Hanging Tough With Mr. T

By Ed Staskus

   The Saturday morning that I played a racquetball match against Dick Stager for the first time was at a tournament in Cleveland Heights. I had beaten a so-so player from Akron the night before and was in the second round. Watching Dick warm up I could see he had good direction on his shots. He was a target shooter rather than a cannon blaster.

   My first impression of the stockbroker was that he wasn’t an athlete, but I had long ago learned to beware of first impressions. Even though he looked more suited to golf than the pinball of racquetball, I later learned that as a teenager growing up in Kent, he was a whiz at baseball, football, and basketball.

   Once our match started, I quickly found out he was fiendishly clever, never overhitting the ball except when it suited him. He played the long game, running me back and forth. He believed racquetball wasn’t a game of power, but one of mental chess, harking back to an earlier era when Charlie Brumfield ruled the roost. He played patiently efficiently taking few chances, always looking for the next sure opportunity to close out the point.

   “Crushing the ball with all your might will usually not beat someone who knows how to play the angles,” he liked to say. He smiled when he said it. It wasn’t a friendly smile.

   He was infuriating, slowing down the action, wiping up every drop of sweat up from the floor, discussing the fine point of a ruling with the referee, and getting in my way. He did it slyly, so that it was a hinder but wasn’t a hinder. He was hardly ever penalized a point because of it. He always apologized effusively so that it seemed like it was my own fault for needing so much space in which to take my swing.

   I barely won the match. He was several years younger than me and more talkative by a long shot. Getting a word in edgewise was like trying to squeeze past his hinders. He invited me to play at the newish 13th Street Racquet Club sometime. He worked downtown and the club was downtown. We set up a lunchtime match a few weeks from then.

   The club was on the 5th floor of the Dodge Building on East 13th Street, around the corner from Euclid Ave., the city’s main thoroughfare. It bustled with lawyers and businessmen. The courts were built of panel walls instead of concrete. They sucked all the power out of power racquetball. The floors were cheap parquet and already warped. Dick knew where all the dead spots were. I was thoroughly vexed by the end of the second game, which I lost just like I lost the first one.

   He treated me to lunch and a beer afterwards. We sat at the bar and watched a squash match going on in one of the two glass back-walled hardball courts. Everything about the courts was better than their country cousins, starting with the floors. They weren’t cheap and they weren’t warped. I was aware of the game but had never seen it played. Watching it I saw right away where Dick Stager got his approach from.

   I was introduced to Vaughn Loudenback, the club pro, who specialized in squash but dabbled in racquetball, too. We played a friendly match, my Ektelon composite racquet against his no-name wood racquetball paddle.  His shots were even slower and better placed than Dick Stager’s. He was like the Invisible Man, never hindering, somehow always right there where my shots were going and returning them. After he made mincemeat of me, I determined to never hit a lob serve or ceiling shot or anything at moderate speed when playing him again. 

   I asked him if he would teach me how to play squash. He gave me one free lesson, about how to hold the racquet, how to swing, and the rules. He told me to make sure to dominate the T, the intersection of the red lines near the center of the court, shaped like the letter “T”, where I would be in the best position to retrieve an opponent’s next shot. I continued to play racquetball, but less of it, and played more squash. 

   Squash has a long history in Cleveland with the first courts built in the early 1900s. 

   “I started the 13th Street Racquet Club in 1979,” said Ham Biggar. “It became one of the top squash centers. We hosted the nationals as well as the North American Open. I met my wife on a squash court.” Ham was a Cleveland, Ohio native whose great-great-grandfather Hamilton Fisk Biggar, who was a pioneering homeopath, ministered to John D. Rockefeller Sr. and golfed with him.

   “I opened the Mad Hatter, Cleveland’s first disco, in 1971 and the Last Moving Picture Company in 1973,” he said. “We were ahead of the curve. We ended up with 11 discos across the country. I had 10 years of starting work at 7 PM. The Mad Hatter had a Drink and Drown Wednesday. You could come in as a woman for $2 or a man for $3 and drink all you wanted for a penny a beer. Mixed drinks were a quarter.”

   Squash got its start as a game called rackets played in London’s notorious prisons in the 19th century. The first squash court in North America was at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire in 1884. The earliest national association of squash in the world, the United States Squash Racquets Association, was formed in 1904 in Philadelphia. 

   In 1912, the Titanic had a squash court in first class. A tournament was organized. Nobody got to the finals.

   I met Kurt Otterbacher, whose Burbank-area family owned a concession business catering to fairs and festivals around Ohio. They fried funnel cakes, spun cotton candy, and popped homemade caramel corn. His father ran the show while he and his brother put on the show. We started practicing together, even though he was far better than me. I learned by trial and error. One of the trials I had was learning to not hit the tin, which meant side out and the other side got the serve.

   Not being able to hit kill shots gave me the blue johnnies. Kill shots are winners in racquetball, hit so low they are either difficult or impossible to return. The shot was useless on squash courts where a 17” high tin stretched the width of the front wall up from the floor. Hitting the tin was out of bounds. Hit the tin and everybody knew it. The ball didn’t just thud, it clanged. 

   Kurt was a grab bag of shots. He could hit the ball with pace, and the next shot take all the pace away. He was not above trying a drop shot from anywhere on the court. He wasn’t a magician, but every time we played some of his squash magic rubbed off on me. I finally got over the kill shot shakes and learned to keep the ball at least an inch or two above the tin.

   The hardball squash court is about as wide as a racquetball court but eight feet shorter. Racquetball rallies are short, and the better the players the shorter they are, four five six shots before somebody hits a winner. Squash rallies are long, and the better the players the longer they are, thirty and forty shots before somebody mercifully hits a winner. I ran more and sweated up a storm on the smaller court more than I ever did on the bigger court.

   “The healthiest sport in the world,” is the way Forbes Magazine put it.

   Jahangir “The Plumber” Khan, considered by many to be the greatest squash player of all time, was unbeaten in competitive play for 5 years, from 1981 to 1986. He recorded 555 straight wins in competitive matches. Not only is this a squash record, but it is recognized by Guinness World Records as the world record for a winning streak by any athlete in any sport. The longest rally ever officially recorded was between Jahangir Khan and Gamal Awad. It lasted 7 minutes, hundreds of every kind of shot imaginable, and ended in a let. They had to replay the point. The same match at the 1983 Chichester Festival was also one of the longest ever, going to a tie breaker. Jahangir Khan was noted for his exceptional stamina. Gamal Awad was a broken man after the match, and his career never recovered.

   The day came when I stopped playing racquetball and stuck to squash. I practiced by myself. I ran the club’s indoor track to build endurance. The club’s squash players were generally disdainful of racquetball, and I had some trouble scratching up games. I played Kurt and Bob McLean, a converted racquetball player like me. I played softball squash with a South African on the only international court at the far back of the club. I had seen him train by going at a speed bag and heavy bag. After he was done with me, I was done with the international game, played with a ball that had to be microwaved beforehand to warm it up so that there would be some bounce to it. 

   When Gul Khan became the squash pro at the Cleveland Athletic Club, he moonlighted at the 13th Street Racquet Club. He was a small man with a big smile, a free-spirited member of the Khan clan. He had been a junior champion in Pakistan before spending ten years as a pro in Boston and New York City. After he moved to Cleveland, he lived in an apartment on East 30th Street. He didn’t own a car. Whenever he was at the club late, and I happened to be there, I always volunteered to drive him home, in exchange for 5 minutes of advice. Instead of giving me any coaching, he told me stories about his brother Mo and first cousin Shariff, about giving lessons to Senator Ted Kennedy and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, and about busting it up with the artist Frank Stella.

   “Control the T,” he told me, which was about all he ever told me. 

   He was great fun to watch at pro hardball tournaments. He had wizard-like racquet skills, speed, and power. He had a crowd-pleasing style with a flair for the dramatic. He was like Mr. T in more ways than one.

   “Gul had a heart of gold,” said Sharif Khan. “He lived large. He knew politicians, lawyers, wheeler-dealers, baseball stars, famous artists, and they knew him. But he also knew the guys at the local bar, the maintenance man in his apartment building, and the people who needed a helping hand on his block in Cleveland.”

   Gul got some of the guys at the club to play me, and one day one of them suggested I try out for the club’s “B” traveling team. The “A” team featured the best players. The one and only way to get on the team was to play your way onto it. I played half a dozen matches and made the team. I was bottom man, but I was on the team.

   We played home and away matches with the Cleveland Skating Club, University Club, Cleveland Athletic Club, and Mayfield Racquet Club. I learned more on the road than Gul ever taught me, but I continued driving him home, especially when there was a thunderstorm. He didn’t like getting wet. 

   I played more guys at 13th Street and found out that even though squash is a gentleman’s game, not everyone who played squash was a gentleman. It was Jekyll and Hyde when they stepped on the court. They were more conniving and aggressive than the racquetball players I had known. Two bounces were two bounces, and a kill shot was a kill shot in racquetball, no argument. What was an honest save, whether it was a let or not, and whether getting in the way had been on purpose or not, was often open to interpretation on squash courts.

   I played Mike Shaughnessy, a stocky big shot printing company executive, several times until I didn’t. The last time I played him, after giving him as good as I got, he was determined to not let me hit any passing shots whenever he left the ball doing nothing in mid-court. The rule is you must allow your opponent straight access to the ball. As the non-striker, you generally are supposed to move back to the T in a curved line. If your opponent is moving straight to the ball, and there is interference, it is your fault.

   Mike was in a surly mood, and it was no good calling foul. He seemed to think interference was a judgment call, even when I was clawing my way around him. “Pity the fool who tries to take the T,” he muttered, smirking. We spent more time jockeying for position than making shots. We got into a squabble that came to nothing. It was the last time I played him. I never called him Mike again, either. From then on, I called him Mr. Trouble.

   My “B” team was at the Mayfield Racquet Club the night the Gulf War broke out. Everybody knew it was coming but it was still surprising to see it happening in real time on TV. All the televisions in the lobby were tuned to the action when we walked in. For 42 consecutive days and nights starting on January 16th, the coalition forces subjected Iraq to one of the most intensive air bombardments in history, flying more than 100,000 sorties and dropping 88,500 tons of bombs. 

   It was run up and salute the flag and rocket’s red glare galore.

   We stopped and glanced at the mayhem, but since we knew the Mayfield team was warming up for us, we continued to the locker room. There was no sense wasting time on something we couldn’t do anything about. The storm troopers and towelheads were going to have settle their ideological and gasoline supply differences themselves. We were in second place in the league. We had our own business to take care of, our own gold to keep our eyes on.

Photograph by Ham Biggar.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Shock Wave

By Ed Staskus

   “When Britain is at war, Canada is at war,” Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier said in 1910. “There is no distinction.” Four years later when Britain entered World War One, Canada signed on, too.  In August 1914 the Governor-General of Canada vowed that “if unhappily war should ensue, the Canadian people will be united in a common resolve to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honor of our Empire”

   Empires are made by plundering and slaughtering. They are always sure of the rightness of their cause. They never go down without a fight. It doesn’t matter if there’s any honor in the fighting, or not. They plow straight ahead.

   The country had no air force, a navy fit for a bathtub, and an army of 3,000-some men.  By the end of the war more than 600,000 Canadians had enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight for King and Country and more than 400,000 of them served in Europe, out of a population of fewer than 8 million nationwide.

   “The Empire Needs Men” is what the posters said. “All answer the CALL! Helped by the YOUNG LIONS the OLD LION defies his foes. ENLIST NOW!”

   Everybody wanted in on the fight because everybody thought it would be over by Christmas. Canadians lined up to support the British Empire and collect steady pay of $1.10 a day. The harvest that year was bad, and unemployment was soaring. But machine guns fired ten times as many bullets a minute as they were paid pennies a day. Hundreds of thousands on all sides were slaughtered week by month by year by the rapid-firing weapons on the Western Front.

   At the beginning of the war, it was better to be killed than wounded. The wounded were taken off battlefields in horse-drawn wagons or on mules with baskets on their sides, the baskets soaked and dripping with men bleeding to death. There wasn’t any such thing as a dressing. If they made it to a train station, they were transported to hospitals. “One of those trains dumped about 500 badly wounded men and left them lying between the tracks in the rain, with no cover whatsoever,” said Harvey Cushing, the head of the Harvard Unit of volunteer doctors at the American Ambulance Hospital of Paris.

   Nearly 60,000 Canadians were killed, most of them the result of enemy action, and more than 170,000 of them were wounded. Almost 3.500 men and one woman had at least one arm or leg amputated. Private Curley Christian lost all four limbs but survived.

   During the Battle of Vimy Ridge he was unloading cargo from trucks when an artillery shell hit next to where he was, trapping him under debris for several days. When stretcher bearers tried to reach him, they were killed by more artillery. When he was finally rescued, he was transported to a military hospital and from there to London. His arms and legs had gone gangrenous and all four were sawed off.

   When he got back to Canada he was fitted with prosthetic limbs and married Cleopatra McPherson. He deigned his own prosthesis for writing. Cleo and he had a son who twenty years later served in World War Two.

   More than 7,000 Prince Edward Islander’s enlisted. Five hundred of them were killed and more than a 1,000 wounded. Tommy Murphy went overseas with a siege battery in 1915. Before he went, he got married to Freya O’Sullivan and got her pregnant. He got word of his son Danny’s birth by telegram while taking a break in an ankle-deep puddle of water sheltering in a trench during the Third Battle of Artois. 

   He had spent eight days at the front and was due for four days in a reserve trench and then four more days at a rest camp. When the bloodletting went on and on and the ranks thinned out, he never made it to the reserve trench much less the rest camp. It was that kind of a war. The Allied and Central Powers fought the same battles over and over.

   The British French and Canadians assembled seventeen infantry and two cavalry divisions for the offensive at Artois, backed by 630 field guns and 420 heavy artillery guns. During the fighting the field artillery fired 1.5 million rounds and the heavy artillery 250,000 rounds at the Germans defenses. Tommy Murphy barely slept for days. Whenever he took a break, he felt like his arms were going to fall off after loading shells until there weren’t any more to load. He knew he had sent his share of Germans to Hell even though he never saw one of them die.

   When the Allies tried to advance, they suffered 40% casualties. The battle went on from late September to mid-October when it ground to a halt in the middle of a never-ending autumn rainstorm and mutual exhaustion. By that time both sides were conserving ammunition because they were running out of it. They spent the rest of the month burying their dead, tending to their wounded, and withdrawing.

   Tommy was a cannon man because he was taller than five feet seven inches and burly enough to do the heavy work of feeding artillery. He didn’t have flat feet or bad eyesight, He didn’t have the greatest teeth, but explained he was enlisting to fight Germans, not bite them. He could have begged off the war because he was married, but he was patriotic and wanted to do his fair share. Money from the Canadian Patriotic Fund helped his wife keep the home fire burning.

   His battery had a lance corporal scout sniper attached to it. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow was an Aboriginal who could split a bullseye nobody else could even see. He had more than 300 kills to his name. He roamed No Man’s Land at night for them, seeking out enemy snipers and forward spotters. He always came back in the morning. The other side never made it back to their side.

   He wore moccasins instead of army boots, chewed dead twigs whenever he sensed danger, and always carried a medicine bag. “When I was at training camp on Lake Superior in 1914, some of us landed from our vessel to gather blueberries near an Ojibwa settlement,” he said. “An old Indian recognized me and gave me a tiny medicine bag to protect me, saying I would shortly go into great danger. The bag was of skin tightly bound with a leather throng. Sometimes it seemed to be hard as a rock, at other times it appeared to contain nothing. What was inside of the bag I do not know.”

   Tommy had signed up for short service and when 1915 was over and done and it was April 1916, he was done with his one year on the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His commanding officer tried to convince him to re-enlist, but he had a wife, a child, and a farm that needed him. He didn’t need to kill anymore Germans. He was sick of the butchery. Three men from North Rustico were already dead. He didn’t want to be next. He knew if he re-enlisted it was only a matter of time before he went home in a box to be buried on Church Hill Rd.

   He got out when the going was good. The next year enlistments dried up as men near and far began to realize the toll the new style combat on the Western Front was taking. Machine gun fire and shell fire was murderous. On top of that there was poison gas. The dead were left where they fell. They were left for the rats. In May 1917 the government announced conscription through the Military Service Act. The rats stood up and cheered.

   It was easier getting into the army than it was getting out. He finally found a ride on a troop transport from Calais to Dover, took a train to London, and spent the night at a whore house with a razzle dazzle girl. He took a steam bath the next morning and had lunch at a corner fish and chip shop eating cod with a splash of vinegar and a full pint at his elbow. He followed the first pint with a second pint and was happy for it. He had a ticket for passage to Halifax in his wallet, but it was a week away. His grandfather had come from Ireland, or so the family story went, and done something big for the Crown, who rewarded him with 400 acres of PEI shoreline. He unfolded a map and located Dublin. It was directly across the Irish Sea from Liverpool.

   He bought a train ticket to Liverpool and the next morning landed in Dublin. It was Easter Monday. The Easter Rising had happened yesterday. The Easter Rising was happening today. 

   After landing at the Dublin Port, he followed the River Liffey, making for Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His plan was to find a room for a few days and have dinner. He would explore the rest of the city after a good night’s sleep. He was wearing his Canadian Army uniform over a pair of Spring Needle underwear and carrying a rucksack. He had his toiletries, four pairs of clean socks, his rolled up military wool overcoat, and a paper bag full of Huntley & Palmer biscuits in it. The biscuits were so hard they would crack a man’s teeth at the first bite if not soaked in tea beforehand.

   His papers and money were in a travel wallet attached to his belt. He had his Colt New Service revolver on his belt, too, for what it was worth now that his war was over. An hour later he was glad he had it, after he got it back, although he wasn’t sure if he was going to need it to protect himself from the Irish or the British.

   Dublin Castle was in the middle of the old part of the city. The city got its name from the Black Pool, the ‘Dubh Linn,’ where the rivers Liffey and Poddle met. It was where the castle was. It had been a Gaelic ring fort in the beginning, a long time ago. Later, after the Vikings showed up, it was a Viking fort. For the past 700 years it had been a British fort, the seat of their rule in Ireland. 

   Tommy didn’t have anything against the British, but after a year of serving in their army, he thought the Irish might be better served ruling themselves. They couldn’t do worse. During the year he served on the Western Front three quarters of a million Jacks and John Bulls were killed. It made him sick to think of the men he had seen obeying orders to attack barbed wire and machines guns across open fields. Another few million men went wounded and missing. The broken might survive, but he didn’t think the missing were coming back anytime soon.

   He was glad to be out of it. It hadn’t ended by Christmas of 1914. It still wasn’t over by Christmas of 1915. The next Christmas was in eight months and the talk was it would take a half-dozen more holidays to either win or lose the war. He meant to say a prayer in St. Patrick’s Cathedral before dinner. 

   He didn’t get a chance to say a prayer, find a room, or have dinner. He lost his chance when he came across the bridge leading to Trinity College, turned the corner towards Dublin Castle, and found himself face to face with a Mauser semi-automatic pistol. He knew exactly what it was. He stood stock still exactly where he was. The hand on the firearm was a woman’s hand. She was wearing an old military hat and a yellow armband.

   “Hand’s up and on the wall, boyo,” she said, a second woman coming up behind him. The second woman was wearing a bandolier laden with a half dozen hand grenades. She had a revolver. It looked like it came from the Middle Ages. He did what she said. She patted him down and took his Colt.

   “Who are you and what are you doing here?” she asked.

   “Tommy Murphy, Canadian Army, from Prince Edward Island by way of a year in France,” he said. “I’m here to take in the sights before going home. Now that we’re talking, I thought Ireland was sitting the war out.”

   “We ask the questions,” the woman wearing the bandolier spit out.

   “Come on,” the woman with the Mauser said, poking him in the small of the back with the barrel of the gun.

   The streets leading to the city center were barricaded. When they got to the General Post Office, he saw there were two green flags flying in place of the Union Jack. They said “Irish Republic” in gold letters. He knew there was no such thing as an Irish Republic. 

   “What’s going on?”  

   “We’re rocking the casbah,” the grenade girl said.

   There was a man outside the post office reading from a broadsheet. It was the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic.” There were copies of it pasted on walls. Newsboys were handing them out to anybody who wanted one. Not everybody wanted one. Most of them didn’t understand what was happening. The grenade girl handed him a copy. “Read this,” she said. There were men with rifles and shotguns on the roofs of buildings overlooking bridges.

   “Who’s this?” said a man wearing a scrap of paper pinned to his breast. It said “Citizen Army.”

   “We found him down the street, Sean.”

   Sean was Sean Mac Duiarmada, one of Commander-in-Chief Patrick Pearce’s right-hand men.

   “He’s Canadian,” Sean said pointing to Tommy’s regimental badge and the “CANADA” title at the end of his shoulder straps.

   “We thought he was a Brit.”

   “They’ll be here soon enough,” Sean said.

   There were 1,200 rebels waiting for 20,000 British troops to arrive.

   A shot rang out in the distance and Margaret Keogh fell down dead. She was a 19-year-old nurse tending to a wounded Citizen Army man. She was the first person to die during the Rising of Easter Week.

   A team of Volunteers trotted past on their way to the Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park. They took all the weapons and ammunition they could carry and blew up the rest. When the son of the fort’s commander tried to raise the alarm, he was shot dead. He was the second person to die.

   “You’re free to go,” Sean said to Tommy. “Best you leave Dublin all together.”

   “What about my sidearm?”

   Sean nodded to the grenade girl, and she handed Tommy’s Colt back to him.

   When a contingent of the Citizen’s Army approached Dublin Castle, the police sentry James O’Brien ordered them to halt. He was shot dead even though he was unarmed. He was the third person to die. When British troops showed up the rebels retreated to City Hall, stormed up to the roof, and fired down on the troops in the street. The man commanding the rebel contingent, Sean Connolly, was shot dead by a sniper, the first rebel and fourth person killed.

   Tommy carefully made his way back to the docklands and the port. He boarded the same boat he had come on. An hour later the boat was steaming into Dublin Bay on its way back to Liverpool. Eight hours later he was asleep in a room of a boarding house on the waterfront, not far from the Three Graces.

   The next morning was cold and damp. Women were out in the streets with their long-handled push brooms. They were called Sweepers. Others were in homes cleaning and scrubbing. They were called Dailies. Many more were at work in munitions factories. They were called Munitionettes. Liverpool’s men were on the Royal Navy’s battleships and in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. They were called Cannon Fodder.

   Tommy found a greasy spoon near the port and ordered breakfast, eggs back bacon sausage baked beans a fried tomato fried mushrooms fried bread and black pudding. The Liverpool Daily Post headline screamed “REBELLION!” There was no need for him to read about it. He thought he might have this same breakfast at midday and tonight. Somebody once said, “To eat well in England you should have breakfast three times a day.”

   He put the newspaper aside. Pushing himself away from the table, he checked his ticket for Canada. He tucked it securely away with his service revolver. Tommy Murphy was going to keep himself safe and sound until his boat sailed for home. Once he was out of the frying pan that was burning and smoking on another man’s stove, he was going to stay out of it.

Excerpted from “Bloodlines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”