In Days of Old…

The first day of grade school was like the dawn of civilization. I walked the half block up Winthrop to School #80 with a sense of excitement and mission that the old explorers must have felt on coming to a newly discovered land. Our smiling first-grade teacher, Mrs. Roxie Lingle Day, made us feel welcome and safe. When the pretty girl with the pigtails, Nancy Downs, cried because she had never been away from home before, Mrs. Day took her into her arms and held her on her lap. In the coming days, the wonders of the world were opened to us – words, pictures, numbers, music. More magic was introduced next door in The Library (housed in the Masonic Hall in those days), where I found my way, in the shelter of stories, to the path I would follow and am following still.

I kept in touch with high school friends throughout the years but lost track of my School #80 pals as I left the neighborhood to go to Shortridge and write for The Daily Echo (I was already prepared by publishing first in The Rippler, the School #80 paper.) I left town for college at Columbia (where I wrote for The Daily Spectator), and life in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Miami, circling back here in 2011. I first lived downtown, so it wasn’t till I moved back to my old Broad Ripple neighborhood a few years ago that I found a few of my fellow survivors from the cradle of our beginning – School #80.

Last year I met up with Gene Neudigate again, my basketball-crazed comrade who got his start playing at my backyard backboard on Winthrop, and went on to star at Broad Ripple. We get together now and repeat the same stories of basketball or of School #80, never tiring of telling our stories, over and over, like the beat of the ball being dribbled on the hardwood.

“Guess who I ran into about ten or fifteen years ago?” Gene asked me. (At this age, “ten or fifteen years ago” seems a lot like yesterday.)
“This woman I didn’t recognize,” he continued, “called to me – ‘Gene – Gene Neudigate,’ she said, ‘Don’t you remember me? I spent a lot of time with you!’ ”
“I stared at her, and I said ‘I’m sorry,’ but I still don’t know who you are.
“I’m Mrs. Grimes!’ she said.”
Mrs. Grimes was the Fourth Grade teacher at School #80.
“She did spend a lot of time with me,” Gene said. “In fact, she spent more time with me than any other teacher ever did. She was my favorite teacher.”

Those teachers have remained part of our lives, sometimes even “in person” as well as in memory. Mrs. came to my mother’s funeral. The summer I was a sophomore in college I drove with a friend to California and we stopped in Carmel-by-the-Sea so I could visit my eighth grade teacher, Louise K. Wheeler. She was the first person who said I could write. Thank you, Miss Wheeler. I’m doing it.
*    *    * Maybe getting to know again friends from School #80 confirms my sense of who I am as a man of eighty-three, by reminding me of who I was in the very beginning. (“I was, therefore I am.”)  Gene Neudigate told me he had seen his old grade school class again when Alice Ashby Roettger convened them for lunch at Plump’s Last Shot on the day of their 50th Broad Ripple High School Reunion.  Alice Ashby!  Of course! She played the violin and wrote for The Rippler!

I had run into her a few years before when I went to borrow either a cup of sugar or a bottle of wine from my neighbor Mary Holland, and Alice was just coming out the door with a few others from some neighborhood committee. She stopped on the steps and we started talking about our favorites from The Golden Book of Song, which was practically a textbook at School #80. Alice promised to invite me over some time to talk about our old teachers and belt out a few numbers from The Golden Book, but like most good intentions, it hadn’t come to pass, so a few weeks ago I called Alice and invited myself over.


Dan and Alice

She still has a copy of The Golden Book of Song, and opening it is like opening a box of Proust’s madelines. The names of songs – “The Old Oaken Bucket,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sweet and Low,” “Men of Harlech,” “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean . . .” bring back scenes of every season of childhood. The deepest memory The Golden Book music evokes for me is a balmy spring afternoon when the classroom windows are open and a soft breeze blesses us all, as we’re gently lifted “On Wings of Song.” I can hear as clear as day the voice of Sandra Anderson singing the soprano solo in “Hiawatha,” the sound bringing with it an essence of spring as true as a green bud just about to burst – as we were too, and didn’t know it.

The music makes teachers materialize – Miss Shute and Mrs. Grimes, Miss Shaw and Miss Wheeler. Both Alice and I remember Miss Louise McCarthy, the teacher who was most un-popular then, and now seems the one who may have taught us the most.

“She made us always write in complete sentences,” Alice remembers, “And to make outlines before we wrote.”
“And she taught us to think,” I say.
Sometimes she shocked us.  In the spring of seventh grade, we were studying American history, and Miss McCarthy was telling us how America took The Philippines. It didn’t seem “fair” or “democratic,” and Miss McCarthy could see we were we unsettled and disturbed by our country’s methods of conquest – and then she really knocked us for a loop.

Do you think America is always right?” Miss McCarthy asked the class, the very question seeming subversive; and then she wagged her finger at us slowly back and forth and said, “Why, not at all, Seven-Bs, not at all!

Our minds reeled. This was a new way of looking at things, a perspective we had never seen before. Years later, this revolutionary lesson from Miss McCarthy came to mind when I heard Kurt Vonnegut asked in an interview: “Where did you get your radical ideas?” and Vonnegut answered proudly – and without hesitation – “The Public Schools of Indianapolis.”

Alice was in the first grade when The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As she wrote in “Battle Fields and Playgrounds,” a lovely personal memoir of the era:

“As far as I knew, posters saying ‘Is this trip necessary?’ and charts indicating how many war bonds it took to buy a tank or jeep had always adorned the classroom walls. War stamp sales in the corridors and graphs showing each classroom’s participation in them, periodic air raid drills, and piles of scrap growing the schoolyard were the norm . . . The air raid drills provided not only an opportunity to instruct us in what to do ‘in case of attack,’ but also afforded us a chance to gather as a school to sing patriotic songs to the accompaniment of the upright Steinway that had been pushed into the hall from the nearby gym.

“While we sang inside, a scrap pile began to grow in our schoolyard. I learned that one old tire could provide as much rubber as is used in 12 gas masks, and that an old lawn mower would help make six 3-inch shells.  I rode my scooter to school one day – the tires had worn bare and my parents encouraged me to donate it to the war effort. I hoped to win praise for the ultimate sacrifice, like the junior high boy who donated his entire electric train set. No matter that I had outgrown my ‘scooter days’ and was happy to get rid of the darned thing, battered and scarred as it was.”

Alice remembers making tinfoil balls, collecting milkweed pods to help make parachutes, and eating “Victory Cakes” made without eggs, butter or milk. Like me, she collected paper and scrap metal, and bought “War Stamps.” All this was part of being patriots on “The Home Front,” and School #80 was our fortress, our headquarters, as well as the heart of our learning – our neighborhood cathedral, whose halls seemed hallowed.

Now it’s a condo. Someone is living in my first grade classroom! Nothing is the same in our old neighborhood. The institutions we knew are gone – Gene’s Pure Oil Station, Wally’s Grille, Lobraico’s Drugstore, The White House record store, Vonnegut Hardware . . . The Vogue remains, but like School #80 becoming a condo, the movie house has become a night club. It seems like everything else is a bar. Gene Neudigate’s house – the last one on the north end of the block at 62nd and Winthrop – has just been torn down to make way for the spread of more anonymous condos.

You can best get the feel of what it was like back then from Alice Ashby Roettger’s verse impression:

Broad Ripple in the 40s — A small town within a large city

I pedal alongside the high school football field;
Over the railroad and down the hill,
Past a long-deserted log cabin,
Then turn to speed through an arch of flaming maple trees
And past the brooding hulk of my school.

Reaching the Masonic Hall,
I fling my bike to the ground
And leap up the steps,
All the time sensing the buildings
That flank the street as they stretch north to the canal:

Drug stores and small groceries,
The shoe repair shop, bakery, and deli.
Then, last, the fire station that hugs the very banks of the canal.
And beyond the bridge – the modest dwellings of the canal builders’ progeny.

Entering the Hall – which houses the library –
I sniff the familiar odor of books,
And savor the promise . . .

– Alice Ashby Roettgers

*     *     *     *     *
Dan Wakefield’s novel Under The Apple Tree was set in the era when Alice was in first grade and he was in third at School #80. The fictional town of “Birney, Illinois” in the novel is based on Broad Ripple.


What We Wished We’d Said

I doubt there is a human being who does not at some later time wish we had said something that we didn’t. I’m not talking about the common fantasies of telling off a former friend or enemy, striking them with our rapier wit that would have cut them down to size after they dared offend us. Those things rarely work satisfactorily, and I can only think of one instance when a much later put-down gave justified satisfaction to the wielder of the word of revenge.

Kurt Vonnegut was humiliated as a senior at Shortridge High School during a custom that allowed faculty members to give “joke presents” to some of the seniors (the ritual was happily discontinued by the time I got to Shortridge.) The football coach had given Kurt, self-described as “an awkward, gangly kid,” a subscription to The Charles Atlas Body Building Course. The teenager felt humiliated in front of his classmates and faculty.

Several decades later, while sipping bourbon by himself in his New York apartment, feeling satisfied as only a writer does after his novel (“Slaughterhouse Five”) is hailed on the front page of The New York Times and becomes an international best-seller, Kurt picked up the phone and asked for the number of that football coach who was still alive. He got him on the line and said simply “This is Kurt Vonnegut, and I doubt if you remember me, but I wanted to tell you my body turned out just fine.”

‘Nuff said.

Few of us can think of the right thing to say on the spot – it took Vonnegut more than 20 years and the confidence of a best-seller to find a great response. Mostly we sputter a curse or two and afterward feel worse than we did before attempting our verbal counter-attack.

On the higher ground of a wish to acknowledge someone, to give a friend or colleague a deserved compliment, we often hold back, wishing later we had said it. One of my missed opportunities occurred when I was sitting on the stage of Clowes Hall with Vonnegut and John Updike in the first “Spirit and Place” event. Updike was saying that many English writers could be counted on to publish a first-class new book every year or so, year after year, but we don’t have any writers like that in America today.

“But we do, John – it’s you!”

That sentence was in my head, but it didn’t come out of my mouth. I truly admired the regularity with which Updike managed to publish a new novel just about every year and a half, and in between the novels, he often came out with a collection of assorted prose or poetry, all of it high quality work.

I hesitated to say it – I don’t know why – maybe fearing I would sound as if I were currying favor or showing off my own professional generosity, but the fact is I did and still do believe he was as good as he was prolific and one of the few American writers of his time to exhibit such qualities.

I wish I had said it, but now it’s too late to tell him. I doubt if it would have made his evening, but it always helps to feel recognized and acknowledged, and it helps the person who recognizes and acknowledges to know that he or she has expressed a heartfelt opinion.

Such dilemmas do not apply only to writers! I wish like the devil I could have opened up and said what I felt to a man who came to a book signing I gave at a Barnes and Noble here in Indy back in the ‘80s. One of my old School #80 classmates came to my reading, and I asked him to have coffee afterwards. He had not only been a classmate, but he had played basketball at my backyard backboard on Winthrop – a breeding ground of future Broad Ripple High School stars!

When I met him years later at that book event, Dick “Itchy” Richardson had become a successful contractor, and he seemed very subdued and quiet. He looked the same – tall, dark-haired, loose-limbed, handsome – but I had the desire to shake him and say, “Hey, Dick – Itchy – you were a great kid! You could make me laugh with your loosey-goosey style, you could send our outdoor basketball games into hysteria when you urged people not to just ‘flick’ – to shoot too much – but to ‘fo-leek,’ which meant to really shoot way too much and do it with no shame, to throw up impossible baskets with glee.” But we both just sat there over our coffee like dodos or department store dummies, being polite, restrained and ‘grown-up.’

When I moved back to Indy four years ago, I asked if you [Dick] were around, knowing this time I would thank you for giving me so much fun and hope I could get your comic spirit going again. I wanted to enjoy the deep-down pleasure of happy hysteria that some people have the gift of passing on to others. I’d shake you until you smiled and the laughs came rolling out, and I could join you in the kind of hysterics that made us fall to the ground. But you had already gone, I was told, and not just left the city but left this life, taking your laughs with you. I had missed my chance to say thanks for lighting and lightening my early life.

At my age, so many people are passing from my chance to thank them that I try to make a point of doing it, especially with people I am no longer able to see very often. When I last visited Boston, I made a point of looking up a man to whom I owed a great deal. I met Robert Manning when I was on a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard, and he was editor of The Atlantic Monthly. I wrote a piece he liked and published, and when I ended up living in Boston after the Nieman year, we saw a good deal of one another.

I wrote in a fairly regular way for the magazine, and he made me a Contributing Editor (the title had no salary but gave me the use of a beautiful office overlooking The Boston Public Garden.) One evening in the spring of 1967, Manning was cooking steaks on the grill in the yard of his house in Cambridge, and we both were sipping dry martinis. He spoke of how difficult it was for a monthly magazine to cover the rapidly changing events in the Vietnam war.

“Maybe what we should do,” he mused, “is to send someone around this country to see how the war is affecting us.”

I agreed that was a good idea, and through the charcoal haze of the grilling steaks and the silver sting of the martinis, he asked if I would like to take on that assignment. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. For six months, I traveled throughout the country, talking with all kinds of people about the war. I ended my travels in Washington, D.C., to interview people in government and write what became an entire issue of The Atlantic in March 1968, called “Supernation at Peace and War,” which then was published as a book.

Manning essentially had trusted me with his magazine and his reputation as an editor. The Atlantic had never before devoted a whole issue to a single article and author – a 36-year-old version of me. And I didn’t fail the trust. That issue of the magazine sold out our rival Harpers, and their whole issue was given over to Norman Mailer’s “The Steps of The Pentagon,” later published in book form as “The Armies of the Night.”

When I went to Boston several years ago, Bob had retired with his wife to Cape Cod, but he sometimes came in to spend a few days in their condo in the city. It was there I asked him to lunch. Afterward, we went to his home in Boston’s South End and talked of the old days. After we had reminisced for an hour or so, he asked “Have we covered everything?”
 I said, “No, but there’s one thing left.” “Oh? What’s that?”
 he asked. “I want to thank you,” I said, “for being good to me.”

When you’re young, you think that every opportunity someone gives you is your just due. You later realize it’s because someone has put their faith in you and risked their own reputation to bet on your chance of coming through for them. I wish I could shake the hand of each one who has blessed me in that way, but many are gone. At least I am glad that I said what I wanted and needed to say to Bob Manning, one of the mentors who took a chance on me and who I lived to appreciate and express my thanks.


The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Who would have dreamed that one of the brightest lights of Southern literature and a California writer of hard-boiled detective novels would become fast friends and establish a loving relationship for the rest of their lives?

That’s what happened when Eudora Welty, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Ross Macdonald, winner of multiple Edgar awards for best mystery novel and a Grand Master of Mystery Writing, accidentally met at The Algonquin Hotel after exchanging fan letters for their books. They regretted they lived so far apart – she in Jackson, Mississippi, and he in Santa Barbara, California. Macdonald wrote her in consolation, “Meanwhile, there are letters.”

Without this marvelous book of letters (“Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald,” edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan), readers and admirers of those two fine writers and their loving friendship would never be fully known.

I can’t help thinking there will soon be very few books of letters. Can you imagine rushing out to read a book called ’Meanwhile There Are Emails”? (Or better still, “Meanwhile There Are Tweets”?) The only such book I can imagine might be published would be “The Deleted Emails of Hillary Clinton” from her time as Secretary of State.

No matter how talented the writer, an email is just not the format for developing complex moods, landscapes and the insights that grow from meditative writing. One of the most beautiful and profound passages in Welty’s letters develops from her thoughts while going north on the train past Cairo, Illinois, and seeing from the high railroad bridge the place where the Ohio and Mississippi and a small local river come together.

In the sky, a long ragged V of birds flies south with the river: 
“I kept hearing in my head all the way that beautiful word ‘confluence’ – ‘the confluence of the waters’ – everything the eyes could see was like the world happening. . .It may not be so rare, but I thought so then and I think so now – it’s all so rarely the blessing falls.”

What a wonderful concept – those rare times when “the blessing falls,” when we sense a kind of beauty and harmony in life. I doubt that such “blessing falls” in emails, much less Tweets or Instagram posts. We now live in a constant state of Twitter, our attention attacked at every point, fragmented by instant messages, images, apps and Tweets, leaving no space for contemplation, or even at times, it seems, for breathing.

As I lament the loss of letter writing, I confess to my own guilt. I haven’t written what I think of as “a real letter” – words on paper, folded into an envelope, affixed with a stamp and put in a mailbox or taken to the post office – in more than a year. That last letter went to my old minister and friend in Boston, one of the few of even my own lofty age who still writes letters. He even writes them with a pen with his own hand. I haven’t even been able to bring myself to answer by tapping the keys of my computer and printing out a page or two of personal news and thoughts.

A few years ago, a friend from my time in “New York in the Fifties” sent me a packet of letters I had written to him and his wife in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His wife had recently died, and she had saved those letters. My old friend was thoughtful enough to send them to me in a package – the kind of gesture that was made by people who had the time and made the effort to give something of personal value to someone who they knew would appreciate it.

I was amazed when I read the letters I wrote – they were like personal essays, full of news, humor, opinions, questions – nor were mine all that unique. Everyone I knew wrote letters like that. It was an art that seems to be lost. The letters in the marvelous Welty-Macdonald book are letters written in the ‘70s – before the advent of email.

Seven years ago, I was honored to be given the job of finding, assembling and introducing a book of Kurt Vonnegut letters. To tell the truth, I thought it would be pretty easy. All you had to do was go to the archives and track down Vonnegut’s letters and put them in order and write an introductory essay.

Not so fast! Vonnegut didn’t keep copies of any of the letters he wrote. (I knew that firsthand as I once asked him for a copy of a letter of recommendation he had written for me, and essentially he said too bad, that one I sent you is all there is.)

After I tracked down a major batch of letters, which came from a wide variety of archives, writers, friends and family, I had to make choices from more than 500 plus letters to retain the ones that maintained the flow of his life and seemed most relevant to his life and work. After that, more were cut by the publisher.

After writing my personal/professional introduction, I still felt something was missing from the book. I have always been frustrated with books of letters that leave you in the middle feeling lost – where was the writer of the letters at the time he was writing and what was going on in his or her life in the context of any particular letter I was reading?

For the sake of the reader, I wrote an introduction to each decade – from the ‘40s when he wrote his first letter home after being a P.O.W. in World War II to the last decade of his life, “The Two Thousands.”

That decade began with a letter to his daughter Edie, a painter. (Her painting of “Adam and Eve” has been hanging in all of my many living rooms since 1971, from Boston and Los Angeles to Miami and Indianapolis.)

In that letter Kurt wrote to Edie on January 1, 2000, he told about someone sending him a picture of his father, the architect, and noted that “Father, like you, was a good citizen, a founder, among other virtuous activities, of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, one of the best in the world, and designer of a landmark clock at the corner of Washington and Meridian Streets, in the precise corner of town, which intersection was and may still be called ‘The Crossroads of America.’”

He went on to tell Edie that he had been in Indianapolis that past June, “and I walked under that clock, and I looked up at it, and I said out loud ‘Hi, Dad.’”

His last letter in my book was written to a Cornell professor, saying he was unable to come and give a talk at the university. He ended it “But God bless you for being a teacher. . .”

Much of the spirit of the man is in those few lines to his daughter and to the Cornell professor. You can get a deeper and more accurate picture of Vonnegut’s life from reading his letters than from any biography. The letters portray his triumphs and tragedies, his deep loyalties and friendships, from high school pals and sons and daughters to famous writers, and his passionate causes, from defending freedom of speech to pleas for saving the planet, all in his own inimitable voice and style.

Letters say who we are, an identity that can’t be summed up in a Tweet. Try writing a letter today to someone you love! Write it on paper, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it in a mailbox. You’ll be doing yourself and your friend a favor. I promise to do it myself.

Writer’s Tip: My Columbia Professor C. Wright Mills, the sociologist and author of White Collar and The Power Elite, told me that his own method for breaking through “Writer’s Block” was to write a letter to a friend. In writing a letter, you stop worrying about style, publishing, editorial criticism, and just write in a free, natural way to express yourself. It is the kind of freedom you want for the book or story or article you are working on and have temporarily become blocked on. The letter allows you to “loosen up” and return to the work at hand, knowing you are indeed a writer – you have just written, and proved it to yourself!

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield