48

Westgate Park

By Mike Ingles

 

Our neighborhood was getting spruced up. It was time for the annual “Westgate Bean Dinner.” The festival is held at Westgate Park each summer. It started years ago as a remembrance of the American Civil War. Our little community of Westgate is situated on the former Camp Chase Military Prison, in Columbus, Ohio. One hundred and forty-seven years ago our village served as a Civil War prison camp. There are few echoes of the prison camp remaining. However, there is a brass plaque on Route 40 or what the locals call the ‘National Road,’ which shows the area where the prison camp originally stood. And there is a small cemetery on Sullivant Ave, the cemetery holds the vacated bones of over 2000 Confederate soldiers who were brought here as prisoners of war from southern battlefields. These soldiers had no vested interest in the outcome of the Civil War. They were simple men, - farmers, merchants, and laborers. They did not own slaves, their lives would not be adversely affected if slavery were to be abolished, but somehow they were convinced that they should die for a terrible cause. Wars are often fought by young men who have not yet learned to ask the durative questions about war. The black men and women of Africa who were brought here as slaves, have assimilated in America, but they did so at a terrible cost. Most of the soldiers in Camp Chase Cemetery died of dysentery. Their headstones are gray and old now, and their names have been etched away by rain and snow and wind and time.

There are a lot of maple trees in the cemetery, with sparrows, jays, and cardinals acting as sentries. The annual bean dinner is our attempt to remember the sacrifices of those soldiers and three million more just like them. A big pot of beans is served. Hundreds of people partake. Beans are what the prisoners of war were given to eat. There are children’s games and craft sales and speeches made and country bands play. It’s quite an effort. About 5,000 people attend. Our community makes sure that all the lawns are cut and hedges are trimmed. There are garage sales. I buy some of my neighbor’s junk and they buy some of mine, and then next year they will buy their stuff back from me and I will buy back mine from them. It is really quite remarkable. I mean decaying bones, together with bean soup, and yard sales, and country bands.

Three doors down and across the street is the home of Stan and Belinda McGowan. It is a stone home with flower boxes built outside just below the two convex windows that face the morning sun. Stan works as an actuary for an insurance company and Belinda is a buyer of produce for the State of Ohio. They are not very friendly with me. Oh, they speak, when spoken to. They always say, “good morning” or “good evening,” as the case may be, but they seldom, if ever, stop to visit or engage in conversation with me or the other neighbors. The McGowan’s never have held a garage sale. Here is how a typical conversation with Belinda goes:

Me: “Good morning Belinda, fine morning.”

Belinda: “I suppose.”

Me: “I understand you buy produce for The State of Ohio. Why does a state need produce?”

Belinda: “Prisons.”

Me: “That must take a lot of cabbage.”

She says nothing but turns to walk into her house.

The McGowan’s are moving. They sold their house a month ago. I asked Stan where they were moving. He said simply, “East.” Stan’s family is fifth generation Irish-American. His great- great grandfather came to Ellis Island during the Irish Potato Famine of 1845. The Irish were not treated well by Americans when they came to this land. They worked for lower wages and drove up the cost of food and housing, or so it was said. The Chicago Post wrote, “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country.” But eventually the Irish immigrants assimilated; Stan is a member of the VFW and the Masons.

The McGowan’s roof had to be replaced before the home sale was final. The roof had gray shingles and the edges were turned up around the gutters. The new shingles are black. The roofing company delivered them early on the morning of the Bean Dinner. There were four pallets of black shingles sitting in Stan’s driveway, and there were five roofers and a supervisor doing the work. The sparrows and the jays and the cardinals perched in a maple tree and sang loudly. It was as if they were questioning what these men were doing here on this special day. Two ladders leaned against the north side of the house, and in front of the house the men put together scaffolding that reached up to the chimney. The five workers tethered thirty pounds of shingles across their backs and scurried up the ladders. They looked like ants in a glass ant house moving upward through a tunnel. They were very busy, and after about an hour most of the shingles sat upon the roof, waiting on these young men who would soon tack them down.

It was a warm June morning and the men had taken off their shirts. Their muscled backs glistened with sweat as they strapped on their tool belts. Soon our neighborhood was full of the sounds of tap, tap, tapping. The birds became still.

Stan came from inside his house and stood on his lawn looking up at the working men. I walked down to say good morning, but when Stan saw me coming, he scurried back into his house like a frightened Leprechaun. I kept walking toward the men and shouted out a “good morning” to the universe of giant ants above. “Buenos dias,” was the group reply, with one dissenting solitary, “good morning,” which came from the supervisor. He was Anglo, but exposure to the Sun has made him as dark as his workers.

I took Spanish in high school and had two Spanish classes in college. I have forgotten most of what I had learned other than a few words that stick with me. Frijol is the word for bean, or at least I think it is? I shouted up to the universe of giants, “Buenos dias, como estas.” The men stopped what they were doing and a thousand words came fluttering down from the sky in rapid succession. Their supervisor ordered them back to work, and I’m glad he did, I didn’t understand one thing they said. I waved goodbye to them and left them to their tasks.

My wife, Jackie speaks a little French. I don’t care for French food, but we sometimes will go to a French restaurant just so she can converse with the waiter. She will order a nice wine from the wine list. She is very pleased with all this and so am I. Many French immigrants entered America through New Orleans. Creole is the mishmash language of the French, Spanish, Portuguese and African Languages spoken there. Creole food is an amalgamation of those same cultures and the restaurants of New Orleans are some of the finest in the world. I’ve never traveled abroad and so I don’t know if other countries are like America when it comes to restaurants. America is full of ethnic restaurants- Italian, German, Indian, French, Chinese you name it, we have it. I don’t know if a town in China will have a German restaurant or if a German town will have an Italian restaurant. And sometimes I wonder about birds. I wonder about sparrows and jays and robins, and about how well they all seem to get along with one another. And I wonder if they sound the same in Europe or in Asia as they do in America. I wonder if there is a change in dialect. I wonder if their twerps sound the same here as they do there. Probably they do. Bird language is most likely universal. They have been around a lot longer than we human beings and so have probably figured the whole language thing out by now.

My wife and I walked down to Westgate Park and were served our beans or frijoles. She said the McGowan’s should have waited a few days before starting on their roof. After all, this was the one day out of the year that our little community had the chance to stand out and be proud of our heritage, our history.

“Proud of war prisons?” I asked.

“You know it’s not the prison we remember. We honor the dead.”

“By eating beans?” I questioned.

“You’re always so cynical when it comes to war.”

“It’s an easy subject to be cynical about. I mean - beans and bones and yard sales. Do you suppose those soldiers understood what they were fighting for?”

By 5:00 PM the entertainment began. Little girls flashed red and white and blue sparkling outfits and twirled batons, and little boys and other little girls had their clogging shoes on, tap, tap, tapping out different rhythms on an oaken board. The square dancers were next, and then the Baptist men’s chorus. A few country bands finished up in the evening. We walked home.

It was dusk and the birds sang tranquil songs and faint echoes arose quietly from stone markers a quarter of a mile away. There is this demarcation line about 300 yards from the park. It is that point where the sounds of the people leaving the celebration are stilled by the more important sounds of people building. Tap, tap, tapping of the roofers who were keeping a steady pace, the work nearly finished. The men had been working many long hours.

“Buenas noches,” I said comfortably.

“Buenas noches” was the reply from the men on top of the world.

 

A few days later our new neighbors arrived along with a moving company. The men who unloaded the truck full of furniture were as dark as the men who had been working on the roof. My new neighbors are the Vasquez’s, Juan and Roberta and their two little girls Michelle and Morgan. Juan is a third generation Mexican-American. He is a supervisor of a line crew with the phone company and Roberta is a critical-care nurse. Juan is a member of the VFW and the Moose Lodge and he collects arrowheads. Roberta is a lay minister for St. Mary Magdalene Church and volunteers as a cross-walker guard at the local elementary school. They are as American as kidney beans, or frijoles. I like them and they seem to like me.

People come and go in my neighborhood. There are black faces and brown faces and white faces and of course the translucent ghosts of the past remain to remind us of those uneven times. The birds don’t seem to mind the new neighbors. About a year ago there was a petition in our community to purchase some fencing and try to close Westgate Park off, away from the more undesirable elements of society. It failed.

On Saturday nights I like to have a few drinks, listen to some old Rock & Roll and read essays or short stories. I was drinking too much again, when I came across an article about the fence some are proposing to build on the southern border of the United States. Proposing is not the correct word, building is probably the right word, but I am hopeful that calmer heads will prevail and the fence will become a bad memory one day. I could understand someone wanting to lock some of my crazy American brethren inside the states, but trying to keep poor Hispanics out is like trying to stop a glacier from sliding south. If I were an out of work man with a family living in some poor providence of Mexico, I would surely turn the wagon wheels north where the work is. To blame a poor man for doing this is to not fully understand these words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The golden door, I like that, I like that a lot. Maybe that is what we should erect on our southern border, a 50ft golden door with a welcome mat just under the arch. A pretty unpopular idea, but then again, I am assimilating, I live in Westgate Park.

There are some, including my wife, who think that I may drink too much on a whimsical Saturday night. I, of course, disagree. I often have strange but intriguing visitors on these nights, if in reality they are only silhouettes, or perhaps echoes of what might have been. This night was no exception. This night when the front doorbell rang, it was an alien from the planet, Mayonnaise, located just a few billion miles from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. I had been reading Kurt Vonnegut again. The Mayonnaise beings are called Tar-Tar and are about seven feet tall with four arms and eight hands so that they are best suited for multi-tasking. They do not have voices, but communicate with a tintinnabulating sound.  As I was conversing with the Tar-Tar at my door, he was reading a book by Dostoyevsky, clipping his fingernails, juggling six Nerf Balls and composing a new song, presumably for, Janet Jackson who is in reality an alien from the planet, Pop-a-boob.

The Tar-Tar wanted to know what we Anglos thought about red people and black people and yellow people and brown people and all the various combinations that could be derived from mixing these diverse colors of people. The Tar-Tar was simply amazed at the dexterity and confluence of the people on this green and blue planet.

Me: Well, I’m sorry to say there is some conflict when it comes to the colors of people on Earth. I mean, most yellow people think they are smarter than other non-yellow people and most black people believe they are more athletic than non-black other people and most red people think they are crafter than other non-red people and most brown people think they are thriftier than other non-brown people and most white people think they are, well, simply superior to other people.

Tar-Tar: Really, we think all of you are inferior to us in all ways. I mean our average IQ is 190 and we can run a 4 second 40 yard dash, and with our eight hands we can build things far faster than humans, and we spend scarce resources only when we need them to survive, and with all due personal respect, we are certainly better than you!

Me: But what you don’t have is the diversity, the conglomeration, that meeting of the minds, and the mixing of the blood of the various ethnic groups we have here in America.

Tar-Tar: We can travel the universe at the speed of light.

Me: Yes. But when you get to where you are going all you have when you arrive is your inflated ego.

Tar-Tar: If you believe that Americans are superior because of your ethnicity why do you disavow the very qualities that make you so unique?

Me: We suffer the same sins that you suffer. Our egos would tell us that we must be better than others, even at the cost of our own humanity.

Tar-Tar: Well, thanks for the tips on Americans. We thought that perhaps we had found something unique in the universe.

Me: Yes. We have a lot of problems all right. We are planning to build a fence around them!

Tar-Tar: Well at least you will have them centralized.

Me: I’m afraid not. There are still conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and Muslims, and the far right with the far left, and brown with black, and white with black, and white with brown, and Republicans and Democrats, and left handed people and right handed people, and blue eyed people and brown eyed people- not to mention the green eyed or the Hindus or the Communist or the Mormons or the visiting French who spend their inflated Franks on something called Freedom Fries!

Tar-Tar: Seems you have some work to do.

Me: I’m confident that it will all work out, or that it won’t. If it doesn’t work out we will convince all the young men to go to war and settle things. We Americans are great builders of graveyards.

Tar-Tar: Well, I think I will go check out the planet Pop-a-boob. I hear there is a floorshow!

Me: Yea. Well good luck with that. Come back in about a thousand years, I think we will have this all worked out by then.


As Tar Tar was leaving he was using three cell phones, reading the “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and working on the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.

I went to bed. I re-read the ending of the Steinbeck’s classic, “The Grapes of Wrath,” until I fell asleep. I dreamed that I went to the planet, Pop-a-boob. There were beautiful women with one yellow breast and one black breast or one black breast and one white breast or one white breast and one red breast. And I thought of Rosasharn, and I reminded myself, once again, that the color of life was least important; it is the milk of human kindness that becomes the essence of life in Westgate Park.

 


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