Defiance connections

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Here’s the story and it’s simplicity itself.

The best way to age that will give you a long and happy life isn’t following the Mediterranean diet.  It’s not jogging an hour a day or doing 50 pushups.  It’s not meditating half an hour at sunup.

All these practices are, as my grandmother Mom Hayes would say, “good for what ails you.” What’s missing from the formula is other people.  You can appear, at 68 or 78 years old, to be the picture of health.  Yet you won’t necessarily be a happy person, at peace with what you’ve done in your life and with those around you.

You’ve got to connect.   Dr. Sherwin Nuland, the country’s popular expert on aging, argues that connecting with friends and acquaintances beats everything else.  Want your golden years to be happy ones?  Connect!

I was reminded of this wise axiom when my daughter Robyn joined me a couple of days before July 4 for a drive east of Fort Wayne to my hometown, Defiance, Ohio.

It’s been years since I took the hour-long drive, usually to have lunch with Dr. John Mitchell, my best friend and classmate during my middle and early high school years.  For this recent trip to old Fort Defiance, my daughter Robyn volunteered to keep me company and to get a glimpse or two of the town that shaped my earliest years.

Robyn, a Spanish teacher and a volunteer these days, has spent a lot of time traveling to faraway places, from Mexico, Uganda, Turkey, Spain and Hong Kong.  After such hanging out in relatively exotic places, I imagine Defiance, Ohio,  a growing mid-size town of I’d guess about 20,000 must seem pretty ordinary.

But the important thing was spending time together, without other family members or the encroachment of electronic devices into our conversations.

Once into the downtown, moving slowly with Clinton Street traffic, I thought I’d point out businesses that had special meaning to me.  But the marque at  the Valentine Theatre no longer announced the film playing, usually the more serious fare.  Instead, it announced Sunday services for a church.

And what happened to the Strand, just across the street from the Valentine? That’s where Davy Morehouse and I spent so many Saturdays to see the latest Tom Mix and Cisco Kid movies.  The Strand gone, too.

I saw no B.F. Goodrich store where I fondled bamboo fishing rods, a symbol of a passion of mine for a few years.  I saw no Woolworth’s 5 & 10 where I once had to return a bottle of “Evening in Paris” perfume I had pilfered as a surprise for my mother.  Just across the bridge, heading north on Clinton, Arps dairy remains.  The business processed the milk that went on every bowl of Cheerios I ate for breakfast until we moved away from Defiance when I was 15 and a high school sophomore.

Despite the changes in the downtown, Robyn and I still were making connections,  people in casual conversations and with a community that, after 61 years of my absence, retained the small-town charm and accessibility I knew as a child.

We drove past the building where I started high school.  It’s now a middle school.  Down the street and around the block Slocum Elementary had been razed.  I had been eager to connect with that school where I had learned to read and write and do math.

As we inched past the now empty lot in the Prius the neighborhood looked familiar.   I found myself wishing I could stop by a 5th grade classroom at Slocum and thank Mrs. Zeskey for being such a kind and challenging teacher.

Well, just east of the downtown, my home, the north side of a duplex, is no longer.  Just an empty lot.  I explained to Robyn the reason Dad gave me for not letting me have a dog.  We lived on such a busy corner that a dog likely would get hit by a car. But Dad couldn’t keep me from dreaming of Collies and German Shepherds like Sgt. Preston’s wonder dog King.

Further down 5th Street, Robyn and I connected with people.  A small building once held the barber shop where Mr. Richard the barber would ask me, “How do you want it cut, short, red and curly?”  His jest always made me laugh.

Today that building houses a beauty shop.  We stopped in anyway and chatted with the beautician who was glad to tell us that there is a barber shop in the back.  We didn’t inspect.

I’ve found most people are glad to talk about themselves. So you ask questions about how long they’ve been working there, how does the job work out with family life, any children and where do they go to school. Personal stuff. Indeed, the beautician beamed and said she really liked her work.

And if somebody doesn’t feel like playing 20 Questions, you can just talk about your experience, your observation, your feelings. Modeling such openness rarely fails to
get the other people sharing themselves.

We connected with people further down the block and across the street to have lunch at Kissner’s. It was founded in 1928.  It’s one business on Clinton Street from earlier times still going strong.  It’s both a restaurant and a bar, featuring dark wood panelling, ancient tables and chairs. Dad spent a lot of hours there drinking beer and gabbing.  He would still recognize the place in an instant.

During lunch, I asked the waitress if we could see the owner.  It turned out that he was a nephew of the original owner, Tony Kissner, whose family lived in a red brick house with a rock garden in the back next to our duplex. Here I asked the nephew about Tony’s daughter Carol, younger than I. He said she and her husband live in Florida, though sometimes came north for a visit.

I introduced myself to a couple of older women at the next table.  Although Defiance natives, they never crossed paths with me or my family. But I learned they liked meeting each other for lunch, here at Kissner’s.

I wanted Robyn to see the fort grounds, which are situated on low rolling hills at the confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize Rivers.  During General Anthony Wayne’s days fighting Native Americans, this area housed a real fort, hence the original name of the town, Fort Defiance.   Two antique canons sit at the corner of the grounds, one pointed east, the other north.  When my cousin Ruthanna would take me there for a picnic, I’d climb on the canons and pretend to fire them.

Robyn and I then stopped by the Defiance County library on the west side of the fort grounds. We chatted for a while with a librarian and I recalled  frequent visits with school classes and on my own.  This is one of the many libraries throughout the country that Andrew Carnegie donated money to build – $22,00.

Over the years, I’ve attended a few class reunions for the Defiance High School. Some of my classmates still live in the town.  Others have retired to Florida or Arizona.  At one reunion, maybe 10 years ago, I was struck by the large number who had died, perhaps 50 or so out of a class of 150.  On this recent visit, I made no effort to contact anyone.  I mainly wanted to explore and reflect on my early days.  That’s a kind of connecting, too.

Midday, Robyn and I headed back home, to Fort Wayne.  We had a pleasant visit, on a warm, sunny day.  We were in no hurry.  I took note of how high the corn was.  I called her attention to the bean fields. Dad, who had spent his earliest years on a Paulding County farm, never failed to point out such things to me.

So Robyn and I got to know a few people we didn’t know before we started out on our father and daughter trip.   Maybe we got to know each other better in the bargain.  No nicer way to spend a summer day.

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