Old Corporal is staying a Hoosier

“A funny thing happened on my way to Florida …”

“I just flew back from Melbourne, and boy, are my arms tired! …”

“Look before you leap — especially if the leap will cost you a heap! …”

OK, all you people who said I would be back from my “new home” in Florida in six months — you’re wrong! I lasted exactly one week!

Yeah, I was just down there for a week, visiting my best friend in Melbourne and trying to get the “lay of the land” in July, the hottest month. The visit was pleasant, in some ways, and unpleasant, in others. And I learned some things that I hadn’t thought about, that much. Those things could have cost me a bundle, if I had gone through with the move.

My friend, who was concerned that I not commit myself to something that I would live to regret, outlined things for me in one of our conversations that week:Florida-towers

“Wayne, think about it: It’ll cost you a bunch to move all your stuff down here. Then you’ll have to pay your first month’s rent, plus your deposit, right away at the Trinity Towers (the senior apartment complex I was hoping to live in — there’s a photo I took of it at left). That’ll be over $1,000 (for the rent and deposit). Then you’ll have to buy furniture; that’ll be at least another $1,000. Then you’ll have to change banks, and get your direct deposit codes changed for your monthly checks.”

And so on. He told me that the area where the Trinity Towers are located — historic downtown Melbourne — is considered to be not too safe after dark; most residents there don’t go out after about 7 p.m. In fact, I think the outside doors lock automatically at a certain time of the evening. Presumably you can get in by swiping your resident’s card at the door. And Trinity Towers is ranked as the best senior citizens’ housing in Melbourne. But still … if you were 69 years old, would you want to be moving somewhere that you’d feel unsafe out on the street after early evening? Would you like feeling that you had to keep looking over your shoulder? Or get a licensed handgun to carry with you for protection?

Of course I knew that Melbourne was a lot bigger than Madison, Indiana (77,000 residents vs. about 12,000), but when I got a chance to study it for a week, it appeared to me that it sprawled all over the Atlantic coast. When I was riding with my friend to lunch or dinner, or his ex-wife’s or cousin’s houses, it seemed like we had to drive forever. And always on divided, freeway-type highways, where other drivers all seemed to be en route to a fire, or rushing pregnant women about to give birth, to the hospital. They flew! And they didn’t pay much attention to whether someone was getting in their way. My friend warned me about that, too, as I’m a non-driver and would have to do a fair amount of walking — and street crossing — if I moved down there. Sure, Melbourne has a good bus system — I’d looked that up on the Internet. But from what I saw while I was down there, to go anywhere very far, I’d be on a bus half the day. No, thanks.

I got to talk to the lady in person, that I had communicated with on the phone, who is assistant manager of the Trinity Towers, and she was very charming and helpful. She showed me one of the one-bedroom apartments, which is what I thought I wanted, and it was nice. Very nice. It was several stories up, with picture windows that gave one a good view of beautiful historic downtown Melbourne, so I could see the restaurants that I wouldn’t be safe walking home from after dark, if I moved there. And I probably couldn’t afford to eat in them very often; too expensive. And no, hiring a bodyguard is NOT included in my budget.

The Melbourne Public Library is only two or three blocks away from the Towers. It was an impressive building, with a body of water (not the ocean) on one side, where numerous ducks waddled back and forth, some of them being fed by people who had gathered there under the trees. Nice. Reminded me a little of the ducks who live on our riverfront here in Madison.

But I noticed that the Melbourne police kept a patrol car on duty near the library nearly all the time. Why? Because there are many panhandlers and homeless people in the neighborhood. They frequently amble into the library to get out of the killing mid-summer Florida heat, and sometimes will try to “hit up” people entering the library for hand-outs. The public often needs police assistance at those times.

The motel where I stayed was clean, and offered a free breakfast each morning. No complaints from me there. But the A/C in my room was turned up way too high, and I didn’t realize it until I’d slept in that chilly room for two nights. By that time, I was getting a scratchy throat, which quickly turned into a head-and-chest cold, with hard, persistent coughing. When I got home, and people said, “You caught a cold in FLORIDA?!” I almost had to laugh. Yeah, try it folks: A motel room which is chilled off like a frozen daiquiri, and then when you go outside, you get hit with 93-plus temperatures with high humidity. The first couple of days there, I was so parched after I had been out in the heat for an hour or so, I would have gladly lapped up the water from one of the doggie bowls people left outside restaurants. Yeah, my friends: I caught a bad cold in Florida. Believe me, it wasn’t that difficult.

And, while I bring it up reluctantly, Melbourne has a lot of “diversity.” Lots and lots of “diversity.” Especially in restaurants. Not much cream in that coffee, either. Read between the lines, folks.

But, I’m glad I made the trip. I got to see my friend again, and his ex-wife, and their unique and formidable cat, The Black Man. The big ebony feline is 14 years old, but doesn’t act like it, as he is still spry and feisty. Careful when you try to pet him! He’ll nip your hand, or throw a right cross at you with his paw that would inspire envy in a heavyweight champion. He did act more friendly to me than he has during previous visits; actually jumped up into the chair with me once — for just a few seconds. He also let me pet him several times, nip-free — until the last day I was there, when he gave me a little bite, apparently a warning — “Don’t you get too friendly, you red-faced bastard, you! I don’t allow people to take liberties with me, except for Mommy and Daddy!” Yes, he’s some Black Man. Look near the bottom of this page and you’ll see a photo of The Black Man with his “Daddy,” my friend Everett Ward.

I think my coming down with a cold while I was there was kind of a “Godwink” — a sign from above that I was making a big mistake if I moved down there. I think He winked again when I got onto the two planes I rode home on. I managed to bump my head against the overhead luggage racks, not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES while getting into and out of my seats! By that time, I was thinking, “Lord, please let me get back to Madison in one piece, and I’ll NEVER try anything like this again!”

So, I’ve changed my mind. This wild hair about moving to Florida and leaving my Hoosier home behind, was just that — a wild hair.

Some of my friends probably sniggered about my backing down. I guess only women are supposed to have the privilege of changing their minds. But as an old friend of mine, Abie Schultz (now deceased) used to say, “It takes a smart man to change his mind. A damn fool never does.”

I was laboring in the salt mines at the Madison Courier for many years, not getting along well with some of my fellow employees, drinking too much, and doing some things in the community that were, frankly, anti-social and got me a bad reputation around town (never mind; I’m not going into that, and if you’ve lived in Madison for a long time you know what I’m talking about anyway). My self-esteem was low; I saw no future for myself. Remember that Joni Mitchell song from the ’60s, “Both Sides Now”? It included a line that I thought described me perfectly: “So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.”

My outlook started to improve after I quit drinking, 17 years ago, and after the Courier management found an excuse to let me go, eight years ago. I felt like I was finally becoming my own man. About damn time, too, after all these years in Madison!

It was in January of this year, after that terrible winter we had, that this idea popped into my head: “Why am I staying here? I could join Everett down in Melbourne, Florida!” The more I thought about it, the better the idea sounded. I began telling my friends about it, and practically every one was dumbfounded: “You’re moving to FLORIDA? Really? Why, I can’t believe it! You’ve been here forever, Wayne!”

And I would think, “Yeah, that’s one big reason I’m leaving!” After all, I have no immediate family any more, no ties to Madison in that way. So I started making plans for the big move, including getting myself onto the waiting list at the Trinity Towers down there, as I already related earlier.

Even in a town the size of Madison, I’ve always felt a little isolated, with most of my friends never bothering to call me or look me up to see how everything’s going, or to make sure I hadn’t been lying croaked and rotting in my home for the two weeks previous. These were some of the people who, when I told them I was moving, said, “Well, we’ll sure miss you!”

I thought, “Sure you will.” It reminded me of something that another old Madison friend, Charlie Hentz, once said after he closed the bakery his family had operated for many years. He told another friend of mine, “You know, Bob, I’ll be walking down the street, and people will come up to me, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, Charlie, we sure miss your doughnuts, and we sure miss your pies, and we sure miss your hot cross buns ‘…”

At that point Charlie looked slyly over his glasses at my friend (he often did that when he was about to deliver a funny line). And he grinned and said, “Some of ’em missed me while I was still open!”

Well, you get my point, I think. People say, “Oh, we’ll have you over for dinner some night.” They say, “Oh, after the election’s over and things quiet down, we’ll have you over to the house, Cousin.”

They say, “We’ll sure miss you after you move to Florida.”

Well, you won’t “miss me,” unless it’s deliberately, because I’m not going. I’ve lived in Madison since I was four years old. It’s my hometown. No, it’s not perfect; heaven knows it’s not. Things have been going downhill here for years, in many ways. But it’s still home. MY home. Don’t forget that George Bailey wanted to leave Bedford Falls for years — but he never did. And at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” he found out how important that fact was for so many people.

And I want to say here that there are friends of mine who HAVE tried to stay in touch, who HAVE treated me like I really mattered to them. They know who they are, and I thank them, gratefully, for their friendship. They are what REAL friends are like.

I’ve looked at that line from “Both Sides Now” a number of times lately. “So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way.” And I now realize that I’d forgotten one of the most prominent characteristics of we Capricorns: We persevere; we plow on through, in spite of everything. In those 40 years at the Courier when I thought I was just slaving away for low wages, I wrote some really fine feature stories, some very meticulously detailed “hard news” stories, including full coverage of several murder trials; some editorials that won awards. People sometimes told me they thought I was a really fine writer, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other. It took the early years of my retirement for me to finally realize what I had done for so many people. They liked my writing; they enjoyed reading my stories. They saw a distinct style about them that others did not have. I’d like to think that, sometimes, I brightened someone’s day.

When I thought I had decided to move to Melbourne, I began looking through many of the old Madison Courier microfilms at the Madison Library, to re-read some of my stuff. I figured that once I was in Florida, I might never get a chance again.

Maybe reading some of my stories again, many years after they were published, got me to doubting a little bit. Did I really want to leave this little town where 65 years of my life (so far) have been spent? Where I knew so many people, knew the history of so many buildings, neighborhoods, businesses? I wasn’t aware of any lessening in my desire to go south — but then, we’re often not aware of certain wishes, or dreams, in their initial stages.

And I think that’s where I started to see myself  in a different light, too. “Clouds got in my way?” Yes, they did; difficulty working with some people, a life-long dislike of being told what to do, excessive drinking which turned into alcoholism. But you know what? I did a lot of things, anyway. Most of them at a typewriter, or, later, a personal computer. Everybody’s good at something, and with me, it’s always been writing. And I’ve always been versatile at it — because, while some people’s minds can stay centered on one general area for most of their lives, mine never could. It was like quicksilver. I never knew for sure what direction it would go on a given day. It’s been my constant, fascinating companion.

I was lucky: I was born with a writer’s mind. Writing drew me, from childhood on; it satisfied my need for self-expression, it earned me a living, it gave me a reputation in my hometown. Well, a GOOD reputation, that I think out-weighed the not-so-good one that I alluded to earlier. It enabled me to be an entertainer, as it were, sir. I didn’t do stand-up comedy, or juggling, or rope tricks, or high-wire walking. I put black on white, black on white, for 40 years, and for the price of the Madison Courier each day, people could read it, and be entertained. Or at least, some times, informed.

And there’s another reason that I’m not leaving Madison, tempting as Florida may have seemed, for a time. The Cajun musician Jimmy C. Newman once wrote and recorded a song that included the lyrics, “I’m a Cajun born, I’m a Cajun bred; and when I die, I’ll be a Cajun dead.” Just substitute “Hoosier” for “Cajun,” and those lyrics fit me to a “T.” I’ve always felt a special pride in Indiana, a state that many Americans know little about, or snicker about, or both. We’re just a medium-sized state, but we’ve produced far more than our share of noted writers, musicians, actors (including five of the “B-Western” cowboys that I’ve always loved), athletes, car manufacturers (in the early days of motoring, anyway), and so on. Do we have our drawbacks? Sure. “If you don’t like Indiana weather, just wait a minute.” “Indianoplace.” “Naptown.” “A cornfield with lights.” “If you live south of U.S. 40, forget about getting any attention from the government.” “Gary, Indiana” (it’s no longer the town they sang about in “The Music Man.”) But never mind; it’s not a perfect state — but it’s MY state.

And I know you’re probably sick of reading about me by this time, so I’ll close. But before I do, one more anecdote: One day about 37 years ago, I happened to encounter and talk to a very attractive young lady named Margaret Barnes here in Madison. She was from Calgary, Saskatchewan, Canada, and she told me during our conversation that she was a professional palm reader. We talked a little more, and she offered to read my palm, just for fun. So I handed it over — so to speak — and she began to study it. It didn’t take her long to start telling me things about myself, about my character, that I knew to be true. And she’d never seen me until a half-hour before!

Finally, I asked her, “Will I live all the rest of my life here in Madison?” She said, without hesitation, “When you die, you’ll be living in a city far away from here, on water, and you’ll be well known for something in that city.”

I never saw her again after that day. Early this year, when I got that wild hair about moving to Melbourne, I wasn’t even thinking about her prediction. But a while later, I remembered it, and was kind of stunned. I thought, “By gosh, she was right!”  Cat-Friend

Well, now it looks like I’ve gone and messed up her prediction. But as people who do palm reading, tarot cards, and that kind of stuff will tell you, the future as they predict it isn’t necessarily carved in stone. It can be changed.

So she had picked up on something, all those years ago. How? I have no idea. But she did. I just didn’t let it come true.

And if you happen to read this, Margie, wherever you are, I suspect you’ll smile and say, “Way to be your own man, Wayne!”

——

NOTE TO MY REGULAR READERS: I’m sorry I’ve gone so long without posting any new stories on the site. I’ll try not to let it go “begging” for that long again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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