Last summer at the Indiana Brewers’ Guild festival at Broad Ripple, hundreds of attendees rushed from the entrance gate, dashed past the out-of-state breweries, past dozens more Indiana booths, and converged at the Three Floyds tent forming a line which almost spilled into the little sliver of the White River running past Broad Ripple’s Optimist Park.
But on the other side of that line, obscurely tucked under the shadow of the largest craft brewery in the state of Indiana (and further hidden by that wall of people waiting for their four ounces of Zombie Dust), sat a gang of beer enthusiasts serving brews they’d produced in a slightly smaller operation. And by “slightly smaller” I really mean one of the absolute smallest in the state. Using a two-barrel production system, set up in a pair of tiny adjoining office spaces in the Polk Street Business Park, Planetary Brewing Company offers its patrons a personal, intimate relationship: with the owners, the brewers, the visionaries, the realists, and especially with the beer.
On the westernmost edge of Terre Haute (the chain-link fence keeping all the drunken, would-be Michael Phelpses from the Wabash River sits just across the road), rests the tiniest of little sports bars, a place called Archie’s. It’s not the kind of bar I’ve spent much time in myself, but it’s the kind of bar all the adults I knew growing up used to visit: wood paneling; Cubs, Reds, and Cardinals paraphernalia; NASCAR decorations… Here they serve Bud Light…in cans. Here everyone wears Levis with White New Balance sneakers topped with IU sweatshirts and Harley Davidson leather vests. Half the clientele sports 80’s bangs with matching mullets, but all of them are likeable, friendly people, offering smiles and hellos without an ounce of judgment.
—–It was here, in this unlikely environment that Wendi and I sat down and watched Mark Wright work the frets as the lead guitarist for the popular Wabash Valley cover band, The Crowe Committee. Over the last five years, I’ve watched a lot of dudes lead their groups wielding that coveted spot in the band. I mean, let’s face it, no one daydreams of playing the tambourine.
—–But on this night, in this little bar in a part of Terre Haute which only the most local of locals know, Wright and his band put on a textbook demonstration of what happens when musicians function as both artisans and technicians. Sitting only feet away—literally, about four feet—I watched Wright push strings up or drag them down, pinching them against their neighbors running parallel. I observed the finger placement: deliberate and precise, not lazy and dramatic. I noticed his work with the foot-pedals, an array spread across the floor appearing every bit as intimidating as an instrument panel in a 737. Most importantly I saw the effect of the night on him physically. It wasn’t crippling or debilitating, like a marine training course or an NFL season, but it was exhausting. At a quarter past 11:00, he finished two covers from the Beatles’ Abbey Road (B-Side); turned to his wife, Sue; and said, “I’m tired!”
—–I never doubted him.
—–When I first met the man, I was an almost-college graduate, one semester of student-teaching away from a degree, a license, and my own career. On that mid-August afternoon, about a week before school started, I walked into his classroom at South Vermillion High School, immediately spotting the mostly bare walls only slightly covered thanks to a smattering of Jimi Hendrix posters hanging askew in off-centered, obscure locations. One look at the place told me I was going to have a great time, but it also told me I was going to learn a few things about life in the classroom which I hadn’t gotten from any of my other experiences in other schools.
—–Sporting shoulder-length brown hair and the middle-aged hint of a bald spot, Wright ran his classes much like he now runs his band. On the surface, he often caught flak from the more stiff and rigid of his critics—students, parents, and fellow colleagues—for his apparent lack of seriousness and the carefree manner in which he ran his classroom. And yeah, there were those crooked Hendrix posters, and there was clutter in a corner behind his desk, and sure the recycling “bin” (a big cardboard box under the whiteboard) was pouring over the sides and onto the floor. He was also the first teacher I saw who decorated his room with genuine, comfortable living-room chair next to the back window—he sat in that during his prep hour to grade papers, and he was in that chair one day long after school ended when he and I tried to guestimate how many women John Holmes had sex with before finally dying of AIDS.
—–Wright also taught me that a sardonic wit and a mellow perspective were better disciplinary tools than a three-page list of pointless rules and a scowl—I gave the latter a try when I first started my own job, but eventually learned to do things the “Wright” way.
—–What Wright’s critics didn’t understand was that he was fooling them. His introduction to The Catcher in the Rye might have appeared impromptu has he handed out the books while simultaneously telling all of the rapt and attentive kids the story of Mark David Chapman’s obsession with John Lennon, but it was knowledgeable. He didn’t hide behind an intricate PowerPoint with dancing letters, cute sound effects, and absolutely no answers to any student questions. He had an armload of books, one hell of a back story, and more knowledge about both Salinger and Lennon in his thumb than the best rookie undergrad had in his entire four-year education. Let it be known that I also opted for the glitzy slides, bells, and whistles before finally turning to the “Wright” way, on this one, too.
As the Christmas snows hit Indiana that winter, I wrapped up my time at South Vermillion, said my goodbyes, and went back to Terre Haute in order to shop around for jobs. For a flicker of a moment, Fate flirted with me when an opening popped up in SV’s English department. I contemplated the “coolness” of working with Wright for the length of my career, but I never got an interview and that scenario faded in less time than it took to imagine. Less than a year later, I was working in northern Indiana, and Wright and I drifted out of contact.
—–About a year ago, Facebook brought us back together, and I had the chance to vicariously see photos, watch video clips—the descending staircase was one of my personal favorites—and see Wright still be the man I remembered. Now retired, he logs time at Indiana State as an adjunct English professor, a side job he held for years while teaching high school full time (and a pattern I proudly emulated for several years myself). And he also plays in that band.
—–Not long ago, I learned something utterly fascinating about Wright’s band: they almost never practice. They all have day jobs, kids, grandkids, things going on. But that doesn’t mean that Wright and his bandmates wing it…hardly. Sue told me as we sat at that table in Archie’s that he’s “hijacked” the living room, spreading chord sheets all over the floor, practicing each one for hours. And this is the thing all the people get wrong when they judge someone who “looks” casual such as Wright does: they’re really not. Just as he is now with his band, so he was with his classroom…Mark Wright is a behind-the-scenes task-master, laboring on the details when no one is paying attention, only to downplay their significance when the lights pop on.
—–This year he’s going to be working with me as we and a team of inspired, excited, and dedicated writers launch our regional online magazine, National Road. I have no doubt that Wright’s style will evoke that carefree, see-the-humor-in-everything approach to life which the man has always exuded. Sure the devil resides in those proverbial details, but that doesn’t mean we have to sweat over them. It took me almost my entire career to realize what Mark Wright was teaching me all those years ago: prepare…sure, but relax and just go with whatever happens. It was one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, and I’m more than thankful he’ll be with me on this new endeavor, teaching me the same thing all over again.
I grew up in the sort of rustic, rural setting idealized in David Anspaugh’s classic film, Hoosiers. My grandparents owned a tiny farm in southern Owen County complete with sweeping vistas which framed small pocket fields back dropped by walls of oak, sycamore, and ash trees. Centering the scene was the little (tiny, actually) three-bedroom ranch house I practically grew up in. In fact, all of us back in the 70’s and 80’s came of age in little hovels like that. Some pristinely clean surrounded by neatly manicured lawns and shrubs, others in disarray smothered in chipped paint or half-wrapped by warped aluminum siding…further embellished by partially mown lawns and the clichéd ’78 Buick sitting on cinder-blocks. Regardless if the setting was worthy of a Good Housekeeping photo shoot or a potential set design for a Cousin Eddie television series, what they all were was small…or as we called them, modest.
Southwest of Indianapolis, traveling east on 144, you can see remnants of that world still tucked behind a copse of pines or just over one of the many small hills the highway careens. But, while the south side of the highway almost always reminds me of that world where I came from, the north side shows me something else. Here, Indy encroaches. Across the road from the dilapidated two-bedroom bungalow rests a five-bedroom brick behemoth with a three-car garage, a swimming pool, and a perfectly level black-asphalt driveway. Across from the small farmhouse where kids spend their summers changing the oil in the tractors and playing make-believe farm in the sandbox with sticks and pieces of maple bark, a vast sports-park stretches toward Greenwood where those kids spend their summers playing on thousand-dollar travel soccer teams adorned with hundred-dollar uniforms.
Having grown up in the former world during one set of decades, only to spend the next twenty years raising my own children in the other, the juxtaposition of these very different milieus stands as a visible representation of the cultural and economic evolution of Indiana. And locked squarely in the middle of that transition—where new money meets old money or, in some cases, no money—sits the craft beer explosion. Whether Nathan Huelsebusch and his partners at Taxman Brewery meant to capture that sense of blending worlds when they designed and opened their brewery in Bargersville is a question for another time, but when I crossed the rows of railroad tracks and gazed upon the towering grain bins surrounding the new gastropub, I couldn’t help but think that they did.
When I sat at the bar in the Indiana City taproom on Shelby street, snapping photos with my phone and enjoying my two-day father/son trip around the city, one of those slow burn ideas which had been percolating in my noggin suddenly transformed into a bonafide impulse.
—“I’m not going to put all these pics on Facebook,” I said to Jim. “I’m going to write about this, and I’m going to start a blog.”
—Ten months (and over 41,000 words) later, that decision has cracked open several doors for me. From the regular writing gig at Indiana on Tap to the freelance work for ISU’s STATE Magazine to the potential opportunities to write for national beer websites, this work has produced incalculable opportunities. It’s also given me that mid-life second wind that everyone seeks but so few actually get. Add a medical experience and an engagement to an amazing woman, and I guess you could say it’s been the most memorable year of my life. The net result is that I feel incredibly blessed.
—Now I find myself sitting at the metaphorical craps table. I’ve rolled well three times on three big moments in my life. Should I take my winnings, head to the cashier, and enjoy an extra two weeks on the beach? Or should I press my luck and see where else life can take me?
—Even though I owe much of my recent success to the blog, it’s still that…a blog. So, the short answer to the question above is, “press.” I’m ready for the blog to be more than one writer’s whims. Consequently, I’m talking to a team of talented writers from Terre Haute to Putnam County to the Indy West Side, and we’re going to phase this blog into an actual online magazine that’s tentatively titled National Road.
—The project will be a Midwestern/Western Indiana Rolling Stone, if you will: about 75% art, culture, music, theatre, and film with a nice little 25% on politics, issues, and some necessary dirt-digging eventually (which I guess means we’ll need some lawyers at some point). But since we’re some time away from a juicy political piece, we’re going to start with all the amazing things life in this part of the state offers, and the first piece on my docket: an in-depth profile of Greencastle’s own War Radio.
—We still have to go through the trademark finalization, which means the name could evolve (read: change), but no matter what we end up calling it, it’s going to at least get started. If things work out, great! If they don’t, at least I’m living my life and not sitting through it like a spectator anymore.
One of the most troubling themes my AP juniors and I wrestled with as we read Shakespeare’s King Lear was the play’s utter absence of justice. Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter who takes the noble stand against her father for his own good (out of endearing love for the old man, no less), suffers throughout the play and winds up just as dead as her mercurial, self-absorbed sisters. What are we supposed to make of a story so imbued with misery and sadness, a tale where the good face the same fate at the wicked? Literary Critic Roland Barthes famously claimed that literature is “the question minus the answer,” and not surprisingly the students and I talked around, above, and below the questions, never reaching anything close to a satisfactory answer.
—When I underwent my surgery late last summer, my training and experience discussing all those unanswered questions to which Barthes referred proved instrumental as a coping mechanism. The net result was that I spent little if any time contemplating “Why me?” Shakespeare, and all of literature for that matter, had taught me well that things sometimes happen…period.
—After only five days in the hospital, a team of professionals entered my room, told me that my pathology was clear (they were able to get a “negative” reading from 53 lymph nodes), and they sent me home. In the span of a little over a month I journeyed from “you have cancer” to “you’re back to normal.”
ou know that moment when you’re watching Chariots of Fire, the moment when the runners get into their stance before the race? I can’t remember which Olympian the camera zooms toward, the American harrier played by Dennis Christopher or one of the two British sprinters (Liddell and Abrahams), but what I always remember specifically are those shoes…those black, leather, hard-soled, mid-tops. Even as long ago as the early 1980’s, when I was only a kid, I recall watching that movie and thinking, “There’s no way I could run very far in those things.”
Fast forward about 33 years, and move the camera from the fictionalized re-creation of the 1924 Paris Olympic games to the friendly streets of Columbus, Indiana on a brisk November Saturday night. It’s then and there where I discover that I can actually run pretty well in shoes like that after all. On that particular evening Wendi, some of our good friends (Glenn and Lori), and I had just left the Columbus Bar on 4th Street, and we were working our way north looking for Zwanzig Pizza and Brewing Company. After casually walking the first three blocks, something about the evening…the crisp, cool night air; the peaceful, quiet streets; the sights and sounds of the holidays surrounding us; or maybe the alcohol [the writer shrugs his shoulders]…whatever it was, I found myself filled with an exuberant spike in my “joy” levels. Once that happened, the metaphorical gust of wind lifted my soles off the concrete, and into a sprint I went.
When I first moved to Greencastle, the football coach here, John Fallis, had long since established himself as a local legend. A 50-something at the time who was and is one of the best overall coaches I’ve ever worked with, one of his skills (almost all of his detractors call it his biggest flaw) is that he was effortlessly honest. When his 1997 Tiger Cubs ended their season in the first round of Indiana’s sectional playoffs, Coach Fallis found himself standing in the locker room filled with sobbing boys and young men.
—“I’m sorry the year didn’t end the way you wanted it to,” he said to them. “But it never does.”
—On the surface of things, Fallis’ words seem like a hell of a thing to say to a bunch of distraught teenagers. Here in America, where “failure is not an option” saying something as candidly blunt as “most of the time we don’t win the championship” sounds pretty awful.
—Except that it’s not.
—I wasn’t in the locker room when ISU bowed out of the FCS playoffs in Chattanooga on Saturday. I can only speculate how it must have sounded (quiet, probably) and felt like (somber to a degree most likely), but I’ve been in enough locker rooms with both good teams and bad ones that I can safely assume something else hovered in the air as the Sycamores put away their pads and prepped for a long drive home: Pride.