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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Once upon a time, there was a boy like no other

Critic At Large

‘The Lost Legend of Taylor Rapids’

Warren Gerds opens a box containing his new book in his home office. (Kathleen Gerds)

ALLOUEZ, Wis. (WFRV) – Caleb Goodman Taylor is totally surprised he is appearing here.

I dragged him into this.

Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Funny things happen around books.

Caleb is featured as the writer of my new book, “The Lost Legend of Taylor Rapids.”

Copies are available in Green Bay at Bosse’s News & Tobacco, Neville Public Museum gift shop and Lion’s Mouth Bookstore.

Because of the coronavirus restraints, I have no plans for signings at present.

“The Lost Legend of Taylor Rapids” is my eighth book. Among my non-fiction books, the award-winning “Real Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain” with Captain Gary Schmidt is in its eighth printing.

My books are self-published – an extension of what I did at the Green Bay Press-Gazette and what I do with WFRV-TV in attending live performances (when possible lately) and writing about them from home.

Assisting in the layout of the text and images for my six latest books has been Loralee Olson-Arcand of Word Services Unlimited of Brillion.

The new book is a product of Northeastern Wisconsin, where Caleb was born in a fashion all his own.

The book is about journals that are witness to life during a rugged era. Caleb keeps the journals, but others are eager to be part of his role as keeper of history, humor and humanity.

The other day, I picked up 200 copies in the first printing of “The Lost Legend of Taylor Rapids.”

I drove across town to Seaway Printing Company on Green Bay’s west side.

The books were waiting outside on a pallet, packed in boxes.

Boxes of books fresh from the printer in Green Bay. (Warren Gerds)

The odd pickup system was because the company is following precautions due to COVID-19.

Earlier that day, I paid by for the books by credit card via my home computer – another no-touch situation.

After that transaction, I was told the books would be left outside the back door of the plant, reached through an alleyway. I knew the spot from my previous books.

When would I pick them up?

Twenty minutes, I said.

When I arrived, I snapped a photo of the pallet. I was thinking about this story.

As I started packing boxes in my car, a woman worker wearing a mask appeared from a roll-up door of the plant. As she began to help, I quickly put on my mask.

In a few minutes … job done.

Another photo.

Now it was time for some fun.

Years ago, when I was kicking around ideas for the look of the book, there were two main thoughts.

One. I had bumped into a photograph of a solitary railroad track running straight as an arrow through a wintry forest. I wanted that image drawn for the cover.

Two. The book is a sequel that’s wholly different. My concept was to print the two parts on different shades of paper.

Both One and Two have to do with the “Lost” of the title.

For One, I commissioned Green Bay pencil artist Brent Crabb to recreate the photograph. I featured him in one of my newspaper series and knew this transformation would happen:

A photograph is a photograph. He adds a human touch to an image with what he can do by eye-to-hand with pencil.

To quote one of my neighbors when I showed him the original drawing – “Fabulous!”

Another neighbor said, “The guy certainly has talent.”

Brent Crabb’s house was on my way home from the printer, so I decided to drop by. I had emailed earlier and not gotten a response, but it was the time he usually works in his home office.

As I pulled into his driveway, there he was, sitting on his porch. He waved in surprised recognition.

“I’m going to make your day,” I shouted as I opened my car door.

Indeed, that came to be.

Amid all the crummy news crushing our spirits for months, this became a few minutes of exhilaration and happiness and sheer pleasure.

Brent walked to the back of the car, which I had opened. Eleven cardboard boxes were there, all sealed.

Artist Brent Crabb opening the first box of books. (Warren Gerds)

I handed Brent a jackknife, noting that I usually don’t carry one. I brought it along for the deed I had for him.

He hadn’t seen the cover of the book, so for him to open the first box came with a dusting of drama.

Brent unfolded the Swiss Army knife and sliced the seals on the first box, opened it, pulled out the first book and examined the cover…………

If only that moment could be sealed in a bottle.

Pride, satisfaction, relief, warmth, appreciation, admiration and joy seemed to be fused in what radiated from his presence in that instant.

I reached for my iPhone to try to capture the millisecond, but that spirit was gone.

Brent Crabb checks out his artwork on the book cover. (Warren Gerds)

We posed a snapshot that only hints at ephemeral.

Soon, Brent’s wife Peggy arrived, and she, too, caught the roll of the flow of the excitement of a fresh book with Brent’s art on the cover.

Peggy took photos.

We chatted.

When Peggy said she was sending a book to a cousin in Texas who is a teacher, I told the story of the chapter “Substitute teacher” about a horse and circle of cigarette smoke on a disastrous day in a one-room schoolhouse.

We laughed big.

Warren Gerds, left, and Brent Crabb pose for a photo. (Peggy Crabb)

Brent noticed the two-tone paper. That’s Two.

“The Lost Legend of Taylor Rapids” is a sequel. The first part is on white paper, and the second part is on pale yellow paper, with sequel happening in the middle. This Oreo effect – crème between outside layers – makes sense when reading the book.

Caleb Goodman Taylor is a boy like no other – well beyond his 12 years.

For Christmas 1914, he is given a blank journal and told to fill it. Not only does Caleb write what he sees and hears, others want to add to his special journal.

And then the journal goes missing.

Caleb is given another blank journal, and the writing and contributing go on.

And then that second journal goes missing, and Caleb finds the first and resumes writing in it.

Where Caleb lives is a real place in western Marinette County, Wisconsin.

In 1914, people lived near Taylor Rapids on the Peshtigo River. Today, you would be hard pressed to find anything but trees and ticks and wildlife, topped by wolves, bears and eagles.

The “Lost” of the book title is one reference to the area’s lonely, remote feel.

One of the chapters, “Witness to Nothingness,” is about the aura presented by the cover art.

Book cover.

What prompted the book was a 1920 plat map for the area near Taylor Rapids. All over the map are names of lumber companies that owned acreage and the word “SCHOOL.”

Today, the place is so end-of-the-world that I couldn’t image a school having been there.

What would it have been like?

What would a kid have experienced?

So I made up Caleb and let my imagination fly.

He calls his parents Pa and Ma. They have three children – Caleb, Belle and a baby, Will. Pa works for a lumber operation. So does Pa’s brilliant brother, Chase.

Ma’s sister, April, is recently widowed because of a logging accident. Of necessity, April gets work as an inept cook in a lumber camp. She’s a joke at her job until her peach meringue pie becomes the most wonderful thing for all.

Often appearing is Emil, a locomotive engineer. Into Caleb’s journal go many of his precious poe-ems as he calls them. “Yumlies of Lovey Mum” and “My Last Underpants” are among his corny titles.

Also around is James the Great, who has a knack for avoiding work and cosmic comedy, such as, “Can a blacksmith be arrested for being a forger?”

More humor comes with Fly, an orphan around Caleb’s age who has grown up fast from having to work around the lumberjacks. Fly, who can roll a cigarette with one hand, peppers his talk with language that’s translated in the book to “blankety-blanks.”

Although Caleb is 12, “The Lost Legend of Taylor Rapids” often runs deep. In part that is because of Mr. Andersen, the teacher in the one-room schoolhouse. Mr. Andersen tells Caleb to describe what he sees and experiences.

Writing the book started in early 2012, when I was recovering from surgery for a lung tumor. Wandering around the Internet, I found old maps of where my wife and I have a wild and isolated getaway.

Writing chapters became my getaway from factual work.

The time 1914-1915 was chosen because I knew there had been lumbering action on our land.

“Caleb” comes from a name that would have existed in that era.

“Goodman” has references to one of the lumber companies.

“Taylor” has to do with Taylor Rapids, which was named by one of Caleb’s grandfathers, a surveyor.

Taylor Rapids on the Peshtigo River in Marinette County, Wisconsin. (Warren Gerds)

Journal “chapters” for days between December 1914 and July 1915 just materialized. I imagined what might have happened that day and just wrote. I’ve had a lot of practice.

Many parts were written in airports and airplanes on trips, particularly to California.

Caleb could have gotten to California by train. Taylor Rapids was the last stop for passenger service – for real – were Caleb real.  

The real world is part of the world of the made-up Caleb. References include to John Muir, the Lusitania, Theodore Roosevelt, Christy Matthewson and going to Milwaukee to get tonsils pulled. The illustrious Houdini and notorious Pancho Villa appear together in a comic chapter – Houdini being a “magnifico hombre” to Pancho.

Caleb toys with the spelling of his name and creates an alter ego with it, Acbel of Arabia, and writes about his outlandish escapades.

Caleb almost drowns under ice, April takes up smoking cigars and James the Great makes fireworks with dynamite – KABOOM! Those are a few of the adventures.

The whole thing is meant to give a kick out of reading.

One of my kicks was seeing from my car Brent and Peggy Crabb standing on their front walk examining copies of the book – front, back, inside – and looking happy as I pulled away.

Made my day.

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