By Ed Staskus
Monday morning, the 1st day of October, the weather was good, in the high 50s, with no rain predicted the rest of the week in the Ohio Valley or on the East Coast. In two weeks to the day, it would be Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday. In six weeks to the day, it would be Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday. The presidential election was coming up next month. The cake was in the oven.
By the time the sun was up and running Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower had been awake more than two hours. They arrived at the underground Union Terminal Station in Cleveland, Ohio, riding a 12-car campaign train on an overnight run from Washington. The Terminal Tower office complex foundations were 250 feet deep. More than a thousand buildings were demolished finding space for it in 1924. When it was done in 1927 it was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City. The first Nickel Plate Railroad train pulled into the station two years later to hurrahs.
The station was in the prime of its life, but President Eisenhower was putting intercity train travel and the Cleveland Union Terminal, and all its kind, slowly but surely out of business by federally subsidizing a network of interstate highways.
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” he explained, without a doubt in his mind about the right-of-way of his road project. It had been in the back of his mind since the Louisiana Maneuvers before the war. It was when his U. S. Army trucks got stuck all over the place because of the country’s bad roads that he said to himself, “We need better roads.”
The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, across the street, glistened in the early autumn sun. The fire department had spray cleaned the monument over the weekend, showering it with hundreds of gallons of white vinegar, and then hosing off the bird droppings and grime. The hometown vermin didn’t appreciate it, but what could they do?
The monument was built thirty years after the Civil War, a 125-foot granite shaft on top of a square base housing a memorial hall, larger than life bronzes lining the outside, and marble tablets inside with all the names of the more than nine thousand Union soldiers from Cuyahoga County, the county in which the city lay, who were shot dead during the war by Johnny Reb.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” said Robert Bridle, manager of the hotel. “Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” he said again, turning to Anthony Celebrezze, the city’s mayor. The Hotel Cleveland was shaped like an “E” opening onto Superior Avenue. Mr. Brindle’s mouth puckered like an “O” when he said “morning.” The one thousand rooms were built in 1918 by the Van Sweringen brothers, who built the Union Terminal Station ten years later.
Anthony Celebrezze was a Democrat, mayor of the fifth-largest city in the United States. He knew how to get things done. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, meant the keys to the federal purse-strings to him. He was going to try to loosen those strings. He knew how to roll with the punches if he had to. He knew it was a rat race.
The mayor’s father had been a shepherd in Italy, and then a track laborer on the Wheeling and Lake Erie after he emigrated to the United States. Tony Celebrezze put himself through John Carroll College by working as a freight truck driver and a boxer, fighting it out for peanuts in bitter undercards.
Dwight Eisenhower was giving a speech in the hotel to the faithful, taking a short break, and then giving a speech in front of Higbee’s beside the monument to friends enemies passersby loafers and the lunch crowd. Downtown Cleveland was spic and span. The commander-in-chief liked what he saw. The dummies in the window of a clothes shop on Euclid Ave. came to life and waved when he and Mamie passed by. Ike tipped his hat smiling broadly.
It was noon on the dot when he greeted more than nine hundred invited guests to the Sales Executive Group Luncheon in the Main Ballroom. He spoke briefly, walked out of the hotel, and tossed at look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He strode up some stairs to the speaker’s platform. He was giving his speech at twelve-thirty.
He was in the middle of two months of pressing the flesh kissing babies and giving the same stump speech. His mouth had gone dry, and palms rubbed chapped. Flecks of baby spit littered his suits. He rubbed somebody’s dandruff out of his eyes. When he looked, a dozen black and white Cleveland Police cars blocked off Euclid Avenue, Superior Avenue, Ontario Street, and Rockwell Avenue.
Bert Mert and Luke scampered out of the Memorial Room of the monument to the roof and to the base of the polished black stone column. The three rats could have climbed to the top, one hundred and twenty-five feet to the top, wending up the six foliated bronze bands listing the names of the thirty battles in which soldiers from Cuyahoga County fought, if they wanted to. Their eyesight wasn’t the best, not like their sense of smell, but their perch was more than view enough.
Since it was only a month to the election, President Eisenhower got right to the point.
“The opposition say that they alone truly care for the working men and women of America, and that the Republican party is a vague kind of political conspiracy by big business to destroy organized labor and bring hunger and torment to every worker in America,” he told the overflow crowd.
“That’s right!” a loudmouth yelled from the crowd.
Secret Service agents watched from the roofs of the May Company and Higbee’s, and from inside the twin steeples of the Old Stone Church. The Berea sandstone of the church had long since turned black from air pollution floating up from the Flats, the nearby industrial valley that sprawled on both sides of the Cuyahoga River. The sun gleamed on the terra cotta façade of the May Company. The faces of shoppers were pressed against upper story windows of the two department stores.
The pastor of the Presbyterian church sat in a lawn chair outside his front doors, his sleeves rolled up, warm in the warm October day. He had a ploughman’s sandwich, cheese and pickle, wrapped in wax paper in his lap. He unwrapped his sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, slowly, methodically. The sky above Public Square was dappled with small passing clouds. He stretched his legs out.
His father had been a pastor. He grew up in the church. He served on all the church committees, was a volunteer at all the events, and made all the hospital and home care visits. Thank God for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thought, basking on a day off.
Bert and Mert were Tremont twins. Luke was an orphan. He didn’t know where he came from. All his friends called him Eaka Mouse, even though he was a rat. They usually slept during the day and foraged at night, avoiding birds, but this was a special occasion. They had never seen the top man of the Grand Old Party up close. The birds were staying away because of the hullaballoo, but the rodents couldn’t contain their curiosity.
“This is more than political bunk,” said President Eisenhower. “Those men are fretting fear and worried doubt. It is wicked nonsense. We have given to our nation the kind of government that is living witness to a basic virtue in a democracy, public morality, public service, and public trust. There is no special favoritism, cronyism, or laxity in our administration.”
“That’s what they all say, “somebody bellowed.
Luke had the best sense of smell of the three of them. He led the way when they went searching for food, which was fifteen, twenty times a day. Their favorite foods were seeds and grains, which made the monument an all-day dream diner for rats. It was visited by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, many of whom left behind crumbs of whatever they were snacking on.
The pickings today were going to be out of this world.
In the wild they were vegetarians, but city life was different. They ate almost anything they could get. None of them liked cheese. No rat they knew liked cheese. They laughed at the traps filled with shavings of it. They weren’t looney tunes. Besides, they could smell the hand of the craft of man on carefully prepared cheese and knew to beware.
“The men of the opposition know perfectly well that one of the main reasons they were thrown out of office four years ago was their tolerance of the fire of inflation,” said President Eisenhower. “Just in the final seven years of their tenure of office this economic fever had cut the value of the dollar by almost one-third, damaging the livelihood of the aged, the pensioned, all salaried workers.”
“What about the Bonus Army?” a harsh voice called out. “Whadda ya got to say about that?”
Luke had recently chewed up a front page of the Cleveland Press for bedding. He noticed a feature article about last month’s government index showing living costs had gone up to a record high point.
“The cost of living has been remarkably stabilized,” the trim balding man in a brown suit below them earnestly proclaimed “During the previous Democratic administration, the cost-of-living increase was twenty times as great.”
Mert gave Bert and Luke the high sign. They had heard the lying grift of the campaign trail wash over them before. They couldn’t go down to look for food, but the speechifying was making them sleepy. It was a lot of cutting corners and trying to corner the other guy. The three rats stretched, groomed themselves briefly, efficiently, curled up together, and were soon napping.
President Eisenhower wrapped up his speech, stepped down from the platform, and was in his limo in his motorcade on its way to Cleveland Hopkins Airport by one o’clock. He and Mamie boarded the Columbine and were airborne to Lexington, Kentucky by one-thirty. In two days, at about the same time of day, Dwight Eisenhower would be tossing out the first pitch of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of tossing out half-truths.
The rodents ate almost anything but avoided ice cream. They loved Canadian bacon more than anything. Most days, Monday through Saturday, as long as the weather was good, they looked forward to the nut lady, the woman who looked more-or-less like Doris Day and Mammy Two Shoes all rolled up in one, a middle-aged Slovenian woman with dark skin dark hair dark eyes, taking their mid-day break on the steps of the monument. She worked across the square, at Morrow’s Nut House, near the revolving doors of the May Company.
She brought them bits of bacon mixed together with nuts.
The nut lady worked behind the glass counter display case, selling fresh warm lightly salted cashews and redskin peanuts, Spanish peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and oily rich walnuts. Morrow’s Nut House was on the corner, on the intersection, at a CTS bus stop where passengers lingered waiting for their ride. The shop pumped the smell of roasting nuts out onto the sidewalk all day long.
Bert Mert and Luke weren’t waiting for her today. There was a horn of plenty waiting for them on all sides of the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Who said the GOP never did anything for the little man? They were ready to vote for Ike at a minute’s notice.
But they had better things to do with their time. They were their own men. The three rats had girlfriends, Mary, Suzy, and Perla waiting in the wings ready to make nice.
“Hey guys, let’s rake it in, and go to the submarine races,” said Bert.
The crowd had dispersed. The lunch time crowd went back to work. The shoppers went back to the stores. The loafers went back to loafing.
Eaka Mouse knew exactly what Bert meant. It was juice it up and hanky-panky time. They weren’t three blind mice.
“Come on, snake, let’s rattle.”
Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”