You wouldn’t necessarily think it, but I was blessed as a kid by having family that was spread across the state. All the travel afforded me the opportunity to familiarize myself with the courthouses we’d pass in downtowns around Indiana. Even more, I was blessed with by a family that recognized my early fanaticism for architecture and drawing, and they went out of their way to ply me with experiences and supplies to combine those two interests. One of those people was my dad, and this past Tuesday marked the seventh anniversary of his death.
When I was a kid, dad was the coolest person you could ever imagine. As I got older, our relationship got more complicated, but the thing about his death that’s hardest for me to deal with is was the quantity of memories I have with him that I can’t seem to access. There are just too many- I know they’re there, but I’m only able to recall a select, specific few. Over time, I realized that the situation’s a paradox- if I’d spent my life documenting those experiences instead of living them, the memories wouldn’t have been as rich. But at least they’d be clearer. I’ve struggled with that for the past seven years, and it sucks.
Thankfully, most of the memories I can think of clearly tend to involve driving to and from his house. He lived nearly three hours away in Goshen, and trips to visit him almost always varied in route, usually finding us going through some long-bypassed county seat past a landmark historic courthouse. I wanted to talk about a few of those today.
This is the Elkhart County Courthouse in Goshen, where dad lived. Night had usually fallen by the time we got there on our visits every other weekend, and the structure’s illuminated clock always seemed to welcome us like a gigantic, benevolent cyclops as we’d curve downtown from the south. Seeing the towering courthouse meant that we were nearly home and safe at dad’s house, but I’m sure that driving past it, regardless of how frequently we did, ranks extremely low on the list of notable events that surely unfolded in front of its watchful gaze.
A lot of stuff has happened with that courthouse as a backdrop over the past 148 years, but maybe none of them were as unique as the Shideler snowball fight that occurred in the middle of US 33 back in 2006. I was sixteen, fresh out of driver’s ed., and we’d gone up to dad’s for Christmas. After spending the night, we were caravanning down to Fort Wayne to meet the larger family. You can’t get through Goshen without being stuck behind a train, I pulled my phone out to take a look at my Myspace page while we waited. But all of the sudden- piffff! The side of my face was cold, it was wet, and it stung. I whipped around to see my dad in the middle of the road, grinning, and with a snowball in his hand! He’d jumped out of the car -leaving it idling- and let loose with a ball of dirty slush aimed right through the cracked window that, miraculously, managed to smack me right in the beak with aim that would make Calvin and Hobbes proud.
Of course, the unexpected snowball was an act that meant war. I could see the end of the train, but put my own car in park, hopped out, and bent down to collect as much snow as I could fit into a makeshift pocket I made, kangaroo-style, out of my hoodie. The ensuing battle was ferocious, and I won’t go into the gory details to spare the innocent. But let’s just say that once the train passed and the flurries died down, it was clear that the strategy behind dad’s stealth attack had worked and he emerged victorious. While I didn’t win the snowball war, I did win one battle when, luckily, I got one to land right in his face and knock his sunglasses off. That moment, which probably lasted all of two minutes, remains one of my favorite memories of all time. Years later when I went back to take photos of the courthouse for this project, I silently thanked it for not ending the sordid affair early by toppling over and crushing us.
About a decade earlier, a different courthouse framed another losing skirmish between me and my dad. Around the ages of six or seven, I developed several bizarre culinary tendencies, including a total embargo of beef hot dogs. They just tasted different, and anyway, beef belonged in a hamburger! If my teacher could make that distinction based on how we were instructed to fold our paper, I could too, and I just could not be convinced otherwise. That was that- I’d pry the hot dog packages out of the cart at the store and read the ingredients just to be sure. I even swapped them out when my mom wasn’t looking a couple of times, which ultimately led to a ban of pushing my own shopping cart until I turned thirty. To this day, I still use baskets.
Anyway, I’m sure dad had gotten fed up at my outlandish comestible requirements by the time we made it to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival that year in downtown Auburn. I was starving and preoccupied with staring at an immensely fat man trying to stuff himself into an old L-29 when dad came out of nowhere, hot dog in hand. For me? I looked at him with the type of unbarred suspicion only a seven-year-old can muster, and inquired about its composition. Dad swore up and down that it was pork- he’d even asked the guy at the counter of the food truck, he said. He seemed so sincere and I was so ravenous, that I grabbed it and chomped down without continuing my investigation. But immediately I realized that I’d been had- it was beef. Total beef. Dad started to guffaw. He’d got me. I was hurt by his trickery for a second, but the feeling evaporated as I realized that the beef hot dog actually wasn’t that bad. I finished the rest of it, and was broken of my ridiculous preclusion. Today, I enjoy them without second thought at Fort Wayne’s Coney Island or WeeNee World in New Castle, all thanks to dad. And that damn DeKalb County Courthouse, which watched me (smirking) from afar.
There are other dad memories that feature Indiana courthouses in LaGrange, Albion, Huntington, and LaPorte, and we’ll have to talk about those another time. But my recollections even stretch north of Indiana’s border to Hillsdale, Michigan. I’d been accepted to Hillsdale College during my senior year in high school, and through some scheduling quirk, dad was the one tasked to take me there for a campus visit.
Scholastic trips with dad were almost unheard of since he was a non-custodial parent. I’d been the happiest kid in the world when he lived in Muncie for a year or so an accompanied me to my second-grade open house, and this was no different. But even though the trip alone would have been memorable under those auspices, dad’s weird sense of humor made it even more so. Dad had been whistling “Skip to My Lou” over the course of the weekend, and he was relentless during the two-hour drive. As we passed the courthouse downtown, I was in awe. What a classic! It didn’t hurt that I was dressed in my best clothes and trying to make an impression at the conservative university when we made it to the venerable old central hall at the college to meet with school officials. In the waiting room, dad looked at my pants and feigned shock.
“Ted,” he said. “Your fly….”
I turned down, aghast, knowing full well I’d made a fatal mistake in not checking myself. Surely, I’d ruined the meeting since my junk was hanging out just as the admissions officer made her way into the room to introduce herself.
“…Is in the buttermilk,” dad finished, as she looked at him quizzically. My face turned beet red. I looked again. My fly was zipped. Dad just smiled, and rose to shake her hand.
In retrospect, the Hillsdale Occurrence (as I call it now) was hilarious, although the trip was nerve-wracking at the time. But, wow! I guess I do remember a lot more specific moments with dad than I thought I did, even more than I wrote about here, and it just so happens that a lot of those memories happened under the purview of a historic courthouse. That specific influence wasn’t one he lived to see build out, but I think that if dad was here today, he’d get a kick out of this project. I started it in earnest about six months after he died, and I think it was at least partly in response to missing him so much.
I know the writing here would be better if he were editing it, and hell, he’d probably be right there with me, waiting in his Beetle at the corner of each courthouse square with a pipe full of vanilla Cavendish and a Sousa march blaring from his car stereo. It’s fun and a little sad to construct theoretical memories like that, but I’ll continue to do it and think of the real ones as I travel to county seats across the Midwest, thanking him for his influence from afar. I inherited a lot from my dad, but I’ll always be grateful for the impact he made on me and wish he had been around to see this project unfold. I think he’d be proud, or at least interested. Nevertheless, here’s to you, dad. Thanks again.