Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Back to Indiana

I’m back in New York, and a lot went on over the last week, so I’ll see if I can lay down the bare-bones version of it as I eat my lunch.

On Thursday, I woke up early and caught a limo to LaGuardia. This is a pretty quick trip from my apartment, so I got to the airport about 90 minutes before the plane left. It only took me a few seconds to get through security, and I managed to skip the whole line of people by using Delta’s kiosk checkin. So I had some time to kill, and I read almost all of this biography of Henry Rollins I’ve been working on.

The plane didn’t board until about five minutes before we left, but it was a small shuttle flight on Comair, so that didn’t mean much. The plane, the usual Canadair, was sitting away from the terminal, so when we went down the stairs to the tarmac, a big, square airport bus was waiting there. After the dozen or so people got on, we rode about 30 feet to the jet. I once again missed the perfect photo op, a shot looking down the tubular body of the tiny jet and into the engine from the door. Maybe next time.

Nothing much to say about the flight in, except it was short – about 90 minutes. When I got to the airport and sprinted to the rental car counter, I thought everything looked completely different from the last time I was there, maybe five years ago. Most of this was new stores, new artwork, new signs, and so on. When I descended to the luggage area, I saw the airport was almost identical to the many times I was there in the past, which triggered the strange nostalgia in my head.

So after a few minutes at the Thrifty car counter and a quick shuttle over to their lot, I was in possession of a Kia Optima SE which I’d never heard of before. The thing looked a little off in its shape, and the fake wood and chrome trim inside looked butt-ugly. But it had a CD and cassette, a power moonroof, and a decent engine, so I couldn’t complain.

After I got the car, I went to pick up Alana. I’ve known Alana since 1990 or 1991, I think, when we were both in Bloomington and both on the computers constantly. We’ve been in and out of touch over the years, but she recently found me again and we got caught up a bit. I thought it would be cool to meet face to face, drive around a bit, and see some of the landmarks from Summer Rain again, especially considering it’s been ten years since all of that stuff happened.

It’s always weird to be doing this kind of shit, and it really hit some buttons to be driving on SR-37 again, stopping at the Flying J truck stop just south of Indy again like I used to, and pulling into town again. Of course, it was also cool to talk to Alana, who is both a cool person to hang out with and a strange connection to this past I don’t forget. On the way into town, we drove past all of the big landmarks: my old place in Colonial Crest, the downtown, Kirkwood, what used to be Garcia’s, and Tom’s CD store. We ate at a Tibetan place on 4th, then drove past 414 South Mitchell, the College Mall, and checked out Lake Monroe. It’s all there and very strange to see. The quiet college campus I described in my first book still exists, even though a few stores have changed. It really made me wish I was back in town, even if I did have to starve to stay there.

After a few laps around, we headed back and listened to some Bill Hicks, which is pretty much the default music for many of my roadtrips, and I’m always happy to find a new convert to his work. We headed back north, and after I dropped off Alana, I headed up 465 for the ride to Elkhart.

I’ve made the 465 to 31 to 20 trip so many times back in the day, I knew every damn piss-stop and fuel depot and restaurant on the way. So after a few years of mental rust and constant change, I enjoyed the quick whip north. I found a Hardee’s restaurant, which was a strange thing for me. I ate there a bajillion times back in high school, so it was cool to stop there for a cheeseburger on the way up. I also saw that Grissom AFB is now gone, and they chopped it up into some kind of industrial park. Otherwise, the drive felt just like it did back when I used to make it every other weekend. Of course, the hermetically sealed and highly engineered Kia felt much different than my lawnmower-powered and somewhat shaky VW, but I still enjoyed the ride.

I made it to Elkhart in good time, and pulled in to Ray Miller’s place, where I’d be staying. We went to Meijer to get my nephew a present for his birthday, and I marveled at this cavernous, 24-hour store bigger than many neighborhoods in New York. On the way back, we cruised my old neighborhood and looked at my old house, which was a bit strange. At Ray’s, we watched some Mr. Show episodes, and I had a minor freakout because the jacket I just had pressed for the wedding was wadded up inside my suitcase, and I was almost certain I’d be fucked on getting it straightened out before Saturday.

Because of the paranoia on the jacket, I woke up at about seven and immediately got showered and out the door. I found a cleaner with three-hour service in downtown Elkhart, which was cool except it basically meant I would have to kill three hours in Elkhart. (I couldn’t go back to Ray’s because he sleeps about 20 hours a day and that kept me locked out.) So I drove around pretty much every major road in Elkhart, and did a lot of nothing.

I never had any strong feeling for Elkhart, and never thought I’d miss it after I left. And I don’t really miss it, especially now that half of the stores there have failed and left a big chunk of the city a hollow shell. But way back when I first got a car, I drove around Elkhart a lot, cruising the strip, cutting across the city to go to the malls of South Bend, or hunting down comic books at various stores that are now long gone. Crossing through downtown and other main strips of Elkhart reminded me of my time in high school, or the year I spent going to IUSB. Circling down all of these roads made me realize I could still drive them in my sleep, even if many of the surroundings had changed.

I went to the Concord Mall, which is now nothing more than a fragment of what it used to be. The Montgomery Ward store where I worked in high school is now boarded up and vacant, and the neighboring K-Mart has also vanished. The Osco drugs and Supersounds record store in the mall are gone, as well as many other small stores. But, I stopped in an Athlete’s Foot and found a bunch of plain, colored t-shirts that I could not find when I was in New York, and got 5 for $20. But other than that cool discovery, the mall was a very depressing site to see.

Cycling around, I went through my old subdivision a few more times, and saw that pretty much everybody I knew had moved away. Maybe some people had moved into newer parts of the area, with more updated subdivisions and fancier houses. Or maybe they just left the area. Most houses still looked the same as they used to; although a few had new paint or new trim, I could still cruise up the streets and remember the kids from my childhood that lived there. When I got bored of this, I drove over to Ox-Bow park, which is next to the subdivision and a place that I spent a lot of time as a kid, riding my bike, climbing the wooden tower, and digging around the woods and trails. The park looked pretty much the same, although it seemed smaller to me. And they replaced the old-fashioned green metal pumps on the artesian wells with generic electric-powered water fountains. That was a drag, because I always remember the fun of pumping the water pump and starting the water going, and then drinking this cool and pure water. It’s not as fun when you just flip a switch.

After a lot of driving, I ate at a Dairy Queen in Elkhart, and then got the jacket. It was only like $4.50 and when I tried to give the woman $7 including a tip, she absolutely wouldn’t take a tip. So that was both cool and strange. After I got the jacket, I called my sister and headed over to my mom’s place. She lives in Bristol, so the drive took a few minutes and I got a bit turned around on the way over. I got to her house before anyone else showed up, so I had a few minutes to kill, just standing around.

After a minute or two, my sister Angie showed up with my nephew Phillip. He’s going to turn five next week, and he’s in the stage of development where he’s fully mobile, cognitive, and aware of everything, yet he’s also young enough that the first feelers of real life haven’t reached him yet and his innocence and childhood are fully intact. I still remember that age well, and I’m envious of it, but it also makes it that much more fun to hang around him.

I gave Phillip his birthday presents, which consisted of a Spiderman puzzle, a Star Wars puzzle, and a Lego set that contained two pull-back type cars. I helped him build the Legos as my mom and her husband Jeff arrived. We hung out for a bit, but most of the time consisted of everyone else getting ready for the rehearsal dinner while I played with Phillip. After a bit, I suited up in my dress clothes for the dinner, and everyone split to go register at the hotel before then. I didn’t have a room, and I knew Ray would still be asleep, so I drove around for a while longer, and headed into South Bend.

I took the same way into South Bend that I took every day of the 1990-1991 school year. Once again, a few things were different, but I drove the stretch like I was on autopilot. I cruised through Mishawaka, into South Bend, and stopped at IUSB, mostly to use the restrooms but also just to see what was up there. The campus has changed pretty radically, with the old Coca-Cola bottler gone and a brand new building in its place. Also, the strip of pavement and parking that led up to the library as I knew it was now a grassy pedestrian mall. I stopped in the main administration building, which looked largely the same. I thought about walking around more, but the whole thing freaked me out enough that I had to get the hell out of there.

I don’t even remember where I went next, except that I had hours to kill and I was so damned bored, but I didn’t want to go to University Park Mall or the Notre Dame campus because, well I don’t know. I headed down 31 toward Plymouth and looked around for some place to kill some time, like a book store or something. No luck on that – the small Indiana main street didn’t have anything promising, so I went to a park and wrote in my paper journal for a bit. Then I cycled back to the place for the reception dinner and hung out for a bit. This was a small bed and breakfast where everyone looked at me like I was a drug dealer as I sat in the car for an hour playing games on my Palm Pilot.

Finally, everyone showed up, and we filed into the dining room of the place and sat down. I can’t say too much about the dinner, other than it was strange to see both my mom and my dad in the same room at once. Phillip was there and since he was in the wedding, he got a gift of a bunch of Star Wars Legos. I finally saw my sister Monica for the first time, and also finally met her fiancee Derek. I didn’t actually go to the rehearsal, so this dinner went by pretty quick.

After dinner, Monica needed a ride back to Walkerton, so we headed back there to her house. She bought a place a few years ago and I hadn’t seen it yet, so I wanted to check it out. When we got there, we met up with Angie and my cousin Cathy, Phillip, my sister’s friend and coworker Maggie, and Sheila, a friend of Monica’s from our old neighborhood that all of us have known forever. Her house is pretty decent, a hundred-year-old two bedroom with nice wood floors, high ceilings, and a very quiet neighborhood in a tiny Indiana town. I like it, but I also understand why she wants to eventually sell and get into a bigger place. Anyway, the bunch of us sat around and talked for a long time, mostly a bitch session about various families and relatives. Between the stories of past weddings, my grandfather’s thriftiness, and various people at Monica’s school, we were up for hours until everyone had to split. It was weird to be the last one there and tell my sister goodbye, knowing it was the last time she’d ever be a Konrath. But I got a good drive back with Henry Rollins in the player, and met up with Ray for a 7-Eleven run and some episodes of Mr. Show on DVD before I had to collapse.

I slept in, got dressed, and shot down to Plymouth again for a 3:00 call. They reserved a new convention hall at the Swan Lake PGA golf course, and by the time I got there, people already filled the place. I saw a lot of folks that I hadn’t seen in years; all five of my mom’s sisters were there, and a lot of my dad’s family was around, plus a bunch of Derek and Monica’s coworkers. My old Bloomington pal Julius Cooper, who previously worked with Derek, was there with his fiancee, so I sat with him and chatted in between rounds of hellos with other people. Once the food got started though, I sat between my dad and Phillip.

The wedding was one of the best I can remember. The hall looked great, my sister had a great dress and both her and Derek looked pretty happy about the whole thing. I expected a lot more tension with both of my parents there, but everyone on both sides got along well, and people from opposing families who hadn’t seen each other in decades talked to each other, which was great. Phillip, Derek’s son Ethan, and the handful of other kids were running all around but were pretty well-behaved and entertaining. And everything in general fell into place without incident.

I felt very strange during the wedding, for a few different reasons that are hard to explain. Going to a wedding alone can be an uncomfortable experience, especially when the dancing starts, and it made me wish I had more people to hang out with during the whole thing. My family members were there, but sometimes talking to that many distant family members at once is more like a press junket than anything else. I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy talking to people, I just mean that I wished I talked to them more often so I had better topics of conversation than “so what’s been up the last three years?”. And the strange thing was that I actually enjoyed seeing a lot of family members, but I felt uncomfortable knowing that I wouldn’t see them again for a long time, and I didn’t know what the next occasion would be. Part of me thinks I should see my family more, but it’s difficult to simply climb in a plane and meet up with a hundred people on a whim. And of course, I hate to admit the slightest amount of jealousy. I mean, I am very happy that my sister is happy, but of course as a single person with no real prospects on the horizon, at least part of me wished I had a person I was happy with. These aren’t things I can simply dismiss, so they tugged at me a bit as the reception went on.

A small pet peeve: if you know someone who was in or near any of the attacks in 9/11, don’t ask them about it as a conversational icebreaker. I got really fucking sick and tired of telling the story over and over. Maybe some people are into it, but I’d rather not talk about it. So if you go to a family reunion and meet someone from New York or DC, ask them about baseball or something. The Yankees are a much more socially acceptable disaster to discuss.

The whole thing was over quick, even though I was there four or five hours. I stayed while everyone rounded up the last of their stuff, and made the drive back to Elkhart, where I met up with Ray and his girlfriend Maria and we went to Perkins for some dinner.

Next morning, I drove to Edwardsburg to see my Uncle Jim, who was not feeling well and didn’t make it to the wedding. He recently had angioplasty and a pacemaker, and he’s still fatigued from it. My Uncle Jim was a career Navy man, who returned to live with my grandma and take care of her until she passed away a few years ago. He was everybody’s favorite uncle and spent a lot of time with all of us kids. I always realized this, but really saw it when some of us grew up and had kids and he also nurtured them the same way. The positive experience of my Uncle Jim has really motivated me to be the same kind of role model for my nephew Phillip, and it makes me happy to see Phillip enjoy his time with me.

I talked to Uncle Jim in the kitchen at my grandma’s old house, where we spent so many Sunday afternoons with my parents and many of my other relatives, reading the comics pages and playing with the box of toys my Grandma kept there. The house is a Konrath museum of photos and other keepsakes, and it was great to be back after so many years and to talk about everything with Uncle Jim.

After about an hour, I took some pictures, then headed back to Walkerton. I drove past my old old house on Redfield Road, where I spent my time from infancy to the end of the first grade. The tiny pine tree my dad planted in the front yard now stood twice as high as the old house, and everything else looked close to the same. I drove down state line road and took the old route to the University Park mall. The strange thing is that on a spot on Cleveland Road, a good friend of mine from childhood, Peter Elias, was killed in a car accident in 1991. And on SR 23 just south of the mall, my grandfather was killed, also in a car wreck, long before I was born, when my dad was a kid. That only adds to the strangeness of this trip, the roads I drove on so many times ten years ago.

Back in Walkerton, I headed to Monica’s to watch Mr. and Mrs. Owens open gifts. She told me to be there at one, but everyone checked out of the hotel early, and by the time I got there, everyone was gone except her, Derek, and Maggie. So the four of us piled into Maggie’s car and drove to the Scottsdale Mall for lunch at Hacienda. It’s really weird being in that mall, given that I used to go to that Target all the time when I worked at IUSB. Service at the Hacienda SUCKED, and they took about three times as long to get us through lunch, finally culminating in us tracking down the server for the check and leaving in disgust. After a quick run through Target for some last-second vacation stuff and Maggie’s wedding party gift (a croquet set), we got back to Walkerton and said our goodbyes.

By the time I got back to Elkhart, I was hungry again for dinner, so Ray, Maria and I piled into the car and drove to Great Wall for some Chinese food. The food was so-so, but I like that restaurant because the big sign has been the same ever since I was a kid, and has that old-school Oriental restaurant look to it. Back at Ray’s, we watched some wrestling, then I collapsed so I could wake up early the next day.

My dad just bought a new boat – it’s a Ranger 16-foot aluminum bass boat. He’s a huge fisherman, and it’s a great size and setup for him to plunk around on some of the local lakes, or head up to Traverse City every year for some more involved ventures. He just had the boat in the shop to replace some decals, and he offered to take me out on a quick run. I jumped at the chance, because I absolutely love boats (and wish I could buy one), but also because it would let me spend some time with him. So despite the 9:00 meeting time in Millersburg, I was excited to get down there.

I met him at his place, and we took his truck out to Ligoneer to get the boat. I have many fond memories of driving around in my dad’s various GMC trucks over the years, including the time all of us went to the Catskills in upstate New York for two weeks. So it felt good to be back in the pickem-up truck and on the road. We went to the boat dealership, and I saw many ways to blow many dollars, like all-fiberglass bass boats with 3.1L, 220-horse engines. My dad’s boat is a meager 40-horse, but it’s set up for fishing, with swivel seats, live wells, a trawling motor, and a steering wheel, electric trim, and throttle for the outboard motor.

We went down to Oliver Lake in LaGrange county, backed the boat down a ramp, and got in. The first channel has vegetation on all sides and looks like something out of Apocalypse Now, but quickly opens into a decent-sized lake with almost no traffic, and lots of big houses on one side. Dad took the boat out and got it up to speed, which brought us up to about 30mph without too much strain. The boat isn’t built to be a demon on the open water, but 30 in an open boat seems faster than 70 in a convertible, so it’s still fun. We then went to the next lake over through a narrow channel, and dropped the throttle to almost no-wake speed. The next lake had no houses on it, just DNR property. They stocked the lake every year, and there was no bank fishing allowed, so there were some great fish to be found. My dad has a great bass hanging up in his house that he caught in this area, and there were probably many more, but the heat kept them to the bottom.

It’s unbelievable to spend so much time in a big city, fighting traffic and fighting noise and everything else, and then find yourself on an open lake with nothing but pure green on every side of you, no noise whatsoever except the occasional trout jumping out of the water. It could have been 1902 or even 1802 on that lake, and even though we weren’t fishing (well, my dad threw out a line a few times to see what was biting) I really liked it. Now, I just wish I could do something like it more often.

It was also good to see my dad in this element, talking about something that he really enjoyed and knew a lot about. I previously encountered something similar in 1990 when I worked for a summer in his factory. I never doubted that my dad worked hard for his money and that the people there liked him, but spending a summer on the factory floor with him really made me realize how true this was. This wasn’t something I could see when I was younger, but it’s interesting for me to watch because I know I have many personality traits of my father, and watching him makes me realize a lot of things about myself. I don’t know if this sounds sappy or stupid, but it is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon on a lake.

We went to the next lake through another big tunnel, then returned to the original lake and swapped places. I felt nervous getting behind the wheel, considering this was a boat so new, it was still on its first tank of gas. But I hit the throttle, and got the boat up to a decent clip. It’s a little weird steering a boat as opposed to a car – there’s a bit of drift or slop you need to take into consideration. But I figured it out in no time, and we circled around a bit more, looking at houses and parked boats. After a lap or so, we switched places, and took the boat back to the trailer. After some slight trouble getting back on the trailer with the semi-crooked ramp, we got back to Millersburg and hung out for a bit before I headed to Bristol to see my mom.

Oh, first I went to Goshen and ate at the Long John Silver’s, which I haven’t seen in many moons. I also circled back to SR15, which has a strange connotation because my first girlfriend lived down there, and 13 years ago, I used to make that drive often. I also used to work in Bristol at the Bristol Opera House, and took the same trip every night. I drove into Bristol and south to my mom’s place.

That afternoon, my mom had all four of her foster kids plus Phillip, and her husband Jeff was there. This meant I got to spend some time with Phillip and help him assemble his Star Wars Legos, but it also meant the other kids were nagging us the whole time. Angie showed up after a bit and took Phillip home, and I spent the rest of the time with my mom, as she herded around the kids. I don’t really want to get into the politics of the whole situation that much except to say that it’s a very rough load of work on my mom and it’s really a difficult battle. I hung out for a while until my mom was getting supper started for them, and then said my goodbyes and cruised back into Elkhart.

Back at Ray’s, Maria was cooking some chicken for us and Ray was preparing to watch wrestling. We ate (the food was great) and watched and made fun of the WWE Raw show. I’m not a wrestling fanatic, but I watch it enough to be able to keep up with Ray’s conversations and make fun of various wrestlers with inside jokes. After the show, I packed up my stuff and talked to Ray more while plotting the final leg of my trip back to New York. Since he would be going to bed about an hour before I’d be waking, we said our goodbyes, and I went to bed.

In the morning, I took a lightning-fast shower, chucked the luggage into the car, and hit the road by 7:15. Once again, this was a strange roadtrip that reminded me of many trips south, reminders mostly of the times I moved to Bloomington. I had to make it to Indy for a 11:55 flight though, so I kept my eyes on the clock more than anything else.

After a fast drive to Indy and the car rental place, I caught a shuttle back to the airport and got checked in with no problems whatsoever. I fell half-asleep waiting for the shuttle flight, then got aboard and drifted off during the 90-minute jump to Laguardia. When I woke up, I saw Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the now-misaligned New York skyline before we cycled back to the airport. After a $10 cab ride, I got back home, and unpacked to get ready for another day of work.