Sledgehammer Hill

By Ed Staskus

   When my mother-in-law and her husband moved out of Reserve Square in downtown Cleveland, they moved out of twin Brutalist inspired apartment towers. They had lived there for more than twenty years, on the 17th floor facing Lake Erie. During the annual September air shows flying out of Burke Lakefront Airport they sat on their balcony and watched the Blue Angels scream past like demons.

   There’s nothing like the sound of four F/A-18 Hornets roaring a few hundred feet overhead and veering away from the skyscrapers ahead. They are jets able to perform slow high angle of attack tail sitting maneuvers, and can fly formation loops dirty, their landing gear down. The sound of silence once they’re gone is deafening.

   Teresa and Richard Parello bought a hulk of a house with four bedrooms and three bathrooms on the corner of East 73rd St. and Chester Ave., in the Hough neighborhood, ten minutes from downtown. It was built in 1910 in the colonial style. When they got done with it, they had added an attached garage, put on a new roof, installed new vinyl windows and siding, a new interior staircase, and a new kitchen. It went from ghetto to gentrified as fast as the contractors could make it happen.

   More than 96% of the people living in Hough in 1999 were black. 2% of them were white. Teresa was Lithuanian and Rich was Italian. They were part of the 2%. He was from Rochester. She was from Cleveland. He never said a word to me about the racial make-up of the neighborhood. Everybody and their uncle tried to talk her out of buying the house.

   Teresa was a self-taught cook who owned four restaurants in her time and made herself into one of the city’s best pastry chefs. The opera star Luciano Pavarotti searched her out and pigged out on her cookies and cakes whenever he was in Cleveland.

   “That man can eat,” she declared.

   Her signature creation was a 17-layer cake based on a recipe that Napoleon brought to Lithuania during an 1800s campaign. Teresa, Rich, my wife, brother-in-law, and I helped make them Novembers and Decembers, working out of her kitchen, freezing them, and selling them during the holidays through the Neiman Marcus catalog. I went home nights needing to shower the sweat and flour off me. 

   Teresa and Rich bought the yellow house in Hough because she had grown up nearby, when the neighborhood was 96% white, and wanted to go home again. It wasn’t the same, but she saw what she wanted to see. She remembered the neighborhood from her childhood and made the reality fit her memory.

   I had two mountain bikes that I frequently rode in the Rocky River Metropark, on the paved trail, the horse trails, and the single tracks. I rode around Lakewood. I went downtown, winding my way through Ohio City and across the Hope Memorial Bridge, especially on weekends when all the bankers lawyers city workers and office cleaners were at home. I usually rode the Hope over the Flats because of the Guardians.

   The 6,000-foot-long art deco truss bridge crosses the Cuyahoga River. Four pairs of immense stone statues officially named the “Guardians of Traffic” are sculpted onto opposite-facing pylons at each end. Each of the Guardians holds a different vehicle in its hands, a hay wagon, covered wagon, stagecoach, a 1930s-era automobile, and four different kinds of trucks. I always gave them a thumbs up in hopes of keeping cars and trucks away from me.

   I got it into my head that I wanted to ride around on the other side of town, through Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. I thought about East Cleveland but thought better of it. I asked Teresa if I could park my car in their driveway while I rode. She said yes but cautioned me to bring my rear-mounted rack into the garage. When I did, she invited me into the kitchen to snack on fig and nut energy balls.

   She was in the middle of two projects. One was chocolate-covered plastic spoons that turned into a steaming drink when hot water was added. There were rows of the spoons on baking trays. The other thing she was working on was inventing a nifty pan to make the long thin Italian cookies called biscotti in your own kitchen.

   Whenever I had ridden downtown with friends and wanted to push ahead into Cedar and Fairfax, what my friends called the black hole, they always turned back. “I don’t want my husband getting killed by some spade,” one of their wives told me. I didn’t bother trying to reassure her by saying rednecks in vans and pick-ups were far more dangerous. It wouldn’t have done any good.

   I rode up the hill to Little Italy and Lake View Cemetery. The riding was curvy up and down the graveyard. I couldn’t see the lake, no matter what. I stopped at the James Garfield Monument and the Haserot Angel. President Garfield was shot four months into his term of office and died two months later from infections caused by his medical staff. He was determined to live but stood no chance against his White House doctors. The shooter was hung the next summer. On the gallows he recited a poem he had written called “I Am Going to the Lordy.” He signaled he was ready for the noose by dropping the paper it was written on. The hangman kicked the paper aside and didn’t mess up.

   There are thousands of trees and 100,000 graves in the 280-acre cemetery, from nobodies to moguls. One of the most striking grave markers is the life-sized bronze statue called “The Angel of Death Victorious” but known as Haserot’s Angel. The statue is seated on the gravestone of Francis Haserot, holding an extinguished torch upside-down. He made his fortune canning foodstuffs and importing tea and coffee. The angel’s wings are outstretched and looks like it is crying black tears.

   “They formed over time,” Teresa told me. “It’s an effect of the aging bronze.” She had taken drawing and painting courses at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I took her word for it.

   The best thing about riding up Mayfield Rd. to the cemetery was riding down Mayfield Rd. It was a long enough stretch that I could go as fast as I wanted to but had to feather the brakes all the way down. I didn’t want to end up laid out next to James Garfield.

   I rode Fairmount Blvd. to Shaker Hts. and bicycled around the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. The green space was created in 1966 to stop the Clark Freeway from going in. The folks behind the effort called themselves ‘Freeway Fighters.’ Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert Porter called the Shaker Lakes a “two-bit duck pond” and vowed that the highway would get built come hell or high water. The highway never got built. 

   The 20 acres of the Nature Center has eight mapped natural habitats, four gardens for native plants and insects, and two trails. I rode the trails and tried not to squash any insects. I wheeled out on the 7-mile long Shaker Blvd. to Beachwood and back. Shaker Hts. was built by Oris and Mantis Van Swerington, early 20th century developers. They modeled the suburb and the boulevard after examples of English Garden City planning. They laid rapid transit rail service down the middle of the boulevard. Big broad tree-shaded lawns front the mansions on either side of the road. One of my cousins lived in one of the mansions, but I was dirty and didn’t stop to visit.

   Teresa always let me wash up when I got back to her house, made me a cup of coffee, and put something tasty she had baked on a plate. She never went to cooking school, instead learning her craft by thumbing through cookbooks. Everything she made was as good as the cookbooks said it was supposed to be. She had been the pastry chef at Max’s Deli in Rocky River and Gallucci’s Italian Foods in Cleveland.

   One weekend I rode my red bike with front shock absorbers and went looking for Sledgehammer Hill in Forest Hills Park. The city park is lodged between East Cleveland and Coventry Village. The sloping land up to a plateau was John D. Rockefeller’s private summer estate in the 19th century. He could afford it because his estimated net worth was equivalent to 1.5% of America’s GDP. He was and still is the richest man in American business and economic history.

   There were lakes and bridle trails. There was a racetrack and a golf course. Before JD died the property went to his son, JD, Jr., who transferred one third of the deed to Cleveland Hts. and two thirds to East Cleveland. His only stipulation was the land be used for recreation and nothing else. The new park opened in 1942. It is about half forest and half meadow. It has been improved over the years, with tennis courts, a swimming pool, picnic areas, and basketball courts football fields and baseball diamonds.

   When I was a kid, we never went there summers, but went there many times in the winter. We lived at East 128th St. and St. Clair Ave. and getting there was no trouble. We went ice skating on the man-made lagoon and sledding down Sledgehammer Hill. That wasn’t its official name if it even had one. It was what all of us called it because of the bump near the bottom.

   There was a boat house on the lagoon where we changed into our skates. My father had taught us to skate in Sudbury, Ontario. The city is east of Lake Superior and west of North Bay. He would spray our front yard with a hose in the winter and the water froze hard as concrete in an hour-or-so. When we moved to Cleveland in the late 1950s, we took our skates with us. Neither my brother, sister, nor I were big-league on the ice, but we skated like dervishes, living it up as we tried to toe loop and pirouette.

   Sledgehammer Hill was a hill that started at the top of the plateau and ran down a wide treeless ravine slope. When I went looking for it my memory was that it was long fast and deadly. I didn’t give my memory much credence, though, believing it must have really been small slow and safe.

   When I found it, thinking that I would ride down it on my bike, I was startled. I backed away from the lip of the hill and got off my bike. I walked back to the edge and looked down. It looked even longer and more dangerous than I remembered. I saw the bump near the faraway bottom and remembered hitting it, going airborne, and landing like a sledgehammer had just body-slammed me. Many kids veered away from the bump. None of us ever blamed them. We had all done the same thing at one time or another. Only the innocent went over the bump the first time and lived.

   I don’t know how fast our sleds went, maybe 20 or 25 MPH, but they went fast as hell. We didn’t have winter helmets then and only wore caps on our heads. You were considered a sissy if you wore earmuffs. I started wearing earmuffs the dead of winter weekend my ears froze and almost fell off. 

   Our parents always went skating with us or watched from a bench in case the ice ever cracked, but when we went sledding, they dropped us off and went on their way. My sister rarely sledded, my brother sometimes did, but I couldn’t get enough of it. We rode Speedaways, Yankee Clippers, and Flexible Flyers. Only the foolhardy among us rode Sno Wing Blazons. They were too fast for Sledgehammer Hill. Most of us wanted to go as fast as possible but not break our necks. We sledded until it started to get dark, and our parents came back to pick us up. 

   I got back on my mountain bike, roaming around the park plateau taking in the ghost sights. I rode to the north end of the hill where JD’s mansion had stood. It burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances in 1917.

   It was early in the evening when I pedaled back to Teresa’s house. When I told her about Sledgehammer Hill she stepped out into the middle of her kitchen, pretending to be standing on a sled, balancing with her arms stretched out, and racing to the bottom. She had performed professionally as a ballet dancer and taught dancing to area Lithuanian folk groups. She was a chorus girl when the Metropolitan Opera came to town, dancing in the background. But if she had tried that stunt on Sledgehammer Hill, professional dancer or not, she would have gone flying headfirst when she hit the bump, and there wouldn’t have been enough cupcakes in the whole city to break her fall.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

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