Life, Stories Told

On the corner of Erskine and Woodside, 1976-1985

Rerunning my post about the street on which I grew up, Erskine Boulevard in South Bend, Indiana, the other day made me nostalgic. So I looked through my photos for childhood images from the old neighborhood.

Here I am standing on the sidewalk in front of our house shortly after we moved in. It was 1976, and I was nine.

1976a

I had Verichrome Pan in my Kodak Brownie Starmite II, which my grandmother bought me for a quarter at a garage sale. I hadn’t learned to smoothly squeeze the shutter button; shake marred most of the photos. And then I stored the negatives carelessly, allowing them to become scratched. But I’m still very happy to have them today. Especially this one below, of my brother (right) and neighborhood friend Kevin, who passed away unexpectedly in his 20s.

1976c

We played a lot on the sidewalk and even in the street on Woodside, which is the street pictured below. Woodside was only lightly traveled, so it was the better choice for street soccer. That’s my brother there on the left and neighborhood friend Phil crouched on the right. The fire hydrant was painted as a Revolutionary War figure in honor of the Bicentennial the year before, as I shot this in 1977. Hydrants all over the city were so painted. I shot this on Kodacolor II with my truly awful Imperial Magimatic X50 camera, which took 126 cartridge film.

1977a

The shutter button was so stiff on that camera it was virtually impossible to avoid shake. Here I aimed the camera east along Woodside a little. The old Plymouth station wagon there is the only thing that dates this photograph, which is also from 1977.

1979a

The city repaved Erskine in 1982. I’d never seen a street stripped of its asphalt before. I had Kodacolor II in the Kodak Duaflex II I had recently purchased at a garage sale, and photographed some of the equipment in action.

1982a

Soon a fresh, black ribbon of asphalt had been laid on Erskine and cars could again travel our street. From the looks of the above and below photos, I made them while sitting on our front stoop.

1982b

1982 was the year I began to experiment with the growing collection of old cameras I had amassed. I made this photo with an Argus A-Four, probably using Kodacolor II film. I feel fortunate any photos from that roll turned out, as I didn’t know what I was doing with f stops and shutter speeds. My guesses were lucky. This is just another shot of Woodside from our front yard. The house on the left was owned by the Mumford family, who had owned a small grocery near my mom’s childhood neighborhood downtown.

1982c

In 1984 a friend who was in my high school’s photography class gave me some hand-spooled Plus-X for my A-Four. I asked him for advice about exposure and he said, “f/8 and be there.” It worked out well enough. When I made this shot of the street blades on the corner of Erskine and Woodside, I chided myself a little for wasting a frame. But these unique embossed black-and-white blades, which were on every South Bend street corner, were removed during the 2000s in favor of more generic green-and-white blades with stick-on letters. Now I’m glad I have a record of this time gone by. If I had known the city was going to replace these blades, I’d have stolen this one.

1984c

I shot a roll of color film, probably Kodak, probably in my A-Four, as I was about to graduate high school in 1985. I climbed the giant oak tree in our back yard for this view. The van was Dad’s; he used it to haul lumber and finished pieces in his cabinetmaking business. It had, for a few years, been our family car.

1985a

Here’s a quick peek down Erskine, showing its distinctive curve, from that 1985 roll of film. I remember being deeply disappointed when the city replaced our minuteman fire hydrant.

1985b

Here’s one photo looking up toward our house from that 1985 film roll. Erskine was dubbed a boulevard because of its curve and because it was noticeably wider than other streets on the city’s grid. My childhood home is visible, above and to the left of the station wagon rolling up the hill.

1985f

Our house was quite famously green. When we gave directions to our house, all we had to say was “the green one” and people found us with no trouble. We never really liked the color, however.

1985g

I left for college in 1985, and moved out for good in 1989. My parents stayed on until 2014. Somewhere along the way they had the house repainted in light gray. I never got used to it. In my dreams, my childhood home will always be green.

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Life, Stories Told

Requiem for a Toyota

Have you ever become irrationally attached to something you owned?

Replacement Matrix

I bought this 2003 Toyota Matrix in 2009 after wrecking my previous car, also a Matrix, on vacation with my sons. My first Matrix had been the base model, but this one was the top-of-the-line XRS with its peppier engine. She’s a blast to drive. I made this photo the day I brought her home from the dealership. Doesn’t she look good?

MatrixNose

But after eight years she has rolled over 185,000 hard miles. It’s shocking how badly the paint has worn on this car — it has faded heavily on every horizontal surface, and has chipped off a large portion of the hood. The front ground effects broke off in a mishap, but by then the paint was already in bad shape. I spent the reimbursement check on other things. Her body is scuffed and dented from other minor mishaps, including a low-speed rear-end accident and that time I broke the side mirror while backing out of my garage. Truly, she looks awful.

Systems are failing. I suppose the least of the failures is the windshield-washer motor, but it’s surprising how much you really need it. Yet given her age and condition I didn’t even bother finding out how much it would cost to replace. I just plunked a bottle of Windex into the center console and drove on. More seriously, she’s developed a slow oil leak. And the Check Engine light comes on from time to time to warn me of a problem with the engine’s variable valve timing system. My mechanic’s advice was clear: “Don’t fix it. Not on a car this old. Just keep her oil topped off and drive her gently. She’ll run for a long time like that.” I bought my own OBD II code scanner so I can check for that error code and shut the Check Engine light off.

Key signs your car is a beater: it looks beat up, you are choosing not to fix some of its problems, and you bought your own OBD II code scanner.

When the Check Engine light came on again recently, however, the error code pointed to catalytic-converter failure. And I’d been hearing an ominous clicking sound from the front end when I turned the wheel hard.

You know you’ve gone the distance with an old car when your mechanic calls you by a nickname. “Aw Jimmy,” he said, “I can fix these problems if you want. But it’s gonna cost you big. Two or three times more than this car is worth. You might want to stop and think about whether it makes sense.”

In the end, I let logic prevail over emotion. It’s time to let the car go.

Dog in the wayback

And I’m sad about it. I love this dumb car. I bought it because my first Matrix worked so well for my family. Even though a Matrix is small on the outside, it offers enormous interior room. I could put my two sons, the dog, and a weekend’s worth of luggage in there. We could take on any adventure we wanted in the Matrix.

Wagon Full of Sod

It has been incredibly useful for moving things. Folding down the back seat opens up a giant cavern of cargo space. I’ve moved an assembled gas grill, a dining room table and six chairs, and many loads of sod. When I recently moved into my new home I moved all my boxes in the Matrix in just a handful of trips.

Brick Lincoln Highway

Along the way she was a great road-trip companion, prowling many old alignments with me. Here, she’s on the Lincoln Highway near Ligonier, Indiana.

Snowy day

Five years ago, as old age began creeping up on my car, I bought a used Ford Focus to be my daily driver and relegated the Matrix to backup duty. I taught my sons to drive in it and let them use it when they needed a car. I used it like a small van to haul house-project supplies home from Lowe’s. And I drove it to church, because then I drove it at least once a week. Though one especially snowy winter I shoveled her in and waited for the thaw. All together I’ve put just 20,000 miles on her since buying the Ford.

I don’t really need her anymore. I haven’t in a few years, really. But I’m sad to see her go just the same.

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Stories Told

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone

My brief radio career ended just before Labor Day 23 years ago.

MeOnWZZQ

On the air at WZZQ, Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1994

I’ve written about my broadcasting days many times because it remains a proud, fond memory. As a boy, I wanted to be the voice coming out of the radio speaker. I got my chance in college, and parlayed that experience into two part-time gigs on commercial stations.

After I moved to Indianapolis I sent an audition tape to every station in town. None of them bit. Only one station bothered to send me a rejection letter, which kindly said that I might have been fine for Terre Haute but I wasn’t ready for the big time. I took the hint and moved on from radio forever.

But I still remember the fun I had. And I have lots of aircheck tapes, all of which I digitized a few years ago so I can enjoy those memories anytime.

For my last show, I asked the program director to schedule a certain song coming out of my last break, a song new that year from The Allman Brothers Band. Its first two lines were spot on:

Everybody wants to know where Jimmy has gone
He left town, I doubt if he’s coming back home

Here’s the audio I recorded of that last break. You’ll hear me talk after a song and start the first commercial. Then you’ll hear the end of the last commercial in that break – and then you’ll hear me sign off for good.

I walked out of the building and out of radio forever. I listened to the rest of the song in my car as I drove home.

Eagle-eyed readers will remember this post from the first time I published it, about this time of year in 2012.

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Stories Told

It’s done its job

Lots of big, broad trees filled the suburban neighborhood where my first wife and I made our home. They shaded our sprawling red-brick ranch house, confident and serene. I wanted that confidence, that serenity for my family. It’s probably why I bought the house.

And then the leaves started to fall that first autumn. Prodigiously. The first Saturday she and I and my stepson spent all day raking and bagging. And the next Saturday. And the one after that. And then one weekend it rained. Relief! A weekend off! Except that the next weekend it took both days to rake and bag it all up.

It was awful. It dragged on for weeks before the last leaf finally fell. The next autumn was worse because my wife was pregnant — the job fell mostly to me and my stepson.

I did not want another punishing autumn. “If we had a lawn tractor,” I said sweetly to my wife, “one with a bagging attachment, I could line it with lawn-and-leaf bags and just suck the leaves into them. I’d drive the bags down to the curb, tie them off, and leave them for the city to collect. I could do this job by myself in half the time it takes all of us to rake.”

That pushed her right over: she bought me a tractor and a bagging attachment for my next birthday. It cost $1100, a lot of money for my young family. It was worth it for her to never wield a rake again.

Craftsman tractor

Oh my gosh, but I loved cutting the grass with it! I felt so suburbanly manly on it. And it really did make leaf season bearable, and free my wife and sons to do other things. They were happy, I was happy, everybody was happy.

My new baby boy was fascinated with it, so I put him on my lap and drove him around the back yard at low speed. To my happy boy it was the coolest thing ever! He wanted a ride every time I got the tractor out. His younger brother, when he came, was wary of it and didn’t like the noise it made. But if his brother was going to ride around on it with me he wasn’t going to miss out.

Craftsman tractor

And then of course our marriage crashed and burned, and I moved out. The tractor stayed behind while the divorce wound through the system, eighteen painful months. After the trial and the decree, my ex-wife somehow didn’t realize that she had agreed to give the tractor to me. When I asked for it (and my tools, and a few other things she also didn’t seem to know were awarded me) she refused. And then she reread our agreement and realized she had no choice. And then she called at dusk one drizzly day to say my stuff was out on the front lawn and I needed to come get it.

I managed to rent a U-Haul just before the place closed, and I managed to find a friend willing to help on short notice. The tractor and most of my tools were there. But the U-Haul’s ramp was narrow and slippery and so we had to lift the tractor up into the truck, and back out again at the house I was renting. Five hundred pounds, I hazard to guess. I’d put my back out for sure if I had to try that now.

Craftsman tractor

But I was so happy to have it back. I was renting a house on an enormous lot, and the tractor cut my mowing time down to about three hours! Even that was a burden. I was relieved to finally buy a house of my own on a much smaller lot, about a third of an acre.

And here I’ve been for ten years. The tractor just keeps going, 20 seasons now. Every second year I changed the oil, air filter, fuel filter, spark plug, and blades. It has needed a few repairs: the starter, the steering gear (which broke the first month I owned it), the front tires, and the drive belt. Not bad. Oh, and the welds that attached the hood failed a few years ago. I bought two cheap locking pliers and clamped the weld points with them. It worked great!

Craftsman tractor

The tractor has continued to be a blessing in the autumn. Or at least it was until my 21 ash trees died a couple years ago. I could probably rake up all the leaves from my yard on just a few autumn Saturday afternoons now. But because the tractor just kept running, I kept using it.

But now I’m preparing to move into my wife’s home. Her yard is small, far too small for a tractor. So about a month ago I sold my tractor. A fellow who keeps the grounds at the nearby cemetery bought it. He paid my asking price in twenties, drove it onto a trailer, and hauled it away.

Tractor

I thought I’d be sad about it. I wasn’t; I’m not.

This surprises me.

I lost so much to which I was attached when I divorced, first and foremost the ability to live with my sons every day as they grew up. But I lost a great many possessions, too — things that I had to sell, things that were not awarded me, things that were awarded me but never reached me, things that my ex damaged or destroyed.

Of the many possessions I really enjoyed, the tractor was one of the few that found its way to me intact. I always loved using it. Even though it’s loud, I was at peace driving it. In that seat I could really think. And when I put it away, I had accomplished something and my yard looked good.

Tractor and Bagging Attachment

But it has done its job for me. I don’t need it anymore. I’m happy that someone else will get good use from it.

Another thing to which I’ve become deeply attached is my house. I wasn’t remotely in love with it when I bought it. The floor plan is weird. One bedroom is tiny. The main bathroom was in terrible condition. But it was structurally sound, it had enough bedrooms for me and my sons, the location was right, and most importantly I could afford the mortgage after the divorce left me broke. (It was just before the housing bubble burst. I bought the house with no money down.)

And as I rebuilt my life and built good relationships with my growing sons, I came to love this house.

Or at least I thought I loved the house. This year as I did heavy, long-procrastinated repairs and (with help) painted the interior stem to stern, I came to see it: this house represents what I built while I lived in it, namely, a happy, healthy life and good relationships with my sons. Neither was assured when we arrived. This house was the quiet, safe, stable place for us to do the work. I love what we built!

house_for_sale

And now my sons are grown and gone, and I’m remarried. This house has done its job. I don’t need it anymore. I’m happy that someone else will get good use from it.


This blog was less than a year old when I moved here. I wrote a post about the place then, called A Place to Start Again. I hope you’ll read it; it’s here. I wrote, “I’m making a new start in my little house, and who knows how I’ll grow while here.” I grew, all right, beyond what I could have imagined or hoped. I made something good out of a horrible mess. I’m mighty satisfied.

P.S.: I wrote this the day before the listing appeared. The morning the listing appeared, I got two very strong offers and accepted one.

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Photography, Stories Told

Memories lost, memories created, memories kept

Photographs restore lost memories and anchor tenuous ones. Through them I catalog my memories and arrange them into timelines. They help me create life narratives in retrospect. But there is a time in my life from which I have few photos. I’m glad, as it is a time I don’t wish to remember.

Which is unfortunate, for my sons were very small then. I have a few memories, snippets and scenes, incomplete: Helping deliver them both. Months of Damion’s colic. His first seizure, a living room full of grave firemen and paramedics caring for him, loading him into an ambulance, me racing in my car to the hospital. A family road trip to San Antonio before his first birthday, miles of gray Interstate highways, getting a speeding ticket in Texarkana, Damion sleeping most of the way. A black depression that fell on me as he turned 1, and how I could find no joy in his day. Baby Garrett climbing the couch with all the steely determination of Chuck Norris chasing the bad guys. His deep misery after a tonsillectomy went wrong, me rocking him for hours while he cried, both of us sleepless. Singing to soothe them both. Making scrambled eggs for their dinner. Reading Dr. Seuss to them, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish. Bleak days in a deeply broken and destructive marriage, one which I lacked the courage to leave.

I know I can reach more memories of my sons, better ones. But to do that I would necessarily revisit traumatic memories. Good therapy let me work through that awful time. No need to relive it.

My first wife and I hadn’t given up hope yet in 2001. Or was it 2000? I’m guessing. The boys were young, 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. I don’t remember whose idea it was that I get away for a while, that we let raw nerves settle. We agreed it was essential. I booked a week in a cabin in the central Tennessee woods.

I’ve told some of this story before: I wanted to reclaim something of the man I had been, a man who had diminished and finally disappeared. I remembered enjoying shooting my old cameras as a teen. So I got out one I’d never used before, a Kodak Automatic 35F. I didn’t know an f stop from a shortstop, and this camera wasn’t as automatic as its name suggested. So I shot a test roll before I left. I am forever grateful to my then-self that I shot my sons around our yard. My older son, Damion, was very interested in the camera, so I set it and handed it to him. He made two photographs of me with his younger brother, Garrett. They’re terrific candid shots that remind me that there were good times for us.

Dad Garrett 2001 b

Dad Garrett 2001 c.jpg

Garrett was too little to operate the camera so I have none of Damion and me. But I did make this delightful portrait of him with our next-door neighbor’s house in the background.

Damion 2001 a

Most of the photos I took didn’t turn out well, as I truly didn’t know what I was doing. The best of the remaining shots is this one of them in our minivan. I hated that van, but love this memory.

Damion Garrett 2001 a

Mercifully and to everyone’s emotional health, the marriage ended. The next several years were hard in their own right: a protracted, brutal divorce followed by years of being broke paying the extensive legal bills and sky-high child support.

Desperate for stability and normalcy I set out to build new memories for me and my sons, to start fresh and make our way forward. One way I did that was by taking them on spring break trips every other year, the years the parenting-time guidelines gave them to me.

If you’ve read this blog for a long time you know I’ve shared photos from almost all of these trips, but never showed or wrote about my sons. While they were growing up, I kept their lives private. Instead I wrote stories about the places we visited and my experiences in them. Now, at last, let me share the reasons why these trips happened: my sons.

The first spring break was in 2005. I lived in a one-room apartment and paid the mortgage on a house I’d never live in again. That plus groceries, gas, and the electric bill consumed my paychecks. To scrape together enough money for fun, I skipped lunch and ate hot-dog dinners for weeks. We visited the zoo and the Children’s Museum, ate lunch Downtown, toured the Statehouse, and climbed to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument to look out over the city. Here are the boys breaking the rules at the monument.

Indianapolis 2005

In 2007 we made an Indiana History Tour, driving all over the state to see scenic and historic sites. Here we visited the site of the Battle of Corydon, the only Civil War battle fought on Indiana soil.

Indiana History Tour 2007

In 2009 we visited Washington, DC, and drove the National Road home. It was probably our greatest trip, generating the happiest memories. Right up until the moment we wrecked our car.

Washington DC 2009

In 2011, we returned to the same woods where I’d retreated alone ten years earlier, this time with my sons to make new, better memories there. Our chief memory is of the afternoon we made a ten-mile hike carrying pint bottles of water. Wow, was that ever not enough water. I swear we each guzzled a gallon after we finally reached our cabin.

Tennessee 2011

In 2013 we drove Route 66 from Joliet, IL to almost the Texas line in Oklahoma. It was a dream trip for me, stopping for all the roadside attractions and staying at vintage motels all along the way. The boys seemed to have a good time, but today their chief memory is that “we spent the whole vacation sitting in the car!” Here the boys are in an old jail in Gardner, IL.

Route 66 2013

In 2015 we drove the old Dixie Highway down to Mammoth Cave. It was the last spring break with Damion, who graduated high school that year.

Mammoth Cave 2015.jpg

And this year Garrett and I did Cincinnati: the American Sign Museum, the zoo, the Taft Museum, the suspension bridge, Findlay Market, Jungle Jim’s.

Cincinnati 2017

There, you’ve watched my sons grow up! And I’ve relived these memories we chose to make together.

I chose not to wallow in the difficult past, but instead to move forward. To make the life I wanted, as much as I could. To be a good father to my sons and to create good memories with them.

Mission accomplished. Garrett graduated high school on Saturday.

I know from experience with my stepchildren that parenting doesn’t really end until around age 25. Our kids all need at least some parental guidance in those early young-adult years.

But it’s a new phase of life for me, of moving forward into life with my new wife. But this time I get to do it with memories intact.


These photos are © 2000-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved. I will not grant permission to republish them.

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Life, Stories Told

Spending quality time in my crawl space

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. Days on end it has fallen. Inside my house, it was strangely quiet.

It should not have been. My sump pump should have been running, and I should have heard it.

Dagnabbit — that meant it had pumped its last.

The old, failed sump pump sitting on my deck. Which tells you where this story is going.

I’m not deeply experienced in the ways of sump pumps. My last house had one. It was there when we moved in, and it pumped faithfully for years. The crawl space was always a little damp, but that pump kept it from being wet. That wasn’t enough to satisfy my wife, so we had a perimeter drain dug, an additional sump pump sunk, and the whole place encapsulated. Holy frijoles, was that ever expensive. Point is, however, that I never personally had anything to do with our pumps. I didn’t even know what one looked like.

When I was deciding whether to make an offer on this house, the crawl space was the biggest point of risk. A lot of insulation was lying on the ground, having fallen out from between the joists. The vapor barrier looked pretty ratty. And there was no sump pump. But there was also no evidence the space had ever been wet, and the price was very right on the place. So I rolled the dice.

What I didn’t consider is that a crawl space that has been wet to the joists shows little or no evidence. A foot of water might leave a line on the foundation’s cinder block. But water to the joists leaves no such line.

I crapped out. Shortly after I moved in, a very heavy rain flooded the crawl space. I cleared it with a borrowed portable pump. (And got the worst case of poison ivy in my life. Read that story.) I promptly paid to have a pit dug and a sump pump installed.

Unfortunately, the lowest spot in my crawl space was under my bedroom, and so that’s where the pump had to go. I slept ten feet from it. And it roared like a diesel engine every time it cut on. WHAAARRRNNNNsplooooooosshhhhh, over and over, all night. When it rained hard I had to go sleep in the family room.

Last week we got a ton of rain. After the first night I knew there was trouble under the floorboards, because I awoke refreshed from a good night’s sleep.

Thank God for YouTube. Everything you ever wanted to know how to do is there, usually shot by some random dude on shaky mobile-phone video. This video showed me how easy it would be to replace the pump myself.

It took me two hours to do the job, including a run to The Home Depot for the pump and associated supplies. Not bad, right? Except that I had to do it in two feet of water. Cold water. Cold, dirty water. And immediately upon entering the crawl space, I slipped and twisted and suddenly cold, dirty water met my nether regions. That will take a man’s breath away.

Success!!

I emerged sopping wet. I sloshed my way into the garage, where I stripped and dropped my soaked, dirty clothes into the washer. I grabbed a quick shower. And then as I was dressing, I noticed the quiet.

It should not be quiet! Was my new pump even working?

I looked out the window and saw water gushing out of the exit pipe. I listened more carefully, and realized I could actually hear a slight tinkling sound coming from below — the sound of water running gently through the pipe. That was it.

Silent sump pumps are a thing?!!? I had no idea. If I had known, I would have replaced that sleep-depriving old pump years ago!!

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