April 2008 Issue
Signs of the season emerge on a driving tour of Ohio's cities, small towns and countryside.
Drive far enough into Ohio and youâ€™ll find spring. Drive far enough into spring and you will find my Ohio.
Do not dwell on any ice still crunching beneath your wheels.
I believe in spring. In the dead of winter, I want spring. And when spring is near, I want spring more.
My Ohio vanishes in winter, when the snow clouds drift in, and everything turns steel gray. People disappear, too, buried in layers of warm clothes, until you wonder if there truly is anybody inside that bundle of laundry making its way down the street. Stung by sleet and wind chill, we have endured every plague but locusts.
(Locusts would have frozen.)
Now spring seems teasingly close. The last snow clinging to the road is just sleep in the corners of natureâ€™s eyes.
Other places, the last of winter may be a simple change of season. An Ohio spring falls somewhere between a marvel and a miracle.
Drying farm fields will sport green alfalfa and red clover, and the first squash and cucumber plantings will already be in. Wildflowers with names like yellow mandarin and trout lilies and squirrel corn will bloom, and corncribs will be hemmed with colors that would make a rainbow blush. The wind that howled all winter will whisper now with a sound like soft breathing. Flea markets will stir on any dry, flat place.
Outside my car window the passing road signs will spout poetry: Grape Grove and Lilly Chapel. Yellowbud and Little Walnut. In Adams County you will find a place called Sunshine. And Preble County offers New Hope.
Mostly, an Ohio spring is just a big family reunion, an excuse for people to stir and swap stories while they rub the pollen out of their eyes. And I will want a big helping of the not-so-generic country that lies just outside the cities.
My spring will start at the Fremont Speedway on the Sandusky County fairgrounds. Beginning in April, stripped-down, powered-up Ford and Chevy dirt trucks cover the banked third-of-a-mile clay oval in seconds, while the public address announcer reminds you that tonightâ€™s races are brought to you by the fine people at Rootâ€™s Poultry. Folks come to cheer local drivers, and every race ends with someoneâ€™s cousin having his picture taken in the winnerâ€™s circle, a trophy in one hand and the other arm around his momma.
You could not get me to a NASCAR race with a cattle prod, but I might brave Daytona if it had a Rootâ€™s Poultry night.
Get in the car and head east, watching for the statue of the Civil War general towering over a graveyard hill, locked in an eternal gesture of â€œForward, boys!â€ Follow his pointing finger down Maple Street and into downtown Clyde.
Civil War buffs come here, to author Sherwood Andersonâ€™s fictional Winesburg, Ohio, to gaze up into the face of General James Birdseye McPherson and history. A hometown boy who finished first in his class at West Point only to become the highest-ranking Union casualty in the War Between the States, McPherson lies here, his likeness frozen in bronze.
But Clyde conceals a scandalous past. It is like a spinster with a pint of bootleg gin in her purse.
During Prohibition folks dubbed this â€œLittle Chicago.â€ Gangsters came here to hide out when things got too hot in the big city. Some claim Al Capone was one of them. I wonder if Scarface ever looked up, saw ghostly old Gen. McPherson pointing from the hill as if to say, â€œThere he is,â€ and deep in what was left of his shredded conscience, Capone shivered.
I could not tend a hamster, but I like to walk the Mt. Hope Livestock Auction, where pens of floppy-eared goats heckle the traders every Wednesday year-round, and stone-faced Amish inspect horses like new cars â€” only if you kicked these tires they would kick back. You can find anything you need for farming â€” from peahens to Percherons â€” inside, and if you canâ€™t, someone probably has one in the parking lot. Once the first berries come in, the Saran-wrapped pies sold from the back of buggies here are too good for sinners.
I will fish, badly.
Most people go fishing with the expectation, or at least the chance, of catching a fish or two. I am freed from that burden, and thus can enjoy the experience more fully.
I will probably go to Pine Lake in Tar Hollow State Park for panfish, or try the skinny shallows of Blackhand Gorge in Licking County for bluegill. Do not ask me how the fishing is in either place, because I never catch anything. But I like to tell people Iâ€™m going to Tar Hollow or Black Hand Gorge, just to hear the words.
I have never had a bad day fishing, if you do not count the time a spring-swollen river took the brand-new Ugly Stick I had just bought at Sears. Fishermen are among the calmest people I know: Most would not know inner turmoil from Upper Sandusky. If I ever did mention â€œinner turmoilâ€ to one, heâ€™d probably blink and ask what was biting there.
I will watch some minor league baseball. The attraction of small-town ball is the atmosphere, as different from its big-league cousin as a hunting hound is from a dog-show poodle.
At the Dayton Dragons games, people dance and sweat and cheer and go home after whipping the Lansing Lugnuts or the Beloit Snappers feeling as if they had a hand in something. The Dragons are popular â€” you could grow old waiting for tickets â€” but I wonder how much is due to the corn roaster concession.
I will try to catch a Mahoning Valley Scrappers game. This is short season Class A ball â€” the murky bottom of the low minors â€” but folks in Niles will remind you that half of the Cleveland Indians stars have passed through Eastwood Field. The Batavia Muck Dogs come in for a June series; I can find Batavia on a map, but I am curious about what a muck dog is, exactly.
If you want to know what the price of progress is, my suggestion would be: drive-in movie theaters.
The Holiday Auto Theater in Hamilton (along with the Starlite in Amelia and the Oakley in Madisonville) still offers a place to see movies on a surface as big as a planet. You can make runs to the concession stand, too. In a world of 10-foot-high Cineplex screens and unbuttered popcorn substitutes, the Holiday is a jumbo cola and a Jujube box the size of a refrigerator.
I will probably eat something.
I favor places with sweet rolls and mean waitresses. (At The Spot in Sidney, I watched a server tell a man they were out of coconut cream pie. She was not mean, but she could not have hurt him worse if she had beaten him with a wooden spoon.)
At Hog Heaven in New Philadelphia, the ribs cook slowly until the meat falls off the bone. (If you do not leave sauce-splattered, you lack commitment.) I am pretty sure the words, â€œIâ€™ll just have a small saladâ€ have never been spoken there. People line up for a plate of rattlesnake or elk or alligator at Buffalo Jackâ€™s in Covington, and swear they would not swap it for lobster; I might try some snake this year, and maybe I wonâ€™t, but I can guarantee that a family with a camera will want their picture taken next to Jackâ€™s stuffed bison, and I will oblige.
Wherever I go I will be glad to be there, happy to play hide-and-seek with a water tower as I drive through a two-story downtown, where the biggest building is the courthouse and the tallest is a church steeple. I will see things I have seen before and might never see again. I will learn more about the state than I could ever have learned in the library. I might even find New Hope.
It may be foolish to think so, but I think maybe we are a better people because of winter. Ohioans are never stronger than when we have something to endure; we never move so surely as when there is an obstacle in our path. Winter is just another test. Every year, it seems like we must quit, or be frozen into oblivion or the Sunbelt. And every year, Ohio wins.
Spring is our reward.
So is Rootâ€™s Poultry night. The trucks there are fitted with crash-proof roll bars, but stripped of every ounce of excess weight, down to the mirrors. I asked a driver once if he ever missed the rearview mirror. â€œWhatâ€™s behind you is not the problem,â€ he said.
Spring is here. Whatâ€™s behind us is not the problem.
John Hyduk is a freelance writer based in Lakewood.