City On Fire

By Ed Staskus

   The Friday afternoon the east side St. Clair neighborhood of Cleveland blew up, Hal Schaser was walking home from his 7th grade class at Wilson Junior High on East 55th St. He was 13 years old. It was an Indian summer October 20, 1944. He was looking forward to a bowl of soup and salt crackers. He was nearing his house near three in the afternoon when he was shaken and nearly knocked off his feet by a thunderous blast. When he steadied himself and looked around, he saw roofs on fire as far as he could see.

   “It was like the sky exploded all at once with lightning bolts and thunder,” he said. Thick black smoke turned day to night. His dog Buddy bolted up the front steps and pawed at the door. It was every dog for himself. “Only the pen of a Dante could do justice to the sights and sounds that occurred in the St. Clair-Norwood neighborhood that hellish afternoon,” local writer John Bellamy said.

   Hal’s mother ran out of the house. Buddy ran into the house. Hal ran to his mother. They looked up at the burning sky.

   “Captain Albert Zahler of the Cleveland Fire Department, Engine Company No. 19, was in his quarters at East 55th Street,” Cleveland Police Inspector Tim Costello’s report the next week recounted. “Suddenly the windows rattled, and the building began to shake. He ran outside and was met by a blast of extremely hot air. He observed hundreds of people running toward him and could see flames up over the tops of the buildings between himself and the fire. He hastened to the telephone in his quarters and caused a two-alarm to be sounded. Then with his men and apparatus he started out of the station and got as far as the apron in front but found the fire shooting up the street as though coming from a flame thrower such as is used by our armed forces.”

   The firemen retreated. Captain Zahler ran back to his telephone and revised the SOS to a five-alarm. When the flames moved on from the front of the station house, he and his men started out again. They didn’t get far.

   “They had gone but a short distance when they were met by more flame. They jumped from their apparatus and threw themselves on the ground until it had passed over. When they arose, they were tossed about as feathers in a wind, due to the brisance of the explosion creating a vacuum. One man sustained a broken leg and others received severe burns.”  

   The explosion and too many to count fires were caused when an East Ohio Gas liquefied gas holding tank started leaking. The gas flowed into the street and began to vaporize. It turned into a thick white fog. Nobody knows how it happened, but it ignited. It might have been a spark from a passing railcar or somebody lighting a cigarette. The thunderous bang wiped out the tank and everything else in its way.

   It happened at the foot of East 61st St near the New York Central Railroad tracks. When the gas blew up it blew up at about 25 million horsepower, the same as the combined output of all the hydroelectric plants west of the Mississippi River in 1944. Streets shook four miles away. Flames reached 3,000 feet high, and the heat reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After the war, a nuclear scientist estimated that the explosion released energy the equivalent of two and a half kilotons of dynamite, or about one-sixth the yield of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

   Tim Kelley’s father was home on leave after finishing basic training. He and a cousin were messing around the neighborhood when the big bang happened. “They took shelter under a box car to watch until they realized the steel wheels had gotten too hot to touch,” Tim said. It was time to go, they agreed. They beat a hasty retreat.

   Hal, his kid brother Willie, and mother Agnes lived on East 66th St. and Lexington Ave., just a mile-or-so from the East Ohio tank farm. Agnes sprayed garden hose water on their house until the water pressure dropped to nothing. Standing on the front porch they watched a tangled mass of cars busses and townsfolk on foot going the other way. Police fire and civil defense cars and trucks went towards the fire, which was spewing gas, molten steel, and rock wool into the sky. Birds turned to charcoal and fell out of trees. Hal’s dog Buddy snuck into the basement and didn’t come out for three days.

   When the storage tank, holding 90 million cubic feet of liquid natural gas in reserve for local war efforts, exploded, fire engulfed more than a square mile of city life, from St. Clair Ave. to the Shoreway, from East 55thSt. to East 67th St. The sky went red and orange then squid ink. Fire boats poured water on factories on the shoreline of Lake Erie. 

   Sandy “Candy Man” Drago was checking a shipment of pipes at the tank depot. His candy was on his desk. His car was parked in a nearby lot. When the tank ruptured and exploded, he was knocked flat and the paperwork in his hands turned to ashes. When he looked himself over for damage, his clothes were gone. He was left wearing underpants with melted elastic. He ran for his life. His office and the candy on his desk caught fire. His Chevy caught fire. Two roofers replacing slates on top of the tank were blown to kingdom come. Not even a fragment of them was ever found.

   Mary Kolar was in her kitchen when a fireball smashed through the window, landing on her linoleum floor.  Her first thought was, “My God, the Nazis are here.” She swept up her children and ran for her life. Her house caught on fire. They passed a charred man caught on a fence. He was dead. “All that was left were his shoes.” When teenager Josie Mivsek rushed up to her house, it was just in time to see it collapse. She later retrieved her marbles, being a marble-shooting champion, but they had all melted together into a lump.

   The smell of burning whiskey hung over streets as bars taverns and backyard stills went up in smoke. The copper lines and barrels of yeast melted. Cash money tucked away into drawers and under mattresses was set alight and lost forever.

   Eleanore Karlinger was working on the Sunday bulletin at St. Vitus Catholic Church. When she was knocked off her feet she stayed there. It can’t be an air raid, she thought. She cradled her head just in case. Then she thought it must have been the devil. When she came to her senses, she thought about getting the hell out of the church. She started to run but went back to man the phones in case the house of God was needed for shelter. Mothers dragged their children into the church, which was still standing safe and sturdy, for safety.

   Housewives were caught unaware as flames raced through sewers and up their drains and their homes were suddenly on fire. “I was going to plug in my sweeper,” said Mrs. Charles Flickinger. “Suddenly it seems like the walls turned all red. I looked at the windows and the shades were on fire. The house filled with smoke. I think the furnace had blown up, then I see the fire all around.”

   Hal’s house didn’t catch fire. He, his brother, and mother didn’t have to shelter at Wilson School. It was where the Red Cross ended up taking in nearly 700 suddenly homeless men, women, and children. It was more than a week before he went back to school.

   Less than a half hour after the first explosion, a second tank exploded. Gas ran into the streets, into the gutters, and down catch basins into sewers, igniting and blowing up wherever it pooled. Telephone poles bent in the heat, smoking and igniting. Pavement was blasted into chunks and manhole covers sent flying. Fire trucks fell into sinkholes.  

   “Manhole covers were being blown up into the air like flipping pennies heads or tails,” Hal said. One of them was found in Glenville, miles away. One fell from the sky onto the heads of two men. All that day and the next day sirens never stopped wailing. More explosions followed, seven in all, smaller in scope but each one unleashing a fireball. When things died down “it looked like the end of the world,” he said.

   His world had already been turned upside down twice. He was 2 years old when his father, who ran a corner store, was robbed shot killed by two young thugs. His mother found out while in the hospital giving birth to his brother Willie. After she re-married, after a few short years, Hal’s stepfather died after a short sudden illness. Agnes Schaser never married again, going it alone, raising her two boys with no help from anybody. The land of dreams had turned into bad dreams. She was from Romania and would have gone back except for the war.

   When Albert Kotnik’s house shook like it was going to fall apart, he grabbed his two children and ran outside, followed by his wife. They looked towards the east side where it looked like hell had suddenly become real. They turned around when they heard all the windows of their house cracking busting. The house was on fire all at once. It burned down to the ground in ten minutes. 

   Marcella Reichard’s house on Lake Court burned down to the ground. So did every one of the other twenty-three houses on the cul-de-sac. “I grabbed my mother and my little sister, and we knelt and prayed. Mother went out the back way, but I told her she would be running right into the flame. I told them to hold their hands over their eyes and run toward the lake. Then we just ran.” 

   More than 10,000 people were evacuated from the neighborhood.

   Jack McLaughlin’s father died at the tank farm trying to rescue a great-uncle who worked for East Ohio Gas. Jack was the same age as Hal. “This was in God’s plans,” he said. Many who died worked for East Ohio Gas. Some of them were never identified, burnt so badly as to make identification impossible. Others were never found, their flesh and bone vaporized. 

   Anthony Greenway worked for East Ohio Gas. He was killed. “Uncle Anthony’s damaged watch was located and returned to the family. It was all they ever found of him,” said Kathy Chamberlain.

   Fatality figures for the burned are hard to come by eighty years later, although it is certain many of the severely burned subsequently died. “They didn’t have the tools and treatments in the 1940s we have today,” says Cleveland dermatologist William Camp. “They would have died of electrolyte loss, body heat loss, and infection.”

   Most of Cleveland’s fire companies and policemen raced to the immense blaze, as well as military personnel, utility workers, and civilian volunteer groups. Auxiliary police, auxiliary firemen, and air-raid wardens showed up by the hundreds. The Coast Guard and National Guard showed up. Firemen and policemen worked non-stop shifts, grabbing a few minutes of shut eye when they could. They surrounded the fire and tried to keep it from getting away from them. They fought it all day and night dealing with consuming heat, explosions, and pumpers sinking into melting ground. Fire Engine No. 7 disappeared into a big hole in the ground.

   Cindy Greenwald’s father was working at a nearby war plant. “They were all let out of work to fight the fires,” she said. “He and some other guys worked all night long hosing down buildings on St. Clair. They watched the fire truck fall into the hole in the ground. When daylight came, they found out what they’d had their backs to the whole time. It was a gas station.”

   By the end of Saturday morning, the fire department and volunteers had almost all the fires under control. In the afternoon. Hal and his kid brother Willie went exploring. All the stop signs and traffic lights were gone, but there was no traffic, anyway. Burnt up hulks of cars and trucks littered the curbs. Fire hoses littered every intersection. Small still smoking fires littered every other front yard.

   “What happened to this place?” Willie asked. “It’s a mess. Was it the Martians? Was it the Germans?”

   “Before yesterday this mess was our place,” Hal said. “It wasn’t the Martians. Mom said it must have been sabotage.”

   “This wouldn’t have happened if Superman had been here,” Willie said.

   “Yeah, him and Captain America, too, they got the moxie,” Hal said.    

   Many of their friends schoolmates relatives in the neighborhood were gone. They had gone somewhere anywhere safe. It was like a ghost town. The fire destroyed homes, small apartments and boarding houses, factories, tractor trucks and trailers, and 217 cars. The death toll reached 130 while the burned and injured reached into the thousands.

   They slouched home, there being little to see except destruction. Besides, they had already been told twice by policemen to go home. Their mother always said three times is the charm. They didn’t want to tempt fate. When they got home, they checked on Buddy, who told them in so many words he was going to stay in the basement for another day or two, just in case.

   A month later there was a mass funeral for the unidentified dead at Highland Park Cemetery. Florists donated flowers and funeral parlors donated caskets. Thousands watched silently, wondering which one of the coffins held their missing father mother brother sister. The dead were lowered one by one into a concrete vault. The mayor ordered that no other funerals take place that day.

   “We want the nation to know that Cleveland looks after its own,” said Edward Sexton of the committee for the mass burial. “Usually, such victims would go to a potter’s field. That is not for Cleveland.”

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.”

Let ‘Er Rip

louise-et-Jonathan

By Ed Staskus

“J’aurais quelque chose a dire.”  Barachois

The Sterling Women’s Institute is the Stanley Bridge Hall on the corner of Route 6 and Rattenbury Road on the north-central coast of Prince Edward Island. The small town of Stanley Bridge spreads out in all directions.

A new traffic circle at the old intersection keeps the traffic moving. On one corner is the Race Trac gas station and farther down is the farmer’s market. Where the road flattens out at the river is the actual bridge that kids spend the summer jumping off down into the channel flowing out to the New London Bay.

The Women’s Institute is a yellow two-story clapboard building with white trim and a fair-sized deck. From the vantage of the front deck is a solitary house across the street, a cropland spread out wide and long, and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a quiet building on rising ground, except when six nights a week ceilidhs fill the hall with Irish Scottish Acadian fiddles guitars pianos and step dancing.

The hall holds close to 150 if every seat and bench along the side is taken. The night the Arsenault Trio – Helene Arsenault Bergeron, Jonathan Arsenault, and his mother Louise Arsenault – joined by Gary Chipman, played their first show of the summer in Stanley Bridge on a Wednesday night, there were upwards of a hundred ready to go.

“It’s great to see you all, thanks for coming,” said Marsha Weeks, the host of the show.

“All set?” asked Gary Chipman.

“All set,” said Louise Arsenault.

Ceilidhs are concerts, but more like musical gatherings, often staged at small halls in the Canadian Maritimes. Not so long ago, and sometimes even today, they were more along the lines of a kitchen party, a kind of jam session at home with the neighbors. Whoever could play a fiddle or a guitar or belt out a song at the top of their lungs would inevitably find themselves in the kitchen with everyone else. In the middle of January a case of beer might be close at hand in the snow just outside one of the windows.

The word itself comes from the Old Irish for companion.

“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house,” Donald Mackenzie wrote explaining ceilidhs more than a hundred years ago. “Some sing old songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.”

The music at Prince Edward Island ceilidhs is alert animate full of life, mainly jigs and reels, with a mix of waltzes and country songs. There are occasional vignettes about life on the island, some island humor, and stories about islanders making the music. Most of the shows are set in community centers, churches, town halls, and Lion’s clubs.

The Arsenault Trio ripped into the ‘Acadian Reel,’ an Evangeline Region tune in the Cape Breton style played in 4/4 time, in other words, on the fast side. From kitchen parties to laser-lit techno dance floors, the same rhythm pattern is part and parcel of the carousing. The signature style of Acadian fiddling is down home rhythmic drive with sawstroke syncopation, sometimes called shuffles.

“When you do the shuffle,” said Louise Arsenault, “it’s like two up bows in a row. That was dad’s style.”

The Evangeline Region of PEI is the land west of Summerside, from Miscouche to Mont Carmel to Abrams Village. Flags in blue, white, and red with a single gold star fly from front porches and front yards. Mailboxes are painted in the Acadian colors. The annual Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival features boot throwing, horse pulling, and a big music and dance party at the end.

The communities are about co-operatives, farming and fishing, vittles and fiddling.

“Where’s everybody from?” Marsha asked the crowd.

Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Ohio, Florida, and Australia were some of the answers.

“Massachusetts,” a man called out.

“Whatever you said,” said Marsha. “I can’t pronounce that.”

“Wellington,” another man called out.

Several in the audience, probably all from Prince Edward Island, laughed. Wellington is a small town on PEI. It is home to the head office of College Acadie as well as the Bottle Houses, which are three fantasy-like buildings made of approximately 30,000 recycled glass bottles.

Most of the year islanders have the island to themselves. In the summer ten times as many people as live on PEI visit there for a week-or-two.

“They gave it 150% and we could feel it down to our tappin’ toes,” said a man from Amherst, Massachusetts.

The Aussies in the audience thought it was an “all there bonzer” show.

“The energy was amazing,” said a woman from New South Wales, Australia. “We all clapped and stamped our feet.”

Gary Chipman announced he was going to sing a song.

“I’ve been told I have a great voice, but that I’m going to ruin it by singing,” he said. Still and all, he has been singing for many years. He sang ‘Prince Edward Island Is Heaven To Me,’ a country song penned in 1951 by Hal Lone Pine and recorded with his Lone Pine Mountaineers.  

“The air is so pure, and the people so gay, Prince Edward Island, I’m coming to stay, there’s swimming and hunting and fishing galore, the sun shines so bright on its long golden shore, a touch of God’s great hand this island must be, Prince Edward Island is heaven to me.” 

“Yes, sir!” somebody rang out at the end of the song.

Somebody else called out a request for the ‘Arkansas Traveler.’

“It was some hot day today,” said Louise Arsenault. “You can go from your fur coat to your bikini just like that here on this island.” A few days earlier it had rained eighteen hours straight and never reached fifty degrees. The day of the show it was a breezy sunny 74 degrees.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

“Has anybody got a drink in his car?” asked Gary Chipman, to keep his singing voice well-oiled. He told a joke about a young woman in a tight skirt trying to board a bus.

“Arkansas Traveler!”

The ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a plantation fiddle tune, a quick reel, from the early 19thcentury, one of the most famous of American fiddle tunes. Back in the day it was a barn raiser, meant to tear the audience up. The band tore into it, followed by ‘The Maid Behind the Bar’ and ‘Farmer’s Daughter.’

Jonathan Arsenault played ‘Cottonwood’ on his guitar. In the second half of the show he played ‘Jerry’s Breakdown.’ Written by Jerry Reed, a Nashville guitarist and country singer, the song is played finger-style on guitar in a similar way to the banjo.

“It’s a wicked hard tune to play, but Jonathan makes it look easy,” said Gary.

“When I was a boy, mom bought a little guitar at a flea market,” said Jonathan. “That was her only guitar back then. She sat me at a table, put the fiddle in her lap, and played a set. I learned to flat top pick from my mom, from the fiddle, since she didn’t have a second guitar to show me what a fret was.”

Step dancing is a part of most, if not all, ceilidhs on Prince Edward Island.

“Louise and I are from Acadian backgrounds,” said Helene Arsenault Bergeron. “We grew up with fathers playing the fiddle. In those days they didn’t have a lot of accompaniment, so they accompanied themselves with their feet. That way they always had their accompanists with them.”

She and Louise Arsenault stepped to the front of the stage.

“When you hear that every day, you learn how to play and dance and you don’t even remember learning it. We saw our fathers, aunts and uncles, and grandfathers, and it was just kind of always there, and so we’re going to do a dance for you now.”

The dancing was sparkling high-spirited swashbuckling.

“I was waiting all night for that,” said Jonathan.

Step dancing descends from traditional Irish dancing. Tap dancing is a modern form of it. It is a looser form. The arms move along with the feet. Step dancers keep their upper bodies still with their arms at their sides, except when they don’t, when they’re fiddling at the same time.

Creating your own melody by using your feet is challenging enough, but fiddling a reel at the same time as step dancing like the Arsenault’s do is gnarly, time to sit up and take notice. Louise and Helene do it like a walk in the park, no matter the large front tap on one of Helene’s shoes secured with black electrical tape.

Louise grew up down the road from Helene and Albert Arsenault, who she would later collaborate with in a roots music band. Her father, Alyre Gallant, played music, too. “I grew up in a musical family,” she said. “My father played the fiddle and my mother played the pump organ. I started playing when I was seven. I learned a lot of tunes from my dad.”

At a time in the 1960s when few Prince County girls picked up the fiddle, her father jigged tunes when she was a girl so she could find them on her instrument.

The first half of the show ended with a series of reels. “Whoop, whoop,” someone in the audience shouted. Someone else stamped their feet. It was getting dark on the other side of the windows. It was still fired up inside the hall.

The second half opened the same way as the first half, with the ‘Acadian Reel.’ The song is the work of Eddy Arsenault, a carpenter and fisherman and one of the hands-down best fiddlers on PEI for more than 70 years. Helene Bergeron’s father, he blended local Acadian fiddling with the Scottish approach.

“Is this a new tune,” asked Marie Gallant Arsenault the first time she heard the song a few minutes after its composition. “It is lively.”

“Yes, it is,” said Eddy Arsenault. “What are we going to call it?”

“That sounds right like Acadian music,” said Marie. “Why don’t you call it the Acadian Reel?”

The name stuck.

Even though Eddy Arsenault wrote it, it’s the kind of song that was never new and never gets old.

Gary Chipman strolled into ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ inviting everyone to join in, which many did, some of their voices uncommonly good.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

After Gary put his guitar down to the side, Helene stepped around her piano to the front of the stage, and brought some perspective to the sunshine song that had brought a warm glow to the hall.

“Louise and I used to be in a band called Barachois,” she said.

Helene Arsenault Bergeron got her start as a fledgling in a barn putting on step dancing shows set to old records scratching out fiddle tunes. She watched her elders. “The kitchen parties we had at my grandfather’s and at our house, everybody was always jumping up to dance because the fiddling, the music was so lively.” By her 30s she was one of the best step dancers on Prince Edward Island. She took up the piano, taking on the Cape Breton style, with lift, syncopated, marked by step dancing rhythms.

“Jonathan would come on tour with us when he was a small boy, and he just loved this song we’re going to do for you. Some of the older generation, they used to compose songs as a way of keeping track of local events. It’s a song about an old maid, an old girl, whose neighbor, a young girl, asks for advice about getting married, but the old girl is disillusioned, so it’s not a very encouraging song.”

Louise threw her head back and laughed zestfully full-mouthed.

“It’s called ‘The Family Song,’” said Helene.

Later in the summer Gary might tell a joke about a RCMP officer who calls his station from a crime scene.

“I have an interesting case here,” he says. “A woman shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped.”

“Have you arrested her?” asks his sergeant.

“No, not yet, the floor’s still wet.”

After more hoedowning by the band, Helene and Louise brought two chairs to the center front of the stage.

“Helene and I are going to do a sit down dance,” said Louise. “It’s not because we’re lazy. We can dance standing, we can dance sitting, so here we go!”

Their arms at their sides, their hands gripping the sides of their seats, able-bodied, their feet a breakdown blur, seeming to never leave the floor no matter the tapping, they chair danced up a storm.

Marsha Weeks walked out from the wings with her fiddle.

“You know it’s a great show when the host comes back on stage,” said Jonathan.

Gary, who taught Marsha how to play, picked up his fiddle, as did Helene and Louise.

Gary Chipman has been playing the fiddle since he was five-years-old. He says it was “about a hundred years ago.” Later in life he picked up the guitar and vocals, when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along and the fiddle was out.” With the revival of PEI fiddling in the 1990s, he rosined up his bow again. He earned a degree in clinical psychology, but says it “only made me a smarter fiddle player.”

A hundred years later he concedes, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.”

They played an arrangement of the ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ a tune from the 1940s whose lyrics were first written down on the back of a matchbox and whose music by Pee Wee King remains sad and lively to this day, tracing a man and a woman turning around and around a dance floor.

“I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee Waltz, when an old friend I happened to see, I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”

They played a pretty arrangement on four fiddles of the pastoral melody ‘The Rosebud of Allenvale.’

Although they had been letting it rip all along, at the last Gary and the Arsenault’s let it rip. “We’re going to end with the fastest tune of the night, I’m pretty sure,” said Marsha. They dove headlong into an instrumental version of the ‘Orange Blossom Special.’

Laisse les aller!

The tune is for raising high the roof beam. It is sometimes just called ‘The Special’ and is known as the fiddle player’s national anthem. For a long time fiddle players needed to know how to play that one song before being able to join any bluegrass band.

“It is a vehicle to exhibit the fiddler’s pyrotechnic virtuosity,” wrote Norm Cohen in his book about railroads in folksongs. “It is guaranteed to bring the blood of all but the most jaded listeners to a quick, rolling boil.”

No one at the Stanley Bridge ceilidh was left jaded as the last notes of the ‘The Special’ steamed away into the night.

“She’s the fastest train on the line, it’s that Orange Blossom Special, rollin’ down the seaboard line.”

The show ended with hootin’ and hollerin’ and a big round of applause.

“If you had a great time, please tell everybody at your cottage and campgrounds,” said Marsha as the lights came up. “If you didn’t have a good time, you can just see Gary in the kitchen after the show.”

It wouldn’t be a kitchen party if something lively wasn’t going on in the kitchen.

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.”