Friday, December 19, 2014

Write That Down

“Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.” John Adams

The cellar-dwelling Engineers swept three games from a team of 200+ bowlers named Write That Down, as Dick Maloney and Robbie Robinson finished the night 70 pins above their averages.  Stringing together a four-bagger, I rolled a 202 in the only close game, which we won by ten pins.  Their ace, lefty Mike Novak, who has several dozen perfect games to his credit, left seven-pin after seven-pin on apparently perfect hits.  Rather than gripe, he was philosophical about it and quite friendly.

In 1979, recently tenured, I taught a History of Journalism course and became adviser to IUN’s student newspaper, the Northwest Phoenix, which had published a single issue the previous semester.  Under my tutelage, one came out each week, often causing controversy.  It was invigorating, and I became friends with several in the class, including SPEA secretary Michele Yanna and the Nommensen brothers, Neil and Mike, whom I first knew as neighbor kids.  At Country Lounge following the final class Michele presented me with a drinking mug inscribed, “Write It Up.”  The phrase had become my mantra whenever someone pitched a good story.  In “Educating the Calumet Region,” Steel Shavings, volume 35 (2004), I wrote:

“Mike Nommensen’s cartoons in the student newspaper gave new meaning to ‘Airin’ My Beef.’  Neil and Jeff Vagnone [son of Arts and Sciences administrator Helen Southwell] house-sat our pets during a family trip to the Bahamas with some of the Porter Acres softball gang; the walls shook during their Nerf basketball games, Neil admitted later.” 
The brothers Nommensen: above, Mike as santa; below, Neil
Titillatingly titled “Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood” by William J. Mann investigates the unsolved 1922 murder of actor-director William Desmond Taylor.  Police questioned a dozen suspects, half of them women; one unconvincingly confessed 40 years later.  Mann has written biographies of Barbra Streisand, Liz Taylor, and Katharine Hepburn, as well as “Behind the Screen: How Gays and lesbians Shaped Hollywood.”
At lunch Chuck Gallmeier and I exchanged badinage about campus characters, and he introduced me to Natalie Haber-Barker (above), an IUN grad and niece of former Nursing professor Donna Russell, who went on to earn a PhD in Sociology and is now an adjunct.  Board president of the North Central Rural Crisis Center, Natalie recently visited in Durban, South Africa, which gave me an opportunity to talk about being there ten years ago prior to an oral history conference in Pietermaritzburg.  I stayed in an oceanfront hotel and called home from a pay phone, using a special card that required me to dial 30 numbers.  First day I walked around in search of a sports bar until it became obvious the area was dangerous, a fact later confirmed by a tour guide who took a group of us to the Maloti mountain range in the landlocked kingdom of Lesotho. 

Communication adjunct Alex Semchuck dropped off two copies of his documentary “Stagnant Hope: Gary, Indiana,” one for me and the other for the Calumet Regional Archives.  If critics thought “My Name Is Gary” was negative, it was downright cheery compared to “Stagnant Hope.”  Describing “The city of the century . . . a century later,” Semchuck stated:

  “It took Gary, Indiana less than 20 years to grow from a fledgling company town to a mini-Chicago.  After several decades of prosperity, it took roughly the same amount of time to resemble a post-industrial ghost town.  For decades the place known as the ‘Miracle City of the 20th Century’ has been plagued with a series of social, economic, and perceptual problems that is keeping it fighting for its life in the 21st century.”

IUN librarian Tim Sutherland invited the Archives staff to a Holiday lunch.  With plenty of meat choices, I opted for a juicy beef sandwich, salad, scalloped potatoes, and chocolate cake.  I sat with feisty Anne Koehler, who earlier in the day had ordered William Mann’s “Behind the Screen: How Gays and lesbians Shaped Hollywood” for me through interlibrary loan.  I told her about Alissa’s recent visit to Berlin, where her sister lives.
 Dr. William Scholl

At Lake County Welcome Center John Davies hosted the tenth annual Legends Wall of Fame ceremony with customary enthusiasm and panache.  The inductees included astronaut Frank Borman, inventor Neil Ruzic, Medal of Honor recipient Frank Ono, and podiatrist William M. Scholl, founder of Dr. School’s, one of the most successful businesses of the twentieth century.  I had on a pair of Dr. Scholl’s shoes for the occasion.  Like me, Tim Sutherland attended, in part to validate Steve McShane’s invaluable participation in the selection process and preparation of the plaque citations.

The only honoree still alive, Frank Borman, 88, resides in Montana but lived in Gary the first six years of his life until his family moved to Arizona because the polluted air from the steel mills cause Frank to suffer from chronic sinus infections.  Nearly a half-century before Gary’s birth as a company town, Borman’s great-grandfather Christopher Bormann moved to Tolleston, a German community later annexed to Gary.  A native of Hanover, Germany, he had found work as a tuba player in a traveling circus.  Anxious to avoid conscription during the Civil war, he planned on moving west and boarded a train. According to family lore at the Tolleston depot a conductor bellowed: ‘All immigrants get off here.’ Bormann dutifully obeyed, perhaps thinking he had reached his destination, Texas.  He eventually opened a trading post that housed Tolleston’s first post office.

In his autobiography, “Countdown,” Borman recalled that in 1933 his father paid five dollars o take his five year-old son for a ride in a biplane with a former barnstorming pilot.  Frank recalled: ‘I sat next to Dad in the front seat, with the pilot in the cockpit behind us, and I was captivated by the feel of the wind and the sense of freedom that flight creates so magically.’

On January 14, 1966, Gary dignitaries honored the West Point graduate and NASA astronaut who’d completed a 14-day Gemini 7 mission months earlier.  Mayor A. Martin Katz presented him with a key to the city.  An estimated 50,000 spectators lined Broadway for a parade that featured marching bands from local schools.  Prior to an evening banquet, Borman spoke to school children, civic leaders, and students at IUN.  Thirty-four months later, on Christmas Eve 1968, Borman, James Lovell, and Bill Anders orbited the moon ten times, the first astronauts to do so.  Their accomplishments, coming at the end of a turbulent year of assassinations, urban riots, and setbacks in Vietnam, earned them the honor of being named Time magazine’s people of the year. In 1976 he returned to Gary to accept an honorary degree from Indiana University.
 Chancellor Dan Orescanin, President John Ryan, Borman, trustee Carolyn Gutman

At the end of the program four Portage High School junior ROTC cadets (including a Latino and an African American) performed a complicated rifle exhibition drill in honor of Private Frank Ono, a Japanese-American who grew up in North Judson and fought with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat team. During the battle for the town of Castellina Marittima in Italy he almost singlehandedly held off an attack on his unit’s position by German forces.

In attendance were numerous relatives of Ono and Rusic, plus Borman’s hippie-looking nephew.  I was disappointed that Scott Bocock, who nominated Dr. Scholl.  Filling in for him, Bob Carnahan mentioned that Scholl became interested in repairing shoes at a young age and practiced his trade as a young man in Cedar Lake.   He invented and patented an arch support that was the secret to his initial success.  Carnahan’s son Scott, a former student in my seminar on Cedar Lake and interviewed both beloved town historian Beatrice Horner and his dad, who recalled working at the Cedar Lake roller rink, staring at age 11.  He recalled:

  I put skates on kids and later did the announcing and floor guarding.  I learned to set counters up and how top put paint on a wood floor.  I even learned a little about plumbing and furnaces.  It was a practical education.
  I worked as a kid in a lot of places, including Kohler’s Bakery and Grocery Store, where they would stack cereal boxes all the way to the ceiling.  They had this stick device that you would use to lower the boxes down.
  Edgewater beach had a bathhouse where you could change clothes.  One day in March the owner said he lost his fishing pole out in the lake. I jumped in the cold water and rescued the rod and reel.  It actually had a fish on it when I pulled it out.  That summer he let me operate his pier concession, charging folks a quarter to put their clothes in a basket.  Many customers came from a picnic grove located across the street. 
  I used to caddy for Nick Schafer, the golf pro at South Shore Country Club.  When we got to the refreshment sand, he’d buy me a hot dog and coke.  The after we got back to the clubhouse, he’d buy me a hamburger, French fries, and coke and pay me two dollars for caddying 18 holes.
  I remember Stan Kenton’s band playing at Midway Ballroom, where I parked cars as a kid.  Sometimes they had live entertainment in all three rooms.  One night they had the Everly Brothers in in the back section, Bobby Vee in the center section and a local group from Hobart called the Sundowners in the front section. 

The United States is finally opening diplomatic relations with Cuba after 53 years, and a full quarter century after the end of the Cold War.  Perhaps President Obama finally feels free to do the right thing.  Predictably, save for libertarian-leaning Rand Paul, Republican presidential hopefuls are howling, but Colin Powell and Pope Francis are all for it. Shame on Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz for not embracing this new page in Cuban-American relations, which promises to improve dramatically the lives of their parents’ former countrymen.

I wrote Blandine and Frederic about wanting to subtitle my forthcoming Steel Shavings “My Name Is Gary” and asked for permission to use still photos on the cover from their noteworthy documentary by that name. Blandine replied:

  “Hello Jimbo, it¹s good to hear from you (even if we still follow every post on your blog) and of course you can use “My Name is Gary” as subtitle and photos of the film and of us for the cover. In fact, we are really proud to be included in the new Steel Shavings.  We are trying to think about the next documentary project, which is a little difficult for us for the moment because our mind and our heart are still in Gary!  But we would like for sure to come back to the USA. I think that all the people we met in Gary, and you especially, gave us the desire to come back for a next film in the USA.”

Wouldn’t it be awesome if the French filmmakers next focused on the unique community of Miller Beach, Gary’s unique “jewel” by the lake?  They have entered “My Name Is Gary” in film festivals in Toronto and Chicago and eventually will make a copy available to the Archives.  Blandine invited us to come to Paris and stay at her apartment.  I’d love to see them again.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In Her Shoes

Rose: ‘You live here, in an old folks home?
Maggie: It’s a retirement community for active seniors.’
            “In Her Shoes”

There were plenty of empty seats on my American Airlines direct flight to Palm Springs – hopefully not cause for ending nonstop service, as is the case between May and October.  I dropped my boarding pass going through the TSA rigmarole, but someone alerted me.   It was raining in Palm Springs, a rare event indeed.  An Avis representative outfitted me in a Chevy Cruz whose headlights came on automatically at night, unlike previous Toyota and Mazda rentals.  On the second day, however, a dashboard indicator warned of low tire pressure, so I took it back to the airport.  Instead of checking things out, Avis simply gave me a Corolla with a device that showed what was behind me when I was in reverse gear. 

At Mirage Inn assisted living facility I found Midge now wheelchair-bound, except for in her apartment.  She fell a few days earlier in the bathroom, leaving discoloration near her left eye and a nasty cut on the arm.  Nonetheless, she was in decent spirits except for complaining about being a “drudge.”  Her gnarled hands made writing difficult, so I addressed 50 Christmas cards during my four-day stay.  One was for Donna Chandler, now an octogenarian but a sultry, sexy brunette when she babysat me. I helped Midge get rid of piles of junk mail, including rightwing, anti-Obama appeals for money.  One charity sent her a check for five dollars as a ploy for a larger donation.  It reminded me of gambling casinos mailing out checks that could only be cashed on the boats.  Midge and I only went out to eat once, but the institutional food was palatable – especially my BLT on toast at lunch and pork loin dinner.  Midge finished off her meals with a chocolate chip cookie while I opted for a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

Afternoons at Mirage Inn feature bingo with very large boards and Wii bowling.  In Midge’s apartment is a trophy she won a few years ago, but she no longer Wii competes.   She usually has a glass of wine during Happy Hour, however, with centenarian Shirley; several people told me how much they like her.  She rarely wears hearing aids, however, so conversation is limited.  She is also too vain to wear diapers that might reduce the spills in the bathroom, which is poorly designed, with towel racks far from the sink and no carpeting save for a couple throw rugs.  Old age is not for the timid.  When I started taking a diuretic, I refused to wear a diaper on trips and had several close calls and near disasters.

While Midge’s short-term memory is poor, but she recalls past events vividly when we looked at old photos.  I learned she was named for Aunt Mamie Ackerman, whose real name was Mary Ann.  Aunt Mamie paid for her college expenses and, after she no longer drove, gave her and Vic a car a Buick with no back seat but enough rear deck space for two kids to fit during trips to Easton (PA) from Fort Washington to see great grandmother Grace Frace and her daughter Ida.  Aunt Ida came to live with us after Grace died at age 98 and subscribed to the Easton Express for the obits.  Midge reminded me that I called her Idaho Potato Patch, and we reminisced about her baking crumb pie and sticky buns on Saturdays.  Her mortal enemy was Midge’s father, Charles Elwood Metzger, who went by the name of Elwood, and visited most Sundays (I’d pick him up in Chesnut Hill at the south end of Bethlehem Pike).  Midge recalled that “grandpa” was upset I wasn’t named Elwood, a name I like but not as much as James.
 Shadow Mountain Band

I spent Friday and Saturday evenings at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown, located near Joshua Tree National Park.  The four-mile drive from 29 Pines Highway to the roadhouse is quite spectacular, given the rock formations and Joshua trees.  The awesome band Dust Bowl Revival played a peculiar brand of swing, and bluegrass, kind of a mix between Tex-Mex and New Orleans.  Saturday the place was packed when Shadow Mountain Band took the stage at 5:15; at the bar I had a couple pale ales on draft along with sausage soup and chips with salsa, all for under 20 bucks.  I’d heard Shadow Mountain Band before, and they did not disappoint, doing a moving version of the Steve Goodman classic “City of New Orleans,” about an obselescent Illinois Central passenger train that’s got “the disappearing railroad blues,” traveling 500 miles with just 15 “restless riders”:

          “The train pulls out of Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passing trains that have no name
And graveyards full of old black men
And graveyards full of rusted automobiles.”

I successfully finished two USA Today crosswords – a rare feat.  One clue – crushing defeat – was for an eight-letter word.  The final two were “oo” and the middle two “er.”  I finally realized the answer was “Waterloo.”  The clue for a 15-letter word, Jack Dawkins, stumped me until I filled in most of the letters spelling “The Artful Dodger.”  I knew of the Charles Dickens pickpocket character from “Oliver Twist” but not his given name.
          Shirley MacLaine in "In Her Shoes"

TV watching during the four days in California consisted mainly of the news (a hostage crisis in Australia and revelations of CIA-approved torture at Guantanamo) and snatches of movies, including one with spunky Hillary Duff and sexy Heather Locklear.  The most memorable, “In Her Shoes,” was about two estranged sisters, one of whom (Maggie, played by the sexy Cameron Diaz) visits her grandmother Ella (Shirley MacLaine at the top of her game).  Jerry Adler, loan shark “Hesh” Rabkin in “The Sopranos,” plays a senior citizen with the hots for Ella.  A scene of them dancing brought a tear to my eye.  Red Scare victim Norman Lloyd, 90 years old in 2005, played a blind professor who has Maggie read the Elizabeth Bishop poem “One Art” to him, then asks her what it means.  After she answers that it deals with losing a friend, he says, “That’s an A+.”  It’s a transformational moment on her path to self-esteem.  Here’s an excerpt from “One Art,” which also is about aging:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”

At Applebee’s I learned that favorite waitress Andrea Aguirre got a promotion and is in training to be a manager at an Applebee’s in Indio.  Last time we talked she had turned down a similar opportunity because she could make more money waitressing and bartending. Hope they sweetened the pot.  She’s a natural, charming but efficient.

I reread Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” about an event I participated in, the 1967 March on the Pentagon.  I learned such new words as pullulate (multiply or breed rapidly), salience (prominence or likelihood of being noticed), and badinage (banter or give-and-take).  Symbol of the military-industrial complex, the Pentagon, to Mailer, represented the “blind, five-sided eye of the oppressor, greedy, stingy dumb valve of the worst of the WASP heart, chalice and anus of corporation land, smug, enclosed, morally blind.”  Mailer’s answer to Vietnam –get out, leave Asia to the Asians – could apply equally to our present Mideast policy quagmire.  So could a poem Robert Lowell recited on the eve of the March:

           “Pity the planet, all joy gone
From this sweet volcanic cone;
Peace to our children when they fall
In small war on the heels of
War – until the end of time
To police the earth, a ghost
Orbiting forever lost
In our monotonous sublime.”

Landing at O’Hare, I appreciated the multi-colored Christmas trees and other seasonal decorations - kudos to their landscape architect and work crew.  The flight being 20 minutes early, I enjoyed a Chicago-style hot dog before catching the 7:15 airport bus to Highland.  Unlike last winter I didn’t have to battle a snowstorm to get home, only a steady rain.

Would I want to be in Midge’s shoes at 98 going on 99?  On days when my knee, wrist, neck or ankle hurts, I shudder to think of their condition 25 years hence.  No longer can I play ping pong or tennis and my bowling days are surely numbered in years if not months.  With more and more deceased friends having been crossed off Midge’s Christmas card list, the poignancy of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem became obvious.  If like the “In Her Shoes” blind professor, I can still impart insight or wisdom to others, then hopefully I’ll realize that all else is no disaster.

In The Times: local stories of murder and mayhem plus a police bust of a party near Valparaiso University that resulted in 45 arrests for underage drinking.  More than half were VU athletes, including 17 football players.  One young woman hiding in the attic fell through the ceiling onto the shower floor.  Also: news that Gary’s Building Commissioner plans to convert abandoned City Methodist Church into a “ruins garden.”  Photographer Guy Rhodes, lamenting the deterioration of the inspirational but unsafe Gothic cathedral, said, “It’s heartbreaking.  It’s like watching a building melt.”  Rhodes added:

  “There’s ornamentation on the steeple that you’d never see from the ground, like hand-carved owls where they etched every feather and every claw.  Skilled stone masons built it as a gift for God.” 
above, NWI photo by Jonathan Miano; below, Miller South Shore station by Samuel A. Love

Northwest News ran a feature on friendly Grounds Maintenance Supervisor Tim Johnson, who started at IUN 35 years ago after graduating from Portage H.S.  He seems to love working outdoors and said: “Right before school starts, usually toward the end of August, when we are out in the parking lots painting the curbs early in the morning and the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s just beautiful.”
 Tim Johnson

In a holiday message entitled “It’s the Time to be Thankful,” IUN poet laureate Hollis Donald of Physical Plant laments the impending retirement of Business professor Marilyn Vasquez.  She was a “truly wonderful human being,” as Donald observed accurately, whose joyous smile was contagious.  Jeff Manes should do a SALT column on her.  Donald concluded

  “If you’ll make joy your goal, you can wear a smile on your face when all the reasons for being happy are gone.  Joy will carry you through any rainy day, when all your friends or help are gone.  Why?  Because you have learned to be so thankful for your life.”
Marilyn Vasquez with Surekha Rao (2012); NWI photo by Tony V. Martin