All the Way Home: Author Dan Wakefield on Returning to Indianapolis

Dan Wakefield. Photo by Tony Valainis

Photo by Tony Valainis

I wrote this piece for Indianapolis Monthly in October 2012. Evan West recently profiled me in the January 2017 issue. In light of that, I thought it worth re-sharing my side of the story again.

Here’s an excerpt:

Many people firmly believe that “fiction” really is “fact.” I still have people come up to me and say, “Hey, that must have been wild when you and ‘Gunner’ got kicked out of the Meridian Hills swimming pool because he had a beard!” In fact, I never knew anyone in Indianapolis who had a beard in 1954 (the year the novel was set), and I imagine that anyone who did would have been called a Commie and run out of town. But now I just smile when the scene is mentioned and say, “Yeah, that really was wild!”

My publisher sent me on a book tour that summer of 1970 and wanted to add Indianapolis when a local TV station offered to pay all the expenses. I reluctantly agreed, but the plane was forced down at an emergency airstrip in Pittsburgh due to a bomb threat. The flight was scheduled to go to Indy, Kansas City, and San Francisco, and the caller had told TWA, “That flight will never get to Indianapolis.” As we passengers waited in a concrete blockhouse pondering whether to accept the airline’s offer of continuing on when the bomb was not found or returning to New York, I confessed my fears to a woman standing next to me.

“I’m from Bloomington,” she said, “and I’ve heard about your book; if I were you, I’d go back to New York.”

Read the full piece at Indianapolis Monthly

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The Story of “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour”

One night last January while sitting comfortably at the Red Key Tavern (where I always feel comfortable), awaiting my burger and glass of red, Michael Therwechter, the resident photographer and creator of the Red Key website (RedKeyTavern.com), approached me with an idea.

“I was talking to Jim [Settle, the owner] and told him, ‘Since Monday nights are always slow, why don’t we have Dan come in and talk one Monday night a month? We’ll call it ‘Writers Night.’”

Without missing a beat, I said, “No, if we call it ‘Writers Night,’ people will expect me to read their writing.” In the next beat, as if I already had a counter-proposal stored away, I said, “Let’s call it “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour.”

Michael had the ideal response: “Great!”

I’ve been telling stories to friends, new acquaintances and book clubs that meet at the Red Key since I moved back to Indy in 2011, and sometimes people ask for a particular story I’d told to someone else: “Tell us about your dinners with Mia Farrow” or “Tell about the time you worked as a shepherd in The Negev Desert in Israel” or “Tell how you bonded with Kurt Vonnegut because both of you were failed high school athletes.”

One advantage of living to be 84 is you have several lifetimes of stories to tell. As a natural-born ham, I love to entertain, and storytelling comes naturally. My next thought for “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” was that it needed music. As if I had already thought of that too, the next thing that popped out of my mouth was, “I want to have Sophie Faught play the saxophone.”

1476711836___danandsophieSophie is one of the best and most popular jazz musicians in Indy, having played on Wednesday nights at the Chatterbox on Mass Ave. for many years. Last year, she was honored by The Star as one of the city’s up and coming young artists, and when she held a party for a new record at IndyReadsBooks a year ago, she drew the biggest audience the store has ever seen.

Even with Sophie’s music, I also knew I needed a sidekick, a sharp guy to prompt and keep me rolling. The answer to this was obvious: who else but The Star’s Will Higgins? We met in 1989 when I came to town to publicize a new paperback edition of my novel “Going All The Way,” and after doing an interview for the now defunct New Times, Will conceived and conducted “The Going All The Way Bus Tour,” which took a busload of people to some of the sites of the story (Crown Hill, The Meridian Hills Country Club and of course the Red Key Tavern.)

My old Shortridge friend and former Village roommate Ted Steeg, the inspiration for the character “Gunner” in the novel, came down from New York to help me out. We passed a mic back and forth on the bus and tossed stories around along the way.

A year ago, Will suggested we revive the bus tour, but I wondered if it would work without Ted who had gone all the way (in the final version) two years ago. Ted and I used to recite with a bottle of red wine as we sat by his fireside, “I’ll meet him later on, at the place where he has gone. . . .”

Will suggested I ask friends to read brief passages from the book as comment on the sites. Travis diNicola, Judy O’Bannon and Karen Kovacik headed the cast with Will as emcee, and I supplied supplemental stories as I careened back and forth at the front of the bus, holding the mic and trying not to fall into the lap of the driver.

When I asked Will if he’d be my co-host for “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour,” he got the1476711999___willlookingatdancopy
picture at once: “I’ll be the Ed McMahon to your Johnny,” he said, “or Arthur Treacher to your Merv Griffin.”

Originally this was conceived simply as an evening at the Red Key, but once the pieces started falling into place, we thought as long as we’re doing this, why not see if we can do it on the radio? I’d been interviewed on WFYI’s masterful production of their documentary on Vonnegut (“A Writer’s Roots: Kurt Vonnegut’s Indianapolis”) and started by asking that producer who put me in touch with the head of programming.

Will and I pitched the exec at a meeting at (of course) the Red Key. The program exec asked me to write up a one-page summary of the show that he could give to his Board, and after a nail-biting few weeks, he said he was turning us over to the person in charge of radio. She gave us the go-ahead for our first show and put us in touch with the sound engineer we would need to employ for the job.

As pieces began to fall into place, it turned out that Michael, the Red Key photographer whose idea set the whole thing in motion, was a natural-born producer. He announced the show on the Red Key website with a fee of $15 per person, and within hours, the place was sold out. Mike wrote and recorded a terrific intro to the show as well as promos aired on WFYI. He brought in the sound engineer to scope out the logistics for recording. He worked with owner Settle (son of the legendary Russ) to organize closing the bar (a first in its history) to all but participants and show-goers from 6-8 p.m. on Monday night, September 19. He arranged to have drinks and burgers served to the 50-plus people at the 15-minute break and during the show without any interruption in the broadcast.

I almost had a cow. “Serve burgers and drinks to 50 people during the broadcast? Without any interruption in the program? That’s impossible!” I ranted. But with the organizational aid of the indomitable lawyer-organizer Pat Chastain and the all-star staff of the Red Key, including Jim behind the bar, Violet at the door and Lana on the burger-magic grill, Mike made it all happen.

For my own all-star broadcast team, I booked my favorite Indiana writer, Susan Neville, to read a poetic piece from her classic “Indiana Winter” as the wind-up to Sophie closing with “I’ll Be Seeing You.” That first show told the story of the local tempest tossed by “Going All The Way” and a recording of Kurt Vonnegut reading the part of his review of the novel in Life magazine: “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis. He will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.”

1476711837___dansusanandwillcopyAs guests, we had Ophelia Roop, the adult services programmer at the Central Library who assured me it was safe to come back and speak here in public in 1987 (17 years after the novel was published); Georgia Buchanan, the first movie and TV critic of The Indianapolis News who spoke of the trauma of having to transfer from Manual to Shortridge after her sophomore year; and Janet Brucker Herke, my 1950 Shortridge classmate who explained the arcane social structure of high school life in Indy. The show aired on WFYI on October 16 and can be accessed on my website, danwakefield.com.

We recorded a second show on September 19 on reporting from dangerous places with my own account of writing in Israel and Jordan in 1956 when I was detained by The Arab Legion as a suspected spy but allowed to return to what the Arabs call “Occupied Territory” (better known as Israel). Middle East reporting was brought up to date by Will Higgins who The Star sent to Iraq and Bloomington author/foreign correspondent Douglas Wissing who has written two books based on his tours embedded in Afghanistan. That show has not yet aired at the time of this writing. After our first show, I wrote up ideas for an additional six shows, and WFYI called us in to express their enthusiasm and tell us they wanted to find sponsors for the “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour.” Stay tuned. . . .

Whatever happens, that first hour show was like my own “This is your life,” featuring some of my favorite people –my favorite writer, musician, librarian, classmate, survivor of Indy high school trauma and Star reporter. And for extra good measure, the voice of Vonnegut, the Godfather of my writing career. As a special feature, the recording of a pop song from the days of my “Going All The Way” tempest was played, which begins with sirens: “Indiana wants me, and I can’t go back there. . . .” But I finally did, and I’m glad. “Uncle Dan’s Story Hour” is my testament.

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Dan Wakefield’s five novels are now available as eBooks as well as his memoir, “New York in the Fifties.”

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Vonnegut Lives!

Kurt Vonnegut was a Humanist, but he always spoke of people he loved as being “up in heaven now.” He included in that territory his wife Jane as well as Sam Lawrence, the publisher who he said had saved him “from smithereens.”

That same publisher, with a generous boost from Kurt, saved me from smithereens. In fact, Kurt is still saving me from smithereens, providing me work in collecting, editing and writing introductions to his letters, his graduation speeches and now a book of his complete short stories, so I choose to believe that Kurt “is up in heaven now.” I figure he has a townhouse over in the Humanist neighborhood, just east of the pearly gates.

From another viewpoint, it seems he is still alive, not only through his books (they are all still in print) but also through the work of The Vonnegut Museum and Library (VM&L) here in Indianapolis. You have to understand that this particular institution is much more than its name suggests – it does a lot more than just house his books and artifacts like his old typewriter and decorate the walls with his quotes (such as “Man is a dancing animal.”). It carries on the work he believed in.

Kurt was always a crusader for the freedom of expression, and he fought against the banning of books. He would be proud to know that the museum and library that bears his name features a “Banned Books Week” every year when authors and book lovers come and read passages from books that individuals and institutions have tried to ban. People who come to listen are enlightened and often shocked and appalled to hear what silly reasons are given for trying to keep adults, children and students of all ages from reading books that are so powerful and beautiful that fearful people have tried to ban them.

The School Board of Drake, North Dakota, not only tried to ban Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a worldwide bestseller, they actually burned copies of it in the high school furnace. Kurt wrote an eloquent letter to the Chairman of the Drake School Board, in which he said:

…If you were to bother to read my books, you would learn that they are not sexy and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That’s because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hard-working men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

Once when I went to a reading at Banned Books Week, I heard an eloquent reading by Judy O’Bannon from the wise, lovely novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The “excuse” for banning it? A character used the word “hell.” If you go to The VM&L during Banned Books Week, you are liable to learn something that will shock your socks off.

One day I went to hear Liza Newman, the granddaughter of the labor activist Powers Hapgood of Indianapolis, who I’d read about in Vonnegut’s novel “Jailbird.” I happened to get there early, and a panel discussion was going on with four Japanese-American citizens who had been in the U.S. internment camps during World War II because they were of Japanese ancestry. I found their experience so depressingly fascinating that I later looked them up and interviewed them for an article I wrote in NUVO about that dark chapter in our history.

Oh and the talk about Powers Hapgood – one of Kurt’s heroes – was terrific too, so I got double my money’s worth (but I hadn’t spent a cent – all the programs at The VM&L are free except for dinners and fundraising events). There’s a Vonnegut Book Club, and that’s free too. They meet once a month to discuss a book they’ve chosen to read, and it may be one of Vonnegut’s books, or it may be a book by another author. If the books are by other authors from Indiana, sometimes the author comes and takes part in the discussion.

Vonnegut-Lives-DW

Once I went to hear James Alexander Thom who lives in the woods outside of Bloomington with his lovely wife Dark Rain; they met while he was researching his novel based on the life of Tecumseh, “Panther in the Sky.” The day I went to hear him at The Vonnegut Library, the book club was discussing his new novel “Fire in the Water,” which is set just at the end of The Civil War when Lincoln was assassinated. Once I went to talk and answer questions about a novel of mine, “Under The Apple Tree,” which takes place on “The Home Front” during World War II.

Kurt was a Corporal in the infantry during World War II (he liked to say he had attained the same rank as Napoleon). He was captured by the Germans during The Battle of The Bulge and survived the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war in an underground meat locker, a nightmare he transformed 20 years later into his classic novel “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Kurt was loyal and supportive of his fellow veterans, and he’d be proud to know that the museum-library honoring his name brings in thought-provoking speakers and programs the weekend of every Veterans Day. Last year, I heard the Afghanistan war veteran Luis Carlos Montalvan, author of “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and The Golden Retriever Who Saved Him.” Captain Montalvan came with his dog “Tuesday” and told how service dogs were making a new life possible for veterans who had suffered the physical and emotional wounds of combat. With his faithful Golden Retriever at his feet, Montalvan explained that “service dogs” are not just for blind people but are essential to some of the wounded vets who suffer from PTSD.

Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam vet who wrote the most acclaimed book of that war, “The Things They Carried,” was a featured speaker at The VM&L Veterans weekend several years ago, and he gave one of the most impassioned anti-war talks I have ever heard (along with Kurt’s talk against the first Iraq war that I heard him give at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City). O’Brien is returning this July to speak at the “Teaching Vonnegut” program that brings in secondary school and college teachers from around the state and the country who use his work in their courses.

Kurt’s short stories are especially popular with high school students. I learned that personally a few years ago when I went to pick up my goddaughter from Miami Senior High School. She was anxious to tell me about a really “cool story” she had read in her Language Arts class that day. She didn’t remember the name of the story, but she said it was about a boy who lived in the future at a time when the government tried to make everyone equal by wearing weights that kept down their particular talents. This one boy defied the rules and refused to wear the weights, and he was the hero of the story. “Was that story called ‘Harrison Bergeron?’” I asked her. “Yes! How did you know?” she said. “I know the guy who wrote it,” I said. “A guy named Vonnegut.”

That course for teachers at The VM&L will introduce other students to the work of “that guy named Vonnegut” whose imaginative stories and novels open up new ways of looking at things, of questioning assumptions and of pointing out “the elephant in the room” that everyone else is embarrassed or afraid to mention. WARNING: His writing is in fact a kind of literary “gateway drug” that makes young people want to read more, discover other authors, maybe even lead to Dostoevsky and the novel Kurt’s wife Jane required him to read on their honeymoon, “The Brothers Karamazov.”

Reading Vonnegut, the odds are you’ll learn something unexpected. It was true of the man as well as his work. In the last 15 years of his life, I was living and teaching in Miami, but at least once a year, I went to New York, and I always looked forward to a lunch with Kurt. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t say something that stuck in my memory.

Once when we were walking back to his house after lunch, he said, out of the blue, “You know, Dan, we never had to leave Indianapolis to be writers because there are people there who are just as smart and just as dumb, just as kind and just as mean, as people anywhere else in the world.” It’s obvious, yes, but I’d never looked at it that way before. Now here I am, living and writing in Indianapolis, and at least several times a week, I hear his voice in my head, saying those words, and I smile.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield