Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cowboys to Girls

Before the mid 1960s the Schmidt's Packing Company located at the corner of East Kossuth Street and Jaeger Street had been a south side landmark for decades. When I began writing this book I was thinking about the days when I was a kid when some of us would hang around and watch the delivery of animals to be slaughtered there and fantasizing ways to set them all free and spare them from the butchers inside.
I could not help but to feel sorry for them especially when I saw the Schmidt's employees milling around with blood soaked white coats and when I heard the screams of the animals inside. Slaughterhouses still depress me when I think of them.
My Dad worked at one at Lockbourne Road and Refugee Road called Swift’s Premium Meats and I used to hate the stories he told of how the cattle were barbarically slaughtered there. He liked telling those stories at the dinner table to aggravate my mother.
At fifteen years old I joined my best friend Danny Sauer working at Schmidt's but by this time the packing plant had been torn down and the business moved across the street into an old stable and became known as Schmidt's Sausage Haus. We were among the first employees of the restaurant when it opened in the summer of 1967.
Located just two blocks down the street from my home the commute was the only easy part of that wake up call for both of us to the working world.
Going into my sophomore year at South High School was probably the year that I actually morphed from a kid into an adult, partly because of that job but mostly because of the year ahead. In this sense Danny and I grew up together, even though we only knew each other since 1964 and by our senior year in high school we would slowly drift apart.
It is odd sometimes when I remember what seemed important to him and me during those years. Hormones had something to do with our zeal to earn as much money as we could because we were both egotistical enough to think we would go into high school as the most prolific of all girl chasers and owners of the coolest cars in the south end.
Giving up our paper routes and going to work at Schmidt's for $1.00 an hour gave us an edge because even though we were students that had to be in school at 8:15 in the morning we worked from 4:00 PM until midnight most days and after taxes would earn something like $35.00 a week. High cotton for the times.
Danny and I were as good of friends as anyone could be and I have often said that if I had a second brother it would be him.
Getting up at 7:00 each morning for school wasn't the easiest thing either of us did because in addition to working late on school nights we would walk about a block going home and stop across the street from the old packing plant and talk.
Sometimes we would hang around on the corner for an hour or more and occasionally draw the attention of a passing cop who may have wondered what we were up to. One time one did stop to question us. I was placed in the back seat to be interviewed by one officer while the other one questioned Danny outside.
We were able to convince them that we were not up to any mischief and that we were just walking home from work. My parents might have thought we were running the streets after work and getting into trouble but they knew that Dan was the least likely person to do anything outside the law. I knew it too and that had a lot to do with why we were friends for so many years.

I cannot imagine that in any of those discussions was any talk of what our neighborhood would be in the future, how it would become the ritzy area it now is and because of the money that has flowed into the village how that has caused it to become a target for the worst of criminals.
I doubt that we could have imagined that if we came back at midnight sometime in the future and stood on that corner we might be mugged or shot. German Village was a quiet area in those days and thoughts of robberies and shootings could not have been be further from our minds.
Instead, we were thinking and discussing girls and our dream cars. For me it was a 1960 Ford Falcon and for Danny a 1963 Chevy ll. Our first cars when we turned 16.
When I think back on those days I remember that just walking around at night talking and making plans for our futures was what we did most of the time before we got those jobs at Schmidt’s. There were nights we probably walked for miles regardless of the weather, or nights when we rode our bikes even further, sometimes one or the other sitting on the handlebars as we rode double.
In addition, when I think about all of that it becomes clear to me that that is how friendships are built and how they survive. Spending great deals of time talking. Maybe I was honing my future employment skills then.
By the time Danny Sauer and I stopped being close friends there really was no reason to stop knowing him. No fall outs, nothing that would cause two best friends to drift apart.
In the years since we left high school we spoke to each other only a few times even though we lived within ten miles of each other. I guess we just ran out of things to talk about.
But in August, 2009 we did bump into each other at the annual St. Mary’s homecoming festival in our old neighborhood, and although I was thrilled to see him I was saddened that he wasn’t feeling well. Something about that visit told me that I should spend every possible second with him rehashing our happy past.
I showed him the only copy of the book this one was born from before it was edited for final production and I explained that it was a rough draft, full of grammatical errors and punctuation challenges and I told him that I had written a story about us that would be in it and that even though it still had a lot of work yet to be done I wanted him to have the only one that existed at the time.
I wanted to write a short note in it apologizing for the work not yet done on it and thanking him for all he was to my own childhood but he wouldn’t take it. He said “I’ll wait till you get it right.” And when I insisted that he take it he still refused, saying “I don’t want one that needs work.” Only a good friend could say that and not hurt my feelings. I laughed with him.
When the book was in its second printing there were still bugs to be worked out but I decided to have it published anyway because I worried that by the time it got to where I was one hundred percent satisfied I might not be able to write that note in it to him.
So I had the publisher print it and nearly six weeks later I scrolled those words I wanted to say to him and mailed it to him. A few days later I received a call saying that I should come to visit my friend, the sooner the better.
When I asked the caller if he had received the book and if he read my note to him I was told that it did arrive and that the note and the story was read to him and that he smiled when he heard it. That was really all that was important to me, I could fix the book later.
I never got the opportunity to go see him again but in a way I think I am better off to have seen him one last time somewhere familiar to us both. The playground at St. Mary’s school, and when there was still a chance to walk with him.
Danny never got to read this edition but the copy he did receive said more to him than I am willing to share with anyone else. I loved that guy and had I told him that back in the 1960s he probably would have smacked me in the mouth.
But I want to believe that what I told him in the end was something that made him smile and that he saw past the mushiness of it all, and that he was as glad as I was that we experienced all that we did together before life took its toll on us both. His failing health and my loss of the best friend I ever had.
In that last conversation we did have we talked of the days when we were 14 or 15 years old roaming those same festival grounds full of energy, spending our paper-route money and trying our best to get noticed by girls. We talked about cars of course and he walked me over to his pride and joy, a shiny late-model Corvette. A car that he often swore he would own when he grew up.
His dream car when we were teenagers and even earlier when we were building wooden ones with lawn mower wheels and ropes to steer them in my back yard. I couldn’t have been happier knowing that my best friend from childhood was able to show me that car. And when he left in it I watched until it rounded a corner and was out of sight.
I was wondering if that might be the last time I would see him or the last time we could look at each other and expect to someday take one of those walks around the south end, or maybe just stand on a corner late at night and talk.
It was a very unsettling thought and for the next few days I could think of little else. And even though my worst fears did come true when he passed away a few months later I still couldn’t believe that a friendship that had been on hold for all of those years was actually over.
My last walk with my old friend was on October 30, 2009 when I was asked to serve as a pall bearer. A mere forty five years after our first walk together. Time no longer mattered, nor could it cloud my happier thoughts of better times. It was a walk that if someone had said back in the 1960s that either of us would someday take would have seemed like a million years into the future but instead was one that came in the blink of an eye.

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