Category Archives: Accidental Realism

Small Talk

By Ed Staskus

Rita Staskus thought Gadi Galilli was going to help her learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But he never helped her, even though they lived together, and she was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues. 

   She met Gadi when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were both looking up at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards she gave him a ride home. Everybody in the immigrant group loved him. He asked her for her phone number. He was a cute guy, and she liked him, but found out later he had almost no patience, even though it is a Biblical virtue.

   He was from a Kurd family, was born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. Rita always thought there was something out of joint with him. He never talked about why he left Israel when everybody else said it was the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, too, but she always drove him. She dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he walked the rest of the way. He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.

   Rita was working at Born to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the far east side of Cleveland and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. She thought, “Maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job.” Gadi and she would have something in common, other than going out and making out. 

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Rita to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they said to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans, making their plans.

   They were sisters and both were fat. They were always at the head of the buffet line. Sandy was usually ahead of her sister. Sima worked hard, but Sandy didn’t, since she had Sima. Sandy fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on triple chins. They both smoked cigarettes all day long, stinking up the office, like it was the most important thing to stick in the mouths, next to chow. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting anytime soon.

   Although Rita wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, she spoke Lithuanian fluently and some German. “I’m pretty good with languages,” she thought. She used to be a schoolteacher and was sure she could learn. At least she thought so until she tried. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she admitted. It was like having grown up speaking ghetto and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once. 

    Sima told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Gadi lived. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. She made sure to get there early her first night, although when she got there every last person was already in the classroom.

   When the teacher walked in, Rita could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. The first thing she said was, “Yemenite Jews are the most Jewish of all Jews. Be glad I am your teacher. Sit up straight and pay attention.”

   Her name was Ayala. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet in them to the class. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to. She was all business.

   “Let’s go,” she said clapping at the start of every class.  Everybody had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to the business of Hebrew.

   Rita’s biggest fear was Ayala calling on her. “I would have to speak in front of everyone,” she mumbled to herself. She tried to keep her nose buried in her notebook, scribbling notes. She tried to keep her head down in the foxhole.

   Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for her. Everybody had to tell everybody else their names the first day of class, Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony meant. 

   Everybody in the class called him Gil, although one wise guy called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.

   “Oh, my name’s Rita,” she said hesitating when it was her turn. Right away somebody asked her, “What’s your Hebrew name?” She wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,” but said, “My family calls me Rita.” 

   Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around her answered in Hebrew, she realized they all knew at least some of the language, while she knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but she was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out Rita didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her. 

   Rita couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke, it sounded like she was clearing her throat. She decided she wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. “I’m not coming back,” she decided. But two days later she was back. She told herself, “I am taking the class for work’s sake. I want to travel overseas. I don’t want to admit to Gadi I am quitting after one night.”

   She ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew. 

   Every symbol of the alphabet has to be memorized back to front and back. She tried, but it was hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she copied in her notebook. She wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. She wrote her middle name until she got it right. 

   She wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then she wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

  The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World, not the Old World. But there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so the Hebrew proposal became history.

   The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Rita’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, watching them go in their door. They didn’t like it, at all.

   “Oh, they’ll never be real Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they said.  

   “Take a look at that shiksa,” a skinny man sneered wrinkling his lips.

   Rita thought everybody believed her mother was Jewish, although she didn’t know why. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. “I don’t look Jewish,” she thought, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.” 

   Gino, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office at the desk opposite her, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when a man walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

   She said it too loud. Everybody heard her say it.. Sandy and Sima put down their cigarettes. The secretary looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.  

   Gino and she were outsiders because everybody else in the office and almost everybody else in the building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sandy and Sima would sometimes say, “I don’t know why the Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s big blue-ribbon plan.

   The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the heavyweight holiday. Everybody in Rita’s class was talking about it. One of them asked her, “What synagogue do you go to?”

   Most of the class lived on the east side, including her. She lived in Cleveland Heights up the hill from Little Italy. Rita thought, “Oh, Christ, there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox.” She didn’t want to look overly conservative. When she drove to work, she passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so she said, “SInai.” 

   It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.   

   Everybody was good with that, even though Rita didn’t wear a wig or have a real Hebrew name. She decided she had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. She took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs. She didn’t have a wig and never went back.

   Her classmates knew she lived with Gadi. He dropped her off at school and picked her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everybody thought she was Jewish she knew she had to start being crafty about it. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the plaza beside Born to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.

  An old lady with a scratchy voice, the mother of a woman she sat next to in class, called her one evening. It was a week before Christmas. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

   “What did you do today?” she asked.

   “I just finished all my shopping,” Rita said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve. They were dyed in the wool Christians.

   “But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.  

   “In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” Rita explained. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told her to say donuts if she ever felt she was being called out.

   “Oh, I see, that’s good,” the old lady said.

   Rita was never certain whether she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew, or not. After every class she thought, “I’m never going back.” One night she finally didn’t go back. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. That night Alaya called her at 11 o’clock, just as she was going to bed. 

   “Why weren’t you in class?” she asked. 

   Rita wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But she told her because of the holiday coming up, she had to clean her cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast in the kitchen.

   If you’re ultra-orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace of the stuff.  Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everybody believe she was more conservative than them, she was expected to be serious about ritual.

   “It never was my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit it never came up,” she explained to Gadi. What was worse, she was Catholic. That side of her didn’t like Jews. The Lithuanian side of her didn’t like Jews, either. She kept her peace of mind by doing breathing exercises.

   After Alaya hung up, Rita had to meet her on Sunday morning, just the two of them, to make up the class. It was impossible to keep her head down with her teacher breathing down her neck. Alaya told her she was making progress. It made Rita glad.

   Gadi’s brother Oz from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Rita in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of the language. It sounded like something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Gadi ever did.

   Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Gadi turned off all the lights in the apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left, they left Rita sitting alone in the half-dark.

   At the end of the class Rita got a B, even though she more-or-less staggered through it like wandering in the desert. Her reading and writing were sketchy, but by graduation time she spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, she was glad when it was all over.

  She started chaperoning Born to Travel tours to Israel soon afterwards. Sandy and Sima saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their long Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy. They bought giant hot pretzels to tide them over.

   Rita stayed with Gadi’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Oz still lived at home, the family home, and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Rita wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other side. After the ceremony she sat at a table with the women who passed around platters of food. 

   They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of the chatter too fast for her. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall. The groom wouldn’t say a word to her when she tried to talk to him. He and his bride didn’t dance together, not once. Rita danced with some of the other women. She had a wonderful time.

   The more often she went to Israel the better her Hebrew got. One day she was walking around Jerusalem by herself, sight-seeing the way she liked it. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked her something as he was passing by.

   “What’s that?” she asked.

   “Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.

   Her tour group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it met Jaffa Road.

   She pointed over her shoulder.

   “It’s over there,” she said in spotless throat-clearing Hebrew.

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.”

From Here to Someday

By Ed Staskus

   Sylvester drifted into the kitchen where I was making pancakes, stood up on his hind legs, and slapped his tongue against the side of my face. I didn’t mind. His mouth was probably cleaner than that of most of my friends. His kiss was less risky than kissing another human being, like my girlfriend. Whatever germs were in his cavernous mouth were mostly incompatible to human beings. I never caught the flu from him since he never coughed or sneezed. Sometimes it seemed he had more of a soft spot for me than any living person.

   My brother left his Great Dane behind when he moved out. The dog cost me an arm and a leg to feed. I had to walk him twice a day. I had to shove him out of my bed whenever he tried to sleep next to me. His germs might have been harmless, but his bad breath was like sewer gas. He was good-natured, though, and we got along. I called him Sly, and he called me the boss. He didn’t know how to talk, but I knew what he meant when he barked.

   Sly was in his formative years and fascinated by cars. He chased them recklessly. I put a stop to it by sitting him down on the tree lawn and driving slowly past with a squirt gun in my lap. The gun was loaded with vinegar. Whenever he lunged at the car, I squirted him in the face through the open window. It only took ten minutes to teach him cars were dangerous and guns even more dangerous. After that I rarely put him on a lead when we walked to the pocket park on the lake for runaround time. He walked beside me and the only time I grabbed for his collar was when I spied another dog coming our way.

   I was living upstairs in a Polish double on the west end of North Collinwood, on a forgotten street, a couple of blocks from Lake Erie. Ray Sabaliauskas lived downstairs with his prize German Shepherd and the wife he brought back from the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland State University and paying for it by taking a quarter off every now and then to work for an electro-static painting outfit. They did most of their work on-site out of town. Ray fed and walked my dog whenever I was on the road.

   The day the dog became my dog was the week after my brother’s fiancée Brenda, a girl from Vermont who my brother met while in the U. S. Army at Fort Riley in Kansas, was killed on Route 20 coming home from her part-time job at a restaurant in Mentor. She had been enrolled full-time at Cuyahoga Community College the rest of the time.

   The night Brenda didn’t come home was the night I woke up at two in the morning from a bad dream with a bad feeling. I got up and sat looking out window. It had rained earlier, and the backyard grass glistened. The lettuce in the garden was fat and bright. A cat sat under the eaves of the garage, keeping an eye out for a late-night snack.

   When I noticed Brenda’s Subaru station wagon wasn’t in the driveway, I somehow felt certain something terrible had happened to her. I couldn’t shake the feeling. I stayed up, sitting by the window, until I finally went back to bed, thinking it was the dream that had upset me. Even so, I couldn’t fall back asleep, and when I did, I slept fitfully.

   The next morning a Cleveland Police squad car pulled up outside the house and broke the news to my brother. At first, I thought he hadn’t heard what the policeman said. He stood stock still. But then he asked where Brenda was and reached for his car keys. I didn’t see him the rest of the day or the next day. Brenda’s parents arrived later in the week and took her back to Vermont for burial in the family’s hometown cemetery. When my brother got back from the funeral he moved out.

   Brenda fell asleep at the wheel coming home the night she died, but that wasn’t what killed her. She wasn’t even hurt when the car drifted off the highway and halfway down the embankment. She was able to stomp on the brakes and stop the car from overturning. She even coaxed it back up to the shoulder, where she discovered she had a flat tire. She flicked on the flashers and was getting the jack and spare tire out of the back of the car when a drunkard going her way slipped out of his lane and rear-ended her. She was propelled into and over the Subaru. She died on the spot, blind-sided, never knowing what hit her.

   When I finished my pancakes, I took Sly for a short walk. Brenda and my brother were gone, and the dog was my roommate now. He didn’t say much, which suited me, but he needed tending. I was running late for school. Back home I left him on the front porch to sleep the day away and made my way to Lakeshore Blvd, where I caught the 39B bus downtown for a class. It was cheaper than taking my bucket of bolts and paying for parking. It was Friday and I was looking forward to babysitting a friend’s motorcycle for the weekend.

   Saturday morning, I scarfed down a cream cheese bagel and a glass of Joe Wieder’s. The motorcycle was in the driveway behind the house where nobody could see it. The streets were sketchy, brothers from the hood and hoodlums from the neighborhood prowling for loot. It was a big Honda, slung low like a club racer. My friend had dropped it that spring when the front wheel locked up. A handlebar was bent and made tight right turns tricky. But it handled well, overall, had great acceleration, and was painted a dark ochre.

   I tied my backpack down across the handlebars, turned the key, and pressed the start button. The four-stroke engine made a humming happy sound. I dropped it into gear. At the sidewalk I tipped my helmet to a blonde walking by. She turned her nose up.

   I rode west on Lakeshore Blvd, halfway through Bratenahl, and turned south on East 105th St. I meant to connect with Euclid Ave. I wanted to get an eyeful of the urban decay in Glenville I had been hearing about. It was still there. I took in the ruins. The mess was a place, no place to live, I thought.

   I met my friend Matti Lavikka at our friend Mary Jane’s gray-colored Gothic-style clapboard house on East 33rd St. off Payne Ave. Matti was in the back with MJ, taking it easy in her deep-set narrow backyard. It was a tangle of overgrown hedges, monstrous bean plants, super-sized sunflowers, roses run riot, dwarf trees, and carnations trying to make sense of it all.

   Twin blue-eyed albino cats ran past from next door, across the lawn and over a low fence. One of them was cross-eyed. The hippie artist next door let them do their own thing. They were rolling stones who only ate and slept at home. Matti’s motorcycle was in the drive, a stripped-down 1965 Triumph with short pipes and a glossy black paint job. We decided to ride west along the lake, nowhere special, just drifting in the direction the sun was going

   We gassed up across the Cuyahoga River and stopped at a diner for coffee. Matti was a fireman in Bay Village, where fires were far and few between. He knew his laydown jobs better than most. He graduated from Cleveland State University that spring. He was in a philosophical frame of mind all summer, trying to remember something that had never happened in the way of exercising his mind. 

   We rode on Lake Rd. through Lakewood, Rocky River and Bay Village. We were riding into a strong headwind, but it was no match for our bikes. The sun reached its zenith and kept going. We kept going, too, until we reached Vermilion. There were crowds milling in the streets. We slowed down to almost nothing. Children gamboled here and there. We inched our way to the harbor. A rail thin lady with a perky face told us it was the annual Fish Festival. 

   We caught a break coming into town that day. There were vintage cars on parade, men wearing fezzes and sashes, marching high school bands in starched uniforms, a covey of Boy Scouts, floats carrying gals looking like stars, garish looking clowns, and oafish looking town officials.

   Brenda had been an outdoorsman kind of girl. She would have jumped at the chance to cruise the Fish Festival. She had just turned legal that year. Now she was gone with no future. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

   We had heaping plates of buttered perch with potatoes and sage. Matti wanted to talk about the future, but I didn’t. I scorned the past as nothing but debris, and the present as grist for the mill. I left the future to chance. Now that Matti had a college degree, he told me I was being irresponsible. 

   “Mind your own business,” I said.

   “That kind of attitude is even more irresponsible,” he said.

   “You’ll be an old man soon enough. Wait until then to talk that way.”

   “I’ll have to look you up when that happens,” he said.

   A shapely gal wearing a bikini with ruffles came our way. She was topped off with a peaked hat two feet high, four feet wide, made of wire mesh and adorned with red, white, and blue rosettes. We admired her glide. When we left Vermilion, we followed a road along the shore winding past small frame houses and cottage resorts. There were big trees everywhere and the air smelled sweet.

   After we reached Marblehead, we took the ferry to Kelly’s Island. We saw sailboats bobbing up and down, leaning to one side of the wind. The ferry rode rough on the choppy water. Matti’s Triumph didn’t have a center stand and he had to lean on it to keep it from falling over. A tow-headed boy getting soaked at the bow laughed like Soupy Sales every time a wave crashed onto the deck. When he saw Perry’s Monument he jumped and pointed that way.

   “Don’t Give Up the Ship” was on Commander Oliver Perry’s battle flag during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. It commemorated the dying words of a fellow commander who fell in an earlier naval engagement against the British. Oliver Perry didn’t give up and the British squadron was sent packing.

   We rode around the island aimlessly with our helmets off and the sunny breeze in our hair. The blacktop dipped and curved. There were boats stashed in harbors tied to docks all over the place. We took a break at a public beach, ogling babes sizzling in baby oil from behind our sunglasses. Back on our bikes we rode across a field to an abandoned baseball field. The chain link of the backstop was rusted, and the painted stands weathered cracking peeling. The pitcher’s mound was overgrown with weeds.

   We shared some weed sitting on the outfield grass. Matti started waxing about the problem of good and evil. I suspected I was in for it and took a deep drag on the reefer. “The Nazi’s thought their actions towards the Jews were both righteous and warranted, while at the same time many other people didn’t,” he said.

   “Especially the Jews,” I said.

   “Who was right?”  

   I said we both knew Adolf Hitler and his supporters were monsters.

   “Sure, but that’s not the point,” he said. 

   “What is the point?”

   “Just trying to touch on something metaphysical here.”

   “All right, but metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy. Arguments about good and evil are useless. Hardly anything except engineering is not relative. Most of it is all made up.”

   “What about your brother’s girlfriend who got killed? Did the drunk driver have the right to determine her life and death?”

   “I hope they hang that guy like they hung the Nazi’s.”

   We took a quarry road back to the ferry dock. We were early for our return ride and walked to a nearby tavern. It had a Louisiana ceiling and wide plank floor. Fishing paraphernalia filled the walls. Teenagers were playing pinball and yukking it up They looked too young to drink but had bottles of Blatz at hand. Over the cash register somebody had scrawled in magic marker that an Irishman was not drunk so long as he could hold on to a blade of grass and not fall off the edge of the planet.

   Matti and I each had a pint of lager while we waited for our boat. Back on the mainland, we took secondary roads as far as Avon, where Matti waved goodbye and roared off for home. I laced up my skates and got on the highway. I crossed the Flats going 75 MPH. Passing the dark Municipal Stadium I fell in with three other motorcycles who were hauling ass.

   I hit 105 MPH keeping up, leaning low over my handlebars. Every part of me was focused on the road flowing backwards in front of me. I had never gone that fast on a car or motorcycle or anything else other than a jet plane. Nothing mattered except keeping my tail on the seat and not wiping out. It took less than three minutes to pass the Cleveland Aquarium and veer away from the pack down the ramp of my exit onto Waterloo Rd. I caught my breath at the stop sign before an impatient blaring horn behind me made me jump and I tapped the gear shift.

   Back home I tucked the motorcycle away out of sight in the backyard. I watered and fed Sly before throwing myself down on the sofa. My legs felt like abused rubber bands. My left palm was puffy from handling the clutch all day. I wasn’t used to it. I wasn’t used to anybody my age dying, either, but Brenda had died and there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it. 

   A good idea is to die young as late as possible. The real pay dirt is to not be there when it happens, although that never happens. It hadn’t worked out for her. Her life was still in the memory of the living, though. Nobody had forgotten her, yet. When it happens, it happens for a long time, the long lights out of becoming zero. It was a shame, I thought, before I stopped thinking about time and fate and fell into a simple as ABC dreamless sleep.

Ed Staskus posts feature 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.”

Tracks of My Tears

By Ed Staskus

   I didn’t watch TV growing up because we didn’t have a TV. It wasn’t until a couple of years after we moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Cleveland, Ohio that my parents bought a used 1955 Philco Custom 400. It was a 21-inch model in a cabinet of white oak with a finger-tip tuning system. It had a Double Gated Automatic Picture Control tuner that never worked during storms of any kind, whether it was breezy and slightly damp or thunderstorms.

   At first, I wasn’t impressed. The shows were the likes of “McHale’s Navy,” “Car 54, Where Are You,” and “My Three Sons.” I had no use for “Hazel” and “I Love Lucy” drove me nuts. Lucy was a nut, and everybody hollered and played pratfall like there was no tomorrow. I liked watching baseball and football games, although baseball games went on forever and football games were only broadcast on Sundays. The Cleveland Browns were a powerhouse, and everybody stayed patriotically stuck to the tube when they were playing.

   Cartoons were fun and Westerns were my favorite, especially “Maverick,” “Bart Masterson,” and “Have Gun – Will Travel.” My parents enjoyed “Bonanza” and watched it every Sunday night which meant my sister, brother, and I watched it almost every Sunday night. They took in all 431 episodes, whether we were there, or not. I didn’t care for it, the Cartwright’s being hopeless do-gooders, but I couldn’t and didn’t say anything to my parents about my point of view.

   My favorite was “Route 66.” It was about two young men driving around the country in a Chevy Corvette convertible. Besides the adventures, what I liked about the show was that it was shot on location in a new state every episode. 

   I had been to the Shaw-Hayden Theater plenty of times and seen plenty of space adventure and monster movies. My friends and I always sat in the front row. Movies were the real deal and TV was lame compared to the big screen. Movies were stupendous while TV was furniture.

   At about the same time the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. After praising the professionals in the room, he said that television should uphold the public interest. Then he said TV was a “vast wasteland. When television is bad, nothing is worse.” 

   When I started watching “Queen for a Day” I watched it every day. It didn’t matter that my friends were riding bikes playing ball messing around outside. I watched it laying on my stomach on the floor a few feet from the TV. When I stopped watching it, I went cold turkey and never watched it again. I only watched it for two or three weeks one summer, although it was more than enough to make me sweat bullets. I wasn’t growing much older watching the sob show, but I seemed to be growing up way too fast.

   It was originally a local affair on radio in Los Angeles but became popular enough that NBC picked it up and started broadcasting it nationally on television. The show’s ratings got so high that the network increased its running time from 30 to 45 minutes so they could sell more commercials. They were raking in $4,000 a minute, a premium price nobody else was getting. Sponsorships poured in. Every single prize came from sponsors. Models in slutty faux medieval outfits plugged the advertisers. They had to put up with Jack Bailey the host saying things like, “Let’s give Mary Ann a big hand for finally doing something right.” Pre-recorded commercials ran between segments. Naming all the sponsors at the end of the show took more than five minutes.

   The show went to ABC from 1960 to 1964 until it finally folded up its circus tent. The television writer Mark Evanier has called it “one of the ghastliest programs ever produced, tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting, and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

   The idea behind the show was simple and savage. 

   “Queen for a Day” was about four women sharing their stories of unhappiness and tribulation in front of an all-female audience. There was always a box of Kleenex on the curtained table behind which the women sat. The host was a pencil mustached smarmy man who always looked like he needed another drink. The stories were about dead husbands and sons crippled with polio. One woman wanted to win so she could repair the bullet holes in her bedroom walls where her husband had committed suicide. He missed several times before getting it right. Determined widows with healthcare problems were a staple. If they had, to boot, a small dying child, they were sure to win. 

   “I had two handicapped sons,” one woman said. “I lost them, and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away, along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” She got her vacation.

   A threadlike woman related the tale of her legally blind uncle. They were a poor farm family in Kansas. Everybody in the family had serious eye troubles.

   “On the show when Jack Bailey introduced my mother, he made a big deal about her being a long-lost cousin because her last name was Bailey,” the woman’s daughter recalled. “Since she was a farm girl, he asked her if she milked cows, and she demonstrated on his fingers. She became the queen that day. My uncle was given everything my mother asked for and more. He got a complete piano tuning tool set and a scholarship to a piano tuning school in Seattle. My mom got a full set of living room furniture and an Amana freezer that lasted for twenty-five years.”

   “My husband died,” one contestant explained. “Then we were evicted and were out in the cold winter.”

   “Well, ha, ha, ha!” Jack Bailey laughed like a drain. “Today is your lucky day, getting to tell your story here and having the chance at being chosen QUEEN FOR A DAY!” Sometimes, unable to help himself, he guffawed and threw out sarcastic remarks, immediately explaining that he was just kidding.

   After the ladies finished, the audience applauded for the woman they wanted to see become “Queen for a Day.” The winner was determined by a decibel-reading Applause Meter, what I called the Thing-O-Meter. I didn’t always agree with the contraption, but what did I know. The winner was crowned with a jeweled crown and robed in a sable-trimmed robe. She got money, appliances, clothes, and a vacation, among other things.

   “I always thought losing was the worst,” said Bill Costello, who like me found himself glued to the boob tube. “Your life sucks, but not enough.”

   Not just anyone was picked to be on the show. They had to somehow appeal to the live audience and the tens of millions watching at home. One woman explained she wanted to be on the show because “it would help me to regain my identity, which I seem to have lost somewhere between the maternity ward and the washing machine.” The best approach was delivering enough pathos and bawling to turn the trick. One woman said she would give her right arm to be on the show.

   My mother spotted me on the living room floor one day staring up at the TV, engrossed in the black and white. She put her dish towel away and sat down in a sofa chair behind me. When the day’s episode was over, she shut the TV off. “Don’t watch that show anymore, ever,” she said.

   She had never forbidden me to watch anything before. I knew there was something wrong with the show but couldn’t put my finger on it. It held me in its morbid grip. The women told fantastic stories, whoever got the most applause for her miserable tale won, got crowned, and walked away with prizes up the wazoo.

   One winner said her husband was killed in a car crash, the family was poor as church mice, their savings exhausted, and needed help bad. “My mother was 28, pregnant, my sister was 8, and I was 5,” her daughter remembered years later. “My father promised my sister that if she got good grades, he would buy her a pony. She did but he died before he could fill his promise. My mother won two bedroom sets, a living room set, a dining room set complete with a set of dishes for a service for eight, a set of silver ware, a cook-set, a built in mixer, a hot water heater, a 7-piece patio set, a complete set of Tupperware, twelve complete outfits that included dress, matching shoes and handbags, twelve pairs of stockings, a complete set of Sarah Coventry jewelry, a complete set of rhinestone jewelry, a diamond encrusted watch, a four piece matching mother-daughter outfit, a swimsuit, a check for $1,000, and a Shetland pony.”

   Jack Bailey always said in his trademark signoff, “Make every woman a queen, for every single day.” He never said what the losers got, although I always assumed they got nothing. Once my mother put her finger on the show, she disliked it instantly. My parents were World War Two refugees from Lithuania and didn’t believe a word about getting something for nothing.

   “I was babysitting my aunt’s four children in 1944 when the Russians came,” she said. “We ran away on a cart pulled by a horse with a cow tied to the back. On our way through East Prussia, we had to sell the cow for food. There was no milk for the baby. We slept under the cart every night and every night either the Germans or Russians bombed us. After the war I lived in Nuremberg in one room with three other women and worked at the Army Hospital. When I went to Sudbury where I had gotten a visa and a job, the job was as a nanny for a family of thirteen. When your father joined me the next year, he had no money and went to work in a cement factory the next day. When we got married, we had no money, but we had the three of you and bought a small house. It’s shameful to go on a TV show, telling all the world your troubles for prizes and money.”

   She hadn’t seen her parents uncles aunts brothers sisters cousins for almost twenty years. The Iron Curtain was locked up tight. My parents never complained about it. They both went to work weekdays and on weekends worked around the house when they weren’t doing something at the church or with the scouts. They didn’t help us with our homework or drive us to the library. We did our own homework and walked to the library.

   She wasn’t telling me anything about “Queen for a Day” I didn’t already know, although I couldn’t if my life depended on it have put it into words. I knew I didn’t like the clapping like crazy for the most miserable story of the day. I suspected there was something wrong with that. 

   “Sure, the show was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” the producer Howard Blake said after the program’s nine-year run ended. “That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the public wanted.”

   He didn’t stop there. He knew it was a trashy reality show that played on people’s misery, while those same people played out their tearjerkers to cash in on the American Dream.

   “Everybody was on the make, NBC and later ABC, the producers, the sponsors, and the suppliers of gifts. And how about all the down-on-their-luck women who we used to further our money-grubbing ends? Weren’t they all on the make? Weren’t they willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast TV for a chance at big money, for a chance to ride in our chauffeured Cadillac, for the free tour of Disneyland and the Hollywood nightclubs? What about one of the most common wishes they turned in? ‘I’d like to pay back my mother for all the wonderful things she’s done for me.’ The women who made that wish didn’t want to pay back their mothers at all. They wanted us to do that.”

   We never clapped when anybody in our grade school class at St. George’s had a bad day. None of us clapped when a nun slapped one of us and made him or her stand in the hall. Nobody clapped when somebody was a step slow getting to the CTS streetcar taking us home. We yelled and slapped on the windows for the driver to stop. 

   None of us wanted to be a sleazeball.

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.”

Blood in the Aisles

By Ed Staskus

   The last summer we lived in the jam-packed immigrant neighborhood around Eddy Rd. was the last year my friends and I took Cleveland’s Rapid Transit downtown every Saturday to mess around and go to the movies. It was 20-some years after the city-owned bus and train system, what everybody called CTS, got rolling. It was 1963. The news was all about civil rights and Vietnam, two issues we barely knew anything about and cared about even less. What we cared about were slot cars, riding our bikes, and summer camp.

   Stevie Wonder released his first live album, “The 12 Year Old Genius.” We were all 12 and 13 years old. None of us were geniuses, not by a long shot, although some of us went on to be able to think more or less clearly.

   Push-button telephones were new, 1st class postage cost 5 cents, and President John Kennedy visited West Berlin, delivering his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We went around calling each other Berliners and saluting Nazi-style. All of us had voted for JFK in a mock election at St. George’s Catholic School. Our nuns told us to stop saluting and focus on JFK’s good deeds, but they need not have. He was young energetic handsome while Richard Nixon had been shifty old with a five o’clock shadow. 

   The Rapid Transit was a light rail system, what we simply called the train. Tens of millions of riders rode it every year, especially on Saturdays, when it seemed like all of them were riding it at once. We had to stand most of the time. Even when we got a seat, we had to give it up to pregnant women, crippled men, and old folks. Standing and swaying and holding on to a pole didn’t matter. We had ants in our pants for roaming around downtown and seeing a big-time movie.

   All we had known in our earlier years was the Shaw-Hayden Theater, which we could walk to. They showed monster movies, cowboy movies, and space adventure movies on Saturday afternoons. Cartoons and a double bill cost 50 cents. We ignored the newsreels. Popcorn cost 15 cents, and since we were chronically short on hard cash, we brought our own in paper bags hidden under our jackets. Sometimes we stopped at Mary’s Sweet Shoppe and bought penny candy.

   There was a playground behind the neighborhood fire station with Saturday Sandbox contests, but we never went, being too old for sandboxes. There were dances at the Shaw Pool every Saturday night, but we never went to those either, being too young to care about girls.

Before the matinee there was a drawing for prizes. One of my friends won two thousand sheets of paper on a winter afternoon. He was beside himself hauling the reams home in the snow. He complained about frostbite, but he was a whiner at school and in our scout troop, so we ignored him. The theater was big, more than a thousand seats. We usually went early so we could sit in the front row, stretching our legs out, horsing around, kicking each other.

   Going downtown we barnstormed from where we lived off St. Clair Ave. down East 128th St. to Shaw Ave. to Hayden Ave. and followed an unnamed unmapped foot path to the CTS Windermere station. We scrambled up the embankment, crossed the tracks at the rear of the station, and waited on the platform for the downtown bound train. Windermere was the end of the line for the Red Line.

   When the rails rolled into home plate, we dusted ourselves off and ran upstairs out of the station, running through the Terminal Tower lobby and bursting outside, rain or shine. We made tracks around Public Square until we were tired. We liked walking to the movies on one of the three main avenues, which were Prospect, Euclid, and Superior. Our parents warned us about staying away from Prospect Ave., where there were prostitutes, smut stores, and burlesque houses. It was because of their words of wisdom that we took Prospect Ave. to East 14th St. most of the time, although we never talked to the whores and never went into the sketchy bars and clubs. We weren’t interested in smut and besides we didn’t have the money to pay for cheap thrills. All the money we had, we hoarded for the train, the movie, and snacks.

   There were five theaters clustered between East 14th and East 17th. Four of them faced Euclid Ave. while one faced East 14th St. The three blocks were known as Playhouse Square, although none of us knew that. We didn’t pay attention to signs unless they had something to do with food or the movies. All of us had our own money, cobbled together from stingy allowances, paper routes, altar boy service at weddings, and even thievery, if push came to shove and our Saturday was threatened.

   The Ohio and State theaters were built by New York City plutocrat Marcus Loew in the early 1920s, followed by Charles Platt’s Hanna Theater. It was named for Mark Hanna, Cleveland’s big-time wheeler-dealer senator in Washington. The Pompeiian-style Allen Theater opened a few months later.

   The last theater opened at the end of the next year in the Keith Building, the tallest skyscraper in the city. The biggest electric sign in the world was fabricated and turned on the night of the Palace Theater’s opening. The movie house was billed as the “Showplace of the World.” The opening night entertainment was headlined by a famous mimic. Everybody said it was “the swankiest theater in the country.” 

   It wasn’t swank anymore when we started going to matinees, but we didn’t notice. It had wide seats and a gigantic screen and that was all that mattered. The movies cost 75 cents and we were glad to pay it. It was where we saw “Son of Flubber” and afterwards pretended to defy gravity like Fred MacMurray. We saw “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and laughed until we cried. We loved stories about buried treasure. It was perpetual motion and shouting. Ethel Merman was the most likable loudmouth we ever heard. We saw it three times and it seemed new every time.

   We saw “Cleopatra,” but agreed afterwards that Elizabeth Taylor wanted to be first fiddle so bad we got sick of her. “Why is she even in the movie?” we wondered. Rex Harrison and Richard Burton were more like it. Thousands of Romans with swords and spears fighting among themselves was even more like it. Swords and sandals in banshee mode were what we had paid to see.

   We wanted to see “Psycho” but weren’t allowed to buy tickets. We were warned it was too intense and inappropriate for boys our age. We were offended, but when we heard what it was about, we asked each other what all the fuss was. It sounded like a sicko stabbing people, which was right up our alley. We had all seen plenty of horror movies, like “Carousel of Souls” and “Village of the Damned.”

   When “The Raven” was playing we saw it right away, even though none of us knew Edgar Allen Poe from the Man in the Moon. There’s a black bird. There’s a tapping at the door. The night is dark and howling. When the door is opened there’s nobody there.

   “Watch your back,” we yelled at the screen.

   The Big Three in the movie were Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre, even though Peter Lorre was a midget. He had a sinister voice, hooded eyes, and a dodgy way about him, which made up for his lack of height. Vincent Price was disappointing, even though he was the tallest. He spoke and acted like a sissy Gentleman Jim, even though he was supposed to be a big bad magician. In the end the whole business was disappointing. It was more funny than scary, and once we realized how it was going, we enjoyed it for the laughs. The Big Three turned out to be the Three Stooges in disguise.

   We took a chance and asked for our money back, which we hardly ever did, but a grouch in a blue suit ushered us out and told us where to go.

   We heard about “Seven Wonders of the World” on the radio, on WERE-AM, before we ever saw it on the marquee of the Palace Theater. We didn’t go see it, even though we saw it on the marquee week after week and even though it was in Cinerama. We saw everything in Cinerama, anyway, since we always sat in the front row. A wide screen made a bad movie twice as good.

   Our own hometown was where we went to see the wonders of the world. We wandered around in the Flats amazed, stargazing up at the steel plants, looking down on the greasy Cuyahoga River, watching the up and down bridges go up and down as freighters hauling ore slowly made their way upstream. Six years later the river caught on fire, flames and plumes of black smoke turning day to night. We walked along the shoreline of Lake Erie where fishermen pulled perch and walleye out of the dirty water.

   We snuck into Municipal Stadium, called The Mistake on the Lake, whenever we knew the fire-balling lefty Sam McDowell was pitching. He was 20 years old and tall as a tree. Hardly anybody went to see the middle to back of the pack team and we often had most of the 81, 000 seat stadium to ourselves, whooping and hollering it up. When ushers asked to see our ticket stubs, we hemmed and hawed and changed sections. Whenever we ended up in the bleachers there were never any ushers to roust us. If it was hot, we pulled our shirts off. We threw popcorn to the pigeons and pebbles at them when they stooped over their free goodies.

   The movies were magic to us. They were like a dreamland in waking life. It didn’t matter if the story was real or unreal. We were dazzled by the moving images and the music. It was disorienting coming out of the dark auditorium after a matinee into bright sunlight, like after a midday nap when dreams come fast and furious.

   The weekend before our summer vacation was done and we had to go back to school we saw our last movie at the Ohio Theater. It was “Lord of the Flies” and was about boys our age who were marooned on a desert island. We thought we were experts about everybody like us and didn’t know anybody who ever did what they did. We suspected movies were some kind of art form but didn’t like grown-ups making up art about us. We appreciated great trash but not great art. We wrote it off as highfalutin science fiction.

   Going home on the train we saw a fight break out. Two men had been talking, then shouting, then shoving each other in the aisle, until one of them pulled a knife and stabbed the other one in the arm. Real blood gushed and stained his clothes. A real woman screamed. Two real men grabbed the knifer and held him down, while another man took his tie off and tied a tourniquet on the upper arm of the stabbed man. When we got to Windermere there were police cars and an ambulance there. We watched, fascinated, until a policeman told us to “break it up and go home.”

   We went home more marveled breathless than any movie had ever made us.

   John Kennedy was shot and killed that fall, which put a pall over everything. A fire broke out in the Ohio Theater the following year and the other theaters were hit by vandalism. All of them closed between the summers of 1968 and 1969 except the Hanna. We were juniors and seniors at St. Joseph’s High School, and the only pictures we went to were at the LaSalle Theater in our North Collinwood neighborhood. But by then when we went to the movies, we were more interested in our girlfriends than whatever was playing, although we found out horror movies were the way to go. 

   There was never any doubt about what to do with your hands when you were out with your main squeeze and the scary parts started.

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.”

Swimming With the Fish

By Ed Staskus

   There are thousands of restaurants in Cleveland Ohio. Captain Frank’s isn’t one of them. It used to be and when it was it was one of the best places to eat if you liked seafood and Lake Erie waves and wind and waves shaking the building on the East 9th St. pier. Every so often somebody full of cheer and careless after a hearty meal or drunk as a skunk drove off the pier into the lake. 

   “It was my last stop after a night of drinking in the Flats,” said Nancy Wasen. “Every night I was surprised no one fell off the pier and drowned.” It wasn’t for want of trying.

   In 1964 Mary Jane Jereb was 16 years old. She was in a car with her cousin and a neighbor and a driver’s ed instructor. “He took us downtown, to prepare for city driving. I wasn’t driving, my neighbor was. He directed her to this particular parking lot.” It was Captain Frank’s parking lot. They drove straight to the edge of the slick slimy pier. Spray from the Great Lake spotted their windshield.

   “The instructor told my neighbor to turn around and head back to Parma. My short young life flashed before me as she pulled into a parking space and backed out and headed home.” They slowly carefully left the dark deep behind.

   Captain Frank’s was a “Lobster House” or a “Sea Food House” depending on the signage of the year. It changed now and then. There was a panhandler who called himself Captain Frank who hung around outside the restaurant day and night, his hand stuck out. Demoted cops who kept quiet about hidden rooms in gambling joints and pocketed cash in job-buying schemes were assigned to seagull patrol on the pier, always in the dead of winter. They ignored the panhandler and did their best to walk the chill off. Sometimes they helped the innocent just to stay on the move.

   Francesco Visconti was the Captain Frank who ran the restaurant. He was a Sicilian from Palermo whose parents beat it out of Europe the year World War One started. At first, as soon as he could handle a horse, he sold fish from a wagon. After that he operated the Fulton Fish Market on East 22nd St. He was 40 years old in 1940 and lived with his wife, Rose, a son, as well as three daughters.

   He bought a beat-up passenger ferry building on the East 9th pier in 1953 and opened Captain Frank’s. I was a baby living the easy life in Sudbury, Ontario at the time and missed the grand opening. Kim Rifici Augustine’s grandfather was the original chef at Captain Frank’s. “The wax matches he used for flambé caused a fire back in the late 1950s,” she said. The fish shack burned down in 1958. Frank Visconti built it back bigger and better the next year.

   By the late 1950s my family had emigrated from Canada to Cleveland Ohio. We lived nearby, but never went to the restaurant. My parents were Lithuanians and ate bowls of beetroot soup and plates of potato pancakes and zeppelins at their own table. They didn’t know a Mediterranean Diet from Micky Mouse.

   In the Old Country they had feasted on pigs and crows. My mother’s father was a family farmer who kept porkers, slaughtering them himself, and smoking them in a box he built in the attic of the house, the box built around their fireplace chimney.

   “It was the best bacon and sausage I ever had in my life,” my mother said eighty years later.

   They hunted wild crows. “Those birds were tasty,” my mother said. The younger the birds the better. Those still in the nest and unable to get away were considered delicacies. Their crow cookouts involved breaking necks and boiling the birds in cooking oil over a bonfire, serving them with whatever vegetables they had at hand.

   Since I was part of the family, I ate with my parents my brother and sister. My mother prepared every meal. I ate whatever she made, even the fried liver and God-awful ethnic headcheese, although we never, thank God, had carrion-loving crows. Even if I had wanted to go to the Lobster House, I didn’t have a dime to my name

   Captain Frank’s boomed in the 1960s and 1970s. There were views of the lake out every window. There was an indoor waterfall. If you had water on the brain, it was the place to be. The food was terrific. Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, and Flip Wilson ate there whenever they were in town doing a show. The Shah of Iran and Mott the Hoople partied there, although not at the same time. They weren’t any which way on the same wavelength, other than under the spell of Frank. He never asked them to leave, no matter how late it was.

   There was a luncheonette behind the restaurant that doubled as a custard stand in the summer. When the Shah or Mott the Hoople stayed later than ever, they could sit in the back in the morning in the breezy sunshine with a cup of custard while lake freighters went back-and-forth. “I never went inside Captain Frank’s, but I remember the ice cream shop in the back well,” recalled Bob Peake, a homegrown boy who was a frozen sweets connoisseur.

   Frank Visconti was a made member of the Cleveland Mob. His criminal record dated back to 1931, including arrests for narcotics, bootlegging, and counterfeiting. The restaurant was frequented by high echelon hoods and politician pals alike. Many family meetings were held there. 

   “It was the hangout for Cleveland Mafia Enterprises,” said Tom James on Cleveland Crime Watch.

   Longshoremen went to Kindler’s and Dugan’s to drink before and after work, but between their double shifts went to Captain Frank’s for power cocktails. When they were done it was only a short walk back to the docks. When the weather was bad, they were warmed up and sobered up by the time they clocked back in.

   The restaurant was a football field’s length from Lakefront Stadium, where Chief Wahoo and the Browns played. The ballpark sat nearly 80,000 fans. The Indians were always limping along, their glory days long gone, but the Browns were exciting, and on game day crazy loud cheering rocked the windows of the restaurant. Cold biting winds blew into the stadium in spring fall and winter. In the summer under the lights, swarms of midges and mayflies sometimes brought baseball games to a standstill.

   In 1966 the Beatles played the stadium and after that the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones showed up to rock the home of rock-n-roll. In the 1980s U2 brought its big show to town, raking in millions singing about lovesickness.

   Even though I was grown-up by the 1970s, I still didn’t dine at Captain Frank’s. I was living in a rented house in a forgotten part of town, and it was all I could do to feed myself at home. I didn’t have pocket money to eat out. When I finally joined the way of the world and could afford to go whenever I had some spare change and wasn’t too tired from working with my hands all day long, I ate out. Most of my friends were racing to the top. I was starting at the bottom.

   There was a kind of magic eating at Captain Frank’s at night. I watched the lights of ships making their way slowly into Cleveland’s harbors while munching on scampi and warm rolls swimming in garlic butter. They served steaks the cooks seared, but the seafood was usually just threatened with heat and served. That’s why it was good. Students from St. John College on East 9th and Superior Ave. walked there to have midnight breakfast because it was good.

   The Friday night in September 1984 my friend Matti Lavikka and I treated my brother to dinner on his 31st birthday at Captain Frank’s was almost the last birthday he celebrated on this earth. We didn’t know Frank Visconti had died earlier that year, but in the car on the pier after dinner we thought my brother was dying. He was choking for air. The dinner had been very good, but he looked very bad. We were afraid he might end up swimming with Frank.

   He was getting over a marriage to a Columbus girl that had lasted 56 days. We picked him up in Mentor, where he was living alone, and went downtown. It was a starry late summer evening. We ordered a bottle of Chianti, some pasta, and lots of shellfish. We didn’t know, and he didn’t know, that he was allergic to shellfish. 

   “I don’t know why, but I hardly ever eat fish,” he said. “It doesn’t usually agree with me.” Our dinner at Frank’s that night included scallops, oysters, shrimp, and lobster. He might not have been allergic to all of them, but he was allergic to one of them, for sure.

   Halfway through coffee and dessert, which was sfogliatelle, layers of crispy puff pastry that bundle together in a lobster-like way, he was itching wheezing and his head was swelling. His lips, tongue, and throat were like silly putty. He was breaking out into hives. He was getting dizzy and dizzier. It was like he had eaten a poisoned apple.

   Shellfish allergy is an abnormal response by the body’s immune system to proteins in all manner of marine animals. Among those are crustaceans and mollusks. Some people with the allergy react to all shellfish. Others react to only some of them. It ranges from mild symptoms, like a stuffy nose, to life-threatening.

   Matti was a fireman and paramedic in Bay Village. Looking at my brother he didn’t like what he was seeing. We frog-marched him to the car and made a beeline for the nearest hospital. Matti put the pedal to the metal. The Cleveland Clinic wasn’t far, and we had him at the front door of the emergency room in ten minutes. Five minutes later a doctor was injecting him with epinephrine and a half-hour later he was his old self.

   “Thanks, guys,” he said when we dropped him off at his bachelor pad in Mentor.

   After Frank Visconti died the restaurant limped along. The service and food got worse and worse. The tables and chairs and walls looked like they needed to be scrubbed down. Fewer and fewer people went downtown for any reason other than work. I was working downtown near the Cleveland State University campus, where Matti and I had started a small two-man business. One evening when I got off work, I called my girlfriend fiancée wife-to-be, who was living in Reserve Square, and invited her to dinner at Captain Frank’s.  I had seen her eat buffets of seafood. She had a hollow leg. I knew she wasn’t allergic to any of it. When we got there, however, the pier was dark in all directions. There were no parked cars in the lot and no lights in any of the windows.

   Rudolph Hubka, Jr., the new owner the past five years, gave up the ghost and declared bankruptcy in 1989. Nobody said a word. Hardly anybody noticed. The building was demolished in 1994. The only thing left was litter blowing around in the wind.

   We drove to Little Italy and snagged a table at Guarino’s, a woman out front pointing the way. Sam Guarino had died two years earlier, but his wife Marilyn was carrying on with the help of Sam’s sister Marie, who lived upstairs and helped with the cooking in the basement kitchen.  “Marilyn sat in front, and she was like the captain on a ship, making sure everything was just right,” said Suzy Pacifico, who was a waitress at the eatery for fifty-two years.

   We had a farm-to-table dinner before there was farm-to-table, red wine, and coffee with tiramisu. Mama Guarino asked us how we liked the cake. We didn’t see any fishy characters. When I drove my gal home, we were both happy as clams.

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.”

Splat Shot

By Ed Staskus

   I started playing racquetball in my mid-20s, at Cleveland State University, while taking my mandatory physical education class. I got good enough to play on an intramural team, then the school team, and finally small tournaments around town. By the time I had played enough and worked my way up to the Open division, I was too old to play in the Open division. It took a year-or-so of beating my head against the wall, but when the pain in my neck finally went away, I started playing in the 30-plus division.

   Racquetball is played with a hollow blue ball on an indoor 20-foot-wide by 40-foot-long court. The walls, floor, and ceiling are legal playing surfaces, with the exception that the ball off the racquet must not hit the floor first. Hinders are out-of-bounds. It happens when somebody gets in the way. Unlike tennis, there is no net to hit the ball over, and, unlike squash, there is not an out of bounds tin at the bottom of front wall to hit the ball above. 

   It is similar to handball and Squash 57, a British game often called racketball. Joe Sobek invented the modern sport in the USA in 1950, adding a stringed racquet to the game of paddleball to increase velocity and control. He called his new idea Paddle Rackets. He was the first person to ever be inducted into the Racquetball Hall of Fame.

   When I started playing, the school supplied racquets, warped wood frame models from the 19th century that generated no velocity and could barely be controlled. Playing a game took forever because nobody could score points, unless it was by accident. Fortunately, Ektelon was on the way with 20th century models.

   Founded by Frank “Bud” Held, it was one of the first companies to go big in a still small sport. Working from his garage in San Diego, he is credited for a clever patented design for a racquet stringing machine. In 1970, Ektelon introduced their first experimental racquetball racquet. The next year they made the first racquet of high-strength aluminum. Six years later they pioneered hand-laid composite racquets, and six years after that the first oversized racquets. They were first in the hearts of racquetball players for a long time.

   Ektelon racquets made a fast game even faster. The leading amateurs and top pros regularly hit drive serves in the 130 to 150 MPH range. Even less-renowned players hit serves and set-up shots at 120 MPH and better.

   Not only is it a greased lightning game it works every muscle group known to man. The arms and upper body are involved in hitting the ball, legs involved in getting to faraway spots on the floor where the opponent is spreading the ball around, and the core for balance and stability. The more I played the better my balance became as my hip and leg strength improved. I became more flexible, too, stretching before and after matchesso I could contort and lunge for difficult shots. My hand-eye coordination got better and better.

   They weren’t classic life skills like reading writing and arithmetic, but they were classic skills for staying relevant on the racquetball court. The game is tops for staying trim, too, since it is aerobic involving constant movement, burning up to 800 calories an hour. Burning a boatload of calories isn’t so terrific at tournaments, which require not only playmaking to get to Sunday’s semi-finals and finals, but stamina to endure the Friday and Saturday matches and make it to payday.

   I asked Danny Clifford, an Open player from Cincinnati, how he did it weekend after weekend working his way to Sundays. He was about the same age as me. He didn’t look the worse for wear. Whenever I made it to Sundays, I looked worn down and out for the next few days.

   “You don’t want to see me Monday mornings,” he said. “I usually have to fall out of bed and crawl to the bathroom, where I run a hot bath and soak for as long as I can before I go to work. If I didn’t have a cushy enough job, I wouldn’t be playing in tournaments.” 

   Playing in an age division was the best thing I could have done. It wasn’t that anyone’s shot making was any the worse, but they were slowly and surely becoming slower like me and got sore and achy just as fast as me. They recovered slower, too. They didn’t party hardy Saturday nights anymore, opting for a good night’s sleep.

   Dave Scott was the undergraduate at Cleveland State University with whom I started playing racquetball. I was an English and film major, and he was in the accounting program, not that anybody could tell by looking at him. He wore his clothes disheveled and his hair long and smoked pot like he owned stock in the farm. By the time we started playing doubles together racquetball was the fastest-growing sport in America. Entrepreneurs around the country were busy building courts. Back Wall clubs popped up like mushrooms around northeast Ohio. The sport expanded internationally thanks to its fast pace and high intensity. The first world championship was held in 1981.

   “It’s the hottest recreational sport in America, spearheading the whole fitness craze,” said Marty Hogan, the world’s top-ranked player.

   We didn’t know it was happening, but something happened to the sport of the 1980s in the 1980s. Even though there were more than 12 million participants in 1982, the boom was over. Aerobics and body building “had a definite impact” on racquetball, says Chuck Leve, editor of National Racquetball Magazine. “You have to understand that a lot of people do things that are ‘in.’ There was a time when racquetball was the thing to do. But the people who played racquetball because it was a fad are gone.”

   The springtime Sunday morning Dave Scott and I were scheduled to play a semi-finals doubles match at the Hall of Fame club in Canton, it was a men’s Open match. I parked on the street and knocked on his back door. By the time we got into his big blue Buick it was 9 o’clock. The match was scheduled for 10 o’clock. The club in Canton was an hour from Cleveland Heights.

   “Don’t worry, we’ll be there with time to spare,” Dave said. When we pulled onto the highway, I found out what he meant to do. First, he lit a Jamaican-style joint. “No thanks,” I said. I had enough trouble hitting shots straight without getting looped. Second, he pressed his foot down on the accelerator and sped to Akron at 90 MPH. He slowed down going through Akron, but once we were just south of it, he picked it up a notch, hitting 100 MPH an hour. Even though there were few cars on the road that early in the morning I gnashed my teeth and hung on to the Oh God! handle above the door. We walked into the club with time to spare.

   The Hall of Fame was a big club with 25 racquetball courts, among other things, like tennis courts, basketball courts, and a swimming pool. We were at one of the glass back walled courts ringing the lobby, putting on our headbands and gloves, when Kelvin Vantrease strolled in. He had two blondes with him, one on each arm. Heads swiveled as he walked towards the locker room. Only Kevin Deighan, a cold sober Open player who hit line drives and nothing but line drives, kept himself to himself. He was getting married soon.

    Kelvin Vantrease looked like he had been up all night. He was scheduled to play on one of the two center courts at the same time as us in an Open semi-final singles match. He looked ready for a long nap. He didn’t look like he was going to unleash his vaunted forehand firepower anytime soon. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was bliss in his shot-making that morning and it was all over before anybody broke a sweat.

   I played Kelvin once in an Open quarter-final match. He crushed me in the first game. I eked out the second game, partly because he was horsing around. I scored the first point of the tie breaker, feeling my oats. I served again, we rallied, with Kelvin hitting the ball harder and harder. I don’t know what got into me, but I started diving for the ball whenever I couldn’t save it and stay on my feet. I finally left a weak floater that hung around the front of the court. He attacked it, taking it out of the air hip-high, hitting a splat shot, screaming, “Get that!”

   I didn’t get it and didn’t score another point.

   A couple of years later the four-time Ohio junior racquetball state champion and 1984 national doubles champ needed surgery. “When I had back surgery for a ruptured disc, the doctor told me I`d never play sports again,” Kelvin said. ”I had never planned to go pro or even play much on the amateur open level, but when someone tells you that you can`t do something, it makes you want to do it more.”

   He bought a motor home and supported himself giving lessons, churning out up to 40 of them a week. ”I`m like a rat,” he said. ”I can adapt. If I can live in a motor home for three years, I can live anywhere.” Half-Dutch, half-Cherokee Indian, and a full-time beer drinker, he trimmed his Samson locks and cut down on the cornpone, like playing with a frying pan instead of a racquet and wearing swimming flippers instead of sneakers. He started playing tournaments again and by 1986 stood second in the men’s Open national rankings.

   Our doubles match turned out to be the match of the day. The men’s and women’s finals were scheduled for the early afternoon. Other matches were going on, but ours went on and on and finally drew a crowd, in part because of the shouting.

   Our opponents were a lefty righty team, making it tough on us. We played from behind from the start, and from the start Dave did not like the lefty, who was a walking rule book. Hinders are inevitable when playing doubles, and the rule book and his partner were no exception to the rule. They were worse. They were both hefty men and phlegmatic. They had no problem with never giving way. There were hinders galore. At first Dave seethed and smoldered. Then he went off. He argued with them and started harping on the referee about blown calls. The referee put up with it for a while but finally ripped up the score sheet and tossed the crumbs down on the court, walking away. Another referee was rustled up.

   Refereeing was voluntary although the losers of the previous match on the same court were required to referee the next match. The second referee did the best he could but wasn’t able to control or put up with the repeated flare ups, by now involving all four of us on the court. The crowd grew when a third referee had to be recruited. It was standing room only. There was cheering and jeering, huzzahs and catcalls.

   We went to a tiebreaker, playing some exciting racquetball, finally losing by two points. The rule book was smug about it. Dave was gracious except on the ride home when he vented spleen for a half-hour before lighting up again and calming down. I drank a bottle of Gatorade to keep from cramping up and even took a toke to be companiable.

   I continued to practice and play and got a job at a club as an Activities Director so I could practice and play for free. I met others around town who were willing to play practice matches with me. The three brothers Dieghan and Gaylon Finch played in Mentor. Bobby Sanders and Jerry Davis played in Cleveland Heights. Steve Schade and Dominic Palmieri played in Middleburg Heights. I drove to Solon to get my ass kicked by Doug Ganim, who was half my age and twice the playmaker. His t-shirts were emblazoned with “Eye of the Tiger” on the back. His backhand was a rally killer. The only time I ever scored any points was when he committed a youthful indiscretion. 

   That didn’t go on for long. Moving forward, over the years he reached the finals of the U.S. National Doubles Championships eight times with four different partners, winning the national title four times. He is considered one of the best right-handed left-side players to ever have played the sport, all the while promoting the ballgame as an executive for HEAD/Penn racquetball for 28 years and as the President of the Ohio Racquetball Association for almost as long.

   I played racquetball through most of the 1980s, although not as much and not as many tournaments as I had earlier in the decade. I was riding bikes and thinking of trying yoga. I started playing squash and one day put my racquetball gear away for good.

   I got married, bought a house in Lakewood, and put my nose to the grindstone. I spent my days on Main Street. I played squash evenings at the 13th Street Racquet Club in downtown Cleveland and found all the competition I wanted because many of the better players in the city played there. It was only a 10-minute drive instead of driving all over town looking for a tug-of-war. They had a Nautilus circuit and a running track. They had a sauna. They had food and drink at the bar. 

   The only thing squash didn’t have was a kill shot or rollout. It was a burrito short of a combination plate. A racquetball kill shot is hit low and bounces twice in the blink of an eye coming off the front wall. It is nearly impossible for an opponent to return. The perfect kill shot is a rollout because the ball is hit so super-duper low that it rolls back flat after hitting the front wall, never bouncing at all.

   Although gentlemen with squash racquets can be crude at the drop of a top hat, it is a gentleman’s game. Some quiet gentlemen are patient wolves, the most dangerous kind in the animal world. Many of them live on Wall Street. The game of squash has its own pleasures but nothing like the pleasure of ending a hotly contested match with a corner splat kill shot like landing a firecracker in a barrel of feathers.

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.”

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 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.

   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, proudly 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 roared off, I took a look back, but it was all a 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.

   A few years later 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. For my part, I made sure to always have something official with my picture on it whenever I went anywhere. 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.”

Katya in Asia Town

By Ed Staskus

   The Chinese started settling in the United States in the 18th century. Wherever whenever there were enough of them, they lived close to hand, building their own neighborhoods, appropriately called Chinatowns. There are more than 50 of them across the United States, including at least 16 in California alone.

   There are several of the towns within cities in New York City, the most famous one being in Manhattan. It’s the largest Chinatown in the country, spread out over 40 blocks and home to more than 150,000 Chinese-speaking residents.

   Cleveland, Ohio used to have a Chinatown, a colony at Rockwell Ave. near downtown. Immigrants settled in the area starting in the 1920s. After the Communist takeover of the mainland and into the 1960s more than 2,000 lived in the neighborhood. There was a row of Chinese restaurants, among them the Three Sisters, Golden Coin, and Shanghai, as well as two grocery stores between East 21st and East 24th. Storehouses in the district supplied native eateries one end of the city to the other. There was a temple and a meeting hall.

   Chinatown went into sharp decline in the early 1970s and a few years later, when I moved into what was becoming Asia Town, there wasn’t much left. Most of the residents moved to the suburbs and by the 1980s there were only two half-empty restaurants holding on, catering mostly to business folk and occasional tourists looking for the city’s historic Chinese quarter.

   Asia Town is roughly from East 18th St. to East 40th St. and from St. Clair Ave. to Perkins Ave. It has the highest percentage of Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese in Ohio. When I lived on East 34th St. between Payne Avenue and Superior Ave. in the mid to late 70s, there weren’t as many yellow faces yet but they were everywhere. There were dirt poor whites, dirt poor blacks, and a recent influx of college students. It wasn’t as present-day as it would become after the 1990s when Asia Plaza was built at East 30th St. and Payne Ave., when it became a business as well as a residential community.

   My roommate Carl Poston was tall, walked with a lanky slouch, and wore a mop of twisty black hair. Everybody called him Erby. He never said why, and I never asked. He liked to read, tearing through the Plain Dealer newspaper every morning, and liked to play chess, like me, but was better than me. He had a bad-ass motorcycle and several bad-ass friends with motorcycles. He worked downtown for the city helping crunch numbers and delivering bad news as Cleveland went under.

   In 1978 the city became the first one in the United States to go bust since the Great Depression. After the bankruptcy it became known as the Mistake on the Lake, a nickname nobody in the hometown liked. When Mayor George Voinovich showed up at a Cleveland Indians game against the New York Yankees in the 1980s wearing a t-shirt under his sports coat, the t-shirt said, “New York’s the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” Only the Asians liked the plum thing, since plums represent purity and perseverance to them. Nicknames come and go but when Cleveland later became ‘The Land,’ nobody shook their heads in despair. It was far better than the mistake and the plum.

   Our house on East 34th St. was behind another house. There was no backyard or garage. Almost all the houses on the west side of the street were that way. The houses across the street had backyards and most of the houses in the neighborhood had backyards. But there were some houses so tucked away one had to be looking right at them to see them. Our rent was more than reasonable, and my half was even better. The landlord lived in Strongsville. His grandmother lived in Asia Town, like me. In return for checking up on her at the beginning of the week and taking her to Dave’s Grocery at the end of the week, I lived almost rent-free.

   Her name was Katya, and she was hundreds of years old. She was five foot four something short and hunchbacked on top of that. She was always in her kitchen when I knocked on the side door, she always croaked “Come in, honey,” and when I went in, she always asked me what I wanted.

   She had three cats who I never saw. She kept a pan of water next to the door for them but no food bowls or litter. They were freeloaders, running down grub in the wild. She had a stack of old newspapers in a corner and the linoleum kitchen floor was usually covered with them. It was sketchy walking inside. The unfolded papers piled haphazardly on top of each other slid every which way. I had to walk like a duck to stay upright.

   “I keep my kitchen floor clean that way.” she said, peeling back the corner of a newspaper and showing me.

   She bought her clothes from third hand stores but bought her shoes new. She was crazy frugal, but she wasn’t crazy. She was built to last, and her feet had to lead the way.

   Katya was from Slovenia, from sometime back in the 19th century. Her parents were peasants from a village nobody ever heard of southeast of Ljublijana. They came to Cleveland to work in the steel mills in the 1890s. At first, they lived in Newburgh, but when a community started forming along East 30th St., from Lake Erie south to Superior Ave., they moved, finally landing on East 38th St. She still lived in the small house her parents bequeathed her.

   By 1910 there were so many Slovenes in Cleveland that it would have been the third-largest Slovenian city in the world if it was in Slovenia. The immigrants opened enough taverns to drown their New World blues and enough churches to repent their drinking. St Vitus was established in 1893, St. Lawrence in 1901, and St. Mary in 1906. Each had its own school. They published their own newspapers in their mother tongue and formed debating drama and singing clubs.

   The singing clubs were stamping grounds, as well. The Lira Singing Society, located in the St. Clair neighborhood, and adamantly Catholic, was opposed by the Zaria Singing Society, sponsored by atheists and socialists. Everybody knew what the arguments were about.

   Katya was married long enough to have two sons before her husband was shot by mistake by a policeman outside a Collinwood bank during a botched robbery. He bled to death before an ambulance could reach him. She buried him in Woodlawn Cemetery, never married again, raising her sons by herself. She took in sewing days and worked nights during World War Two. Her oldest son moved to Seattle and she never saw him again. Her younger son moved to the west side and had a family, but they didn’t want to visit her.

   “We aren’t going to your crazy grandmother’s house in that terrible neighborhood, and that’s final,” his wife said. What the woman didn’t know was that Katya kept a loaded Colt Pocket Hammerless in her kitchen table drawer. It was a single action blowback .32 caliber handgun.

   “Nobody going to shoot me by accident,” she said.

   Her eldest grandson loved her and made sure she had what she needed to stay afloat. She had a small pension and some social security, too. She told me she had silver dollars buried in the backyard, but quickly shot me a wily look.

   “Forget I say that.”

   When Katya’s husband Janez was buried in Woodlawn, it was the oldest cemetery in Cleveland, the first man being inhumed there in 1853. It was the worst cemetery in Cleveland, too. The Depression wrecked its finances. There were sunken graves, toppled headstones, grass never mowed, piles of rotting leaves, and broken tree branches all over the place. That was before the city found out Louise Dewald, who worked in the finance office, had stolen almost half a million in today’s dollars from the coffers as the Depression picked up steam.

   After that it got worse.

   The cemetery chapel roof and the rest of it collapsed in 1951 and was hauled away. The next year City Council thought about digging up and moving all the bodies somewhere else, but the public outcry was too great. Katya never stopped visiting Janez, no matter what, no matter what it took to get there. 

   One Friday walking her home from Dave’s Grocery she asked me if I could take her to the Slovenian National Home the next afternoon for a luncheon. 

   “I don’t have a car anymore, Katya, sorry.” My 1962 Rambler Custom Six, that I had gotten for free, was no more. When I got it, the car was already on its last legs. It was now rusting peacefully away in a junk lot somewhere up on Carnegie Ave.

   “Oh,” she said. “Maybe you walk with me there?”

   “It’s pretty far,” I said. I didn’t mention taking a bus. She distrusted the metropolitan buses getting to where they were going, ever since the city’s rail tracks had been torn up and the electric cars replaced with diesel transport. She believed half the drivers were addled from the fumes.

   The Home was almost thirty blocks away on East 64th St. and St. Clair Ave. At the rate she walked we would have to start as we spoke. After the luncheon we would have to walk the whole night to get back.

   “Oh, that too bad. Janez and I dance there all the time before he die.”

   “Let me see what I can do.”

   I asked my roommate Carl, in return for my washing the dishes, cleaning the house, and mowing our grave-sized plot of grass, if he would take her there and back.

   “It’s a deal,” he said.

   The next day he schlepped her to the Slovenian Home on his Harley, waiting outside smoking cigarettes and shooting the bull with passersby. She was a big hit with her cronies when they spilled outside after the gabbing and feedbag and saw her climb on the back of the hog, wrap her stumpy arms around Carl’s waist, and glide away.

   The Slovenian Home was where my Baltic kinsmen booked their big wedding receptions and celebrations. The Lithuanian Hall on Superior Ave. was too small in the 1960s and the new Community Center in North Collinwood wasn’t built yet. The Home opened in 1924, with two auditoriums, a stage, bar restaurant kitchen, meeting rooms, a gym, and a Slovenian National Library.

   The main auditorium was plenty big enough for any get together and the stage was plenty big enough for any band. The bar was big enough for even Lithuanians. Europeans drink more alcohol than anybody else in the world and Lithuanians are number one in Europe. Whenever I accompanied my parents to the Slovenian Home for a reception or gala, it was always a long night. There was a big dinner at big round tables, speeches, chatting it up, dancing, drinking, and as the drinking went on, singing. My father and his friends would booze it up well into one and two in the morning, singing “In the Sea of Palanga” and “The Old Roofs of Vilnius” and “Oh, Don’t Cry, Beloved Mother.”

   By then I was snoozing sprawled out in the balcony.

   Unlike our no backyard house Katya had a backyard where she grew Brussels sprouts cauliflower broccoli onions potatoes and anything else she could squeeze in. She liked prosciutto and bread for lunch. Sundays she made loads of yota with turnips beans cabbage and potatoes and a slab of meat loaf with hardboiled eggs in the middle. She kept it in the fridge all week, dinner at her beck and call.

   That fall I had to tell Katya that once the school quarter at Cleveland State University was over, I was going to have to take the next quarter off. I had found a job with an electrostatic painting outfit that was going to send me on the road, expenses like food and motels paid, for a couple of months. We were going to start in Chicago, swing out to the west coast, end up in Texas, and be back in time for the spring quarter at CSU. It was chance for me to earn good money and save almost all of it.

   “I going to miss you,” she said.

   We traveled in three-man crews and worked nights, from about 5:30 to about 1 in the morning. We worked in offices, painting office furniture like metal filing cabinets, desks, bookcases, and storage cabinets. The paint was loaded with a low voltage positive charge and the metal items magnetized negative. The finish was like new, no runs, no brush or roller marks, and there was almost no overspray.

   When I got back from my two-and-a-half months on the road, I picked up my cat Mr. Moto from my parents, did my laundry, and registered for classes for the spring quarter at CSU. I went to visit Katya that evening, but she wasn’t there anymore. The house was vacant. A “For Sale” sign was posted. I asked one of the neighbors, but he said he didn’t know much, just that a moving truck pulled up one morning and by the end of the day she was gone.

   I peeked through the windows. The ground floor rooms were all empty. The only thing left was a stack of old newspapers in a corner of the kitchen.

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

Sledgehammer Hill

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

   “That man can eat,” she declared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Staskus posts 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.”

City On Fire

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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