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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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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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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!

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Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield