Friday, February 13, 2015

A eulogy

Remembering my friend Joe,
who reached the finish line

My friend of nearly half a century, Joseph J. Challmes, died on Monday Feb. 9, of a heart attack as he was leaving a Stoop Storytelling show at Baltimore's Center Stage with his companion Margie Roswell. Today, his friends, family and extended family packed a chapel at a suburban funeral home for a nonreligious remembrance gathering.

Joe had wanted his body cremated, and was not religious. As I have noted here in the past, one of the traditions of my native Jewish faith takes place at the burial, with an opportunity for each person to drop some earth into the grave -- a last gift, of an act the departed cannot do for himself or herself.

Joe had no burial -- in fact, he wanted his ashes scattered at the finish line of the race track in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., his favorite thoroughbred venue. He was a gambler, a storyteller, and a man most people could not help but like or even love. 

It was my honor to deliver one of the eulogies:

 Joe Challmes and I had a lot in common -- Baltimore boys who grew up, or not, at The Baltimore Sun -- neither having gone to journalism school. We were, however, working our way through college. I started there as a wireroom clerk and won a promotion to editorial assistant and reporter, but Joe outdid me in that respect. He relished telling how he was probably the only person who was promoted to the job of copyboy.

In the days of newsroom typewriters, reporters would pound out stories on three-copy carbon sets, a few paragraphs at a time. We called each page a "take" and when it was ready to send to the city editors, you'd strip out the carbon paper, hold up two of the sheets in a haze of tobacco smoke and holler out, "Copy over!" And one of the half dozen or more copyboys, or girls, would scurry over and grab them.

I was a young reporter and Joe an editorial assistant when, on June 10, 1969,  he managed a then-unthinkable feat -- a bylined story. It was about the Govans neighborhood where he grew up, and headlined: "Peaceful exterior veils the real McCabe." It painted a sad picture of heroin needles, broken booze bottles and even seedier human detritus along a troubled street also beset with racial tension
 Predictably, the neighborhood association was not very happy, and held an emergency meeting with a demand for an explanation from the newspaper. Joe was off, maybe on vacation, and I was sent to appease them. Among other defensive moves, I tried to explain that Joe was not actually a reporter. I did not mention that his story was spot-on. I was, after all, a goodwill ambassador that night.

McCabe Avenue did not get better over time, alas -- nor has the world we inhabited with great relish as 20-somethings. Murders, carjackings, drug epidemics, fatal accidents, devastating fires, racial hatred. We were voyeurs of human misery, misunderstanding and, the most fun,  social darwinism. Joe and I worked side-by-side on the rewrite end of the city desk, taking notes from other reporters and turning them into fodder and, on a really good day, front-page eye-poppers for the newspaper.

You can find hundreds of Joe's subsequent bylined stories in a quick search of the online Sun newspaper archive through area public  library systems -- with headlines like "Society figure's death leaves police baffled," "Maryland Training School: Youth kept in leg irons," "Reputed psychic joined murder probe," and "Chase ends in ladies room: Baboon free for 3 hours after escape at airport."

Joe was probably the fastest writer I've ever seen, but he cheated. I'm sure he used more than two fingers, and he would leave out words... like verbs. I'm sure the verbs were in his head as he wrote each sentence, but he was thinking even faster than he could type. 

The Facebook responses to news of Joe's death give you an idea of how good he was on rewrite -- a senior reporting job that we occupied as two young crazies. Tom Linthicum, who became a top Sun and Maryland Daily Record editor and teaches journalism, offered this: "He was on rewrite when I started as a police reporter at The Sun and no matter how much detail I gave him, he always sent me back for more. It was a great crash course in reporting."

We learned journalism on the job. And while we were absorbed by the newspaper world, and late-night partying -- usually at the old Peabody Book Store and Beer Stube, whose owner Rose Pettus ushered us regularly into the tavern's back-basement speakeasy for after-hours drinking -- we were for various reasons slowly blowing up our first marriages after helping produce a few amazing children.  Casualties of our own immaturity, I guess.

Joe also had another mistress, besides our newspaper and carousing -- the ponies. He was consumed by a fascination for horse racing, and after a command performance of his handicapping prowess for a betting audience of his newspaper bosses, talked his way into a daily sports column under the nom-de-plume The Fashionable Fraud. He had a pretend thousand-dollar pot for wagering in print, and managed to blow it all before very long. But they gave him more pretend money to play with. 

Joe was not bad at handicapping, He was very good. And hopefully you have by now heard the recordings of his Stoop Storytelling appearances -- the first one, in 2009, about his amazing day at the Belmont when he turned a borrowed $40 into enough cash to help buy a farm in Carroll County with his then-wife Sharon, and breed their own thoroughbred race horses.

The fascination with racing also lured Joe away from his, pardon the expression, stable job at The Sun. Somehow he ended up writing and handicapping for a business offshoot of the owner of the Psychic Friends Network.

 Later, operating his own mail-order tip business, he took on a new nom-de-plume -- The Colonel. That's Kentuckyese for a successful gentleman with a fondness for alcohol who knows his way down the backstretch. He marketed a service in which bettors paid in advance for the Colonel's favorite picks and, of course, the "lock of the week." And a really great bet was called "a mortal lock." He had no shortage of them.

  Joe's path took him to New York, marketing and writing for a group of betting-oriented sports newspapers, and he expanded his writing work as a freelancer. None of this is easy. Joe worked hard to get by. Alas, horse racing -- like his poker playing -- did not make him a rich man, but losing in memorable fashion made for great storytelling.

  Most recently he told of being knocked out of a big-money poker tournament in Baltimore's new Horseshoe Casino by a grandmotherly card shark. (The Global Poker Index rankings of professional players lists Joe as #187307, with career winnings of $496!)

 I was equally consumed by my newspaper work, so over the years our contact became more sporadic. There was a visit to another farm in Pennsylvania, where Joe and another life partner, Cheri Moats, had some kids and a herd of horses before splitting up.

 I saw a Facebook post by Cheri yesterday, recalling how Joe -- in his first stroll outside their house after quadruple-bypass surgery -- found one of their horses foaling with great difficulty in the pasture and managed to save both equine lives.

A few years ago, Joe and I began seeing each other more regularly.

With a few other friends, I helped Joe move out of his huge but strange apartment beneath a strip mall in Hanover, Pa. Strange is having an underground lair that includes a judge's bench and a prisoner holding cell. And that's part of another tale you can hear online, at both the Stoop Storytelling and SpeakEasyDC Web sites -- how Joe ended up overseeing a way station there rescuing trouble-beset teens. You can find posts this week on the Joseph Challmes  Facebook page by a few of them, giving testimony and thanks at how Joe had helped turn their lives around.

Joe was planning to move to Charlestown, W. Va., near a favorite race track, but fate intervened. He was having problems with one of his legs -- and his foot was cold. I took him to his doctor there before we headed off with a U-haul truckload of his possessions, and the doctor told him to go to a hospital emergency room -- if not in Hanover, then in Baltimore. It took a few weeks before the medical folks figured out the problem, and Joe lost the leg.

Talk about a fall from grace -- he was homeless, really, and pretty much broke. He wasn't even legally a resident of Maryland, and without insurance or state Medicaid to cover the costs of rehab in a nursing home, the hospital was ready to send him out into the world with one leg and a wheelchair. Still, sitting in his hospital bed, Joe called himself the happiest one-legged man you'll ever meet.

I would not want to get into the politics of healthcare and insurance. Rather, I speak to the goodness of people -- in particular Margie, who came to Joe's rescue.  And, it seems, she also had fallen under the spell of a crazy storyteller with a booming laugh and a twinkle in his eyes, and a heart that may have failed but was truly made of gold.

I was very touched by a lengthy Facebook remembrance by our long-ago newspaper colleague Patricia Rouzer, who concluded: "Rest in peace, my friend. May we someday meet again, railbirds at the Saratoga finish line, basking in the warm summer sun, clutching fists full of only win tickets."

Following are links to most of Joe's record six appearances on stage in Baltimore's Stoop Storytelling series, and at SpeakEasyDC (the 6th Stoop show, as I recall, was outdoors in downtown Baltimore's Charles Center, and apparently was not recorded):

From Nov. 10, 2008, on hitting it rich at the Belmont:

 From June 1, 2009, newspaper days and handicapping the ponies:

From Feb. 11, 2011, on his odd subterranean apartment and teen-rescue center:

 From Oct. 4, 2011 (played at his memorial gathering), about his recovery from losing a leg:

From July 25, 2013, in a smaller venue featuring short tales, under the theme of "Scars"

 February 11, 2014 - Appearance at SpeakEasyDC's program, on the same tale as his 2011 Stoop tale on rescuing troubled teens.

Bonnie also blogged about Joe this week, as part of her 365-day project recounting a gift that each day brings:

Our friend Stacy Spaulding and Joe himself blogged about his recovery from the amputation and fulfilling a vow to walk back into place he had last walked on two legs -- Oriole Park, in time for Opening Day, 2011:

Sunday, September 21, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 13

A piece of  Truckhenge. (Photos by Bonnie J.  Schupp)

We're not in Colorado anymore,
but Kansas proves pretty cool

Truckhenge, and a rainbow for
 Westboro Baptist Church

TOPEKA, Kansas – We took the most scenic route back to Interstate 70 (there are only two ways, and we had driven in through the other route), on a Sunday drive taking us past the first evidence of the signature aspen trees’ brilliant yellow fall color, past the ghostly remains of the old gold mining town of Independence, and across Independence Pass –which tops out at 12,095 feet.

It was the starting point for what Mapquest said was a tad over 1,800 miles to get home – and could be driven in a mere 29 hours and 4 minutes. But not if you have to deal with highway construction along the mountainous portions of Interstate 70 or, like us, are easily distracted by sights along the way.

Color on the way to Independence Pass.
The distractions began rather quickly, since Highway 82 out of Aspen twists slowly upward to and down from the pass. The first patches of fall yellows, and even a hint of orange, carved patterns in the green of heavily forested mountainsides. (The last time I was up there was in the first week of October a decade or so ago, and snow at the pass was already 9 inches deep. This time, it was 46 degrees and very windy.)

There’s also the historic city of Leadville, which we have passed through on earlier journeys. The charming old silver mining boomtown, dating to 1877, now has a Safeway supermarket and several modern motels. They impose a 21st Century contrast to the 1879 opera house and other surviving old buildings.

We pick up Route 91 to Interstate 70 – the concrete and asphalt ribbon that would take us back to Maryland the quickest. But before we reach it, the eye candy continues as we pass Tenmile Range, a seeming line of mountains that fills the horizon and includes some of Colorado’s highest peaks.

Welcome to Goodland, Hon!

Goodland's giant easel.
But we manage by sunset to cross the border into Kansas, where it takes a mile before we see a small state welcome sign. We stop overnight in the town of Goodland – arriving at sunset, just in time for Bonnie to photograph its most famous (and maybe only) attraction: The world’s biggest easel. It stands 80 feet high, and holds a giant painted reproduction of Van Gogh’s sunflowers in a vase.

Dinner proved to be an adventure. Not much was open on a Sunday night, so we headed over to the Fox Sports Bar at the Sunset Motel (clearly a step down from our free-for-points luxury room at the nearby Holiday Inn Express). The main entrance was blocked by yellow police-line tape, keeping people away from the pools of blood and torn clothing from a bar employee who had been stabbed a short time earlier. I took a not-very-good cell phone photo from inside the lobby window and emailed it to the editor of the twice-weekly Goodland Star-News, along with a note saying it made this Baltimoron feel right at home.

Barely 20 miles into Kansas, and we’re already ... dare I say it... amused. Plus the half-pound hamburger and beer-batter fries were pretty good, and the 60-inch TV screen on the wall near our booth had the national telecast of the Orioles-Yankees baseball game.

Monday we drove about 350 miles across Kansas, which doesn’t look at all like the good parts of Colorado. There were some rolling hills and lots of flatland, although I did not realize until crossing the state that it is high-plains country, with an elevation of about 5,200 feet. Kansas is largely higher than Maryland’s largest mountains.
Ron Lessman shows off a few of his chainsaw sculptures.

A visionary art kingdom

Our destination was Topeka, where we had booked another free room and – more importantly -- Bonnie had come up with a couple of adventures. We called ahead to Ron Lessman to let him know we were coming, and he was happy to offer a tour of his nearly 60-plus-acre property that he calls Truckhenge Farm.

Nebraska, as we reported earlier, has Carhenge. Topeka has Ron Lessman. His Truckhenge creation proved only a small part of a visionary art kingdom that Ron has created in recent years on the property that he says has been in his family since 1879.
Ron says it took six years to build his home.

The tour starts with one of the half-dozen trees he has decorated with shoes. He points to the first one, in front of his giant Quonset-hut-styled home and studio, and quips: “It’s the tree of lost soles.”

Ron is a staccato talker, and recounts in rapid-fire fashion his legal battles with the county and owners of neighboring properties over his endeavors – from digging out a huge pond that covers half the acreage, which he stocked with thousands of catfish, to creating art from old trucks and boats, and even from salvaged stone from construction work on the state capitol and demolition of an old state mental hospital.

“We try to have a little fun here,” he says, repeatedly. Having fun is his mantra. Some of it involves hosting parties of bikers and other groups, and even concerts on a ramshackle stage he built, and the more beer cans and bottles involved the better. He recycles them into giant sculptures, and even incorporated them into a mortar-and-bottle wall for his house. From the inside, with light from the late-morning sunshine, the bottles turn into patterns of color like a three-dimensional glass painting.

The concrete floor is a canvas, and a variety of painted fabrics hang in the cavernous lower level – a room the size of a large airplane hangar.

Everywhere around the house stand his tree-trunk chainsaw sculptures, of faces, animals, aliens, nudes, a two-headed croc with a wiggly tongue carved out of mulberry. Even a chainsaw-carved bobble head. He says some of them take just a few hours, except for the sanding.

Bus stop in Truckhenge.
We walk for more than an hour as Ron conducts the tour, followed throughout by his four dogs – one of them bolting after a fleeing rabbit. Each step is more incredible than the ones before. His creations are everywhere. Bicycles hang from trees, an old red crane rusts like a metal dinosaur in a patch of weeds and wildflowers, trucks rise at 45-degree angles in overgrown green thickets – some bearing messages of Ron’s philosophy. There’s even a giant mock headstone, bearing the name “Truth.”

Throughout, he talks so fast that I give up trying to take notes. Instead, I shoot a half-hour video. It’s just too much to fathom any other way.

In an old railroad car, Ron shows off the old animal bones and teeth he unearthed – mostly while digging the huge hole for his pond. Buffalo, camel, mammoth, whatever. He figures some of them are close to 20,000 years old, and he’s sorted them into bins. Its a charnel house of natural history. He pulls out a huge leg bone, then a knee bone, and grins as he puts them together to show a socket match-up. Ivory tusks, thousands of years old. Huge mammalian teeth. Fossils. Odd-looking stones. Arrowheads.  Stuff that goes way back before this land came into his family some 135 years ago.

Then we head back into huge house, along a pathway of stairs through more art and bric-a-brac, across floors made of wood salvaged from pallets, sanded and coated with polyethylene, and up to the second level where we meet his wife, Linda, 61. They’ve been together for 38 zany, wacky, eccentric years. The house took about six years to build, Ron says, and they moved in around 2002.

Linda has contributed to the novelties, hanging what must be more than a hundred baskets of all sorts from the ceiling. Ron says the kitchen alone has more than two dozen electrical outlets. He shows off the bathroom, with a double-wide Jacuzzi tub and a walk-in shower with sprays from multiple angles.

Ron revels in all of it – the art, the house, the legal battles he figures have cost the county and his neighbors millions of dollars. One of them, he says, tried to claim more than 100 acres of land beyond the pond – only to be thwarted when Ron pointed out that it was land owned by the city.  Since then, he says, the government has become less of a nuisance to him. He just doesn’t understand why anything he’s done would prompt legal battles. After all, he says of the neighborhood, “I’m surrounded by dumps, junkyards and sand pits.”

If you’re ever passing through Topeka, check out Truckhenge Farm – and give Ron a ring at 785-234-3486. There was no charge for the tour, but we offered a donation. And we’ll probably mail him some old shoes to hang in the trees.

As seen on TV, too many times...
'Fairy dust' in Westboro's face

Now it was time for another distraction on the other side of Topeka, on SW Orleans – a narrow residential street that appears to divide what we would view as the forces of good and evil.

On one side of the street is the reviled Westboro Baptist Church, which has attained notoriety as its leader and members went around the nation picketing the funerals of, among others, American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan – on the twisted logic that it was linked to the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

On the other side is a modest house with a remarkably different message. It was painted in the gay pride rainbow pattern, the work of the nonprofit organization A former garage portion is under remodeling, and a small sign planted on the lawn reads, “Pardon our fairy dust.”
Equality House, across the street from Westboro church.
There's a rainbow donation box in the middle of the lawn, a “free library” that invites visitors to take a book and bring another, and a larger sign saying people are welcome to walk around, look at and photograph the property – unlike the “no trespassing” version of the heavily-gated church property.

I rang the doorbell, and was greeted by 33-year-old Aaron Jackson, one of three people who live in “Equality House.” He says there are about two dozen houses in the neighborhood, most of them owned by members of Westboro – but not the one next door to him, or a few across the adjoining street.

“We purchased the house about two years ago,” he says, “but came up with the idea about a year before that. The house became more famous than we could have imagined.”

Aaron Jackson
During the summer, about 150 people a day come by – the result of Westboro’s notoriety, and the location close to Interstate 70. The mission at first was about raising awareness of the problem of gay suicide, but the house has become a powerful symbol and the nonprofit benefits from Westboro’s homophobic activism.

“We do drag shows, a lot of quirky stuff, to raise money.”

When Westboro threatened to picket the recent funeral of Robin Williams, Planting Peace used that publicity-garnering stunt to stage a social networking fundraising effort on behalf of one of the comic actor’s favorite causes – St. Jude’s. “It’s brought in $112,000 to date,” Aaron says.

Despite Westboro’s enclave, Aaron says, “People around here are a lot more forward-thinking. No one wants to be associated with them. That doesn’t represent this community at all.”

We gave Aaron a copy of the recent CD, “Philosopher Dogs,” by our transgender singer-songwriter friend Georgie Jessup, and headed back to the highway – bound for Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and home.

Bonnie eyes a selfie.
Spirit of St. Louis

The next distraction was a stop in St. Louis. We arrived in time for a sunset visit to the Laumeier sculpture garden, in the city suburbs, where Bonnie wanted to check out a seven-foot-high eyeball. And why not? 

But there was more sculpture to come. The city is dominated by a sculpture of sorts -- the famous arch that accents the skyline from any angle of viewing. The city center includes a two-block-long sculpture garden and a fountain of rushing water and stone. (Before Baltimore overhauls its McKeldin traffic island at Light and Pratt, its designers would be well served in taking a peek at St. Louis.) 

Portion of mile-long graffiti wall in St. Louis.
But we came for the graffiti. Bonnie found out about the display online – a mile-long wall about 14 feet high, beginning near the riverfront along an industrial road rife with signs suggesting no public access. We drove right in, and along much of the wall space – which stretched several blocks beyond the roadway. Think of Baltimore’s Graffiti Alley and make it a mile long.

Last tourist stop: Hello, Columbus!

Continuing along I-70, it was easy enough to stop in Columbus. Bonnie had scoped out a couple of novelties -- in particular, a giant praying mantis on the west campus of Ohio State University. Our road trip bible,, had vague directions to find the huge bug, on Olentangy River Road near the overpass of Woody Hayes Drive.
David and friend.

We found the road in about 25 minutes, with no help from our old Tom-Tom navigator (her name is Susan, by the way).  A few students we hollered to for directions were no help in finding Olentangy, and were unaware of the bug. But I figured we were in the right area, since some of the agriculture studies buildings were on the east side of the road and an arboretum was on the west side. And I spotted the mantis, hidden or hiding behind some high bushes near the arboretum.

Naturally, I posed for a picture with it.

The other attraction was near downtown Columbus, on a seven-acre tract (about the size of Baltimore's Sherwood Gardens) formerly known as the Old Deaf School Park. Now called Topiary Park, it features a bushy homage to Georges Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte.

Topiary Park in Columbus.
I'm not much of an art critic, but it was very cute. Except maybe for the homeless people who, in late afternoon, pretty much outnumbered the topiary visitors. I posed for a picture of course, with a pair of topiary folks who were considerably shorter than me. Or maybe French people were shorter, back in Seurat's day.

We also happened upon a few murals on the sides of buildings just off  High Street. One of them was a twist on an old friend from our drive through Iowa -- American Gothic.

Classic version of 'Turn a Frown Upside-Down'.
A final thought on visiting Columbus -- bring a parking sign-interpreter. In Baltimore, I'm fond of looking for loopholes in parking restrictions. But finding this one, on the side street near this 'American Gothic', was  an epiphany.
Sweeping restrictions.

It seems an appropriately crazy ending to a crazy road trip. Almost-final statistics:  7,060 miles, 32 days. And we're looking forward to the next credit card bill, if only to see how many hotel points we earned!

Note: In addition to all of my posts with Bonnie's photos here on The Real Muck blogsite, Bonnie offers some thoughts in her Journeys blog on the amazing changes in technology compared to our road trips of 30 years ago:

And here are links to earlier road trip installments of The Real Muck:


Montana and Wyoming

North Dakota

South Dakota

Redig South Dakota Post Office