Column: Thanks for taking me to Europe, Joe Aaron


I just returned from a European journey with my old friend Joe and his red jalopy.

Joe is (was) Joe Aaron.

Most folks likely will recall Joe if they are at least of middle age and hail from southwestern Indiana. He was the “Morning Assignment” columnist for the Evansville Courier for 30 years, up until his fatal, newsroom heart attack in 1986, at age 57.

I owe this excellent European adventure to Dubois Branch Public Library, for it was a Saturday morning book sale there that reacquainted me with Joe via his 1981 collection of columns, “The Journey of the Red Jalopy (Across Europe with Joe Aaron).”

I love used book sales and the allure of a lucky find. I do not attend them intending to find a particular book title (that’s what Amazon is for); instead, I go sleuthing, in grab bag fashion, for the happy surprise that occurs when the right book magically finds me — the book I didn’t know I was looking for.

I eagerly browsed through each box at the lovely, new, country library — kneeling, stooping, crawling or throwing elbows, whatever it takes. Books that are put to pasture tug at my heartstrings like old dogs pacing Humane Society cages, their biological clocks ticking. I watched a Dubois boy’s face go aglow when his mother presented him with an illustrated book about tractors, an orphaned book no more.

“Jalopy” found me, too, on that splendidly crisp Dubois morning. Blue lines from a Sharpie were drawn through the book’s barcode and Dewey Decimal number (817.5), and the hardback’s first page was stamped DISCARD, telltale signs of bookshelf banishment.

On the cover is a caricature of Joe manually towing, by means of a thick rope, a red station wagon (Joe’s reliably unreliable mode of transfer) up a craggy mountain, with the word KAPUT on its front license plate. Lifting the book from its box, I’m certain my face showed wonderment similar to what I witnessed on the tractor boy’s face.

“Hello, Joe,” I said in library whisper. I hadn’t read him, let alone thought about him, for decades, and a pang of guilt was felt, for he was one of the earliest influences behind me wanting to be a newspaper columnist.

When I was a fried-chicken-crusted-faced southern Indiana boy of the ’70s, Joe’s name came up a lot at the Sunday dinner table. “Did you read Joe today?” was a common conversation starter issued by the womenfolk, that gossipy yet influential tableside triumvirate consisting of my aunts, grandmother and mother — though even my grandfather, who was mainly a Farmer’s Almanac reader, emitted an occasional chuckle over Joe.

Joe seemed like family to me, what by virtue of his visits via the printed word and his black-and-white photograph, all bald-headed and bespectacled and big-grinned.

I was a preteen then, so he always seemed old to me, grandfatherly, which is why it came as a huge jolt when recently reading “Jalopy” to learn he was 47 while in Europe. My God, I thought. I’m as old as Joe now. I guess he wasn’t so old after all. So it goes as we age: Those who seemed old to us back then no longer seeming old to us now, for we’ve caught up with them.

Joe was a prolific writer. As Thomas Kunkel, a once co-worker of Joe’s and former president of the American Journalism Review, wrote in 1998, “750 words a day, six days a week for most of the 30 years he toiled at the Courier. Only another writer can appreciate what a crushing burden that is, but Joe carried it with unfailing enthusiasm and grace.”

My column logs in at about 800 words. I write, at the most, two a month. That’s all The Herald can stand. Sometimes it’s all I can stand.

“Jalopy” reminded me that Joe was a terrific writer. I sensed shades of Hemingway and Twain while traveling with him and his wife, Bernice, through Germany, Switzerland, England and France. His accounts of visiting Omaha Beach and the Matterhorn and scallop fishing with two Weymouth sailors, along with his love letter to London, are enviable examples of nonfiction.

Kunkel called Joe “a treasure as good as Breslin or Royko in his unflashy way.”
I enjoyed “Jalopy” the most while reading it beneath a shade tree, for Joe’s columns always felt like shade-tree conversations, those shared with a friend you don’t mind whiling away a few minutes with before resuming the day’s to-do list.

In the book’s introduction, Joe wrote, “It is my hope you will find the book enjoyable — perhaps occasionally even informative — and that the words, often fed into a typewriter that had been set precariously on a suitcase that had been set on a bed, are not too awkwardly strung together.”

You have nothing to worry about, Joe.

Best of all, he personally autographed the book, “With warmest regards, Joe Aaron.”
The black-inked, cursive, albeit secondhand sentiment is quite believable from a great writer friend I never met — his warmth still felt even from the grave.
I am happy to have been found by Joe’s book. I hope it finds you too someday. Within it is a journey well worth sharing.

Scott Saalman’s next Will Read (and sing) for Food show will be held at 7 p.m., Thursday, at Old Town Hall in Huntingburg. Admission is a canned good or monetary donation which will be turned over to Shared Abundance food pantry.

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