Letter From Katie: The Big Payback

It was August 8, 2014: the 40th anniversary of President Nixon announcing his resignation from office. And at the Cactus Pear in Clifton, the flat-screen television beside the bar was reliving the event, and the era. There were images of tie-dyed T-shirts and hippies making peace signs, and ominous place names—Saigon, Cambodia—that seemed to bring the four of us a little closer together.

It was a strange night. Our small group had just come from the hospital, where we had been visiting our mutual friend, Leona Durham. Now we stood like characters in The Big Chill, watching the television replay of Nixon’s last night in office.

Leona should have been here with us, reflecting on that monumental time; she’d been strongly against the war in Vietnam. Instead she was in intensive care, struggling to breathe through a ventilator, fighting a horrific case of pneumonia.

It seemed natural to stop at the Cactus Pear for a beer on the way home, but it was an awkward social moment. We knew each other, but not well, and we didn’t have much in common. Tim Smith is an attorney; Phillip Palmer, a cab driver; and Swamy Naidu Sunkara—Swamy to just about everyone who has ever met him—a restaurateur. Emerging from the bubble of heightened feeling we had been in when we were together with Leona at the hospital, we began to flail a bit, in an effort to find footing with one another in different circumstances.

We are all in our 60s or slightly older; Vietnam and Nixon’s problems had been defining points in our lives, so this broadcast was something we could all latch onto. When Tim Smith, the lawyer, mentioned Cambodia, cabbie Phillip Palmer, who’d been quiet until then, looked up suddenly, his hand cupping his ear in order to hear in the busy bar. “You was there?” he asked Smith in a loud, gravelly voice.

“No,” Smith replied. “I got a high number in the lottery and didn’t get called. Did you?”

“No,” Palmer said. “I enlisted, like a fool. In that Basic Training school, I was all for goin’ to war and fightin’ for my country; I wanted to see the world…until I begun to hear about ‘walking point.’ Then I got scared. Whoever was walkin’ point was a sittin’ duck for enemy fire. I said, ‘Excuse me, but I’ve got to go home.’

“They told me I couldn’t change my mind, that I couldn’t go home, it was a war. Eventually I ran off, but they brought me back in handcuffs. I kept sayin’ I didn’t want to be in the war, and they made me stay in the brig for a month. At least wasn’t nobody shootin’ at me.”

Palmer’s wild tale went on—through another failed attempt to go AWOL, then a call from the Red Cross, saying that his father was dying and that he was cleared to return home. “Whooee, was I glad to hear that,” he said. “Well, not that my Dad was dyin’, but that I got to go home.”

Leona would have enjoyed this discussion, I thought, smiling. She would have had plenty to say about those years. About the young men who had shared Palmer’s terror, the tension surrounding the draft lottery, the celebration when you or your friend’s number was high, the fear that the war would go on so long that even the luck of the draw couldn’t protect you from being called up.

Leona had introduced me to Jesse Winchester, an iconic songwriter from those years who ran away to Canada to escape the draft. One of his songs, “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” had become popular with acoustic players, and I thought of the young bluegrass musicians I had hung around with in Cincinnati in the early ’70s, all of us wearing patched jeans and torn T-shirts like a uniform and playing music like Winchester’s with deep pacifist commitment.

I was a fledgling performer then; I recall an apartment in East Walnut Hills where I practiced guitar till my fingers blistered and blood ran down my left arm. Some of the people I met in those days would prove to be passing acquaintances. But others, like the guitar chords I worked on so hard, turned out to be part of my life’s blood.

All of us at the Cactus Pear watched the broadcast and talked about where we had been 40 years before. After we saw Nixon take off in a helicopter, his hands raised, smiling triumphantly, I turned to Palmer. “Everybody was just as scared as you were, I’ll bet,” I told him.

“Everybody was scared,” Smith agreed. “Like I said, I got a high number in the lottery. But after the war I went to Vietnam and Cambodia to see it for myself.”

Palmer gave a guttural grunt at the idea of anyone going to Vietnam by choice—even as a tourist.

Swamy, the fourth member of our quartet and the owner of the Cactus Pear, said he emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1972—two years before Nixon’s resignation. He met Leona when he operated Mayura, an Indian restaurant then just down the street; they had bonded over a spectacularly delicious chicken tandoori.

The whole thing got me thinking about friendship and serendipity. I had started playing bluegrass in the early ’70s, when Tim Smith was an undergrad in political science at Miami University. By coincidence, I performed for a party at his apartment. I don’t remember that night at all, but he remembered it, and he and I were struck by the idea that our paths had crossed some 30 years before. Now chance had thrown us together again, all because of Leona.

In 1975 I put together the Katie Laur Band, and got my first roommate, a newspaper editor named Amy. We had met—I don’t recall just where—and she’d inquired about sharing an apartment with me. Apparently the arrangement was more settled in her mind than in mine. I got home one evening to discover that while I was performing with John Hartford on the Delta Queen, Amy had climbed into my unlocked front window, pulled her bedroll behind her, and put her name on the mailbox. It was unexpected, but it worked out well and lasted for years.

Amy taught me to read tarot cards and gave me my first feminist tome—a book by Germaine Greer. Best of all, she introduced me to Leona, who was living in Iowa City at the time. My band was booked to play a gig on a new radio show called A Prairie Home Companion in St. Paul, Minnesota. Companion didn’t pay a lot in those days, but the host, Garrison Keillor, was good about booking his guests on a mini-tour of small coffee houses in order to make the trip profitable for musicians. One of those places was in a prairie town west of the Mississippi called Iowa City, at a little bar called the Sanctuary.

This is the way struggling bands toured in the ’70s: You rode in a van with the equipment and the instruments, and you slept as a guest in someone else’s apartment. And if the apartment was heavily populated with cats and hairballs, well, that was just part of it.

I knew no one in Iowa City, but Amy and Leona were pals from the days when they’d worked together on the University of Iowa’s student newspaper, The Daily Iowan, and marched in war protests. So Amy introduced me to Leona by phone, and just like that Leona found us places to stay. She also got the word out about the band. Between her promotion and Garrison Keillor’s loyal following, the audience was lined up around the block.

Leona had long, thick brown hair, which she wore in a French braid, and she was witty and an excellent conversationalist. I liked her immediately. And so I was pleased when, in 1982, she took the bar exam in Cincinnati, with a plan to set up a practice here. She stayed for a while with Amy and me, and we picked up our friendship where we’d left off in Iowa City—sitting for hours over breakfast on weekends in Clifton, discussing journalism and the fine points of criminal law.

What made my relationship with Leona last until now? What was the common thread that the four of us—such very different people—appreciated about this woman? As we sat and discussed our relationship with our mutual friend, none of us seemed to have any answers. Equally puzzling: How could someone so alive have gotten so ill so quickly?

She had been working on her house, painting the first floor for a new tenant, and I had called her one night just to chat. She sounded weak; her speech was disjointed. “Have you had a stroke?” I asked her, keeping my voice calmer than I felt.

“Why, no,” she said, cheerfully, “I just fell and couldn’t get up.”

“How long ago did you fall?” I asked.

“Oh, it was a few hours ago. I figured out that if I got to the stairs I could scoot to the top step and get upright then but I still couldn’t get up. I don’t know what went wrong with my plan.” Then she giggled.

For Leona, who had cut her teeth on closing arguments, this was mumbo-jumbo. “I think I’m going to call somebody,” I said very carefully, figuring she would object at showing any sign of weakness. But she didn’t. She told me where the keys to her house were, and I hung up and dialed 911, still calm.

“My friend lives on Victor Street,” I said to the operator, “and it sounds to me on the phone as if she’s had a stroke. What are my options?”

“We can make a safety check,” the woman said. “If she’s all right, no harm done. If she’s not, then it’s best we take her to the hospital.”

I waited a long time. Then the dispatcher finally called back. Leona was in the hospital with pneumonia.

I was surprised. I didn’t think pneumonia was that serious. You called your doctor, got a “Z-Pak” of antibiotics, went to bed for a few days, and sweated it out. Surely she would be better in the morning.

By the next day, though, Leona was in the intensive care unit, receiving antibiotics intravenously. She couldn’t talk because she was on a ventilator, which was helping her to breathe through the heavy mucus in her lungs. She was in a twilight sleep so that she could tolerate the ventilator.

That’s when Palmer, Swamy, Tim, and I showed up. The four of us sat around the waiting room talking about the vicissitudes of life. Leona, so vital 48 hours before, lay with her long, thick gray hair spread out and her chin tucked against the pillow. She looked very sick indeed, and without animation, her face took on a slack, mask-like quality.

When I was young, I assumed serious illness involved family gathered at the bedside, working crossword puzzles in the waiting room, arguing with doctors and nurses and each other and telling jokes, followed by quick, nervous laughter. Now I realized that for a generation of people like Leona and me—people who are not surrounded by family, people who grew to be so independent in the 1960s, people who moved away from family, or who out-lived them—that particular vision would have to be retooled.

Leona survived. But it was friends who were there for her, not her now-deceased family. When her phone needed charging, Smith arrived with just the right device. Swamy called us all every day for news and brought Leona guacamole hamburgers when she could finally eat again. Palmer, since he had a taxicab, was a natural for transportation. Leona had done legal work for him; now he was paying her back. Of course, we were all paying her back. For free legal advice at one time or another. For years of excellent conversation. For friendship.

And finally, she made it through her illness, and through the physical and
occupational therapy that followed. If she sounded a bit like Lauren Bacall due to two weeks on a ventilator, well, I kind of liked it. But she didn’t. It made it hard to carry her end of the conversation.

We decided to reintroduce Leona into society on a Tuesday night at Jim Tarbell’s birthday party. Unfortunately, I got the date wrong, and rather than put it off another week Tim Smith took Leona and me to dinner at La Poste in Clifton.

It was an inspired choice. La Poste, on Telford Street, had been the Clifton post office back during the Vietnam era we had been so caught up in lately. In its new life, it has been re-done like a country French restaurant, with banquettes and starched white tablecloths. But I had walked to this post office a hundred times in the ’60s, when I lived in Clifton, and in my mind’s eye I could see the old post office boxes and hear the bell that jingled cheerfully each time I entered the front door.

In those days, this corner—Telford and Ludlow—had also housed a produce stand, with green bell peppers and fruit piled luxuriously in pine crates. One day I asked for a couple of the wooden crates with their colorful fruit pictures, and I took them home. I sanded them and painted them bright yellow, and I used them to store my Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records. That may sound like the most ordinary thing in the world now, but at the time—before Martha Stewart and Pinterest—it was the height of chic invention.

My reveries about those years brought me right back to why we cultivate friendships, contacts, relationships. It isn’t that we might want to look popular, to look as if we run with the right crowd, that we belong to the right country club. No, it’s simply that we need someone to stand up for us.

In the late afternoon, when the sunbeams began to fade in the hospital corridor, we were there, supporting Leona when she needed it, guarding her when she was weak. When the wolves were circling the campfire, we picked them off one by one. It was simply the civilized thing to do.

Originally published in the December 2014 issue

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