“For many of the park’s 2 million yearly visitors, the grueling hike up Baldy’s slip-sliding slope – and the dead run down – is a rite of passage.” Ariel Sabar, Smithsonian Magazine
Mount Baldy; below, photo by Bryce Gehrls
Twenty-eight months ago, six year-old Nathan Woessner suddenly got buried under 11 feet of sand at Mount Baldy. His father Greg recalled: “Initially everybody starts digging with hands and then shovels and then the machinery shows up.” Three and a half hours later emergency crews from Michigan City reached Nathan. His body was cold; he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse, but after given external compressions, he finally gasped. After two weeks in the hospital Nathan resumed his normal life. Park rangers subsequently discovered several additional holes and barred the public from visiting Mount Baldy.
Erin Argyilan and Bruce Rowe
At the time the prevailing scientific wisdom was that holes did not form naturally in dunes because when buried trees decayed, the cavity disintegrated. As NWI Times columnist John Davies wrote, IU Northwest geoscientist Erin Argyilan solved the mystery by discovering, in her words, “that the bio-mineralization of carbonate cement in the sand adjacent to the tree gives the hole temporary stability.” While rescuers were frantically searching for Nathan, Erin was conducting wind research nearby. After she rushed to the scene and learned what happened, she became determined to study the cause of the phenomenon and ultimately presented her findings to the Geological Society of America. Argyilan told Davies: “Nathan was doing what all kids do on the dunes. He was exploring. Instead, he fell into a hole created by let’s say a 40-foot tree that had been covered by the dune as Mount Baldy crept southward.” Davies added: “Fungi naturally caused the tree to decay, and eventually it collapsed and disappeared. However, the hole remained – until a curious boy falls in and the hole collapses around him, which makes the rescue all the more amazing.”
My first visit to Mount Baldy, people were hang-gliding at the dune’s summit. The scene reminded me of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright brothers experimented with their flying machine. Whenever relatives visited in the summer, we took them to baldy. Once brother-in-law Charlie, a former marine, yelled, “Can’t you go any faster?” when Phil and Dave were ascending the steep dune, I teased, “Can you do any better?” He took off on a run and became so exhausted near the summit, we thought he might be having a heart attack. His wife had to help bring him down. Brother-in-law Sonny, who weighed close to 300 pounds, started his descent, lost his balance, and rolled at great speed down to the bottom, barely missing my sons along the way.
Five months ago, after consulting with geologists, the National Lakeshore scheduled limited access tours. Park Ranger Bruce Rowe asserted: “There were no holes on the western portion of Mount Baldy. It’s much higher than the rest of the dune, and where the holes are showing is where the dune is decreasing. The scientists call it deflating, even though the dune isn’t full of air.”
I chatted on the phone with Roberta Wollons, former IUN History Department chair, now at the University of Massachusetts. She asked asked whom I socialized with on campus. The answer: mainly younger departmental colleagues, good people all. I bragged about their considerable accomplishments and participating in their courses. Senior English Department profs are still shunning me because I had criticized the egregious way they screwed Anne Balay.
Ponderosa Steak House in Miller closed Sunday. In the 1970s we’d go there for a cheap but wholesome buffet-style meal. I recall overweight truckers chowing down there. More recently Dave and Angie took James and Becca there from time to time – and us once. Regular customer Lois Lott told NWI Times reporter Joseph Pete: “A lot of area seniors dined there as an alternative to Meals on Wheels.” Manager Chris Bachand said that a couple in their 90s came daily for lunch. Deloris Thorpe and grandson Charles Johnson, Jr., ate there Sundays after church and almost always ran into people she knew, many former Gary residents now living elsewhere. She told Pete, “It’s a community place. You can actually sit down and talk. You see friends [and say] ‘aw, where you been?’ I hate it. I hate that it’s closing.”
During Sunday football, I completed Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” about the American eight-oar rowing team’s “quest for Gold” at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Westerners whose families were, for the most part, crippled during the Great Depression, the crew contained sons of farmers, loggers, and shipyard workers. Most had never rowed competitively before arriving at the University of Washington. Joe Rantz, on his own from age ten, survived by poaching salmon and stealing bootleg liquor. One summer he found work at the Grand Coulee Dam site near the Columbia River, drilling with a jackhammer while in a harness hundreds of feet above ground. With a girlfriend back in Seattle, Joe, according to the author, avoided the brothels in the boom town’s Tenderloin District but enjoyed walking its three blocks throbbing with live jazz, country, and swing music emanating from the bars and clubs where a dime bought a dance with a perfumed partner. Brown wrote:
Food also drew them to B Street: chow mein at the Woo Dip Kitchen; homemade tamales from the Hot Tamales Man’s Shack; mountainous sundaes at the soda fountain in Atwater’s drugstore; fresh-bakes cherry pie at the Doghouse Café. And the best Little Store by a Dam Site was a good place to shop for treats and small luxuries, everything from cheap cigars to Oh Henry! candy bars.
Like Northwest Indiana 20,000 years ago, receding glaciers affected the formation of Grand Coulee, Washington. As Brown explained:
As the last ice age waned, a 2,000-foot-high ice dam holding back a vast lake in Montana – later dubbed Lake Missoula by geologists – gave way not once but several times, unleashing a series of floods of unimaginable scope and ferocity. In the greatest of these, during a period of roughly 48 hours, 220 cubic kilometers of water rushed over much of what is now northern Idaho, eastern Washington, and the north edge of Oregon, carrying more than ten times the flow of all the rivers in the world. A massive wall of water, mud, and rock – well over a thousand feet tall in places – exploded all over the countryside, rumbling southwest toward the Pacific at speeds up to 100 miles per hour, leveling whole mountains, sluicing away millions of tons of topsoil, and gouging deep scars called “coulees” in the underlying bedrock.
Joe Rantz married childhood sweetheart Joyce Simdars, who put her way through the University of Washington working as a maid. After meager want ads proved dead ends, she had knocked on doors until a wealthy magistrate hired her. Brown wrote: “She abruptly quit her job after the judge had chased her around the dining table one afternoon, in pursuit of services not generally required of maids.” Mrs. Tellwright, her next employer, discovered that Joyce couldn’t cook fancy meals so paid for the both of them to take a culinary class. Brown wrote: “Over the next several years they spent many enjoyable hours in the kitchen together.” Joyce graduated Phi Beta Kappa, raised five kids, and stayed faithful to Joe 63 years. Brown wrote:
In September 2002, Joe lost Joyce. They were sharing a room at a skilled nursing facility at the time – he recovering from a fractured pelvis and she dying from congestive heart and kidney failure. The staff had pushed their beds together so they could hold hands, and that’s how Joyce died.
Like Laura Hillenbrand’s saga of racehorse Seabiscuit, Brown, a social historian at the top of his game, covers much more than faded sports memories of the 1930s. While on a train back from winning a championship regatta in Poughkeepsie, New York, Rantz witnessed the black clouds of the infamous Dust Bowl. In Berlin the horrors of Hitler’s Nazi regime were shielded from visitors, but he was aware of the symbolism of track star Jesse Owens winning Gold Medal winner in the long jump, 100 meters, 200 meters, and 100-meter relay.
In the 1970s the Gary NAAPC honored Jesse Owens, like Joe Louis and later Muhammad Ali, an icon to African Americans. In IUN’s cafeteria, I noticed a group of well-dressed black people entering a banquet room. Though uninvited, I walked in, strode up to Owens, shook his hand, and told him what a great honor it was to meet him.
Roy and Betty Dominguez attended the program. Earlier in the day the former Lake County sheriff joined a protest against a GEO Group proposal to locate a detention center for undocumented workers near the Gary airport. Several other local communities have previously rejected the plan. Gary mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is for the for-profit prison while former mayor Richard Hatcher opposes it. According to NWI Times reporter Keith Benman, Reverend Cheryl Rivera, director of the Northwest Indiana Federation, likened detention centers to slave camps and asked rhetorically:
Why would Gary, a city that is 90 percent black, with its peoples' own history of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and continuing systemic racism, choose to be any party to targeting, terrorizing and profiteering from detention, enslavement and deportation of brown and black immigrants in America?
Monday Night Football got my attention because, though a Bears fan, I would have won my CBS Sports pool had San Diego won. In the Lane Fantasy League I was 15 points ahead of Pittsburgh Dave, but he had receiver Alshon Jeffery and kicker Robbie Gould in his lineup, while all I had going was tight end Martellus Bennett. When the Bears scored on a short pass, I cheered upon discovering the receiver was Bennett. Unbelievably Gould missed two field goals, and I won by 10 points. I lost the pool due to a late Chicago TD, thankfully not by Jeffery.