of course, or sometimes a professor or librarian. Oh, yes, and from time to time my orbiting grandmother, "Da."
The Ohio State University campus was my front yard from the time I was about 10 years old until I graduated from North High School, right before enlisting in the navy. My mother was a widow, and much of the time she would rent a house and take in students to make ends meet. It was just my mother, my older brother, David, and me. And the students, of course, or sometimes a professor or librarian. Oh, yes, and from time to time my orbiting grandmother, “Da.”
In chronological order: We lived for a while in the apartments at the corner of Neil and West 11th Avenue, then at 145 West 11th in a cute little white bungalow that’s no longer there. On one side of that house was an OSU entomological research station and on the other side there lived a family named Beatley.
A few years later, I forget why, we moved to 61 West 11th Ave. This was another house that in later years was sacrificed to university sprawl. It was also once the home of John H. Schaffner, a noted Ohio botanist. As a matter of fact, over in the B & Z (Botany and Zoology) Building there used to be a framed photograph of Dr. Schaffner and his family sitting on the front porch of that very same white frame house. One of our neighbors was Mr. Washburn, er, pardon me, Doctor Washburn, the head of the History Department at the university. On the other side was a pleasant little widow whose name I no longer remember.
My fondest memories, I believe, are of the house at 145 West 11th Ave. I liked everything about it, especially the front bedroom that I called my own. In that pleasant room, in addition to a single bed and a dresser, I had crammed every imaginable kind of natural history artifact, from bird nests and cases of butterflies and moths to pressed leaves and flowers, fungi, rocks, fossils, minerals, you name it. Not to speak of a growing collection of nature books. I was a true pack rat, a trait that has persisted.
Those were the best of times, maybe because of the youthful years they spanned. Sometimes when I was walking across the campus, especially in the evening, I would suddenly start running just for the sheer animal-like joy of it. As fast as I could, like a gazelle, I would literally fly over those old red brick sidewalks. In love with life! Exhilarated! I would nod or bashfully smile as I zoomed by this student or that. Sometimes, usually with a couple of pals, I would romp around Mirror Lake, clambering over the massive rocks from which the little lake’s waters once flowed.
One of my greatest pleasures each spring was sitting in the nearby amphitheater watching the Browning Society coeds rehearse their Shakespearean plays. How I loved to watch the animated face of Elsie Coates Kittle, the talented director of the society, as she coached her charges, cajoling, pleading, smiling, grimacing, laughing – her small frame a dynamo of pent-up energy. And the night of the dress rehearsal. How wonderful it was! Bigger than life. The flaming torches. The women actors playing all the roles, including the most raucous of male characters.
And over all that time, I developed a thorough knowledge of the campus and most of its buildings. I loved old Orton Hall with its bell tower. I was awed and flabbergasted by the dinosaurs and other geologic wonders within. I loved the old Student Union and the busy comings and goings of the students.
The B and Z Building and the lovely informal garden became a magnet once I had discovered the joy of birds. The noted botanist and head of the department, Dr. Nelson Transeau, was on friendly speaking terms with me. Imagine! Me, just a kid.
One indelible memory revolves around the time I was wandering through Hamilton Hall. An impressive place it was indeed. The seat of OSU’s medical school, the somber halls lined with the pictures of distinguished graduates. On this particular day, evidently between quarters because there was hardly a soul around, I was exploring the third floor when I looked into a large room, probably thinking it was a laboratory of some kind.
Off to one side, on a table, was what I took to be a human figure. It didn’t move, and foolishly I tiptoed closer. It was a man. A dead man, and most of his body was exposed. I inched closer, my heart thumping like a scared rabbit. This man’s flesh was like wax. A horrible pale yucky yellow color, and his body had been cut into. Where he had been cut into there were nightmarish blotches of awful purple color. The last thing I remember before I fainted was taking a closer look at the man’s face. One bloodshot eye was open. It was looking at me. I thought it moved.
A student found me there sprawled on the floor. “My Gawd!” he exclaimed when I came to. “What are you doing here, kid?”
“I dunno,” I answered weakly. He helped me to my feet and walked me out of the room and down the hall until he was sure I was OK.
With a sheepish grin, I thanked him and reassured him that I was OK. Then I made my way down the marble stairs to the first floor, out of the gloomy building and onto Neil Avenue, the fresh air and bright sunshine beckoning.
I never told my mother any of this, and if she’s listening, from wherever that is, “It’s OK, Mom. Everything’s just fine!”
(From the October 2000 issue)
Why were people in the Short North area wearing out the seats of their pants and dresses to such an extent that there were more tailors in the neighborhood than clothes moths?
Recently, I was cleaning out a dresser drawer and I came across an old faded raggedy little booklet titled simply Base Ball Schedule. It was printed in 1910 and sold for five cents. When I say "little," I mean it. This little job printed by the Pfeifer Printing Company, located at the corner of Noble and Pearl Streets, is exactly five inches deep by three-and-a-quarter inches wide. Counting the front and back covers, it boasts 96 pages. In addition to all the season's games for the American Association, the booklet also contains baseball schedules for OSU as well as the local high schools. No, I'm not so old that I bought this little curiosity when it hit the streets. I was born many years later. Thank goodness! As a matter of fact, I purchased it at Doug Ritchey's shop, which was located at the corner of Lincoln and High.
Anyhow, the front cover was about to fall off so I was leafing very gingerly through this little gem, mostly intrigued by the large number of advertisements which, interestingly enough, were for establishments between downtown and the university. A little note at the bottom of page 27 informed the reader that the schedule was published every year by Ernest Hesse, 279 Fourteenth Avenue, and that potential advertisers for the 1911 edition should call Bell North 1020.
OK, I'll start at the beginning of the booklet and share with you some of the folks who advertised. Placed prominently on the inside front cover is an ad for the Baker Art Gallery, specializing in photography, but the ad fails to list either an address or a phone number! The Stag Cafe (John Coe, proprietor) was located at 988 N. High Street. That's at the corner of Second and High. "Everything first class" the ad says, also noting that they offered billiards and pool.
Books, drawing materials, and engineering supplies could be found at The Varsity Supply Co., located at 1602 N. High. That's in the University District. Right next door at 1598 was the Varsity Inn plugging that it was "Just the Place to Eat." Down in our neighborhood, Mendel the Tailor plied his needle and thread at 530 N. High, and his ad states that he could make a guaranteed-to-fit suit for $18 to $40. J.W. Richards, Prescrip-tion Druggist, was located at 858 N. High, and his ad says that he also carried baseball goods.
The High Buttles Drug Co. was, well, guess where? The description of their sodas made me wish they were still there! Listen to this: "Our Soda is in a class by itself, because it is made so good. If everybody made soda as we do, it wouldn't be hard to get a real good glass of Soda." Gosh, gee, I was thinking about this time. Wait! There's more. "We use the purest Concentrated Fresh Fruit Syrup, Pure Rock Candy Syrup and freshly charged Sodawater with lots of life in it. You'll enjoy the soda we serve." Well, by dingy, I wish I could charge over there and slurp down one of their concoctions right now, but I guess not.
Grocer Aaron Higgins had a store at Eighth and High and what's this? By gum, it's another tailor, Herman by name, and he's right down the street from Mendel at 607 N. High. What's going on here? Tailor wars? Herman says "If you wear good clothes and think you have been paying too much for them, SEE ME. Well, I wonder who he aimed that poorly disguised barb at? Couldn't have been poor old Mendel by any chance, could it?
There was a sewing machine store at 732 N. High and, Oh! Oh! What's going on here? Another tailor? By gad! I can't believe it! This one's S. Bloom and his shop is at 682 N. High. Holy smokes! They're all knotted together like a big ball of yarn. S. Bloom advertises that he's "The Only First Class Tailor in the North End." How about that?! The nerve of the guy! And what's with so many tailor shops? Why were people in the Short North wearing out the seats of their pants and dresses to such an extent that there were more tailors in the neighborhood than clothes moths? We'll probably never know the answers to these perplexing questions.
I'm only halfway through this little journey, so I'll leave you in the good hands of the Pletcher-Brown Company, Funeral Directors, which my handy little booklet says was located at 1122-1124 North High Street. H.A. Pletcher was the President and Sherman D. Brown served as General Manager. No indication who worked on the bodies.
(To be continued)
(From the September 2000 Issue)
I finally got up my nerve and asked a girl if she would
like to go to the movies. I almost fainted when she said yes.
The pulsating beat, beat, beat of war news was the universal cadence that dominated every phase of life in Columbus from the late 30s right up to V-J Day in 1945. It seemed like every time you turned the radio on you would hear Hitler's hysterical voice followed by choruses of Sieg Heils. Then came the sober-voiced commentators, Edward R. Murrow, H. V. Kaltenbaum, and Raymond Graham Swing analyzing what he had said in the context of the day's events, almost always bad. All of that and the country was trying to pull itself out of an economic depression that had eviscerated it for an entire decade.
But we were preparing for the inevitable. There were more men in uniform seen on the street. The draft had started up, in spite of heated opposition from some political quarters, and local lads were being sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi where they practiced with dummy guns and fake tanks. Out near the airport, the huge, sprawling Curtiss-Wright plant was turning out fighting planes for the U. S. Navy, in the process hiring thousands of people.
I was but a callow youth, trying to keep my grades up in school, Everett, then North High, making a few dollars from part time jobs such as paper routes, then eventually working at that first Big Bear store on Lane Avenue and, when time allowed, pursuing my interest in birds. I was intensely shy and self-conscious, blushed easily, and did not have my first date until I had almost graduated from high school. I finally got up my nerve and asked a girl if she would like to go to the movies. I almost fainted when she said yes. For two days ahead of time I was a nervous wreck, setting aside the trousers and shirt I was going to wear, then changing the selection, not once but more like a dozen times.
The time immediately preceding the hour I had to pick her up flew by in an insane blur of anticipation mixed with worry and heavily sprinkled with dread. I can't even remember my date's name for sure, but I think it was Ruth. Yes. Ruth something. A very attractive young lady. Maybe not one of the dream girls in my class, but certainly not a girl to provoke nightmares.
I shaved, drawing blood in the process, of course, then spent an hour trying to staunch the flow of blood with a styptic pencil. I probably brushed my teeth ten times, gargled with Listerine mouthwash until my throat was numb, combed and recombed my hair, slicking it down until I had used up half a bottle of Vitalis, made sure I had a reserve supply of Lifesavers in my pockets and with pulses pounding, headed for her house.
I met her parents, reassured them we would be home early, took a streetcar downtown, went to the Palace Theatre, saw a movie whose title has long since escaped me, had cheeseburgers and cokes at the Wagonwheel, which was located near Broad and High, eked out a sparse and self-conscious conversation, boarded a streetcar for the university district, delivered her home, kissed her goodnight with a peck on the cheek that missed her mouth by a country mile, strode home with confident steps through the cool night air, feeling like I had just rescued Helen of Troy, and collapsed into bed.
Actually, I had experienced a more worldly evening a few months earlier. One evening after dark I met two buddies, the Dodge Brothers, in the alley in back of my house at 61 West Eleventh Avenue and we headed toward the Palm Gardens, a nightclub run by Papa Joe Alexander and his family at 1392 North High Street. There were floor shows that had attracted up-and-coming stars like Dean Martin and many others. But, get this! On the night we talked our way into the dim interior of the club, there were a couple of strippers performing. Oh, they didn't exactly take everything off. You know, there were a couple of little things they called pasties, and something else at the juncture of their legs. Well, we weren't complaining. We were just seventeen years old and in one night we had seen our first naked women and had our first couple of beers.
(From the August 2000 Issue)
Remember when you could drive into a service station and get some service?
There was a time when you didn't even have to ask for it.
At the conclusion of last month's article, I promised to relate more tales out of my childhood and youth. Well, you'll have to wait. I decided to do something else. But as you read on, you will notice a connection of sorts to what I originally intended to do. And, remember this, whatever your age, chronologically or otherwise, I hope you enjoy (and ponder) these thoughts that I sincerely place before you.
As many people might easily guess, publishing this newspaper is a labor of love. One big reason is that the Short North district represents a vestige of times past, back when there were many exciting attractions, including interesting shops and restaurants all over downtown, spilling over into this area. And lots of people took advantage of their offerings. It's sort of like that now. That's why I love the Short North. It's the best of the past, combined with the best of the present.
I was thinking about some of these things recently, especially after learning about the huge development proposed over around N. Fourth Street. And, as a conse-quence, I got to thinking about the definition of "progress."
Philosophers and historians of one type or another have long been fascinated with this subject, and just trying to define the word can be a job-and-a-half effort. In its simplest form, the concept could be thought of as the mere passage of time. But mostly, when speaking of progress, we just naturally take it for granted that progress means improvement, that things are getting better, onward and upward. Excelsior! But Whoa! This is not necessarily true.
What we so naively call progress (by assuming it is forward progress) turns out to be not so efficient and up-to-date after all. In other words, many of the so-called advances our society is making today are not steps forward, but rather an astigmatic, tortured stumbling backwards.
Remember when you made a business call and got a human being at a switch-board on the other end of the line? Compare this to the situation today. Push one for blah, push two for blah-blah, push three for blah-blah-blah, and so on ad infinitem. Well, excuse me from all this pure unadulterated crap. Give me the likes of Lily Tomlin in front of her little switchboard. She and her colleagues were faster, efficient, more pleasant and non-ulcer provoking than all these so-called voice mail boxes and boring automated switch-boards.
Another example: Remember when you could drive into a service station and get some service? There was a time when you didn't even have to ask for it. A friendly guy would wash and squeegee your windshield and windows, then ask if you wanted your radiator, tires, or oil checked, all this while he was pumping your gas, which was unbelievably inexpensive. Tell me we've made progress!
Still another example: the poor educa-tion our kids are getting in spite of all the calculators, computers, and cell phones at their beck and call. More crap. How about teaching them the essentials of education out of good ol' textbooks!?
Cell phones I've already mentioned. Pure crap. Recently, some middle-aged intellectually deprived idiot, blathering away on his cell phone, ran a red light at Michigan and Third Avenues and would have totaled me if I hadn't taken evasive action. A few weeks before that, at the Grandview Big Bear, some cart-pushin' hot tamale with a cell-phone cradled to her ear
crashed into my cart headfirst. As she backed off, I smiled at her and good-naturedly bantered, "Good thing I don't get road rage!"
There are many other areas of retro-gression. I can remember when music had a melody instead of a deadly bashing beat. And what about the wonderful technology of sound and tonal reproduction? What did it lead to? Pulsating boom boxes in cars that can be heard two blocks away.
I can remember when streetcars and trolley-busses were packed with riders. I remember when there were three daily newspapers in Columbus, not one. I remember when there were lots of taxicabs, and they were fit to ride in. I remember when downtown Columbus was an exciting place full of retail stores, fine restaurants and cafes, and wonderful hotels. Now, with the exception of the City Center, it's nothing but corporate bee hives and rip-off parking lots.
Do you still think things have improved? You better not get sick or have to go to the dentist. You might just die waiting.
Well, that's progress for you! Are we getting smarter? Hell, no! We're getting dumber by the minute! However, nothing is all bad, and thank God for the Short North! Lots of other things, too, so don't get me wrong. Life is what you make it. Life's a ball, life's a cabaret! And don't try to take my computer away.
Oh, by the way. I just read that the H. J. Heinz Co. is coming out with green catsup. Well, I'll be danged! What will they think of next?
(From the July 2000 Issue)
Be good sweet grads, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them all day long;
And so make life, death and that vast forever
One grand sweet song . . .
- 9A Home Room Teachers, 1939
When I was a kid, the University District and the Short North were the areas where I hung out. For most of my teen years, my family lived on West Eleventh Avenue. My widowed mother Lucille was the courageous breadwinner, my older brother David and I tried to help with part-time jobs, and sometimes my orbiting grandmother "Da" lived with us and probably contributed to the family pot.
I used to like High Street with its many stores of all descriptions and its assortment of eating places. To illustrate the variety of businesses, just between West Eleventh and Tenth Avenues, there was a hardware store, a dry goods store, a Chinese laundry, a hamburger joint, a little Kroger's (where you had to be waited on by a clerk), a bank, and a few other places I've forgotten. The drugstore was Berry's, a place I found myself in almost daily because of their soda fountain, a nice assortment of pulp magazines, and their kid-friendly atmosphere. Fountain cokes were a nickel and sundaes and sodas were ten cents.
Across the street, on the southwest corner of Tenth Avenue and High, there was a nondescript bowling alley. Long gone now; I think destroyed by a fire.
Some fairly famous folks sprang from those streets and avenues of the University District and the area that would later be called the Short North. Hollywood lovely Jean Peters once trod the sidewalks around the campus when she lived at OSU's Baker Hall. She's the gal who won a beauty contest, went to Hollywood for a screen test, met Howard Hughes, and made her way to fame and fortune. Maybe I actually saw her one time or another going across campus, or maybe at Hennick's, the popular, upscale, lunchroom and tobacco shop next to Long's Bookstore. Coke's there, by the way, were twenty cents.
Jimmy Rhodes, who later became Mayor of Columbus and Governor of Ohio had a little shop on the east side of High, somewhere between Tenth Avenue and King Avenue. (I don't know what he sold.) Nicklaus Pharmacy was on the southeast corner of Chittenden Avenue. It was owned by famed golfer Jack Nicklaus' father. The Pharmacy was OK, but it lacked the funky appeal of Berry's Drug Store down the street. In other words, it was more of a pharmacy, no soda fountain, all business. Not much time for kids with their dirty hands and floppy paper bags.
I attended Ninth Avenue Elementary School from the fifth through the sixth grades. Across the alley from the playground, in the back of a residence that faced on Neil Avenue, a kindly white-haired lady named Mrs. Veatch had a penny candystore. Oh, the goodies found in that little cubbyhole of a store!
Nearby, on the corner of Eighth and Worthington was a store that also sold a lot of penny candy, plus ice cream confections, and a variety of trinkets and drygoods. A version of that store still stands and is open for business. Around the corner and across the street, the Wise sisters had a grocery store. Another grocery store in the area was the King Avenue Market, owned by C.F. Waterman. That store had a meat department my mother swore by. The butcher, Mr. Gettles, really knew what he was doing when it came to lamb chops and tender cuts of beef. When mother wanted meat patties, she always specified ground upper round. And she always asked for a piece of suet. Back then, the suet was free.
Some of my classmates that I recall at Ninth Avenue Elementary School were Josephine Alexander, Donald Day, Mary Evans, Helen Houston, Annnette Keller, Jane Kilgore, Harold Hoffman, Garnett Moore, Jimmy Reeder, Patty Rundio, David Tilton, Betty Jane Stephenson, Kenneth Woodruff, Betty Ann Bond, and Marjorie Walker.
After grade school, I went to Everett Junior High. (Recently reborn as Arts Impact Middle School.) Everett was really an excellent school with many fine teachers and a curriculum as solid as a major league baseball bat. My homeroom teacher was Mr. Rickly. Some of the other teachers who touched my life were Miss Leitch, Miss Swinehart, Mr. Reese, Mrs. Morehart, Miss DeMuth, Miss George, and Miss DeNune. I also have vivid memories of the cafeteria, especially the meatloaf sandwiches, slathered with mustard.
My classes included two years of Latin, Algebra, Plain and Solid Geometry, American History, Geography, English Literature and Grammar, Physical Education, Music, and Art.
Classmates included some of the ones named above plus a lot of new faces, including Dorothy Fluke, Betty Blatt, Polly Caine, Dick Temple, Maxine Moore, Helen Funk, Betty Paschall, Edith DeVictor, Grover Dixon, Richard Myers, Jack Reese, Annie Amicon, Harold Schneider, Rex Blair, Betty Tyson, Ann Wikoff, Ruth Kelso, Richard Goldfredrick, Royce Hiles, Bob Warman, and others, many forgotten. Some of these kids might have been half a grade before or half a grade after me. Where are they all now? Well, I know David Tilton is alive and well because he recently supplied me with a June 1939 Everett Junior High School Graduation publication, the Scroll.
Many classmates died years ago, some of the fellows in the war, others from one thing or another. Friends like Jimmy Reeder and Rex Blair. Long gone, but not forgotten.
- Tom Thomson
Produce Boy at Big Bear Delivers Goods (June 2000, Decembery 2008)
On Thursdays and Fridays after school and all day Saturdays,
I worked at the first Big Bear Store on West Lane Avenue.
When I was a high school kid, on Thursdays and Fridays after school and all day Saturdays, I worked in the produce department at that famous first Big Bear Store on West Lane Avenue. The one that was located in an old skating rink building – the Silver Slipper I believe was the name. Before that it was a dance palace. Architecturally it was quite attractive, big and sprawling, lima-bean shaped, red brick around the base with a cantilevered rooftop.
Times were tough and I felt lucky to have the job. Clerks made 25 cents an hour. That included me. You heard right. Two-bits an hour. So let’s figure it up. I worked on Thursdays from 4 p.m. to about 10 p.m., Fridays from 4 to midnight, and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to midnight. Add it all up and it comes to 31 hours. OK, at 25 cents an hour that comes to $7.75. Not much, you say? Hey, I could tell you a place where hamburgers were five cents!
Although most of the grocery department (canned and boxed goods) was self-serve, alas, in the produce department every customer had to have a clerk, which meant a crush of people, especially on Saturday nights. So, there I was in a freshly starched white apron, behind a counter with a dozen or so other callow youths, facing a horde of gluttonous and insatiable faces waving stalks of celery around in the air trying to get the attention of one of us.
The women would resort to all kinds of ploys and deceits. Such stratagems ranged from winking, making goo-goo eyes, wrinkling their noses, and licking their lips, to outright flirting. Frightening though it might have been to the uninitiated, this was one of the endearing things about the job. I have never felt so wanted in all my life, before or after. Even now, I sometimes have pleasant dreams of celery stalks and asparagus being waved in front of my face by beautifully depraved women.
Another stratagem successfully practiced by some customers was to cultivate a friendship with a clerk until some kind of claim could be laid on him. This is called the old “favorite clerk syndrome.” As I remember, it was mostly employed by pretty widows and grandmotherly types, but sometimes by wives with husbands. These people would be so nice, get to know us on a first-name basis, keep up-to-date on our progress in school, making us feel like we were part of their family. The rewards to this delicate deceit were great, and might easily cut fifteen minutes off stabbing the air with a stalk of celery.
One type of clerk-customer relationship I enjoyed immensely, but hesitate to mention because the faint of heart or some poor straight-laced soul might take offense and read into a sweet innocent act motives that were not there. First, I have to tell you that there were a half-dozen display tables on the customer side of the counter, out on the floor, sometimes referred to as islands. These islands were most often used to display citrus fruits, oranges and grapefruits, sometimes lemons and limes. Piled high. So when a fair lady would indicate that she wanted grapefruits or oranges, I would grab a papersack, walk from behind the protection of the counter, go out on the floor, and meet her at the table of fruit. A tryst, if you will, right out of Michener’s South Pacific.
Now comes the idyllic part. As she squeezed, felt, and fondled the grapefruits or oranges until she was sure she had exactly the perfect ones, I stood there with beating heart and bated breath holding the open bag ready to receive her offering. Fairly frequently, the unthinkable would happen. As she dropped the fruit into the wide open bag, her hand, her soft, warm scented hand would brush against mine. Was it my imagination that it lingered there for more than the time required to plop a grapefruit into the bottom of the bag? Why did I pray that she was going to buy a whole dozen grapefruits?
Remember I was only 17. Untried, unhonored, and unsung. In other words, a virgin. And I had always been one up to this point. Not that I wasn’t a flaming volcano under that misleading quiet and untutored exterior.
But I haven’t told you the best part of the job yet. When I first started, I was told that employees were allowed a ten percent discount off all produce. Well, off every-thing but the fancy stuffed dates which were priced beyond belief. Later, I found out the clerks were simply eating them, one at a time, on the job. When my widowed mother found out I got a ten percent off produce, she was ecstatic. “Da,” my orbiting grandmother, was mighty pleased about this turn of events too. Every now and then she would put in a modest order.
After I had been on the job a few weeks, I discovered that it was customary for everyone, clerks, checkout girls, and managers, to weigh and mark their own goods. Not long after, I learned that everybody put down whatever price they damn pleased. It was like playing Imagination. Here’s the way it worked. I have a half-dozen yams on the scale in front of me. I think I will take this handy black marking pen and write seven cents on the bag. And so on. Everything but the stuffed dates.
Thus it was, on starry Saturday nights, I would stumble on foot across the mid-night quiet of the university campus, staggering under the enormous weight of potatoes, squashes, turnips, melons, and all the other things that grow that I had paid the princely sum of maybe seventy-nine cents for. I never explained the unusual pricing system to my mother. Because she was excruciatingly honest, I decided to spare her that pain and allow her to enjoy the fruits of my labor. It was enough reward just to see the joy in her eyes.
(From the April 2000 issue, reprint June 2008)
Legendary Tales did not appear in the May 2000 issue
Friend and Farmer Floyd Bartley
Floyd's ruddy complexion, pale blue eyes, and wisp
of white hair, usually shed down under a beat-up old
felt hat, were his personal trademarks.
Whenever I see a profusion of wildflowers I think of my old friend Floyd Bartley who was born in 1888 on a farm in Pickaway County, not far from Circleville. He died in 1975, but during his lifetime he made numerous contributions to the scientific study of botany in Ohio, even though he only went through grade school and chose to make his living as a farmer.
For many years he drove his faithful 1931 Model A Ford around the state collecting and preserving plant specimens. In the trunk of the car was a homemade plant press, consisting of two pieces of plywood holding together a stack of folded newspapers between which he would insert flowers and leaves, the whole thing tightly bound with a couple of straps.
Floyd’s ruddy complexion, pale blue eyes, and wisp of white hair, usually pushed down under a beat up old felt hat, were his personal trademarks. But his kindly disposition and infinite patience in passing on his knowledge of botany were what endeared him to so many students and lay persons. I remember how he taught me to recognize several species of the Helianthus genus of the true native American sunflower.
The hills of southern Ohio – and the plants that are there – were Floyd’s greatest passion as he searched for rarities with an enthusiasm seldom found even among professionals. As a result of his diligent searching, he discovered species of plants new to the state of Ohio. One of them was the bigleaf magnolia, a tree that was thought to have been indigenous to the Carolinas. But more than that, this farmer, this dedicated amateur botanist, discovered at least three totally new species, species new to science, including one that represented an entirely new genus.
Floyd contributed specimens to such prestigious museums and herbaria as the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Botanical Garden, and Ohio University. The Ohio Academy of Science made him an honorary life member in 1966, and Ohio University established the Floyd Bartley Herbarium. That same year, the Ohio Academy of Science made Floyd an honorary life member, and the Ohio Association of Garden Clubs gave him their first State Conservation award.
The late Dr. Harold E. Burtt, chairman emeritus of the Department of Psychology at The Ohio State University and an avid naturalist himself, used to tell this story about Floyd. With a neighbor friend who was also interested in botany, Floyd took a trip to Cedar Swamp one late summer day to see the fringed gentian. When they found a spot with an abundance of the bright blue flowers, they sat down and Floyd took a book of poetry from the pocket of an old suitcoat that he sometimes wore on his trips afield. He thumbed through the book until he found William Cullen Bryant’s poem about the fringed gentian, and as the two of them sat there together, he read it aloud. The two final verses go like this:
Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue – blue – as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.
I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.
Isn’t that wonderful? Two old farmers. Botanists. Enjoying a poem. What is the world coming to?
(From the March 2000 Issue)
Some of the landmarks around the old neighborhood that will forever live in my memory include a popular short-order restaurant where everything was a nickel.
When I was a kid, the University District and the northern ramparts of the Short North was where I lived. Went to Ninth Avenue Elementary, then on to Everett Junior High before trolley-trekking all the way up to North High School.
Some of the landmarks around the old neighborhood that will forever live in my memory include a popular short-order restaurant where everything was a nickel. Yep, everything. Hamburgers, bowls of chili and soup, baked beans, pie, coffee, coke. The whole works. Cheap, even then. You could wolf down a whole meal for two-bits, maybe twenty cents. It was a mighty popular place with students, and me too. Helped stretch my paper money from here to the moon. Plus, I liked hanging out with students.
Moe Glassman's is another place that sticks in my mind. Moe's was a men's shop where I purchased most of my clothes after I started earning money. God, how I loved that place! It was my first real chance to express the real me that had been hiding beneath my skin since I was born. Slacks, shirts, and sweaters, that was mostly it. And Moe, and his wife, and the clerks were all nice as pie. What I mean is, they were really considerate of the tender feelings and skimpy wallet of a young kid like me.
On the block between Eleventh and Twelfth there was a little Kroger store with clerks who waited on customers, and most of the groceries were on shelves behind the counter. There was a Chinese laundry, a bank, and on the corner of West Tenth and High, Berry's Drug Store. A truly neat place with a good assortment of pulp magazines, candy, and a sociable soda fountain that featured ice cream treats, including hot fudge sundaes, for fifteen cents.
Driving around the neighborhoods, as I do every day, constantly re-crossing my youthful footsteps, I sometimes wonder what the younger me would have thought of this older one. I shudder to contem-plate the question because I know that I have surely fallen short of the youthful aspirations I might have had originally.
The younger me was afoot, of course, hiking along the sidewalks and through the back alleys, short-cutting across vacant lots, carefree for the most part, usually wearing hand-me-downs from my older brother. Frequently I was delivering papers, sometimes the Columbus Dispatch, sometimes the Columbus Citizen. My paper routes extended, at different times, from West Eleventh Avenue all the way to Fifth Avenue or beyond. Sometimes east of Neil Avenue, sometimes west. So, as you can see, I have made precious little progress in this world because I'm still lugging newspapers around. By the way, I'll bet you didn't know there used to be a little movie theatre on West Third Avenue near the corner of Michigan. My pal Eddy Farmer reminded me of this, and he also remembered that it was called The Wilmar.
Where Viking Carryout is on King Avenue just east of Neil there was the King Avenue Market, a very fine grocery store widely known for the high quality of their meat department, which was presided over by a thin stooped-over little man named Mister Getz. Where the King Avenue Coffee House used to be there was a drug store. I remember it as a gloomy place, many of the walls lined with shelves of patent medicines. A long soda fountain extended most of the length of the place. Just east of Neil was the Ninth Avenue Elementary School (now a row of undistinguished apartments) and right across the alley in a residence was a penny candy store run by kindly gray-haired Mrs.Veech.
Johnny Gardner and his family lived in a big yellow brick house with a nice side yard and a garden on the west side of Neil between Ninth and Tenth right about where the Mershon Center for Research and Education is now. On the northeast corner of Tenth and Neil was the Campus Neil Drug Store and right next door was the Campus Neil Restaurant. I had a crush on a pretty young girl who worked there.
To eke out a living during the Great Depression, my mother, a widow, took in roomers, mostly OSU students. After living in a house on Neil Avenue, between Eighth and King Avenues, she decided to get closer to the campus, which meant moving north. So, like a Sandhill Crane looking for tundra, my mother migrated northwards, gathering up my brother and me, and probably my orbiting grandmother as well, and together we flew with her to a more favorable environment, directly across from The great Ohio State University. (Ooops! A damned adjective wedged itself between my properly capitalized "The" and the rest of the school's name.) Oh well, let them fret. See if I care! I just can't help thinking that in those days the university was a happier place because it didn't have that pretentious hard-to-live-up-to capitalized "T" in the "The." The campus became a vast front yard for me.
Once in a while, at night, restless and alive with energy, I would head for the Oval or Mirror Lake, or the gentle valley east of the hollow. Sometimes a spirit of pure animal vitality would rush through my body, and I would start running as fast as I could, my feet literally flying, exhilarated by the cool night air rushing past my face as I ran along the old brick sidewalks, as exuberant as I am just now lining up the three "the's" in a row in the previous paragraph, undoubtedly a world's record!
- Tom Thomson
From the February 2000 issue)
Behind the counter, a man with a thatch of disheveled hair and spectacles halfway
down his nose was sitting on a stool reading a newspaper.
For many years, probably the better part of a century, the old building had been a general store in Sugar Grove, Ohio, just up the road a couple of miles from the Clear Creek Valley in Hocking County. But in recent years it has barely managed to stay open, most business reduced to soft drinks, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and the gas pump out front.
My children were elementary school age and one wasn't even born the first time I stopped by that quaint place to get a fill-up and a round of pop to quench our thirst. A couple of barefoot local lads, swigging Coca Cola from old-fashioned bottles, were coming out the door as I went in. I remember I had to adjust my eyes to the dimness of the light as I passed over the threshold.
Behind the counter, a man with a thatch of disheveled hair and spectacles halfway down his nose was sitting on a stool reading a newspaper. A soda fountain with a marble top and an array of syrup dispensers, long unused, was off to one side. There were other counters and showcases of wood and glass, old-fashioned and sturdy, antiquities from the days of dry goods and notions. Suddenly I did a double take, not believing my eyes.
Hundreds of stuffed birds were set on the counters; others were perched on high shelves that ran around the room. There were ferocious looking hawks, solemn owls, ducks, geese, and swans with spread wings - as if ready to take off - rails and gallinules caught forever in stealthy stalking, and dozens of song-birds, some with heads tilted back, as if singing. And there were all kinds of animals, too. Deer and antelope heads are what I mostly remember.
The birds were so old they had lost their bright pigmentation, turning a mummified grayish-brown color, all of them covered with dust so thick you could blow it off in clouds.
Then I saw the passenger pigeon, a bird now extinct, on a countertop, enclosed under a glass bell jar. It had retained a trace of its pastel rosiness, a glimmer of blue and violet iridescence along the feather edgings. I reflected on the history of this species and how it had once ranged over North America from the Gulf of Mexico north to Canada and west to western Texas and Montana.
A. W. Schorger in his book, The Passenger Pigeon, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, believes that before the settlement of America by Europeans the passenger pigeon formed 25 -40% of the total bird population of what is now the United States.
In Kentucky in 1808, Alexander Wilson once estimated two and a quarter billion birds overhead in a one-mile-wide ribbon that took four hours to pass. John Audubon saw another flock in Kentucky that he estimated at one billion. In Ontario, Canada in 1866, Ross King observed a flock that was approximately 300 miles long, one mile wide, and took 14 hours to pass. Authorities estimated the flock contained 3 billion, 717 million birds.
Ernest Thompson Seton, the famous Canadian author and naturalist, wrote: "I shall never forget the last great horde that passed over. It was in 1876, about April 20. "An army of pigeons flew overhead due north. The flocks seemed only about twenty deep, but extending east and west as far as could be seen, fading into a smoky line on each horizon ..."
As we all know, the pigeons, doomed to extinction, were unmercifully pursued and systematically destroyed at their roosting and nesting places for their flesh and eggs. They became especially vulnerable during the second half of the 19th century when the number of large woodlands suitable for their nesting diminished and the hunting pressure continued unabated.
Their numbers plummeted when entire breeding seasons would be lost due to human harassment. Genetically coded for colonial nesting, the species was headed for oblivion by the end of the nineteenth century. The last known individual, a captive bird named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden on September 1, 1914.
As the proprietor of the store, Paul Hoster, fished for the orange and grape pop for my kids and a couple of bottles of Coke for my wife and me, he said that back before the turn-of-the-century his father-in-law who had been an avid hunter, learned the art of taxidermy and slowly filled the store with his trophies. He wasn't sure when or where the passenger pigeon had been shot.
I was thinking about all of this a few years ago when I read that a small tornado had passed near the store in Sugar Grove and destroyed a trailer - as twisters invariably do. That's when I thought of all the stuffed birds and animals - and the passenger pigeon.
I imagined what would have happened if the establishment had been in the storm's path, if the old building had imploded, as they say structures hit by twisters seem to do, and all those stuffed birds and beasts had been liberated, tossed upwards, willy-nilly, on the wings of the storm.
I can picture it now. The glass case sheltering the passenger pigeon tips over and shatters. The extinct bird joins a wild melee of hawks and fowl and smaller birds, released from their long-time prison, rising like avian ghosts into the sky one last time.
Whisked aloft, the pigeon leads the way, higher and higher they soar, over Fairfield County and beyond. The animals sprint toward the canyons of the clouds, thinking them to be mountains. Like apparitions or reincarnated spirits they all rise to the heavens until lost from sight, a littered trail of glass and debris marking their fantastic flight to freedom.
- Tom Thomson
(From the January 2000 issue)
Hearts and Minds
See July 2009
My backyard was to become Madison Square Garden for a night. And mercenary kids that we were, we sold tickets to the match.
(September thru Dec. '99 issues, in sequence)
I forget the exact year of the famous grudge fight between Jimmy McVicker and me, but it was during the Great Depression, about the time Joe Louis attained his fame as heavyweight champion of the world and every time you turned on the radio you would hear Adolf Hitler screaming his guts out about one thing or another. FDR was in the White House, that man, my grandmother called him, and it was probably about the time Amelia Earhart disappeared.
I forget what the grudge was about, but we decided to settle it with gloves on, so it must have been something serious. Jimmy and I published compet-ing neighborhood newspapers. Can you believe that? Jimmy passed away a long time ago, but I'm still in the same old rat race! Our papers were printed on hektographs. A hektograph, was a pan of hard jelly upon which a master print was rubbed and from that forty or fifty copies could be made when pressed down on the imprinted jelly.
Anyhow, we decided to stage the fight in my backyard on the coming Saturday night. I forget how we arrived at that decision because being only 12 or 13 years old we certainly didn't have any lawyers or handlers or managers like Don King, or anything like that. But that's what we decided to do. My backyard was to become Madison Square Garden for a night. And mercenary kids that we were, we sold tickets to the match.
Let me give you a little background information. It was when my widowed mother, Lucille, my older brother, David, and I lived for a couple of years in one of the apartments at the corner of Eleventh and Neil Avenues. There were stores on the ground level, as there are today. Back then there was an ice cream store and a florist's shop owned by Mr. McCormick. Next door was the old Varsity Drug Store owned by kindly, white-haired Mr. Cummins and his family. Underneath it was a shoe-repair shop.
Behind the apartment, facing Eleventh Avenue was the backyard, small but soon to become famous, and next to it was the Palm Grill, a bar and restaurant frequented by medical and dental students, still there under a different name. The establishment, back when I was a kid, was owned by Mr. Warren, a beer-bellied, beetle-browed man, whose jaws quivered when he talked, and who would later sell out and become a dentist in Warren, Ohio, which I always thought was neat.
Earlier that summer, Mr. Warren built a hot dog and popcorn concession stand out in front of his place. "Would you like to work there evenings?" he asked me. "Yes!" I answered without batting an eye, recognizing that this might be the perfect job for a kid my age! Not much money, but plenty of benefits, i.e., good hours, a chance to shoot the breeze with pretty coeds, and quite possibly an endless supply of hot dogs, popcorn, chewing gum, candy bars, and soft drinks for me and my friends. Thinking ahead, I arranged for a buddy, Rex Blair, to run the concession stand the night of the fight. As for Mr. Warren, he was jubilant when he heard about the upcoming attraction. He expected to do a lot of extra business, both in the bar and at the concession stand.
In the days before the fight there was a lot of work to do. There were folding chairs and benches to be scrounged and the ring itself to be constructed. And a bell. Oh, my Gawd, yes, we had to have a bell! And a referee to go with the bell. And a timekeeper. And tickets to be printed up on one of our hektographs, and then they had to be sold. As it turned out, they went like the proverbial hotcakes. We had a hot product!
The upcoming fight had become the talk of the neighborhood and half the campus, and as a consequence my mother was becoming a basketcase. Evidently, she was convinced that I was going to be killed, or seriously disfigured, or horribly maimed. My jittery grandmother, who also took roomers (and was famous for evicting students and professors because of their drinking habits), did her part in sowing these terrible doubts in my mother's poor unravelling mind. "Your son is a frail boy, Lucille, you better stop this tragedy before something awful happens," she would say.
I was beginning to have a few doubts about the whole business myself. For one thing, Mr. Warren had asked me to come into the Palm Garden one afternoon and sit down at a booth with him. Then, with a mournful look on his face, he asked me if I was in training. "In what?" I asked back. "In training," he said, "like working out with a sparring partner, running to build up your endurance, that kind of stuff."
I stared at him in disbelief. "Naw, nothing like that," I replied. "Well, I got my Dispatch route and I did run about ten blocks the other day when some bully was chasing me." Mr. Warren just stared at me with sad eyes. "Did you know people are making bets on the fight?" he asked. "Are you kidding?" I replied. "They're making bets on the fight between Jimmy and me?"
"You heard it right," Mr. Warren said, "and they're making odds." "Oh, yeah?" I shrugged. Like what's that mean?" "That means they're betting three to one that your opponent's going to win, mostly because he weighs 50 or 60 pounds more than you do."
I couldn't believe my ears, but I could perceive that my knees were acting funny when I got up from the booth. They felt like they might fold up like a pair of accordians.
(To be continued)
Finding out that people were betting against me was another real blow to my morale
October 1999 Issue
I was a Depression Kid, then a World War II kid, and now I'm on the verge of becoming a Millennium kid. I'm really not too sure where I fit in. I guess I'm a conglomerate, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. A wandering minstrel, a gypsy of sorts, trekking through the years. But, as they say, variety is the spice of life, and that's fine with me.
There were highlights sprinkled through my career, one of which was the Great Boxing Match at Eleventh and Neil Avenues many years ago when I was only 12 years old, an event I look back on with unbridled joy.
In the days before the fight, my mother worried herself to a frazzle about my getting maimed, or maybe murdered. "Your face might get battered to a pulp," she said, fearfully, on the verge of tears. "I might not even be able to recognize you after it's over!" She said this in a resigned tone of voice usually reserved for those who are deceased and on their way to the undertaker. Mother was aided and abetted in these fears by my orbiting grandmother, a sternly religious, deeply superstitious woman who followed us around, renting rooms nearby, or sometimes actually moving in with us.
Mother, I should explain, was a person who became easily excited and was easy prey to grandmother's terrible fears. "You've got to stop that fight, Lucille," grandmother would say. "Tom could get his eye put out or his brain damaged. I've heard of such things happening." Mother would drink up every word of this admonishment, then magnify the dreadful illusion in her own overwrought mind.
In the manner of young girls brought up in Nashville at the turn of the century, mother's childhood training had been severely Victorian. She never cussed and I never heard her tell a smutty joke, or even listen to one if she could help it. She did have a sense of humor, but it was as elusive and hard to find as a lost button. It became more apparent later in life when we would gossip about her neighbors, or small-talk about something in the news.
For instance, my brother, David, and I used to kid her about all the things she would return to her neighborhood grocery store. She almost never went to the store but that she was taking something back. When they saw her coming, clutching the customary paper sack, manager and assistant manager would pick up their coats and run out the back door. That left only one of the office girls to confront mother when she pushed the crumpled bag onto the counter. When asked what she was returning, mother would open up the sack and, like as not, pull out a pair of rumpled nylon hose, or a head of lettuce, or a loaf of bread she deemed stale, or a carton of milk that didn't smell right, or some lamb chops that didn't measure up to her standards of tenderness. When asked what was wrong with the lettuce, for instance, mother would say with a little toss of her head, "I just don't like the looks of it." This is remarkable in itself, because when buying lettuce she would squeeze every head of lettuce within reach in search of the perfect head.
Sometimes when recalling these episodes, mother would blush like a schoolgirl and put her hand over her mouth trying to stifle the giggles. David would pat her on the back and declare, "Mother is the ultimate consumer."
But getting back to my story, I should repeat that the upcoming fight was no laughing matter to my mother or my grandmother. Interestingly enough, it was something entirely unexpected in their lives, and it left them curiously ineffective in their control of me.
Looking back on the whole affair, I'll have to admit that things didn't look any too promising. Jimmy outweighed me by 50 or 60 pounds at least, maybe more. Psychologically, he had the edge because his mother and father owned their house, whereas we just rented an apartment, and I didn't even have a father who was alive. Finding out that people were betting against me was another crushing blow to my morale.
In the meantime, on the positive side, it slowly dawned on me that in my new role as a pugilist I was becoming something of a hero. For instance, the long-legged, red-haired girlfriend of the university astronomy professor who walked Canis Major, her tawny-colored Great Dane up and down Neil Avenue all the time, smiled at me one day. This was unusual because usually I was trying to keep my distance in view of the fact that Canis Major didn't like kids. On the day I speak of, however, Canis Major was on a tight leash and the starry-eyed girl gave me a big smile and said, "You're one of the fighters, aren't you?" She breathed this in a sultry tone that made me blush and almost melted my belt buckle.
(From the November 1999 Issue)
The big day finally arrived. When I awoke that morning I realized that within a matter of hours I might be savoring the sweet smell of success - or, more likely, tasting my own blood.
Summer days were getting shorter and the fight night was fast approaching. As the date of the big event approached, my apprehensions increased, although I must say that these fears were mixed with a certain degree of elation - call it martyrdom, for lack of a better word.
So it was, in spite of the dire predictions as to the outcome of the boxing match, my confidence was slowly building. The warm greeting of the astronomer's girlfriend had been reassuring, and a couple of my buddies, mostly guys that hung around the hot dog stand at night looking for handouts, those guys, they would scoff at the suggestion that I might get the tar beat out of me, or maybe suffer severe brain damage at the hands of Jimmy McVicker, who weighed a good 60 or 70 pounds more than I did. "Go in there and punish him," my pals would say. "You can do it if you make up your mind to do it. Smack him in the face, then punch him in the belly!" I actually began to believe them, even though I could see through their little charade. They were buttering me up to get me in a mellow give-away mood so they might benefit from some free popcorn, a bottle of soda pop, or, best of all, a hot dog smeared over with mustard, ketchup, and diced onions. That was the nice thing about my evening job. Even though I was only twelve years old, I was beginning to experience the heady feeling of power. Now if I could only translate that power into the ring. Do that one-two combination, a left to the face, then swoooosh, a hard right to the beefy mid-section. The more I thought about it, the more I believed I could win.
The big day finally arrived. When I awoke that morning I realized that within a matter of hours I might be savoring the sweet smell of success - or, more likely, tasting my own blood. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating feeling and already the adrenaline was beginning to flow in torrents. By pre-arrangement, actually in a telephone call a few days earlier, Jimmy and I had agreed to get together during the afternoon to construct the ring, collect all the chairs we could scrounge from friends and neighbors, and do anything else that needed taking care of. Mr. Warren donated four sturdy wooden sticks that would make satisfactory posts for the ring and I had a bunch of clothesline for the ropes.
The afternoon dragged by, and no Jimmy. I waited for a long time, all the while my patience wearing thinner and thinner. Still no Jimmy. Finally, I set about constructing the ring without anyone's help. I dug four holes, pounded the posts in even deeper, tamped the dirt down as tight as I could. Next I figured out a way to string two loops of clothesline from one pole to the next, a complicated and frustrating business during which I nearly hanged myself. To say that I was angry would be missing the point. For one thing, my opponent's absence caused me to wonder whether or not he was even going to show up for the fight at 8 pm. For another, I had two or three blisters on my hands from all the pounding I had been doing constructing the ring.
Yeah, I guess I was mad. Angry would be more like it. Pissed off, closer yet. I was ready to kick butt. Even though I probably didn't recognize it at the time, the killer instinct was taking over. I was visualizing the fight before it even took place, imagining what I was going to do to Jimmy. The grudge fight was escalating into a lynching mentality as far as I was concerned.
Finally I left the scene of the upcoming brawl, went home, took a bath, and ate supper. My tight-lipped mother, my orbiting grandmother, and my brother David (older by seven years and living on a far loftier plane than I was) sat around the table in silence. I found it hard to believe that not a word was being said about the upcoming fight. It was as if they didn't even know about it, didn't know that they were living right on the cusp of this historical event, that it was going to occur within a matter of an hour or two, right in their backyard, and that I figured in it as a major player, their son, grandson, brother. Since they had failed to scare me out of it, now they set about ignoring it completely. I wondered what my father would have said.
Looking out in the backyard, I could see there were people gathering already, half a dozen or more, probably university students, laughing and joking, some of them drinking beer. Probably lusting for the sight of blood, I thought, then on second thought hoped it wouldn't be mine. By a quarter 'til eight, a couple of smaller kids were collecting tickets, the college boys who were going to be referee and timekeeper had shown up, and the backyard was crowded with spectators.
What happened next verges on the incredible. Jimmy McVicker, the guy I'm supposed to fight in this grudge match, the Jimmy McVicker who didn't show up to help, that Jimmy McVicker shows up with a couple of older kids, high school boys I suppose, and announces that they are his handlers. His handlers! I wasn't even sure what a handler was, but when I began to get the picture, I started seeing double. Handlers? With handlers, who knew what might happen. I just hoped any spilled blood wasn't going to be mine because the thought suddenly crossed my mind, that with the help of these mysterious handlers, I might not live to see another day.
(To be continued)
(From the December 1999 issue)
I became possessed. Pow! Another one to the kisser. Then a rapid tatttoo of short hard jabs to the flab. I was becoming a killer.
Fight night had arrived and ticket holders (and some gate crashers) jammed into the tiny backyard arena. Bright lights lit up the ring. A sense of high anticipation filled the air. You could see it in the eyes of the crowd, hear it in their laughter, feel it in their movement. It was Mardi Gras carnival-time, a carnivorous time, and all the while a little voice in the back of my 12-year-old head was saying, maybe it's sacrifice time, and maybe I'm the sacrificial lamb. Next door, Mr. Warren's Palm Grill was doing a land office business.
But a peculiar thing was happening. The rush of events seemed to flow and eddy around me, leaving me untouched. So it was that I suddenly found myself in the ring, sitting on an apple crate in one corner. Someone, I don't remember who, laced a pair of boxing gloves onto my hands, and the stark realization overwhelmed me that this was for real. There was no getting out of this baby now, this was way, way beyond the talking stage. This was it.
There was the clamor of the bell, and I found myself standing in the middle of the ring. The college student referee announced to the crowd in a loud voice that this was the fight of the century and that it would last for ten rounds or until one or the other of the contestants was declared a winner. My stomach turned. The referee mumbled some words about not hitting below the belt and may the best man win, then told us to touch gloves and come out fighting. My stomach turned completely over.
Boooonnng! The bell rang and Jimmy and I advanced on each other, our boxing gloves held high in front of us. All of a sudden, Jimmy charged at me, swinging his right hand in a wild roundhouse kind of lunge which missed me by a mile. But, whoa! What's this? His whole mid-section was wide open and I jabbed him with a hard left to the gut. I heard him go ooooff! before I poked him in the face with my right hand. Blood squirted from his bruised nose and a dazed expression and look of dismay had replaced the smile on Jimmy's face. The referee stopped the fight and helped Jimmy over to his corner of the ring. There his handlers repaired the damage to his nose and wiped the blood from his sweating body. After nodding, when asked if he wanted to continue the fight, he got to his feet and shuffled out to the middle of the ring again, more cautiously this time. Nothing much happened the rest of that round or, as far as that goes, in round two. We just circled around each other, mostly jabbing at thin air.
About half-way through round three, Jimmy swung at me again with one of those roundhouse haymakers. Again he missed by a mile, but it gave me the opportunity to pepper him with a staccato series of short left and right jabs. By now my confidence was such that visions of Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Gene Tunney were dancing through my mind. Deliberately, I feinted with a left, then smushed his face again, this time up around his right eye, which subsequently turned a beautiful deep purple color, like a late evening sunset.
I guess you could say that at this point, I became possessed. Pow! Another one to the kisser. Then a rapid tattoo of short hard jabs to the flab. I was becoming a killer. What's more, I was enjoying it. By now, Jimmy was a mess. His nose was bleeding again, he was panting like he'd been running up hill for an hour, and, suddenly it was all over. The referee stopped the fight and lifted one of my arms over my head. "The winner and new champion of West Eleventh Avenue," he yelled.
Well, that was about it. I didn't dance around making a fool of myself. What's more, people didn't act like that back then. They behaved in a more gentle-manly, decorous manner, which I tried to emulate. But, beyond that, I felt sorry for Jimmy. He was overweight, and toward the end there he didn't know what day of the week it was. Later in life, he went on to graduate from the old University High School and married a neighborhood gal, Pat Rundio, a classmate of mine. The last time I ever saw Jimmy was one evening when I ran into him at the Del Rio, a bar and restaurant that was located near the corner of West Fifth Avenue and Northwest Boulevard. Not long after that, I heard that he had died.
Anyhow, after the fight most of the college guys headed for the Palm Grill next door. Before I went home, I peeked through a window into the barroom. There was Jimmy slumped in a booth surrounded by his handlers. Mr. Warren had solicitously brought him a bowl of hot milk with a pat of butter floating in it, and a basket of crackers.
Well, all of that was OK, I consoled myself as I tried to figure out what I'd gotten out of the whole affair. Nothing that I could see. No trophy. No purse. No hot milk. No nothing. I went home to find my mother in a state, my brother out with his friends, and my orbiting grandmother barricaded in her bedroom. It was a lesson I was to remember all my life. The winner doesn't always win.
August 1999 Issue
When the buzzing increases I know that I'm in for a
wild ride that will take me I know not where.
Levitational dreams and astral-projection are the subjects under discussion. Night flights that are illusionary and unreal - entirely the product of our subconscious - having about them a shadowy aura of the metaphysical. An uneasy interpretation that might throw us back in time to some forgotten past with incoherent mutterings around flickering night fires, and the relinquishment of all rational thought.
In my case, levitational dreams usually begin with a buzzing sound when I'm lying on my right side, the side of my face pressed against the pillow. They occur at the onset of drowsiness, or halfway between wakefulness and sleep. It would seem that part of my mind is asleep, the other part in a reduced state of awareness, but nevertheless capable of conscious decisions such as the ability to rouse myself to wakefulness.
Did the English poet A.E. Housman experience such dreams, dreams with unexplainable sounds, a prelude to the occasion of sleep? In one of his poems, he relates:
On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
When the buzzing increases I know that I'm in for a wild ride that will take me I know not where. In his wonderful book, The Night Country, Loren Eiseley quotes a native girl in Bimini on the old Spanish Main: "Those as hunts treasure must go alone, at night, and when they find it they have to leave a little of their blood behind them." Eiseley equates what the girl said to the price one pays for wisdom. It also might apply to my night dreams.
The first time I experienced such a levitational dream I was probably forty-five years old. I was scared to death, not so much from the dream itself as from a weird preamble to the dream. When the buzzing commenced I heard a babble of voices coming from the living room of my apartment. Not just two or three voices, but a large number, a veritable convention of voices, all chattering away in a tongue or language unknown to me. All talking at once. Badly shaken, I jumped out of bed, ran into the living room to see who had invaded my residence. The voices were that real. There was no one there. I checked the lock on the door and went back to bed.
The babble of voices preceded every dream of this type over a period of about fifteen years. Even today, I get a terrible case of the heebie-jeebies every time I think about these particular episodes. I don't like my space invaded, even if it's by spooks. And I prefer not to believe in spooks. I never found any uninvited guests. If there had been some kind of gathering, the party was always over. No cocktail glasses, no cigarette smoke, no whiff of sulfur, no scent of perfume or incense, no talisman lying about. Nothing out of place. Nothing missing.
Eventually, after having suffered through a number of these nocturnal events, I disciplined myself to ignore the noise. Consciously, I would make the decision that there was nothing to worry about. I would shut the intrusive prattling babble out of my mind and get on with my sleep. By contrast, the levitational dreams themselves were as exciting for me as flying out into space on a NASA mission. Better because I had more freedom. No, better because I never knew my destination or what events would unfold within the confines of my mind.
As I said, these episodes always began in the same way. There would be a buzzing sound in my ears, in its own way like the ignition start-up of a blast-off at Cape Canaveral. The buzzing increased to a low rumble and I would lift off with such speed there was no time to look back. I was free of the earth and on my way.
In the most dramatic version of the astral-projection dream, I headed out into the blackness of space. My apparent speed was so great that stars became bright streamers, became psychedelic, exploded into millions of brightly colored frag-ments. Like a rocket I rushed through tunnels of space, careened from one geologic era to another - past or future, I knew not - until my poor left-behind body was breathless, my heart thump-thump-thumping like a helicopter.
The first few times I experienced this inward journey through the unknown I was frightened beyond belief. I had the crazy idea that I had embarked on an odyssey, perhaps looking for God, or if not actually looking for Him afraid that I might accidentally bump into Him - or Her - or that I might be induced into nibbling at a dangling celestial fishhook cast by a heavenly fly fisherman. Not only was I fearful of such an encounter, I was afraid that if I were hauled up before the pearly gates I wouldn't be thrown back. For the first time in my life I knew how it felt to be a fish. A small fish.
Another thought, equally unsettling, was that I might pass the point of no return and drift through space forever, like a luckless astronaut. So, as a precaution, I would reduce the amount of willpower (which always seemed to be the propellant for my levitational experi-ences), slow down, desperately seek an alternate destination, a stopping place, a Howard Johnson's of the heavenly highways.
Many times this seemed to work. I would suddenly arrive somewhere, most often in the wide shining corridors of a great city with many people walking about, and I would proceed along one or another avenue, looking into faces, seeking recognition, searching for some-one I could talk to. In some of these episodes, I would eventually enter a room, find friendly people and converse with them. Sometimes a beautiful woman would befriend me and we would both become enamored. If my desire wasn't consummated, at least it was less inhibited than in my more mundane dreams.
On one occasion I came zooming down a wide valley which appeared to be situated in the American West. My body passed through trees and giant cactus plants, zipped along the main street of a little western town, replete with board-walks and rows of old wooden buildings, passed right through people who didn't get out of the way. Finally, I pulled up in front of what appeared to be a dance hall at the end of the street.
I walked up several steps onto a long porch and entered a door. Inside there was a bar, a scattering of tables and chairs, an old jukebox. The only other people in the room were three young women. I remember walking over to the jukebox, starting it, and dancing with one of the girls. Then the music and the movement evaporated into the thin desert air and I awoke to the sound of silence.
It's as if I had found the cradle of all life, the genesis of creation, the original fertilized egg, the universal zygote, the fountainhead of sex.
July 1999 Issue
I have been talking about dreams in the last two issues of the Gazette, reminiscing about my parents, both departed from this world. I related how I never dream of my father because he died when I was quite young, too young to remember much about him. But my mother, I see my mother all the time. Often she is very old like she was in her last years, although sometimes I have trouble telling if I am dreaming about my mother or my grandmother, they were that much alike. Other times she can be quite young or middle-aged, and there she will be as if nothing had ever happened, as if all the intervening years had never passed; and if I didn't know any better, somewhere in the back of my mind, I could swear she was still alive.
The most interesting dreams that I have are the levitational dreams. And of these, there is another type, dreams that are more dramatic, sometimes frighten-ing, real block-busters, falling I suppose under the category of astral-projection. Of these, two stand out in my memory. In both I am plunging through space, but instead of arriving at any kind of recognizable destination, I seem to enter what I can only describe as a time warp or perhaps, who knows, maybe it's the navel of the universe, or a cosmic seam, an extra-dimensional cul-de-sac. Perhaps it is the great fishhook in the sky, or maybe I am tucked in God's watch pocket. It's as if I had found the cradle of all life, the genesis of creation, the original fertilized egg, the universal zygote, the fountainhead of sex.
Aside from the levitational dreams, which I experience less frequently nowa-days, I have had many dreams that are more conventional, but in their own way interesting and occasionally bizarre. One was an ethereal dream that I have remem-bered clearly through the years, and you know how it is with most dreams, even when you are thinking about them, they can fade away like shadows when a cloud passes over the sun.
We were walking along an ocean coast - she and I - a woman I seemed to be very close to, but otherwise unidentifiable, maybe a composite of all the women I have ever confided in - when suddenly another scene interposed itself on the first and we were swimming in those cool, brackish waters. Somehow, I understood that I was to swim ahead of her for seven days, go far to the north, for some kind of award, and she was to follow. I was to wait for her and when we met we were to wed, and she was to continue on without me for another seven days, and she too was going to receive some great honor. Then I awoke. The reality of the dream already was fading, the splash and smell of salt water, the keen sharpness of pine-scented air, all suddenly gone. Evaporated, beyond reach, like being suddenly snatched away from another life.
I frequently dream of such settings, far to the north, some small town or village by an inlet of the sea, looking for oceanic birds, walking past faces that are strangely familiar, wandering through the twists and turns of old brick and cobblestone streets. The dream recurs, the incidents vary, the locale remains the same. All of this is what I perceive, within the dream or immediately afterward; but I have also learned from experience that dreams can lie.
Persons of certain persuasions might say of the dream I just related that it was a manifestation of reincarnation. "In some previous life," they would say, "you lived in some far northern fishing village or seaport." To which I would gently reply, "Well, maybe it was reincarnation of a genetic kind. Perhaps it was the stirring of ancient memories stored deep within my mind, buried somewhere within the quilted layers and aqueducts of cerebellum, past the medulla, the image and the reaction coupled together, transferred and safely stored in the vault of the midbrain. That kind of reincarnation. That kind of recurrence.
Perhaps it is a phenomenon not yet fully realized by science. And I would remind them that it is common for us to presume such traits in birds and animals. We say that they draw on mysterious powers retrieved from the dim corridors of time-past. For lack of something better, we call it instinct or a sixth sense.
My mind is a scrapbook, a photo album with new pictures appearing all the time, alongside the deep ancient memories of old. Pictures that move. Pictures that speak. Pictures that pull at my heart.
- Tom Thomson
(From the June 1999 issue)
The Serendipity of Dreams
Once in a very long timeI have dreams that are fantastic extravaganzas. These dreams frequently involve levitation, and I love it.
Fearlessly, I leap from buildings or precipices and soar through the sky. Sometimes I zoom, effortlessly. Other times, I keep aloft by swimming motions. Confidence is what it takes. It's easy when you're sure of yourself, at least in a dream. Both types of flying seem to work equally well, but I like the zoomers best.
My levitational dreams started in a more modest way many years ago. In a typical episode, I would be walking along a neighborhood sidewalk, perhaps near where I lived at the time. I would become aware of the parallel seams in the concrete, the expansion joints, and I would start running. As I approached one of the cracks, I would take off in a great jump, in the manner of a broad jumper, retract my legs and glide over the ground like the greatest trackman who ever lived. Better than that, I would skim along over the sidewalk for half a city block.
When I finally landed I would be in an exuberant mind-boggling mood and I would think that the whole world soon would become aware of my amazing prowess.
From sleep mixed with dreams, nowadays, I emerge to the unruffled serenity of wakefulness. Once there, I float above and under the surface, take a few final plunges back into lethargy, review my dreams, realize even in a half-dream state that they are gossamer, that mostly they will dissipate like the fragile fantasies they are.
Thus, for a few moments before arising, my mind gently ebbs and flows, sloshes back and forth, as with the tides; my senses plumb ocean depths at will, then bob serendipitously upward again toward the light.
I think of Written Rock and Leaning Lena, those wonderful outcroppings of sandstone in the Clear Creek Valley, in Hocking County, and I wonder at the significance and spirituality of their attraction to me. I think how fortunate I am to have become interested in birds.
I think of my increasing age, the few things that I have achieved, the many projects that still remain undone. Sometimes, I consider the miserable state of the world, but then dismiss such dreary thoughts, absolutely determined that I will not become a curmudgeon.
Mankind has always been in turmoil, I rationalize. Humans have always lived in perilous times. It has ever been, I suppose, and ever will be. A pessimistic way to look at things, but comforting. All of this coming and going through my head, half awake, half asleep.
Lazily, my mind swirls through the dreams of a few minutes before, skews this way and that, captures bits and pieces of dreams from times past, recollects them in various degrees of obscurity.
The dreams drift like starfish, silvery and transparent, swirling through shadowy depths until they metamorphose this way and that into schools of brightly colored fish, then crustaceans sidling through beds of coral, only to assume the dim shadowy shapes of a pod of dimly perceived cetaceans which suddenly, paradoxically, evolve into a flock of white ibis fluttering in a cloudless sky.
My departed mother resides in these unknown dream episodes that on occasion become so clear that I can see life-years away. I have never encountered my father in a dream which is rather strange because I was four-and-a-half-years old when many years ago he tumbled out of a hotel window one hot August night in Pittsburgh. He was thirty-two years old.
He was in his underwear, I have been told, smoking Camels. sitting on the wide, low ledge of a big window in his room. No doubt trying to keep cool. It was in the days before air-conditioning. It was in the days before my memory had a chance to catch hold, but I do remember him, mostly in isolated little vignettes scattered through those far-away years.
Ironically, the morning the Western Union boy knocked on the door with the telegram telling us that he was dead &endash; that was when my memory really kicked in. Everything before that was a grab bag of random snapshots and snippets.
The funeral service was at my maternal grandparent's house, just a block and a half away from where we lived in Grandview. The open casket was in the living room, set in the recess of the front bay windows. I discovered that by going halfway up the stairs in the hall I could see my father's face. I sat there a long time looking at his unmoving face before someone came along and found me. They comforted me and told me that my father was all right, that he was in heaven.
Is it because of the way my father died that during most of my adult life I have had these many levitational dreams? Am I flying around in the night skies trying to save him?
I don't pretend to know.
But my mother, I see my mother all the time. At different ages. Both of us, is what I mean. Sometimes, I am a child, sometimes an adult. Sometimes, she is very old like she was in her last years. Other times our ages change every which way. I can be a child, like I said, and she can be quite young, or youngish middle-aged, and there she will be as if nothing had ever happened, as if all the intervening years never happened and, if I didn't know better somewhere in the back of my mind, I would swear she was alive.
At other times, when she is old, I sometimes have trouble telling if I am dreaming about my mother or my grandmother. They were so much alike.
My mind is a scrapbook, a photo album with new pictures showing up all the time, alongside the old. Pictures that move. And talk to me.
My big production dreams are almost always in color, three-dimensional, and the sound is good. The camera work is good. Everything is fine. Sometimes better than Hollywood.
May '99 Issue, July 2008
When I Go To Sleep It's Like Going To The Movies
When I go to sleep, it’s like going to the movies. Character actors walk on and off my set. Celebrities with cameo parts appear and disappear. But the film runs forward and backward in my dreams. Time becomes inconstant. In one episode, I am a youth. In another, I am married, in my 30s. In still another, I am poised in the present.
I fear (or maybe I should celebrate) that as I become older, all of life will become a dreamscape. I am a scuba diver with a movie camera in a lagoon of a million memories, idly inspecting the accumulated detritus of a lifetime. Impressions glide by, thin as eels, imitating life. I am a skydiver, falling from one end of the heavens to the other; the earth, a tiny kumquat, floats beneath me.
The frames of film whiz through my camera that turns into a projector, which becomes a series of images on a screen. The action seems predetermined chaos. Faces and events blur, lose the sharp edges of reality, merge and coalesce, change into fictional characters which become ghosts dissolving into my nightdreams. In effect, I become a time-traveler, a hominid with a dragonfly’s multi-faceted eyes trying to distinguish dream from reality.
In dreams of my boyhood, it is difficult to place the exact locale, probably because we moved so often, lived in so many houses and apartments. Three on Neil Avenue, two on W. Eleventh, two on W. Tenth, one each on Hunter and Highland Avenues. Others I’ve probably forgotten. We took roomers, mostly students, although there were some unforgettable faculty members. When a house didn’t suit my mother, or the landlord didn’t live up to his promises of good maintenance, we’d up and move.
Almost always, even in the most inconsequential encounters, it seems I am a victim of circumstance. But what else is new? A dream is nothing more than a reflection of one’s life seen through a cracked and dusty lens.
I am an actor-director-producer of a movie without a script. So where do my lines come from? I don’t know. No one knows. Maybe they’ve been censored. Maybe good old St. Christopher is the Hayes Office to all our dreams. I can do retakes. I can do that. Sometimes I can prolong one scene into what seems like a full-length movie. But there my influence ends.
I can be alone with a magnificently attractive woman, and all I can do is follow a hackneyed script, and from far away, I can hear my own real-life voice screaming, “Do something! Take her in your arms! Kiss her!” But I remain deaf to the entreaties. Or, to be more accurate, shackled by my inhibitions.
All I do is blather away, keep up my end of some inane and endless dialogue or, like a dummy, try feebly to unravel some unsolvable puzzle aligning numbers, filling in an imagined crossword – over and over and over again, like a rattled Pavlovian dog.
If I have any complaints it’s that too many of my dreams are disjointed and nonsensical, or long-running episodes about nothing in particular, or perhaps some small problem or abstraction that I keep going over and over and over. It’s as if somebody turned the camera on and walked away.
I dream a lot, and in spite of my grousing and perhaps having a few too many B-movie-type dreams, as a rule the quality of production is excellent. My big production dreams are almost always in color, three-dimensional, and the sound is good. The camera work is good. Everything is fine. Sometimes better than Hollywood.
I have pleasant dreams about my three children and my grandchildren. I love them all very much and it shows up in my dreams. No nagging, no arguments, no admonishments. Another interesting thing. They appear at all ages in the dream; and when they are younger, I presume, so am I. That’s nice.
Old lovers pop up occasionally. Never, it seems, in an amorous role. It appears that remembrances of love and the act of loving are evanescent. More often than not, I bump into them accidentally, as it were. Or so it is with almost anyone. Once, John and Ashley Abbot, characters in the TV soap The Young and the Restless figured in a dream. I’ve also hobnobbed with Abe Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower.
Many years ago I had a very simple, clearly defined dream that I remember to this day, this one about a bird.
I was walking along the edge of a woods when I noticed a white-breasted nuthatch creeping along a fallen tree trunk in a deep drainage ditch. I was looking down at it. The only unusual aspect of the dream was that this particular bird when not around feeders is most often seen above eye-level in large trees, frequently crawling along upside-down, gleaning for insects and grubs. That was the dream and I remembered it vividly.
The next day I was out birding, walking along a tree-lined ditch similar to the one in my dream when, lo and behold, there was a white-breasted nuthatch, down in this culvert, creeping along a log. Was the dream a presentiment, a precursor of the future, inexplicably notable because of its very insignificance? Is that the way fate operates – in tiny unimportant increments? Are we allowed only occasional peeks through the chinks and cracks of the wall that separates us from the future?
(From the April '99 issue)
. . . for the better part of a week the zoo phones sounded like a bunch of crazy Swiss bell ringers. Jangle! Jangle! Jangle! Ringing all day long.
Let me share an amusing story about my hometown, Columbus, Ohio.
It seems people - myself included - always add "Ohio" after saying Columbus, not just out-of-towners, but folks who live here too. Don't ask me why. I suppose it's because there are other towns with the same name scattered around the country, but the only two that come quickly to mind are in Georgia and Indiana. My point is: We don't say (all in one breath) Cleveland, Ohio, any more than we say Indianapolis, Indiana, or San Francisco, California. Yet we still say Columbus, Ohio.
I know not why. I care not. I do remember, however, that this provincial habit was a pet peeve of one-time Columbus Dispatch columnist Johnny Jones. He would get a puzzled scowl on his face as he repeated the often-asked question: "Why do people invariably say Ohio after saying Columbus? Don't they know this is the largest, the biggest, the most heavily populated Columbus in the whole @$#*%! world?" After this outpouring of invective, he would roll his eyes under his shaggy eyebrows, toss down another drink, if he was at the old Press Club of Ohio (or anywhere else), then shrug his shoulders in helpless frustration.
It reminds me of the fact that people generally address their co-workers and everyday acquaintances and friends on a first-name basis. It's just the opposite of how we are with Columbus. It's Hi Bill! Hello Linda! So long, Jerry! Whatcha know, Jack? Without a clue or a care as to a longer, tedious last name. Surnames seem about as useless as appellations in the Appalachians, although probably for different reasons.
Enough about names. I set out to relate an amusing anecdote about my time spent here in Columbus, Ohio. So, onward down the slippery slopes of social dilapidation.
The late Earl Davis, superintendent of the Columbus Zoo, had his employees put up some outdoor decorations one Christmas season many years ago. This was in the 50s. Centerpiece of the display was a large, illuminated white star. The star of Bethlehem, if you will. Strings of bright, twinkling lights reached outward and downward from the highest structure to the roofs of lower buildings.
There was one natural and logical place to locate the star so that it would be at a high point, an apogee, so that it could be best seen from Route 257 which passes right by the zoo. Now where do you suppose that turned out to be? Why, it was smack plumb-dab on top of the Great Ape House, home to those other primates we share the planet with - the gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, and their kithin' kin.
So? As smart asses are apt to say these days, "What's wrong with this picture?" Why did this simple display of Christmas cheer and goodwill become a controversial topic that had most of the citizenry wagging their tongues? Beats me. But the newspapers were deluged with vehement letters protesting the decorations as a sacrilegious act. Some demanded Davis' job; all insisted the star come down.
Davis told me that for the better part of a week the zoo phones sounded like a bunch of crazy Swiss bell ringers. Jangle! Jangle! Jangle! Ringing all day long. High degrees of religiosity didn't seem to stem the obscene words of the callers. Accusing voices were suggesting that he was a communist. This was the Cold War in dead earnest, the kind of thing that lit up the otherwise deadpan visage of Joe McCarthy.
Creaky-voiced old women were calling to accuse Davis of believing in and advocating evolution. "This one old lady called," Davis said, "and her first words were: 'Do you honestly believe in God?' So help me. Those were the first words that beat into my eardrums when I picked the phone up and said hello. It shook me up, I'll tell you that.
"Another voice, this one sweet as AlaGa syrup, asked me if I didn't realize that all the children coming to the zoo would be influenced by the star's being atop the Great Ape House. She asked me if I had any children of my own," Davis recalled. "Before I could answer any of her questions, she started getting nasty, her voice sounding like it was coming out of a lye can."
Davis laughed, "She said she'd get my job if I didn't take that star down. I didn't get a chance to tell her that the zoo's closed during the winter months and precious few children would ever see the star unless they were driving by with their parents." He paused, took a puff on his pipe, and added, "Even then, how would they know it was on top of the Great Ape House? Unless, perchance, their parents would tell them.
"Of course, we ended up taking the star down," Davis sighed.
I asked him where they put it.
"On top of the bird house," he said with a sad smile.
- Tom Thomson
. . . One winter day, I was ice skating (against my mother's wishes) near the stadium, when the ice broke and I plunged into the frigid black waters.
There are those who go forth into the world and forever leave the scenes of their childhood. Then there are those who remain behind. I am one of those. Oh, I have gone forth into the world and seen much of it, thanks largely to my wartime experience in the navy, and later my wanderlust addiction to chasing rare birds. But when all is said and done, I have always come back, returned to the old familiar grounds to live out my years.
The title of one of Thomas Wolfe's books is You Can't Go Home Again, and I am gradually discovering that this may be just as true for those of us who remained behind as for those who wandered afield. An essay about the past by Brian Moore in a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review evoked these words by Proust. "It is a labor in vain to try to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect are useless. The past is hidden somewhere outside its own domain in some material object which we never suspected." Yet, the sad truth is, we all attempt to resuscitate the past from the attrition of time, and patch together its scattered and altered parts.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I fully realized that one river has run continually through my life more than any other. It's name is Olentangy, a Native American name meaning "red face paint," probably of Algonquin extraction, maybe Shawnee, maybe Delaware. I have known the river since I was a boy, cherishing its outward beauty as well as the secrets of its wildness, always remembering that it almost claimed my life.
When I was a lad, I used to walk the sweating ponies for the OSU polo team on the old playing field near the river, south of the stadium not far from King Avenue. I would walk home from North High School along the fishermen's paths (once probably Indian trails), looking for birds, pondering the future. Once past the stadium, I followed the dikes that traversed the broad grassy fields, my mind as open as the wide sky, until I reached the informal garden that was located behind the Botany and Zoology Building.
The garden was the pride and joy of Dr. Nelson Transeau, an internationally known personage who was chairman of the Botany Department and the author of many scholarly books and papers. Sometimes I would see him walking about the garden with visiting dignitaries. At other times, he would stop and talk to me, inquiring if I had seen any interesting birds, pointing out rare specimens of iris that lined the many winding paths.
One winter day, I was ice skating (against my mother's wishes) near the stadium, when the ice broke and I plunged into the frigid black waters. I was up to my neck, weighted down by my heavy sheepskin coat, panic-stricken, and barely able to cry out.
I would have been a goner for sure if a young man, a good Samaritan student, unknown and nameless to me, hadn't slid across the creaking ice on his stomach, grabbed my soggy mittened hand, and slowly pulled me up onto the ice.
His concern for my well-being extended to guiding me up the west bank of the river, across the road, and onto the porch of a brick house. There, a kindly lady allowed me to come in, warm up and dry out a bit. My rescuer left. I was so apprehen-sive and scared, I didn't think to find out his name.
The lady asked if I wanted to telephone home. I told her that it wouldn't do any good, my mother, (a widow) didn't own a car. What I didn't tell her was that I had no intention of telling my mother what had happened. Too much dread of a tongue-lashing.
After I was warmed up a bit, I humbly thanked the lady, went out front and thumbed a ride home. A woman in a big car picked me up, drove me all the way home. Well, almost. I told her to let me out a few doors from where I lived so I could sneak in the house.
But brighter, happier memories far outweigh the events of that unfortunate day! Foremost in my mind is the 4th of July. Each year, a week or so before the holiday, half a dozen fireworks stands would set up shop along Olentangy River Road, usually in the vicinity of King and Fifth Avenues. Back then that area was pretty rural, as testified by the still-standing Weisheimer mill on King Avenue.
The fireworks stands - usually tents or collapsible sheds - were a sure draw for all us kids who lived across the river. Day after day, by bicycle or by shank's mare, we would visit these purveyors of exotic and exciting wares, spending our paper route money like we were millionaires' kids, dreaming of the big day when we would set them all off.
Oh, Lord! How my excitement grew as I gazed at row upon row of attractively packaged Lady Fingers, one-inchers, two-inchers, cannon crackers, flares and pinwheels, caps, serpents, cherry bombs, skyrockets, torpedoes, Roman Candles, spark- lers, and BOOOOM! some nifty big fellows mounted upon wooden bases, were explosive enough to rouse half the neighborhood.
That was a long time ago, near the beginning of time, before girls were kissable, when teachers ruled with an iron hand, and when there was always a hot, home-cooked meal on the table at suppertime.
(From the February 1999, May 2008 Issues)
THE SONG SPARROW LADY
Timing is everything, they say, in love and war and just about anything else. So it was, as things turned out, that the timing was all wrong for me to have met Margaret Morse Nice. But it was close. Well, fairly close. Maybe off by a year or two.
I became mesmerized by birds one April afternoon when I was 15 years old and in the ninth grade of what we used to call junior high school. This was approximately two or three years after Mrs. Nice completed her monumental study on the behavior of song sparrows. As I have mentioned before, my family lived in a house facing the south side of The Ohio State University campus. Mrs. Nice lived half a dozen blocks north of the campus.
The year of my great bird bedazzlement, I started working after school at the first Big Bear supermarket in Columbus, which was located in a building that had housed an old skating rink across from the Ohio Stadium and was probably within earshot of a sparrow’s song emanating from Mrs. Nice’s property.
This was in the days before self-service. I was a clerk in the produce department, and on Friday and Saturday nights the customers were three- and four-deep in front of the counter. There were over a dozen clerks, high school kids and college students bagging and weighing fruit and vegetables and scrawling the prices on the sacks with black marking crayons for 25 cents an hour.
Picture it. There I was, the boy idealist, dreaming of birds morning, noon, and night, perhaps picking out oranges and grapefruits for the woman who would become world famous for her life-history studies of the song sparrow. Maybe touching hands and never knowing of our mutual love. Passing like ships in the night. What irony. What agony. But, alas. I don’t believe it ever happened. If I am not mistaken, Mrs. Nice and her husband moved to Chicago about 1939.
But from 1940 to 1942, I frequently birded my way home from North High School along the west bank of the Olentangy River, which is directly opposite the principal parts of Interpont, her song sparrow study area. Sometimes I even hiked along her side of the river, walking across dikes and along brushy fishermen’s trails within a stone’s throw of where she had lived, probably looking at some of the very same song sparrows she had made famous.
Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, with whom Mrs. Nice studied in Austria during the summer of 1938, wrote, “Her paper on the song sparrow was, to the best of my knowledge, the first longterm field investigation of the life of any free-living wild animal.” Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow was originally published in Germany’s Journal for Ornithology and subsequently she received international acclaim. In 1937 and 1943, the complete work was published in two volumes by the Linnaean Society of New York. Dover editions of the books are still in print.
Volume I of her work deals with vital statistics: weights, territories, migrations, percentiles of nesting success, and the survival of individuals. Volume II concentrates on behavior, including daily activities, dominance, songs, call notes, mating, defense of young, and many other traits and characteristics.
Mrs. Nice’s work represents a pioneering effort of the first magnitude in advancing the importance of comparative behavior studies. She wrote that “each male song sparrow is a unique personality. When he dies his songs are lost forever.” She trapped and banded her subjects – initially two pairs and later 69 – and kept copious notes. She spent eight years studying them. Her goal was to learn everything possible about their daily lives.
In the words of Frank Graham Jr., writing in Audubon magazine, Nice had dragged her more “legitimate” colleagues out of the listing stage and into modern ethnological studies. As a result, during her lifetime, honors flooded in on her.
Mrs. Nice received a bit of assistance and advice from Lawrence E. Hicks and Edward S. Thomas, two central Ohio naturalists.
In later life, I would occasionally drive by her home just to see where it was and to relish the old youthful dreams. Thank you, Mrs. Nice, you added a lot to my youthful pursuit of birds.
(from the January 1999 issue)
"The mind of the sage in repose becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation," an Oriental philosopher wrote. "In repose," he suggests, "the inner mind opens up so that it encompasses all things, no matter how small or how large. Thus we can contemplate nature, our own place in nature, and our relationships with our fellow human beings."
In practicing contemplation, our own minds become creative, because in subtle and unexplainable ways, we achieve harmony with the universe. We become one with everything else.
It is the province, especially, of the artist, the architect, the writer, the dramatist, the musician, the scientist, the naturalist. But it can be within anyone's capacity if they open up their eyes, and their ears, and their minds. It is a gift that one has to cultivate.
These precious things - observation, contemplation, creativity, harmony - are some of the wonderful legacies of birding. The birder becomes intensely aware of the natural world he shares with the objects of his admiration. One cannot become a birder without becoming an environ- mentalist.
Thus it is that magically, contemplation becomes the golden feather from a bird's wing, the replenishing earth around our own roots, the improbable delicacy of a wildflower, the holding of hands with a loved one, the intricate melody of a bird song, the sheer wonder of rain falling from a thunderhead higher than the Alps.
To find a rare bird, I believe, or to see any one of a number of magnificently plumaged birds in the wild, becomes a psychedelic experience. A birder doesn't need drugs to get high. The blazing colors of an oriole or a Blackburnian warbler will do the trick nicely.
A flight of snow geese materializing out of a moonlit October sky at dusk will produce an unforgettable high, maybe even an overdose of euphoria.
I vividly remember one September night during a full moon in Columbus, Ohio, when I was a lad. We lived on West Eleventh Avenue across from The Ohio State University campus in a white frame house that had once been the residence of J. H. Schaffner, the noted Ohio botanist.
Impatiently I had been waiting for darkness. Finally, about nine-thirty I went out into the backyard and stretched out in the grass on my back near an old pear tree so that I could get a clear view of the moon. I had a small telescope and an inexpensive pair of binoculars with me. I was 17 years old.
Using first one instrument, then the other, I peered upward at the bright shining disk of the moon. I could see the shadowy outlines of lunar seas and the sharper delineations of mountains and escarpments.
The neighbors, if they should have observed me, would surely have thought that I was moonstruck&emdash;or daft. Doggedly I kept staring upward, pinpoints of bright lunar light reflecting in my eyes. The minutes ticked by, and patiently I continued my vigil, as if I were a member of some cult that held the moon in high esteem.
It was about eleven o'clock when my heart skipped a beat. Yes, there it was, the silhouette of a small bird transiting across the face of the moon! Not just any bird. This was a migratory bird. Probably a warbler, a vireo, or a tanager headed for Central or South America. And I was actually watching it, had picked it out of the darkness by catching it in my eye - momentarily - between my telescope and the moon.
During the next hour I saw others. All heading south. Occasionally, I could hear the faint chips and chirps of these voyagers falling out of the night sky. At long last, stiff and sore, damp from the dew on the grass, I went back into the house. Everybody had gone to bed and it was just as well.
If they had asked me what I had been doing and I had told them, they wouldn't have understood. Oh, my mother might have understood the words I spoke; but she wouldn't have understood the real meaning, the almost unbearable exhilaration I had felt at having witnessed such an event.
I made my way to my room. Visions of the moon and tiny birds flying across America danced in my head as I finally drifted off to sleep.
(From the December 1998 issue)
The Shadow, Astounding Stories, A Murder,
A Friendship - and Meeting Les Wexner
I was about eleven or twelve years old when my widowed mother took a break from renting rooms to students and we moved into a four-unit apartment building across from the OSU campus. There were usually three of us, including my mother and my older brother David. Sometimes my maternal grandmother, "Da," lived near us, but now she lived in the same building. She was like a satellite, always orbiting around us, always somewhere near.
Mrs. MaGill and her son Harry Jr lived in another of the apartments. Mrs. MaGill was an attractive widow, a school teacher at the Open-Air School that once existed off Neil Avenue north of the campus; and although my mother seldom let people get close to her, let's say she and Mrs. MaGill did get acquainted.
I remember Mrs. MaGill telling my mother she had recently had a date with a fellow teacher.
"Did he take you out to dinner?" my mother asked.
"No, he took me to a nudist camp," Mrs. MaGill replied.
My mother's mouth fell open. "You didn't take your clothes off, did you?"
"When in Rome do as the Romans do," Mrs. MaGill smiled sweetly.
I'm not sure how my mother reacted to Mrs. MaGill's cool presence of mind. I'm sure she didn't laugh. Maybe she fainted.
Harry Jr. was a likable kid, studious, a couple of years older than me. But what I really liked about him, he showed me how to stretch Japanese tissue tight and wrinkle-free onto my model airplanes. Oh, and he was also influential in upgrading my pulp magazine fare from Sky Fighters and The Shadow to Astounding Stories.
I vividly recall the day when Mrs. MaGill told my mother how her husband, Harry MaGill, died. They were living in Hillsboro where Mr. MaGill was a deputy sheriff. One night late, the phone rang, and he was told to get downtown; the hardware store was being burglarized, and he was needed in a hurry.
It seems there were two brothers - the Boggs brothers - in the hardware store. Well, to make a long story short, the building was surrounded and there was some gunfire. Mr. MaGill was mortally wounded; and after a swift trial, the Boggs brothers went to prison, condemned to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. All of this happened in the early '30s.
Now zoom forward into the future. World War II is history. I have come home from the navy, finished college, and am working for myself as a publisher downtown where I share a suite of penthouse offices at 16 East Broad Street. Dirt cheap rent but a prime location, just steps from Broad and High, located in the same building as Marzetti's Restaurant.
Many mornings, after finding a parking spot, I had a habit of stopping at Jack and Benny's, a breakfast and lunch counter kind of place located on the same corner as my office. As a matter of fact, it was owned by Benny Klein, the pro- prietor of Benny Klein's Steak House, around the corner on High Street.
Benny was a real character, an émigré from Cleveland, where he'd made his name in pickles - you know, sweet, sour, dill, those kinds - a stocky Edward G. Robinson look-alike with a handshake that could crush rocks. But I am digressing.
Then one day I met Doc Boggs. He's sitting at the counter, a pleasant looking, white-haired gentleman with twinkling blue eyes, an ingratiating smile, and over the next couple of years I got to know him as a good friend.
He became a conduit for all kinds of Broad and High gossip and always lent a patient ear for my own problems. Despite his age, he had been married just a few years and had a young daughter. He had learned the real estate business, and sometimes he did this or that job for Benny Klein.
One summer morning, he introduced me to a skinny little kid who had dropped out of college to work downtown in a men's store. He said, "Tommy, I want you to meet Les Wexner." I said, "Glad to know you, Les."
Once I loaned Les five bucks for lunch and carfare. He paid me back. Promptly. Sort of a shame, when you think about it. Might have accumulated a lot of interest over the years.
Another time, Les asked if he could sell ads for me. I think I dissuaded him from the enterprise. My thought was that he wasn't aggressive enough. He was a very quiet kind of young man. Well- mannered, but quiet.
Toward the end of the summer, Les stopped coming in Jack and Benny's and I inquired about him. Doc said that Les' parents had bought him a womens' apparel store that had been on the block in the Kingsdale Shopping Center. For something like $18,000. I remember whistling and saying, "Oh, my gosh, there goes the family money." Well, as you might know, I couldn't have been more wrong.
But there was one thing I did right. Never once over all that time did I ever intimate to my friend Doc that I was aware of his past. Not once, because I counted Doc Boggs among my best friends.
I also knew that a few years before I met him, a deputy sheriff on his death bed had testified that Harry MaGill had actually been killed in a crossfire, accidentally shot down by one of his own friends.
The Boggs Brothers had been exonerated and released from prison. What had started out as a small town youthful caper and ended in stark tragedy had eventually ended on a happier note.
Memory does play tricks. If my recollections of any of the events recounted here are inaccurate, or if you can add an interesting note, I would appreciate hearing from you.
- Tom Thomson
(From the Nov. '98 Issue)
When I was about 12 years old, I owned the Worldwide Radio Network, a subsidiary model airplane company, the Worldwide Symphony Orchestra, all the teams in a major baseball league, and a lot of other stuff that's become lost in the afterglow of antediluvian memories.
So move over Ted Turner and Bill Gates. In chronological time and age, I acquired my empire long before you guys ever thought about accumulating a dis- gusting share of the world's wealth.
Only thing is, damn it, my kingdom was contained entirely in my head, solely the product of my boyish imagination.
Broadcasting, of course, was at the core of the entire operation, and accomplishing this necessitated my taking to the back alleys on the way to and from school and about any other place I might ramble.
In other words, I had to talk to myself. That was the way I broadcast. Talking out loud. Disseminating. That's the way it was, and that's the way it had to be.
The very essence of my programming was built around an on-going drama titled "The Turkish Invasion of America."
This blood-soaked saga continued for well over a year and featured American heroism in the face of conquering hordes who sacked one city after another. The Worldwide Symphony Orchestra pro- vided heart-wrenching Wagnerian music for the entire episode. This was accomplished by a combination of humming, booming, and tooting.
Virtual reality reigned and, of course, that led to some embarrassing incidents. Like the time I was doing an eye-witness account of the battle for New York City. (As with most of my programs, this one was sponsored by the model airplane company.)
There I was going down this alley not far from home, clamorously blaring away with fanfares of trumpets (courtesy of the symphony orchestra), describing the red glow against the sky, the chaos and the terror of the citizenry as the great metropolis burned.
As I approached a garage door that was standing open, I was excitedly narrating the spectacle of exploding skyscrapers collapsing into the streets, the looting of great department stores, screaming women and children fleeing through the Holland Tunnel and across the bridges, when - oh, my Gawd! - Mrs. Camboni, mean Mrs. Camboni who was always chasing kids out of her yard, church- going Mrs. Camboni, the Mrs. Camboni with the wandering eye, stepped out from behind the garage door, broom in hand..
Her good eye widened in disbelief, the erratic eye, large and wild, was darting about like a flying saucer as she confronted me. The truth is she had probably heard me approaching. Maybe for half a minute or more. Wondered what the holy Jesus was coming down the alley.
The only thing I could do, of course, was to metamorphose my broadcasting into a routine I had switched into on more than one occasion. Lustily, I started singing the words to The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
The expression on Mrs. Camboni's face changed from puzzled chagrin to hostility and back to bewilderment in the twinkling of her good eye.
"Hi!" Mrs. Camboni," I chirped, "How're you today?"
"Oh, I'm just fine not considering my lumbago," she managed to say in a half-friendly tone of voice.
I kept going, never broke my stride, went right past her with a little nod of my head, and a few seconds later started singing Amazing Grace, as loud as I could.
When I figured I was out of Mrs. Camboni's hearing range, I came back on the air again and explained to my listeners there had been a technical breakdown.
Commercials, as I said, were mostly for the World Wide Model Airplane Company and featured descriptions of various kits and promotions for model airplane shows.
All of this happened years ago, sometime around the year that there was an amazing display of aurora borealis in Columbus and throughout the eastern part of the U. S. The sky that night literally glowed with vibrating bands of color.
The baseball league I owned depended on a small toy top with a dozen or more flat surfaces on its sides, each inscribed with a play, i.e., strike, ball, single, double, triple, home run, out, and so forth. There were six teams that competed, each team named after a primary color. After the top stopped spinning, it would topple over onto its side and reveal the next play.
I'd give a pretty penny for a top like that if I could ever find one. Might even start up that baseball league again.
(From the Sept/Oct. '98 Issue)
. . . and as we toss on life's rough sea, we will always think of thee . . .
When I had finished the presentation for my spring bird watching class in OSU's Creative Activities Program this past spring, a sprightly gent with sparkling eyes made his way to the head of the classroom and extended his hand.
"I enjoyed the program very much," he said with a big smile, "My name is Eddy Farmer and I was born in 1910." He then introduced me to his attractive wife, Jeannine, and went on to explain that they both were wildlife photographers and had traveled the world.
I thanked Eddy for the nice words as my mind was calculating that to have been born in 1910 would make him 88 years old.
Well, Eddy and Jeannine only missed one of the ensuing field trips, and he kept up with the best (and the worst) of us.
There's an old adage that it takes a lifetime to learn all the bird songs - and then you lose your hearing. Eddy Farmer's hearing is better than a lot of folks I know half his age.
All of this in spite of the fact that he's had a cataract operation and one knee joint replaced. And get this! He and Jeannine are avid tennis players.
Eddy and I have a lot in common. We both went to Everett Junior High School, North High School, the Ohio State University, and we both served in the U. S. Navy. Only thing is, Eddy is just about a generation ahead of me.
He and Jeannine called me during the summer and we had lunch at Grandview's Red Door Tavern. Afterwards, I followed them to their home and beheld dozens of their fabulous color photographs hanging on the walls, many of them taken in Africa, some in places as exotic as Antarctica.
All of this led me to think back to my days at Everett. The memories flooded in: Mrs. LaVelle, my fiery French teacher. Mrs. DeWitt, my high-strung, demanding Latin teacher. Mr. Irving Rickley, the metal teacher whose homeroom I was in.
One day I had foolishly taken some itching powder to school and blown a tiny bit on the neck of the girl sitting at the desk in front of me. As the poor girl squirmed around, Mr. Rickley came over, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me into the metal shop.
There, he proceeded to break a slat of wood across my rear end.
Years later, Irv and I belonged to the same natural history club. I asked him if he remembered beating me.
"I did what?" he gasped. "To you? Aw, com'on, Tom, you're making that up."
"No way, Irv. You beat the livin' hell out of me."
He said he still didn't remember. Truth is, he probably laid the wood to so many kids' rear ends, he couldn't remember them all.
Anyhow, most of my days at Everett were on the brighter side. I don't have a yearbook, but I still fondly remember a lot of those boys and girls. Jimmy Reeder, Edith DeVictor, David Tilton, Polly Caine, Donald Day, Rex Blair, Pat Rundio, Bob Warman, and Bruce Armstrong, just to name a few of Them.
Then there was Suzanne Comer, who starred in school plays and operettas. Who could forget her. I think everybody in her grade was in love with her. There was also Betty Blatt (I had a secret crush on her), and many, many others.
In my memory, I still see their youthful, unlined faces. And I still remember the tune to the school song.
. . . and as we toss on life's rough sea, we will always think of thee, Everett Junior High!
Hey, Eddy! We went to one heck of a school!
(from the August 1998 issue)
Our Yummy man pedaled more than ice cream confections . . .
The Talmud is an ancient Hebrew book of civil and religious laws and precepts of wisdom. It is written there that we see things not as they are, but as we are.
Perhaps it is also written in that book that the basic tenets of life don't change much from one generation to another. The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least, that would be my guess.
When I was eleven or twelve years old, during the warm weather months, there was a Yummy Man who cruised through our neighborhood every after- noon. For those of you who might have difficulty figuring out what a Yummy man was, I'll explain.
A Yummy man was a kind of Good Humor man, a peddler of ice cream treats and frozen confections. His vehicle was a large tricycle. The seat upon which he perched was behind a large insulated box and a handlebar with bells arranged along its length.
The insulated box had a hatch door in the top which gave the Yummy Man access to all the goodies inside: Pop- sicles, Fudgsicles, Drumsticks, Cream- sicles and, of course, plain old ice cream bars.
But we kids were in on a secret that the average person - especially our parents - had no inkling of. A secret not about cold treats but sizzling hot ones, creations to excite the minds and imaginations of pre-pubescent boys.
Snuggled down there amidst all those goodies was a brown paper sack which was full of dirty cartoon books. Pardon me, what I mean to say is that they were sexy cartoon books. Little 10- or 12- page jobs, stapled together, about five inches wide and three inches tall.
Depicted across those scanty pages were graphic sexual episodes involving plagiarized cartoon characters. Popular characters, such as Maggie and Jigs, Dick Tracy (and Tess), and Blondie and Dagwood. Funnypaper people like that.
The plots were as minuscule as the men's endowments were unbelievably large. Capable either of giving young boys painful inferiority complexes or, more hopefully, a sensational and exciting new world to look forward to.
Price of the cartoon books? Two-bits. Twenty-five cents. That was when a quarter was a substantial piece of change and not to be thrown around indiscriminately by a twelve-year-old boy. By comparison, an ice cream bar or Popsicle was a nickel.
So you can see, we're talking sizable money here. Maybe the day's profits from a paper route.
Here lately as we close out the century, with alleged sexual affairs in the news, I've wondered about the paradoxical nature of our society. It's very confusing, isn't it? Mixed signals and all the rest.
If I'm not mistaken, none of us would be here without sex. To call it dirty is, in effect, to call ourselves dirty. That is an abomination and exhibits an astonishing degree of self-effacement, hypocrisy, or both.
And to think it shouldn't be enjoyable is another lie. I would guess in all the world of nature the act of sex is enjoyable - and everything from the paramecium up knows it. Otherwise it wouldn't be such a universally popular pastime. And without it, there wouldn't be much of anything here. Living stuff, that is.
Anyhow, as I said at the onset, it all depends on how you look at something. We see things not as they are, says the Talmud, but as we are.
This is the way I see them. When I look back on those good ol' days, I like to think we might have been the only boys in the whole world who got erections when we heard the sound of bells.