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Archive for June, 2012

Someone once told me you should never threaten divorce unless you mean it. Well, I meant it when I said it. But an hour later, I didn’t mean it so much anymore. My husband, Bruce, and I were still in Wabash, Indiana, visiting my mother-in-law’s hometown, when we had an argument. It was our second day there, and I’d like to attribute the fight to the stress of travel, but Bruce and I can argue in a box, with a fox, on a stair, most anywhere. The only difference the trip made was that I could feel the presence of his parents, who are proper, conservative people. It made our arguing, even if his parents didn’t hear it, seem vulgar.

The fight, once again, was about how Bruce doesn’t listen to me. I don’t remember the specifics, but what usually happens is he’ll ask me about something I’ve just told him minutes earlier, revealing that he wasn’t listening. If it happened once in a while, that would be one thing, but it was epidemic. In most instances, the passage of time seems to dissolve the discord, like running warm water over a bucket of dried plaster. Other times, the conflict seems insurmountable, and I feel I can’t possibly spend the rest of my life with someone who would do or say such things. That’s how I felt that morning when I said, “Well, I want to make this clear. For the record. I hate that you don’t listen to me. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and if I one day leave you because of it, don’t say I never warned you.” As soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have.

By early afternoon, we managed to put the argument behind us and went on a tour of Wabash with his parents. That night, we decided to go to a drive-in movie. The drive-in was operated by the Honeywell Foundation, and at a dinner party the night before, we’d met the man who ran it. In fact one of the treats he has as the foundation’s executive director, he said, is that he can sometimes play around with the drive-in’s old film projector.

The Drive In’s Marque

On the way to the movie, Bruce and I got into another argument, about whether we had been going north or south on Route 13. We’ve been arguing a lot lately. And every time we do, I think about how we shouldn’t do it in front of our 15-month-old son, Eddie, and how shrill I must sound. A man and a woman can argue, but it’s often the sound of the woman’s voice one remembers.

When we got to the drive-in, we paid $7 each and pulled into the lot. We tuned the radio in to the appropriate station to hear the movie. We had arrived about 15 minutes late, but there were still some decent parking spots left. We pulled into one and following the lead of those around us, we got out of the car and lay down on the hood to watch the movie. Eddie was already asleep in the back seat of the car.

The film was The Avengers, and it was awful. About 20 minutes in, there’s a scene in which an orchestra is playing classical music, and you know the evil-doers are about to strike. Suddenly, a big black blob runs across the screen like there’s been some kind of attack, but it turns out it was the film getting caught in the projector and burning. We could see it bake and sizzle on the screen. The damaged piece of film remained on the screen for about five minutes. A few wispy bits of burnt acetate blew back and forth like stray hairs. Bruce took about 16 pictures of it with his telephone camera.

Traffic jam at the drive-in

After a few minutes, there was an announcement that they were having technical difficulties. They were going to try to get the film running again but that it would probably take about 10 to 15 minutes. The announcer said if they couldn’t get it fixed, they would be refunding everyone’s money.

“Can’t they just show the next feature?” said the woman parked next to us. She was an obese woman sitting on a folding chair in front of her car. Her son, who was also large, sat next to her drinking soda out of a huge plastic cup.

Moments later, a second announcement came on saying the film could not be fixed and the theater would be refunding our money. Someone in the parking lot yelled, “What the crap?!?”

Before the announcement was even finished, cars began to line up at the exit. Within minutes, there was a sea of tail-lights about 100 cars long. We were at the theater for such a short period of time, it felt like we rushed to get there just in time to sit in traffic.

“I think we’re going to be here for a while,” Bruce said. “I wonder if they have enough money to refund everyone, or if there’s going to be a run on the bank because they spent all the money already.”

Bruce said he had been looking forward to walking to the concession stand and smelling some Indiana air.

The Indiana Sky

“Now, all I smell is exhaust,” he said. “And we had the good fortune of meeting the man who’s responsible for this projector last night.”

Indeed, the executive director of the Honeywell Foundation was proud that the theater still used the old reel projectors. They were also more affordable. Replacing them with newer electronic ones would have cost about $60,000, he said.

I pictured the burnt bit of film on the screen.

“I guess there’s a fine line between an old fashioned projector and a heater,” I said.

I sat up and looked over at the line of cars. Just as it would get shorter, another 10 cars that had been waiting for traffic to subside would get on it, making the line grow longer again. On the other side of the parking lot, about six teenagers stood outside of their car and tossed around a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee.

I turned around and lay back down on the hood of our car. I listened to the sound of the cars on the main road outside the theater. They would swish as they went by. It sounded a little like the ocean.

As Bruce and I lay there next to each other staring up at the sky, he took my hand.

“There’s the Big Dipper,” he said. “Wait. Is that the Big Dipper or the Little Dipper?”

“I can never tell,” I said.

We continued to lay there staring up at the stars until almost all of the cars had gone.

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We decided to accompany my mother-in-law on a trip back to her childhood home of Wabash, Indiana. Seeing a person’s hometown is like going to the movies with someone who’s already seen the picture. They want to tell you all about it. They can’t help themselves. In our case, that translated into a heavy schedule of activities planned for us for the three days we were there.

The first item on the agenda was dinner at the home of Richard Ford, a man my mother-in-law knew as a child. We had to rush to get ready because dinner was at 6 p.m. and we only arrived in Wabash at 5 p.m., no thanks to the fact that we passed the left hand turn for the town and missed Wabash entirely.

My mother in law in downtown Wabash

I’d heard about Richard for years, not just because he’s the brother of one of my mother-in-law’s closest childhood friends but because she’s very sentimental about Wabash, and Richard has spent the last several decades using his family’s vast wealth to resurrect it. He painstakingly renovated a 1920s hotel in the center of town. He restored an old theater and drive-in movie. He created a museum dedicated to Wabash County. And he purchased a bunch of the houses abutting his family home and turned the grounds between them into a nature preserve, with a man-made waterfall and a maze made out of trees, that’s open to the public.

As we rushed to get out the door, my husband, Bruce, said, “I can’t find the money.”

We’d taken $300 out of the bank just before we left home. Bruce handed me $60 when we stopped off at a drug store, but he hadn’t seen the envelope of cash since.

“Did you leave it in the drug store?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” he said, retracing his steps. “I can’t think about this now. My parents are waiting for us downstairs.”

When we arrived at the party, everyone was out on the patio having cocktails. Richard isn’t just a philanthropist. He is a facilitator, using his connections to bring different types of people together. The guests at our dinner party included the editor of the local newspaper, The Wabash Plain Dealer, a man who headed up the National Park Service under the first president George Bush’s administration, a local preacher who’d written a book about Wabash, and a man who used to book Christian Rock acts in New York and Nashville but now heads up the Honeywell Foundation, a local charity founded by Mark Honeywell, a Wabash native who invented the thermostat.

From the yard, we could see Richard’s childhood home, a large brick building that was about a third the size it was when his father purchased it. The elder Ford apparently thought the original house was too large for his family so he knocked most of it down. Richard’s tastes are less restrained. After seeing onion domes on churches in Eastern Europe, he had an architect create a mold so he could install one on his home and another on a building in the nature preserve. He painted them in a green and gold pattern that resembled a twist of soft ice cream.

Wabash’s favorite daughter, Crystal Gayle.

Over cocktails, the former head of National Parks told a story about how The Mall in Washington, DC was under his jurisdiction so when it was time to plan a July 4 celebration there, he invited Crystal Gayle of Wabash to sing. Given that Wabash was being represented, he invited the people of Wabash to attend. He didn’t expect anyone to show up, so when the logistical staff asked him how many people he expected from Wabash, he estimated about 10 or 15. He didn’t know that back home, they had chartered three buses, and 150 people showed up. They were given preferential seats, with a great view of the show, though the editor of the Wabash Plain Dealer missed the fireworks because he was filing story after story about the event for his paper.

Conversation over dinner was interesting, though I’d had a pretty stiff bourbon beforehand, and the only thing I remember talking about is the Five-Hour Energy drink, which is now produced in Wabash. When the company opened up the plant in 2007, a lot of local residents got jobs there, though many of them were let go when the recession hit. Apparently, the company has been pushing the product locally, bombarding the airwaves with television commercials, though hardly anyone at the table had ever tasted it – with the exception of the newspaper editor, who said he sometimes drinks it to stay awake in order to get the paper out.

“Doesn’t it make you jittery?” I asked.

“It has the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee,” he said, no doubt repeating the commercial.

The next morning just before breakfast, Bruce went to get money from a bank machine. Because he’d lost the envelope with all of our cash, he didn’t even have a dollar this morning to buy a cup of coffee. We had to borrow money from his parents the night before to pay the babysitter. But he returned from the bank after just a few minutes saying he now couldn’t find his bank card.

“Do you remember where you used it last?” I asked.

“I used it to check in,” he said. He went to the front desk to see if they had the card. They did not.

“We’ll find it,” I said. I felt sorry for him. It’s hard enough losing your money and your bank card. It’s worse when it happens in front of your parents.

We ate breakfast quickly and met up with his parents, who were taking us on a tour of Wabash. We drove by my mother-in-law’s first family home — most of the front lawn has now been paved over — and then by her second family home, which was on a beautiful tree-lined street. Bruce asked his father to slow down so he could get a good look at the houses, but his father continued on. We drove by Richard Ford’s family business, The Ford Meter Box Co., and into the south side of town, where my mother-in-law would ride her bicycle to her job as a lifeguard.

My mother in law told us that Wabash was the first electrically lighted city in America. A man from Cleveland had invented an electric light machine, and he wanted to test it somewhere. Hearing that he was willing to pay some money, Wabash’s town council volunteered to be used as the test site. Four 3,000 candle-powered lamps were hung from the flagstaff at the county courthouse, and when a switch was flipped, the candles went on, sending out a blinding light that could be seen for miles.

“People on the south side of town could read their newspapers by it,” my mother-in-law said, no doubt parroting the stories she’d heard as a child.

My mother in law told us about Modoc, the elephant, who was in town for a circus, but while waiting to perform, a dog barked, sending her fleeing. The elephant ran through downtown Wabash, smelled peanuts roasting in the local drug store and stormed the door, knocking the roasting machine over and eating the peanuts that were all over the floor. She then smashed through the back door, frame and all, and continued on a rampage for five days, making national headlines.

Eddie sitting on Modoc replica

My mother-in-law told us about a white woman named Frances Slocum who was kidnapped by the Indians but that her brother never stopped looking for her. By the time he found her years later, she had become a member of the tribe and was married to a chief. Despite the years, her brother recognized her by her finger, which had been disfigured as a child. She refused to leave the tribe. For years after she died, an old Indian sat vigil by her grave with a shotgun. I’d heard my mother-in-law tell this story before, and I’ve always detected a bit of intrigue in her voice, as if Frances Slocum could have been her or any one of her friends.

As we drove by my mother-in-law’s high school, Bruce once again asked his father to slow down, but his father took no notice. We then went to the cemetery where my mother-in-law’s parents are buried. As we headed back to the car, Bruce turned to his father and said, sharply, “Next time we go by something, can you stop?”

“All right, all right,” his father said, smiling. I couldn’t tell if he was embarrassed for being scolded or if he thought it was funny that his son was miffed.

Frances Slocum’s shoes.

When we got back to town, we stopped off in the Wabash County Museum. We watched a short film about the town, and in one scene, an 18-year old employee of a local mill talks about how an old farmer would come into his mill every few weeks with a couple of ears of corn and ask him to grind it up. The young man finally told the farmer if he’d bring in half a dozen ears of corn at once, the young man wouldn’t have to walk up and down the stairs so much, he wouldn’t have to change the belt on the machine so many times, and the farmer could save time and gas money because he wouldn’t have to make so many trips to the mill.

The farmer looked down at his feet and considered what the young man said. “But then we wouldn’t get to visit,” he replied.

“Well, now, I guess you’re right,” the young man said. “I’ll see you next week.”

While the museum was filled with artifacts from Wabash’s history, many of the displays were of world events and how they affected Wabash. It reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” in which Manhattan’s 9th and 10th avenues and the Hudson River loom large, and the rest of the world just sort of trails off from there.

My mother-in-law’s father

As I moved through the museum, Bruce walked over to me and said his mother had found a photo of her father on the wall. When I found her, she was standing in front of it, beaming like a school girl. In the picture, her father is straddling a bicycle wearing a black suit jacket with a boutonnière, black derby, round glasses and has what looks like a handlebar moustache. His eyes had a playful, mischievous look, and I saw in them something familiar: my husband.

When we got back to the hotel, there was a message on my telephone. I didn’t recognize the number. When I listened to the voicemail, a gentleman said, “I’m looking for Caren. If this is Caren, and you’re in Wabash, Indiana, please call me. My name is Ron.”

For a moment I thought it was someone who’d read my blog and wanted to offer me a book contract. I always hope to be discovered, like Tracy Chapman in a subway station. I called him back immediately.

“This is Caren. And yes, I’m in Indiana,” I said. “Who is this?”

“Did you lose some money?” he asked.

Good Samaritans in Indiana

“We did!”

He’d found the envelope full of cash. It turns out he was staying in our hotel because there was a country western singer playing down the street, and he’d found the envelope on a ledge near the ice machine. Inside the envelope was the deposit slip I’d received from the bank when I deposited some checks before we left. He Googled the name on the deposit slip and found my web site, which listed my cell phone number.

I met the man and his wife in the hotel lobby and retrieved our money. I offered to pay him $40 for his honesty, but he declined. I then asked him if I could at least buy them a drink. He again declined. I wondered what would have happened if we’d lost the money in our home state of New Jersey. We might have gotten a call from someone who came upon our money, but I imagined the packet returned to us would have looked like the end of a fishing line, when you’ve felt a nibble, and you reel the line in quickly only to find an empty hook with a shredded piece of worm and a bit of seaweed.

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