The Book Man
Not long after I graduated from the School of Journalism at Ohio State University, I ventured into the Bibliophile, a very classy little bookstore wedged between Long's College Bookstore and Hennick's, a popular student hangout. I wanted to look through the Bibiophile's nature books and say hello to my friend Gene Rea, the manager of the store.
I first met Gene when I was a senior at North High School. About that time, I had just been elected into the Wheaton Club, a group of professional naturalists and their associates. Gene was probably around forty, give or take a year.
It was hard not to like Gene, although I'm sure there were those who did not easily take to him. For one thing, he enjoyed twitting the vanities of Washing-ton politicians. But mostly, his cynicism was directed at the inanities of the entire human race. His humorous remarks about the bombastic and pompous aspects of Homo sapiens were usually enough on target that even those members of the Wheaton Club who looked upon him with a jaundiced eye were apt to nod their heads or slap him on the back with a good-natured remark like "You tell 'em, Gene!" If Gene had any reverence for the human species, it was reserved for the giants of literature and science. He would excuse those oracles almost any excess, and when talking about them he would become a schoolboy again &endash; a one-man cheering section for all that was progressive and idealistic in life.
To my youthful eyes, Gene was debonair as well as intellectually honest. He had a keen sense of humor and, most important to my unwrinkled idealism, he was humanistic in his outlook towards life. All qualities I admired and, by and large, still do.
The most distinguishing physical feature about Gene Rea was the contrast between his thatch of prematurely white hair and his thick dark eyebrows. His appearance, in effect, was a trademark, and the image was heightened by his quizzical blue eyes peering out through a pair of black horned-rimmed glasses. Short of stature and slim, he gave the impression of overall compactness.
Gene not only loved books, he selected his stock carefully, and he was adept at finding rare editions, especially of natural history books, so much so that he had a national reputation for sniffing out the hard-to-find volume. After books, Gene's over-riding passion was birds, followed closely by wildflowers. He gained considerable expertise in both fields and could identify a False Solomon's Seal as easily as a Ceru-lean Warbler. His friend Dick McCutchen wistfully said of Gene, "When he made his choice for books, and the satisfaction therein, I think the ambition he surrendered was fame as a natural scientist and teacher. (And, yes, this Dick McCutchen was the very same Marine captain who appeared on the $64,000 Question, a popular TV show way back when.)
Why Gene didn't pursue an academic career is anyone's guess. Even though I grew to know Gene quite well over the years, I don't pretend to have the answer to that question. Perhaps he didn't do well in school, though that's unlikely with a mind that could come up with hundreds of bino-mial scientific names for plants. More likely, his restless soul was intimidated or turned off by the bureaucracy of the educational system. His was a free spirit, no doubt about it, and that would account for his love of birds as well as the fragile beauty of a rare wildflower &endash; like a colony of snowy trillium he once told me about.
Gene was married to Helen. They had no children. From pictures I've seen of the two of them together in earlier years, Helen appeared to be an attractive woman: a willowy blonde with a good figure. She shared her husband's love of the Hocking hills, although her own knowledge of nature was limited. The few times I met Helen she was very friendly, but as high- strung as telephone lines in a high wind. I always had the feeling she was ten minutes away from a nervous breakdown. Gene never talked about it, but I had the suspi-cion that he had a tough marital row to hoe. But who knows? I might be wrong.
Of course, there is more to life than domesticity, birds, flowers, and books. In his personal life, Gene enjoyed gourmet food, including the preparation of wild game provided to him by some of his hunting friends. This indulgence was a glaring contradiction in his life for he was a non-hunter and had great respect for wild animals. His talent at cooking was matched by his appreciation of good wine, or an old fashioned, or a dry martini made with imported gin.
So it was that I found myself in the Bibliophile one June afternoon many years ago. I had recently graduated from college, gotten married the year before, and just purchased my first car, a second-hand Ford sedan named Freddy. It was my intention to spend more time looking for birds. Gene was busy with a customer when I walked into the store, so I used the intervening time to browse through the many books on birds and biology that were on the shelves. To my way of thinking, even way back then, such works represented the acme of human accomplishment.
It was with something akin to reverence that I leafed through original editions of A. C. Bent's Life Histories of North Ameri-can Birds, Henry Beston's Outermost House, Frank Chapman's Autobiography of a Bird Lover, and Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac.I decided to buy a copy of The Warblers of North America by Frank Chapman, a book published in 1907 and reprinted in 1914. Though not new, this 1914 edition with its colorful plates by Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Bruce Horsfall was in mint condition and cost ten dollars. A fair amount of money to pay for a book at the time, but I can truthfully say it is worth a good deal more today.
When he was free, Gene and I chatted as he made out the sales slip for my book and rang the transaction up on the cash register. "Been getting out lately?" he asked. "Not much," I replied, "what with getting married, school, and finding a job." Then I added, "But I'm going to fix that." It was at that point that Gene mentioned the Clear Creek Valley, down in Hocking and Fairfield Counties. "Not more than an hour's drive, he explained, "southeast of Columbus off State Route 33."
As a matter of fact, I had heard of the valley. It was where the Wheaton Club held its annual spring heigira. On the first weekend in June, they would meet at an old cabin, once a marginal farmer's home, perched on a hillside of fields and woods. Because of being in the service, plus not having a car until recently, I had never attended one of these outings. The cabin and tract of land, known as Neotoma, was owned by Edward S. Thomas, curator of Natural History at the old Ohio State Museum at the corner of 15th and High, right across the street from the Bibliophile. Ed's weekly nature column appeared in the Sunday Columbus Dispatch for 57 years starting in 1922 and resulted in something like 2330 separate columns. This was a labor of love because he was never paid a penny for his efforts.
When I mentioned to Gene that I had never been to the Clear Creek Valley, he pursed his lips and made a soundless whistle. "You've got to get down there," he said. "Sycamore Warblers nest along the creek and there are a dozen other species of breeding warblers." He started ticking off the names of the warblers, and he mentioned a lot of other birds: Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Black Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, and I don't know what all.
Before I left the store, Gene diagrammed a map showing me how to take an alterna-tive route, one that would take me through the sleepy little hamlet of Amanda, then through the crossroads village of Clearport and Revenge. His face lit up as he explained that by following his directions I would travel through miles of gently rolling green hills, go past two covered bridges, and see a stand of dead trees inhabited by Red-headed Woodpeckers.
That was a memorable day - I had renewed an old friendship, acquired a book I had long wanted, and heard word of a place that sounded like paradise. q