CrazyQuilt 1884 Brooklyn Museum

CrazyQuilt 1884 Brooklyn Museum

Touching Things

by Bill Vernon
        My house is the earliest built on my street: 1929. The building’s stucco is therefore a constant problem, with cracks and bulges patched and finished so many times in unmatchable patterns, it now resembles an awkward quilt. A blown-up aerial photograph once covering a whole wall in a branch bank a mile away on Far Hills Avenue showed the house sitting alone with countryside extending around from just west of it nearly two miles to the east. There were green pastures and planted fields all the way to Gentile Air Base, a supply depot over on Wilmington Pike, so my house was the only human habitation in the grand panorama.1Four miles away ...continue
        I once stood before that bank’s line of tellers until I thought they must be suspicious of me, staring up at that picture like a man planning a financial withdrawal by force. I was in fact trying to steal the past from the images but failing.
        Bernie Weitzel, who built his house in 1930 across the street from mine, told me that for many years he’d walk his German shepherd all the way through those pictured fields and farther, then back. “There were footpaths,” he said.
        Now he’s gone, his dogs are gone, the picture’s gone, and I can only imagine what living here must have been like then. Of course, the fields now are all built up. Streets lined mostly with houses intersect across the terrain in a tight grid. For decades, a railway line not in the picture ran diagonally through it all. Now a paved bike trail replaces those rails and ties. I’ve walked the area several times all the way to and through the Gentile base. Its land and a few of its buildings are now part of a city of Kettering business and housing development. The way there from here is crooked, broken, and frankly, if one stays on the main streets and lets the traffic interfere with one’s musings, ugly.
        My house is, of course, not very old compared to others in the Dayton, Ohio, region, but who needs a clay-caulked log cabin to recognize longevity? I hear these walls, floors, and its frame creaking and think of more than the repairs I need to do. For hours every day, this place fits around me like rocky armor, as if I’m inside an old cave, and the rooms I spend the most time in wrap around me like warm, extra skins. The tats I’ve needled onto their surfaces vary, producing an odd mixture of family, geographic, and Francophile nostalgia: color posters of cafés, Paris sites, painterly reproductions, landscapes, and animal and human portraits.
        Presumably, this mixture reflects my taste, values, and jumbled thoughts. Thinking too much, certainly not as clearly as possible, I tend to go dreamy or anxious and lose touch. Therefore, I leave the house and hike to rectify that, to maintain a kind of sanity beyond the self-indulgence that sometimes provokes buying, eating, passing time, hanging images on walls, improving the house in general, or talking. My home, in other words, expresses and imitates something I think of as mind. What anchors together that floating arrangement of ethereal matter is the real world, by which I mean what exists beyond myself.
        That’s a large part of the mooring that keeps me balanced. Thus, a serious case of cabin fever drives me from the house every day, copying the practice of my long buried neighbor and his dog without uttering anything like the German songs or poetry he liked to bellow in the healthy open air. Rather than listening to my own voice, I prefer to hear the call of cars, birds, dogs, and horns. Their noise is part of my immersion into existence-not-myself.
        What touches me first after locking the door behind me and walking off the porch, often before exiting the driveway, is immensity. How the land and air and sky spread off farther than I can see. How, as I turn off my street onto Hathaway and head south, new things and changes appear although everything’s very familiar. I’m also conscious of how my city surrounds me although I can’t see its ends, and of how many similar cities spread out from here and surround it. The subdued roar way off on the edges of my hearing suggests the combined hum of industry, of running motors, of people doing, and of irrepressible activity.
        In other words, before I go the one block to Beverley Drive, before I pass my old friend, the black Lab, that always barks a warning and wags his tail in welcome, I feel hope. My feelings shift toward a positive mode.
        Likewise, the smells of pines, the earth dug up in 93-year-old neighbor Hank Bower’s flower bed, the wet, sweetly decaying leaves in the gutters overwhelm the relatively sanitized air remaining in my lungs from the house. Richness and possibility are at hand. Underfoot, the tar of the street and the concrete of the sidewalk solidly propel me forward. There is substance here and security, a community that takes care of itself, even someone like me, alone on the street just passing through after the short stay fortune will allow me.
        By the time I pass Hawthorn Hill, the Orville Wright mansion/museum, I’m touching things more deliberately. It’s cold out, 30 degrees, but I’ve shed my gloves in favor of balling my fingers beneath the long sleeves of a sweater for warmth. That allows me to unsheathe my hands whenever I want in order to reach out and feel things with my bare skin. At Dixon and Harmon, it’s a metal pole supporting a street light. The smooth green surface slides beneath my fingers and chills them so they retreat like startled turtles back under the sleeves. A block farther my right palm drags over the rough bark of a burr oak slowly enough to let me feel the silken pattern of moss in its grooves.
        So my walk goes, picking a leaf off a stem now and then, squeezing it between my fingers, crushing it if it’s brittle, feeling its tensile texture and shape if it’s vibrant enough to hold together. Where blooms of lavender or Russian sage linger near the sidewalk, I strip off a few by running my thumb and two fingers up a stem, rub the blooms together, and then bring their remaining faint aroma up beneath my nose. If in season, I like to pick up new walnuts and scratch their green husks to smell their tangy scent. These pleasant smells remind me of childhood experiences. Fully grown buckeyes, still in their jackets, provide missiles I throw at tree trunks, the way the pitcher I once was hurled baseballs toward his brother’s mitt.
        Knuckle banging metal pipes, though, is how I most often mark my trip through the day. The practice is like recognizing that part of the world is a percussion instrument. Gently tapped, the keys my knuckles find answer with song. Sign or fence post, light pole, exhaust pipe for something that needs release from underground, the greater in diameter the deeper the tone: pong, dong, and ding they respond.
        The circle out from home curves through several neighborhoods and an Olmsted-brothers designed park, passes contiguous holes on two different golf courses, and returns me back onto my street. I pick my way the whole six miles, fondling, picking up, examining, discarding, brushing aside, bumping into and off of, learning again that the world has substance and I do too. My fingertips, a bit more abraded and dirtier than when I started, tell me that I’ve been somewhere, done something, experienced real things, and expressed in a physical way the tenderness I feel for the things life allows me to touch.
        Then I’m unlocking my door and going back inside my home. It is my point of departure, the place where I start and finish, like the brain inside the skull, the soul inside the body.

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1. Four miles away from Gentile, Wright Patterson Air Force Base researched and developed aerial photography, beginning in World War One, but I don’t know if this photo was an AF product./