My Grandfather Told Stories About the Klan

My grandfather, Joseph Reger, told me that the Klan showed up one night in front of St. Mary’s Catholic church in Dayton, Ohio.  They planted a burning cross on the front lawn.  The church’s pastor had been forced to join the clergy.  He didn’t take the nonviolence, love-your-neighbor part of Christ’s teachings seriously, and, as a German-American, hadn’t been raised in a tradition that valued meekness.  The hooded men didn’t know any of this, and the priest surprised them by firing a shotgun just over their heads.  When he lowered his aim and sighted a few targets in the mob, the Klan scattered and ran.

Grandpa also told me that he’d personally fought Klansmen while visiting a little farm town north of Dayton near the Indiana border.  A lot of Catholics lived there, and thugs from across the state line troubled and intimidated the “fish eaters”.  One night, a relative asked Grandpa if he wanted to get in on some fun.  The townsmen had received intelligence that the Klan was coming.  My grandpa went downtown with his cousin and hid in an alley.  A number of Catholic men waited all around in the shadows.

The Klan rode in on pick up trucks and circled the Union monument in the center of Main St.  They whooped and yelled, but the deserted sidewalks and closed stores afforded no targets.  They fell silent and looked around.  Someone yelled, “Now!” The Catholic men swarmed from all sides, pulled the Klan off their trucks, carried them to the Wabash River, and “baptized” them over and over again until they were half-drowned.  My grandfather added, “We kicked their sorry butts back to Indiana and told them to never come back.”

I assumed from reading a bit of history and Grandpa’s stories that the Klan’s base of operations was in Indiana.  I discovered recently that grandfather’s fellow Daytonians were a source of anti-Catholic persecution.  I read in the alumni magazine from the University of Dayton (a Catholic University) that the Klan was a powerful force in the 1920s in Dayton, Ohio.  A local Klan newspaper ran ads for prominent businesses in town.  The rag printed editorials declaring that immigrants, Catholics, Blacks and Jews threatened the existence of decent (white Protestant) society.  During Christmas break, Klansmen beat up stray male students staying in the dorms over the holidays.  They didn’t bother to harass anyone when the full student body returned in January, however.  They only attacked when the odds skewed heavily in their favor.

When Judy and I lived in State College, PA, we heard that a town about fifty miles south was a Klan/Neo-Nazi hotbed.  We’re German Americans, but still avoided traveling there as we had no desire to associate with creeps.  But some of our neighbors belonged to the fellowship of hateful stupidity.  One day, a middle-aged woman approached as I pushed a baby stroller.  She lived on the street behind us, one house down.  She looked in and sweetly commented on my son’s tan.  I said, “We get him out in the fresh air every day.  And Judy and I both have fairly dark skin, so it’s not a big surprise.”  The woman grinned triumphantly:  her clever interrogation had tricked me into revealing the dark stain on our genetic heritage; she’d ended my family’s charade by proving that we were not causcasians.

 

 

 

That’s My Daddy

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I shared my first bedroom with my brother Tony.  The walls were painted a cheerful shade of buttercup yellow, and sun streamed in on a Sunday morning and lit up a pile of clothes resting on a Danish modern scoop chair in the corner next to my bed.  My parents bustled in and out of the bathroom across the hall, and I could smell my Dad’s shaving cream.  I lay on my bed, hands under my head and relaxed.  Today was going to be a good day even if we had to go to church.

Dad hits the brakes of our old Dodge, the one with the oxidizing purple/blue paint that shimmers with rainbow iridescence in strong light.  He’s found a side path that leads from the top of the levee down to a strip of concrete and gravel on the shores of the Great Miami River.  We gingerly descend the narrow track and park.  I can see a dam farther upstream and tall buildings across the river.  Dad, Tony and I empty the trunk and carry a minnow bucket and two seine nets to the river edge.  We’ve changed into old tennis shoes and wade into the water with a seine.  The river bed is rocky, slimy with moss, treacherous.  We make several passes, water up to our knees, and snare some crawdads.  I fall twice and twist my ankle. When we have a bucket full we stow our gear and change our shoes.  My shorts are wet, but Dad doesn’t care about the car seats.  One of the blessings of driving old cars is that they become more useful the less they’re babied.

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Dad and I go fishing at Caesar’s Creek a few days later with the crawdads.  We’re not getting any bites until we set our bait at a lower depth.  Catfish are bottom feeders, and soon my line bends over double and jerks in tight circles.  I haul a ten inch catfish out of the muddy water, and Dad snares it in a net.  I’m afraid of the spiked whiskers even though I’ve never been stung, and Dad obliges me by taking a pair of plyers out of his fishing tackle box to extract the hook.  The catfish looks up at me from the bottom of the boat and croaks.  He seems to be saying, “Hey, buddy, what did I ever do to you?”

My sister Carla and I are scraping paint off the side of a wood paneled house across the street from the Delco battery plant in Kettering.  The paint comes off easily in the blistered sections, but some flecks stay embedded in the ruts and crevices of the pitted wood.  We use a wire brush on the stubborn spots and worry whether we’re doing a good enough job.  Dad’s warned us that the new paint won’t stick to the side of the house if applied over a loose layer of old.  Carla and I talk as we work to pass the time as the job is boring and nasty.  Our shoulders ache, and scraped paint sticks in speckles on our sweaty arms.  We’re grateful when Dad shows up and appears to be satisfied with our progress.  He doesn’t say anything, but carefully scans the walls, points out a few patches that need work, and nods.  We hope that he’s brought some soda–it’s a high and dry summer day with feathery clouds floating in the powdery blue sky–and he tells us to look in a cooler in the trunk.  He’s bought a cheap brand of grape, but we don’t care.

I get off work at  three a.m. from a restaurant shift that should have ended at twelve.  A late rush pillaged a practically spotless kitchen and dining room, and it took two hours to restore order after we ushered the last customer out at 1.  We’re exhausted but hungry, and five of us go to an all night coffee shop to get breakfast.  We talk, smoke cigarettes and tell a few jokes, and it’s dawn when we walk out to the parking lot.  I pull up to the house just as the front door opens.  Dad trudges out carrying his lunch pail.  He stares at me for a minute, shakes his head, and gets into his car without saying a word.  He no longer thinks that a lecture would do any good, and it’s too early for a shouting match.

I shoot a photograph of my Dad for a class at Wright State University.  He’s wearing a t-shirt and work pants, and glowers at me.  Art classes are a waste of time.  I develop the 35 mm. film and make a large print.  A class mate asks me if I took the shot in a prison yard.  I said, “No, that brick wall behind the man is the neighbor’s garage, and that’s my daddy.”

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A Lack of Privacy

I rented an apartment in 1981 with two friends.  It was on the second floor of an old Victorian wood frame house in east Dayton.  I had just dropped out of college and worked at Godfather’s Pizza to support myself.  Dave was a college friend who moved out for a number of awkward reasons after a few months.  My remaining roommate Jack had worked with me at the restaurant.  Now he attended a nursing school at nearby Miami Valley Hospital.

The neighborhood featured a run down cluster of tightly packed houses with dirt patch back yards often patrolled by underfed Dobermans and German Shepherds.  Anything nice left in view of the folks around us eventually disappeared.  Someone had spray painted graffiti on the stained brick wall of an old warehouse a few blocks down the street.  The writer shared the following two thoughts:  “Society is a carnivorous flower.” and “Help!  I’m trapped in Dayton!”.

Our street had a lot of rentals occupied by nursing students, and the dump next door housed a few of Jack’s classmates on the second floor.  One night Patty, Jack’s girlfriend, came over, and the three of us worked on a spaghetti dinner.  Jack was exhausted and fell asleep with his head on his forearms at the kitchen table.  Patty and I were friends, and we told stories and laughed as we drank wine, stirred the sauce and boiled pasta.  We woke Jack up when everything was ready, and the three of us had a pleasant meal.  A few days later Jack took me aside and wanted to know what had happened while he was asleep on the night of our dinner with Patty.  He explained, after I asserted that I had not made a move on his girlfriend, that the nursing students next door had watched me and Patty through the kitchen windows “having a real good time” while he slumbered on.  I had always been straight with Jack, and he believed me when I told him that I was not gunning for Patty.  I took note, however, that a window facing west could be a source of gossip passed around the nursing program.

About six months later the tables turned.  A warm spring forced our neighbors to open their windows, and I overheard a loud argument among the spies next door:

“Mary!  Your boyfriend stole from us.  He broke in and took garble garble garble.”

“Ronnie wouldn’t do that!   He loves me!”

“Oh for God’s sake, Mary.  He’s a druggy.  Of course he broke in.”

“He didn’t break in.  He has a key.”

“You gave him a key?!”

“Why not?  He’s my boyfriend and he loves me!”

“Jesus Christ!  You’re going to go over there and get our things back.”

“I can’t accuse him of stealing.  And like I said, he wouldn’t do that.”

“Well if you won’t do it we will.”

“No, no.  You don’t understand!”

“Oh, we understand.  And if we can’t get our things back you owe us some money.”

(Incoherent wailing followed by slamming doors.)

A few weeks later a house on the other side had a loud party.  I heard some glass breaking and went to a window on the east side of our apartment to investigate.  I looked down at the gap between the buildings and saw two men standing with their backs turned to me.  A broken bottle was shattered next to a scruffy man wearing a torn army jacket.  The other guy still held onto his bottle and took an occasional pull.  They were pissing up against the side of the party house.  One man slurred to the other, “Were you in ‘Nam?”  The other guy said, “Oh man, I can’t talk about that.”

 

 

 

Hooker Hotel

My wife and I took our kids from Orlando to Dayton, Ohio every other year in the summer for a brief visit with my family. When the kids were little and we were broke we stayed with my parents, but it became obvious after a few years that Mom and Dad found our disruption of their daily routines too much for them to handle. Our finances improved and we decided to stay at a hotel during our fourth trip to the Gem City.

Judy and I looked at accommodations in the Dayton area and found a chain hotel in Riverside, a Dayton neighborhood just north of Kettering where my parents lived. Other options were hourly rate dives near Wright Patterson Air Force base and more expensive hotels by the Dayton Mall. We drove into town and found our destination near the corner of Linden Avenue and Woodman Dr., just a block south of U.S. Route 35. The pristine campus of Archbishop Carroll High School was right next door. No trash littered the hotel parking lot, and the hedges and flowering bushes on the grounds had been recently trimmed. The sign by the road was in good repair, and the clerk at the reception desk booked us with the business like, efficient manner of a man who enjoyed his job. The maids smiled and chatted with us briefly when we passed them in the halls. The room was light, airy and clean.

We enjoyed our stay, and my parents seemed much more relaxed when we came over to visit. For our part it was nice to get away at the end of the day to a home away from home, follow our customary bedtime rituals and relax.

The next year we made reservations at the same hotel, and our accommodations were just as pleasant. The only odd moment happened during a trip down to the reception desk. I stood in line behind a man who seemed a little fidgety. He presented a credit card, and when Ashok, the clerk, swiped it the card was refused. The clerk studied a read out on the scanner and didn’t hand the card back to the nervous man or ask him for another. The two stared at each other for a long moment. The man suddenly dodged sideways and bolted out the door, and Ashok picked up a phone and calmly called the Dayton police. Ashok was pleasantly helpful when I stepped up to the counter and asked for some extra wash cloths for our room, but his eyes looked troubled.

Judy and I made a reservation at the same hotel for our next visit to Dayton. We didn’t worry about one incident of a man trying to use a stolen credit card, and my mother’s report that the hotel had a seedy reputation didn’t match our experiences there. We checked into a room on the third floor, and I sat in a chair by the window and relaxed, happy to be off the road. Judy went down to the reception desk to get extra pillows, and when she came back she carefully slid home the bolt of the extra lock on the inside of our door. She had a dead serious look on her face when she said, “We’ve got to get out of here!”

I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that she had had a strange encounter down at the desk. She met a wild haired woman checking in with a man who looked like he was about to pass out. The lady wore high heel boots, garish make up and a revealing dress smudged with dirt. Judy commiserated with the woman thinking that the man was her sick husband. The woman gave a few awkward and evasive responses when asked about his health, and Judy realized that she was a prostitute and the man was her drunken john. On the way back to our room she saw another shady looking couple, a scantily clad women accompanied by a grungy man. The miserable pair at the front desk wasn’t an anomaly–our family had reserved a room for three days at a hooker hotel.

It was 9:00 at night and I wasn’t eager to pick up and move after a long day on the road. A new sign in the lobby stated that there were no refunds after a stay lasted thirty minutes. We’d have to pay twice for the first day of our visit if we packed and went elsewhere. Judy reluctantly agreed to hunker down for one night. Our daughter Annie was not allowed to leave the room unaccompanied by her parents. I propped a chair against the door when we went to bed, and Judy fell asleep with her street clothes on.

I expected that our sleep would be disrupted at some point by the activities going on around us. I imagined that shouted arguments, screams, and sirens would disturb our rest. But the night passed by quietly. The ladies for hire may have been discreet professionals who did not wish to draw unwelcome attention to their business. Or perhaps Ashok had placed us in a corner of the hotel secluded from guests engaged in illegal pursuits.

We checked out early the next morning. The beleaguered clerk at the reception desk did not ask us why we wanted to cut our stay short. The sun was shining and birds were chirping as we loaded the car. The cheerfulness of our surroundings brought to mind the morning after scenes in Frankenstein movies: the mad doctor sips coffee and nibbles a piece of toast at a linen covered table accented by a vase of flowers. He talks to his fiancée with a cultured, British accent but fails to mention that he spent the preceding night cutting up bodies and stitching together mangled bits of flesh.

I consulted with my mother and she told me about an expensive hotel ten miles further south in a wealthy suburb. Our fellow lodgers there were neatly dressed, business professionals, families and a traveling youth soccer team.

Our family friendly hotel was a lot noisier. Kids ran the halls yelling and banging doors, and I slept fitfully. The walls were thin and we could hear the sounds of televisions and rushing water from neighboring rooms. We didn’t mind. Annie could walk unguarded outside our room, and when Judy met folks at the reception desk the men were sober and the ladies wore pant suits and talked about the weather.

Several years later we heard that the hotel in Riverside was the site of a major drug bust. A guest, a bearded man wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, had been caught selling cocaine, marijuana and heroin from stores hidden in the trunk of his car. A video from a Dayton news broadcast showed the parking lot and west facade of the hotel, and I spotted a room on the third floor that had once been ours.