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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.