(not actually Mansfield)
Today I drove out to a worn-out city of ~40,000 souls about an hour southwest of Cleveland today, with my dad as co-pilot. In my personal privately-held map of the world, Mansfield is noted for not a lot. I am aware Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall got married at a farm not far from Mansfield, the home of novelist-cum-agronomist Louis Bromfield. Most of The Shawshank Redemption was filmed at the old jail in Mansfield. The new jail is used as a jail, not as a movie set.
In the swale between old jail and new jail, little herds of black angus cattle huddled, hunched over the patches of grass they found especially compelling. The outbuilding that stands in as the license plate factory in The Shawshank Redemption sits on the edge of the hollow. Fictional characters shared a respite from a fictional brutal reality on that roof, tarring in the fictional May sun and drinking fictional cold beers.
The cattle herd belongs to the prison. I only saw the cows from the vantage of the driver’s seat of a moving Honda as I wandered lost inside the back access roads of the new prison, trying to find the way to the old reformatory. We drove on a soft bend around the lip of the swale, and the cows stayed put, swishing their straight skinny black tails like eccentric metronomes. The car reached an emphatic stop sign insisting on only state vehicles past this point, please. Making the turn into a prison felt like walking into the women’s bathroom. I felt a static electricity at voluntarily wandering into a place so unhappy, so distant from my own free personhood. I liked the cows. They’re going to be slaughtered and eaten by unfree men, which probably doesn’t feel that much different than being eaten by regular folks.
We drove out to Mansfield to see an exhibition of base ball (as in, baseball played according to 19th century rules, in rough approximations of 19th century dress). They played on the front lawn of the old Ohio State Reformatory, which is always in 19th century dress. There were nearly as many ballplayers gathered as there were spectators. I was happy to have a reason to move through the world. The visiting team came from Canal Fulton, a town that’s on the Erie & Ohio Canal (hence the name). They were the Mules, and their team standard was topped with a tiny wooden mule stood atop a baseball, with a tiny wooden harness collar. There was no tiny wooden canal boat or tiny wooden world for them to inhabit.
After the base ball, we drove through the time-bleached center of Mansfield and ate time-bleahed slices of pizza. Most of the few people downtown at 4 pm on a Sunday looked uncomfortable, sitting on things not meant to be chairs, checking their cellphones frequently as if to will something to happen and take them away from there.
As we drove the 50 miles out and the same 50 miles back, we talked about the history of Ohio, the history of places and the history of people. Some of the history was just trivia; some of it was family lore. My dad told me about a bicycle. It was a Roadmaster, once owned by a relative. This relative had suffered the double disfortune of losing his job in the Depression and more or less simultaneously contracting polio. The disease left him unable to drive a manual-transmission car, but capable enough to ride a bike.
So he rode a bike to and from what work he could find. Eventually he got himself a Ford with an automatic transmission, and he didn’t need the bike anymore. The rusty old Roadmaster was handed down to my dad, but it lacked a banana seat and all other contemporary hallmarks of not being janky. Out of a desire to make the bike less janky, my grandfather sanded it down and painted it red, hand-detailing a white V on the head tube, with yellow piping separating white from red.
As we drove a silver car that my dad and stepmom gifted to me two months ago, my dad expressed a gentle but deep remorse that he hadn’t held on to that bike, not because it was an especially good bike but because of the loving work his father had put into repainting it. The hillbillies down the street wound up with it after a rummage sale.
This all loped around to the story of my grandfather’s best friend as a boy in Delta, Ohio. Robert Harms was the friend’s name. Harms was a naval fireman, serving on an LST in World War II. At the age of 19 years and 3 months, Robert Harms died in a kamikaze attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. He was one of at least two men named Robert Harms to die in uniform in 1944. The Robert Harms of Minnesota was 20 years old when he died in France three months earlier. My grandfather, who is 89, is not in good health. This quantum of unwelcome news that isn’t any less sad for its actuarial predictability. Once, when my dad was the age at which Robert Harms died, his appearance reminded Robert Harms’ mother of a time when Robert Harms wasn’t dead.