BOOKS: Hard Road

hard road coverBooklist (starred review):
"First-rate suspense, insight into Oz, and fun."
"Cat Marsala is at the top of her game... Fans of amateur sleuth novels and Oz fans will absolutely love running down this yellow brick road."
"...[A] guided tour of the marvelous mind of one of the most beloved children's authors of all time. Oz fans will have a field day..."

Chapter One

The Yellow Brick Road ran straight for about two hundred yards to the Emerald City Castle. There it split into two parts, circled the castle, rejoined, and went away on the far side. To our left was a clump of trees. There was a sign just before the little woods, shaped like a hand with a pointing finger. On it was written, LIONS AND TIGERS AND BEARS.

I read it to Jeremy, who was six and could decipher a few words but not very many yet. He said, "Oh, my."

The Yellow Brick Road ran down the approximate middle of Chicago's Oz Festival. The "road"—a yellow background with brown outlines of bricks—was painted on the central pathway through the Grant Park festival area, where Taste of Chicago and other big civic events take place throughout the year. At Taste of Chicago, held in July, restaurants from all over the Greater Chicagoland area rent booths and put their best foods forward. I absolutely love it—Chicago deep-dish pizza, Harry Caray's fried calamari, Chicago red hots, TNT chili and the Great Chili Cook-Off, fried funnel cakes, death by chocolate—I could live there.

But the new Oz Festival is even more lovable, partly because it's for children, partly because it's whimsical, partly because it's Oz. I'm an Oz fan. And this year—2000—was the centennial of the publication of The Wizard of Oz—a hundred years in September.

My little pal Jeremy is my nephew. He has red hair and freckles, a round face, a zippy personality, and if you gave him a fishing pole you'd be certain he was Tom Sawyer. My job today, on this warm Thursday in July, had been squiring him around Chicago from mid-afternoon until the 7 P.M. public opening of the Oz Festival. The opening ceremonies with Very Important People were to start at eight. His dad Barry, who is the second oldest of my five brothers, is an events coordinator. He makes corporate events, festivals, and conferences happen. Barry was busy with the festival preparations and Jeremy's mother, Maud, was at home, very busy with their three-week-old daughter. The name Maud sounds old-fashioned and sort of stately, which is charming in view of the freckly, bouncy, red-haired Maud I knew and liked, who had been Northern Illinois Women's Ping-Pong Champion three years in a row. Jeremy had not yet expressed any envy of the newcomer, but the hope was that having me show him some attention might offset future sibling rivalry problems.

Jeremy and I had spent the afternoon together and had gone on a carriage ride through downtown Chicago. The horses wear red plumes and pull nice, old-fashioned, leather-appointed buggies. The driver wears an 1890s cape and top hat. All right, it's kitschy, but Jeremy loved it, and I had to admit to a sneaking enthusiasm myself. It was horribly expensive, but Barry had handed me some extra cash to use in minding the child, including money for parking and unparking my car a couple of times, which in Chicago costs more than most events.

We stopped at two bookstores, looking for an Oz book Jeremy didn't have. Glinda of Oz was the last Oz book entirely written by L. Frank Baum. The stores didn't have it, and we decided that was okay because we didn't want to carry it around all evening anyhow. I took out my small pocket notebook and wrote down the title and "get someplace soon." Then I took out a red pen and underlined the note.

"Why do you write things down, Aunt Cat?"

"Because otherwise I'll forget."

"Why do you carry so many pens?"

"Because I'm afraid something important will come up and I won't have anything to write with."

"Why did you use a red pen?"

"To make sure I knew this was a really important matter. Some of my notes aren't as important."

"Why is this important?"

"Because it's for you."

That got him. He stopped asking questions. For a whole thirty seconds. Then he said, "What are we gonna do next?"

"I'll show you." I took him to the observatory at the top of the John Hancock building on Michigan Avenue to see the 360-degree view of Chicago. On a clear day, and this was an absolutely crystal clear day, you can see four states—Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and far away the coast of southern Michigan. Lake Michigan is much too wide to see across, but this southern curve makes you feel you almost could.

Finally, having spent two hours minding a child, I took him to the restaurant area on the ninety-fifth floor of the Hancock, ostensibly to buy him a soda or a Shirley Temple. Actually, the point was to get myself a nice cold beer and to sit down. How do parents find the strength to do this job twenty-four hours a day?

My admiration for Maud rose a whole lot. I'd have to tell her so.

We arrived at Grant Park at six-thirty. And now we were in Oz.

Grant Park is big. Fifteen city blocks long, it lies up against Lake Michigan between Lake Shore Drive on the east and Michigan Avenue on the west, Randolph Street on the north and Roosevelt Road on the south—in other words, it bellies right up against the Loop. This makes it well over a mile in length, not even counting the "museum campus" running south from its south end, which includes the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Soldier Field, and the Shedd Aquarium. In the center of Grant Park is Buckingham Fountain. Eight months of the year this dramatic tiered pink marble confection with its fanciful sculpted sea creatures throws a hundred-and-thirty-five-foot water display. The fountain was modeled on the Latona Fountain at Versailles. However, in typical New World robber-baron style, the donor, Miss Kate Sturges Buckingham, daughter of one Ebenezer Buckingham, who made his fortune in Illinois Central Railroad grain elevators, ordered it to be twice as large as the one in Versailles. That'll show those snotty French, I can imagine her saying. It holds one and a half million gallons of water.

Jeremy and I could see Buckingham Fountain about a block away as we walked down the Yellow Brick Road. There is no entrance fee at Grant Park festivals.

"Where are we supposed to meet Dad?" he asked.

"At the Emerald City castle at nine P.M. That gives us about two hours to explore the festival."


"If I wanted some popcorn— " I said, just to get him started.

"I'd go to the land of Mo!"

"And I do want popcorn." In Mo, it snowed popcorn. Jeremy and I, fellow Ozians, often played "can you top this?" with Oz trivia. I really should not call it trivia, but minutiae. Nothing about Oz is trivial. Our enthusiasm can be very tiring for those who are not aficionados. I have friends who are Trekkers who almost drive me around the bend with their force fields and "Who was Q?" "Who was Mr. Worf?" "Did Captain Kirk really ever say, 'Beam me up, Scotty'?" (The answer seems to be no, it was just "Beam me up.")

But kids love knowing things that very few adults know. Jeremy crows with delight when he beats me with a question, and the rest of his relatives have far less Oz info than I have, so I'm kind of the spiffy auntie.

I was sure there was a Mo popcorn stand someplace, because I had helped in the early festival planning, being a known Oz fan. At the festival, it was not actually in Mo, it was in Quadling country. I have written several articles on connections between Chicago and L. Frank Baum. Baum lived here for nineteen years around the turn of the century, taking jobs as an actor, as a newspaperman, later in a department store, finally as a full-time writer. He wrote The Wizard of Oz in a house on Humboldt Boulevard on the northwest side in 1899. I'm a freelance reporter, working in the Chicago area, and I was currently writing a story about the Oz Festival for a major daily, and a more scholarly piece on Baum himself and his work for Chicago Today. But even though I'd been here at the festival several times over the last few days, I did not know exactly where the popcorn was. The food stands had moved into place at the very last moment. That was okay. Popcorn was just a pretext. Really, Jeremy and I wanted to wander.

A lot of people only think of the Wizard of Oz movie when they think of Oz. The challenge for the festival was not only to use a lot of the most familiar movie elements, which would appeal to just about everybody, but also to include a lot of the wonderful characters and places

L. Frank Baum invented for the other Oz books. My favorite was The Land of Oz. A stranger book has never been written. Those who have read it will know why; for those who haven't, I won't spoil the treat by revealing the plot. Or then again maybe my favorite was The Magic of Oz, where two friends, searching for a birthday present for Princess Ozma, arrive on an island where a magic plant grows. While admiring the plant, their feet take root. Jeremy's favorite was The Royal Book of Oz, begun by Baum and mostly written by another author, in which the Scarecrow searches for his family tree. I had read it to him four times and Maud said she'd read it to him so often she'd long since lost count.

Of course the movie elements were everywhere at the festival. There was a field of poppies, for instance. Grant Park is always lushly planted with flower beds, and this year they'd planned well ahead for the inaugural Oz Festival. Instead of going with geraniums or petunias, they had planted poppies. The Latin name for those big, bright red oriental poppies is Papaver somniferum, literally what L. Frank Baum intended—poppies that put you to sleep. He knew whereof he spoke. Unfortunately, oriental poppies tended to bloom in early June in this part of the world. Since the festival was in July, the planners had chosen a different variety, bright yellow-orange California poppies.

The farmhouse that Dorothy rode from Kansas through the sky sat on a slight but disorienting angle—or cattywumpus my uncle would call it—doing duty as a funhouse in the Munchkinland section. And somewhere a human Dorothy was walking around in ruby slippers, even though in the original book the slippers were silver. The 1939 moviemakers had figured Technicolor hadn't been invented for nothing.

In the Oz canon, the Land of Oz is divided into four small countries, with the Emerald City in the center. The land of the Quadlings is red. Winkie country is yellow. Gillikin is purple. And Munchkin country is blue. So the festival divided the big area the city had given them into four different-colored "countries." In the very center was the Emerald City, actually a very pretty little three-story castle with the festival offices inside and a gentle roller-coaster ride for the younger children going spirally around it outside. The castle and roller coaster were, of course, emerald green. From the castle pinnacle flew Princess Ozma's flag, a banner with an emerald green center, its four quarters the colors of the four lands, yellow, blue, purple, and red. From above the castle's green doorway, a speaker played the "Oz Spangled Banner."

The lights, decorations, and uniforms of the vendors in Munchkinland were blue, of course. And in Gillikin country the color scheme was purple. Even the snow cones in Gillikin were grape purple. The general effect of all the color was dazzling and cheerful in the late daylight. Once the sun set and night came on, all the lighting in each section would be the appropriate color. And then the festival should be really, really impressive. E. T. Taubman, one of the festival designers, had told me that lighting is the most effective, most evocative way to create mood at an event, and one of the least expensive.

"But," he said, "it's usually ignored."

It wasn't ignored this time. Or at any rate, Taubman hadn't been overlooked by the press. His innovations for the festival had formed the basis for a glossy magazine article. Two of the news channels, WGN and Channel Twelve, had produced preopening segments on the festival and Taubman's light schemes. The lighting designs were colorful and bright and full of motion, just what television loves to show. Taubman's efforts had paid off both for himself and for the Oz Festival.

We passed a Munchkinland stand selling fizzy blue drinks called Witches' Brew. I stopped, intending to sample some, but in the low yellow light of the setting sun the blue goo looked muddy and not very appetizing. Plus, we were heading for the rides. I may not be a parent, but hey, I'm a quick study and I knew that stuffing a child with sugary, carbonated drinks just before going on wild rides wouldn't be very smart.

At a ticket booth near the castle I bought a "giant size" strip of ride tickets (emerald green tickets, naturally), not wanting to have to come back for more. My guess was we'd use them all.

The first ride we hit, in nearby Gillikin country, was more experience than ride. It was called the Magic Turning Mountains. In The Lost Princess of Oz the only path Dorothy and her friends can take to get across the canyon and continue their quest is blocked by huge mountains that spin. Scraps, the Patchwork Girl, thinks they can cross the canyon by hurling themselves into the first spinning mountain, bouncing from that onto another mountain, and then a third, until they reach the far side. And since she's made of cloth and stuffing, she tries the plan first, before the "meat" people take a risk.

To make the magic turning mountains, the festival planners had modified a fairground Tilt-a-Whirl, building purple molded foam rubber up over the seats in conical shapes, like huge pyramidal Nerf balls. The "mountains" rotated very slowly—insurance liability worries, no doubt—but looked like loads of fun. Smaller soft balls in purple, lavender, mauve, and violet totally filled the floor and intervening spaces so that children wouldn't be hurt if they fell.

"No adults," the ride manager said. He pointed to an arched signboard that read MAXIMUM 48" tall in lavender letters on dark purple. You had to walk under the arch to enter the ride and if you were too big you couldn't go in.

Well, I could see why. If a large person got knocked into a small person it might do the small person some damage. "Want to go by yourself?" I asked Jeremy.

"Oh, yes!"

He ran in, shouting, throwing himself at a mountain, bouncing from one mountain to the next in total glee, the sort of utter, uncomplicated joy that only children can have. The little monster actually climbed to the peak of one of the mountains and stood there spinning and crowing at the top of his lungs. Another boy who was taller tried the same thing and rolled all the way back down. Jeremy crowed louder. He had triumphed.

You could stay in this device as long as you wanted, so he did. I shifted feet, sighed, shifted some more, but I really liked watching him enjoy himself. Finally he bounded out the far side.

I pretended to pout. "Oh, poop," I said. "That looked great and I didn't get to do it." Jeremy always thought "Oh, poop!" was the funniest remark you could possibly make. I suspected his parents disapproved of the expression.

He giggled. "You're fun, Aunt Cat."

When they say things like that, you want to buy them ice cream and popcorn and chocolate and not even ask them to wash their hands.

"Let's find a ride you can do, Aunt Cat."

We found the Kansas Tornado back in Munchkinland. This was the very tornado that carried Dorothy to Oz, although, luckily for us, it had been plopped down here in the form of a kind of racetrack that zoomed up and down through cloud shapes until it got going so fast that it could spiral upside down through a blue tube.

He loved it. I was the adult, presumably, but I had that mixed scared-thrilled feeling, as well as the don't-make-a-fool-of-yourself-in-front-of-the-child feeling, and when I got off I staggered for the first two or three steps. I was glad we hadn't gotten to the ice cream and popcorn yet.

Then we did the Flying Monkeys back in Gillikin country, where everything was purple. The Flying Monkeys was actually a merry-go-round with monkeys in place of horses, and the music playing was "Over the Rainbow." The merry-go-round was purple, naturally, highlighted with Day-Glo violet and lighted with both ordinary and ultraviolet light. The ultraviolet light on the violet Day-Glo made the highlights look practically radioactive.

We found a booth where you put your head in an opening and could have your picture taken as the Tin Woodman, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, Dorothy, or the Wicked Witch. I elected to be the Wicked Witch, which put Jeremy into fits of laughter while he watched me be digitally photographed. I put the photo in my pocket. He made me promise to give him the picture to take home with him at the end of the evening.

"Now I really need ice cream or popcorn," I said.

"Or both."

Laughing, I said, "Watch it, buster. With you it's always gimme, gimme, gimme."

There was an ice cream stand next to the Emerald City roller coaster. Fortunately, it had more flavors than just green pistachio. Personally, I have never understood why anybody orders anything other than chocolate ice cream, although chocolate chip, fudge ripple, and double-double chocolate aren't bad. We stood eating ice cream and watching all the fun things around us.

The festival security and info staff all wore gray-colored shirts with OZ on the back in big white letters. Except for the shirts' color they were reminiscent of the uniforms of the Wash & Brush-up Company in the movie. I had asked my brother Barry why the festival hadn't used green for the Emerald City, but he said that he wanted them to be obviously security, not theme-park characters. There seemed to be a lot of security people out here tonight. Maybe the whole staff was required to attend the opening, since the mayor and the superintendent of police and other Chicago big enchiladas were going to be here. Security would have to be good. Most likely the staff would be subdivided into smaller shifts tomorrow.

Each night of the festival featured a different special event. Tomorrow a performance of The Wizard of Oz would be held on the outdoor stage where the ceremonies were going on tonight. Then, over the week, there would be a Dorothy look-alike contest, a Toto look-alike contest, Scarecrow look-alike, and so on. One night was Munchkin tumblers with a prizewinning high school tumbling group starring as Munchkins.

The Horse of a Different Color passed us by. He was pink. I had been in the organization offices when Barry and the horse people had discussed this effect. The anticruelty advisers quite rightly would not permit horses to be painted. So the decision had been made to get three white horses, oil them lightly, and sprinkle them with vegetable-derived food colorings. They used beet powder for pink, turmeric for yellow, and something vegetable in origin that I can't remember for green. As far as I knew, they weren't doing blue or purple. The colors would wash off with a hose. I had wondered aloud what would happen if it rained and the little children saw a pink horse turn white.

"That'll just be the magic of Oz," Barry said.

It was exciting, being involved in the creation of a festival. I've always liked finding out how things work, and up to now festivals and fairs and such things just seemed to happen. Getting in on the mechanics of it had been a revelation. I liked the festival's creative people, too, with the possible exception of the public relations firm of Glitz & Slick. Okay, so that isn't quite their name. It should be.

Jeremy was thrilled with the pink horse, led around by a young woman dressed to look like Scraps, the Patchwork Girl. But he really giggled when the Tin Woodman appeared, wearing a suit of shiny, real metal, making creaky noises, and carrying an oil can.

"Can I oil you?" Jeremy asked.

The Tin Woodman said, "Yes, please oil my knee; it's very stiff today." He bent the knee, making a creaky noise, and handed Jeremy the oil can. Jeremy applied it to the knee and squeezed the handle. A small jet of what I assumed to be water squirted out. Jeremy jumped for joy.

By now it was getting dark. I glanced at my watch, and saw it was just past eight o'clock. Not yet time to meet Barry.

Jeremy was studying me closely. "Aunt Cat, can we play together again soon?"

"Of course, Jeremy."

"Like maybe tomorrow?"

I looked more carefully at him. "Why? Any special reason?"

"Not too much."

"Tell me, honey."

"Well, you know. Mom's been kind of sick. And Dad's been real busy."

His mother had had some clotting problems toward the end of the pregnancy and had been told to stay in bed. And now, of course, with the new baby—

"Jeremy, your dad had a lot to do preparing for this festival. There were last-minute important pieces of equipment that didn't arrive. Like the Flying Monkeys merry-go-round was on a truck in Omaha, and the truck broke down, and they didn't think it would get here in time. Which would have been awful. And then they had that big rain two days ago and some of the electric cables shorted out from getting soaked. I think he's going to have a lot more free time now."

I looked up from the child and realized that the formal ceremonies were beginning. Though I couldn't see from here, the schedule said the mayor would be over at the bandstand near the Emerald City castle, probably preparing to cut green tape. Festival-goers strolled toward the sound of trumpets. The Royal Army of Oz, which was composed entirely of twenty-eight officers, no privates because they had all been promoted, would parade past the bright green bandstand with its bright green bunting. The mayor would speak; the Park District Commissioner would speak. I think even the superintendent of police was going to speak. An Oz expert from the Harold Washington Library was going to speak. The ceremonies would end with a big parade.

I was planning to stay far away from the bandstand area if possible. No reflection on all the luminaries, but I've heard pretty much all the politicians' speeches I need for the rest of my life.

Apparently I wasn't the only person who felt this way. I saw three of the festival developers plus Tom Plumly hanging out at the side of the Mo popcorn stand in Quadling country as the crowds drained happily toward the bandstand. E. T. Taubman, the lighting designer I'd met during the early planning stages of the festival, who had been responsible for most of the great effects, stood chatting with Plumly, the festival's head of security, Edmond W. Pottle, a banker and a festival backer, and another man I hadn't met "personally" but knew to be Larry Mazzanovich. Larry was a contractor. He had built the Emerald City castle and a lot of the specialty items. I'd seen him around the area. I wanted to wave to Tom Plumly if he looked over our way, or go say hi and ask Jeremy to tell him with what great delight a kid responded to the fair. Plumly would like that. But Plumly's back was toward us and they were halfway hidden behind the popcorn palace and seemed very intent on their conversation.

"Yo, Cat!" Jennifer Denslow came striding up behind us. She's a tall, vibrant woman with red hair and a creamy complexion. When you're short and kind of middling in coloration, you notice these things. I liked her a lot and we'd become friends, hanging out a bit together. You know how occasionally a person seems like an old friend from the first moment of meeting. Jen was the computer systems designer for the festival. She had put together the sequences for the sound system and adapted a lot of theme-park software motherboards for the festival to use. Not only had she done it brilliantly, but she'd kept the costs down. After all, Great Adventure and Disney World and Renaissance Faire and maybe even Dollywood might be in existence for decades, or centuries, but the Chicago Oz Festival was a ten-day wonder. At best, it might become an annual event, but it would still have to pack up, fold its tents, disassemble its castle, send back its specialty items, and get out on July 15.

"Jennifer, this is Barry's son, Jeremy."

"Aha! Another J," she said, holding out her hand. Jeremy shook it in a very grown-up fashion, while I said, "Another Jay?"

"Jeremy. Jennifer. The finest initial letter in the alphabet," she said to the child. "Very graceful letter to write." She made a truly graceful sweep with her hand, with curlicues as it tailed off. "The only other letter that comes close to such outstanding elegance is S. Have you ever thought about that, Jeremy?"

"Well, no. But I will now." He smiled up at her. He looked as if he was falling in love.

"See," she said, "A is quite clunky. Up, down across. B is blobby, don't you think?" She gestured.

He nodded vigorously.

"C is not bad, but it ends awfully soon. Less than half of a well-made J."

"Hey!" I said. "I'm a C."

"Well, it's not bad. But J is excellent."

Jeremy twirled around three or four times, swinging his arms, just to show her a J in motion.

Then Jeremy said, "Hey! There's Dad!"

Barry was a little distance away, over near the Tornado, but kids can pick their parents out at a distance, just as parents can see their child in a big crowd of children. Barry was striding across the open space where the blue Munchkinland Tornado ride terminated. Jeremy shouted "Dad!" but of course with all the noise and shouting and distant band music, Barry didn't hear us.

Just then Tom Plumly left the group and ran past us. He was heading toward Barry, and frantically calling his name, loud enough that I could hear him over the celebrations. Another Oz Festival emergency, I guessed.

Jennifer, Jeremy, and I followed Plumly. We weren't particularly worried about whatever was happening. It was just puzzling. Instead of halting and talking with Barry, Plumly caromed into him. Plumly clutched at Barry, or Barry grabbed Plumly (I couldn't quite tell which), and they struggled briefly. By then, Jennifer, Jeremy, and I were closer to them. Plumly sagged and fell limp to the ground. Barry stood there, stunned. He bent down over Plumly. Then he yelled, "Somebody get a doctor! Security! Help us out here!"

Nobody responded instantly, of course; people never react that fast. There was no security nearby. They were probably all at the ceremonies. Barry got his cell phone from his pocket and yelled into it.

"I need paramedics at the Tornado. Right away! I have a seriously injured man here!"

Jennifer and I hurried up and leaned over Plumly to try to help him. I didn't stop to think that Jeremy might be seeing something unsuitable for a child, somebody very sick.

But it was worse than a sick man. A huge patch of blood stained the front of Tom Plumly's shirt, and a pool of blood was spreading next to him. As I reached out to pull Jeremy away, I saw a short knife on the ground near the security chief's hand, an ordinary jackknife with a handle of about five inches and a blade the same length.

Jennifer rose from a crouch. She said, "I think he's dead." With a look of horror, she stared straight at my brother Barry.


© Barbara D'Amato. Photo of Barb by David Lasker.