All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

Public Enemy No. 1

By Ed Staskus

   There were five of us on the big elevator going up to the 4th floor of the Global Center. One of us asked the others if we were all on the way to jury duty. All of us said yes, or something along those lines. “This is a pain in the ass,” one young man grumbled.

   “Better to be on this side of things than the other side,” the man next to him said.

   “You got that right, brother,” another man said.

   The Global Center is at the corner of Ontario St. and St. Clair Ave. It is across the street from the Justice Center. It is part of the Medical Mart and Convention Center that made history in 2011. Six buildings were demolished to make way for the development. Half a million tons of debris were removed, and more than 12,000 tons of new steel was used to create the infrastructure of the new complex. It was the most steel used on any one project in Cleveland’s history.

   When we got off the elevator I immediately regretted being on time. The line snaked from the elevators backwards then forwards to the sign-in tables. It looked like everybody was in line all at once. I took my place and shuffled forward like everybody else. If I need to come back tomorrow, I thought, I’m showing up late. The next day, when I did arrive late, there was hardly anybody in line.   

   The Global Center is mostly about conventions and industry conferences. It was the media center for the 2016 Republican National Convention, held in downtown Cleveland, when the far-right spun fantasies and the fantastic happened. The Grand Old Party put a bunko artist at the top of its ticket. The 4th floor is where those called for jury duty report every Monday morning every week of every month. The pool of jurors is usually between 300 and 400 people.

   Before I went through the full-body scanner, I told one of the policemen, “I’m breaking in an after-market hip, so I’m going to set off your fire alarm.” He said all right and told me to go ahead. When I did, nothing happened, except the light blinked green for GO. The high-tech scanners are supposed to detect a wide range of metallic threats in a matter of seconds. “Essentially, the machine sends waves toward a passenger’s insides,” said Shawna Redden, a researcher who studies the devices. “The waves go through clothing and reflect whatever might be concealed, and bounce back a signal, which is interpreted by the machine.”

   “Do you want me to try again?” I asked. 

   “No, go ahead,” the policeman said, barely paying any attention to me.

   Six feet apart and masks were back in effect, even though there was no official ruling in the city, where hardly anybody was paying attention to the pandemic anymore. Only the odd man and woman wore a mask in the lobby or anywhere else. All the hard-backed chairs in the big room were in rows a social distance apart and everybody wore a mask. You can’t fight City Hall. Almost everybody kept their heads down looking at their cell phones. Some people read books. A few went to sleep on the sofas lining the walls.

   When the jury pool bailiff stepped to the front of the room everybody perked up. The boss lady looked casual but was anything but, even though she sprinkled in some stale jokes. She wore a short-sleeved blouse, and her forearms were tattooed. The first thing she did was thank us for coming.

   She explained since we were on the voting rolls we had been randomly selected. She thanked us for opting into our civic duty. She showed a video about the history of juries and what jury duty amounts to. A judge from Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court showed up and thanked us some more. She was wearing a dark skirt. I didn’t know judges could be so friendly and good-looking. When she was done everybody went back to their cell phones and books. The sleepy heads went back to their napping.

   The bailiff said she would be calling groups of 8 for civil cases and groups of 20-and-more for criminal cases. I didn’t mind serving on either kind of jury but was hoping I wouldn’t be called to serve on a criminal case. I didn’t want to be on the jury that was going to convict Tamara McLoyd for shooting and killing Shane Bartek, a Cleveland policeman.

   What would be the point? She seemed to be as guilty as Machine Gun Kelly. Somebody matching her description had been caught on surveillance video pulling the trigger. Her DNA was on the .357 Magnum. She confessed to the crime after being arrested. Why she pled not guilty and was demanding a jury trial was beyond me.

   I brought my Apple tablet with me and read “Empire of the Scalpel” on it all morning. It was about the history and advancement of surgery. No matter their newfound skills of restoring life and limb, there was no bringing Shane Bartek back to life. He was gone to stay. Several groups of jurors trooped out when their names were called. When lunch was announced, I went for a walk on Lakeside Ave.

   The criminal complaint against Tamara McLoyd said she walked up to the off-duty Shane Bartek on Cleveland’s west side on New Year’s Eve and robbed him at gunpoint. He was outside his apartment on his way to a Cleveland Cavs game. When he tried to take her gun away, she shot him twice during the struggle. After the shooting, she stole the policeman’s civilian car and fled. Shane Bartek was taken to Fairview Hospital and pronounced dead. He was 23 years old. She was 18 years old.

   Tamara McLoyd gave the stolen car to a no-good companion of hers who was hunted down later that night by a swarm of suburban police. After a high-speed chase he lost control of the car and slammed into a fence. He didn’t bother saying he was innocent. The police didn’t bother being polite. They tracked the shooter by following videos she was posting on Instagram. She was nothing if not clueless about crime and punishment. She was run to ground, doing her best to curse her way out of capture, and was hauled away to a jail cell. Her handgun was found hidden in the back seat of the not so joyful joy ride. 

   She was Public Enemy No. 1 for a day. The next day she went back to being just an enemy to herself. She never interrupted that side of her whenever it was making a mistake.

   The young woman had been on a crime spree most of the year. Two months earlier, five days after she was sentenced to probation in Lorain County on firearms and robbery charges, she and two accomplices robbed a man in Lakewood, robbed a woman in Cleveland Heights, and robbed Happy’s Pizza in Cleveland. They had worked up an appetite robbing people.

   City Hall and the Cuyahoga County Court House are both on Lakeside Ave. I took self-guided tours during lunchtime and walked around Mall C. I looked down at the Cleveland Browns gridiron and the Science Center across the railroad tracks on the other side of Route 2. There are small parks beside both City Hall and the Court House. I checked out Claes Oldenburg’s rubber stamp sculpture in Willard Park. I checked out John T. Corrigan’s statue in Fort Huntington Park. The over-sized stamp sculpture is whimsical. The life-sized Corrigan statue is stone-faced.

   Tamara McLoyd made her first court appearance on murder charges two days after New Year’s Day. “I didn’t know he was a cop,” she explained, even though nobody was asking for explanations. The cops are like the armed forces, who don’t leave their wounded or dead behind. Killing a policeman is a one-way ticket to the Big House, if not Old Sparky. A city prosecutor read into the record her admission to shooting Shane Bartek. The judge set bail at $5 million dollars and told her to find a lawyer. She hadn’t stolen enough money to make bail. She stayed locked up in the Justice Center the next seven months.

   While there she talked to her friends and mother by jailhouse phone, telling them exactly what happened, and saying she expected to be famous for shooting a policeman. Her lawyers tried to suppress her original confession, but after hearing recordings of her phone calls, nixed the idea. “After consulting with our client, she has authorized and instructed us to withdraw the motion to suppress,” her lawyers said at a hearing.

   John T. Corrigan was Cleveland born and bred, graduating from a local high school and university and law school. He served in the Army during World War Two, losing an eye during the Battle of the Bulge. He was elected Cuyahoga County’s prosecutor in 1956 and re-elected repeatedly, serving for thirty-five years. “It is a large office with more than 300 employees. It’s the second largest public law firm in the state of Ohio,” said Geoffey Means, a former federal prosecutor. John T. was a stern man when it came to law and order. He sent his former law partner to jail. Hoodlums knew there wouldn’t be any sympathy coming their way from the one-eyed legal eagle.

   Nothing had changed since his retirement. When murder was the charge, the office was no-nonsense going forward. When the murder of a policeman was the charge, the office was bound and determined to get it done.

   Tamara McLoyd was bound and determined to say it was an accident. “This shit wasn’t no aggravated,” she told her mother after she was charged with aggravated murder. “This shit was an accident.” Later in the month she told a friend, “We was tussling, he reached for the gun, he fell, and then pow.” She made it sound like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

   When Monday came to an end at 3 o’clock and I went home, well more than a hundred of us had been picked for actual jury duty. The rest of us came back on Tuesday. More of us were picked, lunchtime was again announced, and I went for another walk. We filtered back at 1 o’clock. I dove back into my sawbones book. A few more of us were picked for a civil trial. Just after 2 o’clock the bailiff cleared her throat.

   “The last judge has just sent word that his trial has been postponed until next week,” she said. “Thank you for coming and you are free to go.”

   We all cheered, collected our certificates of appreciation, and marched away to the elevators. I walked to the lot on W. 3rd St. where I had left my car. It was a cloudless day. There weren’t many people on the sidewalks. The tables and chairs of downtown’s Al Fresco dining were empty. Everybody had gone back to work after eating.

   Al Fresco comes from the Italian and loosely means “in the cool air.” Unlike everybody else, Italians don’t use the term for eating outside. In Italy it means “spending time in the cooler.” When they say cooler, they mean jail.

   Tamara McLoyd was found guilty of theft, grand theft, aggravated robbery, felonious assault, murder, and aggravated murder. It didn’t take the jury long. The courtroom was packed with Cleveland police officers and Bartek’s family. Some of the dead man’s relatives broke into tears. Tamara McLoyd turned 19 during the trial. She was a cold fish, standing unblinking when the verdict was read. 

   “What would you think after being found guilty of aggravated murder?” her lawyer Jaye Schlachet offered up, even though she didn’t seem to be thinking about anything special. Shane Bartek was probably the last thing on her mind.

   “The tragedy is that this individual who committed this crime was on a spree of violence through our community,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley said. “We see it every day in our county. She had opportunities to get on track. At every crossroad she could have turned her life around. She declined that opportunity. She was a terrorist on our streets, and for our community’s sake she is going to face the music for all the crimes she committed over those several months.”

   A sheriff’s deputy put the convicted killer in handcuffs. She was led away. She was facing a life sentence. The judge would decide at her sentencing the following month whether there was going to be the possibility of parole after 25 or 30 years, or whether it was going to be life without parole.

   “We are quite confident that the only thing she will see for the rest of her life are bars,” police union chief Jeff Follmer said.

   Tamara McLoyd tried to explain away the shooting of Shane Bartek. I was glad I wasn’t there to hear it. After a while it’s sickening having to listen to lies. Murder is inherently wrong. She thought she was just offing somebody who was getting in her way, like brushing away a bug. She didn’t realize she was committing suicide as well as murder. She was 1-2-3 down for the count. She was going to Marysville Prison where nobody cared whether jailbirds lived or died, where she could kill time day-in and day-out.

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.”

Don’t Scare the Fish

By Ed Staskus

   I never thought I would be spending two weeks in East Texas in the middle of a blast furnace summer but there I was. I was deep in the heart of Dixie. It rained every afternoon for a half hour and was bone dry a half hour later, racing right back up to 100 degrees in the shade. But by that time, we were on our way to work.

   Tyler, Texas was the second last leg of a month-long job. The last leg would be Louisiana and then back home. I was working for American Electro Coatings, a Cleveland, Ohio outfit that refinished desks, files, and cabinets on site. We traveled in three-man crews in white Ford Econoline vans, carrying our gear and luggage. There were two bucket seats and a custom-made bunk that doubled as storage behind the seats. The van was big enough for a sofa if we wanted to. One of us was always sleeping. We rotated the driving.

   We started in Chicago, went to Des Moines, OK City, Tyler, slowing down in Louisiana for crawfish, and then got on the hillbilly highway back to the Buckeye State. Our ride never broke down because Ralph, the crew leader and painter, made sure it never broke down. He did an all-points inspection beforehand, had it tuned up, oil changed, and confirmed the steel belts were on the newer side. He didn’t believe in 4-60 air conditioning, four windows open going 60 MPH, and made sure our on-board AC was in perfect working order. The van looked like a creeper on the outside but ran like an angel.

   Our workday started when everybody else’s workday was ending. We worked from about six to about two in the morning. Ralph was an old hand. He always got a motel as close as possible to where we would be working to cut down on drive time. “Efficiency is doing things right,” he said. Effectiveness is doing the right things. Ralph was both, not that anybody could tell by looking at him. He looked like a skinny chain-smoking Jackie Gleason.

   I wasn’t a full-time employee and didn’t work with the same crew all the time. I always asked for Ralph, though. He was fifteen-some years older than me, testy but steady, smoked too much, but drank less than he smoked. He had a wife and two kids and was as stingy as Scrooge. He didn’t spend much of his own money on the road. When we got back to our motel room in the middle of the night it was lights out, Ralph’s orders. In the afternoon we were free to do whatever we wanted, but he expected us to be ready to go at five o’clock.

   Some of the employees were Americans at American Electro Coatings. The rest weren’t. They were from Mexico and Central America. Some of them got paid cash on payday. Jose was Ralph’s right hand man. We always got a room with two beds which meant, since I was the odd man out, I always slept on a rollaway. Some of them were better than others. The first thing Ralph and Jose did when they woke up was hack up a storm and have a cigarette. They shared an ashtray on the bed stand between them. 

   When they asked me if I wanted to join them in a smoke, I said, “Thanks, but I don’t need one of my own. I’ll just breathe the air.”

   Our job in Chicago was smooth sailing, some old-time law office, but we hit a bump in the road in Des Moines. It was a downtown bank and the first day we started on the first floor, which was the lobby. Jose and I were cleaning and taping desks. He called me over to one of them. There was a kind of fancy doorbell button screwed to the well of the desk and wires coming and going to it. 

   “What we gonna do about this?” Jose asked.

   We were going to have to do something to be able to move it to the painting tarp. There were several screws that the wires were attached to. “Let’s make a drawing of where the wires go, unscrew them, and put them back later,” I suggested.

   “OK,” he said

   Five minutes later three police cars screamed up to the front doors and five seconds later a half dozen cops with guns drawn were bellowing, “Down on the floor, face down!” We couldn’t go flat fast enough. It got straightened out after a while but not before a stern warning from the peace officer in charge to stop messing around with alarm wires.

   Every night we drove down East Grand Ave. back to our motel near the State Fairgrounds. The streets were always deserted. We could have burgled anything we wanted. We navigated by the lit-up gold dome of the early-20th century Iowa State Capital building.

   OK City was a two-day job like Chicago. We didn’t like short jobs, so when we got to Texas, we were glad to unload our gear and settle in for two weeks. We were going to be working at the Kelly Springfield tire plant. The factory went back to 1962 and was on the order of a million square feet. A rail spur ran alongside an inside platform from one end to the other end of the factory, bringing raw materials in and hauling new tires away.

   The front offices were routine, all of them together, and no fuss about setting up and getting it done. The other offices were on the factory floor on raised platforms. It was where foremen worked. We had to wheel our gear there and carry it up. We got a platform-or-two done a night. We met Barry and Skip on one of them. They kept their eyes open on the down below. They got us acquainted with Tad, another one of the foremen, a friend of theirs who worked at ground level. He had gotten his legs shot out from under him at the Battle of Xuan Loc, the last major battle fought during the Vietnam War. He was discharged with a Purple Heart and a wheelchair.

   One night we had lunch just past midnight in the cafeteria with the three of them. I noticed all the white men were sitting at one end of the eatery and all the black men were sitting at the other end. The brown men and yellow men sat where nobody else wanted to. I knew black people were held in low esteem in Cleveland. They were held in no esteem in East Texas. If they weren’t outright hated, they were disliked and shunned. 

   “We can’t call them niggers no more, so we don’t,” Barry said. “But we don‘t got to eat with niggers. They can’t make us do that. Besides, they don’t want to eat with us either.” Their racism was a great time saver. They were busy men at work, home, and church. They could stick to their long-held beliefs without bothering about the facts.

   Barry invited us to go night fishing with them on their next day off. We had been at it at the plant for seven days and were ready for a day off. Barry picked us up in his GMC Sierra Grande pick-up. It had plush carpeting, a padded front seat, and an AM/FM radio. The only stations in town were AM. We listened to a radio minister whoop it up. Ralph sat up front with Barry and Skip and the gun rack. Jose and I hung on to Tad’s wheelchair strapped down to the bed of the truck.

   Their 28-foot deck boat was docked at Lake Palestine, west of Tyler. Besides rods and reels hooks bobbers sinkers and bait, they brought lots of ice and a couple hundred cans of Lone Star beer. They did their best to drink it all. We helped out but couldn’t keep up. 

   We fished for crappie and catfish. Tad was deadest on crappie and used minnows. There were more catfish than anything else. We drift fished for them using worms and chicken livers. Skip was targeting blue catfish using cut fish as bait. The best catfishing is done at night. Flats, river bars, shorelines, and weeds are good places to find them. 

   Everybody caught a load of everything, tossing them into five-gallon buckets half full of water. Tad forgot to chock his wheels and almost went over the side before Barry grabbed him by the nape, saving his neck.

   “We can’t have him yelling and splashing,” Barry said. “The number one rule of fishing is to be quiet. Don’t scare the fish!” We did some firefly and star gazing and lots of mosquito swatting. There was a full moon. I looked carefully and steadily for the Swamp Thing to surface, but he never did.

   The next day was Sunday. Barry invited us to his house for a fish fry. We ate our fill. The fish was fresh and tasty. The catfish weren’t as scary dead as alive, their heads cut off. Ralph had a Lone Star, but Jose and I had sworn off it for the Lord’s Day. The Texans were unfazed and drank their fill. Barry brought his family Bible out to the backyard. It was as big as a suitcase and had all the names of his known forebears inscribed on the inside cover.

   It was hot and swampy the day later. The tire factory was noxious, like it was every day. We were lucky to be working in the air-conditioned offices. There were enormous exhaust fans for the working men, but the only fresh air was the air that flowed from one end of the railroad tracks to the other through the big bay doors.

   The plant reeked of rubber, special oils, carbon black, pigments, silica, and an alphabet soup of additives. Banbury mixers mixed the raw materials for each compound into a batch of black material with the consistency of gum. It was processed into the sidewalls, treads, or other parts of the tire. The first thing to go on the building machine was the inner liner, a special rubber resistant to air and moisture penetration. It takes the place of an inner tube. Next came the body plies and belts, made from polyester and steel. Bronze-coated strands of steel wire, fashioned into hoops, were implanted into the sidewall of the tires to form a bead, so there was an airtight fit with the rim of the wheel. The tread and sidewalls were then put into position over the belt and body plies, and all the parts pressed firmly together. 

   The result was a green tire. The last step was to cure the tire. Working at the Kelly Springfield factory for two weeks cured me of any inclination I might have ever had about working for a tire manufacturer.

   The day before we were due to be done and gone, Barry found us and led us to the open west end of the track platform. He and Skip had rigged up a sail and mounted it to the back of Tad’s wheelchair. There was a stiff breeze blowing through the bay door heading due east from the other open bay door. “We got him some new rubber on those wheels of his,” Barry explained. “He wanted to give them a good test, so we arranged a scoot.”

   They pivoted the sail, Tad let go his chokehold on the wheels, and set off rolling down the platform. He picked up speed and we started walking fast. He picked up more speed and we started jogging. He picked up even more speed and we started running. Before long we couldn’t keep up and watched him becoming a crazy fast speck in the distance. 

   Then he disappeared.

   When we got to the other end of the plant and looked down from the platform to the railroad tracks below, we gawked at the runaway. He and his wheels were a mess. Tad had old rail grease all over his work shirt. He rolled off the overturned wheelchair and cursed up a storm. Barry and Skip jumped, got Tad back up to the platform, lifted his dented wheelchair, and set him back to rights. The sail was a shambles. They left it where it lay.

   “You sons of bitches ain’t going be doing that again anytime soon, believe you me,” Tad grumbled.

   We loaded up the next day and headed for Louisiana. It was a three-day job. We stayed at a motel with a pool and ate crawfish at a roadhouse next door. “You got to suck on the head first thing, before you peel the tail, honey,” our waitress said. We drank Falstaff beer kept cold in galvanized bins full of ice water and salt. We stayed an extra day for more crawfish and to hear a zydeco band everybody said was the best in the parish.

   The day we left for home was the hottest most humid day in the history of the world. We rolled up the windows and cranked up the air conditioning. Jose tucked himself in on the bunk behind us and was asleep in no time. I glanced back at him as we drove north up through Mississippi.

   “I’ll take the next turn at the wheel,” I told Ralph. “Jose is sleeping like a baby.”

   “That’s because he doesn’t have his baby here with him,” Ralph said. “He’ll be making noise on his old squeezebox soon enough.”

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.”

Rock Lobster

By Ed Staskus

   It wasn’t breaking news that Prince Edward Island was an island. It was old news that it hadn’t always been one. It was news to some folks who lived on the island, however. They weren’t overly concerned with the past. It wasn’t news to the lobsters who lived offshore. They had been around much longer than the fishermen, farmers, and townsfolk who plied their trade on sea and shore. The large crustaceans had seen it all.

   Lobsters didn’t have a trade or much else to do, other than eat anything and everything they could all day and night. They hated crabs and crabs hated them and it was the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s whenever the shellfish ran into each other. The lobsters were bigger badder more determined and three of their five pairs of legs were outfitted with claws. They usually carried the day. Might makes right.

   The land formed 250 million-some years ago, during the Permian period. Creeks and rivers deposited gravel, sand, and silt into what is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Before the last ice age, Prince Edward Island was connected to the mainland. After the glaciers melted it wasn’t connected anymore. It went its own way. The Northumberland Strait became what separates the island from the rest of Canada. 

   The number one rock ‘n’ roll band among the island’s lobsters was the B-52’s. They were the house band in their part of the world. Every lobster knew the lyrics to their ‘Rock Lobster’ song. The band had released it ten years earlier and when they did it shot up the shellfish charts, even though every single crab scorned it as gauche.

   “We were at the beach, everybody had matching towels, somebody went under a dock, and there they saw a rock, it wasn’t a rock, it was a rock lobster!” 

   Whenever a crab heard the song, it spit sideways and cursed. They were happy to see the island’s fishing boats go after their country cousins every May. They showed up at every harbor for the blessing of the fleet on Setting Day and shouted “Godspeed!” when the boats broke the waves. There was no love lost between crabs and lobsters.

   Even though lobsters could be mean as bad neighbors, all they really wanted to do was eat and have some fun afterwards.

   “Havin’ fun, bakin’ potatoes.”

   Prince Edward Island was known as Spud Island. It was no small potatoes when it came to the tuber. It was the smallest province but the top potato producing province in the country.

   “Boys in bikinis, girls in surfboards, everybody’s rockin’, everybody’s fruggin’.”

   Lobsters couldn’t move fast enough to frug, but it didn’t matter. They got into the spirit of the song. They lived in concord among themselves ten months out of the year, except when one of them happened to eat another one of them. Two months of the year all bets were off. That’s when the island’s lobster boats went hunting for them. That’s when the angels sang. They didn’t like it but what could they do?

   There were about 1200 boats sailing out of 45 harbors. More than three dozen boats came out of the North Rustico harbor alone. Every one of them was out to get them. Once fishermen got them their fate was sealed. Every lobster knew it in its bones, even though all they had was an exoskeleton. Their inner selves had no bones. They were going to be boiled alive and there was nothing they could do about it.

   Traps have escape vents to let shorts leave while it is still on the bottom. The under-sized lobsters who overstayed their welcome were thrown back into the ocean. Egg-bearing females were also thrown back. The female carried her eggs inside of her for about a year and then for about another year attached to the swimmerets under her tail. When the eggs hatch, the larvae float near the surface for about a month. The few that survive eventually sink to the bottom and develop as full-fledged shellfish. For every 50,000 eggs generated two lobsters survive to grow up and go rocking.

   Some diners wearing bibs argued that lobsters didn’t have a brain and so they couldn’t feel pain. They had probably never seen their tails twitch like the mosh pit when they got thrown into a pot of boiling water. They weren’t twitching to the beat of the B-52’s. Their brains might not amount to much, but they had a nervous system. They reacted to pain physically and hormonally. The hormone they released when dying was the same one that human beings release when hurt. Cortisol is cortisol. They would have screamed if they could.

   “How about coming down here with the rest of us,” they wanted to scream from the red hot mosh pit.

   The Prince Edward Island seafood industry considered lobster to be their crown jewel. It was a gourmet delicacy known for its tender juicy meat. But that was like getting the Medal of Honor when you weren’t around anymore to bask in the glory. The only consolation lobsters had was that their harvesters took care to manage their resource carefully. They didn’t pull up over many of them in their traps and kept the surrounding waters clean.

   It was a small consolation though. It only meant the fishermen were in it for the long haul and weren’t going to change their minds about snatching them anytime soon. The only consolation a lobster ever got was when somebody reached for it and the lobster was able to get the outstretched hand in its crusher claw.

   “We were at a party, his earlobe fell in the deep, someone reached in and grabbed it, it was a rock lobster!”

   When that happened, there was no quarter given. The lobster was going to sell its life dear. The human hand was going to pay dear for sticking its nose where it didn’t belong. It should have stayed where it was before it ever came to the island. What lobsters didn’t know was that fishermen came from the same place they did way back when and weren’t ever going back, even if they knew how. The sooner they got that through their thick heads the better.

   “Lots of trouble, lots of bubble, rock rock, rock lobster.”

Excerpted from “Blood Lines” 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.”

Mexican Stand-Off

By Ed Staskus

   My nephew Wyatt was smart enough to get admitted into St. Edward High School and scatterbrained enough to get suspended. He made it to graduation day by the skin of his teeth. He wasn’t so lucky at Cleveland State University. After one thing and another they told him he had to find another school. When he left, he forgot to take his “Get Out of Jail” card with him.

   St Ed’s is a Catholic high school in the Holy Cross tradition in Lakewood, Ohio. Thousands of young men apply to get in every year. A couple of hundred make it. Cleveland State University is a state school. So long as your high school grades make the grade you can get in, no problem. After he left, leaving his student housing apartment a disaster relief scene, he started looking for another place to live.

   He camped out at his sister’s apartment until she said he had to go. His father suggested an uncle. He stayed with his uncle until he told him he had to go. He stayed at my mother’s house, throwing parties for his friends whenever she broke a leg or had a stroke and was recovering at the Welsh Home in Rocky River. 

   When my brother asked me to throw some work his son’s way, I was of a mind to say no. It was almost the first thing I said. It was what I should have said. I had agreed to hire him to waterproof our basement walls and repaint the concrete floor a few months earlier. In the end it was such a makeshift effort that I spent almost as much time in the basement as he had patching things up.

   Every time I looked, he was easing himself down onto one of our lawn chairs and lighting up. He liked to smoke weed and cigarettes rather than attend to the work at hand. When he wasn’t blazing, he was talking on his cell phone. When I was done taking care of the splats runs and misses, I thought, that’s the last time.

   What I said, though, when my brother asked, was OK.

   I worked more-or-less full-time for Light Bulb Supply in Brook Park. There were no brooks or parks anywhere. The biggest greenspace was Holy Cross Cemetery, 240 acres of it, across the street. I went there for walks instead of taking lunch sometimes when the day was warm dry and sunny. The office work more-or-less paid the bills. It was a family business, however, and I wasn’t a part of the family. I wasn’t going to get anywhere by relying on their good will, of which there was little. It was like my paycheck, on the stingy side.

   I got ahead by repairing tanning equipment part-time, on my own time, stand-ups and beds at tanning salons, beauty salons, gyms, and people’s homes. Tanning was booming. I taught myself how to do it. My hourly rate was more, by far, than what Light Bulb Supply paid me. If it was an insurance job, I raised the price.

   Allstate Insurance sent me to Dearborn, Michigan to inspect a tanning bed that had been under water for a few days in a family’s basement rec room. They found out their sump pump had failed when they got home from vacation. I drove there on a Saturday, since it was going to be an all-day job getting there and back.

   Dearborn is just west of Detroit. and home to the most Muslims in the United States. It is also home to the largest mosque in the country. I got my signals crossed, missed the turn-off off I-75., and missed the mosque. When I got to Detroit and saw an exit for Dearborn St., I took it. When all I saw were bars churches funeral parlors beauty shops empty littered lots more bars and no white faces, I parked, found a phone booth, and called the folks with the soggy tanning bed.

   I told them where I thought I was.

   “Get back in your car and drive away from there right now,” the man of the house said. “It’s not safe.” There was no sense in tempting fate. I got back into my car, counted my blessings, and followed the Rouge River to Dearborn.

   I had a job at a big tanning salon in North Royalton south of Cleveland. There were some repairs involved and re-lamping 9 or 10 tanning beds. It was going to take Wyatt and me two or three days and nights. It took me closer to a week of nights and the weekend. Wyatt was supposed to re-lamp during the day while I did the repairs at night, except he only showed up once and didn’t finish even one of the tanning beds.

   One day he wasn’t feeling well. His stomach hurt. Another day his garage door broke with his car inside it. Another time he said he needed a mental health day. The last day before I told him not to bother anymore, an asteroid smashed through his roof. In the end I chalked it up to experience.

   “Nobody wants to hire me,” he complained, one of his many Millennial complaints. He thought he could get the job done without going to work. He liked to say, “I don’t want to be tied down.” He didn’t want to be another cog in the wheel. There was little chance of that.

   My mother and brother both asked my sister to let him move into her house. They knew well enough to not ask me. She had the space but was reluctant. She and her husband had split up. He moved out and stayed out on the road working as a long-haul trucker. Her daughter had left for Miami University and after graduation struck out on her own. There were two empty bedrooms.

   She told my brother she had reservations, especially since everybody knew Wyatt wasn’t just popping pills and smoking weed. He was selling pills and weed to anybody and everybody. She didn’t want a drug dealer in her house.

   “He doesn’t have anywhere else to go,” my brother said.

   “What about your house?”

   “Sharon doesn’t want him in our house.” Sharon was my brother’s wife, Wyatt’s foster mother. She was a schoolteacher. Wyatt had been in her class during middle school. She knew what he was up to.

   Wyatt was arrested in 2015 strolling down Detroit Rd. on the Cleveland side of the border in the middle of the night. He was puffing on a stogie-sized spliff. He was packing pills in his pockets and having a high old time. A year later he went to court and was rewarded with intervention instead of jail time. My brother spent a fortune sending him to assessment counseling treatment and prevention classes. I drove Wyatt to the classes now and then. He was as repentant as a cottonmouth.

   When he moved into my sister’s house, he brought clothes, shoes, and a safe. He moved into one of the vacant bedrooms. My brother paid his $200.00 rent occasionally. He kept his clothes within easy reach and his shoes on display.

   “He thought nothing about buying $150.00 tennis shoes,” my sister said.

   She didn’t ask what he kept in the safe. She didn’t want to know. One day she noticed one of the floorboards had been pried up and put back in place. When she looked under the board, she saw a stash. She put the board back in its place. Boys and girls drove up to her curb day and night. When they did Wyatt ran outside, handed them something through their open car window, and they gave him something in return.

   He texted his girlfriend a photograph of tens twenties fifties fanned out across his bed cover. “Top of the world,” he seemed to be saying. When he was done, he neatly packed the dough up and put it back in his safe.

   My sister had told Wyatt, “No friends in the house.” A week later, pulling into her driveway after work, she saw more than twenty boys and girls on her front porch and front steps. Two of them were sprawled across a railing. They were waiting for Wyatt. My sister called my brother.

   “Get over here and tell your son’s friends to leave.” 

   I happened to be driving by and stopped to see what was going on with the crowd on the front porch. When I asked if they were waiting for somebody, one of the youngsters on the railing said, “We are the ones we’re waiting for.” I assumed it was a smarmy Millennial trope and left when I saw my brother’s car coming down the street.

   When Wyatt came home, she asked him, “What do you not understand about no friends?”

   He was terrific about explaining and apologizing. Before he was done my sister cried uncle. “Just don’t let it happen again,” she said. It happened again and again. Wyatt was sincerely insincere when he had to be.

   The driveway was defined by the two houses on its sides. It wasn’t a wide driveway by any means. There was a grass strip on the neighbor’s side but no buffer on the other side. Fortunately, Wyatt drove a compact car. Unfortunately, he had forgotten what he learned in driver’s ed. He bounced off the house several times, denting his car, and ripping siding off the side.

   He liked to text my sister, asking if she needed anything done around the crash pad. When he mixed up the driveway and house he texted her, promising to fix it right away. He never did. He never did anything else, either, except breaking in through the back kitchen window whenever he locked himself out. Every time he did my sister had to replace the screen. One of the neighbors called the Lakewood Police Department when he saw one of the break-ins, but Wyatt was able to explain it away.

   After the intervention went bust, Wyatt was arrested again and charged with drug possession, possessing criminal tools, and a trafficking offense. He pled guilty since the cops had the goods on him. His charm good looks and a sharp enough lawyer carried the day. He was ordered to be drug tested on a week-to-week basis. It was what saved the day for my sister.

   She wanted Wyatt gone but didn’t know how to get it done. He was a blood relative and needed a place to live, even though he wasn’t willing to do what it takes to possess an apartment and stock the shelves. It was a stand-off. My mother and brother insisted there wasn’t anywhere else he could go. He had burned one bridge too many. She bit the bullet, but it tasted bitter.

   The magic bullet turned out to be the court-mandated drug-testing Wyatt was obliged to undergo. When spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall, Wyatt fell over his tennis shoe laces and tested positive. It might mean the slammer. It meant he was packing up, shoes and safe and all. It meant my sister could slam and lock the door the minute he left, which is what she did, for good reason.

   Ohio law enforcement has the power to seize cash and property involved in drug trafficking. Asset seizures and forfeitures are a crime deterrent and a tool to take down drug trafficking, policemen say. “We generally seize assets that are believed to be the fruits of drug trafficking or used to facilitate the crime of drug trafficking,” Paul Saunders, a senior police official, said. “The courts have a litany of rules that are applied to each case to determine whether assets will be forfeited.”

   The last thing my sister needed was to have her home taken away from her because of somebody else’s bad behavior. Fortunately, no searchlights were searching for her. She went back to watering her lawn, walking her dogs, and watching “Law and Order” on TV. When the crime drama wrapped everything up on a happy note, she went to bed snug as a bug with nobody to bug her.

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.”

Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

   Everything happened when Eva and Nick got out of whack and the adventure rides burned down, although most of it happened before that. It started when Eva Giedraityte, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married Nicolae Goga, a handsome Romanian man. She turned 18 the day of the wedding. He was 28. She made up her own mind about it. They had to elope, crossing the state line, finding a justice of the peace in a used-up roadside Indiana town.    

   Afterwards, the day after the fire, Eva and Sammy and Agnes walked to Euclid Avenue and flagged down a three-wheel bicycle peddling Louie Kaleal’s Checker Bar ice cream. When the skinny black man opened the box on the back of the bike white smoke from dry ice poured out. Agnes made sure she ate all of her ice cream while it was still cold in the sugar cone.

   Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Sammy and she stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of the upstairs front bedroom, she remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how Sammy and Eva and she looked over the tops of the trees, watching the fire on the far lakeshore.

   They didn’t know what was going up in oily clouds of orange-gray smoke, finding out only the next morning when Eva showed them a front-page photograph about it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

   Agnes snuck a peek at her mother getting out of the car across the street where she had parked and let them out, walking flatfooted on the icy driveway, and knocking on Anna MacAulay’s side door. She glanced back over her shoulder, waving them towards the house with black shutters and red front door where she and Sammy had grown up. Eva wanted them to talk Nick into giving her a divorce, even after he had said no more than a thousand times. She wanted to marry somebody else, an ex-military policeman from Rochester who was their father now, more-or-less.

   Eva’s grandparents from the old country didn’t approve of Nicolae from the beginning, even though he got medals for shooting Commie’s in Korea. That’s why Eva and Nick had to elope. Grandma and grandpa were stern and unforgiving. When they made tracks out of Lithuania during the war, not dying of bombs bullets hunger exhaustion, they made it. They never talked much about it, about the hardships they faced. They stayed stone-faced about it.

   When they were growing up, Agnes and Sammy didn’t see their grandparents for a long time. They had disowned Eva. Even when they were finally allowed, they hardly ever saw them because they still didn’t want to see their faithless daughter. It didn’t look like their new man was in the running either, even though he was Catholic instead of Lutheran.

   “Come on, bub,” Agnes said, starting up the walk.

   “Don’t call me bub,” Sammy said, slouching behind her with a long face.

   “I told you I don’t like you doing that,” she said, tugging him up hard by the back of the collar.

   “You’re a stick,” he grunted, pulling away.

   “What does that mean?”

   Agnes was upset when she thought of the Surprise House burning down, the signal flags on top of the roof on fire, and sick to her stomach when she remembered not knowing Euclid Beach Park hadn’t closed for the season when she was ten years old but closed for good. She found out the next summer, the summer before the fire, when school let out and Eva told them, and later said they would go to Williamsburg for a family vacation, instead.

   But they didn’t go to Williamsburg, so they never saw the reenactments she heard about from Sandy next door, who had gone there three times, just like they never went back to Euclid Beach Park. They went to Fredericksburg, instead, where Nick played golf at the country club while Sammy and she dragged after Eva sightseeing sunburned Civil War battlefields and staring up at the fancy plaster ceilings of the Kenmore Plantation.

   When Sammy complained the long four-day weekend that his head was hot and his neck hurt, Eva pointed to the plank floor in a dusty corner of the plantation house beneath a high window.

   “Lay down for a few minutes,” she said.

   When Agnes and she got back from the foursquare garden behind the house, he was curled up on his side asleep.

   “Did you know this was George Washington’s older sister’s house?” Agnes said as they walked to the car.

   “She wasn’t older,” he said.

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

   The winter before Sammy was born her mother told Agnes she was making a little friend for her to play with. By the time summer came she was ready to tell her mother he wasn’t what she really wanted.

   “I can’t play with him. Can you take him back?”

   But Eva never did, even though Agnes asked again.

   “I’m hungry. Can’t we go to Williamsburg? I don’t like it here, eating dried strawberries all the time,” Sammy said.

   “Your father told you it’s too far,” Eva said.  

   Agnes remembered thinking, why are we in Fredericksburg? Everybody goes to Williamsburg, not Fredericksburg. Why didn’t we go there?

   Eva was born in Noorkoping, south of Stockholm, after her parents made their getaway from Lithuania. The Germans were invading and since there was Jewish blood in the family, and since everybody knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews, they stepped on the gas. Their grandfather was an import export up-and-comer and had a car. Their grandmother was a high school teacher. They left everything behind, drove to Estonia in the middle of the retreating Red Army, and from there found a boat to Sweden.

   When the family got to America after the war, they first lived in Pittsburgh, but it was too dirty. They had to keep all the windows in the house closed all the time. They moved to Cleveland the next year. Grandpa got a job in the Collinwood Rail Yards and worked days there the rest of his life. Grandma got a job at Stouffers making frozen food and worked nights there the rest of her life.

   One of them was always at home to watch the kids.

   Nick worked for Palmer Bearings, downtown on Prospect Avenue, on the backside of the angle before E. 46th St. He was vice-president of sales, which meant he went to all the steel factories in the Flats and to lunch most days on Short Vincent. When he wasn’t working, he was on golf courses on all three sides of town. He played afternoons with clients and weekends with clubhouse men and his private friends, but not with their neighbors. 

   He said they were different, the neighbors. Eva didn’t know what he meant. He never invited them over for dinner, either.

   By then Eva’s first-born sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited them over for picnics or holidays. She had grandpa and grandma blood in her. They had four children, all around Agnes and Sammy’s age. They hardly ever saw them. One day Eva went to their house to pick something up and she took Sammy and Agnes with her in their Mercedes convertible. It was a fun ride, the ragtop down. Their aunt made them wait in the garage, shuffling in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be a Lithuanian relic she wanted Eva to deliver to an old lady who lived near them.

   When Agnes saw her at the door, Eva handing her the box, she thought, “She’s like a relic herself, why does she need more old stuff?”

   Eva got married on the first day she could, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1959. She and Nick met on the main stage of the Karamu House, auditioning for an amateur production of a play called “The Glass Menagerie.” They didn’t get the parts but got each other.

   She got hitched because her three sisters slept in the second bedroom while she slept on a daybed in the kitchen, because her mother was always telling her what to do, and because she was a free spirit. She had to get away from it all. She meant away from her stiff-necked mom and dad and her no bedroom and the old neighborhood, the church, and the community hall where she wasn’t happy anymore.

   Sammy and Agnes hardly knew their grandparents, although they knew a little, about how grandma’s sense of humor was top-secret, and grandpa was missing in action because he worked nights for the New York Central.

   Eva loved Nick the minute they met, and only waited until the day she was one minute older than she had to be to get married. She wanted her own bed in her own room. She wanted her own family.

   Nick’s parents weren’t alive anymore. His father was shot dead by robbers and his mother died after Eva put her foot down and she had to move out of their house to an old folk’s home. They were buried in Woodland Cemetery where Nick left plastic flowers every spring.

   The summer Sammy and Agnes started going to Euclid Beach Park, their grandparents went on vacation, and when no one else could watch their dog, Eva volunteered. She fed watered walked the dog every day. One day her older sister stopped by and when she opened the side door, the dog, surprised, ran out. Eva chased him down the street to Lakeshore Boulevard, but it was too late. A car hit the dog and he died. Her parents didn’t speak to her even more than they hadn’t before that for even longer.

   When they went to Euclid Beach Park, racing down Lakeshore Boulevard since Eva had a lead foot, she dropped them off, and told them exactly when she was going to be back. They were to wait for her just outside the main entrance gate arch, which looked like a gigantic letter H, so she could pick them up without having to get lost in the parking lot.

   The arch was underneath an old dusty giant pin oak tree. They knew it was an oak because acorns littered the grass, and knew it was a pin oak because it had pointy leaves. Sammy said it was five hundred years old, but what did he know?

   Admission into the amusement park was free. They just walked in, like magic. Eva always gave them enough money for fizzy drinks, popcorn balls, and two-dozen rides. She gave them bananas, too.

   “A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into their pockets with quarters dimes nickels.

   The first thing they did was run through the park to the Rocket Ships. Moving fast through the arch, they could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was beneath the second-floor platform.

   “Just in case we lose all our money, or something bad happens, this way at least I’ll know I was on my favorite ride,” Sammy always said.

   The Rocket Ships were three shiny aluminum spaceships that flew fifty feet up in the air over Lake Erie as they whirled around a twice high tower. Sammy said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but Agnes wouldn’t ride the silver ships because she heard one of them had broken its support chains once and been hurled into the lake.

   None of the riders was ever seen alive again.

   After Sammy was finished flying around and cooling himself off, they rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first, Agnes was afraid of them, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW bus neighborhood hippie boys took them to the amusement park one afternoon.

   “It’s not what you think, it’s not the giant slide,” they said. “On the slide you can see everything ahead, everything that might happen, and that’s scary. On a roller coaster you never know what’s going to happen next. You can’t see that far ahead. It’s like a Zen pop. It’s the best ride because it’s always right now.”

   The Thriller was an out-and-back coaster with part of it running along Lake Shore Boulevard. They could see the tiny roofs of the cars on the road from the top of the first rise, just before they tipped plunging and screaming. The last hill was so steep they couldn’t help not standing up as they careened down, pressing against the lap bar.

   It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Everybody knew so. Coming into the station once the train behind came in too soon and rear-ended the other, and the cargo of boys and girls got banged up. The next day the platform was fixed, and it looked like nothing had happened. Sammy and Agnes found out they stored different shades of secret paint so that when they repaired the coasters and tracks, they could paint them so they all looked worn the same way, and no one could tell that anything bad had ever happened. 

    The more Agnes rode the coasters the more she liked them. They were like the peanut butter maker at Holiday Sands, twisting in the sky but bigger. She loved the sound of the wood trestles groaning and heaving on the turns. Even though she thought the riding might take her somewhere, it only ever took her back to where she started.

   The Racing Coasters were next to the Thriller. They were a double out-and-back, running beside the first leg of the Thriller, and there were two separate continuous tracks, the blue cars racing against the red cars. The ride ended on the other side of the station, everybody screaming their last go-go-go’s as it slowed down.

   The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. They were scary loose nerve-wracking. The trains were freewheeling. “It’s a coaster without tracks!” Sammy liked to tell anyone who would listen, even though he had to sneak on, since he was smaller than the yardstick beside the gate.

   The cars weren’t attached to the track. The train careened in a bobsled trough, threatening to overturn at any second. There were only three toboggan-like cars for every train and only two rode in any one car, one directly in front of the other, white-knuckling the snap-of-the-whip turns.

   On “Nickel Days” they rode the Tea Cups between turns on the coasters, which were a four-table cup ride, like a Crazy Daisy. They spun in circles and looked like they would slam into each other any minute, but always missed by a sliver. Getting into a teacup one day Sammy found a plastic baggie tucked into the bench seat. A man with a ponytail came back before the ride started and asked if they had found anything.

   “It’s my happy weed,” he said when Sammy handed it to him.

   Walking around the park they munched on Humphrey’s Candy Kiss salt-water taffy and bought pictures of their favorite stars at the movie star photo booth. They yukked it up riding the black-light Laff-in-the-Dark and got soaked to the bone on Over the Falls.

   They steered clear of the Surprise House until the end of the day, not because it was bloodcurdling, which it was, but because of Laffing Sal, right outside the entrance, cackling her face off inside a glass case. Her hips gyrated like a hula hoop and she never stopped her nutty squeaky helter-skelter laughing talking.

   She had blazing red hair and shiny dead eyes in a head that jerked side-to-side back-and-forth. They tried to not look at her bloated painted face. It was too much.

   The front of the Surprise House was painted lime green and purple. It glowed lurid-like in the sun. The sign above the arch framing the doors was yellow with black letters. They had to give seven tickets to the bow-tied operator at the booth. He put the tickets on a conveyor belt that carried them to a chopper that shredded them.

   Once they walked in, through a fog cloud, right away around the corner was a screen door puzzle. Only one of all the doors was really a door and while they searched for it, all the doors banged open and shut so loud all around them it was baffling.

   When they found the right one, they walked into a narrow room full of rock formations and wild animals running up-and-down the rocks. The floor suddenly became a moving floor, zooming up and down and sliding side to side. The wall beside the moving floor was glass and people outside the Surprise House watched and laughed as they struggled to not fall down, much less walk.

   At the far end of the floor was a giant Grandfather Clock. When they got to it a spotted snake sprang at them from cuckoo doors beneath the clock face. Jumping away sideways from the ugly thing they had to run through a rolling barrel to get away.

   Most of the Surprise House was a maze of moving floors and stairways leading to elevated platforms, creaking doors, and dead ends. One room was so weirdly slanted sideways that just standing was all-in-all defying gravity.

   Pitch-black hallways led from one room to the next. Excruciating screams filled the air and loud knocking on the floors and ceiling overhead drummed in the darkness. There were siren whoops and unexpected clangs near and far. Blasts of air from secret holes hit them in the face coming around corners, and they never knew when a wind gust would blow up their shorts from the floor.

   At the end of one passageway were three porky sailor boys with tin whistles in their mouths. When they stepped up to them, they blew their whistles in their faces. When they stopped at a window to see a fireman with a hose, he whirled around and sprayed, except the spray hit the window, not them, jumping back in alarm. At a wishing well when they looked down into the water, they could see themselves as though they were looking at themselves from behind. 

   At the far end was a distortion mirror maze they had to find their way through to get out of the Surprise House. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed them like screwball bubble gum.

   After all the strange moving floors and dark and noise it was a shock to step through the exit on the quiet side of Laffing Sal and suddenly stand blinking in the sunlight with people strolling by not knowing anything about what they had just been through. Sammy and Agnes were sad and excited at the same time, not sure what to do next.

   When the park announced closing time and everyone was on their way out an army of skunks came waddling up from the beach palisades, hard on their heels, eating the litter and discarded goodies. They threw banana peels at them and watched the skunks drag the peels away. They meowed like cats with sore throats.

   They didn’t know the last time they stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed their leftovers away as they walked to the arch and Eva’s convertible that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. They didn’t know Eva was going to leave soon and not come back, either

   She and Nick started arguing when she started going to college. When she got a job, it got worse. After that it never got better.

   “Why do you need to work?” he asked her. “We have enough money. You don’t need to work. Stay home and take care of the family, for Christ’s sake.”

   But Eva was sick of asking him for money all the time, not just for groceries, but for everything, for her clothes, nice things for the house, and just everything. She got sick of him, too, of him always telling her what and what not to do.

   They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and over dinner and late at night when the Sammy and Agnes were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument in the living room because Eva had stayed out the day before until four in the morning.

   “We were at Reuben’s house,” she explained. “Nothing happened. I just lost track of time.”

   She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where Nick and Eva had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took Agnes’s hand when she saw her backstage.

   “Nothing went on,” Eva said. “We went to the Playhouse and saw “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” that’s all, and then we were at their house afterwards, talking.”

   “Gamma Rays? What are you talking about?” Nick went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over.

   He thought Eva had done something behind his back. He didn’t say what, although Sammy and Agnes could tell from his face it must have been wrong. When Eva went into the kitchen Nick followed her.

   She stepped into the hall and went up the stairs. They could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in different languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Eva came running down the stairs out the front door and to Anna MacAulay’s house. Nick came downstairs after she was gone and told them everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared into the ravine. He looked unhappy, like he had lost his golf clubs and fancy spiked shoes.

   When they went upstairs, they looked into their parent’s bedroom and saw a hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. They found out later Nick had thrown it at Eva but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when Eva came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Agnes liked that about her mom, keeping the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and they could eat off the floor if they wanted to.

   Their father said he was going to call Sears about fixing the bedroom wall, but he never did. He just left the hole to fester. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing.

   Anna MacAulay came over the next day when Nick was at work. She always just walked into the house. Nick hated that. She and Eva talked for a long time. When they were done talking Eva packed her bags.

   Looking up across the sidewalk at their house on Christmas Eve, Agnes thought she had probably known all along that her mother was going to leave her father, but back then surprises still upset her. Eva was going to marry the new man from Rochester, one way or another. There was no surprise about that. Agnes was going to do her best to help out.

   “If I can get my divorce,” Eva said, “we’ll have enough money to send you to Germany when you’re done with junior high.” Agnes hated her junior high and was sure she would hate high school. One of her aunts had gone to Vasario 16-osios, the Lithuanian high school in Germany.

   “You can stay summers with your grandfather’s sister in Diepholz,” her aunt Banga, Eva’s youngest sister, said. “She enjoys bringing food to the table. She’ll fatten you up a little. You can go to Italy with your friends. You’ll love it. When you come back, I’ll take you to Dainava.”

   She could go to summer camp the talk of the town, not a nobody, not like the first time, when they told her to leave. Agnes knew she would keep her word. She was her favorite aunt. She was her mother’s favorite sister. Banga means “Little Wave,” washing over you but not knocking you down.

   Going to school in Europe would be the kind of surprise Agnes could handle.

   “Come on, bub,” she said, taking Sammy’s hand when he reached for hers, and they started up the icy chancy sidewalk.

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.”

Over a Barrel

By Ed Staskus

   The summer day in the late 1960s when I walked across the Rainbow Bridge was stormy. I had gotten there by leaving the driving to Greyhound. The driver wore a uniform. It made him look like a mix of state trooper and doorman. Since the bus had no acceleration to speak of, he drove all-out all the way from Cleveland, Ohio to Niagara Falls, New York. We passed sports cars and muscle cars.

   The driver sat high up with a vista vision view of the highway. The transmission was a hands-on four-speed. There were four instruments on the other side of the steering wheel, a speedometer, air pressure gauge for the brakes, oil pressure gauge, and a water temperature gauge.

   When I stepped foot on the Canadian side it wasn’t raining, yet. The Border Service officer asked me where I was from, where I was going, for how long, and waved me through without any more fuss. I found the bus station and bought a ticket for Toronto, where I was going. I was going to visit a girl, Grazina, who I had met at Ausra summer camp on Wasaga Beach a couple of years earlier.

   It rained hard all the way there, past Hamilton and Mississauga on the Queen Elizabeth Way, until I got to the big city, when the clouds parted, and the sun came out. Everything smelled clean. I picked up a map of the bus and subway system and found my way to my friend Paul’s house. His family was friends with my family.

   The Kolyciai lived in a two-story brick row house off College St. near Little Italy. I was polite to his parents and ignored his two younger sisters. I roomed with Paul, but ditched him every morning after breakfast, hopping a bus to Grazina’s house. It wasn’t far, 5-or-so minutes south near St. John the Baptist. Lithuanians bought the church from Presbyterians in 1928 and redesigned it in the Baltic way in 1956.

   Grazina met me on the front porch and took me on a guided tour of Toronto. We went by foot, red and white streetcar, and the underground. We looked the city over from the observation deck on top of City Hall and went to the waterfront. We strolled around Nathan Philips Square. We had strong tea and scones at an outdoor café. Grazina popped in and out of shops on Gerrard St. checking out MOD fashions. At the end of the day, I was so tired I begged off a warmed-over dinner back at my home away from home and fell into bed.

   The next morning Grazina had a surprise for me. We were going to a funeral. 

   “Who died?” I asked.

   “Nobody I know and for sure nobody you know,” she said.

   She was dressed for death, all in black. I wasn’t, wearing blue jeans and a madras shirt. We stopped at a second-hand clothes store. I bought a black shirt, so I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

   “Why are we going to this funeral?” I asked.

   “Because it’s Friday and it’s a Greek funeral.”

   I was an old hand at funerals, having doled out incense at many of them when I was an altar boy at St George’s in the old neighborhood in Cleveland. I had only ever been to Lithuanian services. Because it’s a Friday and a Greek funeral were obscure reasons to me, but I was willing to go along.

   Toronto was full of immigrants. Immediately after the war war-time brides and children fathered by Canadian soldiers showed up. Post-WW2 DP Italians, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Balts and Central Europeans poured in. In 1956 after Soviet tanks rolled through Budapest, Hungarians came over. During the next decade there were many family reunification arrivals. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the old-stock British-Canadianism of Toronto was being slowly transformed.

   The church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox, in the former Clinton Street Methodist building, was back up Little Italy way. We got on a bus. A priest sporting a shaggy beard, Father Pasisios, was at the helm. He wore a funny looking hat. The church was small on the outside but big on the inside. We sat quietly in the back. When it was over, I finally asked Grazina, “Why are we here?”

   “For the repast.”

   “What’s that?”

   “Food, usually a full meal.”

   “Doesn’t your family feed you?”

   “It’s not that,” she said. “I went to a Romanian funeral with a friend a few months ago, and they served food afterwards, and it was great, food I had never had before. After a while I started going to different funerals whenever I could, always on Fridays, Sicilian, Czechoslovakian, Macedonian, so that I could taste their national food.”

   “How do you know where to go?”

   “I read the death notices in the newspaper.”

   I had heard of wedding crashers, but never a funeral crasher.

   The repast was at a nearby community hall. When asked, Grazina told both sides of the family she was distantly related to the other side, speaking out of the side of her mouth. “Memory eternal” is what she said next, shaking a hand. She knew the lingo. The lunch was delicious, moussaka, mesimeriano, and gyros. We had coffee and baklava for dessert. By the time we left we were loaded for bear.

   We went to Yorkville and hung around the rest of the day. There were coffee houses and music clubs all over Yonge and Bloor Streets. The neighborhood went back to the 1830s when it was a suburban retreat. Fifty years later it was annexed by the city of Toronto and until the early 1960s was quaint quiet turf. Then it morphed ed into a haven of counterculture.

   “An explosion of youthful literary and musical talent is appearing on small stages in smoky coffee houses, next to edgy art galleries and funky fashion boutiques offering trendy garb, blow-up chairs, black light posters and hookah pipes, all housed in shabby Victorian row houses,” The Toronto Star said.

   It was fun roaming around hopscotching ducking in and out, even though a police paddy wagon was parked at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville. There had been love-ins, sit-ins, and so-called “hippie brawls” in recent years. Some of the town’s poohbahs were up in arms. The politician Syl Apps said the area was a “festering sore in the middle of the city.” There were wide-eyed teenagers and tourists, hippies and bohemians, hawkers and peddlers, and sullen-looking bikers.

   A young man was slumped on the sidewalk, leaning dazed against a storefront. An old woman wearing a babushka and walking with a cane walked slowly carefully past him. I couldn’t tell who was more over a barrel.

   We weren’t able to get into the Riverboat Coffeehouse, which wasn’t really a coffeehouse, but a club with the best music. We peeked through the porthole windows but all we saw were shadows. The Mynah Bird featured go-go dancers in glass cases outside the second floor. We saw Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins do back flips across the stage doing guitar solos at Le Coq d’Or.

   Starvin’ Marvin’s Burlesque Palace was somewhere upstairs, but we didn’t go there. All the clubs were small, and most of the doors open. We sat on curbs and heard a half-dozen bands. We stayed until midnight. By the time I got back to Paul’s house I was dead tired again and fell into bed.

   The sky Saturday was clear and bright over Lake Ontario, so we went to the Toronto Islands. We took the Sam McBride ferry and rented bikes. There were no cars or busses. We stopped at the new Centreville Amusement Park on Middle Island and rode the carousel. When we found a beach we changed, threw down a towel, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in the sun. We had bananas and threw the peels to the seagulls, who tore them apart and downed them like it was their last meal.

   Grazina invited me over for dinner. She told me her mom was a bad cook, but I went anyway. She set the table while her mom brought platters of cepelinai, bacon and sour cream on the side, serving them piping hot and covered with gravy. They were fit for a king.

   The next morning was Sunday. After going to mass with Grazina and her family I caught a bus for home. At the border I waited my turn to answer the Border Patrol man’s questions. I had all the answers except one. When he asked me for I. D., I said I didn’t have any.

   “How did you get into Canada?”

   “I walked over the bridge.”

   “Didn’t they ask you for I. D.?”

   “No,” I said.

   “Jesus Christ! Well, you can’t come into the United States without identification.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and had been to Canada many times since for summer camps. But I never concerned myself with the legalities. I left that to whoever was driving the car, my parents, or somebody else’s parents.

   I was speechless. Distress must have showed on my face. The Border Patrol man told me to call my parents and ask them to bring identification. It sounded like a good idea, except that it wasn’t. My father was out of town on business and my mother worked at a supermarket. Even if she was willing, she had never driven a car that far alone in her life.

    “Is there any place I can stay?”

   “Do you have any money?

   “Just enough for a bus ticket home.”

   He said Jesus again a few times and finally suggested what he called a “hippie flophouse” on Clifton Hill. He gave me directions and I found it easily enough. I used the pay phone to call my mother, reversing the charges. After she calmed down, she said she would send what I needed the next morning by overnight mail. I was in for two nights of roughing it.

   The flophouse was an old motel advertising “Family Rates.” It was next to a Snack Bar selling hot dogs and pizza by the slice. There were young guys and gals loitering lounging smoking pot in the courtyard. One of them offered me a pillow and the floor. I accepted on the spot before he drifted down and out. It was better than sleeping in the great outdoors.

   I spent the next day exploring Niagara Falls. There were pancake houses and waffle houses. There were magic museums and wax museums There were arcades and Ripley’s Odditorium. I took a walk through the botanical gardens and to Horseshoe Falls.

   The Horseshoe Falls were tilting water over the edge like there was no tomorrow. The American Falls had been shut down by the Army Corp of Engineers to study erosion and instability. They built a 600-foot dam across the Niagara River, which meant 60,000 gallons of water a second were being diverted over the larger Canadian waterfall. It was loud and mist floated up into my face. 

   The Niagara River drains into Lake Ontario. We lived in Cleveland half-a-block from Lake Erie. If I threw myself into the river, I would have to swim upstream all the way to Buffalo before I could relax and float home. The practical side of me discarded the idea.

   Lots of people go over the falls. The first person to not do it was Sam Patch, better known as the Yankee Leaper, who jumped 120 feet from an outstretched ladder down to the base of the falls. He survived, but many of the daredevils didn’t.

   The first person to successfully take the plunge in a barrel was schoolteacher Annie Taylor in 1901. Busted flat, she thought up the stunt as a way of becoming rich and famous. The first thing she did was build a test model, stuff her housecat into it, and throw it over the side. When the cat made it unscathed, she adapted a person-sized pickle barrel and shoved off. It was her birthday. She told everybody she was 43, although she was really 63.

   After she made it with only bumps and bruises, she became notorious, but missed out on riches. Everybody said she should have sold tickets, but it was Monday morning quarterbacking. She never tried it again. Two years later the professional baseball player Ed Delahanty tried it while stinking drunk and died.

   About thirty people perish going over the falls every year. Most of them are suicides. 

   The last person by 1969 to go over the falls with the intention of staying alive was Nathan Boya in 1960 in a big rubber ball nicknamed the “Plunge-O-Sphere.” When it hit the rocks at the bottom it bounced and bounced, but he was uninjured. Nobody but the absolutely serious about ending it all had tried it since then. 

   I got my official papers on Tuesday, dutifully displayed them at the border, and walked into the United States. I sat in the back of the Greyhound bus and stretched my legs out. When it lumbered off, I took a look back, but it was all a slow-motion blur.

   Grazina and I wrote letters to one another that winter until we didn’t. We slowly ran out of words and by the next summer were all out of them. She was enrolled in university full-time while I was working half the year and going to Cleveland State University the other half of the year. She found a boyfriend and I found an apartment on the near east side of town.

   It was a few years later that Henri Rechatin, his wife Janyck, and friend Frank Lucas went across the Niagara River near the downstream whirlpool on a motorcycle, riding the cables of the Spanish Aero Car. The friend piloted the motorcycle while Henri and Janyck balanced on attached perches. Since they didn’t have passports, when they got to the far side, they hauled the motorcycle and themselves into the aero car and rode back in comfort.

   The police were waiting. They were arrested for performing a dangerous act, but formal charges were never filed. They were free to go. For my part, I made sure to always have something official with my picture on it whenever I went anywhere after that. Getting stuck in no man’s land is captivating for only so long. 

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.”

Escape Velocity

By Ed Staskus

   Before Agnes ever went to the Surprise House at Euclid Beach, the city fun park, she went to Holiday Sands. It was her little brother and her friends. It was her mother Eva and their neighbor Anna MacAulay. It was old times and new times all mixed up together. Years later she thought they might have been the best times she ever had in her life. 

   They went from when she was a small girl, right after Sammy was potty-trained and she was five years old. They car-pooled with the MacAulay’s since they had a summer pass and an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser that fit all of them. Olds called the car the “Escape Machine.” Eva made most of the food for the day the night before and the rest of it early in the morning. She baked Texas sheet cake with buttermilk in the chocolate batter and cream cheese frosting. Anna brought puffed Cheez Doodles. Sometimes they had barbecue chicken and other times hamburgers on the grill, and grapes, watermelon, lemonade, and Eva’s new drink, Diet Pepsi. 

   She kept cases of it in the pantry, even though it made her husband Nick mad. “You’re flushing all my money down the toilet,” he complained. She popped a can open as soon as he went to work. Eva Giedraityte knew when to stay behind Nick Goga’s back. It hadn’t always been that way, but that’s the way it had gone.

   Anna was Eva’s best friend on the hill. They saw each other every day and talked on the telephone the rest of the time. They lived across the street from one another on Hillcrest Drive in the Euclid Villas. Nick called their telephone the blower. “All that talk is just blowing hot air through the wires,” he said. Eva didn’t like that. She wanted to call him a blowhard but bit her tongue.

   In the morning when the coolers and picnic baskets were full and they were ready to go they ran to the yellow car, begging Eva to hurry up. Holiday Sands was in Ravenna, a place Eva called the armpit of Cleveland, even though it was where she got her blue and white china with snow scenes on it. It was a long drive and Agnes’s best friend Marcia and she sometimes lost track of where they were because they sat in the rear-facing third seat playing category abc’s.

   Anna and Eva sat in the front talking non-stop, Eva’s arm stuck out the window, Anna steering with one hand and smoking Pall Malls. Sammy wriggled to get next to one of the windows so he wouldn’t have to sit between Diane and Michelle. They were the other MacAulay girls. Marcia and Agnes watched the road going backwards. When they heard gravel crunching, they knew they were finally there and twisted around towards the wormy green wood walls, the signs saying, ‘Stop, Pay Ahead’ and ‘Positively No Cameras’ and the run-down guardhouse leaning sideways.  

   Once they got there none of them could remember getting out of the car or into their bathing suits, only the next thing they knew they were in front of the mirrors outside the bathhouse. They drank water at the frog fountain and ran to the cement edge of the lake, walking around to the beach side and the sand playground, while their mothers spread out blankets and folding chairs and a plastic tablecloth on a picnic table. 

   Their day camp was in a grove of sweet gum trees where they were always cleaning up the space bug seedpods that killed when they stepped on them barefoot. Black squirrels rummaged in the high grass eating handouts and hiding out, jumpy and curious at the same time.

   They ate lunch and dinner like fattening calves at Holiday Sands and lay down afterwards in the shade, looking up at the sky or the giant slide. They weren’t allowed back in the lake for sixty minutes. Otherwise, they might get cramps and drown. Sometimes they would take a nap on the shady side of a hill, but most of the time they never slept until the end of the day riding home on the darkening road.

   Marcia was Agnes’s bosom buddy and barrel champion of Holiday Sands, mean as an old man on the rings, daring and brave on the slide that scared the crap out of her. She was a swashbuckler in a swimsuit on the barrels, taking on all comers until her feet blistered. The two barrels were rusty red white and blue, striped, and swiveled on rods attached to a laddered platform in the middle of the lake. They were sketchy trying get on top of from the platform, wet and slimy, rotating in the water. 

   Nobody could logroll Marcia off them once it was her turn, not the local runty boys with their fast feet nor the stuck-up east side girls from the gymnastic classes. She was like a squid on a skateboard.

   Almost a year older than Agnes she was strong and fast, too, on the big rings that crossed the lake. She was famous for fights with anyone who tried crossing at the same time from the other side, kicking at them and wrapping her legs around them and shaking them off the line into the water.

   “When am I going to catch up to Marcia, so we are the same?” she asked her mother.

   “You never will,” Eva said. “You’ll always be a year apart.”

   “How can that be?”

   The giant slide was on the grassy side of the lake. It was a hundred feet up a corkscrew staircase to a deck that swayed and creaked whenever anybody let a breath out. Agnes climbed up the twisting steps grimly holding on to the handrail, never looking down, and when it was her turn to go Marcia had to give her a shove, even though Agnes knew she could never go back down on the stairs, anyway, because with every step she would have to stare through the slats to the deadly cement slab below. She slid down the ramp slower than anybody ever, chafing and burning her legs as she pressed them against the gunwales all the way to the pitch, finally heaving herself, after a dead stop at the bottom, into the water with a plop.

   Marcia put her arm around her shoulders. “If I wasn’t so scared on that slide I’d be scared to death,” she told her secretly when everybody laughed about her slowdown ride. Marcia always raced it, though, scared or not.

   Most kids started by sitting at the top and tilting over the brink, but Marcia liked to get air, shooting out over the slide at the top and landing on the drop side of the lip with momentum. Sometimes she landed with her legs splayed halfway off but throwing her head up and back, she would straighten out and cracker down like a rocket.

   Whenever she felt more daring than concerned, she would start on her stomach, belly-slam over the hump halfway down the slide, and flip in mid-air at the bottom finishing feet first. One windy day a boy drift-paddled to the base of the slide and looking up saw Marcia suddenly double-flipping over his gaping face. Lots of kids got wedgies coming down, but not Marcia, who came down slick like clean underwear.

   Every hour a recording played on the staticky loudspeakers “Water safety check, water safety check, please return to the shore” and everybody had to get out of the water for fifteen minutes. After the safety check the loudspeakers crackled again. “Remember the buddy system, remember the buddy system, never swim alone.” 

   Only after the safety check did everybody get to go back on the barrels and slides and diving boards. One day a boy who had been in the water didn’t make the count, and everyone thought he might have drowned. The lifeguards swam back and forth, and children circled the lake, craning to see underwater, their mothers hovering over them. Finally, the boy came walking down from the concession stand with a can of Welch’s Grape Juice. He had ridden to the park like all the local boys from Kent did on the back of his older brother’s banana bike, so no one blamed him about causing so much trouble, but one of the lifeguards was peeved, and told them they both had to sit the next hour out. 

   “Let’s go drift to the back of a window,” the bigger boy said smirking.

   Agnes liked the rides in the playground best, the springy mushrooms, lopsided pirate ship, and alligator swing. The round-headed mushrooms were on coiled springs, spotted with colored dots, greasy from baby oil and shed skid. They were stinkhorns, they smelled horrible, and crossing them without falling on the twisting trail was almost impossible. A ramp led to the deck of the pirate ship where tree trunk cannons stuck out the side toward the lake. They flew down pipe slides jutting off the poop deck and rode the rope swings hanging from the spars. Red and purple Jolly Roger flags flew from the mast, dark gap-toothed skulls grinning in the bright light.

   “See the white skeleton, and see that dart in his hand, blow the man down, he’s poking the bloody heart with it. There’s an hourglass in his other hand. Time’s running out, let’s go play.”

   A submarine made of drainage tiles lay in the ditch beside the pirate ship, and the alligator swing was behind them, separated by low cypress hedges. They rode the swing at twilight in the shadows. It had five toboggan style seats, and when whoever was pushing got it going, all scrunched together her friends and she arced up, leaning into the forward and backward swings, taking it to the moon. A boy climbed out onto the nose of the gator and when it reached its highest point, he jumped twenty feet up into the air and flew out over the sand. He broke his arm when he landed with a hard thud on a bare spot.

   “Oh, my Goddamn, damn, damn, damn, that really, really hurts,” he cried and cried, rolling off his cracked arm and cradling it.

   Agnes’s favorite was the corkscrew. Some kids called it the mean green machine and other kids called it the wheel of death. She called it the peanut butter maker, although she couldn’t say why. It was a carousel with horizontal rings made into a circular wheel attached to a maypole by chains stretching from the middle spokes to the top of the pole. The runts got on first and the rest turned the wheel, walking alongside it, the chains shortening and wrapping themselves up the pole, until they jumped on, and the bigger boys kept winding the wheel as far as they could until only the tallest boy was left stretching up on his toes, finally jumping on and grabbing hold.

   The wheel started spinning back in the direction it had come, slowly then faster and faster, the chains grinding and clanging on the maypole. Some crouched inside the frame, while others dangled from the outside rails like octopi. Hanging on they were pulled parallel to the ground as the peanut butter maker spun downwards, and one by one they lost their grips and were sprayed out in all directions screaming and crying. The white sand was soft enough, but grown-ups walking by had to watch out for small fry flying at them like ballistic missiles.

   “Somebody ought to shut that thing down,” a dirty man lying under a tree said, his lips like pink goo, watching them, smoking a dark cigar, his shirt open, ash floating like charred mercury on his belly.

   At the end of the day, they trudged up to the concession stand on the hill, worn-out and exhausted. They had ice cream cones and played their favorite songs on the Rock-Ola jukebox, drowning out the bug zapper with a pile of dead bugs under it, dance shuffling together on the damp concrete. 

   “When I first met you girl you didn’t have no shoes, now you’re walking ‘round like you’re frontpage news, not your steppingstone not your steppingstone not your steppingstone.” 

   They bought pink wintergreen disc candy for the ride home and at sunset ran to the guardhouse to watch a lifeguard play taps on his bugle into a microphone that piped it out to all the loudspeakers. As the park lights blinked on, they cozied into the warm vinyl seats of the station wagon, wrapped in beach towels, sad that their day was over, but glad since they had been in the sun all day.

   Sometimes they were quiet or slept on the ride home, but other times they stayed up and sang songs. Their favorite songs were tunes from TV and the movies. “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can,” Sammy whooped, believing he could sing, and squirted pretend webbing at them from his wrists through the haze of Anna’s cigarette smoke. 

   Agnes loved movies like “Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” and “Dr. Doolittle.” They sang ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ and ‘Talk to the Animals’ and all the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” songs since they had seen it at least three times. “You’re the answer to my wishes, Truly Scrumptious,” Michelle and Diane sang in the dark, drowning out Sammy while Marcia and Agnes finished the stanzas from the third seat. “And I shan’t forget this lovely day, my heart beats so unruly, I also love you Truly, honest truly, I do.”

   “Can’t you girls keep it down for a minute, just one minute,” Anna barked at them. 

   Nick never went to Holiday Sands, except for the time Eva got sun poisoning. The MacAulay’s Vista Cruiser broke down, so Nick took everybody in his Buick Riviera, piling them in one on top of the other, and leaving a beach carryall and food cooler behind because his golf bag needed room in the trunk. He dropped them off at the guardhouse with half rations and missing Eva’s Coppertone and drove away to the Sunny Hill Golf Course. 

   He was crazy about golf. Nick had heard talk about the South 9 at Sunny Hill, that it was sparkling new and pockmarked with sand traps, and he just had to play it. They watched him drive away.

   “It’s not fair,” Agnes complained when he picked them up after his golf game and they had to leave early before sunset. “I always ride the alligator, it’s my ride.”

   “Your father had a bad game, and he wants to go home and have dinner,” Eva said in the car, her arms wrapped around Agnes while she sat on her lap. She felt cold, even though she had been in the sun all day. Nick steered fast that night, complaining about Sunny Hill, and they got home in record time.   

   Eva had pale Lithuanian skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair she kept in a loose flip. At the park she always wore a wide brim hat and globs of suntan lotion, but that day she only had her hat, shading her face. She got sun poisoning and had to lie in bed for two days. Her legs were swollen like sausages. Sammy and Agnes sliced up cucumbers and spread them out on her thighs, but she was nauseous and couldn’t lie still, and they ended up littering the room. Anna brought hand towels, soaked them in water and apple cider vinegar, chilled them in the fridge, and wrapped them around her legs until she got better.   

   Whenever Nick wasn’t working or at home eating or reading or sleeping, he was playing golf. He loved it more than they loved Holiday Sands. Sometimes Eva said he loved golf more than the three of them. Agnes hoped it wasn’t true. She knew it was true.

   “Golf is a thinking man’s game. It’s all up here,” he said, tapping the space between his eyebrows. “It’s simple, just a ball and a club, but it’s complicated, remember that. No two lies are ever the same, that’s when the ball is on the grass, but when it’s pitch and putt it’s the best thing in the world.”

   Eva liked telling everybody her husband had great legs, and he did, too, because of the thousands of miles he walked on all the links he went to with his clients and friends.

   “I don’t play cart golf,” he declared with pride. 

   Nick always had a tan, except in the dead of winter, and except for his left hand, which was his glove hand. He wasn’t a big man, but he wasn’t small, either, standing trim and compact like a boxer. He still fit into the Korean War uniform he kept in the attic. He fought Golden Gloves when he was young and once made it as far as the main event at the Cleveland Arena. There wasn’t anything mashed up or broken down about him from the fighting, either. He had Chiclets teeth, green eyes, and brown wavy hair. When he finger-rolled Royal Crown into it and combed it back his hair got flat slick and dark, like a street man’s.

   “How do you like your old man now?” he asked Agnes, who was watching him in the bathroom mirror, his suspenders floppy and collar open. 

   Eva hardly ever called him by his given name, which was Nicolae. She called him Nick when they were happy. To her children she always said he was their pop, and that was what they called him. When Sammy was a toddler, he called his father poppy, but after he started walking, he started calling him pop just like his mother and sister did. 

   Nick nicknamed his wife daughter son the Three Musketeers because they did everything together, which they did since he worked all day and played golf the rest of the time. He didn’t punch a clock at work but did at home. He left first thing in the morning, like clockwork. He went home only when the golf game or dinner with clients was over. 

   He never went back to Holiday Sands with them, with his wife and kids, and never became the Fourth Musketeer. Instead, inside of a few twisting and turning years, he became the Count of Monte Cristo, when the dream machine between Eva and him came slowly rolling tumbling down on all of them.

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.”

Spanky and Our Gang

By Ed Staskus

   When the Soviet Union was in charge, there wasn’t a Mafia in Lithuania. The Russians wouldn’t allow it, since they were the Black Hand themselves and didn’t brook any competition. When anybody tried to muscle in on the action the KGB shoved them into a boxcar with a free ticket to Siberia in their pockets.

   But as soon as the Commies were gone in December 1991, it was the same story less the boxcars. The next morning the Lithuanian Mob popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The homeboys were just as poisonous as the Russians.

   Nobody could call his own tune in a kiosk, no matter how pint-sized, built onto the side of their house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. The gangsters would appear in their grim track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except “or else” meant they might burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.

   Like Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, they always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, Little Scotty was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t an arsonist, either. It was only a slapdash kid’s movie.

   If you paid up, you could sleep soundly at night. If anybody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man about it, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they pointed the way to fake Dubble Bubble. 

   It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, like they were doing you a favor, although everybody else called it extortion. It was the same as 1930s Chicago but set in the new frontier world of Eastern Europe. It was all up for grabs.

   “Whenever I stayed in Vilnius in those years, the 90s, I stayed at my friend Birute’s house,” my sister Rita said. She was a travel agent in Cleveland, Ohio. She often visited the native land leading tours of emigrants. “Her husband built a big house and the first time I saw it I thought, the Lithuanian Mob has got to have their eyes on this house. I hope she has police protection, even though they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”

   Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania won independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own special jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force. There was rot top to bottom.

   Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe had long prided itself on its trustworthy policemen. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement than Lithuania. The nation introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country’s citizens continued to believe crooked lawmen were widespread and oozing spreading fast.

   If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust, although it’s best to never trust a policeman in a raincoat, especially if it’s not raining, unless he’s Columbo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one, too. “Every once-in-a-while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, since there’s still plenty of wear in this fella,” he explained.

   Lithuania’s policemen wore coats full of holes. The graft was like moths, eating away at the wool. They needed new coats in a bad way.

   “One of our cousins could have used a policeman the day she lost her kid,” Rita said. “But they’re not always there when you need them.”

   It was winter when our cousin picked up her six-year-old from school, sitting him down in a little red wagon, and pulling him along behind her. Somewhere down the line he fell out of the wagon. She didn’t notice, trudging through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. There wasn’t a badge in sight. When she called the local station, nobody answered. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness. None of the streetlights were working.

   Another of our cousins had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and had gotten involved with the Mob. He owed them money but was unable to pay his debt. They were looking for their loot. When they got sick and tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to blow up. The next morning when he started it, it blew up, but the gangsters hadn’t used enough dynamite. They also stuck it under the trunk instead of the front seat. Gytis was hurt, breaking an arm in the blast, but survived.

   “I had to go from Vilnius to Marijampole one night and my relatives sent Gytis,” Rita said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why Gytis of all people? The Mob was after him! His arm was in a cast, and he had a friend with him. His friend was from Samogitia and I could barely understand a word he said. It didn’t help that he was smoking Bulgarian cigarettes and coughing up a storm.”

   They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which had a reputation for getting old fast. It got old the minute it rolled off the assembly line. Car ownership was exploding in Lithuania, but it was the best they could do. Gytis put her in the back seat and told her to lay low. They didn’t take the highway or the secondary roads. They drove back roads, which were hardly roads, at all. They weren’t paved. The Trabant ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

   “Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.

   “It was pitch black as could be,” said Rita. “I stayed in the car because there was nothing anywhere. I would have just been wandering around, having an out-of-body experience.”

   After more than an hour, Gytis and his friend came back with an open bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of our Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly ripping the Trabant’s back door off its hinges.

   By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left her first husband after he tried to kill her twice. One day he wired the front door lock so she would be electrocuted when she put her key into the lock. It didn’t work. Another day he veered off the road and rammed the passenger side of their car into a tree. That didn’t work, either. She was unhurt, although he was a mess, and had to be hospitalized.

   Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant melted down. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, cleaning and decorating it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress and found him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she got the message, giving up and remaining a widow.

   “My Uncle Juozukas had a son, Edvardas, who was a policeman, and he always told me to watch out for the police,” said Rita. “He said they were rotten through and through.”

   “Make sure you always have cash with you if you’re ever driving alone, because if you get stopped by them, you will have to pay them,” Edvardas said.

   “You mean I will have to pay the fine right on the spot?”

   “No, you will have to pay them off right on the spot. Otherwise, they will keep you on the side of the road all day and night until you do.”

   Our cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. If their pockets are empty, and even if they aren’t, they will stop you no matter if you have done something, or not.”

   The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed Mikolas home. They were after his birthday money. “Maybe somebody told them about the party, maybe not, but I had to hand all of it over,” he said.

   The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over to them and said, “It’s not nearly enough, since I have to pay some of it out back at the station, but OK.” He threw the birthday cards and envelopes out the window, backing over them on his way out.

   “You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky used to say and would have said. When Mikolas asked the cops what he had done, they said, “Nothing, and make sure it stays that way.” They were in the thievery business, not the law-and-order business.

   Edvardas was an honest policeman. He couldn’t condone or handle the rampant corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you’ve got to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way, just because it says so.

   When Rita asked our Uncle Juozukas how much he paid the Mob for protection when he was selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes out of the kiosk he built onto the side of his house, he said, “Peanuts, but peanuts I couldn’t afford to pay.”

   There were loads of peanuts up and down and all around the country, as well as bags of peanuts, and truckloads of peanuts, and it all added up to keep the crime wave going full steam ahead. At least until the engine got overheated. When it did there was hell to pay.

   After journalists, businessmen, and prosecutors started getting murdered by the Mob, the country got good and shocked, and repercussions soon followed. The Vilnius “Godfather” Boris Dekanidze was put to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras was locked up. His jailers lost the key and he stayed locked up forever.

   In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including pocketing public property for themselves. Everything was on hand on deck in play. In the new millennium the worm turned. The Mob put their brass knuckles away and put on business suits, employing persuasion, intimidation, and bribery to get what they wanted. It wasn’t lowlifes cashing in on the gum and cigarette market anymore. It wasn’t bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It wasn’t stealing used cars. It was the new dodge of cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering. They stashed their brickbats in the basement and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.

   Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Several years later, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of nearly a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Elite Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing wrinkled tracksuits, hands handcuffed behind them. The haul included “a large number of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition and explosive substances,” according to a Europol press release, as well as a boatload of sports cars and luxury sedans.

   The hoodlums operated out of Kaunas for the most part, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy and themselves living the high life. They used “various money-laundering schemes that involved legal entities and limited ownership of assets worth millions of euros and maintained strong links with other organized criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad,” a Kaunas Police Department news release said.

   The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a gun and a kind word than you can with a kind word alone. Their guns gone, there wasn’t much they could say. Kindness wasn’t part of their vocabulary. They didn’t even know how to spell the word.

   In the end, locked up inside police stations and handcuffed in cages in courtrooms, few kind words were spoken. There was some rude spanking on the horizon on their way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, his hair neatly parted down the middle, always had the last word when asked if he had any last words for evildoers.

   “Yeah, see ya!”

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.”

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. It was weapons of mass destruction, real and unreal. It was rocket’s red glare galore in the skies above Baghdad.

   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 jarheads and towelheads were going to have settle their religious ideological and gasoline supply differences themselves. Besides, we were in second place in the league. We had our own business to take care of, our own gold prize to keep our eyes fixed 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 “Blood Lines” 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.”