The First on Our Block to Fly

When I was a kid growing up at 6129 Winthrop and going to School #80, a favorite pastime was to go out to the airport and “watch the planes come in.” We would sit for hours, entranced at the sight of the big passenger planes landing. Somehow, taking off didn’t seem quite as dramatic since it was assumed they knew how to get up into the air, but setting down such a huge piece of flying machinery on a narrow strip of land seemed more of a challenge.

There was always the tense moment as they drew lower and closer, perhaps tilting a little in the wind, then settling the front wheels on the runway and the tail touching down, which we greeted with a sigh of relief and sometimes applause. It never occurred to us – either kids or adults – that someday we would take off and land in one of those planes ourselves, rising above Broad Ripple and all of Indianapolis, onto some exotic far off land within our own country, like, say, Pittsburgh or even New York.

It’s hard to remember now how new this whole thing was – the first revolution of passenger planes took off in 1936 with the Douglas DC 3, pioneered by American Airlines. Three years later, when I was in the first grade, my “rich Uncle Crawford” and his Southern belle wife Aunt Susie flew (“took an airplane” as we said back then) to Mexico!

Uncle Crawford, one of the owners of the four Harbison Drugstores in Indianapolis at the time (my father was pharmacist at their store at 16th and Central), was a strange combination of the past and the future – he was the only man I knew who still wore high button shoes, which had gone out of style circa WWI, but this same old-fashioned man took Aunt Susie on that flight to Mexico in 1939.

What tales they returned with! My favorite was Aunt Susie in a Mexican café with a mariachi band as she stood up and sang – in her molasses’ slow South Carolina accent – a hit tune of the time, “South of the Border, down Mexico way…“

Just being related to such people made me feel like royalty, but Uncle Crawford topped it the following year (1940). He gave tickets to my father, my mother and me to fly to New York to see The World’s Fair! The most exciting thing wasn’t that we were going to The World’s Fair but that we were flying to New York!

All the neighbors came to the airport to see us off. This was the event of the year for our block – or maybe of all the 12 years I lived there. To make things more awesome, the plane we would be boarding was “an American Airlines Flagship.” (I didn’t know until I did some research on the subject that all American Airlines planes were called “flagships” back then. The marketing department knew what they were doing! You weren’t just flying on any old run-of-the-mill airplane; you were going on a flagship. It brought to mind the great ocean liners of the time that were the standard means of trans-Atlantic transportation.)

My parents and I were dressed for the big event as if we were going to a wedding. My mother was wearing a new dress, high heels and a wide-brimmed hat. Miss Leah Justice, a “practical nurse” who lived across the street, asked my mother what seemed at the time a “practical” question:
 “Miz Wakefield, you’re not going to wear that hat when you get on that airplane, are you?”

My mother hadn’t really thought about it but said she supposed that she would.
 “But Miz Wakefield,” Miss Justice exclaimed, “it’ll blow right off up there!” 
 A few neighbors giggled, but a few looked concerned. My mother bravely kept the hat on as we boarded, just as if she were going to church.

Our flight landed in Washington, D.C., and then proceeded to LaGuardia. The stewardess (as they were then called) gave us gum to help relieve our ears popping when we landed. She was an attractive young blonde woman, and my father was so entranced by her, his eyes instead of his ears were popping. My mother never tired of reminding him about the stewardess for years afterward.

When he could focus his attention elsewhere, my father took photos of the sky (blue with white clouds) out the window of the plane with his new home movie camera (another first on our block!). He also took pictures of the stewardess.

When we got to The World’s Fair, we saw the famous “trylon and perisphere” that were symbols of the fair – a large needle-like thing and a huge ball-shaped thing beside it. (I still don’t “get it.”) More dramatic was the synchronized diving and swimming of the beautiful young women in “Billy Rose’s Acquacade.”

My father took movies of the “Acquacade,” starring Johnny Weismuller (the first “Tarzan” of the movies), and Eleanor Holm, who finished fifth in the 1932 Olympics but was thrown off the 1936 Olympics team when the team doctor found her in a coma induced by alcohol after partying on the ship going to Europe. Impresario Billy Rose made her the star of his “Acquacade,” married and divorced her; she got a handsome settlement and a movie role as “Jane” in the movie “Tarzan’s Revenge.” (Maybe it should have been called “Jane’s Revenge.”)

For me, the big moment of The World’s Fair was going to see “Elsie, The Borden Cow.” She was famous in Borden’s ads throughout my childhood, and as far as I was concerned, she was a far bigger star than Eleanor Holm. (My father did not agree, though even Eleanor Holm played second fiddle to the stewardess.)

One brief piece of that home movie survives, thanks to Betsy Blankenbaker, who managed to take from it a shot of my mother and I waving goodbye as we left the house en route to the airport, and included it in her documentary film of my memoir, “New York in the Fifties.” If I can find that home movie again, I will send it to The Smithsonian, or better still, my “archive” at The Lilly Library at Indiana University. It is surely historic for the fact that my mother is wearing her wide-brimmed hat, which despite Miss Justice’s fears, did not “blow off up there.”

We continued to “dress up” in our finest new clothes (bought for the occasion) the whole time we were in New York. Courtesy of Uncle Crawford, we stayed at The New Yorker Hotel. Every day when we came out to go to The Fair or to see other sights in New York, we were immediately surrounded by people offering us “Tour of Chinatown,” “Boat Trip Around Manhattan,” “Tour of Rockefeller Center” and every other tourist attraction in the city.

“How do they know we’re from out of town?” my father wondered, and so did my mother and I. We blithely walked on, resplendent in our white summer outfits, the latest finery from Blocks, Ayres, Wassons and L. Strauss and Company. All the New Yorkers seemed to be wearing black or other dark clothes. Were they all going to funerals? (It was early May and chilly.)

My only other memories of that trip to New York include going out to dinner at a restaurant that looked from the outside as if it were within our price range. After being seated and given our menus, my father whispered that we must all order the ham with potato and vegetable. It was the only thing we could afford, and even at that, from the strained look on my father’s face, I think we just barely got out of there without having to wash dishes. I distinctly remember the bare look of that thin slice of ham with the lonely boiled potato beside it.

My father had looked forward to hearing Cab Calloway at The Cotton Club (he loved Cab’s “Hi De Hi De Hi De Ho’s.”). My father and my mother had decided that I would be safe enough in the hotel room for a few hours (a bold move), but perhaps out of my fear of the big city, I got a terrible stomachache, and they had to cancel their great adventure. What a wimp I was! Still, the whole trip was a great success, and we had the home movie to show to our friends and neighbors for years to come. We each had our golden memory: my mother’s hat did not blow off, my father had film of the “flagship” stewardess and I had met Elsie, the Borden Cow.

Afterward, I have a distinct memory of lying around on the floor of my Greenwich Village apartment reading The New York Times one Sunday 17 years after my trip to The World’s Fair. I came across an article with a prediction that seemed so impossible, I read it aloud to my roommate. “Can you believe this? The Times says that someday, more people will go to Europe by plane than take the boat!” We both laughed. It was another 15 years before I flew to London.

On a magazine assignment in 1995, I again flew to London but this time on The Concorde. It seemed rather plain inside, but the lunch was elaborate: first a salad, then wine, then an entrée, then dessert, followed by an aperitif, then coffee. As I finished my coffee, we were descending into Heathrow Airport. The flight had taken three and a half hours. Sadly, the Concorde was sidelined due to the cost of the gas it took to fly faster than the sound barrier. Now it takes a little more than twice that long to fly to London. It still beats the five days it takes to cross The Atlantic on The Queen Mary, the fastest of the great ocean liners.

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Letters To (and From) Young Poets

The letters that the great German poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote to a young student at a military academy from 1903-1908 are still being read today. I suspect that they will continue to be read as long as people want to write poetry – or stories or novels or plays or memoirs.  The letters were published in 1929 as Letters to a Young Poet (Penguin) and the slim volume has been in print ever since, in many languages. It is not a “How to Do It” book, and does not presume to tell the reader how to construct a sentence or a sonnet or how to create a plot; least of all does it give any hints or formulas for the questions that most aspiring writers are burning to ask: “Is my work any good? How can I get published?”  Rilke begs the aspiring young poet to stop asking:

“No one can advise or help you. No one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”

Most aspiring writers would not have written any more letters to Rilke! But nineteen-year-old Franz Kappus was serious enough to keep writing to this ruthlessly honest advisor, and Rilke was generous enough to keep answering. The ten letters Rilke wrote between 1929 and 1928, along with the briefest of introductions by Mr. Kappus, make up this book. It is more of a spiritual guide than a writing guide, and its quiet wisdom will continue to be appreciated, not only by aspiring writers, but by anyone who seeks fulfillment in work and life.

This is a book that reverberates and evokes responses through the years in many different forms.  It was no doubt an inspiration for the poet Hyam Plutzik to write the former professor he regarded as his own mentor, in Letter from a Young Poet (Watkinson). This poet was twenty-nine when he wrote during seven months in 1941 this seventy-two page outpouring that seemed a personal and artistic accounting of his life before reaching the turning point of thirty. It has now been published with an introduction by poet-editor Daniel Halperin,  former editor of the literary magazine Antaeus, and co-founder of The  Ecco Press. There is an biographical summation of the letter’s context, and the three-page response from Professor Odell Shepard that, ironically, was never mailed, but discovered among Shepard’s papers after his death.  A reader senses that the deeply personal and seeringly honest summing up by Plutzik was the necessary prelude to the three books of poetry that he later published after serving in WWII. Some of the poems appeared in collections that also included the work of renowned poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

In the pages of what Halperin accurately describes as Plutzik’s “fervid” letter to his mentor, many young writers may recognize the tone and feeling of their own emotions. It’s too bad that Plutzik never was sent his mentor’s letter of response to his passionate outcry. Professor Shepard told him “It is the inescapable fate of the young artist, insofar as he has any original gift, to produce a kind of ware for which there is no immediate market, to supply goods for which there is no demand.” Unlike Rilke, who offered no critique at all of his young correspondent’s poems, Plutzik’s Professor found the one poem that was sent him along with the letter to be “highly original”  and “on the whole, successful.” He also passed on a bit of advice that could well serve every aspiring writer:  “. . .let me say what I think you obviously need is hard mental discipline. . .”

That discipline is difficult to maintain at any stage of the journey, and especially at the beginning. As Hyam Plutzik progressed from journalism and radio to teaching, and to publishing his three poetry books, “the young poet” of the letter obviously learned that universal lesson.  I am sure he also must have passed it on to his students at The University of Rochester, where he served as Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry.

Rilke advises his young poet, Franz Kappus, to avoid journalism and criticism if he wants to be a true artist. Kappus served as an officer in the Austrian army for fifteen years, then worked as a newspaper editor and journalist and wrote in every form imaginable – short stories, novels, sketches, screenplays – and even poetry!  Plutzik, too, wrote short stories, a novel, “movie serials,” journalism, and served as a radio music commentator, before settling in as a professor – a profession that Rilke must surely have approved as ideal work for a poet. It is the work that most of our well-known poets have found the most congenial for their art.

I was fortunate to have a poet as one of my own great professors at Columbia, Mark Van Doren. He taught a course in Don Quixote that gave me the most important advice I had as young writer (and still serves as an important reminder to an old writer.) “The lesson of Don Quixote,” Van Doren said, is that “To be a knight, you do the things a knight does.” You don’t even have to live in the era of knighthood, as Don Quixote, Sancho Panzo and their faithful horse Rosinante proved. Pots and pans can serve as helmets and armor. There are always beautiful maidens to whom you may dedicate yourself. If there are no other knights on horseback to joust with, you can joust with windmills. You can “do the things a knight does.” Cervantes’ great novel proved it.

The theorem applies to every profession: to be a writer, you do the things a writer does: you write.

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Going All The Way Back

After many years of exile I was lured back to Indianapolis in 1987 by Ophelia Roop, the colorful events-planner back then for The Central Library. She assured me it was “safe” to return now that seventeen years had soothed angry reactions to my novel Going All The Way – and the once-controversial work was read and discussed in book clubs at The Library. (Kurt Vonnegut had predicted in his review of the novel in Life magazine that “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.”)

Having a great time on that return and meeting old friends, I came back a year later when a New York publisher issued a new edition of the novel. [I still had no idea back then that I would ever come back to actually live here, as I did in 2011.] I was interviewed by Will Higgins, the young editor then of an alternative publication called The New Times, a kind of pre-cursor to Nuvo. In the course of the interview, Will proposed that we plan a Going All The Way Bus Tour, stopping at some of the sites I wrote about in the book, like The Red Key Tavern, The John Herron Art Institute, and Crown Hill Cemetery (where the young anti-heroes of the book go to muse on their future.) Now a star reporter of The Indianapolis Star, Will recalled “You and I met over breakfast at the old Stouffers Hotel, on the top floor of their dining room. The idea of the tour hit me then and there and I blurted it out and you liked the idea. The rest is history.”

Thanks to Will Higgins, history repeated itself last November, when he revived the idea of the Bus Tour, organized the whole thing, announced it in The Star, and the next day had enough responses to fill the forty-eight seats on the bus (plus a waiting list.) When the first tour was held in 1988, when my lifelong friend Ted Steeg, the former Shortridge and Wabash football star who served as the “model” for the character “Gunner Casselman” in Going All The Way, came down from New York to join me on the tour. The two of us passed the mic back and forth as we joked and reminisced and shared memories of high school days and “Indy in the ‘50s,” when the action of the novel took place.

The irreplaceable “Gunner” died last year, and I wondered if I could bring off a running commentary by myself. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I had the support of Will Higgins as co-host, and I enlisted the aid of friends who read appropriate passages from the book as we stopped or slowed. Travis diNicola, founder and director of IndyReadsBooks; Karen Kovacik, IUPUI professor and former Poet Laureate of Indiana, and Judy O’Bannon, widow of the former governor, were eloquent in their readings when we stopped at some of the featured sights.

As we had before, we began and ended the tour at the legendary Red Key Tavern,   where “Sonny” and Gunner” meet up in the novel. This time we added a stop in front of the house I grew up in at 6129 Winthrop, where I sat on the roof of the porch and looked for enemy airplanes as a “Junior Air Raid Warden” on The Home Front in WWII, just like the character “Artie” in my novel Under The Apple Tree. From there we went down Meridian Street and stopped at Shortridge High School. We went inside to the first floor hallway, where Judy O’Bannon and I and another Bus Tour traveler, the Pulitzer Prize photographer Bill Foley, have our plaques on the wall of The Shortridge Hall of Fame (along with Kurt Vonnegut, and my classmates from the Class of 1950, Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher and Senator Richard Lugar (he and I wrote sports columns for the Shortridge Daily Echo. )

We stopped outside the former Herron Art Institute, which is now one of the leading high schools in the state, and Karen Kovacik read the passage in Going All The Way when “Sonny” and “Gunner” go there in hopes of expanding their minds by “looking at art” and trying to figure out the appropriate comments and stances and length of time spent at each painting to appear to be aficianados. Instead, they spot an attractive young woman, who they find it far easier to appreciate.

Will directed our bus to The Riviera Club, which was one of the havens of summer for neighborhood kids in Broad Ripple when I was growing up, and we got out to stand by the November-empty pool with a gracious host from The Club. I read a passage of the novel when Gunner recalls a dark memory from high school of him and his friends being turned away because one of the boys with them was Jewish (based on an incident with me and some of my Shortridge friends back in the ‘forties.) Such an incident couldn’t happen now in the Club that identifies itself as “a place for everyone, a truly inclusive and unique club representative of the many diverse neighborhoods and individuals around us. Today the Riviera Club is a welcoming family-friendly environment for people of any background.” Some things do change for the better.

Our intrepid driver took us next to the top of Crown Hill Cemetery, which still affords the best view of the city. It was there that “Sonny” and “Gunner” went to contemplate their future, by the statue of James Whitcomb Riley, “The Hoosier Poet.” Everyone got off the bus to stretch and enjoy the view, when a cache of beer, soda and mineral water was found, with a note attached that said

“Hey, Bus Guys – As you’re contemplating your future, have one on me! – best, Tom Cassleman.”

“Tom Casselman” was the name of the fictional character known as “Gunner” in the novel. Now it can be revealed that the drinks and the note had been cleverly stashed there beforehand by tour organizer Higgins.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I explained when we got back on the bus that Crown Hill was not only visited by high school kids who went to the top to exchange deep thoughts, but also by those who found its darkened, winding pathways good places to “park” at night with a date, and not be interrupted by the intrusive beams of prowling police.

Back at The Red Key we told more stories, renewed acquaintance with old friends and made new ones, played old favorites on the legendary jukebox (surely no other jukebox in town or maybe in the whole country has Benny Berrigan’s classic 1939 recording of “I Can’t Get Started”), and ordered the famous Red Key burgers with Dolly’s home-made potato salad.  I thought of the words of poet William Herschell (often erroneously attributed to James Whitcomb Riley) “Aint God good to Indiana? Aint’ he fellers, ain’t he though?” That epic verse hung on the wall of the old Broad Ripple Branch Public Library, attached to School #80 (now a condo), where I learned to read.

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield