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Dave Minneman, heroic portrait

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Dave Minneman and a sense of justice

by Rob Neufeld

PHOTO CAPTION: Dave Minneman doing research at Pack Memorial Library.  Photo by author.

            “One of the biggest things I did as a kid, in order to escape my father,” Asheville resident Dave Minneman says of his 1960s and 70s rural Indiana childhood, “was to watch ‘Star Trek.’”

             The TV antenna picked up stations from Indianapolis, Dayton, and Cincinnati.   “I could watch Star Trek 17 times a week.  I was like—yeah!” Dave exults.

            “I modeled my behavior,” he says, “after Spock.  He was purely logical.” 

            Spock’s control of emotion had provided a “defense mechanism,” Dave says—being logical rather than in pain.  “Oh, I used to love that show.”

            “Logic rules,” Minneman continues to affirm.  “You still have to have feelings, but (you) can be analytical, which has always gotten me over hurtful times.”

            Minneman came to Asheville in 2001 and worked as supervisor of a construction site.  Today, at age 57, he carries a neat 80-pound duffel bag, sleeps and volunteers at the WNC Rescue Mission, does research at Pack Library, volunteers at 12 Baskets, and serves as a mentor to people on the streets.  He co-founded the Asheville Poverty Initiative.

 

Star Trek time

 

            At age six, when Star Trek had first appeared, Dave had been living with his parents, Dalton and Dona Louise Jones Minneman, in New Palestine, Indiana, a small town east of Indianapolis.  Dalton, an electronics engineer, had helped design Polaris, the first nuclear missile to be launched from a submarine.  That was in 1960, the year in which Dave had been born.

            The last of four children, Dave had followed his sister Diana by 15 months. 

            “When my sister was being born,” Dave relates, “my dad took my mom to the hospital.  The birthing room area was occupied, so my sister was born on a gurney outside the delivery room.  On the bill, they charged my dad for the use of the delivery room.  He said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to pay that part of the bill because the kid was born in the hallway.’” 

            “So,” Dave concludes, “I came along 15 months later, and they wouldn’t let my mom into the delivery room because my dad hadn’t paid that part of the bill.  And I was born on a gurney in the same hallway that my sister was born in.”

            In the post-Polaris years, something went wrong in the Minneman household.  In 1966,

            Dave’s parents divorced, and Dave’s dad’s mom took her daughter-in-law’s side. 

            Dave’s mom, Dona, put him, his sister, and his oldest brother in the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s Home, an orphanage.  His second brother escaped and found refuge with his father. 

            After several months, Dad pressured his ex-wife to get their kids out of the orphanage—after all, they weren’t orphans—and she brought them to his doorstep.  By this time, Dalton had remarried.  He and his new wife were living in his Rushville home with her children; and she treated Dave like dirt, Dave recounts.

            Dave’s dad paid Mary Ward, a great-uncle’s second wife, to raise Dave.  When, on occasion, Dave visited his father, it was not pleasant.

           “I tried to stay away as much as possible,” Minneman recalls.  “She (his stepmother) even tried to tell me that I wasn’t my father’s child.” 

           Dave had laid a curse on his stepmother at that point, and his father had defended him, saying to his wife, “You earned it.”  But Dave’s father was also hard on him, Dave relates.  When Dalton Minneman visited Mary Ward’s place and heard her reports of Dave’s misconduct, he beat his son, first taking off Dave’s glasses.

            “Captain’s Log, Stardate 1513.1, orbiting planet N100-13,” the Star Trek intro went.             “On board the Enterprise, Mr. Spock, temporarily in command.”

            The beatings “lasted until I was sixteen and I finally stood up to him,” Dave recalls.              “You had to stand there and take it until you fell to the ground, and then you got stomped on.”

            It was at the Ward house that Dave began watching Star Trek addictively.  When he boldly went into the real world, he was quite a striking character. 

            In a small, overwhelmingly white town, he lived at the edge of the black section and, at age 14, had an African-American girlfriend.  At school, he was a math whiz, especially in trigonometry.  In gym, he impressed the football coach with his sweeping blocks, and told him he was not interested in joining the team.

            Dave’s Aunt Helen, his father’s sister, took up his cause.  She was a real estate lawyer, and introduced him to prominent people.  Dave’s dad shut that relationship down.

            One night, Dave was returning home late after having sneaked out of his bedroom.

            “I had built a rope ladder to crawl out of my upstairs bedroom so I could go run around the streets at nighttime with my buds,” Minneman recalls.  “So, coming back half-drunk at 16 years old, I was trying to climb up my rope ladder and the rope ladder broke.  I landed on my arm.  It was the second time I broke it.”

            He’d broken it in seventh grade, slipping on a recently waxed, snow-wet floor at school. 

            “They didn’t want to operate on it a second time,” Dave says.  The incident limited his arm motion.  It also pushed Mary Ward past her limit of tolerance.  She wouldn’t have him anymore.  Dave’s dad put him up in a rundown house he owned in town.

            “I mean,” Minneman says, “I had people coming from 50 miles around just to come to my house and party.  I was the only kid in school, in a small town, that had his own place, so you can imagine what it was like.”

            Dave heard that the police were going to raid his house as soon as he graduated high school.  “Within half an hour” of graduating, Minneman relates, “I was already out of that town … Before I left, I stopped at my aunt’s office, and I told her I was leaving.  I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years.”

            Dave moved to Galveston, Texas, hooked up with a buddy who had a DC-3, and flew to Bogota with him.  “It gets even more interesting,” Dave says.  “It was all part of my wildness.”

            The friend flew drugs out of Colombia.  One time, he took a nap and handed the plane’s controls to Dave.

            “You had to stay underneath the radar,” Dave relates.  “Coming across the Gulf of Mexico, we’re dodging oil rigs.  You see the lights on the brigs, and you’ve got to stay fifty feet above the water.  Any higher, the radar would pick you up.  A lot of fun, I guarantee it, a whole lot of fun.”

            Fun ended when thugs engaged Dave and his buddy in a gunfight as they headed back to their plane.  Fun ended when Dave got called home because his mom was sick; and when he discovered that a cousin and two friends had died suspicious deaths, allegedly because they had witnessed a drug deal involving a lawyer and police.  Fun ended when Dave got hit with a 13-year-prison sentence for breaking and entering. 

            He and two accomplices had broken into a store that had a house attached to the back, and that made the crime worse.   The accomplices got off easy.  Dave went to Indiana Reformatory Prison, notorious for its disgusting conditions.

           

Jailhouse lawyer

 

            It was in prison that Dave’s sense of justice found its appropriate, Spockian expression.  In the library, he embraced both Daoism and law books.

            “I did a lot of legal work for people and got them out,” he says.  “And that was one of the ways I made money.  Also, because I took on The Man in the System, I had a lot of respect out of the other inmates.”

            There had been a court case in which a Federal Judge had cited the governor for bad prison conditions.  “Shortly thereafter,” Dave recounts, “another guy got injured,” shanked in the sign shop with a piece of metal, “and I did up the lawsuit for him.  I mentioned (the previous citation) and the Federal judge said, ‘Okay.  Cool.’”

            Dave’s client’s case resulted in “extensive reforms at the Indiana Reformatory at Pendleton … I’m the only man in the state of Indiana,” Minneman says, “to have a sitting governor held accountable for prison conditions

            Dave learned machining and drafting in prison, and after being released from prison at age 29, got a job in quality control at Biddle Precision Components in Indiana.  He argued against the Steelworkers’ Union coming in—because he thought they were corrupt—and was assured a lifetime job by Biddle.

            Yet, Dave left to be closer to his family, and followed his sister to a warmer clime, Knoxville.  He did construction-related jobs there, and heard from fellow workers, “Asheville, that’s really a cool place, you’ll fit right in.” 

            “So I moved to Asheville,” Dave says.  “I was building an apartment complex on Sweeten Creek.  I was superintendent.   Going to work one morning, I had a car wreck.  I bounced my head off a tree at 45 mph. That shook my bell.”

            He lost work, he lost his rental home.  He got a job at Tyco Valves and Controls in Black Mountain, checking and sampling the quality of incoming safety valves. 

            His co-worker, “a personal friend of the HR manager,” Dave says, checked Chinese-made valves, and “would not even open a box.”  Dave called corporate.   “You have to be able to guarantee that society can function,” Dave says.

            After that job, and having lost his station wagon, Dave became a steady figure among the homeless.  “People know me on the street and they know that I’m a righteous dude, and so they are willing to speak to me,” Dave confides.

            Regarding social issues, he said at a Homeless Book Discussion meeting at Homeward Bound’s A-Hope center that it’s not just food and shelter that are needed; homeless people also need job training and re-entrance into society.

            The Asheville Poverty Initiative, of which Minneman had been a founding member, works to change perceptions about homeless people; and resulted in 12 Baskets Café, the free food restaurant run by Shannon Spencer in West Asheville.

            “The pilot of Star Trek,” Minneman reports, “was never shown, but was later put into a two-part episode.”  The captain in the pilot had been Capt. Pike, not Shatner’s Kirk, and in one episode, “they used the part where Spock actually smiles.”

 

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times.  He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.”  Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.

 

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