Uncle Bill Installment #15

Photo by Bill Scales.

 

NOTES FROM A ROAD TRIP.

 

Retro me, heading out. A Pentax Spotmatic and Pintoids.

When you live about as far west as you can get in the lower 48, any eastbound road trip consists of days and days of craggy buttes and plains. I used to get antsy going over what seemed like the same landscape every day. Anymore? I see the nuances. The changes in scenery and light that each state brings. I consciously notice that on this, my 116th (or whatever) cross country road trip, I am completely immersed in the scenes passing by outside the window. It’s not days or hours rolling by, but states. Maybe it’s retirement? Maybe it’s the interstate? Maybe it’s that truck stops have definitely upped their game over the years? I no longer have to accept run-of-the-mill potato chips or jo-jos that’ve been too long under the hot lamps. I can have cheese curds and smoked fish … kombucha.

 

I aim my car toward Southern Indiana. I’m going to meet my mom’s cousin, Jamie, for the first time. After that, it’s on to Ohio and my grandmother’s house. Well, she doesn’t live there anymore. She died in 1984. The house belongs to someone else. I’m meeting cousin John and his wife Gabe for more Uncle Bill research in the town Bill grew up in.

 

On my way I get the word that John and Gabe are sick. Their travel is questionable.

 

I’m armed with a 35mm Pentax Spotmatic camera. This is the first time I’ve used a Spotmatic and I immediately sailed into a cloud drift of nostalgia at the satisfying “kerchunk!” of the released shutter. Nothing like an all metal 1970s SLR to bring you right back to a hometown parade – shooting the marching band as they warmed up for, well… marching.

 

At a rest stop I take this photo with the Spotmatic. A passer-by glances at my camera. Under their breath they say to me “Old school…”.

 

My mind wonders as I binge on podcasts.

 

I’m noticing dead animals. So much road kill. This interstate adventure has me subconsciously cataloging the different types of carrion each state has to offer. EVERY state has an over abundance of smashed and bloated raccoons. As I get further east, I see woodchucks. There never used to be woodchucks. What happened?

 

Along the way, I Whatsapp with Denise. We talk about where I am and what’s going on with her on San Salvador Island.

At the same time I email with Mr. X. He’s got an easy, self deprecating, sense of humor. Our exchanges are friendly and we’re eagerly sharing pictures and stuff I’ve found about the Eastern Range while researching my uncle. There’s a Seabee yearbook-type pdf file I found on a Navy museum website that has pictures and nifty info on the building of the tracking stations that comprised the Eastern Range. He replies, “Thanks again for the link and I would appreciate anything else that you find.”

 

A message arrives. Gabe is too ill and not coming.

 

The trip just happens to coincide with the total solar eclipse. My destination is in the path of totality. Like, right smack in the middle of that path. Every where I stop, people are traveling to the eclipse. It’s a weird pilgrimage. I run into some of the same people over a period of 3 days. We happen to be on the same pee cycle, I guess. One of my pee cycle buddies gives me eclipse viewing glasses. During our first meeting, we compliment each other on our camping rigs. After 3 days of pee breaks, we marvel at the fact that we keep connecting. They are waiting until Omaha to decide between Texas and New York, right or left – with an eye on the weather.

 

John’s travel is questionable.

 

Wyoming adds antelope and a lot of squished prairie dogs to the road kill line-up.

 

Brandon. Cheyenne, Wyoming. I can only imagine these Hipcamp owners saying, “Let’s go, Brandon!”

 

North of Cheyenne. Late day. Pentax Spotmatic and Tri-x.

One morning, I stop at Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. It’s on the Wyoming/ Nebraska border. It’s a beautiful, clear day and I decide to take a hike up a butte to an overlook.  Denise has told me about others on the island who are children of Eastern Range employees and military.  I’m thinking of Denise’s brother, Duke. His father was from Nebraska. I’d stumbled across some passenger records linking someone with his father’s name to a trip from San Sal. This person was born in Pine Bluffs. Possibly a connection? Anyway, I send the Pine Bluffs overlook photo to Denise. She responds with “Wow! Look at all that land!” Which makes me laugh because I’m standing on the border of Wyoming and Nebraska and she’s on a 5 mile x 12 mile island in the Atlantic. Look at all that land. (Look at all that ocean.)

 

Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, with a bit of western Nebraska in the background.

 

Above Pine Bluffs. X marks the spot. Pentax Spotmatic and Tri-x.

I’m over halfway to my first target.

 

I receive a message. The folks who now own my grandmother’s house have changed their minds and decided it’s not a good time for a visit.

 

The podcasts I listen to are mostly camera related stuff or podcasts to improve my writing. (I know. I should listen to more of those, right?) I decide to spice things up and I come across “My Dad Wrote a Porno”. It catches my eye because my dad wrote a porno! Seriously. (I truly recommend “My Dad Wrote a Porno” if you want a good belly laugh.)

 

What I really get hooked on is a podcast about adoptees reuniting with their birth families. That podcast gives me clarity. I formulate a plan. I want to talk to Mr. X face-to-face eventually. He has so much insight into my uncle and the cold war era Eastern Range. His locale is a long days’ drive from my home and, let’s face it, I’m a road trip girl. My plan? Denise should write a letter, saying everything she wants to say to her father. At the end of my [eventual] conversation with him, whenever that day is, I will hand him the letter.

 

I stop at a Hipcamp in Missouri. A giant old brick farmhouse in the country. The man working on the house asks me where I’m from. “Washington state, but originally Michigan.” my pat answer. “I would’ve stayed in Michigan.” he says. I visit a confederate graveyard up the road. The lane leading to the cemetery is narrow with a 5 mph speed limit. A bloated squirrel, all splayed legged and dead, lies in the middle of it.

 

Pentax Spotmatic and Tri-x.

Next, Indiana.

Pentax Spotmatic and Tri-x.

John decides he’s going to meet me in Indiana after all.

 

My mom’s cousin Jamie and her husband Glenn Dale (guys seem to have two first names here) live in southern Indiana. They give me a warm welcome and put me up for a few nights. A shower! And I’m out of the car. Jamie reminds me of my mom. She shares a couple of stories from Uncle Bill’s childhood.

“On the farm, Daddy had a big sandstone wheel. It had a seat and peddles on it. Underneath there was an old tire filled with water. They would use this to sharpen their knives. Bill tried it out, but put gasoline in the tire. I can still see the doctor cutting the blisters off Bill’s legs.”

Another time, Bill put a snake in his hair and scared the daylights out of the Jamie’s mom.

 

Jamie is 88. She hopped right up on the concrete wall.

Eclipse day arrives!

Jamie.

 

Glenn Dale.

 

John, Jamie and Glenn Dale. Southern Indiana eclipse watching.

 

The main attraction.

 

We then head to Archbold, a portal to other dimensions (we hope).

 

On the way to Ohio I mull my options. I will not divulge to Mr. X I know.  But Denise …? Denise deserves to know that I have been in contact with her dad. My conclusion: Indecisiveness killed the squirrel.

 

I tell Denise that I’ve been in touch with her father. I tell her we’ve spoken on the phone and are emailing each other. I share my idea about a letter.

 

My grandparents.

Earlier, I’d posted my quest for info regarding my Uncle Bill’s family to an Archbold Facebook Group and came up with quite a few leads. One being, Liz [Stotzer]. Her family had lived next door to my mom’s family. The Stotzer’s owned a hardware store in town. Her mom’s name was Lady. Liz took us for a tour of the area which included the La Choy Chinese food plant (now owned by Con Agra), the high school, the elementary school … all the schools, actually. It doesn’t take too long to take a tour of Archbold. Liz is bubbly and engaging and knows almost every bit of local history there is to know. If she doesn’t know, she calls somebody.

 

Liz, holding a picture my mom drew of her in 1958.

Archbold is a town built along railroad tracks. The sound of a train whistle, to this day, brings to me memories of my mom’s hometown. It’s a busy east-west route. On Jan. 4, 1948, 10 children were killed when a train hit a tractor-drawn bobsled a mile east of Archbold. My mom and my aunt each lost their best friends. John asks to visit the site and Liz obliges.

 

The site. Pentax Spotmatic. Tri-x film.

 

I really want to meet the enigmatic Ross Taylor, my uncle’s best friend, in person. I know it has to be soon because, well, he’s freakin’ 92. Need I say more?

 

Ross Taylor.

Ross built his New England style house in the 1970’s. He is quick to answer the door and immediately whisks us in to a narrow living room with a giant flat screen tv. He’s watching golf. He turns it off. He tells us about his time with the local rag, The Buckeye. His son owns a chocolate factory up the road. The three of us drive out to Wauseon for some Italian. Ross tells us again that Bill was the smartest person he’s ever known. “While his dad was away, Bill disassembled his dad’s car just to see how it worked!” Me, jokingly, “Did he put it back together?” Ross, “That, I don’t know.” That would be so like Bill. He seems to have left a lot of things unfinished.

 

John and I drive to Bryan, Ohio where my grandmother’s family lived before moving to Archbold. He’s got an address and wants to see if their old house is there. That, and Archbold doesn’t have a liquor store (Bryan does). The house is no longer there. In its place is a Dum-Dum factory. The factory takes up a few blocks. There’s a water tower in the shape of a Dum-Dum.

 

On the way we stop at Ross’ son’s chocolate factory. It says, “Come in whenever we’re here.” They weren’t there.

 

Ross Taylor said Bill said Don Diehl (Bill’s diving partner on that fateful day in 1958) came from money. He had anything he ever wanted just handed to him. HA! I knew it! I like to have my theories proven. A while back I’d come across a newspaper article that was printed about 3 weeks after Bill and Don disappeared. It said that a sport plane registered to Donald Diehl had been stolen from a hangar in Florida. I’m, like, what 23 year old owns a sport plane?

 

The next night Ross takes us to a local restaurant for dinner. He’s had a few and afterward when we drop him back at home, he doesn’t want to get out of the car. It’s late but he wants to take us to the chocolate factory. “I’ve got a key! C’mon! Let’s go get a piece of chocolate.” If it were just me… raiding a chocolate factory at night with a tipsy 92 year old would be epic. However, John is just about ready to keel over from sickness.  He really shouldn’t be traveling. We call it a night.

 

On the road back home to the west coast I make a stop at Fort McCoy in rural Wisconsin. Though the campground is well removed from the actual fort, there’s a loud speaker that plays prerecorded reveille, retreat, and taps at the correct hour(s).

 

The campground is in the woods and, as the owls inquire after my chef, I try to make sense of my stay in Archbold.

 

I decide Minnesota has the most interesting road kill. A lot of deer and they’ve added turkeys into the mix.

 

For $5 I stay at a camp site on Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. It’s not very private, but I do like getting a good deal.

I hadn’t heard back from Mr. X about the National Geographic article.

A page of the Nat Geo article.

I email him again, because that article is GOLDEN. His reply, “Thanks for the link.  I have a copy of that issue on the way. I think I have done all I can, so must opt out of anything further. Thank you for all the info, pictures and memories you brought up.” He’s breaking up with me? I completely understand the weirdness of me, a complete stranger, butting into his life.  I wonder about the memories I brought up. I find myself surprised that I’m not upset.

 

 

You can keep track of updates and photos, beyond what I post on my site, on my Whatsapp channel “Outermost Uncle“.

Back to Installment #14.

4 Responses

  1. Marcy, wonderful and captivating as usual. A stop-over at Ellsworth AFB? I spent about 1,300 nights there from summer of ’78 to late ’81 – I was a young USAF photographer. I’ll have to share a story or two sometime.

  2. Marcy you did it again! Your road trip and the inserted pieces are super. I felt like I was actually on that trip with you. I really wanted to go in the chocolate factory. That 92yr old is something else. You seems to have such rich family history, to revisit some of the old homesteads were amazing. I recognise some of the photos also that you had sent me as you traveled to the states. I especialky liked the part where you asked, if uncle Bill put his fathers car back together, and the guy said, he did not know. Uncle Bill seemed like he was a fun person to be around. Keep going my friend, start compling your Best Seller!

  3. You missed your complete calling, You were born to be a writer! Couple that with your photography and you could have a best seller!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *