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Opening day for the Batavia Muckdogs approaches, and with it the resumption of a long, leisurely, blissful conversation in which living and dead participate.  (Alas, the dead sometimes play third base or catch for our team.) I feel intensely the presence of those who have shared these many hundreds—-maybe a thousand, by now—-evenings of my life at Dwyer Stadium. Let me tell you about one such ghost.

The last time I saw Dennis Bowler was in September 2004, during one of those melancholy late-season games when the chill of summer’s end is in the air, and even though I haven’t darkened a classroom door for decades the thought of school lours over me like a prison sentence. Dennis had been sick for a couple of weeks with a mystery ailment. But even at half-speed, Dennis was irrepressible. “See ya tomorrow night,” we both said as he left the third-base bleachers in the 12th inning for the drive back to Gasport. It didn’t work out that way. Dennis made it home that night and then dropped dead of a heart attack.

If ever you were minding your own business at a Western New York ballpark or high-school gym and you were buttonholed by a fast-talking man telling you everything he knew about nuclear physics, British Columbia, or how to make a baseball bat, it was Dennis Bowler.

He loved to talk. He talked more than any person I have ever met, often about his ancestors or daily life in Niagara County. For a frenetic man, he was content in his place, fully at home. His stories included such local characters as the unfortunately named Israel “Izzy” Humen, for whom Dennis had an overwhelming sympathy. He hated meanness and cruelty. I suspect he had been teased and mocked more than once, and he repaid the world not in bitterness but in kindness.

Dennis loved those names and numbers that spice our lives but that we depreciate with the word “trivia.” He’d ask you to name the vice president of the Confederacy (Alexander Stephens) or Hank Greenberg’s lifetime home run total (331). He could recite the starting lineup of every girls softball team in the Genesee Region League. When Dennis turned 60 in August 2004, the Muckdogs p.a. announcer asked him to stand up and take a bow. Dennis was so busy yakking that he never heard the chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Even then, Dennis looked 40 and acted like a coltish boy. He would race teenagers for foul balls. When he got one he’d hold it aloft, beaming, like a prospector who’d just panned a gold nugget. Then he’d give it to a child.

Dennis resided in the family homestead on Ridge Road, fruitbasket of the Northeast. He lived alone and drove a rusting jalopy distinguished by its varying shades of blue. Now and then he’d stop by my parents’ house to pour water down its chronically leaky radiator. He farmed as many acres as he could and sold his produce at a roadside stand. He brought corn to the games and gave it away. He also painted houses, taught hunter safety courses, drove a tractor for Becker Farms, and in winter he substituted at local schools. No kid who ever had Mr. Bowler as a sub forgot him.

Dennis worked hard and with an almost beatific cheerfulness but he could not afford health insurance. He hadn’t visited a doctor in many years. What if? Yeah, what if. One abiding memory of Dennis: in his last summer he brought a telescope to Dwyer Stadium. Not to check out the chicks; rather, Mars was at its closest approach in millennia, so he trained the scope on the Red Planet and the moon and we took our peeks.

Dennis was so utterly without guile, so joyful, so ravenous for knowledge. He lacked entirely the internal brake that keeps most people from bringing telescopes to baseball games.  And good for him. During that game Dennis ran over to the first-base bleachers and taped a napkin to the fence. He dashed back, pointed the telescope at the napkin, and asked our then 10-year-old daughter to take a look. It read HI GRETEL.

He was such a sweet, innocent man, poor in purse but rich in spirit. Sometimes I think of Dennis keeling over in his bathroom, perhaps at 3 a.m., the soul’s midnight, as Ray Bradbury calls it. But more often I think of him bounding up the bleacher steps two at a time, talking about Western Canada, running after foul balls, telling Gretel corny jokes, and smiling. Always smiling.

It’s been almost six years now and I suspect he’s still talking St. Peter’s ear off.

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Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I think everyone of us knows someone like your Dennis, and our lives are never the same once they leave us. My Dennis was named Mr. Thomas. He’d spent his twenties and thirties travelling the world, but ultimately decided southern West Virginia was home. He then proceeded to become a self-taught expert on the flora of the region. Eventually, he became so knowledgeable about the subject that professors from universities throughout Appalachia called him when they had a question. If anyone ever picks up a copy of Noah Adams book, Far Appalachia, there is a chapter in that features “Tim Thomas, The Herb Wizard.”

    Mr. Thomas was unique in that he never thought of the young people in the community as burdensome. He always took the time to answer our questions, wether they be related to our school projects, or life in general. I can’t count the winter afternoons I spent sitting by the woodstove listening to his stories about what life was like in Appalachia between the wars. Our conversations always ended the same way. As the conversation died down, or the manure got too deep. He’d dissapear into some recess of his old house, and then reappear holding a dust covered book that was somehow related to our conversation. He would then say, “Here. Read this. And no, I don’t expect I’ll ever see it again.”

    He has been gone for sometime now, but there’s not a day that passes in which I don’t think about one of his stories and smile.

  2. Bill, excellent writing. Dennis is a distant cousin of mine (I never met him). I stumbled upon your story while doing some genealogical research. I would have loved seeing a game with him. Thanks for the great story!

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